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Madness in “Henry IV” by Luigi Pirandello Research Paper

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Updated: May 23rd, 2021


The human mind is one of the greatest mysteries of the world. The way it functions preconditions people’s behaviors, their abilities, and social status. To a greater degree, the whole individuals’ lives are a result of its functioning. However, in some cases, the given unique organ fails to work in appropriate ways which results in the emergence of multiple mental problems. The complexity of this issues preconditions the emergence of various illusions or hallucinations that confuse individuals and their close people.

At the same time, such situations give food for imagination that can be used by authors utilizing the given theme and creating plots to attract readers’ attention and show them peculiarities of a particular idea. Thus, the story Henry IV by Luigi Pirandello can be considered a perfect example of a work that utilizes the theme of madness to reveal exiting inner conflicts in people and emphasize their universal character.


In general, the author is famous for his experimental works combining psychological aspects with some other motifs to create a complete image and inspire a leader. One of the main reasons for the emergence of such fusion is the desire to show the unique character of the psyche and, from the other hand to emphasize the fact that all people have similar problems (Gillette 25).

For instance, in the story Henry IV, Pirandello apparently makes allusions to Shakespeare’s play with the same title to show the existence of the same inner conflict and emphasize the fact that in different epochs people had same troubles (Gillette 21). At the same time, this anti-historical work shows peculiarities of a new era and challenges people living in it face. In such a way, Henry IV becomes a potent text that demonstrates basic aspects of our mentalities and makes people think about their own problems.


The plot of the story is unusual as it is created with the primary aim to reveal the problems mentioned by the author and help readers to understand the central themes of the play which are madness and deep inner conflicts peculiar to people in different epochs. Thus, an unnamed Italian aristocrat acquires a severe mental disease after his fall from a horse while playing the role of Henry I. during the annual festival (Pirandello 15). The given crash had a pernicious impact on his conscience as the main character starts to believe that he is Henry. In such a way, all hero’s close people and family members have to pretend that they really live in the imperial palace and play the role of Henry’s councilors. The invited doctor tries to treat the patient and destroy madness, however, it results in tragic outcomes.

Main Characters

This unusual setting helps to present the main character who can also be considered the unconventional one. The fact is that the author balances between madness and normal states while describing Henry IV. At the very beginning of the play, he claims that he is the medieval German King who has to be honored and respected. At the same time, in real life, he is a man in his fifties who live in Italia and has a number of advisers who usually surround him.

This pattern is also used while depicting the world created for Henry by family members as they pretend to be his councilors. Moreover, in the course of the play we discover that Henry pretends to be mad as he fully recovered from illness many years ago but continues to explore this very image.

Other members of the big family such as di Nolli, Henry’s nephew, Matilda, the main character’s beloved one, and a psychiatrist who tries to treat him, are introduced by the author to create a complete image of a villa plunged into madness. For instance, Matilda has to play a role of Matilda of Tuscany to remain in touch with Henry who wants to recognize only people who act like historical pageants (Gillette 20). In such a way, the critical role of other family members is to emphasize the unreality of the situation and help to disclose the main character’s personality by engaging in meaningful cooperation with them. The author also focuses readers’ attention on the fact that throughout all the play they keep pretending and playing their roles instead of trying to face the existing reality.

Theme of Madness

Nevertheless, as it has already been stated, one of the important themes of the play is madness. From the very first lines of the work, a reader understands that the main character and people surrounding him act in an unreal world. For instance, Harold explains “Henry IV of Germany, My Dear Boy. The Salian dynasty.” (Pirandello 3). In this manner, he describes a patient who thinks that he is a hero of the past times. That is why while reading the first parts of the play, the feeling of unreality of all events emerges. However, the given effect is created by the author with the primary aim to outline the theme of madness. Moreover, to emphasize the contrast between the real world and the given location, the author introduces decorations that also play a critical role in the development of a story.

For instance, the portrait of Lady Matilda that causes vigorous debates has a specific symbolic meaning. Describing it, Doctor says “a portrait is always fixed in a moment of time” (Pirandello 7). This statement perfectly describes the situation at this house. Since the first sign of Henry’s illness, all people living here have been pretending that they live in another epoch. It means that the villa’ perception alters and now it is out of time as nothing changes there (Coppolillo 74).

This fact correlates with the theme of madness as there are no terms for really mad people. They live in their own universe that does not have the need for clocks or hours. They state that “We don’t any of us know who we are really” (Pirandello 31). Time remain unnoticed as everyone who accepted the rules keep pretending that there is a particular epoch in which they live.

Finally, the theme of madness can be seen in the main character’s actions. Pretending to be Henry IV he calls himself a madman as he is afraid of himself and of his image. At the same time, he appeals to others asking if they are aware of themselves (Pirandello 48).

This paradox when a mentally sick person is sure that he is mad contributes to the creation of a unique atmosphere. At the same time, in Act II readers get to know that that the sufferer recovers from the disease; however, he keeps pretending that he is mad because of the unreadiness to face reality and return to the normal life. It can be considered another manifestation of the character’s madness as self-isolation and lack of desire to engage in contact with the outer world are signs of mental problems.

Theme of Time

As it has already been mentioned, the play also utilizes the theme to time as one of the central ways to emphasize the main character’s madness and provide readers with the improved understanding of the discussed problem. The whole world created by the sufferer can be considered an attempt to shift time as in the imaginary space real physical laws do not have power. In such a way, Henry’s desire to remain in his state can also be explained as the unwillingness to lose control over this dimension and enter the real world where time is flowing (Mazzaro 40). The fight at the end is perfect evidence to this statement as the main character prefers to save everything in the way it was organized and rejects facts. These two themes correlate with each other as madness and time are closely connected.

Inner Conflict

Thus, the inner conflict mentioned at the beginning of the play contributes to the creation of a unique atmosphere. Just like Henry IV in Shakespeare’s poem, Pirandello’s Henry is also tortured by his thoughts and fears (Gillette 20). Having recovered from the illness, he is not ready to accept this fact and explain to his close people that there is no need for a pageant. On the contrary, his fears become stronger as the realty would have other laws and act in another way while Henry is not ready for it (Gillette 21). At the same time, living in the entirely fake world, he starts to lose his identity and self-consciousness. The given conflict becomes critical for the hero as it preconditions a significant shift of priorities toward the avoidance and the further isolation.


In such a way, the themes of madness, time, and inner conflict are interconnected in the play. The author manages to create the image of a tragic hero who has multiple problems and is not ready to face reality. This effect is achieved due to the wise combination of the issues mentioned above. Using madness as the background for cogitations, the Pirandello provides readers with the idea that the concept of time becomes critical for people who try to avoid reality and who have multiple inner conflicts. The three discussed themes become essential for the improved understanding of the play and motifs impacting the main character’s choice.


Altogether, Henry IV by Pirandello can be considered an unusual play that utilizes the unique character of humans’ brains and its ability to generate illusions to deceive a person and help him/her to avoid the existing reality. Introducing the themes of madness, time, and inner conflict that the author manages to create a complete image of a person who does not know how to live further and who face numerous problems. These issues apparently impact Henry’s mentality as he is gradually losing control and becomes a person who does not realize his true desires. The play contributes to the improved understanding of main drivers of people’s behaviors and their desire to avoid problems by pretending that they do not exist.

Works Cited

Coppolillo, Henry. “The art of Pirandello: A psychoanalytic view.” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, vol. 61, no. 1, 1997, pp. 73-89.

Gillette, Kyle. “’My Portrait Come to Life’ – Visions of Self in Pirandello’s Henry IV.” Pirandello’s Visual Philosophy: Imagination and Thought across Media, edited by Lisa Sarti and Michael Subialka, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017, pp. 17-33.

Mazzaro, Jerome. “Memory and Madness in Pirandello’s ‘Enrico IV’.” Comparative Drama, vol. 26, no. 1, 1992, pp. 34-57.

Pirandello, Luigi. Henry IV. Italica Press, 2006.

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