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...
(The entire section is 6,822 words.)