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Monday, October 22, 2012

Henry V

I should probably go read Henry IV and Henry V again. I just cannot make up my mind which Henry he really is: the fierce warrior king in Henry V or the laughing jesting prince Hal in Henry IV. It seems obvious that Henry does the job of a merciless king pretty well, considering where he started. The streak of kingly cruelty ("I know thee not, old man.") has been there all along. Yet still on the battlefield he continues to doubt his own purposes and righteousness.

One would logically argue that the chronological arch must be the correct trajectory, that the callous youth has to evolve, in the forward direction, to become the responsible adult. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that the ridiculous Hal is just as true if not more so, while the adult is somewhat a projection of his father's wish and Harry's need to become his father's wish. We are all familiar with the "Hero's Journey" theory, as if it were an unquestionable fact for everyone, yet Shakespeare breaks every rule, including the one described by Campbell hundreds of years later. It remains unclear and undetermined who is more real in Harry: the younger one or the older.

The first time I read Charles Lamb's summary of Henry IV, specifically the part where Hal puts on his father's crown when Henry IV sleeps, as a teenager myself, it kind of freaked me out how much I thought I "got it" --- the whisper of "If he is dead then I am finally king now and no one will be mad or disappointed at me any more."

The familial conflicts in Shakespeare continue to freak me out like nothing else, as if shining a light into the darkest and most shameful corner in my mind. To me it is always much easier to understand Hal than to understand Hamlet. It would take more time and experience, and A Song of Ice and Fire, for me to understand (sort of) the bloodthirsty Henry V. But all along I have known the pull of opposite forces: to have fun with Falstaff or to renounce him. To be the good child or the rebellious one. To be free or to be shackled with responsibility.

Hence there is no better example of "the human heart in conflict with itself."

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