Monday, October 10, 2011

Random Thoughts on Henry IV

I began watching the BBC production of Henry IV while reading the play.  I decided to take the approach of reading an act, then watching the act, so I could compare the two easily.  While I was doing this, I noticed something I thought was interesting.  The BBC production script is taken straight from the text, which means that in order for me to glean interpretation from the film, I had to pay attention to how the actors said things instead of just their lines, in addition to their actions and surroundings.  I noticed a couple things about how the subject of religion is treated in the play. 
In the very beginning of the play, Henry IV complains that he and his nobles cannot go on crusade because of the domestic problems (Scotland, Wales, and the rebels) happening in England at the time.  When I read the play, I honestly didn't think anything of this scene.  Going on crusade was a way for nobles of the time (Crusades went down all the time.  The famous crusades to Jerusalem that we normally think of happened from about 1096-1291, a little before Henry's time-1367-1413, but there were also crusades against southern France, the Baltic region, and pretty much anyone who was an infidel or a heretic) to redeem themselves and be absolved by the Church without any of those things like self-reflection or forgiveness mentioned by Jesus. 

Above: The New Testament says to treat people like this, right?

Anyways, due to the historical context of crusading in general, I didn't think anything of this when I read it, but when I watched the movie, it showed Henry as a devout, solemn, practicing Catholic who was serious and genuine about redeeming the Holy Land.  Everyone at the time was Catholic in England (the Anglican/Catholic split hadn't happened yet) but I thought it was interesting that the movie played up Henry's religion. 

On the other side of this religiousness are Hotspur and all his pals, the most notable of whom is Owen Glendower, a Welsh soldier who in real life was an effective guerilla leader who evaded the English for his entire life and is now a Welsh national hero, but in Shakespeare is a crazy semi-wizard who rambles about how awesome he is.  Anti-Welsh prejudice (admittedly, nearly anti-everything prejudice) had existed in England for a long time, but what I found more interesting than Glendower's weirdness were Hotspur's rebuttals to his claims in Act III, scene I:

Glendower. I cannot blame him: at my nativity/The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes/Of burning cressets; and at my birth/The frame and huge foundation of the earth/Shaked like a coward.
Hotspur (Henry Percy). Why, so it would have done at the same season, if your mother's cat had but kittened, though yourself had never been born.

And again:
Glendower. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur (Henry Percy). Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

Hotspur seems to take a rational approach to Glendower's claims of supernatural ability.  Rather than denounce Glendower as a sinner, or as against the Church or Christianity, Hotspur simply tells him that he is not rational, and that the earth is going to behave the way it does whether people try to influence it or not, and he also implies that there is no power in adherence to the supernatural, as the "spirits" aren't going to come if called for.  The character of Henry Percy used to be considered the star performance of the play, with the idea that the main character is Hal (Henry V) being a fairly recent idea.  Is Shakespeare advocating rationalism in this play?  I think I want to look into the debate on Shakespeare's religious preference as part of my looking into Hotspur's character. 


  1. He bro,

    I think you just have the first part of Henry IV but maybe this will be of interest to you...

    It's about a theme in Henry IV:

  2. Sorry,

    Specifically read the comments.