Close Reading of Henry IV Act 1, Scene 1 Lines 1-40 (Essay Sample)
Your assignment is to write a six-page essay presenting a close-reading of about
thirty or forty lines from any of the plays we have read so far, using at least one
citation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Things one does in a close reading:
• frame the passage in the context of the play
• paraphrase difficult lines
• gloss archaic words, using the OED along with your edition
• identify patterns (in syntax, diction, theme, sound, sense, etc.)
• describe rhetorical devices (and name them, if you can)
• explain what may define the character and/or advance the plot
• illuminate resonances with other moments in the work
• identify shifts or breaks (in tone, idea, action)
• describe indications of onstage action
• consider multiple meanings (but cautiously and within reason)
Close Reading of Henry IV Act 1, Scene 1 Lines 1-40
Reading Shakespeare is one of the most problematic activities in literature because of the complexity of his language and the grammatical choices he makes. The language is not easily understandable, and one needs skills to decipher the unusual use of grammar and sentence constructions, metaphorical language, word plays, and omissions (Adamson 17). The complexity is caused partly by Shakespeare's unique choices that violate the standard grammatical arrangements and the difference between modern English and 16th century English (Adamson 19). In this close reading of Henry IV’s first 40 lines of Act One Scene 1, the difference between modern English and 16th century English is evident, and his grammatical deviations and unique sentence construction tactics deviate from normal English arrangements.
The opening sequence of Henry VI Act 1 Scene 1 introduces King Henry as he meets his advisers to deliberate on a crusade proposed against the Holy Land. However, the discussion shifts to new battles on English borders. The first noticeable aspect as one begins to read the scene is unfamiliar words no longer in use (Adamson 66). Indeed, the play was written more than 400 years ago, and English vocabulary has changed immensely within this period. Therefore, some of the words are in disuse while others have different meanings from those in the sixteenth century. For example, in line 30, Shakespeare writes, "Therefore we meet not now. Then let me hear” (1.1.30). The word, therefore, has a different meaning from its modern one. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word therefore means the same as a result, for that reason, or because of that. It is an adverb of reason (Oxford Learners Dictionary). However, in this context, it has a similar meaning with the phrase "For that Purpose." In the opening lines, King Henry says, "So shaken as we are, so wan with care, Find we a time for frighted peace to pant And breathe short-winded accents of new broils To be commenced in strands afar remote” (1.1. 1-4). Several words are unfamiliar, while others have different meanings from the one, they had more than 400 years ago. For example, he uses the phrase wan with care to mean weak. The word phrase frighted peace in the second line has the modern meaning of moment of peace while pant in the third line is intended to mean catch breath. However, according to the Oxford dictionary the word pant means “to breath quickly” while the word frighted relates to the feeling of fear (Oxford Learners Dictionary). Therefore, the first four lines in modern English should read, "Even though we are weary and weak, we need to find time during this peaceful period to catch our breath, and as we do so, we can make decisions about where next to fight in this world. Arguably, the translated version of these lines makes it look like the original lines were written in an entirely different language. The difference between Shakespeare's English and modern English indicates how much English has changed in the last four hundred years.
In the opening scene, Shakespeare's construction of sentences departs from the normal English arrangements. Arguably, he uses poetic license to make the language poetic. In lines 5 to 9, Shakespeare writes, "No more the thirsty entrance of this soil Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood. Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields, Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes” (1.1.5-9). Ideally, the phrase no more is used at the beginning of two lines in that sequence, which defies normal English arrangement. In modern English and normal English arrangements, the sequence would have read, “The country’s soil will no longer be wet with the blood of our soldiers. Wars and invasions will no longer destroy her fields, and her flowers will no longer be run over by the hooves of the horses carrying war soldiers. The words no longer, which have the same meaning as no more in Shakespearean English, are placed in the middle of the sentences in normal English arrangement. Hotspur uses similar sentence constructions in scene three when he claims “I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold, to be so pestered with a popinjay, out of my grief and my impatience, answered neglectingly I know not what” (1.3.5-53). Shakespeare uses them at the beginning of the lines to create musicality and emphasize the desire to change the current situation. Starting the lines with the words no more also helps to communicate the boldness of the King's decision regarding protecting his land.
The placement of the subject or adverbs and the verb in the opening scene also defies normal English conventions. Ideally, the playwright often writes the verb before the subject. He places the subjects and adverbs in between two verbs in some cases. For example, in line 12, he writes, "Did lately meet in the intestine shock” (1.1.12). The word lately is placed in between did and meet. In the second sentence, he puts the verb before the subject, "Find we a time for frighted peace to pant” (1.1.2). Subject-verb agreement in grammar requires the subject we to come before the verb find. However, Shakespeare has defied grammar rules on numerous occasions in the opening scene. These inversions are used to stress particular verbs that denote actions that need to be prioritized.
Interrupted construction is a significant linguistic feature in the opening scene of Act one of Henry IV. Notably, the playwright has rearranged words that belong together in numerous passages where basic sentence elements are separate, which expands or delays interruptions. That linguistic structure is evident in the opening scene when King Henry describes the just ended strife as he hopes for a crusade to the holy land. In lines 9-16, Shakespeare writes, "Those opposèd eyes, Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven, all of one nature, of one substance bred, did lately meet in the intestine shock, and furious close of civil butchery, shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks, March all one way and be no more opposed, Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies (1.1-9-16). In this sequence, the basic elements of a sentence have been interrupted by figures of speech and phrases characteristic of the King's formal rhetoric. This sentence structure with interrupted basic elements of a sentence forced the reader to pay attention to the narrative details while waiting for the completion of the sentence. Long interrupted sentences are prevalent in the rest of the play and are used as a characterizing device.
Another feature of sentence construction in the opening sentence scene of Henry IV Act 1 is long sentences in which the basic elements of a sentence are dispersed over many lines, with details piling upon each other. In Henry’s opening speech, such sentences are present. Between lines 17 and 27, King Henry promises the listeners that the war will not hurt the people anymore and states that an English army will invade the Holy Land as Christ's soldiers committed to fighting for what Christ did for the people on the cross. He goes ahead to say that the soldiers had a responsibility to remove atheists from the holy areas that Jesus walked on, arguing that the feet that touched the sacred land were nailed to the cross fourteen centuries ago (1.1.17-27). That is a long segment, and it is noteworthy that details keep emerging one after the other as the King continues to speak.
The same sentence construction tactic is present in the second speaker. After his long monologue in the opening sequence, King Henry invites his cousin Westmoreland to speak about what the council decreed the previous night about the expedition. Westmoreland follows the precedent set by the King in the opening monologue by dispersing the basic elements of the sentence over several lines.
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