Henry IV or Bust

Henry IV, an Introduction

I have entered strange, new territory with Henry IV – and clearly I’m not prepared. I read and reread Act I trying to make sense of it, but there are simply too many moving parts to comprehend the whole at first go.

I’m wondering what happened, how the heck Shakespeare pulled the rug out from beneath me so suddenly. I expected such an easy transition from Richard II…after all, King John and Richard had proven relatively straightforward, even a tad staid and underwhelming (if ever Shakespeare can be that). Now, as if to remind me what an overwhelming force the Bard can be, I face complexity within complexity, like a schoolboy encountering him for the first time. I’m scrambling for a roadmap, a map to the stars, a way to contextualize the plot, the characters, the motivation…everything!

How in the world did this happen? I’m going to have to retrench my approach to this set of plays, hunker down as if studying for college midterms. This may very well be the dreaded downside to having chosen to read the histories in chronological rather than written order. I haven’t encountered a multi-part plot before this (Henry VI being the first that Shakespeare wrote, which I’ll only get to later).

Clearly Shakespeare has upped the ante and deepened the game. This, kids, is a warning against the decision I made. For it’s almost as though I were dealing with a completely new author; his craft is now engaged at full tilt. I feel as though I’ve been ambushed, caught in a heavy intellectual crossfire, overwhelmed and outmatched by superior linguistic and substantive forces. Or, shorter: I have literally no idea what’s happening – or why.

To be honest, I knew I had ventured in over my head the moment I got a gander of the cast of characters. Everyone with a smattering of Shakespeare knows that Falstaff is one of his greatest creations. I had been so looking forward to meeting him that I forgot that he came wrapped in a two-part history, assuming – rather arrogantly and falsely – that our introduction would be a breeze, more like running into Romeo for the first time than, say, Hamlet.

Boy was I wrong! As a result, I am caught with my britches slung around my ankles, undressed by the boldness, complexity and uniqueness of the individual voices assaulting my comprehension. Somewhere Harold Bloom is laughing.

Call this then my complete whiff at Shakespeare, a brush (not the first, and certainly not the last) with abject humility.

I am left utterly speechless…breathless…gasping…lacking anything substantive to say. (Though wags may argue this awareness should have dawned long ago – and that I just missed it.) I feel it now though – oof. This one hurts. My kingdom for a credible metaphor.

I will rise to this challenge. But first I must find a way into the play…and fast!

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