Shakespeare’s Henry IV, a Tale for Modern Times

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A few weeks ago the universe gifted me something I’ve wanted for a long time — the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, in two volumes. I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of his freestanding poems over the years. But I must admit to familiarity with only a small handful of his plays. I decided to make a project of reading and then watching all of the plays, which I can do thanks to my public library’s DVD collection.

So, let’s talk about Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Though the story follows conflicts between royalty rather than elected officials, many elements seemed all too familiar to me, with parallels to current events. I suppose this is why Shakespeare’s works endure. He captures the universals of the human experience.

King Henry IV, in his efforts to have things 100% his way, ends up stoking rebellion instead. He is free with insults for those who incur his displeasure. Transactional behaviors and relationships abound — characters all trying to use each other. See what I mean? Sound familiar? Throughout the two plays, alliances shift among several factions, and nobody knows whom to trust. Covert help is sought from foreign sources. Each side has its mix of hot-heads (one even nicknamed Hotspur), schemers, sincere believers, and rascals.

This even holds true within the King’s own immediate family. Prince Hal spends his time getting into trouble with a group of wastrels, deliberately keeping expectations for himself low so he can easily exceed them. Meanwhile his younger brother, John (a character who might strike a chord if you’ve ever known an adult child of an alcoholic) just wants to make all of his kin happy through his hard work and rule following.

The Earl of Worcester foreshadows Fox News as a source of disinformation to gin up the case for war for his own purposes. The spirit of Falstaff lives on today in profiteers who seek their own fortunes and comfort above duties to others. Treachery and double dealing are rampant throughout the course of the two plays.

At the very end of part 2, Prince Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. And suddenly his scandalous former associates are disavowed as no more than coffee boys he only met a time or two. He doesn’t really even know them. (Sorry if that was a spoiler for anyone.)

I guess there are patterns to human affairs.

Notable quote:
Pride defeats its own end, by bringing the man who seeks esteem and reverence into contempt.

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