- Queering Poins:Masculinity and Friendship in Henry IV, The Hollow Crown, and the RSC's "King and Country"
Ned Poins, Prince Hal's rabble-rousing sidekick in the Henry IV plays, appears in only five scenes across two plays and vanishes in each play before the third act.1 Murray J. Levith suggests that his name alludes to his being "as tiny and insignificant as a point" (38), and indeed scholars and theater critics have overlooked him. In the usual understanding, these plays are about Hal's relationships with his father, Falstaff, and Hotspur—not with Poins. Two recent productions have challenged these assumptions by offering memorable, homoerotic Poinses. Series 1 of the TV program The Hollow Crown (2012) and the Royal Shakespeare Company's "King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings" (2016) both represent Poins as a roguish but beleaguered queer hero whose erotically charged friendship with Hal must be swept aside to facilitate Hal's rise. Although several scholars have noted the second tetralogy's obsession with masculinity, few consider how Poins matters to this definition, and queer studies tend to focus on Falstaff or Hotspur.2
As this essay moves Poins into the spotlight, it analyzes sixteenth-century texts and twenty-first-century performances as equally rich instances of a Shakespearean "work," which Margaret Jane Kidnie defines as "a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users" (2). My method also draws on W. B. Worthen's definition of performance as "a collective means of knowledge making" (21) to argue that The Hollow Crown and "King and Country" do not simply present Shakespearean texts. Instead, each production enlarges them by offering what Pascale Aebischer has called "negotiated readings," or the fleshing out of "empty spaces" and marginalized characters, [End Page 635] that allow critics and spectators to tell alternative narratives (12). Each instance of the Henry IV plays, whether an early modern text or a modern production, is entangled with its culture's ideas about queerness, masculinity, and friendship.
I begin by investigating how the earliest printed versions of these plays represent Poins as "queer" in its early modern connotations: peculiar, dubious, or disreputable. The playtexts suggest that he is not conventionally masculine, and they mark his friendship with Hal as inappropriate and suspect because of their disparity in rank. I then turn to the recent BBC and RSC productions, which offer versions of Poins that recall the past but are mediated by twenty-first-century notions of love and loss. To accommodate shifting definitions of masculinity and friendship, both use homoeroticism to underline how Poins's relationship with Hal can be "queer" in a modern sense: not corresponding to our established ideas about heterosexuality.3 In both the early texts and the recent productions, Hal's rise to the monarchy hinges on his fulfillment of culturally defined masculinity, yet by making Poins a likeable character and by embracing temporarily his friendship with Hal, The Hollow Crown and "King and Country" encourage discomfort with Poins's disappearance and the conventional behavior expected of Hal. This alternative, twenty-first-century narrative requires no radical transformation of the sixteenth-century texts, but relies on cultural changes to produce a new understanding of Hal's narrative and Shakespeare's Henriad. Emphasis on the Poins subplot in our current cultural moment can make the Henry IV plays into modern tragedies about conformity and injustice.
"Be not too familiar with Poins": early modern texts and contexts
The texts of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays provide little information about Poins's status and background. Poins calls himself "a second brother," suggesting that his family has something to inherit, but his precise social rank is difficult to pinpoint (1 Henry IV, 2.2.53). Descriptions of him as the Prince's "continual follower" and "shadow" suggest that he is a kind of courtier, but we never see him at court (1 Henry IV, 4.3.53; 2.2.127). We might describe him as a gallant—not the brave kind like Hotspur, but a man concerned with fashion and pleasure—but 1 Henry IV seems to mock that possibility when Falstaff...