Helen Palmer Shakespeare Spring Semester 2012 Foolishness and Wisdom in Shakespeare: Turnabout Makes a Fair Play After reading the Shakespeare plays we were assigned this semester, one thing in particular caught my interest. It was the turnabout in the tetralogy; the turn from foolishness to wisdom and being changed by the choices made. The choices made become catalysts. The protagonist is broken down into base components and re-forged into a new being. Even the antagonists are changed. The only character that doesn’t seem to be affected is the Fool, who is an amalgam of both foolishness and wisdom.
Shakespeare used the interaction and transition between the foolishness and wisdom of the kings to form the crux of these plays for the purpose of showing that man can rise above any circumstance, can learn from his mistakes, and grace can be restored. In the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V we see three sequential kings who have to take stock of their existence.
They are faced with their shortcomings and through circumstance are forced to take a look deep inside themselves and make a change.
Richard II was a vain, petty young man who hadn’t learned that when he put on the crown he became more than himself and his desires. He grew up with power yet didn’t understand that the power was not for his sole benefit but derived from adding the personhood of the state to his own. He surrounded himself with people that fed his sole ego and foolishly listened when they told him what he wanted to hear. When faced with defeat, he found wisdom and recognized his duty to a duality that had become lost to him. In being broken, he was made whole and gained the right to his kingship.
Henry Bolingbroke, Henry IV, was certain of his right to question the authority of King Richard due to inequities of Richard’s rule. He was unjustly deprived of his station due to Richard’s greed. However, certainty is shown for foolishness and used as a pretext by Henry to justify his own hunger for power. In the scene where he complains of the necessity to find a means to overthrow Richard, he has already landed troops for that purpose. His certainty of his right to rule in place of a rightfully crowned king is shown for foolishness because it breaks the divine right of succession and replaces it with right by might.
He usurps not only the right to rule, but allows his self importance to over-ride the divine will of God. His return to wisdom in the opening act of Henry IV is seen through his understanding of how uneasy lies the kingdom due to the blood spilled and how he wants to cleanse himself (and his kingdom) by taking the sons of England to fight for God’s honor in the holy land. In Henry IV, Prince Hal is the Fool and is playing a game with foolishness and wisdom. He has a plan to gain the throne and his father’s respect. He plays at being foolish; he commits crime, consorts with criminals, drinks, and gambles.
But he reasons that this is will be all to his good when “like bright metal on a sullen ground, My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes, Than that which hath no foil to set it off. ” It all culminates in Prince Hal. He has learned from history; how Bolingbroke was the foil to Richard’s selfish by seeming to promote the welfare of the common man and by the foil that Richard played to Bolingbroke by regaining his divine kingship in Bolingbroke’s usurpation of it. In Henry V, the prince, now king, has in fact taken the reins of both.
He acted common to gain the common people as a reflection of his father’s wisdom in seeking to gain the support of the commons and he restores Richard’s divine right of rule. Prince Hal is the amalgam of both. In these plays, we see Shakespeare’s views of wisdom and foolishness. The transition and interaction of both these themes changed all three kings. Richard had rule but didn’t understand it until he lost it. Henry took rule but didn’t understand it until he had it. Prince Hal was changed by the circumstances of both Richard and Henry’s choices and made the best of both.
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