What is History?

Absorbing national history into crafted play with characteristic ingenuity, Shakespeare exposes the idiosyncratic quality of historical construction. To substantiate the narrative bulk of 1 King Henry IV, Shakespeare used the Holinshed Chronicles, an ambitious record of English history published in the late sixteenth century. Departing from the Chronicle’s narrowed occupation with succession, war and insurrection cue Marx: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”the play includes a distinctive breadth that initiates an interrogation of the historical subject.

The play is not dominated by the title character, Henry IV, but resists a central focus. In fact, as observed by Larry S. Champion the king speaks only eleven percent of the lines (340 of 2049) while three other characters, Hotspur, Hal, and Falstaff, speak more frequently: 18.6, 18.7 and 20.4 percent respectively (186). Inventive moments of narrative departure include the domestic royal drama between King Henry and Hal, and the tavern scenes, viewed objectionably from court but lightened by Falstaff’s arousing jest challenge the traditional narrative concentration. The diffusion of contributing perspectives exposes the innate malleability of history — for at whose discretion does a multiplicity of (competing) accounts get established as historical fact? What content is privileged? Omitted?

The self as scripted into history is distanced from the embodied self. Fallen by Hal’s blow, Hotspur mourns more the loss of his “proud titles,” as if they secure a type of immortality, than the fact of his corporeal death (5. 2. 78). Striving for canonized honor, his undesirable place in history is a consequence of idiosyncratic chance, losing a duel of odd outcomes — against Hal’s unruliness, Hotspur’s character was saturated in a Herculean fury. Because he lost, Hotspur’s “epitaph” will not share in the great renown that accompanied him in life (5. 2. 100). Denied a voice, his historical position is outside his control; a digression, not a dynasty.

History, an authority in crafting the collective cultural consciousness, is vulnerable to inflating accounts of honor. Shakespeare subtly implicates The Chronicle — the high praise Hal delivers about Hotspur is likened to a  “chronicle,” associating the word with rhetorically aggrandized praise (5. 2. 57).  Embedded narrative and the pronounced unreliability of narration propel similar apprehension toward history. Accompanying Falstaff’s earlier extravagant defense of his own robbery— where two enemies become “A hundred/ upon poor four of us!” (2. 4. 154-5)— I hear echoes of W.E.B. Du Bois, who considered history as propaganda, as good as “lies agreed upon.” In the absence of deniability, one person controls the narrative.

Falstaff seizes on this principle, claiming he delivered Hotspur his fatal blow. “Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me,” he says (5. 4. 125). Loosely, what he says — “I gave him this wound in the thigh” (5.4. 148) — is as displayed a potential possible truth. Comically helping his friend, Hal grants it force: “If a lie may do thee grace,/ I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4. 154-155). Identities as broadcasted in shared story and title commands a force beyond the individual.

At meta-level — what is this sought after honor? Does it promise some incredible immortality, a life beyond the corporeal body? Shakespeare, through Falstaff, explores a firmly defeatist view: “What is honor? A / word. What is that word honor? Air” (5. 1. 133-4). The dead can’t hear it or experience it, and ultimately it rarely survives among the living, for competing accounts always surface and “detraction will not suffer it” (5. 1. 138). The vulnerability of history suggests an uncomfortable futility, occasioned to believe “this world is / given to lying” (142-3). Though newly attuned to an empowered discretion, perhaps I may direct histories yet unwritten.