Henry IV, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Rumors of Hal’s unexpected appearance reach the rebels, already reeling from bad news about Northumberland (who is seriously ill), and Glendower’s army (badly unprepared and not yet available). Challenged by the King, they squabble among themselves. Falstaff, in the meantime, is doing his bit for the royal cause by happily accepting bribes to dismiss good soldiers and hire in their stead, “ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of companies – slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton’s dogs licked his sores; and such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust servingmen, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters, and ostlers trade-fallen; the cankers of a calm world and a long peace; ten times more dishonorable ragged than an old fazed ancient…”
Preparations for the Battle of Shrewsbury, as the rebels squabble, Hotspur exalts in his father’s absence and his opportunity to seize the glory for himself, and Falstaff mocks the whole idea of war and battle with his so-called army. “A mad fellow met me on the way, and told me I had unloaded all the biggest and pressed the dead bodies.” But indeed, what’s the point of having better, as he tells Prince Hal, “Tut, tut! Good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as good as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.” It is in such moments, I think, that Falstaff reaches the heights.
“The rest of the play consists of the convergence of all the parties on war, and the concluding battle at Shrewsbury. The most important event, or phenomenon, is the almost miraculous transformation of Prince Henry. Legends of Harry’s wild and dissolute youth, and the sudden change and reformation that came over him when he became king, started in his own life-time (in his youth, says a chronicler of 1516, he ‘applied him unto all vyce and insolency, and drewed unto him all ryottours and wylde disposed persones’), though it appears that there is no historical basis for these stories. Dover Wilson suggested that fifteenth-century allegorical (morality play) taste needed a Prodigal Prince who would then be miraculously converted into the hero of Agincourt. Perhaps. Shakespeare’s cool, detached Prince (himself, not so wild after all) is a world away from the unreconstructed, vandalizing thug of The Famous Victories; though, interestingly, as Bullough pointed out, he diminishes the Prince’s administration work and experience (he was, in fact, governor of North Wales and the Marches from 1400). Bullough also suggests that if he did have some wild years, they would most likely have been between 1405 and 1410 (when the King was ill, and Hal was aged eighteen to twenty-three) – i.e. after Shrewsbury. As usual, Shakespeare wants to tell it his way.
The transformation is, certainly, ‘miraculous.’ It is celebrated by, occurs in, Vernon’s famous “I saw young Harry with his beaver on’ speech, which is in answer to Hotspur’s inquiry as to where the ‘madcap Prince of Wales’ is, and which starts:
All furnished, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Bated like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer
and so on. It concludes by comparing Henry to Mercury and likening him to an ‘angel’ dropped from the clouds on to a ‘Pegasus’ who is about to ‘witch the world with noble horsemanship.’ The poetry of this description has been rightly praised, but I find that there is something strange about it. It is not just the extreme fulsomeness of the admiration, which, understandably enough, irritates Hotspur. It is as if the words were spoken by someone hypnotized, in a trance, as if Vernon has seen a vision. Something similar happens when Vernon describes the exquisitely princely way in which Henry offered his challenge to single combat (V,ii,51-69). It sounds like an anthology of the principles of ‘courtesy,’ drawing from Hotspur, again understandably, the comment – ‘Cousin, I think thou art enamored.’ Vernon is dazzled; and so are we. I honestly can’t quite work out what Shakespeare is doing here. Miraculous transformations are, of course, perennially popular, and not just in folk tale, legend, and myth. And here the audience is given, if not quite frog-into-prince, at least tavern layabout into chivalric hero. Perhaps it is as simple as that. Yet Shakespeare has provided such a subtle, penetrating portrait of his complex prince that I find it hard to think that he intended us to forget all we have seen of the unmoved calculator. Vernon’s descriptions are marked by excess; they are ‘idealized,’ too much so for Hotspur and perhaps they should be a bit too much for us. Shakespeare likes having soldiers provoked into wonder and praise – as with Enobarbus on Cleopatra in her barge. But I cannot help thinking that Shakespeare would have us think that, in some way, Vernon has been ‘taken in’ as we say – ‘enamored’ is no bad word for his almost ecstatic evocations. Hal has ‘thrown off’ his tavern role, and ‘put on’ the panoply of chivalry. The indications are that this capable, controlled manipulator has an extensive ‘wardrobe.’ I use the word advisedly, for it is used later in the play, in very telling circumstances. In this connection it is worth nothing that Hal is compared to Mercury, where we might expect – because of Pegasus – Perseus. Mercury – god of furtiveness and trickery – is always devious, and traditionally comes disguised or invisible. Perhaps Shakespeare is giving a sign – a prince is always Mercurial. I owe this observation to Jonathan Bate in Shakespeare and Ovid.
From Garber, picking up on the same theme:
“The vision of Prince Hal presented in the succeeding scenes continues to limn this mythic persuasiveness. Thus, for example, Sir Richard Vernon, one of the rebels, reports to a skeptical Hotspur that he has seen a new Prince Hal, a Hal dressed for battle and prepared for war, a Hal no longer Hal but now ‘young Harry:’
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cuishes on his thighs, gallantly armed,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Horsemanship is a skill that has been associated throughout the play with Hotspur. Here the horse in question is Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek myth, the horse of the Muses, emblematic of the sacred king’s or hero’s journey to heaven. The ancient story tells of
Bellerophon’s attempt to ride Pegasus to heaven, a hubristic move that drew the anger of the gods; like Icraus and Phaethon, other presumptuous figures, Bellerophon fell, thwarted in his goal. Hal’s heroism here is imagined as unquestioned and successful, like that of ‘an angel dropped down from the clouds,’ witching, or bewitching, the world with ‘noble horsemanship.’ The comparison with Mercury, the Roman god of eloquence, also described as a god of commerce and gain (the name itself derives from the same root as ‘merchant’ and ‘merchandise’), is telling. The Roman Mercury was protector of both traders and thieves, an apt ancestor for the Prince Hal of the Gads Hill caper, and was the conductor of souls to the lower world – an appropriate role for a Hal who is about to offer a premature epitaph for the fallen Falstaff. In Shakespeare’s time Mercury (who also appears in the Mercutio of Romeo and Juliet) was regarded as a bearer of news, as a guide or conductor, and as both a nimble person and a dextrous thief. In a later play in this sequence, Henry V, we will encounter the distinctly mock-heroic paean of the French Dauphin to his horse, offered as a kind of love poem, and clearly to be imagined as a comic pendant to this scene – which is, in form, actually another Shakespearean ‘unscene,’ as Vernon reports the quasi-mythic sighting. (‘I will not change my horse with any that but treads on four pasterns,’ carols the Dauphin. ‘He bounds from the earth as if his entrails were hares – le cheval Volant, the Pegasus…When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he trots the air; the earth when he touches it.’ and so on.) But in Vernon’s account we encounter Hal, for the first and indeed the last time in this play, described in mythological rather than in Christian terms – a Hal on horseback, a Hal no frankly heroic. Just as Hotspur was a ‘Mars in swaddling clothes,’ Hal is a ‘feathered Mercury.’ At the beginning of Act 5 he will acknowledge that he has been a ‘truant…to chivalry’ and will challenge Hotspur to ‘single fight.’ Thus even before the final battle he has, in effect, succeeded in taking over the best qualities of Hotspur, just as he had earlier taken over the wit, humor, and practical realism of Falstaff. Symbolically, his victory of Hotspur occurs before they fight.
Indeed, in a modern world, the old mode of ‘single fight’ will never prevail, and no sooner does Hal make his offer than the King withdraws it, citing – as kings will – the vague but compelling rationale of ‘consideration infinite.’ The feudal world of Richard II is now only a distant memory. But in becoming, as he says, ‘more myself,’ Prince Hal has begun to resolve his psychomania, or struggle of the soul. He has found, we might say, the Hotspur in himself as well as the Falstaff, and how the Vernon, who is given in this play an almost choric role, and observes with truth that ‘England did never owe so sweet a hope,/So much misconstrued in his wantonness’ (5.2.67-78)”
And finally, we’ll begin to look at Harold Goddard’s take on Falstaff:
“Who at this late date can hope to say a fresh word about Falstaff? Long since, his admirers and detractors have drained language dry in their efforts to characterize him, to give expression to their fascination or detestation. Glutton, drunkard, coward, liar, lecher, boaster, cheat, thief, rogue, ruffian, villain are a few of the terms that have been used to describe a man whom others find the very incarnation of charm, one of the liberators of the human spirit, the greatest comic figure in the history of literature. ‘A besotted and disgusting old wretch,’ Bernard Shaw calls him. And isn’t he? – this man who held up unprotected travelers for pastime, betrayed innocence in the person of his page, cheated a trusting and hard-working hostess, borrowed a thousand pounds from an old friend with no intention of repaying it, abused his commission by taking cash in lieu of military service, and insinuated his way into the graces of the heir apparent with an eye to later favor. And yet after three centuries there the old sinner sits, more invulnerable and full of smiles than ever, his sagging paunch shaking like a jelly, dodging or receiving full on, unperturbed, the missiles his enemies hurl at him. Which is he? A colossus of sack, sensuality, and sweat – or a wit and humorist so great that he can be compared only with his creator, a figure, to use one of Shakespeare’s own great phrases, livelier than life? One might think there were two Falstaffs.
The trouble with the ‘besotted and disgusting old wretch’ theory is that Shakespeare has given us that old wretch exactly, and he is another man, the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The disparagers of Falstaff generally make him out a mixture, in varying propositions, of this other Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, and Parolles, each of whom was an incalculably inferior person. But to assert that Falstaff is another man is not saying that he does not have many or even all of the vices of the ‘old wretch’ for whom his defamers mistake him. Salt is not sodium, but that is not saying that sodium is not a component of salt. The truth is that there are two Falstaffs, just as there are two Henrys, the Immoral Falstaff and the Immortal Falstaff, and the dissension about the man comes from a failure to recognize that fact. That the two could inhabit one body would not be believed if Shakespeare had not proved that they could. That may be one reason why he made it so huge.
Curiously, there is no more convincing testimony to this double nature of the man than that offered by those who are most persistent in pointing out his depravity. In the very process of committing the old sinner to perdition they reveal that they have been unable to resist his seductiveness. Professor Stoll, for instance, dedicates twenty-six sections of a long and learned essay to the annihilation of the Falstaff that his congenital lovers love. And then he begins his twenty-seventh and last section with the words: ‘And yet people like Falstaff!’ And before his first paragraph is done, all his previous labor is obliterated as we find him asserting that Falstaff is ‘supremely poetic’ (even his most ardent admirers would hardly venture that ‘supremely’) and that ‘his is in many ways the most marvelous prose ever penned.’ (It is, but how did the old sot, we wonder, ever acquire it?’) Before his next paragraph is over, Stoll has called Falstaff ‘the prince of good fellow.’ ‘We, too, after all, like Prince Hal and Mrs. Quickly,’ he goes on, ‘take to a man because of his charm, if it be big enough, not because of his virtue; and as for Falstaff, we are bewitched with the rogue’s company.’ (A Falstaff idolater could scarcely ask for more than that.) ‘Under the spell of his presence and speech,’ Stoll concludes, we should forget, as she does, the wrong he has done Mrs. Quickly, ‘did we not stop to think.’
‘Stop to think!’ One my determine the orbit of the moon, or make an atomic bomb by stopping to think, but when cine the beginning of time did one man ever get at the secret of another by means of the intellect? It is all right to stop to think after we have taken a character to our hearts, but to do so before we have is fatal. Dr. Johnson stopped to think about Falstaff and as a result he decided that ‘he has nothing in him that can be esteemed.’ A child would be ashamed of such a judgment. But a child would never be guilty of it. ‘As for Henry IV,’ wrote one of the most imaginatively gifted young women I have ever known, ‘I love it. And I must have an utterly vulgar nature, for I simply adore Falstaff. He is perfectly delightful – not a fault in his nature, and the Prince is a DEVIL to reject him.’ That young woman evidently did not ‘stop to think.’ When she does she will moderate that ‘not a fault in his nature,’ for that is the function of thinking – to hold our imagination within bounds and cut down its excrescences. Meanwhile, Falstaff has captured her, and she has captured Falstaff, for, as Blake said, enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of knowledge, and the last. Those who think about Falstaff before they fall in love with him may say some just things about him but they will never enter into his secret. ‘Would I were with him, wheresom’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!’ Those words of poor Bardolph on hearing the account of Falstaff’s death [MY NOTE: Not to worry…it’s not for a LONG time to come] remain the highest tribute he ever did or ever could receive. In their stark simplicity they are worthy (irreverent as the suggestion will seem to some) to be put beside Dante’s sublime incarnation of the same idea in the Paolo and Francesca incident in The Inferno, or even beside the words address to the their who repented on the cross.
The scholars have attempted to explain Falstaff by tracing his origins. He has been found, variously, to have developed from the Devil of the miracle plays, the Vice of the morality plays, the boasting soldier of Plautine comedy, and so on. Now roots, up to a certain point, are interesting, but it takes the sun to make them grow and to illuminate the flower. And I think in this case we can find both roots and sun without going outside Shakespeare. If so, it is one of the most striking confirmations to be found of the embryological nature of his development.
If I were seeking the embryo of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s imagination, I should consider the claims of Bottom – of Bottom and another character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘What!’ it will be said, ‘the dull realistic Bottom and the lively witty Falstaff?’ They are nearer opposites.’ But embryos, it must be remembered seldom resemble what they are destined to develop into. Bottom, like the physical Falstaff at least, is compact of the heaviness, the materiality, the reality of earth; and the ass’s head the Puck bestows on him is abundantly deserved, not only in special reference to his brains but in its general implication of animality. But instead of letting himself be humiliated by it, Bottom sings, and Titania, Queen of the Fairies, her eyes anointed by the magic flower, awakening, mistakes him for an angel, and taking him in her arms, lulls him to sleep. The obvious meaning of the incident of course is that love is blind. Look at the asinine thing an infatuated woman will fall in love with! But whoever stops there, though he may have gotten the fun, has missed the beauty. The moment when Bottom emerges from his dream, as we pointed out when discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is Shakespeare at one of his pinnacles. By a stroke of genius he has turned a purely farcical incident into nothing less than a parable of the Awakening of Imagination within Gross Matter. It is the poet’s way of saying that even within the head of this foolish plebeian weaver a divine light can be kindled. Bottom is conscious of transcendent things when he comes to himself. A creation has taken place within him. He struggles, in vain, to express it, and, in his very failure, succeeds:
God’s my life!..I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and methought I had, — but man is but a patch’d fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ because it hath no bottom.
The dreamer may still be Bottom. But the dream itself is Puck. For one moment the two are one. Ass or angel? Perhaps Titania was not so deluded after all.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Shakespeare ever consciously connected Puck and Bottom with Falstaff in his own mind. But having achieved this inconceivable integration of the two, how easily his genius would be tempted to repeat the miracle on a grander scale: to create a perfect mountain of flesh and show how the same wonder could occur within it, not momentarily, but, humanly speaking, perpetually. That at any rate is what Falstaff is: Imagination conquering matter, spirit subduing flesh. Bottom was a weaver – a weaver of threads. ‘I would I were a weaver,’ Falstaff once exclaimed. He was a weaver – a weaver of spells. Here, if ever, is the embryology of the imagination. ‘Man is but a patch’d fool, if he will offer to say…’ who cannot catch the very accent of Falstaff in that?
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes
It might have been said of Falstaff’s wit. His Bottom-like body is continually being dragged down, but his Puck-like spirit can hide in a thimble or pass through a keyhold as nimbly as any fairy’s. What wonder that this contradictory being – as deminatured as a satyr or a mermaid – who is forever repeating within himself the original miracle of creation, has taken on the proportions of a mythological figure. He seems at times more like a god than a man. His very solidity is solar, his rotundity cosmic. To estimate the refining power we must know the grossness of what is to be refined. To be astounded by what lifts we must know the weight of what is to be lifted. Falstaff is levitation overcoming gravitation. At his wittiest and most aerial, he is Ariel tossing the terrestrial globe in the air as if it were a ball. And yet – as we must never forget – he is also that fat old sinner fast asleep and snoring behind the arras. The sins, in fact, are the very things that make the miracle astonishing, as the chains and ropes do a Houdini’s escape.
To grasp Falstaff thus sub specie aeternitatis [MY NOTE: ‘under the aspect of eternity’] we must see him, as Titania did Bottom, with our imagination, not with our senses. And that is why we shall never see Falstaff on the stage. [MY NOTE: Unless, like Bloom, we were lucky enough to see Ralph Richardson…] On the stage there the monster of flesh stands – made, we know, mainly of pillows – with all his sheer material bulk and greasy beefiness, a palpable candidate for perdition. It takes rare acting to rescue him from being physically repulsive. And as for the miracle – it just refuses to happen in a theater. It would take a child to melt this too too solid flesh into spirit. It would take Falstaff himself to act Falstaff. [MY NOTE: Excellent point!] But in a book! On the stage of our imagination! That is another matter. There the miracle can occur – and does for thousands of readers. Falstaff is a touchstone to tell whether the juice of the magic flower has been squeeze into our eyes. If it has not, we see only his animality. To the vulgar, Falstaff will be forever just vulgar.
The problem of Falstaff himself cannot be separated from the problem of the fascination he exercises over us. Critics have long since put their fingers on the negative side of that secret. Half his charm resides in the fact that he is what we long to be and are not: free. Hence our delight in projecting on him our frustrated longing for emancipation. It is right here that those who do not like Falstaff score a cheap victory over those who do. The latter, say the former, are repressed or sedentary souls who would go on a vicarious spree in the presence of one who commits all the sins they would like to commit but do not dare to. Like some of Falstaff’s own hypotheses, the idea has an air of plausibility. But I involved a pitifully superficial view of Falstaff – as if his essence lay in his love of sack! No! it is for liberation from what all men want to be rid of, not just the bloodless few, that Falstaff stands: liberation from the tyranny of things as they are. Falstaff is immortal because he is a symbol of the supremacy of imagination over fact. He forecasts man’s final victory over Fate itself. Facts stand in our way. Facts melt before Falstaff like ice before a summer sun – dissolve in the aqua regia of his resourcefulness and wit. He realizes the age-old dream of all men: to awaken in the morning and to know that no master, no employer, no bodily need or sense of duty calls, no fear or obstacle stands in the way – only a fresh beckoning day that is wholly ours.
But we have all awakened that way on rare occasions without becoming Falstaffs. Some men often do. An untramelled day is not enough; we must have something to fill it with – besides lying in bed. Freedom is only the negative side of Falstaff. Possessing it, he perpetually does something creative with it. It is not enough for him to be the sworn enemy of facts. Any lazy man or fool can do that. He is the sworn enemy of the factual spirit itself, of whatever is dull, inert, banal. Facts merely exist – as do most men. Falstaff lives. And where he is, life becomes bright, active, enthralling.”
More to come in my next post…
So…what do you all think of Falstaff? Love? Mixed feelings? Disgust? How do you “read” him?
Our next reading: Henry IV, Part One, Act Five
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.