Festivity and Topicality in the Coventry Scene of 1 Henry IV

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Charles Whitney, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The Henry IV plays are often said to present a "Saturnalian" kind of popular festivity that temporarily inverts or neutralizes social hierarchy. The plays depict a prodigal son, Prince Hal, moving from Falstaff's Saturnalian holiday tavern world to what will be his everyday world of royal duties. Taking Mikhail Bakhtin's lead, both Graham Holderness and Michael Bristol argue that traditional festive holiday practices as adapted in the plays' tavern scenes and elsewhere validate traditions of dissent and transgression among the lower orders.1 For Bakhtin, such pre-modern carnival festivity can oppose the social hierarchy that structured everyday life, offering an alternative "second world" of "community, freedom, equality, and abundance"2 that reveals the positive value of struggle and change. Like the Henry IV plays, "carnivalesque" works of Renaissance literature informed by popular festivity are permeated with laughter, irony, self-parody, and indeterminacy (Bristol, p. 22). Their "grotesque realism," as Bakhtin calls it, satirically redescribes official values and institutions in the physical and material terms of the body, its orifices, and such popular festive activities as feast, clowning, wake, charivari, and mock-battle. Such works offer a fundamentally ambivalent style and vision that take the whole world as subject of mirth, including oneself, and celebrate the regenerative powers of life and community as well as the provisionality of settled ideals and institutions.

The Bakhtinian perspective ably adapted to Shakespeare by Holderness and Bristol contrasts, of course, with most earlier views of festivity in Shakespeare. C. L. Barber emphasizes how festivity can reconcile holiday and everyday, make-believe equality and real hierarchy. It provides escape from and compensation for the daily grind, and even its apparently oppositional bent can serve to solidify established structures of power by providing a perspective on one's place in the orthodox scheme of things.3 Earlier, William Empson had felt it necessary to argue against the significance of holiday ritual in the Henry IV plays partly in order to counter the ideologically conservative festive reading of John Dover Wilson.4 This question concerning popular festivity's political or ideological significance in the theater depends in part on recognition that audience response can be diverse. The great disparities in contemporary assessments of audience response in the Renaissance demonstrate that diversity: Thomas Nashe's and Thomas Heywood's emphases on what today would be called the legitimating role of the theater in promoting obedience and respect for authority fail to address adequately the numerous complaints and warnings concerning the theater's subversive potential.5

Bristol's own sensitivity to one particular sort of playgoer, the "plebeian" bringing a lifelong involvement with Saturnalia to the theater, has itself demonstrated the necessity of looking for a plurality of responses.6 Other factors can be crucial too. Staged festivity is a special case of festivity; Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have pointed out what the Henry IV plays themselves demonstrate, that a sophisticated carnivalesque theater can develop an ambivalence about festivity itself, an ambivalence that in some respects can be deeper or wider than that of the actual experience of carnival. Leah Marcus has shown that literary festive works can play complex roles in a "politics of mirth" hinging on royal and ecclesiastical policy.7

Many of the factors shaping possible responses to festivity in the Renaissance theater can be subsumed under topicality, defined broadly as the pressure of the events, issues, and political agendas of the day on the responses of different sets of playgoers. Staged festivity bears a fundamental but paradoxical relation to topicality, one that has not been the subject of much explicit scholarly consideration.8 Such consideration would involve...

(This entire section contains 15565 words.)

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aesthetic and anthropological theory, since the paradox concerns the relations between play world and "real" world, between the experience of the play and reflection upon that experience, between language and reality, and between ritual practice and everyday life. None of these theoretical issues can be adequately considered, however, without grounding the paradox in the specific conditions of Shakespearean theatrical production.

On the one hand, Elizabethan censorship and official sensitivity to political nuance make an explicitly topical drama impossible. Several politically sensitive passages were deleted from the 1600 quarto edition of 2 Henry IV. "Oldcastle" had to become "Falstaff because the former's descendants did not appreciate carnivalization of their martyred ancestor. In some ways Bakhtin's "second world" in the Henry IV plays has the license to gesture subversively, but not to subvert; it exists somewhat apart from both the English history represented in the plays and the topical world of contemporary England.9 If carnivalesque forms have the wild power even to challenge the very distinction between signifier and signified, their ability to signify consistently on a given topical issue must necessarily be limited. The Gadshill robbery in which Prince Hal participates has a strong and timely satirical point: as Gadshill the common thief himself says, social hierarchy along with official corruption is allowing the great ones to plunder the commonwealth; they "ride up and down on her, and make her their boots [booty]" (7 Henry IV, 2.1.81-82).10 But for many playgoers the festive prank is appreciated without calling the satirical subtext to mind. The Chamberlain's reply to Gadshill, "What, the commonwealth their boots? Will she hold out water in foul way?" while it continues the high-spirited wordplay, moves beyond satire toward pure fun; Gadshill's answer, "She will, she will, justice hath liquor'd her" (83-85), associates waterproofed boots with bribery, thereby insisting on a deeply felt satirical point but resorting to such humorous incongruity as to make festive satire only one ingredient in a comic ensemble.

On the other hand, the carnivalization of literature constantly and comprehensively subjects all that is high, distant, and finished to what is low, familiar, and evolving, speaking up "for the interests of its own times," as Bristol says (p. 160). Topicality is not peripheral but central to it. This relation to the evolving present need not mean that to become powerful as topical social commentary plays must always assert a consistent viewpoint.11 Carnivalesque play includes the playgoers and encourages the diversity of response that already seems to have been a common feature of playgoing. Shakespearean theater is in a process of evolution from a semi-professional drama enacted during holidays, in which playgoers were interactive participants, to a commercial, representational drama staged daily. Carnivalesque forms in this theater often still encourage participation of the playgoers, allowing for interpretive authority to be dispersed among them rather than being invested in the intentions of a single authorial creator.12 In this situation there can still exist a theatrical encouragement and accommodation of topical responses—plausible, usually private associations that playgoers inevitably if usually undocumentably make between play world and everyday world.13 Playgoers at the Henry IV plays certainly did not suddenly stop thinking about Old-castle, for instance, just because his name was deleted. In 1603 Jesuit propaganda found Shakespeare's travesty of this Protestant hero useful precisely because it was widely recognized.14 Perhaps Oldcastle's name should be restored to 1 Henry IV, and Falstaff's dropped.15 How might particular groups of festive playgoers, empowered by the theater's carnivalesque dispersal of authority, situate a given example of festivity topically, that is, in its immediate social and political contexts?

Of course ideologically speaking, many of the diverse responses accommodated by carnivalesque forms will be anything but subversive, oppositional, or sympathetic to the plebs. In the case of Oldcastle the rather dismaying speculation has always been, Bakhtin notwithstanding, that Shakespeare fashioned his greatest comic character to please the Earls of Essex and Southampton: he created a caricature of Sir John Oldcastle to embarrass Oldcastle's descendents and Essex's court enemies, William and Henry Brooke, Lords Cobham.16 The interpretive problem here is that on this view we are to find Oldcastle, his descendents, or admirers pilloried or embarrassed by association with Falstaff and his disreputable world. On some other views, including the Bakhtinian, we are to join the rest of the playgoers, especially those savvy Saturnalian "understanders" or groundlings who may find that world attractive, and laugh with Falstaff. Of course it is possible for the dissenting and democratic aspirations of whole groups of society to be ignored by the court-fixated playgoer or critic who shrewdly perceives that one is asked to appreciate the interests and ambitions of one or two peers of the realm. Further, playgoers need not accept the invitation to participate in staged festivity; rather they may coolly and judgmentally remain outside the festivities like the passive spectator that representational theater is said to have produced gradually.

In any event, an audience-centered politics of mirth would consider the mingling and mangling of diverse topical responses. It need not entail scrapping one's sense of a play as a whole, but would benefit from recognition that, especially under the pressure of a topical association, responses to regions or moments of the performance may well be more decisive for some playgoers than apprehension of a unified, total effect. In the case of the Henry IV plays, the partial critic would therefore shun, for instance, the melancholy wisdom of Stephen Greenblatt's comprehensive reading, which finds Falstaff and his world exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty of the English monarchy, but the plays as a whole fairly straitly "containing" this subversive potential in an affirmation of state power. Likewise, Richard Helgerson's narrative of the public theater's evolution away from popular taste should encourage the search for and appreciation of at the very least countervailing moments in that evolution.17

The Oldcastle-Essex-Brooke problem is interesting, but by no means the most important topical aspect of the Henry IV plays. Anyway, it cannot be adequately considered apart from the events and adverse social conditions of England circa 1596—many of which did, curiously enough, involve Essex directly or indirectly: a big victory in a continuing war; grinding assessments to support that war; fear of invasion; fear of domestic unrest; unprecedented, and unprecedentally corrupt, military recruitment; bad harvests; high prices; poverty; vagrancy; homelessness. All of these problems are implicit in the one scene in the plays most heavily pervaded with topicality: Falstaff's Coventry scene (7 Henry IV 4.2), where both holiday and everyday worlds show themselves at their worst, where the sharpest clash is felt between them, and where different groups of playgoers can be imagined to differ most sharply in their responses. The Coventry scene is perhaps the high point of grotesque realism in English literature as well as of the genre David McNeil calls the "military grotesque."18 If the Gadshill robbery is a festive prank, this is the first one sees of Falstaff outside the festive world centered on the tavern. It is the first scene in which that world is pressed into service for the representation of English history billed as the play's main purpose, for the rigors of a plot and consequential matters of historical fact. It is theatrically marginal but symbolically central. The scene remains totally if problematically festive, a carnivalesque disruption of the military procedures of muster and marching and fighting for a cause, with its language of feast and Scriptural parody, and its topical references to the above-cited conditions. It is as if the carnivalesque energies of the play, flushed out of their innyard, were to escape the full consequences of representationalism by jumping into the everyday reality not of the early fifteenth but of the late sixteenth century. Falstaff debuts into history here as a gleefully satanic infantry captain leading his pitiful recruits, his "totter'd prodigals" (4.2.34) to their deaths at the battle of Shrewsbury. Thoroughly connected to the themes of the play, this scene stands complete as a brilliant, improvisatory joke, its punch line Falstaff's immortal response to Prince Hal, defining infantrymen as "food for powder" (65-66). These lines epitomize the humor and horror that prompt Jan Kott to remark that the Coventry scene "might have been put, as it stands, into a play by Brecht."19 Here that combination involves a crucial meeting of festivity and topicality.

The scene, I suggest, would give rise to wide differences in interpretation between Essex (the military hero of 1596), a commoner who has been or may be in danger of being pricked for military service by what Rumor in 2 Henry IV calls the "fearful musters and prepar'd defense" (Induction 12), and middling sorts of citizen-playgoers whose business dealings Falstaff parodies and who support the war through taxes but not in person or with much enthusiasm. The scene's juxtaposition of holiday pleasure and the frequently anxious daily reality of 1596 still leaves the Earl of Essex and his many sympathizers free to find their own opinions on military matters, and to laugh at the Brookes as well, since the most important event in the Oldcastle story, his rebellion against his old friend Henry V, is probably also a surprising and unstable dimension of this scene. Essex is an appropriate subject both because of his importance to the events and conditions to which the Coventry scene alludes and because the reference to him in Henry V as well as the special performance of Richard II for him in 1601 show his continuing involvement with Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Henry IV plays may be meant to address his interests, but the scene supports Essex only if its deeper implications are overlooked. These implications are best apprehended by audience members who, either by sympathy or by actual social position, are able to feel some solidarity with Falstaff's "totter'd prodigals." For although they never speak and some productions, misguidedly, do not even represent them on the stage, these hapless soldiers may also be considered the subjects as well as objects of interpretation. The deeper incongruity here between the philosophical gaiety of carnival and the allusions to all-too-familiar forms of exploitation may produce a powerful reaction of anger, depression, frustration, or disgust, but also perhaps an affirmation of certain values traditionally nurtured by pre-modern plebeian cultures, such as the importance of earthly pleasures over heavenly ones, peace over war, and some putative ancient freedom from arbitrary conscription over the vanity and greed of the privileged. Yet the silence of the recruits is significant as well. This politically dangerous, this necessarily brief scene presents them as stage spectacles and itself may, even if only because of the pressure of censorship, speak most to the middling sort who are a bit too conspicuously absent from it.

My concern here will be first to outline the topicality and the festivity of the scene, then to consider it from the perspectives of three groups of playgoers: first as satire that accepts some basic assumptions of that section of the ruling elite represented at court by Essex, next as more deeply ambivalent grotesque realism that includes the standpoint of Falstaff's soldiers' extremely plentiful 1596 counterparts, and finally, more briefly, from a perspective plausibly held by some of the middling sorts described above. By depicting victimization as attractively festive, the Coventry scene puts into play deep-seated social antagonisms but also points toward a festive world outside the scene that could overcome the hierarchical basis of those antagonisms.


Throughout the 1590s London continued to swell with a rich superfluity of the educated, landed, mercantile, godly, criminal, destitute, and rustic. In 1596 exhorbitant food prices, widespread vagrancy and famine, and scattered unrest and insurrection continued for the third year in a row.20 Proclamations were issued around this time for regular street sweeps to arrest and in some instances summarily execute vagrants, especially unemployed, self-styled veterans, who could become dangerous criminals and rebels.21 A notorious London underworld thrived. Reports circulated of marauding bands of masterless men in the countryside. These helped sicken Shakespeare's Henry IV: "moody beggars, starving for a time / Of pell-mell havoc and confusion" (7 Henry IV, 5.1.81-82). Proclamations and orders were issued against grain export and price fixing, encouraging food rationing and "keeping of hospitality Anxiety for relief of the poor" "in this time of dearth."22 Anxiety about war with Spain hit a peak in 1596, but the sacking of Cadiz in June produced patriotic euphoria. Essex, co-commander of the Calais and Cadiz expeditions, reached the zenith of his popular reputation, although perhaps the majority of people were tired of the long, economically exhausting attempt to keep Spain out of Northern Europe. The lives of most people in 1596 were becoming harsher at a time when rich young men flocked to London to spend and show off, and repression of dissent and preoccupation with war were increasing.23

Nowhere in 1596 was there a procedure more hideous and yet ludicrously pathetic than military recruiting. The Irish, Netherlands, Calais, and Cadiz campaigns, along with fear of a second Armada, of reprisal for the Cadiz victory, and of popular unrest prompted recruitment of unprecedented scope in 1596, along with unprecedented anxiety about being pressured to serve. During the Calais emergency in April, the doors of London churches were barred during services so congregation members could be recruited on the spot.24 Because of the harsh economic conditions, some towns could not meet their quotas of recruits. The system tended to produce ill-favored soldiers by going after the swelling ranks of the destitute, as justices of the peace turned over disruptive elements to recruitment officers, and more substantial citizens "bought out their services," as Falstaff puts it in the Coventry scene (22-23). 2 Henry IV 3.2 offers an example of this process under the direction of Falstaff and Justice Shallow. Once recruited, the common soldier often suffered starkly inadequate conditions and equipment as well as exploitation at the hands of a corrupt or absentee captain. Desertion, vagabondage, and theft were often the results.25

1596 was not a good time for an acting company to risk depicting a mutiny, rebellion, or too explicit dissent, tempting as these possibilities might be. Things had come a long way since Protestant Marian exiles like John Ponet published justifications for resistance to unjust government (A Treatise of Politick Power, Strasbourg, 1556): in power and fearful of Catholic subversion, Anglican Tudor interests saw to it that the Homily Against Disobedience (1571) was regularly read during church services. While Erasmus and other humanists had published powerful critiques of war earlier in the century, by 1596 English preachers, especially Puritans, comprised an important ideological front for justifying war, recruiting soldiers, and discouraging both dissent in the ranks and challenges to the authority of officers.26 The theater was itself suspect. Early in 1597 the Lord Mayor would appeal again to the Privy Council to raze the theaters altogether, because they themselves were hotbeds: "the ordinary places of meeting for all vagrant persons and maisterless men that hang about the Citie, theeves, horsestealers, whoremongers, coozeners, conycathing persons, & other such lyke."27 In the same year the Queen actually issued an order closing the theaters, citing the potential for public disorder (Stallybrass and White, p. 61).

The Coventry scene gets all this in shorthand—and it had to be shorthand, because elaborating would have been dangerous. Some of Falstaff's recruits in the Coventry scene are aging veterans, like the ones who regularly disappeared from London streets: Falstaff calls them "slaves as ragged as Lazarus" (4.2.25). The others suggest a cross-section of the down-and-out of London, "such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust servingmen, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters, and ostlers trade-fall'n, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace, ten times more dishonourable ragged than an old feaz'd ancient" (27-31). The play had already offered the prospect of a tapster revolting (the drawer Francis, whose subservient position is mocked by Prince Hal: "But, Francis, darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture, and show it a fair pair of heels and run from it?" [2.4.46-48]), and of a trade-fallen ostler as well (Robin "never joy'd since the price of oats rose, it was the death of him" [2.1.12-13]). Apparently some elements of society could dismiss such cases as simply the unfortunate result of "a calm world and a long peace" (4.2.30). Of all his soldiers Falstaff says, "you would think that I had a hundred and fifty totter'd prodigals lately come from swine-keeping, from eating draff and husks. A mad fellow met me on the way and told me I had unloaded all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies" (33-37). Mad? If homeless, self-styled veterans could be summarily executed, Falstaff has pressed those who might have soon become dead bodies on gibbets anyway, as well as resembling them already through hunger. The mad fellow's comment captures the commonplace horror of vagabondage in 1596. And Falstaff's soldiers soon will be dead bodies; near the end of the battle he says, "I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered; there's not three of my hundred and fifty left alive, and they are for the town's end, to beg during life" (5.3.35-38). Apparently Falstaff led his soldiers in harm's way so he could collect their salaries—a cruel trick practiced by some Elizabethan officers. The scene alludes to the whole cycle of military recruitment by which growing ranks of the burdensome poor are shipped to oblivion. And the recruiting officer could first go after those least likely to want to serve and have them "buy out their services" ("I press me none but good householders, [yeoman's] sons, inquire me out contracted bachelors," says Falstaff in 4.2.14-16).

Such gruesome material held more festive potential for Elizabethans than one might think. Considering the frustration and misery as well as the vitality and diversity typical of London's ongoing urban experiment, it is not surprising that a style of satirical, journalistic writing juxtaposing humor and horror thrived in the 1590s. This "Elizabethan grotesque," Neil Rhodes says, possesses an inherent instability of tone and purpose, offering carnivalesque images of the flesh at once "indulged, abused, purged, and damned."28 In the urban welter, Rhodes implies, the grotesque realist vision defined by Bakhtin can lose its way, even though many of the same popularfestive materials remain. Gay optimism toward the durability of community and fellowship that is expressed through grotesque images of the body can become the almost hysterical cheerfulness in the midst of degradation that informs, say, Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller. What Rhodes says of Nashe's unstable tone must often have seemed true of London's atmosphere: "the clown mocks the preacher, but the preacher terrifies the clown" (Rhodes, p. 52). Nashe's tone might be seen to hedge about developing consistently the points of view of preacher or clown; in a similar way, the exposés and satires of the London underworld in the 1590s mixed their moral indignation with salacity—becoming the origin, Lynda E. Boose has suggested, of a typical sado-masochistic brand of English pornography.29 But the Elizabethan grotesque that Shakespeare refines in the Coventry scene, as we shall see, appears to be able to engender several consistent positions, including something like the grotesque realism that Bakhtin defined thorugh his reading of Rabelais and that Bristol discovers in many plays of Shakespeare.

How does the Coventry scene present its topical material festively? First, the scene constitutes the grotesque counterpart to the official, processional battle array described by Vernon in the previous scene. The bright colors, high spirits, and lofty purposes of Prince Hal and his noble company all find ludicrous contrasts in Falstaff and his common soldiers. Hal is "feathered Mercury" (4.1.106), Falstaff's "mortal men" (4.2.67) are cannon-fodder. Moreover, in the Coventry scene one is never far from a festively grotesque conception of food and drink, beginning with Falstaff's sending Bardolph for wine. Falstaff's joy is evident in his main speech (11-48), an astonishing improvisatory cadenza. This speech directly addresses the playgoers as if all were cronies in a tavern chuckling over Falstaff's particularly clever ruse. That ruse turns out to embody the subversion of fellowship, but is nevertheless filled with festive meaning, and appeals to what Thomas Cartelli calls playgoers' "transgressive desire," a major source of the success of plays like Marlowe's Tamburlaine (Cartelli, pp. 67-93). Falstaff smirkingly confesses that he is ashamed of his soldiers, but his pleasure in what he has done is evident, and contagious—perhaps to our horror, we are clearly supposed to laugh with him. He swears he won't be a pickled anchovy. He calls the reluctant recruits who bought out their services ducks and toasts-and-butter, and the ones he finally takes swinekeepers and scarecrows eating draff and husks, with their sores licked by a dog belonging to a glutton. When Prince Hal comes on the scene, Falstaff calls himself a cat ready to steal cream (58-59); Hal replies that Falstaff is already butter. Hal then calls Falstaff's men "pitiful rascals" (64), which carries the punning sense of lean young deer, and Falstaff completes the analogy with that famous phrase "food for powder" (65-66): that phrase also probably carries the meaning of "meat for preserving with powdered salt"30 as well as the sense of "cannon-fodder." The scene ends with Falstaff looking forward to a feast: "To the latter end of a fray and the beginning of a feast / Fits a dull fighter and a keen guest" (79-80), yet Falstaff's metaphors have already all but identified "fray" and "feast."

Both feasts and battles involve the cutting and dismemberment of flesh; the ritual Battle of Carnival and Lent is fought by the foods appropriate to these seasons. That "festive agon" involves, Bristol says, the "reciprocal thrashing of carnivalesque and Lenten tendencies" (p. 202). As scholars of festivity have long noted, this battle provides a context for the action of the Henry IV plays generally, although the foods in this scene correspond in no exact way to those in such a battle. But perhaps there is a parallel between the folk motif of personified seasons boasting of their powers against rival seasons and fat Falstaff's boastful subjugation of his lean Lenten recruits.31

Falstaff's long soliloquy includes a carnivalesque "sacred parody" of the Bible. Falstaff mockingly appropriates biblical texts mostly concerned with the heavenly rewards of the suffering poor. The parable of Dives and Lazarus had always been such a prominent text32: the rich, dog-owning Dives ends up suffering in hell for failing to help the beggar Lazarus. Falstaff's "whole charge consists of … slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton's dogs licked his sores" (24-26). In his list of recruits Falstaff may also allude to the parable of the unjust steward: There is an "unjust servingman" (28). The prodigal son, which also provides a narrative context for the whole action of the Henry IV plays, is suggested by "you would think that I had a hundred and fifty totter'd prodigals lately come from swine-keeping, from eating draff and husks" (33-35). In this context one might consider taking the mad fellow's comment to refer to the resurrection, or a sort of prophecy of it: "A mad fellow met me on the way and told me I had unloaded all the gibbets and press'd the dead bodies. No eye hath seen such scarecrows" (36-38). The last sentence at least echoes I Corinthians (2:9-10) on God's heavenly gifts ("The things which eye hathe not sene … are, which God hathe prepared for them that love him," Geneva Bible). Falstaff is laughing at his recruits' prospects of immediate death, casting himself in the role of a satanic "redeemer" who summons mortals on a procession of death. He is also laughing at the comparison, incongruous to him, of such "cankers of a calm world and a long peace" (45-47) to the righteous meek of the Bible.

In the Henry IV plays Falstaff and Prince Hal are pitted against one another in the morality-play plot of the prodigal son as well as in the festive seasonal agon. But the nobles' rebellion, which has drawn Hal as the prodigal son away from Falstaff's carnivalesque tavern world and back to his father's world, also gives the Prince a new way of carrying on the festive combat around which the tavern scenes revolve. He has given Falstaff charge of an infantry company because he knows Falstaff hates walking (2.4.545-7); he can also guess, and take pleasure in beholding, how Falstaff is likely to flout the regulations to exploit his position as captain. For his part, Falstaff overgoes Hal's expectations somewhat by identifying his recruits with Hal: both are "prodigals," making Falstaff both corrupter and satanic redeemer. And Falstaff expects to exploit the coming reign of his prodigal Hal just as he does his tattered prodigals. The prodigal son theme here undergoes a classic festive inversion common to all Saturnalia: the highest stratum of society becomes identified with the lowest. The friendship between Falstaff and Hal overlays festive and morality-play themes, and is part of the scene's festive meaning. Falstaff's treatment of his recruits and his use of the word "prodigal" may express his own feelings of apprehension about being abandoned by Hal; what Hal may do to him, he will do to the recruits. Such behavior on Falstaff's part parallels the "displaced abjection" of carnival violence that scapegoats those lower in the social scale rather than those who are responsible for the revellers' abjection.

With his line "food for powder" Falstaff performs another festive inversion, shifting responsibility for the recruits' fate from himself to Hal. Falstaff applies the festive ritual of social inversion to social criticism. The exchange among him, Hal, and the Earl of Westmoreland (62-67) again demonstrates Falstaff's ability, which Dryden so admired, to get out of tight corners by suddenly putting matters on a different footing. "Whose fellows are these that come after?" Hal asks. "I never did see such pitiful rascals" (62, 64). Perhaps Hal didn't realize it could get that bad. As Falstaff answers, the nobles' faces show consternation which grows the more they stare and the more they hear the words of reassurance meant to have an opposite, horrific effect. "Tut tut good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder, they'll fill a pit as well as well as better. Tush man, mortal men, mortal men" (65-67). For Jan Kott, Falstaff here "possesses a plebeian wisdom and experience"; William Empson declares that this is Falstaff's single best comeback to Hal in either play.33 The irony of "food for powder" is so massive that here one tends to find Falstaff sympathizing with his recruits, where just before he was cackling at them. The irony suggests that Hal, as a leading member of the elite, has some responsibility for beggars being sent into battle; Sir John here contrives to become the wry spokesman for the very lower orders he is fond of exploiting.

One may say that here Falstaff is simply demonstrating his ability to avoid responsibility for his actions. But a kind of representation typical of festivity—mimicry34—seems to fit him well here. The character has a marvellous self-awareness about his impersonations, one that has sometimes been hailed as a sign that he is truly a rounded and coherent character, but is actually a sign that, as Dryden said, he is really a "miscellany of humors or images, drawn from so many several men"—a miscellany played, as A. R. Humphreys suggests, by an actor exploring comic roles.35 The festive multiplicity emphasized by this latter reading helps one appreciate Shakespeare's character in the Coventry scene, as that character manages to be both exploiter and spokesman for the exploited. In Bakhtinian terms, the lines exhibit a double-voicing or doubly-oriented speech that suggests the speech's unhinging from individual persons.36

Appreciation of festive Falstaffian mimicry is the missing dimension in all the work that has been expended on the question of Oldcastle. And Oldcastle does provide another aspect of the Coventry scene that concerns both festivity and topicality. The most important and controversial event in Sir John Oldcastle's life was his rebellion against his old friend Henry V on Twelfth Day 1413 O.S. (1414), under the pretext of holiday mumming. This subject is indirectly topical. The Coventry scene does not depict but may allude to Oldcastle's rebellion; presumably the allusion would be designed to address some topical issue such as satire of Lord Cobham. The subject is also topical since it involves the contemporary controversy over Oldcastle's rebellion. In the Coventry scene we find that like the historical Oldcastle, Shakespeare's Oldcastle "has his own little private army," as Honigmann says (p. 146). That army is motley and low, as was Oldcastle's, and passes through St. Albans (see 4.2.46) as Oldcastle's did (Lyle-Scoufos, pp. 78-79). These two unlikely armies share a similar oblivion as well. Holinshed, Stow, and other chroniclers say that Oldcastle's men were dispersed, killed outright, or executed, with apparently no losses on the King's side, which had information about the gathering beforehand; Oldcastle himself took warning and never actually showed up. Shakespeare's Oldcastle's "ragamuf-fins" were "peppered," while he escaped "shot-free at London" (7 Henry IV, 5.3.36, 30). Oldcastle was a devout Lollard reformer; Shakespeare's speaks of his troops in Scriptural terms.

Shakespeare's Oldcastle mimics the historical person differently from the way Shakespeare's Bolingbroke, say, or Prince Hal, represent those historical figures. He burlesques the historical Oldcastle in a way not altogether different from his burlesque of King Henry IV in the great tavern scene of Act II. Where the historical Oldcastle became a devout Lollard after a period of self-confessed sinfulness, Shakespeare's character lives riotously, occasionally thinks about repenting, and frequently expresses himself in religious language. Shakespeare's Oldcastle jokes about being a rebel: "By the Lord, ile be a traitor then, when thou art king" (1.2.146-47). After the Gadshill robbery, he says, "was it for me to kill the heir apparent? Should I turn upon the true prince?" (2.4.268-70). The chroniclers say Oldcastle was charged with bringing together a force of 20,000 rebels intending to overturn all civil and ecclesiastical authority, kill Henry V, and install Oldcastle as regent. As for plot, historical and staged Oldcastles are friends of Harry Monmouth and go to war with him. In 2 Henry IV, where the character originally named Oldcastle has become Falstaff, stage and historical figures each become intolerable to the new Henry V and get imprisoned by him. On the whole, Shakespeare's festive character, retaining just enough shreds of plausibility, embraces a laughably irresponsible, grasping, dissolute, and hypocritical version of the proto-Protestant martyr celebrated in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments. The most obvious butt of the satire is those who accept that particular hagiographic view of Oldcastle: you revere him as a martyr but he's really a killjoy, and so are you; here he is in the play as he may have been before he got religion: the reveller you can't stand.


What were some of the likely receptions of this scene's carnivalesque ambivalence in late 1596 or early 1597, when the play was first performed?37 How would carnival's potentially unlimited confusion of signifier and signified be channeled to serve, expose, or challenge particular topical interests? Let us consider the pro-war orientation coalescing around admiration for the military success and the image of the Earl of Essex. Insofar as this orientation accommodates popular festivity, it might be called militarist authoritarian populism, and it could have been shared by a considerable numbers of playgoers.

The Percies' rebellion in the Henry IV plays must certainly have called contemporary playgoers' minds to the Northern Rebellion of 1569-1570, led by the Catholic Percies of Northumberland, but attitudes about the debilitating and frustrating war against Spain must have helped shape responses to the plays' representation and assessment of war and military virtue. Common soldiers were often scorned and feared. Barnabe Riche saw a self-fulfilling prophecy here: the low opinion people had of soldiers insured that only the worst prospects joined up.38 Lord Burghley's Order of the Muster of 1950 shows that abuse in recruitment such as Captain Falstaff's was widely recognized as a problem.39 But between 1596 and 1599 ineffectual reform, official coverups, and the ever-present threat that one could be asked to serve alongside such recruits as Falstaff's must have been unsettling to many farmers, artisans, and citizens.

On the other hand, the sacking of Cadiz in June 1596 revived spirits and brought great popularity to Essex. There was a dispute about which leader, Essex or Ralegh, should have the greater credit, but in the popular mind Essex was the man, to the Queen's discomfort. An alternative account of the campaign that stressed Essex's role circulated before being suppressed, and ballads were composed celebrating Essex's victory.40 As a leader of the "war party" faction in the Privy Council, Essex stood for the principle that the Catholic threat should be met vigorously and courageously. Burghley led the peace party, a notable member of which was Lord Cobham, Oldcastle's descendant.

Essex was a natural soldier and enjoyed the company of other soldiers. Clergyman John Norden's The Progress of Piety (1596) glorified the military profession and was dedicated to Essex. As co-commander of the Cadiz and Calais expeditions, Essex must have taken an active interest in problems of military recruitment. At the siege of Rouen in 1591 he had experienced great problems with unqualified common soldiers, and had suffered disastrous losses. His friend and adviser Roger Williams' A Brief Discourse of Warre (1590) does not dwell on recruiting problems, but Essex's official communiques from the Dover staging area for the aborted 1596 Calais rescue show his concern about the problems many military writers had complained were endemic: "I have been toiling all night to get victuals for the men that are to be transported.… The men here are very poor, and should be encouraged in this kind of service." Again, "some have come from far, have left their clothes behind, and having no change, uncleanliness may breed infection, and hazard the whole service."41 The fact that the Cadiz expedition disallowed dead pays in an effort to curb corruption among captains42 indicates that Essex, along with many of his contemporaries, accepted the seriousness of this problem.

Lily Bess Campbell thought the Coventry scene showed a Shakespearean aristocratic bias: along with Hal—and presumably, the Earl of Essex—Shakespeare laughs at both sleazy captains and their dregs in tow, both at and with Falstaff (p. 254). Things start off this way in the Coventry scene, but for a responsible military leader in 1596, one sensitive to popular opinion, the laugh would emerge despite oneself through most of the scene, the whole experience perhaps involving that combination of laughter and moral indignation Brecht wanted to achieve. Samuel Johnson follows the clear implications of Falstaff's sacred parody when he observes that "Falstaff's ragamuffins were reduced to their tatter'd condition thro' their riotous excesses";43 that is, they are indeed "dishonorable ragged," (31) as Falstaff says. Some people today also believe that the homeless prefer being so. But whatever the poetic justice of the recruits' fate, and however comfortably the well-off might indulge themselves in laughing at them here, the fact remains that abuses in recruitment hampered military campaigns, and unfit soldiers continued to render the nation a bit more vulnerable to a second Armada and to domestic unrest, as well as rendering it less able to oppose the Spanish on the Continent.

A further moral point lies in the mocking way Falstaff's sacred parody slips from its appropriator's grasp. For unmistakably Falstaff's allusion to the parable of Dives and Lazarus also implies that Dives stands for Falstaff, who will get his just deserts in hell, as Dives did, for what he is doing to his recruits on earth. Likewise it is the devil who would lead an apocalyptic army of the risen damned, and lead the Prodigal Son to the cannon's mouth rather than to his reward. One recalls the anxiety Falstaff had expressed in his previous scene about growing old and needing to repent (3.3.5-7). At any rate, the sacred parody invites the spectator to laugh with Falstaff, but the laugh sticks on a Christian surmise as one realizes Falstaff's intention, and then his identity and fate as figured in the very parables he is using to mock the others. He really does present himself here as the "old, white-bearded Sathan" (2.4.463) Hal had called him. The scriptural references imply that, like the Dolphin in Henry V, Falstaff will be undone by his belief that war is a kind of festival for his enjoyment. One can imagine a glib response here, with the playgoer pointing the finger at low military appropriations, official indifference to the recruiting problem, or perhaps the eternal vanity and greed of human wishes, while a humbler response might recognize one's own inadequate efforts or actual complicity. Either way one could say that here the ambivalence of carnival leads to a focused but limited criticism of military concerns.

A much easier sort of satire for aristocrats to appreciate here is that on self-made, rapacious men of business. The scene depicts the ravages of aspiring minds, of the drive for material gain that did threaten the stability of the social hierarchy.44 The businessman's virtues did not necessarily encourage respect for the dignity of arms. Recruitment scams could therefore be seen as part of a larger trend that undermined the old order. "Food for powder" joins both satires. Falstaff's rejoinder to Hal suggests that when the Crown, perhaps led astray by the peace party dear to the Cobhams, does not adequately see to the welfare of soldiers, massive losses are the result, and those who support such a system are really just thinking of dead soldiers as so much powdered (salted) meat. They're no better than the gluttonous, tasteless, cruel entrepreneurs of London. "The better part of valor is discretion" (5.4.119-20) may be a clever saying, but those who use it to argue that England should get out of the Continent may be self-seeking and cowardly, like Falstaff. It is a scandal when one's troops are so poor that the enemy guns will mow them down, and when officers have the attitude that the purpose of war is to enrich themselves. There's a job to be done against the Spanish and ragged "slaves" like Falstaff's must be eliminated.

There is finally a tragic nuance to "food for powder." From the militaristic populist point of view it would mean something like this: in the unpredictable conditions of battle even the best of troops must sometimes be food for powder; anyway, war is like life because we've all got to go. Noble Hotspur himself, after all, will end up as "food for … worms" (5.4.86-87). The Earl of Westmoreland seems to understand some such meaning: his response to Falstaff's "food for powder" is "Ay, but Sir John, me-thinks they are exceeding poor and bare, too beggarly" (68-69). "Ay, but": in life's inevitable tragedy of war, it is only honorable to recruit the highest caliber of cannon fodder one can find.

The notion of cannon fodder recalls another time in English history when the Coventry scene again became topical in a war. Here is Sir Walter Raleigh in the Times Literary Supplement in 1917: "The Germans are fond of using the word cannon-fodder to describe infantry soldiers. How many of them know that they are quoting Shakespeare? The word was used … to translate 'food for powder.' … Falstaff's speech is witty, surprising, profound, ironical, pathetic, full of that metaphysical sense to which the comic and the tragic are one and the same. The Germans' use of Falstaff's language, in every case that I have seen, is serious, brutal, boastful, instinct with contempt for the sentiments of average humanity. The difference is an epitome of our differences with a people who do not understand Shakespeare."45Kanonenfutter was coined as a translation of Falstaff's "food for powder"; actors had used it effectively in the mid-nineteenth century. In World War I it referred to the soldiers in trench warfare subject to machine-gun fire, whose average life expectancy was several weeks. The Germans, Raleigh claims, did not understand the phrase; apparently only the English had the sensitivity to send hundreds of thousands of "average humanity" to slaughter and still have good-humored respect for them. Like a militaristic populist reading of tragic nuance in the Coventry scene, Raleigh's comment, at best, leaves open the question whether such slaughter is also a necessity in a "metaphysical sense." Like Westmoreland's, his position here is that one should have masses of troops, be ready to sacrifice them, and keep one's sense of humor. In the Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf's word "turkeyshoot" also seems comparable to Falstaff's. "Turkeyshoot" is part of a military lex-icon that turns high-technology assault into a backwoods hunting party. The word was used to describe the slaughter of retreating Iraqi infantry by Allied airplanes and tanks. Readers may decide whether Schwarzkopf's grotesque is more like Raleigh's Falstaff or Raleigh's Germans, and whether the difference matters.

Falstaff's original identity as Sir John Oldcastle seems most congruent with a reception oriented toward the interests of Essex. Satire of Oldcastle on this score would involve ridiculing his attempt to foment popular rebellion—a timely enough project in 1596-1597, although only five years later the Earl of Essex himself attempted to foment "popular" rebellion. Satire of Oldcastle becomes both permissible and effective because of the diversity of judgments about him and his rebellion among the upper orders of Elizabethan society. The dominant Catholic view represented by the Jesuit Nicholas Harpsfield46 reproduced Thomas Walsingham's disgusted condemnation of Lollard heresy, popular rebellion, and what he took to be Oldcastle's misguided, opportunistic, and perhaps fanatically insane leadership. Walsingham had no problem implicating John Wyclif's Lollard perversions in the Peasant Revolt of 1381.47 In his view in 1381 Lollardizing leaders like Oldcastle and John Ball appropriate the traditional Christian critique of wealth and vision of earthly paradise to justify rebellion against all authority.48 At the other extreme from the Catholics were those Anglicans and Puritans who like Foxe denied either that there was an attempted revolt, or that Oldcastle was involved. In other words, while applauding Oldcastle's proto-Protestant religious reforms, they rejected the imputation that Oldcastle wanted to reform society or challenge secular authority. The Brookes themselves commissioned a play glorifying such an Oldcastle, probably to counter Shakespeare's already famous version. But there was strong evidence that Oldcastle really had been a rebel. William Brooke, Lord Cobham just happened to be a major patron of Holinshed's Chronicles, but the best the Chronicles could do was to waffle on the question of Oldcastle, alluding both to accounts of the attempted uprising and to an innocent gathering to hear a preacher.49 Like the early Catholic chronicles, John Stow's Chronicles (1575) and his Annals (1592) are firm in their presentation of Old-castle as heretical rebel. Both Holinshed's often-reprinted waffling and Stow's decisiveness demonstrate that Foxe tried in vain to place Oldcastle beyond attack or ridicule. In fact, since his second edition attempts to exonerate Oldcastle against Harpsfield at such hectoring length, Foxe probably succeeded in making Oldcastle a riper target. The martyrologist also quotes the Crown's charge of treason against Oldcastle, which tends to deflate the surrounding bluster.50

Oldcastle, then, was ripe for a particular kind of satirical treatment. Like Oldcastle, who arguably ran out on his followers when he saw they couldn't help him to power, Falstaff helped himself to his dead men's salaries. Falstaff's parody of Scripture in the Coventry scene perhaps carries the sense that Oldcastle was enough of a calculating buffoon to use religion to foment popular revolt—substituting earthly rewards for heavenly. (Of course in this scene revolt is not being fomented; Falstaff's is talking to the audience. The suggestion would only be that his parables may be alluding to some spiel of Oldcastle's.) Like John Ball in 1381, Oldcastle would be using the traditional Christian critique of wealth embodied in the parables—especially that ever-popular comfort to the destitute, Dives and Lazarus—to prophesy rewards awaiting his rebels on earth. These parables really imply, as we have already seen, that Falstaff is devilish and doomed.

Essex's personal satisfaction here would be in seeing an enemy's honored ancestor publicly debunked, and possibly in the suggestion that the politics supported by Brooke are leading to disorder in the army reminiscent of the military fiasco of Brooke's ancestor. Festive misrule here has a very negative value. On the other hand, insofar as the Oldcastle persona is one of an ensemble of festively comic roles mimed by Shakespeare's character, that persona enriches the festive fun that the Brookes cannot enjoy simply because it is at the expense of their ancestor. They must exclude themselves from the party. Essex, or anyone who found the connection plausible, could have the festivity both ways, scorning it and enjoying it.

The best-known rebellion of the times was not any popular revolt, but Essex's failed coup of 1601. How ironic that whereas Oldcastle never showed up at the massacre of his supporters on Ficket's Field outside of London, Essex was hanged after his hoped-for citizen support never showed up on the streets of London. By 1596 Essex led a loose party of Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan gentry and nobility, besides enjoying wide popular sympathy; although his dedication to principle may have been shallow and contradictory, he stood for more than just Protestant militancy and the revival of chivalry. He favored religious toleration and the rights of nobles in their struggle with royal prerogative, as well as a sphere of political and historical activity independent of providential myth (history plays included). Theoretically, the satire of foreign policy and military administration in the Coventry scene could therefore be linked by playgoers to a whole progressive program that in relative terms perhaps does not deserve the name "authoritarian." On this interpretation, Essex would become a leader who is everything Falstaff's is not, one who would lead the commons with a sense of its best interests rather than stir up the commons to rebellion for personal gain as Oldcastle supposedly did.51 Such a reading would unite rather than divide playgoers by social rank, in an alternative hierarchical vision of benevolent social order. One problem with this interpretation is that it requires trust in a notoriously vain aristocrat who rarely concerned himself with the actual causes or grievances of the commons. It also emphatically limits the validity and autonomy of the popular energies presented in the scene's popular festivity. What sort of response could embrace these energies more fully?


The many-headed monster of the populace was present in Shakespeare's audience and was free to "understand" as it wished. Contemporaries refer, usually contemptuously, to many kinds of tradesmen and "mechanical mates," to apple-wives and fish-wives, to porters, servingmen, carters, drovers, grooms, and ruffians, any of whom could be classed by their betters or by one another as among the "stinkards."52 Moving down the social scale, the Lord Mayor's list of undesirables at the theater in 1597, noted above, includes masterless men, thieves, prostitutes, "and other such lyke." 1596 apparently saw "an increase of dissolute, loose and insolent people," "people without trade," who stayed in the suburbs' inns and taverns, among other places, and were regularly herded and hounded hither and thither by the authorities; if they were unlucky enough and "sturdy" enough, the males were summarily taken up for the army.53 Even considering the exaggeration in some accounts, it seems clear that some potential additions to Falstaff's "totter'd prodigals," not to mention his highway accomplices, were at the play one time or another looking back at the image of themselves. Further, the visual and olfactory, if not aural, experience of every playgoer was affected by the proximity of such people to the theaters. Nor was there any compelling reason for such playgoers to defer either to the author, "taste," their "betters," or another arbiter of interpretation in framing judgments, Ben Jonson's later instructive prologues notwithstanding.54 Tamburlaine the Great was a vagabond.55

It is not yet possible to assess the extent of traditions of dissent among the populace, or how attitudes that necessarily remained unacknowledged in the official culture affected the growth of modern democratic and revolutionary ideas. The Sessions and Assize Courts, which handled sedition, show considerable evidence of it among the lower orders.56 A number of comments by members of the better sort about their inferiors reveal a degree of ideological pluralism that one would not surmise from reading the likes of Richard Hooker. "The most part of men," said a bishop in 1589, hold episcopacy in "loathsome contempt, hatred and disdain," and equality among clergy would naturally lead to demands for social equality.57 Irreverence and resentment was commonplace among the lower orders.58 In reading accounts of dissent and rebellion one must also occasionally hear what Annabel Patterson calls "ventriloquism,"59 as the reported speech of, say, rebels takes on a force of its own for some readers or hearers, however much the report condemns that speech. A good example is Holinshed's account of the 1381 Peasant's Revolt. The preacher John Ball, as Thomas Walsingham, Jean Froissait, and Holinshed all inform us, used the Bible to argue that all were "created alike," as Holinshed put it, and that people had the power to cast off "the yoke of bondage" and "recover their libertie" (p. 437). Ball adopted a traditional biblical critique of wealth going back through Augustine and Ambrose to voice a no doubt equally longstanding, widely popular belief that echoed down far beyond the 1590s. The running marginal comments in Holinshed, which suggest what attitude the reader should take toward Ball's followers, read "raging rebels make a pastime to kill men" (p. 431). While Holinshed's margins are much more militantly orthodox than the text, Ball's words in Holinshed could be heard as the ventriloquism of a pro-Ball voice rarely allowed to speak for itself in the Elizabethan period. And besides the Judeo-Christian tradition there was the wide-spread myth of a period of "auncient libertie," as Richard Eden put it in his translation of Peter Martyr's First Decade (which described the free lives of newly discovered New World natives).60 This spirit was lost, popular wisdom had it, when "gentlemen came up" (2 Henry VI, 4.2.8-9).

The "rapynes of the Infynytt numbers of the wicked wandrynge Idell people," Justice Edward Hext recognized in 1596, prompt ordinary people to challenge the legitimacy of the social order. Convictions cannot be obtained when "most commonly the simple Cuntryman and woman, lokynge no farther then ynto the losse of ther owne goods, are of opynyon that they wold not procure a mans death for all the goods yn the world."

Others there be (and I feare me imboldened by the wandrynge people) that styck not to say boldlye they must not starve, they will not starve. And this yere there assembled lxxx in a Companye and tooke a whole Carte loade of Cheese from one dryvynge yt to a fayre and dispersed yt amongest them … which may grow dangerous by the ayde of suche numbers as are abroade, especyally in this tyme of dearthe, who no dowpt anymate them to all contempte bothe of noble men and gentlemen, contynially Bussynge into there eares that the ritche men have gotten all into ther hands and will starve the poore.61

Resistance to military service before and after recruitment is virtually perennial. When they can, people tend to hide out to avoid becoming cannon fodder. Here is the sympathetic view of Barnabe Riche in 1604 toward the resistance of the lowest kind of conscript: "they have nothing to lose and less to care for; will you presse them with shame for being reported cowards? but they will never blush, that are not onely past shame, but also past grace; why then what lawe to enjoin, what love to induce them, or what goods to conjure them."62 Sir John Smythe was even more sympathetic. Smythe, J. R. Hale says, "saw himself as the champion of the common honest Englishman against dishonest captains and callous statesmen" (p. lxxxiv). In June 1596 Smythe broke. He rashly and loudly repeated to new Colchester recruits on the drilling ground what many people knew: soldiers were routinely neglected and exploited by incompetent, greedy officers; overseas action was extremely harsh and dangerous. In Essex's Rouen expedition, Smythe claimed, fewer than ten per cent of the common soldiers returned. Moreover, overseas service without order of Parliament violated the ancient legal rights of Englishmen to boot, and such oppression of common people through recruiting was, Smythe said, treasonous. Several recruits apparently took Smythe seriously until reminded that it was treasonous to do so; although well-connected and with a convincing argument that he had been drunk, Smythe was imprisoned or under house arrest for seven years.63

It is easy to imagine the anger, frustration, and disgust felt by members of the lower orders subject to the abuse of recruitment on beholding the Coventry scene. Their feelings might be comparable to the envy, vindictiveness, and desire for liberty expressed by apprentices on holiday who sacked theaters and brothels. Since most plebeians probably responded more to the theater's spectacles than to its complex language (Gurr, pp. 85-97), the effect of this scene would depend on some actual representation of Falstaff's recruits on stage. An imaginative production might present them as menacing, clever, or playful; one or two could desert or steal something during Falstaff's soliloquy. They could stand in or march downstage to the platea, giving them rather than Falstaff an empowering access to the audience and ability to reach beyond the representational stage. In any case their presence could give "food for powder" its special charge of savagery, as Falstaff could be taken not as a spokesman of the lower orders but an epitome of evil, and the recruits not so much the "dishonorable ragged" as innocent victims—or even as the long-suffering righteous represented by the Dives of the parable. And as "totter'd prodigals" their sorry condition reflects the misrule and the indifference of the greater prodigal, Prince Hal.64 Here both the aristocratic hierarchy (represented by Hal and Westmoreland) and the corrupt recruitment officer cum grasping citizen money man (Falstaff) are revealed as collaborating parts of a general system that crushes common people. Elliot Krieger's powerful sketch of Falstaff as the egoistic, proto-bourgeois tutor to a budding Machiavel finds resonance here.65

But what about the possible festive content of the scene? Even considering the age's acceptance of the gruesome, a festive response from this plebeian viewpoint might require a tremendous act of imagination. Would one not have to forget for a moment representational and topical levels, where Falstaff is sending real people to die? To be sure, this imaginative forgetting has proven extremely easy for critics who have no particular regard for the responses of groundlings. Many have subscribed to Samuel Johnson's view that Falstaff is "always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the defenceless"; and yet, "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."66 Borne by whom? Altogether repressing the predatory, Harold Goddard remarks that Falstaff "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."67 Playgoers closer to Falstaff's recruits may have more difficulty than Goddard here. Festivity and topicality (which here can produce anger and horror) seem at odds, because in the Coventry scene holiday cheer supports victimization: the audience is put in the position of someone like a tavern crony to whom Falstaff conspiratorily boasts of how he is making a bundle off the war. The scene shows festival appropriated by exploitative groups.

Perhaps the Coventry scene registers the challenges to plebeian festive life in 1596 that famine, enclosure, displacement, and life on the streets must have offered. At any rate, festive-minded citizens, artisans, and plebeians who feel they might be subject to "fearful musters" would experience the deepest sort of impasse in the Coventry scene, a Brechtian "horror in the midst of farce" (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui). A way beyond this impasse could lie in a critique of debased festivity from the stand-point of some valid but absent carnivalesque—somewhat as, according to many theoreticians of the postmodern, a number of trends in contemporary culture can be seen not to negate beauty, truth, or goodness, but to affirm their unrepresentability at the present time.68 Pre-modern carnival itself, after all, is by necessity paradoxical: it encourages visions of equality and free association, yet there could be no Saturnalia, no topsy-turvydom, outside of a hierarchical society. The Coventry scene could provide a moment when the very noise of the groundlings may register a conceit superior to that of the Hamlets who disdain them (see Hamlet, 3.2.11-12).

Let us first recall an example of festive battle in Rabelais' Gargantua. In order to protect the grape harvest, Friar John uses his crozier with relish to massacre the invading cake-bakers in the abbey vineyards (ch. 27). The anatomical detail of the episode suggests the butchering of meat. This theme of the "rending of the human body," as Bakhtin calls it, celebrates both the productive power of human culture (wine husbandry, butchery) and of the grotesque body (Bakhtin, p. 192). The piety of the other monks is satirized by comparison with Friar John's physical strength, bravery, and love of wine, and symbolically the violence refers to a festive process of death and new life. In the Coventry scene, Falstaff's sacred parody can likewise be read as an affirmation of the pleasures of this world. We have seen that while Falstaff's parables mock his recruits, they mock Falstaff as well, because they suggest there will be divine vengeance on him as a Dives and as a false redeemer of prodigal sons. But beyond this level of irony, one can imagine the festively Satanic Falstaff to be aware of his scriptural citations' ominous implications, and to be laughing at the whole idea of salvation and divine retribution. Preachers may terrify and humble with threats and promises about the afterlife, but Falstaff will gaily accept his own death and affirm the pleasures of life meanwhile. Will Falstaff's recruits get the pleasure of divine vengeance on Falstaff? The party will go on here below nevertheless. Falstaff appropriates Scripture to celebrate the abundance and the pleasures of this world, which he is looking forward to enjoying after the battle. Shakespeare has some sympathy for this view. He allows Falstaff to be both Lazarus and Dives: Falstaff goes not to Abraham's bosom as Lazarus did, but Arthur's bosom, says the Hostess in Henry V: not the Christian heaven but an English utopia of "green fields" (Henry V, 2.3.9-26). From the perspective of grotesque realism, the biblical references in Falstaff's speech suggest a cycle of earthly pleasures: the individual may die, but the festive community lives on. This "old, white-bearded Sathan" turns apocalypse into carnival.

In the symbolism of carnival, the slaughter of Falstaff's "tatter'd prodigals" brings new life; that which is dried up and useless is turned into matter for future growth. "Symbolic cannibalism"69 is implicit in Falstaff's culinary imagery in the Coventry scene: Falstaff metaphorically eats people likened to toast with butter, wild duck and other fowl, and of course dried, salted meat ("food for powder"). But in this symbolism no one is just a consumer; a spiral of becoming is celebrated. Falstaff and his recruits form an inseparable, symbolic whole of plenty and penury and it is the ritual role of Lenten Hal to point this out. So whereas Falstaff's soldier "rascals" (lean young deer) become food for powder, Hal's response likens Falstaff to a side of meat: his "unless you call three fingers in the ribs bare" (4.2.73-74) suggests a "three-finger ribspare," a measure of venison.70 And Hal calls the crafty-dead Falstaff at the battle of Shrewsbury "so fat a deer" (5.4.107). Bakhtin says, "the world's gay matter … is born, dies, and gives birth, is devoured and devours; this is the world which continually grows and multiplies, becomes ever greater and better, ever more abundant … it is the grave and the generating womb, the receding past and the advancing becoming" (p. 195). That becoming materializes here in Falstaff's body, which shakes with ambivalent laughter at the deprivation and victimization embodied in the recruits, and symbolizes the collective body of the people, ever growing and renewing itself. Setting aside those unpleasant details of the plot for a moment and focusing on the stage spectacle, one could perceive that collective body as a sort of Pied Piper leading away the lean representatives of famine and exploitation. And rising a little above (or sinking below) the level of character, one can see that although in the Coventry scene Falstaff is the symbolic father of tattered prodigals, as the body of carnival materialized Falstaff is double-gendered. He is Hal's pretended wife—"I'll play Percy, and that damn'd brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife" (2.4.109-10)—who in 2 Henry IV is recognized on the battlefield by his belly, which he likens to a womb (2 Henry IV, 4.3.94). With respect to his doomed recruits, as well as to his page in that second play, he is like a "sow" who has "overwhelm'd" "all her litter but" the two or three survivors (1.2.11-12)—yet "he" is perennially pregnant.71

The death of Falstaff's recruits, in short, is as much a symbolic "rite of violence" as the death of the heroic Hotspur. "I have led my rag of Muffins where they are peppered," read Quartos 1-5 and the First Folio (5.3.36; italics mine). A "rag" can be a "column," "troop," or "collection"; the metaphor extends the mock-battle of foods and the nuances of symbolic cannibalism. Such festive battles auger the vitality of the community. After the battle, undergoing a mock resurrection, Falstaff proceeds to mutilate and mock Hotspur's body. That act opposes the oppressively sacred rites of violence that legitimate oppression by the aristocracy, joyously defiling what has been revered as the "purified" corpse of Hotspur, as well as the chivalrous lies attached thereto.72 The violent end of Falstaff's lean recruits, on the other hand, can signify both the terrible hunger and exploitation common-place in 1596 and the passing of that scarecrow, diseased, and ill-clothed regime, prompting hope that somewhere, by virtue of the common people's strength, there was or can be a society that works differently. The members of that society must already be growing inside the fat one. In carnivalesque fashion the scene's anticipated violence wins a residually sacred character through juxtaposition with the profaneness that dominates the scene. Through its festivity the Coventry Scene, along with some other anti-heroic moments of the play, celebrates the durability of plebeian life and community against famine, exploitation, and war, providing both a glimpse of contemporary horrors and a symbolic purgation of them.

In 1596 a symbolic purgation of the present order could find resonance in dissenting attitudes mentioned above and in groups and movements as well. Some playgoers could have found and appreciated a positive reference to Oldcastle's Lollard rebellion in the Coventry scene, and have connected that with contemporary forms of resistance. Lollard thinking was sometimes oriented toward the levelling of secular hierarchy. Although it originated at Oxford University, by the sixteenth century the Lollard movement seems to have become "essentially a working-class tradition of dissent."73 From the perspective of authoritarian populism, Oldcastle is mocked in the Coventry scene because he foments revolt by using the venerable Christian prophecy that the afterlife may reverse this world's hierarchy of rich and poor. Clearly the popular, festive travesty of Scripture that can also be heard in the Coventry scene accommodates a different attitude toward Utopian prophecy and popular dissent and revolt. The phrases "slaves as ragged as Lazarus," "totter'd prodigals," "No eye hath seen," and "food for powder" may therefore suggest for some playgoers a positive evaluation, if not necessarily of Sir Oldcastle's, at least some program, strategy, act, thought, or impulse of popular religious and political dissent appropriate to the conditions of 1596. That is, the appropriation of the Bible by the meek who do wish to inherit the earth, thank you, an appropriation contemptible to those who find Oldcastle satirized for fomenting popular revolt, can here also become a festive affirmation with political consequences. The key to this transformation of meaning is the popular festive material, which changes the focus of laughter from the lords to the commons, from a morality anchored in heaven to a celebration of pleasure on earth, and from satirical mockery to the ambivalently comic and tragic laughter of carnival.

Whether or not many plebeian playgoers found Oldcastle and his revolt in this scene, it can prompt a constructive attitude of dissent because it affirms a powerful, festive, plebeian-centered community that opposes contemporary abuses and re-appropriates Scripture. That attitude could find resonance in the more or less continuous tradition of popular religious and political dissent that seems to have existed, one that loosely links non-conformists such as Lollards or Familialists with seventeenth-century Levellers.74 The popular traditions of dissent, exemplified for instance by Ralph Cobbler, the clown and prophet against privilege (Robert Wilson, The Cobbler's Prophecy, 1590, pub. 1594). Protest and Protestantism, further, were both advanced in the sixteenth century through popular carnivalesque satire.75 The grotesque personas of some rabble-rousing preachers combined prophet and lord of misrule; the Puritan polemics of "Martin Marprelate," begun in 1588, are carnivalesque disputations.76 It is not that the Henry IV plays or King Lear, an example discussed recently, make some special appeal to the explicit doctrine of radical groups, but that these groups may well have made explicit the popular traditions of liberty and dissent that were considerably more widespread, and that for certain members of the audience do resonate in the theater.77

Falstaff's rank presents a problem for the above identification of him with the collective body of the people. Empson remarks that Falstaff is "the first major joke by the English against their class system," "a picture of how badly you can behave, and still get away with it, if you are a gentleman—a mere common rogue would not have been nearly so funny" (p. 46). Yet being funny by juxta-posing high rank and low behavior is itself part of the politically charged carnivalesque ensemble, and is carried off by this "miscellany of humors" who overflows the limits of any one representational character. The clown Richard Tarlton's character Derick in The Famous Victories of Henry Fifth, a major source of Shakespeare's tetralogy, provides a contrast: almost a vagabond himself as the play opens, Derick romps farcically through Agin-court, immune from notions of honor or valor and espousing more straightforwardly a popular festive ideology—one that is nevertheless strikingly countered by the heroic genre of much of the play.78 A Shakespearean Derick could offer a more authentic folk carnival pedigree, as well as a degree of improvisation and audience interchange that may have dismayed the playwright, but not Falstaff's comprehensive juxtaposing of high and low, which comprises an artistic interpretation of the popular festive carnivalesque.


The response of burghers to the topical issues of the Coventry scene could be similar to Essex's: a recognition of the necessity of the war along with a sense that some aspects of it were seriously amiss. The war should be supported if it protects and expands trade. Likewise, the scene's mockery of grasping opportunists could be appreciated by those of the business class who felt themselves above reproach; others might be uneasy, if only because of the popular image of them that the scene might be seen to reinforce. Of course one special involvement of solid citizens of London here concerns their efforts to insure that their sort not be recruited. Matthew Sutcliffe reasoned in 1593 that if soldiers are sent to slaughter through poor leadership in the field, it might as well be people like these.79 Playgoing "toasts-and-butter" who "bought out their services" (4.2.21, 22-23) could laugh or more likely wince, or laugh and wince, along with justices of the peace who had recently colluded with officers like Falstaff over tavern ale.

But wealthy citizens' money, given increasingly reluctantly, financed much of the long, inconclusive war; despite what hawkish preachers may have been telling them, some citizens no doubt welcomed the Coventry scene's exposure of martial corruption and unnecessary deaths. The scene can be taken as a sweeping denunciation of war solidly in the humanist tradition; there is much in the scene that could appeal to members of the peace party, and to those sympathetic to a more radical stand against war. Citizens might not think of orchestrated martial mayhem as the result of some confederation of middling and gentle sorts (as plebeians might), but as the result of a superannuated aristocratic ambition for martial glory exemplified by Essex and all those young gallants who rushed to sign up for his campaigns—an Indian summer of English chivalry that had come much too late in the year.80 The humanist critique of war did in fact emphasize the solidarity of middling and lower orders against nobles. In The Complaint of Peace, Erasmus repeats the widespread belief that the people should decide whether a war will be fought. Erasmus considers ways that the warrior class exploits others: "The ignoble and contemned vulgar people do build excellent cities; and, edified, civilly do rule them, and, governing them, they enrich them. Governors and rulers [by means of war] creep in those cities, and as wasps and dorrs they secretly do convey and steal that that by other men's industry and labor is provided and gotten; and that, that of many is well heaped together, of a few is ill spent; and that that is well builded is most cruelly brought to ruin."81 Empson's gloss of "food for powder" captures the point exactly: '"that is all you Norman lords want, in your squabbles between cousins over your loot, which you make an excuse to murder the English people'" (p. 52).

"Busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels" (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-14), Henry IV's deathbed advice to his son and the original motive for Henry V's invasion of France, parallels this remark of Erasmus: "But I am ashamed to remember for how light and vain causes Christian princes provoke the world to war. This prince doth find out or feigneth some old or corrupt title … and there be the which thing of all others is most scelerate [criminal] and wicked: that through a tyrannical deceit, because they feel and perceive their power by the concord of the people to decay and by their dissension to be established, do suborn and appoint them that of purpose shall move war, that they may divide those that be joined and the more licentiously and freely rob and spoil the unfortunate people" (p. 30).

The Coventry scene, then, poses a specific challenge to solid citizens with serious reservations about the cult of martial glory. It attacks their venal participation in a corrupt system of military recruiting by reminding them that for their own convenience they personally may have helped send a few ragged fellows to death. At the same time it reinforces the pragmatic and ethical reservations about the war policy that some citizens had. A citizen's topical and festive response to the Coventry Scene could therefore move toward a vision of community even as it also exposed one to ambivalent festive laughter at one's own involvement in actions that had weakened such an alliance. Such could be a citizen's horror in the midst of humor. Of course such an alliance of middling and low was not on the surface of things a significant force in 1596; thinking it was could help one to blink one's own guilt more than to contribute to the alliance's realization. But rightly understood, the Coventry scene gestures toward an absent carnival community, one that here might be called prospective rather than nostalgic.

The contemporary literature of the post-colonial world offers many counterparts in this respect, since it often challenges middling readers to act on behalf of the low who are exploited by the high. The grotesquely festive climax of Sembene Ousmane's novel Xala82 offers a peripetea reminiscent of "food for powder." The ponderously dignified hero is revealed to have cheated hundreds of deformed and crippled beggars of Dakar from land promised to them in return for their participation in the anti-colonial struggle. The beggars take gleeful revenge by making the house of the hero's number one wife their playhouse, standing him naked on a living room chair and covering his body with spit while his daughter and wife look on screaming.

Of course many sober London citizens shunned festivity, and there is another, unfestive, antiwar scene in Shakespeare that would have appealed more to many of them: Williams' discussion with the disguised Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt. Williams provides the common soldier's voice that is lacking in the Coventry scene with his powerful vision of dead soldiers raised on the Day of Judgment to confront the master of war who led them to slaughter in an unjust cause. Where in the Coventry scene Falstaff leads an army of the risen damned to a second death, in Williams' imagination the damned leader is confronted by his vengeful victims. By 1599, perhaps because of the military experience so many Englishmen had been acquiring, it had become possible to offer a more-or-less realistic representation of the common soldier (Jorgensen, p. 162).

Shakespeare's own middling status, Empson notes, was impressed upon him most unpleasantly by the young aristocrat of the Sonnets—perhaps Southampton—who apparently rejected or humiliated him. Further, argues Empson, Shakespeare's creation of Falstaff was "a secret come-back against aristocratic patrons, marking a recovery of nerve after a long attempt to be their hanger-on" (Empson, p. 72). That is, Falstaff's enjoyment as he leads the prince to a scandalous low life is Shakespeare's answer to the suffering his noble young friend inflicted upon him for being a commoner. This theory can explain why the satire of Oldcastle turned out to produce such an attractive character: the satire could have been undertaken to please those same aristocratic patrons (Essex and Southampton) before the desire for a "come-back" at them had quite jelled. Moreover, the theory also points to a conclusion about Shakespeare's relation to the popular festive energies of his comic dramatic medium. Shakespeare's gift for inclusion and accommodation of plebeian festivity may register most of all the last orientation considered here, in which low and middle together exclude high.

Like much of Shakespeare, the Coventry scene does offer something for each of many groups. But it also has the power to provoke critical thought and action; it can stimulate both complacent (or at least pat) but also troubled, searching responses from each group. It seems to me that whatever Shakespeare's own orientation may be, the scene's carnivalesque energies most powerfully urge plebian interests and views. In any case, popular festive Shakespearean drama includes the carnivalesque participation of diverse playgoing groups (only crudely identified here) who, as we have seen, actively participate in the creation of meaning. Festive drama cannot be understood apart from these creators.


1 Graham Holdemess, Shakespeare's History (New York, 1985); Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York, 1985).

2 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, 1968), p. 9.

3 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959). For a discussion of Bakhtin's among approaches to festivity in Shakespeare, see Manfred Pfister, "Comic Subversion: A Bakhtinian View of the Comic in Shakespeare," Jahrbuch die Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesell-schaft West (1987), 27-43.

4 William Empson, "Falstaff and Mr. Dover Wilson," Kenyon Review 15 (1953), revised as "Falstaff in Empson, Essays on Shakespeare, ed. David B. Pirie (Cambridge, Eng., 1986), pp. 29-79; John Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge, Eng., 1943).

5 Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penniless His Supplication to the Devil (1592); Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (1612); e.g. Phillip Stubbes The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), pp. 134-39. See Thomas Cartelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Economy of Theatrical Experience (Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 38-64. I accept the conclusions of Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, 1576-1642 (Cambridge, Eng., 1987) and the argument of Martin Butler, Theater in Crisis, 1632-42 (Cambridge, Eng., 1984), pp. 293-306, that plebeians attended Shakespeare's plays in significant numbers, contrary to the view of Anne Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London (Princeton, 1981).

6 David Harris Sacks, "Searching for 'Culture' in the English Renaissance," Shakespeare Quarterly 39:4 (1989), 465-88, rightly calls for a flexible and historically grounded approach to the political enmeshments and significances of popular festivity. His criticism of Bristol for an "over-dichotomized" view of plebeians vs. patricians (p. 481) fails to appreciate the contribution Bristol makes toward an understanding of the festive practices and responses of a particular playgoing group.

7 Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, 1986), p. 14; Leah Marcus, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago, 1986).

8 Such a subject would combine the focus of Bristol's Carnival and Theater with Marcus' The Politics of Mirth; her Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Readings and Their Discontents (Berkeley, 1988), esp. pp. 32-43; Annabel Patterson's Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge, 1989); and Cartelli's Marlowe, Shakespeare, and the Economy of Theatrical Experience.

9 See Phyllis Rackin, "Historical Kings, Theatrical Clowns," Shakespeare Criticism Yearbook 1990 16 (1992), 183-201, and Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, 1990). Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History, says of Oldcastle's rebellion that the Henry IV plays transform "popular resistance to comic opposition" (p. 111).

10 William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV, 4.2.34, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed . G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston, 1974); all citations are to this edition.

11 Paul Yachnin, "The Powerless Theater," English Literary Renaissance 21:1 (1991), 65, apparently believes that a "powerful" theater must make some univocal assertion concerning topical issues.

12 See, besides Bristol and Stallybrass and White, Robert Weimann, "Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theater,"Shakespeare Quarterly 39:4 (1988), 403-17; on carnival and representation see also

13 See David Bevington, Tudor Politics and Drama: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge, 1968). Stephen Greenblatt's notion of a "circulation of social energy" that gives the theater much of its power (Shakespearean Negotiations: the Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England [Berkeley, 1988]) by implication provides an answer to E. K. Chambers' verdict: "I do not myself believe that, apart from some passages of obvious satire in comic scenes, there is much of the topical in Shakespeare, whose mind normally moved upon quite another plane of relation to life" (William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. [Oxford, 1930] vol. 1, p. 67). The active possibilities of festive topical response must in fact extend somewhat beyond Cartelli's "audience capable of inhabiting the variety of positions different plays construct for it" (p. 64).

14 In an attack on John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, Robert Parsons refers to "Syr John Oldcastle, a Ruffian-knight as all England knoweth, & commonly brought in by comedians on their stages." Quoted in Chambers, William Shakespeare, vol. 2, p. 213.

15 See Gary Taylor, "The Fortunes of Oldcastle," Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), 85-100.

16 See E. A. J. Honigmann, "Sir John Oldcastle: Shakespeare's Martyr," in "Fanned and Winnowed Opinions": Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, ed. John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (New York, 1987), pp. 118-32; Alice-Lyle Scoufos, Shakespeare's Typological Satire: A Study of the Falstaff-Oldcastle Problem (Athens, Ohio, 1979).

17 Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets," in Shakespearean Negotiations, pp. 21-65. Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago, 1992). Every legitimation of power can be deconstructed; the point, however, is that in this particular society, in topical constructions of certain moments in its drama, there is, as Cartelli says, a "self-constituted incapacity of plays to dissipate the very energies they evoke" (p. 16).

18 David McNeil, The Grotesque Depiction of War and the Military in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (Dover, N.J., 1990).

19 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (New York, 1966), p. 43.

20 Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660 (Berkeley, 1980). The Oxfordshire Rising included "no base men, but husbandmen," who although "not needy" demanded an end to price-fixing and planned to assemble on December 14 "to pull the corn out of rich men's houses" (State Papers, Domestic, 1596, p. 317).

21State Papers, Domestic (undated, 1596), pp. 335-36.

22A Second Elizabethan Journal, 1595-8 in The Elizabethan Journals, ed. G. B. Harrison (Ann Arbor, 1955), pp. 118, 127 (Proclamation of July 31, 1596; Act of the Privy Council, August 8, 1596). Some recent social histories, such as Steve Lee Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge, Eng., 1989), have found Elizabethan social conditions to be surprisingly orderly. However the existence of a crisis brought on by the greatest famine of the century, that of the mid 1590's, is undisputed.

23 J. R. Hale, Introduction to John Smythe, Certain Discourses Military (Ithaca, 1964), pp. lxxxiv-v; R. B. Wernham, After the Armada: Elizabethan England And the Struggle for Western Europe, 1588-1595 (Oxford, 1984), pp. 567-68.

24 J. R. Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450-1620 (New York, 1985), p. 78.

25 Paul Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley, 1956), p. 1956), p. 130; Henry J. Webb, Elizabethan Military Science: The Books and the Practice (Madison, 1965), pp. 66-73; Calendar of State Papers, Domestic (March 12, 1596), pp. 183-84; J. R. Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe, pp. 100-26.

26 J. R. Hale, "Incitement to Violence? English Divines on the Theme of War, 1578-1631," Renaissance War Studies (London, 1983), pp. 487-96.

27 Quoted in Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, p. 210. These remarks were originally in a letter dated November 3, 1594 from the Lord Mayor to Lord Burghley.

28 Neil Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque (London, 1980), p. 4.

29 Lynda Boose, "The 1599 Bishop's Ban, Elizabethan Pornography, and the Sexualization of the Jacobean Stage," paper presented at the Shakespeare Association of America Conference, Vancouver, April 1991.

30 Gilian West, "Falstaff's Punning" English Studies 69 (1988), 545-46.

31 Thomas Nabbes, The Spring's Glory (1638): "Shrovetide: Thou art a prodigal Christmas; and Shrovetide hath seen thee many times in the poultry. Christmas: Dost scorn my liberality, thou reasty bacon, tallow-faced scullion? Though I be as fat as a Fleming, I'll have Lent choke thee with a red herring." Quoted in Francois Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (Cambridge, Eng., 1991), p. 102.

32 G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England: A Neglected Chapter in the History of English Letters and of the English People, 2nd ed. (New York, 1966), pp. 543-45.

33 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, p. 42; William Empson, "Falstaff," p. 52.

34 See Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function (Baltimore, 1987), pp. 1-14.

35 For an interesting version of the more orthodox view (coherence) see W. K. Wimsatt, "The Concrete Universal" in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry 2nd ed. (New York, 1958), pp. 78-79; John Dryden, Dramatic Poesy; An Essay (1668) in Literary Criticism of John Dryden, ed. Arthur C. Kirsch (Lincoln, 1966), p. 50; A. R. Humphreys, Introduction to 1 Henry IV (New York, 1960), pp. xliv-xlv. David Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge, Eng., 1986) has taken the latter view farthest (pp. 116-35). See also

36 See Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Manchester, Eng., 1984). Holderness makes a similar point in Shakespeare's History, p. 109.

37 On the date of composition see Honigmann, pp. 122-23; on the date of first performance see Robert Fehren-bach, "When Lord Cobham and Edmund Tilney 'were art odds': Oldcastle, Falstaff, and the Date of 1 Henry IV," Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986), 95.

38 See L. B. Campbell, Shakespeare's "Histories": Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (New York, 1963), pp. 245-54.

39 For a survey of contemporary problems and reactions to them see Henry J. Webb, Elizabethan Military Science.

40 Walter Bourchier Devereux, Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex, 2 vols. (1853), vol. 2, pp. 378-79.

41State Papers, Domestic (April 5, April 17, 1596).

42 C. G. Cruikshank, Elizabeth's Army (Oxford, 1966), p. 253.

43 Quoted in The Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: 1 Henry IV, ed. S. B. Hemingway (Philadelphia, 1936), p. 268. Scholars continue to disagree about the numbers of deserving poor. See the exchange between A. L. Beier and J. F. Pound in Past and Present 71 (May 1976), 126-34. William C. Carroll, "Language, Politics, and Poverty in Shakespearean Drama," Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992), 17-24, stresses that Shakespeare's plays usually exhibit an attitude of pity toward vagabonds and beggars.

44 Lawrence Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (New York, 1972), p. 48.

45 May 3, 1917; quoted in The Variorum 1 Henry IV, p. 271. On the Anglo-German war over Shakespeare see Balz Engler, "Shakespeare in the Trenches," Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992), 105-12.

46 Nicholas Harpsfield, Dialogi Sex (Antwerp, 1566).

47 Thomas Walsingham, Historia Brevis (1574), p. 292.

48 See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, (New York, 1970), pp. 198-204.

49 Raphael Holinshed, et al., The Third Volume of Chronicles . . . (1587), p. 554a.

50 John Foxe, "The Christian Belief of the Lord Cobham," The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe: A New and Complete Edition, ed. S. R. Cattley, 8 vols. (1837) vol. 3, pp. 324-405; for the Crown's charge, see pp. 366-67.

51 Mervyn James, "At a Crossroads of the Political Culture: The Essex Revolt, 1601," in Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England (Cambridge, Eng., 1986), pp. 416-66.

52 Quoted in Gurr, p. 210.

53A Second Elizabethan Journal, 1595-98, in Three Elizabethan Journals, pp. 78, 79 (Acts of the Privy Council, February 23 and 28, 1596).

54 On Jonson's program to establish a coherent authorial voice and critical reception see Peter Stallybrass and Alton White, pp. 66-79.

55 Mark Burnett, "Tamburlaine: An Elizabethan Vagabond," Studies in Philology 84:3 (1987), 308-23.

56 See F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Disorder (Mainly from Essex Sessions and Assize Records) (Chelmsford, 1970).

57 Quoted in Christopher Hill, "The Many-Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking," From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Essays in Honor of Garrett Mattingly, ed. Charles H. Carter (New York, 1965), p. 305.

58 Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York, 1971), p. 171; Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, 1982), p. 150.

59 Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice.

60 Quoted in William Brandon, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (Athens, Ohio, 1986), p. 6.

61 Edward Hext, letter to Lord Burghley, September 25, 1596 (Lansdowne MS. 81, Art. 6), in Tudor Economic Documents, ed. R. H. Tawney and Eileen Power, 3 vols. (London, 1924), vol. 2, pp. 341-42.

62 Barnabe Riche, A Souldiers Wishe to Britons Welfare (1604), p. 65, quoted in Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World, pp. 144-45; A Second Elizabethan Journal records mutinies on February 28 and April 7, 1596.

63Calendar of State Papers, Domestic (June 16 and 28, 1596), pp. 243, 236. Geoffrey Bullough, Introduction to Henry V in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 7 vols. (New York, 1961) vol. 4, pp. 374-75.

64 Ambroise Paré reports that Charles V thought high losses of his common soldiers in 1552 were of no consequence, since such soldiers are like "caterpillars and grasshoppers which eat the buds of the earth." Quoted in J. R. Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe, p. 84; this reaction is not unusual: see Hale, pp. 83-84.

65 Elliot Krieger, A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies (New York, 1979), pp. 131-46.

66 Samuel Johnson, Notes to 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare's Plays (1765) in Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. H. R. Woudhuysen (New York, 1989), pp. 205, 206.

67 Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1951), vol. 1, p. 179. The failure of Goddard's admirer Harold Bloom to address social hierarchy and popular festivity blunts the force of his otherwise perceptive attack on critics of Falstaff, and limits his interpretation of Falstaff to what could be called "post-Enlightenment" concerns (primarily psychoanalytical). See "Falstaff," Scripsi 4:1 (1986), 59-66.

68 See Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-Modem Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, 1984); Fredric Jameson, "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" New Left Review 145 (1984), especially the section "The Abolition of Critical Distance," 85-92.

69 François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World, p. 305: "As Le Roy Ladurie remarks, in connection with the Romans carnival, the festival feeds on the dead to 'produce living flesh anew.' Such symbolic cannibalism lies at the origin of a strange alchemy in which contraries espouse one another in a coincidentia oppositorum which is singularly upsetting to reason."

70 Gilian West, "Falstaff's Punning," p. 546; see also

71 Valerie Traub, "Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body," Shakespeare Quarterly 40:4 (1989), 456-74, argues that psycho-logically Falstaff is a substitute mother for Hal as well as a repressed manifestation of the carnivalesque female reproductive body. See also On the female grotesque see Mary Russo, "Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory," Feminist Studies, Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington, 1986).

72 See Derek Cohen's Girardian study, "The Rite of Violence in '1 Henry IV,'" Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), 84.

73 J. A. F. Thompson, "Orthodox Religion and the Origins of Lollardy," History 72 (1987), 39-55.

74 Christopher Hill, "From Lollards to Levellers," Collected Essays of Christopher Hill, 3 vols. (Amherst, 1986) vol. 2, pp. 89-116; Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love (London, 1981); Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice.

75 R. W. Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Cambridge, Eng., 1981) and Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London, 1990); Michael Mullett, Popular Culture and Popular Protest in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London, 1987), p. 21.

76 Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque, pp. 93-94; see also

77 See Margot Heinemann, "Demystifying the Mystery of State: King Lear and the World Upside Down," Shakespeare Survey 44 (1992), 75-84. Judy Kronenfeld, '"So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough': Shakespeare's King Lear—Anabaptist Egalitarianism, Anglican Charity, Both, Neither?" ELH 59 (1992), 755-84, demonstrates that there is a plausible reading of King Lear supporting mainstream doctrines about charity and poverty. But since she seems to assume too easily that little divergence in contemporary audience interpretation would be possible, she too easily dismisses alternative readings.

78 See Larry Champion, '"What Prerogatiues Meanes': Perspective and Political Ideology in The Famous Victories of Henry V" South Atlantic Review 53:4 (1988), 1-19.

79 Matthew Sutcliffe, The Practice, Proceedings, and Lowes of Armes (1593); see Henry J. Webb, Elizabethan Military Science, p. 73. Playgoers winced because as J. R. Hale says: "The process of recruitment shows as clearly as does the persecution of witches and the harassment of Jews and Gipsies, the callousness whereby a changing, but still tradition-conscious society protected its increasingly cherished self-interests" (War and Society in Renaissance Europe, p. 77).

80 On the social trend of "civilianization" see Hale, War and Society, pp. 99-126. Anti-war sentiment, which responded to ancient and medieval literary and philosophical traditions, surfaced again vigorously in the Stuart period; see James Hutton, Themes of Peace in Renaissance Poetry (Ithaca, 1984).

81 Desiderius Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace, trans. Paynall, ed. William J. Hirten (1559, rpt. 1946), pp. 32-33.

82 Sembene Ousmane, Xala, trans. Clive Wake (1974; Westport, 1976).

Source: "Festivity and Topicality in the Coventry Scene of 1 Henry IV" in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 410-48.


Carnival and Plot in King Henry IV


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 39)