Henry IV Part Two
Act Five, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
In my last post we looked at Marjorie Garber’s take on Act Five and the rejection of Falstaff – basically, that in order to assume his role as “king” Hal had to do what he did, that it was all “part of the essential hardship of being a king.” As we saw in my initial excerpt, Harold Goddard doesn’t quite see it that way, and is not convinced that Shakespeare approves of Hal’s actions. More from Goddard:
“The two scenes that follow the King’s death were made to go together. In them we see justice, first under its mundane, then under something more nearly resembling its eternal aspect.
We are taken to Gloucestershire and see Master Robert Shallow, rural justice of the peace, planning to keep Sir John Falstaff, ‘the man of war,’ as Shallow’s servant Davy calls him, overnight at his home. The scene might be called Peace and War Preparing to Swallow Each Other and the result is a foregone conclusion, for Shallow is as thin and spare a man as Falstaff is fat, and his wits and spirit as starved as Falstaff’s are well fed. The news of the old king’s death has not yet come, but Master Robert knows that Sir John is close to the man who will soon rule England. He lends him a thousand pounds on that security a little later. ‘A friend ‘I’ the court is better than a penny in the purse,’ he declares, and accordingly nothing is too good for the man of war. Davy perceives that this is the moment to put in a plea for a friend of his, one William Visor. ‘Visor is an arrant knave, on my knowledge,’ says Shallow. ‘I grant your worship,’ David admits, ‘but yet, God forbid, sir, but a knave should have some countenance at his friend’s request…I have served your worship truly, sir, this eight years; and if I cannot once or twice in a quarter bear out a knave against an honest man, I have but a very little credit with your worship. ‘He shall have no wrong,’ declares the Justice.
The scene shifts to Westminster and we see the Lord Chief Justice of England awaiting the entrance of the new king. He awaits it with no illusion, for this new king is no other than the Prince Hal whom in his father’s time he sent to prison for striking him in his ‘very seat of judgment.’ The power is now Henry’s and the Chief Justice expects him to take revenge. And sure enough the new monarch has little more than entered than he reminds the Justice of the great indignities he once heaped upon him:
What! rate, rebuke, and roughly send to prison
The immediate heir of England!
But the Chief Justice, whose character proves that honor in its true sense is not obsolete, defends himself with such cogency and dignity that the King, quite won, replies:
You are right, justice; and you weigh this well.
He reappoints him to his office and begs him to go on administering the laws of his kingdom in this ‘bold, just, and impartial spirit.’ Offering him his hand, Henry declares (in lines that call for the very closest scrutiny):
You shall be a father to my youth;
My voice shall sound as you do prompt mine ear,
And I will stoop and humble my intents
To your well-practis’d wise directions.
And, princes all, believe me, I beseech you:
My father is gone wild into his grave,
For in his tomb lie my affections;
And with his spirit sadly I survive,
To mock the expectation of the world,
Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down
After my seeming. The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flow’d in vanity till now:
Now doth it turn and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods
And flow henceforth in formal majesty.
Now call we our high court of parliament:
And let us choose such limbs of noble counsel,
That the great body of our state may go
In equal rank with the best govern’d nation;
That war, or peace, or both at once, may be
As things acquainted and familiar to us;
In which you, father, shall have foremost hand.
Our coronation done, we will accite,
As I before remember’d, all our state:
And, God consigning to my good intents,
No prince nor peer shall have just cause to say,
God shorten Harry’s happy life one day!
Here is Henry at his finest, it will be said. Here is the first fruit of the great reversal he has been keeping in reserve ever since that first soliloquy. Here is the sun about to emerge from the clouds. Here is the Prodigal Son putting off Vanity and adopting Justice as his father and guide. It is just as Dover Wilson said. His theory of the morality play is vindicated in this scene.
It would be churlish indeed to suggest that Henry did not mean, or at least think he meant, what he said to the Chief Justice. But that does not excuse our overlooking the fact that both his words and his attitude also happen to be the most expedient ones he could conceivably have uttered and adopted at a moment when a decorous impression was so imperative to his success, when the unexpected was the indispensable. (Even Richard III stood up to be seen of all men between two bishops.) It was Henry’s luck on this occasion that the most generous action was also the most politic. In such cases the judging of motives becomes ticklish.
Whether Henry did at this moment turn from Vanity to Justice depends not at all on what he promised his future ‘father’ at the moment, but on what he did during the days and months to come. It depends, that is, on what he did in the little that is left of this p lay and on what he did throughout the succeeding one. Except in the matter of the rejection of Falstaff, then, it would seem as if judgment must be suspended until we have taken the next play into account.
But, as we have seen over and over, Shakespeare is in the habit of revealing the embryo of the future in the present, and Henry’s preview of his own reign in the last half of his apology to the Chief Justice will bear examination from this point of view. What a man thinks he is saying is often at odds with what he is really saying. Shakespeare is a master at giving us both at once, the one in the thought, the other in the imagery and accent. Prosaic men like Henry use metaphors at their peril.
The sense of Henry’s speech seems plain enough. ‘Here is my promise,’ he says in effect to the Chief Justice, ‘to subject my inexperience to your experience, to bow my will to yours. My father is dead, but I survive to surprise the world by defeating its ominous expectations concerning my reign. Hitherto I have given my life to vanity; henceforth I will give it to good counsel to the end that England may be as well governed as any nation on earth. You, My Lord Chief Justice, shall be my foremost adviser in both war and peace. With God’s help, no one will wish my reign abbreviated by a single day.’
Here, apparently, is a complete subjection of himself on Henry’s part to the wisdom of the Chief Justice. But examine it more closely and it bears every mark of being, actually, an abject surrender to the spirit of his father. Henry himself supplies the metaphor that proves it. Just as his own word ‘infect’ “But if it did infect my blood with joy…” gave the clue to the effect upon him of putting on the crown, so his own word ‘ebb’ shows what is happening here. Hitherto I have flowed, he says, now I will ebb. An ominous figure! And one that utterly reverses all he has previously vowed. His carousing with Falstaff, he told us (if under a different metaphor) was to be just a temporary ebbing – a little eddy – in the stream of life, which thereafter would flow steadily forward. Now it is the other way around. He has been flowing with Falstaff; now he will ‘turn and ebb back to the sea.’ What he means, of course, is that his vanity has increased and now will decrease. But it is not superficial things like vanity that ebb and flow. It is elemental things like the tide and the blood of man. The tide of my blood now turns and ebbs back to the sea, he declares. He thinks that thereby he is saying that from now on he will control his passions. But what are those passions but that very sea? The word ‘sea’ is older and Henry’s imagination is wiser than he is, and what it describes, in spite of him, is precisely the process that psychologists today call a regression into The Father, the sacrifice to ancestral forces and the past of freedom to control the present and to be a unique individual. The formal and dignified accent and movement of the verse confirm the reactionary state of mind of the speaker. And so does his vocabulary with its insistence on such words as ‘state,’ ‘rank,’ ‘formal,’ ‘majesty,’ ‘governed.’ This is not the language of moral emancipation. It is just the opposite. What practically clinches the matter is an obviously intentional ambiguity on Shakespeare’s part in the line,
In which you, father, shall have foremost hand.
Ostensibly this is addressed to the Chief Justice whom Henry has chosen as his father and counselor in war and peace. But, in its context, it fits far better that dead father with whose spirit he expressly says he survives:
My father is gone wild into his grave
For in his tomb lie my affections;
And with his spirit sadly I survive…
These Delphic lines permit at least three interpretations. At a casual reading they mean no more than: my father is no longer living, but my love is still with him in the grave. But that leaves the word ‘wild’ out of account. My father and I have executed an exchange, is what Henry says: my wild youth lies buried forever in his tomb, while his spirit has transmigrated into me (or, if that seems to strong, attends me as a guardian). And the lines will bear still another construction: my father is in his tomb and buried with him lie my powers to feel (the usual Elizabethan use of the word ‘affections’), while I survive with his spirit (which, the reader of these plays knows, was one lacking in human warmth). Henry, naturally, did not intend this. Shakespeare, I am convinced, did. In fact the rejection of Falstaff, I should say, is specifically inserted to confirm it. But it is confirmed by something less debatable than that famous scene.
The final test of Henry’s sincerity in his words to the Chief Justice depends neither on them nor on anything we may find under their surface, but, as I said, on what Henry does in the time to come. If we find that he did make the Chief Justice his political guide and counselor in war and peace, and if justice was the dominating note of his reign, then the promise was kept and the moral is unexceptionable. If not, not. We see Henry and the Chief Justice together just once more in II Henry IV, and on that occasion, instead of asking the Justice’s advice, the King issues him an order. Then, except for three or four brief sentences not in Henry’s presence, the Chief Justice passes out of the story forever, and at the beginning of the next play we find the King seeking counsel of an Archbishop and a Bishop who are morally at the opposite pole from the man who is supposed to be the symbol of his own regeneration. The characters who are absent from Shakespeare’s plays are often as significant as those who are present. What became of the Chief Justice in Henry V?
The unconscious hypocrisy of Henry’s ostentatious promise to him confirms the King’s regression into the spirit of his father (the archhypocrite) just as the buried fears of that father confirm in turn his regression into the spirit of Richard II (the archvictim of fear). The Prince’s insincerity to his father in the crown scene is the promise of the King’s insincerity to the Chief Justice in the ‘father’ scene. The one interpretation supports the other. But we must await the next play for the crowning evidence (in all senses) on this point.
Both the older and the younger Henry illustrate in extreme degree the law of moral compensation which anyone with any power of introspection may observe in himself. Whenever they say or do anything unwontedly frank or generous it becomes necessary to ask what they may just have done or are just about to do that is disingenuous or ungenerous. If Falstaff had overheard Henry’s words to the Chief Justice, he might have guessed what was in store for him.”
What do you all think? For me, I find this argument very persuasive, or maybe I’m just inclined to take Goddard’s overwhelming skepticism towards those in power due to my own natural skepticism…
“Pistol brings word of the King’s death to Falstaff in Shallow’s garden. The fat man’s hour has come – or so he believes:
Away, Bardolph! saddle my horse. Master Robert Shallow, choose what office thou wilt in the land, ‘tis thine…We’ll ride all night…I know the young king is sick for me. Let us take any man’s horses, the laws of England are at my commandment. Blessed are they that have been my friends; and woe to my Lord Chief Justice!
When we next greet Falstaff, he is standing in the street near Westminster Abbey waiting for the King to ride by. He comes and Falstaff hails him. ‘God save thy grace, King Hal! my royal Hal!…God save thee, my sweet boy!’
‘I know thee not, old man,’ the King replies, and amplifies those dozen words into twenty-five lines. (Here is perhaps the place to recall that in Dostoevsky’s Demons, “Prince Harry,’ has a liaison with a certain lady whom he afterward publicly insulted.) It is the Rejection of Falstaff, one of the three or four more debated scenes in Shakespeare. To have them before us, the familiar lines must be quoted once more:
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awak’d, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and feeder of my riots.
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil;
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenour of our word.
The sun has come out from behind the clouds.
But what a strange sun! It is the function of a sun to illuminate. But whoever heard of a sun that sermonized, or that refused to shine on the just and the unjust alike, particularly on one of its satellites, however ancient? Who, we may ask, is this new king, to adopt this top-lofty manner toward an old man whom he could so easily have passed on in silence and rebuked, if he must, in private? ‘As we hear you do reform yourselfs!’ How long, in decency’s name, has he been reformed himself? It is not Henry’s rejection of tavern life with which we quarrel. That, naturally, had to go. It is not with his new sense of responsibility. That we welcome. What we inevitably remember is the bean and the mote (not to imply that ‘mote’ does justice to Falstaff’s vices).
The best we can say for Henry is that it is an outburst of that temper of which his father told us he was a victim (‘being incens’d, he’s flint’), sudden anger at Falstaff’s highly untactful appearance at such a time and place. The worst we can say is that the King had deliberately planned to rebuke Falstaff publicly at the first opportunity for the sake of the moral contrast with his own past and in fulfillment of the prophecy of his first soliloquy. Unfortunately for Henry, however much anger he may have felt at the moment, Falstaff’s explanation of the calamity to Shallow: ‘He must seem thus to the world,’ seems the most psychologically plausible account of what happened. But in what a difference sense from that intended for Shallow! And we remember how Henry’s father publicly pardoned Carlilse with his right hand, so to speak, while he was secretly murdering Richard with is left. Henry’s vow to let his father ‘have foremost hand’ in all his doings was being fulfilled, whomever he thought he was choosing as his guide. If it is a wise child that knows his own father, Henry was acquiring wisdom.
What did Shakespeare think?
Anyone is free to conjecture. And, however we take it, there is plenty of evidence.
This much at any rate is certain: we cannot imagine Shakespeare, no matter how high he might have risen in worldly place or esteem, rejecting a former friend by preaching him a sermon in public, no matter how low his friend might have fallen. So unthinkable is it that it seems almost silly to reduce the idea to words.
‘A new commandment,’ said the smiling Muse,
‘I give my darling son, Thou shalt not preach’;-
Luther, Fox, Behmen, Swedenborg, grew pale,
And, on the instant, rosier clouds upbore
Hafiz and Shakespeare with their shining choirs.
Surely in those lines ‘Shakespeare’s younger brother’ – as John Jay Chapman called Emerson – gave utterance to the innermost spirit of Shakespeare. It has become a commonplace that the poet rated ingratitude among the deadliest of the sins. What would he have thought of ingratitude supplemented by preaching?
Nor can we imagine Falstaff doing what Henry did, if, in some inconceivable way, their roles had been reversed. And we love him for that incapacity. I wonder if Shakespeare had not been at pains to point this out. In the very first scene in which we see Hal and Falstaff together the latter tells of a casual incident that takes on an entirely fresh meaning in the light of this very last scene in which we see them together, ‘together’ now in what a different sense.
An old lord of the council rated me the other day in the street about you, sir, but I marked him not; and yet he talked very wisely, but I regarded him not; and yet he talked wisely, and in the street too.
Thou didst well; for wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it.
Wisdom does indeed cry out in the streets, but generally without opening her mouth, and certainly not in the form of mortal diatribe. It is Morality that indulges in moral indignation. Wisdom, like Shakespeare, speaks in more oblique fashion, as she does, if I am not mistaken, in this very scene.
When Falstaff has been rebuffed, and he and his followers have been carried off to the Fleet, the play is a dozen lines from its end. Those lines (except for six significantly terse and reticent words from the Chief Justice) are all spoken by John of Lancaster. Why does Shakespeare, who is so fond of remarking that ‘the end crowns the whole,’ give the crowning speeches of this play to a person whose sole distinction lies in the fact that he is the most dastardly character in it? Why does he permit him, and him alone, to pass judgment on his brother’s act in rejecting Falstaff?
I like this fair proceeding of the king’s.
If you know the devil’s opinion, you can infer the angles’. The safest way to vote is to find out how the most ‘intelligently’ selfish man in the community is voting and then vote the other way. It was in recognition of this principle, I believe, that Shakespeare reserved the most emphatic place in his play for the judgment on the King’s rejection by the man whom Falstaff, in just six words, causes us to cast forth into everlasting darkness; ‘a man cannot make him laugh.’ Dostoevsky declares that a man’s character can be read by the way he laughs. By that token, John of Lancaster has no character. He ‘doth not love me,’ said laughing John of sober John. And so when sober John welcomes the humiliation and degradation of laughing John by saying,
I like this fair proceeding of the king’s,
it sounds like a statement straight from Shakespeare that the proceeding was not fair and that he did not like it.”
But there is more evidence than this (not counting that in the next play). In Shakespeare, as in life, things do not happen unprepared for. If we look back, we find a little scene in which the rejection of Falstaff was specifically forecast. More than forecast, rehearsed.
The place is the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, and the time just after the ‘discomfiture’ of Falstaff in the matter of the robbery. Mistress Quickly, the hostess, enters to announce that a nobleman of the court has a message for the Prince from his father. Falstaff goes to the door to send the interloper packing, but comes back with news that the Percys are in revolt and civil war is on in the North. The Prince must be at court in the morning.
Tell me, Hal, art thou not horribly afeard? thou being heir apparent, could the world pick thee out three such enemies again as that fiend Douglas, that spirit Percy, and that devil Glendower? Art thou not horribly afraid/ doth not thy blood thrill at it?
Not a whit, I’faith; I lack some of thy instinct.
Well, thou wilt be horribly chid to-morrow when thou comest to thy father; if thou love me, practice an answer.
Do thou stand for my father, and examine me upon the particulars of my life.
Shall I? content.
And Sir John instantly arranges the properties in a manner that reveals equally deep insight into the affairs of the state and of the stage, anticipating Goethe’s principle that nothing is right in the theater that is not a symbol to the eye. ‘This chair shall be my state,’ he says, ‘this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown’ – a treatise on political science in a sentence – and he proceeds to impersonate King Henry with a perfection that wrings tears of ecstasy from Mrs. Quickly:
O Jesu, this is excellent sport, I’faith!…O, the father, how he holds his countenance!…he doth it as like one of these harlotry players as ever I see!
This ‘harlotry” King Henry chides his son for defiling himself with pitch by consorting with such loose companions – always excepting one ‘goodly portly man, i’faith, and a corpulent,’ in whose looks he perceives virtue. ‘Him keep with, the rest banish.’
Whereupon the roles are reversed. ‘Do thou stand for me,’ says Hal, ‘and I’ll play my father.’
‘Depose me?’ cries Falstaff?
And then, if ever, we behold the future in the instant. It is as if something in the air and accent of the Prince, merely playing as he is, enables Falstaff to catch as in a magic mirror the bearing and voice of King Henry V as he was to pause near the Abbey on that fateful day and call out for all to hear, ‘I know thee not, old man.’ If thou dost it half so gravely, so majestically, both in word and matter,’ Falstaff goes on, laying aside his role for a moment, ‘hang me up by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a poulter’s hare.’ But Henry was, to do it gravely and majestically, and Falstaff was, figuratively, to be hung up by the heels. That one sentence should be enough to show that what Shakespeare is giving us here is a rehearsal for the rejection of Falstaff. But the little scene it introduces is such a masterpiece in its own right that it throws us off the track of its connection with what has come before, and what is to follow, in the main play. Poetry, like the sun, can blind as well as illuminate.
When in a gay moment we are off guard, we give utterance under the shield of wit to convictions and intentions from the bottom of our hearts that in any other mood we wouldn’t for the world reveal. This principle to this little scene. Playing the part of his father, Henry proceeds to castigate ‘that villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan,’ to which Falstaff, playing the part of Hal, retorts with a defense of himself that ends in a revelation of deep acquaintance with his own soul and with Henry’s: ‘but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack and banish all the world.’ to which the Prince in turn, playing the King, replied with unconscious divination of the future: ‘I do, I will.’ He will indeed. Now he pretends to be his father and does banish Falstaff. A little later he will become like his father and will banish him. Now he plays king. then he will be king. Beware of what you play – it will come true. ‘Rehearsal’ is not too strong a term for this scene.
Instantly following the Player-King’s ‘I do, I will,’ the stage direction reads; ‘A knocking is heard.’ It is one of Shakespeare’s earliest uses of the device he employs so subtly in Julius Caesar, and, as everyone knows, so tremendously in Macbeth, to betoken at a fateful moment the knocking of the inner mentor…But no, it is only the sheriff at the door, just as it was only Macduff; and Hal, though he stands on the inside, does not heed, or even hear, the warning from within. Yet there it is, saying plainly, if he could only hear it: ‘Banish sweet Jack Falstaff and banish all the world.’ (The sweet Jack Falstaff, be it most particularly noted, not the malodorous one.) the difference in town between this scene and the one in Macbeth should not mislead us. Even in a tavern, life may be lived well.
This little play within a play, two plays within a play each with its player-king, may well warn us that Hamlet is barely around the corner. Indeed, this mousetrap catches not only the conscience of a king but the conscience of a king-to-be. The play scene in Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece to come scarcely surpasses this one in the subtlety of its psychology or the intricacy of its interwoven meanings. Here, if anywhere, here, if ever, the truth is brought home that we are not single personalities, nor even double ones, but bundles rather of actual and potential, emerging and expiring selves, as many as there are people who love or hate us, or whom we love or hate. Each one out there evokes a different one in here. The relation between two individuals itself an individual relation, and, when it is set up, something that never was before on sea or land is created. Within the confines of this brief scene, to the success of which Mrs. Quickly, as audience, makes a memorable if mainly silent contribution, half-a-dozen Falstaffs and Henrys jostle and elbow, come in and go out, split, disintegrate, and recombine, a veritable phantasmagoria of spiritual entities. Who would undertake even to enumerate, let alone characterize them? When Falstaff plays Hal’s father, for instance, he is partly King Henry rebuking the Prince for his wildness and partly the Falstaff who loves Hal as if he were his own son, and who longs to have Hal love him as if here were his father and consequently pictures himself as the sort of ideal father he would actually like to be to him. When, the parts exchanged, Falstaff plays Hal, he is first the subdued and respectful Prince in the presence of authority, and then the Hal whom Falstaff loved, and who, as Falstaff acts him, love him as the real Falstaff longed to have the real Hal love him and as, alas, he never did. When Hal acts himself, he is modest and reticent, not to say a bit scared, speaking scarcely a dozen lines, but when he becomes his father he grows dominating and forbidding, and evokes in his description of his son’s dissolute misleader the drunken debauched Falstaff who, it is especially worth noting, is otherwise totally and conspicuously absent from the scene. The Prince, as his father, says exactly what Sir John’s bitterest enemies among critics and readers have been saying of him ever since:
That bolting-hutch of beastliness…Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty, but in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?
–while Hal, impersonated by Falstaff, describes the sweet, kind, true, valiant Jack that all the world loves; except the above-mentioned dissenters. It is all wonderful fun and we laugh. Yet underneath the mirth, how beautiful and tragic the implications, how beyond comprehension the miracle by which so much is compressed into so little! And hovering over it all, over all these subordinate personalities that glide in and glide out like ghosts, is the evoker and master of them all (for it is only in his presence that Hal ever rises to such imaginative height), the Immortal Falstaff, the sweet Jack Falstaff, whom Henry should never have rejected to the end of his days.”
Thoughts? As I suspect you know, I’m solidly with Goddard (and Falstaff) on this one…but how do you feel? SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS, QUESTIONS, ETC. WITH THE GROUP!!!!!
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning. One last look (I think) at the rejection of Falstaff.
Enjoy your weekend.