Essay on Political Drama in Henry IV and Henry V

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Political Drama in Henry IV and Henry V

The contention that Shakespeare’s histories are in fact political drama appears to fall uneasily on the ears of modern readers. One reason for this could be the fact that we, as a society, have blurred the connotation of politics to the vaguest of notions – narrow at times, yet far too inclusive. A young reader is likely to view politics as election and debate, a sort of ongoing candidacy. Indeed, this may be a valid modern definition, if somewhat limited. For our purposes, however, this definition is not sufficient to establish a starting point from which to examine Shakespeare’s presentation of political drama.

If we define politics as the acquisition and exercise of the power
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Unfortunately, too often he is playing to the wrong audience. Richard disdains his own populace as a “base court” (III.iii.180), preferring instead the flattering members of his inner retinue. He seems to envy Bolingbroke “his courtship to the common people/How he did seem to dive into their hearts/With humble and familiar courtesy” (I.iv.24-6), but would never think to mingle with them.

Henry, on the other hand, has learned well from his father’s example, as well as from his own experience. In his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, he inspires his soldiers by proclaiming himself one of them: “For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother” (IV.iii.61-2). It can be assumed that Shakespeare’s presentation of the young Prince Hal in the two parts of Henry IV is designed to reinforce this idea of Henry as a “man of the people.” Hal’s “youthful escapades have taught him a deep understanding of the human nature of the citizens he must rule, making him wise beyond his years” (Rosenblum 133-4).

Unfortunately, if Richard ignores the need to maintain the admiration of his citizens, he also overlooks his need for the support of the nobility. The historical Richard angered Parliament with his “extravagant household expenses” (Hollister 314), which required extraordinary taxation of
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