Study Guide

Henry IV, Part I

by William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part I Essay - History-Making in the Henriad

History-Making in the Henriad

Michael Goldman, Princeton University

Then and now are not so far apart, as my reader may confirm by trying to think back to when this sentence began. When did that then cease to be now? For that matter, when did the sentence really begin? Perhaps two weeks ago when I first drafted it, perhaps in kindergarten., perhaps as part of a gleam in my father's eye, perhaps in the Renaissance, to which we shall soon be going. Or perhaps the then we are seeking will not exist till a moment from now—or was it a moment ago?—when, troubled by some distracting twist in my argument, you looked back and began what I have called "this sentence" again.

I'm trying to evoke really two points in this riff on now and then. First, that the present moment is not a dimensionless point on the time line, but a temporal space of ambiguous duration. Second, that the past, even when, for all practical purposes, it may be clearly distinguished from the present—as when we speak of our childhood or the childhood of Prince Hal—the past is subject to a similar ambiguity. I am not referring to the familiar proposition, by now rather overworked, that we write and rewrite the past from the position of the present. Rather, I mean that the experience of the present, of living and acting in the present, involves a continual history-making activity. That is, it involves a redrawing, a reexperiencing of the borders between then and now, a beginning of the sentence again.

It's my notion, which I hope to explore in this essay, that for Shakespeare's audience in the Henry IV plays, the process of experiencing the drama—of undergoing, construing, fighting with, surrendering to the play as it unfolds—becomes in many ways the process of history-making itself. It creates a rhythm of instability, of perpetual realignment that we come to associate with the process of political action and decision-making we see on stage—a process that Shakespeare portrays as itself a process of representation, of struggling among and with representations like his and ours and those of people, past and present, in power over us. It is a process of aligning past and present, then and now, and one of the ways it works on us is by exposing us to many folds and wrinkles and ambiguities in our awareness of time.

I was led to notice this aspect of the Henry IV plays by the sense I'd had for some time of a certain recurrent texture, a complicating strangeness never adequately accounted for even among the wealth of wonderful criticism that the plays have elicited. Indeed, I first began to think along the lines I'll be following here when I found myself trying to make sense out of 1 Henry IV's own beginning, the address "So shaken as we are. . . ." with which Henry opens the play.

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in stronds afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children's blood,
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flow'rets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes
Which like the meteors of a troubled heaven
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery
Shall now in mutual well-beseeming ranks
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife
No more shall cut his master. Therefore, friends,
As far as to the sepulcher of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressed and engaged to fight—
Forthwith a body 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.
But this our purpose now is twelvemonth old,
And bootless 'tie to tell you we will go.
Therefore we meet not now.



The problem I faced was basic—how can this relatively long speech be performed effectively, and by that I simply mean interestingly. I had never heard it come across as anything but an inert block of oratory, and the reason seemed to be that performers had trouble sustaining a sense of purpose. What was the King doing here? Why was he telling his closest advisers—and at length—something that after twenty lines he admits they already know and in fact have known for a year?

Most actors treat the speech as a kind of extension of the familiar offstage music with which modern productions of the histories usually begin—a sort of prolonged trumpet blast meant to suggest regal pomp and ceremony. Unfortunately, dramatic interest doesn't thrive on anything so static. The problem is heightened because the speech is about purpose—Henry's purpose in calling his counselors together, Christ's purpose in walking the earth, the purpose of a strangely personified Peace in gasping out a promise of new war. The problem of understanding and dramatically correlating all these purposes is the same as that of finding a purpose the actor can latch onto in the speech itself. It's a problem about going back in time and aligning a lot of information about the past, more specifically about a variety of pasts, rather irregularly defined, into a coherent relation with the present.

The speech poses a problem about time even in its very first words. It begins with a curious disruption in the audience's sense of time, which is worth dwelling on, for a number of reasons.

So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant.

What does "find we a time" mean? Is this an order? A description of what is being done now? A pious hope? The phrase is rarely glossed, but most critics would seem to agree with Kittredge that it's an imperative of sorts—let us find a time. Yet if it's an imperative, it has a peculiar spin, especially if one thinks of it as an imperative issuing from a king speaking in public at the beginning of a play. It's not a very commanding command, and it suggests a questioning or entreating note very hard to omit in speaking, even if one wants to. It can be read, possibly, to suggest that we have just found a time, or, contrastingly, by all means we must find a time. As we shall see, neither of these, nor any paraphrasable reading on the spectrum between them, can make completely coherent sense in terms of the entire scene that follows. The speech keeps us vibrating between these possibilities, as if we couldn't decide what time it was. For there is an even greater problem: exactly where is this time that we—or is it he—are being urged to find?

Finding a time is different from, and more complex than, simply finding time. It means opening up a space in which certain things can happen, a certain kind of time. One of the things history does is to describe what kind of a time this time or that time was; one of the things politics does is to convert time into a time, an era, a period in which forces can be marshaled, the Era of Good Feeling, the hundred days, the Cold War. The time that Henry describes is a time shaken and ravaged by war, but it is a space in which peace can act. And yet the space is as imaginatively elusive as the description of peace itself, for it is a frightened, exhausted peace, which speaks of war. Or is it that it will speak of war as soon as it can catch its breath? Is this time that Henry invokes now, or rather, what kind of now is it? Are we—is Henry's England—in the midst of it or has it just begun; is it about to begin or are we searching, shaken as we are, for a way to make it happen—to realign its components, to make them, as Henry says "march all one way?" It is an opening, then, which, even as it plunges us into political planning and into an impassioned effort to sum up the past, immediately makes us feel uneasy about getting a purchase on time.

This uneasiness will be compounded twenty-odd lines later, when the audience receives a more violent disruption to its sense of time. Henry turns from contemplating Christ's divine purpose to rather more abruptly defining his own.

But this our purpose now is twelvemonth old,
And bootless 'tis to tell you we will go.
Therefore we meet not now.

This is a surprise. Henry's purpose—his vision of a crusade—has seemed to open up directly from the finding of a time in line 2, open up with a manifest insistence on urgency and connectedness. Temporal and logical sequence have been almost pedantically emphasized ("lately . . . therefore . . . now . . . forthwith . . . therefore") It is an at least subliminal jolt to discover that Henry has been finding this time, if not actually repeating this speech, for a year.

These temporal disruptions work to establish a counterpoint with the problems Henry faces governing England and with those faced by Shakespeare and his audience in construing history. If we look more closely at the speech we notice that the sudden reference to a "twelvemonth-old" purpose is but one of several openings into the past that occur in it, evocations of distanced sources and origins of historical action. The first such source is the earth of England, a cruel mother who "daub[s] her lips with her own children's blood." There are also the English mothers in whose wombs the arms of English soldiers were moulded, specific ally for the purpose of chasing the pagans from Jerusalem. And there is Christ himself, described in terms that heighten our awareness of both sacred and secular action at a distance:

Therefore friends,
As far as to the sepulchre of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressed and engag'd to fight—
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were moulded in their mother's womb
To chase these pagans in those holy fields

Over whose acres walk'd those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail'd
For our advantage on the bitter cross.
But this our purpose now is twelvemonth old.

The sepulchre is a point in space that is also a point in and out of time, a then that is eternally now, redefining the future. We are given the particular detail of Christ's feet, again at a particular location in space but also at a very specific distance (1400 years ago) in time. Christ's historical force has a traditionally apolitical dimension—it leaps over time to offer us individual access to eternal safety, but in the context of the scene and in the immediate context of the speech, we are urged to see it in its political dimension. "Our advantage" (a word Henry will later use in an urgently political sense: "Advantage feeds him fat while men delay," 3.2.180) suggests not only personal salvation but also the redemption of England and the consolidation of Lancastrian power.

To see what is unique about this opening scene we would do well to remember a point that has been very well made by David Kastan. Discussing 1 Henry VI, he notes that in the opening scene of his first tetralogy, Shakespeare stresses the fact that we are in the midst of "an ongoing temporal process." A past exists, whose impact on the present requires our consideration.2 Now, this is an important feature of all Shakespeare's histories, as it is, say, of the Oresteia, and it's certainly true of 1 Henry IV. But in the latter play, something very different is happening as well. We are being forced to find a time, to wonder where in time we are coming from, to ask what is in fact anterior, what is present. How are we to situate ourselves in the face of the many ongoing thens out of which an uncertain now must be rescued? Yes, we are once more in the midst of a temporal process, but the midst is not easily located or described. Finding the midst is a political question, a history-making one, for it is a space from which to act.

Henry Bolingbroke is in the midst of a political situation that he is trying to control. He is attempting to align past and present, to project a purpose into the future. And now, as the scene moves on, we experience a further instability, related to those that have come before, about his control over the present—or is it the immediate or not so immediate past? Just as earlier we asked, where does Henry locate the time he is finding, we must now ask, what does he know and when did he know it? As Henry turns to Westmoreland and asks him to make his report, the audience faces mounting uncertainty about history and time.

Westmoreland brings news of civil war. Mortimer has been defeated by Glendower, and the crusade must be postponed. This is news to us, but is it news to Henry?

It seems then that the tidings of this broil
Brake off our business for the Holy Land.


Henry's response mimes surprise, but he casts it in the past tense of narrative ("brake") and introduces it by a phrase ("It seems") that suggests control, a presentation to his on-stage audience. But it is only after the news gets worse and more uncertain, that Henry suddenly seems to have known not only Westmoreland's news but even more recent facts:

Here is a dear, a true-industrious friend,
Sir Walter Blunt, new lighted from his horse.
. . .
And he has brought us smooth and welcome news.


For the past thirty lines, Westmoreland's narrative has been invested with a feeling of present unfolding. Now it is abruptly placed in a superseded past.

We quickly realize, moreover, that the news Blunt brings is neither smooth nor entirely welcome. Once we think about past and future, as Henry soon forces us to do, we realize that the news only points to more trouble, which again Henry must struggle to control. Hotspur's victory raises the problem of Henry's son; would they had been exchanged at the point of origin! (That would have been a convenient realignment.) It also brings with it new signs of rebellion, over which Hotspur and Worcester must be confronted. And so the scene ends, with a heightened sense of busyness, of new purpose, and of greater urgency. Both time and the effort to organize time are speeding up. Rapid movement in time and space are insisted on:

Cousin, on Wednesday next our council we
Will hold at Windsor. So inform the lords;
But come yourself with speed to us again. . .


It is important to notice that this has been a behind-the-scenes scene. Henry is setting up a meeting of the full council, into which much planning must go if it is to be manipulated properly. But it is also a public scene. Even with his inner circle Henry must always be shaping, controlling, and history-making. As we watch the news shifting from bad to good—as we watch the same news shifting from bad to good, to advantage or disadvantage, we too become involved in a constant realignment and redefinition of present and past. To take a final example from Henry's last words in the scene:

For more is to be said and to be done
Than out of anger can be uttered.


What is the source of Henry's anger—in both the temporal and logical sense? When and at what did he become angry? Logically, he has known of Hotspur's defiance since the scene began, but does he begin the scene showing this anger and at this cause?

My point in referring to the question of Henry's anger is not to discuss a particular performance solution, but to draw attention once more to the way in which the audience is being bombarded with unsettling invitations to temporal realignment. There are of course many different performance arcs that can be cut through this scene, but even if the actor plays something like anger in the opening lines, the anger shown at the end must be different both in tone and attribution than at the beginning. The effects are not crude, but they are numerous and have a cumulative destabilizing effect, no matter how the scene is performed. In this brilliant opening, we experience history-making by negotiating a series of subtle jolts in which origin and experience, purpose and event, past and present are continually, simultaneously realigned.

About the scene that follows, it might well be said that the transition to Falstaff and the tavern provides the most famous contrast in all Shakespeare—so famous that nothing more need be said about it. But the perspective we are pursuing here suggests a significant point that seems to have been ignored. For it's not only that in 1.2. we are projected into the anti-temporal holiday world of the tavern, or that we begin an alternating rhythm of high and low, but that we first see the tavern world—which, remember, is from the Elizabethan audience's point of view, the familiar one of a popular historical play, The Famous Victories—that we come to what is apparently this more familiar version only after the historiographically charged treatment of the opening scene.

So the tavern scene is both new and old at once, and the more unexpected first scene has set up a context in which this new/old scene must be weighed and appreciated. Today we know Shakespeare's play so well that it may seem to tick along all too smoothly between court and tavern. But for Shakespeare's original audience—and, I would suggest, for us in an optimal production—the dive to the tavern is vertiginous. These worlds are not going to be neatly insulated and kept apart, anymore than the irresponsible Hal and the heroic Hal are to be the utterly distinct personae of The Famous Victories. And the leaking of one world and one characterization and one attitude to time into another will be reinforced by our felt concern with Shakespeare's own historiographical problem—how to keep these two worlds, with their very different relations to event and situation, simultaneously before us, how to hold onto both these conflicting truths about experience in the forward rush of time?

I want to continue scene by scene just once more, because the next scene, 1.3, is a very good example of how Shakespeare presents political struggles as contests in history-making, struggles over and with history. The King begins harshly:

My blood hath been too cold and temperate
Unapt to stir at these indignities
And you have found me. . . .


The anger—whose origin seemed curiously veiled when we encountered it in the first scene—is now produced or reproduced by Henry as a well-managed effect.

We watch not the King's anger but its use and political significance. Then we move on to a battle of historical descriptions (all versions of "how the quarrel between Hotspur and the King came about,") ending when Worcester redescribes Mortimer and Richard's history in order to convert Hotspur into a rebel. The most interesting description in the scene is of course Hotspur's brilliant narrative of the effeminate courtier who pestered him at the battlefront, but the key point about this narrative is that it has no political effect, except to make Hotspur attractive.

Here and elsewhere, Hotspur fails to grasp the difference between telling a good story and making history. All his narratives have a curiously literary quality, which I associate with their remoteness from the political; they tend to break off from the historical into the legendary. They do not carry their weight as parts of a sophisticated struggle for power, though they are exercises of personal charisma. That charisma of course has a political potential; Henry fears it and Worcester knows how to manipulate it. But Hotspur confuses history with what he calls "chronicle," which he sees as part of a pemanent literary canon, a stable repository of truth:

Shall it for shame be spoken in these days,
Or fill up chronicles in time to come,
That men of your nobility and power
Did gage them both in an unjust behalf . . .
To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
And plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke?


This response of course has been cynically elicited by Worcester from his excitable nephew. Those in the audience who have been following Shakespeare's version of the story since Richard II know it is not so simple as that.

It's not easy to make historical drama feel like the reality of historical action, to organize a narrative and yet render the complexities of the uncertain political moment. But Shakespeare finds ways in Henry IV to make even this difficulty contribute to the destabilizing texture I've been discussing. Hal's famous "I know you all" soliloquy calls attention to Shakespeare's elegant solution of a narrative problem, keeping Hal's hands clean and his story clear, though at the possible expense of some verisimilitude. Similarly, Henry's "But this our purpose now is twelvemonth old" may suggest that he has yielded to the demands of exposition, again by. sacrificing some probability. But the most interesting use of this tension has to do with the large-scale organization of Part One.

To explain this, one must first recognize that the most common oversimplification of historical analysis is the pattern most natural to drama. One might call it the "single-climax pattern." It views history as a version of the simplest private drama—the biorhythm of tension-climax-release. It's a story we like to tell about all kinds of life, including public life. It's what makes elections so satisfying to follow, at least when your side wins. Unlike, say, following the other events in the news, all the tensions go in one direction and are resolved thrillingly in a single day. This pattern also enjoys the advantage of being the simplest shape that will lend itself to the effective disposition of large theatrical forces. In 1 Henry IV this pattern leads to Shrewsbury.

From the first, everything presses toward the climactic encounter on the battlefield. Shrewsbury offers the apperance of a simple test of political morality: is the character in question doing what's necessary to win? Hal yes, Falstaff no, Hotspur not enough. Characters are seen orienting their own sacrifices or self-indulgences toward that climax. The conduct of the play itself becomes a metaphor of government—the plot, like Harry, triumphs and orders all our feelings, however varied. We would like to linger with Falstaff and Hotspur, but we need to move on. Nevertheless, the variety and the profusion of slight slidings, delays, and doublings under the arc of the plot point to the truer complexity of history. The single-climax model, for all the pleasure we get out of it, is inadequate, except as a usefully deceptive metaphor, a politically inspired fiction.

The immense clarity of Hal's rescuing the king and defeating Hotspur in one prolonged aristeia is undercut, and not only by the figure of Falstaff, with his own narrative and parody of Hotspur's death. All the preparations for battle, with their emphasis on calculation, betrayal, and spin-doctoring, give us a different angle on the history we are watching from that of the "long hour by Shrewsbury clock"—Falstaff's phrase, we remember, for a fight that never happened in a time that never was. Behind the scenes in which the noble son articulately rescues the noble father, we are aware of the hidden drama of numbers in which, among other things, Hotspur's father silently betrays his son.

These slidings grow more pronounced in the Second Part. Remember I'm concerned here not with irony as such, with the puncturing of legends or propaganda, but with a kind of bifocalism, which takes many forms, including the play with and against the single-climax pattern. It's actually something between bifocalism and binocularism, since it produces neither unresolvable alternatives nor seamless depths. Its effect, in any case, is to reinforce the sense of what I've been calling "history-making." In 2 Henry IV, one of the most notable examples of this bifocalism is the relation of the two parts themselves.

Much has been written about this relation, almost all of it in terms of an historical question about Shakespeare—what did he intend in writing a sequel and when, in the history of writing Part One, did he start to intend it? I would like to suggest that Part Two provokes such concerns because, in its relation to the first part, it fosters the impression of time being stopped and moving on at the same time.

Part Two continues narratively out of Part One, but in many ways it seems to be retelling the same story. Are we advancing or going over familiar territory? Are we moving ahead or marking time? We find ourselves in a curiously suspended moment, as if we had stepped back to Part One and were hanging there waiting for Henry to die, while at the same time the rebellions of Part One were being acted again. This of course is partly a requirement of the sequel genre, but this sequel seems to go further, to incorporate this aspect of sequelhood into its own texture, to make a dramatic point out of what today we would call its "belatedness."

Hal seems palpably to be marking time while he waits for the play to make its now familiar stops on his journey to legitimation. Playing a joke on Falstaff, Northumberland's defection, the reconciliation with the King—haven't we seen all this before, faster and younger and funnier? It's a virtuosic achievement, to give the audience what it has expected from Part One and yet to get on with the history—to fill up what seemed like a tiny space left over after Shrewsbury with an equally long historic narrative, and the resultant structure accomplishes many things. But one of them is to heighten our sense of history as a perpetual readjustment of the relation between now and then. Even the most important new character in Part II, who has no source either in the chronicle or in the structure of Part One—Justice Shallow—is most vivid as a narrator and re-narrator of the past, a past of inconsequential pastimes placed in a dim prepolitical backward before the crises of Richard II's reign, when Mowbray and Gaunt were merely names on the lips of would-be fashionable gentlemen.

One might remember, too, how scenes from the life of Richard II—scenes we never quite get to see in his play—are re-narrated in both parts of Henry IV. Especially dwelt on are moments when Bolingbroke and Richard appear in succession:

Thou that threw'st dust upon his goodly head
When through proud London he came sighing on
After th'admired heels of Bolingbroke,
Criest now, "O earth, yield us that king again."

(2 Henry IV, 1.3.103-6)

And always the concern is with the realignment of present and past, with reinterpreting the past to gain political advantage in the present.

Probably the most striking reminder, however, of how the narrative relations between present and past can constitute the very material of political action comes at the beginning of 2 Henry IV;

Open your ears, for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?

(Induction, 1-2)

I wonder if justice has been done to the boldness, the strangeness of this extraordinary choice on Shakespeare's part—to begin his sequel with Rumor. And there's perhaps no moment stranger, more puzzling than when Rumor suddenly interrupts himself:

But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomize
Among my household?


We are addressed as rumor's household, a slightly aggressive note of intimacy. But why is the theater, in particular, the home of rumor? There are several possible answers, all important for Shakespeare's treatment of history. First, it may have to do with the appetite of any theatrical audience for intimate knowledge. Furthermore, rumor sets up a curious glancing relation with the factual information it purportedly conveys—it seems unusually close to the fact by virtue of its vividness and unofficial provenance, but distant from it by virtue of its unreliability. It reminds us of a gap even as it deceptively, pleasingly appears to leap it. It thrives on a gap of representation, which is also a gap of time.

There is also the matter of rumor's speed. Rumor spreads from an event with legendary rapidity, faster, it sometimes seems—and certainly seemed in Shakespeare's day—than any other mode of communication. Indeed in preelectric times, rumor had an exemplary metaphysical function rather like that of the speed of light since Einstein. It reminds us that even apparent instantaneity involves a gap. There is an event, a radiation of rumor from it, and out of that radiation, after an interval, needing interpretation, it reaches us.

We will return shortly to the specifically theatrical aspect of rumor, but first more needs to be said about rumor's historical and political significance. In 2 Henry IV, rumor is acknowledged as a material fact of history, to be evaluated and wielded with care by the hopeful politician. Perhaps rumor is most emphatically connected both to high politics and historical narration at the beginning of act 3. There, Henry despondently imagines what it would be like to read "the book of fate" in which historical events could be seen before they happen. This reminds him of Richard's prophecy that has rung through the Henriad:

"The time will come that foul sin gathering head
Shall break into corruption"—so went on
Foretelling this same time's condition
And the division of our amity.


Henry is haunted by Richard's uncanny prescience. Warwick, however, moves quickly to demystify this superstitious—and politically demoralizing—view by explaining Richard's prophecy in materialistic terms. Historical prediction, he says, is a form of rational political calculation:

There is a history in all men's lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceased;
The which observe'd a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life. . . .
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness. . . .


With that, King Henry pulls himself together, and the discussion shifts into a practical mode—into an evaluation of rumor as a method of calculating rebel forces:

Henry. They say the Bishop and Northumberland
Are fifty thousand strong.
Warwick. It cannot be, my lord.
Rumor doth double, like the voice and echo,
The numbers of the fear'd. . . .
To comfort you the more, I have receiv'd
A certain instance that Glendower is dead.


Glendower, who like Hotspur also confused legendary narration with history making, charisma with political effectiveness, is dead indeed. History is made by those who can grasp the real forces alive in the flux of the moment, who can swim, as Shakespeare will soon put it, in the tide that governs the affairs of men.

Warwick's rational analysis of rumor reminds us that the issue of representation as it is raised in these history plays is not merely an aesthetic or epistemological one. It goes to the root of politics itself, where understanding and action intersect. The serious political actor must fight to sift, control, manipulate a bundle of constantly changing representations. As Part Two draws to a close, Hal acts to take charge of his kingdom in an atmosphere that seethes with rumor, with a cynical understanding of the past that constitutes an expectation for his future. We watch him overcome rumor—he calls it "rotten opinion"—with his rejection of Falstaff.

Now, there is one more way in which the historico-political significance of rumor is connected to the phenomenology of theater and that is also foregrounded by 2 Henry IV. This is the peculiar proximity that the play affords us to action as a source of rumor. In a number of places, but especially at the rejection of Falstaff, I think we feel—influenced as we are by busy preparations, public outcry, multiple audiences, crowds, and the general buzz around the rejection scene—that we're watching the propagation of rumor as if at the first microsecond after the big bang of an event. The play indeed makes us alert to an "event" as a letting loose of rumor in the world. Indeed, the release of rumor is itself an event, a political action, part of the fluid power-negotiation to which politicians must train themselves to respond and that history attempts to represent. Action becoming theater becoming action. The household of rumor, Shakespeare understands, has special though sobering access to the process of history.

Thinking about rumor brings home to us the intimate connection between history, action, and theater. Action always involves the representation of action, its performance, as it were, before an audience. Action in this sense requires an historical attention—an attempt at aligning then and now with an eye on the future. The historicizing attitude attempts to describe an event in vectored terms—what is the direction of this process? In this sense, the problem of history is entwined with the problem of action. And theater allows us peculiar access to this linkage of history and action, because in the theater we construe even the most entertaining moments into what we call the "action" of a play. If they don't construe—if we can't feel in some way that this activity is coming from somewhere and going someplace, they quickly bore.

Again, we must not confuse the issue here with the familiar poststructuralist critique of history. The point is not that, because representation involves a gap, history must involve one too, but rather that the existence of this gap means that we always live with one foot in the historical. Our experience is rooted in the ambiguous proximity of then, the "complex temporality" of now.3 Every moment involves the construction of a past that gives the the present its momentary stability. History, in the usual sense of the term, magnifies the basic problems of representation, because it attempts to settle the past. But if we are, as we always are, shaken and wan with care, getting the past to settle is difficult and provisional. It involves finding a time, stabilizing a now from which to act. All action, but particularly what we think of as political action, involves a species of instantaneous critical historiography.

At this point, keeping the phenomenology of drama in mind helps with another problem, which might at first seem to blur the picture of history we have been developing. Isn't there, or at least wasn't there in Shakespeare's day, a concern with history as moral evaluation—not the vector of the scene, but its eternal valence? In the theater, however, all the moral revelations of a scene, interesting as they may be, are subject to the question: where does this new knowledge mean the action is going? Yes, in the prayer scene of Hamlet we are very interested to learn that Claudius is indeed guilty and would go to hell if killed at this moment, but above all we are aware that we must adjust to the fact that this confrontation, so appropriate to a fifth act, is being thrown at us in the third. Similarly, our inner debate about whether Henry IV is a good king is always involved with adjustments of the vector. We watch Prince John in Gaultree forest, and the instability of our response reflects our sense of the complexity, the bifocal/binocularity of the process that is unfolding—where does this mean England is going now? Not under the aspect of eternity, but contingently, as they all move on, rebels and rulers, winners and losers, schlemiels and schlemozzels, to further contingencies. The moral bouncing, like the temporal realignments, is something the play forces us not to sum up, but to live through. Not, that is, are the Lancasters in the right, or more right than wrong (though we are free to contemplate such questions) but, more pressingly, how are we to grasp this crosshatch of taint and virtue, of competing interests, of power and problem and maneuver? Grasping it is the truly historical activity, by which the reality of political action in the flux of time may be apprehended.

Where might we go from here? Is the texture I've been exploring an isolated feature of one pair of plays, or can we locate it in some larger Shakespearean universe? Let me conclude by suggesting, very briefly, a possible avenue for further exploration. The focus we have been observing—on rumor and realignment at the point of origin, the point somewhere beyond the shimmering border where now shades off into then—this focus may shed some light on one of Shakespeare's favorite motifs: let's call it "the theme of the Questionable Father."

Who is my father? Where and what is he? Is he, for instance, the self I must be true to, the absent judge who has deputized me, the forgiveness I must pray for, the law I must enforce, or is it escape, or is it rescue him from? Is he Father Christmas, our Father in Heaven, or more enigmatically, Father Time? From the ever-wandering Antipholus of Syracuse and his father Aegeon, to Hal and Henry IV, to Hamlet and Old Hamlet's ghost, to Angelo and the Duke of dark corners, we see young men (and young women, too, think of Viola and Portia) haunted, burdened and holding themselves back from action under the shadows of an obscurely fostering paternal or quasi-paternal imperative, a source of strength and weakness, of virtue and taint, a past that commands them but that they must uneasily redefine and re-present. Who are you, father? How did my sentence begin? Nay, answer me, stand and unfold yourself.

What we feel, then, on the scale of national history-making in Henry IV may have its counterpart, for Shakespeare, in the instabilities of personal life. Time, that pleases some, tries all, but not only because we grow old and die. It tests us because its structure is unfixed, depending on human action and negotiation. We move uneasily and irregularly within time, because time is the only dimension in which we can never locate ourselves with confidence. Which of. . . and here I want to conclude by quoting a phrase that brings my argument full circle by returning it to Shakespeare's method in the Henriad. It is the phrase he uses in his epilogue to close the circle at the end of the second tetralogy—to close, not with a smooth progression to a stable finish, but with yet another unexpected temporal disruption. For he concludes his chronicle of the rise of the House of Lancaster by making a bidirectional leap in time that, altering the meaning of its own sentence, abruptly cuts short the celebrations of Henry V's triumphs, harking back simultaneously to the promising theatrical past of Shakespeare's early days and to the tragic historical future of Henry's son, concentrating that movement into a surprising, bluntly impassive half-line:

Small time: but in that small, most greatly lived
This star of England. Fortune made his sword;
By which, the world's best garden he achieved;
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France, and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown.

(Henry V, epilogue, 5-13)

Very likely some of the original dramatic force of this passage came from flinging a late Elizabethan audience, which might well be concerned with the succession to an aging Queen, back to a bloody future. But certainly it continues to work, as so much in the Henriad does, by reminding us—forcing us to experience the fact—that to make history is to find oneself moving with dizzying, indeed frightening uncertainty in time. Which oft our stage hath shown.


1 All Shakespearean citations are to The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: New American Library, 1972).

2 David Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1982), 24.

3 See Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Methuen 1994).

Source: "History-Making in the Henriad," in Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 203-19.