(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In his three-act tragedy, Henry IV, Pirandello unveils pretenses and the subconscious to reveal that a person’s illusions constitute the only viable reality. Like the actor in classical theater, the mock emperor becomes his mask.

Pirandello uses the analytic technique to reconstruct the history of the emperor. In the expository scene, he alerts the audience to the relativity of words. The new man, prepared to work for the English king, learns that the name “Henry IV” can refer to two kings, as well as to the emperor. The actor must transform himself and adopt another linguistic system. Thus, what takes place at the subconscious level issues as concrete reality. Moreover, the spectator identifies with that employee; both are foreigners in a strange land, ignorant of history and of the dynamics of Henry’s magic theater.

In preparation for the carnival, the Umbrian became an expert on, and assimilated the life of, his persona. Henry IV rode in the cavalcade with his beloved (Mathilda of Tuscany) and in front of Belcredi, his rival in love. Henry fell from his horse and hit his head. When he regained consciousness, the mask was fused to his face; he has lived for the past twenty years in the medieval palace that his sister constructed in her villa. Later, Henry recovered his sanity; however, he feared growing old in a hypocritical society and chose to remain in isolation in the temporal zone of a twenty-six-year-old Henry IV. His...

(The entire section is 524 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Henry IV thinks that he is living during the eleventh century. Every effort is made to encourage his delusion. In fact, he lives in the present day.

The experienced valets introduce Berthold to his new position as a secret counselor at the court of Henry IV. Count Charles Di Nolli, nephew of Henry IV, hires these men to dress in eleventh century costumes and impersonate the participants in the historical debate between church and state that took place in Canossa in 1077. The valets complain that, though dressed and ready, they are idle until Henry IV supplies them with a cue to act. The men examine two portraits depicting a youthful Henry IV and his archenemy, Matilda, marchioness of Tuscany, that are stylistically at odds with the medieval surroundings.

Charles, accompanied by the marchioness Dona Matilda Spina, and her daughter, Frida, who is engaged to Charles, bring Doctor Dionysius Genoni to observe and evaluate Henry IV’s condition. Baron Tito Belcredi, Matilda’s lover, completes the party. Matilda’s likeness served for that of the portrait of Matilda of Tuscany, so Charles orders the valets to lock Henry IV’s door to keep him away from her. The doctor expresses surprise that the surrounding illusion is so complete, while the others are surprised that Matilda’s twenty-year-old portrait resembles Frida more than Matilda.

The portraits, souvenirs of a pageant twenty years earlier, remind everyone of a tragic occurrence. No one remembers who first proposed the pageant. Belcredi insists that he originated the idea, but Matilda thinks not. She does reveal, however, that her choice to represent Matilda of Tuscany causes Henry to impersonate Henry IV, in order to be near her. She also confesses that he had been in love with her, which causes Belcredi to dispute the true character of Henry IV. He has been a superb actor, so is he really outgoing and humorous, or has he simulated it? Belcredi sees Henry IV as his rival for Matilda’s affections and, though no one knows it, he pricked Henry IV’s horse during...

(The entire section is 839 words.)