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Holinshed and Hal

June 7, 2011

William Shakespeare. Richard II.
—. Henry IV, part 1.
—. Henry IV, part 2.
—. Henry V.

I recently read Shakespeare’s “second tetralogy,” which is set before the first tetralogy, and which is also called the “Henriad,” though that term sometimes includes the second tetralogy as well. I find it quite odd that no better way of designating this set of four plays has been found, but I suppose once Shakespeare himself failed to give them a name there was little chance anyone else could make one stick.

In any case, I must admit that I did not like these four plays as much as I might have. There are a few reasons for this:

First of all, they felt disjointed. As the Arden edition footnotes make very clear, Shakespeare based his histories on Holinshed’s histories, and many of his scenes are simply dramatizations of passages from Holinshed. The speeches are grand, but often have little to do with one another. This is not to say that the plays have no coherent form; they do. I particularly liked the ritualistic sense of Richard II–how it all revolved around the ceremonies of coronation and abdication, with the pomp and circumstance of it all increased by the use of rhyme. But it was less than it might have been.

Second, their subject matter too often bored me. The discussions of the nature of language could hold my attention, but ultimately they were secondary to the plot, which revolves mostly around quarrels between historical figures I have little interest in and political questions I find no longer relevant. The “divine right of kings” issue occasionally grows almost metaphysical, and it is nice to read something by an author who does not condemn war unequivocally, but both of these were sidenotes to specific political conflicts that are now half a millenium gone.

Finally, while I realize that Falstaff is considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, I found him mostly an annoyance. I admit I found him entertaining, but I do not really see how he and his companions can be considered equal to a Hamlet, a Lear, or even a Prospero. Hamlet makes sex jokes throughout his eponymous play, but he also raises questions of serious importance. What does Ancient Pistol offer us?

I think the play that suffers most from all of these criticisms is Henry IV part 2. It often seems to be the highlights from Holinshed interspersed with Falstaffian antics rather than a complete action with beginning, middle, and end and touching on general questions of human nature. It is, in short, a bore. And I find it a fault in a work if I get bored with it before I finish. It’s not a fatal flaw, but if it is not made up for, it’s a problem.

And yet some people call Henry IV part 2 their favorite Shakespeare play. So I wonder–am I a philistine for not enjoying Shakespeare’s histories as much as I might have? I’m open to that accusation. I’m currently halfway through The Winter’s Tale, a “romance” or “tragicomedy.” I’m enjoying it much more than I did the Henriad, even though it’s generally considered not one of Shakespeare’s best. The fault, I’m sure, is mine, but what am I missing? What should I do to not find the Henriad boring?

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