Monday, August 4, 2008

RE2: 1 Henry IV - Identities


I often teased my sorority-girl students about their reverence for personality, pointing out that that the term comes from Latin: persona, meaning “mask,” so a sister with an outstanding personality was the one who constructed the most perfect masks with which to interface—no, intermask—with all social situations, the perfect fake, and as she matured the masks become permanent disguises for face. It seems that I believe that somewhere in there, back there, there must be an essential identity.

As a reader of autobiography, I’ve long worried the mystery of identity. Who is Hal, asks Randall. Despite the indelibly vivid population of Shakespeare’s characters, does the concept of an identity not emerge until the 19th century, with autobiography constructed from individual experiences filtered through personal memory or with the ego-centric and introspective Romantic poets—some sort of essential self or kernel identity, an undiscovered country that even the voyages of “Lemuel” Freud can not discover? At what point in literature is “soul” replaced by “self”?

That Hal is confident of his masked identity is declared early, in his “imitate the sun” (I.ii.199-221) soliloquy (remember we trust soliloquies because they are unalloyed with all the conditions influencing dialogues). At the Boar’s Head tavern, exit Falstaff, then exit Poins, then the Prince looks at the space recently filled with our gang, and says “I know you all, and will awhile uphold/ The unyok’d humor of your idleness.” Because this is still our introduction to Hal, we can only see the dramatic irony of the subsequent robbery of the robbers; the straight man for Falstaff’s 13-men-in-buckram show; the king and prince role playing; the unexpected and on its surface incredible promise to his father, “I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord,/ Be more myself”; and even, on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, his epitaph of the apparently slain Falstaff, “I could have better spared a better man.” All these demonstrate to me that this core self is intentionally masked from accurate recognition by others, though it has been there from the beginning.

When Falstaff-as-King-Henry says “but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” Prince Harry-as-future-King-Henry replies “I do, I will” (II.iv.475-481). Is there a more brilliant use of rhythm in Shakespeare, Falstaff’s 41-word oration eviscerated by the Prince’s four? The crescendo will come in 2 Henry IV when newly-crowned Henry V rejects Falstaff, or even more chilling, in Henry V, King Harry hangs his old Boar’s Head crony Bardolph for stealing a pax from a church: “we would have all such offenders so cut off.”

Yet I do not see, despite how just and benevolent King Henry V’s rule is dramatized, that Prince Hal is an Erasmusonian "humanist." He is too cunning, too duplicitous. He is amoral. Even though his kingship will be “just” (think Bardolph), his ascension to universal English support is based on manipulations justified by plotting for power.

Hal is the supreme Machiavel, described in Henry V as “none more loved and feared.” One definition of a Machiavel is a villainous but humorous character type in Elizabethan Drama, a sly cynic who loves evil for its own sake, the delight in evil making other motivation unnecessary, Iago being the prominent example. However, I’ve always thought of basic Machiavellianism as the advice to Il Principio, “the end justifies the means,” [though now I find in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations that is attributed to Hermann Busenbaum (1600-1668) who, you all already knew, wrote in his Medulla Theologiae Moralis (1650), “cum finis est licitus, etiam media sunt licita”].

I am thinking that if Hal’s vision of the “end” is his glorious triumph displayed in Henry V, then the means he uses are the cunning manipulations of public perception, calculating how to seduce friends and enemies, nobility and commoners into undervaluing him until his “true self” bursts forth. He is amoral if morality is the time tested principle of truth and the best way to live one’s life. One challenge one must consider in 1 Henry IV is how the Prince, who has spent far more time lifting tankards of sack than flourishing broadswords, is able to defeat sweet fortune’s minion and her pride, Harry Hotspur, on the killing fields of Shrewsbury. My answer must be Hal is genetically a warrior. One may surmise, though there is no textual exposition, he has still submitted to some education commensurate with his class. But the advantage he has over Hotspur, as we know from the latter’s disparaging remarks, is that young Percy completely undervalues the Prince. The Machiavellian ruse proves more effective than “God for Harry, England and St. George.”

Randall wonders if we can see the shift from Henry IV to Hal as the shift, metaphorically, from medieval value to Renaissance humanism. I think first I would like to recapitulate the shift from Hotspur’s chivalric, romance values to a version of modernism represented by Falstaff—but I must leave this for a future post.


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