Norman Council (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Council, Norman. “Prince Hal: Mirror of Success.” Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 125-46.

[In the following essay, Council examines how Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur each respond to the code of honor documented in various Renaissance texts. The critic asserts that while Hotspur rigidly adheres to the code and Falstaff flatly rejects it, Hal remains aloof from its requirements but manipulates and exploits it to achieve political success.]

The idea that Shakespeare arranges the three principals of 1 Henry IV in a quasi-Aristotelian paradigm of the theme of honor has been so often iterated and has so dominated the teaching of the play that it has become a virtual truism. Hotspur, the argument goes, represents the excess, Falstaff the defect, and Hal the virtuous mean of the honorable man.1 This has been an appealing idea, I suspect, partly because it is a convenient scheme and partly because if it were valid it would help to demonstrate either that Shakespeare had read his Aristotle or that the humanist revival had made the Aristotelian ethic so commonplace as to be dramatically useful. Unfortunately, this reading of the play does not bear scrutiny.

The difficulty is that Falstaff's and Hotspur's behavior in no way resembles any of the definitions of defective and excessive desire for honor which a wide variety of late sixteenth-century books on honor provide. The Nicomachean Ethics had defined honor as the “reward of virtue” and had clearly established that the desire for honor is to be judged excessive, moderate, or defective according to desert:

honour may be desired more than is right, or less, or from the right sources and in the right way. We blame both the ambitious man as aiming at honour more than is right and from wrong sources, and the unambitious man as not willing to be honoured even for noble reasons. …2

This statement of the idea was accepted with no substantial modification by most of the writers on honor of the 1580s and 1590s.3 Robert Ashley, a faithful Aristotelian eager to lay claim to his “Peripatetike” authority, whose essay Of Honour is likely to have been precisely contemporary with Shakespeare's play, makes it clear that Shakespeare's contemporaries think of a man's “deservings” as the mark by which he is to be judged ambitious or base minded. “The ambitious ys blamed because he hunteth after honour … more greedilie than he ought,” Ashley argues, and “contrariwise the abject or base minded ys … reprehended bicause that notwithstanding his good deservings he refuseth honour …” (pp. 41-42). Half a dozen other books or essays written in the decade surrounding Shakespeare's play deal in more or less detail with the question of an excessive desire for honor; they all rely on the basic assumption that honor is a positive good which man has an ethical responsibility to pursue, and that his pursuit of that honor is to be judged excessive or defective according to his deserts. John Norden's The Mirror of Honor is within a year of being contemporary with Shakespeare's play, and the danger to true honor which he remarks is typical. “Among the rest [of the dangers] Pride is the most perillous … whereby … highest reputation [may be] blemished, and that by assuming more of it selfe to it selfe, then reason or desert will yeeld, from other men” (p. 22). The Courtiers Academie, translated from the Italian in 1598, defines honor as “that ardent heate which enflameth the mind of man to glorious enterprises making him audacious against enemies, and to vices timorous,” a Platonic rather than...

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an Aristotelian definition …, and the same work consistently justifies only that desire to acquire honor appropriate to the virtuous deed performed.4 The idea is a commonplace of such books as these. George Whetstone's The Honorable Reputation of a Souldier, printed in 1585, and William Segar's Honor Military and Civil, printed in 1602, display the consistency with which standard opinion judged a man excessive in his desire for honor only if he sought more honor than he deserved. Whetstone's book praises nineteen illustrious generals, emperors, and kings who, though of mean parentage, were justly elevated to such honorable eminence for valorous and virtuous deeds, but it damns the ambitious desire for unjustified honor. In one place, for instance, Whetstone describes the honor due soldiers who give their lives to protect the state, but he warns against “the difference between rash and necessary bouldnesse.” Martial virtue consists in doing the state service; “willful falling upon the enimies sword, is reduculous, daungerous, and very dishonorable.”5 Segar's book is more a codification of the rules of honorable combat than a definition of the idea, but he expresses the familiar assumption when he bewails the decadent tendency of the aristocratic young to “glory in the ancient badges, titles, and services of their Auncestors” even though they have done nothing to warrant the honor they claim.6 In as august a place as Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and in as unexpected a place as Thomas Nashe's bid for epic respectability one can observe the ubiquity of this basic judgment. In Book 7, Hooker justifies the rewards of honor, even to ecclesiastics, by arguing that “there is always some kind of virtue beneficial, wherein they excel who receive honour.” “Degrees of honor,” he concludes, “are distinguished according to the value of those effects which the same beneficial virtue doth produce.”7 And in Christs Teares Over Jerusalem Nashe reverts to a characteristic tone to condemn as ambition the desire for honor beyond one's—in this case martial—deserts. “Ambition,” Nashe asserts, “hath changed his name unto honor. … Not the honour of the fielde (Ambitions onely enemy) … but Brokerly blowne up honour … honour bestowed for damned deserts.”8

These are only a few instances, of course, but most of these writers are expounders rather than explorers of the orthodox, so they do provide evidence that standard opinion among Shakespeare's contemporaries viewed honor as a positive good—indeed, the “chief good,” as Ashley, following Aristotle, defines it—to be pursued, and that those contemporaries judged a desire for honor excessive or defective according to desert. If Shakespeare's intent had been to shape his play according to the Aristotelian paradigm which Tillyard and others have proposed, he would surely have used the widespread understanding of Aristotelian excess and defect which was available to him. He did not, however, create Hotspur as “the ambitious man … aiming at Honour more than is right and from wrong sources,” Falstaff as “the unambitious man … not willing to be honoured even for noble reasons,” nor make Hal a resolution of those extremes as the man who desires honor “from the right sources and in the right way.”

Falstaff never rejects reward, merely the established honorable ways of getting it; far from unambitiously declining to be honored for noble deeds, he, ambitious to a fault, very much wants to be honored for ignoble deeds. Shakespeare makes the distance between Falstaff's deserts and his desire for reward clear in both the comic and the chronicle scenes. Most explicit are his early exaggerations of the numbers that robbed him and his later demand for reward for killing Hotspur. In the first instance every line he speaks seeks unwarranted acclaim for his presumed swordsmanship and heroism.

I am a rogue if I were not at half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together. I have ‘scaped by miracle. I am eight times thrust through the doublet, four through the hose; my buckler cut through and through, my sword hacked like a handsaw—ecce signum. I never dealt better since I was a man. All would not do. A plague of all cowards!


In the second instance he demands an honorable title on the pretense of having killed Hotspur.

There is Percy: if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you.


Compared with Falstaff's, Hotspur's desire for honor is modesty itself, for he quite consciously bases his claim on what he and everyone else in the play, enemies and allies, consider to be noble deeds. Even King Henry sees Hotspur's honor as unstained.

A son [Hotspur] who is the theme of honour's tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride. …


And throughout the play “honour's tongue” sounds Hotspur's name again and again. The emphasis is consistently on the honor his valor deserves, and though Henry will see it as the beginning of rebellion, he never questions that Hotspur deserves the “never dying honor” he has gained “against renowned Douglas!”

If Hotspur and Falstaff do not represent Aristotelian moral extremes for Hal to stand between, clearly the play employs the pervasive theme of honor in a different manner than has commonly been supposed. Reference to sixteenth-century books on honor demonstrates a remarkable similarity between the details of behavior which they describe as the perfect attributes of the honorable man and the behavior which Shakespeare gives Hotspur. This close and consistent similarity makes it clear that Hotspur's role in the play is to embody perfectly the principles of a rigorous and well-defined code of honor; he is a “mirror of honor,” as many contemporary “remembrances,” exempla, and biographies of illustrious men used the phrase. Conversely, Shakespeare makes Falstaff consciously and explicitly reject the code of honor, the demands of which he understands but repudiates; rather than representing a defective desire for less honor than he deserves, therefore, he dramatizes the nature and consequences of a reasoned rejection of the pervasive code of honor. Shakespeare keeps Hal aloof from the demands of the code, for, rather than accepting or rejecting the code, Hal exploits it for his pragmatic purposes; he is thereby made, much as Shakespeare had done with Bolingbroke in Richard II, a mirror of success.

Regarded in this way, the issue of Falstaff's cowardice is moot. At the heart of the code of honor is the principle that honor is more precious than life. Various tracts elaborately codify the forms of honor to be sought and protected through virtuous deeds; virtually all of them begin with the assumptions that honor originates in martial valor done in service of the state and that death is to be preferred before the dishonor caused by defeat or flight. “In any case,” Count Romei has Gualinguo remark in The Courtiers Academie, “a man of honor should alwaies preferre death, before infamous saftie. …”10 William Segar, in the preface “To the Reader” in The Booke of Honor and Armes, lightly makes the same assumption before he goes on to codify the rules of honorable combat. “The matter of content is Iustice and Honor. For love whereof, we shun no care of minde, losse of wealth, nor adventure of life.”11 This position is familiar enough, and, of course, a number of Shakespeare's characters, with varying degrees of sincerity, maintain it. Shakespeare confronts Falstaff with this honorable demand in both the chronicle and comic scenes and has him consistently and consciously reject it. Falstaff's catechism on honor is in response to Hal's saying, as he exits, that Falstaff “owest God a death.” “Well,” Falstaff muses, “'tis no matter; honor pricks me on.” But he will have none of the widespread contention, displayed by the books on honor, that honor is more precious than life. It is but a nominal ethic, and clearly not worth dying for.

What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air.

“Insensible” to the dead, unavailable to the living, honor is finally for Falstaff “a mere scutcheon” (V.i.127-41). By having Falstaff place such emphasis on honor's belonging uniquely but only ornamentally to the dead, Shakespeare produces a character who is perfectly aware of the central demand which honor makes but who is unwilling to pay the price. Poins has Falstaff exactly, and distinguishes him from his more simply motivated fellows, when he anticipates Falstaff's flight from Gad's Hill.

Well, for two of them, I know them to be as truebred cowards as ever turned back; and for the third, if he fight longer than he sees reason, I'll forswear arms.


At Shrewsbury, Falstaff's actions represent, as do those of the other major characters, precisely the attitude toward honor which he has maintained throughout, and the “battle” in which he engages there displays the logical conclusion of that attitude. Shakespeare gives Falstaff some very curious things to do at Shrewsbury; none of them furthers the plot, but the substitution of the bottle of sack for his pistol, the ragamuffin soldiers that Falstaff leads to slaughter, and the battle with Douglas all display a character who by rejecting all the principles of honor has become the antithesis of the honorable man. The ragamuffin soldiers and the sack are convenient instances of Falstaff's satisfying his desire for personal gain and his appetites rather than the demands of honor. As one would expect, the tracts on honor provide evidence that the code considered physical appetites a danger to a soldier's valor, and therefore his honor. Whetstone's Honorable Reputation of a Souldier, for instance, remarks that “When the body is stuffed with delicates, the mind is dull, and desirous of ease, which is the undoer of a Souldier …” (sig. Dii). One is reminded of the Antony whom Octavius Caesar admired because he, faced with famine, “didst drink / The stale of horses and the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at.” “And all this,” Caesar concludes in comparing the honorable Antony with Cleopatra's Antony, “(It wounds thine honour that I speak it now) / Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek / So much as lank'd not” (I.iv.61-63, 68-71). When Hal discovers the bottle of sack in place of Falstaff's pistol we are given a clear if somewhat crude symbol of the deliberate inversion of honorable values which Falstaff represents: he prefers sack, let alone life, before honor. Hal throws the bottle at him and exits; Falstaff replies quite explicitly to this protest at his dishonorable behavior.

I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so: if not, honor comes unlooked for, and there's an end.


Falstaff's counterfeit death is but the logical conclusion of the role he has played in regard to honor, for, by escaping from Douglas by feigning death, Falstaff is made quite literally to act out his preference for life before honor. Dead, Falstaff could anticipate only the “mere scutcheon” which honor can provide, and the battle with Douglas provides Falstaff with the opportunity to act upon, and to articulate, his priorities.

'Sblood, 'twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me, scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of a man: but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.


If Falstaff be the true and perfect image of life, Hotspur is certainly the true and perfect image of honor. Seemingly inconsequential details of Hotspur's behavior, from the outset of the play and in each of the eight scenes in which he appears, coincide so exactly with schematic descriptions of the honorable man which had become commonplace in the 1580s and 1590s that there seems little doubt that Shakespeare was at pains to create Hotspur as the perfect mirror of honor. This definition of the character represents a consistent modification of the Hotspur who appears in Holinshed. The chronicle characteristically provides the Percys with what little justification for rebellion it allows by reminding its readers that Henry is a usurper, “for the which [usurpation] undoubtedly both he, and his posteritie tasted such troubles, as put them still in daunger of their states, till their direct succeeding line was quite rooted out. …”12 Shakespeare, on the other hand, carefully keeps Hotspur distinct from his fellow rebels by making his act of rebellion—and all his other actions—a consequence of his adherence to the principles of honor.

Hotspur's definition as the honorable man begins with King Henry's demand for the Scottish prisoners and his refusal to ransom Edmund Mortimer. Shakespeare develops the definition from a hint found in Holinshed that the king's demand is counter to the code of honor. Holinshed reports the quarrel, noting that only “Mordake, Erle of Fife, the Duke of Albanies sonne” had been delivered to the king in spite of the king's having demanded all the prisoners, and concludes by explaining the reason for the Percys' angry response to this demand.

Wherewith the Percies [were] sore offended, for that they claymed them as their owne proper prisoners, and their peculiar prayes. …13

The idea that prisoners are a source of honor (the peculiar praise of the captors) and the idea that prisoners, until ransomed, remain the property of their captors unless, as in the case of the earl of Fife, their royal blood requires their being delivered to the king—these had been commonplace enough aspects of the code of honor to permit using the ideas on the stage at least as early as The Spanish Tragedy. Half of Kyd's second scene, it may be recalled, debates whether Lorenzo or Horatio deserves the honor and reward of Balthazar's capture. The king, appropriately, adjudicates the issue; Hieronimo pleads Horatio's case, “enforced by nature and by law of arms,”14 and the king awards the ransom and arms to Horatio, the captor, but the noble prisoner to Lorenzo, the prince. Indeed, Shakespeare returns to the matter of honorable and appropriate disposition of prisoners in the final scene of 1 Henry IV, so this particular aspect of the codes of honorable behavior is a familiar enough subject for the stage. A. R. Humphreys notes that “the law of Arms” permits Hotspur to keep his prisoners and cites Pallas Armata (1683) as authority.15 He might also have cited William Segar, whose Honor Military and Civil details the various rules of honor governing the escape or ransom of prisoners and is more nearly contemporary with the play,16 though indeed the idea that ransom and other honorable rewards under the law of arms belong to the captor is implicit in most books on the subject. In Shakespeare's first scene, he has King Henry explicitly describe Hotspur's prisoners as “honorable spoil” and has Westmoreland call Hotspur's victory “a conquest for a prince to boast of.” It is consequently a clear affront to Hotspur's honor to demand more from him than is the king's due, namely, the royal earl of Fife, whom Hotspur has appropriately agreed to surrender. Shakespeare further develops that affront by introducing Hotspur's account of the popinjay lord into the quarrel. The emphasis has been on Hotspur's “well deserved honor,” and Hotspur's description of the arduous battle makes clear the distinction between honor “dearily bought” on the battlefield, as Whetstone's Honorable Reputation phrases it (sig. Bv), and the foppish posturings of the popinjay.

Shakespeare's introduction of this curious lord also assists in the resolution of the most troublesome problem implicit in his effort to define Hotspur as a mirror of honor. Honor, in both its tangible and intangible forms, is ultimately dispensed by the monarch, and rebellion is per se a dishonorable act. The popinjay lord provides Hotspur with an honorable excuse for not having delivered his prisoners and thus delays his open rebellion. He is, of course, still denying the king his prisoners when he describes the popinjay's behavior to the king, but again Shakespeare has Henry pursue the matter in a manner designed to affront Hotspur's honor without raising the question of his loyalty. When the king describes Hotspur's brother-in-law as “the foolish Mortimer, / Who, on my soul, hath wilfully betray'd / The lives of those that he did lead to fight …” (I.iii.79-81), the insult is clear. This, after all, is what Falstaff does at Shrewsbury.17 Hotspur's reply implies no disloyalty to the king; it, rather, defends Mortimer's honor. He has “dearily bought” his honor in battle with Glendower, and the honor so gained cannot, for Hotspur, exist side by side with the dishonorable treachery of which Mortimer stands accused.

He never did fall off, my sovereign liege,
But by the chance of war: to prove that true
Needs no more but one tongue for all those wounds,
Those mouthed wounds, which valiantly he took
.....In changing hardiment with great Glendower.
.....Then let not him be slander'd with revolt.


The king does not argue. He answers Hotspur with a deliberate insult, accusing him of lying and dismissing him with a belittling form of address.

Thou dost belie him, Percy, thou dost belie him.
.....Art thou not asham'd? But sirrah, henceforth
Let me not hear you speak of Mortimer:
Send me your prisoners with the speediest means,
Or you shall hear in such a kind from me
As will displease you.


It is this affront which arouses Hotspur's celebrated ire, but this is a quite appropriate, not an excessive, response for the honorable man to make. The speech in which Hotspur thinks “it were an easy leap, / To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon” is set in a scene which displays Hotspur's irascibility, not his ambition, and sixteenth-century books on honor usually associate anger with honor. This is probably the speech which most occasioned the quasi-Aristotelian reading of the play, but if the urge to see the play as being organized according to a specific philosophical scheme remains overpowering, the Platonic description of man's tripartite soul provides a considerably more satisfactory explanation of Hotspur's outburst—and of Falstaff's sensuality—than does the Aristotelian ethic. In the fourth book of The Republic, Plato identifies the desire for honor with “passion or spirit,” which combines with the rational and the concupiscent to make up the three principles of the soul. This identification is expressed in the sixteenth century in various places; Robert Ashley is the most explicit:

And seeing (as Plato will have yt) the powre of the mind ys of three partes, whereof one ys named reason, another termed anger, and a third called desire. … Honour seemeth to have his root and beginning of the second, for … the desire of honour … as Plato saieth, cometh out of the angry part of the mind. … So we see that men of great mindes are much moved with honour, but that the abject, and baser sort be nothing affected therwith because the sence and feeling thereof ys geven only to those that are of high spirite.

(Of Honour, p. 40)

This connection between the irascible passion and the desire for honor is a more likely origin of Hotspur's outburst in Act I than the theory of Aristotelian excess, just as the Platonic idea that concupiscence uncontrolled by reason turns to sloth is a more likely origin of Falstaff's behavior. One has only to recall Pyrochles' ire in Canto 5 and Cymochles' sloth in Canto 6 of Book II of The Faerie Queene to observe a more explicitly allegorical use of the Platonic idea and, indeed, to observe how excessive irascibility was apt to be portrayed in a sixteenth-century poem. By having Hotspur respond with this angry outburst to the affronts Henry has leveled against his honor, Shakespeare continues to define Hotspur as a man who perfectly embodies all the characteristics of the honorable man.

The dilemma remains that it is the king who has affronted Hotspur's honor, and disloyalty to the king is itself a source of dishonor. Hotspur, after all, has just asked that Mortimer not “be slander'd with revolt.” At the next moment in the play, after King Henry's insult and Hotspur's angry response have been displayed, Shakespeare has Worcester and Northumberland quite illogically tell Hotspur, as though he were ignorant of the fact, that Mortimer has been proclaimed heir to the throne by Richard. This delayed information provides a resolution to the dilemma, even if it be realistically improbable that Hotspur would not know of Mortimer's claim, for Hotspur can now see his virtuous and therefore honorable duty to be the restoration of Mortimer as the rightful king. The long speech that he is given in response to this information emphasizes the injustice of which his father and uncle have been guilty in aiding Bolingbroke and the honor which they have consequently lost.

Shall it for shame be spoken in these days,
Or fill up chronicles in time to come,
That men of your nobility and power
Did gage them both in an unjust behalf
(As both of you, God pardon it! have done)
To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose,
And plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke?


This justification is as much a part of Hotspur's honorable behavior as his anger. By providing it, Shakespeare allows Hotspur to pursue his honor by righting the wrong which he considers Bolingbroke, with the Percys' aid, to have committed.

                    yet time serves wherein you may redeem
Your banish'd honours and restore yourselves
Into the good thoughts of the world again;
Revenge the jeering and disdain'd contempt
Of this proud king. …


Restoring their tarnished honor is never, of course, Northumberland's or Worcester's motive. They, rather, are concerned to protect themselves against the king, who they know will find “a time to pay us home.” Hotspur's commitment to the principles of honor isolates him from the pragmatic workings of his allies and of his enemies, leaving him with a naïveté which will have disastrous consequences for him at Shrewsbury.

In the first of the scenes at Shrewsbury Shakespeare develops a virtually self-contained dramatic pattern which reflects in small both the nobility and the practical shortcomings of Hotspur's commitment to honor. He enters with Douglas, who calls him “the king of honour,” to discover that Northumberland's forces will not arrive. Holinshed had indeed reported wholesale defections from the rebels' cause, and Shakespeare dramatizes these defections as the occasion of a series of choices which Hotspur must make. He responds to the first news in practical fashion; he knows that his father's absence weakens their army, but argues that they now have a refuge should fortune turn against them. “Were it good,” he asks, “To set the exact wealth of all our states / All at one cost?” (IV.i.45-47). But Shakespeare has Worcester argue that Northumberland's absence might “breed a kind of question in our cause. / … We of the off'ring side,” he argues, “Must keep aloof from strict arbitrement, / And stop all sight-holes, every loop from whence / The eye of reason may pry in upon us” (IV.i.68-72). This slur on the justice of their cause touches Hotspur's ruling concern, and Shakespeare gives him a characteristic reply. Northumberland's absence, for Hotspur, now “lends a lustre and more great opinion, / A larger dare to our great enterprise. …” Vernon enters to this with his glittering description of the king's forces and of the renascent Prince of Wales, news which fills Hotspur with eager expectation of the honorable actions of war, the same sort of eager irascibility Shakespeare has him display in his response to the king's insult in Act I.

They come like sacrifices in their trim,
And to the fire-ey'd maid of smoky war
All hot and bleeding will we offer them.
.....                    I am on fire
To hear this rich reprisal is so nigh,
And not yet ours!


Shakespeare delays Vernon's other news, Glendower's absence, until after Hotspur's compelling desire for honor has been thus brought forward, by which time no deterrent of a merely practical kind can compete. The scene begins with Hotspur's debating the effect on the rebellion of Northumberland's sickness; it concludes with Hotspur so committed to honor that he can happily dismiss success—and life—to serve it.

Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily.


Yet this compulsion is but part of the perfect image of honor, corresponding to Hotspur's outburst in Act I, scene iii. There, Shakespeare has Hotspur justify his opposition to the king by describing it as a virtuous and therefore honorable effort to restore Mortimer; he reintroduces that justification into the play in Hotspur's next scene. After a brief scene which introduces Falstaff's pitiful soldiers, the action returns to the rebel camp to disclose a Hotspur who, though eager for battle, is prepared by the end of the scene to send his uncle to negotiate with the king. Much of this scene is taken up by a long speech which Shakespeare gives Hotspur to rehearse the Percys' role in Bolingbroke's usurpation and the dishonor they have consequently suffered.

In short time after, he deposed the King,
Soon after that, deprived him of his life.
.....To make that worse, suffered his kinsman March,
Who is, if every owner were well placed,
Indeed his king, to be engaged in Wales
.....Disgraced me in my happy victories
.....Rated mine uncle from the Council board,
In rage dismissed my father from the Court
.....And in conclusion drove us to seek out
This head of safety. …


No narrative or expository purpose is served by this rehearsal, for the information it provides is already common property. It does, however, provide the necessary balance to Hotspur's honor. In his prior scene, Hotspur's honorable impatience for the glories of battle was emphasized; here his sense of the virtuous intent which justifies his actions and of the dishonor the king has offered him is the central concern. Hotspur's offer to negotiate a settlement thus balances the grandiose “Die all, die merrily” with which Shakespeare concludes the previous scene. At the end of the next scene in which Hotspur appears these two aspects of his honor are merged in a single speech. After further characterizing Hotspur by having Worcester assume that he would abandon the war should “the liberal and kind offer of the King” be made known to him, Shakespeare gives Hotspur a speech which precisely states the balance between his eager pursuit of honor and his justification of that pursuit.

O gentlemen, the time of life is short!
To spend that shortness basely were too long
If life did ride upon a dial's point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.
And if we live, we live to tread on kings,
If die, brave death when princes die with us!
Now, for our consciences, the arms are fair
When the intent of bearing them is just.


Hotspur thus enters battle the picture of an honorable man, secure in conscience and indifferent to death if it add honor to an otherwise valueless life. His death is displayed as the logical consequence of this attitude. Hotspur, wishing that Hal's “name in arms were now as great as mine,” only regrets that Hal is not a more honorable foe, and his death, immediately juxtaposed with Falstaff's feigning death, is as precisely the true and perfect image of honor as Falstaff's action is the image of life. He dies pronouncing the basic article of the creed of honor.

I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me:
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh. …


As Shrewsbury is the scene where Shakespeare brings Hotspur and Falstaff to the conclusions demanded by the roles in the theme of honor he has given them to play, so it displays the successful consequences of Hal's role. Hal, throughout the play, is kept aloof from the intricate demands of honor that so compel Hotspur and repel Falstaff; Shakespeare makes Hal concerned with honor only as a means to other ends. Hal sounds the theme of honor in his first soliloquy, which, if viewed in terms of the code of honor, is more devious than the “Aristotelian” reading of the play assumes. That soliloquy, the interview with his father in Act III, and his actions at Shrewsbury comprise Hal's explicit part in the theme of honor, though some comic commentary on the theme may be intended by the scenes at Gad's Hill and The Boar's Head. Hal's part in the theme of honor is, then, conspicuously less extensive than Hotspur's, and, though Shakespeare uses extranarrative scenes such as Hotspur's conversation with Kate and argument with Glendower to expand the idea of Hotspur's commitment to honor, he consistently displays Hal in the comic scenes as indifferent to, or even amused by, the sort of honor which Hotspur so thoroughly serves. Success is Hal's motive, and he differs from Hotspur and Falstaff in his capacity to use honor as a means to that success.

Hal's first soliloquy announces his attitude toward honor; he intends, by engaging in low behavior, to delay the acquisition of honor so that, when acquired, his reputation will seem grander than it otherwise would. The soliloquy is familiar, but attention to its metaphoric and literal statements that reputation is but a facade that can be advantageously enhanced demonstrates it to be a thoroughly pragmatic plan to exploit apparent dishonor for advantage, rather than a statement of a sort of nascent nobility awaiting education or maturity. The images all emphasize the effects of unexpected behavior on observers; Hal nowhere considers the inherent worth of the behavior he plans.

So when this loose behavior I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.


This attitude toward honor differs from Hotspur's in its intention to exploit, rather than serve, the code of honor. Instead of considering honor an ideal to which life itself must be sacrificed, Hal sees an honorable reputation as a useful political commodity, and he intends to exploit appearances to increase his grip on that commodity. To comprehend the difference between this attitude and the one Shakespeare gives Hotspur, one only need realize that most of the books on honor considered it so demanding a code that they argue that a single dishonorable act irrevocably destroys one's honor. The Courtiers Academie addresses itself to the problem with a typical judgment.

The greater sort of men hold their honor so deare, as that they dare not do evill, for feare of the losse thereof, knowing that it once only being lost, can never be recovered.

(Sig. P2)

Nor is the company one keeps to be taken lightheartedly by the man bent on honor. James Cleland's advice to his student reader describes “with what company [they] should converse.”

Companie changeth mens manners. … Hee that keepeth company with the wicked shal hardly escape without blemish, either in life or credite.18

Certainly the jealous and constant protection of honor is a familiar enough characteristic among noble figures of the Elizabethan stage for this manipulation of it to be marked in Hal. This first soliloquy introduces to the audience a unique character who, though no malignant Machiavel, intends to exploit appearances to gain success.

Hal's interview with his father develops the plan. As Falstaff will serve as a contrast, so Hotspur will serve as a means to the reputation Hal intends to acquire. It is an unusual scene. After a series of scenes filled with Hotspur's honorable outbursts or with rapid, witty, and irreverent dialogue between Falstaff and Hal, this scene stands alone with its long, discursive speeches both analyzing the nature and prophesying the effects of Hal's behavior. Save for the single, if major, fact that Henry can after this count Hal as a trusted ally, the scene contributes nothing to the narrative. It is clearly a pause, put right at the center of the play, designed to unfold the basic characterization of Hal which his first soliloquy has implied.

Hal is first and last his father's son, for, though Shakespeare here keeps Henry IV from recognizing the fact, they share the same assumptions and aspirations. Henry has two kinds of complaints about Hal's behavior, and the fact that the first is dealt with perfunctorily and the second at detailed length further defines the sort of response which Shakespeare gives Hal to the code of honor. Henry finds it incomprehensible, unless Hal be divinely sent to punish him, that Hal should match the “greatness of [his] blood” (III.ii.16) with “such inordinate and low desires” (III.ii.12). Hal, discrediting the excessive reports that “base newsmongers” have brought to Henry's ear, admits to the faults of youth and asks forgiveness. They are speaking the language of honor, for throughout sixteenth-century discussions of the idea runs the assumption that those of high birth have a correspondingly greater responsibility to be honorable. Castiglione's Courtier is one example.

For it is a great deale less dispraise for him that is not born a gentleman to faile in the acts of vertue, then for a gentleman. If he swerve from the steps of his ancestors, hee staineth the name of his family.19

William Segar sounds the same note.

And the more highlie he be borne, the worse reputation he meriteth, if he cannot continue the honor left him by his Ancestors.

(Booke of Honor and Armes, sig. F1-F2)

Shakespeare gives only thirty lines to Henry's concern about, and Hal's apology for, having ignored these basic demands of honor. Hal asks forgiveness, and Shakespeare has Henry dismiss the issue with a brief “God pardon thee!” before he turns the scene to its central concern with the practical effects of Hal's action, a concern which will occupy the next 130 lines.

Henry complains that Hal's actions have ruined “The hope and expectation of thy time” (III.ii.36) and quite unabashedly asserts that the manipulation of public reputation is necessary to success. As in Hal's first soliloquy, the terms in which Shakespeare has the Lancasters express themselves emphasize their assumption that honor is a useful facade which may be put on or off, like masks, at will. Hal has there determined that his reformation should “show more goodly, and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” Henry here describes the effects of having “dressed” himself in humility.

And there I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned King.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at, and so my state,
Seldom, but sumptuous, show'd like a Feast. …


Conspicuously absent from this is any sense that an honorable reputation, being the mark of virtuous action, is valuable in itself, an attitude Hotspur is consistently made to exemplify. And when Henry turns to comparisons between Hal and King Richard, as he then was, and between Hotspur and himself, as the young Bolingbroke, his description of honor as a means to political ends becomes more extreme. Richard lost the crown because he did not attend to his reputation, Henry asserts, and he warns that Hal stands in similar danger. Hotspur, Henry most illogically asserts, has more right to the crown than Hal, for he has achieved a more honorable reputation. This last is at once the most extreme conclusion of Henry's attitude toward the practical political effects of an honorable reputation and the clearest instance of the difference between Hotspur's thoroughgoing commitment to the ideals of honor and the Lancasters' exploitation of those ideas.

Now, by my sceptre and my soul to boot,
He hath more worthy interest to the state
Than thou, the shadow of succession:
For of no right, nor colour like to right,
He doth fill fields with harness in the realm,
Turns head against the lion's armed jaws,
And, being no more in debt to years than thou,
Leads ancient lords and reverend bishops on
To bloody battles and to bruising arms.


Shakespeare delays Hal's response until all of Henry's accusations have been expressed, then in that response gives Hal precisely the same assumptions about the nature of honor. There are alternative responses. The king has concluded by saying that Hal is even able “To fight against me under Percy's pay … / To show how much thou art degenerate” (III.ii.126-28); so, were honor at the stake, it would be logical for Hal to profess his interest in maintaining the succession in order to avert civil discord, or his interest in putting down rebellion, or some other manifestly virtuous interest. Indeed, in the sources from which the play is drawn, just such an interest is the prince's motive. In Holinshed and in The Famous Victories this meeting is used by the prince to convince his father that he has no intention of usurping the throne, which suspicion Holinshed reports slanderous informants to have planted in the king. In the play, however, Shakespeare modifies the scene to accord with his plan to develop Hal as the pragmatist who, aware of other men's commitment to the code of honor, determines that exploitation of that commitment is the way to success. Consequently, Shakespeare has Hal respond to Henry's complaints by announcing his intention to use Hotspur's reputation for his own gain.

I will redeem all this on Percy's head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash'd away, shall scour my shame with it. …


This is precisely the intention Hal has announced in his first soliloquy, and it is an intention which remains fundamentally different from the sort of commitment to honor which controls Hotspur. Hotspur's honorable reputation is useful to Hal, and he means to acquire it.

Hal's first speech at Shrewsbury puts into action his long-anticipated bid to enter the lists of chivalry. The reasons he gives for challenging Hotspur to single combat are beneficent and humane, and there is no evidence that the play intends that he be cynically or ironically understood. That Hal is pragmatic does not mean that he is diabolic. In fact, however, the action demands Shrewsbury, not a single encounter between Hal and Hotspur, so that Hal's offer can only be seen as a definition of character and not as a potential alternative to the narrative line. Hal has planned to make Hotspur exchange “His glorious deeds for my indignities,” and Shakespeare appropriately dramatizes that plan by having Hal challenge Hotspur to a trial of arms, the most explicitly honorable act available, to mark Hal's first step in his successful acquisition of an honorable reputation. The effect of this step is quickly seen in Vernon's glowing report to the rebel camp of Hal's challenge. Hotspur, jealous of his honor, asks if the challenge “seemed … in contempt,” and Vernon does considerably more than reassure him. His account describes a model instance of that honorable balance between the offering of honest praise and the rejection of self-praise which Glendower has so contorted in his argument with Hotspur and which Hotspur and Douglas so carefully maintain.

No, by my soul, I never in my life
Did hear a challenge urg'd more modestly.
.....He gave you all the duties of a man.
.....Spoke your deservings like a chronicle,
Making you ever better than his praise
By still dispraising praise valu'd with you,
And which became him like a prince indeed,
He made a blushing cital of himself. …


This and Vernon's other descriptions exaggerate what the audience has already seen, and so exhibit the first successful consequence of Hal's deliberate entry into the honorable life. His plan is succeeding, for, as first described in Vernon's speech, his new reputation does in fact “show more goodly … / Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” Vernon, who has described Hal, armed, as having risen from the ground “like feather'd Mercury” and who has heard Hal's challenge, explicitly draws the comparison between these things and Hal's earlier behavior.

                              but let me tell the world—
If he outlive the envy of this day,
England did never owe so sweet a hope
So much misconstru'd in his wantonness.


Hal's victory over Hotspur, with Falstaff lying by feigning death, puts into action the success which Hal has planned and Vernon described. It also dramatizes Hal's essential indifference to honor except as a means to other ends. The epitaph which Hal speaks over Hotspur's body is as much a farewell to the ideals of honor which have so compelled Hotspur's behavior as to Hotspur himself. John Dover Wilson compares Hal's supposed epitaph over Falstaff with Hamlet's over Yorick,20 but Hal's speech over the dead Hotspur bears even closer resemblance to Hamlet's tracing the noble dust of Alexander until he finds it stopping a bunghole. Hamlet's trials in that play lead more logically to his rejection of human glory and honor as vanity, so in Hal's mouth, by comparison, the speech seems largely a commonplace; however, it is consistent with, and may even be a belated effort to provide a moral basis for, Hal's indifference to honor as an ideal.

Percy thou art dust,
And food for—
For worms, brave Percy. Fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weav'd ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough.


The Hal who then meets Falstaff with a willingness to gild a lie “with the happiest terms I have” and who elaborately arranges for the honorable release of Douglas is not a different or more educated Hal than the Hal of Act I, nor is he an embodiment of the triumph of moral mediocrity; he is a character in whom is dramatized the successful consequences of the pragmatic plans he has articulated in his first soliloquy and developed in his interview with King Henry. There is in the play no outright condemnation of this pragmatism, and if Hal's response to the world of the play makes him less sensual than Falstaff, less honorable than Hotspur, and less engaging than either, it is the response which, by definition, brings him success.

The structure suggested by the present argument is more characteristically Shakespearean than the supposed Aristotelian paradigm. To dramatize the beginnings of England's civil wars, Shakespeare makes honor a code of behavior central to the play and gives each of the major characters a different response to the demands of that code. Each suffers or enjoys the logical and ethical consequences of his response. Hamlet will, in a few years, call for plays “to hold, as 'twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii.24-27). The three principals of 1 Henry IV, and the play itself, are such mirrors.


  1. David Berkeley and Donald Eidson, “The Theme of Henry IV, Part 1,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 19 (1968), 25-31, provide the most recent study. They consider honor only “a prominent subtheme” (p. 25), but in that context agree with the customary interpretation. They cite as proponents of this interpretation Zeeveld, SQ, 3 (1952); Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance (New York, 1950); Boas, Shakespeare and his Predecessors (New York, 1896); and W. B. Hunter, “Falstaff,” SAQ, 50 (1951), 86-95 (through error Hunter's article is cited as appearing in Shakespeare Quarterly). Hunter, indeed, extends this Aristotelian scheme to assign to the prince the virtues of “liberality,” “good temper,” “temperance,” “a sense of humor,” and even “magnanimity,” comparing these with appropriate excesses and defects in Hotspur and Falstaff. Curiously, Berkeley and Eidson overlook Tillyard's formulation of this interpretation in Shakespeare's History Plays (1944). Cleanth Brooks and Robert Heilman further sanction the idea and give it wide distribution in their text Understanding Drama (New York, 1948). A clear indication of the fairly recent but pervasive acceptance of the idea may be gained by comparing Kittredge's introduction to the play (Boston, 1940), where no hint of the “Aristotelian” reading of the play is implied, with Ribner's introduction to the play in The Kittredge Shakespeares series, where Ribner easily assumes that “Shakespeare adopts the Aristotelian principle of temperance, with real virtue as a mean between extremes” (Waltham, Mass., 1966), p. xvii.

  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IV.4, in The Works of Aristotle, trans. W. D. Ross (Oxford, 1925), Vol. IX.

  3. Curtis Watson, in the only book-length treatment of the idea to date, recognizes the pervasiveness of the Aristotelian definition, stating that “Aristotle's original definitions are a hidden spring from which flow most of the ideas [about honor] of the writers of the 16th century” (Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor [Princeton, 1960], p. 66). However, Watson's central concern to isolate honor as belonging uniquely to the ethics of “pagan humanism” and as being in explicit conflict with the ethics of Christianity renders his conclusions suspect, for he fails to consider such Christian uses of the Aristotelian idea as theologians like Richard Hooker make, and he disregards those portions of secular arguments which claim a Christian origin for human honor. Robert Ashley, for instance, easily accommodates the Aristotelian definition to a Christian context, concluding his inquiry into the origins of honor by saying, “so must I fetch the beginning of Honour from God” (Of Honour, ed. Virgil Heltzel [San Marino, 1947], p. 27). John Norden, to cite but one more sixteenth-century example, after another discourse on the divine origin of honor, concludes on a more practical note. “True honor is never gotten in the warres without Religion and virtue” (The Mirror of Honor [London, 1597], p. 12). Watson, in any case, is not concerned with Shakespeare's dramatic development of the idea of honor in individual plays and makes only a passing reference to 1 Henry IV.

  4. Count Annibale Romei, The Courtiers Academie, trans. John Kepers. The copy in the British Museum is not dated, but Valentine Sims had a license to print this title in 1598.

  5. George Whetstone, The Honorable Reputation of a Souldier (London, 1585), sig. E.

  6. William Segar, Honor Military and Civil (London, 1602), p. 203.

  7. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Bk. VII, Chap. xvii, Sec. 4, in The Works of … Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble (New York, 1845).

  8. Thomas Nashe, Christs Teares Over Jerusalem, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford, 1958), II, 82.

  9. All quotations of I Henry IV are taken from A. R. Humphreys' Arden edition (London, 1961). References to other plays of Shakespeare's are to The Complete Works, ed. G. L. Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  10. Romei, p. 101. Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor, cites this passage as evidence to support his disjunction of “pagan humanist” and Christian ethics on the issue of honor. He reads this passage as a justification for suicide, but Gualinguo's remark that the Stoics sometimes permitted suicide in preference to dishonor is intended to emphasize the power that honor has always held rather than to justify present suicide. Watson does, however, cite several other instances where the assumption that honor is more precious than life is expressed (pp. 157, 215, 217, 219, and 361).

  11. William Segar, The Booke of Honor and Armes (London, 1590), sig. A2.

  12. Raphael Holinshed, The Last Volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande … (London, 1577), p. 1138.

  13. Holinshed, p. 1136. The OED lists prayes as a sixteenth-century variant spelling of praise and provides a definition appropriate here: “That for which a person … is, or deserves to be, praised.” The second edition of Holinshed (1587) substitutes preies for prayes. Preies is not among the variants listed for praise, but one form of prize, or price, is preis. This may be the meaning the second edition intended.

  14. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. J. R. Malryne (The New Mermaids, London, 1970), I.ii.168.

  15. Humphreys, p. 8, note to ll. 91-94. Humphreys further remarks that Holinshed does not mention Hotspur's justification under the law of arms. However, Humphreys uses the 1807-8 reprint of the second edition (1587) of Holinshed for his editorial purposes, which edition does not record Holinshed's original description of the Percys' claiming the prisoners as “their peculiar prayes.” (Cf. fn. 13.)

  16. Honor Military and Civil, Bk. 1, Chaps. 31-32, passim.

  17. Cf. Humphreys' note to V.iii.36 for citation of various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century statements which condemn betrayal by a commander of his men as particularly dishonorable.

  18. James Cleland, The Institution of a Young Noble Man (Oxford, 1607), pp. 191-92.

  19. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Thomas Hoby (1561), ed. Ernest Rhys (London, 1928), pp. 31-32.

  20. John Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge, 1943), pp. 67-68.

Grace Tiffany (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Tiffany, Grace. “Puritanism in Comic History: Exposing Royalty in the Henry Plays.” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 256-87.

[In the following essay, Tiffany maintains that Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 represent Shakespeare's ironic commentary on the religious and sociopolitical rhetoric propagated by contemporary Puritans. According to the critic, Elizabethan playgoers would have detected in Falstaff many of the egalitarian aspects of Puritanism and in Prince Hal a Puritan view of monarchic authority as a kind of theatrical performance.]

Since the publication of Jonas Barish's seminal The Anti-theatrical Prejudice in 1981, it has become a truism in Renaissance studies that English Puritans despised English theater.1 However, though it is undeniable that many Puritan moralists condemned the “chappel of Satan,” as Anthony Munday called the London playhouse,2 the relationship of many “precise” Protestants, or Puritans, to late-sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century theatrical entertainment was complex and ambivalent. Although Puritan ministers like John Rainholds opposed all theater, branding “all stage-players generally with infamie,”3 others were more tolerant. As both Paul White and David Bevington have shown, many early radical Protestants and first- and second-generation Puritans, such as John Bale and Munday, fought hard not to destroy but to transform London theatrical entertainment.4 These men feared the naturalistic stage representation of vice, which, in Munday's words, made “both the actors and the beholders giltie alike,” since while audience members “saie[d] nought, but gladlie looke[d] on, they al by sight and assent [were] actors.”5 Therefore some Puritans sought to replace dramatizations of evil with stagings of virtuous behavior. For example, despite his round condemnations in the 1590s and early 1600s of the licentiousness of playhouses, Anthony Munday was himself a playwright who sought, with the Admiral's Men, to produce moral drama that expressed and supported the growing Puritan temper of Renaissance London. Plays like Sir John Oldcastle and the Earl of Huntingdon series, written primarily by Munday and produced close to 1600, glorified Puritan martyrs like Oldcastle—an early-fifteenth-century Lollard burned at the stake for his allegedly heretical views—and expressed a low-church anticlericalism.

We cannot logically assume that sympathetic audiences were lacking for these successful plays, for Puritan influence was spreading through England in the 1580s and 1590s, during which time many of the godly migrated “from provincial villages to towns and cities, London especially,” as the historian Douglas Tallack notes.6 It is difficult to categorize the Puritans of this time according to the sectarian divisions that became distinct in the seventeenth century, when Puritans gradually gave up hope for achieving the reforms they wanted within the national Church. In the sixteenth century, Puritan impulses toward Anabaptism, Congregationalism, and Presbyterianism were variously experienced and championed by a variety of churchgoing English people and their pastors who still, in the words of Arthur J. Klein, “regarded themselves as part of the Anglican establishment.”7 Patrick Collinson writes of the popularity of the low-church movement among members of Elizabeth's court as well as the general public, due not only to eloquent Puritan preaching but to “the sustained influence of puritan masters, tutors, and lecturers” in the university towns from the 1560s on.8 Members of the resultant Puritan “church within a church,” as Collinson calls it,9 were widely dispersed in the London population, and many of these had not yet abandoned the playhouses, despite the pamphlets and sermons that reformers and divines were beginning to direct against the stage.10

Perceiving the Puritans as diverse constituents of the London Renaissance theater audience rather than as a uniform, self-marginalized antitheatrical group is essential to our appreciation of the Puritan as represented by Shakespeare. Shakespearean Puritans were sometimes reprehensible and often extremists, but were never unsympathetically rendered or wholly unattractive. That they were not was probably not only the result of Shakespeare's large-mindedness, but of the hard economic fact that increasing numbers of Londoners were coming to think and behave the Puritan way, and that the Puritan segment of the public had a measure of box office clout.

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the recorded circumstances of Shakespeare's change of the Henriad's Sir John Oldcastle's name to Sir John Falstaff. In his flouting of various types of authority, Shakespeare's “Oldcastle” bears some resemblance to the historical John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, a proto-Puritan who was martyred during Henry V's reign for his resistance to episcopal authority.11 But soon after the play's earliest staging Shakespeare changed the character's name. As Kristen Poole has shown, though Shakespeare scholars “have almost universally claimed that the name-change was the direct result of protests by William Brooke, Lord Cobham,” Oldcastle's powerful descendant, “we have only circumstantial, secondhand evidence of [Brooke's] opposition.”12 As Poole also notes, Thomas Pendleton more persuasively argues that “The change from ‘Oldcastle’ to ‘Falstaff’ seems to have been motivated … much more … by the displeasure of a significant part of Shakespeare's audience at his treatment of a hero of their religion.”13 Thus Shakespeare's epilogue's claim in 2 Henry IV that “Oldcastle died a martyr, and this [Falstaff] is not the man” (line 32) seeks to pacify those playgoers who venerated the memory of a radical Protestant “saint.”

Presumably such playgoers were offended by the representation of a rollicking, drunken Oldcastle (based partly on the Oldcastle of the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V, produced some years before Shakespeare's Henry plays). And presumably their opinions were powerful enough to occasion Shakespeare's diplomatic retraction of Oldcastle's name. However, here I will argue not only that Shakespeare did intend Falstaff to be an exaggerated representation of both Oldcastle and contemporary Puritans, but that this representation embodied some of the tremendous affective power of Puritan ideas and practices. This is not to say that through the amusing figure of Falstaff, Shakespeare was urging popular acceptance of a carnivalesque Puritanism. To the contrary, Henry IV concludes with the clear suggestion that Falstaffian influence, whatever its attractions, is politically and morally dangerous, and will be rejected by a sane commonwealth. However, Falstaff's skill at undermining the theatrical fictions on which England's governing systems depended leaves even contemporary audiences uneasy at his dismissal. Perhaps Falstaff's attractive subversiveness left late-sixteenth-century audiences more generously disposed to the Puritans' leveling project than Shakespeare consciously intended.

A similar argument has recently been advanced by Kristen Poole, who links Falstaff with the anti-Puritan caricatures of satires penned in the 1580s by John Lyly, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nashe. These satires were commissioned by an anxious prelacy in response to the Puritan-authored “Martin Marprelate” tracts, anonymous pamphlets that had begun appearing on the London streets in 1589. The Martin Marprelate pamphlets mocked the Anglican hierarchs and even questioned the queen's headship of the church. In Poole's words, the Marprelate pamphlets “confronted the bishops with a new breed of ecclesiastical enemy: the puritan wit.”14 The bishops' and the queen's remedy, the satirical rebuttals of hired guns Lyly, Greene, and Nashe known as the anti-Marprelate tracts, lampooned the Marprelate authors and marked “the entrance of the puritan figure into popular literature.”15 To the amusement of Londoners, satires flew back and forth between the anonymous “Martinists” and their conservative enemies Nashe, Lyly, and Greene from 1589 through early 1590. Targeting the bishops and occasionally the queen, the Martinists protested against the corrupt and invasive hierarchy that imposed increasingly unpopular religious practices on the English people. The anti-Martinists retaliated by ridiculing “Martin” and Puritans in general, depicting them as anarchic, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical windbags. Quoting extensively from Nashe's, Lyly's, and Greene's anti-Martin Marprelate tracts, Kristin Poole shows that the view of the Puritan they promoted was not one of “the lean, mean Malvolio … that post-Restoration readers and audiences … would exclusively associate with the term puritan.” Instead, these satires presented “puritans as grotesque individuals living in carnivalesque communities”—an image to which Falstaff clearly conforms.16 Like the anti-Marprelate tracts' disorderly caricatures of Puritan Martin, a gluttonous clown who distorts law and would topple the state's institutionalized hierarchies, Shakespeare's Falstaff embodies chaos in his “Bakhtinian grotesque body,” wherein “death, birth, sex, and bodily functions are often simultaneous and inextricable”17 (Falstaff appears to die in 1 Henry IV but does not, and was “born … with a white head” [1.2.187-88]).18 While Poole acknowledges that the Elizabethans probably disapproved of a Puritan outlaw who “respect[ed] neither rank nor hierarchy,”19 she observes that Lyly's, Greene's, and Nashe's carnivalesque caricatures of Martin gained attractiveness when, transformed into Falstaff, they migrated from page to stage. On stage “the legacy of Martin's popular appeal overwhelms the pressures of satire, and the audience finds itself … laughing with the target of the attack.”20

This is undeniably so. It is impossible for playgoers to watch Falstaff's tricks without engaging, to a degree, in the imaginative participation in vice that Puritans like Munday feared “made both the actors and the beholders giltie alike.” Thus late-Elizabethan audiences may not only have been seduced into approving Falstaff's vices by the theatrical dazzlement deplored by Puritan anti-theatricalists. Ironically, these audiences may also have been encouraged to identify Falstaff's vices with Puritanism.

Such a representation of Puritanism was not, in itself, likely to take the low-church cause anywhere its serious proponents wanted to go. But Falstaff performs a compensatory function that even ardent low churchmen and churchwomen might well have appreciated, for he exposes the theatrical unreality of the dignities of office that Elizabethan Puritans were beginning to condemn. Mocking the lord chief justiceship and, ultimately, the monarchy (though, interestingly, not the chief target of Puritan attacks, the prelacy—a point that I will ultimately address), Falstaff demonstrates the illusoriness of claims to hereditary authority and to authority bestowed by hereditary monarchs. His subversion operates on two levels. In obvious ways, Falstaff embodies the danger of both Oldcastle and the sixteenth-century German religious reformer Thomas Munzer, both of whom led disenfranchised peasants and townsmen in famous rebellions. As did Oldcastle and Munzer, Falstaff leads a troop of ragged “slaves” and “ostlers trade-fall'n” to battle (1 Henry IV 4.2.25, 29), and so evokes, despite the ostensibly royalist cause for which he fights, a vision of the kind of “Munzer's commonwealth” that conservative sixteenth-century English people feared.21 But Falstaff's true antihierarchical subversiveness lies deeper than these superficial images of popular revolt, and is bound to his language and behavior even in the plays' peaceful scenes. In those, against the Henriad's rhetoric of divine right—articulated by Bishop Carlisle in Richard II (4.1.121-49) and ultimately embraced by Henry V (2 Henry IV 5.2.129-33)—Falstaff acts out the powerful suggestion that the king is not the man born for the task, but the man who currently plays the role. Thus the theory underlying the nonparliamentary apparatus of state power, including justices and prelates appointed by the monarch, is destabilized through Falstaff's festive play.22 And this destabilization, despite the regard Elizabethan Puritans cautiously expressed for Elizabeth, was one of Puritanism's ultimate goals.23 Thus Falstaff does something to advance Elizabethan Puritans' interests. Staging a version of Puritan antitheatricalism, he turns comedy against itself, using theatrical rhetoric and behavior to expose the histrionics of monarchs and magistrates. Falstaff's moral hollowness, in other words, is balanced by his exposure to the hollowness of royal claims to authority.

Falstaff's theatrical exposure of royal theatrics depends crucially on a technique that was becoming increasingly associated with Puritanism in the 1580s and 1590s: sophistical argument. Patrick Collinson writes of how in the late 1580s, Puritan lawyers “were able to parade a useful array of legal quibbles to confuse the processes of ecclesiastical discipline” and defend low-church practices (such as Sabbatarianism).24 Falstaff, as I will show, is a past master of such legal casuistry, which he performs in a rhetorical style redolent of Puritanical argumentation and preaching. Yet this sophistical brilliance does not damn his character as the play's pious hypocrite (an identity that the anti-Marprelate tracts strove to fashion for the Puritan Martin). While Falstaff's obvious sophistry calls his “truth” into question, his slippery argumentative skills become part of his comic charm. Further, we see Falstaffian sophistry, a kind of verbal histrionicism, borrowed and perfected by Prince Hal. Hal ultimately enfolds sophistry into his repertoire of royal stage tricks, performing the role of repentant crown prince in 2 Henry IV and king in 2 Henry IV and Henry V with consummate verbal skill. Thus even Falstaff's morally suspect “Puritan” features contribute to the plays' overall destabilization of monarchy's claims to intrinsic authority: that is, to authority that is inborn rather than theatrically performed.

There was, then, something for everyone in the Henriad. The plays support skepticism toward both radical and conservative theories of governance alike. Despite their ostensible rejection of the Puritan leveling impulse embodied by Falstaff, whose theatrics and familiarity with the prince reduce (in audience imagination at least) ranked hierarchical structures to rubble, the plays' political moral is ambiguous. The Henriad leaves audiences with a choice: smug disapproval of Puritan chaos or skepticism regarding a state hierarchy that depends from a sophistical, playacting monarch, no matter how skillful and even virtuous one such monarch may be.


The carnivalesque Puritan is, as Kristen Poole notes, unfamiliar to readers used to the image of the dour Puritan spoilsport, despite “the fact that the official [American] holiday celebrating puritans is one of nationwide gluttony.”25 And it is, indeed, difficult to replace the sober Malvolio—called “a kind of puritan” by Maria, though she then retracts the charge (Twelfth Night 2.3.140, 147)—with the Falstaffian Toby Belch as our vision of the Shakespearean Puritan. After all, Malvolio, who condemns festive celebration, is a stereotype justified (if any are justified) by radical Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritans' published diatribes against “cursed mirth,”26 “New-yeares-gifts,” “Christmas-keeping,” and “May-games.”27

Yet the carnivalesque or “Bahktinian” Puritan was a caricature naturally attractive to the conservative anti-Marprelate authors, who feared that reforms called for in the Marprelate and other Puritan tracts, as well as by famous preachers such as John Field, Thomas Wilcox, and Edward Dering, would wreak a different kind of mayhem by leveling the institutions that ordered England. “The Martinists,” wrote a disapproving Thomas Nashe, “seeke to drawe every place in this Campe royall [England] to an equalitie with themselves.”28 While no such radical project was explicitly articulated by Martin, Martin's attacks on the bishops yet implied a disregard for social and political rank that suggested his general hostility to the unelected elements of English government. In Theses Martiniance, for example, Martin radically proposes “That the places of lord bishops are neither warranted by the word of God, nor by anie lawfull humane constitutions”; “That the governement of the church of England, by lord archbishops and bishops, is not a church governement set downe in the worde, or which can be defended to be Gods ordinance”; and “That the gouvernement of lord archbishops and bishops is unlawefull, notwithstanding it bee mainteined, and in force by humane lawes and ordinances.”29 These pseudonymously expressed Puritan views reiterated those earlier set forth in Field and Wilcox's 1572 Admonition to the Parliament, which complained of any appointment to clerical office that depended on the authority of queen or bishop rather than “the common consent of the whole church”30 (remarks for which Field was ultimately jailed).31 As John Lyly wrote in one anti-Marprelate tract, Pappe with an Hatchet, such attacks on the Anglican hierarchy and championings of the masses amounted to putting “Religion into a fooles coate.”32 Similarly, Nashe likened these projected social levelings to holiday foolery, calling them “the May-game of Martinisme.”33 Thus, though Puritans focused their attacks on Church rather than secular government, their antiestablishmentarianism was easily associated with the threat of a permanent “May-game,” or national carnival: the chaotic obliteration of all class rank, as well as of government offices not designed and filled by communal consensus.

With its characteristic ambivalence, Shakespeare's Henriad registers both Anglican dismay at the prospect of such chaotic leveling and Puritan skepticism regarding the institutionalized alternatives. Prince Hal's observation that “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work” (1 Henry IV 1.2.204-5) is from one perspective deeply conservative. Delivered in a speech predicting his eventual rejection of Falstaff, the speech seems to express disapproval of the permanent Puritan heyday implied by Falstaff's scanting of rank: the Levelers' chaos represented by the fat knight's disrespect toward all royally authorized persons, from the lord chief justice to the “rascal” Prince of Wales (2.2.18) to the king himself (whom Falstaff rudely interrupts in part 1, act 5 [5.1.28]). However, Hal's speech, when closely attended to, actually encourages a Falstaffian irreverence for royal authority, for Hal's reference to the tedium of a yearlong holiday finally points not to Falstaff's tiresomeness, but to the tiresomeness of displaying his own royal character for sustained periods of time. In this way the prince justifies his immersion in Falstaff's holiday world. The references to holiday, which superficially discredit the Boar's Head revelers, are thus deeply connected to Hal's anticipation of his own future royal performances. This early use of an image proper to the tavern world to describe the arena of royal theater begins to merge the worlds in audience imagination. That is, Falstaffian play begins, in Hal's own language, to describe royal play as well, and hence to undermine the seriousness of images of monarchical authority. The endless May Day, it would seem, is threatened by the performances of the monarch, no less than by the “Munzer's Commonwealth” threatened by Falstaff.

The identification of the ranked establishment with carnival chaos was not (as I will show) a Shakespearean innovation, but one made a decade earlier by Martin Marprelate. For the most part, however, English fears of chaotic political innovations focused on the Puritans no less than on the Catholic threat, from the 1570s on. The Puritan push toward what seemed, to staunch Anglicans, an indiscriminate authorization of all voices on issues of moral import was described in a letter from George Carleton, a Northamptonshire Puritan gentleman, to Lord Burghley, the queen's secretary, in 1572. Carleton speaks of “a great people, daily increasing,” who “consist of all degrees from the nobility to the lowest. … This people, as they do not like the course of our Church, so they do and will practise assemblies of brethren in all parts of this realm.”34

This dangerous subversion of hierarchy by united “brethren” included the influence of outspoken women like Jane Minors of Barking, who left her churching rite complaining that it “was a ceremony.”35 The early-seventeenth-century Puritan minister Thomas Carew, of St. Margaret's parish in Essex, reputedly preached that “it was not lawfull for princes nor magistrates to have any government in the discipline of the church,” but that church government should involve “widows, elders and deacons.”36 In London, at St. Anne's Blackfriars, the popular Puritan preacher Stephen Egerton led a congregation composed “mostly of merchant's wives … drawn from all parts of the city.”37 In Anthony Munday's Huntingdon plays, which championed Robin Hood as an egalitarian Puritan hero, Robin's equal relationship with Maid Marian reflected and encouraged the increased stature of women in Puritan assemblies.38 (Fond of the figure of “Robin Hood” of Huntingdon,39 Munday in his 1600 Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1, presented Oldcastle as another Robin Hood type, stressing Oldcastle's alignment with the poor and his partnership with his wife in championing peasant causes.)40 In fact, as Collinson notes, the Martin Marprelate operation was largely financed by women, such as Elizabeth Crane of East Molesey, whose home for some time housed Martin's printing press.41

The key role women played in the Puritan movement is surprising given the simultaneous Puritan attacks on “feminizing” corrosiveness of certain kinds of social entertainments and practices, like “lascivious effeminate Musicke” and men's wearing of “Periwigs”42 (attacks delivered by Munday himself, along with later Puritan authors like William Prynne).43 But however resistant some Puritans were to such “feminizations,” the Puritan movement as a whole was generous to females themselves—a fact usually overlooked by critics of Renaissance literature, if not by historians.

Certainly sixteenth-century Puritans were mocked by their enemies for the place and privilege they gave to women in their churches. Thomas Nashe goes so far as to charge Puritan Martin with androgyny, in a sentence that mocks the Maid Marian of Puritan legend: in Martin's “May-game,” “Martin himselfe is the Maydmarian, trimly drest uppe in a cast Gowne, and a kercher of Dame Lawsons, his face handsomlie muffled with a Diaper-napkin to cover his beard.”44 Shakespeare released this image's comic potential by staging something much like it in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Falstaff dons a woman's gown to escape the jealous inquiries of Master Ford, but fails to hide his beard: “I spy a great peard [beard] under his muffler,” one onlooker observes (4.2.194). (Falstaff of the Henry plays has androgynous aspects as well: of his girth, he complains, “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me” [2 Henry IV 4.3.22].) The gender-inclusive constituency of Puritan assemblies is also mockingly alluded to in 2 Henry IV, when Prince Hal's page likens the Boar's Head tavern, where Falstaff resides, to the meeting place of “Ephesians … of the old church” (2.2.150): that is, to the primitive church that Puritan congregations strove to emulate.45 “Sup any women with him?” the prince asks, and is told, “None, my lord, but old Mistress Quickly and Mistress Doll Tearsheet” (lines 151-53). Like Hal's speech on “playing holiday,” this dialogue cuts two ways. From one perspective, the page's lines grant a mock moral dignity to Falstaff and his heterogeneous crew by likening them to the primitive Christians; from another, they degrade Puritan meeting places by comparing them to ale shops and brothels, and impugning the characters of the women who frequent them (as well as those of the men). Yet, as Poole has suggested, the transfer of the anti-Puritan satire from page to Shakespearean stage unleashes its comedy and encourages audiences to join in Puritan “carnival revelries,” despite these revelries' moral suspiciousness.

In his anti-Marprelate tracts, Thomas Nashe mocks both the female presumption encouraged by Puritan congregations and the involvement of lowly artisans at Puritan meetings. He recounts that at “an assemblie of the brotherhood at Ashford in Kent” which he visited,

The roome was full of Artificers, men and women, that sat rounde about uppon stooles and benches to harken to [the Scripture reading]. The Chapter was, the I. Cor. 3, which being read, the reader began first to utter his conceit upon the Text, in short notes; then it came to his next neighbours course, and so in order Glosses went a begging, and Expositions ranne a pace through the Table.

Asked to give his own gloss of Scripture when his turn came, Nashe reports, he at first refused but then “spake among them,” and the result of the experience was that he “needed no Minstrill to make me merrie, my hart tickled of it selfe.”46 Thus the proceedings of the godly assembly, comically (from Nashe's perspective) involving the participation of lower-class craftsmen and women in the high pursuit of scriptural interpretation, are likened by Nashe to a festive minstrel show. Such mockery of the carnivalesque empowerment of the lower classes in Puritan assemblies is, in fact, pervasive in Nashe's anti-Marprelate texts. “Where had this [Martinesque] brable his first beginning but in some obscure corner … in the land, in shoppes, in stalles, in the Tynker's budget, the Taylors sheares, and the Shepheardes Tarboxe?” Nashe sneers in The Returne of Pasquill.47 In A Countercuffe Given to Martin Junior, he jokes, “I can bring you a Free-mason out of Kent, that gave over his occupation twentie yeeres agoe. He will make a good Deacon for your purpose: I have taken some tryall of his gifts; he preecheth very pretilie over a Joynd-stoole.”48

Again, the Puritan-like social leveling Nashe mocks is dramatized in the Henriad's Boar's Head scenes, especially in the sustained saturnalia in 1 Henry IV 2.4 and 2 Henry IV 2.4. In the former scene Hal declares himself “sworn brother to a leash of drawers” (tapsters) and Falstaff (“false staff”) plays king from a “join'd-stool” throne (lines 6-7, 380). In the latter scene a disguised Hal waits on Falstaff at dinner (“From a prince to a prentice?” Hal exults beforehand, “a low transformation!” [2 Henry IV 2.2.175-76]). And again, the anti-Puritan mockery loses its edge in Shakespeare, as the audience shares Hal's delight in the carnivalesque subversion of rank and power.

These Shakespearean subversions, it might be argued, take place in a comic tavern world separate from the field of hard human striving: the court and the battlegrounds to which Hal is continually pulled, and to which he finally submits as he accepts his role as king. Thus the audience sympathy generated for Falstaff might be thought carefully limited by Falstaff's own restricted power within the play. When Hal finally accepts his authority over Falstaff, this argument runs, the audience accepts it as well: when, as Henry V, Hal rejects the knight (“I know ye not, old man” [2 Henry IV 5.5.47]), we reject him too, along with the Puritan social revolution he has embodied. Such a containment of Puritan subversiveness, to adapt Stephen Greenblatt's term,49 might be said to be accomplished by As You Like It as well. In that play—in some ways analogous to Munday's Huntingdon plays, that featured Robin Hood as proto-Puritan champion50—Shakespeare displaces a duke and his court to the Arden forest, where they live in an egalitarian community “like the old Robin Hood of England” (1.1.116). The Arden Green World dignifies workers like Corin, a “true laborer” who “earn[s] that [he] eat[s]” (3.2.73-74). This world also empowers women, like the cross-dressed Rosalind, who buys property near the forest (2.4.88-100). But though social positions and even gender roles are enjoyably suspended in this wilderness, the suspension is necessarily temporary. Rosalind must resume her submissive femininity to marry Orlando, and the comedy ends with the old duke preparing to return to his lands and to the old gradations of power (5.4.163-65). Thus, historical-comic and comic representations of female and lower-class self-governance are, in Shakespeare, holiday diversions from normal life: short-lived, as all holidays should be. According to this argument, espoused by Louis Montrose,51 these plays could not have inspired sympathy for the Puritan communities that their comic communities invoked, since these “leveled” communities were desirable only insofar as they were temporary. “If all the year were playing holidays, / To sport would be as tedious as to work.”

But this argument does not take into account the growing criticism of traditional systems of rank that increasingly characterized the left-leaning Elizabethan public and a large portion of the theater audience as well. To approve the restored power of kings and dukes, audiences must approve of royal and ducal power in the first place. As I have begun to show, increasingly, Puritans in the audience no longer did—or at least disapproved of the extent of powers invested in such manmade offices. Specifically, from the 1570s on Puritans expressed resistance to the queen's authority in religious matters—matters that pertained to crucial aspects of her subjects' lives, including tithing, church attendance, and, as noted, the rights of common men and women to speak in assemblies. George Carleton wrote that the growing Puritan congregations, “as they hate[d] all heresies and popery, so they [could not] be persuaded to bear liking of the queen's proceedings in religion.”52 Martin Marprelate himself directly (though pseudonymously) questioned the queen's authority in these crucial matters, asking his opponents, “doe you thinke our Churche governement to be good and lawfull because hir Maiestie and the state who maintaineth the reformed religion alloweth the fame? Why, the Lorde doth not allow it; therefore it cannot be lawfull.”53

Nashe satirized the Martinists' alleged designs against monarchical power in The Returne of Pasquill, warning that “at the next pushe, Martin and his companions might overthrow the state and make the Emperiall crowne of her Maiestie kisse the ground.”54 Perhaps Nashe was right: the 1601 rebellion of the earl of Essex, whose connection to Martin Marprelate was rumored, was reputedly tied to “the Calvinist doctrine that the lesser magistrates had a right to restrain princes.” The revival of Shakespeare's Richard II is famously associated with Essex's Puritanically minded revolt, and, as Patrick Collinson notes, on the Sunday after the rebellion “not only [the Puritan pastor Stephen] Egerton but two other leading puritans, Anthony Wotton of Tower Hill, Essex's chaplain, and Edward Phillips, preacher at St. Saviour's, Southwark, failed to deliver from their pulpits the official account and condemnation of the rebellion.”55 These acts of defiance reflected the progressive disillusionment with the queen that many Puritans felt after the 1584 Parliament, during which she had failed to honor their interests.56 Though Lyly and Nashe (whose anti-Marprelate tracts were state-subsidized) condemned all such slightings of monarchical authority, even the conservative bishop John Jewel preached of the monarchy's conditional legitimacy and the queen's consequent responsibility to her subjects:

The people of Babylon built themselves a Tower as high as the heavens, to shew forth their pryde, and get themselves a name. Hereof David sayth, the kinges of the earth band themselves, and the Princes are assembled together against the Lord, and against his Christ. He sayeth not, the vulgar people, or a sort of Raskals onely, but Kinges and Princes, and they which beare authoritye in the worlde, assemble themselves against the Lord, and in this power they think they are invincible.57

In short, the Elizabethan population was familiar with suggestions from various quarters of the precariousness of royal claims to authority, and thus of the claims to authority of all prelates and courtiers installed by monarchical fiat. Hence, it is logical to suppose Shakespeare's audience's openness to—if not outright approval of—the staged leveling of such structures, which was the carnivalesque achievement of the comic history plays. Further, it is likely that Henry IV and Henry V supported the more radical members of their audiences in their skepticism regarding the privileges of rank, by presenting royalty not as a divinely bestowed quality, but as a special kind of stage show: one that depended on rhetorical skill of the very kind displayed by John Falstaff.


John Bale's 1544 account of the martyrdom of Sir John Oldcastle—next to Foxe's Acts and Monuments, the most popular sixteenth-century source of the story—presents a hero who is superficially as different from the anti-Marprelate caricatures of Puritans and from Shakespeare's licentious Falstaff as he could be. Though, as Bale recounts, Oldcastle was accused in the early-fifteenth century of having condemned “the order of priesthood,” he was no such enemy of hierarchies or leader of rebellious masses. Instead, says Bale, though Oldcastle condemned the pope, he stressed that it was the duty of the “common people” to “bear their good minds and true obedience to the … ministers of God, their kings, civil governors, and priests.” Thus, according to Bale, the bishops who tried Oldcastle distorted his words to convict him of blasphemy and treason, using not truth, but “their wits and sophistry.”58 Bale thus lays sophistry, the self-serving manipulation of words, to the charge of the tyrannical bishops serving King Henry V. A similar complaint was lodged by John Foxe, whose account of Oldcastle's martyrdom refers to the inquisitorial prelates as “subtle sorcerers” whose “common practice” was “to blear the eyes of the unlearned multitude with one false craft or other.”59

Following the Protestant martyrologists Foxe and Bale,60 the Martin Marprelate tracts accused not only bishops but their defenders of sophistry, writing in one tract that an anti-Marprelate author has given invalid “reasons for the defence of [his] hierarchie” and has ignored crucial points of Martin's antibishop argument in an attempt to rebut it:

he [Martin's antagonist, presumably Greene and Lyly or Nashe] might (if he had any learning in him or had read anything) know that every … logician giveth this for an inviolable precept that the conclusion is not to be denied. For that must needs be true if the major and minor be true. He in omitting the major and minor because he was not able to answer thereby granteth the conclusion [that bishops have no lawful standing] to be true.61

In a reversal that would become characteristic of the Marprelate controversy, however, the anti-Marprelate authors turned the charge of sophistry back on Martin in particular and on Puritans in general. In their “I'm rubber, you're glue” style of argument, the anti-Marprelate tracts responded to Puritan criticism of English May games by attacking the “May-game of Martinisme.” Similarly, they responded to Puritan charges of Anglican sophistry by criticizing the Puritans' own style of argument and by incorporating a tendency for casuistical quibbling into the Martin caricatures on which Shakespeare would partly base Falstaff.62 Lyly disclaims all logic in his attack on Martin in Pappe with an Hatchet since (as he claims) the Martinists themselves abandon logical disputation. Thus,

[s]eeing that either [Puritans] expect no grave replie, or that they are settled with railing to replie; I thought it more convenient, to give them a whisk with their owne wand, than to have them spurd with deeper learning. … [I]f here I have used bad tearmes, it is because they are not to bee answered with good tearmes: for whatsoever shall seeme lavish in this Pamphlet, let it be thought borrowed of Martins language.63

Similarly, Nashe likens the controversy between him and Martin, as well as Puritan Bible studies like the one he claims to have attended in Kent, to the ancient “contention in the Schooles of Philosophers and Rhethoritians,” when “Every one that had a whirlegig in his braine, would have his own conceit to go currant for as good paiment as any infallible grounde of Arte.” The parodic association between Puritans and sophists appealed to the Puritans' enemies well into the seventeenth century (Thomas Hobbes, for example, likened Puritan preachers to the ancient Sophists, accusing them of spreading “apparent” rather than “genuine” truths).64 Like Socrates—unfairly stigmatized as an arch-Sophist by Erasmus65—Puritan pastors relied on an inner spiritual call for their persuasive powers. Socrates attributed his philosophical insights to a daimon; similarly, Puritan pastors claimed to be filled with the Holy Spirit when they preached.66 Mocking the Puritans' attribution of their exegetical skills to divine promptings, Nashe scoffs that Martin Marprelate

would have that to be the meaning of the holy Ghost, that his mastership imagines. … They that believe what soever they lust in holy Scriptures, are a generation that give more credit to themselves than to the Scriptures. … They take the word by the nose with a paire of Pinchers, and leade it whether soever it pleaseth them. … So now we must either burne all the Bookes and famous Libraries in the worlde, and take Martins assertions for undoubted Maximes, or else fetch up the Apostles by conjuration, to demand of them whether we be right or no?67

Ending by again appropriating and redirecting the Puritan critiques of carnival activities, Nashe charges that “It is the propertie of Martin and his followers, to measure Gods mouth, by theyre own mouth, as you shall see in the May-game that I have promised you” (what follows is the mocking description of the gospelers' discussion of Scripture, described in part I, above).68 That this boomeranging or circular disputational style could go on indefinitely is suggested by Martin's own seizure of the insulting carnival reference. In Hay any worke for Cooper—a treatise that mocked the verbose Bishop Cooper of Winchester with a title taken from the street cry, “Ha'ye any worke for the Cooper”69—Martin compares the episcopal prelates to lords playing “Maie game[s]”—and, ironically, to Robin Hood's merry men.70

The mockery of carnival, play, and sophistry in Shakespeare's Henry plays has this same circular character. Shakespeare's Falstaff contains all the vices of which Martin's enemies accused Martin (though in Falstaff, as noted, these vices are at least partially converted to charismatic qualities). In “A Whip for an Ape,” John Lyly calls Martin a “Scoggins,” or court jester (line 56);71 in 2 Henry IV Justice Shallow likewise calls Falstaff a “Scoggins” (3.2.30). Falstaff and his Boar's Head henchmen are, in a Robin Hood allusion, merry “foresters” (1 Henry IV 1.2.26), robbing rich travelers to fill their own empty purses.72 As noted, Falstaff's presumptuous familiarity with the prince and his mockery of the kingly office (1 Henry IV 2.4.398-432) suggest his carnivalesque embodiment of the dismantling of hierarchy. And central to Falstaff's carnivalesque features and to his mockery, as I will show, is his sophistic ability to appear to win arguments. Yet just as the anti-Marprelate authors played Martin's own game to defeat him, Prince Hal imitates Falstaff even as he prepares to reject him. In his close association and continuous interaction with Falstaff, Hal demonstrates—or absorbs—a Falstaffian talent for the carnival disruption of hierarchy and for sophistic play. But Hal's carnival and sophistry, realized in his play with Falstaff, are part of his design ultimately to emerge as Falstaff's clear superior, and to banish Falstaffian/Puritan community revelry (“I do, I will,” he warns [1 Henry IV 2.4.481]). We are privy to this plot from the start, when Hal, in soliloquy, discloses the speciousness of the communitarian image he will project, and his ultimate goal publicly to manifest his power over the revelers:

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyok'd humor of your idleness,
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wond'red at. …

(1 Henry IV 1.2.195-201)

Thus, the Henriad's final incarnation of the trickster sophist is not the mock Puritan Falstaff, but the monarch himself.

To demonstrate the “migration” of sophistry from Falstaff to Hal, I will begin by identifying the sophistic tendencies, themselves evocative of the anti-Marprelate Puritan caricatures, at which Falstaff excels. As noted, Falstaff wins disputes by sleight-of-tongue, as when he defends his cowardice at the Gad's Hill robbery by claiming to have recognized his opponent as the prince (“was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? Should I turn upon the true prince?” [1 Henry IV 2.4.268-70]). Falstaff is sophistic again later in this scene when, playfully impersonating Hal, he verbally translates his own gluttony and dissoluteness to virtue: “If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! … If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's [lean] kine are to be lov'd” (lines 470-74). In part 2, Falstaff repudiates Mistress Quickly's claim that she and he are affianced with a glib ad hominem rebuttal: Quickly “is a poor [mad] soul. … [P]overty hath distracted her” (2.1.104, 107). And near the end of part 1, Falstaff justifies his battlefield cowardice by a false proof discounting the existence of honor, since honor has no tangible effects: “Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. … What is honor? a word” (5.1.131-34). Such mock Socratic argument—again, associated by Erasmus and other sixteenth-century authors with sophistry—is basic to the character of Falstaff, who is adept at “wrenching the true cause the false way,” as the Lord Chief Justice charges (2 Henry IV 2.1.110-11).73 And, as we have seen, such parodic uses of philosophical debate had become associated, via the Marprelate controversy, with Puritan rhetoric: recall Nashe's likening of Puritan disputation to ancient “contention in the Schooles of Philosophers and Rhethoritians.”

Indeed, like the satirically realized Puritan zealots and like the Aristophanic and Erasmian Socrates, Falstaff is inspired by a kind of “whirlegig in his braine” (to recall Nashe's phrase), brought on by the operation of sack. Sack “ascends me into the brain,” Falstaff tells us, “dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which deliver'd o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit” (2 Henry IV 4.3.97-102). This “indwelling” of spirit(s) parodies the Puritans' divine inspiration, mocked by Nashe: in Nashe's account of the meeting of the Kent godly, he describes the “breathing time” given to each participant “to whisper with the holy Ghost, to know what should be put into his head to utter” when it came time for him to speak.74 As Harold Bloom has suggested,75 Falstaff himself parodies Puritan sermonizing with his inspired “excellent wit,” as when, exhorting Poins to involve Hal in the Gad's Hill robbery, Falstaff intones, “God give thee the spirit of persuasion and him the ears of profiting, that what thou speakest may move and what he hears may be believe'd” (1 Henry IV 1.2.152-54). For the Elizabethans, Falstaff's argumentative “I deny your major” (1 Henry IV 2.4.495) also would have evoked Martin Marprelate's logical proofs, with their heavy reliance on “major” and “minor” syllogistic points. (This rhetorical style continued to characterize Puritan pamphlets for decades. Lambasting London vices in Histrio-Mastix, William Prynne writes of how his “Minor therefore must be granted” and his “Major is unquestionable.”76 Such writers, joked John Lyly, “hath sillogismes in pike sauce.”77) Like Martin Marprelate, the Falstaff of both the Henry plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor tends to control arguments by summarily declaring questions “answered” or concluded: in response to Justice Shallow's charge that Falstaff has “beaten my men, kill'd my deer, and broke open my lodge” in Merry Wives, Falstaff belligerently retorts, “I have done all this. That is now answer'd” (1.1.111-16). Falstaff's summary dismissal of his opponents' arguments echoes Martin Marprelate, who in Hay any Worke for Cooper declares that his enemies' “reasons for the defence of [their] hierarchie … are already answered.”78 But rather than just “an overweight, ungodly knight making barroom jokes” about zealous pastors and Puritan pamphleteers, Falstaff represents those pastors and pamphleteers, as Kristen Poole notes.79 And never is Shakespeare's satire of Puritans more pointed than when, as above, Puritan “persuasion” is lampooned as drunken, self-serving blather.

“Puritan” sophistry as performed by Falstaff is always directed toward winning the argument by verbal dazzle, if necessary at the expense of truth: hence the Lord Chief Justice's accusation that Falstaff “wrench[es] the true cause the false way.” Falstaff's persuasiveness, like that of Socrates (at least according to Socrates' Elizabethan reputation), derives partly from his strategically posed rhetorical questions, whose emotive impact (though not whose logic) orients the listener toward his position, or at least melts the listener's opposition into laughter. Thus Falstaff characteristically “answers” questions with his own witty questions, displacing original interrogatives with others to which the answers, he suggests, should be obvious:

Come, your reason, Jack, your reason.
What, upon compulsion? … Give you a reason on compulsion?

(1 Henry IV 2.4.235-39)

Come, let's hear, Jack, what trick hast thou now?
… Why, hear you, my masters, was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? Should I turn upon the true prince?

(1 Henry IV 2.4.265-70)

CH. Just.
Go pluck him by the elbow, I must speak with him.
Sir John!
What? a young knave, and begging? is there not wars? is there not employment?

(2 Henry IV 1.2.69-73)

You'll pay me all together?
Will I live?

(2 Henry IV 2.2.159-61)

At times Falstaff poses as both interrogator and respondent, structuring both question and reply, as in “What is honor? a word” (1 Henry IV 5.1.133-35). But whatever the form of his disputation, Falstaff's discourse becomes a proof of whatever he wants to be true: that he is brave, that he is not subject to law, that he will pay his debts.

That Falstaff manages to win every argument, or at least to escape the consequences of losing, testifies to the excellence of his verbal showmanship. His sophistry, in other words, is like that of Martin Marprelate, whose captivating “straunge phrases” and railings are like the actions of a “stage player,” as Lyly writes.80 The Elizabethan view of the Puritan speaker as dazzling player was not, however, due solely to the Marprelate controversy. The showmanship of popular Puritan pastors was widely acknowledged,81 and Falstaff's rhetorical tricks—when joined with his other Puritan associations—must have reminded even audiences unfamiliar with the Marprelate controversy of the aural “spectacle” such pastors presented. Bryan Crockett speaks, for example, of the “moving … performance” of a 1595 sermon by Thomas Playfere, the “showiness” of the general Puritan “style of preaching,” and the “verbal pyrotechnics” of pastors Playfere, Ralph Browning, and Thomas Adams.82 In Elizabethan England, as Crockett notes, Puritan preaching was frequently regarded as a kind of auditory “spectacle,” distinct from the “visual display” of the licentious playhouse entertainments many Puritans decried.83

Of course Falstaff, as stage Puritan, unites the visual and auditory realms in his self-promotional theatrics (as will the reformed Prince Hal). Significantly, Falstaff's most famous act of casuistic self-defense is also his most obvious act of theatrical self-presentation. In the central tavern scene of part 1, Falstaff diverts inquiries into his cowardly departure from Gad's Hill with the question “What, shall we be merry, shall we have a play extempore?” (2.4.279-80). In the ensuing playlet, Falstaff mockingly portrays King Henry IV and, speaking as Henry, creates a deceptively excellent “character” for himself: “And yet,” he tells Hal, “there is a virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company. … A goodly portly man, i'faith … of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage, and as I think, his age some fifty. … I see virtue in his looks” (lines 417-28). A few lines later, switching to the role of Prince Hal, Falstaff continues to construct the appealing character of “sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff” (lines 475-76) in a staged rhetorical defense against charges of his iniquity.

What prevents this self-serving sophistic theater from being merely an ironic mock at subversive antihierarchs like Falstaff (and, by extension, the Puritans) is the active participation of Prince Hal in Falstaff's performances; for Hal's delighted acceptance of the roles of prince to Falstaff's king (lines 420-21) and, later, servant at Falstaff's table (2 Henry IV 2.4) helps merrily destabilize the hierarchical distinctions on which his royal authority will ultimately depend. Further, and more insidiously, through Hal's verbal interaction with Falstaff we see Hal's absorption of the same sophistic tricks Falstaff uses to win arguments and to construct a virtuous image. These tricks Hal “studies … / Like a strange tongue” in Warwick's words (2 Henry IV 4.4.68-69), and ultimately deploys—ironically—to legitimate his own authority over Falstaff, Falstaff's comrades, and the entire realm of England. Shakespeare's disclosure of the theatrical means by which Hal finally exercises his authority thus tempers the Henriad's critique of Puritan “leveling” projects, however ridiculously those projects have been presented onstage—for if the king himself is a sophist, awing his subjects into submission by dazzling theatrical rhetoric, then the hierarchical system of power that depends from his throne has no intrinsic justification.

Hal's reliance on theater's capacity to awe is, as noted, a key aspect of his character from his first soliloquy, wherein he announces his intention to dazzle future audiences by a showman's strategy: by first hiding behind and then casting off his licentious companions (the “base contagious clouds”). With its visual metaphor of light banishing darkness, however, this speech diverts us from the rhetoricity that is the essence of Hal's skillful performances. Hal's rhetorical virtuosity takes various forms, most of which owe something to Falstaff's sophistic practices. Hal imitates Falstaff's technique of evading a question by substituting a different question:84

What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?
Why, what a pox have I to do with my hostess of the tavern?

(1 Henry IV 1.2.45-48)

In addition, Hal proves able to “wrench the true cause the false way” on several important occasions, on all of which he uses verbal strategy to bolster an image of his own honor or authority. In part 1, Hal deflects his father's anger with an improvised self-defense: one that relies on theatrical imagery to construct a vision of a future, virtuous son. Countering Henry IV's accusation that Hal is alienating his audience of future subjects—itself a charge that supports the image of kingship as performance—Hal responds that he will redeem lost reputation by performing nobly in battle, donning a “garment all of blood” and a “bloody mask” (3.2.135-36). In another interview with his father in part 2, Hal uses Falstaffian rhetorical skill to excuse his mistaken theft of the sleeping king's crown, and to convert his father's wrath to appreciation.

Coming to look on you, thinking you dead,
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were,
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: “The care on thee depending
hath fed upon the body of my father. …”
.....Accusing it, I put it on my head,
To try with it, as with an enemy. …


The sophistic qualities of this speech are reinforced by Henry IV's answering remark: “God put [it] in thy mind to take it hence, / that thou mightst win the more thy father's love, / Pleading so wisely in excuse of it!” (lines 178-80, my emphasis). The approving comment suggests that Hal is beginning to meet Henry IV's own standards for performative verbal skill, essential for the maintenance of royal power.

Hal's greatest rhetorical victories are, of course, reserved for his actual performances as king, chiefly in Henry V. “[W]hen he speaks” as king, says the Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V, “The air, a charter'd libertine, is still, / And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears / To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences” (1.1.47-50). We hear the young king's power verbally to enchant in his inspiring St. Crispian's Day speech, his wooing of the French princess, and, most centrally, his dialogue with soldiers Bates, Williams, and Court on the eve of Agincourt, a dialogue that again combines the tropes of theater with the tricks of rhetorical persuasion. On this occasion Henry costumes himself as a common soldier to argue the king's right to lead men to their deaths in battle. Henry's proof that “every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own” (4.1.176-77) substitutes sophistic style for genuine logic—his example of a son who dies while conveying his father's merchandise (lines 147-48) is an unfit analogy for soldiers deployed in war, which always kills men. But the analogy persuades his hearers. Williams agrees, “'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head, the King is not to answer for it” (lines 86-87). Thus, again, the king's authority is shown to rest not on intrinsic ability or even on the judgments of reason, but on a persuasive verbal performance.

We know, of course, that Hal's claim to the throne, like his usurping father's, must rest on this verbal mastery: chiefly, on his ability to persuade his public of his legitimacy, since the throne does not descend to him by unquestionable hereditary right. It is to learn persuasive skill, including an ability verbally to project a symbolic image of fraternity with even the lowest of his subjects, that Hal initially involves himself with the Boar's Head tavern crew, down to the tapsters who tell him that when he is king he will “command all the good lads in Eastcheap” (1 Henry IV 2.4.13-15). Of course, as king, Henry V immediately distances himself from his lower-class following, stressing in speeches only the symbolic character of his brotherhood with all subjects. As Stephen Greenblatt notes, Henry's communitarian promise that soldiers who bleed with him shall achieve royalty—“shall be [his] brother[s] (Henry V 4.3.61-62)—is undone by the Chorus's and Henry's own styling of the king as supraroyal, or divine.85 The fraternal vow is also undercut by the conspicuously ranked list of the dead Henry reads after Agincourt, which emphasizes the “blood” and “quality” of the slaughtered (4.8.90).

But since the Henry IV plays, beginning with Hal's first soliloquy, have presented royal identity itself as a theatrical effect, Hal's ultimate spectacular revelation of the distance between himself and the lower classes seems no more than a performance when it finally occurs. Thus, even when Hal claims his royal birthright and repudiates Falstaff at the close of part 2, both the claim and the rejection—the last delivered in regal costume and both made in public, before approving audiences—are undermined by their contrived, theatrical character. Before the barons and the Lord Chief Justice, Hal claims to embody majesty, to contain the “tide” of royal blood (5.2.129-33)—a rhetorically fitting espousal of the divine right theory, but one that, if considered deeply, would invalidate his father's (and thus his own) claim to the throne. Similarly, in the London street, when the newly crowned Henry V forbids Falstaff “to come near our person by ten mile” (5.5.65), the public, theatrically impressive nature of this command tempts us to agree with Falstaff's conclusion that the rejection is a rhetorical performative ploy: “he must seem thus to the world,” Falstaff asserts. “I shall be sent for soon at night” (lines 78, 89-90). We cannot entirely sympathize with Falstaff here: the antihierarchical chaos he embodies, conceived according to the satiric anti-Puritan model, has rendered him too dangerous a voice for inclusion in the serious business of governance. The moral and political problem—at least for Elizabethan audiences—arises from the fact that, given the sophistic, performative character of Hal's strategies of rule, we cannot fully support the monarchy either.


Various New Historicist critics of the past decade and a half, as well as earlier critics, have hypothesized Shakespearean history theater's power to desacralize English kings by presenting kings as humans playing royal roles. Jonathan Dollimore, for example, speaks of a “demystification of political and power relations” in Renaissance tragedy which fostered “a radical social and political realism.86 The “rude handling of sacred totems” like the crown “is what [Renaissance] drama is all about” notes Russell Fraser.87 Stephen Greenblatt, Leonard Tennenhouse, and David Scott Kastan have all written extensively of the way the staged presentation of royalty affected audiences' reverence toward the monarchy (though their conclusions differ).88 And Franco Moretti boldly links Shakespeare's role-playing kings to the mid-seventeenth-century Puritan revolution, saying that tragedies and history plays “[h]aving deconsecrated the king,” it became “possible to decapitate him.”89

While I would not support Moretti's direct line of causality between Shakespearean drama and the English revolution of a half-century later (if only to keep Shakespeare from spinning in his grave), I hope I have cast additional light on the process of monarchical desacralization so integral to the political event to which Moretti alludes: the lawful execution of Charles I by the English community of saints. The Henry plays helped demystify monarchy by demonstrating its association with sophistic theatrical tricks such as those used by Falstaff. Paradoxically, the Henriad achieves this effect despite its satire of the Puritans in Falstaff, for Prince Hal's bond with Falstaff and likeness to him, chiefly in the area of casuistic skill, tars royalty with the same satirical brush. (Thus Hal's friendship with Falstaff has, in a way unanticipated by the disapproving Henry IV, “carded,” or adulterated, “his state” [1 Henry IV 3.2.62].) The anti-Marprelate satires used Martin's own style against him, rendering their anti-Puritan pamphlets rhetorically similar to the pamphets of their target. Similarly, Hal uses Falstaffian sophistic skill to reject Falstaffian subversion and to structure and defend his own royal image. But in stooping to Falstaff's level, he compromises the whole show. Thus, though the Henry plays mock Puritans, they also slight the sophistic royal authority of which Puritans were beginning to complain.

These theatrical dynamics prevent the Henriad from being a successful attack on Puritanism through the Falstaff caricature. First, as Poole has argued, non-Puritan audience members probably experienced a festive emotional response to the carnivalesque Puritan onstage, though they might have intellectually disapproved of his hypocrisy; thus the Falstaff image probably softened the anti-Puritan attitudes of mainstream playgoers who recognized the caricature. Second, Puritans in the audience were not likely to accept Falstaff as an embodiment of Puritan values, evidenced by their apparent protest against the use of Oldcastle's revered name. And finally, these same Puritan audience members, whatever they thought of Falstaff, would have found their antihierarchical prejudices confirmed by the theatrical sophistries of Prince Hal/Henry V. For the intellectual, legal, and theological casuistry of which conservatives accused Puritans was a charge radical Protestants (like John Bale) brought against their government as well.90 Thus, Shakespeare's Henriad encouraged the skepticism of a people already beginning to doubt the sacred origins of monarchy and to lobby for power at the lower levels of their society.

In “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion,” Stephen Greenblatt argues that Hal's participation in festive demolishings of rank constituted, for Elizabethans, a deceptive promise of lower-class empowerment. After all, Greenblatt reasons, Hal betrays Falstaff and the Boar's Head brethren once he is crowned king; moreover, the playhouse itself contains whatever subversive energies have been released in the audience by the staged release from ranked social structures. Greenblatt insists, “[W]e are, after all, in the theatre”: the arena of acknowledged make-believe.91 We (or the Elizabethans) therefore do not expect to see the comic stage carnival reproduced in the outside world. If Greenblatt is correct, then the sympathy the Henry plays generate for the grotesque Puritan Falstaff was harmless sympathy—that is, a tolerance that stopped at the playhouse exit, and did not extend to real London Puritans or their social and religious reforms. The charismatic subversiveness that urged audiences to celebrate Falstaff, and hence the Puritan communities he represented, must simply have evaporated in the London air.

But the logic of this argument is flawed in two ways. The first is the argument's failure to acknowledge that imaginative transformations acquired in the playhouse, or anywhere, cannot be easily discarded. If comic catharsis is deeply experienced, then, as Gene Fendt writes, “the audience of the comedy”—or the comic history—“can go forth into its world, carrying the green world's heart within them.” Thus drama transforms “the community's moral imagination”:92 in the words of former West German chancellor Willy Brandt, the “so-called illusions” of theater “are an integral part of our reality.”93

The second flaw is the argument's neglect of another question. What influence do sympathetic stage characters exert on audience members already disposed toward the ideas these characters represent? When Puritanical audience members, disdainful of absolutism, confronted a comic hero who playfully revealed the monarchy's dependence on sophistical theater, were their antimonarchical prejudices not reinforced?

This question's answer depended, no doubt, on the individual audience member: on what his or her strongest prejudices were, on what notions he or she was most willing to hear supported. The histories, with their heteroglossic accommodation of multiple voices and viewpoints, must have functioned to support a variety of political leanings. The Henry plays, like most Shakespearean histories and tragedies, are finally politically ambivalent. They mix a Puritanical awareness of the questionable legitimacy of kings and a Puritanical scorn for corrupt hierarchs with a recalcitrant reverence for the royal mystique. At times Shakespeare seems intent on theatrically appropriating the antiprelatical feeling of the Elizabethan Puritans—which was gradually becoming a disaffection with monarchy as well—for the monarchy or royal family itself: we see this appropriation when pious Prince John of Lancaster chastises the Archbishop of York, “th' [imagin'd] voice of God himself,” for “misus[ing] the reverence of [his] place” (2 Henry IV 4.2.19, 23), and when the crooked bishops of Henry V are seen complaining of the king's Robin Hood-like redistribution of their wealth “to relief of lazars, and weak age / Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil” (1.1.15-16). This flattering portrayal of the younger Lancastrians' social conscience must have strengthened some audience members' reverence for the monarchy, even as it fed Puritan contempt for the bishops. In portraying the royal family's support of the people against evil prelatical designs, Shakespeare appeals to a Puritan royalism, despite the comically degrading presentation of Puritanism his plays have also provided through the character of Falstaff.

But by the close of the 1590s, “Puritan royalism” was fast becoming an oxymoron. The gradual Puritan disaffection with monarchy was due partly to the queen's refusal to support wished-for Puritan reforms aiming at increased congregational power. But it stemmed also—and more deeply—from the public's dawning realization of the theatrical character of the entire hierarchical apparatus of her government, and the loss of faith that realization entailed. Thus the Henry plays' disclosure of its kings' theatrical strategies assisted the process of Puritan disenchantment with monarchy and with the dissemination of power from above, despite these plays' often reverent treatment of Hal/Henry V himself. If kingship—as the Henry plays implied—was a theatrical tour de force, then inborn regality was a contradiction in terms. A public who believed that their monarch ruled not by divine right but by performative skill might suffer him, or her, when that monarch showed not only theatrical virtuosity but concern for and responsiveness to public will (as, for the most part, does Shakespeare's Henry V). But the presentation of the king as performer sets the stage for his dismissal if and when he does not.


  1. Jonas Barish, The Anti-theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981). The capitalization of “puritan” should not mislead readers into the assumption that the “godly” were a unified sect.

  2. Salvian and “Anglophile-Eutheo” (Anthony Munday), A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters (London, 1580; reprint, New York, Johnson Reprint Co., 1972), 89.

  3. John Rainolds, The Overthrow of Stage-Playes: By the Way of Controversie between D. Gages and J. Rainolds (London, 1599; reprint, New York, Johnson Reprint Co., 1972), 9.

  4. See David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 256-57 and 293-99; and Paul White, Theatre and Reformation: Protestantism, Patronage, and Playing in Tudor England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), for discussions of Puritan involvement in Tudor theater. A session at the 1996 Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, included papers that also stressed the interrelationships between early Puritan reform and theater, notably Alexandra Johnston's “Parish Drama and Parish Crisis in England: 1535-65”; William R. Streitberger's “New Models for Court Drama: 1535-62”; and Peggy Knapp's “Traces of the Medieval in Early Protestant Polemical Drama.”

  5. Munday, A Second and Third Blast of Retrait, 3.

  6. Douglas Tallack, Twentieth-Century America: The Intellectual and Cultural Context (New York: Longman, 1991), 324.

  7. Arthur J. Klein, Intolerance in the Reign of Elizabeth, Queen of England (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1917; reprint, 1968), 134. Although J. Sears McGee has more recently argued that Anglicanism and Puritanism were mutually exclusive religious categories in Renaissance England (The Godly Man in Stuart England: Anglicans, Puritans, and the Two Tables, 1620-1670 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976]), the evidence compiled by Klein and the later author Patrick Collinson demonstrates that in the Elizabethan period, no such clear distinction obtained. See Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), esp. 28; and also Collinson, Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (London: Hambledon Press, 1983), 98.

  8. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 51-52, 125-29. I am indebted to Collinson not only for providing a detailed and impeccably researched history of Elizabethan Puritanism but for making available passages from difficult-to-obtain Puritan documents.

  9. Ibid., 51.

  10. As Bevington writes, as late as 1603, “The great London public”—a significant portion of which was Puritan—“was reluctant to abandon the theater as a forum in which to express its political and religious aspirations” (Tudor Drama and Politics, 294). Bryan Crockett also maintains that “there can be little doubt that the audiences at the sermons and plays of the [Elizabethan] period overlapped considerably.” See Crockett's “‘Holy Cozenage’ and the Renaissance Cult of the Ear,” Sixteenth-Century Journal 24, no. 1 (spring 1993): 63, as well as Crockett's book, The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995). Martha Tuck Rozett makes a similar argument in The Doctrine of Election and the Emergence of Elizabethan Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 15-25.

  11. Alice Lyle-Scoufos provides an extensive exploration of the links between Falstaff and Oldcastle in Shakespeare's Typological Satire: A Study of the Falstaff-Oldcastle Problem (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979). Among other things, she finds much joking about Oldcastle's martyrdom—he was burned at the stake—in the Henry plays' characters' references to Falstaff's roasting, burning, and melting (76-77). Other studies that note Falstaff's resemblance to the image of the Puritan martyr or contemporary Puritan reformer are John Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1944), chap. 2; and David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, 257. John Dover Wilson also investigates the possibility that Henry V's Fluellen was based on Roger Williams, suspected author of the Marprelate tracts, in Martin Marprelate and Shakespeare's Fluellen (1912; reprint, Folcroft, Penn.: Folcroft Press, 1969).

  12. Kristen Poole, “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 46, no. 1 (spring 1995), 49, 8 n.

  13. Thomas Pendleton, “‘This Is Not the Man’: On Calling Falstaff Falstaff,” Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography, n.s. 4 (1990): 59-71, esp. 68-69.

  14. Poole, “Saints Alive!” 58.

  15. Ibid., 54.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid., 59.

  18. All quotations from William Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  19. Poole, “Saints Alive!” 70.

  20. Ibid., 75.

  21. See Collinson's account of the Munzer rebellion and its reputation, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 480 n.

    In regard to the image of popular military revolt presented by Falstaff's unfortunate soldiers, I disagree with Kristen Poole's statement that “[i]n Shakespeare's account Oldcastle's qualities as traitor and militant religious leader are dispersed among other characters in the plays” (i.e., that Falstaff does not embody these qualities). See Poole, “Saints Alive!” 69.

  22. As Munday wrote, “Nothing entereth in more effectualie into the memorie, than that which commeth by seeing. … the tokens of that which wee have seen, saith Petrarch, sticke fast in us whether we will or no” (A Second and Third Blast, 95-96).

  23. While sixteenth-century Puritan writings such as the Marprelate tracts and John Field and Thomas Wilcox's 1572 An Admonition to the Parliament cautiously avoided direct criticism of the monarch, arguments regarding the legitimacy of rebellion were already brewing in the 1580s and 1590s, as is evidenced by the great energy devoted to refuting such arguments. For example, Richard Bancroft's 1593 Daungerous Positions and Proceedings, Published and Practised within this Island of Brytaine makes reference to seditious books which claim that “The authoritie, which Princes have, is given them from the people: Kings, Princes, and governours, have their authoritie of the people; and (upon occasion) the people may take it away again” (London: J. Windet and J. Wolfe, 1593).

  24. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 399, 435. See also Lawrence Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 62-75, 97-98, 103-5, and 114, for a similar argument; and Walter Cohen, “The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism,” in Materialist Shakespeare: A History, ed. Ivo Kamps, (New York, Verso, 1995), 71-92.

  25. Poole, “Saints Alive!” 54.

  26. Munday, A Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters, 88.

  27. William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix: The Player's Scourge or, Actor's Tragedy (London, 1633; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint, 1972), introduction.

  28. Thomas Nashe, The Returne of Pasquill, vol. 1 of The Works of Thomas Nashe, 5 vols., ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), 91.

  29. Martin Marprelate, Theses Martinianae, in The Marprelate Tracts (1588-1589; reprint, Leeds: Scolar Press, 1967).

    Christopher Hill also notes that Martin's chief intent was to subvert hierarchy (i.e., not to moralize against social decadence). See The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill; vol. 1, Writing and Revolution in Seventeenth-Century England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 77.

  30. John Field and Thomas Wilcox, An Admonition to the Parliament in W. H. Frere and C. E. Douglas, Puritan Manifestoes: A Study of the Origin of the Puritan Revolt (1572; reprint, London, Church Historical Society, 1954), 10.

  31. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 120, 148, 150.

  32. John Lyly, Pappe with an Hatchet, 412 in The Complete Works of John Lyly, 3 vols., 3:388-422 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1967), 412. (Robert Greene was a possible collaborator in this work.)

  33. Nashe, The Return of Pasquill, 83.

  34. Quoted in Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 144.

  35. Quoted in Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England, 1500-1720 (New York, Routledge, 1993), 55.

  36. From the Norwich Diocesan Archives and quoted in Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 34-41.

  37. Ibid., 341.

  38. See Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington (London, 1598; reprint Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, Oxford University Press, 1965), and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (London, 1601; reprint, Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, Oxford University Press, 1967).

  39. “Like that of Cromwell, the name of Huntingdon had compelling topical associations for the English elect: the third Earl of Huntingdon had been, as a candidate for succession to the throne during the 1560's, the hope of many ardent Protestants fearful of Elizabeth's untimely death, and his brothers had served the Puritan cause in Parliament throughout the Reign” (Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, 295.)

  40. See Michael Drayton, Richard Hathway, Anthony Munday, and Robert Wilson, Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1 (1600), in The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge (New York: Manchester University Press, 1991), 36-144.

  41. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 391.

  42. Prynne, introduction to Histrio-Mastix.

  43. See Jonas Barish's chapter on Puritanism in The Anti-theatrical Prejudice for the seminal discussion of Puritan resistance to “feminization.” I briefly discuss Puritan misogyny in Grace Tiffany, Erotic Beasts and Social Monsters: Shakespeare, Jonson, and Comic Androgyny (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995), 58-61.

  44. Nashe, The Returne of Pasquill, 83.

  45. Field and Wilcox's Admonition is an appeal for the Anglicans' return to “olde church” practices (9).

  46. Nashe, The Returne of Pasquill, 89.

  47. Ibid., 77.

  48. Thomas Nashe, A Countercuffe Given to Martin Junior, in vol. 1, The Works of Thomas Nashe, 5 vols., ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), 1:62.

  49. Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 34-43.

  50. David Bevington notes that “Shakespeare's awareness of and concern with the widening split between the private theater and the Puritan-leaning citizenry are tactfully evident in such plays as Twelfth Night (1600-1601) and As You Like It (1599-1600),” although he argues against any close thematic connection between As You Like It and Munday's Huntingdon plays (Tudor Drama and Politics, 297).

  51. Louis Montrose, “The Place of a Brother in As You Like It: Social Process and Comic Form,” in Materialist Shakespeare, ed. Ivo Kamps (New York: Verso, 1995), 39-70. (Montrose does not discuss the likeness of comic communities to the anti-Marprelate caricatures of Puritan communities, though he notes, as do numerous critics, the social leveling by which the former are characterized.)

  52. A letter to Lord Burghley, the queen's secretary, written in 1572, quoted in Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 144.

  53. Martin Marprelate, Hay any Worke for Cooper? (London, 1588; reprint, Leeds: The Scolar Press, 1967), 4-5.

  54. Nashe, The Returne of Pasquill, 77.

  55. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 447.

  56. Ibid., 292.

  57. John Jewel, Certaine Sermons Preached before the Queenes Majestie, and at Paules Crosse. Whereunto is Added a Short Treatise of the Sacraments (London: C. Barker, 1583).

  58. John Bale, Select Works (London, 1544), ed. Henry Christmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1849; reprint, New York, Johnson Reprint Co., 1968), 19, 21, 37.

  59. John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1559-96; New York: AMS Press, 1965), 3:321.

  60. As Collinson writes, Martin's “distinctive polemical methods” owed much to a “martyrological technique” originating with John Foxe and others (The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 394).

  61. Martin Marprelate, Hay any worke for Cooper? 21.

  62. In calling Falstaff a late incarnation of the anti-Marprelate caricatures of Puritans, I do not mean to deny that numerous other literary and dramatic traditions are involved in the design of his character. For what is still the best discussion of these, see John Dover Wilson's The Fortunes of Falstaff (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 15-35. Finally, of course, Falstaff is himself greater than the sum of his parts.

  63. Lyly, Pappe with an Hatchet, 396.

  64. See Gary Remer, Humanism and the Rhetoric of Toleration (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 181.

  65. Alice Goodman has shown that Socrates' Renaissance reputation derived from the image of him as sly Sophist, which originated with Aristophanes and which was popularized by Erasmus (see Alice Goodman, “Falstaff and Socrates,” English 34, no. 149 [summer 1985]: 97-112). Despite the fact that Plato's Socrates protested vehemently against Sophists and their rhetorical manipulations, numerous Renaissance authors chose to portray him as sophistical himself. For example, Philibert de Vienne's 1547 The Philosopher of the Court, translated in 1575 by George North, calls Socrates “the greatest dissembler in the world” (97-98).

  66. Collinson discusses the importance of the Puritan sense of the inward call to ministry (The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 336).

  67. Nashe, The Returne of Pasquill, 86-88.

  68. Ibid., 88.

  69. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 392.

  70. Martin Marprelate, Hay any worke for Cooper? 3-4.

  71. Lyly, “A Whip for an Ape,” in The Complete Works of John Lyly, 418-22.

  72. Falstaff plans to rob the “pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings” (1 Henry IV 1.2.126) (though he ends up robbing the king instead). The plot owes something to Bale's account of Oldcastle's condemnation of pilgrimages (see Bale, Select Works, 38). Henry IV as a whole thwarts the upper classes' interest in holy pilgrimages; the highest such thwarted design is, of course, Henry IV's plan to invade Jerusalem, which he finally gives over near the close of part 2 (4.5.234-35).

  73. Michael Platt also notes Falstaff's Socratic sophistry in “Falstaff in the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” 171-202 in Falstaff, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992), 180. Among the numerous other critics who have noted the likeness between Falstaff and Socrates are Alice Goodman (cited in n. 65 above); John Robert Moore in “Shakespeare's Henry V,Explicator 1 (1942): item 61; Monroe M. Stearns, “Shakespeare's Henry V,Explicator 2 (1943): item 19; and John Dover Wilson, ed., Henry V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), 147.

  74. Nashe, The Returne of Pasquill, 90.

  75. Harold Bloom, Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1989), 84.

  76. Prynne, Histrio-Mastix, 263.

  77. Lyly, Pappe with an Hatchet, 411.

  78. Martin Marprelate, Hay any Worke for Cooper, 21.

  79. Poole, “Saints Alive!” 54.

  80. Lyly, Pappe with an Hatchet, 402, 409.

  81. See Joan Webber, “Celebration of Word and World in Lancelot Andrewes' Style,” in Seventeenth-Century Prose, ed. Stanley E. Fish (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 337.

  82. Crockett, “‘Holy Cozenage,’” 46, 49, 46.

  83. Ibid., passim.

  84. It might, of course, be argued that Falstaff learns his evasive speaking from Hal, and in fact Falstaff himself accuses Hal of corrupting him in various ways (1 Henry IV 1.2.90-95; 2 Henry IV 1.2.145). Yet with whomever the “damnable” argumentative style (1 Henry IV 1.2.90) originates, Hal's and Falstaff's credibility is mutually undermined by it.

  85. Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” 43-44.

  86. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 5.

  87. Russell Fraser, introduction to Russell Fraser and Norman Rabkin, eds., Drama of the English Renaissance New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976), 3.

  88. See especially Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets”; Leonard Tennenhouse, “Strategies of State and Political Plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985); and David Scott Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37, no. 4 (winter, 1986): 459-75.

  89. Franco Moretti, “‘A Huge Eclipse’: Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty,” Genre 15 (spring and summer, 1981): 8.

  90. Peggy Knapp's “Traces of the Medieval in Early Protestant Drama,” a conference paper cited above, discussed Bale's critiques of Anglican sophistries.

  91. Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” 34-43.

  92. Gene Fendt, “Resolution, Catharsis, Culture: As You Like It,Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 251. In this article Fendt also acknowledges the Greenblattian view of comic release, which (in Fendt's words) likens catharsis to “circling a track for an hour … it's hypnotic, we forget our problems; but then the hypnotic or incantatory effect ends and we wake to the world going on apace. This is the explanation of comic catharsis of all those who think of art as mere entertainment,” Fendt notes, but he adds that if the explanation is true, “there is no reason to study the humanities rather than watch football.” A staged fiction of lower-class empowerment would be more likely to “face” audiences “with the complete inadequacy of their own daylight world, and such comedy is likely to be as socially upsetting as Plato is said to have feared” (251).

  93. Willy Brandt, speaking at the municipal theater in Dusseldorf, Germany, 17 September 1972.

I would like to thank Western Michigan University for a Faculty Research and Creative Activities Support Fund grant, which helped me to do research for this article.

Alastair Macaulay (review date 3 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Human Life at Its Richest.” Financial Times (3 July 2000): 13.

[In the following review, Macaulay provides a generally favorable assessment of Michael Attenborough's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) rendering of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, particularly focusing on what he regards as the fine performances of the ensemble cast.]

Shakespeare's best? Any theatre-goer's opinion will keep changing on this; but I am one of those whose vote—both while in the theatre and on reflection—goes most often for the two parts of Henry IV. Here his sense of human life is at its richest, and his mastery of multiple plots most telling. High life and low life, fathers and sons, chivalry and villainy, reality and illusion, life and death, tragedy and comedy, wit and seriousness: all the antitheses that underpin Shakespeare's thought here play off each other to superlative effect. And, even though Part One has the richer comedy and the more enthralling multiple variations on the father-and-son theme, it is Part Two that is the yet greater and more original play.

In Part Two Shakespeare keeps ringing the changes on the themes of mortality, corruption, disease. A father (Northumberland) mourns the son (Hotspur) he has outlived; the father (King Henry) believes that his son cannot even wait for his death before usurping his crown; old men (Justices Shallow and Silence) reflect that they have outlived their contemporaries. Falstaff plans to profit from his own physical corruption (“I will turn diseases to commodity”); Prince Hal remarks that it is Falstaff's “immortal part that needs a physician. Though that be sick, it dies not.” The dying King, anxious for the virtue and the vice that co-exist in his heir, says “Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds” and then, growing more doubtful that good will come from Hal's loose living, “Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb/ In the dead carrion.” Minor characters have some of the most telling lines. Hastings: “We are time's subjects, and time bids be gone.” Shallow: “Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent!”

Along with “chimes of midnight” that Falstaff has heard with Prince Hal, a silent death knell tolls throughout all this play's thought. As it builds up to the double climax of the King's reconciliation with his son Hal before his death and then the new king Hal's renunciation of his old companion Falstaff (“I know thee not, old man”), we hear—I believe—multiple echoes of the Bible, with its many meditations on the corruption of the flesh and the immortality of the soul. Shallow: “Death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.” It is Hal who learns from his own life to put off corruption and to put on immortality: a lesson comfortable neither for him nor for Falstaff nor for us.

This unsurpassable play works gloriously in the Swan Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance is the sheerest balm after all the third-rate Shakespeare that has been recently afflicting the London stage. I have a few quibbles about some performances in Michael Attenborough's production. It is right that Prince Hal should become a less spontaneous character, but William Houston—otherwise still well-cast, impressive, eloquent—has pointedly adopted rather too much calculation in his utterance. The grief of Northumberland (Christopher Saul) over Hotspur's death seems nothing but actorly contrivance. Shallow, Silence, and their men are too clownishly conceived, even though Peter Copley's Silence does the heart good with its many nuances of fusspot resentment, sweet patience, and aged madcap impulsiveness all finely mixed.

Sandra Voe as Mistress Quickly, Dickon Tyrrell as Prince John, David Killick as Archbishop Scroop, Clifford Rose as the Lord Chief Justice are among the many adornments of a splendid cast—Robert Portal is an ideal Poins, a companion for Hal in both noble and ignoble moods. The Doll Tearsheet of Danielle Tilley—a fair beauty already cankered—is original and haunting. David Troughton scales the heights of Shakespeare's poetry as the king; Desmond Barrit plucks the ripe fruit of his prose as Falstaff.


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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Shakespearean scholars speculate that Henry IV, Part 1 was written in late 1596 or early 1597, and first performed shortly thereafter; Henry IV, Part 2 was perhaps written in late 1597 or early 1598 and sometimes staged in tandem with Part 1. Shakespeare drew upon a number of English history texts while composing these dramas. Two of the most notable sources are Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) and Samuel Daniel's epic poem The Civile Wars between the two houses of Lancaster and York (1595). In addition, some critics maintain that the anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V (c. 1594), inspired the low-comedy scenes between Prince Hal and Falstaff. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholars have often focused on the historical and cultural resonances of Falstaff's character; the dynamics of Prince Hal's ambiguous moral values and his Machiavellian political ambition; and Shakespeare's shrewd commentary on prevailing ethical, religious, and sociopolitical attitudes in Elizabethan England.

Many modern critics have asserted that the character of Falstaff can be interpreted as Shakespeare's derisive satire of ambiguous moral and ethical values current in late fifteenth-century England. Beyond endorsing the opinion that the fat knight is a caricature of the medieval Protestant martyr, Sir John Oldcastle, who was revered by contemporary Puritans, Grace Tiffany (1998) maintains that Shakespeare intended to dramatize Falstaff as a “carnivalesque” Puritan who is a sophist, who agitates from the fringes of society, and who has a subversive, anti-establishment attitude toward religious and political hierarchies. For Tiffany, while Falstaff is theatrically amusing, the Henry IV plays conclude “with the clear suggestion that Falstaffian influence, whatever its attractions, is politically and morally dangerous, and will be rejected by a sane commonwealth.” Similarly, David Scott Kastan (1998) examines the circumstances surrounding Oldcastle's martyrdom and recounts the controversy during Shakespeare's time that led to the removal of Oldcastle's name from Henry IV, Part 1. But Kastan takes exception to the editorial decision to restore Oldcastle's name to the modern Oxford text of the play, arguing that while second-hand Elizabethan and Jacobean reports of theatrical performances substantiate the name change, the fact that Shakespeare made the change should be considered a valid textual revision of the play. Tom McAlindon (2001) affirms his support for literary scholars who maintain that Falstaff is a clever parody of both Oldcastle and contemporary Puritans. Further, McAlindon contends that rather than merely settling for a one-dimensional lampoon of Puritan behavior, Shakespeare invented a new satirical model that transformed “a Puritan butt into an exceptionally appealing character with a quicksilver mind and tongue.” Surveying Falstaff's disingenuous recitation of biblical scripture in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Matthew Fike (see Further Reading) assesses the fat knight in relation to Jesus's parable of Dives and Lazarus. According to Fike, Falstaff is a dynamic character who possesses the negative, gluttonous characteristics of Dives and his brothers, but who also becomes a contrite Lazarus-figure when he is banished by Hal.

From the perspective of many modern theatrical reviewers, Henry IV, Parts 1and 2 have achieved an iconic status. For example, Michael Billington (2001) hails the dramas as “the twin summits of Shakespeare's genius.” Refusing to be intimidated by lofty expectations, modern directors have endeavored to leave their own mark on these plays. In 2000 David Attenborough staged both Henry IV plays as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's ambitious program to present the entire cycle of Shakespeare's eight history plays in chronological order from Richard II to Richard III. Critics praised Attenborough's productions for their intelligent and skillful treatment of the political, social, and familial themes in the two history plays. While acknowledging that the entire cast was generally superb, reviewers particularly extolled Desmond Barrit's portrayal of Falstaff. Ultimately, commentators were gratified at the thought-provoking theatrical experience orchestrated by Attenborough. Billington concluded that “the overwhelming feeling at the end of the day is of Shakespeare's genius in encompassing all of England in two plays and of Attenborough's success in probing his restless moral intelligence.” Reviewers were markedly less satisfied with Richard Maxwell's 2003 staging of Henry IV, Part 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, as part of the Next Wave Festival. Generally regarded as a gifted experimental director, Maxwell endeavored to apply his avant-garde theatrical techniques to the play. His chief innovation was to minimize theatrical affectation on the part of the actors and to emphasize instead a clear, uninflected delivery of the text. Critics asserted that while the director's unorthodox technique had illuminated several modern plays in the past, this was wholly unsuccessful when applied to Shakespeare. Indeed, Ben Brantley concluded that despite the high concept, Maxwell's production was “relentlessly, numbingly flat.”

Analyzing the late Elizabethan age as a period of intense cultural turmoil, Tiffany maintains that Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 represent Shakespeare's ironic commentary on the religious and sociopolitical rhetoric propagated by contemporary Puritans. According to Tiffany, Elizabethan playgoers would have detected in Falstaff many of the destabilizing aspects of Puritanism and in Prince Hal an ambivalent Puritan attitude toward monarchic authority as a role the king must play. Considering the plays from a socioeconomic perspective, Nina Levine (2000) demonstrates that Shakespeare adroitly employed the concept of credit and mercantile exchange in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 as a metaphor for the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty's claim to the English throne. For Levine, Shakespeare's commercial perspective of royal political discourse—a mode of speech that involves “promises and payments” to maintain power—parallels the everyday financial dealings of Elizabethan playgoers who relied on credit and mercantile exchange to maintain a complex community of shared fiscal obligation. Some modern commentators have focused on the structural design of the Henry IV plays in an effort to shed new light on Shakespeare's view of the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty in general and Prince Hal's moral and political values in particular. In his 2002 study, Mark Taylor considers Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 within the context of the second tetralogy (which includes Richard II and Henry V in addition to these two plays), detailing how key scenes thematically imitate, echo, and foreshadow other scenes within the epic drama cycle. Defining these scenes as instances of “proleptic imitation,” Taylor demonstrates how each sequence reinforces the inevitability of Prince Hal's reformation and the tragedy of Falstaff's rejection. David Ruiter (2003) traces the structural and thematic implications of the cyclical tradition of feasting and fasting in the Henry IV plays. In his analysis of Part 2 in particular, Ruiter demonstrates that Prince Hal shrewdly manipulates the progression from disorderly festivity—which the critic characterizes as “the Feast of Falstaff”—to hierarchical order in an effort to maximize his political capital as the prodigal son who reforms himself to become king.

Nina Levine (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Levine, Nina. “Extending Credit in the Henry IV Plays.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2000): 403-31.

[In the following essay, Levine discusses how Shakespeare employed the concept of credit and mercantile exchange in the Henry IV plays as a metaphor for the Lancastrian dynasty's claim to the English throne. The critic also explores how this perspective of royal political discourse—a mode of speech that involves “promises and payments” to maintain power—parallels the everyday financial dealings of Elizabethan playgoers, who relied on credit and mercantile exchange to maintain a complex community held together by commerce.]

Credit terms are habitual among the Lancastrians, associated with both the king, who, as Hotspur puts it, “Knows at what time to promise, when to pay,” and the prince, who cryptically assures the audience at the start of 1 Henry IV that he will eventually “pay the debt I never promised” (4.3.53; 1.2.209).1 Reading credit as a metaphor for Lancastrian problems with royal legitimacy, most discussions of economics in 1 and 2 Henry IV understand the terms within a moral and political framework reminiscent more of Tillyardian orthodoxy than of current historicist and materialist heterodoxies. In contrast to recent work on carnival festivity, focused on the tavern's “second world” of freedom and abundance, considerations of economics have centered almost exclusively on the monarchy and its supposed fall into commercialism.2 The Lancastrian “purchase” of the crown, the argument goes, results in a new society governed by “‘economic determinism’” where characters “compete with each other ruthlessly in a world drained of intrinsic value.”3 The sacred trust of feudal rule has been replaced by the modern state founded on an ethic of self-interest, calculation, and betrayal. Whether this ethic is identified as capitalist exploitation or, more benignly, as pragmatism, the assumption is that for Shakespeare's audience, and perhaps for us, a market economy is incompatible with notions of community and good government.4

In this essay I want to reopen questions about economics in the Henry IV plays within the specific context of early modern credit relations and, in the process, to complicate our understanding of Lancastrian political discourse by grounding it in financial practices that are both historical and material. As much scholarship on the plays' economics attests, the language of credit and exchange is central to Shakespeare's staging of dynastic politics. But fiscal metaphors are only part of a story that can also be recounted in material goods and economic practices. Attending to these goods and practices, this essay considers the promises and payments of the Lancastrians alongside the daily reckonings that structure the lives of those outside the Lancastrian court—and in Shakespeare's audience. If we follow the money in these plays, then we follow Hal's progress from prodigal to king within a framework of everyday dealings in which the royal discourse of power parallels credit practices that extend from the stage to the streets of late-sixteenth-century London. Cutting across boundaries of space, time, and social status, the need for credit involves far more than the king's political and moral debts or his son's tarnished reputation. Credit also comes into play with the actual exchanges of currency and goods—the marks and angels, sugar and satin, and “little tiny kickshaws” (2 Henry IV, 5.1.28)—that link princes with apprentices and the disparate communities of city, court, and countryside in an economic network that ultimately reaches, in a metadramatic sleight-of-hand at the play's end, from the past into the present to include the playwright and his audience. Taking early modern credit practices as my starting point, rather than Lancastrian political discourse alone, will generate a model of community that, in deriving its authority from everyday exchange rather than from aristocratic ideals or from chronicle history, is both more fluid and more heterogeneous than a “sceptred isle” of sacred rule.5

Scholars have long acknowledged that the Henry IV plays bring sixteenth-century commerce into play with fifteenth-century history, but in keeping attention on the Crown, they have tended to subordinate the material economy to the discursive politics of the court. This move either reinforces traditional notions of hierarchy and authority or, as in more recent criticism, elucidates a coercive poetics of monarchical power.6 Accordingly, the marketplace, rather than constituting a community in its own right, serves merely as a position from which to critique Lancastrian politics. Even Lars Engle, who locates Shakespeare's pragmatism in the transactions of the market economy, attends primarily to matters of kingship, arguing that the plays show how “royal power is pragmatically produced in, and to some extent by, an economy of credit and negotiation.”7 Though he acknowledges the importance of actual economic conditions, Engle's concern is with general and abstract economies, with the contingencies of value generated by a “placeless market.”8 The advantage of Engle's pragmatism is that it avoids a reductive moral critique of the economic, but in shifting the ground from the material to the metaphorical, he loses much of the resonant interplay between economic and political credit. I, too, am concerned with how royal power is produced in “an economy of credit and negotiation,” but I want to reverse Engle's emphasis and begin with the economic practices themselves, practices that are connected to but also separate from dynastic authority and political discourse. By first considering the historical specificity of material practices, I hope to bring specificity to the reading of economic discourse in the political realm as well and, in the process, to identify what is at stake in the credit economy for both commoners and kings. The economic and political exchanges of the Henry IV plays, when read in conjunction with the fluid relations of early modern credit, point to the possibility of a more inclusive and more equitable community, even within the framework of chronicle history that culminates in the death of one king and the crowning of another.

This is not to claim that the Henry IV plays present an unmediated celebration of credit that links commerce to community in a kind of protodemocratic politics or free-market capitalism. Nor is it to ignore the very real effects of power and privilege on credit relations. Commoners do not trade with the same freedom as kings, and the plays are filled with instances of failed credit, bad faith, and corrupt judgment. But if credit is not a panacea for social injustice, either on Shakespeare's stage or in early modern London, it does provide a structure for negotiating equality in political as well as economic exchanges. One of the central principles of this structure is rooted in credit's identification with trust. Then, as now, credit may be defined as the “reliance or trust on the unperformed part of some arrangement or exchange.”9 In sixteenth-century England credit was tied to one's reputation to make good on promises, to be true to one's word, to pay off debts. As a form of social trust used in mediating exchange within a community, early modern credit was also important because of its connection with the developing notion of contract. Whether in the form of verbal arrangements or written bonds, contracts depend on an assumption of mutual consent. As William West explains, consent is what binds the contracting parties in obligation, “so they … out of diuers motions of the mind doo consent into one, that is do concur and condiscend into one selfe sentence and meaning.”10

Centered on the moment of mutual agreement, West's definition is in many ways typical of late-sixteenth-century discussions of exchange, which, as Jean-Christophe Agnew points out, emphasize the conclusions rather than the negotiations involved in economic transactions.11 At the same time, however, West's language, in characterizing consent as discursive in nature—when “diuers motions of the mind doo … concur and condiscend into one selfe sentence and meaning”—does give form to the processes by which interested parties might mediate their differences. My concern here is with the economic and political effects of the mediating processes of credit relations, both as represented on Shakespeare's stage and as enacted in his theater.12 Without diminishing the harsh realities of credit's role in early forms of capitalism, I want to consider its potential for liberation as well as exploitation within London's increasingly heterogeneous culture, a potential that Shakespeare's theater used to advantage.


“[T]here is nothing in the world so ordinarie, and naturall vnto men, as to contract, truck, merchandise, and trafficque one with an other,” declared John Wheeler, a great merchant and former secretary to the Merchant Adventurers, “so that it is almost vnpossible for three persons to converse together two houres, but they wil fall into talke of one bargaine or another, chopping, changing, or some other kinde of contract.”13 Wheeler's interests, and those of his company, were no doubt served by an argument that naturalizes trade as a social and economic practice, but his praise of commerce nonetheless points to the importance of contractual arrangements within England's rapidly expanding economy. In the absence of a public banking system, and with gold and silver currency in short supply, the nation's economy was becoming more dependent on borrowing; all ranks—noble men and women, merchants, retailers, playwrights, farmers, and even housewives—entered into credit arrangements, whether in the form of sealed bonds, tradesmen's bills, or the verbal agreements that secured the exchanges of everyday life. As Thomas Tusser put it in his best-selling Fiue hundreth pointes of good husbandrie: “Who liveth but lends: and be lent to they must, else buieng and selling, might lie in the dust.”14 The popularity of Tusser's homespun advice—his pamphlet was reprinted more than twenty times in the next fifty years—tells us something about credit's place in the lives of ordinary people. It also bears witness to the widespread acceptance of credit as fundamental to the welfare of the individual and the community.

Attitudes toward credit were hardly uniform, however; and if Elizabethans profited from the increase in credit and trade, many voiced concerns about the social consequences of an expanding economy. As might be expected, these concerns were articulated with particular force in sixteenth-century debates over usury. The conservative position, which viewed lending at interest as a religious rather than an economic issue, was motivated in part by a genuine concern for sharp practices and the plight of the poor. Refurbishing the classical and Christian critique of greed, clergymen castigated money-lending as uncharitable and anti-Christian. In the words of the preacher in Sir Thomas Wilson's 1572 A Discourse Upon Usury, as self-interest replaced neighborliness, men lent money more to “seeke their owne gain, than anything the benefit of theire Christian neyghbour.”15 Creditors were “worse than Iewes,” went the common refrain, and posed a threat to the Christian community that should not go unpunished.16 The assumption in these arguments is that individual profit destroys the common welfare. Or, as Wilson succinctly put it, “private gaine thrust[s] oute common profite.”17 Criticism of lending was not limited to concerns about charity, however. Also at issue was the fact that the need for credit was changing established structures of social hierarchy and community.

One measure of the economy's potential to alter social position may be found in the period's shifting definitions of credit. By the late-sixteenth century the term had acquired a double meaning, referring to reputation, or character, as defined not only by social standing but also by wealth or financial solvency.18 It is this doubleness that Shakespeare plays on in Shylock's assertion that “Antonio is a good man” (Merchant, 1.3.12); the moneylender means Antonio's ability to pay, but Bassanio takes him to mean character. As this slippage suggests, in early modern England, as in Shakespeare's Venice, credit relations not only involved all ranks but, more significantly, had the potential to cut across hierarchies of rank and status. And just as the spendthrift aristocrat turns to the merchant to raise money for his Belmont venture, and the merchant, short of cash, in turn tries his credit with the Jew, borrowing in England often extended downward from the Crown and the aristocracy, who turned to London's powerful financiers and merchants for ready money, as well as horizontally among tradesmen, artisans, and rural neighbors. For many, credit's ability to traverse social boundaries represented a dangerous threat to moral order, and conservative critics began to speak of the need to protect the aristocracy as well as the poor from wealthy urban creditors who would “eate our English Gentrie out of house and home.”19 Even members of the clergy began to speak on behalf of the upper ranks, as is illustrated by Roger Hacket's 1591 sermon warning that the usurer “gnaweth and teareth out his gaine, out of the lands and lively-hoodes not onely of the commonalty, but gentry, yea nobilitye of this land.”20

Yet these views were by no means universal, especially in London, where clergymen complained of parishioners who protested against anti-usury sermons by withholding their tithes.21 The discrepancy between religious discourse and actual practice was especially visible at St. Paul's, where outside, at Paul's Cross, preachers railed against lending while inside, at the font, creditors and debtors met regularly for the “tendering and making of payment.”22 By the 1590s some Puritan clergymen defended lending under certain conditions. Speaking out in the same year as Hacket, Charles Gibbon went so far as to sanction interest solely on the basis of social status—“Lend to thy better for a benefite, but to the poore for a blessing,”23 he counseled; and Miles Mosse, in a series of influential sermons, justified lending in the form of investment as a business partnership, profitable to all parties involved.24 Still others pointed to the unfairness of allowing profits from land but not from money.25 By the beginning of the seventeenth century defenses of credit and commerce began to appear in print, as London merchants and tradesmen attempted to justify their place within the changing economy. Countering objections that private gain was always at the expense of the common welfare, these defenses shrewdly linked the individual's profit with that of the community. “What else makes a Common-wealth,” Edward Misselden wrote in 1623, “but the private-wealth … of the members thereof in the exercise of Commerce.26 For Misselden and other defenders of trade, what was good for the individual was good for the City. Indeed, as William Scott later declared in An Essay of Drapery, the citizen was “made compleat” by his “just, pleasing, profitable wayes.”27

The emphasis on private gain and common welfare, employed by both sides in the sixteenth-century credit debate, anticipates later assessments of the marketplace as driven by self-interest and profit. Indeed, from Adam Smith forward, self-interest has figured prominently in social and economic theory, whether the term is construed negatively, as in arguments about rights, property, and “possessive individualism,”28 or more positively, as in liberal thinking about economic independence and individual freedoms. Recently, however, some scholars have begun to question the validity of self-interest as the dominant explanation of early modern markets.29 Craig Muldrew, for example, objects to arguments that the expansion of trade and credit occurred at the expense of charity and neighborliness. Rather than encouraging self-interest, the need for credit during this period instead fostered alliances within communities, as the general population became involved in networks of economic dependency. “Individual profit and security were important,” he contends, “but neither could be achieved without the direct co-operation of one's neighbours which trust entailed.”30 Though self-interest tends to disappear in Muldrew's model of community relations, his emphasis on credit as a form of trust maintained by contractual relations suggests a way in which self-interest and trust might reinforce one another.

In contrast to the polarized debates about private profit and community welfare, sixteenth-century definitions of contract imply that the need for credit fostered both cooperation and self-interest, trust and betrayal. Since credit rested on the promise of future payment or performance, the kinds of contractual arrangements by which credit was negotiated required trust between parties. Secured by mutual agreement, these arrangements were also important in assuming a certain equality between consenting parties—in theory if not always in practice—an assumption having the potential to refigure social relations as credit came to be associated more with financial standing than with social position. Defined as early as the fifteenth century by Johannes Nider in a commentary on Roman law, transfers of goods and money must be conducted “‘in accordance with an agreement’” involving mutual consent: “in the giver be both the will to give, or consent, and similarly the power, and in the receiver the will to receive and the power so to do,” Nider writes, his balanced terms implying equality on both sides.31 Within the context of English common law, Christopher St. Germain's 1531 Doctor and Student explicitly defines a contract as a bargain or sale “made by assent of the partyes vppon agrement betwene theym.”32 In The boke named the Governour, Thomas Elyot further elevates the importance of mutual consent by identifying it with justice: “Trewely in every covenaunt, bargayne, or promise aught to be a simplicitie, that is to saye, one playne understandinge or meaning betwene the parties. And that simplicitie is properly justice.”33 The anonymous author of A Godlie Treatice Concerning The Lawfull use of ritches similarly emphasizes the imperative of equality in contractual arrangements, explaining that if a contract is to have “plainnes, and excludeth double dealyng: so it requireth equalitie betweene those whiche bargayne.”34 By definition, then, a contract necessitated mutual agreement, and, as West's Symbolaeographia plainly asserts, “bare promises by worde without mutuall consent are nothing worth.”35

Despite the insistence on the principle of mutuality, however, the bargaining power of consenting parties was frequently unequal, and popular literature and court records—like the Henry IV plays—document the pervasiveness of failed credit and bad faith. Indeed, as the doctor in Wilson's Discourse on Usury rightly argues, “what equalytye is in bargaynynge, I praye you, when the one partie is famished, and the other is hoggesty fed? Iustice is none other thinge then a certeine evenhode or equalitie, and therefore they that do not in their dealings use an equal property, do not use Iustice.”36 Urban literature from the period trades on the inequities of credit, as illustrated in the popular tales of the London prodigal who, in the attempt to clear himself of one debt, takes on additional debt until he is finally coerced into signing away his lands.37 Henslowe's account books suggest the reality of this pattern of spiraling debt, coercion, and ruin for the lower orders as well, detailing the degree to which credit enabled the entrepreneur to control the playwrights and actors in his pay. As Henslowe himself was said to admit, “‘Should these fellows come out of my debt, I should have noe rule with them.’”38

But if the evidence does not justify an idealization of credit practices, neither does it support a conclusion that “mutual agreements” were simply a means of justifying what were in effect coercive practices. According to C. W. Brooks's study of central court records, the number of debt cases rose significantly in the latter half of the sixteenth century, with the plaintiffs coming from a wide social spectrum, many of them bringing suit against their social betters.39 While the increase in litigation may reflect both the expansion of credit as well as the extent to which credit relations broke down, it also, and perhaps more accurately, points to the expanding role of the courts in enabling the recovery of debts and, we might assume, thereby promoting both equality and trust within the community.40 The same figures also indicate that self-interest might indeed function as an incentive to trust in the mediation of difference across ranks, even though that trust might sometimes fail. To engage in credit relations may be to risk loss and betrayal. But when credit is grounded in mutual consent and mutual gain, it is also to participate in opportunities for economic and political agency.41

In allowing for the possibility of social and political equality within economic exchange, early modern credit relations offer a useful model for understanding the complicated interplay between economics and politics in the Henry IV plays. Credit relations not only provide a means of materializing and historicizing Lancastrian economic language in ways that open up its political implications; they also direct attention to an alternate locus of authority within the plays and, with it, an alternate form of obligation, centered not in the lineal succession of dynastic rule but in the heterogeneous networks of the economic community. In their movement between the court and the City, between Westminster and Eastcheap, the plays indeed recall Mervyn James's description of England's shift from a lineage society to a civil society and from status to contract during the sixteenth century. As Muldrew explains the argument, in a lineage society stability within the community depends on bonds of obligation based on “extended kinship and loyalties to great aristocratic households, and where contracts [are] subordinated to clientage”; in a civil society stability rests more on contractual obligations, “on the equality of bargaining and contract, and on access to the courts to maintain the right of such equality.”42 One way to understand this movement within the Henry IV plays has been to focus on the Crown's appropriation of economic practices and to read this turn to commercialism as necessitated by the Lancastrian violation of lineage society in usurping Richard II's throne. While this is clearly part of the story, it fails to give attention to the way in which the political advantages of a credit economy move in two directions, downward as well as upward on the social scale. For in borrowing their political strategies from a market economy, the Lancastrians effectively endorse the principles of civil society and thereby generate opportunities for political agency extending beyond the royals themselves. In this case, what serves the interests of the Crown has the potential to change political structures for commoners as well. It is this dialectical relationship between economics and politics in the Henry IV plays that early modern credit relations make available.


Item, a capon 2s. 2d.
Item, sauce 4d.
Item, sack, two gallons 5s. 8d.
Item, anchoves and sack after supper 2s. 6d.
Item, bread ob.
(1 Henry IV, 2.4.535-39)

A reckoning, discovered by the prince and Peto when they pick Falstaff's pockets in the tavern after the Gadshill robbery, supplies the only material evidence of credit in 1 Henry IV, a play that turns on problems of debt and obligation. In addition to what the accounting tells an Elizabethan audience about Falstaff's taste for luxury imports (this passage contains the earliest reference to anchovies cited in the Oxford English Dictionary), it enables the prince to continue his sport at Falstaff's expense. “O monstrous! but one half-penny-worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!” (ll. 540-41), the prince sermonizes, announcing his newfound patriotism with the promise that the money they have stolen from the king's exchequer “shall be paid back again with advantage” (ll. 547-48). The prince makes good on his promise, but Falstaff's debt to the Hostess is never paid—at least not in 1 Henry IV. “I'll not pay a denier,” Falstaff later boasts, insisting that to clear the debt is to become a too-trusting prodigal, victimized by a grasping creditor: “What, will you make a younker of me? Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn but I shall have my pocket pick'd?” (3.3.79-81), he counters, reversing the charges on his hostess. The sum of his appetites, Falstaff's debts increase exponentially over the course of 1 and 2 Henry IV until at the end, with Henry V's coronation, the old knight is hauled off to Fleet prison, presumably for bad debts. More than simply a running gag in the plays, Falstaff's indebtedness connects the economic and political worlds of Eastcheap and Westminster, bringing material obligations into play with the moral and political debts of the Lancasters. As a particular instance of material culture, the tavern reckoning also supplies a resonant point of reference for the world outside the play, in relation to London audiences in the habit of calculating their own appetites for both business and pleasure, including their place within the theater, in terms of shillings, pence, and the itemized accounts of everyday exchange.

That the play identifies credit with a tavern reckoning and not with a merchant's bond, say, considerably extends the boundaries of the economic community to include society's middling and lower ranks. The identification is also important in establishing an alternate authority within the plays, one governed less by fixed hierarchies of dynastic power than by flexible and contingent relations of credit. A place of exchange and change, where princes drink with tinkers and fat knights take the part of kings, the tavern has been profitably understood in terms of carnival festivity, as an alternate world of “celebration and critique” which stages the uncrowning of royal authority that constitutes the official world of these plays.43 It may also be understood in terms of everyday as well as holiday, however. For if we think of the tavern as a place of both business and pleasure, then the holiday world in which some take their leisure overlaps with the everyday world in which others, like the Hostess and Francis, work for their living.44 The tavern thus delineates a world whose ethics are rooted as much in the business practices of London's middling sort as in the holiday festivities of popular culture. Within this world, normative values require not only that credit be extended, to commoners as well as to kings, but also that debts be paid and contracts honored. And it is in this sense that the economic relations of Eastcheap can be said to provide a model for political relations in Westminster, a model potentially available to all who engage in credit and contract, whether apprentices or princes. Like carnival's second world, the economic community is also based in material culture, but this community is ostensibly generated as much by consent as by dissent, by everyday exchange as by popular holiday. And it is also, like Shakespeare's theater, a community that acknowledges the profit that credit enables.

It could be objected, of course, that Falstaff's unpaid bill is hardly evidence of credit's potential to generate equality and mutuality within communities and across ranks. In Falstaff's case the need for credit sacrifices community to self-interest and results in a hardening of rank and privilege. A stage version of the grasping men of business railed against by preachers and moralists during the period, Falstaff takes pride in his bad faith, pointing to his unpaid debts as a mark of gentlemanly distinction: “paid money that I borrow'd—three or four times” (3.3.18). To be sure, there is much humor in Falstaff's outrageous flouting of commercial expectation. But in the world outside the tavern, and outside the play, it provides a grim reminder of the cost of self-interest and bad faith to the community's welfare, a reminder with particular resonance when the play was first produced. Falstaff's appetite for luxury foodstuffs would, in fact, have bordered on the criminal in the dearth years of 1596-97, when, under orders from the Privy Council, London citizens were instructed to curb their “excessive dyet” and “be contented with fewer dishes” so that the excess could be distributed to the poor.45 Other signs of the dearth, which many at the time blamed on engrossers manipulating the grain market, are to be found in the image of poor Robin Ostler, who “never joy'd since the price of oats rose, it was the death of him” (2.1.12-13), and in Falstaff's “totter'd prodigals” and “trade-fall'n” ostlers, “food for powder” (4.2.34, 29, 66) simply because they are too poor to buy their way out of service.46 Rather than reinforcing reciprocity and equality within the community, these examples suggest, the market economy and its circulation of credit only increase the potential for exploitation, especially when bargaining takes place between parties of unequal status.47

But Falstaff's bill for sack and anchovies is not the only instance of reckoning in 1 Henry IV, nor is his bad faith its only ethics of credit. The first reference to reckoning occurs, tellingly, in a scene of verbal sparring, of give-and-take across ranks, when Falstaff, in response to the prince's question—“Why, what a pox have I to do with my hostess of the tavern?”—replies, “Well, thou hast call'd her to a reckoning many a time and oft” (1.2.47-50). The ensuing wordplay depends on credit's multivalence in early modern London and puts into play its potential to promote both self-interest and trust within communities, all the while blurring traditional distinctions within social and political hierarchies. The term slips, for example, between the material and the moral, between what can be counted and what can only be divined, depending on whether the reckoning is interpreted as a financial accounting—in this case another tavern bill—or a moral accounting—as Williams employs the term in Henry V, “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make” (4.1.134-35). With this punning comes a slippage in power and privilege as the fixed categories of prince and subject, reconstituted as customer and hostess, dissolve into the contingent, and exchangeable, positions of debtor and creditor. Falstaff's retort—“thou hast call'd her to a reckoning”—may at first suggest that the Hostess is indebted to the prince, either morally or financially, but their positions shift when Falstaff admits that the prince has been the debtor, though he has “paid all there” (1 Henry IV, 1.2.52-53), including the knight's part. As one who pays his debts, the prince might appear to offer a counterexample to Falstaff, and in many ways he does. Most important, he knows that “to pay” is not to become a “younker” but to gain power. But if the prince prides himself on his credit here and elsewhere in the play, his payments are anything but straightforward. In this instance the prince finesses his debt to the Hostess by shifting from economic to erotic currency, claiming to have paid, “Yea, and elsewhere, so far as my coin would stretch, and where it would not, I have us'd my credit” (ll. 54-56).

Linked to the prince's credit, the play on “reckoning” in this scene initiates a pattern of exchange between economics and politics that turns on the slippage between material and metaphorical obligation. The prince's credit, especially as it depends on his position as “heir apparent” (l. 58), as Falstaff reminds him, is not without problems, of course. Royal credit may work to Hal's advantage in the taverns of Eastcheap, but within the political realm, its powers are less assured. Compromised by his father's moral and political debts, Hal might well lament, with Falstaff, “I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought” (ll. 82-83). And it is, in fact, to the marketplace and not to his heritage that the prince turns to redeem his name, renegotiating a troubled inheritance within the flexible structures of credit and commerce. While the shift to commercialism may be construed negatively, as evidence of Hal's “steely sense of opportunism,”48 its political implications go beyond the interests of the Lancastrians. Hal may adapt market practices for his own gain, but in translating these practices back into court politics, he opens up the possibility for a new mode of political relations.

Evidence of the prince's commercial practices comes early in 1 Henry IV, in his promise to restore his credit by casting off his tavern mates, a promise that ties trust to betrayal and community to self-interest in ways that have long troubled commentators. Here, as elsewhere in the play, the idea of credit complicates these contradictions even while it offers a means of resolving them. Reimagining his succession as a kind of contract, the prince opens up a line of credit with the audience that rests on his implicit promise that at some time in the future, “when he please again to be himself,” he will “throw off” his “loose behavior” and “pay the debt [he] never promised” (ll. 200, 208-9). What is especially troubling about Hal's contract, of course, is that his good-faith promise depends on multiple acts of betrayal. The prince calculates his reformation as a double deception, one practiced against his friends and the other against his enemies, “falsify[ing]” their “hopes” for his continued “loose behavior,” hopes that he himself falsely created by playing the prodigal (ll. 211, 208). Like Falstaff's reckonings, Hal's contract appears to use credit simply as a mask for self-interest and to exploit rather than mediate differences within a community. Given the taint surrounding his father's acquisition of the throne, however, Hal's use of contract is also crucial to ensuring a stable succession: it allows him to renegotiate his responsibilities as Henry IV's inheritor, to pay his father's moral debts without accepting them as his own and, at the same time, to translate passive inheritance into active consent—“to be himself” in majesty.

This is not to argue that, in rewriting his reformation and eventual succession in contractual terms, Hal resolves the contradictions of this soliloquy or of early modern credit. Indeed, as this passage famously illustrates, the need for credit does not guarantee trust. Credit does, however, require a mechanism whereby trust can be negotiated. And as Hal's turn to contract suggests, this mechanism has political as well as economic implications, however much it is abused. Engaging in, and thereby endorsing, common credit practices, even as he exploits them, the prince thus complicates the recent analysis of the play's machiavellian politics, in which, as Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out, “the founding of the modern state, like the self-fashioning of the modern prince, is shown to be based upon acts of calculation, intimidation, and deceit.”49 For Shakespeare's London audience the prince's turn to credit and exchange may well represent a descent from “sacramental to commercial premises,”50 but in relocating authority to the everyday affairs of city business, it also constitutes a significant widening of the political community. For if contractual arrangements allow the prince a means of renegotiating his credit, these same strategies of power were also available to the London citizen, whose livelihood depended on negotiating his own credit and contracts on a daily basis. To be sure, Hal is hardly on the same level as the earnest Francis, who will swear “upon all the books in England” (2.4.49-50) to honor the terms of his indenture. But just because the drawer, whose “eloquence” is “the parcel of a reckoning” (ll. 100-101), cannot imagine running out on his master does not mean that an Elizabethan audience would have seen an apprenticeship of clinking pewter as an “oppressive order,” as Greenblatt contends.51 Some at least might have recognized an economic protection and even a freedom in the contractual terms of the indenture.52

The prince returns to the language of contract and exchange when he again promises to reform and be “more myself” (3.2.93), this time in response to the king's accusation that his son fights against him “under Percy's pay” (l. 126). Turning his father's commercial terms to advantage, Hal here transforms himself from a spendthrift prodigal into a great merchant engaged in a circle of commerce, a move that allows him the freedom to manipulate both the market and his place within it. In Hal's account, it is Percy who is in his pay, hired as his “factor,” or agent, to “engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (ll. 147, 148). But rather than turning the “glorious deeds” over to the prince, Hotspur has kept them for himself, in a clear violation of their arrangement that demands redress. Within this mercantile context, the prince renews his promise for reform, and his credit with his father, with the vow to make Percy pay what he owes:

And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.

(ll. 149-52)

Promising to call his factor to “strict account” or else “tear the reckoning from his heart,” the prince situates justice firmly within an economic sphere. And as it is structured by credit and contract, the shift from moral to commercial debt works to the prince's advantage, transposing obligations into material forms that are both exchangeable and recoverable. The shift to commerce and credit allows him to transfer to Percy his own debt to his father, in a reversal of the changeling substitution the king had imagined at the start of the play. It also allows him to cancel his father's debt to the Percies. By demanding that Hotspur pay what he owes, Hal clears both his own name and his father's.

That the prince first imagines his defeat of Percy not as the scene of single combat the play eventually stages but as a balancing of accounts—or a reckoning—between merchant and factor again introduces everyday credit practices into affairs of state, and again the politics are mixed. One effect, clearly, is to commercialize heroic action so that honor becomes, as Engle has argued, “an exchangeable commodity which, like money, can move all at once from one person's possession to another's.”53 In Hal's accounting, however, honor is more than simply a fungible commodity. It is also a commodity whose value fluctuates with the market and can, therefore, be manipulated by skillful merchants and retailers. In this sense the economic model has the potential to confer political agency not only on the prince, allowing him to recover his credit within the realm, but on all those who buy and sell. No longer the domain of the aristocratic warrior, honor now belongs to those who have good credit within the marketplace, to those who pay what they owe, or to those, like Falstaff, who can manipulate the market. In a world governed by commerce, community welfare depends as much, if not more, on honoring contracts as on battlefield heroics, a shift in value that ranks tradesmen alongside princes. As elsewhere in the play, however, the expansion of economic and political opportunity carries with it the potential for abuse, as suggested by Hal's use of the term “engross” to censure Hotspur's valorous acts.54 As the prince sees it, rewriting Percy's chivalry in economic terms that transform heroic valor into crass self-interest, Percy's holding on to the “glorious deeds” constitutes an abusive monopolistic practice that initiates a crisis in credit threatening the kingdom as a whole. He must be forced to pay.

With the prince's subsequent transformation to chivalric warrior, the play might appear to abandon its own promise of economic justice, exchanging the rigorous accounting practices of London merchants for the battlefield heroics of chronicle history. But even at Shrewsbury, where the prince is mythologized as a “feathered Mercury” (4.1.106), an ethics of credit and contract continues to structure dynastic relations, as the Lancastrians persist in defining justice as a settling of accounts, a reckoning. The reformed prince announces his newfound identity not as the godlike warrior feared by his enemies but as a man of credit, one who makes good on his promises and pays what he owes. As he proclaims to Douglas: “It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay” (5.4.42-43). In promising the Percies payment, the prince exploits the metaphorical resonance of commercial language. In one sense Hal's talk of payment is highly conventional: the prince will become “himself” by stepping into his role as noble justicer and inflicting bodily chastisement on the wicked. At the same time, however, the language has a decidedly contemporary ring: Hal becomes “himself” and redeems his name much as those in Shakespeare's audience did, by proving his ability to pay his debts and to honor contractual agreements. In casting himself not only as the divinely sanctioned ruler who dispenses punishment but also as a man who pays his reckonings, the prince participates in a heterogeneous community bound together by the practices of everyday commerce. In contrast to his father's aristocratic fantasy of a crusade in which “mutual well-beseeming ranks, / March all one way” (1.1.14-15), or his own promise in Henry V to “gentle” (4.3.63) all who fight at Agincourt, the prince's emphasis at Shrewsbury works in the opposite direction, making all merchants and retailers.55


If Hal's movement from prodigal to chivalric merchant in 1 Henry IV celebrates the benefits of turning economic practices to political use, the betrayals and bad faith of 2 Henry IV warn of the dangers, especially when credit is extended solely on the basis of a gentleman's, or a prince's, word. Reputation conferred by social status proves unreliable at the start of the play when the rebels mistakenly credit Lord Bardolph's “certain news” of Hotspur's victory at Shrewsbury because it comes from “A gentleman well bred and of good name” (2 Henry IV, 1.1.12, 26). The actual report of Percy's death comes minutes later, from a servant who, despite Bardolph's claim that “he is furnish'd with no certainties / More than he haply may retail from me” (ll. 31-32), has better credit in this instance than his social superior. The earl of Northumberland's absence from Shrewsbury, attributed to illness in 1 Henry IV, is now exposed for what it is. “[Y]ou broke your word” (2 Henry IV, 2.3.10), Hotspur's widow bluntly tells him. And Falstaff, now graced with the gilded lie of his “good service” at Shrewsbury (1.2.61-62), attempts to borrow against his borrowed name. The most disturbing display of failed credit, of course, comes with Prince John's triumph at Gaultree Forest, a victory that, in contrast to Shrewsbury, replaces heroic action with a “horrible violation of faith,” as Samuel Johnson characterized it.56 The supposed agreement between the Crown and the rebelling lords, which Prince John backs “by the honor of [his] blood” (4.2.55) and the rebels mistakenly accept on the basis of his “princely word” (l. 66), epitomizes the dangers of trusting “the word of the noble” (4.3.54). It thus goes far to undermine the optimistic conjunction of chivalry and contract, of princes and merchants, at the conclusion of the earlier play. In 2 Henry IV only Master Dommelton, the “smoothy-pate[d]” London tradesman, appears to possess enough business acumen not to take gentlemen at their word: he refuses Falstaff's request for twenty-two yards of satin on credit because he dislikes the knight's “security” (1.2.38, 33).

In its almost obsessive concern with promises, with oral rather than written contracts, 2 Henry IV might seem to appeal more to medieval than early modern credit practices, to an idealized past in which a man's word was his bond and an ethical standard that, by some accounts, was more exploited than honored in the expanding market economy of Shakespeare's day. But while the use of bonds increased with the expansion of credit in the sixteenth century, most loans, even those made within a commercial center such as London, continued to be secured by verbal agreements founded on trust in the promise of future payment.57 Promises also had strong contemporary resonance in the late 1590s as debate about the status of oral contracts involving debt culminated with the hearing of Slade's Case, a case that rested precariously on the evidence of an implied promise. Argued on the basis of “breach of contract,” rather than simple debt, Slade's Case forms the basis of modern contract law, clarifying a century's worth of litigation involving the status of promises in debt recovery.58 As a result of its historical position, Slade's Case is also useful in adjudicating credit relations in the Henry IV plays, offering a model for economic and political obligation that defines creditworthiness not on the basis of social status but on one's reputation for honoring promises. Importantly, this is a model that places contractual arrangements at the center of obligation.

Slade's Case was argued under the general category of assumpsit, which in the sixteenth century became the principle form of action in the common law courts for enforcing contracts “not under seal.”59Assumpsit rested on the understanding that the defendant promised to undertake—or “assume”—the performance of a particular action or payment. The legal action of assumpsit thus offered a broad means of redress in cases involving breach of contract and was applied during the sixteenth century to promises involving the performance of acts or services, the conveyance of lands, and, increasingly, the payment of debt. Whether a case was actionable under the category of debt or assumpsit depended on how the obligation was defined. The action in debt cases, for example, rested on the notion of quid pro quo, and defendants were charged with failing to live up to their end of the bargain. Legal redress in these cases meant simply that one paid what one owed, either money or property. The action in assumpsit, by contrast, rested not on the exchange of goods or property but on the process by which the exchange was negotiated, specifically, on the promise itself and on the motivating circumstances, known as “consideration,” in which the promise was made. As Solicitor-General Egerton put it in 1586, the action of assumpsit rested on three things—“consideration, promise and breach of promise.”60 One effect of the rise in assumpsit during the sixteenth century, then, was to shift the emphasis in credit relations from property to promise, from the materiality of the exchange—the quid pro quo—to the mechanism that underwrites that exchange—the agreement together with the consideration.61

As a watershed case upholding the action of assumpsit in matters of debt, Slade's Case was important in changing the early modern understanding of debt and its recovery.62 It was also important in defining the responsibilities of contracting parties. First heard in the Exeter assize court in 1596, Slade's Case made its way into the Exchequer Chamber in 1597 and over the course of the next five years was argued in both the Exchequer Chamber and the King's Bench. Initially a dispute over a grain transaction between John Slade and Humphrey Morley, the case turned on the question of whether an oral agreement, in this case the agreement to purchase grain, also included the promise to pay for it, even if that promise was not explicitly stated. In the words of legal scholar J. H. Baker, the question was: “Did a contract contain in itself an undertaking to perform the duty which it generated, even though the contracting parties did not use the express words ‘I promise’ or ‘I undertake’?”63 The court's final decision was that a bargain, even in the absence of an explicitly stated promise, constituted a legally binding contract for performance or payment and, as such, was allowable under the action of assumpsit. As Edward Coke wrote in his decision, “every contract executory imports in itself an assumpsit, for when one agrees to pay money, or to deliver any thing, thereby he assumes or promises to pay.”64

Coke's decision in the Slade case rests on two related assumptions: that an individual enters into an agreement knowingly and that his failure to carry through on the agreement constitutes deceit. As Francis Bacon and others argued on behalf of the defendant, assumpsit required deceit, and failure to pay did not necessarily constitute the intention to deceive. Coke's response put the matter bluntly: “It is clear that when a man contracts with another to pay money or to do anything, and does not perform it, this is a deceit.”65 For Coke intentions may be probative, but they do have a material basis in the actions or nonactions of the consenting parties as defined by the rule of consideration. As Coke reputedly wrote in a report on the case in 1598, in language that appropriates the quid pro quo of debt into assumpsit, “if some benefit leave the plaintiff, be it to the defendant or to a stranger, this suffices; for it shall be intended at the request of the defendant.”66 This is a conclusion that goes against the earlier decision in the Exeter assize by Justice Walmsley that failure to fulfill an obligation did not necessarily involve deceit. It is “‘plain dealing,’” Walmsley wrote, for a man not to pay if he has no money.67 Coke's argument, by contrast, assumes that individuals knowingly enter into bargains, or contracts, and that their responsibility to honor their word lies, in principle at least, outside either social or economic status. Thus a ruling that is potentially coercive in assuming intention on the part of the defendant is at the same time potentially liberating in ascribing choice and responsibility to the individuals making the transaction.68

Like early modern actions of assumpsit, economic relations in these plays, and in 2 Henry IV especially, also turn on the promise of payment, or performance, implicit within an agreement or undertaking. And with the notable exception of Prince John—who precisely construes his “word” to the rebels and gets away with it—the plays anticipate the outcome of Slade's Case by enforcing the promises implicit within understandings between parties that range from lowly servants to the crown prince and to the “author” himself. At one end is the case of Shallow's servant, William, whose wages are to be “stopped” because of the “sack he lost at [Hinckley] fair” (2 Henry IV, 5.1.24-25). The assumption in this case, we may conjecture, is that William had promised either to transport or sell the sack but instead lost it or drank it. Hostess Quickly's suit against Falstaff, which appears to be simply a case of debt—he owes her “A hundred mark” (2.1.32), she first claims—might also be actionable under the category of assumpsit, especially in the way matters of debt become intertwined with her claim that the knight had promised to marry her. When asked what “gross sum” Falstaff owes her, Quickly replies, “thyself and the money too” (ll. 84, 85-86), her unwitting joke accurately acknowledging the interplay between erotic and monetary debt that Falstaff continually exploits. Because there is no gift of a ring and no witness (Goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife, comes into her testimony not as a witness, as we might expect, but “to borrow a mess of vinegar” [l. 95]), Quickly's charges probably would not have stood up in the ecclesiastical court, but they might have been allowed under an action of assumpsit.69 Her lengthy testimony before the chief justice places the emphasis on Falstaff's promise of marriage, for which she supplies a form of consideration in an outrageously detailed account of the material circumstances in which the promise took place, circumstances that supposedly give authority and authenticity to her claim:

Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber, at the round table by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the Prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor, thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? … And didst thou not, when … [Goodwife Keech] was gone down stairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people, saying that ere long they should call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath. Deny it if thou canst.

(2.1.86-93, 98-103)

Even though Falstaff attempts to discredit the Hostess, claiming she is a “poor [mad] soul,” “distracted” by poverty, the chief justice, like Coke, finds for the plaintiff, concluding that Falstaff has used her “both in purse and in person” (ll. 104, 107, 116) and instructing him to “Pay her the debt you owe her, and unpay the villainy you have done with her” (ll. 118-20). The unreformed Falstaff, of course, slips out of this accounting by once again parleying his erotic credit into coin. “Come … dost not know me?” (ll. 150-51), he asks the Hostess, assuming an intimacy that invites reciprocity.70 This strategy works as well with Justice Shallow, who lends Falstaff a thousand pounds, on the assumption that this will further the justice's advancement at court when Hal becomes king. In this instance the promise again appears to be upheld when, at the play's close, after Henry V destroys Falstaff's credit by publicly refusing to acknowledge any debt to his former companion, Falstaff is taken off to the Fleet. For the first time, Falstaff admits a debt, confessing, “Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound” (5.5.73), though not without once again attempting to regain his credit, and retain the sum, by renewing his promise to Shallow: “Fear not your advancements, I will be the man yet that shall make you great. … Sir, I will be as good as my word” (ll. 78-80, 85).

In its concern for the processes of exchange rather than its materiality, the action of assumpsit is especially useful in charting the movement between economic and political credit in the play. As in 1 Henry IV, the Lancastrian royals again adopt economic practices for political gain. As a consequence, the play invites its audience to judge princes by the same ethical standard they apply to commoners. The most unsettling conjunction of politics and credit practices comes with Prince John's resolution of rebellion at Gaultree Forest, which exploits contractual language and its assumption of mutuality only to reassert royal power and send the rebels to “the block.” Even if one justifies John's behavior on the basis of national security—he is after all negotiating with rebels who have themselves broken faith with their monarch—his arrest of the leaders for treason nonetheless might be construed as a breach of promise by the standards of assumpsit. The rebels' grievances, put forth in a series of written articles, constitute the required consideration, or motivating circumstances, for John's promise of speedy redress, which he makes upon his “princely word” (4.2.66). To show their agreement to his offer of redress, John asks the rebels to engage in a series of mutual displays of trust and friendship:

                                                                                If this may please you,
Discharge your powers unto their several counties,
As we will ours, and here between the armies
Let's drink together friendly and embrace,
That all their eyes may bear those tokens home
Of our restored love and amity.

(ll. 60-65)

After the rebels have made good on their side of the bargain and dismissed their army, John then arrests the leaders for high treason. “Will you thus break your faith?” (l. 112), the archbishop asks. John's reply is that he promised only “redress of these same grievances” (l. 113), nothing more. According to the ethic of credit operative in late-sixteenth-century England, what makes John's victory troublesome is not that it gives the rebels their “due” (l. 116). He has, after all, made good on his explicit promise of redress. The problem lies instead with the secondary promise implicit in the terms of the stated promise. Like Falstaff in his promises to Hostess Quickly, John here exploits gestures of intimacy to imply a promise of trust and reciprocity, which the rebels mistakenly construe as a contractual meeting of minds. The assumption, of course, is that forgiveness rather than death will follow. That Prince John succeeds with his exploitation of contractual expectation, while others in the play do not, underscores—but does not necessarily condone—differences between princes and commoners, or between any parties of unequal status, in a credit economy in which all are theoretically subject to the terms of their agreements.

Prince Hal also uses credit and contract to political advantage in this play, and though he, unlike his brother, honors his debts, his strategies continue to generate an ambivalent politics that heightens as much as minimizes differences in rank, especially as he comes closer to the crown. As in 1 Henry IV, the emphasis on contract again allows Hal to translate passive inheritance into active consent and, in the process, to remove the taint of his father's own violent succession by paying “the debt [he] never promised.” When the prince, believing his father dead, takes the crown from his pillow, his speech overlays the “lineal honor” (2 Henry IV, 4.5.46) of inheritance from father to son with the strict logic of a commercial transaction:

                                                                                          Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously.
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which as immediate from thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me.

(ll. 37-43)

One effect of Hal's turn to contract at this moment is to civilize the parricidal violence of the Lancastrian succession by transforming it into an exchange in which a son “pays” for his father's crown with the tears of “filial tenderness” rather than with blood. The prince's balanced sentences, moreover, signal his readiness to rule by insisting on an equality between father and son, monarch and prince, that if the king were alive—which he is—would be parricidal and treasonous.71 At the same time, however, Hal's terms set up a tension between late-sixteenth-century credit practices and fifteenth-century dynastic succession. Even as the prince actively takes the crown from his father's deathbed and invokes the mutuality of contract, he simultaneously avoids responsibility for his actions by representing himself as the object and not the subject of this exchange—the crown “Derives itself to me”—the recipient in a process that appears to take place independently of his intentions or will. Similarly, as he here rehearses his acceptance of the crown by asserting his personal agency in a way that honors the promises implied by the contract of kinship, he simultaneously distances himself from that responsibility by making “nature, love, and filial tenderness” his agents, or factors, in paying his father “his due.” Reinforcing this tension between mutuality and distance, and between equality and hierarchy, are the newly crowned king's last words in the play, which make good on his initial promise in 1 Henry IV, ordering the chief justice “to see perform'd the tenure of [his] word” (2 Henry IV, 5.5.71) by banishing Falstaff. Refusing to acknowledge an intimacy with the old man, Henry V's “I know thee not” (l. 47) cancels all debt and obligation. If to know is to owe in Falstaff's account book—“a million, thy love is worth a million; thou owest me thy love,” the knight insists to Hal in 1 Henry IV (3.3.136-37)—Henry V, in contrast to his father, begins his reign owing nothing to his former companions.

With the installation of the “true inheritor” (2 Henry IV, 4.5.168), the Henry IV plays close by insisting on lineal succession rather than commercial practices. “[W]hat in me was purchas'd / Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort; / So thou the garland wear'st successively” (ll. 199-201), Henry IV pronounces to his son with his dying breath. And with the return to dynastic stability comes the remystification of monarchical power. Authority no longer resides in the mutual consent arising from “diuers motions of the mind,” to borrow from West's definition, but within the singular motion of the sacred ruler himself. As if to reiterate this movement from diversity to singularity, Eastcheap's community of economic exchange is discredited, punished, and expelled from the realm. The entrepreneurial women are suddenly criminalized, as Hostess Quickly, in a startling inversion of her initial entrance as plaintiff in a lawsuit, is now, together with Doll Tearsheet, dragged offstage by officers to be incarcerated for allegedly having beaten a man to death. Falstaff and his company are likewise escorted to prison, denied access not only to the monarch's “person,” as the banishment requires, but to the social and economic community as well. Rather than mediating difference within the heterogeneous community, it seems, the return to sacred rule insists on a homogenous society in which difference is all but invisible.72 Again, the political implications of Lancastrian power are mixed. Henry V is, after all, fulfilling the promises he made in 1 Henry IV, but, as more than two centuries of criticism document, the price is high and the politics sinister. Indeed, it could be argued that the notion of credit, based in consent and mutuality, is merely a fiction, in politics as well as economics, connected in this play to a comic plot that has, finally, no basis in reality. But, in light of the play's Epilogue, the scene of singular sovereignty may be the fiction and not the diverse community bound by credit and exchange.

For while the conclusion to 2 Henry IV marks the return of Lancastrian legitimacy by dismantling the credit economy, the Epilogue reinstitutes it, stepping out of the dramatic and historical frame of the play to present yet another variation on credit relations. If, as Robert Weimann has argued, Shakespeare's epilogues help to “assimilate the represented ‘matter’ to the actual cultural purpose of its performance,” the Epilogue to 2 Henry IV is no exception.73 Returning to the business of credit and contract, it joins both playwright and audience with the economic world of the play, connecting contemporary London to Eastcheap in a way that reaffirms the efficacy of credit relations alongside the image of singular sovereignty celebrated at the play's close. In the liminal space of the Epilogue, the speaker, perhaps the “humble author” (l. 27) himself, delineates an elaborate economic network that links the play's performance as well as its “matter” to the commercial exchanges of everyday London. Deferentially curtsying to the audience and begging their pardons, the Epilogue begins by proposing a “venture” that turns on a contractual relation of credit between the author and his audience. Casting himself in the role of the debtor and his audience as his creditors, the speaker offers up his play as payment or recompense for an earlier “displeasing” play:

Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it and to promise you a better. I meant indeed to pay you with this, which if like an ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promis'd you I would be, and here I commit my body to your mercies. Bate me some, and I will pay you some, and (as most debtors do) promise you infinitely; and so I kneel down before you—but, indeed, to pray for the Queen.

(ll. 7-17)

In contrast to the restrictive “Articles of Agreement” Jonson's scrivener forces on the audience at the start of Bartholomew Fair, drawing up a contract that limits the spectator's censure to the price of his seat, Shakespeare's terms are far more flexible and equitable. Like the fluid relations of early modern credit, the contract in 2 Henry IV plays on a give-and-take between debtor and creditor from which everyone profits.

Shakespeare's terms set up an equivalence between payment and pleasure that underwrites theatrical performance. The audience, in paying admission to the theater, has contracted for a pleasing play, which the playwright has implicitly promised to deliver. When the playwright fails to make good on this contract, as he did in this case by delivering a “displeasing play,” he then incurs a second debt by promising “a better.” Like Bassanio, Shakespeare undertakes this new “venture” in order to recover losses from a previous “ill venture.” Understood within the economy of credit, the performance of 2 Henry IV, if it is good, fulfills the contract implicit in the earlier promise. Conversely, if it is bad, the “venture” will “break,” or bankrupt, the author and cause losses for his “gentle creditors.” The most likely outcome, however, is that the indebtedness will continue—and that is part of the joke here—with the audience forgiving a portion of the debt—to “Bate me some”—and the playwright promising yet more payment, which in this case means that he is bound to produce more plays just as the audience is bound to attend and, in a playful turn on credit relations, to pay. Within the space of the Epilogue, in stark contrast to the plight of many Henslowe dramatists, even sharp practices have happy outcomes by conjoining playwright and audience in a relationship of credit that supports the continuation of theatrical production itself. In the credit economy of the early modern theater debtor and creditor alike profit from the exchange between pleasure and performance, bound together in a relationship of mutual consent and mutual gain, which the Epilogue ensures will continue by closing his speech with a shameless advertisement for a sequel.74

If the Epilogue thus capitalizes on the theater's function as a site of both holiday pleasure and commercial exchange, it gives shape to a community based more on the contingent relations of early modern credit and commerce than on the fixed hierarchies of patronage and privilege.75 And within this community, as in the Eastcheap tavern, pleasure and commerce are not necessarily antithetical but instead come together, allowing for exchange and freedom within a hierarchical culture. The Epilogue puts these exchanges into play in part by making the audience party to the performance. With theatrical exchange, as with early modern contractual relations, authority resides with neither the players nor the audience alone but with the process that underwrites the exchange, a process that, as Weimann describes it, circulates the movement of authority within the theater among the text, the performance, and the audience. “[T]he theater's readiness ‘to please,’” Weimann writes, “is neither servile nor passive; the arts of performance achieve their final authority in the exchange of cultural signs with the audience, either through clapping hands or further talking after the play has ended.”76 More commercial than communal, this talking serves as a kind of advertising for future performances, “an extradramatic circuit of pleasurable exchanges, further engagements with, and distributions of news about, the play's events and figurations.”77 Like the economic networks of credit represented within the play, the community constituted by the playful give-and-take between audience and actor at the close of 2 Henry IV is grounded in commerce and not in the sacred space of sovereign rule, though there is mention of the queen.

With the Epilogue, as with the play itself, the economic discourse continues to generate a political resonance that offers an alternative to the fixed structures of sacred rule in the fluid processes mediating credit relations, processes that allow for the possibility of both equality and exploitation, trust and betrayal. Playing the debtor and promising “infinitely,” the Epilogue ends his appeal not with a call for applause but with an extravagant display of submission—kneeling down before his audience of “gentle creditors”—a gesture that he then playfully recasts as a prayer “for the Queen.” Just as the references to credit and contract suggest a profitable circle of obligation between the Epilogue and audience, the terms also hold the possibility that, for a moment at least, the speaker, his “creditors,” and even the “Queen,” are equivalent and exchangeable. The playwright may adopt a posture of deference, submitting his “body” as well as his play to the mercy of his “gentle creditors” and his queen, but in refiguring these relations in economic terms, he also gestures toward the freedoms offered by the commerce of the early modern stage.


  1. Quotations from Shakespeare's plays follow The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  2. For recent discussions of carnival in the plays, see Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York and London: Methuen, 1985); Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985); David Scott Kastan, “‘The King Hath Many Marching in His Coats,’ or, What Did You Do During the War, Daddy?” in Shakespeare Left and Right, Ivo Kamps, ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 241-58; Charles Whitney, “Festivity and Topicality in the Coventry Scene of 1 Henry IV,English Literary Renaissance 24 (1994): 410-48; and Kristen Poole, “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 46 (1995): 47-75.

  3. H. R. Coursen, The Leasing Out of England: Shakespeare's Second Henriad (Washington, DC: UP of America, 1982), 3 and 4. For other studies of the plays' economics, see Sandra K. Fischer, “‘He means to pay’: Value and Metaphor in the Lancastrian Tetralogy,” SQ 40 (1989): 149-64; and Lars Engle, Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1993), 107-28.

  4. Though more concerned with politics than economics, most new-historicist discussions of the Henry IV plays tend to regard economic interests as inherently oppressive, most notably Stephen Greenblatt's influential essay “Invisible Bullets,” which, in its revised version in his Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England ([Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1988], 21-65), applies late-sixteenth-century “evangelical colonialism” (30) to Lancastrian domestic policy. By contrast, Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, in Engendering a Nation: A feminist account of Shakespeare's English histories (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), assume a more complicated model of economic politics, one that sees the commercial activity of the tavern as having the potential to challenge fixed hierarchical structures, though in emphasizing the power of the state to criminalize and eventually quash “female entrepreneurship” (160-85, esp. 179), their conclusions bear more resemblance to Greenblatt's insistence on coercive state power than to my own interest in the democratizing potential of economic relations in early modern London.

  5. In identifying material credit with commoners rather than kings, Shakespeare departs from Holinshed's Chronicles, which abounds with references to Henry IV's money problems, detailing the parliamentary debates about subsidies and taxes needed to maintain the king's wars. See Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), ed. Henry Ellis, 6 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1807-8), 3:27-31.

  6. Exceptions to the tendency to subordinate Eastcheap to Westminster, commoners to aristocrats, and comedy to history include studies of carnival festivity in the plays as well as Howard and Rackin's discussion of female economic independence.

  7. Engle, 127. Fischer likewise keeps attention on the Crown, grounding her analysis less in everyday economic practices than in Holinshed's use of “econo-contractual” metaphors to describe Henry IV's reign (155). As a result, she interprets Shakespeare's use of contract not in terms of “mutual consent” but rather as it relates specifically to Lancastrian political strategy.

  8. Engle, 107.

  9. P. S. Atiyah, An Introduction to the Law of Contract (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). For early modern interpretations of credit, I am indebted to Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998).

  10. William West, Symbolaeographia (London, 1590), sig. ¶¶.1 (quoted here from the 1975 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum facsimile of the Bodleian copy).

  11. According to Jean-Christophe Agnew, this emphasis on conclusions rather than processes in bargaining characterizes “virtually all economic thinking,” with the effect of subsuming social and cultural conditions and motives into an ahistorical model of market relations (Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986], 3).

  12. For an excellent discussion of the affective or emotional aspects of early modern credit practices, see Theodore B. Leinwand, Theatre, finance and society in early modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999), 13-80.

  13. John Wheeler, A Treatise of Commerce (Middelburge, 1601), sigs. B1r-B2v.

  14. Thomas Tusser, Fiue hundreth pointes of good husbandrie (London, 1586), 21.

  15. Thomas Wilson, A Discourse Upon Usury, ed. R. H. Tawney (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1925), 202.

  16. Wilson, 232. See also Richard Johnson, who reminds his readers in Look on Me, London (London, 1613) that during the reign of Henry III, the “good cittizens of London, in one night, slew five hundred Jewes, for that a Jew tooke of a Christian a penny in the shilling usury, and ever after got them banished the citty” (quoted here from Illustrations of Early English Popular Literature, ed. J. Payne Collier, 2 vols. [New York: Benjamin Blom, 1966], 2:22-23).

  17. Wilson, 180. Like Wilson, the preachers at Paul's Cross typically railed against the dangers of economic individualism and looked back to an earlier, supposedly better time. For further discussion of this topic, see Miller MacLure, The Paul's Cross Sermons 1534-1642 (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1958); and Norman Jones, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

  18. Muldrew emphasizes the increasing importance of personal wealth in establishing credit during this period; according to one late-sixteenth-century writer: “commonly no man is accompted worthy of much honor, or of great trust and credit, unlesse he be rich” (quoted in Muldrew, 153). See also Susan Dwyer Amussen, An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 152-53.

  19. Thomas Lodge, An Alarum against Vsurers (1584) in The Complete Works of Thomas Lodge, 4 vols. (Glasgow: Robert Anderson, 1883), 1:13. See also Wilson, who warns of the dangers to the commonwealth when a landed gentleman is “eaten up by an usurer” (356).

  20. Roger Hacket, A Sermon Needfull for Theese Times (Oxford, 1591), sig. B3r.

  21. See Richard L. Greaves, Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1981), 609.

  22. John Stow, A Survey of London (1603), ed. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1:225.

  23. Charles Gibbon, quoted here from Jones, 148.

  24. Miles Mosse, The Arraignment and Conviction of Usurie (London, 1595), 28-30.

  25. For a valuable overview of the usury debate and the compromise of the 1571 statute, see Tawney, ed., 157.

  26. Edward Misselden, The Circle of Commerce (London, 1623), 17 (quoted here from the 1969 Da Capo Press facsimile edition).

  27. William Scott, An Essay of Drapery or the Compleate Citizen (London, 1635), sig. B2v. See also Joyce Oldham Appleby, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978).

  28. See C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).

  29. See, for example, Craig Muldrew, “Interpreting the Market: the ethics of credit and community relations in early modern England,” Social History 18 (1993): 163-83; Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977); and Agnew, 1-16.

  30. Muldrew, “Interpreting the Market,” 169. David Harris Sacks, in The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1991), also emphasizes the extensiveness of credit networks within trading communities where economic ties were such that “One trader along the line breaking faith could cause a credit crisis for everyone else in the chain” (321).

  31. Johannes Nider, On the Contracts of Merchants (1468), trans. Charles H. Reeves, ed. Ronald B. Shuman (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1966), 7 and 8.

  32. Christopher St. Germain, Doctor and Student (1531), ed. T. F. T. Plucknett and J. L. Barton (London: The Selden Society, 1974), 228.

  33. Thomas Elyot, The boke named the Governour, quoted here from Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 135.

  34. A Godlie Treatice Concerning The lawfull use of ritches (London, 1578), sig. L2r.

  35. West, sig. ¶¶.1.

  36. Wilson, 287.

  37. See, for example, Lodge, An Alarum; and Johnson, Look On Me, London.

  38. This remark is attributed to Philip Henslowe by the Lady Elizabeth's Men in a formal petition charging him with oppressive financial practices; quoted here from E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 1:367.

  39. See C. W. Brooks, Pettyfoggers and Vipers of the Commonwealth: The ‘Lower Branch’ of the Legal Profession in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 57-71. A tally of cases before the Court of Common Pleas in Michaelmas Term 1606, for example, shows that “men below the rank of gentlemen were involved as plaintiffs in 71 per cent of all litigation, and that they were a good deal more likely to sue their social superiors than to be sued by them” (Brooks, 61).

  40. Muldrew ascribes the increase in litigation both to the expansion of credit and to the “increasing complexity of obligations” but emphasizes as well the importance of the legal system in ensuring trust in the market and community (“Interpreting the Market,” 179).

  41. See John Dunne, “Trust and Political Agency” in his Interpreting Political Responsibility: Essays 1981-1989 (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990), 26-44. Dunne defines trust as “a device for coping with the freedom of other persons,” which, though subject to failure, is nonetheless “central to the understanding of political action” (33). Summarizing Locke's conception of legitimate political societies, he writes, “politics at its best is an intricate field of cooperative agency, linking a multiplicity of free agents, none of whom can know each other's future actions but all of whom must in some measure rely upon each other's future actions” (36). See also Annette Baier, “Trust and Antitrust,” Ethics 96 (1986): 231-60.

  42. Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 133. See also Mervyn James, Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in early modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 274-75.

  43. Bristol, 3.

  44. See Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: a social history 1200-1830 (London and New York: Longman, 1983).

  45. Acts of the Privy Council of England, AD 1596-7, ed. John Roche Dasent, 32 vols. (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1902), 24:95.

  46. For an especially insightful discussion of the Coventry scene that reads Falstaff as “both exploiter and spokesman for the exploited,” see Whitney, 425. See also Harry Berger Jr., “The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity,” SQ 49 (1998): 40-73.

  47. For Falstaff, and perhaps for Shakespeare, bad faith becomes a marker of high social status. “Falstaff is the first major joke by the English against their class system; he is 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,” William Empson remarks in his essay “Falstaff” in Essays on Shakespeare, David B. Pirie, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 29-78, esp. 46.

  48. Fischer, 152.

  49. Greenblatt, 52-53.

  50. Coursen, 109.

  51. Greenblatt, 44.

  52. As Elliot Krieger remarks on Francis's dilemma: “Service according to an objective, regulative time schedule, as a force opposed to the subjective, whimsical demands for immediate gratification imposed by a master, works, in 1 Henry IV, as a liberating force” (A Marxist Study of Shakespeare's Comedies [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979], 156).

  53. Engle, 111.

  54. Long associated with the dangers of unregulated commerce, engrossers garnered even more opprobrium in the late 1590s, when the government blamed the dearth of corn on the monopolistic practices of these “bad-disposed persons” who, like those responsible for the death of Robin Ostler, preferred “their own private gain above the public good” (Tudor Royal Proclamations, The Later Tudors [1588-1603], Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, eds., 3 vols. [New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1969], 3:194).

  55. See Kastan's discussion of Henry IV's “utopian solution to the problems of difference” (242).

  56. Samuel Johnson, quoted here from The Second Part of Henry the Fourth: A New Variorum Edition, ed. Matthias A. Shaaber (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1940), 319.

  57. See Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 95-119.

  58. For general discussions of the law of contract, see J. H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (London: Butterworths, 1971), 174-204; and Anson's Law of Contract, ed. A. G. Guest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

  59. F. W. Maitland, The Forms of Action at Common Law: A Course of Lectures, ed. A. H. Chaytor and W. J. Whittaker (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1936), 68. For definitions of actions of debt and assumpsit, see also Baker, 174-204; and Muldrew, Economy of Obligation, 206-9.

  60. Sir Thomas Egerton, quoted here from A. W. B. Simpson, A History of the Common Law of Contract: The Rise of the Action of Assumpsit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 319.

  61. Pointing to the importance of promises rather than property in assumpsit, Muldrew comments: “With the rise of assumpsit, the legal notion of moveable property was actually becoming less important in the early modern period than it had been in feudal times, as the stress in assumpsit was on trust in interpersonal relationships” (Economy of Obligation, 209). This is not to suggest, however, that assumpsit ignored the materiality of the exchange. The concept of “consideration” served to link the promise to an actual exchange—that is, the circumstances motivating the promise—and in this sense fulfilled a function similar to, though not identical with, quid pro quo. For further discussion of the complicated relationship between quid pro quo and consideration in the sixteenth century, see Simpson, 316-488; and J. H. Baker, “Origins of the ‘Doctrine’ of Consideration, 1535-1585” in his The Legal Profession and the Common Law: Historical Essays (London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press, 1986), 369-91.

  62. For discussions of Slade's Case, see Edward Coke, The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, ed. George Wilson, 7 vols. (London: J. Rivington, 1777), 2:91-95; A. W. B. Simpson, “The Place of Slade's Case in the History of Contract,” The Law Quarterly Review [LRQ] 74 (1958): 381-96; H. K. Lücke, “Slade's Case and the Origin of the Common Counts, Parts 1-2,” LQR 81 (1965): 422-45 and 539-61; H. K. Lücke, “Slade's Case and the Origin of the Common Counts, Part 3,” LQR 82 (1966): 81-96; J. H. Baker, “New Light on Slade's Case, Part I,” Cambridge Law Journal [CLJ] 29 (1971): 51-67; J. H. Baker, “New Light on Slade's Case, Part II,” CLJ 29 (1971): 213-36; J. H. Baker and S. F. C. Milsom, Sources of English Legal History in Private Law to 1750 (London: Butterworth, 1986), 420-41; David Ibbetson, “Assumpsit and Debt in the Early Sixteenth Century: The Origins of the Indebitatus Count,” CLJ 41 (1982): 142-61; and David Ibbetson, “Sixteenth Century Contract Law: Slade's Case in Context,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 4 (1984): 295-317.

  63. Baker, “New Light, Part II,” 226.

  64. Coke, Reports, 2:94b.

  65. Baker, “New Light, Part I,” 62n.

  66. Baker, “New Light, Part I,” 55.

  67. Baker, “New Light, Part II,” 220.

  68. In allowing the action of assumpsit in matters of debt, Coke's ruling allowed plaintiffs to avoid the corrupt wager of law practice associated with actions of debt. By the 1590s compurgation, or wager of law, was being openly abused by the practice of hiring professional oath-helpers, or “‘knights of the post,’” as they were dubbed, in place of the friends and neighbors who had traditionally testified to a defendant's reputation or trustworthiness (Baker, “New Light, Part II,” 228). As Coke writes on Slade's Case: “for now experience proves that mens consciences grow so large that the respect of their private advantage rather induces men (and chiefly those who have declining estates) to perjury” (2:95b).

  69. While disputes involving marriage contracts usually came under the jurisdiction of the Church courts, when deceit or bad faith was involved in promises of land, moveables, or money made in connection with a marriage, then the case was actionable under assumpsit. See The Reports of Sir John Spelman, ed. J. H. Baker, 2 vols. (London: Selden Society, 1978), 2:269 and 277; and Lücke, “Slade's Case, Part 1,” 435-37.

  70. If Falstaff's deployment of erotic credit here and elsewhere in the Henriad recalls feudal relations of service, it also points to the ways in which eroticism is not necessarily antithetical to commercial exchange and contract. See, for example, Walter Benn Michaels, “The Phenomenology of Contract” in his The Gold Standard: The Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: U of California P, 1987), 115-36.

  71. As Jonathan Crewe observes, the peaceful succession in this play rests on the likeness, or equivalence, between father and son: “what this situation allows is that wildness … can consensually be transferred from the scapegrace son to the father as original usurper, on one hand allowing it to be buried with the corpse and on the other permitting the instantly reformed son to become the legitimate heir” (“Reforming Prince Hal: The Sovereign Inheritor in 2 Henry IV,Renaissance Drama, n.s. 21 [1990]: 225-42, esp. 236).

  72. See Laurie E. Osborne, “Crisis of Degree in Shakespeare's Henriad,Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 25 (1985): 337-59.

  73. Robert Weimann, “Thresholds to Memory and Commodity in Shakespeare's Endings,” Representations 53 (1996): 1-20, esp. 2.

  74. For an excellent discussion of the contractual nature of early modern performance and its ties to assumpsit, see Luke Wilson, “Promissory Performances,” RenD [Renaissance Drama], n.s. 25 (1994): 59-87.

  75. For a discussion of the shift from patronage to commerce, see Kathleen E. McLuskie, “The Poets' Royal Exchange: Patronage and Commerce in Early Modern Drama,” The Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991): 53-62.

  76. Weimann, 17.

  77. Weimann, 4.

I am especially grateful to Kate Brown, Jill Frank, Gail Kern Paster, and the anonymous readers for Shakespeare Quarterly for their helpful suggestions and comments on this essay.

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Kastan, David Scott. “‘Killed with Hard Opinions’: Oldcastle, Falstaff, and the Reformed Text of 1 Henry IV.” In Textual Formations and Reformations, edited by Laurie E. Maguire and Thomas L. Berger, pp. 211-27. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kastan discusses the circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of Sir John Oldcastle, the historical inspiration for Shakespeare's Falstaff, and recounts the controversy that led to the removal of Oldcastle's name from Henry IV, Part 1. The critic takes exception to the editorial decision to restore Oldcastle's name to the Oxford text of the play, arguing that while second-hand Elizabethan and Jacobean reports of theatrical performances substantiate the name change, the fact that Shakespeare made the change should be considered a valid textual revision of the play.]

The struggle for the text is the text.

—R. Cloud

No doubt, as has long been recognized, Shakespeare did not originally intend Hal's fat tavern companion to be named “Falstaff.” As early as the 1630s, Richard James had noted that

in Shakespeares first shewe of Harrie ye fift, ye person with which he vndertook to playe a buffone was not Falstaffe, but Sr Jhon Oldcastle, and that offence beinge worthily taken by personages descended from his title, as peradventure by manie others allso whoe ought to haue him in honourable memorie, the poet was putt to make an ignorant shifte of abusing Sr Jhon Fastolphe, a man not inferior of Vertue though not so famous in pietie as the other, whoe gaue witnesse vnto the truth of our reformation with a constant and resolute martyrdom, vnto which he was pursued by the Priests, Bishops, Moncks, and Friers of those dayes.1

Apparently objecting to the defamation of the well-known Lollard martyr, the fourth Lord Cobham (as Oldcastle became through his marriage to Joan Cobham in 1408), William Brooke, the tenth holder of the title,2 seemingly compelled Shakespeare to alter the name of Sir John, acting either in his own right as lord chamberlain (as Brooke was from 8 August 1596 until his death on 5 March 1597) or through the intervention and agency of the queen (as Rowe claims: “[S]ome of the Family being then remaining, the Queen was pleas'd to command him [i.e. Shakespeare] to alter it”).3

Pale traces of the original name, of course, seem to remain in the modified text. Hal refers to Falstaff as “my old lad of the castle” (1.2.40-41), the colloquial phrase for a roisterer seemingly taking its point from the name of its original referent; and a line in act 2—“Away, good Ned. Falstaff sweats to death” (2.2.102)—is metrically irregular with Falstaff's name but arguably not with the trisyllabic “Oldcastle”4 (and the image itself is grotesquely appropriate for a man who notoriously did virtually sweat to death, being hanged in chains and burned at St. Giles Fields, the spectacular martyrdom grimly memorialized in one of the woodcuts in Foxe's Acts and Monuments). Also, in the quarto of 2 Henry IV, a speech prefix at 1.2.114 has “Old.” for “Falstaff,” a residual mark somewhat like phantom pain in an amputated limb;5 and, of course, the epilogue insists that “Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man” (lines 29-30), a disclaimer that is meaningful only if it might reasonably have been assumed on the contrary that indeed “this” might well have been “the man.”

I do not have any substantive quarrel with this familiar argument.6 I have no new evidence that would confute it nor indeed any to confirm it. It seems certain that Shakespeare, in 1 Henry IV, originally named his fat knight “Oldcastle” and under pressure changed it. The printing of the quarto in 1598 was perhaps demanded as proof of Shakespeare's willingness to respond to the concerns of the authorities.7 Oldcastle thus disappeared from the printed texts of the play, though it is less certain that he disappeared in performance: Rowland White, for example, reports a production by the Lord Chamberlain's Men in March of 1600 for the Flemish ambassador, apparently at Lord Hunsdon's house, of a play referred to as Sir John Old Castell. Though some have thought this to be The First Part of the True and Honorable History of the Life of Sir John Oldcastle by Drayton, Hathaway, Munday, and Wilson, it is almost certainly Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV rather than the play belonging to the Admiral's Men, which was unquestionably still in that company's possession (and so unavailable to the Lord Chamberlain's Men) at least as late as September 1602, when Henslowe paid Dekker ten shillings “for his adicions.”8

Yet whatever play was performed for the ambassador, clearly the character we know as Falstaff was sometimes known as Oldcastle. In Nathan Field's Amends for Ladies, published in 1618, Seldon asks, obviously referring to Falstaff's catechizing of honor in act 5 of 1 Henry IV: “Did you never see / The Play, where the fat knight hight Old-Castlel, / Did tell you truly what this honor was?” (sig. G1r). Presumably Field, for one, did see that play with “Falstaff's” catechism in Oldcastle's mouth, as seemingly did Jane Owen, who in 1634 similarly recalled “Syr Iohn Oldcastle, being exprobated of his Cowardlynes” and responding: “If through my persuyte of Honour, I shall fortune to loose an Arme, or a Leg in the wars, can Honour restore to me my lost Arme, or legge?”9

I am concerned here with what Oldcastle's elimination from and subsequent haunting of 1 Henry IV means—both for a critic of the play interested in its religio-political valences in the late 1590s, and for an editor of the text, necessarily concerned with questions of composition and transmission. Gary Taylor, of course, has recently argued that at very least what this history means is that editions of 1 Henry IV should return “Oldcastle” to the play, restoring “an important dimension of the character as first and freely conceived.”10 And notoriously the complete Oxford text does just that, although somewhat oddly the individual edition of 1 Henry IV in The Oxford Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, pointedly retains Falstaff's name, arguing sensibly that as Falstaff reappears in other plays, depending on familiarity with the name and character of the fat knight in 1 Henry IV, he must be considered, as Bevington writes, “a fictional entity, requiring a single name. Since that name could no longer be ‘Oldcastle’, it had to be ‘Falstaff’, in 1 Henry IV as in the later plays.”11

I share Bevington's resistance to Taylor's provocative editorial decision (though for reasons somewhat different from Bevington's and on grounds that he might not accept), and hope that my argument here, which attempts to reconsider the historical circumstances, both ideological and textual, of the act of naming will lend it support. Nonetheless, Taylor's position has at least one solid stanchion. It cannot be denied that the name of Shakespeare's knight was initially “Oldcastle”; and therefore it may be helpful to consider that original act of naming. Critics who have commented on the “Oldcastle” name have usually focused on the perceived slight to the honor of the Cobham title and speculated either that Shakespeare intended an insult to William Brooke (usually, it is argued, because of Brooke's putative hostility to the theater);12 or that Shakespeare intended no insult but unluckily chose his character's name, as Warburton argued in 1752: “I believe there was no malice in the matter. Shakespeare wanted a droll name to his character, and never considered whom it belonged to.”13

It seems to me unlikely that Shakespeare set out to mock or goad Lord Cobham, not least because, if the play was written, as most scholars assume, in late 1596 or early in 1597, Cobham, who became lord chamberlain in August 1596, was a dangerous man to offend; and no one has put forth any credible motive for the pragmatic Shakespeare to engage in such uncharacteristically imprudent behavior.14 But Warburton's formulation can't be quite right either: that Shakespeare “never considered” to whom the name “Oldcastle” belonged. If the play does not use the fat knight to travesty the Elizabethan Lord Cobham, certainly it does use Sir John to travesty Cobham's medieval predecessor. Contemporaries seemed to have no doubt that Shakespeare's character referred to the Lollard knight. The authors of the 1599 Sir John Oldcastle consciously set out to correct the historical record Shakespeare had distorted: “It is no pampered glutton we present, / Nor aged Councellour to youthfull sinne, / But one whose vertue shone above the rest, / A Valiant Martyr, and a vertuous Peere” (prologue, 2.6-9). Thomas Fuller similarly lamented the travestying of the Lollard martyr by “Stage poets,” and was pleased that “Sir John Falstaff hath relieved the memory of Sir John Oldcastle, and of late is substituted buffoon in his place.”15 George Daniel, in 1649, was another who saw through Shakespeare's fiction, like Fuller commending “The Worthy Sr whom Falstaffe's ill-us'd Name / Personates on the Stage, lest Scandall might / Creep backward & blott Martyr.”16

If Shakespeare's fat knight, however named, is readily understood to “personate” the historical Oldcastle and “blott martyr,” one might well ask what is at stake in his presentation as a “buffoon.” Whatever Oldcastle was, he was hardly that.17 Oldcastle had served the young Prince Henry in his Welsh command but had remained a relatively undistinguished Herefordshire knight until his marriage, his third, to Joan Cobham, the heiress of the estate of the third Baron Cobham. At last wiving wealthily, Oldcastle became an influential landowner with manors and considerable landholdings in five counties. He was assigned royal commissions and was called to sit in the House of Lords.

However, for all his newfound political respectability, Oldcastle remained theologically “unsound.” Clearly he held heterodox views. He was widely understood to be a protector of heretical preachers, and was himself in communication with Bohemian Hussites and possibly sent Wycliffite literature to Prague. Perhaps inspired by the decision of the council at Rome early in 1413 to condemn Wycliffe's work as heretical and certainly encouraged by the newly crowned Henry V's need for ecclesiastical support, the English Church began vigorously to prosecute the Lollard heterodoxy, and Oldcastle himself was tried before Archbishop Arundel in September 1413 and declared a heretic. Oldcastle was, however, given forty days to recant his heresy, no doubt because of his long friendship with the king, and during this period of confinement he succeeded in escaping from the Tower. Following his escape, a rebellion was raised in his name and an attack on the king was planned for Twelfth Night. The king learned of the uprising and surprised and scattered the insurgent troops mustered at Ficket Field. Oldcastle fled and remained at large for three years, hiding in the Welsh marches. On 1 December 1417, news of his capture reached London. Oldcastle was carried to the capital, brought before parliament, indicted, and condemned. He was drawn through London to the newly erected gallows in St. Giles Field. Standing on the scaffold, Oldcastle, it was “popularly believed,”18 promised that on the third day following his death he would rise again, whereupon he was hanged in chains and burned, as Francis Thynne writes, “for the doctrine of wiclyffe and for treasone (as that age supposed).”19

Although it took considerably longer than three days, Oldcastle was finally resurrected. As the English Reformation sought a history, Oldcastle was rehabilitated and restored to prominence by a Protestant martyrology that found in his life and death the pattern of virtuous opposition to a corrupt clergy that underpinned the godly nation itself. Most powerfully in the five Elizabethan editions of Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563-96), Oldcastle emerged, as Foxe writes, as one “so faithful and obedient to God, so submiss[ive] to his king, so sound in his doctrine, so constant in his cause, so afflicted for the truth, so ready and prepared for death” that he may “worthily be adorned with the title of martyr, which is in Greek as much as a witnessbearer.”20

Foxe, however, must explain away the charge of treason if Oldcastle's life is to bear compelling witness to the truth of the emerging Protestant nation. For Oldcastle to serve not just as a martyr whose life testifies to the perpetual struggle of “the true doctrine of Christ's gospel” against the “proud proceedings of popish errors”21 but also as the saving remnant on which the godly nation is built, his spiritual faith cannot be in conflict with his political loyalties. The heresy of his proto-Protestant Lollardy is easily dismissed by an emergent Protestant historiography but, since the Protestant cause in sixteenth-century England was inevitably tied to the monarchical claims of authority over the church, the charge of treason is less easily accommodated. Oldcastle's putative participation in a rebellion against the king puts at risk what Peter Lake has called “the Foxian synthesis” of “a view of the church centered on the Christian prince and one centered on the godly community.”22

Foxe, of course, successfully locates Oldcastle within this synthesis. He erases the tension produced by the insurrection by erasing from the chronicle accounts Oldcastle's involvement in it.23 Indeed the erasure is literal, though Edward Hall rather than Foxe is the agent. Foxe reports how Hall had echoed earlier chroniclers in writing of Oldcastle's conspiracy “against the king” and was preparing to publish his account, but, when a servant brought him “the book of John Bale, touching the story of the lord Cobham,” which had “newly come over” from the continent, Hall, “within two nights after … rased and cancelled all that he had written before against sir John Oldcastle and his fellows.”24 For Foxe, the account of Hall's erasure of Oldcastle's treason is a conversion narrative that serves to guarantee Foxe's own bebunking of the chronicle accounts of the Oldcastle rebellion.

Oldcastle's rebellion is finally for Foxe not an inconvenient fact but an outright invention of biased historians. He shows the inconsistencies and contradictions in the earlier accounts and concludes that it is merely “pretensed treason … falsely ascribed unto [Oldcastle] in his indictment, rising upon wrong suggestion and false surmise, and aggravated by rigour of words, rather than upon any ground of due probation.” The invention, continues Foxe, is ideologically motivated, the charge rising “principally of his [i.e. Oldcastle's] religion, which first brought him in hatred of the bishops; the bishops brought him in hatred of the king; the hatred of the king brought him to his death and martyrdom.”25

But even if Oldcastle is innocent of treason, Foxe still must inconveniently admit “the hatred of the king,” thus exposing the fault line in a historiography that would appropriate Lollardy as the precursor of the national church. If Oldcastle is, as a Lollard, a martyr of the Protestant faith, he is, also, as one hated by the king, an uncomfortable hero of the Protestant nation. The unavoidable tension between Oldcastle's faith and royal authority makes impossible the identity of the True Church and the godly nation that Elizabethan England officially demanded.

Perhaps it is on this note that one can begin to assess the question of why it is that Shakespeare should ever have chosen to portray the historical Oldcastle as the irresponsible knight of his play. In 1752, an article in Gentleman's Magazine, signed only P. T., asked, “[C]ould Shakespeare make a pampered glutton, a debauched monster, of a noble personage, who stood foremost on the list of English reformers and Protestant martyrs, and that too at a time when reformation was the Queen's chief study? 'Tis absurd to suppose, 'tis impossible for any man to imagine.”26 P. T. undertakes to explain away the evidence that Falstaff ever was Oldcastle in Shakespeare's play, but since that evidence seems as incontrovertible as the evidence that Oldcastle, as P. T. says, “stood foremost on the list of English reformers and Protestant martyrs,” one must assume that Shakespeare deliberately engaged in the very character assassination P. T. finds impossible to imagine.

Gary Taylor, committed to the original and the restored presence of Oldcastle in the play, has argued that Oldcastle's notoriety as a proto-Protestant hero is precisely that which demanded Shakespeare's travesty. John Speed, in The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611), had objected to the presentation of Oldcastle as “a Ruffian, a Robber, and a Rebell” by the Jesuit Robert Parsons (writing as N. D.); he complained that Parson's evidence was “taken from the Stage-plaiers” and railed against “this Papist and his Poet, of like conscience for lies, the one euer faining, and the other euer falsifying the truth.”27 Marshaling evidence that purports to establish Shakespeare's sympathy to Catholic positions if not Shakespeare's commitment to the Catholic faith itself, Taylor, like Speed, takes the caricature of Oldcastle to suggest at very least Shakespeare's “willingness to exploit a point of view that many of his contemporaries would have regarded as ‘papist.’” Noting other dramatic facts that admit of such an interpretation, Taylor concludes: “In such circumstances, the possibility that Shakespeare deliberately lampooned Oldcastle can hardly be denied.”28

Certainly it can hardly be denied that Shakespeare has deliberately lampooned Oldcastle, but I think Taylor has somewhat misjudged the “circumstances” in which Shakespeare was writing and in which his play would be received. Whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic or Catholic sympathizer,29 Shakespeare's audience in 1596 or 1597 was far more likely to see the lampooning of Oldcastle as the mark of a Protestant bias rather than a papist one, providing evidence of the very fracture in the Protestant community that made the accommodation of the Lollard past so problematic. Lollardy increasingly had become identified not with the godly nation but with the more radical Puritans, the “godly brotherhood,” as some termed themselves, that had tried and failed to achieve a “further reformation” of the Church of England. If in the first decades of Elizabeth's rule the Lollards were seen (with the encouragement of Foxe) as the precursors of the national church, in the last decades they were seen (with the encouragement of Bancroft and other voices of the Anglican polity) as the precursors of the nonconforming sectaries who threatened to undermine it.

No doubt recognizing that the radical Protestants were the inheritors of the doctrine and the discipline of the Lollards, as well as their reputation for sedition, John Hayward, in his Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII, notes, as Daniel Woolf has observed, “with some regret the growth of Lollardy.” The nonconformist community, the “favourers and followers of Wickliffes opinions,” were consistently at odds with the crown, “which set the favour of the one and the faith of the other at great separation and distance.” The political tensions existing at the end of Richard's reign and continuing through Henry's insure that Lollardy does not, in Hayward's history, comfortably anticipate the Protestant nation. “For Heyward,” writes Woolf, “quite unlike John Foxe, Lollards were not early protestants but progenitors of Elizabethan Brownists, violators of the Reformation principle cuius regio, eius religio.30

But if Hayward recognized the nonconformist genealogy, he was not alone in doing so. In 1591, an almanac, written by a conforming astrologer identifying himself as “Adam Foulweather,” predicted that “out of the old stock of heresies” would soon “bloom new schismatical opinions and strange sects, as Brownists, Barowists and such balductum devises, to the great hinderance to the unitie of the Church and confusion of the true faith.”31 And the separatist leader, Francis Johnson, writing defiantly from the Clink in 1593, himself confirmed his ties to “the old stock of heresies,” proudly asserting that his opinions were identical to those that “were accounted Lollardye and heresye in the holy servants and martirs of Christ in former ages,” like “the Lord Cobham (who was hanged and burnte hanging).”32

Under the leadership of John Field (the father of Nathaniel Field, the author of Amends for Ladies), nonconforming Protestants had in the 1580s attempted the establishment of Presbyterianism by parliamentary authority, but by the mid-1590s, the government, led by Whitgift's rigorous promotion of uniformity and the queen's continuing insistence “upon the truth of the reformation which we have already,”33 had succeeded in its campaign against the radicals. Christopher Hatton's appointment as lord chancellor, as Thomas Digges remembered, marked a change of policy whereby not merely papists but “puritans were trounced and traduced as troublers of the state,”34 and by the early 1590s, radical Protestantism, conceived of by the government as a threat to the polity, was in retreat, at least as a political movement. The “seditious sectaries,” as the 1593 “Act to retain the Queen's subjects in obedience”35 termed the nonconformists, were driven underground or abroad; and advanced Protestantism, even as its evangelical impulse thrived, was, in its various sectarian forms, thoroughly “discredited,” as Claire Cross has written, “as a viable alternative to the established Church in the eyes of most of the influential laity who still worked actively to advance a further reformation.”36 Whatever Shakespeare's own religious leanings, then, certainly most members of his audience in 1596 would most likely have viewed the travesty of a Lollard martyr not as a crypto-Catholic tactic but an entirely orthodox gesture, designed to reflect upon the non-conformity that the queen herself had termed “prejudicial to the religion established, to her crown, to her government, and to her subjects.”37

Yet even if Taylor has mistaken the probable political implications of the lampooning of Oldcastle in 1596, what is for Taylor the more central bibliographical argument in favor of restoring the censored name “Oldcastle” to the text of 1 Henry IV seemingly remains unaffected. Taylor argues that “the name ‘Falstaff’ fictionalizes, depoliticizes, secularizes, and in the process trivializes the play's most memorable character,”38 and that argument would hold regardless of what the political valence of the suppressed “Oldcastle” actually is. Taylor's insistence that restoring “Oldcastle” effectively rehistoricizes the character of Sir John is compelling (even if I would rehistoricize it differently). What, however, is to me troubling about the editorial implications of this argument is that restoring “Oldcastle,” if it rehistoricizes the character, effectively de-historicizes and in the process dematerializes the text in which he appears.39

Whether or not the travesty of Oldcastle would have shocked what Taylor calls “right-minded Protestants”40—and the answer clearly must depend upon what is understood to make a Protestant “right-minded”—whatever meanings attach to Shakespeare's fat knight, as Taylor's own argument shows, are not functions of an autonomous and self-contained text but are produced by the intersection of Shakespeare's text with something that lies outside it, a surrounding cultural text, what Roland Barthes calls “the volume of sociality,”41 that the literary text both mediates and transforms. Yet if Taylor's critical response to the censored name “Oldcastle” ingeniously acknowledges the interdependency of the literary and social text, his reintroduction of “Oldcastle” to the printed text paradoxically works to deny it.

Taylor insists that we should restore the name “Oldcastle” to the play since the change “was forced upon Shakespeare” and the restoration allows us to return to “Shakespeare's original conception.”42 “Oldcastle” is what Shakespeare initially intended and, therefore, argues Taylor, what modern editions should print. “So far as I can see,” Taylor writes, “the chief, indeed the only objection to restoring the original reading (Oldcastle) is that the substituted reading (Falstaff) has become famous.”43 But there is at least one other substantive objection to the restoration: that is, that all the authoritative texts print “Falstaff” and none prints “Oldcastle.” “Oldcastle” may return us to “Shakespeare's original conception,” but literally “Oldcastle” is not a “reading” at all.44

To disregard this fact is to idealize the activity of authorship, removing it from the social and material mediations that permit intentions to be realized in print and in performance. It is to remove the text from its own complicating historicity.45 The restoration of “Oldcastle” enacts a fantasy of unmediated authorship paradoxically mediated by the Oxford edition itself. Taylor here privileges “what Shakespeare originally intended”46 over the realized text that necessarily preserves multiple (and sometimes contradictory) intentions. While Taylor's commitment here to authorial intention is obviously not in itself an unknown or unproductive theoretical position,47 what is undeniably odd about this particular exercise of it is that it seemingly rejects what is the central achievement of the Oxford Shakespeare, which differentiates itself from its predecessors by acknowledging the fact that dramatic production in Shakespeare's England was never an autonomous authorial achievement but a complex social and theatrical activity in which authorship was only one determinant. The Oxford Shakespeare is, in Taylor's words, “an edition conspicuously committed to the textual and critical implications of the recognition that Shakespeare was a theatre poet, whose work found its intended fruition only in the collaborative theatrical enterprise for which he wrote.”48

Obviously Gary Taylor understands better than most editors that dramatic texts are produced by multiple collaborations, and the Oxford edition uniquely attempts to register these, presenting not “the literary, pretheatrical text” but a text as it appears “in the light of theatrical practice.”49 Yet what allows him in the case of the disputed name of Falstaff/Oldcastle to privilege Shakespeare's original intention over the operations of “the collaborative theatrical enterprise,” the necessarily multiple and dispersed intentionalities of Renaissance playmaking, is Taylor's certainty that the change from “Oldcastle” in 1 Henry IV was “forced upon” the playwright; that is, the replacement of “Oldcastle” is taken as evidence of an unsolicited and irresistible interference with the author's intentions rather than as a symptom of the inevitable compromise and accommodation that allow a play to reach the stage or the bookshop. For Taylor the issue is clear: “The change of name is not an instance of revision but of censorship.”50 And as an instance of censorship it is a “depredation” to be editorially undone.

Indeed, it does seem certain that Shakespeare originally intended to call his character “Oldcastle,” and it seems equally obvious that Shakespeare was, in some fashion, compelled to change the name. But the necessary vagueness of that “in some fashion” suggests a problem with the appeal to intention. If Taylor is correct to say that we “know what Shakespeare originally intended,” his secondary premise is more vulnerable: that we know “why that intention was abandoned.”51 In fact we do not. If it does seem clear that political pressure was applied, it is less so in what form it was exerted. Taylor speaks confidently of “the censor's intervention,”52 but there is no record of any such action. It seems probable that Richard James's account is largely correct, that the Elizabethan Lord Cobham took “offence” at the travesty of a former holder of the title. But it is worth remembering that the scholarly James is writing well after the fact and with no obvious connection to any of the participants; and, although Nicholas Rowe's testimony is offered as “independent confirmation that the Cobhams were responsible” for the censorship,53 Rowe is writing at even a further remove from the events, and Rowe, as we've seen, actually says not that the Cobhams but that “the Queen” commanded the alteration, suggesting another source of pressure and muddying our sense of the nature of the interference with Shakespeare's text.54

My point is not to deny that governmental authorities were unhappy with the parody of the Lollard martyr, Oldcastle, but only to indicate that the available evidence does not allow us to say precisely why “Oldcastle” disappeared from the text of 1 Henry IV. An influential family seems unquestionably to have objected to the name “Oldcastle,” but it is less certain that the elimination of that name was a result of the operations of a process we can confidently and precisely identify as censorship. This is not to split hairs but to move to the heart of the bibliographical argument. If we have an example of the external domination of authorship, any edition of 1 Henry IV that was committed to the recovery of Shakespeare's artistic intentions might well introduce—though certainly not reintroduce—“Oldcastle” into the printed text; although an edition, like Oxford's, that insists “that Shakespeare was a theatre poet” could plausibly, even in the case of such censorship, have found “Falstaff” to be the appropriate reading, since censorship was one of the inescapable conditions of a theater poet's professional existence.

But we do not in fact know that the replacement of “Oldcastle” with “Falstaff” was an effect of governmental imposition rather than an example of the inevitable, if arguably undesirable, compromises that authors make with and within the institutions of dramatic production. In the absence of documentation, we cannot tell whether we have a text marred by forces beyond the author's control or a text marked by the author's effort to function within the existing conditions in which plays were written and performed. It does seem certain that Lord Cobham objected to the scurrilous treatment of Oldcastle in the play, but we do not have the evidence that would tell us whether “Falstaff” is evidence of Shakespeare's subsequent loss of control over his text or of his effort to keep control of it; that is, we cannot be certain whether “Falstaff” resulted from the play's censorship or from its revision.

But the very uncertainty is as revealing as it is frustrating, suggesting that often no rigid distinction between the two can be maintained. Authority and authorship were usually not discrete and opposed sources of agency but instead were interdependent activities that helped constitute the drama in Elizabethan England.55 No doubt some form of interference from above led Shakespeare to change Oldcastle's name to “Falstaff,” but scrutiny and regulation were among the determining circumstances of playmaking no less than were boy actors in the theater or casting off copy in the printing house. Playwrights worked with and around censors to get their texts to the stage and into the shops. Finding what was acceptable to the censor was as necessary as finding out from the actors what played well. We cannot then say that “Falstaff” represents the “domination of the author's meaning.”56 “Falstaff” seems rather the evidence of the author's desire to have his meanings realized on stage and in print. Certainly the use of “Falstaff” in subsequent plays suggests that Shakespeare, however happily, accepted the compromise of his artistic integrity, brilliantly incorporating it into his own intentionality.

Obviously we do not know what Shakespeare and his company thought about the change of name in 1 Henry IV, but, claims Taylor, “the later intentions of Shakespeare and his company only matter in relation to a single question: would he (or they) have restored ‘Oldcastle’ to Part 1 if given the chance.”57 For Taylor the answer, of course, is “Yes,” confirming his decision to print “Oldcastle” in the edited text of the play. The stage history that apparently shows 1 Henry IV occasionally performed “with the original designation intact,” even after 2 Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V were written with the character of Sir John named “Falstaff,” serves for Taylor as evidence that Shakespeare or Shakespeare's company continued to imagine the fat knight of 1 Henry IV as “Oldcastle.”58

But the argument from the stage history is at best inconclusive. Even ignoring the fact that intentions other than those of Shakespeare or his company might determine the choice of name especially in a private performance, simply on the basis of the frequency of allusions to Falstaff in the seventeenth century (more than to any other Shakespearean character),59 it seems clear that the play was far more frequently played with the new name in place than with the residual “Oldcastle.” The popularity of the character known as Falstaff was virtually proverbial. Sir Thomas Palmer remarks Falstaff's ability to captivate an audience as one benchmark of theatrical renown: “I could … tell how long Falstaff from cracking nuts hath kept the throng,” he says in a prefatory poem to the 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher folio, to indicate a standard against which to measure the collaborators' putatively greater success.60 And Leonard Digges writes: “When let but Falstaffe come / Hall [sic], Poines, the rest—you shall scarce have a roome / All is so pester'd.”61 Sir Henry Herbert's office-book registers Falstaff's impressive cultural currency, referring to the play itself, as performed by the King's men at Whitehall on “New-years night” of 1624-25, as The First Part of Sir John Falstaff.62

Nonetheless, a bibliographical argument against Taylor's claim that Shakespeare or at least his company continued to think of Sir John as “Oldcastle” seems finally more compelling even than the theatrical one: his friends and fellow sharers were in fact “given the chance” to restore the censored name and manifestly decided not to return Oldcastle to the play. With the decision to collect and publish Shakespeare's plays in a Folio edition, Heminges and Condell had the perfect opportunity to reinstate “Oldcastle.” Indeed, they advertise the virtue of the 1623 Folio as repairing the defects of the earlier quartos, curing texts previously “maimed, and deformed” and printing them now “as he [i.e. Shakespeare] conceiued them.”63 At the time of the printing of the First Folio, no Cobham was around to enforce the change of name demanded by the tenth Lord Cobham's sensitivity in 1596: Henry Brooke, the eleventh Lord Cobham, had been found guilty of treason in 1603 for his activity in a plot to place Arabella Stuart on the throne, and he remained confined in the Tower until his death in 1619. The Cobham title then remained unfilled until 1645. Yet in 1623, with the Cobham title discredited and vacant, Heminges and Condell did not see the restoration of “Oldcastle” to the text of 1 Henry IV as a necessary emendation to return the text to the uncontaminated form in which it was first “conceiued.”

Taylor offers a conjectural argument that perhaps they “tried unsuccessfully” to reinstate the “Oldcastle” name: “The delay in printing Folio Henry IV could easily have risen because of an attempt to secure permission from the new Master of the Revels … to restore the original surname.” Taylor, however, is forced to concede: “If Heminges and Condell did attempt to restore ‘Oldcastle’, they obviously failed. …” Yet in the absence of any evidence that they in fact did try to restore the name or any that they were likely to have failed had they so tried, it is hard to resist the all too obvious conclusion that Taylor strenuously works to avoid: “that Heminges and Condell, as Shakespeare's literary executors, were happy enough to perpetuate ‘Falstaff’ in Part 1.64 But so it seems they were. With no obvious impediment to reinstating “Oldcastle,” Heminges and Condell retained the name “Falstaff,” providing evidence not of Shakespeare's original intention, no doubt, but of the complex interplay of authorial and nonauthorial intentions that allowed 1 Henry IV to be produced (indeed that allows any text to be produced), providing evidence, that is, that the play is not autonomous and self-defined but maddeningly alive in and to the world. “Falstaff” is the mark of the play's existence in history, and, perhaps in their most telling bibliographical decision Heminges and Condell wisely left his “rejection” to Hal.65


  1. Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 143. James's account appears in the dedicatory epistle to his manuscript edition of Thomas Hoccleve's “The legend and defence of ye Noble knight and Martyr Sir Jhon Oldcastel” (Bodleian Library, MS James 34). The epistle was first published in 1841 by James Orchard Halliwell [-Phillipps], and the entire manuscript was printed in The Poems Etc., of Richard James, B.D., ed. Alexander B. Grosart (London: Chiswick Press, 1880). In his “William Shakespeare, Richard James and the House of Cobham,” RES, n.s., 38 (1987): 334-54, Gary Taylor dates the manuscript in “late 1633 or early 1634” (341).

  2. Following the DNB, most commentators identify William Brooke and his son Henry as the seventh and eighth Lords Cobham, but see The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by G. E. C[ockayne], rev. ed., ed. Vicary Gibbs, vol. 3 (London: St. Catherine Press, 1913), 341-51, where they are identified as the tenth and eleventh holders. See also the genealogical tables in David McKeen, A Memory of Honour: The Life of William Brooke. Lord Cobham, vol. 2 (Salzburg, Austria: Universität Salzburg, 1986), 700-702.

  3. Nicholas Rowe, “Some Account of the Life, & c. of Mr. William Shakespear,” in The Works of Mr. William Shakespeare, vol. 1 (London: Jacob Tonson, 1709), ix.

  4. In his “Revision in Shakespeare's Plays,” in Editing and Editors: A Retrospect, ed. Richard Landon (New York: AMS Press, 1988), 72, Stanley Wells says that this is “the only verse line in which [Falstaff's] name occurs” and notes that it “is restored to a decasyllable if ‘Oldcastle’ is substituted for ‘Falstaff.’” But it is worth observing that at least in the early editions this is not “a verse line” at all. The line appears as verse only following Pope. In all the early quartos, as well as in the Folio, the line appears in a prose passage. In “‘This is not the man’: On Calling Falstaff Falstaff,” Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography, n.s., 4 (1990): 59-71, Thomas A. Pendleton contests the assertion that the missing syllable argues for a merely perfunctory revision, pointing out how metrically rough the entire section is (and recognizing that it is printed as prose in the earliest editions), and how many simple ways there are to regularize the line if one only sought to substitute “Falstaff” for “Oldcastle” (62-63).

  5. The text's “Old.” could, however, stand for “Old man” (“I know thee not, old man”) rather than “Oldcastle.”

  6. There has, of course, been much discussion of the name change, most notably Gary Taylor's “The Fortunes of Oldcastle,” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 85-100; idem, “William Shakespeare, Richard James and the House of Cobham” RES, n.s., 38 (1987): 334-54; E. A. J. Honigmann, “Sir John Oldcastle: Shakespeare's Martyr,” in “Fanned and Winnowed Opinions,” ed. John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton (London: Methuen, 1987), 118-32; Pendleton, “‘This is not the man’”; Jonathan Goldberg, “The Commodity of Names: ‘Falstaff’ and ‘Oldcastle’ in 1 Henry IV,” in Reconfiguring the Renaissance: Essays in Critical Materialism, ed. Jonathan Crewe (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1992), 76-88; and Eric Sams, “Oldcastle and the Oxford Shakespeare,” N&Q, n.s., 40 (1993): 180-85. See also Rudolph Fiehler, “How Oldcastle Became Falstaff,” MLQ 16 (1955): 16-28; and Alice-Lyle Scoufus, Shakespeare's Typological Satire: A Study of the Falstaff-Oldcastle Problem (Athens: University of Ohio Press, 1978).

  7. See E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), 382, though it is perhaps worth noting that The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, in which Oldcastle appears, was published by Thomas Creede also in 1598.

  8. See Henslowe's Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 216. Gary Taylor (in “Fortunes,” 90) has similarly suggested that the performance for the ambassador (reported in a letter of 8 March 1599/1600 to Robert Sydney, in Letters and Memorials of State, ed. Arthur Collins, vol. 2 [London, 1746], 175) must be Shakespeare's play, but Eric Sams (“Oldcastle and the Oxford Shakespeare”) has, energetically, if not entirely convincingly, argued that “there is no objective reason to suppose that the text was not copied, or borrowed, or indeed commandeered, by the court company, the Lord Chamberlain's men” (182).

  9. The reference from Jane Owen's An Antidote Against Purgatory (1634) is reported by R. W. F. Martin, “A Catholic Oldcastle,” N&Q, n.s., 40 (1993): 185-86.

  10. Stanley Wells et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 330. John Jowett has argued, on somewhat similar grounds, that Peto and Bardolph were names “introduced at the same time as Falstaff,” and that their original names, Harvey and Russell (present in Q1 at 1.2.158), like Falstaff's, should be restored in modern editions. See his “The Thieves in 1 Henry IV,RES 38 (1987): 325-33.

  11. 1 Henry IV, ed. David Bevington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 108.

  12. See, for example, J. Dover Wilson, “The Origin and Development of Shakespeare's Henry IV,The Library, 4th ser., 26 (1945-46): 1-16 (13), who argues that Cobham was “a man puritanically inclined and inimical to the theatre.” See also E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 1:297. William Green, however, in Shakespeare's “Merry Wives of Windsor” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), has demonstrated that during Cobham's term as lord chamberlain “not one piece of legislation hostile to the theater was enacted” and, in fact, between 1592 and his death in 1597, Lord Cobham “was absent from every meeting of the Council at which a restraining piece of theatrical legislation was passed” (113-14).

  13. The Works of Shakespear, ed. William Warburton, vol. 4 (1747), 103.

  14. See Robert J. Fehrenbach, “‘When Lord Cobham and Edmund Tilney were att odds’: Oldcastle, Falstaff, and the Date of 1 Henry IV,Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 87-101. But see also Honigmann, “Sir John Oldcastle,” who argues that the play was intended “to annoy the Cobhams” and “to amuse Essex” (127-28), and suggests that the play “was written—or at least begun” in the first half of 1596 “before Lord Cobham became Lord Chamberlain” (122).

  15. Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain (London, 1655), bk. 4, 168.

  16. George Daniel, Trinarchodia, in The Poems of George Daniel, esq. of Beswick, Yorkshire, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, vol. 4 (privately printed, 1878), 112.

  17. The best account of the life of Oldcastle is still W. T. Waugh's “Sir John Oldcastle,” English Historical Review 20 (1905): 434-56, 637-58. See also the entry on Oldcastle in the DNB written by James Tait. The following paragraphs are indebted to both.

  18. See DNB, s.v. “Oldcastle, Sir John.” Stow, in his Annales of England (1592), reports that “the last words that he spake, was to sir Thomas of Erpingham, adjuring him, that if he saw him rise from death to life again, the third day, he would procure that his sect might be in peace and quiet” (572).

  19. Quoted in McKeen, Memory of Honour, 1:22. Thynne's “treatise of the lord Cobhams” was written to honor Lord Cobham's admission to the Privy Council on 2 February 1586 for inclusion in the 1586/7 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, but was excised from the edition along with other parts that touched on contemporary political events. Thynne presented an elegant manuscript version (British Museum MS Add. 37666) to William's son, Henry, in December 1598. See David Carlson, “The Writings and Manuscript Collections of the Elizabethan Alchemist, Antiquary, and Herald Francis Thynne,” HLQ 52 (1989): 203-72, esp. 210-11, 235-36.

  20. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. Josiah Pratt, in The Church Historians of England (London: Seeleys, 1855), 3:350.

  21. Ibid., 2:265.

  22. Lake, “Presbyterianism, the Idea of a National Church and the Argument from Divine Right,” in Protestantism and the National Church in Sixteenth-Century England, ed. Peter Lake and Maria Dowling (London: Croom Helm, 1987), 193-224 (195).

  23. Annabel Patterson has kindly shared with me a draft of a forthcoming essay, “‘All Affections Set Apart’: Sir John Oldcastle as Symbol of Reformation Historiography,” that more extensively treats much of this material. Patterson's interest in the story of Oldcastle, however, is less for its implications for understanding developments in English Protestantism than for understanding the development of Renaissance historiography.

  24. Foxe, Acts and Monuments, 3:377-78.

  25. Ibid., 3:543.

  26. P. T., “Observations on Shakespeare's Falstaff,” Gentleman's Magazine 22 (October 1752), 459-61. Rudolph Fiehler, in “How Oldcastle Became Falstaff,” has suggested that it is “not inconceivable” that P. T. was actually William Warburton (19).

  27. John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611), 637.

  28. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 99.

  29. I remain unpersuaded that Shakespeare was a Catholic, though for a recent argument making a provocative case for a “Catholic Shakespeare” (126), see E. A. J. Honigmann, Shakespeare: The “Lost Years” (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985).

  30. D. R. Woolf, The Idea of History in Early Stuart England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 109. The two parts of Hayward's Life and Raigne of King Henrie IIII have recently been published by the Camden Society, ed. John J. Manning (London: Royal Historical Society, 1991), and the quoted material is on 90-91. For an account of the association of Lollards with sedition, see Margaret Aston, “Lollardy and Sedition 1381-1431,” Past and Present 17 (1960): 1-44.

  31. Quoted in John Booty, “Tumult in Cheapside: The Hacket Conspiracy,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 42 (1973): 293.

  32. “That Fraunces Johnson For His Writing Is Not Under The Danger Of The Statute Of 35 Elizabeth, Chapter I …,” in The Writings of John Greenwood and Henry Barrow, ed. Leland H. Carlson (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1970), 463. An incomplete version of the document (Lansdowne MSS. 75, item 25, fols. 52-53) appears in John Strype, Annals of the Reformation, vol. 4 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1824), 192-94.

  33. See J. E. Neale, Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 1584-1601 (New York: Norton, 1966), esp. 58-83; and Patrick Collinson, “John Field and Elizabethan Puritanism,” in Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (London: Hambledon Press, 1983), 335-70. The quotation from Elizabeth appears in Neale, Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 163.

  34. Quoted in Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (1967; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 388.

  35. 35 Eliz. c. 1; in J. R. Tanner, Tudor Constitutional Documents (1922; reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 197-200. Neale sees the harsh turn against the Protestant sectaries, equating schism with sedition, “as a revolution in parliamentary policy” accomplished by Whitgift and his party. See Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 280-97.

  36. Claire Cross, Church and People, 1450-1660: The Triumph of the Laity in the English Church (Glasgow: Fontana, 1976), 152. Nonetheless, if “further reformation of the Church of England was, for the moment, out of the question,” we must recognize what Patrick Collinson has called “the paradox that the miscarriage of the further reformation coincided with the birth of the great age of puritan religious experience” (Collinson, Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 433).

  37. Quoted in Neale, Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 2:163.

  38. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 95.

  39. Jonathan Goldberg, in his essay in Reconfiguring the Renaissance (see n. 6), similarly argues that the restoration of the name “Oldcastle” works to “remove the traces of the history that produced the earliest texts of 1 Henry IV” (83).

  40. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 97.

  41. Roland Barthes, “The Theory of the Text,” in Untying the Text: A Post-Structural Reader, ed. Robert Young (Boston and London: Routledge, 1981): 31-47 (39).

  42. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 88.

  43. Ibid., 89; my emphasis.

  44. In this regard it is notably different from the expurgation of profanity in the Folio text. The uncensored forms exist in the 1598 quarto as readings that can be restored.

  45. James Thorpe, in a seminal essay, “The Aesthetics of Textual Criticism,” PMLA 80 (1965): 465-82, argued that in every work of art “the intentions of the person we call the author … become entangled with the intentions of all the others who have a stake in the outcome.” Jerome J. McGann offers perhaps the most influential and sustained account of the literary text as a “social product,” first in A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) and most recently in his The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). See, however, the essay by G. Thomas Tanselle, “Historicism and Critical Editing,” SB 39 (1986): 1-46, esp. 20-27.

  46. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 90.

  47. See G. Thomas Tanselle, “The Editorial Problem of Final Authorial Intention,” SB 32 (1979): 309-54.

  48. Gary Taylor and John Jowett, Shakespeare Reshaped: 1606-1623 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 237.

  49. Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 311.

  50. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 88.

  51. Ibid., 90.

  52. Ibid., 85.

  53. Ibid., 87.

  54. It is worth wondering about how much weight to attach to Rowe's “confirmation.” Rowe follows Richard Davies in recording the apocryphal story about Shakespeare's “frequent practice of Deer-stealing” in “a Park that belong'd to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot”; and the very passage that comments on the alteration of the name of “Oldcastle” includes the probably fanciful account, derived from John Dennis, of Queen Elizabeth's delight with the “Character of Falstaff” and her order to Shakespeare to write “one Play more, and to shew him in Love” (“Some Account of the Life,” v, viii-ix).

  55. in “Buc and the Censorship of Sir John van Olden Barnavelt in 1619,” RES, n.s., 39 (1988): 39-63 (43), T. H. Howard-Hill has claimed, for example, that Tilney's “relationship with the players although ultimately authoritarian was more collegial than adversarial.” For a full account of the mechanisms of censorship, see Richard Dutton, Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991). See also Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), who, while less interested in the processes of control than in its effects, sees the necessity for “assuming some degree of cooperation and understanding on the part of the authorities themselves” (11); and Janet Clare, “Art made tongue-tied by authority”: Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), who similarly understands that censorship “is perhaps the most potent external force which interacts with the creative consciousness” (215).

  56. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 92.

  57. Ibid., 90.

  58. Ibid., 91.

  59. Gerald Bentley writes: “Falstaff was clearly most famous of all the characters of Shakespeare and Jonson in the seventeenth century. This fact ought to surprise no reader familiar with the literature of the time, but the overwhelming dominance of his position has perhaps not been so obvious” (Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared, vol. 1 [1945; reprint, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1969], 119; see also 120 and 126).

  60. Thomas Palmer, “Master John Fletcher his dramaticall Workes now at last printed,” in Comedies and Tragedies, written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Gentlemen (London, 1647), sig. f2V.

  61. Digges, “Upon Master William Shakespeare, the Deceased Author, and his Poems,” in Poems, written by Wil. Shake-speare, Gent. (London, 1640), Sig.*4r.

  62. Joseph Quincy Adams, ed., The Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert, 1623-1673 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917), 52. That this was not an entirely anomalous practice is revealed by a notation on a scrap of paper from the Revels Office that has been dated ca. 1619: “nd part of Falstaff. …” See Bentley, Shakespeare and Jonson, 2:1.

  63. “To the great Variety of Readers,” in The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968), 7.

  64. Taylor, “Fortunes,” 92.

  65. A version of this paper was delivered at the Shakespeare divisional meeting at the MLA in 1991. 1 would like to thank John Austin, David Bevington, Margaret Ferguson, Donna Hamilton, Peter Lake, Jesse Lander, Annabel Patterson, Steven Pincus, Phyllis Rackin, Jim Shapiro, Richard Strier, and, especially, G. Thomas Tanselle for comments, criticism, and encouragement on that occasion or subsequently that have helped me in the development of this essay.

Mark Taylor (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Mark. “Henry IV and Proleptic Mimesis.” In Shakespeare's Imitations, pp. 66-106. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Taylor considers Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 within the context of the entire second tetralogy (which includes Richard II and Henry V), detailing how key scenes thematically imitate, echo, and foreshadow other episodes within the epic drama. He also calls attention to correspondences between the second tetralogy and the epic poems of Homer and Virgil.]

The primary subject of this chapter is two scenes from the first part of Henry IV: act 2, scene 4, in the Eastcheap tavern, where Prince Hal and Falstaff dramatically anticipate the prince's interview with King Henry the following day, and act 3, scene 2, at court, the interview itself, fateful, long-awaited, between the estranged father and son. My concern will be with each of the scenes as both a foreshadowing and an imitation after the fact of the other; that 2.4 may foreshadow 3.2 and that 3.2 may imitate 2.4 is obvious, but since 2.4 becomes essentially different after one has read 3.2, the corollary is true, also: that the later scene foreshadows the earlier one, and the earlier one imitates the later. I regard as axiomatic Harry Berger's claim that “the later terms [that is, elements of whatever sort within Shakespeare's second tetralogy of history plays] are radically modified by their relation to the earlier terms, which are in turn modified by that modification.”1 The meaning of lines, speeches, characters, scenes is never fixed, not even for the theatergoer, whose memory of earlier speeches is inevitably triggered by later ones, which revise them, and especially for the reader, who pages backwards as well as forwards, who looks from bottom to top of page, who pauses, reflects, and then rereads; later moments always condition and reconfigure earlier ones.

It is impossible, however, to compare two scenes meaningfully and ignore the play in which they occur; and in the case of two scenes in 1 Henry IV, it is necessary to pay some attention not only to that play but to at least parts of the three others that with it constitute Shakespeare's major tetralogy of history plays. As Harry Berger writes, again, “To disconnect any play [of the four] from its tetralogical source is to impoverish the power of its drama and the resonance of its language.”2 In very broad terms, therefore, we should bear in mind, as Prince Hal looks forward in 2.4 to his talk with the king, that that king was once the powerless Duke of Hereford being examined by his king (Richard II, 1.1), for one example, and that as the father Henry judges the son Hal in 3.2, so will Hal come to judge his surrogate father Falstaff (in 2 Henry IV, 5.5) and Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey (in Henry V, 2.2), for another. In practice, of course, one can never pay sufficient attention to the complete environment, no less than every word in the tetralogy in every conceivable combination with every other word, of any given element, but must be content with what appears most pertinent—while being aware of the inherent subjectivity of this procedure. Specifically, a review of Richard II seen from the perspective of 1 Henry IV can suggest that the dramatic interludes created by Hal and Falstaff in 2.4 of the latter play are forecast by the first crisis of the new king's reign in the former. And since the Falstaff-Hal interludes of 2.4 are in some ways an unheroic version of the heroic encounter of father and son two scenes later, it will be illuminating to consider other parts of 1 Henry IV in relations to their heroic antecedents.


Henry Bolingbroke's seizure of Richard's throne in Richard II is often understood as symbolically signaling the transition from the medieval to the modern age, from a moment when kings claimed to rule by divine authority alone and perhaps really believed, as Richard says, that “The breath of wordly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord” (3.2.56-57), to one when kings would rule by their own authority and could no longer bring their subjects into line with threats of divine reprisals—when Richard tries, after his deposition, so to threaten Northumberland, Northumberland replies, “My guilt be on my head, and there an end” (5.1.69).3 Symbolic values apart, the act of usurpation is clearly beneficial for Henry himself, who gets what he wants as he goes from not being a king to being one, from what virtually every character in Shakespeare who has a thought on the matter would agree is from a less to a more desirable state. But apart from historical transformations and what is good for Henry, his usurpation implicitly addresses and seeks to correct excesses and deficiencies of Richard's rule.

Henry's revolution seeks, or should seek, political and social reform. Although in the deposition scene of act 4, scene 1, Northumberland never succeeds in making Richard read the list of “These accusations and these grievous crimes / Committed by your person and your followers / Against the state and profit of this land” (4.1.223-25), the nature of “these grievous crimes” is constantly reiterated throughout the play. Richard himself admits that “our coffers, with too great a court / And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light,” in consequence of which extravagance, “We are inforc'd to farm our royal realm” (1.4.43-45), an expedient that has left England, John of Gaunt will say, famously, “leas'd out … / Like to a tenement or pelting farm” (2.1.59-60). The need for funds, especially to finance his Irish campaign, drives Richard to exchange for the equivalent of ready cash the authority to tax royal lands, for short-term liquidity the certainty of long-term ruin. When Northumberland, Willoughby, and Ross start whispering to each other their dissatisfactions with Richard, they mention “grievous taxes,” fines imposed upon the nobility for “ancient quarrels,” and “daily new exactions … [such] As blanks, benevolences,” twin forms of extortion, and allege that “The King's grown bankrupt,” that “Reproach and dissolution hangeth over him” (2.1.246, 248, 249-50, 257, 258). They charge, moreover, that “The King is not himself, but basely led / By flatterers” (241-42), and a scene later three of these flatterers, Bushy, Green, and Bagot, essentially agree in their responsibility for the English fiscal crisis. “[O]ur nearness to the King in love / Is near the hate of those love not the King,” Green says, and Bagot replies, “And that's the wavering commons, for their love / Lies in their purses, and whoso empties them / By so much fills their hearts with deadly hate” (2.2.126-30). And a scene later still, justifying his return to England to the Duke of York—“If that my cousin king be King in England, / It must be granted I am Duke of Lancaster” (2.3.122-23)—Henry offers the parallel example of York's son, Aumerle, and says that if Aumerle had “been thus trod down” (125) by Richard, as Henry has been, then he would have found a champion in Gaunt, Henry's father, as Henry now seeks one in York, Aumerle's father. Henry's point is that Richard's actions have been unjust and would have been so no matter against whom they were directed.

If Henry's acquisition of Richard's throne is to mean anything to the English nobility and commons other than the substitution of one selfish and unprincipled authority for another, it must stand for a correction of wrongs—for an end to unsound fiscal policies, arbitrary taxation, perilous foreign adventurism, and the deliberate seeking of poor advice from poor advisers. It must stand for some reasonable idea of justice. W. H. Auden tells us that, “According to Shakespeare, the ideal Ruler must satisfy five conditions” including these: “1) He must know what is just and what is unjust. 2) He must himself be just. [and] 3) He must be strong enough to compel those who would like to be unjust to behave justly.”4 For Auden, Richard fails to satisfy these conditions (though he satisfies the fifth one of being “the legitimate ruler by whatever standard legitimacy is determined in the society to which he belongs”),5 but “Bolingbroke possesses many of the right qualities.”6 In the very short run—that is, for the rest of Richard II—such may appear to be the case; but even in this play, with his final statement of his intended “voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood from off my guilty hand” (5.6.49-50), Henry raises the specter of costly involvement in foreign affairs pursued for personal interests, cleansing of his own sins. Two plays later, when the dying Henry IV counsels his son “to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-14), we read the quality of this advice back into the words spoken at the end of Richard II and infer that all along Henry's purpose, or at least a large part of it, has been a strategy of diversion, of distracting his nobles from other possibilities, not of personal salvation. Richard's Ireland, Henry IV's Holy Land (which, of course, he never reaches), Henry V's France: these missions are or would be expensive, in money and in lives. The most evidently successful of them, Henry V's campaign in France, which at least historically promises the French throne to him or his heir upon the death of Charles VI,7 a concession by the French to what Henry calls “our just demands” (5.2.71), might also be seen as the cheapest of them, since eventually paid for by the French; however, the political basis of the war, the Salic law that justified Henry's claim to the French throne, is advanced and argued by the Archbishop of Canterbury (1.2.33-95), whose own goal is the preservation of the Church's wealth, “the better half of our possession … As much as would maintain, to the King's honour, / Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights, / Six thousand and two hundred good esquires, / And to relief of lazars and weak age, / Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil, / A hundred almshouses right well supplied” (1.1.8, 12-17). “Would maintain”: the Church is in fact not using its fortune for such maintenance, it appears, not even of the diseased, weak, and indigent, and so ultimately even Henry's “just” war, like Richard's obviously ruinous one, which it morally imitates, is a way of keeping the poor that way.

In Richard II both Richard and Henry are known in part through their closest associates and advisers, Bushy, Bagot, and Green, on the one hand, Ross, Willoughby, and especially Northumberland, on the other. Richard dies, and Henry prospers, and surely one reason is the quality, whether or not selfless, of the men about them. Or, once again, so it at first seems. Northumberland, Henry's hatchet man in Richard II, does the necessary but sometimes unpopular things like arresting Carlisle for “capital treason” (4.1.151), presenting Richard with the articles of his grievous crimes (4.1.223 et seq), and separating the deposed king from his queen (5.1.51-54). But in this play Richard's advisers, however feckless, prove loyal to the end, and brave—“More welcome is the stroke of death to me / Than Bolingbroke to England” (3.1.30-31), Bushy says to Henry, his last words. In the next play, Northumberland shows by his rebellion how little loyal he is to his king or to the high-minded principles he had enunciated in Richard II, his desire to “shake off our slavish yoke, / Imp our drooping country's broken wing / Redeem from broking pawn the blemish'd crown, / Wipe off the dust that hides our sceptre's gilt, / And make high majesty look like itself” (2.1.291-95); “most degenerate king!” Northumberland calls Richard in Richard II (2.1.262), and then listens with a straight face, in 1 Henry IV, as Hotspur calls this same man “Richard, that sweet lovely rose” (1.3.175). Nothing drives Northumberland but self-interest, which later will compel the withdrawal of his forces from the rebellion that culminates in the battle at Shrewsbury, because of illness (“he is grievous sick” [4.1.16]), he pretends at the time, a claim that Rumor, in 2 Henry IV gives the lie, labeling him but “crafty-sick” (Induction 37), or playing possum. The dignity with which Bushy and Green faced death looks better and better, more and more rare.

“How many ages hence,” Cassius will ask, after the assassination of Caesar, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” (Julius Caesar, 3.1.111-13). Richard dies and one Henry rules and then another; the court party of Bushy and Green passes from the scene, replaced by Northumberland, himself later replaced by Blunt and Westmorland, then Warwick and Surrey, then Gloucester, Bedford, and Exeter; part of the attention of the English monarch shifts from Ireland to the Holy Land and then to France; part of it focuses on ill-wishers at home, Bolingbroke and Northumberland, then Hotspur and Worcester, then Mowbray and Hastings, then Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey. The only representatives of common men in Richard II, the gardener and his man, grumble about the condition of the kingdom, “our sea-walled garden, the whole land, / … full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok'd up …” (3.4.43-44), and the most memorable representative of the same estate in Henry V, Ancient Pistol, inherits only a future of deception and crime: “To England will I steal, and there I'll steal; / And patches will I get unto these cudgelled scars, / And swear I got them in the Gallia wars” (5.1.86-88); between these men and these plays Falstaff is born, lives, and dies. Characters, incidents, and motives within the tetralogy recur in different dress, imitate versions of their earlier selves. Does anything really change? Or is each lofty scene a repetition, with different names and local coloration, of an earlier one, simply an acting over?

(Shakespearean imitation sometimes allows a later, ironical illustration of an earlier, seemingly high-minded principle. Apparently, Pistol's plan is to put patches on his “cudgelled scars,” that is, to put plasters or bandages on marks presumably created in street brawls, the cudgel not being a usual weapon of war, to claim the injuries are war wounds, and thereby to gain sympathy, and compensation, as a beggar. Earlier, in his Saint Crispin's Day speech, King Henry had told Westmorland that in years to come a veteran of the great battle about to be fought might “strip his sleeve and show his scars, / And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin's day’” [4.3.47-48]. Such is exactly what Pistol will be doing.)

Richard II begins with an insurrection against Richard and ends, almost, with another insurrection, that of Aumerle and his confreres against Henry, their abortive attempt “To kill the King at Oxford” (5.2.99). Although Henry's rebellion in a sense authorizes that of Aumerle (and in the next play that of Hotspur, Northumberland, and Worcester), both because his initiative automatically begets imitators and because he has slain the last king to enjoy, theoretically, the sanction of God, thus making subsequent revolts less risky, the second rebellion does not repeat, and basically does not resemble, the first. The story of Aumerle, born in the final speeches of act 4, where he asks the Abbot of Westminster, “[I]s there no plot / To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?” (4.1.324-25), is told mainly in scenes 2 and 3 of act 5, and that story is a kind of literary imitation of the play's main action—literary, fictional, unrealistic, parodic. If the main plot of Richard II is an imitation, serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude, of an action that occurred (1398-1400) about two centuries before Shakespeare wrote his play (c. 1595), an imitation that usually does not seek to call attention to its fictional status, then the Aumerle plot is an imitation, complete, problematically serious, of small magnitude, of that main plot, and it presents itself as such. The second scene of act 5 begins with the Duke of York telling his duchess of the public humiliations of Richard, “dust and rubbish” thrown on his head (6), as “with much … contempt, men's eyes / Did scowl on Richard” (27-28), and the corresponding triumph of Henry, “Upon [whose] visage” “young and old / Through casements darted their desiring eyes” (15, 13-14). The duke and duchess emphasize that the story is a story, his narrative of events he witnessed. “My lord,” the duchess says, “you told me you would tell the rest” of “the story” (1-2) that he had begun earlier and broken off because of his own sorrow, and he asks, “Where did I leave?” (4). Telling the story, York presents Richard in an elaborate theatrical simile: “As in a theatre the eyes of men, / After a well-grac'd actor leaves the stage, / Are idly bent on him that enters next, / Thinking his prattle to be tedious; / Even so, or with much more contempt, men's eyes / Did scowl on Richard” (23-28). The effect of the simile, contrary to York's intention, is to distance and objectify Richard, to remove him from the environment of York and his wife, and thus, if they are real, to make him fictional.

York's narrative is interrupted by the entrance of Aumerle, “my son, Aumerle” (41), the duchess says, not “our son,” interestingly, for in what follows, York will scarcely regard Aumerle as his son. After a few lines of small talk York discovers upon Aumerle's person a letter detailing the conspiracy against Richard. “What seal is that that hangs without thy bosom?” York asks when he notices the letter (56). In using this device of discovery, Shakespeare is following his source in Holinshed's Chronicles:

[The] earle of Rutland [i.e., Aumerle, who in both Holinshed and Shakespeare has lost his dukedom and therefore his title] … as he sat at dinner, had his counterpane of the confederacie in his bosome. The father espieng it, would needs see what it was: and though the sonne humblie denied to shew it, the father being more earnest to see it, by force tooke it out of his bosome; and perceiving the contents thereof, in a great rage … he incontinentlie mounted on horssebacke to ride towards Windsore to the king, to declare unto him the malicious intent of his complices.8

Holinshed shows no suspicion of Aumerle's clumsiness in allowing the letter to protrude from his bosom, but ten years later Shakespeare will interrogate Aumerle's purposes, when in King Lear Edmund arranges to have his father espy a letter he is concealing on his person (1.2.26ff.). No other source for Edmund's practice on Gloucester has been identified—“For the story of Gloucester and his sons, Shakespeare borrowed an episode from Sidney's Arcadia,” but nothing in that episode prepares for act 1, scene 2 of the play9—and although one is properly wary of trying to read Shakespeare's mind, it is tempting to suspect that he came to doubt, or doubted all along, that York's discovery of the letter was contrary to Aumerle's real purposes, conscious or otherwise. Denying the obvious—that is, the concrete fact of the letter—Aumerle and Edmund use almost the same language: to York's demand to “see the writing,” Aumerle replies, “My lord, 'tis nothing” (57-58), and to his father's question, “What paper were you reading?” Edmund responds, “Nothing, my lord” (31-32).10 Whatever the degree of Aumerle's original commitment to the conspiracy against Henry, he will use the letter as an occasion to assure Henry that, “I do repent me, read not my name there; / My heart is not confederate with my hand” (5.3.50-51), to ingratiate himself with the new king, to demonstrate his loyalty to him, much as Edmund uses the other letter to ingratiate himself with Gloucester, while pretending loyalty to Edgar. Aumerle tested the waters of the conspiracy, found them not to his liking, and sought comfort in his new monarch, never mind that those who had risen to his proposal “To rid the realm of this pernicious blot” are left with “Destruction … [to] dog them at the heels” (5.3.137).

In Holinshed, after discovering the letter, the Duke of York rides “towards Windsore to the king,” but Aumerle gets there first and has already received Henry's pardon when his father arrives; the king then turns his attention to the other conspirators, who are at Oxford. This business occupies three sentences of the Chronicles.11 Shakespeare, with not even a suggestion from any of his sources (Holinshed, Hall, Samuel Daniel, possibly The Mirror for Magistrates), magnifies this brief incident into the grand comic sequence of the play in which York denounces Aumerle, the duchess defends him, and York attacks her, this “foolish woman,” “Thou fond mad woman” (5.2.80, 95). Then the three head off to Windsor Castle, where King Henry and Harry Percy, the Hotspur of the next play, are discussing the delinquencies of the king's “unthrifty son” (5.3.1), Prince Hal; the difficulties between this father and son thus provide an environment in which the struggle between the father York and the son Aumerle will be presented. This struggle erupts in earnest, as Aumerle arrives first to plead for “pardon ere I rise or speak” (5.3.31); then York arrives and from offstage, that is, not yet admitted to the king's presence, warns Henry that “Thou has a traitor in thy presence there” (39) and then, admitted, pleads for the death of his son, “Mine honour lives when his dishonour dies” (69); and then the duchess, a “shrill-voic'd suppliant” (73), arrives and, even before she enters the room to plead for the life of her son, prompts Henry's acute diagnosis of the occasion: “Our scene is alter'd from a serious thing, / And now changed to ‘The Beggar and the King’” (78-79). Henry mediates among the three: Aumerle, desperate to save his own life; York, desperate for a return to a stable monarchy, for an end to rebellions and attempted coups d'état, even if the price is the death of his son; and the duchess, desperate to save her son, “my transgressing boy” (95), with no interest in larger political considerations. Aumerle and his mother prevail.

Henry's perception that “Our scene is alter'd from a serious thing, / And now changed to” a reprise of the old ballad of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid has implications that are both larger and less entirely farcical than may at first be apparent. “Our scene,” to begin with, is not only the immediate engagement with Aumerle over the plot against the new king, it is also the action of the play since its beginning, in the sense that Cassius's “lofty scene” can include his and Brutus's ambition and the inadequacies of Caesar as well as the assassination. The alteration of this scene, therefore, is a breaking of the cycle of rebellions and bloodshed by the intercession of the duchess on behalf of Aumerle. Richard II is a play where, as is often remarked, women are even more powerless than their small numbers, few scenes, and few lines might suggest: to the Duchess of Gloucester's question, “Where then, alas, may I complain myself?” about the death of her husband, her brother-in-law John of Gaunt replies, “To God, the widow's champion and defense” (1.2.42-43), and to the queen's request that Richard be sent into banishment with her, Northumberland replies, “That were some love, but little policy” (5.1.84). As a matter of fact, that scene between the Duchess of Gloucester and John of Gaunt is a foil to 5.3 and sets off the unexpected capability of the Duchess of York. In both scenes a woman is responding to the accomplished or threatened killing of a husband or a son, and in both, referring to the bearing or rearing functions of the female, the woman adopts a lexicon appropriate to a woman. Speaking of the mother of her late husband and also of Gaunt, the Duchess of Gloucester says, “that bed, that womb, / That mettle, that self mould that fashioned thee / Made him a man; and though thou livest and breathest, / Yet art thou slain in him” (1.2.22-24), and the Duchess of York says to King Henry, “And if I were thy nurse, thy tongue to teach, / ‘Pardon’ should be the first word of thy speech” (5.3.111-12).12 But whereas there can be no relief, restitution, or satisfaction for the Duchess of York, who may pray “To God, the widow's champion” but does not get so much as an audience with King Richard, the Duchess of York has no difficulty finding admission to Henry's court, addressing him, being listened to and heeded: “Good aunt, stand up …,” Henry says. “I pardon him, as God shall pardon me” (5.3.127, 129). This concession is a step toward reconciliation and also an interruption, not for long as it turns out, of the cycle of rebellion. Thus, “The Beggar and the King” allows the end of Richard II not to imitate its beginning.


Shakespeare's major historical tetralogy is commonly called his Henriad because, as Alvin Kernan explains, the four plays from Richard II through Henry V “constitute an epic … not … in the usual sense” but because “they do have remarkable coherence and they possess that quality which in our time we take to be the chief characteristic of epic: a large-scale heroic action, involving many men and many activities, tracing the movement of a nation or people through violent change from one condition to another.”13 Thus, the collective title, the Henriad, the story of Henry (the story, actually, of two Henrys), imitates the titles of the Iliad and the Aeneid, the stories of Ilium and Aeneas. Shakespeare's imitation of these two ancient epics is, however, both deeper than mere titles and more precise than Kernan's broad outlines suggest. Individual incidents in the plays strikingly recall, imitate, and revise incidents in the poems of Homer and Virgil. My concern here is with 1 Henry IV; before I discuss its internal imitations of itself, however, I wish to inspect in three episodes some of the play's revisions of the two ancient poems: in “The King hath many marching in his coats,” what I shall call the imitation of Patroclus (Iliad 16); in Hal's offer to “Try fortune with [Hotspur] in a single fight,” the imitation of Turnus (Aeneid 12); and in Hal's “breaking through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapors that did seem to strangle him,” the imitation of Aeneas (Aeneid 1).

No one doubts Shakespeare's thorough knowledge of the Aeneid, hugely and obviously important to Hamlet, The Tempest, and other plays, but the playwright's relation to the Iliad is trickier, especially the relation of all but the last plays to the later books of the poem. Ben Jonson's famously limiting statement of Shakespeare's abilities in the classical languages, “And though thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke,” could suggest that Homer would have been beyond Shakespeare's grasp. Arthur Hall published his translation of the first ten books of the Iliad in 1581, and George Chapman, his translation of books 1, 2, and 7-11 in 1598 (about a year or two, probably, after 1 Henry IV was written), of the first twelve books in 1609, and of the whole poem, its first complete Englishing, in 1611.14 Nevertheless, Shakespeare certainly knew people who knew Greek well, and Latin and French translations of Homer existed; the figure whom Dante three centuries earlier had called “l'altissimo poeta” (Inferno 4, 80) and “poeta sovrano” (4, 88) was simply available to anyone who cared, and one way or another, as Reuben Brower points out, Shakespeare, “hardly a reader without literary curiosity … acquired … knowledge of Homer.”15

But Shakespeare's knowledge of earlier poets and poems, his sources, his reading, his ease with classical languages, is really not the point. The great moments in Homer and Virgil with which I am concerned here possess a strange kind of hold on the imagination that makes them resonate beyond particular literary instances, even the first such instances. One man fighting in the armor of another, being mistaken for him, and consequently losing his life strikes one as a tragic part of war, inevitable and permanent whether or not it is enshrined, for the first time or not, in Homer. In all battles identities are easily mistaken, purposes are repeatedly frustrated, and, deliberately or not, men surrender their lives for others: these circumstances converge in one man posing as another, being taken for him, dying for him, and then, his real identity discovered, disappointing or symbolically eluding his vanquisher. If, in his creation of the three episodes that here concern me, Shakespeare may be said to be an “imitator,” that word should not suggest that he is copying the ancients but rather that he is among those who, as Sir Philip Sidney describes them, “most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be, but range only reined with learned discretion into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.”16 The timelessness of a certain action on a battlefield makes it appropriate to representation as what may be and should be. So in a sense the point is that Shakespeare, Homer, and Virgil all give literary embodiment to some archetypes of human experience and imagination.

At the same time, however, I do think that an auditor with a passing acquaintance with the classics would have perceived three episodes in 1 Henry IV as deliberate variations on materials from the classics. The perception that Shakespeare is doing what Homer or Virgil has also done would prompt a contrast of the two achievements, a measuring of one by the other, an evaluation of the new (Shakespeare) according to an understanding of the old (Homer or Virgil).

The word Henriad, I have said, is formed by analogy with the titles of traditional epic poems, especially the Aeneid: the stories of Henry (father and especially son, King Henry IV and King Henry V) somehow imitate, in scope and grandeur, sincerely or ironically, the story of Aeneas. Epic poems are called also heroic poems because, first, they are told in heroic meter (so called since the Middle Ages)—in English this meter will be iambic pentameter (Milton describes the “measure” of Paradise Lost as “English Heroic Verse without Rime” and claims as antecedent to his practice “our best English Tragedies”)17—and second, because at their center is a hero, a man set apart from others by his excellences, whether practical, moral, intellectual, or aesthetic, or some combination of these. Describing the young King Henry V, apparently transformed by and after his father's death, the archbishop of Canterbury nicely abstracts the hero:

Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th'offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T'envelop and contain celestial spirits.

(Henry V, 1.1.28-31)

This section, on Epic Imitation, will implicitly compare the Henriad with the Iliad and the Aeneid, but it will explicitly compare Shakespeare's heroes, King Henry IV and Prince Hal, with some heroes of Homer and Virgil, with Patroclus, Turnus, and Aeneas himself. The comparisons will reveal Shakespeare's Henrys as bruised and diminished versions of their classical prototypes and cast some doubt on the authenticity of “celestial spirits” within them.


After scenes of futile negotiations between Hotspur and Blunt (4.3) and the king and Worcester (5.1), and then a scene of hurried preparations among Hotspur, Worcester, and Vernon, the battle on the field at Shrewsbury commences in earnest in the third scene of act 5. Its first action is a confrontation between the rebellious Scottish chieftain Douglas and Sir Walter Blunt, not merely of the king's party but in the battle costume of the king, that is, wearing over his armor a vest, or “sleeveless surcoat,” embroidered with the King's coat of arms.18 In response to Blunt's questions, Douglas reveals his own name and claims to “haunt thee in the battle thus / Because some tell me that thou art a king” (5.3.4-5). “They tell thee true,” Blunt says (6), and after reproving the man he believes to be King Henry for having allowed the “Lord of Stafford” to fight and die as “Thy likeness” (7, 8), Douglas kills Blunt, this second likeness of the king. Douglas is momentarily triumphant: “All's done: all's won; here breathless lies the King” (16), he tells Hotspur, who has just entered. Hotspur, because he knows what the king looks like, as Douglas does not, or because he removes the dead man's helmet and looks at his face, shatters Douglas's sense of triumph: “This, Douglas? No, I know this face full well, / A gallant knight he was, his name was Blunt, / Semblably furnish'd like the King himself” (19-21).19 The brave Douglas seems unable to understand why Blunt would have sacrificed himself so: “A fool go with thy soul, whither it goes! / A borrow'd title hast thou bought too dear. / Why didst thou tell me that thou wert a king?”—perhaps implying that his determination to kill his opponent would have been less had he known his real identity. Hotspur has the last word on the subject, “The King hath many marching in his coats” (22-25), in this scene. But ironically, in the next scene, when finally Douglas confronts the real king, he will say, “Another king! They grow like Hydra's heads” and ask, “What art thou / That counterfeit'st the person of a king?” (5.4.24, 26-27).

In book 16 of the Iliad, the Trojans having driven the Achaeans back to their ships, which they now threaten with fire, as Achilles, because of his anger at Agamemnon, continues his refusal to fight, Patroclus proposes to Achilles a stratagem whereby “‘perhaps I may bring deliverance to the Danaans. Let me … wear your armour [into battle]; the Trojans may thus mistake me for you and quit the field, so that the hard-pressed sons of the Achaeans may have breathing time. … We who are fresh might soon drive tired men back from our ships and tents to their own cities.’”20 In what Cedric Whitman calls “the most puzzling part of Achilles' actions” because “Even those who forgive Achilles his rejection of the embassy [of Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix, in book 9] find it difficult to forgive him for letting Patroclus take his place on the battlefield,”21 Achilles agrees because he sees that Patroclus's effort will contribute to his own glory. “‘Do, however, as I now bid you,’” Achilles tells his friend, “‘that you may win me great honour from all the Danaans, and that they may restore the girl [Briseis] to me again and give me rich gifts into the bargain.’” However, he does restrict Patroclus's mission: “‘[D]o not for lust of battle [after driving the Trojans back from the ships] go on killing the Trojans nor lead the Achaeans on to Ilium, lest one of the ever-living gods from Olympus attack you—for Phoebus Apollo loves them well. …’” (242). Patroclus leads the Myrmidons against the Trojans, and his initial success is stunning: “when the Trojans saw the brave son of Menoetius [i.e., Patroclus, though the Trojans mistake him for Achilles] and his squire all gleaming in their armour, they were daunted and their battalions were thrown into confusion, for they thought the fleet son of Peleus must now have put aside his anger. …” (246). Indeed, in playing Achilles, in Cedric Whitman's view, Patroclus “transcends himself” and embodies a part of Achilles.22 This self-transcendence leads Patroclus to forget himself and the limitations of his strength and his mission; after killing many Trojans, most notably Sarpedon among them, Patroclus pursues his enemy back to the gates of the city. He is driven, Homer tells us, by “the pride and foolishness of his heart,” and fatally so: “Had he but obeyed the bidding of the son of Peleus, he would have escaped death” (255). As it is, Patroclus angers Apollo, who dispatches Hector into the fray; then Apollo himself, “enshrouded in thick darkness … struck [Patroclus] from behind” and “beat the helmet from off his head” (259). His real identity now known to the Trojans, Patroclus is wounded by the Trojan Euphorbus and then killed by Hector, who “struck him in the lower part of the belly with a spear, driving the bronze point right through it. …” (259). Hector will then take his—that is, really, Achilles's—armor and wear it until his own death. Medēn agan, the oracle of Apollo at Delphi would caution, “Nothing in excess.” Patroclus's advance to the gates of Troy is the excess that destroys him.

Holinshed's Chronicles supplies Shakespeare with historical authority for the disguises King Henry's loyal followers assume. Holinshed puts Douglas's struggle with the king and the killing of Sir Walter Blunt, which Shakespeare will divide into separate scenes, into a single sentence:

This battell [at Shrewsbury] lasted three long houres, with indifferent fortune on both parts, till at length, the king crieng saint George victorie, brake the arraie of his enimies, and adventured so farre, that (as some write) the earle Dowglas strake him downe, & at that instant slue Sir Walter Blunt, and three other, apparelled in the kings sute and clothing, saieng: I marvell to see so many kings thus suddenlie arise one in the necke of an other.

Similarly marveling in Shakespeare's play, Douglas fights Henry, and although Douglas acknowledges that “thou bearest thee like a king” (5.4.35), after a few blows, “[… the King being in danger.] Re-enter PRINCE” (37 s.d.), who intervenes and saves his father's life. Not so in Holinshed: “The king in deed was raised, & did that daie manie a noble feat of armes, for as it is written, he slue that daie with his owne hands six and thirtie persons of his enemies.”23 Holinshed's Henry, able to dispatch 36 of the enemy, is obviously a far more capable warrior than Shakespeare's, who kills no one at Shrewsbury and requires the intercession of Prince Hal to preserve his own life. Indeed, the failure of Shakespeare's Henry to kill anyone, in the battle for the preservation of his throne, appears to disclose the playwright's intent to diminish the luster of the figure in Holinshed.

More pertinent than a comparison of the two kings, however, is a comparison of Homer's Patroclus and Shakespeare's Blunt, though it will work in similar fashion to reduce the heroic potential of Shakespeare's war and that war's victors. Neither Holinshed nor Shakespeare gives any reason for Blunt and the others “marching in [the king's] coats,” though Shakespeare integrates that circumstance neatly into the motif of concealment, deception, and counterfeiting that Douglas reiterates when he accuses Henry of “counterfeit[ing] the person of a king.”24 Whatever the reason may be, the disguise places Blunt in great jeopardy: mistaken for the king, he is more, not less, desirable as an opponent, at least to a brave man like Douglas, whose own proven worth increases in direct proportion to the worth of his foes. That is why he can tell Blunt's corpse, “A borrowed title hast thou bought too dear”: not appearing as the king, Blunt could have been ignored by his betters. Reflecting on warfare in the Middle Ages, John Keegan writes: “For killing to be gentlemanly,” on a medieval battlefield, “it must take place between gentlemen: the rules of duelling were, indeed, specific on that point, and the laws of chivalry, though less exigent and exclusive, were equally insistent that the only feats of arms worth the name were those conducted between men of gentle birth, either one to one or in nearly (ideally in exactly) matched numbers.”25 The corollary of this observation, in 1 Henry IV, seems to be, as we know from Douglas's words to Blunt's corpse, that a Scottish earl can disdain to duel with an English knight. The notion that the king, and therefore people mistaken for the king, could have frightened warriors away, could have demoralized the enemy, is in this play a mistaken hypothesis, though it is precisely the basis of Patroclus's strength in book 16 of the Iliad. “As when a cloud goes up into heaven from Olympus, rising out of a clear sky when Zeus is brewing a gale—even with such panic-stricken rout did the Trojans now fly” (248) from Patroclus—but only because they think he is Achilles. Patroclus-as-Achilles confuses and terrifies the enemy; Blunt-as-Henry focuses and stimulates him.

Blunt's disguise, moreover, protects and preserves his king, and it is tempting to think that something like the desire for this protection was in Henry's mind when he sent into battle “many marching in his coats.” It is the wish of officers in modern armies not to stand out from their troops, not to be visible as officers to snipers, that keeps gold braid and saluting off the battlefield; something of the same end would be achieved if everyone dressed as a general—as Henry has his followers do. For Achilles, by contrast, the anger at Agamemnon that keeps him from battle is mistaken by no one for a reluctance to engage personally in combat. His allowing Patroclus (whose idea it is in the first place) to fight as he is a concession, he says, that “may win me great honour from all the Danaans.”

The Iliad and 1 Henry IV both consider the proposition that combat, even unto death, allows a man the possibility of self-actualization that he is otherwise denied. Fighting, he can be more fully himself, or a more desirable version of himself, than otherwise; this belief is the basis of the heroic ethic, or at least a substantial part of it. It is why cultures glorify warriors, why men who fight outrank men who work and men who pray. This ethic is universally acknowledged in the Iliad, notwithstanding the final subordination of personal achievement to all-leveling force;26 in 1 Henry IV, where others may be aware of its existence and appeal, it is the private and public conviction of Hotspur. In the Iliad, therefore, though the heroic ethic may cause the death of Patroclus, it also creates a better man for Hector to kill; this is the moment of his transcending himself of which Cedric Whitman speaks. Indeed, it is probably part of the genius of Homer's poem that it can make us see the agon of Patroclus as simultaneously the terrible waste of “a loving and compassionate fellow,” “Gentle Patroclus,”27 and the moment of his supreme being. Battle affords Sir Walter Blunt, Stafford, and the others who die for and as King Henry no such moment of rising above themselves. Henry's stratagem keeps him alive; it does nothing for anyone else except make them more quickly dead.


So great is the waste of war—young lives ended, bodies mutilated, children left without fathers, wives widowed, mothers bereft of sons (“the widows' tears, the orphans' cries, / The dead men's blood, the pining maidens' groans,” Henry V, 2.4.106-7), women themselves victims of murder and rape (when “your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation,” Henry V, 3.3.20-21), the loss of homeland, crops despoiled, livestock slaughtered, wells poisoned, buildings turned to rubble, civilizations turned upside-down or destroyed—that it is hardly surprising that the human imagination should conceive of an alternative—of a way that the political goals of warfare may be achieved, for one side or the other, but without the loss and misery produced by fighting on a grand scale. Moreover, since the tangible purposes for which wars are fought—territory and other forms of material gain as opposed to honor and glory—are rarely appreciated by the great mass of men fighting, the soldiers, why not restrict fighting to those who will actually come to possess, or to lose, the disputed wealth? “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale,” Clausewitz writes; it consists of “a countless number of duels.”28 If that is so, then why not reduce the scale of war and have a single duel between people whose personal fortunes will be immediately and directly affected by the outcome, between two princes or other leaders with something to gain or lose?

This would be a philanthropic solution, one based on a desire to keep men alive. “Now,” Clausewitz writes, “philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. However plausible this may appear, it is still an error which must be gotten rid of; for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the cooperation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigour in its application.”29 To obtain a superiority, that is to win, one applies physical power to the utmost extent, one uses force unsparingly. This law of war obviously precludes anyone's desire to limit bloodshed or minimize the number of participants.

Nevertheless, the notion of solving international conflict by a duel, by one act of combat between two individuals, dangerously philanthropic or not, inevitably imposes itself on the imagination; and it is especially attractive in the creation of works of literature where the goals, desires, hopes, fears, strengths, weaknesses—all the facets of a human personality—of two men can be conveyed and those of all the members of two nations cannot, or not easily. A duel can both localize and dramatize the unmanageable numbers and abstractions that war comprises. Even where the duel does not solve the conflict, it represents it. So in popular war fiction like Irwin Shaw's novel The Young Lions (1948), for instance, the killing by an American soldier of a German soldier who has just killed another American soldier, the first one's buddy, all three of whom have been separately developed over hundreds of pages—that final killing personalizes and stands by synecdoche for the Allied victory over the Axis. The Achaeans win the Trojan War because they are willing to spend tens of thousands of their own lives killing tens of thousands of the enemy, leveling a civilization, securing the trade routes to Asia, and effecting the return of Helen to Menelaus. They do not win because Achilles kills Hector; if the ancient story is to be believed, Achilles is no longer alive at the war's end, and credit for the Achaean victory belongs to lesser heroes like Odysseus. Paradoxically, however, the Iliad says that the Achaeans will win the war precisely because Achilles does kill Hector. The Iliad does not take the war to its end, but it makes the nature of that end and the reason for it perfectly clear: the greatest of the Achaeans, Achilles, has defeated the greatest of the Trojans, Hector, and he has done so, as every reader somehow knows from the beginning will happen, must happen, should happen, in combat between the two men alone. It would not do for another man to kill Hector, or for him to fall to an unknown adversary. Despite its enormous cast of characters, its relentless fighting and shedding of blood, its concerns with the anger of Achilles, the arrogance of Agamemnon, the fears of Andromache, the sorrow of Priam, the Iliad is as much about the combat of Achilles and Hector as about any other single thing.

The historical Henry Percy, Shakespeare's Hotspur, died at the Battle of Shrewsbury, at whose hand we probably do not know. Holinshed tells us that “The other on his part incouraged by [King Henry's] doings, fought valiantlie, and slue the lord Persie, called sir Henry Hotspurre,” where it is possible but by no means certain that the “other” refers to Prince Hal, who was mentioned about two hundred words earlier; it is more likely that “other” means simply another soldier.30 In his Chronicles (1580), John Stow writes, “Henry the Prince was wounded in the face with an arrow. In the meane season Hen. Percy, whilest he went before his men in the battel, preasing upon his enimies, was sodeinley slaine, which being knowne, the Kings enemies fled,” the agent of Hotspur's death being unidentified.31 But Shakespeare will identify him as Prince Hal. Having one hero defeat the other makes sense of history and gives literary focus to human events.

Prince Hal's encountering Hotspur on the field of battle at Shrewsbury, in act 5, scene 4 of Shakespeare's play, is an accident of war, a happy one for Hal as it turns out, and although it could never have been predicted, it does correspond to a desire that Hal had expressed to his father three scenes earlier when he made this proposal:

For my part, I may speak it to my shame,
I have a truant been to chivalry;
And so I hear he [Hotspur] doth account me too;
Yet this before my father's majesty—
I am content that he shall take the odds
Of his great name and estimation,
And will, to save the blood on either side,
Try fortune with him in a single fight.


The chief classical progenitor of Hal's offer to fight Hotspur in a duel is the similar offer of Turnus to fight Aeneas, spoken to Latinus, at the beginning of the final book of the Aeneid. And both duels come to pass, against the stated wishes of King Henry and Latinus, mortal conflicts between the great warriors on opposing sides—that of Hal and Hotspur in act 5, scene 4, that of Turnus and Aeneas at the end of book 12, several hundred lines after the proposal to Latinus. Hector and Achilles fight also, and so for that matter do Hamlet and Laertes, but the distinctive point about Turnus and Hal is that they explicitly propose their duels—and although the proposals are rejected, the duels will happen anyway.

In act 3, scene 2, his major confrontation with his father, Hal in some ways anticipates the proposal he will make in 5.1. In the earlier scene Hal says,

                                                                                          For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf,
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.


Although Hal is claiming here that he will eventually take credit for the “glorious deeds” Hotspur is amassing, such credit could come from his army's defeating Hotspur's, not necessarily one man's defeating the other. The words are a general prophecy for the future, moreover, a statement that everything is going to be well, not a specific promise that it will be done in a certain way. (As readers or auditors, we of course note what Hal says and take it as further evidence that a duel is promised to us as the climax of the play; ever since the nature of the two young men as foils to each other became clear—in King Henry's comparison of them in the play's opening scene—we have had expectations, based upon literary experiences of foreshadowing and climax, of such a duel.) And what Henry is hearing, what is registering on his consciousness, is surely not a battlefield tactic but a larger guarantee that his son will mend his ways. The prince has strayed, and now he promises to be princely, to do what is expected of him—as he had promised the audience in his soliloquy at the end of 1.2 (“So when this loose behavior I throw off, / And pay the debt I never promised …” [203-4]), as he will promise again in 5.1 (“I may speak it to my shame, / I have a truant been to chivalry”). And here, in 3.2, the battle, if battle there is to be, is far off, its name, place, date, conditions, stakes, even armies (for who could foresee that Northumberland and Glendower will withdraw from it?) all unknown. Hal's rhetoric is accomplishing its purpose of persuading Henry of Hal's reformation; there is no need for the king to correct or contradict his son.

Book 11 of the Aeneid ends with the Italian cavalry defeated and humiliated by the Trojans, with Turnus abandoning the ambush that might have destroyed Aeneas, and with the Trojans arriving before Latium and setting up camp for the night. The Rutulian king Turnus, it will be remembered, is the great adversary of Aeneas in the second half of the Aeneid; to Aeneas, Turnus will lose his chosen woman (Lavinia), his land (Italy), and his life. “In the evident symmetry of the poem's design,” W. A. Camps writes, “the fate of Dido [in the first half of the Aeneid] is balanced by that of Turnus the rival. Both are books of the destiny of Rome and Juno's opposition to it, and the Italian phase of his story ends in his death as the Carthaginian phase ends in hers.”32 It is all unspeakably sad, Virgil's own alliance with history to destroy his best creations.

The next book, 12, begins with Turnus enraged by the sight of “the Latins, failing, broken, / With Mars against them” (12.1-2 [1-2])33 and probably also by the memory of a slain comrade, the warrior maiden Camilla, and the knowledge of opportunity missed. He explodes to Latinus,

                              “Turnus won't keep them waiting;
No reason for these cowards to renounce
Their bargain. Start the holy ritual, father,
Arrange the terms. I go to meet the Trojan;
Let the Latins sit and watch it if they want to,
And this right arm will send him down to Hell,
The renegade from Asia. I alone
Answer the argument that calls us cowards,
I, with one single sword. Or we are beaten
And he takes Lavinia home.”

(12.12-21 [11-17])

In the war council of book 11, Turnus had told his comrades that he would be willing to fight a duel with Aeneas (486-99 [434-44]); it is now time for this duel. This earlier promise, which parallels Hal's statement to his father in 3.2 of 1 Henry IV that “I will call [Hotspur] to so strict account / That he shall render every glory up,” is itself provoked by the taunting of Drances in the same war council:

“Be bold, have confidence,—and face Aeneas!
So Turnus have his royal bride, no matter
If we, cheap souls, a herd unwept, unburied,
Lie strewn across the field. O son of Mars,
If son you really are, the challenger
Is calling: dare you look him in the face?”

(11.417-22 [370-75])

Bitter about all the men, the “cheap souls,” who will be sacrificed to feed Turnus's ambition, Drances calls into question the other man's courage. Will his behavior now show this son of Daunus to be, figuratively, the son of Mars? Turnus responds to the dare:

                                                  “If I am summoned
Alone to meet Aeneas, if I alone
Am obstinate about your common welfare
If such is your decision, my hands have never
Found victory so shrinking or elusive
That I should fear the risk. Bring on your Trojan!”

(486-91 [434-38])

Often tried in arms, unlike Prince Hal, his reputation made and courage proven, Turnus nevertheless responds to Drances with anger at the suggestion that he might be unwilling to face Aeneas.

These speeches in the war council, then, are the prelude to Turnus's speech at the beginning of book 12. If Hal's proposal to his father of a duel with Hotspur superficially resembles Turnus's proposal to Latinus (whom he calls “father” in “Start the holy ritual, father, / Arrange the terms” [fer sacra, pater, et concipe foedus]) of a duel with Aeneas, a consideration of the materials from which the proposals arise shows the resemblance to be only superficial. Once dared by Drances, who had implied that Turnus would be a coward in the face of Aeneas, recalling his own outraged denial of that charge, and now in extremis with the Trojan army at the gate, Turnus will of course do anything to prevent the destruction of Latium and its inhabitants. By contrast, Hal, sharpening his earlier vague promises that the time would come when he would act, would be himself, would show Hotspur who is the better man, now offers to pay another “debt I never promised” and fight Hotspur. Not only unprepared for, the offer is not an expression of his character, as Turnus's is, is not the way to his self-fulfillment, is little more than a spontaneous boast, and so of course Henry turns him down.

As Latinus turns down the offer of Turnus, or tries to, so does Henry dismiss Hal's offer, but in a single sentence:

And, Prince of Wales, so dare we venture thee,
Albeit considerations infinite
Do make against it.


The considerations infinite, we suspect, can be reduced easily to one consideration finite: Hal might lose. Even if he were “the theme of honour's tongue” and “riot and dishonor stain[ed] the brow” of Hotspur (1.1.80, 84), and not the other way round, Hal might lose. (After all, in the event the honorable Hotspur will lose to the dishonored Hal.) No responsible commander in chief will risk loss of that which might be achieved at great cost simply to avoid that cost, not if the desired end is worth achieving, as Clausewitz argues.34 Interestingly, it is Hotspur who most eloquently warns against the perils of putting all one's eggs into a single basket. Learning that his father will not join in the battle (but not yet knowing of Glendower's withdrawal), Hotspur tells Worcester,

                                                  His [Northumberland's] present want
Seems more than we shall find it. Were it good
To set the exact wealth of all our states
All at one cast? to set so rich a main
On the nice hazard of one doubtful hour?


Not being in the battle, Northumberland will essentially be in reserve; whatever happens at Shrewsbury, the rebels will have another chance. To have the whole war depend upon a single battle, like having one's fortune depend upon “one cast” of the dice, would be foolish, and even more foolish, Henry knows, to have a war depend upon a single duel between two men. And so he says no to Hal's brave (sounding) words.

Where Henry decides, Latinus reasons, pleads. Much earlier he had learned that “the portents / Of the high gods opposed” marriage of his daughter Lavinia to Turnus or any other Italian (7.54-55 [58]). The voice of his father, Faunus, spoke to him in a dream: “‘My son, / Seek not a Latin husband for the princess / … stranger sons are coming / To wed our children, to exalt our title / High as the stars …’” (92-96 [96-99]). When he met Aeneas, Latinus saw that this was the man, the stranger son: “‘Your king,’” he tells the Trojans, “‘must be the man [the oracles] promise, / If I have any sense of divination. / He is the one I choose’” (283-85 [272-73]). But then, Turnus enraged, the Fury Allecto, set on by Juno, sowing the seeds of war among the Italians, Latinus could not make them honor his choice: “Latinus could not conquer / [The Italians'] blind determination. Things were going / As Juno willed” (607-9 [591]). Acceding to the demands of Turnus, Latinus “relinquished / The reins of power” (618-19 [600]), for which entirely involuntary action he will blame himself in book 12.

Now, in book 12, Latinus renounces his earlier wavering—“It was not right for me to give my daughter / To any of her former native suitors, / And gods and men so prophesied” (12.32-34 [27-28]—and begs Turnus to “break off the conflict” (49 [39]). But “The king's appeal / Moved Turnus not at all” (56-57 [45-46]); Queen Amata, too, now entreats him not to fight Aeneas, but he tells her, “‘Do not, O mother, follow me with tears / Or any such omens as I go to battle. / Turnus can not delay his death’” (91-93 [72-74]) and commands Idmon to deliver his challenge to Aeneas. Although in desiring to duel Aeneas, Turnus resembles Prince Hal, in intuiting that he marches inexorably toward his death, Turnus anticipates Hotspur (e.g., “Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily” [4.1.134]). Indeed, the reflection of Aeneas and Turnus in Hal and Hotspur is distinct but variable: Turnus suggests a duel, and so does Hal. But Turnus's doing so happens in a moment of customary uncontrollable rage; that the character known as Hal and then as Henry V ever becomes angry and loses his self-control, at least before the play Henry V, is far from certain.35 But like Turnus, Hotspur is often angry. Turnus fights Aeneas and loses; Hal fights Hotspur and wins. As K. W. Gransden shows, however, Virgil's characters bear the same shifting relationships to the heroes of the Iliad, Aeneas at one moment recalling Hector, at another Achilles.36

Defeating Hotspur at Shrewsbury, Hal completes his own transformation from Turnus into Aeneas, a transformation hinted at since the beginning of the play, as we shall see below. However, whereas Aeneas, once challenged, eagerly anticipates his duel, his probable victory, and an end to strife,

                                                  But if Victory grants us,
As I expect, and may the gods confirm it,
To win the battle, I will not have Italians
Be subject to the Trojans; I crave no kingdom,
Not for myself: let both, unbeaten nations,
On equal terms enter eternal concord.

(12.218-23 [187-91])

Hal, once his father has turned down his stated desire to fight Hotspur, sets the idea aside. With Turnus's sister Juturna once again causing the Italians to erupt into open warfare, the duel is not immediate; but it comes, and when it does, and with it the defeat of Turnus and the end of Virgil's poem, we may assume that the larger goals articulated by Aeneas, of having “unbeaten nations, / On equal terms enter eternal concord” are realized. Although Hal's defeat of Hotspur ends Shakespeare's play, almost, more fighting remains; in his final speech King Henry directs his troops toward various theaters of operations, hopeful that then “Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway, / Meeting the check of such another day” (5.5.41-42). But confronting Hotspur at Shrewsbury, Hal has no lofty, national goals. Rather, he says,

I am the Prince of Wales, and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.


After he has all but forgotten his stated desire to fight Hotspur alone, Hal gets what he wants—or what he wanted. Challenging Hotspur, Hal imitates Turnus; defeating Hotspur, Hal imitates Aeneas, but our perception of the imitations leaves us aware of the gulf between Aeneas's victory, for (the future of) Rome, and Hal's, for himself.


No utterance of Prince Hal's in 1 Henry IV is more celebrated than his soliloquy in act 1, scene 2 after Falstaff and Poins leave him alone in his apartment. Hal tells us then not only who he is, or will be, a proper prince, but what his method is, to veil himself from the world until the time is right, and why he so proceeds—because he has the time to do so, to play holidays for the time being, and because when he becomes himself he will be more impressive than if he had appeared as himself all along. Throughout this soliloquy Hal is concerned with his being looked at, seen, and with the effect that vision will have on the viewers. He will, he says, continue to “awhile uphold / The unyoked humour of [his companions'] idleness”:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wonder'd at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.


The natural effect Hal describes—the alteration of a day as the sun breaks forth from behind clouds that had concealed it and is then perceived as the more attractive for having been concealed—recalls even as it reverses the process of Shakespeare's Sonnets 33-34, where a good day, “a glorious morning,” deteriorates into a bad one, “The region cloud” coming to mask the sun. Katherine Duncan-Jones notes that “base clouds” in sonnet 34, line 3 (“To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way”), “suggests unworthy companions, like the ‘base contagious clouds’ surrounding Prince Hal in Eastcheap, 1H4 1.2.93.”37 Hal's language is not merely descriptive of a natural effect but implies a particularly spiteful attitude toward his companions—that they are “base and contagious,” that they “smother,” that they are “foul and ugly mists / Of vapours.” How can Hal, feeling thus, abide his association with them?

According to Hal, a bad day will hugely improve when, in imitation of the sun of the heavens, this son of the king defies everyone's expectations and breaks “through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapours.” (The day will, of course, worsen commensurately for Falstaff, Poins, and Hal's other companions, and it is interesting that these men share the perspective of the poet/speaker of Sonnets 33-34.) This prophecy is repeated a few lines later in the soliloquy when Hal claims that with his real self “shall I falsify men's hopes” (a revealing bit of cynicism, this suggestion that people hope he will remain bad),

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.


This figure abandons the earlier progression of the day but continues Hal's fascination with being seen, with blinding, startling, or dazzling.

These words “startling” and “dazzling” perhaps recapture something of the effect that wonder, in Hal's promise to “be more wonder'd at,” possessed around the end of the sixteenth century. In Lyric Wonder, James Biester shows what powerful feelings once resided in the word wonder. Like the Latin admirabilis and the Greek deinos, wonder “register[s] especially strongly the sense of a response to something that is powerfully affective either positively or negatively, something that so repulses or attracts, or repulses and attracts, that it renders the soul incapable of normal operation. Deinos has an enormous and fascinating range of meanings, including fearful, terrible, terrifying, terrific, mighty, powerful, wonderful, marvelous, strange, able, and, notably, clever.”38Wonder, too, has this range, or it did before it descended to mean mere curiosity (“I wonder what will happen”), and so did admire (from Latin admirari) before it descended to mean to regard with approval (“I admire his clothes”). So, famously, when Ferdinand calls the young woman with whom he finds himself suddenly in love “Admir'd Miranda!” (The Tempest, 3.1.37), he is in effect echoing her earlier perception of him as “A thing divine” (1.2.421), and affirming their membership in a mutual admiration society. He is claiming, as one might standing before a god, that his soul is incapable of normal operation.

When Hal promises to be more wondered at, he is promising to gain a quality that distinguished his father and separated him from King Richard and, apparently, from his son as well. Or so King Henry believes. In their encounter of act 3, scene 2 Henry tells Hal that unlike the self Hal has so far shown him, “So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men, / So stale and cheap to vulgar company,” he himself,

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder'd at,
That men would tell their children, “This is he!”
Others would say, “Where, which is Bolingbroke?”


(This question, “Where, which is Bolingbroke?” is a singularly ironic anticipation of the same question, unspoken by Douglas in 5.3, as he mistakes one soldier after another for the king. That King Henry is unrecognizable is an early source of wonder, a later one of self-preservation.) Then Henry compares his gift, or perhaps it is his strategy of exhibiting himself, with its absence in Richard:

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence, like a robe pontifical,
Ne'er seen but wonder'd at, and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, show'd like a feast,
And wan by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping King, he ambled up and down,
With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt, carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with cap'ring fools. …


These words, James Biester writes, are part of “a long lecture on how ill-advised [Hal's] behavior is, how unlikely it is to gain him the kind of wonder majesty requires.” However, in some ways, because of the 1.2 soliloquy, Hal is way ahead of his father. “Throughout this speech the audience is aware, as Henry IV is not, that Hal knows the importance of wonder.”39 It is Hal's intention, he tells us in his soliloquy, that “when this loose behavior I throw off, / And pay the debt I never promised,” people will be silenced, filled with wonder, amazed, astonished, stunned. Such power, to echo Bolingbroke in Richard II, is in the sight of kings.

The locus classicus of the effect Hal desires is found in book 1 of the Aeneid, when Aeneas appears to Dido. Ilioneus has just described to Dido the travails of the Trojans, their loss of homeland, prolonged journey, and arrival in Carthage, and tried to assure her of their benevolent intentions toward her people. Hidden in a cloud, Aeneas and Achates hear these words and Dido's reassurances to Ilioneus. Achates tells Aeneas that all seems well:

                                                                                And as he finished,
The cloud around them broke, dissolved in air,
Illumining Aeneas, like a god,
Light radiant around his face and shoulders,
And Venus gave him all the bloom of youth,
Its glow, its liveliness, as the artist adds
Luster to ivory, or sets in gold
Silver or marble.

(1.623-30 [586-93])

Aeneas identifies himself, thanks Dido for the reception she appears to be extending to the Trojans, and embraces some of his men.

                                                                      And Dido marvelled
At his appearance, first, and all that trouble
He had borne up under. …

(649-51 [613-14])

Dido's response is a full measure of the effect, caused by Venus, that produced it. Dido obstipuit (613; preterit of obstupesco, obstupescere): she is stunned, becomes astounded, as an inanimate thing, her normal sensory mechanisms suspended. (Perhaps Robert Fitzgerald's translation is stronger and more immediate: “Sidonian Dido / Stood in astonishment, first at the sight / Of such a captain, then at his misfortune. …”)40 Kenneth Quinn comments on this manifestation of Aeneas and Dido's reaction: “It is the moment for Aeneas to reveal himself. Magically the cloud that had enveloped him and Achates evaporates, and Aeneas confronts Dido with all the splendour of a divine epiphany.”41 Becoming himself, bursting forth from a cloud, from the “mists / Of vapors” with which Venus had concealed him, Aeneas becomes a presence where there had been an absence, and he shows us, in Dido's momentary speechlessness, what it really is to be “wondered at.”

Virgil provides an epic model that is inimitable in realistic drama. Where Shakespeare does have gods or other supernatural beings present themselves to humans, he does so in a masque—Iris and Ceres to the court party in The Tempest—thus canceling any need for even the pretense of verisimilitude, or in a dream—Jupiter's appearance to Posthumus in Cymbeline; or else he deliberately ignores the potential for magic and mystery, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Titania, awakened by Bottom's singing, presumably just stands up and speaks to him. But these three plays, romantic comedy or romance, are at a very great remove from a history like 1 Henry IV. Prince Hal, the man who would be Aeneas, does not have a goddess for a mother; in Shakespeare, he effectively has no mother at all—interesting for a man who possesses both a real and a surrogate father.42

Neither does Hal show the romantic inclinations that might be expected in a young man. If in his movement from Falstaff's tavern world to his father's court world, he goes from private to public life, it should be noted that the private life is a kind of microcosm of public life, in which Hal's principal goal is to impress, to win, a constituency (to prepare to “command all the good lads in Eastcheap” [2.4.14]), but not to gratify libidinal yearnings that must needs be hidden or suppressed later on.43 Of the sexual Hal who reportedly claimed in Richard II that “he would unto the stews, / And from the common'st creature pluck a glove, / And wear it as a favour” (5.3.16-18), there is no trace in 1 Henry IV, nor anywhere again until, barely, his bloodless wooing of Princess Katherine at the end of Henry V. Affairs of the heart do not loom large in 1 Henry IV, to be sure, but somehow they hover on its outskirts—in Hotspur's love for Kate, in “the deadly spite that angers” Mortimer, his inability to converse with a “wife [who] can speak no English, [and] I no Welsh” (3.1.186-87); and in the odd affection shown by Falstaff and the married Hostess in the tavern; war, we might say, preempts love in the man's world of this play, but a fuller world is hinted at. Hal, however, does not participate in it. When Aeneas astonishes, he astonishes a woman, prelude, of course, to one of the signal tragic love affairs in literature, in which for a time Aeneas and Dido become “Heedless of ruling, prisoners of passion” (4.192 [193-94]). When Hal expresses what can be understood as a desire to imitate Aeneas, all erotic possibilities are absent from the expression, and if we perceive the effort at imitation, we perceive also how diminished Aeneas's range of feeling has become in Hal.

What is true of Hal in relation to Aeneas is true of him in relation to Turnus, also, and of King Henry in relation to Patroclus; these truths, indeed, are the fruits of Shakespeare's employment of imitations of Homer and Virgil as a critique of king and prince in 1 Henry IV. Patroclus goes into battle dressed as another man, thus showing extreme courage and a willingness to die as that other and for his people; Henry sends others into battle dressed as himself, thus showing a cunning capacity to sacrifice his followers to his own preservation. Turnus wishes to have everything turn upon a duel of two men, and eventually it does so; Hal claims to have the same wish, but the ardency of his desire is suspect, though he too gets what he says he wants. And this same Hal asserts as a principle of personal strategy the achievement of Aeneas, divinely aided, to burst forth from a cloud and astonish, but the principle that enlarges Aeneas restricts Hal. The world of Henry IV is smaller than that of classical epic, but the playwright, Shakespeare, perceives and then uses this earlier world to define the nature of his characters.


The long and complex fourth scene of act 2 of 1 Henry IV looks backward and forward in time, backward to the robbery of the travelers near Gad's Hill two scenes earlier, then forward to Prince Hal's fateful interview with his father two scenes later. Looking to the past, 2.4 offers competing interpretive narratives of exactly what happened in the confusion of a few hours ago; looking to the future, it seeks to anticipate, and perhaps by anticipation to determine, what will happen at court the next morning. On the play's terms, both the robbery and the interview, once they have occurred, are actual historical events, although it is possible to differentiate between their degrees of reality. Hal's interview with his father has consequences not only for the rest of this play but, viewed historically, for English history henceforth. (Without it, Hal would not have gone into battle, the rebels would have won, Henry IV would have been dethroned. …) By contrast, the robbery of the travelers is less, it will turn out, than the kind of petty crime that can happen to anyone but that has no larger public consequences. No one is harmed in the robbery, and a little later the money is returned. It is as if it never happened; the crime becomes a piece of make-believe; so far as we can tell, it is just like the other crimes committed by Falstaff and his “squires of the night's body,” the imitation of a reality. Thus the narratives of it in 2.4 are imitations of imitations—invented accounts, that is, of burlesques of real robberies. (Presented in literary art, they are actually imitations of imitations of imitations.) Still, unlike the battle of Shrewsbury, both the robbery and the interview have their sources primarily in Shakespeare's imagination, although with some hints for the former provided by the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth; they are as real as anything else in the play, like the royal council of 1.1, the alliance of rebels in 3.1, and the death of Hotspur in 5.4, matters for which Shakespeare is variously indebted to Holinshed, Stow, Samuel Daniel, and the Mirror for Magistrates. Each is an action (“A thing done, a deed. … usually viewed as occupying some time in doing …”),44 and the representations of these actions in 2.4, therefore, are imitations of external reality, one after and one before the fact. And they are no less imitations for their apparent failures to correspond very closely to the realities imitated.

In act 2, scene 2, Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Gadshill set upon four travelers, rob them, and bind them. Then, masked, the prince and Poins, who have witnessed from hiding at least the final moments of this robbery, in which Falstaff had expected their participation, set upon and rob the robbers, all of whom run from them though Falstaff exchanges “a blow or two” (2.2.102 s.d.) first. As Hal and Poins are about to attack the others, Hal says, “now could thou and I rob the thieves, and go merrily to London, it would be argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest for ever” (92-95), a variation on Poins's reason for proposing the robbery in the first place: “The virtue of this jest will be the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell us when we meet at supper … and in the reproof of this lives the jest” (1.2.182-85). When they all meet in the tavern two scenes later, Falstaff offers the incomprehensible lies that Poins had predicted: that he and his cohort fought “two rogues in buckram suits” (2.4.189-90), “Four rogues in buckram” (192-93), seven men with swords (198-99), “nine in buckram” (210), and finally eleven men (216). “O monstrous!” Hal exclaims. “eleven buckram men grown out of two!” (215-16)—an inconsistency, even an impossibility, that would be evident to any reasonably attentive auditor, whether or not he possessed ocular proof of the contrary. So although Falstaff's imitation in 2.4 corresponds poorly to the events of 2.2 that it purports to represent, it seems unlikely that he expected it to be accepted as truth.

After Hal and Poins expose yet another inconsistency—Falstaff's claim that the men who robbed him wore “Kendal green” though he could not have known what they wore since “it was so dark, Hal, that thou couldst not see thy hand” (218-20)—Hal offers “a plain tale” (252) that corresponds well to what the audience actually saw: “Then did we two set on you four, and, with a word, out-faced you from your prize, and have it, yea, and can show it you here in the house” (252-55). However, at Poins's invitation—“Come, let's hear, Jack, what trick hast thou now?” (267)—Falstaff gets the last word, which implicitly grants the truth of what Hal has said (though without referring to details of Hal's narrative) while justifying his own behavior: “the lion will not touch the true prince; instinct is a great matter. I was now a coward on instinct; I shall think the better of myself (and thee) during my life—I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince” (266-71). Hal had said that the whole incident would provide “a good jest for ever” (2.2.95), and surely this moral that Falstaff spins out will remain a large part of that jest, and its conclusion, which means that Falstaff is coauthor of the enduring imitation of the robbery of the travelers.45

Given the play's large concerns with the relation of the authentic to the counterfeit—in the identity of the King of England, for instance, and the nature and intentions of the Prince of Wales46—it is unsurprising that the relative truth in narratives of events, and their meanings, also should be scrutinized. Hotspur speaks of the former king as “Richard, that sweet lovely rose” (1.3.175); Henry calls him “The skipping King, [who] ambled up and down” (3.2.60); to test these judgments, though perhaps both are correct, one must review all the evidence about that king in Richard II. So who, in 2.4 of 1 Henry IV, better describes the events of 2.2, Hal or Falstaff? Hal's account in 2.4.250-61 corresponds well to what we saw two scenes earlier, but Falstaff's, since it is about instincts, motives, what is inside him, is unprovable, untestable even, beyond the judgment right or wrong, correct or incorrect, authentic or counterfeit. It is part of the “jest” that both Hal and Poins sought, indeed the final part, not the “reproof” Poins had promised, but the jest's meaning. Falstaff concludes his speech on the lion and the true prince by proposing they perform “a play extempore” (275-76). Hal agrees and suggests that “the argument shall be thy running away” (277-78). “Ah, no more of that, Hal, and thou lovest me!” (279), replies Falstaff, who gets what he wants when the proceedings are interrupted by the Hostess's entrance to announce “a nobleman of the court at door [who] would speak with [the prince]” (283-84). When Falstaff (in a sly imitation of Hal, or perhaps a usurpation of his role) goes to speak to the nobleman, Bardolph and Peto fill the prince in on some details of the robbery's aftermath, but except for the prince's choric repetitions of the word “instinct” (296, 314, 351), the argument of Falstaff's running away is forgotten, or left to morally hypersensitive critics of the play.47

Falstaff returns from the nobleman of the court with information about the real world's intrusion on life in the tavern: “There's villainous news abroad: here was Sir John Bracy from your father,” he tells the prince. “You must to the court in the morning” (329-31). He reveals parts of the villainous news: “That same mad fellow of the north, Percy, and he of Wales”—soon identified by Poins as Owen Glendower—“and his son-in-law Mortimer, and old Northumberland, and that sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas” (331-32, 337-39)—all are … “there” is all Falstaff says (352), without saying where “there” is or for what purpose these rebels are assembled. Maybe place and purpose are known well enough to require no explanation, though both would be part of the villainous news. Another part of this news, perhaps from Falstaff's perspective the most villainous, is what it means for Prince Hal—that the time for “playing holidays” is over—and therefore for Falstaff himself—that the man he loves, the spiritual center of his life, is being removed, and that he will be left, physically and emotionally, in another unspecified, unknown “there.”48 This development is the circumstance Falstaff has dreaded always, as he revealed to us in the very first words he ever spoke, “Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” (1.2.1), a muted expression of fear of the future, and in the obsession he displays throughout the play's second scene with what is to be: “Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of the day's beauty” (23-25), “[S]hall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? (57-58), and “Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief” (59-60). If Falstaff has nightmares, the king's summoning his son must be at their center.

The next morning's encounter of father and son, king and prince, not anybody's running away, becomes the subject of two plays extempore that Hal and Falstaff then perform. It is Falstaff who proposes this subject, when he says, “If thou love me, practice an answer” to what will be demanded of him in the morning, and Hal assigns Falstaff a role in the drama, “Do thou stand for my father, and examine me upon the particulars of my life” (370-73). The choice of this subject needs no justification beyond its availability; Falstaff, after all, had proposed that they be merry and “have a play extempore” before Bracy had arrived at the tavern. Dramatic interludes, as I shall refer to these brief sequences,49 are part of the holidays Hal has not quite yet renounced. As Grace Tiffany writes, “[B]oth interactions are performative, played in front of audiences of cheering cronies in good-humored contests for best theatrical effect.”50 They are plays, more or less formal theatrical imitations with plots, assigned roles, beginnings and ends, and so forth, and are manifestations of play, of the ludic spirit that Falstaff embodies, to which the Hostess enthusiastically responds, “O Jesu, this is excellent sport, i' faith” (386). Her implicit view of these interludes as special, a thing apart, allies them with Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet. King Henry's summons of his son to him conveniently furnishes a particular subject, but in lieu of that summons, another subject would have been found. On the other hand, it is difficult to dismiss the notion that Falstaff, by speculating about the future, through the vehicle of these interludes, hopes to control it.

In his discussion of Henry IV as saturnalian revel, C. L. Barber remarks that “by turning on Falstaff as a scapegoat, as the villagers turned on their Mardi Gras, the prince can free himself from the sins, the ‘bad luck,’ of Richard's reign and of his father's reign, to become a king in whom chivalry and a sense of divine ordination are restored.”51 This effort by Hal is visible only if one is aware of the underlying ritual; it is not a conscious act, a deliberate choice. Falstaff's interludes are similar devices not merely for ascertaining the future, but for shaping it, for erasing any bad luck that might otherwise be there. It is proverbial that by imagining the worst possibility the future can hold, we cancel that possibility; and also, paradoxically, that by imagining the best possibility, we allow for its realization. The interludes, like the ancient Sortes Virgilianiæ, in which a passage in a literary text is picked by chance and then interpreted as an oracular observation, are used to know the future, except that enactment is substituted for reading; but as the decipherment of the Sortes is never independent of what one wants the future to be, so the interludes are not neutral, are not divorced from Falstaff's desire that the king leave him alone, that he not disturb the status quo.

After Falstaff had suggested that Hal “practice an answer” for the next day's interview, Hal had invited him to “stand for my father, and examine me upon the particulars of my life.” In the first of the interludes, therefore, Falstaff is cast as the king while Hal remains himself. In a sense, then, since Hal's apparent identity has not changed, only Falstaff assumes a role; but in another sense, since Falstaff has all along been a symbolic father to Hal—more truly, since his proximity to Hal has made us wonder how fully he has acknowledged the tasks and obligations of fatherhood52—Falstaff, too, is perhaps playing himself, or wishing he were doing so. As King, in any event, Falstaff takes as his subject—his “argument”—Falstaff. In the first of his two speeches, parodying Lyly's Euphues (“For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted the sooner it wears” [396-98]),53 Falstaff anatomizes Hal's behavior (“Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses?” [405-6]) and reproves him for “the company thou keepest” (409-10), yet notes that “there is a virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company, but I know not his name” (413-14). In his only speech in this interlude, Hal asks, “What manner of man, and it like Your Majesty?” (415), to which “the king” responds with a description of Falstaff, or Falstaff responds with a description of himself, “A goodly portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent” (416), a sudden recollection that “his name is Falstaff” (419-20), the admonition to “him keep with, the rest [of his companions] banish” (424), and a request for information: “And tell me now, thou naughty varlet, tell me, where hast thou been this month?” (424-26). Falstaff's advertisement for himself is too much for Hal, who interrupts the interlude and proposes another, in which their roles will be reversed: “Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand for me, and I'll play my father” (427-28).

In this first interlude of thirty-two lines Falstaff has not examined Hal “upon the particulars of my life” beyond specifying a few of them, despite the agreement that such would be the purpose of the exchange; he has, instead, substituted himself for Hal as an object of scrutiny, then posited his own virtue, and finally advised Hal to continue his association with this companion. But the subject is less the behavior of Hal than it is the worth of Falstaff. If that worth is demonstrable, then Hal's behavior will not alter, and the absence of any alteration, rather the continuation of what seems long to have existed, is what Falstaff wants. To the extent that Falstaff has been a father, he would continue as a father. As an anticipation of act 3, scene 2, Falstaff is creating an image of himself as a valuable companion to the prince that he hopes the king will endorse. Immediately, that is, Falstaff wants Hal to believe in him, but in what will come the next day, he wants Henry to believe in him.

When Hal challenges Falstaff's interpretation of his kingly role and proposes that they exchange parts, Falstaff exclaims, “Depose me?” (429)—a pointed reminder of how members of the royal family become kings. Like father, like son: as Henry IV became king by deposing Richard II, so does this son of Henry in the first interlude become king in the second by deposing his father (approximately what Henry will perceive as Hal's intention in 2 Henry IV after Hal has taken and donned the sleeping king's crown: “Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair / That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours / Before thy hour be ripe?” [4.5.94-96]). As the two interludes are what I am calling proleptic imitations of Hal's showdown with his father, so is the second of them an imitation of the first—each a dialogue between the King of England and the Prince of Wales—as, simultaneously, the advancement of Hal from prince in the first to king in the second imitates, again proleptically, his real such advancement at the end of 2 Henry IV. Whereas, for instance, the first interlude leaves open the possibility that there will be a place for Falstaff in the life of King Henry V, the second forecloses that possibility, just as the new king will reject Falstaff at the end of the next play. So Hal's deposing Falstaff (as king) in act 2 of 1 Henry IV looks forward to his deposing him (as Falstaff) in act 5 of 2 Henry IV.

The second interlude, with forty-one lines, is slightly longer than the first, and contains eleven speeches instead of three, but it, too, examines particulars of the life of Falstaff, not of Hal. In the long speech (439-53) beginning, “Swearest thou, ungracious boy? Henceforth ne'er look on me,” and in the sentence (457-58) that follows Falstaff's response to this speech, “King Henry” describes Falstaff, “a devil [that] haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man,” to “Hal” in thoroughly scurrilous terms (“that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies”), some of which (“devil,” “reverend vice,” “grey Iniquity,” “villainous … in all things,” “old white-bearded Satan”) have been seized upon by critics eager to allegorize Falstaff as one kind of incarnation of wickedness or another. And one term in this harangue, “villainous abominable misleader of youth,” has been seen, more promisingly, as allying Falstaff with Socrates, who in Plato's Apology (24b-c) defends himself from the same charge.54

After Hal, as the king, concludes his opening indictment, “[W]herein worthy but in nothing?” (453), Falstaff, as Hal, replies, “I would Your Grace would take me with you: whom means Your Grace?” (454-55). The pretended bafflement at the identity of the object of Hal's remarks echoes Hal's similar pretense in the first interlude, “What manner of man, and it like Your Majesty?” Both of these questions must have stimulated hilarity among the company listening in the inn, and especially the second: for if the audience to the interludes knew that Falstaff had to mean himself by the “virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company,” and were therefore amused that Hal did not see that meaning, or pretended not to, how much more evident is Falstaff's presence in “that trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness,” and how much funnier, therefore, Falstaff's failure to recognize himself. Laughter can be stimulated by a sense of disproportion, here between what should be evident to everybody and what is in fact evident to Falstaff—or what he claims is evident. And so the line brings down the house, as, when Hal has identified “Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan,” does Falstaff's “My lord, the man I know,” an understatement because obviously he knows the man extremely well since, in “real life,” he is the man.55

This merriment must increase through the first sentences of Falstaff's apologia pro vita sua that follows (“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked!”); one wonders whether and when some of the audience in the inn are able to hear the mounting desperation in Falstaff's long final sentence, from “No, my good lord, banish Peto” to “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (468, 473-74). The sentence is complicated, for it never ceases being funny (in, for instance, the solemn but dramatic progression, auxesis in classical rhetoric, of “for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff”) while at the same time it dawns upon audience, in the tavern and in the theater, and reader that this man is fighting for his life. The second interlude is a proleptic imitation of the next day's interview, but breaking through this imitation is the genuine, nontheatrical desperation of Falstaff, as he fears, rightly, that he will be abandoned. “[B]anish plump Jack,” he says, “and banish all the world,” and the king, that is the prince, replies, “I do, I will”: I do banish plump Jack, I will banish all the world he represents, all his world. Looking forward to the next day, the response tells us that there will be no room for Falstaff in the world of King Henry, which Hal is about to join.

In “of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children” (II, 8) Montaigne describes the moment when Gallic sons first appeared to their fathers: “Amongst other particular customes, which our ancient Gaules had, (as Cæsar affirmeth) this was one, that children never came before their fathers, nor were in any publike assembly seene in their company, but when they began to beare armes; as if they would infer, that then was the time, fathers should admit them to their acquaintance and familiarity.”56 Florio's “particular customs” (coustumes particulieres) means peculiar or singular customs, not merely specific ones; and whatever Montaigne might have thought of ancient Gallic practice, it is imitated in the royal family of 1 Henry IV, where Hal first appears to his father (who had known of him in Richard II only through the report of others) only when he is ready to bear arms. The encounter of father and son in act 3, scene 2 mediates between its proleptic imitations in the interludes of act 2 and the Battle of Shrewsbury in act 5, when the fruits of Prince Hal's allegiance become visible, when his long promised reformation glitters over his fault.

The most spectacular difference between the interludes and the real thing is that Falstaff, the persistent subject of the former, is present in the latter only insofar as he is a trace in the consciousness of the reader or auditor; in the explicit dialogue of king and prince he is as absent as if he had never existed. The scene begins with the king's dismissing his attendants:

Lords, give us leave; the Prince of Wales and I
Must have some private conference: but be near at hand,
For we shall presently have need of you.


That their conference will be private in the sense Henry intends itself differentiates it from the earlier interludes, which, although a manifestation of private life in contradistinction to the public world of courts, diplomacy, and warfare, were nevertheless performed before, and in part for the benefit of, an audience of the Hostess, Poins, Peto, Bardolph, and some others. By contrast, King Henry will talk to his son before no one; this lack of an audience emphasizes the serious, consequential, nonludic character of the exchange, and although Henry cannot know so, it also furthers Hal's intention to become wondered at—like Aeneas bursting forth from a cloud—as he could not do if he were generally known to be responding to the reprimands of his father.

Henry does not talk about Falstaff or Hal's other companions, though he refers to them collectively as “rude society” (14), “vulgar company” (41), and “vile participation” (87) for which Hal has shown “inordinate and low desires” (12). He does talk about Richard and himself to advance the thesis that familiarity breeds contempt: Richard “being daily swallow'd by men's eyes, / They surfeited with honey, and began / To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little / More than a little is by much too much” (70-73), whereas Henry “did … keep my person fresh and new, / My presence, like a robe pontifical, / Ne'er seen but wonder'd at, and so my state, / Seldom, but sumptuous, show'd like a feast, / And wan by rareness such solemnity” (55-59). And Henry talks especially about Hotspur in the way that fathers, from time immemorial, have used a good boy as a weapon to scourge a bad or negligent son. But few sons have been asked to measure their failings against one

                                                                                whose high deeds,
Whose hot incursions and great name in arms,
Holds from all soldiers chief majority
And military title capital
Through all the kingdoms that acknowledge Christ.


Hotspur contains no flaws that weaken this image presented by the King, none at least that are known to Hal, and Hal possesses no demonstrable virtues that would allow him to set himself beside Hotspur and thus make less stark the contrast his father has presented. All he can do is offer to take from Hotspur what Hotspur has accumulated, and this great achievement Hal promises his father:

I will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son …


                                                                                For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf,
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.

(132-34, 144-52)

This wholly admirable Hal-that-is-to-be corresponds to “sweet Jack Falstaff … valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff” of the second interlude, each figure the creation of his own rhetoric.

King Henry, however, is convinced; he believes because the language is brilliant, persuasive, stirring, and because, as a father, he wants to believe that the son Hal is describing to him is his real son. But rather than state this newfound conviction in private, personal, or familial terms, Henry proclaims its huge political meaning:

A hundred thousand rebels die in this—
Thou shalt have charge and sovereign trust herein.


Hal has said that he will make Hotspur “render every glory up,” to him, “Yea, even the slightest worship of his time.” This settlement he has promised “in the name of God,” and he has sworn further that “I will die a hundred thousand deaths / Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow” (153, 158-59). King Henry conflates the reckoning guaranteed to Hotspur with Hal's surety of his own hundred thousand deaths and comes up with the prediction of a hundred thousand rebel deaths. The field at Shrewsbury will produce much carnage, including not only most of Falstaff's ragtag company (“[T]here's not three of my hundred and fifty left alive, and they are for the town's end, to beg during life” [5.3.36-38]), but also, we can be sure, Hotspur and other rebels—men, that is, who deliberately chose the party of Northumberland, Worcester, and Hotspur over that of the king. We may doubt that there were one thousand of these. The men who would die fighting for the rebels were men with no stake in the conflict who happened to live where the rebels were strong, as in the north of England, as indeed Falstaff's men died following rather than opposing him because they were Londoners, not because they thoughtfully espoused the royalist cause. Henry's exuberance over Hal's promised reform happily expresses the waste of his own citizens.

The interludes of 2.4 proleptically imitate the encounter of father and son of 3.2, but the imitation proves not even approximate, the language, emphases, and conclusion of the latter proving hugely different from those of the former. The interludes are plays, illusions, not real events; the encounter (which we easily forget is in a play) is the real thing, is for keeps, a part of history. Controlled by Falstaff, the interludes of the earlier scene are imitations of the action that follows, as tragedy is the imitation of an action, and in the failure of that which is imitated to conform to that which imitates it lies the seed of Falstaff's own tragedy.


  1. Harry Berger Jr., “On the Continuity of the Henriad: A Critique of Some Literary and Thematic Approaches” in Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Ivo Kamps (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 226. Berger is extending the thesis of Derek A. Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), 2.

  2. Berger, “On the Continuity of the Henriad,” 227.

  3. On this transition from the old to the new, see, for instance, E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (Harmondworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1944), 244-63, and Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 162.

  4. W. H. Auden, “The Prince's Dog,” in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Vintage, 1968), 187.

  5. Auden's fourth condition is that “He must have the capacity both by nature and by art of making others loyal to his person.”

  6. Auden, “The Prince's Dog,” 188.

  7. See “Troyes, treaty of” in A Dictionary of British History, ed. J. P. Kenyon (New York: Stein and Day, 1983), 344.

  8. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, edited by Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-75), vol. 3, 412.

  9. Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 201. For the episode in Sidney, see also Narrative and Dramatic Sources, vol. 7, 402-14. For the devices of deception in Sidney for which Shakespeare substitutes Edmund's letter, see p. 409 and note 2.

  10. Edmund's “Nothing,” as R. A. Foakes points out, echoes “Cordelia's response to her father at 1.1.87.” See King Lear in the Arden Shakespeare, Third Series, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997), 1.2.32n. And of course much attention has been paid to what Sigurd Burckhardt calls “The Quality of Nothing” in the play (the title of chapter 8 of his study Shakespearean Meanings [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968], 237-59). It is worth pointing out that Richard II is similarly concerned with the myriad possibilities of “nothing,” as word and as concept, perhaps especially in Richard's complicated statement, “But whate'er I be, / Nor I, nor any man that but man is, / With nothing shall be pleas'd till he be eas'd / With being nothing” (5.5.38-41). Here, the first “nothing” means that man is never satisfied (nothing pleases him) and that he is satisfied by what is fundamentally worthless, or nothing. King Lear would understand this alliance of striving and cynicism.

  11. Narrative and Dramatic Sources, vol. 3, 412-13.

  12. Women, to be sure, have no monopoly on the word “womb” in Richard II. Gaunt calls England “this teeming womb of royal kings” and likens a grave to a “hollow womb” (2.1.51, 83), but it is Richard's queen who senses that “Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune's womb / Is coming towards me …” (2.2.10-11).

  13. Alvin B. Kernan, “The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays,” in Modern Shakespearean Criticism: Essays on Style, Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1970), 245.

  14. See Chapman's Homer, vol. 1, The Iliad, ed. Allardyce Nicoll (Princeton: Princeton University Press [Bollingen Series 41], 1967), xi, and William J. Harris, The First Printed Translations into English of the Great Foreign Classics, (rept. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970 [first published in 1909]), 75.

  15. Reuben A. Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 31.

  16. Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry. Edited by Forrest G. Robinson. (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill [Library of Liberal Arts], 1970), 20.

  17. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), 210.

  18. W. A. Wright, ed., Henry IV, Part 1 (London, 1897). Quoted by A. R. Humphreys, ed., The First Part of King Henry the Fourth (London: Methuen, 1960 [Arden 2]), 5.3.25 n.

  19. If Hotspur emphasizes the pronoun in his praise of Blunt's gallantry, “A gallant knight he was,” he can underline by implied contrast the circumspection of the king.

  20. Homer, The Iliad, tr. (1898) Samuel Butler, rev. Malcolm M. Willcock (Washington Square Press, 1964), 241.

  21. Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (New York: Norton, 1965), 196.

  22. Ibid., 201.

  23. Narrative and Dramatic Sources, vol. 4, 191.

  24. Perhaps nothing in the play has been the subject of more commentary than this theme of counterfeiting and the language that supports it: as a poor ruler, Richard II was a kind of counterfeit, but as the legitimate heir to his grandfather's throne, he was authentic. As a usurper, Henry IV is a counterfeit, but as a man of some good instincts, he is authentic. As a reckless prodigal, Hal seems to be a counterfeit prince, but as someone capable of redeeming both himself and his nation, he too is authentic—unlike the glory-seeking Hotspur, who proves finally another kind of counterfeit. It is not only kings but also fathers who can be measured according to their counterfeit or authentic identities, which allows for King Henry and Falstaff to be ranged variously along the spectrum, at the counterfeit end of which, according to Falstaff, are the dead—“for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man” [5.4.116-17]—and at the authentic end of which are the living, whatever they may have done to maintain that state.

  25. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1976), 316.

  26. See Simone Weil, “The Iliad, Poem of Might” in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas (New York: David McKay, 1977). Weil begins her essay: “The true hero, the real subject, the core of the Iliad, is might” (153).

  27. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 200, 198.

  28. A Short Guide to Clausewitz on War, ed. Roger Ashley Leonard (New York: Capricorn, 1967), 41.

  29. Ibid., 42.

  30. Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 4, p. 191.

  31. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 191n. On the relation of Shakespeare's sources to each other and to the use he made of them here, Peter Saccio writes, “Hotspur perished [at Shrewsbury], it is not known by whose hand. (Students of Shakespeare's sources have rightly pointed out that an ambiguous sentence in Holinshed makes it possible to suppose that Hal killed Hotspur. Hall's chronicle, however, which was Holinshed's own source at this point and was possibly consulted by Shakespeare, does not convey this false suggestion, and surely Shakespeare, having arranged Hotspur's age, the king's anxieties about his son, and many passages of dialogue to bring Hal and Hotspur into competing contrast, could have invented the climactic duel of 1 Henry IV without the aid of stray ambiguities.)” (Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977], 510).

  32. W. A. Camps, An Introduction to Virgil's Aeneid (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 35-36.

  33. I quote The Aeneid of Virgil in the translation of Rolfe Humphries, edited by Brian Wilkie. This translation was originally published in 1951. Line numbers from the Latin text, placed in brackets after the line numbers in Humphries, are taken from the Loeb edition of Virgil, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and London: William Heinemann Ltd., rev. ed. 1934, rpt. 1960).

  34. E.g., “How shall we manage to combat that extremely subtle idea, which supposes it possible, through the use of a special artificial form, to effect by a small direct destruction of the enemy's forces a much greater destruction indirectly, or by means of small but extremely well-directed blows to produce such paralysation of the enemy's forces, such a command over the enemy's will, that this mode of proceeding is to be viewed as a great shortening of the road? … [B]ut we assert that the direct destruction of the enemy's forces is everywhere predominant. …” (Clausewitz, Clausewitz on War, 132-33).

  35. In Henry V the king certainly seems angry when he responds to the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls (1.2), before Harfleur (3.3), after the incident with Williams, Bates, and Court (4.1), when he gives orders to kill the French prisoners (4.6), and when he says he is: “I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” (4.7.54-55). Can he be bluffing at all these moments, simply pretending anger as a tactic to get what he wants?

  36. K. W. Gransden, Virgil's Iliad: An Essay on Epic Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), passim.

  37. Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1997 [The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series]), 34.3n [p. 178].

  38. James Biester, Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 6.

  39. Ibid., 72. 1 Henry IV functions as a kind of leitmotif in Biester's's book.

  40. Virgil, The Aeneid, tr. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Random House, 1983), 25.

  41. Kenneth Quinn, Virgil's Aeneid: A Critical Description (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), 108.

  42. The historical Henry married Hal's mother, Mary de Bohun, in 1380; neither she nor Henry's second wife, Joan of Navarre, whom he married in 1401, has any place in the major tetralogy.

  43. On the nature of privacy in Falstaff's world, see Mark Taylor, “Falstaff and the Origins of Private Life,” Shakespeare Yearbook 3 (1992): 63-85.

  44. OED, “Action,” definition I.3.

  45. This Henry is much concerned with the construction of enduring myths. As king, he will predict, of the battle of Agincourt, that “This story shall the good man teach his son, / And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by / From this day to the ending of the world / But we in it shall be remembered …” (Henry V, 4.3.56-59).

  46. See note 24 above.

  47. Like, famously, Dr. Johnson: Falstaff “is a thief, and a glutton, a coward, and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirises in their absence those whom he lives by flattering.” Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson with Jean M. O'Meara (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 188.

  48. What Iago says of Bianca and her devotion to Cassio is true mutatis mutandis of Falstaff and his devotion to Hal, that “tis the strumpet's plague / To beguile many and be beguiled by one” (Othello, 4.1.97-98). It is no longer necessary, I hope, to demonstrate that selfless love (as well as selfish love) for Hal is Falstaff's predominant drive, and that in Henry V the Hostess speaks truly when she says of Falstaff, “The King has killed his heart” (2.1.87). See the appendix on Falstaff in Thomas McFarland, Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972), 177-211.

  49. My terminology here perhaps requires an explanation. To call these sequences “plays” is to risk confusion with the play 1 Henry IV; to call them “plays-within-the-play” is awkward, especially as there are two of them; to call them “playlets” or “mini-plays” seems to me too undignified for something, finally, of profound significance. The term “interlude,” which I choose, sometimes refers specifically to some short plays of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that can be seen to represent a step in the evolution of the English drama from older morality plays to early Elizabethan realistic comedies. However, “The term has always been ambiguous and generally has been used as a catchall or generic term for a great variety of secular and nonsecular, short and long, comic and serious plays.” (S[uzanne]. R. W[estfall]., “Interlude,” in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 613.) Another standard reference book points out that the term “interlude” was sometimes used for “a play brief enough to be presented in the interval of a dramatic performance, entertainment, or feast … or it may mean a play or dialogue between two persons.” (A Handbook to Literature, ed. C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, 6th ed. [New York: Macmillan, 1992], 250.) The sequences in 1 Henry IV are dialogues between two persons, and they may well interrupt the company's feast. Moreover, lude (<ludus) is part of “interlude,” and I take it that the word is ambiguous, meaning “within the play” or “the play within,” both of which fit these two interludes. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, finally, both Quince (1.2.5) and Snout (as Wall, 5.1.154) call Pyramus and Thisbe an interlude. The nature and function of Pyramus in the comedy is analogous to that of the Falstaff-Hal playings in the history.

  50. Grace Tiffany, “Shakespeare's Dionysian Prince: Drama, Politics, and the ‘Athenian’ History Play,” Renaissance Quarterly 52, 2 (Summer 1999): 371.

  51. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Cleveland and New York: Meridian, 1963), 207.

  52. In “Of the Institution and Education of Children” (I, 25) Montaigne strikes a peculiarly modern note in describing the responsibilities of parents: “[T]he greatest difficultie, and importing all humane knowledge, seemeth to be in this point, where the nurture and institution [i.e., education] of young children is in question.” The Essays of Montaigne, tr. John Florio [1603] (New York: Modern Library, 1933), 110.

  53. Cf., for example, “‘For as [women] be hard to be won without trial of great faith, so are they hard to be lost without great cause of fickleness. It is long before the cold water seethe, yet being once hot, it is long before it be cooled, it is long before salt come to his saltness, but being once seasoned, it never loseth his savour.’” John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, in Elizabethan Fiction, ed. Robert Ashley and Edwin M. Moseley (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953), 125.

  54. For the first, see E. E. Stoll, “Falstaff” in Shakespeare Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927) and Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943). For the second, see McFarland, Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy, 180-84. Tiffany, in “Shakespeare's Dionysian Prince,” also notes the Socratic parallels but concludes that they are ironic and Falstaff is a sophist. I disagree.

  55. Compare Rosalind's report on her meeting with her father while she was disguised as Ganymede: “I met the Duke yesterday and had much question with him. He asked me of what parentage I was. I told him of as good as he. …” (As You Like It, 3.4.33-35). See also the disguised King Henry's defense to Williams, before the fact, of how he would behave if captured at Agincourt: “I myself heard the King say he would not be ransomed” (Henry V, 4.1.188-89). Shakespeare seems to enjoy having characters who pretend not to be themselves make trenchant comments on themselves—all for their own sly enjoyment.

  56. Montaigne, The Essayes of Montaigne, 350. Caesar's observation will be found in The Gallic Wars, 6, 18.


Primary Works

Chapman, George. Chapman's Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey and the Lesser Homerica. Edited by Allardyce Nicoll. 2d ed. 2 volumes. Bollingen Series 41. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler (1898). Edited by Malcolm M. Willcock. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964.

Lyly, John. Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. In Elizabethan Fiction. Edited by Robert Ashley and Edwin M. Moseley. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953.

Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Edited by Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Odyssey Press, 1957.

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de. The Essayes of Montaigne. Translated by John Florio (1603). New York: Modern Library, 1933.

Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Edited by Geoffrey Bullough. 8 volumes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-75.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry IV, Part 1. Edited by A. R. Humphreys. London: Methuen, and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (The Arden Shakespeare [Arden 2]), 1960.

———. King Lear. Edited by R. A. Foakes. Walton-on-Thames Surrey [UK]: Thomas Nelson and Sons. (The Arden Shakespeare [Arden 3]), 1997.

———. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. Walton-on-Thames Surrey [UK]: Thomas Nelson and Sons. (The Arden Shakespeare [Arden 3]), 1997.

Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Edited by Forrest G. Robinson. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill (Library of Liberal Arts), 1970.

Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro). The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1983.

———. The Aeneid of Virgil. Translated by Rolfe Humphries. Edited, and with Notes, by Brian Wilkie. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Translation originally published 1951.

———. Works. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough. 2 volumes. Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and London: William Heinemann, 1934, rpt. 1960 (The Loeb Classical Library).

Secondary Works

Auden, W. H. The Dyer's Hand. New York: Vintage, 1968.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. Cleveland and New York: Meridian, 1963.

Berger, Harry. “On the Continuity of the Henriad: A Critique of Some Literary and Thematic Approaches.” In Shakespeare Left and Right. Edited by Ivo Kamps. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.

Biester, James. Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance English Poetry. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Brower, Reuben A. Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Burckhardt, Sigurd. Shakespearean Meanings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Camps, W. A. An Introduction to Virgil's Aeneid. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Clausewitz, Carl von. A Short Guide to Clausewitz on War. Edited by Roger Ashley Leonard and Michael Howard. New York: Capricorn Books, 1967.

A Dictionary of British History. Edited by J. P. Kenyon. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.

Gransden, K. W. Virgil's Iliad: An Essay on Epic Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

A Handbook to Literature. Edited by C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Harris, William J. The First Printed Translations into English of the Great Foreign Classics. New York: Burt Franklin, 1970 (reprint).

Johnson, Samuel. Johnson on Shakespeare. Edited by Bertrand H. Bronson with Jean M. O'Meara. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Viking, 1976.

Kernan, Alvin B. “The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays.” In Modern Shakespearean Criticism: Essays on Style, Dramaturgy, and the Major Plays. Edited by Alvin B. Kernan. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970.

McFarland, Thomas. Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Muir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Alex Preminger et al. New York: MJF Books, 1993.

Quinn, Kenneth. Virgil's Aeneid: A Critical Description. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Stoll, E. E. Shakespeare Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

Taylor, Mark. “Falstaff and the Origins of Private Life.” Shakespeare Yearbook 3 (1992): 63-85.

Tiffany, Grace. “Shakespeare's Dionysian Prince: Drama, Politics, and the ‘Athenian’ History Play.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, 2 (1999): 366-83.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1944.

Traversi, Derek A. Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Weil, Simone. The Simone Weil Reader. Edited by George Panichas. New York: David McKay, 1977.

Whitman, Cedric H. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. New York: Norton, 1965.

Wilson, (John) Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943.

Michael Billington (review date 24 February 2001)

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SOURCE: Billington, Michael. “May the Fourth Be with You.” Guardian (24 February 2001): 4.

[In the following review, Billington praises Michael Attenborough's Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) staging of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 for capturing the moral ambiguity inherent in Shakespeare's English epic.]

It is widely accepted now that Henry IV Parts One and Two are the twin summits of Shakespeare's genius. Even if Michael Attenborough's production, in its move from Stratford's Swan to London's Barbican, seems visually austere—nothing much scenically except a raked, dun-coloured stage and an overhanging screen—it is tremendous where it truly matters: in conveying the endless moral ambivalence of Shakespeare's characters.

Take Falstaff. Poets and critics who don't go to the theatre much tend to sanctify the character: Swinburne wrote of his “moral elevation” and Auden compared him to Christ. But Desmond Barrit, far more than at Stratford, brings out superbly his mix of anarchic wit and monstrous cruelty. Barrit's Falstaff is excellent company in an Eastcheap tavern. But he never lets you forget that Falstaff is also a profiteer who recruits 150 ragamuffins, contemptuously dismisses them as “food for powder” and casually informs us that all but three have died in battle. And how can one get sentimental about a Falstaff who, in Part Two, fleeces Justice Shallow of 1,000 pounds and then tells us he plans to treat him as a butt for Prince Harry's “continual laughter”?

By making you listen closely to the text, Attenborough highlights Shakespeare's constant moral ambiguity. The cliched view of Prince Hal is that he is a calculating creep. But the beauty of William Houston's performance is that he shows a man torn between duty and desire. The high point comes in the role-playing tavern scene when he gives Falstaff due warning that he will have finally to reject him—at which point a desperate Barrit hammers on Houston's knees crying: “Play out the play.” What Houston gives us, most intelligently, is a long-term strategist seeking to extricate himself from a world of instant gratification.

The presentation of these plays as part of an unfolding cycle also lends extra richness to David Troughton's massive Henry IV. As Bolingbroke in Richard II, he emerged as a shrewd political opportunist. What comes across here is his ability to re-write history and to persuade himself that it was his “humility” that won popular allegiance. Troughton's Henry remains a crafty politician to the end: when he urges Hal “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” it might be George Bush senior talking to Dubya about Iraq. But Troughton also beautifully highlights the emotional constriction of a father who, at one point, yearns to embrace his son but who instead gives him a wary pat on the shoulder.

Much could be said about this engrossing, six-hour experience: the Gloucestershire scenes, in particular, bring joyous tears to the eyes as Benjamin Whitrow's crumbling Shallow quietly patronises Peter Copley's lean, slippered and even more senile Silence. But the overwhelming feeling at the end of the day is of Shakespeare's genius in encompassing all of England in two plays and of Attenborough's success in probing his restless moral intelligence.

David Ruiter (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Ruiter, David. “‘The Unquiet Time’ of 2 Henry IV: Festivity and Order in Flux.” In Shakespeare's Festive History: Feasting, Festivity, Fasting and Lent in the Second Henriad, pp. 103-41. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2003.

[In the following essay, Ruiter demonstrates how in Henry IV, Part 2 Prince Hal shrewdly manipulates the progression from feasting and festivity to the restoration of political order in an effort to maximize his political capital as the prodigal son who alters his behavior in order to become king.]

In 1 Henry IV, Hal creates a socio-political event which I have called the Feast of Falstaff. The prince is able to do so largely because his audience, both within and outside of the play, was familiar with a calendar that included feast days and, as participants in actual festive events, they would have recognized allusions to feasts and festivals within the plays.1 In addition, as Leah Marcus has shown, the public, at least during the English Renaissance, would have understood the government funding of festive events; in fact, they may have even had a growing understanding of the politics behind the well-organized and well-attended holiday events (1-23). Within the context of 2 Henry IV, both the public knowledge of and participation in the Feast of Falstaff grows; at the same time, the feast begins to dwindle in political benefit for the young prince, largely because the delicate timing of his plan to ‘imitate the sun’ is disrupted.2

Having created and sustained this metaphorical feast with his rhetoric and finances, Hal mistakenly believes that he can also dictate the shift between this festive event and the serious political event of becoming the King of England; that is, as the creator and sponsor of the Feast of Falstaff, Hal assumes that he can limit the festivity within a politically beneficial time-frame. And this desire to so limit the ‘feast’ is understandable, for, as François Laroque points out in his book Shakespeare's Festive World, if there is no such time-frame, then festivity and its expected power inversions and social-leveling would better be classified as ‘riot’ or ‘revolution’ than as feast or holiday (220). At some point, if the event is to be politically stabilizing, Laroque demonstrates, the disorder and community that steadily grow at the outset of a feast must dissipate, and order and hierarchy return (220-221). This end to festivity and the return of clear, political hierarchy are parts of Hal's plan, as seen in his ‘imitate the sun’ speech early in 1 Henry IV. However, the issue, as Hal states in the same speech, is not only one of power (though it is certainly that), but also one of the need for recognizable change that festivity fulfills. Hal says,

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth like rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes.

(1 Henry IV, 1.2.198-205)

In these lines, he clearly expresses his desire to highlight for the public his change from youthful rogue to glorious king. The festivity Hal creates must end, then, not only to restabilize political order, but also to mark the change from Hal as holiday youth to Henry V as everyday ruler. Laroque closely parallels Hal's own sentiments on this issue when the critic states, ‘The great value in festivity is that it ushers in a different kind of time whose limits are set in advance and which stands out against the backgrounds of everyday life’ (235). In this regard, the seasonal change from feast to Lenten reform, or from festive holiday to the political everyday, must be clear in order to be vital and useful. At the crux between Hal's need for political stability and his need for a clearly appreciated change from his festive youth to his royal adulthood lies the pendulous movement between festivity and politics which marks the entirety of 2 Henry IV.

This movement, which C. L. Barber and Neil Rhodes have explained as the victory of order over disorder (Barber 192-221), or the triumph of Lent over Carnival (Rhodes 89-130), actually does not so much represent a battle to be won or lost as a stage to be shared. Even in our own time, while the calendar may demarcate the periods of holiday from the periods of everyday, and certainly delineates the line between the feast of Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), for instance, and the Lent which begins with Ash Wednesday, the practices and ideas of festivity, like Falstaff himself, cannot be so limited. That is, while people do enjoy the holiday feast on the prescribed days, they also experience the food and drink, the community, and even the disorder associated with these feasts on other occasions, as well, such as during an evening at the local tavern, at a family reunion, or during the celebration of the Eucharist. Sometimes these festive events occur even during times of official reform and order, similar to Hostess Quickly's illegal sale of meat during Lent (2 Henry IV, 2.4.343-346).

In understanding that the idea of the feast is not easily, or even usually, restricted to a sanctioned period of disorder, we must also realize, as Laroque explains, that political time and festive time are not the same, but can and do exist concurrently (201-203). Historical/political time is generally linear, Laroque argues, while festive time is more cyclic in nature. Considering this variance between these two types of time is useful in understanding the difficulties which Prince Hal experiences in his plan to use festive time for political advantage.3 We remember from Hal's ‘imitate the sun’ soliloquy that his scheme has several parts, which he plans to move through in order. First, he will ‘uphold’ the roguish behavior of Falstaff and the Boar's Head gang; he will do this for a period in order to ‘falsify men's hopes’; and finally, he will reform himself and become, unexpectedly, a glorious and popular king. Indeed, 1 Henry IV shows Hal at work on all parts of the plan: he does sustain Falstaff's and his own roguish behavior; he does gain the poor reputation he strives for; he does reform himself in his father's eyes; and he does gain glory, at least temporarily, through his defeat of Hotspur. It seems, then, that his life follows the linear plan that he establishes early in the play.

However, at the end of 1 Henry IV, the glory and the plan suddenly do not follow in such an orderly fashion, because Falstaff rises up, snatches the glory for the death of Hotspur, and reasserts his festive role. In addition, Hal is not about to become king because his father is still not only living, but in better political position than he has been throughout the play.4 The festive time of Falstaff is not over, and therefore it does not usher in the political time of Henry V; neither is the political time of Henry IV over, a fact which stands as a direct roadblock to the fulfillment of Hal's plans. Instead, the Feast of Falstaff and the reign of Henry IV co-exist throughout the majority of Part Two, and, as a result, Hal's planned reformation from roguish son to glorious sun/son remains in flux.

The evidence that the Feast of Falstaff continues into Part Two appears almost immediately when Lord Bardolph provides the rebel Northumberland with news of the Battle of Shrewsbury. Lord Bardolph, satisfying Northumberland's desire for a good report and a rebel victory, states that the result of the battle is

As good as heart can wish.
The King is almost wounded to the death,
And, in the fortune of my lord your son,
Prince Harry slain outright; and both the Blunts
Killed by the hand of Douglas. Young Prince John
And Westmoreland and Stafford fled the field,
And Harry Monmouth's brawn, the hulk Sir John,
Is prisoner to your son.


While Lord Bardolph's information regarding the outcome of the Shrewsbury battle is almost entirely incorrect (with the exception of the death of Walter Blunt), his identification of Falstaff as Hal's fattened pig is telling because now a character outside of the prince's immediate circle picks up on the idea of the Feast of Falstaff.5 In addition, Lord Bardolph correctly identifies ‘Harry Monmouth,’ Hal, as the feast's sponsor. Further, Hotspur, according to the erroneous account of Lord Bardolph, now possesses the fat ‘brawn’ Falstaff. In this regard, the feast and festivity associated with Falstaff (and especially with Hal's portrayal of Falstaff) survive, but appear to change into the possession of the supposed victors.6 To the victor go the spoils, among which is a witty, drunken knight representing community festivity. However, when the reality of Henry's triumph becomes apparent to the crafty Northumberland, we find that Falstaff is not a prisoner of the rebels but remains in the company of the true victors. Plump Jack remains both alive and unfettered, back in London.

In Act One, scene two, Falstaff continues the theme of the feast in his conversation with his thin page. When the page expresses that the doctor has made jokes about Falstaff's disease-ridden urine (1.2.3-5), Falstaff boldly replies,

Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me. The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter more than I invent or is invented on me. I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men. I do here walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one.


In these lines, he certainly reasserts his stature as fattened pig, a ‘sow,’ but he also recalls the festive, and therefore communal, atmosphere that his wit provides. In fact, his suggestion that ‘men of all sorts’ unite in their desire to make fun of him demonstrates, once again, his usefulness to Prince Hal's scheme; that is, Falstaff's fat wit, as much as his fat body, helps to provide a sense of community, a sense of politically productive leveling. In a bit of hyperbole, Falstaff even goes so far as to suggest that he is the source of their levity, that without him there is no laughter. While this statement seems untrue, a quick reading of 2 Henry IV suggests that without Falstaff there is no ‘wit,’ no mirth, to speak of, as I will demonstrate below. Nearly every instance of possible humor in Part Two includes Falstaff or becomes jocular only when the other characters discuss the fat knight or plan tricks on him. Unlike the situation in 1 Henry IV—which included Hotspur's mocking of Glendower, the banter between Kate and Hotspur, and Hal's attempted joke on the waiter Francis—2 Henry IV contains a growing breach between holiday festivity and political order, both for Hal and the other characters.

Evidence of this breach occurs throughout 2 Henry IV. For example, early in the play, the extremely orderly Chief Justice desires to discuss the issue of political order with Falstaff, but the fat knight will have nothing to do with such a topic. When the Chief Justice attempts to question Falstaff, Jack purposely misunderstands and ultimately claims to have the disease of ‘not listening’ (1.2.58-120). For this absurdity and for other crimes, the Chief Justice reprimands him.

CHIEF Justice:
Well, the truth is, Sir John, you live in great infamy.
He that buckles himself in my belt cannot live in less.
CHIEF Justice:
Your means are very slender, and your waste is great.
I would it were otherwise; I would my means were greater, and my waist slenderer.


Here, as elsewhere, Falstaff seems unable to stop referencing his own fatness, and goes on to claim that he is ‘the fellow with the great belly’ (1.2.145). As in Part One, Falstaff uses his fatness and fat wit to confront all suggestions of his need for reform. Likewise, when the Chief Justice uses metaphors to make a serious point, Falstaff turns them to humor. When the official states that Sir John is ‘as a candle, the better part burned out,’ Falstaff clarifies, saying, ‘A wassail candle, my lord, all tallow. If I did say of wax, my growth would approve the truth’ (155-158). Here Falstaff takes a grave comment alluding to his death and turns it festive; the wassail candle, as Bevington states, is a ‘large candle lighted up at a feast,’ and ‘tallow,’ as discussed previously, is animal fat (812). Thus, in his clarification, Falstaff specifies the festive nature of the metaphor of ‘Falstaff as candle,’ changes the candle's substance from beeswax to fat, and, in doing so, changes a serious warning into light banter.

The Chief Justice, clearly not amused by the fat knight, rephrases, saying, ‘There is not a white hair on your face but should have his effect of gravity’ (159-160). Again, Falstaff lightens the warning, restating, ‘His effect of gravy, gravy, gravy’ (161). In attempting to enlighten Falstaff concerning his need for repentance and reform, the Chief Justice instead lights the wassail candle of the knight's fat wit; the result for the audience is the ‘gravy’ of good humor. Though the Chief Justice would appear to be the most unlikely participant in any disorderly festivity, his gravity is outdone and potentially undone by Falstaff's levity. In addition, once again, characters—here the Chief Justice and his servant—outside of the Boar's Head gang are being invited to see Falstaff as feast.

Moreover, in placing the Chief Justice and Sir John on the stage at the same time, Shakespeare both clarifies the opposition between the two and begins to prepare the audience for an outcome. Anita Hembold makes explicit that, by placing these two characters side by side, ‘Shakespeare heightens the tension inherent in Falstaff's relationship with the crown prince’ (88).7 Either the Chief Justice will arrest Falstaff and restore order, or Falstaff will remain unfettered and will, as a result, continue the general festivity that he represents; at the moment, however, the representative of order and reform is only allowed to share the stage (whatever space is left of it) with the representative of feasting and festivity. The Chief Justice sounds severe and threatening: he questions Sir John for not responding to the court summons in connection with the Gad's Hill robbery (1.2.100-105), offers to punish him (122-124), accuses the knight of misleading ‘the youthful Prince’ (143, 162-163), reminds him of his supposedly imminent death (177-184), and exhorts him to be honest (220-221). All of these suggest that the Chief Justice is about to restore order, but he does not. Instead, Falstaff ignores, purposefully misunderstands, cracks jokes, makes puns, and generally continues his jovial swagger towards ever-increasing festivity.

For example, Falstaff does not believe that the death of his body or lifestyle is imminent. While the Chief Justice asserts that the knight's ‘white beard’ and ‘increasing belly’ prove that he is ‘blasted with antiquity’ (1.2.180-183), Falstaff retorts that he ‘was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head and something of a round belly’ (185-187). In this response, Falstaff suggests that his date is not out any more than at any previous time in his life. Rather, he argues, he was born a plump, festive baby and has merely grown into a plump, festive man. In this sense, he demonstrates that his disorderly festivity is innate, continually oozing out like his own sweat on a hot day.8 It is not time to repent, he says, unless repentance, instead of ‘ashes and sackcloth,’ involves ‘new silk and old sack’ (195-196). And when he concludes the scene, saying, ‘A good wit will make use of anything’ (246-247), he has already proved this point; that is, he has turned the Chief Justice's words, including his severe warnings and calls for repentance, into more lively wit, more entertainment for himself and his audience.

Shortly later, Falstaff and the Chief Justice will meet again; once more, Falstaff will initially appear to have worn out his stay at the festive center of the action. Hostess Quickly has begun a lawsuit against Falstaff for bankrupting her tavern (2.1.1-2). In fact, she claims that Sir John ‘hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his’ and has broken his oath to ‘marry me and make me my lady thy wife’ (2.1.73-77, 83-101). Once again, the Chief Justice stands to rule on the life and crimes of the gluttonous Falstaff. Falstaff, up to his usual tricks, suggests that Hostess Quickly is insane (102). The Chief Justice, however, aware of Falstaff's rhetorical skills, says, ‘Sir John, Sir John, I am well acquainted with your manner of wrenching the true cause the false way’ (2.1.106-108). He then proceeds to rule against Falstaff, demanding that he ‘Pay her the debt you owe her, and unpay the villainy you have done her. The one you may do with sterling money, and the other with current repentance’ (115-119). Immediately after announcing his verdict, however, the Chief Justice must turn his attention to national politics and the civil wars (130-134); in doing so, the Chief Justice becomes momentarily distracted from Falstaff. As a result, the audience never definitively hears whether or not Falstaff repents, but we do know that he surely does not repay the hostess. In addition, his possible repentance is made all the more unlikely by the hostess asking, ‘Will you have Doll Tearsheet meet you at supper?’ (161); despite the warnings, Falstaff's world is of a fabric with continued eating and carousing, with festivity in general. Soon, the Chief Justice returns to his rebuke of Falstaff, saying, ‘Now the Lord lighten thee! Thou art a great fool’ (192-193). However, following this chastening, the Chief Justice leaves with the messenger Gower, and Falstaff remains, planning on eating, drinking, and spending time with the prostitute Doll (155-186). The fat boar, the damned brawn, still walks before us, potently spreading his wit and festivity, even in the face of official rebuke.

To a great extent, he is allowed this action because of the ‘unquiet time,’ just as the Chief Justice has explained earlier (1.2.149). The suggestion is that this unquietness, this disorder, continues to overwhelm all attempts at order, just as that witty ‘sow’ Falstaff continues to overwhelm his ‘litter’—that is, his English community, including those who desire Jack's eventual reform.9 Certainly, the Chief Justice's warnings and rebukes are overwhelmed by Falstaff's wit, and Sir John himself remains at large. In fact, the warnings he receives, both legal and medical, seem to become only so much more grist in the mill of his humor.10 Still, the Chief Justice cannot be merely ignored by Falstaff, though the fat knight makes a strong effort not to hear him initially. Instead, Jack is, at least, forced to respond, even if he does so with much wit and without much sincerity or sobriety. While amusing to the audience, the warnings and responses, in their repetition, provide a certain tension between festivity and order. The audience will, of course, expect the drama to work to resolve this tension; presently, however, Falstaff retains his festive body and wit, though he does so now in the face of the Chief Justice and official order. In this sense, Falstaff's festive world is now being portrayed in clear contrast to the world of law and order. Both exist concurrently, but not without creating a palpable tension, a palpable flux.

This flux and the unquiet political times have certainly worn on Hal. He finally enters the play at Act Two, scene two, and he does so saying, ‘Before God, I am exceeding weary’ (2.2.1). Understandably, given his heroic actions at Shrewsbury, he feels fatigued, though Poins is surprised that ‘one of so high blood’ should wear down so quickly (2-3). Hal admits that ‘it discolors the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it [his fatigue],’ and then asks Poins, ‘Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?’ (4-6). Certainly, Hal has desired ‘small beer’—representing the festive times of drinking, jesting, and cursing with Falstaff and the common people at the Boar's Head—many times in the past, and he has generally fulfilled that desire. Now, however, Hal is apprehensive, fearing that a return to the ‘small beer’ of festivity after his princely feats at Shrewsbury might be seen, in the eyes of public opinion, as a ‘low transformation’ (166-167). Hal's apprehension here demonstrates what will be a growing awareness of a snag in his plan to move from roguish son to glorious sun/son, from his created role as the festive son of Falstaff to his inherited role as future king of England.

To briefly recount, in 1 Henry IV, Hal used numerous metaphors to piece together the idea of the Feast of Falstaff. He did so because this ‘feast’ would allow him the sort of leveling necessary to secure the popular support so crucial to his coming kingship. Creating this feast involved upholding the ‘unyoked humor’ of Falstaff and the Boar's Head gang in an attempt to cloud his own reputation. Ultimately, however, Hal plans to throw the rascals off and break through with glorious actions leading to a popular kingship. He will soil his reputation, gain the ability to talk like and with the common persons of the kingdom, achieve military glory, and attain the greatness of kingship.

Indeed, he is currently tired as a result of those glorious military actions. Still, here he is complaining, riding along with Poins (one of the old gang), and desiring ‘small beer.’ In terms of his military success, his plan is working, but in terms of overall political success, it is not. That is, he defeated Hotspur and thereby unseated the ‘king of honor,’ but Falstaff received at least some of the credit for this action.11 More important, the civil wars continue to drag on, and Henry still lives. Though it was surely honorable of Hal to defend his father at Shrewsbury, Henry's continuance threatens the delicate timing of Hal's plan. As a result, Hal now needs to hold onto Falstaff a while longer, if the prince is indeed going to attempt the political strategy of moving directly from rogue to glorious sun/son.

Poins responds to Hal's desire for small beer with concern. He says, ‘Why, a prince should not be so loosely studied as to remember so weak a composition’ (2.2.7-9). Poins's comments simultaneously take note of Hal's festive and political positions by suggesting that while Hal was the rogue at the Boar's Head in the past, he cannot—or, at least, should not—attempt to play that particular role again now that he has, at least partially, reestablished himself politically through his courageous defense of his father. After all, Hal has apparently risen above that old behavior and publicly reclaimed, through his defeat of Hotspur, his role as crown prince.12 To return down to the roguish level, in Poins's view, is somewhat despicable, certainly not princely, and maybe even, as he will shortly suggest, hypocritical (2.2.50). In his objection to Hal's desires, Poins asserts that Hal can play the roles of the roguish son and glorious sun/son, can be both a festive sponsor/participant and a blooming political and military leader, but he cannot play both roles simultaneously. At least, the prince cannot do so without risk.

Hal catches the point of Poins's argument, but responds, saying, ‘Belike then my appetite was not princely got, for, by my troth, I do now remember the poor creature small beer. But indeed these humble considerations make me out of love with my greatness’ (2.2.9-11). The question here, as in the case with Hal's potential sorrow for his father's illness and death, is whether or not he can be authentic in either his self-created festive role or his inherited political role.13 Poins suggests not, but then he also feels that there is a certain, particular way for princes and kings to act. He wants Hal to act like a prince, and therefore not to act tired or desirous of beer, but he also does not quite believe that the victory over Hotspur is enough evidence, in itself, to prove that Hal has reformed and become the loving son of Henry, his natural and political father. When Hal questions Poins on this last idea, Poins suggests that Hal has been ‘so lewd and so much engraffed to Falstaff’ that the public will surely not believe in an instantaneous reform (2.2.58-59). The public, in Poins's view, will not forget Hal's bad reputation just because he has had a single glorious moment; the prince will need to provide further evidence of change to be convincing. Therefore, Poins here also suggests that Hal's plan to appear suddenly ‘as the sun’ is potentially flawed in its timing.

Under Poins's scrutiny, Hal buckles a bit. He swears that he truly is sorry for his father's condition, and says, ‘By this hand, thou thinkest me as far in the devil's book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency. Let the end try the man’ (2.2.42-44). The end that Hal speaks of almost certainly is his political end, the kingship and how he will act in that role. But Poins's comments remain appropriate, because they suggest that Hal's alternating between his festive and political roles distorts the picture of both the common, beer-swilling, sweet, young rogue of a prince, as well as the heroic, Hotspur-killing, Henry's son Hal. Either Hal is his father's political son, or he is Falstaff's festive child, as well as sponsor. He must be one or the other, but the shifting back and forth makes him seem a tensely disturbing ‘both.’

Because of Hal's plan, however, any attempt to resolve this issue of which role to play is complicated. His plan requires that he leap onto the scene in a brilliant moment of personal and political reformation. If he takes Poins's suggestion and fulfills the expectation of his ‘high birth’ now—that is, if he goes to the court and assumes many of his royal duties—this leap will become impossible and, instead, he will neatly and quietly slide into his father's role as king. Poins suggests that the prince's Boar's Head days are part of the past, not the present, but Hal wants those days maintained so that his kingly self will be adored in comparison to his former self. And yet, he does not want the consequence of continuing to appear ‘engraffed to Falstaff,’ and, arguably, he also does not want the consequence of being ‘engraffed’ to his father, whose reputation as the usurping king of England is also troublesome, as the ongoing civil war makes clear. Hal would prefer that ‘the end,’ his own political end, ‘try the man.’ In a certain sense, Hal believes he needs to retain the tiring tension between his festive and political roles, but he does not want the stain that association with either of his fathers, the political Henry or festive Falstaff, provides. In fact, in attempting to avoid appearing too attached to either, Hal only joins Falstaff (2.1) and his father (4.5) in one scene each.14 In Henry V, the end does try the man, and it turns out that Hal really becomes more glorious son/sun than roguish son (though not completely so); still, at this moment prior to his kingship, the issue remains unresolved, and the weary prince retains his festive role as a participant in his own creation, the Feast of Falstaff.15

In fact, the evidence that the feast continues appears almost immediately within this same scene. The conversation between Hal and Poins is cut short by the arrival of Bardolph and Falstaff's page, who come bearing a letter to Hal from the fat knight (2.2.66-94). Though Falstaff is not physically present, his festive presence is quickly accentuated when Poins questions Bardolph, saying ‘And how doth the martlemas, your master’ (95-96). According to J. Dover Wilson, in using this particular term, Poins compares Falstaff to the massive quantities of ‘fresh-killed meat’ which were a famous feature of the annual St. Martin's Day feast (30). In this regard, Poins not only continues the festive metaphors so prevalent in Part One, he also clarifies the nature of the food that Falstaff represents; that is, Sir John is not only food, but is the centerpiece of the feast.

Later in the same scene, Hal highlights Poins's reference when he asks concerning Falstaff, ‘Where sups he? Doth the old boar feed in the old frank?’ (2.2.138-139). Having created the fatted, holiday beast with his rhetoric, and having maintained him with his purse in 1 Henry IV, Hal still wants surety that ‘the old boar’ is being properly nourished. Hal also wants to make sure that his planned feast is well-attended, and therefore follows up by asking what type and gender of company Falstaff keeps in Eastcheap: ‘What company? […] Sup any women with him?’ (2.2.141, 143). Satisfied that Falstaff remains surrounded by criminals and whores, Hal responds, ‘Even such kin as the parish heifers are to the town bull. Shall we steal upon them, Ned, at supper?’ (149-150). Once again, then, Hal takes time to describe Falstaff in terms of edible animal flesh, to make sure that he keeps a certain social circle, and to join the festivity that surrounds the fat knight. He continues, in this way, to support and participate in the three most crucial elements of the feast—food, community, and festivity.

More and more, however, Hal is realizing the ‘heavy declension’ he makes in participating with the festive Boar's Head crowd (2.2.165). He states concerning his plan to disguise himself as a waiter at the bar, ‘From a prince to a prentice? A low transformation! That shall be mine, for in everything the purpose must weigh with the folly. Follow me, Ned’ (166-167). Again, having told the audience of his planned reformation in 1 Henry IV, Hal's comments here return to that ‘purpose,’ both because of and despite its potential ‘folly.’ That is, the joke that he hopes to execute on Falstaff, a piece of folly, will be one more attempt to show that Hal understands the humor of the common people; on the other hand, as Poins makes clear at the beginning of this scene, this shifting around, moving up and down the political and social ladder, may indeed be foolish and hypocritical. In addition, Hal's attempt to outface Falstaff may also be a rare piece of folly, as the comical knight is rarely, if ever, outshone in matters of mirth.

Nonetheless, the point that Hal's ultimate purpose must counterbalance the folly of his plan suggests that Hal is, at least, aware that should his public ‘reformation’ work as he hopes, it will be worth the foolish, because at least partially unnecessary, risk of the plan backfiring.16 After all, having largely secured his coming kingship with his own military actions, this movement back to the common people is a risk, but one that Hal seems dedicated to take. The question, then, is why he remains dedicated to a plan which is wrought with folly by his own account.

Possibly Hal, like Poins, Bardolph, and others among the Boar's Head patrons, merely enjoys Falstaff's company and humor. In this sense, Hal would, like the theatre audience, feel a certain delight in participating in the entertainment of Falstaff—the swearing, drinking, play-acting, etc. But as the closing lines of the above scene suggest, ultimately Hal's ‘purpose’ is his primary concern. Moreover, the prince, on several occasions, becomes overtly impatient and even ominous in regard to Falstaff's lying and other shenanigans; from 1 Henry IV, one certainly recalls Hal's ‘I do, I will’ promise to banish Falstaff (2.4.476), and the prince's anger at Shrewsbury when he finds that Sir John's holster contains a bottle of sack rather than a pistol (5.3.53-55).17 Or Hal might actually feel a certain real friendship and devotion to the fat knight.18 The problem, of course, with this possibility is that the audience may likely bristle at the notion of calling Hal's scheming and well-orchestrated relationship with Falstaff a true friendship, even if it is beneficial to both parties;19 in this regard, Jack R. Sublette argues that Hal's ‘use of time does indicate a callousness to the feelings of other human beings and to natural human relationships’ (200).20 Also, it should be recalled that Hal desires ‘small beer’ rather than, at least explicitly, the company of Falstaff. That is, Hal may merely want a relaxing break from his increasing responsibilities—beer at the bar, rather than wine at the court.21 Naturally, the lack of responsibility inherent in the Boar's Head environment, and especially in Falstaff, would be appealing to a young man about to take on the weight of a distressed nation.

Still, Hal's idea of attempting to balance ‘folly’ with ‘purpose’ seems almost oxymoronic. ‘Purpose’ suggests serious everyday business, while ‘folly’ seems just the opposite, the stuff of holiday. But the idea of feasting and festivity, even disorderly festivity, is serious business in several arenas, including the political and the religious. For example, in one of the more famous feast scenes in Shakespeare, Macbeth attempts to sanction his murderous usurpation of the Scottish throne with a banquet for several of the nation's leaders (3.4). Seeing a bloody body, that of Banquo's ghost, in his seat, Macbeth disrupts his own planned festivity, and the feast ends without the hoped-for result of renewed community. The failed feast leads to a failed kingship, the butcher is butchered, and the community is reformed with the evidence of the body and blood of the tyrant. As Daryl Palmer makes clear in terms of the use of the hospitable feast in Renaissance tragedy, ‘The progression of dramatic action pauses over this confluence of hopes and fears; and the host finds that he cannot control the entertainment, that hospitality has enabled his tragic end’ (175).22 While Macbeth can plan the feast, he cannot entirely plan the restoration of community; when the planned festivity fails, the whole undertaking deteriorates into tragic and politically damaging folly, what Laroque refers to as ‘festivity […] painted in its darkest colors’ (183). And yet, there seems to be no option for Macbeth: he needs to hold a state dinner upon the event of his coronation, and so he rolls the dice, takes the chance, and fails.

Likewise Hal, now having created his own feast, cannot simply dismiss it. The feast is part of his political plan, and it is well-constructed with his rhetoric, but once the table is set and the community is invited, the event must take place, and its result, as Macbeth finds out, is not guaranteed. Once the guests sit down to the table, load up their plates, fill their glasses, and ingest the martlemas and sack, the folly of the event may well become evident; as Laroque notes above, if the event escapes its prescribed time frame, the social-leveling and festive ritual may well degenerate into outright rebellion (220-221). Like Macbeth, even such a conniving caterer as Prince Hal cannot entirely control or even predict the result or the community's reaction. Considering the contrasting views of Falstaff, the Chief Justice, and Poins, as demonstrated above, the reaction is obviously mixed.

Before any true analysis of the community's reaction to Hal's festivity can be attempted, however, it must be clear that the entire community participates in the metaphorical Feast of Falstaff, even if that participation comes in the form of mere acknowledgement of its existence. Earlier Lord Bardolph demonstrates that the higher political community is aware of Hal's festive event, but the same is also true of the social strata that frequents the Boar's Head. For example, Mistress Doll Tearsheet generates much imagery to fill in the ‘Falstaff as Feast’ metaphor. As she sits with Hostess Quickly and Sir John, she refers to him as a ‘huge full hogshead’ and a ‘whole merchant's venture of Bordeaux stuff’ (2.4.62-64). The references surely highlight Falstaff's enormous size, and potentially—given Doll's occupation and her ongoing relationship to Sir John—his sexual potency and volume. But the metaphors are also, again, clearly festive, this time focusing on alcoholic drinks rather than on foods; a ‘hogshead’ is a keg which would generally hold wine, beer, or other liquor,23 and ‘Bordeaux stuff’ clearly refers to French wine.24 Therefore, the metaphors surrounding Falstaff now include festive drinks, as well as foods.

Further, Doll also concludes the references to Falstaff as fatted calf in 2 Henry IV. After Falstaff chases the contentious Pistol out of the Boar's Head, an appreciative Doll sits on his knee and says, ‘I' faith, and thou followedst him like a church. Thou whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig […]’ (2.4.227-228). The comparison of Falstaff to a church both references his size and reiterates the sort of ironic Falstaff-as-order-or-Lent metaphor that the fat knight used so often in describing himself in 1 Henry IV. More significantly, Doll's image of Falstaff as ‘Bartholomew boar-pig’ clearly associates him, for the third time in the two plays, with the main course of a holiday feast; to recount, early in 1 Henry IV, Hal calls Sir John ‘the Manningtree ox with the pudding in its belly,’ and Poins, as seen above, labels the knight as a ‘martlemas.’ Still, Doll's reference, which clearly links Falstaff to the Bartholomew Fair, may be the most important. As Wilson explains, because this fair was ‘the most popular annual festivity of Elizabethan and Jacobean London,’ Doll's label associates Falstaff with ‘feasting on a vast and communal scale’ (30).

At this point, Hal's Feast of Falstaff appears to be a success. The whole social and political spectrum—from a lord, Bardolph, to a whore, Doll; from the crown prince, Hal, to a knight, Falstaff, down to a common person and soldier, Poins—participates in a metaphorical feast brought into existence by Hal's rhetorical ability. Indeed, while Falstaff's body and wit certainly inspire humor in others, it is Hal who shapes that humor for his own political purposes; within the prince's scheme, Falstaff is not only fat and funny, but he is also truly festive, and his presence provides a leveling feast of words and humor for those around him.

At present, everyone is, as it were, at table and enjoying the bounty of Hal's metaphorical feast. However, immediately after calling Falstaff the ‘Bartholomew boar-pig,’ Doll makes another telling remark; she questions the fat knight, saying, ‘[W]hen wilt thou leave fighting o' days and foining o' nights, and begin to patch up thine old body for heaven?’ (2.4.229-231). Here, at the height of the feast, the comment's tone seems out of place, and indeed Falstaff appears to find it so when he responds, ‘Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death's head; do not bid me remember mine end’ (2.4.232-233). Doll's question bothers Falstaff, however, not because it is so inappropriate, but precisely because it is entirely appropriate at this moment. With all of the participation in the Feast of Falstaff, one may wonder, like Doll, just how long the ‘boar-pig’ will last. Clearly, eventually the feast must conclude with the fatted beast reduced, in all probability, to nothing but a carcass. Or, to put it another way, the festive time must lead to a time of reform.

In addition, the play has already provided evidence that Falstaff is not in good shape, beyond the damage caused by his obvious problems with obesity and gluttony. The doctor has already ruled that Sir John ‘might have more diseases than he knew for’ (1.2.4-5). Also, it is quite possible, as Hostess Quickly believes, that Pistol injures him in either the ‘groin’ or the ‘belly’ during their brief sword-play (2.4.207-208). Falstaff's unbridled lifestyle probably accounts for the diseases; yet it also accounts for his immense fatness and festive presence; that is, while creating some deterioration of the body, it also has provided a certain sustenance of girth and wit. The potential cut from Pistol, on the other hand, suggests the possibility of a bloody destruction of the body, even if Jack's humor will allow the party to continue. In fact, having driven out Pistol, Falstaff orders music to be played (2.4.224), Doll speaks lovingly to him (268-272), and the return of the Prince and Poins (281), ready to try another practical joke on Falstaff, completes both the old Boar's Head gang and sets up the return of the old, festive environment. In this sense, strangely, Falstaff's potentially broken body, even as much as his whole body, allows for the return and continuance of communal festivity.

In addition, while Doll's words certainly intimate the eventual end of the feast, they also point to the period which will follow its conclusion, a period of social, political, and spiritual reform. Doll believes that Falstaff must leave his festive and disorderly ways if he is to have some chance of being prepared for heaven. That is, Falstaff must reform his life and make the seasonal transition from feast to Lent. The Lenten season, of course, necessarily includes thoughts of one's end, for it includes Good Friday, the remembrance of Christ's own ‘end’ in crucifixion. But the metaphor of Christ's death and resurrection also makes clear the concept of the death of the old man and the birth of the new man.25 Therefore, when Doll suggests that Falstaff quit his old life in preparation for the new, her suggestion is clearly Lenten.26

In this regard, it comes as no particular surprise that while the discussion of Falstaff's needed reform is on the table, the metaphors immediately shift from festive to Lenten. Tellingly, Falstaff believes that Hal and Poins eat ‘conger and fennel,’ that is, a fish dish, appropriate for Lent (2.4.243). It must be remembered that in this scene Hal and Poins are listening to Falstaff's descriptions of them (231-281), and, as it turns out, Falstaff is aware of their presence, even as he boldly degrades them (305-308). Further, Falstaff appears to be right in his Lenten analysis of Hal, because the prince indeed provides threats and insults that seem directed at Falstaff's hoped-for reform. The outraged prince, once again foiled in his attempt to one-up the humor of the fat knight, exclaims, ‘Why, thou globe of sinful continents, what a life thou dost lead!’ (2.4.284-285). Hal also threatens to ‘draw’ Falstaff ‘out by the ears’ (288-289), a punishment, as Bevington makes clear, which would be appropriate for a ‘naughty child’ (824). In these rebukes, Hal reprises the previous words of the Chief Justice, and, in doing so, sets himself up as supporter more of political time and order than of the festive world he has helped to create and sustain. But Falstaff will not take Hal's hints, just as he would not take those of the Chief Justice, and merrily calls the prince a ‘whoreson mad compound of majesty,’ a title which the fluctuating Hal, shouting for reform in this den of festivity, may well deserve (293). Poins, preferring Falstaff's humor to Hal's self-righteous indignation, asks the prince to ease up, saying of Sir John, ‘My lord, he will drive you out of your revenge and turn all to merriment, if you take not the heat’ (297-298). If Hal will not be offended, or take the hypocritical position of being politically or morally self-righteous, all may again be merry. But Poins's mild rebuke of Hal also demonstrates that the prince still is deficient in humor; not only could he not play a proper joke on Francis the waiter in Part One; he also cannot take a joke here. And once again, as in 1 Henry IV, it is obvious that Hal does not master ‘all humours,’ but that Falstaff does. This fact, that Hal still needs to learn the festive mastery inherent in Sir John—needs to learn Jack's ability to move among all classes, creating a sense of community and solidarity—provides further evidence for why the Feast of Falstaff continues in the plays.

Indeed, Hal does attempt to take Poins's advice and to return to a reasonably festive mood. He changes his tone to the ironic in addressing Falstaff and the not-so-virtuous Doll, saying, ‘You whoreson candle-mine you, how vilely did you speak of me even now before this honest, virtuous, civil gentlewoman!’ (2.4.299-301). Though ‘whoreson’ is a mere repetition of Falstaff's own insult of Hal, ‘candle-mine,’ which Bevington describes as ‘a magazine or storehouse of tallow,’ represents a return to the meaty, fatty metaphors which Hal so consistently applies to Sir John (824). Within the context of 2 Henry IV, Hal's name-calling also restates the candle metaphor used by the Chief Justice, as discussed above; as such, even in coining a familiar, festive metaphor in reference to Falstaff, Hal also associates himself with the official order so clearly represented in the person and words of the Chief Justice. The result, I think, is that Hal highlights in this one line the tension between his festive self and his royal self. However, when Falstaff argues that he did not realize that Hal would be able to hear the insults and was, therefore, not purposefully trying the prince's patience, Hal returns to his anger and promises to ‘drive’ Sir John ‘to confess the willful abuse’ (2.4.310-311). Therefore, to summarize Hal's actions in this scene, we find that he revisits the festive setting of the Boar's Head, lowers his status to that of a waiter in attempting to play a joke on Falstaff, fails in the joke, angrily berates the knight for his ‘sinful’ life, returns to the use of festive metaphors, and then attempts to force Falstaff to confess and reform. In the course of several minutes, then, Hal wildly fluctuates between participating in festivity and attempting to initiate reform. Rather than moving clearly from festivity to reform, as his plan states, he teeters between the two positions. His actions do not redeem time, but merely keep it in flux.

And this idea that the time is unstable—that the division between festivity and reform is unclear, even potentially violated, at this time and place—soon is brought into even sharper focus. Falstaff, in attempting to defend his humorous indictment of this ‘wicked’ band of friends, alleges that Hostess Quickly has allowed ‘flesh to be eaten in [her] house, contrary to the law’ (2.4.343-344). As Bevington explains, Falstaff here alludes to the prohibition of meat sales during Lent, which Hostess Quickly has apparently violated (824). Indeed, she admits as much, saying in response, ‘All victuallers do so. What's a joint of mutton or two in a whole Lent?’ (2.4.345-346). This exchange emphasizes a certain duplicity inherent in the Boar's Head at this moment. Now that his costume and joke have failed to promote his own reputation, Hal is all for the reform of Falstaff, whom the prince has previously supported in all sorts of disorderly activity. In returning to the Boar's Head and donning the costume of the lowly drawer, Hal desires not only a swig of small beer, but participation in a humorous prank on the aging knight. When the joke does not work, a mounting problem for the prince, he no longer wants to play or participate in the social leveling, despite the fact that he initiated the situation, or at least his disguised and, therefore, lowered status within it. Instead, he now wants to reform the situation, regain his princely privilege, and thereby outface the fat knight with power if not with wit. Hal wants to, in essence, control the movement from the feast to Lent, to keep the movement consistent with his own change from madcap prince to glorious, sunshiny king. But at this moment, his control is shown to be less than complete, for just as the official policy of no meat during Lent is significantly refuted or ignored by ‘all victuallers,’ his princely power to change the season from festive to Lenten is significantly refuted or ignored by Falstaff and the gang.

It is little wonder, then, that Hal leaves this scene with one view of the current time—a view centered on reform—while Falstaff, desiring that the festive period be maintained, leaves with a quite opposite view. When news of the war arrives at the tavern, Hal immediately feels guilt for participating in festivity while such serious matters of war and politics call for his attention. He says, ‘By heaven, Poins, I feel much to blame / So idly to profane the precious time […]’ (2.4.361-362). He quickly arms, says goodnight, and leaves (365). Falstaff, on the other hand, feels not guilt but disappointment at the interruption of the festivity, saying, ‘Now comes in the sweetest morsel of the night, and we must hence and leave it unpicked’ (366-367). As one might expect, Hal welcomes the apparent end of the festive period, which he clearly no longer masters, while Falstaff mourns this incomplete conclusion to one more festive evening.

This exchange clarifies the potentially opposing views of Falstaff and Hal, and suggests that Hal's plan for the Feast of Falstaff has taken on a life of its own. The problem, of course, with the sort of festive leveling that Hal has so promoted throughout the course of 1 Henry IV and which he, at least by his mere presence back at the Boar's Head and his change into the costume of the drawer, continues to promote is that those at the top of hierarchy may well be exposed as hypocrites; as Kiernan Ryan states, the creation of ‘a prospect of egalitarian community’ may well discover ‘the national and royal principles of union as frauds’ (112).27 Such seems to be the case in this scene, where Hal is back on location set to participate, but when the festive occasion works to promote the mirth of the funny Falstaff rather than the myth of the common, madcap prince, he no longer enjoys it. That is, when the festivity is no longer useful to him, Hal would prefer to leave the ‘holiday’ at the Boar's Head and return to the ‘everyday’ of English politics and the war.

Falstaff, of course, is not only not ready for such a shift, but is unwilling to accept its necessity. He will instead view the movement towards ‘serious business’ as an interruption, rather than an end, to festivity. In addition, Hal's desire that the festive time end if he is no longer in control of it parallels his father's desire to see the civil wars end so that he may go visit the Holy Land and help with the crusades, a penitential (i.e. Lenten) desire. But Hal, like his father, may plan the time—a trip to the Holy Land or a period of prodigality—but he cannot enforce the time, as it were. Henry plans and often discusses his wish to go to Jerusalem, but his arrival there, in a room named ‘Jerusalem’ rather than in the city, is ironic (4.5.234-240). Meanwhile, Hal's desire to control the metaphorical feast that he has created and sustained becomes fraught with irony, and for the same reasons. After all, Henry desires political harmony and unity, but it is he himself who, in usurping Richard's throne, disrupted England's politics. Richard gained the kingship through inheritance, but Henry gained the kingship through opportunism, popularity, and ability. Now, both Henry and Hal want the rule of inheritance restored, and Henry is willing to do penance in the Holy Wars to gild his faults, settle civil war, and generally distract the people from seeing Hal's inherited kingship as an irony.

In the same manner as his father, Hal creates the disorder for his benefit and then wishes to restore the old order for his benefit, as well. But just as Henry's rule remains cankered by the civil strife that he initially helped to create, Hal's attempt to move away from the feast he created, from the social leveling he encouraged, is not entirely possible. Like Northumberland, helping Henry to the throne but then remaining more loyal to rebellion than to any particular rule,28 Falstaff, while helpful to Hal's festive and political strategy, remains far more loyal to festivity than to politics. Thus, Hal's wavering desire to move from small beer to royal majesty, from a season of prodigality to one of reform, remains, just as the English political situation and the time within the tavern, mixed and unstable.

After Hal and Falstaff leave their final meeting at the Boar's Head, they will retain their differing attitudes towards feasting, festivity, reform, and politics. The guilty Hal will work towards reconciliation with his political and penitential father, and the prince will attempt to end the metaphorical feast he has created as he rises towards the kingship. Falstaff, on the other hand, will continue to use his wit and find independent sponsorship to ensure the feast's continuance.29

Justice Shallow will become this festive sponsor, and his willingness to function in such a role is initially born out of a nostalgia for earlier festive times with the young Falstaff. In reminiscing with Justice Silence, ‘lusty Shallow’ recalls,

And I may say to you, we knew where the bona robas were and had the best of them all at commandment. Then was Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy, and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. […] The same Sir John, the very same. I see him break Scoggin's head at the court gate, when ‘a was a crack not thus high. And the very same day did I fight with one Sampson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray's Inn. Jesu, Jesu, the mad days I have spent! And to see how many of my old acquaintances are dead!

(3.2.22-26, 29-35)

At this moment, Shallow has not seen his old companion, Falstaff, but the mere remembrance of young Jack refreshes memories of prostitution, fighting, and generally disorderly conduct. Even more, the most specific memory, of Shallow's fight with Sampson Stockfish, alludes to the English saturnalian rituals, and especially the Battle between Carnival and Lent, which Rhodes so clearly explains (16, 103, 115-117). Recalling his reckless social and sexual behavior, Shallow remembers himself in opposition to ‘stockfish,’ part of the Lenten diet. In remembering Falstaff, he remembers a time of festive plenty, a time of beating back Lenten deprivation. And while Shallow's present life is caught up in agricultural management—he twice asks after prices of livestock (3.2.39, 50)—his mind wavers from his everyday business to holiday memory.30

Precisely at Shallow's moment of mental flux, Falstaff arrives. Shallow continues with his chattering nostalgia, ultimately forcing Falstaff to acknowledge that they ‘have heard the chimes at midnight’ (3.2.214). Those times, however, are both past and largely imagined, according to Falstaff (300-324). Nonetheless, Shallow's desire to be a part of whatever it is that Falstaff represents is clear: Shallow invites him to dinner (108, 218), hopes that Falstaff will make a return visit (293), and asks to go with him to the court (295). Certainly, it can be argued that Shallow has in mind his own political advantage as his final request makes clear, but the ridiculous pandering for Falstaff's attention also demonstrates a desire for the festivity, wit, and fullness which Falstaff represents in the past and in the present. Therefore, just as Hal creates the idea of the feast that Falstaff then more than accommodates, Shallow imagines a past and present brotherhood with Sir John, which the knight also accommodates. Obviously, Falstaff takes advantage of the situations, as he openly declares, saying, ‘If the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him’ (328-330). If Shallow wishes to feed off Falstaff's festivity, then Falstaff feels free to feed off Shallow's misguided generosity. As Jack says, ‘Let time shape, and there an end’ (330-331).

This remark is crucial because it points out a philosophical difference between Hal and Falstaff. Hal makes clear in his 1 Henry IV soliloquy that he intends to shape the time for his own political end and advantage. Falstaff, on the other hand, fits his festive shape—plump since birth—into the space that time provides. When Hal needs a festive companion to fulfill his political plans, Falstaff is there, willing to fill the need. When Shallow wants the same, Falstaff is there again. Both Hal and Shallow attempt to shape their times and futures, while Falstaff is merely an opportunist, or, as Dennis Quinn states, ‘a great improviser, infinitely nimble at turning events and circumstances in his favor’ (107).31 For example, Hal means to kill Hotspur and gain his honor; Falstaff merely picks up the dead body and claims the credit. Hal wants to show off his wit and ability by playing jokes on Falstaff; Falstaff merely turns the jokes to his own advantage. Shallow wants to get political preference from his relationship to Falstaff; Falstaff merely makes him pay for the expectation.32 Clearly, within the political plans of both Hal and Shallow, there is space for Falstaff's festivity.

Falstaff also uses his old tricks to gain enough support to maintain his festive lifestyle. Following Prince John's treachery to foil Mowbray, Hastings, and the Archbishop of York, Falstaff arrives late on the scene and gladly accepts the cowardly surrender of Sir John Coleville (4.3.1-23). Falstaff credits his strange victory to his belly—the clearest bodily evidence of his festive life—claiming that Coleville recognizes the fat knight because of his well-known heft and surrenders to him based on his reputation (18-22). As he did in the case of Hotspur, Falstaff gets credit for doing nothing except being present, and he gains as a result. In fact, Prince John ultimately promises that he shall ‘better speak of you [Falstaff] than you deserve’ (4.3.84). The festive Falstaff, then, once again gains from sheer opportunism.

However, Falstaff realizes that Prince John represents a sort of Lenten sobriety that appears dangerous to the continuance of festivity. Prince John will do and say anything to maintain and restore the hierarchical order. Falstaff, on the other hand, works constantly and without conscience for a sort of social and political leveling. His wit represents this leveling, and he immediately notes that Prince John lacks ‘wit’ (4.3.85). Moreover, Falstaff states,

Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me, nor a man cannot make him laugh. But that's no marvel; he drinks no wine. There's never none of these demure boys come to any proof, for thin drink doth so overcool their blood, and making many fish meals, that they fall into a kind of male greensickness, and then, when they marry, they get wenches.


His strange genetic theories aside, Falstaff does here provide a clear interpretation of the difference between Prince John and Sir John. Prince John is a serious-minded teetotaler; he drinks no wine, is not prone to levity, and eats too much fish. In other words, the political Prince John is, in comparison to the festive Falstaff, the representative of Lent; as Leo Salingar demonstrates, Falstaff's ‘antipathy to Prince John’ provides another instance in 2 Henry IV of Jack's interest in the ‘inequality between the Fat and the Lean’ (202-203).33 And while Falstaff's fat guts may make Coleville surrender, the Lenten Prince John is still in charge of the campaign and holds the purse strings to any benefit Falstaff will receive for his military service.

The realization of being overmastered, at least in the military sphere, by a young, Lenten prince, prompts Falstaff to mock Lenten sobriety and extol the virtues of sack. Sack, he asserts, has two major qualities: it produces ‘excellent wit’ (4.3.101) and prompts military courage (101-115). The speech concludes by focusing on the benefit of sack to Prince Hal. Falstaff declares,

Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant, for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile, and bare land, manured and tilled with excellent endeavor of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.


Remembering that the sober Prince John is the partaker of ‘thin drink’ (90), we understand Falstaff's hope that Hal will addict himself to that bombard of sack, Sir John himself. But the length of the speech and its overwrought persuasive tone suggest that Falstaff anxiously notes a conflict here between Hal's genetic ‘inheritance’ and his festive behavior. Falstaff wants Hal to continue nurturing his thin blood with festive sack, but the knight recognizes that by nature Hal, like Henry and John, is not a representative of feasting and festivity, but of sober politics.34 Falstaff hopes here that his adopted son, Hal, has indeed become addicted to festivity, but like the audience, Jack is not sure.

And neither is Henry sure. In the following scene, the sickly king worries that Hal's ‘headstrong riot hath no curb’ and will lead the country into ‘unguided days / And rotten times’ (4.4.59-62). Warwick attempts to diffuse the king's worry, claiming that

The Prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,
'Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learned, which, once attained,
Your Highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
The Prince will in the perfectness of time
Cast off his followers, and their memory
Shall as a pattern or a measure live
By which His Grace must mete the lives of other,
Turning past evils to advantages.


Warwick's words here provide a concise explanation of Hal's own previously stated intentions and, therefore, seem accurate and insightful. However, like Falstaff, Henry questions which way Hal will ultimately turn—towards riot or right rule, towards festive sack or the thin potations associated with the sober Prince John. The question, then, for Henry and Falstaff, is not so much whether Hal has a political plan at work in his roguery. Rather, the question is whether or not, having created, sustained, and participated in the metaphorical Feast of Falstaff, Hal will be able to tear himself away from the festive occasion. He may find himself addicted to the spirit of community and festivity, as Falstaff hopes the prince is addicted to sack. In fact, Henry notes in reference to Hal, “Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb / In the dead carrion’ (4.4.79-80).

Henry's words here, so concisely stated, actually provide a summary for the concerns of Hal and the feast up to this point in the play. Hal's soliloquy early in 1 Henry IV explains his plan to use the Boar's Head gang as a present foil to planned reformation. Indeed, Hal may still believe in his plan to ‘imitate the sun,’ but clearly Falstaff and Henry remain skeptical. And why not? As noted, Poins has earlier directly stated to Hal that the prince's attempt to demonstrate filial devotion would appear hypocritical. Still, all of the public skepticism regarding Hal's behavior and reformation might be put to rest were it not for the desires of the prince himself. He still pines for ‘small beer,’ practical jokes, and the festive community which surrounds Falstaff. Further, he worries over the responsibility of the crown, which, he states, has proved ‘so troublesome a bedfellow’ for his father (4.5.22).

When Hal imprudently takes the crown from the pillow of his sleeping father, he finds, once again, that the low expectations, which he has fostered for his public image and political plan, are also engrained in his father's sensibilities.35 Assuming his son's continued prodigality (4.5.64-79), Henry bitterly asks Hal,

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honors
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth,
Thou seek'st the greatness that will overwhelm thee.


Strangely, the import of Henry's message here mirrors the image that Falstaff establishes early in the play. Falstaff, in referring to his witty self as a ‘sow,’ proclaims that he has ‘overwhelmed all her litter but one’ (1.2.12), and the idea seems to be that the remaining ‘one,’ Prince Hal, will also be overwhelmed by Sir John's fat wit shortly. Now, Henry states that he, or at least his kingly position, will overwhelm Hal, and with the same result. That is, while Falstaff desires that, with Hal at the head, the state will turn towards tolerant festivity,36 Henry worries that his eldest son will encourage his citizenship to ‘swear, drink, dance, / Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit / The oldest sins the newest kind of ways’ (4.5.124-126). To the dying king, the combined weight of Falstaff's influence and the rigors of the kingship will crush Hal's kingdom into ‘riot’ (135). And while Hal refutes his father's concerns and attempts to explain his unruly behavior as part of his larger scheme, the issues Henry has raised are not so easily resolved (138-176). After all, in both parts of Henry IV, Henry has consistently returned to his worries about Hal's wild behavior. Falstaff, and many others from all segments of the social spectrum—such as Hotspur, Lord Bardolph, Poins, Justice Shallow, and Doll Tearsheet—also expect the continuance of Hal's roguery. And Hal himself, in his cravings for liquor and festivity and his still unbroken association with Falstaff, Poins, and others of the old gang, gives substance to these expectations. The lure of the feast—including its qualities of social leveling, laughter, wit, wine, and food—may be too much to give up. And it is this particular tension between politics and festivity that continues to hold sway at this moment late in 2 Henry IV.

But before Act Four concludes, the tone shifts clearly into the penitential. Henry, very near death, reflects on his life and confesses to Hal, ‘God knows, my son, / By what bypaths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown’ (4.5.183-185). In the same speech, he reasserts this theme, saying, ‘How I came by the crown, O God forgive, / And grant it may with thee in true peace live!’ (218-219). Having confessed to his son, he now prepares to die (240). In this sense, while Hal is trying to achieve the goal of his planned reformation, his father shows signs of authentic repentance.

Meanwhile, however, Falstaff is again in the middle of a feast, this time provided by Justice Shallow (5.1.25-27). Once again, Sir John's presence breaks in on Shallow's daily running of his business, but the justice gladly takes time out from his duties in hopes of using Falstaff for political advantage (28-31). At the same time, Falstaff plans to use Shallow, as well. Jack says that he ‘will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms, or two actions, and ‘a shall laugh without intervallums’ (76-80). Falstaff hopes, then, that in feasting with Shallow, he can store up a quantity of mirth to keep Hal in a festive spirit.

The contrapuntal nature of the shifts between the spirit of festivity and the spirit of Lenten reform is useful in building the necessary suspense for the conclusion of the play. The constant shifting from the festive mirth of Falstaff, to the sobriety and repentance of Prince John and Henry, plays out like a tennis match between holiday and political everyday. Back and forth, the audience turns from the laughter of community to the serious business of running the state, the attraction of wit versus the responsibility of sound policy. Even the Lord Chief Justice, Warwick, Prince John, and Clarence see this tension, assuming that ‘all will be overturned’ (5.2.19). They believe that Hal will choose not the always sober and lawful Chief Justice, but the always-festive Falstaff, as his companion at court (33-34). Counter to their fears, however, Hal does embrace them, saying, ‘I'll be your father and your brother too’ (57). When the Chief Justice continues to explain himself and his previous attempts to curb the wild Prince Hal, the new king not only accepts the explanation, but tells the justice, ‘You shall be as father to my youth’ (118). Further, Henry V states, he will now reform himself and, in so doing, live to ‘mock the expectation of the world, / To frustrate prophecies, and to raze out / Rotten opinion who hath writ me down / After my seeming’ (126-129). Once again, the tide seems to shift back to Lenten reform, right rule, and order.

But almost as soon as the young king unveils his new, kingly self, the scene shifts back to Falstaff, and the audience is once again looking in on festivity and, specifically, a drunken feast at the home of Justice Shallow (5.3). The business-minded Shallow is intoxicated, and the formerly reserved Silence has, with the constant encouragement of Falstaff, become the life of the party. In fact, Silence's songs provide a bit of a summary of the current situation, as well as foreshadowing what is to come. In his first song, Silence says that current company shall

‘Do nothing but eat, and make good cheer,
And praise God for the merry year,
When flesh is cheap and females dear,
And lusty lads roam here and there
So merrily,
And ever among so merrily.’


Obviously, the song captures the essence of the current festivity and contrasts to the somber reformation that Henry V has promised in the previous scene. In addition, in suggesting that ‘flesh is cheap,’ Silence also notes that the time is clearly not Lenten, when meat prices would be largely irrelevant and highly inflated by the black market; if Silence is suggesting low prices for human flesh, then, similarly, he is celebrating the festivity of the tavern, as opposed to religious or political restraint.

And Silence, in his next ditty, goes on to specify the nature of the time, singing,

‘Be merry, be merry, my wife has all,
For women are shrews, both short and tall.
'Tis merry in hall when beards wags all,
And welcome merry Shrovetide.
Be merry, be merry.’


By mentioning Shrovetide, the three-day feast before Ash Wednesday, Silence notes the nature of the party. That is, the wild abandon, the drinking and carousing, the laughter and singing, are heightened by the expectation of their end. As Peter J. Seng points out, the drunken Silence appears to enjoy himself and his revelry all the more because he knows that the feast will conclude, giving way to a Lenten fast (31-40).37 This prediction could easily be seen as being born out of Silence's basic understanding of liturgical time; the feast always gives way to the fast, and so why should the present circumstance proceed in any other manner?

Still, the audience does not witness such a clear liturgical progression. Instead, one scene earlier, they witnessed the beginnings of Prince Hal's Lenten reform, and yet the feast, with Falstaff still at the center, obviously continues and is even heightened here in the home of Justice Shallow. Are Henry V and his new counselors out of time in starting the Lent early, or is Falstaff out of time by continuing the feast? Just because the feast cannot last forever, as Doll, Silence, and others point out, can we assume that it is over because the new king says that it is over? The answer, clearly, is ‘no.’ Though Hal has the ability, just as his father did previously in usurping Richard's throne, to manipulate time and use it to his advantage, he does not bear ultimate sway over its shifts and movements. Festivity appears much easier to support than to dismantle and fits itself into available space, just as Falstaff fits his own opportunism into the spaces provided by Hal's and Shallow's political plans. Additionally, a period of reform is not always wanted or accepted just because the official documents say that it is time to switch seasons, as seen in Hostess Quickly's sale of meat during Lent. In fact, as J. Dover Wilson argues in terms of the two parts of Henry IV, ‘We are not to imagine that, because kings should be virtuous and society needs a framework of decency, order, and justice to hold it together, there shall be no more cakes and ale’ (127).38

At the same time, the audience knows from the previous scene that Falstaff's becoming ‘one of the greatest men in the realm’ is unlikely in any sense but the physical (5.3.88-89). In addition, the revelers' hopes for the continuance of ‘pleasant days’ will shortly be quashed (144), or at least greatly modified. No matter how overwhelming the presence of Falstaff has been, Hostess Quickly is correct in saying that ‘right should thus overcome might’ in the sense that right rule appears to be gaining the advantage over the mighty wit and girth of Sir John (5.4.23).39

All of these festive hopes and expectations seem frustrated in the play's final scene. As Henry V parades through the streets of London, Falstaff calls out to his benefactor and companion. Henry V coldly responds,

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing. Know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then, I banish thee on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near my person by ten mile.
For competence of life, I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give thee advancement.


Clearly, the king's words are full of warning and Lenten instruction. Although Henry V does promise Falstaff enough of a stipend to live on, it is clear that the king will no longer sustain the feast and festivity as in the past. In fact, the festivity that Falstaff represents will now be banished, as the young king fulfills the course of his planned reformation.

Ironically, however, Falstaff has already taken means to extend his disorderly living by borrowing a thousand pounds from Shallow and now refusing to pay it back (5.5.73-87). In addition, Sir John does not entirely believe in Henry V's harsh statement, hoping instead that the words are merely public play-acting, explaining that Henry ‘must seem thus to the world’ (77). Jack even goes so far as to claim to Shallow, ‘I will be the man yet that shall make you great’ (81-82). The audience, however, might find Falstaff's assurances hollow, as Shallow clearly does, except for the words of the Epilogue, which promise that the story will continue ‘with Sir John in it’ (26). And so the time of the feast is rebuked, maybe even reduced, but is not yet concluded. We may even, like Sir John, hold out hope that Henry V will still enlarge Falstaff and the feast and bring them to court.

Obviously, Hal does not do so. In fact, if he did, he would have to thwart the fulfillment of his own plan. That is, Hal establishes the feast to allow himself and the people to experience a sense of solidarity in a temporarily leveled social structure. But for Hal, who ultimately desires to ‘appear as the sun,’ to burst on the scene as a powerful and popular king, the class hierarchy most definitely needs to realign. Therefore, to step into the kingship, Hal knows he has to step away from the feast. To fulfill his plan, he must distance himself from his own creation, the Feast of Falstaff; once the festive device is no longer useful, he must banish the fat knight. Still, Hal's stepping away from the feast does not entirely or ultimately bring the festivity to an end. Shakespeare assures the audience, who may now find itself ‘cloyed with fat meat’ (25), that Falstaff will be back in Henry V. However, without his principal source of nourishment—Hal and his purse—‘Falstaff shall die’ (28). When he does, the Feast of Falstaff, though not festivity itself, will die with him, the time of flux will appear to end, and the Lent of Agincourt will quickly ensue.


  1. For expansive discussions regarding festive time and festival celebration in Shakespeare's works and era, see especially François Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. by Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), R. Chris Hassel, Jr., Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (New York: Meridian, 1963), and Naomi C. Liebler, Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Tragedy (New York: Routledge, 1995).

  2. See Robert B. Bennett, ‘Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy,’ Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 61-85. In asserting that 2 Henry IV demonstrates the ‘purge of vice and folly’ (77), Bennett largely agrees with Neil Rhodes' perspective as discussed in the previous chapter, but Bennett also makes the general assertion that, within Part Two,

    Timing, which had been the talent enabling man to cope with immediate time, whether in wit, combat, political strategy, or martial encounter, is no longer within man's power and is no longer, at this stage of the historical cycle, a major factor in shaping events.


    Concerning Hal's planned reformation, I would agree, though the statement appears overly broad, especially when we consider the extremely precise timing of Prince John's battlefield deception/defeat of the Archbishop, Mowbray, and Hastings (4.1).

  3. See Paul Dean, ‘Forms of Time: Some Elizabethan Two-Part History Plays,’ Renaissance Studies 4 (1990): 410-430. Dean explains that the two-part play often allowed ‘the dramatist to oppose, or examine the relationship between, two visions of Time’ (419).

  4. See Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of The Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1980) 271-318. Bloom notes that, from the beginning of 1 Henry IV, Hal has three plans, to ‘wait for Henry IV to die (as quickly as possible), kill Hotspur and appropriate his “honour,” have Falstaff hanged’ (302-303).

  5. According to the The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., and as explained in the previous chapter, ‘brawn,’ a term which Hal used earlier to describe Falstaff (1 Henry IV, 2.4.109), means ‘a boar (or swine) fattened for the table.’

  6. See Paul M. Cubeta, ‘Falstaff and the Art of Dying,’ Studies in English Literature 27 (1987): 197-211. Cubeta states, ‘In the life of Falstaff, Shakespeare has embodied rituals, folk tales, conventions, festivals […] familiar to an Elizabethan audience […]’ (198).

  7. Anita Hembold, ‘King of the Revels or King of the Rebels?: Sir John Falstaff Revisited,’ The Upstart Crow 16 (1996): 70-91. Hembold compares and contrasts Falstaff to several characters within the two parts of Henry IV, but the difference between Falstaff and the Chief Justice is, understandably, most stark.

  8. Recall in 1 Henry IV that, when Hal and Poins steal Falstaff's horse at the Gad's Hill robbery, Hal says that Falstaff ‘lards the lean earth as he walks along,’ an event which produces laughter in the young prince (2.2.108).

  9. See Jack R. Sublette, ‘The Distorted Time in 2 Henry IV,Essays on Shakespeare: In Honour of A. A. Ansari, ed. T. R. Sharma (Meerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986) 195-210. Sublette makes clear both the extent and impact of the ‘unquiet time.’

  10. For a differing view on the communication between the Chief Justice and Falstaff, see Joseph A. Porter, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) 100-109. Porter believes that the Chief Justice scores a ‘victory’ over Falstaff in these scenes (109).

  11. Though early in 2 Henry IV Morton provides Northumberland with an accurate account of Hal's victory over Hotspur (1.1.105-111), Hal himself allows Falstaff to take credit for the feat at the conclusion of Part One (5.4.155-156). In addition, Coleville's surrender to Falstaff is apparently based on Sir John's military reputation which, within the context of the plays, lacks any substance other than his self-proclaimed victory over Harry Percy (2 Henry IV, 4.3.1-23). Also see Maurice Hunt, ‘The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad,’ Comparative Drama 32 (1998): 176-206. Hunt writes,

    Prince Hal has fallen into his former prodigal way of living partly because Falstaff cleverly wrested from him the credit for killing Hotspur, the deed upon which Hal's scripted reformation depended for its long-term credibility.


  12. In 1 Henry IV, Henry enumerates the ways in which Hal has ‘lost [his] princely privilege’ (3.2.29-91).

  13. See Daniel Seltzer, ‘Prince Hal and the Tragic Style,’ Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 25-26. In explicating this scene, Seltzer shows how the conflict of Hal's political purpose versus his desire for ‘small beer’ makes him grow in ‘inner emotional content’ (26).

  14. As Henry V, of course, he does share another scene with Sir John and publicly rejects him (5.5). For more on why Shakespeare keeps Hal and Falstaff apart in 2 Henry IV, see J. McLaverty, ‘No Abuse: The Prince and Falstaff in the Tavern Scenes of Henry IV,Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981): 105-110.

  15. For an alternate interpretation, see Judith Mossman, ‘Plutarch and Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2,’ Poetica 48 (1997): 99-117.

  16. Regarding the risky nature of Hal's shifting character, Mossman disagrees, saying that it is that very quality which ‘becomes the engine which drives the plot and leads to the downfall of the East Cheap characters’ (108).

  17. I will cite further instances of Hal's negative reactions to Falstaff's wit in 2 Henry IV. Of these instances, Bloom goes so far as to say that ‘[n]o scholarly detractor of Falstaff, old- or new-style, is so disgusted by Sir John as Hal reveals himself to be’ (302).

  18. See Derick R. C. Marsh, ‘Hal and Hamlet: the Loneliness of Integrity,’ Jonson and Shakespeare, ed. Ian Donaldson (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1983) 18-34.

  19. On this point, See G. K. Hunter, ‘Notes on the Genre of the History Play,’ Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, ed. John W. Velz (Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996) 229-240. Hunter succinctly states that ‘Falstaff is as keen to make political profit out of Hal as Hal is to make a killing out of Falstaff’ (238).

  20. See also, especially, A. C. Bradley, ‘The Rejection of Falstaff,’ Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1909) 247-273. For a somewhat harsher appraisal of Hal's treatment of Falstaff, see Bloom as listed above.

  21. See John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983) 190-95. Blanpied discusses Hal's apprehensions concerning his coming kingship.

  22. Daryl W. Palmer, Hospitable Performances: Dramatic Genre and Cultural Practices in Early Modern England (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1992).

  23. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., a ‘hogshead’ is specifically ‘a caskful of liquor; a liquid measure containing 63 old wine-gallons (equal to 52 1/2 imperial gallons).’

  24. The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 ed., specifies that ‘Bordeaux’ generally signifies ‘claret.’

  25. See John 3:1-21, Ephesians 4:21-24, Colossians 3:8-10.

  26. See Robin Headlam Wells and Alison Birkinshaw, ‘Falstaff, Prince Hal and the New Song,’ Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 111-112. Wells and Birkinshaw astutely point out that Falstaff should not be read merely as ‘a symbolic embodiment of the unregenerate man’ (111), nor as ‘the wild, untamed aspect of Hal's nature,’ because ‘the play is not an allegory’ (112).

  27. Kiernan Ryan, ‘The Future of Henry IV,Henry IV, Parts One and Two, ed. Nigel Wood (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995) 92-125.

  28. In Richard II, Richard foreshadows Northumberland's continued rebellion when the deposed king tells him, ‘thou, which knowest the way / To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again […]’ (5.1.62-63).

  29. See Michael Goldman, ‘History-Making in the Henriad,’ Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, ed Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998) 203-219. Goldman states, ‘And so the scene ends, with a heightened sense of busyness, of new purpose, and of greater urgency. Both time and the effort to organize time are speeding up. Rapid movement in time and space are insisted on’ (209). This quotation would support this scene perfectly; unfortunately it is Goldman's comment on 1 Henry IV, 1.1. Nonetheless, the pressure Goldman feels in Henry's opening speech may very well provide the inertia that will eventually create the pendulous effect of 2 Henry IV.

  30. Anita Helmbold finds that Falstaff's association with Shallow, whom Jack calls ‘the very genius of famine’ (312-313) complements the audience's image of Falstaff as the genius of feast (80, line numbers hers).

  31. Dennis Quinn, ‘Pastimes of the Prince: Hal and Eutrapalia,Ben Jonson Journal 4 (1997): 103-114.

  32. Palmer cites ‘Barabas, Don John, the Macbeths, and Lear's evil daughters’ as characters who use ‘hospitality against the host’ (36), though, obviously, in much more brutal ways than those employed by Falstaff.

  33. Leo Salingar, ‘Falstaff and the Life of the Shadows,’ Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Maurice Charney (New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980) 185-205. As shown in the previous chapter, Falstaff plays with this idea throughout 1 Henry IV, as well.

  34. See J. A. B. Somerset, ‘Falstaff, the Prince, and the Pattern of 2 Henry IV,Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 35-45. In noting Hal's ultimate rejection of Falstaff, Somerset states, ‘significantly, [Hal's] profligacy goes no farther than “the poor creature, small beer”—a far cry from the addiction to sack proposed by Falstaff!’ (44).

  35. For more on this business of impatiently waiting to receive the king's crown, see Henry D. Janowitz, ‘Prince Hamlet and Prince Hal: The Trial of Crowns,’ Shakespeare Newsletter 50 (2000): 21. Janowitz states concerning Hal, ‘like his father, he has taken the crown too soon’ (21).

  36. Falstaff's desire for festive tolerance is clear almost from the first moment when the two appear in 1 Henry IV; Jack tells the prince, ‘Do not, when thou art king, hang a thief’ (1.2.59-60).

  37. See Peter J. Seng, ‘Songs, Time, and the Rejection of Falstaff,’ Shakespeare Survey 15 (1962): 31-40. Seng's essay provides an excellent analysis of how Shakespeare uses songs to elucidate characters and themes in 2 Henry IV.

  38. J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1944).

  39. Bevington suggests that the ‘hostess gets this [“right … might”] backward’ (846, bracket mine). In terms of the maxim, she does, though not in terms of the context.


Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. New York: Meridian, 1963.

Bennett, Robert B. ‘Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy.’ Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 61-85.

Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. By William Shakespeare. Updated 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1997.

Blanpied, John W. Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Bradley, A. C. ‘The Rejection of Falstaff.’ Oxford Lectures on Poetry. London: Macmillan, 1909. 247-273.

Cubeta, Paul M. ‘Falstaff and the Art of Dying.’ Studies in English Literature 27 (1987): 197-211.

Dean, Paul. ‘Forms of Time: Some Elizabethan Two-Part History Plays.’ Renaissance Studies 4 (1990): 410-430.

Goldman, Michael. ‘History-Making in the Henriad.’ Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg. Ed. Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998. 203-219.

Hassel, R. Chris Jr. ‘Fluellan: Wars of Discipline and “Disciplines of Wars.”’ Literature and Theology 12 (1998): 350-362.

———. Renaissance Drama and the English Church Year. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Hembold, Anita. ‘King of the Revels or King of the Rebels?: Sir John Falstaff Revisited.’ The Upstart Crow 16 (1996): 70-91.

Hunt, Maurice. ‘The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad.’ Comparative Drama 32 (1998): 176-206.

Hunter, G. K. ‘Notes on the Genre of the History Play.’ Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre. Ed. John W. Velz. Binghamton, New York: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996. 229-240.

Janowitz, Henry D. ‘Prince Hamlet and Prince Hal: The Trial of Crowns.’ Shakespeare Newsletter 50 (2000): 21.

Laroque, François. Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Liebler, Naomi C. Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundations of Tragedy. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Marcus, Leah. The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Marsh, Derick R. C. ‘Hal and Hamlet: The Loneliness of Integrity.’ Jonson and Shakespeare. Ed. Ian Donaldson. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1983. 18-34.

McLaverty, J. ‘No Abuse: The Prince and Falstaff in the Tavern Scenes of Henry IV.Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981): 105-110.

Mossman, Judith. ‘Plutarch and Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.Poetica 48 (1997): 99-117.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

Palmer, Daryl W. Hospitable Performances: Dramatic Genre and Cultural Practices in Early Modern England. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1992.

Porter, Joseph A. The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Quinn, Dennis. ‘Pastimes of the Prince: Hal and Eutrapalia.Ben Jonson Journal 4 (1997): 103-114.

Rhodes, Neil. Elizabethan Grotesque. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Ryan, Kiernan. ‘The Future of History in Henry IV.Henry IV, Parts One and Two. Ed. Nigel Wood. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1995. 92-115.

Salingar, Leo. ‘Falstaff and the Life of the Shadows.’ Shakespearean Comedy. Ed. Maurice Charney. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980. 185-205.

Seltzer, Daniel. ‘Prince Hal and the Tragic Style.’ Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 13-27.

Seng, Peter J. ‘Songs, Time, and the Rejection of Falstaff.’ Shakespeare Survey 15 (1962): 31-40.

Somerset, J. A. B. ‘Falstaff, the Prince, and the Pattern of 2 Henry IV.Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 35-45.

Sublette, Jack R. ‘The Distorted Time in 2 Henry IV.Essays on Shakespeare: In Honour of A. A. Ansari. Ed. T. R. Sharma. Meeerut, India: Shalabh Book House, 1986. 195-210.

Wells, Robin Headlam, and Alison Birkinshaw. ‘Falstaff, Prince Hal, and the New Song.’ Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 103-115.

Wilson, J. Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: Macmillan, 1944.

Tom McAlindon (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: McAlindon, Tom. “Perfect Answers: Religious Inquisition, Falstaffian Wit.” Shakespeare Survey 54 (2001): 100-07.

[In the following essay, McAlindon agrees with literary scholars who maintain that Falstaff is a parody of both Sir John Oldcastle and contemporary Puritans. The critic also contends that in addition to creating a humorous caricature of Puritanism in the fat knight, Shakespeare ingeniously transformed “a Puritan butt into an exceptionally appealing character with a quicksilver mind and tongue.”]


Few would now deny that in Henry IV the character of Falstaff constitutes a deliberate and audacious caricature of a Protestant hero, the fourteenth-century champion of Wycliffe's doctrines, Sir John Oldcastle, the first Lord Cobham, ‘Lollardus Lollardorum’.1 Shakespeare's wicked joke, as Ernst Honigmann has called it,2 gave offence in his own time not only to Cobham's distinguished titular descendants but also to earnest Protestants such as John Speed (1611), Richard James (c. 1625), and Thomas Fuller (1655),3 to the authors of the anti-Catholic response play, The first part of the true and honorable historie, the life of Sir John Oldcastle, the Good Lord Cobham (1599), and no doubt to many playgoers of like persuasion. Defying the hagiographic efforts of John Bale and John Foxe, Shakespeare in effect took the Catholic side in a sectarian dispute about the character of the nobleman who was burned as a heretic shortly after his friend, the Prince of Wales, became Henry V; and although in Part 2 he changed his reprobate knight's name from Sir John Oldcastle to Sir John Falstaff, his contemporaries would still have recognized his original intention and treated the Epilogue's denial as tongue-in-cheek.

Apart from his friendship with the Prince of Wales, there are a number of parallels between the historiographic and the Shakespearian Sir John, some obvious, some teasingly oblique, most of them already noted by critics. The first Sir John was a reformed sinner who publicly confessed that in his youth he offended grievously in pride, wrath, gluttony, covetousness, and lechery. The second Sir John, ‘my old lad of the castle’ (1:1.2.41), is a lecherous glutton and thief who repeatedly promises to reform and so is nicknamed ‘Monsieur Remorse’ (line 112). The first Sir John based all his religious beliefs on the Bible and according to Bale and Foxe had a masterful knowledge of both the Old and the New Testament; the second specializes in a Puritan idiom whose chief characteristic is an abundance of biblical quotation and allusion (no other Shakespearian character quotes so liberally from the Bible). The first Sir John was condemned for supporting Lollard preachers; the second flaunts his understanding of the godly art (‘Well, God give thee the spirit of persuasion, and him the ears of profiting, that what thou speakest may move, and what he hears may be believed’ [lines 143-5]). One of the heresies for which the first Sir John was condemned was his denial of the value of pilgrimages, whether to Canterbury or to Rome; the second Sir John waylays pilgrims en route to Canterbury. Henry V tried hard to get his friend to renounce his Wycliffite beliefs, but he proved righteously immoveable; the second Sir John protests to the Prince that he will ‘be damned for never a king's son in Christendom’ (line 93). The first Sir John was executed for treason as well as heresy; in the play the Prince initially refuses to become a thief, and Sir John threatens: ‘By the Lord, I'll be a traitor then, when thou art king’ (line 137). The first Sir John was executed in a singular manner, being hanged in chains as a traitor and burned as a heretic; the Prince not only teases the second Sir John about being hanged but also calls him a ‘roasted Manningtree ox’ (2.4.457). After he was found guilty, the first Sir John escaped from prison and eluded the authorities for four years before being apprehended and executed; the second Sir John spends the whole of Part 2 engaged in a similar relation with the fangs and snares of the law.

To miss these parallels and the large parodic intention which they underscore is to miss the outrageously satiric dimension and some of the socio-political implications of Shakespeare's greatest comic character. In this article I shall be reinforcing the argument for parodic intent, for my purpose is to show that a central feature of Falstaff's complex comic art was probably inspired by Protestant hagiography's treatment of the way in which Oldcastle answered his theological accusers. As so often happens, parody will be seen as having metamorphosed the object of its mockery into something beguilingly attractive and even admirable.

What is the essence of Falstaff's comic character, what is it about him that most commands admiration and delight? Dryden was the first critic to address the question. ‘That wherein he is singular’, he explained, are ‘those things he says praeter expectatum, unexpected by the audience; his quick evasions when you imagine him surpriz'd’; and he added that Falstaff's unwieldy mass seems to intensify the unexpected and extremely diverting nature of his verbal evasions.4 Subsequent attempts to define the essential Falstaff endorse this explanation and elaborate on it in ways which are useful for my purposes. In the nineteenth century, Henry Hudson emphasized the immense self-confidence with which Sir John handles himself when cornered by Hal and Poins; indeed he infers from Falstaff's incomprehensible lies that he deliberately invites being cornered, ‘partly for the pleasure he takes in the excited play of his faculties, partly for the surprise he causes by his still more incomprehensible feats of dodging’.5 In this century E. E. Stoll distinguished between Falstaff's evasions and those of other braggart soldiers such as Bobadill, noting that the latters' are ‘mere excuses and subterfuges’ whereas Falstaff's are ‘gay, aggressive, triumphant … Falstaff carries things with a high hand, and expects to bear down all before him’.6 H. B. Charlton asked, ‘What then is … the ruling passion, the distinctive quiddity of Sir John Falstaff?’, and in his answer he too stressed the immense self-confidence with which Falstaff courts and triumphs over the threat of censorious entrapment. ‘Fundamentally, it is his infinite capacity for extricating himself from predicaments … So adept is he in this art of extrication that he revels in creating dilemmas for himself to enjoy the zest of coming triumphantly out of them.’7

There is no obvious model or archetype for Falstaff's primary characteristic and its associated tendencies. Critics looking at antecedents have variously and correctly noted that there is something in him of the mythical buffoon, the Vice, the picaro, the braggart soldier, and the Elizabethan clown, all of whom are adept in evasive trickeries of one kind or another. Nevertheless, as an extremely quickwitted and intelligent knight, equipped with a sumptuous store of biblical, theological, mythological, and literary knowledge, and majestically confident of his ability to confound his moralizing accusers, Shakespeare's Sir John seems remarkably unlike these prototypes. Nor do I detect his genius for the self-justifying smart answer either in Martin Marprelate, with whom he has also been compared, or in the colourless figure who shares his original name in the earlier Famous Victories of King Henry the Fifth (1594). So let us return to the first Sir John, or more precisely, to one of the first Sir Johns.


The most comprehensive account of Oldcastle's life and death, and the one we might assume was of most use and interest to Shakespeare, is that given in the expanded 1570 edition of John Foxe's Actes and Monuments. Together with much material from other sources, this account incorporates most of John Bale's pioneer treatise, A brefe Chronycle concernynge the Examinacyon and death of the blessed martyr of Christ, Sir Johan Oldecastell the lorde Cobham (Antwerp, 1544).8 But what was of most interest to Bale, namely the interrogation of Oldcastle on the charge of heresy, constitutes less than a quarter of Foxe's lengthy account; moreover, as in the shorter narrative contained in the 1563 edition, where Bale's contribution is proportionately greater, Bale's explicitly defined conception of Oldcastle's examination is obscured.9

As he himself indicates, Bale's version of the examination is based partly on the brief and anonymous Examination of the honorable knyght sir Jhon Oldcastell Lorde Cobham (Antwerp, ?1530),10 but mainly on the official report of the process made for Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury.11 His own editorial hand, however, is at work from the start, guiding his readers' responses to question and answer in accord with an interpretation of the whole procedure which he provides in his Preface. He refers briefly in the Preface to Oldcastle's career as a distinguished servant of the crown in Wales: ‘In all adventurous acts of worldly manhood was he ever bold, strong, fortunate, doughty, noble, and valiant’ (7). And after he deals with the examination, condemnation, and execration of Oldcastle he pays tribute to the great fortitude with which he met his cruel death. But his purpose is not to exalt the passive heroism of the martyr over the active courage of the soldier, nor even to focus intently on his final torment in the usual hagiographic manner. In his interpretation, Oldcastle's great triumph is oral, rhetorical, intellectual. Oldcastle, he says, was ‘never so worthy a conqueror as in this present conflict with the cruel and furious frantic kingdom of antichrist’ (7); and by this present conflict he means primarily the inquisition in which Oldcastle stands alone against a team of theologians led by the Archbishop of Canterbury: four bishops and twelve doctors of the church in all. In the end, Oldcastle allows his interrogators to prove him a heretic; but as Bale makes clear, he triumphantly demonstrates in his responses that what they call heresy is the true Christian faith as grounded in the scriptures. ‘His courage was of such value that it gave him the victory over them by the clear judgment of the scriptures, what though the world's judgments be far otherwise’ (13). It is they who are outwitted and defeated, not he. Says Bale: ‘He that hath judgment in the spirit shall easily perceive by this treatise … what influence of grace this man of God had from above concerning his answers’ (6). In other words, prepare to read inspired answers to questions which are top-heavy with learning, authority and malicious intent. Nevertheless, suggests Bale, Oldcastle's surprising victory in this ostensibly onesided battle of wits is exactly what the scriptures should lead us to expect. ‘Most surely fulfilled Christ his promise in him which he made to his apostles: “Cast not in your mind aforehand … what answer ye shall make when these spiritual tyrants shall examine you in their synagogues … For I will give such utterance and wisdom in that hour, as all your enemies shall never be able to resist you”’ (6).12 Bale is here adapting and giving central significance to one of the secondary topoi of Christian hagiography, the wisdom derived from sanctity. The most famous example of this topos occurs in the legend of the virgin martyr, St Katherine of Alexandria, whose spectacular triumph over the physical torments with which pagans seek to break her faith in Christ is preceded by a display of divinely inspired eloquence in response to the arguments of a team of philosophers aimed at getting her to renounce her faith.13

Before Oldcastle is even brought to examination, the Archbishop publicly denounces him as ‘that seditious apostate, that schismatic, that heretic, that troubler of the peace, that enemy of the realm and great adversary of all holy church’. But he is undeterred by these ‘hateful names’ (19) and, like St Katherine, answers his inquisitors with an air of serene and often disdainful self-confidence. His first response is a written exposition of what he believes, composed in reply to the official accusation of heresy. Before being examined by the theologians, he presents this document to the King as proof that he is a true Christian, assuring him that if he is taught a better belief he will most reverently and at all times obey it (22); thus from the outset he seems to shift defiantly from defence to attack. When confronted by the theologians, he refuses at first to go beyond what he has written and state ‘more plainly’ his position on the eucharist, penance, pilgrimages, and the power of Rome. The implication is clear: anything not dealt with in his scripturally grounded confession of faith is irrelevant. Thus he informs them that he will gladly both believe and observe whatsoever the holy church instituted by Christ has determined, but he denies that popes, cardinals, and prelates have the power to determine such matters as stand not with God's word. With this aggressively evasive strategy, says Bale, the bishops and prelates ‘were in a maner amazed and wonderfully disquieted’ (26).14

At the end of the first examination he is dispatched to the Tower, the frustrated bishops having determined to pin him down by giving him a precise list of the church's teaching on the disputed matters and requiring him to affirm or deny belief in each of them. Reading the document, ‘he marvelled greatly of their mad ignorance … and deep errors’ and perceived their malicious intent ‘purposed against him howsoever he should answer’ (28). He now decides, however, to put his trust in God and engage fully with their questions and accusations; and a few days later, says Bale, he is led from the Tower ‘as a lamb among wolves, to his examination and answer’ (29). But his assurance does not desert him and he matches thrust with counter-thrust. The Archbishop begins by telling him he stands accursed for his contumacy. ‘Then spake the Lord Cobham with a most cheerful countenance, and said: “God saith by his holy prophet, maledicam benedictionibus vestris”’.15 Which may be construed as a succinct way of saying, ‘I would rather be cursed by you and blessed by God than vice versa.’ His Lordship is apparently discomfited by this retort, for he chooses to ignore it and tries a softer approach; but with no more success. Says Bale, ‘The archbishop made then as though he had … not heard him’ but ‘continued forth in his tale’, saying: ‘Sir, at that time I gently proffered to have assoiled you, if ye would have asked it. And yet I do the same, if ye will humbly desire it in due form and manner as holy church ordained.’ Adding injured innocence to audacity, Oldcastle responds, ‘Nay, forsooth, I will not, for I never yet trespassed against you’ (29).

He then proceeds to evaluate the Archbishop's offer of absolution in a surprising manner, and in so doing strikes obliquely at both the spiritual arrogance of his accusers and the sacrament of penance, one of the doctrines at issue. He gets down on his knees, raises his hands to heaven, and shrives himself loudly to the eternal living God, confessing that in his frail youth he offended most grievously in pride, wrath, lechery and so on. This confession of a very sinful past is regularly noted by Shakespearian scholars (usually as a parallel with Falstaff's lifestyle), but its purpose and the spirit in which it is made are never remarked on. It is in fact a theatrical move in a rhetorical contest; and by no means does it signify defensiveness. For having made his public confession to God Himself (who alone, he implies, can absolve him), Oldcastle rises and turns to all those who have assembled to witness the inquisition, pointing out—‘Lo good people, lo’—that his accusers have condemned him for breaking their own laws and traditions but not for his grievous violation of God's great laws and commandments.16 Whereupon, says Bale, ‘the archbishop and his company were not a little blemished’ (29-30).

They fare even worse when they try to catch him out on the the eucharist and transubstantiation. Questioned on this, he summarizes correctly all the relevant passages from the New Testament and on this basis affirms his belief that the consecrated host is Christ's body in the form of bread. But is it still bread? Yes, he answers, it is visible bread; the body of Christ is seen only by the eye of faith. ‘Then smiled they each one upon other … And with a great brag divers of them said: “It is foul heresy”’ (31). Some among them, however, feel it necessary to ask if he believes the bread to be material bread or not. ‘The Lord Cobham said unto them: “The scriptures make no mention of this word material, and therefore my faith hath nothing to do therewith”’ (32). When one of the bishops insists that after the sacramental words are spoken it is bread no longer, he replies: ‘Saint Paul the apostle was (I am sure) as wise as ye be now, and more godly learned: and he called it bread writing to the Corinthians.’ ‘Paule must be otherwise understanded’, they protest; to take him literally would be heresy. How can they justify this claim?, he inquires. Because, they reply, it has been so determined by Holy Church and its holy doctors. ‘I know none holier than Christ and his apostle’, responds the knight drily. ‘A most Christian answer’, exclaims Bale from the margin; but it is too much for the holy doctors: when Oldcastle proceeds to amplify his provocative point, ‘Then asked they him, to stop his mouth therewith’ (32).

When the interrogation resumes, the Carmelite prior engages with Oldcastle and makes the mistake of saying that Matthew 7 forbids judging one's superiors. But ‘the sameself chapter of Matthew’, explains Oldcastle, warns us against false prophets, appear they never so glorious; as does John 7 and 10, Deuteronomy 1, and Psalm 61. The Prior foolishly persists: ‘Unto whom the Lord Cobham thus answered. It is well sophistried of you forsooth. Preposterous are your judgements evermore. For, as the prophet Esay saith …’ When Oldcastle completes this crushing rebuttal, John Bale, as it were, cannot contain himself, and applauds once more from the margin: ‘A perfect answer’, he writes (34).

Repeatedly subjected to Oldcastle's masterful command of the Bible, the leaders of the English church are thus, says Bale, ‘confounded in their learning’. In desperation, one of them plucks out of his bosom a copy of the document they had sent with him to the Tower, ‘thinking thereby to make shorter work of him. For they were so amazed with his answers … that they knew not well how to occupy the time, their wits and sophistry … so failed them that day’ (37). They demand brief responses to what is written in this bill of belief. His answers are calm and sardonic; he knows they will inculpate him, but before his accusers condemn him he makes sure to treat them in kind. One of the last questions put to him asks his view of the pope; and in attending to his answer we must note that his examination has been moved from the Chapter House in St Paul's to the Dominican Friary. ‘The Lord Cobham answered … he and you together maketh whole the great anti-christ. Of whom he is the great head, you bishops, priests, prelates, and monks are the body, and the begging friars are the tail, for they cover the filthiness of you both with their subtle sophistry’ (38). Before bringing the proceedings to a conclusion, the Archbishop understandably accuses Oldcastle of having ‘spoken here many wonderful words to the slanderous rebuke of all the whole spirituality’. Injured innocent to the last, however, Sir John loftily responds: ‘Much more have you offended me than ever I offended you, in thus troubling me before this multitude’ (40).


‘You have misled the youthful Prince’, says the Lord Chief Justice to Shakespeare's Sir John. ‘The young Prince hath misled me’, retorts the knight. ‘Well, God send the Prince a better companion!’, continues the Chief Justice. ‘God send the companion a better prince! I cannot rid my hands of him’, answers Sir John (2:1.2.145-7, 201-2).

This encounter provides a convenient point of return to Henry IV for a more exact reminder of Falstaff's characteristic comic procedure. In Part 1 as in Part 2, he is under attack from the outset, enduring Hal's good humoured but energetic denunciation of his sinful way of life, a diatribe prompted by his opening question about the time of day. By way of response, Sir John slides into a distractingly graceful conceit about Phoebus and the moon, but then counterattacks Puritan-wise with an accusation that will resonate in a two-part play dense with ideas about sin, redemption, and the lost grace or sanctity of kingship: ‘God save thy grace—majesty I should say, for grace thou wilt have none … No, by my troth. Not so much as will serve to be prologue to an egg and butter’ (1:1.2.17-21). Pertinent here is the fact that Falstaff not only poses from time to time as a godly, bible-quoting and self-righteous Protestant, but is also endowed with a secular form of the extraordinary grace which, according to Bale, inspired the first Oldcastle's responses (because of its concern with the nature of kingship and true nobility, there is in fact a notable continuity in Henry IV between theological and secular notions of grace). Says Sir John to the Chief Justice concerning one of his aggressively defensive rejoinders: ‘This is the right fencing grace, my lord—tap for tap’ (2:2.1.194-6).17

The scene in Part 1 which opens with Hal's indictment of Falstaff—1.2—concludes with preparations for the Gad's Hill escapade; and the whole purpose of that adventure is to create a situation in which Sir John will be compelled to admit that he is a coward and a liar. Occurring in most editions in 2.4, the scene of accusatory ensnarement—Falstaff on trial, as it were—constitutes the climax of the play's comic action. The gloating conviction of Hal and Poins that they can at last extract from him an abject confession of guilt, together with the presence of an excited on-stage audience (cf. ‘Lo good people, lo’), generates suspense and focuses all our attention on the moment when Falstaff produces the answer that frustrates his accusers. The answer is too well known to quote here, but what I must quote is his answer when accused a second time in this same scene. In the playlet, Hal as King rebukes Falstaff as Prince: ‘Swearest thou, ungracious boy? … Thou art violently fallen away from grace. There is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man … Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts …’ And so on, at length: Hal's demonizing invective, his catalogue of what Bale called ‘hateful names’ (cf. ‘that seditious apostate, that … that … that …’) is relentless. Nevertheless, Falstaff deflates it by responding with an air of exquisitely polite incomprehension which is innocence itself: ‘I would your grace would take me with you. Whom means your grace?’ (lines 443-4).

The centrality of this scene's chief comic procedure to Shakespeare's conception of Falstaff is confirmed in Part 2, where the same pattern of accusation and response is repeated with slight variation. As in 1.2 of Part 1, Falstaff in 1.2 here is under attack, this time from the Lord Chief Justice, Hal's mentor-to-be; and once again he relies on a general air of self-righteousness together with the right fencing grace of counter-thrust. The attempted shaming and condemnation again constitutes the climax of the comic action and occurs in the same position as before—2.4 in most editions. Once again, too, the moralistic hubris of Hal and Poins and the presence of an eager audience maximize the effect of Sir John's responses to accusation. The charge of degeneracy, ‘Why, thou globe of sinful continents, what a life dost thou lead’, is cheekily deflated in one sentence (with a mock-contemptuous glance at Hal's disguise): ‘A better than thou: I am a gentleman, thou art a drawer’ (lines 290-1). His answer to the more damaging accusation of slandering a prince—a crime for which, as Hal points out, the statutory punishment was the loss of both ears—involves a wily assumption of both childlike innocence and adult wisdom, its effectiveness being greatly enhanced by Hal's sneering expectation that it will be a mere repetition of the cocksure answer given after the Gad's Hill affair:

(to Prince Henry) Didst thou hear me [abusing you]?
Yea, and you knew me as you did when you ran away by Gad's Hill; you knew I was at your back, and spoke it on purpose to try my patience.
No, no, no, not so, I did not think thou wast within hearing.
I shall drive you, then, to confess the wilful abuse, and then I know how to handle you.
No abuse, Hal; o'mine honour, no abuse.
Not? To dispraise me, and call me ‘pantler’ and ‘bread-chipper’, and I know not what?
No abuse, Hal.
No abuse?
No abuse, Ned, i'th'world, honest Ned, none … I dispraised him before the wicked that the wicked might not fall in love with him; (to Prince Henry) in which doing I have done the part of a careful friend and a true subject, and thy father is to give me thanks for it. No abuse, Hal; none, Ned, none.


Sir John's puritanism—dissociating himself from ‘the wicked’—is not forgotten as he adroitly converts his sin to virtue.

In the end, of course, Falstaff's chief accuser, now the supreme figure of authority, condemns and passes sentence upon him. But there is a suggestion that he succeeds in doing so, not because he wins the argument, but because he prudently denies the accused the right of response. The new king's ‘Reply not to me with a fool-born jest’ (5.5.554) recalls what the holy doctors said in desperation when overcome by the sardonic fluency of the first Sir John: ‘[S]top his mouth.’

We are so familiar with Falstaff that it is difficult to imagine him other than he is. And yet if we had been in at the start of his creation and knew that Shakespeare intended to debunk the godly-Protestant view of Prince Henry's executed friend, our best guess would have been that he would caricature Oldcastle's biblical babbling (as Thomas Hoccleve conceived it in 1415)18 and would present him as a Puritan hypocrite and a cowardly soldier;19 which he does. But we would not have anticipated Falstaff's characterization as a reprobate who habitually wrongfoots his interrogators and accusers with incomparable rejoinders, perfect answers. That dominant characteristic, I suggest, follows from the felicitous marriage of Shakespeare's parodic imagination and John Bale's conception of the first Oldcastle as an apostle of truth whose answers had such ‘influence of grace from above’ that all the cunning and malice of his accusers was brought to nought. What results then is not a simple piece of anti-Puritan satire but a form of comedy which turns a Puritan butt into an exceptionally appealing character with a quicksilver mind and tongue.


  1. For a thorough consideration of the evidence in favour of Shakespeare's satiric intention, see Gary Taylor, ‘The Fortunes of Oldcastle’, Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), pp. 85-100. See also E. A. J. Honigmann, ‘Sir John Oldcastle: Shakespeare's Martyr’, in ‘Fanned and Winnowed Opinions’: Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins (London and New York, 1987), pp. 118-32; Kristen Poole, ‘Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 46 (1995), 47-95.

  2. ‘Sir John Oldcastle: Shakespeare's Martyr’, p. 126.

  3. For James and Fuller, see David Bevington, ed. Henry IV, Part 1 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 6-8; for Speed, see S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: a Compact Documentary Life (Oxford, 1977), p. 193.

  4. The New Variorum Henry the Fourth Part I, ed. Samuel Burdett Hemingway (Philadelphia and London, 1936), p. 403.

  5. Variorum, Part I, p. 421.

  6. Variorum, Part I, p. 431.

  7. Variorum, Part I, p. 441.

  8. An undated reprint was issued in London a few years later. This is contained in Bale's Select Works, ed. Henry Christmas, Parker Society Publications (Cambridge, 1849). My references are to this edition.

  9. It is, however, detectable in Foxe; so it is just possible that Shakespeare acquired it indirectly from Foxe without having read Bale's original version.

  10. STC 24045. It may have been edited by William Tyndale. No pagination.

  11. Arundel's Magnus Processus is contained in the Fasciculi Zizaniorum Magistri Johannis Wycliff cum tritico, the only contemporaneous account of the rise of the Lollards. The Fasciculi is reprinted as vol. 5 of the Rolls Series, ed. W. W. Shirley (London, 1858). Bale and Foxe ascribe the authorship of this collection to Thomas Netter of Walden, a leading opponent of the Lollards.

  12. There is no hint of any of this in The examinacion. But Bale was clearly inspired by the defiance with which in this account Cobham responds to his inquisitors, and owes to it some of the more impressive retorts which he imputes to his hero.

  13. This legend in particular shows Bale's closeness to hagiographical tradition. Katherine is compared to the apostles armed with Christ's assurance that they should have no anxiety as to what they must say when brought before kings and princes; such indeed is the power of God's grace in her responses to the pagan philosophers who challenge her faith that they are filled with awe and completely overcome (The Life of St Katherine … with its Latin Original, ed. E. Einenkel, Early English Texts Society, No. 80 [London, 1884]), pp. 31, 58, 61-2; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legende, trans. William Caxton [1493], sigs. y3v-7). As Hippolyte Delehaye has shown, late-classical rhetoric played an important part in the growth of the martyr legend; he regards Katherine's debate with the pagan philosophers as an ingenious amplification of the standard interrogation of the martyr: see Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires (Brussels, 1921), p. 169. Having been a Carmelite friar, Bale was steeped in hagiography and had in fact compiled his own collection of saints' lives for the benefit of his fellow Carmelites. See Leslie P. Fairfield, John Bale: Mythmaker for the English Reformation (West Lafayette, Indiana, 1976), pp. 21-7.

  14. In neither the Examinacion nor the Magnus Processus is there any warrant for Bale's repeated emphasis on the helpless confusion to which the inquisitors are reduced by Cobham's answers. This is a hagiographical motif which appealed to his dramatic instinct.

  15. This answer is taken from the Examinacion. The ‘most cheerful countenance’ is Bale's characteristic addition, as is the following reference to the Archbishop's embarrassment. The original answer possibly marks the point at which Bale conceived the idea for his own version of Oldcastle's ‘history’.

  16. The confession is in the Examinacion, but the appeal to an audience is a typical example of Bale's theatrical heightening.

  17. Cf. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528), trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (1561) (London: Dent, 1966), p. 150: ‘But among other merry sayings, they have a verie good grace, that arise when a man at nipping talke of his fellow, taketh the verie same words in the self same sense, and returneth them backe again, pricking him with his owne weapon’. Castiglione, it should be noted, likens perfect grace in speech and behaviour to divine grace: it is mysterious, not acquired by effort, ‘the gift of nature and the heavens’ (32, 44).

  18. ‘Hit is unkyndly for a knight / That shuld a kynges castel kepe, / To bable the Bibel day and night’ (Ballade). Cited in Wilhelm von Baeske, Oldcastle-Falstaff in der englischen Literatur bis zu Shakespeare (Palaestra, 1), p. 34.

  19. Bale notes as a typical Romish slander Polydore Vergil's assertion in his Anglica Historica that Oldcastle ‘cowardly fled’ when he and other rebels were confronted by the King in person (A Brief Chronicle, p. 10).

Ben Brantley (review date 2 October 2003)

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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare's Prince Hal, Told without Emotion.” New York Times (2 October 2003): E5.

[In the following review, Brantley censures Richard Maxwell's Next Wave Festival production of Henry IV, Part 1, asserting that its intentional avant-garde affectlessness rendered the play “relentlessly, numbingly flat” and exposed the amateurishness of the cast.]

Falstaff's belly is, as usual, certifiably round, though worn lower on the midriff than usual, suggesting a woman in the last weeks of pregnancy. Everything else in Richard Maxwell's interpretation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One—the opening production in this year's Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—is relentlessly, numbingly flat.

There are, first of all, the wanly painted backdrops, which bring to mind a King Arthur coloring book and unscroll above a very provisional-looking rectangular stage of raw wood. Then there are the performers, who are only marginally closer to three dimensions.

Dressed in tatty medieval-style clothes that might have been acquired at a costume-rental closing sale, they stand limply, arms pasted to their sides, like thin-cut paper dolls waiting to be blown into movement. When they speak, the words (still Shakespeare's, not Mr. Maxwell's) have all the flesh and blood of printer's ink. Music, emotion and evidence of individual personality have been deliberately ironed out.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Mr. Maxwell, a writer and director who has emerged in recent years as one of the few compellingly original new voices in American experimental theater. Affectlessness is the bedrock of Mr. Maxwell's sensibility, which he has deployed in a mesmerizing series of short plays in which all the world seems to be less a stage than a catatonic ward.

Droning out lines that have the authentic banality of overheard casual conversation, Mr. Maxwell's characters have become bywords among downtown theater cognoscenti for burned-out American lives. So when it was announced that Mr. Maxwell would be trying his hand at the full-bodied characters of Shakespeare—he has admitted he knew little of him—it sounded deliciously inappropriate. Could this be one of those mismatches made in heaven, in which antithetical styles illuminate previously unseen things in each other?

It would be gratifying to say that the many people who walked out on Mr. Maxwell's Henry when it opened on Tuesday night were simply short-sighted philistines, like the concertgoers who rioted at The Rite of Spring in 1913. But in fact, the audience members at the Harvey Theater of the Academy, where Henry runs through Saturday, were showing good sense, if not good manners.

For Mr. Maxwell's staging—which runs for two intermissionless hours and is dominated by nonprofessional actors—is only an arched eyebrow away from your usual low-tier amateur theatricals. On that level, it can be intermittently touching, especially when some of the less seasoned performers seem to emanate a giddy disbelief that they're even up there talking that strange talk.

There is a welcome spark of revelation in the scene from the third act in which an ill-assorted group of rebellious noblemen, played here by performers of different ethnic backgrounds, become a dizzying study in mutual incomprehension.

And as Falstaff, Gary Wilmes, who has worked frequently with Mr. Maxwell, amusingly highlights a slacker's philosophy of casualness. He cannily makes the Maxwell approach work for the character. Otherwise, with the exception of Brian Mendes as a glowering Hotspur, the cast members merge into a largely undifferentiated blur.

I find that whenever I attend a production of Shakespeare, even of a play I've seen a dozen times, I hear something that I've never heard before. That was true even with this Henry, in which, for some reason, the catalogues of comic insults emerge in clear, cadenced relief.

For the most part, though, I had that glazed feeling that I used to get in high school when bored or stoned students would be made to stand up and read passages from Hamlet or Twelfth Night against their will.

Audience members unacquainted with Mr. Maxwell's previous work may conclude he is yet another naked emperor of the avant-garde. Such conclusions are woefully wrong. They are also, under the circumstances, perfectly understandable.

Further Reading

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Barker, Roberta. “Tragical-Comical-Historical Hotspur.” Shakespeare Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2003): 288-306.

Reevaluates the character of Hotspur, arguing that while modern productions of Henry IV, Part 1 generally portray him as either a comic foil to Prince Hal or a feudal holdover, playgoers in earlier centuries would have seen him as a more complete character, who moves “from tragic to comic to historical modes in order to accommodate shifting theatrical conditions and shifting constructions of heroism.”

Fike, Matthew. “Dives and Lazarus in The Henriad.Renascence 55, no. 4 (summer 2003): 279-91.

Assesses Jesus's parable of Dives and Lazarus in relation to Falstaff, asserting that the fat knight is a dynamic character who possesses the negative, gluttonous characteristics of Dives and his brothers, but who also becomes a contrite Lazarus-figure when he is banished by Hal.

Hodgdon, Barbara, ed. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997, 419 p.

Provides the text of Henry IV, Part 1, along with extracts from early modern narratives, eyewitness accounts of performances, maps, and woodcut prints, in an effort to elucidate the cultural milieu that shaped Shakespeare's writing of the play.

Hoegberg, David E. “Master Harold and the Bard: Education and Succession in Fugard and Shakespeare.” Comparative Drama 29, no. 4 (winter 1995-96): 415-35.

Perceives several thematic and ideological similarities between Athol Fugard's Master Harold … and the Boys (1982) and Shakespeare's Henry IV plays.

Kastan, David Scott, ed. Introduction to King Henry IV Part 1, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-132. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2002.

Presents a comprehensive survey of the principal themes, structure, characters, and stage history of Henry IV, Part 1.

Maguire, Laurie E. “Political Life: Shakespeare and Government.” In Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays, pp. 88-139. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Examines the tension between the private and public lives of the characters who maneuver for political supremacy in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, including Hotspur, Prince Hal, and King Henry.

Toliver, Harold E. “Falstaff, the Prince, and the History Play.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (winter 1965): 63-80.

Maintains that Shakespeare sought to transform the neoclassical history play by creating psychologically complex characters such as Falstaff and Prince Hal in order “to engage more profoundly the raw stuff of the human psyche and its institutions and rituals imitated in the form.”

Weis, René, ed. Introduction to Henry IV, Part 2, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-112. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Provides a comprehensive overview of Henry IV, Part 2, including an analysis of the play's composition date, sources, characters, major themes, structure, language, and performance history.


Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (Vol. 80)


History-Making in the Henriad