The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad
In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:
Granted the late-medieval, early fifteenth-century settings of Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, theater audiences are not surprised by the large number of references in these plays to Catholic practices and beliefs.1 What has proved problematic for commentators is the coexistence of Catholic elements with explicitly Protestant traits in Shakespeare's characterizations of Falstaff, Henry IV, and Prince Hal/Henry V. In what follows, I argue that different forms of this mixture either impede or undermine these characters' attempts during the Second Henriad to reform themselves ethically and spiritually, at least until a noteworthy blend of Catholic and Protestant traits enables King Henry V in the aftermath of Agincourt to achieve a relatively successful transformation of character. Many plays of Shakespeare are syncretic in matters of religion: Othello, for example, reflects a mixture of Protestant predestinarian and Catholic voluntaristic theologies.2 Having apparently committed himself in his portrait of Falstaff to satirizing the proto-Protestantism of his character's Lollard namesake Oldcastle, Shakespeare at the same time resolved to give the plays of the Second Henriad a latemedieval air, and hence perhaps found characterizations built upon a mixture of Catholic and Protestant components inevitable. What does not appear inevitable in the Second Henriad, however, is the sustained, thoughtful manner of the many critiques of Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Protestant Reformation entailed by the blend of antithetical religious traits within characters trying to reform themselves. Whether by accident or design, this dramatic phenomenon poses a question: how can individuals reform themselves in societies-like Shakespeare's-wherein Catholicism remained a strong threat to Protestantism by positing a contradictory route to reformation?3 An answer to this question emerges from Henry's third and most successful attempt at reformation. Getting to that end involves starting with Falstaff.
"The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad,"
Comparative Drama: Vol. 32
, Article 8.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/compdr/vol32/iss1/8