Sympathists

On Prince Hal

In Music, Reading on January 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post takes as its source the song “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” by Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright, in turn, bases the song on the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV.  Let’s dive in. Prince Hal in Shakespeare deliberately consorts with riff-raff and drunks as a young man, so that his later conversion to an upright king may appear all the more sympathetic.  Speaking to Falstaff and assorted drinkers:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
Th unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Hal continues:

So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better that my word I am,
By so much I shall falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’re my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.


Paraphrased, Hal is saying: “I’ll drink and cavort with you lowlifes for a time, but only in pursuit of a larger goal, namely to be seen as redeemed and reformed when I renounce this current lifestyle and my present crowd, and take up the crown.”  Hal, in other words, is a political animal who uses Falstaff and his friends in low places as a stepping stone to the throne.

Loudon Wainwright takes up this unlikely hero in his song “Prince Hal’s Dirge.” A cult figure, Wainwright is still best known, if at all, to my parents’ generation for the joke song “Dead Skunk.”  But, Wainwright has produced over the years an output worth exploring in depth, and “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” originally on the album “T-Shirt,” but reprised on “BBC Sessions,” is one of his masterworks.  The song opens with Hal fully immersed in debauchery:

Give me a capon
And some roguish companion,
A wench and a bottle of sack.
Take me to the ale house
Take me to the whorehouse.
If I vomit, keep me off of my back

Wainwright sets Hal here fully in the demimode of debauchery–there is no suggestion of baser political motives as Hal calls for food (a capon, apparently, is a chicken), wine, and women.  But the next verse establishes Hal as having an inner core of confidence.  This is my favorite verse in Wainwright’s repertoire, and one of my favorite sections of any song ever written:

My father, he thinks, I’m a good for nothing
that I won’t amount to much.
But he’s not aware of my secret weapon.
I can count on myself in the clutch.

Here, the eloquent, but rather base author of “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill/ Redeeming time when men think least I will” is transformed into an altogether different creature–the overlooked son of an overbearing father, who nonetheless is able to draw upon an inner core of self-confidence in order to master any situation, including the elevation to being king.  In Wainwright’s version, Hal is not so much using his barfly friends as a base from which to pivot off of in order to be king as he is biding his time until that day when he sheds his drunkard’s skin and emerges as a leader and a man of courage and distinction.  But, Wainwright’s Hal at the same time doth protest too much when he launches into a variation of the classic theme of the drunk when he lays out what he will, in future, accomplish:

Show me a breach,
I’ll once more unto it
I’ll be ready for action any day.
I’ll straighten up, and fly most righteous.
In a fracas, I’ll be right in the fray.
I can drink you under 25 tables,
Fight and be a ladies man.
But all this will change,
When I’m good and ready,
To become the king of this land.

Moved as we are by the line “In a fracas, I’ll be right in the fray,” the giveaway here seems to me to be the phrase “any day.”  Any day, as Wainwright, an experienced observer of the alcoholic, fully realizes, can suggest, without actually meaning, tomorrow–that is the immediacy implied by the phrase quickly fades into the wishful thinking of “someday.”

In the end, “Prince Hal’s Dirge” presents us with a more sympathetic, arguably less effective, Prince Hal than does Henry IV.  But the appeal of Wainwright’s Hal is the same as Shakespeare’s Hal–both draw on an inner confidence to support their sense of self-worth, their egotism, and hence their political effectiveness.  Singing “Prince Hal’s Dirge” in the shower before work, I realize the importance of having a sealed off, all but untouchable inner core of confidence that, while benefiting from self-reflection, cannot be derailed, damaged, or even scuffed by external negativity or negation.
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