Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Hydra and Rhizome

Hydra and Rhizome

Harry Berger, Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz

The roots from which this essay on the Henriad grows are tangled together in the plot containing the following seeds of wisdom, anxiety, and fantasy:

A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. … Even some animals are, in their pack form. … The rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and couchgrass, or the weed. Animal and plant, couchgrass is crab-grass.

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

hydra2 … A multifarious source of destruction that cannot be eradicated by a single attempt.

Hydra1 … A many-headed monster … growing back two heads for each one cut off.

American Heritage Dictionary

Hydra … A genus of Hydrozoa … [whose] name was given it by Linnaeus (1756), in allusion to the fact that cutting it in pieces only multiplies its numbers.

Oxford English Dictionary

The camomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.

—Sir John Falstaff

Hand-pulling may be a perfectly good way of removing some weeds, but this isn't true of crabgrass if it's an established growth—hand-pulling actually pulls buried crabgrass seed into sprouting position.

"Sunset" Introduction to Basic Gardening

Our trip through this imaginary garden begins with the irruption of the most evolved of its monsters in the text of the Henry IV plays.


"And yet new Hydraes lo, new heades appeare / T'afflict that peace reputed then so sure": so writes Samuel Daniel in the third of his First Foure Bookes of the Civile Wars. The editor of the New Arden 1 Henry IV notes in his comment on Henry's opening speech that "the irony of Henry's deluded hopes is present" in Daniel's image.1 "Head" in various senses crops up all over the text of the play, but the Hydra itself does not appear until act 5, scene 4, after the raging Douglas has killed two of Henry's decoys at Shrewsbury ("The king hath many marching in his coats") and confronted what he takes to be a third:

Douglas. Another king. They grow like Hydra's
        I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
        That wear those colors on them. What
             art thou
        That counterfeit'st the person of a king?
King.     The King himself, who, Douglas,
                             grieves at heart
        So many of his shadows thou hast met,
        And not the very King.…
Douglas. I fear thou art another counterfeit,
          And yet, in faith, thou bearest thee like
              a king.

Daniel's "heades" are rebellious factions and their armies, whereas Douglas's are kings, but Henry's tainted succession jeopardizes the distinction, and Douglas's language makes the most of the uncertainty. In the readings that follow I try to connect the generation of Hydra heads with the transgression of the official lines of battle, and convert the Hydra to a figure of the continuous process of displacement from the discourses at war within language to the interlocutory, military, and political conflicts that unfold in narrative time and theatrical space. I begin with an analysis of the scene of displacement that surrounds the first mention of the Hydra in 1 Henry IV.

Thinking that Sir Walter Blunt, the second royal counterfeit, is Henry, Douglas says, "Some tell me that thou art a king," and, after he kills Blunt, "A borrow'd title hast thou bought too dear" (5.3.5, 23). Regardless of what the speaker may be taken to intend, his comments target Henry's illegitimate possession of the title he "borrow'd." They brighten the eyes of the ethical reductionist in search of the ironic little nuggets of Henry-bashing he assumes Shakespeare to have salted away in odd textual corners, unbeknownst to the guilty king himself. But they can also convey a more interesting message if one construes the nuggets as clues to the lurking presence of the sinner's discourse in Henry's language—clues, that is, to the Henry-bashing of which Henry seems capable, and desirous, and afraid.2 Then they may remind us of the anxiety that motivated him in act 1, scenes 1 and 3 to behave in a manner guaranteed to provoke his supporters to insurrection. In the political economy of the Henriad, the Northumberland rebellion would dissociate him from his allies in usurpation and make him more legitimate. But in the ethical and psychic economy, it would create a faction that could uphold Richard's cause and administer his and God's revenge on Henry's mistreadings. Worcester's complaint, however self-interested, accurately characterizes the relation of the private war Henry wages against himself to the factious Hydra heads of public war:

We were enforc'd for safety sake to fly
Out of your sight, and raise this present head,
Whereby we stand opposed by such means
As you yourself have forg'd against yourself.

Douglas's military victories give Henry temporary relief from his private war in that they divert him from the conflict between the sinner's discourse and those of the victim/revenger and generous donor he mobilizes against it. To achieve the objective of the sinner's discourse he needs eventually to lose, not win, the public war; the effect of the royalist victory at Gaultree in 2 Henry IV is a strange deflation of Henry's morale that seems only to hasten his death. At the end of 1 Henry IV he seems on the way to defeating the rebels, but under conditions not calculated to ensure a satisfactory resolution of the private war. If Douglas accommodates him by embodying the threat of public war in the convenient narrative form of a physical encounter, the more dangerous battlefield to which the private war is displaced is that of Henry's interlocutory struggles with his "nearest and dearest enemy" (3.2.123), Harry. The strange set of episodes that concludes the play binds these three figures together in transgressive conflict.4

The real battle at Shrewsbury picks up where it left off in act 3, scene 2, where Henry attacks his son with the example of Hotspur, whose "more worthy interest to the state" he oddly ascribes to the martial energy that makes him politically unstable. Henry especially admires him for having

Discomfited great Douglas, ta'en him once,
Enlarged him, and made a friend of him,
To fill the mouth of deep defiance up,
And shake the peace and safety of our throne.

The invidious contrast that follows testifies to the success of Harry's plan to influence "men's hopes"—lower their opinion of him—by his display of "loose behavior" (1.2.203-6), and Harry's response to his father is both a promise and a deferral of the reformation that will glitter over his fault:

I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son.

But not yet; Henry will have to wait until his son is ready and thinks the time is ripe to falsify men's hopes.

Harry's acerb mimicry of his father's opinion, "This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight, / And your unthoughtof Harry" (140-41), suggests that his challenge to Hotspur will also be a challenge to Henry. Thus, when he offers to meet Hotspur in single combat at Shrewsbury, the terms of the challenge he aims at Hotspur glance at the king:

Yet this before my father's majesty—
I am content that he shall take the odds
Of his great name and estimation,
And will, to save the blood on either side,
Try fortune with him in a single fight.

Although Percy is the obvious antecedent of "he," a slight effort is necessary to keep it from veering toward Henry. The king's response is politic: "So dare we venture thee," he begins, arrogating some of Harry's daring and venturing to himself, and he adds what at first appears to be only a counterfactual objection: "Albeit, considerations infinite / Do make against it" (101-3). But he then proceeds to ignore the offer and turns to Worcester with his own stratagem for saving blood. The prince, eager for his chance, predicts, "It will not be accepted, on my life" (115), at which Henry foils his son's scenario by unwrapping his backup plan: "Hence, therefore, every leader to his charge" (118).5

Falstaff's comment to Harry two lines later crystallizes the ambivalence of this interchange and anticipates the second moment of father-son conflict: "Hal, if thou see me down in the battle and bestride me, so; 'tis a point of friendship." The "point" flashes in scene 4, when Harry, announcing himself in full regalia as "the Prince of Wales … / Who never promiseth but he means to pay" (41-42), beats Douglas away from his endangered father, and then shows top-class behavior by making conspicuously little of his accomplishment:

Cheerly, my lord, how fares your grace?
Sir Nicholas Gawsey hath for succour sent,
And so hath Clifton—I'll to Clifton straight.

This gives Henry a chance to delay Harry long enough to lavish thanks on his savior. He takes, but doesn't exactly seize, the opportunity; his thanks are carefully measured out in terms that remind Harry of what he owes while limiting his own obligation:

Stay and breathe a while:
Thou hast redeem'd thy lost opinion,
And show'd thou mak'st some tender of my life,
In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me.

Harry responds with an outburst that effectively lays claim to a larger share of gratitude:

O God, they did me too much injury
That ever said I hearken'd for your death.
If it were so, I might have let alone

The insulting hand of Douglas over you,
Which would have been as speedy in your end
As all the poisonous potions in the world,
And sav'd the treacherous labor of your son.

Warding off Douglas's "insulting hand," Harry replaces it with something close to an insulting speech. Henry can meet this thrust only by turning abruptly to other matters—"Make up to Clifton, I'll to Sir Nicholas Gawsey" (57)—and hurrying off.

Douglas's role and fate symbolize the functional subordination of the public to the private war. As Stephen Booth remarks, Douglas is a parody of Hotspur, and he provides a service similar to that which Harry expects from Hotspur: "Percy is but my factor … / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf" (3.2.147-48).6 In the economy of honor he fulfills the demand for a General Chivalric Factor, a feared and famous warrior whose sole function seems to be to get beaten so that the victors may become more feared and more famous. His win-loss ratio in the play is mediocre: he kills two or three royal decoys (only one onstage) and threatens the king. But he is twice captured, and sent flying once by Harry, who later reports his humiliating last stand, or stumble: when Douglas saw "the noble Percy slain, and all his men / Upon the foot of fear," he

                       fled with the rest,
And falling from a hill, he was so bruis'd
That the pursuers took him.

This makes him a pawn in the next move of the private war. "I beseech your Grace," Harry continues, "I may dispose of him," and Henry replies, "With all my heart" (23-24). I don't think it improbable to assume that the king might hear "dispose" as an offer to imprison or execute the man who endangered his life. If so, the prince's response is unexpected:

Then, brother John of Lancaster, to you
This honorable bounty shall belong;
Go to the Douglas and deliver him
Up to his pleasure, ransomless and free:
His valors shown upon our crests today
Have taught us how to cherish such high deeds,
Even in the bosom of our adversaries.

Another show of top-class behavior; another insult to the king, whose person and decoys were the only apparent objects of Douglas's "valors."7 The gesture recalls, mimics, and responds to Henry's praise of Hotspur for having captured and "enlarged" Douglas (3.2.114-17). In imitating Hotspur, Harry both competes with him and replaces him as the king's adversary.

"I'll so offend to make offense a skill": the offensive skill of this gesture ambiguates Harry's final line, his last words in the play, and gives them a resonance that sustains the father-son conflict beneath the comedic resolution of the public war. Thus, descriptions that focus on the latter but ignore the former don't quite ring true: "1 Henry IV is designed toward the release of combat. We watch the opponents quarrel; lay their plans, and gather their forces; march toward Shrewsbury and fail in last-minute negotiations, until by Act v, scene iii, we are ready for that discharge of tension which of itself seems to create a sense of order."8 This reading misses the extent to which the public war provides a medium of displacement for the struggle between Henry and Harry which is itself a covert displacement of the private war, the conflict of discourses, within each. Those "inward wars" are conspicuously latent, conspicuously damped down by the forward push of the public war. By "conspicuously" I mean that when we pay attention to the play of discourses, we can see them being damped down; indeed, we can see how they are empowered and kept in force by displacement to the manifest circumstances of a narrative order "designed toward the release of combat."

One of the major theses of this essay is that the conflict and play of discourses invest the language of speakers with performative energy, the energy of emplotment that drives the narrative forward and motivates the sequence of public actions constituting the "history" the Henriad represents.9 "Performative" denotes what a speaker's language is doing apart from what he may be doing with it, and this objective force can be explored even when the language does not provide the evidence for deciding whether the actions and strings of action it produces appear to be intended or unintended. From my reading of the performative and discursive aspects of language, I derive a sense not only of the speaker's contribution to the dramatic or "historical" plot but also of the scenario that motivates the contribution; the scenario is what the speaker wants to happen, but "wants" in the register of desire, which is to say, what he wants whether he knows it or not. So, in confronting 1 Henry IV, I try to elicit the scenarios of Henry, Harry, Hotspur, and Falstaff by discursive analysis of the private war within each, and I trace their patterns of convergence or collision as they gear into the action of speech and event, the interlocutory and narrative sphere to which inner conflicts are displaced. Viewed in the perspective of displacement, the relation between the private and public wars, between the discourses and historical drama, resembles that between latent and manifest content in Freudian analysis. The public war appears as the anamorphic projection or representation of the private war; the contradictions, ambiguities, fissures, and dislocations beneath the smooth resolution of the former may be accounted for by the pressures of displacement. It is this process and product of anamorphic projection that I encode in the figure of the Hydra.

This approach to the Henriad has more explanatory power than one that is content to describe closures, symmetries, and antitheses, and then show that they are problematized; for example:

Loose ends are apparent at the end of 1 Henry IV, to be sure, for history is open-ended even in a play that achieves brilliant closure. After all, even Henry V concludes, for all its triumphs in war and marriage, on a reminder of the failures of Henry VI that are to follow in the course of history. In 1 Henry IV rebellion is never wholly quelled, and the introduction of the Archbishop of York in 4.4 is a reminder of unfinished business.… The uneasy relationship between Hal and his father attains a moment of trust appropriate to Hal's emergence as his father's son, but there is unfinished business here too. The actions in Part 2 that involve repetition—the second rebellion of the Percys, the second long tavern scene, the second interview of father and son—all arise from the perception that what seemed so easy of solution is in fact deeply problematic.10

But what makes it problematic? To attribute failures and loose ends to the open-endedness of history is to ignore their textual source in the conflict of discourses, as the reference to the "moment of trust" suggests. The closure of 1 Henry IV is brilliant precisely because it is already problematic and its easy solution inadequate. I don't merely mean that it is circumstantially inadequate, which is obvious; the final scene falls away from the conclusive certainty of Henry's opening line, "Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke," to the provisionality of his final sentence, "Rebellion in this land shall lose its sway" if the troops press on, therefore, "Let us not leave till all our own be won." Rather, I mean that this military project is traversed by the contradictory desires and conflicting discourses which, as I have noted, divide Henry's scenario against itself, and which are anamorphically registered in the first line of his concluding speech: "Then this remains, that we divide our power." Harry's freeing of Douglas adds bite to this irony, especially when the king states, "Myself and you, son Harry, will towards Wales" (39). Teaming up with Harry is one way to keep his power divided and continue the private war in which Harry's function is "to punish my mistreadings" (3.2.11).

When the division is alluded to in 2 Henry IV, the relation between latent conditions and manifest circumstances has decisively altered. Hastings follows his report that the king's divisions "are in three heads" with this assessment: "So is the unfirm King / In three divided, and his coffers sound / With hollow poverty and emptiness" (1.3.70-75). This is meant as a comment on the king's military circumstances, and as such it is false. But the statement also contains an unintended description of the king's ethical condition, and as such it is true. The rebels continually misjudge situations and talk themselves into losing—almost, indeed, as if the need to lose is their hidden ethical agenda as well as Henry's. In doing this, the fate they solicit increases the king's infirmity, as I suggested earlier. The manifest circumstances of 2 Henry IV every-where fail to contain the latent grief, the pressure of the sinner's discourse challenging the repeated claims of victimization and the assertive displays (whether serious or comic) of villainy. In saying this I am not criticizing the play but stating its theme. Until Harry takes over in act 5, the apparently casual ramble through tableaus of social misrule and political disorder composes into a "rude scene" (1.1.159) which is an anamorphic shadow of the unseen grief that produces it. A. R. Humphreys justly observes that the fluent energies of the play's language are "more important, dramatically, in that the narrative content is not greatly compelling.".11 What actually happens in castle, tavern, palace, battlefield, and country orchard is conspicuously anticlimactic. Since the manifest circumstances of emplotment and narrative are represented as inadequate displacements of the latent grief, we may expect the repetition mentioned by David Bevington to take the form of a proliferation of Hydra heads.

The Hydra that presides over 2 Henry IV is not named until act 4, scene 2. But it is prepared for by several anticipatory allusions. The first appears in the Induction, whose speaker, Rumor, gleefully claims to specialize in the wholesale distribution of "smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs" (40). Rumor describes herself/himself/itself (the gender of this personification is as uncertain as everything else about her/him/it)12 as a pipe

Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wav'ring multitude,
Can play upon it.

With characteristic shiftiness she selects an image that traditionally—under Platonic influence—represents at once a psychic and a political source of disorder, and exercises her gift for metonymy in a dazzling series of displacements. She links the monster to the psychic referent in line 16, then redirects it outward to hoi polloi in the appositional clause. The source of false report is displaced first from Rumor's own uncounted tongues—which in turn represent displacements of cause from the ears of all those whose mishearing empowers Rumor—to the general apprehensiveness and mistrust that will plague the aristocratic leaders of faction, and then from this to their political scapegoat, the mob.

This metonymic contagion itself rhetorically enacts the process of false report by which true wrongs are replaced by "smooth comforts false." The blunt monster is the instrument of avoidance in a moral economy in which, as Jonathan Goldberg has argued, "the starving poor and the criminals are misrepresented as 'the cankers of a calm world,' as if they were solely responsible for their poverty, as if, save them, the world would be secure and at peace."13 Shifting responsibility for what Henry calls "inward wars" (3.1.107) outward to Rumor's "stern tyrant War" (Ind. 14) and downward to the blunt monster is a formula for fabricating rather than eliminating "new Hydraes" and "new heades." Several lines later, one of the false reports Rumor boasts of is "that the King before the Douglas' rage / Stoop'd his anointed head as low as death" (31-32). This reference to the Shrewsbury episode catches the many-headed monster in a web of purely associative filaments which include Douglas's mention of the Hydra and the sheer mnemonic trigger "blunt" (that is, "blunt monster" reminds me of Douglas's victim, Blunt). Rumor spreads this false report "through the peasant towns" (33), another reference to the blunt-headed lower class she contemptuously commandeers.

Rumor seeds potential Hydra heads throughout the play text. Thus, the Archbishop of York identifies the blunt monster with the "commonwealth," which he reduces to a "common dog," and dispenses false comfort by citing its wavering taste in kings as a reason for taking arms (1.3.85-108). Later he argues that the king will accept the rebels' bill of grievances, "For he hath found, to end one doubt by death / Revives two greater in the heirs of life" (4.1.199-200); another smooth comfort false. The Hydra lurking under this figure surfaces in the next scene when the same speaker complains that the court's previous rejection of the bill is part of "the time misorder'd" that "doth … / Crowd and crush us to this monstrous form / … Whereon this Hydra son of war is born" (4.2.33-38). Rumor has anticipated this particular comfort when she takes responsibility not only for false reports of peace but also for

       fearful musters and prepar'd defence,
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant War,
And no such matter?

The unclarity of the image (pregnant from some other cause or not pregnant but swollen with disease?) is part of the tease, and its vagueness, its dark reaches, its conspicuously withheld reference provoke our own "surmises, jealousies, conjectures" about those that hide behind the maddeningly noncommittal "some other grief."14

The Archbishops's bill of grievances and Hydra son of war are circumstantial displacements of deep-rooted conditions. To shift the source of anxiety from grief to grievance, inner structure to outer event, to alienate it to some more manageable scapegoat or monster in whose direction bad humors can be vented, offers the relief of action, purgation, and closure. As a personification Rumor embodies, represents, and presides over this process by which the uncanny is domesticated—is given a local habitation, a name, a talking head—and it is within this thematic network that the Hydra raises its heads. When it issues forth from the Archbishop's mouth, the logical implications of the figure begin to insinuate themselves subversively into the argument he is trying to make. Whether the genitive phrase "son of war" is subjective or objective, whether "stern tyrant War" is father or son, the inherent Hydra logic—"killing" one war will generate two others—suggests something contrary to what the speaker seems to intend. Hence he is forced in the next line to replace the Hydra with Argus, "Whose dangerous eyes may well be charm'd asleep / With grant of our most just and right desires" (4.2.39-40). But this smooth comfort harks back to the more "jealous" (i.e., suspicious)—and truer—surmise of Worcester in the preceding play, "Supposition all our lives shall be stuck full of eyes," in other words, "Interpretation will misquote our looks" (1 Henry IV 5.2.8, 13).

When Hastings proceeds to unpack the Archbishop's Hydra figure, his attempt at smooth comfort also falls prey to the monster's logic:

We have supplies to second our attempt:
If they miscarry, theirs shall second them;
And so success of mischief shall be born,
And heir from heir shall hold this quarrel up
Whilst England shall have generation.

As a figurai embodiment, the Hydra congeals and thus conceals a diachronic structure whose "baneful or destructive character" (OED) only a Hercules can overcome. Hastings's language projects an endless series of quarrels, and the undesirable alternative, "mischief of success shall be born," vibrates in the many-headed meaning of "success of mischief." Reading it as "succession of mischief," we can construe the whole phrase (and not only "success") as the subject of the verb. Taking "success" as "royal succession," the words intended to characterize the persistence that will lead to success at the same time predict the Wars of the Roses, which dramatize the violent operations of the "combat model" of succession. As Hastings develops and loses control of the figure, England becomes the Hydra whose heads are not only wars and fears but also expendable kings. The blunt monster is not only the many-headed "beastly feeder" the Archbishop complains of but also the sick "commonwealth"—in Henry's words, the foul and diseased "body of our kingdom" (3.1.38) which, Hydralike, thrives on the disorder symbolized by decapitation. This political version of the Hydra principle is enunciated by Richard II when he prophesies to Northumberland that

The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is, ere foul sin gathering head
Shall break into corruption: thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
He shalt think that thou, which knowest the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urg'd, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
                       (Richard II 5.1.57-65)

One of the first acts of the new regime is head-gathering: six freshly cut heads are sent to London by Northumber-land and Fitzwater (5.6.6-16).

The Hydra logic refuses to yield to the intentions of those who use it to explain, visualize, and cope with the civil and political problems to which they attribute "the times misorder'd" (4.2.33). After Rumor's takeover in 2 Henry IV it comes to express the desperation of the victim's discourse mingled with the sinner's—the desire for helplessness and for just deserts—which underlies and erodes their hope. This logic cannot be explained in terms of politically reductive schemes such as Jan Kott's "Grand Mechanism," the "image of history" as "a great staircase," a self-perpetuating system of rising and falling kings.15 The Hydra's body lies concealed not in the autonomous working of the mechanism but in the fluid medium of "some other grief." From its flourishing root system in "buried fear" and "inward wars" it shoots forth "new Hydraes, lo new heades" to afflict the peace, and these heads always appear in the wrong place, which is to say they appear in place:

And 'tis no little reason bids us speed,
To save our heads by raising of a head…
                          (1 Henry IV 1.3.277-78)

A mighty and a fearful head they are,
If promises be kept on every hand,
As ever offer'd foul play in a state.

If we without his help can make a head
To push against a kingdom…

And in conclusion drove us to seek out
This head of safety…

                       the King hath drawn
The special head of all the land together…

We were enforc'd for safety sake to fly
Out of your sight, and raise this present head…

Whether our present five and twenty thousand
May hold up head without Northumberland.
                          (2 Henry IV 1.3.16-17)

For his divisions, as the times do brawl,
Are in three heads …

Think you not that the powers we bear with us
Will cut their passage through the force of
Doing the execution and the act
For which we have in head assembled them?
                               (Henry V 2.2.15-18)

The last excerpt is Harry's question to one of the three traitors who will shortly lose their heads, and the brief abstract of his intention to make stern tyrant War impregnate the big year may be linked to the Hydra's final appearance in the tetralogy. This time the monster has turned and is closer to home. The Archbishop of Canterbury is marveling at the suddenness and violence of Harry's conversion:

Never was such a sudden scholar made;
Never came reformation in a flood,
With such a heady currance, scouring faults;
Nor never Hydra-headed wilfulness
So soon did lose his seat—and all at once—
As in this king.

The reappearance of "heady" in "Hydra-headed" suggests that in spite of their contrary impulses the same Herculean violence may fuel both the willfulness and the "currance" of reform, leaving it unclear whether the effect of scouring faults is to get rid of them or to nourish their root structure so that they can put forth more heads. Canterbury and his interlocutor, the Bishop of Ely, are trying to persuade themselves that since the king has reformed and is "a true lover of the holy Church" (23), they can persuade him to forestall dispossession of church lands in exchange for their support of the cause against France. It is because Canterbury is so obviously a worldly ecclesiastic skilled in the art of pietistic euphemism that the strangeness and wonder in his words stand out. The language of exorcistic violence so conveys the hero's selfpurging fury that it transgresses the speaker's apparent intention to praise. Canterbury wants to believe in Harry's reformation, has an interest in believing it, but the effect of the repeated "never's," inflating the "faults" to monstrous proportions (the Augean stable, the Hydra), is to stress his incredulity. And if we remember the Prologue's heraldic image of "the warlike Harry" at whose heels, "Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire / Crouch for employment" (Pr. 6-8), the "cur" in the nonce word "currance" strains forward to touch up the ferocity of Canterbury's image. The hidden cur externalized and idealized in the hounds waiting to be unleashed implies that some motive other than the "inward wars" of the body politic lies behind the bearing of "civil swords and native fire / As far as France" (2 Henry IV 5.5.106-7) and behind the rhetorical violence with which Harry will scour many faults during the course of the play, but none of them his own.

In my imagination I never see the Hydra's body, only its heads gnashing about like those of so many brontosaurs hidden from the neck down in earth, mud, or water. And if I try to imagine the body, it takes on the aspect of a densely tangled intertwining root structure creeping laterally in every direction and sending up capital shoots that work like crabgrass, offering its enemies the wrong targets so that efforts to curb its growth not only will fail but will invigorate the root structure and multiply its heads. The point about the Hydra, however, is that as a mythological pest, it does not exist until someone brings it into being by desiring targets of decapitation, that is, by making heads. Decapitation is futile because it is the masked form of its opposite, capitation. The Hydra is born from the head of the decapitator.

Another name for the Hydra's hidden body, as I visualize it, is rhizome, whose roots Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have extended into language:

In a rhizome … semiotic chains of every kind are connected … according to very diverse modes of encoding, chains that are biological, political, economic, etc., and that put into play not only regimes of different signs, but also different states of affairs.… A semiotic chain is like a tuber gathering up very diverse acts—linguistic, but also perceptual, mimetic, gestural, and cognitive.… Language stabilizes around a parish, a diocese, a capital. It forms a bulb. It evolves by means of stems and underground flows.… Language can always be broken down into its internal structural components, an activity not fundamentally different from a search for roots.16

Another name for rhizome might be text.


Among the various mirroring devices and "ways of recording the progress of inward 'action'" Maynard Mack found in "The Jacobean Shakespeare," the one that took root in subsequent criticism was the concept of "umbrella speeches," so called because "more than one consciousness may shelter under them." Thus Lear's Fool "serves, to some extent, as a screen on which Shakespeare flashes, as it were, readings from the psychic life of the protagonist," and through Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking Shakespeare keeps Macbeth "before us in his capacity as tragic hero and sufferer." Some umbrellas are larger than others: Mack argues that Edmund, Gloucester, and Lear are all partly sheltered under the Poor Tom umbrella put up by Edgar. And perhaps there are also choric umbrellas under which the playwright and the play as a whole—its world view or moral order—huddle together. At least it used to be thought so, and Mack observes that he is not the first to have sought shelter under the concept.17

But why it should be an umbrella remains puzzling to me. Why a manufactured defense against bad weather, against what comes down from above, opened up by one character but companionably shared by another, or others? And why can't the character who is or holds the umbrella also be the "other" who shelters under it? Why can't several such speakers and umbrellas converge into one? Mack's concept is both powerful and serviceable, but the gratuitous details of his image are distracting. It is the playwright who manufactures the umbrella and the critic who opens it up, and what they collaborate in producing is an article whose perimeter is congruent not with individual speeches or the speeches of individual characters but with the language of the play as a whole, that is, with the text. Individual speeches may well be defenses against textual bad weather, but I think it would be better to invert the image and conceive of bad weather as coming up from below. For this, mushrooms are preferable to the umbrellas they vaguely resemble: they spring up out of the tangled, dark weblike mycelium of the text like Hydra heads, and they bear the darkness in their substance. Mushroom speeches growing from textual mycelium: an image whose time may come. But for now I shall resist its appeal in favor of another organic image more deeply rooted both in the language of the Henriad and in its genealogical themes.

In the opening lines of act 1, scene 2 of Richard II, John of Gaunt complains to the Duchess of Gloucester, widow of the murdered Thomas of Woodstock, that "the part I had in Woodstock's blood" impels him to avenge his brother's murder, but that since he cannot stir against God's deputy, who "made the fault," he leaves it to "the will of heaven" to "rain hot vengeance on offenders' heads." The Duchess retorts that he should act anyway because he and Woodstock are among "Edward's seven sons" and are as "seven branches springing from one root" (1-13). In this connection I register my support for the Quarto's "Woodstock's blood" in preference to the Folio's "Gloucester's blood." This is because one botanical root of the Duchess's genealogical metaphor is the (wood)stock—not in its first OED sense of a lifeless stump but in the second sense of a living trunk or stem (OED entry 2c equates "stock" with "rhizome," and the American Heritage Dictionary mentions "rootstalk" and "root-stock" as synonyms of "rhizome").

We recognize, of course, that the second OED sense is metaphorically even less accurate than the first, since Edward III is no more alive than Woodstock. It is only when his living descendants adopt the botanical fiction as a call to action that the "root" is resurrected, and the call is usually, as here, a response to some rupture or break which itself becomes the rootstock or Woodstock of the resurrective project. Edward III is not the rootstock of this play; Woodstock, or rather his murder, is. A lifeless subterranean stump, a dead brother, a murder, seeds the genealogy and text of the buried fear transmitted through the Henriad. From this progenitor no linear succession can descend, or ascend, for the genealogical positions are continually being shuffled, exchanged, reoccupied in the Henriad's symbolic economy: brothers fill in as sons, cousins as fathers and sons, sons as cousins and fathers. The genealogical narrative, with its lineality and linearity, moves over the surface of a very different kind of structure, one that "always has multiple entrances" like a burrow, one that is "reversible, and susceptible to constant modification," one that Deleuze and Guattari at times depict less as a structure than as a vortex:

A rhizome can be cracked and broken at any point; it starts off again following one or another of its lines, or even other lines.

Always follow the rhizome by rupturing, lengthening, prolonging, … making it vary, until it produces the most abstract and tortuous line in n dimensions and scattered directions. Combine the deterritorialized flows.18

Deterritorialized flows are textual flows; they go off the line. Reterritorializing the flows brings them back on the line of events and bodies that compose into the space-time of dramatic narrative and theatrical performance. Reterritorializing thus detextualizes. It makes heads.


My parabolic reflections on the Hydra and rhizome were intended to join them in a figure that faces two ways: toward a particular reading of the Henriad and toward a general approach to Shakespearean dramaturgy. The point of the exercise was to suggest that the Henriad and its dramaturgy are linked by isomorphism in their structure of relations and by homology in the transformational dynamic that activates the structures. The dynamic is reflected in these passages of text:

1.The shadow of my sorrow? ha! let's see—
'Tis very true, my grief lies all within,
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul.
                              (Richard II 4.1.294-99)

2…. a plague of sighing and grief, it blows a man up like a bladder.

(1 Henry IV 2.5.327-28)

3.And who but Rumor, who but only I,
Make fearful musters, and prepar'd defence,
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant War,
And no such matter?
                         (2 Henry IV Ind. 11-15)

4.This tempest will not give me leave to ponder On things would hurt me more.

(King Lear 3.4.24-25)

5.They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence it is that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.

(All's Well That Ends Well 2.3.1-6)

6.But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
                                     (Hamlet 1.2.85-86)

These passages have one thing in common: they point to a distinction and relation between "internal" and "external" representations of grief or anxiety—between what passes show and its expression in the passing show—and they mark the passing show as either an inadequate or a diversionary expression.

One of my objects in this study is to try to demonstrate by close reading that the passing show is formally, or tropically, an anamorphosis of what passes show. As its etymology suggests (the Greek means something like "shaping up" or "shaping back"), the trope of anamorphosis presents a conspicuous distortion or deviation from some other form and thereby encourages us to recuperate its original form through corrective adjustments. This is "scientifically" possible in the case of visual anamorphoses; it may or may not be possible when the figure is tropologically mapped onto a representational field only part of which may be visual—the field, for example, constructed by the interaction of the textualized signifiers of reading with the detextualized signifiers of performance, or between the language of words and the language of bodies. Anamorphosis may function in a manner similiar to pastoral—as an instrument of control through simplification, domestication, or reduction of textual obscurity to visual clarity. So with the anamorphosis of grief. "If you observe your own grief, which senses do you use to observe it? A particular sense, one that feels grief? Then do you feel it differently when you are observing it? And what is the grief that you are observing—is it one which is there only while it is being observed?"19 And, to follow Wittgenstein's questions with another, is there a grief you don't actually "feel" but suspect is there?

Of course, the citational form of the passages I have quoted reduces them to my passing show; snippetotomy diverts them from their contexts, diminishes their ability to express or adumbrate what lies within and passes show. Many of them rhetorically enact the problematic relation they state by parading themselves as inadequate or obscure or misleading expressions. Thus, passages 1 and 6 are but the trappings and the suits of what lies all within. Richard's statement, for example, undoes itself because it is another external manner of lament. As shadows or players of his unseen grief, his words fall short in that their rhetorical embodiment falsifies it. For he appears to be harping on his victimization and loss of power at the hands of others while clearly enjoying his theatrical control over Bolingbroke in a flaunt that belies his words. And as I tried to demonstrate in Imaginary Audition (1989), his control over both his own undoing and Bolingbroke's ethical condition is more than theatrical. What the local strings of utterance cannot adequately express is the volatile interplay of the sinner's, the saint's, and the victim/revenger's discourses in his language, the power of his "still-breeding thoughts" to inseminate Henry's conscience and ultimately swell with silence in his tortured soul. It is very true, then, that Richard's grief lies, just as Hamlet's show traps, sues, and pursues. To notice this is to begin to see the kind of adequacy of which their inadequate expressions—an inadequacy flagged by endstopped iambics and jingling rhyme—are capable.

We might pause over passage 2 long enough to appreciate the metaleptic density of Falstaff's caricature, at once an insight into the symbol of corpulence and a scoff at the canny reductiveness of medical explanation, which domesticates the dis-ease of "some other grief so as to submit it to the cure of pneumatic or hydraulic pathology.20 A similar move occurs in passage 5, which is the old courtier Lafew's philosophical observation on the dubious knowledgeability of the doctors trying—pretentiously and without success—to diagnose the king's mysterious illness. Lafew's comment is itself pretentious and seemingly knowledgeable, and it thus fails to keep the folly assigned to the third-person plural from penetrating the show of wisdom that pales in the first-person singular. Anyone who chooses to appropriate and utter Lafew's insight, present company not excepted, is subject to the same penetration. Nevertheless, as the hapless Duke of Albany would say—does say—"That's but a trifle here," and I plan to elevate Lafew's comment to a dramaturgical principle that will make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless.

The first step in this plan is to identify what passes show with the rhizome and the passing show with the Hydra, and to list some of the relational pairs whose polarities provide the site of the transformations I explore:

Rhizome Hydra
semiotic chains narrative chains
latent conditions manifest circumstances

discursive action …interlocutory action …dramatic action text, language …script, speech …events, bodies, performance

inward wars stern tyrant War
grief grievances
terrors trifles
unknown fear seeming knowledge
"some other" within external manners, trappings,

My thesis is that this transformational matrix can serve as a model for both the specific structure and thematics of the Henriad and the general structure and thematics of Shakespearean dramaturgy. I view the general model as something Shakespeare's text represents, and I distinguish it from the literary model of stage-centered reading which guides my approach to the text. The latter is a heuristic device, a property of interpretive practice, but the former is a virtual property of the interpreted text. Barry Weller remarks of Shakespeare's characters that they "frequently manifest the desire to be recognized as something other than they 'seem,' that is, to belie the visible and audible evidence of their presence onstage by suggesting that it does not and cannot adequately represent what they are."21 I submit that Shakespeare's plays manifest the same desire, and I shall try to show that the way they do so in the Henriad conforms to the Lafew principle.

To begin with some definitions of terms in Lafew's statement: a sconce is a fortification, a defense, and a trifle is not only something trivial but also, in one of its older senses, a false tale or lying fable told to deceive or divert. I want to explore and test a particular hypothesis about Shakespearean dramaturgy, which is that the play text represents its dramatic and theatrical circumstances as forms of defensive trifling. As I noted earlier, the hypothesis is based on a modern and familiar theory of the relations between latent and manifest content, and of the dynamic mechanisms—condensation, displacement, visualization, dramatization—that preside over their transformations.22 Redirecting Freud's model to plays does not mean reducing them to dreams or jokes, since the dynamics of the model give shape to the economy of many other representational activities. Dream work, joke work, and play work are different expressions of the same general field of forces. In applying the model to Shakespeare's writing, I center on the passage from latent psychological conditions or relationships to the manifest circumstances of narrative, dramatic, and theatrical performance.

My reason for choosing the two terms emphasized in the previous sentence is based on several etymological considerations. In using circumstance I mean to activate not only senses such as "factors that modify a course of action" and "additional or accessory information" but also those implied in the phrases "circumstantial evidence" and "pomp and circumstance."23 Buried in my use of the word condition is the Latin verb behind its Latin cognate, condere, which means, among other things, to write or compose, to collect, to preserve, to bury, to conceal. The meanings collected under this sign (one of the meanings of the Latin root of collect is "to read") allow me by a happy coincidence to bind together two kinds of latency: the latency of what may be called deep-structural psychological conditions and that of textual conditions, that is, the rhetorical, syntactical, and lexical play of meaning most fully accessible when the system of verbal signs is committed to writing and offered to readers for interpretations. Superimposing psychological and textual conditions in this manner implies, on the other side, the superimposition of two kinds of manifest content: that of the unfolding circumstances of dramatic narrative (story or mythos and its organizing emplotment) and that of the theatrical play of bodily and phonic signs in which meaning is circumstantially conveyed through kinesic, proxemic, and speech patterns.

In regard to the specific relationship of textual conditions to theatrical circumstances, I think it obvious that it is polarized and conflictive. The polarity arises from the different aims and structures of literary and theatrical interpretation. To borrow some terms from the Chorus of Henry V, theatrical interpretation—by spectators, not by the director, whose relation to the text is that of a reader—asks for winged thought, while literary interpretation is "cripple tardy-gaited" thought that meanders painfully about the text and leaves filthy little tracks like a snail. Or, to put it in the language of corpuscular theory, theater induces quick motions that heat up the mind, while reading induces slow motions that make it pale, cold, and melancholic. Actors and spectators display the symptoms Falstaff attributes to the "two-fold operation" of sack: it makes them "full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes … delivered o'er to the voice" and ear (and eye); and it makes the blood "course from the inwards to the parts' extremes" until "it illumineth the face." And yet, because readers are more "sober-blooded" and eschew "inflammation," they suffer from the anemia of "demure boys" who imbibe thin potations and get wenches. Or so it seems to those who insist that "the foolish and dull and crudy vapors" environing the text be burnt off in accordance with the criteria of performability—of what can be digested in a staged play—and who think the "learning" of armchair interpreters to be "a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil" (2 Henry IV 4.3.85-115).

These are relatively obvious and mundane observations, even more trivial if all they refer to is a polarity between text and performance, or reading and playgoing. How can empirical statements of this sort be made to converge on thematic claims about the relation of psychological or textual conditions to dramatic or theatrical circumstances? Responding to this question in Imaginary Audition, I began by resituating the polarity within reading and treating it as a conflict between stage-centered and text-centered reading, and I then complicated the scheme by introducing a via media which I called the literary model of stage-centered reading, distinguished from the theatrical model. One effect of these moves is to shift the locus of the representational medium from the mutual presence of theatrical performance and audience to that of text and reader. Thus displaced, theatrical performance no longer has pride of place as the actual medium that "imitates," communicates, and interprets a dramatic fiction, and the relation between them is no longer an empirically fixed prior condition that escapes and determines interpretation. Rather, theater joins drama as one of the absent representata of the text. Its use and meaning, its relations to dramatic fiction and text, are now among the variables whose interplay is open to the reader's interpretive decisions. From here it is only a short step to a second move, one that will allow me to state my claim in its strongest and most controversial form. Situating the text-performance dialectic within reading produces this consequence: whether and why reading should or should not be constrained by the structural characteristics of theatrical performance become (at least potentially) substantive problems that affect the meaning of the dramatic fiction. These are the problems whose existence T. S. Eliot accurately discerned, but whose thematic status he misunderstood, in his discussion of the "objective correlative." My claim is that this problematic is built into the Shakespeare text as a critical thesis about theater in particular and theatricality in general, that the critique can be extended to the theatrical model of stage-centered reading, and that it is fully accessible only to the literary model of stage-centered reading, which provides an interpretive standpoint outside the direct or indirect influence of the stage.


1 A. R. Humphreys, ed., The First Part of King Henry IV, 6th ed. (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 3. All quotations from this play are taken from this edition; quotations from 2 Henry IV, Richard II, and Henry V are taken from the Arden editions by Humphreys, Peter Ure, and J. H. Walter, respectively.

2 The sinner's discourse is one of a set of interrelated and interactive discourses or language games circulating through the speech community of the Shakespeare text. I discuss these discourses, which I call ethical (to distinguish them from positional language games such as discourses of gender, generation, social hierarchy, and so on), in "What Did the King Know and When Did He Know It? Shakespearean Discourses and Psychoanalysis," South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 811-62. Throughout the present essay I rely on and presuppose that discussion.

3 The logic of displacement suggests that this emendation would make the complaint conform to Henry's scenario: "We were enforc'd for your safety to fly / Into your sight."

4 In what follows I strongly disagree with the assessment of D. A. Traversi, to whose sensitive reading I am nevertheless strongly indebted for numerous insights into the play. In Shakespeare from "Richard II" to "Henry V" (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), Traversi asserts that Henry and Harry "alike belong to the public rather than the private sphere" and that the efforts "they make to move out of it are not always dramatically convincing. The relation between them is, at its most interesting moments, of another kind, akin to tragedy," but what is expressed in this scene "belongs to the inherited conception on which the action is based, true and necessary, but scarcely forming part of the deeper content of the play" (pp. 103-4). My argument is that Henry and Harry "belong" to the dialectical process in which private and public spheres are termini of displacement, and therefore that what is expressed in this scene does belong to the play's deeper content.

5 And when Harry does get to perform his glorious deed, he is denied the audience he wanted: no one sees it but Falstaff.

6 Stephen Booth, "King Lear," "MacBeth," Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 176.

7 Compare Kenneth Muir, who, after noting that Shakespeare departs from Holinshed in shifting this act from Henry to Harry, thinks the change was made to give the latter "a final touch of magnanimity"; see Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977), p. 98. That such a touch is undeniable at the level of manners justifies the act and "covers" its aggressiveness. Readers (including actors) whose interpretation transforms the speaker of Harry's lines into a character may agree as to the ambivalence of this speech act but disagree as to its subsequent analysis with respect to Harry's intention, awareness, motivation, and so on. See my discussion in the next two paragraphs for a profile of the performative dimension, the dimension of emplotment, within which or about which readers may be more likely to agree.

8 Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 149.

9 On discourse as emplotment, see Berger, "What Did the King Know?" pp. 847-53.

10 David Bevington, ed., Henry IV, Part 1, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 41.

11 A. R. Humphreys, ed., The Second Part of King Henry IV, Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1966), p. lxii.

12 See my "Sneak's Noise, or, Rumor and Detextualization in 2 Henry IV, " Kenyon Review, n.s. 6, no. 4 (Fall 1984): 58-78. I choose to refer to Rumor as "she" because Shakespeare's personification reminds me of both Virgil's Fama and Erasmus' Moria. On the latter, see my "Utopian Folly: Erasmus and More on the Perils of Misanthropy," in Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making, ed. John P. Lynch (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 229-48.

13 Jonathan Goldberg, "Table Manners: Engrossing Shakespearean Histories," lecture delivered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, spring 1988. Quoted with the permission of the author.

14 The image is further ambiguated by the fact that in the phrase "the big year," "year" can function as a dialectal variant of "ear" (cf. 1.2.193-94, along with the texual variants and the Arden note). The ambiguity is consistent with the others that waver between inner and outer, small and large, conditional and circumstantial references.

15 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1966), pp. 10 and 3-55 passim. For a concise and shrewd criticism of Kott, see Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, "History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V," in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 208.

16 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, On the Line, trans. John Johnston (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983), pp. 11-13, an augmented version of the authors' Rhizome: Introduction (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1976). I use this translation here because it is a little closer to the original than Brian Massumi's (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987]).

17 Maynard Mack, "The Jacobean Shakespeare," in Jacobean Theater, ed. J. R. Brown and Bernard Harris (1960; rpt. New York: Capricorn Books, 1967), pp. 24-26.

18 Deleuze and Guattari, On the Line, pp. 17-18, 23.

19 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), p. 187e.

20 On this point, see the related discussion in Berger, "What Did the King Know?" pp. 823-25. Passage 4, from King Lear, is discussed in my "King Lear: The Lear Family Romance," Centennial Review 23 (1979): 362-63.

21 Barry Weller, "Identity and Representation in Shakespeare," ELH 49 (1982): 342.

22I got the idea of relating these mechanisms to Shakespearean dramaturgy from Joel Fineman. See his brief but brilliant comments in "Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 72-73.

23 For some related comments on "circumstances," see Patricia Parker's discussion in "Shakespeare and Rhetoric: 'Dilation' and 'Delation' in Othello," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 54-74, esp. pp. 55-58.

Source: "Hydra and Rhizome," in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, edited by Russ McDonald, Cornell, 1994, pp. 79-104.