The recent staging by the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, as directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, provided food for thought. The plays are, of course, the great epic of England, the true English Aeneid, comprising, along with Richard II and Henry V, both panorama and meditation. What are the sources of grace and health in a society? What do unhappy, partial societies look like? How might a young man, in the course of claiming his identity, bring himself into a right alignment with his father and his destiny, which is to heal a torn world? Shakespeare was writing about such things with one eye on his dramatic time, the early 1400s, and one eye on the roiled Tudor waters of the 1590s. And he had a concern for such problems for, so to speak, their own sakes—abstracted from time—and not just as constituents of the matter of England, as can be felt in the...


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