Henry IV, Part II

Many passages from Shakespeare have passed into everyday speech, often without people who use them knowing their provenance. Henry IV, Part II has one such saying that became familiar to the Webner kids when we were growing up: if we brought our neighborhood friends home for Popsicles, Twinkies, Kool-Aid, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, after Mom distributed the goodies she would look at the throng and say, with a happy look on her face, that we were “eating her out of house and home.”

I wonder if Mom knew that she was quoting Hostess Quickly’s statement in Act II, Scene one of Henry IV, Part II (about her deadbeat tavern guest Sir John Falstaff, of course!): “He hath eaten me out of house and home.”

Henry IV, Part II is full of such good lines, embedded in a sequel’s plot that is a bit schizophrenic. Because it’s a sequel, we’ll need to find out what happens with those three significant plot threads that were left unresolved at the end of Henry IV, Part I. One thread concerns the rebellion that was a significant focus of Henry IV, Part I, another follows the antics of Falstaff, and a third explores the long-delayed maturation of Prince Hal and his complex relationship with his father, the king, and with the irresistible Falstaff. Shakespeare masterfully pulls them all together for a conclusive and somewhat bittersweet ending.

The rebellion is really a minor element of the play and is resolved in short order. Lord Northumberland decides not to participate in the fight, leaving the other rebels high and dry and causing one of them to ruefully remark: “Thus do the hopes we have in him touch ground and dash themselves to pieces.” Without Northumberland’s resources, the rebels decide to parlay with King Henry’s representative, Prince John of Lancaster, who promises to redress their grievances–only to then arrest them as traitors and send them to their deaths. After being accused of breaking his word, Prince John explains his position with a nimble and almost lawyerly bit of hair-splitting:

I promised you redress of these same grievances
Whereof you did complain; which, by mine honour,
I will perform with a most Christian care.
But for you, rebels, look to taste the due
Meet for rebellion and such acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these arms commence,
Fondly brought here and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our drums, pursue the scatter’d stray:
God, and not we, hath safely fought to-day.
Some guard these traitors to the block of death,
Treason’s true bed and yielder up of breath.

With the rebellion quashed neatly and without bloody battle, the play is free to concentrate on Falstaff, the King, and the struggle for Hal. Shakespeare recognized that his audience would care most about that human story, not the high-level struggles of mighty lords. As in Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff is the subject of considerable attention. When we first see him, he is being insulted by a page who dutifully reports that Falstaff’s doctor believes “he might have moe diseases than he knew for.” Falstaff’s response is vintage Falstaff:

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.

Falstaff remains the shrewd, unethical, self-centered rogue who delights in low company. But we see still more of Sir John’s dark side as he attempts to dodge the grip of British justice in the form of the Lord Chief Justice, cheats and then charms the widowed Hostess Quickly, dallies with Doll Tearsheet, and accepts bribes from recruits who have no wish to fight the rebel forces. He also takes advantage of the aptly named Justice Shallow, a contemporary of Falstaff’s whose recollection of his role in their ne’er-do-well past has been colored and inflated by the passage of time. After Falstaff grudgingly concedes that he and Shallow “have heard the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff later remarks:

Lord, Lord, how
subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This
same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to
me of the wildness of his youth, and the feats he
hath done about Turnbull Street: and every third
word a lie, duer paid to the hearer than the Turk’s
tribute. 

Prince Hal, after having killed Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, seems to have backslid into his old habits, and remains deeply intrigued by Falstaff, his lifestyle, and his companions, especially Doll Tearsheet. The Prince observes that “This Doll Tearsheet should be some road” and his companion Poins responds: “I warrant you, as common as the way between Saint Albans and London.” Unable to resist the lure of Falstaff, Hal and Poins devise another ruse to trick Falstaff–as they did in Part I–this time by posing as servants while Falstaff romances Doll Tearsheet. When the unknowing Falstaff insults the Prince and Poins and the Prince and Poins reveal themselves and object to the abuse, Falstaff’s quick wit is shown again:

No abuse, Ned, i’ the world; honest Ned, none. I
dispraised him before the wicked, that the wicked
might not fall in love with him; 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: no, faith, boys, none.

The Prince is called away to see the King, and his jesting with Falstaff ends–with some sign that the Prince is beginning to regret his unsavory activities:

By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame,
So idly to profane the precious time,
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapour, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmed heads.
Give me my sword and cloak. Falstaff, good night.

The King, meanwhile, has become increasingly ill, and is unable to sleep. He reflects on his condition (and not incidentally shows a lack of appreciation for the harsh and difficult lives of the English commoners), in a famous soliloquy:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

The King’s condition worsens, and even the news of the capture of the rebels and the end of the rebellion cannot fully revive him. When Hal finally visits the King on his deathbed and see the crown sitting on the pillow, next to the King’s head, the Prince similarly reflects on the burdens of leadership:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish’d perturbation! golden care!
That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scalds with safety. 

Thinking that the King is dead, Hal removes the crown, places it on his head, and moves to another room to mourn. When the King awakens to find the crown is gone he thinks Hal has taken the throne before the time has come, and upbraids him:

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.

But the misunderstanding is resolved, and the King and Hal are reconciled before the King dies. When the news that Prince Hal is to be crowned becomes known, Falstaff and Justice Shallow head to London, expecting Falstaff’s relationship to bring them a rich reward from the new monarch. But Hal has finally grown up and accepted that the duties of the King do no permit his relationship with Falstaff to continue. When Falstaff speaks to his old friend after the coronation, the new King finally and conclusively terminates their connection, but with a trace of the humor and affection that has always marked their relationship:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, 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 turn’d 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 our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.

We’re sad to see the new King rebuke his drinking comrade but, with everything we have seen of Falstaff over two plays, we accept that he really had no choice. Falstaff was not going to change, and due regard for the role of monarch would not allow him a significant role in government. And with the entanglements with Falstaff stripped away, and his youthful indiscretions behind him, the new King–Henry V–sets his eyes upon France. The stage is therefore set for one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays: Henry V.

The Shakespeare Project

Years ago I bought the Yale Shakespeare from Barnes & Noble, back in the days when people actually went to bookstores. Published in 1993, the book is a colossal, oversized, 1517-page, agate-typed tome that features every play, poem, and sonnet penned by the Bard (in whole or in part, with acknowledgement of disputed provenance), along with historical notes, footnotes, and short biography.

For years, I’ve been intending to read the book from beginning to end, but I’ve never quite gotten around to doing it. Now, armed with new glasses to help with the tiny typeface, equipped with a bright, well-lighted spot that is well-suited to careful reading, and bringing to bear the experience of additional years and some post-pandemic perspective, I’m ready to launch my own personal Shakespeare Project.

The Yale Shakespeare organizes the Bard’s awesome output into sections on “The Comedies,” “The Histories,” and “The Tragedies and the Poems.” Being a history buff, I’m going to start with “The Histories,” and read them in their historical sequence, rather than in the order in which Shakespearean scholars think they were written. I’ll start with Richard II and follow the story of British monarchs through to Henry VI, Part III, and then tackle King John and Henry VIII, which are basically standalone pieces, at the end. When I’m done with the histories I’ll decide whether to turn next to the comedies or the tragedies and the poems.

I’ll report on my progress and reactions as I go. Some of the plays will be familiar, from reading them in classes or seeing them performed, but most will be new to me. And I know very little about the sonnets and poems, so reading them will be a voyage of discovery, too.

Farts In The Arts

When Russell went off to Camp Seagull in the Carolinas as a young lad, Kish and I waited with trepidation for his first letter home.

Most camps in those days didn’t let kids call home for a few weeks.  Campers could write letters, but not call — the reasoning being that hearing Mom’s voice might just produce even great bouts of homesickness.  So we waited, and when Russell’s letter arrived we tore it open and read it eagerly.  We realized that he would be OK when we got to the part where he said he thought he would really like his cabin mates because “they all thought farts were funny, too.”

250px-firefartIt turns out that Russell and his Camp Seagull buddies had a lot in common with the ancient Sumerians, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift.

A recent article tackles the important and surprisingly under-researched topic of flatulence humor in literature.  It reports that the earliest known fart joke in history is also the oldest known joke, period — which tells you something about the significance of flatulence humor in human civilization — came from the Sumerians circa 1900 B.C.  It is: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”  Admittedly, it doesn’t really seem very funny these days, but let’s give the ancient Sumerians a break — since it was the very first known joke in history, we can’t reasonably expect Seinfeld levels of humor, and besides, we’re probably missing some important sound effects that accompanied the gibe and dramatically increased the humor quotient.

Of course, fart references were found in Chaucer and Shakespeare — where your British Literature professors might dismissively refer to them as “bawdy humor” — and in Mark Twain’s writing, too.   Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, seems to have been weirdly obsessed with breaking wind.  Writing under a pseudonym, he penned an entire book on the subject called The Benefit of Farting Explained that articulated, in painstaking detail, Swift’s views on the different categories of farts.

So if you read or heard about the recent report about the unfortunate woman who passed gas during surgery in a Tokyo hospital, igniting a laser being used during the procedure, and thought it was funny even though the woman was burned as a result, you’re not alone.  Humans have been chuckling about farts since the dawn of recorded history — and probably for as long as humans have been around at all.

Setting The Stage

IMG_0974A sure sign that another season of Actor’s Theatre Columbus is nearly upon us is the set-in-progress on the stage at Schiller Park.  Sure enough, opening night is less than three weeks away, and the season begins with one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays:  Othello.

The story of the great Moor, the treacherous Iago, and fair Desdemona is a strong start to a season with the theme “to tell the truth.”  After all, Othello also contains one of the Bard’s most compelling ruminations about the value of reputation:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

And, Othello features one of the Bard’s great lines about jealousy:

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Obviously, we’re looking forward to this season.

Richard III

Last night Kish and I went to see the Actors’ Theatre performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III at Schiller Park.  It was a clear, beautiful night, which has been so rare in Columbus that we felt like we had to take advantage of it.  And what better way to celebrate a pretty evening than by sitting outside, watching one of the Bard’s finest works?

In our world William Shakespeare’s genius is just an accepted fact of life, and things that are accepted often, perhaps, are not fully appreciated.  That’s unfortunate.  Richard III is a fantastic piece of creative work — bright and snapping in its language, brilliant in its cast and settings, and ultimately intense in its crushing moral message.  The tale of bloody, duplicitous, deformed Richard of Gloucester, who slays friends, brothers, and children and endures the hatred of his own mother in his ruthless quest for the throne and then is brought low to die alone, is simply one of the very finest pieces of theater that has ever been written.  The second half of the play, in particular, is an awesome tour de force, and the penultimate scene where Richard, on the eve of the final battle, is haunted in his dreams by the ghosts of the people he has murdered, who tell him to “Despair, and die!” is uniquely, chillingly powerful.

The Actors’ Theatre production does a fine job with this titanic work, with Geoff Wilson, as Richard, and Vicky Welsh Bragg, as Queen Margaret, being particular standouts in my view.  Interestingly, the production places the play in a ’50s-era gangland setting, complete with fedoras, pin-striped suits, and Chuck Berry and Frank Sinatra song snippets between scenes, but it otherwise sticks to the original Shakespeare dialogue.  The result didn’t quite work for me — “My kingdom for a horse!” shouldn’t come from the mouth of a guy wearing a sharkskin suit, I think — by the play itself still shines.  Anyone who loves good writing and good acting should see it.

Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

Recently two members of my extended family have learned a valuable, if somewhat painful, lesson:  loaning money to purported friends can end up being an enormous, friendship-wrecking hassle.  Fortunately, the memory of the difficult experience no doubt will discourage future forays into the personal banking business.

William Shakespeare aptly captured the concept in Hamlet, when wise old Polonius says:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

As Polonius recognized, the reality is that, when you loan money to an acquaintance, the relationship inevitably changes.  You go from mutual friends to a debtor and a creditor.  And frequently the resulting interpersonal behavior mirrors the change.  Although the borrower has been helped by the lender’s generosity, the borrower often comes to resent the lender.  It’s as if the borrower rationalizes that the lender must have plenty of money or he wouldn’t have made the loan in the first place.  From there, it’s a short, easy step to concluding that the lender really doesn’t need the loan to be repaid — at least not right away — and therefore the lender is being a jerk in asking about when the money will be repaid.

In many instances, too, the borrower concludes that other things take priority over discharging the debt.  I’ve heard friends bemoan the fact that their personal borrower has taken high-end vacations, eaten at fancy restaurants, and even purchased expensive cars while the loan is still outstanding.  And, as often as not, the lender’s innocent inquiry about when repayment might be forthcoming draws an angry response — and an even more extended period of stalling and dodging any personal interaction that will inevitably involve the repayment question being asked.

And, ultimately, if the borrower doesn’t repay the loan, what do you do?  Sue them?  How often do the parties to these loan arrangements memorialize the loan in any kind of writing?  I’ve had friends seek my legal advice about what to do in these circumstances — and I’m sure that when they made the loan in the first place they never suspected that they might need to talk to a lawyer, even informally, about it.

No, Shakespeare had it right:  neither a borrower nor a lender be.  Save yourself from future headaches, and don’t worry about being deemed a cheapskate by the pal who is in tough financial straits.  If your friendship is contingent upon cash, it’s probably not much of a friendship in the first place.

Out For Blood

When I walked to Schiller Park on Sunday during one of the dry interludes between the spring rainstorms, work was underway at the amphitheater.  Part of the deck of a pirate ship was being constructed, with the wheel and yardarm yet to be added.  Come Thursday we’ll hear the clash of steel echoing across the parkland as the new season of Actors’ Theatre of Columbus opens with the rollicking pirate swashbuckler Captain Blood.

IMG_5457Actors’ Theatre is one of those institutions that helps to enrich the culture in our fair city.  For decades the group has put on performances of Shakespeare and other plays during the summer at Schiller Park.  The performances are open to all, with a blanket section down front and a lawn chair section behind, and guests are encouraged to pack a picnic dinner and bring the beverage of their choice to enjoy during the shows.  Schiller Park, a great older park with mature trees, is a beautiful setting for outdoor theater on a summer evening.

Amazingly, all of the performances are on a “pay what you will” basis, with audience members putting their contributions into a basket at intermission — although the Actors’ Theatre guys I met on Sunday noted that this year the group will supplement the contributions by offering some reserved chairs and blankets.  The FAQ section of the Actors’ Theatre website notes that each performance costs the group precisely $10.24 per audience member — so everyone should aim to exceed that amount.

This season begins with Captain Blood, running from May 21 through June 21, followed by William Shakespeare’s epic Richard III from June 25 through August 2, then Moliere’s The Miser from August 6 through September 6.  All of those performances run from Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m.  The season ends with All The Great Books (Abridged), which will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday September 11 through 20 at the Bicentennial Stage at the Columbus Commons.  Kish and I can’t wait.

Baited Breath

Today as I was driving home I heard a snippet of a press conference given by a police chief somewhere in America. He was talking about an investigation he was conducting in coordination with the federal government, and reassured citizens that no stone would be left unturned thanks to their “duplicitous” efforts. Sounds like the kind of devastating admission that could be used to good effect by the lawyers who defend whoever gets arrested as a result of that joint investigation!

IMG_1674Of course, the police chief should have said “duplicative” — which is probably what he intended — but he botched it. No doubt he wanted to sound highly educated, but instead he gave people who were paying attention a hearty chuckle at a pretty good malapropism.

I received an even better malapropism recently via email. The emailer said he was waiting for something with “baited breath.” I laughed at that one, and thought of all the witty, fish-related responses that his error made possible. Should I say that when he finally got a response he shouldn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker? Add that I hoped he wouldn’t worm his way out of his responsibilities? Observe that if it didn’t work out there were other fish in the sea? Fret about the possibility that the project might hit a snag?

“Baited breath” — as opposed to bated breath — seemed like an especially succulent metaphor because it conjures up the idea of the speaker eating worms, minnows, and maybe even a little chum and tackle. Alas, it turns out that “baited breath” has become so commonplace that linguists think it might soon become the usual form of the phrase. Horrors! Has illiteracy reeled in and ruined another deft phrase that traces its lineage back to Shakespeare himself?

Anonymous

For centuries, people have been debating the marvel of Shakespeare.  Who was the person who wrote some of the most deathless prose known to mankind, who has inspired countless audiences with the wonders of his words, who coined more phrases than any other single writer in the history of the world?  How could such greatness have come from an unlettered man born of common parents?

Anonymous explores the theory that it wasn’t William Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet, King Lear, and Henry V, but instead was Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford.  In the film Shakespeare is an illiterate, buffoonish actor used as a foil by De Vere in a titanic game of royalist politics.  Anonymous is rich in production values, with fabulous costumes, sets, and recreations of the Globe Theater and Elizabethan England.  The film is marked by a number of striking performances — including Rhys Ifans as the world-weary Earl of Oxford, haunted by his past and unable to stop or truly celebrate the torrent of words pouring from his quill pen, Vanessa Redgrave as the aging Queen Elizabeth, David Thewlis as Elizabeth’s manipulative adviser, Sir William Cecil, and Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, who keeps Oxford’s secret.  Along with the true authorship of the Shakespearean library, Anonymous also reveals the intrigues and scandals underlying the Essex Rebellion and the succession of King James.

This movie demonstrates, with quiet yet unmistakable power, the triumph of Shakepeare’s words and thoughts — which ultimately conquer time and the petty politics of the court.  I recommend Anonymous to anyone who loves Shakespeare and period dramas, as I do.

Vegetable Week: The Cultural Impact

Another way to assess the value of vegetables versus meats is to look at their impact on our culture. In that regard, vegetables fare very poorly indeed. Many of our holidays revolve around preparing and eating a traditional meat dish, such as the Thanksgiving turkey. If you go to a baseball game, you have a hot dog. The characters in American Graffiti keep returning to a particular hamburger stand that is the locus of their cruising activities. In America, there is an entire genre of restaurants — the steakhouse — that celebrates meat consumption by featuring particular cuts of beef and, typically, oversized portions. There is, of course, nothing comparable on vegetable side. People don’t eat a beet at a hockey game, or feast on the broccoli casserole at Christmas, or hang out at the fava bean palace on a Friday night.

Of course, another way to measure cultural impact is to consider poetry, and literature, and song. In these categories, too, meat blows vegetables out of the water. Consider:

But man is a carnivorous production
And must have meals – at least once a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)
‘Don Juan’ (1821)

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Robert Burns

And then there is Shakespeare:

‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar’
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?

Julius Caesar, Act I, sc. 2, l. 146

And, as to song, I give you Tom Waits: