The Play

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The play opens on a stage set as a medieval throne room. A king’s councillor, Berthold, is puzzled that the monarch is the eleventh century German king Henry IV, not the French king Henry IV of the sixteenth century. Soon a group of visitors in modern dress arrives, and the situation becomes clarified: They have come to try to cure a man who twenty years earlier had struck his head and subsequently has lived with the delusion that he is the medieval German monarch Henry IV. The man, who is never identified by any name other than “Henry IV,” had in his twenties passionately loved a woman named Donna Matilda Spina, but she had scorned him. For a historical pageant, Matilda had chosen to play the role of the eleventh century Marchioness Matilda of Tuscany; to be near her, her suitor had chosen the role of Henry IV. Being an intense and sensitive person, he immersed himself in preparing the role. During the pageant, another of Matilda’s suitors, Tito Belcredi, apparently caused his rival’s horse to stumble and his rival to strike his head. When he retained consciousness, he believed that he actually was Henry IV; in his passionate intensity, the blow to his head caused him to forget his identity and become absorbed by his dramatic role.

In response, his wealthy sister set him up in a castle with councillors and attendants, enabling him to live indefinitely as the German emperor. Twenty years later, just before she died, she had come to believe that he was regaining his sanity. At her request, her son, Charles di Nolli, has brought a doctor to try to cure his uncle. With Charles is his fiancee Frida, the daughter of Matilda Spina. Along with these three come Matilda and her lover Belcredi. Much of act 1 is taken up with these five characters’ discussion of the patient’s history. In order to meet with him, Matilda, the doctor, and Belcredi must enter his world as all of his visitors do: They costume themselves as medieval personages. Matilda poses as the king’s mother-in-law Adelaide, the doctor as his godfather the Bishop of Cluny, and Belcredi as a monk. Finally, the protagonist, dressed as the king, enters. His behavior is erratic and paranoid, and he displays unexpected suspicion toward Belcredi’s character. He pleads with Adelaide and the bishop to persuade the pope to release him from excommunication, as in fact these historical persons did at the famous meeting at Canossa.

In act 2, the visitors discuss their meeting with the protagonist. Donna Matilda is certain that despite his madness her former lover has recognized her, but Belcredi is skeptical. Meanwhile, the doctor’s plan to cure the madman proceeds. Prominently displayed in the throne room, which was the setting of act 1, are two life-size portraits, of Donna Matilda and of the protagonist in their pageant costumes. Matilda’s daughter Frida bears an uncanny resemblance to her mother’s portrait painted twenty years earlier. Dr. Genoni’s scheme is for Frida to dress like Matilda in the painting and to take its place in a half-darkened room. When Henry enters the room, she will step out of the frame, and her mother, having aged twenty years, will appear beside her. The shock, the doctor reasons, will force the deranged man to recognize the passage of time and come to his senses. Belcredi wonders, however, whether the shock will instead intensify his insanity.

After another brief interview with the doctor and Donna Matilda, the protagonist is alone on stage with his “councillors”; to their amazement, he suddenly seems to indicate that he had previously returned to his senses and has been play-acting for his visitors. He is enraged that Donna Matilda would flaunt her lover in front of him and thus stir up his painful awareness of the years he has missed. The audience later hears him claim that he had been insane for twelve years, but that when his sanity returned, he found solace in remaining in his historical role.

Act 3 is short and intense. On a darkened stage, the doctor’s plan is executed. When Frida steps from the portrait, the protagonist is briefly terrified. Then all the other visitors rush onstage, having heard from the councillors that he is already “cured.” They are angry with him for having deceived them, but as Henry explains his behavior, Pirandello makes the audience more and more uncertain of Henry’s mental state. The protagonist explains how traumatic it was to recover from his insanity only to find his hair gray and to realize that he had been cheated of twelve years of his life. He describes recent years, when he was aware of his masquerade as a conscious, deliberate madness. As he addresses the doctor whose foolish scheme has shaken him, the woman who laughed at his love, and the rival who caused his horse to throw him, his passion grows. Seeing Frida as a re-embodiment of Matilda twenty years earlier, he suddenly embraces the emotionally fragile girl. When Belcredi intervenes, the protagonist impulsively draws a sword and kills him. The play ends with Henry IV alone onstage with his councillors, recognizing that now he must remain within the refuge of madness to avoid the consequences of murder.

Dramatic Devices

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For a play that is not specifically about the theater, the plot of Henry IV is remarkably full of the elements of theater: Characters are often talking about sets, putting on costumes, creating characters and even plots, and, above all, playing roles. The genesis of the play’s action lies in the creation and performance of a masquerade in which Donna Matilda and her two suitors were players. The peculiarly self-conscious, sensitive protagonist had had experience as an actor and had prepared himself with great intensity to “lose himself” in the role of Henry IV. Therefore, the obsession with his role that occurred after the blow to his head can be seen as a not unnatural consequence of latent emotional drives. As the audience learns later in the play, his present-day “madness” has been as much a performance as a reality. Finally, when he claims Frida, the audience sees him attempt to step out of his performance into the “real” world, only to find that he is safe only in his role, with his mask on.

Because of the protagonist’s performance, which the others take for real, they perform also—and they perform roles within his play world. Three of them play characters in Henry’s medieval world in order to gain contact with him, but they succeed only in undermining the dramatic illusion for him. Following the doctor’s scheme, two of the visitors, Charles and Frida, play roles from Henry’s youthful past, and they stir his feelings with unexpected results. When they step out of the picture frames, they cause Henry’s mind to confuse art with reality; thus their behavior is particularly threatening to him. Once again these other performers have entered Henry’s illusory world in order to bring him to reality, but here Luigi Pirandello’s pessimism asserts itself: They misunderstand how little reality Henry—or any human being—can tolerate. They push the protagonist until he kills Belcredi, and thus, once again, an act of violence traps him in his dramatic role.

Repeatedly the playwright tries to help his audience forget that the performance is a fiction. In the first moment of the play, for example, two valets who have been lying on a stand jump down as though surprised by the opening curtain. A series of other dramatic devices point directly to theatrical performance, but in doing so they actually make the play world more real by suggesting that the real world is full of play-acting. One sees the visitors donning their costumes to meet Henry, and one hears them planning their roles and sketching out the performances of their improvised plays-within-the-play. Makeup also calls attention to itself—particularly Henry’s, which is exaggerated to make him look like a fool or a clown. One also sees and hears about his hair, gray in the back but, in sharp contrast, dyed blond in the front. His tragicomic hair coloration alone is a constant visual emblem of the years that have been stolen from him.

Places Discussed

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Henry’s throne room

Henry’s throne room. Villa salon designed to look like the throne room of the historical Henry IV in Goslar, Germany. However, as the young “counsellors” of “Henry IV,” the mad hero of the play, reveal, this room is not always in Goslar but sometimes in numerous other places. Nevertheless, for Henry IV, it has been a real throne room, even though he has not in actuality left the villa for all the years of his madness. However, in the third act, it is, for everyone, merely a room in the villa, where Henry suggests in the story of the Irish priest that we all play parts and so in a manner are as mad as he was or perhaps is. At the end, it is the room in which Henry must always be “mad,” in order not to be punished for his truly insane stabbing of Belcredi.

Second room in villa

Second room in villa. This room, although its furniture is described as simple and old, seems rather timeless. Still, there is an irony in that there are windows that look out upon a garden, a real world, and yet a door opens into the so-called throne room. But it is here that Henry tells his counsellors, who are merely his hired actors, that he is no longer mad, so that for the moment everyone seems to be living in the present and is, perhaps, sane.


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Bentley, Eric. “Enrico IV,” in Theatre of War: Modern Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, 1954.

Binion, Ralph. “The Play as Replay or the Key to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry IV, and Clothe the Naked.” In Soundings: Psychohistorical and Psycholiterary. New York: Psychohistory Press, 1981. The only essay in Binion’s collection that deals with theater. His expositions of Pirandello’s themes, based on what he perceives as expressions of the author’s psychological repressions, are both interesting and dangerous, because one is tempted to accept Binion’s theories as facts.

Brustein, Robert. “Pirandello’s Drama of Revolt,” in The Theatre of Revolt, 1962.

Cambon, Glauco. Pirandello: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Two essays deal peripherally with Henry IV, but the collection deals extensively with the thoughts and themes to be found in all of Pirandello’s dramas.

Oliver, Roger W. Dreams of Passion: The Theater of Luigi Pirandello, 1979.

Pirandello, Luigi. Naked Masks: Five Plays. Translated by Edward Storer, edited and with an introduction by Eric Bentley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952. Contains Pirandello’s best known and most popular plays. Bentley, who was one of the major critics of twentieth century modernist dramas, offers excellent insights into Henry IV.

Starkie, Walter. Luigi Pirandello. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1926. A major book-length study on Pirandello. The starting point for all subsequent study. Not a biography but a work of meticulous scholarship about influences and themes.

Styan, J.L. The Dark Comedy: The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy, 1968.

Vittorini, Domenico. The Drama of Luigi Pirandello, 1935.


Critical Essays