Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Perhaps the most immediately disturbing question that Henry IV raises for the spectator and reader is how one defines the limits of sanity. In the course of the play, the viewer finds that his assumptions are repeatedly undermined. Having assumed that the protagonist is mad, the viewer accepts his word at the end of act 2 that he has been only play-acting. In the final act, however, Luigi Pirandello balances conflicting evidence so adroitly as to leave the viewer uncertain and deeply troubled. Henry points out irrational and self-destructive behavior on the part of the “sane” characters and questions their mental state. He also explains his conscious madness: How sane would he have been to reenter time and rejoin a society that had wounded him so severely? Is he not more sane in removing himself from the vagaries of time? Is it not more reasonable to remain in history, where all is certain and cannot change? Having said this, though, he tries to recover his lost years by asserting his claim on Frida, who to him is young Matilda reincarnated. In this and in his impulsive but understandable revenge on Belcredi, his behavior verges again on madness. Pirandello leaves the viewer to struggle to comprehend the paradoxical conscious madness to which Henry returns at the end. One is left not knowing whether to call him mad or sane and not knowing how to distinguish between the two states.

Underlying this question of the protagonist’s mental state...

(The entire section is 501 words.)