chapter  3
29 Pages

“Washed in Lethe”: Laundering the Past in 2 Henry IV

In 1 Henry IV, historical memory divides into opposed camps. England’s civil wars are doubled by history wars, as the Percies’ version of the past squares off against the King’s. 2 Henry IV poses a different challenge to a unifi ed and homogeneous national memory consistent with royal selfinterest. Rather than starkly opposed interpretations of historical events, 2 Henry IV features multiple versions of the past marked by dispersion, heterogeneity, and fragmentation. Incongruous acts of recollection result in a patchy sense of national unity that is refl ected in what may be judged a weakened artistic unity relative to the other three plays in the sequence. Shuffl ing attitudes toward the past expressed by king, nobles, and commons, 2 Henry IV enacts a heterogeneous set of memories that resist digestion to a unifi ed historical narrative of the kind that Henry V will attempt to command in the next and last play in the sequence. The diverse and largely popular means of regarding the past in 2 Henry IV confi rms the historian Adam Fox’s conclusion that “popular traditions might bear little relationship to the signifi cant historical events as recorded by antiquarian scholarship in this period.”3