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Henry IV Summary

(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 mask affords him the will to survive. Since then, he has reenacted his humiliation at Canossa. Before her death, his sister intuited a recovery and asked her son to have Henry examined by a physician. DiNolli engaged one who devises a scheme that should provide shock therapy and cure Henry. Hence, they plan a visit to Henry’s court.

In the first interview with Henry, they dress in eleventh century costumes to enter into his world. His beloved, Mathilda, is disguised as Adelaide, mother of Henry’s wife whom he wishes to divorce. Belcredi is a monk, but Henry insists that he is his enemy, Peter Damian, who refuses to grant him a divorce. Henry acknowledges their disguises, and his tirades oscillate between eleventh century history and regret about the passage of time. Mathilda, understanding his veiled words, is moved by the pathetic scene; but the physician, accepting appearance for reality, diagnoses a pathological case. Ridicule turns on the psychiatrist, who cannot analyze Henry’s speech to determine that his masquerade is an act.

In their second encounter, Frida and DiNolli, resembling the portraits of Mathilda and Henry, stand in the frames. That scheme fails, too. Nevertheless, their presence stirs Henry’s memories, and he moves in and out of madness on different temporal planes (historical past, adolescence, his exile, the present), trying to answer the question, “Who/What am I?” Spontaneously, he remembers that Belcredi made him fall from his horse and, outraged, stabs his rival. With deliberate duplicity, Henry escapes to his world of pretense to avoid scandal. He renounces a relationship with Mathilda, however, in preferring Art to Life. Thus, Henry’s mask represents Humankind’s fate.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,363 words.)