Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Recovering the Terror of Trifles

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Recovering the Terror of Trifles

Article excerpt

I know you all, and will a while uphold

The unyoked humor of your idleness.

WHATEVER IT IS Hal is doing in his doings with Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Poins in the early scenes of I Henry IV, his first soliloquy reassures the audience or himself that he will do it only for "a while." Harry Berger reminds us that this "a while"--the lapse of time between the "now" of act I scene 2 of I Henry IV and, say, the end of 2 Henry IV, when the debt Hal never promised comes due--is mediated by a representation that is both performative and textual (Making Trifles of Terrors, 244-45). During and through his verbal performance, the Hal we see or read is at every moment complicated by his and our continual textual and historical reference to Henry V--whose presence is felt sometimes as the Prince imagines him in anticipation, sometimes as anticipated but unrealized by the Prince. At times, the shadow of the King he will become appears without the apparent complicity of the Prince--proleptically, in the mode of "history in the future tense," as Auden characterized the Aeneid.

Insofar as the second tetralogy participates, along with Richard III, in a legitimating account of the origins of the Tudor dynasty that culminates in a dynastic marriage, the Henriad, an identification Berger pointedly adopts, retains formal traces of the dynastic epic epitomized by the Aeneid, revived in the dynastic romances of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, and transmuted to supranational ends and ultimate origins by Milton. Shakespeare's "history in the future tense," encompassing the failure of Henry VI and the consequent necessity of a second dynastic marriage--between Henry VII and Elizabeth of York--to establish the Tudors, adds a self-conscious doubling to the generic plot that is wholly characteristic of his structural technique. The doubling (or repetition) of the dynastic plot as a formal structure for reflexive complication in the histories doubles again the use of familial doubling in the same plays--such doubling is obvious in Hal and Hotspur but is now also brilliantly extended by Berger to Gaunt and Bolingbroke, two characters who barely existed as characters before Berger noticed them. More generally in Shakespeare, this reflexive doubling is seen in Lear and Gloucester, Hamlet and Laertes (and Fortinbras)--and then, in the strangely attenuated reemergence of the dynastic plot in the late Romances, with the struggles of Leontes and Polixenes, Alonzo and Prospero resolved through the marriage of their children into a single dynastic posterity.

Berger notes the affinity of the rhetorical weaving of subject positions by this narrative shuttle, in which present actions are given meaning as the effects of a past which has, in turn, been constructed as their cause, and Lacan's passage about discovering oneself in what one will have become, in and through a symbolic order that is always experienced retrospectively:

For the function of language is not to inform but to evoke.... I identify

myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is

realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no

more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the

future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of


I am going to expand this elliptical reference a bit, first in relation to the specifically narrative temporality underlying Lacan's understanding of how the self becomes a subject through the misrecognition of its own desire, and then, with specific (and, I hope, illustrative) reference to Hal's "I know you all" soliloquy in act 1 scene 2 of I Henry IV.(2) Doing so will help assess how close Berger has been willing to come to the edge of the "vertiginous vortex of Lacanian conundrums" even at "the risk of being sucked down into those depths and lost forever" (xix), and it will allow me to point--speculatively--in the direction toward which a further collaboration between Shakespeare and Lacan might lead. …

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.