English History Plays
This series of conferences given by Doctor David Allen White in Great Britain, covers Shakespeare’s historical “tetralogy,” the plays Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2 and Henry V. Although grouped together according to their genres, themes, and structures, each play is very different from the others.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, Richard II undoubtedly follows a classical tragic structure. The title character is a man with real greatness, who suffers from a tragic flaw, his overweening pride. Thanks to this flaw, he makes a serious mistake that leads not only to his own downfall, but leaves his whole world, fourteenth century England, in chaos and ruin. At the same time, however, he gains “tragic knowledge,” and learns about himself and his world by his fall.
Departing significantly from the tragic Richard II, Henry IV part 1 is best described as an historical comedy. Though the play is named for the reigning king, the main character is in fact his son, Prince Hal, who will become Henry V. Dr. White demonstrates that the play deals with three separate worlds: the court, the tavern, and the battlefield, each dominated by a different character. Prince Hal is the only character that passes among the three realms, learning essential lessons in each. Dr. White also devotes a considerable portion of the conference to the famous Falstaff, his debauchery, his humor, and his relationship with Prince Hal.
Dr. White describes this third play of the tetralogy as an elegy, that is, a farewell to a dying world. Contrasting sharply with part 1, this play is filled with references to death, disease, corruption and old men dying. Once again Prince Hal is the focal point, and his aging father, who once again is the title character, does not even appear until Act Three. The engaging exposition of this play covers the bizarre prologue by an allegorical character, a climactic battle that never happens, themes of betrayal, frustrated expectation, disillusionment, and the brilliant wit of Falstaff.
Some regard the fourth and final installment in the tetralogy as a mere propaganda piece, unworthy of Shakespeare’s art. Others see it as an expression of the triumph of the English spirit and the character of Henry representing everything that a Christian king should be. Dr. White regards the play as a unique sort of epic. He points out that the play deals with yearning, the belief in greatness, attempting to move upward and always proving inadequate. Henry himself strives throughout the play to become integral, incorporating the various parts of his composite character, drawn in his youth from many sources, into a single, congruous whole.
released April 15, 2015
About the Commentator
Some men are born to teach. They have a breadth of vision of their subject and a gift to communicate effortlessly to their students the knowledge which they have attained. Dr. David Allen White is such a man.
Born to Protestant parents, he was first given a love of literature by a Catholic elementary teacher. He followed this love to college, where he got a B.A. in 1970 at the University of Minnesota an an M.A. the following year at the University of Wisconsin. While pursuing his Ph.D., he received the grace to accept the true Faith and converted on the Feast of St. Nicholas, 1979.
After receiving his doctorate from Indiana University in 1981, he was hired at the US Naval Academy, where he received the Outstanding Teacher Award in 1996. More importantly, he has been the instrument by which God drew more than 70 young cadets to the Traditional Catholic Faith.
He retired in January 2009 and is currently enjoying a well earned retirement between intermittent guest lectures.
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