Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Henry IV, Dubya and the Myth of the Prodigal Son

I have been reading through Shakespeare's Henriad plays (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V). One of the things that stuck out on this reading is how the prodigal son myth has been integral in politics for a long time. Read in the context of the sequence, Hal's transformation from drunken lout to leader of men is contrasted with the disastrous reign of the all-too-human Richard II. Richard is the king who is not able to overcome his human foibles. Meanwhile, Hotspur's moral defect is his apparent lack of any human weakness, which also makes him incapable of human emotion.

I am not usually the type to draw modern political parallels in literature, but I couldn't help but be reminded of George W. when reading about Hal. Were Bush's drunken fratboy days a calculated political move meant to humanize him, much as Hal's seems to be? One thing blue staters have never been able to understand about W is his ability to connect with religious voters. More than his stand on gay rights and abortion, Bush the candidate was able to connect with the religious because he speaks the language of sin and redemption. It seems a particularly American idea to give people a second chance, but the Henriad shows that even the British like their monarchs to have human side. The difference is that Shakespeare's monarchs are expected to to resolutely look sin in the face and, when the time comes, reject it, as Hal symbolically does to Falstaff. Americans, on the other hand, require public confession, atonement and begging for forgiveness.

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