Collateral damage in Hamlet and the Merchant of Venice


This is how a lot of stories form: The writer wants one thing to happen, and slowly assembles the forces needed to make the characters do what they have to do for it to happen. And the writer sometimes twists the story nearly to the breaking point to do that.

Critics think that things that stick out oddly from stories are clues the author dropped as to what’s going on. That’s typically not the case. The one thing the writer wants to happen is gonna happen, and probably pretty smoothly. The weird stuff that sticks out is peripheral. It’s the collateral story damage from the big idea.

I spent the last few hours reading The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, loans 3000 ducats to Antonio, under the stipulation that if it is not repaid, Shylock may claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Lots of critics have argued over whether Shylock is supposed to be sympathetic or despicable. Everyone in the play hates him, and always has, because he’s a Jew. He has been severely put upon all his life. The jokes the Christians make at his expense, unlike in the rest of Shakespeare, aren’t even supposed to be funny. So he’s sympathetic, and Shakespeare was a closet progressive.

But, wait. Shylock is cruel, and wants to kill Antonio, whom everybody else agrees is the best guy ever. Even when offered double his money back, he spurns the money and wants his pound of flesh. And nowhere in the text does anybody question the abuse that’s been heaped on Shylock. The word “Jew” is an insult to the end. So he’s despicable, and Shakespeare hated Jews.

I don’t think Shakespeare cared one way or the other. I think he had one cool idea: “Imagine there’s a guy who offers up a pound of his own flesh as surety for a loan, and then he can’t pay back the loan. Everybody expects the guy who loaned him the money to say, “Oh, well, I was just kidding; a pound of flesh isn’t going to do me any good.” And then the guy says he really, in fact, wants his pound of flesh. And then, the first guy’s friends get there just in the nick of time with twice the loan to pay it back. But then, whammo, the other guy says, No. He wants his pound of flesh.

How do you get a guy to do that?

Well, you want Shylock to really, really hate Antonio, right?

Not really. Then you’d have to show Antonio doing something horrible to Shylock. And Antonio is supposed to be the sympathetic character. And Antonio would know Shylock hated him, and wouldn’t sign the loan condition, probably. And the whole story would get hijacked by the conflict setting up the Antonio-Shylock drama.

What Shakespeare did was very clever: Show that Shylock’s life is intolerable–everyone hates him for what he is; he is forced into being a money-lender because the law allows him no “honest” profession, and yet the same people who force him into that role despise him for it. Never let the hatred up. And then, have his own daughter hate him, too, and steal his money and run away with a Christian.

See, Shylock doesn’t hate Antonio. Shylock hates everybody. But especially his daughter. He wants to lash out, and Antonio is right there.

Shylock isn’t a representative of an oppressed race, or of a sub-human race. He isn’t a nuanced handling of issues of prejudice and race. The fact that viewers feel sympathy for Shylock is, dramatically, a colossal fuck-up. It makes no sense, coming as it does not as the climax of a drama, but as the warm-up to the funniest (well, only funny) scene of a comedy.

Shylock is a plot device. Shakespeare needed somebody who could be put under enough pressure to want a pound of somebody’s flesh, somebody who hadn’t really done anything bad to him, so much that he wouldn’t take any amount of money instead.

That’s how stories get written. The critics focus on the strange things in a story, like Shylock, as if they were clues to hidden secrets. They aren’t. The strange things are the things you don’t notice you screwed up while you were paying attention to your one big thing.

Shakespeare wrote Shylock too well. He made him a real character we could sympathize with. That made the courtroom scene tragic instead of funny, and it doesn’t fit the story that it’s in.

On to Hamlet.

Lotsa theories about what Hamlet is about. It’s about death. It’s about disease. It’s about mortality. It’s meta-fiction. It’s about indecision. It’s about fate. It’s about the moral depravity of a man who has lost his faith. It’s about a woman who has no control over her life. It’s about the inability of language to tell a coherent story.

There’s this one part in Hamlet, it’s kinda memorable. Goes like this:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die- to sleep-

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.


That’s the one big idea. Hamlet is a question: Whether ’tis nobler to suffer insult and disgrace, or to end it with violence that will inevitably spin out of your control. It’s the kind of question that has no answer. (See: American middle east policy.) That’s what literature is for. Thinking about things that have no clear answer. The play is about revenge and its costs. It doesn’t wind up with a simple message: “Revenge is bad, kids.” Hamlet chooses to take arms against his troubles, and the viewer sees the result. The entire play can be explained as either (A) things showing how bad Hamlet’s troubles are, or (B) things showing the cost everyone will pay for Hamlet’s revenge. That’s why Ophelia has to kill herself, and that’s why Hamlet has to be cruel to her. That’s why the play ends with the very boring scene of Fortinbras taking over Denmark (the very thing Hamlet’s uncle opened the play worrying about): Without that scene, one might think Hamlet was noble because he saved his country from a usurper. No; in doing so he just gave it away to an invader. The weird stuff, like Hamlet killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and being cruel to Ophelia, and the Fortinbras business, are just where Shakespeare was trying too hard to show those two things, instead of letting Hamlet be true to his character. They’re not themes; they’re the collateral damage.

At least, that’s my theory today.


Review: William Congreve’s “The Way of the World”, 1700


I’m reading English plays from 1600 to 1800, to get a sense for what Shakespeare’s influence was, and why he’s so highly-regarded. I just finished

as found here. This was a popular comedy 300 years ago. It has some good lines:

Where modesty’s ill manners, ’tis but fitThat impudence and malice pass for wit.

‘Tis an unhappy circumstance of life that love should ever die before us, and that the man so often should outlive the lover. But say what you will, ’tis better to be left than never to have been loved…. For my part, my youth may wear and waste, but it shall never rust in my possession.

You should have just so much disgust for your husband as may be sufficient to make you relish your lover.

A better man ought not to have been sacrificed to the occasion; a worse had not answered to the purpose.

Mirabell: For beauty is the lover’s gift: ’tis he bestows your charms:- your glass is all a cheat.

Millacent: One no more owes one’s beauty to a lover than one’s wit to an echo.

We’ve still got the thee’s and thou’s:

Come, thou art an honest fellow, Petulant, and shalt make love to my mistress, thou shalt, faith.

Did people really talk like that 300 years ago? No. Congreve was trying to sound like Shakespeare. For comparison, here’s the opening of Gulliver’s Travels (1726):

My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years.

The Way of the World is a cross between Jane Austen, an English bedroom farce, and Shakespeare. Act I is 9 scenes long, and about as enjoyable as the first chapter of War and Peace: a whirlwind tour of many different indifferent characters whose names all sound the same, gossipping about each other. I’m sure this would be less confusing if I were watching a play, but it still seems to rely on me having memorized the playbill to know who is whose daughter, niece, uncle, and former suitor. The author thoughtfully gave the characters names such as “Petulant”, “Wilfull”, “Waitwell” (a servant), “Foible”, and “Mincing”, so as to spare the trouble of needing to portray their characters through action. There are 13 characters; 4 of their names start with ‘F’, 4 with ‘M’, and 4 with ‘W’. The names are gender-confusing in a play where gender is all; it was several scenes before I realized that Mirabel, the main character of Act I, is a man.

Once I figured out who these people were and what was going on, it was almost enjoyable. The language is sufficiently clever, elevated, and word-order-inverted to string a Shakespeare junkie along between fixes. The humor is witty, but tossed out in self-encapsulated sentences that sparkle with a clever simile or wording, but don’t illuminate the characters or the theme. It did at times make me smile, surpassing Shakespeare in that regard. But overall, the first act needs to be axed, the plot is interesting only as it affects the characters, and the characters have not much character. I never cared about or liked any of them. So the whole thing is just a paper backdrop for clever lines.

CliffsNotes says this. I agree with all of it except for the “striking characterization”:

Because of its striking characterization and brilliant dialogue, The Way of the World is generally considered to be the finest example of Restoration comedy, as well as one of the last. Nevertheless, it was not successful when it was first presented in 1700. Although the English audiences, unlike the French, were accustomed to plots and subplots and to a great deal of action in their plays, they were confused by the amount of activity crammed into a single day. The Way of the World had only a single action to which everything was related, but it included a scheme, and a counterplot to frustrate the scheme, and then moves to foil the counterplot. There were too many episodes, events, reversals, and discoveries, most of them huddled in the last acts, and they demanded too much of the audience. … In Act I, we are told that Mirabell is in love and that there are obstacles to the courtship, but most of the significant facts are hidden until Act II so that the first part of the play is obscure. Then, just as Mirabell’s scheme becomes clear, it loses significance, for Fainall’s counterplot becomes the machinery that moves the action forward. It is, therefore, worthwhile to trace the story in chronological order.

Loose Ends of the Plot

Although there seems to be the usual happy ending to this comedy, The Way of the World leaves a number of loose ends that add to the confusion.

It is difficult to see where Mrs. Fainall’s future is satisfactorily resolved. At one point in Act V, she says that this is the end of her life with Fainall; that is one comfort. But at the end of the play, it seems that she will continue to live with Fainall in an obviously very awkward domestic situation.

It is not clear that Fainall is completely foiled. He could still demand control of Lady Wishfort’s fortune or disgrace her daughter. Mirabell’s statement that “his circumstances are such, he [Fainall] must of force comply” is hardly adequate.

Is the affair between Mirabell and Mrs. Fainall at an end? She married Fainall only to forestall scandal if she became pregnant. If it is at an end, why has it ceased? Why should she help Mirabell with his wooing of Millamant? Has he perhaps convinced Mrs. Fainall that he is marrying Millamant for money?

Apparently Mirabell had wanted to marry Millamant the year before, but the match was forestalled by Mrs. Marwood’s interference. Fainall suggests that, had they married, Millamant would have lost half her fortune. Why then the elaborate plot now, to save the 6,000 pounds that Mirabell was prepared to sacrifice before?

There no real answers to these questions. They seem to be loose ends that the dramatist never bothered to tie together.

Review: Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915


When I read the Paris Reviews interviews, the great writers of the 1930s-1940s kept bringing up Ford Madox Ford as one of the writers they admired most. I’d never heard of him. His best-known book is The Good Soldier, which I’d also never heard of. Yet at that time it was generally considered to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

Reputation is a funny thing. Ford’s reputation was as high as it was partly because he made a lot of friends. And it fell as low as it did because, eventually, he made a lot of enemies. People thought he was egotistical, and didn’t believe half the things he said about himself. He really did write books together with Joseph Conrad, but after Conrad’s death, some people got very upset with Ford for talking about it so much; I suppose they thought he was just making stuff up again. It also didn’t help that he wrote only autobiography and autobiographical fiction, and wrote other real people into his novels. According to a Teaching Company lecture I heard, the literary world more-or-less conspired to erase him from the canon after his death.

To which I say: No great loss.

I only read the first half of The Good Soldier, but I read plot reviews, and there’s clearly no reason to read the second half. It’s famous for being one of the (maybe the) first major works using an unreliable narrator, and so he’s considered a father of modernism. But it’s badly done unreliable narration; I can’t believe the narrator is that stupid or self-deceptive. Ford’s writing style is very good, but he has little to say.

The story is about 2 upper-class couples who spend 9 years together, travelling about Europe, inseparable all that time. Then, at the end of that 9 years, the narrator learns that the other couple’s marriage is completely dysfunctional (as is his own), and that his wife’s been cheating on him with the other husband all along. That’s pretty much it, except that there’s also a young woman, now age 22, who is never mentioned until halfway through the book when you learn she’s been constantly with them every moment all this time.

One of the major criticisms I hear of fan-fiction is that the people who write it don’t create their own characters. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. I image it might be good practice every now and again. If you’re forced to use characters that already exist, you have to come up with stories that work with characters that already exist. If, on the other hand, your story can’t possibly work with any character that anyone has written about before, it’s probably not a true story, and you shouldn’t write it.

This is the case with The Good Soldier. It’s often reviewed positively as a shocking exposé of the shallowness of the upper class. But it can’t be, because all 4 of his main characters are insane. I’m not particularly fond of the upper class, but this is more a freak show than a commentary on real life. Things like this might have happened, but calling it an exposé of the upper class is like calling a biography of Charles Manson an exposé of the 1960s.

I suppose they are all exaggerations of things that happen in many people to a lesser degree.

I learned pretty near the start what had happened. I kept reading because the narrator was engaging; it felt like listening to a good storyteller. But I began wondering why I was supposed to keep reading. I knew how it ended. All of the characters are contemptible, so I didn’t care about any of them. I had only a mild curiosity as to how things had played out.

When I came to the end of Part 1 (of 4), I seriously wondered why I was supposed to keep reading. There were no unanswered questions and nobody I cared about.

When I came to the end of Part 2, I wondered the same thing.

Partway through Part 3, I decided to read plot reviews online and find out whether there was anything else to the book, some twist or something. There wasn’t.

This book is entirely psychological, and so the only reason to read it is for its psychological analysis of its characters. But there isn’t any. The characters are all incredibly warped. We get a pretty good picture of how each one is warped, some impression of how each one feels, but no idea why they’re warped that way.

That’s because they’re not plausible characters. They’re cheap plot devices. They all have bizarre personality deficits, yet even those deficits aren’t sufficient to make them act in the self-destructive ways they do. We’re repeatedly told that the “good soldier” of the title is a very, very good man, doing all sorts of charitable work–but the author obviously just stuffed that in there to make him seem “complex”; none of it feels real or motivated.

The narrator appears to be based on Ford himself, and, if we believe what others wrote of Ford, his unbelievable denseness might just be how Ford really was. He was repeatedly accused of not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality in his own life, and not knowing what he had and had not done. Which might mean that the unreliable narrator was invented not as a clever literary device, but because a crazy man wrote fiction.

Review: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1+2


This is a strange play or pair of plays. (I consider it a single play, though this is controversial. Harold Jenkins made a convincing case that Shakespeare planned to do it as one play, then changed his mind in the middle of Part 1, Act IV.) An editor, judging it by today’s standards, might say it was hopelessly broken and ill-conceived. Yet, like War and Peace, it has a different kind of greatness to it than is fashionable today. I expect this play will perform well by my measure of greatness, which is how often I’m reminded of it when thinking of other things. It left me feeling more charitable toward Shakespeare than I have lately.

If you want an adventure story with a villain to boo and a hero to root for, you won’t find them in Henry IV. The play’s “hero” is Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V at the end of Part 2. The characters consist of Prince Hal, plus Falstaff and the villains and rogues he associates with on one side, and/or King Henry IV and the even worse villains he associates with on the other.

Falstaff & Co. aren’t really on the King’s side; the King hates them, and their service to him is worse than none at all. There are three teams on the field, and you can’t root for any of them. The King is unjust; Falstaff is repulsive; and the order of events frames the rebels as the antagonists.

Hal is less dissolute than Falstaff, and less bloodthirsty and honorless than his father and brother. Falstaff and his companions are brigands who rob and murder, then spend what they’ve taken on food, drink, and whores. King Henry IV is a usurper who murdered the former king, and like Stalin after him, reflected that anyone who helped him become king might someday help someone else become king. At the start of the play, he faces a rebellion because his former friends are convinced he means to kill them all one by one. At the end of Part 2, those rebels who survive surrender to Hal’s brother John of Lancaster, under a promise of amnesty, and he waits until their army has dispersed and then murders them.

Here are three bad things and three good things about Henry IV:

Three Bad Things About Henry IV

I’m going to ignore the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms, such as having pistols in 1403, which are still a cause of consternation for English historians. I’m also not going to cut Shakespeare any slack for writing in 1597. It’s only fair to Shakespeare to note that nobody else writing at the time would have done any better; but it’s only fair to writers today, as long as they’re held lower in esteem than Shakespeare by critics, to hold him up to the same standards they regularly meet.

1.The bad guys win, and we’re supposed to cheer for them. I think.

The only admirable characters other than Hal are Hotspur, Douglas, Colevile, and perhaps Vernon and the Archbishop. The good guys kill all of them but “the Douglas” over the course of the play. Hal cleverly spares him by asking for permission to dispose of him and then setting him free.

If I were to pick one scene that conveys the mood of Henry IV, it’s Part 1, Act 4, scene 3. Colevile, an honorable knight, yields to Falstaff, apparently meaning some honor to Falstaff, who is so fat, lazy, cowardly, and winded that any man alive could beat him. They exchange words, Colevile showing his honor and Falstaff his ridiculous yipping-dog pride. Then John of Lancaster walks by, casually orders Colevile’s execution, expresses his scorn for Falstaff, and walks on. Then Coleville is taken away, and Falstaff monologues about… the virtues of hard drinking. The two villains condemn the noble man to death and immediately forget him. Falstaff is aware of his own moral depravity but doesn’t care, and is only anxious that he should get some preference out of John for capturing Colevile. John of Lancaster, like his father Henry IV, rationalizes his evil actions with lies. Falstaff is a coward in the face of battle. J of L (and Henry IV) are cowards in the face of the truth. Each of them has only scorn for the other.

This was not accidental. It’s one entire scene, and that’s all it consists of. Falstaff’s monologue about drink might be seen by insensitive louts as comic, but it’s vile coming only seconds after Falstaff has sent his better off to death. I believe Shakespeare wrote this scene only to highlight how nasty the victors of Henry IV are. Why?

One might speculate that this was for.3 political reasons, but no: Queen Elizabeth I was a Tudor, and her claim to the throne was through the House of Lancaster. Possibly Henry IV is all a set-up in order to show, in the upcoming Henry V, that Hal is all the more noble for having grown up straight among only crooked weeds. I don’t know. I haven’t read it. But S. didn’t write Henry V until about 2 years later.

2. Prince Hal’s character is unbelievable

Hal is a contradictory character. He’s not complex, merely incoherent. Hal was Shakespeare’s warm-up for Hamlet. Like Hamlet, he’s an active, intelligent, introspective prince who feigns wantonness while keeping his own counsel so closely that the viewer never really understands him. Like Hamlet, his primary motivation is that he judges himself by how well he honors the rules about inheritance and bloodlines, which is perfectly relatable to any viewer who is also a medieval prince.

The plays are about Prince Hal’s transformation from wastrel to noble king. Classic hero’s-journey stuff, except that instead of an Obi Wan to lead him he has Falstaff to mislead him. Also, there’s no transformation. We’re told Hal is a wastrel at the play’s start. Then he says in an aside to the audience that he has done all this to deceive people, so that he might have all the more honor when he reforms; and he behaves only honorably when we see him (possibly excepting when he steals his father’s crown). Then, a little later, in a separate and contradictory explanation of his actions, he resolves to reform to win his father’s respect. I would rather the first explanation had been omitted, for I doubt anyone in the history of the world has ever lived that way deliberately.

I find no good way of making sense of this Hal who spends his life with a small set of boon companions, then coldly sends them off to prison at the end of Part 2. Who has lived his entire life as a lie for no convincing purpose, and/or is a paragon of virtues which he acquired overnight with no convincing cause.

This is made worse by the long and painfully-phony odes to Hal that Shakespeare has Vernon deliver in two separate parts, each time telling his lord and Hal’s rival for the crown, Hotspur, how noble and godlike that rake Hal has suddenly become. They’re just… so very purple, inappropriate, and implausible. They’re like the requisite ode to the proletarian worker inserted into a play sponsored by the East German communist party.

To “fix” the play, you’d need to show Hal’s transformation and its causes, not just tell us he has reformed, or that he was faking it all along (Hal says both, in different scenes). This is one of Shakespeare’s key problems: He strongly prefers telling to showing.

However, the play might not be about Hal. It seems clear to me, but Hal wasn’t even considered a central character until the 20th century. It also isn’t clear that Hal transforms into a good king. The scene near the end of Part 2 where he takes his still-living father’s crown is hardly admirable, and his actions seems more plausible to me as realpolitik than as reform.

3. Falstaff is two-dimensional

Falstaff personifies what I find so puzzling about how people react to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s works are supposed to exemplify literature. Yet many of the characters and plays that people love him for–Falstaff, Lear, Lady Macbeth, his comedies–are what you find in “commercial fiction”, which is regarded today as the “opposite” of literature. They are loud, larger-than-life, simple, and memorable. They’re interesting in the way colorful noisy things flapping in the wind are interesting to livestock.

Shakespeare wrote plays, not literature. Literature means, at least, stories written down in order to be read. Epic poems are a more appropriate model for literature than plays are.

A play, like a movie, is a large part spectacle. Drama overlaps with literature, but is different, in the ways that the J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson versions of The Hobbit are different. Many of the things we call good in movies, we call bad in novels. Characters especially so. A play’s stage is slanted toward the pit. Simple characters play better on the stage than on the page. The most exciting drama is when an actor’s emotions are so clear that the muscles in your face tense as his do, bringing those same feelings into your head. This doesn’t work with subtle or conflicted characters. This was even more true on Shakespeare’s stage, where the audience, lacking glasses or electric light, probably could barely make out the players’ faces. So a Lear on stage, railing into the storm, carries us with him, and we feel he has greatness because his emotions are great; whereas thoughtful reflection on the words he speaks profits us little, and may impress us more with what a great ass he has been.

At least, that’s one of my theories. Another is that the type of person who goes to plays or watches movies is different from the type of person who reads books. But for whatever reason, bold simple strokes are more respectable in drama than in literature. This would be no problem, except that people keep taking things from Shakespeare that may be great drama, and insisting they are the marks we should aim at to make great literature. This muddies the water for any writer trying to figure out how to write.

If you love Falstaff, you’ll love Shakespeare more than I can. He’s bold, brash, and spouts witty sayings nonstop. He is all fireworks and spectacle outside and hollow inside. It’s interesting to see how he will turn each situation to his advantage. It’s interesting to see Hal characterized by his reactions to Falstaff, especially at the end of Part 1 when Falstaff tells Hal that he killed Hotspur, without knowing Hal was the one who killed him. His opinions on honor and drink are cleverly-worded enough to rise, for some (though not for me) to the level of humor. But his character is so predictable and so monotonously depraved, and his speech so padded out with sex puns, that it’s tedious for me to get through scenes with him in it. Har, har, “thrust” has a “ribald second meaning” for the third time in this scene; thank you, Signet Classics. And Falstaff has more words in this play than any other character. Too many for me. The notes in my edition say that Falstaff’s role was greatly extended from the original play because the audiences loved him best, so perhaps Shakespeare agreed with me.

Think of any vaguely similar character from literature–say, Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, or Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22. Which one is more interesting? If you say Falstaff, you’re not interested in the same things I am.

I will say one thing in favor of Falstaff as character: He exemplifies the banality of evil. I’m tired of grand villains seeking empires, or cackling evilly as they tie damsels to railroad tracks. Falstaff wants nothing but drink, food, and women, and that is what makes him evil. Not the wanting of physical pleasure, but the not caring about anything else. He wishes no one ill, not really. He just doesn’t care. Commercial fiction would be several notches greater if it used fewer Nazis and more Falstaffs.

Most critics don’t consider Falstaff evil at all, but merely comic:

The grandiose humorous effect of a figure like that of the fat knight SIr John Falstaff rests on an economy in contempt and indignation…. His doings are on the whole harmless, and are almost excused by the comic baseness of the people he cheats. We admit that the poor fellow has a right to try to live and enjoy himself like anyone else…

— Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious

Falstaff’s wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good humor and good nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart’s ease, and overcontentment with himself and others…. we no more object to the character of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent him to the life, before one of the police offices… for no mischevious consequences do result…. The truth is, that we could never forgive the Prince’s treatment of Falstaff…. Whatever terror the French in those days might have of Henry V, yet, to the readers of poetry at present, Falstaff is the better man of the two.”

— WIlliam Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1818

We see that Falstaff is a professional highwayman, a career unlikely not to result in corpses in 1403. We see him bankrupt his regular inn-keeper by conniving her, through false promises of marriage, into lending her everything she has. But all that’s trivial compared to the body count Falstaff racks up in Part 1. Falstaff has authority from the King to conscript men into military service. He uses this authority to conscript only men too sick, old, or feeble to serve, to frighten them into bribing him into letting him go. He takes 300 pounds in bribes and ends up with 150 sickly conscripts who couldn’t pay their way out of it, mostly from prisons. Hal comments on their pitiful appearance, and Falstaff says,

Tut, tut! good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

By the end of Part I, Falstaff tells us that all but three of them are dead, and those three so maimed they’ll do nothing more but beg at the end of town. Falstaff is noticeably not dead, so we presume he led his men from behind.

[url=]Henry IV conscripted men for this battle using a Commission of Array, which charged the conscripting officer with providing training and equipment for those that served, using money taken from those who would not or could not serve. Falstaff took that money for himself, and threw his sick, unfed, and probably unarmed conscripts into the battle to be slaughtered.

Is that not bad enough? Then back up a moment: Why would Falstaff recruit men from prison? They wouldn’t be able to bribe him.

Because the Treasurer of the War would pay the conscripts wages. Presumably Falstaff wanted them dead, so he could collect their wages.

So let’s not hear anything more about Falstaff being a harmless buffoon.

Three Good Things About Henry IV

1. It’s got a theme about the meaning of honor, which is a kind of Rosetta stone one can use to compare the characters. One can see how their opinions of honor have made them who they are, particularly in the cases of Falstaff and Hotspur. This makes the character set as a whole deeper than the characters taken individually.

2. The plot and subplot fit together perfectly. The plot is about Hal needing to rise to the occasion, save his father’s throne, and then rule after him. The subplot is about Hal breaking free of Falstaff. Henry IV and Falstaff are Hal’s two father figures. The King, one could argue, taught Hal words about honour, while Falstaff, who never pretended to be honorable, taught Hal to be honest with himself and true to himself. This is a beautiful parallel. It’s unfortunate that it was executed imperfectly. There’s no suspense over which way Hal will go; he declares early in Part 1 that he will cast Falstaff aside. It’s the “right” decision, but Shakespeare didn’t give me anything to let me root for the King and feel happy about this outcome. We saw nothing of Hal’s relationship with his father until Act 4 of Part 2, and what we did see was so filtered through the doubtful honesty and self-honesty of both parties as to be nearly opaque.

This brings us to Good Thing #3:

3. It doesn’t simplify the conflicts or answer its questions for us.

Each side, and many of the people, are by turns admirable and disgraceful. The rebels lose because Northumberland incites his son Hotspur to rebellion with the promise to join forces with him, and then changes his mind and stays home, apparently out of groundless and foolish cowardice. Then he weeps and rages about the death of his son, as if it weren’t his own fault. Then he does exactly the same thing again to the remaining rebel forces. One can only pity a man forced to choose sides in such a war.

The play is concerned with what makes a king legitimate, but provides no clear answer. I said earlier that Hal may not be virtuous, but merely a good player of realpolitik. But this may itself be virtue in Shakespeare’s eyes! Henry IV rules with paranoia and a willingness to spill blood. Hotspur would rule with pride, disdain, and a delight in spilling blood for honor. Hal may be a wiley actor who can play whatever part is to his own advantage, creating only incidentally the peace that others desire; but that might be enough in a king for Shakespeare.

We begin analysis of any story by asking whose point of view it’s told from. Asking that of Henry IV only reveals how many devices contemporary authors use to indicate which characters we’re supposed to sympathize with. Shakespeare didn’t make me sympathize with any of the characters. I don’t know whether the techniques for doing so hadn’t been developed yet, or he didn’t want us to sympathize with any one viewpoint. I find the play more interesting when I assume the latter. And doing so raises the question whether the entire literary tradition of having a point of view is a good thing. If literature is about finding truth, telling a story from a single point of view is counter to that purpose. Henry IV feels truer because it doesn’t take sides.

These subtleties are why I compared it to War and Peace. It isn’t on that level of character realism; not even a tenth of that level. But it has something of that kind of greatness: Rather than being a carefully-crafted story to carry us on an emotional rollercoaster ride, with thrilling but precisely-calculated highs and lows, it’s a train wreck, a view into the heart of darkness, where men are constrained by their characters and circumstances to doom each other. It is great only when it is doing something different than conventional literature does. If you take it as a standard dramatic story, or a coming-of-age hero’s journey, it falls down completely. If you take it as a story to awe you with the fearful chaos and heartlessness of history, it may succeed.

Did Shakespeare achieve this by plan, out of incompetence, or as a side-effect of living at a time when children watched public executions for fun? I don’t know. Perhaps more importantly, is this effect something we should aim at today in our own stories? Personally, I think that we need only a very small number of such stories. There’s value in confronting this feeling, but you shouldn’t stare into the total perspective vortex on a regular basis. Developing a traditional dramatic story structure is much more difficult, but much more versatile.