The King, Prince Hal, and Falstaff: Shakespeare’s father-son triangle onstage and onscreen

Timothee Chamolet as Hal
Timothée Chalamet (Hal) in The King, 2019. IMDB

One of Shakespeare’s most moving love triangles isn’t romantic, it’s filial. The tension between Prince Hal and his two father figures — King Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff — fuels both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and resonates strongly throughout Henry V, grounding these history plays in emotional richness. How these relationships are depicted onstage and onscreen (most recently, in Netflix’s The King) can frequently shift the emphasis (and with it, the audience’s sympathy) from one side or corner of the triangle to another.

The political is made personal in the very first scene of Henry IV, Part 1, when King Henry laments that the “gallant” and “blest” Hotspur so outshines the “riot and dishonor” of his own son that he wishes “it could be proved / That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle-clothes our children where they lay.” But Hal’s only play-acting, or so he says at the end of scene two, in a soliloquy in which he confesses that he will “throw off” his “loose behavior,” “redeeming [himself] when men least think [he] will.” Whether his deception has a goal other than idle amusement, and whether he’s eager (or reluctant) to grow up and start behaving responsibly is very much open to interpretation. If the story of both parts of Henry IV is Hal’s journey from prince to king, there’s a greater emotional impact if Hal travels a great distance rather than just a short hop.

There’s more of the short hop with Tom Hiddleston’s Hal, for instance, in The Hollow Crown adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1; he feels very much like a tourist in Eastcheap. Falstaff is the only person who doesn’t openly defer to him, regarding Hal with an affection the prince doesn’t really seem to return and constantly reminding him about the many favors Hal will do for the fat rogue “when thou art king.” Hiddleston’s Hal never really forgets he’s the prince so there isn’t that sense of the future King of England’s immersion in this un-courtly underworld.

Daniel José Molina’s Hal, on the other hand, in the 2017 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Henry IV Part 1, is fully committed to the disreputable Eastcheap lifestyle, reveling in the bad-boy behavior learned from Falstaff and even surpassing him (via the robbery in the woods) by teaching the master a few new tricks. Molina also played Hal in a separate production of Henry IV, Part 2, and his journey from callow youth to struggling noble King, when he ultimately rejects Falstaff, was profoundly moving.

Daniel Jose Molina as Hal at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
(l-r) Lauren Modica, Daniel Jose Molina, Michele Mais, and Robert Vincent Frank in Henry IV, Part 1, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2017. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Casting alone can also heavily skew our sympathies. The character of Henry IV doesn’t frequently engage us to the degree Hal and Falstaff do, but when you have Jeremy Irons playing him (as in The Hollow Crown), suddenly you’re on the side of monarchy. Further tilting the balance in favor of the king in this version is Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff, who, while exquisitely heartfelt and soulful, is grotesque almost to a point where it’s hard to see whatever former glory the old knight might once have possessed.

There are, in fact, as many ways to play Falstaff as there are actors to play him. Orson Welles in Chimes At Midnight might be our most well-known image of the debauched knight and is certainly the central character in Welles’ famous passion project. Roger Allam, who played Falstaff for Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010, was wonderfully comic but young and vital enough to seem like Hal’s wayward older brother rather than the old relic he’s described as. The late G. Valmont Thomas, in the 2017 OSF production, was the most fully realized Falstaff I’ve ever seen: debauched and disreputable, certainly, but not so much that Hal’s attraction to him was unbelievable; absolutely formidable when he needed to be; and both hysterically funny and tremendously poignant when engaging his famous catechism about honor directly with the audience.

Then there’s Tom Hanks as Falstaff in the 2017 Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production of both parts of Henry IV performed as a single three-hour-and-fifteen-minute play. Even with charismatic theatre pros like Hamish Linklater as Hal and Joe Morton as the King, Hanks’ star power made this inevitably a production focused around Falstaff. One could argue this is supported by even the uncut text, but it’s especially true if that text has been edited from two plays into one, making Henry IV’s coming-of-age tale about a prince becoming a king essentially the tragedy of an old knight rejected by the boy he mentored.

The new Netflix production The King similarly combines both parts of Henry IV with Henry V into a single film, clocking in at 2 hours, 20 minutes. Timothée Chalamet’s Hal barely has time to develop a nuanced relationship with his father before King Henry (spoiler alert!) dies a half-hour in. Chalamet’s performance has been described as “emo” (which is helpfully defined in this delightful interview with Folger editor Paul Werstine that also fact-checks the film for both historical accuracy and fidelity to Shakespeare’s original text), but he traces a clear arc from teenage brooding to genuine suffering as the crown weighs heavier on him and the extent of the betrayal committed against him sinks in.

Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff is more youthful than usual and totally believable as a valiant and successful solder. He’s so capable, in fact, that Edgerton (with his co-author, director David Michôd) reconceives Sir John’s relationship with Hal so the knight becomes not only a trusted wartime councilor but also one of the tactical leaders at the Battle of Agincourt.

The film’s co-writers took it upon themselves to replace Shakespeare’s original language with more prosaic text (in which phrases like “regime change” clang anachronistically), and Edgerton did himself no favors with many Shakespeareans when he defended this decision by saying that “most intelligent people…feel stupid” when they “watch Shakespeare.” The irony is that even the less-heightened speech, when mumbled by Edgerton, is frequently impossible to understand without the help of subtitles.

Hal’s struggle with the responsibilities of power is front and center in The King. The personal legacy left to him is also clearly the political legacy left to England by Henry IV (a fact helpfully over-explained by the king of France in this adaptation). But without Shakespeare’s language, the film is reduced to endless shots of Hal brooding and cogitating, which is maybe not as engaging as the director thinks it is. (Hal doesn’t even get to keep his glorious St. Crispian’s Day speech, which is instead replaced by a joke — “You expect of me a speech?” — and intense repetitive screaming substituting for rhetoric and passion; not only is it hardly Shakespeare, it’s hardly Bill Pullman in Independence Day.)

In The King, Prince Hal’s journey from prince to king and his relationships with two overpowering father figures isn’t as cathartic and emotionally fulfilling as it could be. Turns out, not only is Shakespeare a better poet, he’s a better dramatist.