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Theatre / The Pretenders

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The Pretenders (Kongsemnerne) is the last of four period pieces written by Henrik Ibsen. The play is based on the Saga of Håkon Håkonsson (Håkon IV of Norway), and set in the 13th century, a turbulent time of Norwegian history. The plot concerns the young Håkon and his claims to the Norwegian throne, and his rivals to the same position, hence the name. The main antagonist is Skule, earl from the start, then duke (the first Norwegian carryin that title), and in the end self-proclaimed king, a fact that makes another round of civil war break out. The play ends with Skule`s death, and the final rival to the throne gone.


This play carry examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Played straight, and is the moral problem of Skule. Håkon, on the other hand, seems quite unambitious, in spite of his inherited position.
  • Artistic Licence – History: mostly averted. But why is the bishop of Oslo attending, and seemingly overseeing a ritual in the main church of Bergen? Only for the Rule of Cool, one presumes.
  • Author Avatar: Skule has been pinpointed as this. At the time, Ibsen felt that he was overshadowed by rival poet Bjørnson, who arguably had more luck with the public and a broader appeal. Thus, the rivalry is expied in the bickerings between Skule and Håkon.
  • Back from the Dead: Nikolas arrives in a rather creepy scene to tempt and taunt Skule before the play concludes. Creepy because we know he died two acts prior to this. As horror goes, this single scene is one of the best scenes Ibsen wrote.
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  • Born Lucky: Håkon seems to have luck, and fate, on his side. Heavily lampshaded by Skule.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In his last speech, the undead Nikolas adresses his audience directly.
  • Civil War: well, yeah. The ending of the Norwegian ones.
  • Chew Toy: Skule. But he tries, he really does.
  • The Chessmaster: Nikolas, the bishop of Oslo. To lampshade this, he is actually playing chess in the second act, commenting on events around him.
  • The Chosen One: Discussed, as Håkon seemingly is, and Skule wishes to be.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Avoided. The play spans several years, from the trial by fire undergone by Håkon`s mother, and the election of Håkon in 1217, over the battles in Oslo, to the death of Skule Bårdsson in 1240. The locations also shift rather quickly.
    • In real life, Håkon was 14 years of age when he was elected. This part seems compressed for practical reasons, and because of dawson casting. In fact, Håkon seems to age fairly little in the 23 years the play is meant to span (he would be abt 37 years old in 1240).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jatgeir, the bard in service of Skule. Also Nikolas and several others.
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  • Evil Minion: After Nikolas died, he quickly got a job offer from the devil. His assignment was apparently to keep Norway under surveillance, and he is still around!
  • The Final Temptation: Nikolas offers the kingdom to Skule and his son for the life of Håkon`s child. In that bargain, he also throwns in Skule`s soul, and the soul of Peter. As Peter recently violated the holy shrine of Saint Olav, this is unbearable to Skule, and the temptation fails.
    • After this, Nikolas turns to his audience, that would be us, and saying: "OK, I failed this time, but beware, every time you (Norwegians) show signs of pettyness, I am here. And as I have power over you, I will ''never'' leave!"
    • Reality Subtext: This was the last play Henrik Ibsen wrote before turning his back to Norway completely and set up abode in Italy for many years. The last speech of Nikolas can arguably be seen as Ibsen`s personal "The Reason You Suck" Speech, before leaving.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: The last speech of Nikolas. Surely the only time Ibsen used this trope (and possibly one older than radio).
  • Good Is Not Nice: Håkon serves as a benign ruler, for sure, who actually wish to reconcile the parties after years of bloody strife - as long as none of said parties threaten his position. The lesser pretenders (Jon Kuvlung, Sigurd Ribbung), are rooted out one by one, and when Skule proclaims himself king, Håkon goes seriously batshit. The battling is on for three years.
  • Go Through Me: Håkon has to go through Skule to claim full control of Norway. Lampshaded at the very end of the play, when Skule is dead and Håkon complains that the body of Skule is in his direct path. The answer: "If the king wishes to claim his full dominion, he has to go over the dead body of Skule Bårdsson". And Håkon does.
  • Hero Antagonist: Skule comes across as this. In spite of his resentments towards Håkon, he is a likable and well meaning man, with moral standards. He even accepts the marriage of his daughter Margrethe and Håkon. But he is constantly pushed into it by Nikolas the Bishop.
  • Historical Domain Character: In spades. A possible exception for Peter Skulason, though.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Nikolas the bishop. In real life, he was not that evil.
  • Knight Templar: Peter Skulason, coming fresh from a convent and rapidly trained in politics. He gets fanatic so fast it scares even Skule.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Envy for Skule Bårdsson, and for Nikolas as well.
  • Period Piece: Yep.
  • The Resenter: Nikolas to a T. "My mind was set on killing men and embrace women, but I managed neither".
  • Sinister Minister: Nikolas, of course.
  • Take That!: or rather Take that, Norway, in the last speech of Nikolas Arnesson. Nikolas also states that he finally learned proper latin, because hell is already filled with clergymen.
    • The first, but not the last time Ibsen pulled this one.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Nikolas decided to solve his life this way. Skule considers it.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Bishop Nikolas, being promoted to an evil minion in the last act, with Norway as his special assignment.
  • The Unreveal: Nikolas claims to have certain letters concerning the fosterage of Håkon, putting his rightful heritage in doubt. Skule, claiming the kingdom for himself, would like to get his hands on them, but Nikolas tricks him to burn them, not knowing what they were. To add insult to injury, Nikolas tells him afterwards.
  • Trial By Fire: Håkon`s claim to the throne is strengthened by this. His mother Inga takes it on at the start of the play.