Monday, July 19, 2010

Falstaff, Lord Of Misrule

Samuel Johnson had this to say about Falstaff, in 1765, in the Preface to his edition of Shakespeare's plays:

None of Shakespeare’s plays are more read than the first and second parts of Henry the fourth. Perhaps no authour has ever in two plays afforded so much delight. The great events are interesting, for the fate of kingdoms depends upon them; the slighter occurrences are diverting, and, except one or two, sufficiently probable; the incidents are multiplied with wonderful fertility of invention, and the characters diversified with the utmost nicety of discernment, and the profoundest skill in the nature of man.
The prince, who is the hero both of the comick and tragick part, is a young man of great abilities and violent passions, whose sentiments are right, though his actions are wrong; whose virtues are obscured by negligence, and whose understanding is dissipated by levity. In his idle hours he is rather loose than wicked, and when the occasion forces out his latent qualities, he is great without effort, and brave without tumult. The trifler is roused into a hero, and the hero again reposes in the trifler. This character is great, original, and just. Percy is a rugged soldier, cholerick, and quarrelsome, and has only the soldier’s virtues, generosity and courage.

But Falstaff unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee? Thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested. Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt. He is a thief, and a glutton, a coward, and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirises in their absence those whom he lives by flattering. He is familiar with the prince only as an agent of vice, but of this familiarity he is so proud as not only to be supercilious and haughty with common men, but to think his interest of importance to the duke of Lancaster. Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting laughter, which is the more freely indulged, as his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport but raise no envy. It must be observed that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.
The moral to be drawn from this representation is, that no man is more dangerous than he that with a will to corrupt, hath the power to please; and that neither wit nor honesty ought to think themselves safe with such a companion when they see Henry seduced by Falstaff.

If, in 1765, King Henry IV was the most widely read of all Shakespeare's plays, it was because of Falstaff. Even Johnson, one of the most powerful and astute literary minds ever to write in English, feels the charm of this "despicable" man, the sort of man that everyone knows, a cheat and a fraud who sucks up to the strong and takes advantage of the weak, a man who knows there's a sucker born every minute and makes full use of that knowledge. You might have thought that there is nothing new to be said about such people but Shakespeare has done it. Falstaff is as ancient as civilization itself, yet still a mystery, a man who can make you laugh and pick your pocket at the same time while you wonder how the devil he does it.

The question is, what is this jester-buffoon-con-man doing in this dead serious play which, if it is about anything, is not only about a rebellion against a king whose sovereignty may not be entirely legitimate but about the education of a Prince and future King—and a great King at that (King Henry V)— who evidently prefers the society of Falstaff and his low friends and drinking companions to that of the King and the Court.

To answer this question, one needs to know something about the historical King, Richard II, as well as the play that Shakespeare wrote about him. The historic Richard II invented the theory of Divine Right, not out of whole cloth to be sure, and was deposed by Parliamentary forces led by Henry Bolinbroke (there was no House of Commons in the 14th century) because Richard was claiming that the laws "were in his own mouth." It was what we would call today a constitutional crisis but the phrase and even perhaps the concept had not yet been invented. In the play, Richard II, the king has surrounded himself with his own cronies who are enriching themselves at the expense of the commonwealth (a peculiarly English word that seems to combine the ideas of a nation and the common good) which causes much grumbling but no action until Richard goes too far, exiles a great noble, Henry Bolingbroke and, in his absence, confiscates his lands and inheritance. Bolingbroke returns with an army ostensibly to recover his inheritance, but once the Richard has been defeated and imprisoned there is really no reason to keep him alive and he is discreetly murdered.

As the play, King Henry IV, begins the new King confronts two problems as he surveys his war-ravaged kingdom: the great nobles who supported his rebellion think that the spoils of victory have not been fairly distributed; and what do they want with a King anyway? They've just rid themselves one king; why not this one as well? And here's the Prince: not only does he show no interest in government or statesmanship but from the company he keeps he is beginning to look like another Richard II surrounded by cronies and bloodsuckers. This relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff is the central problem of this two-part play and Shakespeare loses no time in introducing us to these two characters. But he does so in a way that radically changes the tone of the play: having in the first scene begun grimly, the play suddenly veers off into comedy in the second. Only in a comedy—and only in England, perhaps—could you have had a prince and future King hobnobbing in the most familiar terms with a ruffian like Falstaff. And what are they talking about? Misrule, of course. For all the joking around, this is serious stuff: Falstaff is asking for a license to steal and the Prince is fending him off.

  Fal.  Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
  Prince.  Thou art so fat witted with drinking of old 
sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping
on benchesafter noon, that thou hast forgotten to 
demand that truly which thou woulds't truly know. 
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day? 
unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, 
and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of 
leaping-houses [brothels], and the blessed sun himself 
a fair hot wench in flame-color'd taffeta; I see no reason why 
thou shouldst be so superfluous as to demand the time 
of the day.
  Fal.  Indeed you come near me now, Hal, for we 
that take purses go by the moon and the seven stars, 
and not by Phoebus, he, "that wand'ring knight 
so fair." And I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art a 
king, as, God save thy Grace—Majesty I should say, 
for grace thou wilt have none—
  Prince.  What, none?
  Fal.  No, by my troth, not so much as will serve to be
prologue to an egg and butter.
  Prince.  Well, how then? Come, roundly, roundly.
  Fal.  Marry, then sweet wag, when thou art king,
let not us that are squires of the night's body be call'd
thieves of the day's beauty. Let us be Diana's
foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon,
and let men say we be men of good government, being
govern'd, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress
the moon, under whose countenance we steal.
  Prince.  Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for
the fortunes of us that are moon's men doth ebb and
flow like the sea, being govern'd as the sea is, by the
moon. As, for proof, now: a purse of gold most
resolutely snatch'd on Monday night and most
dissolutely spent on Tuesday morning; got with
swearing "Lay by," and spent with crying "Bring in";
now in as low an ebb as the foot of the ladder, and by
and by in as high a flow as the ridge of the gallows.
  Fal.  By the Lord, thou say'st true, lad. And is not
my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?
  Prince.  As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the
castle. And is hot a buff jerkin a most sweet robe of durance?
  Fal.  How now, how now, mad wag? What in thy
quips and quiddities? What a plague have I to do
with a buff jerkin?
  Prince.  Why what a pox have I to do with my
hostess of the tavern? . . . . . 

  Fal. . . .                                      But I prithee,
sweet wag, shall there be gallows standing in England
when thou art King? and resolution thus fubb'd as
it is with the rusty curb of old father antic the law?
Do not, when thou art king, hang a thief.
  Prince.  No, thou shalt.
  Fal.  Shall I? O rare! By the lord, I'll be a brave judge.
  Prince.  Thou judgest false already. I mean thou
shalt have the hanging of thieves, and so become a 
rare hangman.
  Fal.  Well, Hal, well, and in some sort it jumps with
my humor as well as waiting in the court, I can tell you.
  Prince.  For obtaining of suits?
  Fal. Yea, for obtaining of suits, whereof the hangman
hath no lean wardrobe. 'Sblood, I am as a melancholy
as a gib cat or a lugg'd bear . . . .
But, Hal, I prithee trouble me no more with vanity;
I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity
of good names were to be bought. An old man of the 
Council rated me the other day in the street about 
you, sir, but I mark'd him not, and yet he talk'd very
wisely, but I regarded him not, and yet he talk'd wisely
and in the street too.
  Prince.  Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in
the streets, and no man regards it.
  Fal.  O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed
able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon
me, Hal, God forgive thee for it! Before I knew thee,
Hal, I knew nothing, and now am I, if a man should
speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must
give over this life, and I will give it over. By the Lord,
and I do not, I am a villain, I'll be damned for never a
king's son in Christendom.
  Prince.  Where shall we take a purse tomorrow,
  Fal.  'Zounds, where thou wilt, lad, I'll make one,
an' I do not, call me villain and baffle me.
  Prince.  I see a good amendment of life in thee,
from praying to purse-taking.
  Fal.  Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal, 'tis no sin
for a man to labor in his vocation.

Then, suddenly, the question that had been merely hypothetical, suddenly becomes real, with the entry of Poins, another member of Falstaff's band of buddies:

  Fal.  Poins! Now shall we know if Gadshill have set
 a match. O, if men were to be sav'd by merit, what hole in
hell were deep enough for him? This is the most
omnipotent villain that ever cried "Stand!" to a true man.
  Prince.  Good morrow, Ned.
  Poins.  Good morrow, sweet Hal. What says 
Monsieur Remorse? What says Sir John Sack and
sugar? Jack, how agrees the Devil and thee about thy
soul that thou soldest to him on Good Friday last, for a 
cup of Madeira and a cold capon's leg?
  Prince.  Sir John stands to his word, the devil shall
have his bargain, for he was never yet a breaker of
proverbs. He will give the devil his due.
  Poins.  Then art thou damn'd for keeping they word
with the devil.
  Prince.  Else had he been damn'd for cozening the devil.
  Poins.  But, my lads, to-morrow morning
by four a' clock early at Gadshill, there are
pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings, and
traders riding to London with fat purses.

The Prince refuses, at first, to have anything to do with this lawless scheme, but when Poins takes him aside and explains his real object, to expose Falstaff as the cowardly blusterer that he is, he agrees to go along. The robbery, accordingly, goes off as planned, no one is hurt, (the money returned) but Poins' plot against Falstaff misfires; Falstaff can wriggle out of anything: instead of humiliation, triumph.

Meanwhile, the really big robbery, or coup, that the disaffected nobility have been planning is going forward. Though this rebellion has a charismatic but erratic hero, Hotspur, to front for it, the rebels are fractious and undisciplined; the well organized and well led armies of the King easily defeats them at the Battle of Shrewsbury in which Falstaff, characteristically playing his comic and self-serving role, manages simultaneously to save his skin and by hutzpah and bluster alone get himself acclaimed as the hero who won the battle. And so the play ends, though the problem of misrule, or corruption, has not been dealt with; that's what Part 2 is about.

Being naturally social and political animals, as Aristotle observes, we
cannot elude identification indefinitely. Even Falstaff is finally pinned
down. When Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, in the second part of
King Henry IV, he too acquires a social role and identity that he cannot
slough off. He can govern well or ill but govern he must. His first test,
and one that everyone expects him to fail, is pretty basic: what will he
do about his former cronies including, most especially, Falstaff?
Even today, cronyism is the norm in most societies. The idea that
justice should be no respecter of persons has still not taken hold, or is
only beginning to do so, outside of Europe and North America. The
ancient notion that Socrates (or Plato) set his face against, that a good
man is one who uses his power to help his friends and hurt his enemies,
is still widely accepted. It seems to have been the undoing of
(Shakespeare’s) Richard II. Shakespeare is absolutely unequivocal on
this point and for this he has taken a lot of heat from Falstaff's more
sentimental admirers.

The first thing the new king does is tell his Chief Justice, who has
been expecting the worst, that he respects his integrity and that of his
office and confirms him in it. Next, he puts Falstaff in his place—with
an allowance so he won’t be forced to prey on others (vain hope!). And
what is that place? Ten miles, at least, from wherever he, the King, happens
to be. But Falstaff is an idea and a fact of life and human nature
as well as a person and cannot be exorcised, as the King seems to be
trying to do. Falstaff is mortal, but his irreverent, bawdy, amoral wit
lives on. Shakespeare makes him an old man, which is appropriate, for
he had been around for a very long time when Shakespeare discovered
or invented him; there have always been people like him and there
always will be. They are not always as witty and charming as Falstaff;
they are mostly a lot meaner and lot less funny. People like them are
what laws are for.

Falstaff, with his latest victim at his side, is stunned, though he
might have known what was coming had he paid attention to what the
Prince has been telling him all along, that he would not, as king, accept
Falstaff's idea of good government. But suddenly all that seems irrelevant.
Even those of us who have been paying attention are likely to feel
that Hal’s icy and humiliating rejection goes too far. If this is what good
government requires, we want none of it.

Unfortunately, it is what good government requires—necessary
though not sufficient. Shakespeare is making a point and making it
more pointedly than he has to, perhaps, because he really does not like
the man Hal has turned into any better than we do. It is a point that
Machiavelli would have understood, though it did not occur to him to
make it in quite this way. Those who have it in their power to make or
break the lives of others in the interest of some common good have to
be or become different from you and me. They cannot afford to have the
same feelings or friendships as ordinary people; not if they know their
business. They must know how to be cold and hard. So, in Henry V, Hal
hangs his old pal Bardolph for a trivial offense, without the slightest
compunction. The law is the law and that’s that.

Prince Hal, like Queen Elizabeth, has the virtues of a good governor,
and that’s a fact which Shakespeare leaves unexplained. It is a fact that
this Prince has the wisdom to discern both the limitations and virtues of
Hotspur, and the creative-destructive wit of Hotspur’s polar opposite,
Falstaff. Politicians who want to know people as they are had better get
to know the witty rascals, riffraff and scoundrels of Falstaff’s world as
well as the more glamorous and honorable Hotspurs; there are a lot
more of the former than the latter. This is not the sort of thing they teach
in schools or churches; though political wisdom is undoubtedly learned,
it cannot be taught, but only shown: in a play like this one, for instance.

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