Sunday, July 20, 2008

1 Henry IV - Opening Remarks


Ernst opened our Midsummer Night's Dream conversation by suggesting that Shakespeare might have reached some sort of maturity in that play. Certainly the same can be said of 1 Henry IV. As in Midsummer Night's Dream, in 1 Henry IV we have three distinct character types ― Henry's court, Hotspur's rebels, and the rabble at the Inn. Within each of these groups are individuals so deftly drawn, both in terms of language and character, each could probably support a spin-off play of his own. (Oh, that's right, two of them do, but I wish Shakespeare had gotten around to The Tragedy of Young Harry Percy or a heroic Rebel Without a Pause: Tales of Owen Glendower or a sit-com simply called Poins!)

The plot is remarkable, not only because Shakespeare so easily endows historical event with narrative momentum here, but also because he's built a structure in which each scene seems to echo or create intriguing juxtapositions with the ones that precede and follow it. We find Henry in Act I, scene 1, preparing a battle overseas; in scene 2, we find Hal preparing for a different "battle," the robbery of wealthy travelers. Act 2, scenes 2-4 juxtapose Hal and Hotspur. And so on, creating a complex system of foils against which characters are shaped and judged.

In addition, 1 Henry IV is a play in which Shakespeare is making forceful statements, about governance, about heroism, about war. I hope we can discuss these and others that you have noticed in the coming weeks. To get us off to a decent start (I hope), I offer the following questions:

1. What do the words tell us? We secondary school English teachers like to focus on motif. We hand out Macbeth and mention that Shakespeare uses the words "blood" and "bloody" 35 times and the word "night" 22 times in the play. "What might that suggest?" we coyly ask. Mount Ararat High School takes it one step further; students have prepared "word frequency lists" for many of the plays. Here we are at 1 Henry IV, and I notice that the words "honor" and "honorable" combined occur 27 times, and the words "shame" and "ashamed" 14 times. ( You can use Shakespeare Searched to find out who says what and when.) Checking my observational sense of emerging motif against Mount Ararat's lists, I find our old pals "blood" and "night" occur 23 and 18 times, respectively. And just for good measure, there's some talk of "peace." Fifteen times.

This is a close reading approach to asking what themes emerge for you. But I'd like to take that further. Shakespeare has a lot to say about honor as well as, less directly, chivalry and valor. Given the nature of his hero, the hero's foils, the motifs and subsequent themes, and implications of the play, what can an audience be expected to take away from 1 Henry IV about honor, chivalry, valor, shame, and heroism. Those are my words. Give me your words.

2. Should George Bush read 1 Henry IV? With every history play we've read so far, I've had a moment of historical conjunction, during which the play seemed to comment on or reflect something in current or recent politics. I'm a little stunned that the tales of medieval kings can be so applicable to our modern world. Take, for example, Worcester's comment:

"We of the off'ring side
Must keep aloof from strict arbitrament,
And stop all sight-holes, every loop from whence
The eye of reason may pry in upon us." (4.1.72-75)

In the margin of my Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the play, I have written that because they have started the war ("the off'ring side"), Worcester and his cohorts are concerned about how their action, which may be neither just nor lawful, must be politically controlled so that it cannot be questioned. Specifically, I have noted: "Iraq?" What moments in the play, for you, have most directly informed or spoken to or brought illumination to our own political times?

3. Is Shakespeare a misogynist? That should set some of your teeth on edge. 1 Henry IV is a guys' play. Women don't appear until Act 2, scene 3 and they're out of the play by the end of Act 3. But when women are mentioned, it seems that the gender is insulted as often as a specific individual. Hotspur tells his wife, "constant you are,/ But yet a woman," explaining why he won't let her in on his plans (2.3.114-115). And he makes a back-handed stab later when he describes his own inability to hold his tongue as "a woman's fault" (3.1.249). We have Glendower's general impression that women are emotional basket-cases prone to insanity. And Falstaff's all-encompassing insult: "Go to, you are a woman" (3.3.65). So, is this just Shakespeare capturing the attitude of accurately drawn military males? Or do we perceive some dissonance here given the more lively, self-determined women of previous plays? Can these characters' slurs be extended to Shakespeare, or chalked up to Elizabethan (wait a minute …) attitudes?

4. Can I see some I.D., please? One of my favorite echoes in the play is Hal's comment (my italics):

Yet herein will I 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." (1.2.204-208)

This is followed in Act 1, scene 3 by King Henry's declaration, "But be sure/ I will from henceforth rather be myself,/ Mighty and to be feared" (1.3.4-6).

So here we have two guys, a father and son, both feeling like they are or have been playing a role from which each, a "self," will soon emerge. What then is the nature of identity in this play? How do we feel about Hal's argument that his deliberate mucking about with his reputation will allow him to be greater because of his greater ascension? And, given that we've grown up in a 20th- and 21st-century America where consumerism (consumer as valid identity), cultural narcissism and self-infatuation are a way of life, how do we differentiate between our own mythic value of individualism and what Shakespeare might have thought of the concept of self?

5. Long live/down with the king? In the Thomas of Woodstock conversation, Ernst made the comment that "Shakespeare isn't in the habit of attacking either the British polity or the reigning royals." I'm wondering about the level of royal nervousness here. While this may have been a hotter question with Richard II ― reigning foolish king vs. popular usurper ― what would have been the contemporary view of these kings and their challengers? Is Shakespeare taking risks here by portraying them one way or another? Does the hagiography of Hal/Henry V distract us (or them) from a depiction that might ruffle royal feathers? Would their feathers have been ruffled by this play?

6. Will you be my Naber? You're thinking about directing this play. Soon. Where do you start? Are you worried about its being a history play? What specific difficulties might that entail? In what ways might you cut it? In what ways might you contemporize it, to give it modern resonance? How might your experience of recently read/performed/directed Shakespeare history plays inform your choices?

That's enough. Just for fun here are my two favorite words from the play: tradefallen (4.2.30) and enfeoffed (3.2.171). Methinks many Americans, in these difficult economic times, are tradefallen. Yet, now that President Bush has enfeoffed them with 600 dollars, everything will be fine.


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