Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: King Henry IV, Part 2

Literature doesn’t just naturally fall down from the sky like rain. It has to be thought up and written down by someone. And writers don’t just spring up out of the ground like weeds. They have to come from somewhere, from a specific place and a specific time. This is important. Nashville isn’t much like London and modern America is certainly not like Elizabethan England.

So why are we still reading Shakespeare after four hundred years? Because literature is a reflection of its own place and time. But great literature is universal and timeless. Shakespeare’s plays are often universal and timeless. The reign of King Henry IV isn’t a part of American history. But we’ve known men who are somewhat like Prince Hal, and Falstaff, and Northumberland. And Shakespeare, in his turn, lived in an age far different from the classical Greek world of the Trojan War. But he could visualize what it must have been like to meet King Priam or Agamemnon or Hector. And he was able to translate those ancient Greek stories into Elizabethan examples. One example is the story of the fall of Troy. The Greeks got into the city by hiding inside a giant wooden horse. When night fell the Greeks snuck out of the wooden horse and set fire to the place. Shakespeare has Northumberland recall that scene. One of Northumberland’s men has returned from battle to tell him that his son Percy has been killed. Before the messenger has a chance to speak, Northumberland says: Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless, So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone, Drew Priam's curtain in the dead of night, And would have told him half his Troy was burnt; But Priam found the fire ere he his tongue, And I my Percy's death ere thou report'st it. When King Priam awoke in the middle of the night and saw that half of Troy was on fire, no one needed to tell him that all was lost. So it is with Northumberland. The look on the messenger’s face tells him that Percy is dead. Here’s the point Shakespeare is making: Northumberland isn’t the first man who’s had to face tragedy. Long before him King Priam faced tragedy on the plains of Troy. Shakespeare paints a literary picture of Northumberland, just as Homer and Virgil showed us a literary portrait of King Priam.

Shakespeare knew the story of the Trojan War very well. He also drew from English history and focused this play on the transition from the reign of King Henry IV to King Henry V. Shakespeare also drew deeply from the Bible and knew that his audience would be well-versed in Biblical themes. For example, once Northumberland has accepted Percy’s death his own mind turns to revenge and bloodshed. He tells his co-conspirators: Let heaven kiss earth! now let not Nature's hand Keep the wild flood confined! let order die! And let this world no longer be a stage To feed contention in a lingering act; But let one spirit of the first-born Cain Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set On bloody courses, the rude scene may end, And darkness be the burier of the dead! The Elizabethan audience would be well aware that the spirit of the first-born Cain was set on a bloody course when he murdered his brother Abel. Now Northumberland wants the rebellious fighters to feel the same rage Cain must have felt. The audience would have grasped this immediately. Shakespeare didn’t have to explain who Cain was and what he did.

Modern Nashville isn’t Elizabethan London. But some Nashvillians still read Homer and Virgil and learn about the story of the Trojan War. Some still read in the Bible (especially the King James Version, written around Shakespeare’s time): And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. We can go to the library and check out a history of England and read about the trials and tribulations of kings and queens. But very few of us could pull all of these threads together into one great story. Great literature doesn’t just fall down from the sky. That takes a Shakespeare.


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