Word and sacrament in Shakespeare's second tetralogy

Dever, John Thomas, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kirsch, Arthur, Department of English, University of Virginia
Cantor, Paul, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kinney, Clare, Department of English, University of Virginia
Midelfort, H C E, Department of History, University of Virginia

Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy is deeply informed by contemporaneous theological and linguistic concerns. In portraying the collapse of an overextended sacrosanct conception of kingship in Richard II, the disorder and clarification resulting in i and 2 Henry IV, and the reconstitution of genuinely sacramental kingship in Henry V, Shakespeare draws from correspondent ideas of the English Reformation. While not dispensing with sacramental elements and the performance of ceremonies, Anglican teaching emphasizes that efficacy resides in the inner effect upon a properly disposed receiver within a larger comprehending and affirming community. Semantics undergoes a similar shift in emphasis, with the meaning of language not existing primarily in isolated reference but constituted by use within a community. The binding power of oaths, a use of language closely associated with sacraments, is likewise qualified by conditions of pledge and fulfillment. The tragedy of Richard II stems from his attempt to render kingship invulnerable by assuming inherent connection between its external forms and inner reality. The reign of the usurping Henry IV precipitates attempts by Hotspur and other rebels to restore an irreparably lost order; and ventures, both comic and crass, by Falstaff and associates to exploit the lack of correspondence between signum and res, word and reference, oath and obligation. Assimilating values from antithetical perspectives, Prince Hal awaits the opportunity to perform genuine acts of valor. Despite doing so at the end of Part I, he is unable to claim due credit in a world lacking stable signification. In Part II, language and signs divorced from meaningful correspondence exert increasingly insufferable power until redeemed by Hal, who demonstrates his worthiness as heir in the encounter with his dying father. As Henry V, he constitutes a new order of kingship by forthrightly facing the emptiness of words and ceremonies in themselves; but in an action parallel to that of the Chorus with the play's audience, he invests them with meaning by creating communities aware of the discrepancy between signifiers and things signified, things seen and unseen, but using their powers of imagination and affirmation to bridge the difference.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- King Richard II, Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- King Henry IV -- Part 1, Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- King Henry IV -- Part 2, Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- Henry V, Shakespeare, William -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation
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