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Madness, Revenge, and the Metaphor of the Theater in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Pirandello's Henry IV MATTHEW N. PROSER Both Shakespeare's Hamlet and Pirandello's Henry IV illuminate their actions with a play metaphor that forms a kind ofperceptual lens through which we may study and come to understand the conduct of the characters and their tragic predicaments. Professor Anne Righter puts the matter clearly regarding Shakespeare's drama: "Hamlet is a tragedy dominated by the idea ofthe play."I In plays like Six Characters and Henry IV, Pirandello makes his explicit thematic content the coalescence of human identity with the roles it chooses. The psyche's capacity to express and defend itself in enacted identities is the basic subject matter whrch underlies these dramas' broader philosophical perspectives. As "Henry" says to the Marchioness Matilda Spina, "you too, Madam, are in masquerade ... "(1, p. 519). In Hamlet the play metaphor attaches itself to the Prince's feigned madness. It is an "antic disposition." But the metaphor takes other important forms in the play: the masks and pretenses put on by the main characters in Claudius's "mock" court, the use of the.itinerant players and the play within the play, the imagery of clothing and painting. Indeed, "The Murder of Gonzago" is the climactic theatrical center of the action of Hamlet, and "act" is "the play's radical metaphor."2 These manifestations of the theater metaphor, however, are subsumed by the larger questions of Hamlet's social, indeed, cosmic, role in Denmark. That is, they are expanded by the widest circumference of the thematic meaning ofHamlet. In Henry IV the main character's madness, his "disposition" to be "antic," both in its "unconscious" and its "conscious" stages, is painted in the theatrical colors of the original pageant during which Henry was thrown from his horse. The same vivid medieval hues, along with all the attendant costumes, scenery, props, pictures, and stage effects, make of Henry's "solitary villa in Italy" a pretend court of an eleventh-century Holy Roman Emperor in Germany. This element of staged masquerade informs every dimension of the "production" Shakespeare's Hamlet and Pirandello's Henry IV 339 around Henry. The individual who is "Henry" lives two lives caught in the tinsel panoply of this theatrical concept - his own and that of Henry IV, the spurious historical identity who actually takes over his life. Unlike the case of Hamlet, however, the efficaciousness of Henry's role in any real social or political sense is a question which is simply never engaged by Henry IV. In Pirandello's play, Goslar, unlike Elsinore, is only as real as Henry's mind can make it, and the idea that anyone in this "king's" presence might have a cosmic role is absurd. Hamlet is a tragedy which initiates a young prince into reality and life. But from the very first act Hamlet's mind is stage center as he casts about for a way to execute his father's demand for vengeance. From another point of view, Hamlet's problem concerns roles and identities. DoverWilson understands that the Prince "has lost a throne, and he has lost thereby a social, publicly acceptable persona. ... " This he seeks throughout the play like a "dispossessed " ghost.3 At the beginning of the drama, Hamlet is no longer son, nephew, lover, friend, or even heir to the throne as he was before his father's murder. Yet his commitment to vengeance seems to require an absolute identity, almost a caricature, of the standard dramatic type drawn from contemporary Elizabethan dramatic literature - the revenger Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter. (Hamlet, Lv. 97-104) Hamlet's situation requires him to simplify and to typecast himself "dramatically" for the purposes of action. But revenge appears uncongenial to his nature, a kind of "Murder most foul, as in the best it is ... " (I.v. 27), that jeopardizes his entire...


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pp. 338-352
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