“I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life…”

Henry IV, Part One

Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


I’d like to start today’s post where I usually end:  with a film clip.  This is from Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight.  As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the film has technical flaws:  bad sound synch, Welles himself probably dubbing several of the actors himself.  This was due, of course, to Welles’ usual bad luck in obtaining financing:  he’d shoot a scene or two, rush off to act in a film to make some more money, and then come back, often unable to get the same actors back.  But even with all the obstacles, the film is, I think, extraordinary.  Today’s clip is of the climax to Henry IV, Part One – the Battle of Shrewsbury.  And on this, I’d like to quote my favorite film critic, Pauline Kael:

“Welles’ direction of the battle of Shrewsbury is unlike anything he has ever done – indeed, unlike any battle ever done on the screen before.  It ranks with the finest of Griffith, John Ford, Eisenstein, Kurosawa.  The compositions suggest Uccello, and the chilling, ironic music is a death knell for all men in battle.  The soldiers, plastered by the mud they fall in, are already monuments.  It’s the most brutally somber battle ever filmed, and it does justice to Hotspur’s great ‘O, Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth.’”





From Harold Bloom:

“Shakespeare’s charming disrespect for slaughter is frequently an undersong throughout the plays, but it is never quite as pungent as in Falstaff’s audacious contempt at Shrewsbury:


What, stands thou idle here?  Lend me thy sword:

Many a nobleman lies stark and stiff

Under the hoods of vaunting enemies,

Whose deaths are yet unrevenged.  I prithee lend me thy sword.


O Hal, I prithee give me leave to breathe awhile – Turk Gregory never did such deeds in arms as I have done this day; I have paid Percy, I have made him sure.


He is indeed, and living to kill thee:

I prithee lend me thy sword.


Nay, before God, Hal, if Percy be alive, thou gets not my sword, but take my pistol if thou wilt.


Give it me:  what, is it in the case?


Ay, Hal, ‘tis hot,; there’s that will sack a city.

The Prince draws it out, and finds it to be a bottle of sack.


What, is it a time to jest and dally now?

He throws the bottle at him. Exit.


Well, if Percy be alive, I’ll pierce him.  If he do come in my way, so:  if he do not, if I come in his willingly, let him make a carbonado of me.  I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath.  Give me life; which if I can save, so:  honour comes unlooked for, and there’s an end.

In one sense, Falstaff here pays Hal back for many imputations of supposed cowardice, yet this is so fine a Falstaffian moment that it transcending their waning relationship.  Having ‘led’ his hundred and fifth men into their all-but-total destruction, the huge target Falstaff remains not only unscathed but replete with sublime mockery of the absurd slaughter.  His grand contempt for Hotspurian ‘honour’ allows him to take the risk of substituting a bottle of sack for the pistol his rank merits.  After a half century, I retain a vivid image of Ralph Richardson gleefully and nimbly dodging the thrown bottle, with an expressive gesture indicating that indeed this was much the best time to jest and dally!  Is there, in all of Shakespeare, anything more useful than ‘I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath.  Give me life.’?  For Falstaff, Shrewsbury becomes an insane spectator sport, as when Sir John ironically cheers the prince on in the duel with Hotspur.  Shakespeare’s gusto is at its height when the ferocious Douglas charges on stage and forces Falstaff to fight.  The wily Falstaff falls down as if dead, just as Hal gives Hotspur a death wound.  Even as we wonder what the dying Hotspur ‘could prophesy’ (the vanity of ‘honour’?), Shakespeare affords Hal his great moment when the prince believes that he beholds the corpse of Falstaff:

What, old acquaintance, could not all this flesh

Keep in a little life?  Poor Jack, farewell!

I could have spared a better man:

O, I should have a heavy miss of thee

If I were much in love with vanity:

Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,

Though many dearer, in this bloody fray.

Embowell’d will I see thee by and by,

Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.

These intricate lines are not so much ambivalent as they are revelatory of Henry V, whose kingship is formed at Shrewsbury.  ‘Poor Jack, farewell!’ is almost as much authentic grief as the warlike Harry can summon for the apostle for ‘vanity,’ who was so frivolous as to gambol about and jest upon a royal battleground.  As an epitaph for Falstaff, this does not even achieve the dignity of being absurd, and is properly answered by the resurrection of ‘the true and perfect image of life,’ immortal spirit worth a thousand Hals.  Here is the truest glory of Shakespeare’s invention of the human:

Embowelled?  If thou embowel me today, I’ll give you leave to powder me and eat me too tomorrow.  ‘Sblood, ‘twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me, scot and lot too.  Counterfeit?  I lie.  I am no counterfeit: to die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of a man:  but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.  The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.  ‘Zounds, I am afraid of this gunpowder Percy, though he be dead, how if he should counterfeit too and rise?  By my faith, I am afraid he would prove the better counterfeit, therefore I’ll make him sure, yea, and I’ll swear I killed him.  Why may not he rise as well as I?  Nothing confuses me but eyes, and nobody sees me: therefore, sirrah [stabbing him], with a new would in your thigh, come you along with me.

To have seen Richardson bounding up was to have beheld the most joyful representation of secular resurrection ever staged:  Falstaff’s Wake would be an apt title for Henry IV, Part One.  Maligned, threatened with hanging, hated (by the prince) where he had been loved, the great pariah rises in the flesh, having counterfeited death.  As true and perfect image, he has seemed to the Christian critic Auden a type of Christ, but it is more than enough that he abides as Falstaff, mocker of hypocritical ‘honour,’ parodist of noble butchery, defier of time, law, order, and the state.  He is still irrepressible, and is accurate, as Harold Goddard observed, in asserting that he killed the spirit of Hotspur.  It is not the swordplay of Hal that upstages Hotspur; place Hotspur in a play not inhabited by Falstaff, and Hotspur would fascinate us, but he fades in the cognitive bonfire of Falstaff’s exuberance and is exposed as only another counterfeit.  [MY NOTE:  Try to imagine a conversation between Hotspur and Falstaff:  Falstaff, I strongly suspect, would make a quick has of Hotspur’s ideals of honour and war.]  Shakespearean secularists should manifest their Bardolatry by celebrating the Resurrection of Sir John Falstaff.  It should be made, unofficially but pervasively, an international holiday, a Carnival of wit, with multiple performances of Henry IV, Part One.  Let it be a day for loathing political ambition, religious hypocrisy, and false friendship, and let it be marked by wearing bottles of sack in our holsters.”

Too much?


To continue from Goddard:

“But alas! we have been neglecting the other Falstaff, the old sot.  Unluckily – or perhaps luckily – there is another side to the story.  Having fallen in love with Falstaff, we may now ‘stop to think’ about him without compunction.  And on examining more closely this symbol of man’s supremacy over nature we perceive that he is not invulnerable.  He has his Achilles heel.  I do not refer to his love of Hal.  that is his Achilles heel in another and lovelier sense.  I refer to a tiny fact, two tiny facts, that he forgets and that he would like to:  the fact that his imagination is stimulated by immense potations of sack and that his victories are purchased, if necessary, at the price of an utter disregard for the rights of others.  We do not remember this until we stop to think.  And we do not want to stop and think.  We want to identify ourselves with the Immortal Falstaff.  Yet there the Immoral Falstaff is all the while.  And he must be reckoned with.  Shakespeare was too much of a realist to leave him out.

The Greeks incarnated in their god Dionysus the paradox of wine, its combined power to inspire and degrade.  The Bacchae of Euripides is the profoundest treatment of this theme in Hellenic if not in any literature.  ‘No one can hate drunkenness more than I do,’ says Samuel Butler, ‘but I am confident the human intellect owes its superiority over that of the lower animals in great measure to the stimulus which alcohol has given to imagination – imagination being little less than another name for illusion.’  ‘The sway of alcohol over mankind,’ says William James, ‘is unquestionably do its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature [the imagination, that is, in its quintessence], usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.  Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.  It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man…it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poison.’

James’s contrast between the earlier and the later phases of alcoholic intoxication inevitably suggests the degeneration that Falstaff undergoes in the second part of Henry IV.  That degeneration is an actual one, though several critics have tended to exaggerate it.  Dover Wilson thinks that Shakespeare is deliberately trying to make us fall out of love with Falstaff so that we may accept with good grace his rejection by the new king.  If so, for many readers he did not succeed very well.  (Of that in its place.)

It is significant that we never see Falstaff drunk.  His wit stills scintillate practically unabated throughout the second part of the play, though some critics seem set on not admitting it.  He is, in top form, for instance, in his interview with the Chief Justice, and, to pick a single example from many, the reply he gives to John of Lancaster’s reproach,

When everything is ended, then you come,

is one of his pinnacles:  ‘Do you think me a swallow, an arrow, or a bullet?’…”

Goddard goes on to examine where Hal stands between Falstaff and his father the king.  And of the two, which was the better man?

“Concede the utmost – that is, take Falstaff at his worst.  He was a drunkard, a glutton, a thief, even a liar if you insist, but withal a fundamentally honest man.  He had two sides like a coin, but he was not a counterfeit.  And Henry?  He was a king, a man of ‘honour,’ of brains and ability, of good intentions, but withal a ‘vile politician’ and respectable hypocrite.  He was a counterfeit.  Which, if it comes to the choice, is the better influence on a  young man?  Shakespeare, for one, gives no evidence of having an iota of doubt.

But even if Falstaff at his worst comes off better than Henry, how about Falstaff at his best?  In that case, what we have is Youth standing between Imagination and Authority, between Freedom and Force, between Play and War.  My insistence that Falstaff is a double man, and that the abstract has nothing to do with it, will acquit me of implying that this is the whole story.  But it is a highly suggestive part of it.

The opposite of war is not ‘peace’ in the debased sense in which we are in the habit of using the latter word.  Peace ought to mean far more, but what it has come to mean on our lips is just the absence of war.  The opposite of war is creative activity, play in its loftier implications.  All through these dramas the finer Falstaff symbolizes the opposite of force. When anything military enters his presence, it instantly looks ridiculous and begins to shrink.  Many methods have been proposed for getting rid of war.  Falstaff’s is one of the simplest:  laugh it out of existence.  For war is almost as foolish as it is criminal.  ‘Laugh it out of existence/”  If only we could!  Which is the equivalent of saying:  if only more of were like Falstaff!  These plays should be required reading in all military academies.  Even the ‘cannon-fodder’ scenes of Falstaff with his recruits have their serious implications and anticipate our present convictions on the uneugenic nature of war.

How far did Shakespeare sympathize with Falstaff’s attitude in this matter?  No one is entitled to say.  But much further, I am inclined to think, than he would have had his audience suspect or than the world since his time has been willing to admit.  For consider the conditions under which Falstaff finds himself:

Henry has dethroned and murdered the rightful king of England.  The Percys have helped him to obtain the crown, but a mutual sense of guilt engenders distrust between the two parties, and the Percys decide to dethrone the dethroner.  Falstaff is summoned to take part in his defense.  ‘Life is given but once.’  Why should Falstaff risk his one life on earth, which he is enjoying as not one man in a hundred million does, to support or to oppose the cause of either of two equally selfish and equally damnable seekers after power and glory?  What good would the sacrifice of his life accomplish comparable to the boon that he confers daily and hourly on the world, to say nothing of himself, by merely being?  This is no case of tyranny on one side and democracy on the other, with the liberty or slavery of a world at stake.  This is strictly a dynastic quarrel.  When two gangs of gunmen begin shooting it out in the streets of a great city, the discreet citizen will step behind a post or into a doorway.  The analogy may not be an exact one, but it enables us to understand Falstaff’s point of view.  And there is plenty of Shakespearean warrant for it.

See the coast clear’d, and then we will depart,

says the Mayor of London, when caught, in 1 Henry VI, between similar brawling factions,

Good God!  these nobles should such stomachs bear;

I myself fight not once in forty year.

And Mercutio’s ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ comes to mind.  Shakespeare meant more by that phrase than the dying man who coined it could have comprehended.

‘But how about Falstaff’s honor?’ it will be asked.  ‘Thou owest God a death,’ says the Prince to him before the battle of Shrewsbury.  ‘Tis not due yet,’ Falstaff answers as Hal goes out,

I would be loath to pay him before his day.  What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?  Well, ‘tis no matter; honour pricks me on.  Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I came on?  how then?  Can honour set to a leg?  No.  Or an arm?  No.  Or take away the grief of a wound?  No.  Honour hath no skill in surgery, then?  No.  What is honour?  A word.  What is in that word honour?  What is that honour?  Air; a trim reckoning!  Who hath it?  He that died o’Wednesday.  Does he feel it?  No.  Does he hear it?  No.  ‘Tis insensible then?  Yea, to the dead.  But will it not live with the living?  No. why?  Detraction will not suffer it.  Therefore I’ll none of it.  Honour is a mere scutcheon:  and so ends my catechism.

‘You must be honorable to talk of honor,’ says a character in A Raw Youth, ‘or, if not, all you say is a lie.’  The word ‘honor,’ as that sentence of Dostoevsky’s shows, is still an honorable word.  It can still mean, and could in Shakespeare’s day, the integrity of the soul before God.  The Chief Justice had honor in that sense.  But ‘honour’ in its decayed feudal sense of glory, fame, even reputation, as page after page of these Chronicle Plays records, had outlives its usefulness and the time had come to expose its hollowness.  The soul, lifted up, declared Saint Teresa (who died in 1582), sees in the word ‘honor’ ‘nothing more than an immense lie of which the world remains a victim…She laughs when she sees grave persons, persons of orison, caring for points of honor for which she now feels profoundest contempt…With what friendship we would all treat each other if our interest in honor and in money could not disappear from the earth!  For my own part, I feel as it would be a remedy for all our ills.’

Saint Teresa and Sir John Falstaff! an odd pair to find in agreement – about honor if not about money.  In the saint’s case no ambiguity is attached to the doctrine that honor is a lie.  In the sinner’s, there remains something equivocal and double-edged.  Here, if ever, the two Falstaffs meet.  The grosser Falstaff is himself a parasite and a dishonorable man, and coming from him the speech is the creed of Commodity and the height of irony.  But that does not prevent the man who loved Hal and babbled of green fields at his death from revealing in the same words, as clearly as Saint Teresa, that life was given for something greater than glory or than the gain that can be gotten out of it.

‘Give me life,’ cries Falstaff on the field of Shrewsbury.  ‘Die all, die merrily,’ cries Hotspur.  That is the gist of it.  The Prince killed Hotspur in the battle, and Falstaff, with one of his most inspired lies, claimed the deed as his own.  But Falstaff’s lies, scrutinized, often turn out to be truth in disguise.  So here.  Falstaff, not Prince Henry, did kill Hotspur.  He ended the outworn conception of honor for which Hotspur stood.  The Prince killed his body, but Falstaff killed his soul – or rather what passed for his soul.”




My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – last thoughts on Henry IV, Part One.


Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life…”

  1. Mahood says:

    The character of Falstaff obviously divides people – some of the comments left on previous posts confirm this. A quote from Hamilton Wright Mabie’s book, ‘William Shakespeare: Poet, Dramatist, and Man’ captures nicely, I think, what both attracts and repels him, as a person (or ‘human’, as Bloom might say):

    “Shakespeare created a kind of English Bacchus at a time when every kind of fruit or grain that could be made into a beverage was drunk in vast quantities; and sack, which was Falstaff’s native element, was both strong and sweet. Falstaff is saved by his humour and his genius; he lies, steals, boasts, and takes to his legs in time of peril, with such superb consistency and in such unfailing good spirits that we are captivated by his vitality. It would be as absurd to apply ethical standards to him as to Silenus or Bacchus; he is a creature of the elemental forces; a personification of the vitality which is in bread and wine; a satyr become human, but moving buoyantly and joyfully in an unmoral world. And yet the touch of the ethical law is on him; he is not a corrupter by intention, and he is without malice; but as old age brings its searching revelation of essential characteristics, his humour broadens into coarseness, his buoyant animalism degenerates into lust; and he is saved from contempt at the end by one of those exquisite touches with which the great-hearted Poet loves to soften and humanize degeneration…”

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