Forensic Friday (#017): 1 Henry IV, I.iii


“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” [a]

This one is, I think, for my friend, Joe Gifford.

Back in the heady days of the beginning of this project, I likened close reading to autopsies and archaeology.  Today, I present you with a sexy new metaphor: close reading IS the red pill in The Matrix

No, really – let me persuade you.

Like Thomas Anderson and his unenlightened chums, we swim blithely in an immense ocean of texts.  It is our world now and probably has been since Television gained ascendancy – thank you, Neil Postman [b].  How many pieces of textual information are you exposed to a day?  Extend that further – include created images, both static and moving: they are texts, too, forms of communication of a message.  Then consider something I’ve frequently said in class:

all communication is designed to manipulate your thoughts and feelings in some way.

So we few on board the Nebuchadnezzar are the ones who see the code for what it is.  And the more you understand how the trick is pulled, how we are being manipulated, the more easily you can dodge bullets, or defy gravity.  Being good at communication is like stepping into that dazzling, infinite arsenal before going to kick some serious Agent Smith ass.

And, I’m going to extend this a little further.  There ARE dark forces out there who are interested in keeping you in your sleepy place.  Society is built on the basis of scarcely anyone questioning, analysing, seeing through the rhetoric, and the hyperbole, and the stylish but blatant lies.  That’s why to a large extent, and despite the soft soap to the contrary, the purpose of state education is NOT to produce independent, intellectually curious people.  I’m going to quote Jarvis Cocker here:

‘Oh, we weren’t supposed to be,

We learned too much in school

Now we can’t help but see,

That the future that you’ve got mapped out

Is nothing much to shout about’

You could put this down to the leisure the summer holidays gives me.  Or sunstroke: it’s in the high 20s as I write this.  Or the remarkable peace I’ve found sitting in my new garden.  There is a less menacing explanation (or at least a slightly less crazy one).

In class, I am Morpheus (yes, I did say this was less crazy).  I offer the blue and red pills to groups of young people.  Most of them don’t care that the steak isn’t real – they take the comforting blue pill.  A small minority take the red pill, and off we go, to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Back to Joe Gifford.  One of the red pill students, he found a different way of looking at a tiny fragment of poetry (Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’), and the courage to speak up about his idea – it’s only now, years later, that I realise quite how reluctant he was to raise his hand.  That was a memorable lesson, because he taught me: we learned about the poem together.  As Joe moves off into film, I know he has the ability to ask some interesting, penetrating ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

Some of you are still waiting patiently for the Forensic Friday post.  Thanks for bearing with me, or simply scrolling past me.  Here you are …

FF 017 1HIV I iii.001

Setting the scene:  1 Henry IV, Act I scene iii:  Hotspur and his relatives have just finished an angry spat with King Henry.  His father (Northumberland) and uncle (Worcester) try to calm him, but get increasingly irritated with the young Lord’s never-ending rant.  Worcester’s frustration leads him to threaten to walk away until the hothead has calmed down.  The usual rules apply.

Q:  how does Shakespeare use language for dramatic effect in this extract?

Although tempers fray in this short exchange, Shakespeare doesn’t allow the dialogue to descend into open warfare.  The heat of the complex sentences is tempered by the way the iambic pentameter is maintained; just a single trochee, ‘Nettled’, indicating Hotspur’s irritation not to his father, but towards Bolingbroke. Notably, Hotspur still has the presence of mind to respond to his father’s rebuke with the conventionally respectful address, ‘you’.

Northumberland’s reprove neatly metaphorises his son’s irritation as ‘wasp-stung’: almost comically drawing Hotspur over-reacting to an angry insect’s attack, but perhaps subtly more revealing: following this logic echoes his son’s contempt for the king, the ‘wasp’: dehumanised, angry but ultimately ineffectual.  Alternatively, it is Henry’s perceived insults and threats that are diminished.  Shakespeare adding the dismissive insult to Hotspur’s masculinity (‘woman’s mood’ infers the excessive, illogical prattling of the contemporary nagging wife or scold), the lack of real ire suggests the older man, experienced (perhaps especially as Hotspur’s father), with perspective his son lacks.

Hotspur’s defence is that he is helpless to do anything but react, the verbswhipped’, ‘scourged’, ‘nettled’, and ‘stung’ acting adjectivally to accumulate his lack of choice. He quickly returns to his theme, displaying utter contempt for the king. He deliberately uses ‘Bolingbroke’ to delegitimise, almost ironically humanise the king, and the plosive, multi-syllabic adjective, ‘politician’ is particularly scathing, implying a rhetorician, a liar, a sophist. Anathema to this man of action.  Presenting this intractable antagonism, Shakespeare forces us to choose where our sympathies lie. [250 words]


[a] The Matrix, Wachowski Brothers, 1999

[b] Neil Postman, We Are Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (London: Methuen, 1985) – one of the most influential books I have ever read

[c] Pulp, Misshapes (Jarvis Cocker et al, 1995)

[d] play quotation 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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