Henry IV, Part I Festivity and Topicality in the Coventry Scene of 1 Henry IV
by William Shakespeare

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Festivity and Topicality in the Coventry Scene of 1 Henry IV

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Charles Whitney, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The Henry IV plays are often said to present a "Saturnalian" kind of popular festivity that temporarily inverts or neutralizes social hierarchy. The plays depict a prodigal son, Prince Hal, moving from Falstaff's Saturnalian holiday tavern world to what will be his everyday world of royal duties. Taking Mikhail Bakhtin's lead, both Graham Holderness and Michael Bristol argue that traditional festive holiday practices as adapted in the plays' tavern scenes and elsewhere validate traditions of dissent and transgression among the lower orders.1 For Bakhtin, such pre-modern carnival festivity can oppose the social hierarchy that structured everyday life, offering an alternative "second world" of "community, freedom, equality, and abundance"2 that reveals the positive value of struggle and change. Like the Henry IV plays, "carnivalesque" works of Renaissance literature informed by popular festivity are permeated with laughter, irony, self-parody, and indeterminacy (Bristol, p. 22). Their "grotesque realism," as Bakhtin calls it, satirically redescribes official values and institutions in the physical and material terms of the body, its orifices, and such popular festive activities as feast, clowning, wake, charivari, and mock-battle. Such works offer a fundamentally ambivalent style and vision that take the whole world as subject of mirth, including oneself, and celebrate the regenerative powers of life and community as well as the provisionality of settled ideals and institutions.

The Bakhtinian perspective ably adapted to Shakespeare by Holderness and Bristol contrasts, of course, with most earlier views of festivity in Shakespeare. C. L. Barber emphasizes how festivity can reconcile holiday and everyday, make-believe equality and real hierarchy. It provides escape from and compensation for the daily grind, and even its apparently oppositional bent can serve to solidify established structures of power by providing a perspective on one's place in the orthodox scheme of things.3 Earlier, William Empson had felt it necessary to argue against the significance of holiday ritual in the Henry IV plays partly in order to counter the ideologically conservative festive reading of John Dover Wilson.4 This question concerning popular festivity's political or ideological significance in the theater depends in part on recognition that audience response can be diverse. The great disparities in contemporary assessments of audience response in the Renaissance demonstrate that diversity: Thomas Nashe's and Thomas Heywood's emphases on what today would be called the legitimating role of the theater in promoting obedience and respect for authority fail to address adequately the numerous complaints and warnings concerning the theater's subversive potential.5

Bristol's own sensitivity to one particular sort of playgoer, the "plebeian" bringing a lifelong involvement with Saturnalia to the theater, has itself demonstrated the necessity of looking for a plurality of responses.6 Other factors can be crucial too. Staged festivity is a special case of festivity; Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have pointed out what the Henry IV plays themselves demonstrate, that a sophisticated carnivalesque theater can develop an ambivalence about festivity itself, an ambivalence that in some respects can be deeper or wider than that of the actual experience of carnival. Leah Marcus has shown that literary festive works can play complex roles in a "politics of mirth" hinging on royal and ecclesiastical policy.7

Many of the factors shaping possible responses to festivity in the Renaissance theater can be subsumed under topicality, defined broadly as the pressure of the events, issues, and political agendas of the day on the responses of different sets of playgoers. Staged festivity bears a fundamental but paradoxical relation to topicality, one that has not been the subject of much explicit scholarly consideration.8 Such consideration would...

(The entire section is 15,565 words.)