Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English,
November 3, 2011

It is a universal truth - and therefore part of your experience - that the parent/child relationship is fraught. Even the best relationships contain some tensions and disappointments.

There are various resources available for dealing with these challenges. But is it surprising that an English teacher would suggest literature as a resource? Not self-help books that explain parent-handling strategies, but fictions that include alternative experiences that at their best feel more real than life itself.

Right now I’m part of the cast of the Theatre/Dance department’s fall production, the musical “Spring Awakening,” so I’m thinking about how many different ways that parents and other authority figures can create disaster. As one of the play’s fathers, I angrily condemn my son for his failure at school by saying, “Thank God my father never lived to see this day.” In other words, there are two generations of fathers weighing in on the son’s failure (The performance opens next weekend. See the campus calendar for dates and times).

Because Shakespeare is often presented to us as some kind of holy cultural legacy, we may not think of his works as another source for real-life application. Of course Shakespeare’s work is also there for its beauty – if it weren’t beautiful, it wouldn’t be alive enough to be useful to us. But my emphasis today is on the usefulness.

1 Henry IV, which first-year students are reading in Paideia I, and which will be presented by my Shakespeare Performed class in a shortened version in less than two weeks, is a father/son story. There are almost no women in the play. The father, Henry, probably has something to be concerned about, since his son Prince Hal (the future King Henry V – note the Friday afternoon film showing) has developed a bad reputation because of the time he spends in taverns with notorious wastrels, bawds and thieves.

This father handles his concern badly, making one of the cruelest possible suggestions, which is the father’s suspicion that his baby was exchanged in the cradle and that his real son is someone else (in this case, the heroic warrior-figure Hotspur).

In one sense the play is the story of the son promising to live up to his father’s expectations and then fulfilling his promise. Hal says he’ll be a great soldier, and that’s what he becomes; he says he’ll absorb his rival’s reputation, and that’s what he does; he says he’ll make his father and everyone else proud of him, and he achieves that, too.

But what fascinates me is the way in which Hal establishes his identify beyond his father’s expectations. In one of the play’s most famous scenes, Hal kills the rival that his father had earlier suggested should have been his rightful son. But then Hal says some remarkable things in a soliloquy:

When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough . . .
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not remember’d in thy epitaph! (5.4.89-92, 99-101)

The speech shows an amazing generosity towards his rival Hotspur, a generosity that neither Hotspur nor his father would ever have risen to. Hals’ next soliloquy also shows a wise sensitivity to his supposedly dead mentor/friend/comrade Falstaff, a sensitivity, again, beyond Hotspur, Hal’s father and Falstaff himself. And most importantly, these speeches exhibit an understanding of mortality and the limits of kingship that only the greatest of monarchs - not including his father - has ever shown.

In these ways, Hal can be a model for our own individual growing-up. He is by no means perfect (What use would it be to read a book about someone so perfect that he exists completely out of our range of possibility?). But he has achieved the wonderful position of having fulfilled his parent’s expectations, while having grown beyond those expectations.

Could any of us ever hope for more for ourselves?