By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: As the country prepared for war, Bardolph, Nim and Pistol play to enlist, but end up brawling. They are interrupted by a summons to Falstaff, who, broken by Henry’s rejection dies soon after their visit. Embarking at Southampton, the King avoids an assassination attempt organized by Scrope, Cambridge and Grey, who are arrested for treason. In the meantime, France’s leaders are divided: King Charles is nervous about the English threat, while the Dauphin (he of the gift of the tennis balls) refuses to take it seriously.
First: Can anyone reading Act Two not be seriously moved by the death of Falstaff?
Second: Let’s take a look at the historical background of the failed revolt against Henry V, from Peter Saccio:
“The single plot in Henry’s reign of the usual aristocratic and dynastic sort, a plot that does appear in Shakespeare’s play, was…a fiasco. This occurred in the summer of 1415, as Henry assembled his army at Southampton for the invasion of France. Richard the new earl of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland, and Thomas Lord Scrope of Masham (who, as treasurer, was one of the three principal officers of government and a member of the king’s council) conspired to assassinate the king and replace him with the Earl of March. The plot was revealed to Henry by none other than March himself, who, having been brought up under close royal supervision had become a friend of Henry’s. Among the many episodes of betrayal in the history of the later Plantagenets, March provides a stunning counter-example of cousinly loyalty. Although possessing a good claim to the crown, and urged by the conspirators to take advantage of that claim, he remained Henry’s trusted and trustworthy vassal. Under March’s revelation, Henry crushed the plot. The three confederates were immediately arrested, tried, and executed. Discreetly, Henry omitted to inquire about other persons on the fringe of the conspiracy.
Some historians have seen this episode as the final spasm of the turmoil of Henry IV’s time. The Percy plots of 1403-08 had been hatched in favor of the March heir. Because the younger Percy (Hotspur) was married to March’s aunt, the Percies hoped to dominate the government if March were made king. A similar ambition moved Cambridge in 1415. He had been married to March’s sister, Anne Mortimer, although the lady had died by the time of Cambridge’s plot. As both kingmaker and brother-in-law, he would have exerted extraordinary leverage over a crowned March. The other two conspirators, Grey and Scrope, both had Percy connections. Scrope, moreover, trusted friend and servant of Henry V though he was, was also the nephew of that Richard Scrope archbishop of York whom Henry IV, in defiance of the precedents and the canon law against the execution of ecclesiastics, had beheaded for treason in 1405. The conspirators also had connections with the surviving followers of the Welshman Owen Glendower. The Cambridge plot, in sum, revived the repeated Wales-Mortimer-Percy-Scrope alliances that had given Henry IV sleepless nights for much of his reign. It was the epilogue to an old struggle.
It is also possible to see the Cambridge plot as a prologue to later contention. March eventually died childless in 1425. His claim to the throne thereby passed to Richard of York, his sister Anne’s son by Cambridge. This Richard was only three at the time of his father’s execution. Forty years later, however, during the chaotic reign of Henry V’s incompetent son, Richard of York’s ancestry became a powerful dynastic fact. It provided the dynastic justification for the Wars of the Roses and ultimately for the displacement of the Lancastrian line in favor of Richard of York’s son Edward IV. In a sense Cambridge finally triumphed: in 1461, when he had been mouldering in his grave for forty-six years, his grandson, as king, had parliament reverse the judgment on the dead traitor.
That we may see the Cambridge plot both as the epilogue to the reign of Henry IV and as the distant prologue to the reign of Henry VI isolates the unique characteristic of Henry V’s rule that we have been discussing. Whereas all the other kings of England from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries had to struggle repeatedly with threats to their dynasty, Henry V hardly had to worry about such things at all. He swiftly dealt with one feeble conspiracy and thereafter could rest secure in his lord’s loyalty. So strong was his influence that Lancastrian security lasted for three-quarters of his son’s long reign. Although Henry VI was but an infant upon his accession in 1422, no on, not even his York or Mortimer cousins, tried to unset him until a complication of disorders in England, and the loss of conquered territories in France, brought matters to a crisis decades later.
So great was Henry V’s success, indeed, that Shakespeare omits to point out that the conspiracy even had a dynastic motive. In the abbreviated dramatization given the Cambridge plot in Henry V, II.ii, the king has already taken steps to deal with the conspirators. Their personalities and connections are not developed, and the charge against them is simply that they have been suborned by the French to murder the king. At the end of the scene, Cambridge mutters that he had another motive for the plot besides French gold, but he does not reveal what the other motive was. The earl of March is never mentioned, here or elsewhere in the play. The dynastic issue is altogether obliterated. Now to some extent, Shakespeare is merely following his sources Hall and Holinshed, both of whom introduce the Cambridge plot as inspired by French bribery. But both immediately go on to discuss the dynastic motive and to indicate its ramifications later in the century. Furthermore, although both chroniclers mention that Cambridge, in an effort to avoid endangering March and his own infant son, suppressed the dynastic motive when making his confession. Holinshed adds that Cambridge’s formal indictment certainly included the charge of conspiring to crown March. (Both Hall and Holinshed say that Cambridge knew that March was unable to beget heirs, and thus that Cambridge’s ultimate goal was the diversion of the royal succession to his own son. I find this rather odd: why, one wonders, did the Tudor chroniclers think Cambridge could be so certain about the reproductive shortcomings of a man of twenty-four?) In other words, Shakespeare here consciously modified his sources by deciding to omit the dynastic motive from the episode. His Henry merely meets a generalized threat of largely foreign origin. He is not the wearer of a disputed crown but an unquestioned king administering justice, and a man deeply wounded by his friend Lord Scrope’s betrayal. But although he thus mutes and blurs the facts of the Cambridge plot, Shakespeare is truer to something more important. Had he made the dynastic implications of this one episode clear, he might have upset his depiction of the general state of affairs in Henry’s reign. England at large was loyal to her hero-king. Exceptions to that generalization could be treated as insignificant, and saddled on the French.”
And from Harold Goddard, whose reading of this play I am greatly enjoying:
“If Act I ends with a quarrel made, Act II opens with a quarrel composed. If there is to be war in France, there is peace for the moment at any rate in the tavern. The title that figures here is one not to a portion of the earth but to a woman. Pistol has married the Hostess of the Boar’s Head, Mistress Quickly, to whom Corporal Nym was troth-plighted. But his legal claim has not allayed fears of a rival:
O hound of Crete, think’st thou any spouse to get?
And his trepidation is deepened by a gambling debt that he owes Nym for no less than eight shillings. Bardolph, the red-nosed, seeks to prevent bloodshed and to bring the two angry men together: ‘I will bestow a breakfast to make you friends; and we’ll be all three sworn brothers.’
It is all very vulgar, if you will, food for the groundlings. But putting its vernacular simplicity of utterance (except of course for Pistol) and the good sense of its outcome over against the hypocrisy, the moralizing, and the rhetoric of the previous act, and their outcome, one is tempted to feel that wisdom has fled to the underworld.
‘I dare not fight,’ Corporal Nym confesses, ‘but I will wink and hold out mine iron.’ His sword, he says, ‘will toast cheese.’ A cheese-toaster is not a bad tavern-equivalent for the biblical pruning hook.
‘Good Corporal Nym,’ cries Nell Quickly when she sees him about to go to it with her husband, ‘show thy valour and put up your sword.’ It might be a motto for nations! Indeed it awakens echoes of that profound but ill-starred phrase: ‘Too proud to fight.’
‘Why the devil should we keep knives to cut one another’s throats,’ says Bardolph, unconsciously condensing into a sentence the question of the centuries, as he seeks to compel the loud-mouthed and cowardly Pistol to keep the peace and pay his debt. ‘Base is the slave the pays,’ retorts Pistol, unaware that about twenty seconds later he will pay. ‘An thou wilt be friend, be friends,’ says Bardolph, ‘an thou wilt not, why then, be enemies with me too.’ And a touch on his sword is enough to remind the two that Bardolph means business and that his use for his weapon is to prevent a quarrel, not to prick one on. Whereat, Pistol meekly pays.
How far Shakespeare has juxtaposed intentionally the boastings of Pistol in this scene and those of Henry in the previous one, each reader must decide for himself. The fact is that he has juxtaposed them.
O braggart vile and damned furious wight!
Shocking as it may sound to say it, that line is a vulgar, but nonetheless a psychologically accurate description of Henry, when, besides himself with anger, he resents the insults of the Dauphin. Not Henry, note, but Henry-beside-himself. (‘Thou art essentially mad without seeming so.’) Shakespeare can never be trusted not to comment on his main plot in his underplot.
This seemingly casual little scene is also the one that brings the news of Falstaff’s mortal illness, and in it we get the reaction of this group of his friends to Henry’s rejection of him. ‘The king has killed his hear,’ laments Mistress Quickly. ‘The king hath run bad humours on the knight; that’s the even of it,’ says Nym.
Nym, thou hast spoke the right;
His heart is fracted and corroborate,
echoes Pistol – and it is as if the invisible Falstaff were almost causing the two men who were about to fight each other to embrace. Dying, he makes peace, while Henry, living, makes war. ‘The king is a good king,’ Nym concludes fatalistically, ‘but it must be as it may; he passes some humours and careers.’
It will be impossible to analyze in detail all the scenes that make up the underplot of this play. The little one we have just glanced at is typical of the way the author related them to his main theme and so makes them immensely more than comic relief. There are those who hold that the sins of men in high places should be less stressed than the sins of those in private life. There is no evidence that to Shakespeare right and wrong are one thing for kings and another for commoners or even for the underworld. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
The Chorus of Act II has informed us that three Englishmen, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland, have conspired to murder Henry before he embarks with his army at Southampton. In the second scene of Act II, the three men, unaware that evidence of their conspiracy has been intercepted, are brought under another pretext into the presence of the King. The situation is dramatic: the intended victim talking with his would-be murderers, he knowing their thoughts, they not knowing his. The opportunity is too good to be missed, and Henry, with his usual instinct for the theatrical, proceeds to stage a play within a play wherein to catch the consciences of the traitors. But the situation is even more dramatic than Henry realizes, for all the while Unseen Powers are reading his heart, even as he is reading the hearts of the traitors, and have decided that this very play’s the thing wherein to catch the conscience of the King.
In the presence of the three conspirators Henry orders a man released who had been committed to prison the day previous for railing against the royal person. It was excess of wine, the King says, rather than treason that set him on. His pardon is an act quite in the family tradition of what might be called ‘clemency in the limelight,’ but it is a test, too, of course, of the traitors, and they walk unsuspectingly into the trap (an early model of a more famous mousetrap). They all protest that Henry shows an excess of mercy. ‘But if I do not wink at little faults what penalty will be left for capital crimes?’ Henry asks in effect and thrusts papers into their hands that make them turn pale. Perceiving that their secret has been uncovered, they confess and beg for mercy. To which Henry can naturally retort:
The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms,
As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.
And after a scathing denunciation of the inward rottenness of men whose outside seemed so fair, he dismisses these ‘English monsters’ to execution. He does it for the good of the kingdom, disavowing all desire for personal vengeance and thanking God for the timely revelation of the plot.
Now, for anything that appears in the Chorus to this act or on the surface of the story, there is no reason for not taking the scene at its face value: the lucky exposure of three vile traitors who have sold their honor to the enemy ‘for a few light crowns.’ But view it against its remoter background, or recall scene 5 of the second act of Henry VI, Part I, and a little fact come to mind that radically alters its character. That fact is that these three men, one of them in particular, are bent in their conspiracy on exactly the same end on which Henry is ostensibly bent at the very moment, only with better historical and legal justification: the restoration, namely, to his proper throne of a man dispossessed because his claim to succession is derived from the female side. That man, of course, is Edmund Mortimer, brother-in-law of the Earl of Cambridge, one of the present conspirators, the Edmund Mortimer whom Richard II (for whose murder Henry’s father was responsible) had designated his heir, and who has been held by Henry in ‘loathsome sequesteration’ in the Tower of London, as he himself says just before his death, ‘since Henry Monmouth first began to reign’ – Henry Monmouth being the present King. And so it turns out that at the very least the Earl of Cambridge, instead of having sold his soul for French gold, is conspiring in behalf of what he conceives to be, and what, according to the very principle on which Henry is now making war, is his family right and honor. This, it will be granted, somewhat alters the case and puts a second edge that the King does not perceive on his
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms.
Little is Henry thinking of his own family history as he utters words that fit it so fatally. Nor are we. The long shadow that the incarcerated Mortimer casts across this play is not visible from a seat in the theater. But it is from the higher vantage point of poetry read in solitude. And right in this scene itself, family history apart, enough is revealed to show that the Higher Powers are submitting Henry to the same test to which he submitted the three traitors in the episode of the drunken man. ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…’ It is a play within a play within a play.
The King finds the treachery of Lord Scroop toward him incredible:
‘tis so strange
That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black from white, my eye will scarcely see it.
Formerly Henry was a specialist in the foil. Once he consciously contrived the black background for the white to shine upon. Now Fate turns his own method against him and one by one lets him point out his own sins, without knowing it, in the sins of the three traitors – until we are tempted to cry in his own further words to Scroop:
And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence.
The first sin of which the King finds the traitors guilty is ingratitude, that men he has so loved (like Cambridge), so taken into his confidence (like Scroop), should turn on him so basely:
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage, and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practis’d on me for thy use!
This comes with poor grace from the man who rejected Falstaff. ‘Practis’d on me for thy use’ seems like a phrase expressly coined to describe that incident. And if it be objected that Hal at least never conspired against Falstaff’s life, Mistress Quickly will not agree. ‘The king hath killed his heart,’ she said. And Nym and Pistol said essentially the same.
Treason and murder are the next count in the King’s indictment:
Treason and murder ever kept together.
They did when Henry IV had Richard II murdered. And Henry’s son has retained and it at this very moment enjoying the fruits of that crime, as he himself admits, when in a different mood, the night before Agincourt.
For the rest, Henry lumps it all together in a general charge of hypocrisy: that the traitors have seemed to be one thing and have turned out just the other.
Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou: seem thy grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou: come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou: seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou: or are they spare in diet,
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
Garnish’d and deck’s in modest compliment,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem.
This is the worst of all from a man who planned to deceive all of England about his youth, who embraced the virtuous Chief Justice in public only to turn to a worldly archbishop in private to put his blessing on a dubious title and an unholy war, who preached a sermon in the street in turning off an old friend, and who is indulging at the moment in a long moral discourse aimed at three men who have only planned the same kind of crime which his father actually committed and in which he has become in a sense an accomplice after the fact.
All other devils that suggest by treasons
Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colours, and with forms being fetch’d
From glistering semblances of piety.
Henry’s words depict himself.
‘The wrath of Henry,’ says Dowden of this passage, ‘has in it some of that awfulness and terror suggested by the apocalyptic reference to “the wrath of the Lamb.” It is the more terrible because it transcends all egoistic feeling.’ Henry does indeed appear in this scene to arrogate to himself certain of the prerogatives of God. But that his wrath transcends all egoistic feeling is not so certain. The picture Henry draws of the traitors as they seemed is an almost perfect picture of the ideal king so many have found in Henry himself. But the discrepancy between what the three men seemed to be and what they were is hardly greater than that between the ideal king of the critics (to pick a single one of his virtues),
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
and the actual Henry we saw in the tennis-ball scene, giving way utterly to his anger and indulging in an orgy of boasting and threatened vengeance. And yet there was something like the possibility of the ideal king in the original Hal. And so when the King concludes his indictment of the traitors with the words
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indu’d
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man,
it is as if Henry V were condensing his own story into four words. Another fall of man. It was not Falstaff that Hal rejected. It was himself.
That so many have been willing to accept the man Henry became, with all his defects, as Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal king, is a fact of the highest psychological interest. One could almost fancy that Shakespeare foresaw how many would be taken in by his ‘hero’ and was speaking of them through Henry’s own mouth:
If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,
And tell the legions, ‘I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman’s.’
The three conspirators are sentenced to death. Shakespeare quietly places beside the King’s condemnation of them Mistress Quickly’s account of Falstaff’s death. The poet evidently expended every power at his command in this scene, and it is enough to say that the story does not suffer when put in comparison with the deaths of Hamlet and Othello, of King Lear and Cleopatra. The familiar lines must again be quoted. Their meaning can never be exhausted:
Pistol: Bardolph, be blithe; Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins;
Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,.
And we must yearn therefore.
Bardolph: Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
Host: Nay, sure he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’babbled of green fields. ‘How now, Sir John!’ quoth I; ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
Nym: They say he cried out of sack.
Host: Ay, that a’ did.
Four times in his speech at the end of the previous scene, three times within a dozen lines, Henry has referred to God: (1) praying that God may have mercy on the men to whom he is showing no mercy; (2) begging that God may give them true repentance and strength to endure their execution; (3) thanking God for bringing the conspiracy to light; and (4) delivering into God’s hand his present military enterprise. ‘God,’ God,’ ‘God,’ God.’
‘So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.’ the man who invokes God’s aid in an unholy war of conquest: the woman who does her best to comfort a conscience-stricken and dying sinner (who has wronged her cruelly) by bidding him not to trouble himself with thoughts that she knows can only bring him terror! Here it seems as if for once we are close to the heart of Shakespeare’s own religion, and we remember the words of Jack Cade about the noble and innocent Lord Say in II Henry VI: ‘He speaks not o’ God’s name. Go, take him away, I say, and strike off his head presently.’ Eckhart, the German mystic, declares that the purpose of true religion is ‘to get rid of God.’ Anyone who fails to understand that paradox may well meditate on the last words of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly’s last words to him. How many other wise have men have put more directly the truth that Shakespeare dramatizes in this scene. ‘The learned talk of God and His name is on their lips,’ says Langland, ‘but the poor have him in their hearts.’ ‘Cleave to God against the name of God,’ says Emerson. ‘You don’t believe in Christ,’ says one character to another in Chekhov’s The Duel; ‘why do you mention his name so often?’ ‘Mention but the word divinity, and our sense of the divine is clouded,’ says Samuel Butler. God moves in a mysterious way…”
So…what do you all think so far? Is Goddard right in seeing the play as more than a flag-waving patriotic homage to Henry and England’s greatness? Or is he reading something into it that’s not there?
Our next reading: Henry V, Act Three
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning