Henry IV: Part II, Act III
I’m not sure what motivated Shakespeare to write Henry IV in two parts rather than just one, but his follow-up suffers from a serious case of sequel-itis.
We start to feel this now, in the midsection of the play, as Henry laments his inability to sleep, and Falstaff contrives more devious ways to avoid responsibility and connive cash for his dubious exploits. We almost wish for a good battle sequence to distract us with mindless action. Anything to further the plot and wrap this up so we can move on to the larger stakes of Henry V.
I have finally caught up to this period in the lecture series on English history. Along the way I got detoured by fascinating discussions on the Black Plague and its effects on the feudalistic economy, the Peasant’s Revolt, the spread of English, Chaucer, the growing power of Parliament, proto-Protestant dissatisfaction with the clergy, and even the dawning age of the printing press and the tidal shift of common literacy.
There is so much going on during this era that it made me angry at the black holes in my education. The cataclysmic mistake, I believe, is that we compartmentalize our school systems in the United States, creating an assembly-line-inspired manufacturing process that has broken down complicated knowledge into its crudest, most rudimentary moving parts.
I have studied Chaucer in English class, the printing press in history, the Magna Carta in political science…but I have never had a teacher help me put the pieces together until now. The blame for that falls squarely on me. But when I look back at how I was taught everything I learned in school, it was delivered piecemeal in easily-digestible units, discreet chapters with tidy summaries that in no way bear resemblance to the complex, holistic truth.
We have so specialized the generation and acquisition of information that we have lost all sense for how it flows together into Gestalt patterns. History is no more a collection of generals and wars than literature is a bunch of novels, poems and plays. Those are just the names we ascribe to certain qualities and behaviors, fragments of glass in the stained-glass window shedding light on the human soul and our collective destiny.
We can’t just cut out and isolate convenient bits from our intellectual, spiritual and cultural development and then offer these up to our youth, assuming our work is done. As educators, our job is first to master the material and only then present it with all its lumps, bumps, connections and contradictions. But those are the very instructors who are stripped from the corporate model of education in our race to the standardized bottom.
How many people on the streets know that it was the spread of gunpowder that led directly to the end of chivalry? Or that the massive loss of life suffered during the Black Death created competition for the dwindling labor force, a downward momentum on prices and an upward push on wages that would help smash the oppressive chokehold of serfdom in Europe?
- or that an increase in laws would inevitably lead to a need for educated lawyers which in turn created openings for a new class of students to earn a good living in the courts?
Wheels within wheels.
And now we’re in the middle of a series of succession plays during a tumultuous period when the king chafed at the rising power of Parliament to enforce checks on his revenues, and baronial accumulation of influence created clashes of treacherous alliances. The more you know, the more fascinating all of this becomes.
I regret that I am late to the party. But I am grateful that I was at least invited.