A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Henry IV - Our Era's Shakespeare Play


Earlier this year Bardseye did Hamlet - all of it, scene by scene (see archives for January ’06 – March ’06). Now, because of its oddly persistent parallels with the events of out times, we take on an unusual selection, the Henry IV series. (And if you’re joining late, scroll down to the first Henry post, or use the archives from October, 06 onward).

The royal crown sat as uneasily on Henry IV’s head in 1400 as, in 2001, the presidential crown, disputed for five weeks following the election, rested on G.W. Bush’s. Though in Henry’s case, it was not a disputed election but the murder of Richard II – a murder in which Henry was himself complicit - that brought him to power. Henry expressed his guilt over his illegitimate accession at the close of Shakespeare's prequel to this play, Richard II:

Henry: “…though I did wish him dead
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand…”.

Now, in the next installment of Shakespeare’s eight-play history series, Henry resolves to seek for atonement in a holy crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Al Qaida of the day:

Henry: “As far as to the sepulcher of Christ –
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressed and engaged to fight –
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were molded in their mother’s womb
To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed
For our advantage on the bitter cross.”

In other words, “Let’s roll!”

Those who oppose today’s war against Islam will conclude that Henry IV’s guilt-driven motivation parallels a personal motivation lurking behind G.W. Bush’s decision to topple Sadman Insane (“He tried to kill my dad!”) . Personally, Bardseye finds the interruption of a holocaust, whether done by Clinton in Bosnia or Bush in Iraq, to be a moving event, an advance in the very worth and quality of humanity, on a par with the rejection of human slavery achieved by modern societies in the 19th century. But Henry's pointing of a Western army at the heart of the Islamic world is a parallel to today worth watching as the play develops.

Beyond personal guilt, Henry IV did indeed have domestic reasons for his foreign quest – his proposed crusade was an attempt to knit England back together after the civil conflicts that had led to his accession. In truth, the civil wars continued to rage - just as the culture war within the US rages today, coloring the nation’s stance toward foreign adventure. You see, in the hallucinatory crucible of this midnight blog, it all ties together.

And if the reader is still skeptical of Bardseye's Glendower/Al Sadr parallel, there's this:

Westmorland: “A thousand of his people butchered –
Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,
Such beastly shameless transformation,
By those Welshwomen done as may not be
Without much shame retold or spoken of.”

Shakespeare has the Welsh women performing the most unspeakable of the depravities. Henry learns that revolts fester both among the Sunni in Scotland and the Shia (actually a rebel named Glendower) in Wales. Henry’s Rumsfeld in these actions is Harry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur. And while we're at it, let's meet all the Percys: Hotspur is joined by his dad Harry Percy (the Earl of Northumberland), Hotspur’s uncle (the Earl of Worcester), and Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer (the Earl of March - even if it’s April, ha ha). At the close of the preceding play, the Percys collectively helped Henry IV into power, conspiring with him to depose the wonderfully self-pitying Richard II.

In this play, the Percys are not exactly happy campers, since their own Mortimer has an arguably stronger claim to the throne than Henry does. Moreover, Mortimer has just been taken prisoner by Al Sadr, I mean Glendower, in Wales:

Westmorland: “But yesternight, when all athwart there came
A post from Wales loaden with heavy news,
Whose worst was that the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight
Against the irregular and wild Glendower
Was by the rude hand of that Welshman taken,…”.

So, to recap, we have rebels slaughtering the soldiers of nation-building, peacekeeping dominant foreign power, and mutilating their bodies. Shades of the four US soldiers whose bodies were hung over a bridge by Muqtada al Sadr’s men, to mention only one of hundreds of radical Islam’s savage depradations. That would be the same al Sadr who remains breathing and even holds some political power in the new Iraq. Quite a message to be sending to other tyrants both in the region and elsewhere. We also have hostage-taking though not yet Daniel Pearl-style beheading of hostages. We’ll have to see how Mortimer is treated by Glendower, and how Glendower, is treated by Henry.

Now then, as the play opens, the Percys have come to Henry to see their Mortimer ransomed. The King, for his part, is irritated to learn that Hotspur refuses to hand over prisoners he has himself taken during the recent hostilities.

King: “….What think you, coz,
Of this young Percy’s pride? The prisoners
Which he in this adventure hath surprised
To his own use he keeps…”.

The implicit bargain is that if the King wishes to have Hotspur obediently tender his prisoners, the King must ransom the Percy family’s Mortimer from the Welsh al Sadr Glendower. Henry is keenly aware that a ransomed Mortimer would return to England as a potential rival for the throne. A parallel to today would perhaps arise if President Bush were to retreat from Iraq, implicitly endorsing democratic party objections and possibly ushering in a Hillary Clinton, or other anti-war administration. (Question: in 1943, what would the result have been of ushering in, even assuming there had been such a thing at the time, an anti-war administration?).

To be continued….

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