Henry IV Part 1 and Renaissance Ideologies

Anthony Miller


Shakespeare's histories have long been sites of political contention, appropriated overtly or covertly, completely or incompletely, by differing causes. Richard II, read by some moderns as a manifesto of Tudor monarchical orthodoxy, was performed in 1601 to support the Earl ofEssex's attempt to seize the throne, Queen Elizabeth herself recognizing the play's aptness: 'I am Richard II, know ye not that?' Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Henry V raised wartime morale by making the Allied invasion of France the antitype of Henry's successful conquest. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film of the play translates it into the ethos of Thatcherite Britain. The film emphasizes the horror of war, and shows how state affairs are manipulated by vested interests (in Henry V, the church), but it treats such abuses with what seems a combination of protest, resignation, and admiration for the skill of the abusers. Branagh's Henry plays a series of conspicuously discontinuous roles - youthful prince seeking counsel, artful dissembler, stem justicer, inspiring general, plain soldier as wooer - and seemingly believes in each role as he plays it; again, the film registers neutrally both the discontinuity and the sincerity. The film thus mirrors the ruthless idealism, or idealistic ruthlessness, of Thatcherism. The skinhead culture of danger and violence ruling in its tavern scenes is not far removed from the thuggish aspect of its nobility; by not quarantining the 'low' persons into a separate comic realm the film effects a Thatcherite alliance between working-class conservatism and 1arrikin aristocracy.

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