Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

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.

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Underlying this question of the protagonist’s mental state is a broader theme. Henry IV illustrates Pirandello’s obsession with the need most humans have for creating masks, or personas. In 1908 Pirandello wrote an important essay, L’umorismo (On Humor, 1966), which he revised in 1920, only two years before writing Henry IV. In it he revealed his conviction that intellectual man is shame-ridden and attempts to conceal his own unworthiness by constructing an elaborate facade, a personality behind which he hides from the world—and from himself. He constantly endures a torturous struggle between his urge to let the mask drop and his fear of revealing himself. All the characters of the play wear masks of various sorts, but the focus of Pirandello’s interest is the protagonist and his mask of madness. At one time he had been mad by accident, but at the time of the play’s action he is apparently mad by choice. This obsession with his role, which enables him to escape from time and exist in the permanent state of history, helps free him from his true self behind the mask and from the thought of the woman who spurned him and the twelve years of life that he has lost. Frida’s presence, however, combined with the coldness of her mother and the callousness of the doctor’s plan, revives the protagonist’s desire for normal life. Yet by impulsively embracing her and thus vehemently rejecting his mask, he is ironically deprived of a normal life forever. Again, Pirandello implies how integral are our masks to our survival.

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