Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2007
This is a meditation on two objects, a crown and a pillow, and what they might be made to mean on stage. Their juxtaposition in two scenes of Shakespeare’s Henry Ⅳ plays contributes to the complex staging of Hal’s career, to the enormity of Falstaff’s character, and to the enormously complex formal relationship between the two plays. The first of these scenes is Act 2, scene 4 of Henry IV, Part 1, wherein Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff jest with and against each other on several topics: Falstaff’s behaviour at the Gadshill robbery, the fearsome Percy rebellion, the shapes of their own bodies, and Hal’s disrepute in the eyes of his father, the king. Knowing that Hal ‘must to the court in the morning’ (2.4.334–5), they decide to prepare him for the royal dressing down by staging a royal dressing up. In this impromptu play Hal will ‘practice an answer’ (375) to his father, and so he and Falstaff take turns acting the roles of prince and king in front of the tavern audience. ‘Do thou stand for my father and examine me upon the particulars of my life’ (376–7), orders Hal. At this point, Falstaff places a cushion upon his head, and in this position I leave him for a moment.
Theatrical properties starkly exemplify the ontological paradoxes of drama, as an audience watches real people and fictional characters simultaneously manipulating real objects that are subjected to the demands of make-believe. When placed on stage, the inert property begins to function both mimetically and symbolically. Consider one of the more spectacular examples in drama: Yorick. In the fiction of the play Hamlet, the prince holds the skull of his late father’s late jester. Along with the diverse cups, swords and papers that are manipulated by actors in various roles in Hamlet, the skull thus assists the representational illusion of the performance.