Henry IV Part 2 — Epic Theatre?

24 Sep

I saw Henry IV Part 2 last night. It’s an odd play. It really has no main character. Or if it does, it’s not the same main character as Henry IV Part 1 or Henry V. That is, it’s not Prince Hal.
I had the thought somewhere in the middle of the second half that HIV2 (looks like a disease, but isn’t) might be a 16th century example of what Brecht called Epic Theatre, that is, a play without a central character but with a central theme instead. The second half of Angels in America is written this way.
But if HIV2 is about a theme, what is it? And how is it examined? And what did The Shake want us to look at?
The easy answer is, I guess, the nature of legitimacy. Who has the right to wear the crown? Henry IV doesn’t really believe he does. Neither does much of anybody else in England the way Shakespeare tells it. And although this is never made explicit,it may be that Prince Hal has embryonic doubts, ready to blossom when he has to wear the crown himself, which underlie his naughty ways and his cynical friendship with Falstaff.
This sounds to me like a pretty abstract topic for a play. It would have seemed less so to Shakespeare and his audience. The Tudor line, which was no more legitimate than the Plantagenets, was coming to an end with Elizabeth. There was a git in Scotland who seemed to have the inside track on the crown, but everybody knew that that was contingent on a lot of things happening, not least the git, James VI, getting the support of Lord Cecil who ran the security apparatus of the Elizabethan state. And no one could be sure how that worthy man would jump.
One word that get used over and over again in the play is “shallow”. There is even a character by that name, Justice Shallow. And the image of roots comes up a lot. That’s precisely what England has lost, and what, by implication, enables a scumbag like Falstaff to prosper.
But these are random thoughts, and very possibly shallow ones. Any other buffs out there want to weigh in?

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