Academic journal article Studies in Philology

The Functions of Forgetfulness in 1 Henry IV

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

The Functions of Forgetfulness in 1 Henry IV

Article excerpt

In 1 Henry IV, William Shakespeare proposes judicious forgetfulness as a positive strategy for achieving power despite its pathologized position in early modern culture as well as its seeming incompatibility with the recording of history. Nielzschean ideas of forgetfulness and plasticity, Langerian concepts of comedy, and the notion of a unifying national amnesia inform a contrast of the functions of forgetfulness for Henry IV, Prince Hal, and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV.


THE plays of William Shakespeare's second Henriad are linked not only by an obvious chronology in historical narrative but also by the sustained presence of forgetfulness, a subject that Jonathan Baldo has recently addressed in a very thoughtful fashion. (1) While I see great value in Baldo's consideration of forgetfulness as connected to the effects of the Protestant Reformation, I want to widen the scope of the attempt to explain the variety and ubiquity of forgetting in 1 Henry IV. I do so partly because, unlike most history plays in which the king serves as the focus, it lacks a clear center of authority, which legitimates consideration of forgetfulness in Prince Hal and Falstaff as well as Henry IV. I give attention specifically to three strands of forgetfulness seen in these characters. The first strand is a judicious forgetting of the past in order to survive and even advance. The second is self-forgetting of one's place and society's defining norms, a target of Elizabethan ethical/medical/ theological treatises, yet practiced enthusiastically by Falstaff and less so by Prince Hal. The third strand of forgetting is the intentional amnesia at work in the making of the historical narrative, the reality of which is often ignored by early modern historiography but is flagrantly sign-posted by Falstaff in this play. In contrast to the avowed commemoration and recuperation of many early modern authors, Shakespeare demonstrates that forgetfulness can be not only pleasurable in one form but also advantageous and empowering in another. By the incongruous presence and even ubiquity of forgetfulness in a history play, the playwright points to the sometimes ignored fact that forgetting figures highly in the construction of the official historical record.

Such instances of forgetfulness are not true amnesic interludes but rather are related to the kind of forgetting that Benedict Anderson outlines in Imagined Communities when he quotes from French historian and biblical scholar Ernest Renan:

   The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in
   common, and also that they have forgotten many things ... Every
   French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint
   Bartholomew, or the massacres that took place in the Midi in the
   thirteenth century. (2)

Anderson finds these sentences "bizarre," not only in that Renan views forgetting historical tragedies as being a contemporary Frenchman's civic duty, but also in that they assert that the individuals already "have forgotten" something that they obviously remember--certain historical massacres that, if remembered, would divide French people perhaps even today. Anderson's formulations concerning the role of national amnesia in the solidification of a national consciousness figure to a much greater degree in part 2 and Henry V, and I therefore will not address them here. Most of the episodes of forgetfulness in 1 Henry IV are illustrative of Renan's idea that circumstances sometimes require one to forget something s/he actually remembers.

The presence of forgetfulness in assorted guises in the second Henriad is perhaps indicative of the increasing climate of skepticism in the early modern period despite an official and fairly widespread abhorrence of forgetting. That Elizabethan theological and medical literature displays an ardent valorization of memory and a consequent pathologizing of forgetting has been ably noted by Garrett A. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.