As dramatizations of the fate of Crown and nation two centuries before the time of Shakespeare and his audience, the Henry IV plays pose explicitly the key questions facing radical criticism today. What is the relationship between the reality of history and its creative representation, between the world of the past and the work’s account of it? What is the political role of the work in its own world: to shore up or shake the foundations of power? Can the literature of the past speak only of the past, or has it secrets to reveal to the present and appointments to keep with the future? No attempt to answer these questions in recent years has been more ambitious or compelling than Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), which seeks to construct nothing short of a new Marxist hermeneutics, a comprehensive political theory of interpretation.1 My own proposals in Chapter 1 for a fresh approach to the interpretive task find much in that theory with which to concur. Part of my purpose in this chapter, therefore, is to show how Jameson’s sharpest initiatives can help carve out a more searching account of the Henry IV plays than the most influential criticism to date has delivered. Jameson’s basic view of literature, however, is fatally flawed by the tunnel vision to which so much radical criticism seems to be congenitally predisposed. So by reappraising these plays I also want to establish the power of Shakespeare’s drama to confound such misconceptions through its superior imaginative grasp of the problems Jameson addresses.
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