Theatre has long had the power to celebrate national heroes and thus William Shakespeare’s Henry IV two-parter is most definitely an example of political theater, but depending on the perspective that an individual production takes, the theater of politics also holds the power to propagandize the exact same hero into a figure calling for political dissent (Theatre and its Audience). For instance, that Julius Caesar is a play that provides ample opportunity for allusions and analog “is mainly deduced from allusions to the drama in contemporary works, most notably in the writing of Ben Jonson” (Zander 12). Just as an Elizabethan audience may well have attended a performance or Shakespeare’s play about a long-dead Roman hero and seen something familiar about their own political situation, so can even a great British hero be transformed into a great American villain through the power of theater without even directly staging Shakespeare to drive that point home.
Shakespeare’s two-parter about Prince Hal, Falstaff, Hotspur and…oh, yes, King Henry IV is hardly the most familiar of the Bard’s plays to most Americans, but the quality of theater as an empowering agent allows its story of a usurper justifying his illegitimate claim to the crown to suddenly prove amazingly resonant for audiences following the 2000 Presidential selection: “Therefore, my Harry, Be it thy course to busy giddy minds borne out, With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne May waste the memory of the former days” (Shakespeare 478). For such audience members in 2004, it would not take much for such a lines to resonate with stark present-day allusions even when attending a production of a condensed version of both parts of Henry IV at Lincoln Center Theater featuring “period dress, real-looking crown’n’furs for royalty, extras in wimples and music on lutes” (Millard 43).
It could not have been purely by accident that a two-part examination of how to go about placing a young man who appears to be little more than a drunken frat boy partying his privilege away until his father urges him to distract the citizenry away from such concerns by starting up a completely unnecessary war to inspire patriotic zeal was staged at the height of the Bush Presidency. And yet, the actual staging seemed unusually intent on recreating a literal representation of the play as it might have been staged at the Globe in Shakespeare’s day. If ever a production of Henry IV Parts I and II cried out for experimentations in modern day dress with low-life British taverns replaced by secretive Yale Skull and Crossbones party headquarters in which young Hal spars with a Falstaff bearing the distinctive bald pate and snarling visage of Dick Cheney, it was this one.
What a missed opportunity to assertively make the connection between the politics of Olde England and the politics of the War on Terror. Or was it? Such experimentation into original staging might be necessary to get the point across some college theater today, but in 2004 perhaps the decision to provide a disconnect between the setting and the staging of a Lincoln Center Theater production with Oscar-winner Kevin Kline as Falstaff is proof that theater as an instrument of political discourse is heavily dependent upon what the audience brings to the theater with them.
Until Henry IV achieves a position of familiarity among general audiences equivalent with Julius Caesar, the political utilization of the interplay between Hal and Falstaff against the romantic backdrop of Hotspur’s passion will probably require the perfect storm of time, place and events such as it enjoyed in 2004.
- Millard, Rosie. “Henry IV Is a Four-Hour Meditation on Leadership, and the Contemporary Parallels Aren’t Lost on Its American Audience.” New Statesman (1996) 12 Jan. 2004: 43.
- Shakespeare, William. The Works of William Shakespeare Gathered into One Volume. New York: Oxford UP, 1938.
- Theatre and Its Audience [PPT]. (n.d.).
- Zander, Horst. “Julius Caesar and the Critical Legacy.” Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays. Ed. Horst Zander. New York: Routledge, 2005. 3-56.