The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The play opens on a stage set as a medieval throne room. A king’s councillor, Berthold, is puzzled that the monarch is the eleventh century German king Henry IV, not the French king Henry IV of the sixteenth century. Soon a group of visitors in modern dress arrives, and the situation becomes clarified: They have come to try to cure a man who twenty years earlier had struck his head and subsequently has lived with the delusion that he is the medieval German monarch Henry IV. The man, who is never identified by any name other than “Henry IV,” had in his twenties passionately loved a woman named Donna Matilda Spina, but she had scorned him. For a historical pageant, Matilda had chosen to play the role of the eleventh century Marchioness Matilda of Tuscany; to be near her, her suitor had chosen the role of Henry IV. Being an intense and sensitive person, he immersed himself in preparing the role. During the pageant, another of Matilda’s suitors, Tito Belcredi, apparently caused his rival’s horse to stumble and his rival to strike his head. When he retained consciousness, he believed that he actually was Henry IV; in his passionate intensity, the blow to his head caused him to forget his identity and become absorbed by his dramatic role.

In response, his wealthy sister set him up in a castle with councillors and attendants, enabling him to live indefinitely as the German emperor. Twenty years later, just before she died, she had come to believe that he was regaining his sanity. At her request, her son, Charles di Nolli, has brought a doctor to try to cure his uncle. With Charles is his fiancee Frida, the daughter of Matilda Spina. Along with these three come Matilda and her lover Belcredi. Much of act 1 is taken up with these five characters’ discussion of the patient’s history. In order to meet with him, Matilda, the doctor, and Belcredi must enter his world as all of his visitors do: They costume themselves as medieval personages. Matilda poses as the king’s mother-in-law Adelaide, the doctor as his godfather the Bishop of Cluny, and Belcredi as a monk. Finally, the protagonist, dressed as the king, enters. His behavior is erratic and...

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Henry IV Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

For a play that is not specifically about the theater, the plot of Henry IV is remarkably full of the elements of theater: Characters are often talking about sets, putting on costumes, creating characters and even plots, and, above all, playing roles. The genesis of the play’s action lies in the creation and performance of a masquerade in which Donna Matilda and her two suitors were players. The peculiarly self-conscious, sensitive protagonist had had experience as an actor and had prepared himself with great intensity to “lose himself” in the role of Henry IV. Therefore, the obsession with his role that occurred after the blow to his head can be seen as a not unnatural consequence of latent emotional drives. As the audience learns later in the play, his present-day “madness” has been as much a performance as a reality. Finally, when he claims Frida, the audience sees him attempt to step out of his performance into the “real” world, only to find that he is safe only in his role, with his mask on.

Because of the protagonist’s performance, which the others take for real, they perform also—and they perform roles within his play world. Three of them play characters in Henry’s medieval world in order to gain contact with him, but they succeed only in undermining the dramatic illusion for him. Following the doctor’s scheme, two of the visitors, Charles and Frida, play roles from Henry’s youthful past, and they stir his feelings...

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Henry IV Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Henry’s throne room

Henry’s throne room. Villa salon designed to look like the throne room of the historical Henry IV in Goslar, Germany. However, as the young “counsellors” of “Henry IV,” the mad hero of the play, reveal, this room is not always in Goslar but sometimes in numerous other places. Nevertheless, for Henry IV, it has been a real throne room, even though he has not in actuality left the villa for all the years of his madness. However, in the third act, it is, for everyone, merely a room in the villa, where Henry suggests in the story of the Irish priest that we all play parts and so in a manner are as mad as he was or perhaps is. At the end, it is the room in which Henry must always be “mad,” in order not to be punished for his truly insane stabbing of Belcredi.

Second room in villa

Second room in villa. This room, although its furniture is described as simple and old, seems rather timeless. Still, there is an irony in that there are windows that look out upon a garden, a real world, and yet a door opens into the so-called throne room. But it is here that Henry tells his counsellors, who are merely his hired actors, that he is no longer mad, so that for the moment everyone seems to be living in the present and is, perhaps, sane.

Henry IV Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bentley, Eric. “Enrico IV,” in Theatre of War: Modern Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1954.

Binion, Ralph. “The Play as Replay or the Key to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry IV, and Clothe the Naked.” In Soundings: Psychohistorical and Psycholiterary. New York: Psychohistory Press, 1981. The only essay in Binion’s collection that deals with theater. His expositions of Pirandello’s themes, based on what he perceives as expressions of the author’s psychological repressions, are both interesting and dangerous, because one is tempted to accept Binion’s theories as facts.

Brustein, Robert. “Pirandello’s Drama of Revolt,” in The Theatre of Revolt, 1962.

Cambon, Glauco. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Two essays deal peripherally with Henry IV, but the collection deals extensively with the thoughts and themes to be found in all of Pirandello’s dramas.

Oliver, Roger W. Dreams of Passion: The Theater of Luigi Pirandello, 1979.

Pirandello, Luigi. Naked Masks: Five Plays. Translated by Edward Storer, edited and with an introduction by Eric Bentley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952. Contains Pirandello’s best known and most popular plays. Bentley, who was one of the major critics of twentieth century modernist dramas, offers excellent insights into Henry IV.

Starkie, Walter. Luigi Pirandello. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1926. A major book-length study on Pirandello. The starting point for all subsequent study. Not a biography but a work of meticulous scholarship about influences and themes.

Styan, J.L. The Dark Comedy: The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy, 1968.

Vittorini, Domenico. The Drama of Luigi Pirandello, 1935.