William Shakespeare Deception in Shakespeare's Plays - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Deception in Shakespeare's Plays

Deception as an element in Shakespeare's plays takes a variety of forms. For many of Shakespeare's male protagonists, the fear of deception by their lovers consumes them, often to an irrational degree. Other characters deceive themselves, ultimately believing they are something they are not. Although deception is frequently manifested through some type of physical disguise, it is more often conveyed through language. While Shakespeare's characters strive to deceive each other through disingenuous dialogue, Shakespeare himself attempts to deceive his audience and readers through the language and structure of his plays.

In four plays—Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale—Shirley Nelson Garner (1985) has explored the male protagonists' unreasonable fear of being deceived by their wives and lovers. Garner observes a pattern in which the man, at the faintest hint of impropriety, begins to suspect his innocent lover of infidelity. As his convictions grow, he then schemes to hurt or humiliate the woman. After she is dead or thought to be dead, the grief-stricken man repents. Garner has contended that this pattern suggests a psychic need among men to be betrayed, noting that as the men sever their ties with their lovers and women in general, they reaffirm their bonds with other men. According to Garner, these plays dramatize a male fantasy in which a woman will always forgive the man no matter how brutishly he has behaved, while reflecting a male fear of heterosexual relationships.

Another form of deception in Shakespeare's plays is the characters' ability to deceive themselves. Hugh Dickinson (1961) has demonstrated the manner in which King Henry VI deceives himself and others into believing he is a capable ruler. Cyrus Hoy (1962) has argued that the action of Love's Labour's Lost is dedicated to the "undeceiving of the self-deceived," and that like many of Shakespeare's comedies, the play progresses from an emphasis on the artificial to the natural, proceeding to the final objective of self-knowledge. Similarly, Barbara L. Parker (1970) has observed a thematic focus on illusion, delusion, and self-deception in Macbeth. The self-deception found in Twelfth Night takes on an ironic twist, according to Carl Dennis (1973), who has noted that the characters that set out to deceive through the use of physical disguises (Viola and Feste) are actually the least likely characters to practice self-deception. Yet Orsino and Olivia—posturing as the love-struck suitor and long-grieving sister—both indulge their vanity in the roles they assume and consequently deceive themselves throughout the play.

While these characters succeed in deceiving themselves, characters in other plays manipulate language in order to deceive others. James L. Calderwood (1973) has studied Falstaff's "counterfeiting" nature in Henry IV, observing that it seems as much directed at the audience as it is at the other characters in the play. Calderwood has suggested that Falstaff highlights the lie that forms the basis of theatrical illusion, a lie that is necessary for drama to be successful. Jean MacIntyre (1982) has discussed how the deceptions of Kent and Edgar in King Lear function in much the same way as Falstaff's doublespeak. MacIntyre has demonstrated that while the lies told by Kent and Edgar do in fact deceive Lear and Gloucester, these deceptions also aid Lear and Gloucester in understanding and accepting their actions and what they have become. In this way, according to MacIntyre, Shakespeare defends his art. Russ McDonald (1989) has examined how the characters in Richard III manipulate language, and has contended that Shakespeare recognized the dubious nature of language and that perhaps he doubted or feared it as the medium in which his art was rooted.

Critics also have explored the ways in which Shakespeare used the language and structure of his plays to deceive his audience or readers. Trevor McNeely (1989) has examined Othello as rhetorical allegory, maintaining that Shakespeare strove to use rhetoric to dupe his audience into accepting the plot and characters as plausible rather than as wholly absurd, just as Iago deceives Othello into accepting the plausibility of Desdemona's infidelity. Likewise, Michèle Willems (1990) has suggested that Shakespeare encouraged a misreading of Henry IV as a morality play in which Shakespeare appears to accept a providential view of history and the Tudor myth. In fact, Willems has argued, the play presents Prince Hal not as the Prodigal son, but as a politician who completely sacrifices his private feelings to his public image. In this way, Willems has contended, Shakespeare questions the traditional politics of the contemporary court as well as the personal void which results from the pursuit of Machiavellian political values. According to Willems, if Shakespeare had dealt directly with such political issues, the play may have been viewed as too subversive.

The prevalence of deception in Shakespeare's plays seems to stem as much from the deceptive tendencies in human nature as it does from Shakespeare's love affair with the theater and its language. His plays—themselves a deception in the sense that they are fictions, or theatrical illusions—reveal a fascination with the power of language to not only deceive, but to inspire and to reveal truth and self-knowledge.

The Language Of Deception

(Shakespearean Criticism)

James L. Calderwood (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Henry IV: Art's Gilded Lie," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 131-44.

[In the following essay, Calderwood studies the way in which Falstaff's language in 1 Henry IV seems to refer as much to the "counterfeiting" or deception practiced by actors as it does to his own actions within the play.]

After the collapse of Richard II's divinely certified symbolism, Shakespeare begins Henry IV with a fallen language whose verbal emblem is the lie and whose human form is Falstaff, the corporealized lie. Falstaff, however, is by no means the only dealer in deception. As an interior playwright, Hal begins his drama of emergent royalty—which might be titled "The Prodigal Prince and the Reformed King"—with a lie, a deliberately beclouded identity by means of which he will "falsify men's hopes." Surrounded by counterfeit kings, he will counterfeit unkingliness himself so that in a belated recognition scene his suddenly revealed royalty will shine forth the more goodly to his English audience. Thus an unprincely lie will beget a most kingly truth. The effectiveness of Hal's strategy is suggested in the deathbed scene of 2 Henry IV when the lie (his "theft" of the crown, which makes him falsely appear both a callous son and a usurping prince) is made to yield the truth that he is both a loving son and a "true inheritor." Without the possibility of the lie there can be no truth, no new meanings, no creativity. Indeed, without the lie, drama is impossible.

The truth of this is particularly evident at the end of 1 Henry IV when Hal has just defeated Percy and thereby confirmed the validity of his claims to royalty. It is curious that precisely at this point, when he has proved himself a true prince among a field of counterfeit kings, Hal should again have recourse to the lie. For at this point he encounters a miraculously resurrected Falstaff carrying Percy on his final swaybacked ride, and Falstaff is quick to enter his own claim—if not to kingship, at least to knightly valor: "I grant you I was down and out of breath, and so was he. But we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so . . ." (v.iv.149-52). Whether believed or not, his lie calls forth another from Hal: "For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have" (161-62).1 To see what Hal's ornamenting lie entails let us go back a bit and observe Falstaff in the heat and heroism of battle.

In the middle of this scene (v.iv) Hal and Hotspur, having exchanged precombat courtesies, begin their swordplay. Falstaff then enters and dances fiercely about the far fringes of the fray crying "Well said, Hal! To it, Hal! Nay, you shall find no boy's play here, I can tell you" (75-76). It is a typical Falstaff remark, with the "you" being sufficiently vague to include the audience as well as the combatants. From our standpoint as audience, his denial raises what might otherwise have been an unconsidered possibility. For a disconcerting moment or two we may realize that "boy's play" is precisely what we shall find, are finding, here—mock combat, bated swords, the carefully rehearsed thrust and riposte, and Hotspur maneuvering surreptitiously to let Hal stab him in the vest pocket where a small bladder of pig's blood is concealed to make the groundlings grunt and the ladies squeal. Boy's play is as prominent here as a bit later when Douglas rushes on stage to pursue that great bladder of blood and sherris, the squealing Falstaff, who saws the air with his sword while hunting a comfortable place to collapse in mortal agony.

Still, as Hal and Hotspur fight expertly on, our imaginations are no doubt reabsorbed by the realities of fiction—by Hotspur's eloquent dying, surely, and Hal's graceful obsequy. If we have not seen the play before, we will continue to believe in the dramatic illusion as the bodies of Hotspur and Falstaff, equally dead to the best of our knowledge, lie side by side on stage. But if so, our belief is abruptly punctured when Falstaff pops up to announce that he has been only counterfeiting death:

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.


Our uneasy suspicion that it is less the character Falstaff who speaks here than the actor who plays that character (since it is actors, not characters, who make a living by counterfeiting—by feigning to die, to love, to fight, to live at all) gains in conviction when Falstaff, glancing with mock nervousness at the "dead" body of Hotspur, says, "'Zounds, I am afraid of this gunpowder Percy though he be dead. How if he should counterfeit too and rise? . . . Why may not he rise as well as I?" (122-28). Why indeed? As Sigurd Burckhardt has said, "Not only may Hotspur rise but he will—as soon as the scene is ended and his 'body' has been lugged off the stage."2

Before Falstaff lugs off the body, however, he decides to make Percy "sure" by stabbing him again—"Yea, and I'll swear I killed him," he says (126-27). It seems a safe enough plan, what with a dead Hotspur and a stage empty of witnesses. "Nothing confutes me but eyes," he says owlishly, "and nobody sees me" (128-29). Again such a remark must give us pause. Given the sequence of metadramatic ironies already insinuated upon us—from "boy's play" to counterfeitings of life and death—Falstaff's statement here can hardly be kept tidily within the dramatic illusion of life. Like Falstaff himself, it bulges out of the realistic frame of fiction, calling attention to its own excess. Indeed, as he delivers the remark Falstaff must peer about the empty stage, where nobody does observe him, and then turn and direct at his audience, at a whole theater of eyewitnesses, an enormous conspiratorial wink. That this was in fact how the line was originally delivered—by Will Kempe or perhaps John Heminge—is suggested by some historical evidence of recent discovery. Since it was not thought fit to print this evidence as part of the textual argument here, it has been relegated to an Appendix, which the reader may wish at a later time to consult. The present question, innocuously raised and then gradually pressed before us by this scene, is what to make of all this puzzling Falstaffian doubletalk.


Burckhardt has argued that Falstaff rises from death as a symbol of disorder, a character who "outgrew his preassigned measure and function" as foil to Hotspur. In refusing to remain conveniently dead he destroys dialectical symmetry—the notion that the conflict between Hotspur thesis and Falstaff antithesis yields the Prince Hal synthesis—and the symmetry between off-stage real life and on-stage illusions of life (or in this case illusions of death).3 It seems to me that when Hal stands over the bodies of Hotspur and Falstaff the dialectical point is made whether Falstaff rises or not. But however it may be with dialectics, the symmetry Falstaff disturbs most significantly is not that obtaining between life and drama but that between drama in its two aspects, as mimesis of life (in this case, of English historical life) and as literary-theatrical artifice. In the former category we would refer to fiction, illusion, nature (what the illusion is of), realism, history; in the latter category, artificiality, theatricality, art, contrivance, entertainment.

It is probably true, as Burckhardt (and before him Brooks and Heilman4) suggested, that Falstaff outgrew his intended role and that in some degree he threatens the play itself just as, within the play, he threatens with comic laughter the high gravity of Henry's kingship and Hotspur's values. Thus in the present scene he has one foot inside the fiction of English history and the other outside it, turned to the audience—one foot planted in Shrewsbury soil and the other on the boards of the Theatre in Shoreditch. And why indeed shouldn't he? Hotspur accepts the reality of the fictional world of the play as wholeheartedly and (Falstaff would add) half-wittedly as he accepts, within that world, the pulsing reality of honor, truth, courage, glory. He can no more renounce his bond to fiction and confess that history is not history but theatrical illusion than he can interrupt his fight with Hal in mid-thrust and announce that it is not genuinely mortal combat but, as Falstaff slyly tells us, "boy's play." For history, after all, is Hotspur's proper domain. It is where Shakespeare discovered him, it is what he is designed to help recreate for the audience.

But Falstaff, whose origin is neither England's actual past nor Holinshed's pages, owes history nothing—not even if his name was once Oldcastle, "for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man" (2 Henry IV, Epilogue). Falstaff's origins are theatrical and literary: the Vice of morality tradition, the miles gloriosus and witty parasite of Plautine comedy, the clown-fool-butt-sponger-mocker-glutton of a thousand plays from Aristophanes to the anonymous author of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. From Falstaff's extra-historical perspective, Hotspur, Hal, Henry IV, Shrewsbury, and England herself are as insubstantial as Glendower's oft-called spirits from the vasty deep. Either divorced from the historical plot of usurpation and rebellion, or repudiating it with laughter, Falstaff is also divorced from the play as an illusion of historical life. His debts are entirely to the play as play, not as mimesis of history—to the Shakespearean imagination that gave him life and to the audience for whose enjoyment he was given life.

At this point it would appear that Shakespeare conceives of these two dimensions of drama—mimesis and theatrics—as antagonistic, each devoted to its own brand of truth, its own species of reality or unreality. When Falstaff clambers up from death and declares that he lied in lying down, he is as he says the "true and perfect image of life indeed"—the life of the ever-living actor—and it is Percy, who continues to counterfeit death, who is the liar. But by refusing to stop counterfeiting, despite Falstaff's chiding, Percy remains true to his species of reality, to drama as simulated life. From this standpoint it is he who is the "true and perfect image of life"—the life of the character who imitates life, or death.

Normally, however, since this is essentially a realistic play, unlike Henry V, Falstaff is obliged to operate in Percy's nontheatrical domain, and in this world of historical life Falstaff becomes the father of lies and Percy the admired man of honor. Still, Falstaff does not operate wholly in this world—in it perhaps but not fully of it. If he cannot take the doings of kings and rebels seriously, neither can he take the whole realm of historical life, the mimetic dimension of the play, seriously. As a result he is endowed with the detachment essential to humor. From a mimetic standpoint he is a funny man, compounded of lies and japes. But he transcends and subverts mimetic reality. His costume is too flamboyant, his grease paint too obvious, his lies too transparent. Everyone he meets within the play he transforms immediately into an audience, most blatantly in II.iv where he exhibits also his penchant for speaking over or through these interior audiences to Shakespeare's audience. Refusing to remain a character within and responsive to the world of historical life, he keeps asserting his "real" identity as a performer, imposing theatricality on history—hence his playing the fool and jester to Hal (or anyone), his comic lies designed not to persuade but to entertain (e.g., the men in buckram and in kendal green), his search for roles in which to display his histrionic genius, his constant readiness for drama ("What, shall we be merry? Shall we have a play extempore?"). In these ways he momentarily extricates himself from the illusion of historical reality. But Shakespeare grants him the opportunity to break quite free from history and frolic in his native realm of theatrical artifice only once, when he lets him rise up from what for him (and us) would be a sorry death indeed: the cessation of stage life and a final thwarting of his need not merely to act (which is what the "dead" Hotspur is doing) but to act consciously, visibly, even ostentatiously.


In V.iv, with Falstaff clowning around in the realm of theater and taunting Hotspur for his stiff adherence to historical reality—with Falstaff proclaiming in effect that the emperor of mimetic drama has no clothes on—the two dimensions of Henry IV are in open antagonism, threatening to split the play irrevocably. Who knows, an aroused Falstaff might walk right on out of the play and into the Admiral's Company, leaving behind a tawdry set of stage props and costumes, an embarrassed cast, and an audience plunged into bewilderment, an "alienation effect" of large proportions. But Falstaff, as we have seen, confines his rebelliousness for the moment at least to a series of mocking double entendres, not to mention (as the Appendix records) a great wink and a long aside. However, he is not yet finished. With Hotspur aloft he rocks over to the reentering Prince John and Hal and dumps his cargo. At his unexpected reappearance Hal suffers something of an alienation effect himself. "I saw him dead," he tells John, "Breathless and bleeding on the ground. Art thou alive? / Or is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?" (136-38).

Hal speaks here in character, so it seems, from within the fiction. From our confused perspective, however, with Falstaff's exposures—in fact double exposures—before us, the line between mimesis and artifice, and between character and actor, may well seem indistinct. Character may address character well enough ("Art thou alive?") but we may also hear undertones of actor addressing actor. What does Hal's "fantasy" mean in this shifting context, or his "Thou art not what thou seem'st" (140)? Is the actor Will Kempe emerging from the character Falstaff? Something entirely different rather: Falstaff may expand to include Will Kempe. Falstaff is a character whose role is to play the actor. If Kempe may play Falstaff, may not Falstaff play Kempe? Not the historical Kempe, of course, but Kempe as the generic actor.

However we register the ambiguities, Hal attempts to remain—with Percy, dumped "dead" at his feet—inside the historical fiction. The result, from Falstaff's liberated perspective, is that Hal lies twice in one sentence, when he says, "Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead" (147). "Didst thou?" Falstaff cries, miming appeals to heaven:

Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath, and so was he. But we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valour bear the sin upon their own heads. I'll take it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the thigh.


The double exposure of character and actor, of realistic life and theatrical art, remains in ambiguous force in this speech. In terms of dramatic "life" the character Falstaff is typically capitalizing on circumstance, improvising his way towards his only notion of nobility: "I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you" (145-46). From the standpoint of dramatic "art" Falstaff, the character whose role is that of the actor, is threatening Hal and the play with exposure: "You know and I know that you didn't kill Hotspur any more than Douglas killed me. Of course I didn't kill him either, but I can claim as much as you, and lie a lot better. If Percy here weren't so deafened by his honor he'd stand up and prove us both liars. But he won't. So, my sweet young prince, we are at a standoff. Expose me as a liar and I'll expose you in return. And where's your fine play then?"

Percy, Falstaff has already exposed as a liar, but Percy, true to history, could not get up and deny it; he did die at Shrewsbury. Hal, however, has more latitude, which is to say a more flexible consciousness and a less radical devotion to honor. Though he belongs to the world of history, he has never achieved, nor quite attempted, Hotspur's leap of faith into the play as mimesis of life. If Falstaff has been entertaining audiences inside and outside the play, Hal has lent his assistance willingly. It is he who directs the "exposure" of Falstaff in the Boar's Head Tavern after Gadshill, setting the stage, supplying Falstaff with leading questions, acting as straight man. "What trick, what device, what starting-hole canst thou now find out to hide thee from this open and apparent shame?" (II.iv.289-92)—what more friendly leg up to a devastating reply could Falstaff desire? If Falstaff is delighted to exhibit his verbal dexterity at this point, Hal is no less delighted to exhibit Falstaff, like an animal trainer with a trick bear. And a little later in the scene Hal proves as ready to turn histrionic and play royal as Falstaff, though with his concluding "I do, I will" he is disposed to convert the play-acting from idle entertainment into a rehearsal of future history. That is appropriate too, because as a future king Hal knows very well that his business is to shape history, not to be shaped by it. To Hotspur history is a fixed and final reality to which he is irrevocably committed. He has given his word, as it were; he cannot alter his role. To Hal on the other hand history is a series of roles and staged events. He creates for himself the role of princely roisterer as a means of dramatizing to good advantage his conversion to the regal role of Henry the Fifth. Both as actor-dramatist of his own royal play, then, and as part-time sharer in Falstaff's theatrics, Hal knows perfectly well that the emperor of mimetic drama is without clothes.


The aesthetic fact which this scene revolves around is that all plays aspiring to the illusion of life are vulnerably naked unless their audiences clothe them from the wardrobe of imagination. Shakespeare's audience probably suspended disbelief as willingly as any other, transforming Will Kempe with a pillow stuffed beneath his doublet into Falstaff, a stage full of costumed actors playing soldier into the battle of Shrewsbury Field, and Shakespearean blank verse into the speech of living and dying men. So of course do we—a generation of playgoers raised on Pirandello, Brecht, Anouilh, Beckett, Pinter, and Genet—for the play will not work otherwise. We cannot be simultaneously conscious of actor and character, of theater and depicted life, of art and nature. We cannot simultaneously be involved in the immediate experience of the play and yet be detached from it, playgoer and critic at once, as though we could register Hamlet's feeling while deliberating on Gielgud's competence in the role, or take in the meaning of a soliloquy while parsing the lines.5 Yet that is the unhappy plight into which Falstaff's withdrawal from the fiction of history thrusts us. With the illusion of heroic life shattered, we are left confronting the trumpery of theater—costumes, actors, props, stage, words that we see issuing from a script instead of from men's mouths. Lord, Lord, how this theater is given to lying! So the truth-loving Falstaff tells us—to be echoed in latter days by Pirandello, Brecht, Ionesco, and many others. Perhaps Hal too would join in admitting art's shortcomings; but less distrustful of the imagination and the illusions it helps foster than a Brecht or an Ionesco, Hal accepts the practical necessity of the lie. For if the play is not to split down the middle, Falstaff must be made to abandon his theatrical indulgences and reenter the world of fiction.

So Hal abandons his claim to having killed Percy in return for Falstaff's abandoning his claim to purely theatrical life: "Come, bring your luggage nobly on your back. / For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have" (160-62). The bond is sealed as Falstaff hoists (and so acknowledges the "deadness" of?) the dead Percy onto his back and complacently accepts an ironic parting shot from Hal, who says to Prince John, "Come, brother, let us to the highest of the field, / To see what friends are living, who are dead" (164-65). Falstaff's final lines in the scene, and in the play, express his willingness to reform if the price is right: "I'll follow, as they say, for reward. He that rewards me, God reward him! If I do grow great, I'll grow less; for I'll purge and leave sack and live cleanly as a nobleman should do" (166-69). The price Hal has already paid is one that Percy would never countenance, a lie; but what is bought with Hal's lie is a restoration of the mode of dramatic reality to which Percy was so totally committed. Historical truth may be violated (though Holinshed does not say who killed Percy at Shrewsbury, it was certainly not Falstaff), but the mimesis of historical life is preserved. If theatrical illusion is a lie, it is a lie that must be countenanced, for there can be no theater without it.

It is highly fitting that Hal should mediate at this point between the claims of Hotspur mimesis and Falstaff theatrics because he has, as I've suggested, had a foot in each or a hand in both already—he whose origin is history but whose self-contrived drama of kingship relies on his playing off the character of the wastrel Hal against that of the reformed Henry V. In each dimension of the play Hal has served to unite or at least to mediate between Falstaff and Hotspur. Thus in Percy's world—in the play as realistic mimesis of historical life—the character Hal may be regarded as possessing the best features of the two mighty opposites. Or, so the variations have run, he may be seen as an Aristotelian golden mean between their excesses and defects, a Christian-Platonic ideal liberated from their imperfections, a happy commingling of the "humours" that flow singly or sluggishly in the others, a synthesis that transcends dialectical contraries, and so on.6 Whichever we choose, Hal is seen as standing somehow between or over Hotspur and Falstaff, as he literally does over their apparently dead bodies at Shrewsbury. Similarly in Falstaff's world—in the play as unrealistic work of theatrical art—it is Hal's victories at Gadshill and Shrewsbury, his capacity to move with ease between the Percy sphere of high history and the Falstaff sphere of high jinks, between the blank verse of the one and the colorful prose of the other, that stitch together the two plots of the play and thus impart to Henry IV an aesthetic, structural coherence to which drama as a mimesis of life is indifferent. Finally, since Hal's ultimate function in history is to reunite an England torn throughout his father's region by dissension, it is appropriate that his dramaturgical function at this point be to reunite a play that is itself splitting into antagonistic factions.

Before leaving the issue of Hal's fitness to mediate between Hotspur and Falstaff, let me glance at one more famous piece of evidence—the moment when he stands over the two bodies and takes verbal leave of each (v.iv. 87-110).

Fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved 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. This earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy
I should not make so dear a show of zeal.
But let my favours hide thy mangled face,
And, even in thy behalf, I'll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave,
But not remembered in thy epitaph.
[He spieth Falstaff on the ground.]
What, old acquaintance, could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
I could have better spared a better man.
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee
If I were much in love with vanity!
Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,
Though many dearer in this bloody fray.
Embowelled will I see thee by and by;
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie. [Exit.]

Here we have the crowning visual symbol—Hal standing over the two—of a relationship that has existed throughout the play, and it is a commonplace to observe that Hal's remarks characterize Hotspur as all spirit (89-90) and Falstaff as all flesh (102-03), each limited and partial while Hal combines both in the full human reality. What I would prefer to emphasize here is how the obsequies are stylistically geared not merely to the different natures of the two men but also to the different modes of dramatic reality in which they live, and now "die." In brief, Hal plays it straight with Hotspur, giving him a graceful send-off in keeping with the moving eloquence of Hotspur's dying words. Hotspur is dead; the style of Hal's obsequy confirms it—and we are safer trusting style than apparent facts in drama. Because Hal assumes Hotspur's mode of reality here, which means accepting his death, he can say "If thou wert sensible of courtesy / I should not make so dear a show of zeal" (v.iv.93-94). To be sure. But there on the other side of Hal lies a "dead" Falstaff, ears flared wide, who is "sensible of courtesy" (and discourtesy), a Falstaff who is gathering himself for a comic resurrection as soon as Hal turns his back. How, then, does Hal address him? Precisely as if he knew he were faking death. He delivers a brief speech full of ironic puns that hold out a "courtesy" with one hand and discourteously jerk it back again with the other: "better spared a better man . . . heavy miss of thee . . . so fat a deer . . . Though many dearer." He also introduces a closing phrase—"Embowelled will I see thee by and by"—that drops a verbal ladder into Falstaff's grave and invites him back into comic life: "Embowelled! If thou embowel me today, I'll give you leave to powder and eat me too tomorrow!" (111-13). And Hal ends with a pun on a crucial word: "Till then in blood by noble Percy lie" (110). This, when in a moment we will discover that the prostrate Falstaff has been "lying" in both senses all the while!

How to interpret this? Only in a very curious sense, I suppose, could we say that the character Hal "knows" that Falstaff is not dead and so speaks to him on his own theatrical level while on the other hand, knowing that Percy is not "really" dead either, he nevertheless accepts the Percy mode of illusion and addresses him realistically. I think we are justified in making somewhat similar claims about Falstaff and Hal later in this scene because the theatrical ironies from Falstaff's "counterfeiting" speech onward are too sustained, obvious, and logically consistent to ignore. But Hal's "If thou wert sensible of courtesy" is embedded in a realistic context and functions adequately there; and one could say the same of his punning speech over Falstaff—that its light chiding style suits the occasion because it suits the nature of their friendship and that by means of humorous understatement it suggests in Hal a depth of feeling that would have looked specious otherwise. Perhaps the most we would want to claim, then, is that Hal's speech reflects Shakespeare's desire not to make him look foolish, that the style and tone of the speech are conditioned not by Hal's but by Shakespeare's knowledge that the "dead" Falstaff remains fully "sensible of courtesy." That seems about right, unless we are troubled by the fact that every character's speeches are conditioned by the omniscience of the playwright. So whether we impute to Hal an awareness beyond that possible to a realistic character or not, the dramatic fact is that his lines to Hotspur and Falstaff register the differences between the two modes of death, the realistic and the theatrical, and mark Hal as the one character who can come to terms with both. He responds to Hotspur's death seriously and to Falstaff's lightly, precisely as he can make sport of Falstaff at Gadshill and kill Percy at Shrewsbury. This flexibility enables him not only to unite a divided England but to unite a temporarily divided Henry IV as well.


When Falstaff is lured back into the historical fiction it may appear that theatrical drama is sacrificed to mimetic drama. It is true that Falstaff surrenders his right, or license, to stand outside the fiction and mock its claims to truth. But what, after all, is Falstaff without the fictional life within the play? His domain is hardly that of real life; he cannot walk out of the Boar's Head Tavern and into the Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street. And so long as he is confined to the stage he cannot, however well-stocked with suety sustenance, survive for long without a play to feed on. Unless he hopes to initiate vaudeville,7 he and the humor he energizes must replenish themselves from the sideboards of historical life. This is surely part of the "reward" he will find within the play as he follows Hal and Prince John back to Shrewsbury and on to 2 Henry IV.

If Falstaff relinquishes the autonomous truth of theatrical art by reentering the fiction, Hal relinquishes the autonomous truth of historical life by supporting Falstaff's lie with one of his own. Neither dimension of drama, it is apparent, can claim autonomy in fact, though for a moment, caught in Falstaff's double exposure image, they seemed disastrously separable. If for much of this scene theater has obscured our view of dramatic life, it now dissolves into transparency again, seemingly disappearing but in fact becoming a lens through which we witness the mimesis of history. By a process of mutual sacrifice, art and nature are realigned and the life of the play restored.

But the price, we must remember, is a lie. Or, to put a kinder construction on it, perhaps we should say that the price is a liberalizing of the imagination, a setting aside of the standards of fact and reason that give rise to the notions of true and false in real life. From this standpoint the lie is the test of our poetic faith, our ticket to literature. Once inside the literary domain, we may discover that the lie has proven a road to truths otherwise denied the truth-loving mind. But for the moment we may feel that readmitting Falstaff to the play, especially on his own blackmailing terms, carries ominous suggestions for 2 Henry IV, toward which we may glance with one auspicious and one dropping eye.


I mentioned earlier that Falstaff's line as he prepares to stab the already dead Percy—"Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me"—must be delivered with a conspiratorial wink at the eye-witnessing audience. This has been somewhat confirmed by the recent discovery of a page of apparently Shakespearean dialogue, what appears to be a Falstaff "aside" to the audience, found among a set of rusty pie pans by the descendants of William Warburton's infamous cook. This speech, containing a metatheatrical interpretation of Falstaff, is rendered below but not, alas, in photographic reproduction, since the descendants of Warburton's cook, whose names I am not at liberty to disclose, are at present negotiating with several distinguished libraries in Great Britain and the United States concerning its acquisition. I am reliably informed by Colonel H. S. Adams, founder and president of the Rock Island Historical Society, that the Society hopes to be able to print facsimile copies of the speech in the Spring, 1973, issue of its journal, The Petrigrammaton (XXXIV).

Falstaff. . . . Why may not he rise as well as I? Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me. (Aside:) 'Nobody sees me'? Lord love us, him that can't see me must needs go about with a stick! And you, my master groundlings? Must I not see you either? Why, I know ye as well as him that made me. Why else, think you, this daily winking? Why else? A question to be asked, since it procures me nothing but a foolish hanging of your nether lips. A man could turn squinny-eyed with winking for all it profits him. Nay, but I suppose you will have reasons of me. "Come, Jack, give us reasons! Let us have reasons for your winking, sweet Jack." God send the actor a better audience; I must do all. Reasons, is it? I would to God my reasons were not so marvelous to the multitude as they are.

Well, I am not the man that can contain me in a wink. Reasons you shall have! Stand aside, nobility; let the ladies look to their ears. I am set down before you—mark my old ward!—to expand (think you that is possible?), to enlarge upon, to give some scope, look you, to this whoreson winking. If I speak less than truth, if I bate it so much as a tittle, then am I . . .

'Zounds! Is there to be sniggering among you? Is it come to that—detraction? Well, then go thy ways, old Jack! But one word, my masters . . . If I be doubted, if the door of belief is to be shut on old Jack, then where, pray, is your poor truth to be found? In this Percy here? This willow-waisted rebel that stamps me up and down and huffs and cries "Esperance!" and "Honor!" and "Tell truth and shame the devil!" and such a deal of brave syllables as would stuff a boar-pig? Lord, Lord, who is it, I ask you, has just now leapt to his feet like feathered Mercury to inform your worships (and to prevent the ladies among you from rash acts of self-injury) that he but counterfeited death? Was it Percy here? He who will vault between the sheets of belief like a bridegroom? who will swallow you up some eight or ten helpings of oaths at a sitting and cry for salad? he who pounced into the role of Percy as if 'twere a saddle? Not him, Lord love us! He's passed his oath to be Percy and Percy 'a shall be till doomsday. Doomsday? I lie, he'll play Percy for St. Peter himself, holding his heaving lungs and turning purple at the eyes before he'll admit to counterfeiting.

So this Percy may be true to his oath, but he's false to you; he keeps to his fiction. But I? Think you I can buckle myself inside a fiction? Not I, my lads, my womb undoes me. And my truth, my masters; I would not have you forget my truth, for there is the end of sweet Jack's falseness. Still, an if I did not grow so on the public, an I were not such a magnet to the masses, then might I keep me to my false part. But there, but there, you see how I am loved! It's your plump Jack that puts the pennies in the gatherer's box; it is plump Jack Falstaff that o'ercomes these lean lads in the affection of mankind; and so it is plump and, as I may say, great Jack Falstaff that expands him beyond this little girdle of illusions to remind you, lads and ladies all, that there's nought but illusion. Nought but trickery and lies, my lords; I would have you look to it!

And now, as I have o'erswollen my part somewhat, if I be not watched and dieted, as indeed I mean not to be, I may well burst from this pod of fancy entire—there's no containing your sweet virtue. Then shall I walk before this piglet of a play like a sow that hath o'erwhelmed all of her litter but one.

Naturally it is gratifying to be able to call upon textual evidence of this newly discovered sort to lend substance to critical claims that might otherwise seem mere surmise to the faithless. But in point of fact Falstaff's "aside" only makes explicit what was already implicit in the unamended Shakespearean text, for which reason it was not thought necessary to make the speech an integral part of the argument of the foregoing paper.


1 The text I am using is that of William A. Neilson and Charles J. Hill in their The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1942).

2 Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), p. 147. Though my interpretation of Falstaff's rising, and of this scene in general, goes a different route from Burckhardt's, his are the seminal remarks and insights to which I am most indebted.

3 Burckhardt, pp. 146-49.

4 Cleanth Brooks and Robert B. Heilman, Understanding Drama (New York, 1948), pp. 376-77.

5 Northrop Frye has some pertinent remarks on the discreteness of literary criticism and the direct experience of literature in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. 27-28.

6 See for example: William B. Hunter, "Prince Hal,His Struggle for Moral Perfection," South Atlantic Quarterly, 50 (1951), 86-95, for the Aristotelian mean; J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (New York, 1944), for a morality play view with Christian-Platonic overtones; U. C. Knoepflmacher, "The Humors as Symbolic Nucleus in Henry IV, Part I," College English, 24 (1963), 497-501, for the commingling of humors in Hal; and Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance (New York, 1950), 598-605, for an Aristotelian and Platonic view of Hal in terms of the concept of honor.

7 After writing this I ran across some perceptive remarks about the theatricality of Falstaff by Arthur Sewell in Character and Society in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1951): "Falstaff is aware of his audience, on and off the stage, and the comic artistry is part of the comic character. His life within the play—the only life he has—is a sustained vaudeville turn. The audience is necessary to his being" (34). The notion of vaudeville is good insofar as it distinguishes Falstaff from the other characters, those fully devoted to the play as realistic illusion of life, but it is not so good if it suggests that his humor is somehow independent from this dimension of the play. In 2 Henry IV Falstaff says, "I am not only witty in myself but the cause that wit is in other men" (I.ii.11-12). But the reverse is quite as true, that his wittiness and especially his burlesque humor are made possible by the other characters who are playing their roles straight—Hotspur, Henry IV, Hal at times, Mistress Quickly, the Lord Chief Justice, Justice Shallow, etc.

Eugene P. Nassar has some excellent remarks about the way in which Shakespearean characters can slip out of their realistic roles in what Nassar calls the "core drama" and deliver lines conditioned by Shakespeare's artistic or theatrical intentions—see Nassar's chapter "Shakespeare's Games with His Audience" in The Rape of Cinderella (Bloomington, Ind., and London, 1970), pp. 100-19.

Jean MacIntyre (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Truth, Lies, and Poesie in King Lear;' in Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, Vol. VI, No. 1, 1982, pp. 34-45.

[In the essay below, MacIntyre examines the deceptions practiced by Kent and Edgar in King Lear as fictions that allow Lear and Gloucester to comprehend and accept their own misdeeds and identities. MacIntyre argues that the play demonstrates the usefulness of fiction, or poesy, and represents in some ways Shakespeare's defense of his work.]

At the beginning of his tragedy, King Lear requires each of his daughters to "speak" her love for him, promising the most opulent share of the kingdom to her who "doth love us most."1 In answer he gets the well-known rhetoric of Goneril ("I love you more than words can wield the matter") and of Regan ("I am alone felicitate / In your dear highness' love"). Then, expecting yet more, he gets Cordelia's "I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more, nor less." Lear bids her, "mend your speech a little," but when she amplifies to "I . . . obey you, love you, and most honour you . . . [But] sure I shall never marry like my sisters / To love my father all," Lear rejects her "truth": "Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her." When Kent intervenes—"Be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad . . . To plainness honour's bound / When majesty falls to folly"2—the angry king banishes him with a curse, and turns to further reward those whose words have pleased him.

Goneril's and Regan's hyperbole here, and Edmund's fabrication about Edgar in the next scene, are devised to flatter a known weakness: Lear's desire for adulation, Gloucester's physical timidity. The eager faith both old men give to verbal manipulation will cause all the suffering they will endure themselves and bring on others. Good counsellors tell them to prefer plain truth. Long before their deaths they learn the folly of their trust in falsehoods. Yet, strangely, much of the good that befalls them itself is built upon falsehoods by characters who intend to benefit them. Kent disguises himself as a servant and becomes the fellow of the Fool. Edgar successively adopts the roles of madman, poor stranger, peasant, and nameless knight.3 These disguises depend upon carefully constructed fictions: Kent farcically exaggerates his own personality, Edgar obliterates his ("Edgar I nothing am") and creates wholly new identities. Within his disguises of person, Edgar fabricates fictions such as the famous Dover Cliff speech; yet, because the falsehoods of Kent and Edgar are benevolent, even so morally sensitive a critic as Johnson does not remark that their deceptions exceed those of the play's villains, who if anything overdo plain speaking once they come to power. The relationship between telling the truth, telling lies, and inventing fictions—the "poesy" of Kent and Edgar—shapes the play's most important actions. This relationship parallels the 16th century's awareness that the need to persuade may conflict with the need to tell the truth, an awareness most important in the justification of poesy (the creation of fictions) against charges that to make them is to lie.

Truth, of course, means that what is affirmed states what is. Renaissance writers commonly assume that the truth will displease:

. . . the truth plainly setteth downe the matter as it is indeed, albeit the event thereof be not verie pleasant.4

. . . sometimes a man must not speake all that he knoweth, for if he do, he is like to find small favour, although he haue just cause to speake, and may with reason declare his mynd at large.5

As Bacon observes,

. . . Truth is a naked, and open day light, that doth not shew, the Masques, and Mummeries, and Triumphs of the world, halfe so Stately, and daintily, as Candlelight.6

Unlike truth, Bacon continues, falsehood has to be pleasing: "A mixture of a Lie doth ever add Pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of Mens Mindes, Vaine Opinions, Flattering Hopes, False valuations, Imaginations as one would, and the like; but it would leave the Minds of a Number of Men, poore shrunken Things, full of Melancholy, and Indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?" Men even love lies from "a naturall, though corrupt Loue, of the Lie it selfe," even when the lie gives neither pleasure nor advantage.7 When the person lied to is powerful,the falsehood told to please him endangers the whole state; Erasmus devotes a chapter in The Education of a Christian Prince to the evil of flattering a ruler and proposes death as the penalty.8 His disciple Sir Thomas Elyot amplifies this chapter in The Governour, insisting on putting flatterers "openly to tortures . . . in reason how much more pain [than forgers and coiners] (if there were any greater pain than death) were he worthy to suffer, that with false adulation doth corrupt and adulterate the gentle and virtuous nature of a nobleman."9 Shakespeare uses the words "lie" and "flatter" almost interchangeably: "Therefore I lie with her and she with me / And in our thoughts by lies we flattered be." A large class of villains are lying flatterers—the morality Vices, Proteus, Parolles, Iago, and the Witches of Macbeth, Heywood's Wendoll, Jonson's Volpone, Milton's Satan, and Bunyan's Worldly-Wiseman. King Lear abounds in them—Goneril, Regan, Burgundy, Oswald, Edmund—all exemplifying the danger to a prince that Erasmus worried over, especially if the prince is a child or an old man, who "by natural inclination . . . [take] more pleasure in blandishments than in truth."10

The moral danger inherent in pleasant lies may explain the uneasiness many of the same thinkers feel about poetic fictions:

The principall ornament of [poets'] verses are tales made at pleasure, & foolish & disorderly subiectes, clean disguising the trueth & hystorie, to the end they might the more delight. . . . Hence grew the common prouerb, that al Poets are lyers. . . . The occasion of so free passage giuen to Poets is, for that their fables slyde awaye easily, and cunningly turne themselues to tickel at pleasure.11

A fable is a forged tale, containing in it by the colour of a lie, a matter of truth.12

One of the Fathers, in great Seuerity, called Poesie, Vinum Daemonum; because it filleth the Imagination, and yet it is, but with the shadow of a Lie.13

The confusion of fiction and lie, between which Sidney discriminates in his familiar statement, "The Poet, he nothing affirmes, and therefore never lyeth,"14 may draw strength from the dreaded perils of flattery.

Thomas Wilson attempts to override objections to pleasant fiction by a utilitarian argument from experience. As he says, one cannot persuade an audience that does not listen:

. . . I woulde thinke it not amisse to speake much, according to the nature and phansie of the ignorant, that the rather they might be won through Fables, to learne more weightie and graue matters, for all men can not brooke sage causes, and auncient collations: . . . Talke altogether of most graue matters, or deeply search out the ground of things or use the quiddities of Dunce, to set forth Gods misteries: and you shall see the ignorant . . . either fall a sleepe, or els bid you farewell. . . . And yet it is no foolishness, but rather wisedome to win men, by telling of Fables to heare of Gods goodnesse.15

Sidney says the same throughout the Defense of Poesie:

. . . glad [men] will be to heare the tales of Hercules, Achilles, Cyrus, and Aeneas; and hearing them, must needs heare the right description of wisdom, valour, and justice; which, if they had been barely, that is to say Philosophically, set out, they would sweare they be brought to schoole againe . . . For even those harde-harted evill men who thinke vertue a school name, and knowe no other good but indulgere genio, and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the Philosopher, and feele not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be content to be delighted, which is all the good felow Poet seemeth to promise; and so steale to see the forme of goodness (which seene they cannot but loue)...

(The entire section is 19750 words.)

Male Fear Of Deception

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shirley Nelson Garner (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Male Bonding and the Myth of Women's Deception in Shakespeare's Plays," in Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 135-50.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1985, Garner examines the pattern of male suspicion of female infidelity in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, arguing that the fear of being deceived manifests itself in the physical or verbal abuse of women, followed by the reassertion of male bonds.]

The problem of trust recurs in...

(The entire section is 6262 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Hugh Dickinson (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Henry Yea and Nay," in Drama Critique, Vol. IV, No. 2, May, 1961, pp. 68-72.

[In the essay below, Dickinson studies the way in which King Henry, of the Henry VI plays, deceives himself into thinking that he is a capable ruler. The critic demonstrates that this self-deception is maintained until the King's impulsive and inconsistent actions reveal his weak will.]

Scholarship and criticism, once less than kind to Shakespeare's youthful effort, the trilogy of Henry VI, have finally come to regard it as a little more than kin. With his authorship now accepted for most of it, if...

(The entire section is 17295 words.)

Shakespeare's Deception Of His Audience

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Trevor McNeely (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Supersubtle Shakespeare: Othello as a Rhetorical Allegory," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1989, pp. 243-63.

[In the following essay, McNeely analyzes Othello as Shakespeare's allegory on the power of rhetoric to deceive. McNeely observes that just as Iago dupes Othello, Shakespeare dupes his audiences and critics, persuading us to believe in the plausibility of the story, rather than its essential absurdity.]

Criticism has been aware for almost three centuries, since Rymer first raised the question in 1693, of a striking contradiction in Othello and in the character of...

(The entire section is 16364 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Carabine, Keith. "Man's 'ingenuity in error': Construing and Self-Deception in Julius Caesar and Under Western Eyes." The Conradian 10, No. 2 (November 1985): 94-115.

Examines the common subjects of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Conrad's Under Western Eyes, and contends that the characters Brutus, Razumov, and Halden are "blessed and cursed with 'the gift of expression' and with an ability to 'construe' themselves and their world through language."

Holly, Marcia. "King Lear. The Disguised and Deceived." Shakespeare Quarterly XXIV, No. 2 (Spring 1973): 171-80.


(The entire section is 202 words.)