Interpreting Henry IV: The Men in Buckram

A.J.A. Waldock


The critical problems of Henry IV are well-worn, but there is still, I think, matter of instruction in them.
I would suggest that nearly all these problems are referable to one underlying cause: the variability of texture in Shakespearean drama. A Shakespearean play does not necessarily stay precisely the same kind of play throughout every inch of its length. The essential fallacy, surely, in the approach of a Bradley was the assumption that any play of Shakespeare's is made of exactly the same stuff from beginning to end of it: that any given part of it can be pressed on, handled, pulled about in precisely the same way as any other part: that the tensile strength (so to say) of the dramatic material remains perfectly uniform from start to finish. But this does not always happen. We can move, in a Shakespearean play, between slightly different levels of reality-we can keep moving backwards and forwards between them-and all this without noticeable strain. Audiences adapt themselves to such shifts and fluctuations with the greatest ease: they realize instinctively what is going on: and so do readers when they are left to themselves. But in these selfsame shifts and fluctuations lie the possibilities of later trouble. When we stop and think, reflect and scrutinize, we are likely, of course, to be struck by difficulties that in a theatre, or in a quick reading, would hardly have been noticed, or would have caused us no very grave concern. It is in that way that Shakespearean problems are born-or a very great many of them.

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