Selective Amnesia in Shakespeare’s 1Henry IV

The characters from Shakespeare’s 1Henry IV are engaged in constant forgetting as it appears that forgetting is a tool, used by characters throughout the play to achieve their through actions. Literary critic Greenblatt discusses the play in terms of producing and containing subversion and disorder, and forgetting is to some scholars what drives the chaos. According to Jonni Koonce Dunn (Ph.D), forgetting is not just the absence of memory but also a coordinated erasure “conducive to re-imagination and re-inscription” (4).

For example, the play begins with a freshly crowned king attempting to override his usurpation of the thrown by distracting everyone with Crusade efforts in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Scottish rebels like Mortimer are forgotten and depreciated, despite their contribution to Henry’s ascension to the throne. Forgetting functions for Henry as a means to achieve affairs in the state because recognizing Mortimer’s efforts may compromise his legitimacy as ruler (Dunn).

Greenblatt’s idea about subversion and disorder is supported by the play’s structure because the dramatic energy in the play is spread evenly across the plot lines of Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff (Dunn 80). According to Dunn, each character propagates their own conflicting ideas about freedom, law and honor and is inherently hypocritical because they possess at once admirable and repellant traits. Hal strikes a masterful balance between these two, and forgetting plays a major role in that process.

Hal achieves his through action of winning his father’s favor when all his past transgressions and poor reputation are forgotten as a result of Hal’s heroic actions in battle.¬† In order to win his father’s favor, Hal needed to make Henry forget about his son’s lowly associations. Hal achieved this when he saved¬† father’s life and regains his “lost opinion” (5.4.141). Here again forgetting is not the absence of memory, but forgetting is the active reshaping of memory to fit one’s immediate personal goals.

Similarly, Hal is clearly a bully throughout the play. Yet, he is so because he knows he can get away with it. He knows that no matter how poorly he treats Falstaff, his buddy will forget about it because Falstaff needs Henry to support his habit, and to remain relevant and combat his status as decayed gentry. Falstaff is in a constant state of forgetting because despite all his wit and cleverness, it never accumulates into any upward mobility. The lack of accumulation is facilitated by drinking which allows Falstaff to consistently adapt and respond to new situations.

In order to sustain Falstaff’s ingenuity, he must constantly forget social convention and the prescribed social roles that would otherwise limit his creativity. In this sense, forgetting that he is decayed gentry throughout the play allows him to eventually ascend on the coat tails Hal’s success. Again, forgetting in this sense is the active reshaping of one’s own circumstances. At the end of the play, Falstaff causes Hal to “forget” that he killed Hotspur because Falstaff manipulated his immediate situation to look like he did something valuable and worth rewarding. Hal had less to gain and more to lose by having Hotspur’s blood on his hands, so he chose to be complicit in this forgetting. Thus, forgetting functions throughout the play as a means by which the characters achieve their goals in the purview of opportunity.