It is interesting to reflect on such notions as Shakespeare’s England was a one class society…that only the ruling class was capable of recognizing and cohesively working towards their shared interests,” issued by Historian Peter Laslett in sense of its overall totality, especially when considering the social stratification of the four hierarchal groups noted by William Harrison; namely that of the nobility, citizens, yeomen, and artificers or laborers. Especially in light of attempting to view HENRY IV from the lens of one of these perspectives. The point of the issue lies in that fact that, while it was ostensibly a one class society, the vast majority of the general populace was not included within this one tier social network that made up sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Though vast and many are the key differences that separate the social classes of our day in age, in the sense that the many are the minority, and those that are represented or that have any sense of authority or power are the very select view; that two percent that would have been the nobility in Shakespeare’s time. Despite new terminology to describe one’s economic means, or socioeconomic standing such as old or new money or any other phrase that one could think of, it still seems that we have not ventured so very far from the days that separated the haves from the haves-not. As such, since the majority of people in Shakespearian times consisted of artificers and laborers, I will place my emphasis upon what the interpretation of Henry IV most likely would have been like for this broad group of individuals. A group whose very attendance at said plays mirrored all pretenses of pecuniary emulation that are still present today.
I believe that for many, especially those of the artificers and laborers, Shakespeare’s Henry IV would have been a spectacle of bewilderment, in many different ways. First and foremost in the sense of how we still marvel at the unquestionable genius that is innately Shakespeare. But that exists only at the surface level. Beyond that, lies another layer of a sort of an enigma, at least in terms of being able to identify with, or relate to the events taking place on stage. Asides from a few exceptions, I would assume that a great deal of the actions taking place on the stage would have seemed foreign or alien to them. In today’s modern means of entertainment, we can usually recognize and pick out characters that have had similar events, or experiences take place in their lives, or that have similar characteristics; the knowledge thirsty scholar, or professor even, likening themselves to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Similarly, many shows and the likes appeal to the average individual, with sitcoms such as American Dad, Family Guy, F is for Family, The Simpsons, and many others depicting, rather humorously, the typical modern family. Conversely, Shakespeare being part of the nobility, or the bottom two percent, his presentation was by the masses, for the masses, meaning those that worked cohesively towards shared interests and that was part of the one class society. Thus, in most instances, they would not have the slightest iota of an idea, nor could they possibly fathom what it must be like to be a natural born heir to the throne, as compared to a usurper to the likes of King Henry. Just as it would have been strange to them to consider themselves buying, or winning the said title through acts of valiant honor, regardless of whether or not it is through false pretenses as was demonstrated in Falstaff feigning his own death, and apparent defeat of Hotspur. One might liken it to a working-class individual fancying to themselves what it must be like to be an author, artist, actor, or some other member of the elite class that they had always secretly wished themselves to be, and then seeing that process present itself on the movie screen, after which they would compare their imagination to what they had seen.
It would have also been puzzling to them in more subtle ways. To this day, scholars still struggle to fully comprehend Shakespeare’s messages, with his highly educated Elizabethan vocabulary, verbose prose, soliloquies, and meters of iambic pentameter. That does not include the creative metaphors, instances of symbolism, or other witty lyrical devices that he employed. With this notion being kept into consideration, Henry IV in and of itself was a Historical play that placed a heavy emphasis on high and low language, and language itself in many different contexts. As such, this diversification of language presented in Henry IV could have presented itself as a problematic issue to some. For those in attendance trying to interpret the meanings underneath Shakespeare’s lofty lexicon and shifts in level of diction, one might compare it to the likes of a Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws, where the overachieving sister to the bride arrives home from her studies at Westpoint, or Harvard, late no less to stress the importance of her busy life, using words such as lackadaisical in place of lazy to describe her Uber driver, after which she goes into an unrelated tangent about her views on Epistemology during dinner, and all the while your left utilizing the thesaurus and google search on your mobile phone device in a vain attempt to understand and converse with her. Similarly, through this theme, illustrates the type of education that would be associated with that one class, that is the ruling class of sixteenth and seventeenth century England; that it was a command over language that not only separated the various hierarchal tiers, but that was also essential for leadership as was the case with Hal; the very same type of education that strictly disciplined its pupils in Greek and Latin, so that they could interpret and understand the Bible, that emphasized the importance of religious practices, such as familiarizing oneself with the verses and scriptures of the Bible, and that taught strategy and discourses into Machiavellianism; the very same education that both Shakespeare himself and Hal from Henry IV were likely to have received. Consequently, while the sparse role and involvement of Francis might have provided any possibility of a redeeming chance for familiarity to the common person, the context of the scene, not to mention the linguistic implications found throughout the play, may very well have gone over their head. For a select few, perhaps endowed with an apparent sense of clairvoyance, or to whom could see the larger picture displayed in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, this sense of awe would seem to grow exponentially at the realization of the harsh reality presented upon the stage.
Originally know to the public as The History of Henrie the Fourth, to the laborer in attendance at a showing of Henry IV, the play for all intended purposes, might as well have been entitled, Laborers: “This fourth and last sort of people…..have neither voice nor authority in the commonwealth, but are to be ruled and not to rule others.” And as they beheld the flamboyant melodramas, anxieties, and concerns of royalty, nobility, and the likes a sort of sobering, humbling, and yet unquestionably scarring truth may have overcome them, chilling them at their very core. Much as is the experience when an acquaintance calls you out on your bullshit, and instead of taking refuge in denial like you normally do, you awaken yourself to the painful truth. The truth is supposed to set one free, but in this instance, it is irrevocably the opposite. To a more discerning eye in the audience, all the world is a stage has much more frightening connotations when this is the grim reality that is the theater of life. The one where Prince Harry, Hal, and his father’s preoccupations with whether or not he has the characteristics of a leader, and whether or not he is a worthy or suitable Prince or heir to the throne, matter more, and are in more alignment with the general interests of the overarching umbrella of this so-called one societal class, than are your own individual and personal interests. It is the world in which, as far as the ruling class is concerned, the common man is but a mere Francis in the grand orchestra of livelihood; that is a fleeting nanosecond in the overall composition of a play whose apparent purpose is the subject of the ruling classes cruel amusement. But that’s not all. All the loathsome characteristics King Henry attributes to his son, traits like alcoholism, thievery, debauchery, cowardice and all the other behaviors associated with Eastcheap, or that rude society, is, in fact, a frame of reference to the very same societal class in this particular instance, viewing the play. In terms of what Mary Louise Pratt would define as a contact zone, that is,” social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today,” it means accepting the realization that, although part of the many, this misrepresented group is by no means the victor in the dominating marginal percentile that composes the ruling class, and upon swallowing such a bitter pill, coming to terms with that fact, coupled with the fact that this average person’s voice, what they have to say, is not something to be kept into consideration, no, at least not by those of royalty, nobility, or that have a say in anything. As if that were not enough, understanding one’s place to be ruled over by others.
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