William Shakespeare Hydra and Rhizome

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Hydra and Rhizome

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Harry Berger, Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz

The roots from which this essay on the Henriad grows are tangled together in the plot containing the following seeds of wisdom, anxiety, and fantasy:

A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes. … Even some animals are, in their pack form. … The rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and couchgrass, or the weed. Animal and plant, couchgrass is crab-grass.

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

hydra2 … A multifarious source of destruction that cannot be eradicated by a single attempt.

Hydra1 … A many-headed monster … growing back two heads for each one cut off.

American Heritage Dictionary

Hydra … A genus of Hydrozoa … [whose] name was given it by Linnaeus (1756), in allusion to the fact that cutting it in pieces only multiplies its numbers.

Oxford English Dictionary

The camomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.

—Sir John Falstaff

Hand-pulling may be a perfectly good way of removing some weeds, but this isn't true of crabgrass if it's an established growth—hand-pulling actually pulls buried crabgrass seed into sprouting position.

"Sunset" Introduction to Basic Gardening

Our trip through this imaginary garden begins with the irruption of the most evolved of its monsters in the text of the Henry IV plays.


"And yet new Hydraes lo, new heades appeare / T'afflict that peace reputed then so sure": so writes Samuel Daniel in the third of his First Foure Bookes of the Civile Wars. The editor of the New Arden 1 Henry IV notes in his comment on Henry's opening speech that "the irony of Henry's deluded hopes is present" in Daniel's image.1 "Head" in various senses crops up all over the text of the play, but the Hydra itself does not appear until act 5, scene 4, after the raging Douglas has killed two of Henry's decoys at Shrewsbury ("The king hath many marching in his coats") and confronted what he takes to be a third:

Douglas. Another king. They grow like Hydra's
        I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
        That wear those colors on them. What
             art thou
        That counterfeit'st the person of a king?
King.     The King himself, who, Douglas,
                             grieves at heart
        So many of his shadows thou hast met,
        And not the very King.…
Douglas. I fear thou art another counterfeit,
          And yet, in faith, thou bearest thee like
              a king.

Daniel's "heades" are rebellious factions and their armies, whereas Douglas's are kings, but Henry's tainted succession jeopardizes the distinction, and Douglas's language makes the most of the uncertainty. In the readings that follow I try to connect the generation of Hydra heads with the transgression of the official lines of battle, and convert the Hydra to a figure of the continuous process of displacement from the discourses at war within language to the interlocutory, military, and political conflicts that unfold in narrative time and theatrical space. I begin with an analysis of the scene of displacement that surrounds the first mention of the Hydra in 1 Henry IV.

Thinking that Sir Walter Blunt, the second royal counterfeit, is Henry, Douglas says, "Some tell me that thou art a king," and, after he kills Blunt, "A borrow'd title hast thou bought too dear" (5.3.5, 23). Regardless of what the speaker may be taken to intend, his comments target Henry's illegitimate possession of the title he "borrow'd." They brighten the eyes of the ethical reductionist in search of the ironic little nuggets of Henry-bashing he assumes Shakespeare to have salted away in odd textual corners, unbeknownst to the guilty king...

(The entire section is 9,539 words.)