Henry IV, Part I is a prescribed text for HSC English Advanced’s Module B: Critical Study of Literature. It is a challenging text: not only does it involve the usual difficulties of interpreting Shakespeare’s Early Modern English literary language and context, it also requires considerable historical understanding. Here are five essential tips to get you started.
1. Don’t read the text, at least initially.
Watch it once, or twice in different versions. This is a much more efficient way to ‘read’ the text. Read only in the context of analysis. When you are developing your study notes, use your memory to identify key scenes and analyse these in the usual manner, preferably at times with expert assistance.
2. Understand Shakespeare’s highly figurative Early Modern English.
Shakespeare’s audience went to listen to the language, not for the on-stage action or special effects. As a result, Shakespearean English exhibits what Renaissance scholars termed ‘copia’: a wide range of formal devices, such as syntactic variation, diverse vocabulary, and of course, literary techniques. Your writing needs to scrutinize and interpret these techniques, and it needs to do so accurately. An additional challenge: the vocabulary and syntactic structures of Early Modern English sometimes differ from the language you speak, Present Day English. The sounds are sometimes different too, meaning we miss puns. If you can’t parse a phrase, try to infer the meaning from context, or look the line up in an annotated edition of the text.
3. Understand the play’s ideas.
Your HSC paper will invariably ask you to focus on ideas. This means engaging in a fusion of horizons, in which your own contextually-informed understanding of the world crosses over into Shakespeare’s. The capacity to be present and truly understand someone else is a great and important one: why not practice it with Shakespeare? How does Falstaff engage in acts of self-overhearing, and what does this suggest about human nature? How does Hal’s trajectory from wild young man to disciplined leader embody the prescribed curriculum vitae of the ruling elite in Shakespeare’s context, or even our own?
4. Falstaff is key.
alstaff is one of Shakespeare’s great characters. He is a challenge for modern audiences, since much of his humour is contingent on contextual and linguistic references. A few tips: note the punchlines in a production, and ask why the audience laughs. What do Falstaff’s seeming weaknesses suggest about human nature? Why does he lie so often, and what connection does lying have with imagination? How is Falstaff’s identity forged in the prose he speaks?
5. Look beyond the obvious scenes and monologues.
Consider the use of foreign languages, such as Welsh. The inclusion of Welsh and warriors from throughout the British Isles is an aspect of the play’s advocacy for unity among the kingdom’s different populations. Avoid simply analyzing monologues and famous dialogue. Look to the margins. Why is Henry underwhelming? How does his dialogue convey this? This returns us to ideas: don’t think using other people’s ideas. Module B emphasizes the student’s own interpretation: your interpretation. Ask original questions!