Identity Crisis

Looking back on my posts, I realize that I have an obsession with identity formation. Although Shakespeare’s plays offer a myriad of themes and intriguing structural elements, I find myself returning again and again to the way the Bard forms the identity of his protagonists. Yet, my analysis has shifted somewhat from first post to my last. Having spent much of the previous semester discussing feminist issues in literature, I naturally applied a similar lens in my first post. However, this semester has been characterized by philosophical questions such as “what does it mean to be a good ruler/a good human being?” As a result, my second two posts focus on Shakespeare’s attempts to answer this very question in the Henriad.

However, I believe there is some interesting overlap between the two approaches to examining identity in Shakespeare. Both lens examine Shakespeare’s use of language and social obligation to shape the identity of his characters. As we discussed in class during our examination of The Taming of the Shrew, a character’s mastery over language not only determines the character’s social status in the context of the play (think of the coarse language of Eastcheapers in the Henriad or that of Sly in TTOFS as opposed to the more courtly language of Henry IV or Kate), but also, to some extent, the character’s relative success in the play. For instance, Kate can hold her own against her suitors because she can dish out barbs as well as they can. Similarly, when Sly chooses to except that he is really a lord, he adopts the language to lend his role further authority. However, Sly never really grasps the content of the language. As a result, his transformation is incomplete and he is returned to the tavern at the end of the play. Concerned as it is with the proper identity for a monarch, the Henriad builds on this contest for social-lingual domination in interesting ways. As I note in “Performing Authority,” the key to retaining authority in the tetralogy’s conflicted England is one’s ability to be socially bilingual. Prince Hal, for instance, succeeds where Sly fails, conquering the languages of both the court and the tavern, ensuring his authority over both worlds.

However, Shakespeare is too pragmatic to allow verbal mastery to completely overcome social impediments. While Kate’s witty dialogue shows her to be quite masterful with language, her success is questionable. One can argue that Kate’s closing speech signifies that she, like Hal, has mastered the language of two spheres (in this case, the masculine and the feminine), but the play offers readers no real indication that Kate will be able to implement this bilingual ability productively. Rather, she seems to be trapped by her gender, forced to assume her appropriate role in society. To some extent this is true of Hal as well.  Although he learns both languages, there is very little doubt that he will return to his prescribed sphere (i.e. the court). Indeed, it is tantamount that he does, or the whole nation could fall apart.

What becomes apparent in re-reading my posts is the way that Shakespeare’s characters are always forced to give up their individuality in favor of social order. As a twenty-first century reader who values individuality, it is difficult not to push this revelation aside. However, to do so would be to miss one of Shakespeare’s most pressing questions. How much individuality can a society truly handle before it begins to collapse in on itself? How might a cohesive social picture outweigh the needs of the individual? Surrounded as we are by global conflict, these are not irrelevant questions.

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