Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part F

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

Thou has redeemed thy lost opinion
And showed thou mak'st some tender of my life
In this fair rescue thou has brought to me.
(1 Henry IV 5.4.48-50)

Redemption emerges as a prominent theme in 1 Henry IV. In these student explication passages alone we've seen it three times -- when Hal says "I'll so offend to make offense a skill,/ Redeeming time when men think least I will"; when he says "God forgive them that so much have swayed/ Your Majesty's good thoughts away from me./ I will redeem all this on Percy's head"; and in the passage above, where King Henry brings closure to the promise Hal makes in the first citation. In addition Hotspur uses the image twice, both times in reference to honor regained.

In fact, one could read all six of the play's redemption metaphors fairly secularly. People redeem, in the sense that they recover something or fulfill some obligation, time and honor and lost reputation, and we can leave it at that. But redemption is a big word, and we must ask: what religious implications are present?

So, because I'm pretty uninformed when it comes to religious imagery, I sent my friend Jim Bofenkamp (who teaches a Shakespeare and the Bible class) a note, asking for a quick run down on redemption in the Bible. His rejoinder was that it would take most of a lifetime to answer the question. The Bible, he wrote, from Genesis to Revelations "covers the story of our redemption by the second Adam (Jesus Christ) because of what the first Adam did at the very beginning." This is significant because some clear parallels suggest that we can read Richard, King Henry, and Hal allegorically.

In fact, a number of critics, including Steven Marx and Marjorie Garber, have already done so. Garber, in Shakespeare After All, spreads the net wide. "Much of the imagery in Richard II," she writes, "was concerned with England as a little Eden, a 'demi-paradise,' and with Richard as a kind of Adam and a kind of Christ, suffering what his queen called 'a second fall of cursed man.' By the beginning of 1 Henry IV the tide of public opinion has already reversed itself. Richard's loss is mourned, and Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, is the villain. Even Hotspur, who with his father Northumberland, swore allegiance to Bolingbroke's cause, now expresses fury at the fact that the usurpers chose to 'put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, / And plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke.' This is post-fall language ... Yet like most falls in English literature, this will turn out to be a fortunate fall, because after the fall of Adam, as Shakespeare's Christian audience would have believed, came the redemption through Christ, and after the fall of Richard will come the redemption of Prince Hal" (314-315).

Marx too, in his Shakespeare and the Bible, sees broader implications in the play's redemption imagery, citing "the perennial tendency of the British to identify themselves with the Israelites" and noting that "Shakespeare's sources, Holinshed and Halle, modelled English history on the Bible's providential pattern" (41).

In the passage above then, we can prepare to look beyond the mere redemption of Hal's reputation in King Henry's eyes and read it as the conclusion to Hal's own goal, stated in the first act, to redeem "time" (1.2.224). The Folger edition of the play indicates that this line alludes to Ephesians 5:15-16, Paul's admonition to "Take heed therefore that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, for the days are evil" (Geneva Bible). (A note: I almost missed this by checking first in my Revised Standard Version Bible, which does not have the "redeeming the time" phrase; let's hear it for contemporary sources!)

Hal, then, is promising to make amends for his bad behavior, later. King Henry's comment tells us he has. But, to my mind, nowhere do I find Hal portrayed as a Christ figure in this play. Yes, one may argue that the fall of man is reflected in the Richard/Bolingbroke story, and that the civil wars Henry laments at the beginning of the play reveal mankind in a state of sin, and that Henry himself uses language that suggests he will receive God's vengeance, personified by Hal:

He'll breed revengement and a scourge for me.
But thou dost in thy passages of life
Make me believe that thou art only marked
For the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven
To punish my mistreadings. (3.2.8-12)

But Hal's redemption is particularly personal, reinforced by King Henry's use of the pronoun "thy." And if we take the Ephesians allusion at face value, then Hal parallels the object of Paul's letter, not Christ but the followers of Christ, those who would walk a more righteous path. In Garber's summary, the pronouns expose the distinction: it's "redemption through Christ," but "redemption of Hal" (emphasis mine).

The text is clearly available to scriptural interpretation -- one might look at the fact that Hal has "rescued," or saved, his sinning father -- and so the conversation is opened here for a discussion of the Biblical reading of Shakespeare's tetralogy (that's an invitation). A reading of these three lines, however, on their own or even extended to include the other redemption images, does not, I think, bring us all the way to Hal as Christ figure.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm currently in a rigorous Shakespeare course at my college, and while writing an essay on 1 Henry IV I've been consulting the sea of opinions that is the internet. I have to stop reading many of them because they are so poorly written. Thank you for making yours readable.