Henry IV, Part I The Famous Analyses of Henry the Fourth
by William Shakespeare

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The Famous Analyses of Henry the Fourth

(Shakespearean Criticism)

David Willbern, State University of New York, Buffalo

One of the earliest criticisms of Shakespearean character is Maurice Morgann's well-known but rarely read "Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff," published in London in 1777 as a bold defense of the corpulent and witty knight against the charge of cowardice.1 Morgann assumed that Shakespeare's characters were like people and that Falstaff was like an historical person, with a history and an inner life that corresponded to common human nature, which he termed "certain first principles of character," and who therefore could be understood and judged through the critic's emotional responses to that nature, which he called "mental Impressions" as opposed to rational "Understanding." Since then both Falstaff and his fellow sportsman, Prince Hal, have attracted scrutiny from traditional character critics like A.C. Bradley, L.L. Schucking, and J.I.M. Stewart, and psychoanalytic critics like Ernst Kris.2 My plan in this chapter is less to review various analyses of characters in Henry IV, Part One than to sketch categories of psychoanalytic interpretive strategies that have been deployed in the effort, and then to consider the large issue of psychological versus (new) historical or cultural approaches.3 I find four major categories of psychoanalytic explication: (1) structural, (2) oedipal, (3) pre-oedipal or object-relational, and (4) linguistic or semiotic.

The first, or structural view, is an early approach that considers the play as a kind of intrapsychic allegory, analogous to medieval psychomachia. The Freudian model of id/ego/superego can be mapped onto characters in the play, roughly as follows: The id is represented (or symbolized, in this terminology) by Falstaff and Hotspur, figures of unrestrained appetite and uninhibited reaction. The superego is symbolized by King Henry as a judgmental, restrictive father, the basis for an internal imago or ego-ideal based on an introjected paternal image. The King's rebukes sound early in the play and are echoed in Prince Hal's famous soliloquy, "I know you all . . . ," in Act One (I.2.195-217), a rationalizing monologue that presents self-rebuke as self-justification, promising future reformation and reconciliation with the father. The ego is embodied by Prince Hal, the gradually heroic son who learns to mediate among the demands of impulse, restraint, and his various social worlds (tavern, court, battlefield).

Within this structural design, the psychological progress of the play can be seen to enact a gradual working-through and accommodation of id and superego to the framework of the ego; it is, by this design, a process of maturation. This progress occurs over the course of the play, but the interplay of the three elements or agencies can be seen in the initial tavern scene (I.2), where Hal plays at being Falstaff, then announces in soliloquy that he knows better and rebukes the "unyok'd humor" of his friends.4

Such a psychoanalytic reconfiguration may seem oldfashioned and allegorical, relying on Latinate Freudian terms that, after these many years, creak when flexed, and unexamined assumptions about symbolism and dramatic representation. Still, a benefit of this style of reading is that it is pre-characterological, that is, it does not get caught up in personality-analyses of those reified linguistic complexes conventionally identified as "characters." In some ways this primitive mode of psychoanalytic reading is close to more recent methods that will be addressed later.

The second, or oedipal view focuses on the various father-son conflicts in the play, primarily re-enacted in terms of King Henry's initial wish to replace Hal with Hotspur (I.1.85-89) and Hal's rejection of his filial role and his symbolic replacement of King Henry with Falstaff. The primal scene of these reversals is the role-playing in the tavern (2.4), where Hal dethrones the King and repudiates Falstaff. These oedipal displacements turn the father into a comic...

(The entire section is 10,461 words.)