Authority and the Problem of Other Minds in Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad’


  • David Nathan Pensky University of Pittsburgh


The critical tradition surrounding Shakespeare’s Henriad plays has long been divided along the fault line of Hal’s supposed princely virtues. Is Prince Hal a hero, resolving a crisis of authority at the upper reaches of government? Or is he something less than that, a Machiavellian scoundrel or a mouthpiece for nationalist rhetoric? Perhaps one reason critical consensus on these plays has been so elusive is that the plays’ action itself centers around an interpretive problem – the problem of other minds. This paper will discuss several ways that these plays signal a shift in political theory within sixteenth-century England, a shift in which the interpretation of other minds becomes an important tool of institutional policy. The advent of sovereignty informs this shift, and defines a broad culture of personal rule. New theories on the sovereignty of the king-in-parliament set the tone for an angst-ridden turn from a metaphysical model of authority to one more epistemically oriented. My paper discusses the ways this angst inscribes within the Henriad plays, particularly surrounding the person of Prince Hal.