Forensic Friday (015): 1 Henry IV: I.i

subtitled:  “don’t shoot the messenger, please …

Welsh Women Dress
Bronwen and Ffion played it cool whilst Myfanwy reached under the table for her specially sharpened sugar tongs …

Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.  (Macbeth, IV, iii)

It’s a small episode, a tiny mouthful in the gargantuan feast that is 1 Henry IV.

But somehow the sexual disfigurement of the bodies of dead soldiers sticks in my mind, jostling for position amongst the bawdiness and burlesque, the heroics and hubris, the pathos and the pageantry.

It felt like a suitably challenging subject for this instalment of Forensic Friday, as I move away from exam texts for a while …

Away from exam texts, but not from exam rules.  Always the same question (see below), and always a close-reading which broadly meets the demands of OCR’s A-Level Spec.  In 250 words.

FF 015 1HIV I i.001

This is, for my students, a good example of how learning SKILLS, not answers, can equip you to access any extract from any play, and with a little contextual knowledge of the work, make a better than decent fist of it.  In this answer, for the benefit of my students, I’ve underlined any appropriate subject terminology and emboldened my use of the author’s name.  Quotations used are italicised.

In this case, as the play begins, King Henry is pausing and taking stock of the national picture.  He hopes that things are broadly under control, but receives unwelcome tidings.

– – –


Here, Shakespeare fashions Westmoreland as the reluctant bearer of horrific tidings to his king, also creating an adversarial relationship between the English audience and the Welsh which informs other parts of the play.

Westmoreland’s hesitation is implied by the multi-clause complex sentence, as if once he begins relaying the news, he must continue until it is all told.  Shakespeare uses the first line to suggest Westmorland tentatively preparing the ground: the trochee on ‘loaden’ implies a burden; this amplifies the emotional weight of the adjective, ‘heavy’.  It is succeeded by another trochee two lines later, stressing Mortimer’s role in ‘Leading’ his troops and connoting his heroic, noble (English) qualities.  Significantly, it creates a juxtaposition between the English and the Welsh.  In the latter half of the sentence, Shakespeare works hard to dehumanise Mortimer’s opponents.  Firstly, we have three polysyllabic lexemes, ‘irregular’, ‘Glendower’ and ‘transformation’, which distort the metre, suggesting emotional surges.  Irregular’ suggests the Welsh army are engaged in guerrilla warfare, not fighting fair or in a chivalric, civilised fashion; this is amplified by the adjective, ‘wild’.  Alternatively, it is a Shakespearean commonplace to have characters hesitate when naming their antagonists, making them sub-human or evil. ‘Transformation’ forms part of a broader euphemism: Westmoreland cannot describe the mutilations, let alone think of committing them, without ‘shame’.  The euphemism is itself contained within a dehumanising semantic field, where adjectives like ‘beastly’ emphasise the contrast between the two nations.  Even without the salacious details, we view the Welsh with disgust. [250 words]


Quotations are taken from

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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