I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest the plays should be read in the modern vernacular, as classes now tackle Beowulf, but in order to capture what’s rewarding about Shakespeare, readers have to be able to engage with the substance of the work in ways meaningful to their lives. Macbeth and Julius Caesar are masterfully written political thrillers, rife with some of the language’s most beautiful poetry, raising questions about the nature and dangers of power. But what in them speaks to the experience of a sixteen year-old?
There are two poles when it comes to determining what adolescents should be reading. At one end is Flannery O’Connor, holding strong that the role of a curriculum is to shape a young audience’s taste rather than cater to it. Teach the great works so all that follows can be understood in relation to them. If Macbeth is the highest achievement, then teach Macbeth. At the other end of the field is the view that whatever teenagers can relate to will be best to draw them into the literary fold. Thus, Catcher in the Rye becomes an essential book.
An opportunity to perhaps reconcile these dogmas is found in Henry IV. Though it has never gained the reputation of the standard curricular plays, it remains among the best of Shakespeare, while at its heart addressing the core issues of adolescence. Though a history and its action propelled by political challenges to the throne of King Henry, the emotional arc of the plays is tied to the internal battles faced by Prince Hal as he stumbles his way into maturity.
Henry IV, Part One presents two contrasting images of rebellion. Prince Hal (the eventual Henry V) is the wayward son of Henry IV, in full-on teenage rebellion mode. He has abandoned his father to hang around with lowlifes, drunkards and pranksters. Every fifteenth century parent’s worst nightmares. This, of course, galls King Henry to no end. He wishes that the ambitious and brave Henry Percy (Hotspur), scion of another noble family, could have been his son instead. Yet neither youth is quite as he seems. Hotspur quickly joins in a rebellion against the King, feeling the sting of honor denied by royals whom he can never rise above. Hal, meanwhile, is craftier than he lets on. Though his current life seems a waste, he plans eventually to reform—and look even better for having risen from such depths.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at
When King Henry’s need as at its greatest, Hal makes good on his plan. Returning to the fold, he fights Hotspur as ambition and daring battles cunning and loyalty. By the end of the first part, the rebellion of youth has reached its close.
Part Two then takes up the questions of authority and role models. The primary contrast offered is between Hal’s two father figures: King Henry, wielding power and facing its difficulties, and Sir John Falstaff, drunken knight of Hal’s wild days. While Falstaff carouses with women and celebrates in falsely claimed glory, the King’s health is failing. As he is dragged toward maturity, Hal is left with two visions of the way forward. Standing between his father nearing death and Falstaff spinning into wilder decline, Hal discovers the value in both the honor and the burden that come with the crown. Yet this is not enough to finish his journey into adulthood. He must, in a tragically moving scene, break entirely with the days of his past. In this transition of power, Shakespeare creates a portrait of transformation as a generation accepts the mantle of its elders.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Though the great works of Shakespeare have value of their own, an introduction to his works should be capable of illuminating not just the brilliance of his language, but the continuity that any great work maintains with the lives of its readers. A chance to see in Shakespeare the same struggles that adolescence entails in any age can offer an entirely new perspective that may lead readers to take his words truly to heart.