Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Henry IV: Youth in Revolt

Shakespeare is awful. Rather, the manner in which most students first explore his work is awful. Trying to force some exposure to canonical great works onto students before the chance is gone, the endeavor all too often falls into a mind-numbing series of translation exercises. Now that we’ve read the scene, can anyone explain what’s happened?

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.


Colleen said...

My high school Brit Lit class killed Shakespeare for me but the dying started in 9th grade English where we acted out Romeo and Juliet in class and accomplished all the giggly cliches you can imagine. We never did Henry IV however and now I'm thinking maybe I should give it a shot.

Honestly it has never occurred to me to read Shakespeare for pleasure...which is pitiful but if you had been sitting with me in those classes you would feel the same way too!

Thanks for this.....

Unknown said...

"When I was a child . . ." is from I Corinthians 13:11 in the Bible. The implication is that this is a Shakespeare quote, but maybe you just assumed that everyone would know where it came from.

I hope you have an opportunity to teach Shakespeare to a group of teenagers soon. It sounds as if you know all about how to accomplish something great.

Okie said...

Shakespeare in Junior High & High School definitely had a polarizing affect on many of the students. There were some of us who genuinely enjoyed the plays we read and there were others who were turned off from the first breath of his name.

One thing I did notice was that the enthusiasm and passion of the teacher was able to help draw together students from both groups. I'm not sure if any teachers fully converted any anti-Shakespeare students, but I have definite memories of excited engagement from nearly the entire class during discussions of Hamlet or Lear. By the same token, I recall situations where nearly the entire class (including those who appreciated Shakespeare) were almost entirely disengaged during lectures on Julius Caesar or Tempest.

A lot is to be said not only for the work chosen (I think Henry IV would be an interesting choice) but a lot also has to do with the methods, preparation and engagement of the teacher.

I really like your suggestions regarding Henry IV. Makes me want to go re-read it. :)

Stephen said...

Thanks for the comments!

A teacher's own engagement with the work absolutely makes all the difference in the world. As a student I could always sense when a teacher was sharing with us and leading us through insights and thrills he or she had discovered in the work, or when we were merely getting through a checklist of necessary take-aways so as to finish off that troublesome section of the curriculum.

Which is one of the reasons the less-studied plays can oftentimes be more interesting. In lecture or discussion, it's much harder to fall back on well-worn accepted wisdom and one is forced into a higher degree of exploration.

@Martha: Regarding the Corinthians quotation, it was one part well-known biblical reference, and one part having been traveling down paths like this recently.

A Paperback Writer said...

Funny. I never have much trouble getting my students engaged in Shakespeare. Let's see: dirty jokes, witches, ghosts, murder, swordfights, puns, romance, betrayal, lies..... What's not to like? We have prop swords, recipes from that era, learn to swear in Elizabethan English, have contests, perform scenes. No, they don't understand every single word the first time -- but that's what I'm there for.
Of course, there are always the few kids who refuse to like anything, but most of my kids for a couple of decades have had a great deal of fun with the Bard.
I've never tried Henry IV, though. I'm not sure I'd tackle a history play with junior high kids. Maybe high school. :)