Sunday, July 27, 2008

RE: 1 Henry IV - Identities

Self-ish philosophers,

If I read Gil right, the identity of the self is an elusive quality in 1 Henry IV. Henry's self is buried in his public "office of authority." The line I pointed to, in which the King suggests he will reveal his true self, is in Gil's reading simply a moment when Henry unveils a different public face, one that is "mighty and to be feared" instead of the one he describes as "smooth as oil, soft as young down." No wonder kings adopt the royal "we"; they are a variety of personae, depending on the dictates of the moment.

So I agree with Gil, but it begs an interesting question. Henry's lines create a clear parallel with Hal's "I will be myself" moment. Is Hal's revealed persona, then, not his true self? Does he have one? Perhaps what he's referring to when he compares himself to the sun, covered for a moment by "base contagious clouds" only to reveal himself when they pass, is also an adopted persona. This would certainly be borne out by one reading of the line "I will imitate the sun" (my italics). So, who is Hal?

I begin to wonder if the "self" exercise has meaning, or if, as my car of criticism careens off the road, I'm just stepping on the gas? So let me put the question in context a bit. Lately, I've been reading a little late Tudor drama, specifically Udall's Roister Doister and somebody's Gammer Gurton's Needle. Editors for both indicate that the plays "illustrate the increasing influence of humanism." On the one hand, humanism refers to a return to the study of Latin and Greek texts, and more specifically the adoption of classical style and structure in drama. In addition, though, comes emphases on the arts, human experience, and the innate dignity of the self or individual. So, as we move through the 1590s and Shakespeare's history plays, where is this humanist self in chronicle drama?

Or more specifically, what is self? For Shakespeare? The suggestion here is that, pre-humanism, the self is subordinated to such things as predestination, codes of conduct like chivalry and honor, and what else? Well, the most interesting implication in Gil's argument is "Poetry."

"'Anti-poet' Hotspur," he writes, "is the most poetic, and yet is farthest from Randall's call for exploration of the nature of identity." Are poetry and individual self, then, opposed? If so, why?

It would seem to me that a humanist view implies that there is something beneath the faces that we wear, whether poetry obscures it or not. I am reminded of the mime Marcel Marceau's famous exercise, "The Mask Maker," in which his character tries on a variety of faces before a mirror (or more metaphorically before a series of audiences), only to find at the end that he cannot remove the final mask. Marceau's sketch is pretty modernist; it assumes the self, but suggests we can be caught, finally, by our falsenesses and lose connection to who we really are. Clearly, neither Hal nor Henry (nor Falstaff, Hotspur) could even conceive of this sort of danger, as close as they are to medieval characters defined by deeds as opposed to values or any inner landscape. Rather, I wonder if they are Marceau's sketch in reverse, removing various "faces" from situation to situation until a nature is revealed.

One further note on Renaissance humanism. The Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) and Italian philosopher Machiavelli (1469-1527) both wrote pamphlets for princes, The Education of a Christian Prince and The Prince, respectively. Wikipedia compares the two, suggesting "Machiavelli stated that, to maintain control by political force, it is safer for a prince to be feared than loved; Erasmus, on the other hand, preferred for the prince to be loved and suggested that the prince needed a well-rounded education in order to govern justly and benevolently and avoid becoming a source of oppression." I find it interesting that in this summation of Machiavelli, we hear King Henry's lines ("I will from henceforth rather be myself/ Mighty and to be feared") and in the gloss on Erasmus, we see the definition of Hal ("a well-rounded education" toward just and benevolent rule). So, can we see the shift from Henry IV to Hal as the shift, metaphorically, from medieval value to Renaissance humanism?


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