Learning from Falstaff — King Henry and the August 31 Gang
By Stuart Mitchner
We do not need Henry V, and he does not need us. Falstaff needs an audience, and never fails to find it.
—Harold Bloom (1930-2019)
King Henry V of England (1386-1422) died on this day, August 31, 600 years ago, and I’m writing about him because Shakespeare found enough in Henry’s sketchy history to create Falstaff and Prince Hal, later Henry of Monmouth, the warrior king immortalized in the 1599 play Henry V, titled The Life of Henry the Fifth in the First Folio.
An “Amiable Monster”
Although noted essayist and critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) gives Shakespeare credit for presenting Henry V as “the king of good fellows,” the honor is one he “scarcely deserves.” All we know of Henry, says Hazlitt, is that he was “fond of war and low company,” as well as being “careless, dissolute, and ambitious” and “determined to make war upon his neighbours.” Thus, “because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France.”
Pondering what there is to like about the man, Hazlitt turns again to Shakespeare’s play, where Henry is “a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, … so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry.”
Olivier’s “Henry V”
Hazlitt’s “amiable monster” was redeemed by Laurence Olivier’s performance in his film Henry V, which opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1946, a year and a half after its inspirational run in wartime England. Contrary to Hazlitt’s Henry declaring his resolution to bend France “to his awe, or break it all to pieces,” Olivier’s Henry declares his affection for Catherine of Valois in a spirited bilingual love scene. When Olivier was advised to film the picture in “battledress,” he said, “No, it’s got to be beautiful.” And it was. Reviewing the film in Time, James Agee called it one of the movies’ “rare great works of art,” brought to the screen “with such sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday.”
Hal and Falstaff
In the two Henry IV plays (1596-1598), the future king’s reputation benefits from the reflected theatrical glory of his scenes with Sir John Falstaff. Infused with Shakespeare’s genius, Prince Hal is empowered to go one on one with the great Falstaff, and since Sir John obviously enjoys his company, so does the audience, at least until the prince cruelly denounces his friend on his way to the throne. While Hazlitt assumes the real-life prince
actually did have a wild youth, he notes that Henry’s political opponents may have inflated the legend of his dissolute behavior to discredit him. All that ultimately matters is the earthy human poetry Shakespeare makes of the prince’s youthful relationship with the real-life Sir John Oldcastle, who died a Protestant martyr and was freed to glory and greatness as Falstaff when Oldcastle’s descendants complained about the use of the family name.
In their first scene together, in London, “in an apartment of the Prince’s,” a simple question (“What time of day is it, lad?”) leads to Hal’s “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself
a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta,” which prompts Falstaff to come back with a line that presages the fate of the relationship, so gracelessly terminated when Hal becomes King Henry. “And, I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art king, as, God save thy grace, — majesty I should say, for grace thou wilt have none.”
A Student of Genius
Harold Bloom makes no secret of his disapproval of Hal while pointing out that “(much as I dislike him),” he is “almost as much a student of genius as Falstaff is a teacher of genius.” As Bloom puts it, “Henry V is an authentic charismatic, who has learned the uses of charisma from his disreputable but endlessly gifted teacher. It is one of Shakespeare’s harshest dramatic ironies that Falstaff prepares his own destruction not only by teaching too well but by loving much too well. Henry V is no man’s teacher and loves no one, he is a great leader and exploiter of power, and destroying Falstaff causes him not an iota of regret.”
In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom begins his conspicuously brief chapter on Henry V with a devastating quote from W.B. Yeats in Ideas of Good and Evil: “He has the gross vices, the coarse nerves, of one who is to rule among violent people, and he is so little ‘too friendly’ to his friends that he bundles them out of door when their time is over. He is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows.”
The closing scene of Henry V, wherein Henry woos the French king’s daughter (“la plus belle Katherine du monde”), shows how much Hal learned about “the uses of charisma” from Falstaff. The sheer energy of Henry’s opening gambit, which would be totally incomprehensible to the princess, has a spirit and verve that finds its way into some of Keats’s most charismatic letters. He begins, “Marry, if you would put me to verses, or to dance for your sake, Kate, why you undid me; for the one, I have neither words nor measure, and for the other I have no strength in measure, yet a reasonable measure in strength. If I could win a lady at leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armour on my back, under the correction of bragging be it spoken, I should quickly leap into a wife.” Then this parody of manly modesty: “If thou canst love a fellow of this temper, Kate, whose face is not worth sunburning, that never looks in his glass for love of anything he sees there, let thine eye be thy cook. I speak to thee plain soldier. If thou canst love me for this, take me; if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too.”
Speaking as “a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy; for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places,” Henry delivers a coda on “these fellows of infinite tongue” that would make Hal’s teacher proud: “What! a speaker is but a prater: a rhyme is but a ballad. A good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a black beard will turn white; a curl’d pate will grow bald; a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax hollow; but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or rather the sun and not the moon; for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly.”
The August 31 Gang
At this point I need to make room for two other members of the August 31 Gang, the poet Charles Baudelaire, who died August 31, 1867, and the singer Sir Van Morrison, who was born August 31, 1945. Reading the exchange between Hal and Falstaff in which hours were “cups of sack,” I could imagine that “hypocrite lecteur” Baudelaire creeping onto the stage to remind them that “intoxication is the negation of time, like every violent state of the spirit, and that, consequently, all the results of the loss of time must pass before the eyes of the drunkard.”
More in the spirit of that moment in the play, however, is this joyous rhapsody, which, even in translation, has a Shakespearean flow — “whether you’re drunk on wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish, be drunk. And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking . . . ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: ‘It is time to be drunk!’ “
Now here comes Sir Van, the Belfast cowboy, singing “Behind the Ritual” in a voice almost as big as Falstaff, “Drinking wine in the alley, making time, drinking that wine, out of my mind in the days gone by.” While Van’s “stretching time” with Sally in the alley, spinning and turning like a whirling dervish, repeating “blah blah blah” 60 times, his Parisian alter ego is conjuring visions of Jeanne Duval and “the undulations of dreams,” as Falstaff brings down the curtain, “Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.”
King Henry was 35 when he died of dysentery, which, according to thehistoryjar.com, means he would have endured “stomach cramps, a fever, vomiting, and exhaustion.” The disease was common among soldiers and fatal “more often than not,” given that they “marched long distances, lived off the land and weren’t prone to being overly fastidious in their hygiene. Damp ground and heat also helped to spread the disease.”
After moving to Belgium in 1864, Baudelaire continued smoking opium, drank to excess, and in 1866 suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. He died in Paris a year later. He was 46.
I should mention Kenneth Branagh’s excellent film of Henry V (1989) and David Michôd’s The King (2019), which I haven’t seen; apparently it merges Henry V with both parts of Henry IV, and stars Timothée Chalamet as Henry and Joel Edgerton as Falstaff.