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The Cat's Cradle: What to Love about Shakespeare

When it comes to Shakespeare, audiences think of the popular works like “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet.” However, these are not the best works Shakespeare has to offer. Though each is popular since it tackles a certain demographic, college and high-school ages particularly, they do not fully represent the creative ways Shakespeare writes. 

The most accessible and interesting of Shakespeare’s plays is the “Henriad.” It tells a fictionalized account of the “War of the Roses” consisting of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V.”  

Each plays a respective title referring to the reign of a specific King. Though, each play is a part of a series, carrying across characters like Henry, IV, Hal, Pistol and Falstaff, while vastly changing the tone. 

The first of four, "Richard II” is presented as a story of betrayal and a mad King. Similar to Shakespeare's King Lear, Richard II is an eccentric ruler, whose poetic verse reflects a certain madness in his character. To such a degree, that he is betrayed and disposed of by his cousin Henry IV.

This dethroning creates the frame of the series, as new leaders and kings rise to challenge the throne in the wake of Henry IV’s initial challenge. Reflecting on real-life events, Shakespeare's Henry IV is posited as a stern and calculating figure to Richard’s opulence. 

In “Henry IV, Part 1” the series turns to a political drama and bildungsroman as we are split between Hal and Henry IV. The theme of the play is how Hal (Henry V) conflicts with his identity and the man he wants to be. 

He is caught between three figures: Falstaff, Henry IV and the rebel Hotspur. Each presents a different personality as a partier, a king and a soldier, respectively. Throughout the play, Hal interacts with these three characters as he attempts to navigate and create his identity through role-play and combat.

“Henry IV, Part 1” is notable for its mix of comedy, political drama and numerous battles. One of the most popular plays in the “Henriad,” it has references to the audience, duels and a father-son relationship that is complicated by the Son’s constant partying.

The follow-up, “Henry IV, Part 2” is the less popular of the sequential parts. Carrying on the political drama and comedy of the former, this play is not as cherished. Particularly, it has less Falstaff and more Henry IV, as we see the transfer of the crown from father to son. Hal takes on the role of Prince Henry and slowly transitions to the role of King. The eventual betrayals come as a stinging end-note to this play, as Hal becomes King of England.

Closing out the tetralogy is “Henry V.” The most simplistic of the four plays, “Henry V” opens with the newly crowned Henry overseeing his court and preparing for a battle at Agincourt. Characterized by long and powerful speeches by Henry V, the play is a riveting call to arms. 

Acting as a vessel for war propaganda, the play has been put on several times during times of political and social unrest to unify Britain under a single identity. The back end of the play is a love story, with Henry V courting Princess Katherine.

Each play presents something great about Shakespeare: war, love, revenge, tragedy and comedy. In this often collected series, the “Henriad” presents the best of Shakespeare's writings. Adapted several times over and available in print editions at the Little Professor, in the compact and cheap Signet Classic editions, making them the perfect plays to read on the go. 

 Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him 

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