Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”
The “Prince Hal Problem”
Since the post on Chimes at Midnight two months ago, I kept coming back in my mind to the “Hal question.” In this one I will look at how Shakespeare himself delineated Prince Hal (before he became Henry V), how critics and other analysts considered Hal’s behavir and then return to the treatment by Orson WellesTo summarize that discussion: How are we to relate to the character of Prince Hal, who is portrayed in the film as a calculating manipulator, one who while heir apparent idles his time drinking and whoring, at a time when the kingdom is threatened with civil war? He choses to carouse with an alcoholic knight, who clearly cherishes him, intending all the while to banish the affection of him and his friends so that his apparent reformation will astonish the people of England his future subjects. Although the film is the story of the old knight, Sir John Falstaff, the character of the prince is the central character in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, Part One, Henry IV, Part Two and Henry V. Indeed the tetralogy, beginning with Richard II, seems designed (at least in retrospect, Shakespeare probably did not have this clear intention when he began with Richard II) to build toward the glorification of Prince Hal, as Henry V the valiant victor at Agincourt and the most important English historical hero in all of Shakespeare’s works.
In its outward appearance the behavior of Hal is not remarkable. He is simply a young man sowing his wild oats, who, when he becomes king, decides to reform abruptly and take on his responsibilities. Such a transformation in anyone is not a particularly common occurrence, but it is not difficult to see how a fictional story can be made of it, although as a plot it is more likely in temperance-born again-revivalist stories than in any good literature. And Shakespeare makes the task much more difficult by inserting a soliloquy at the beginning of our view of Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, a particularly inappropriate time to declare such secret intention, especially as it takes place just after he has agreed to participate in a highway robbery! And when he finally rejects Falstaff (a play later), Hal, now King Henry V, does it with such brutality, for which he has not prepared Falstaff, that in the end it is clear that “the King has killed his heart,” as Hostess Quickly says in the )next) play (Henry V, II:i:84) (and Pym (?) in the movie). The violence of the rejection seems to be part of his original plan, that
… when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
(Henry IV, Part One, I:ii:206-13.)
It is apparently planned ruthlessness designed to make him all the more remarkable.
So there are two related questions: How are we to understand Hal in the original plays? and does Welles attempt to solve the problem in the film and, if so, how?
Conveniently, last week Trinity College’s Cinestudio began a three day showing of the restored film. To prepare for it, and to see what I could come with on my own, I carefully reread Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. I also read a variety of commentaries on the works, which historically mostly focuses on the character of Falstaff, particularly on commentaries on Elizabethan stage presentation, literary character analysis, literary psychoanalysis and myth-folk lore analysis of the plays. As for Welles, I read again the playscript for his Five Kings, the 1939 Mercury Theater production of the same plays. I also reviewed as many interviews of Welles on his approach to Shakespeare as I could find. And for good measure I watched the two other Shakespeare plays Welles filmed—Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952)—as well as the Omnibus television version of King Lear (1953), which was directed not by Welles but rather by Peter Brook (who also wrote the teleplay), who would go on to film the play 18 years later with Paul Scofield as Lear. Welles, however, played Lear in the teleplay. I also listened to the Shakespeare-based radio broadcasts by Welles on the CBS radio network: Hamlet (Fall 1937, CBS Workshop, with Ray Collins), Julius Caesar (September 11, 1938, Mercury Theatre on the Air) and Scenes from King Lear (1946, Mercury Summer Theatre).
With this basis I think we can come to some supportable observations about how Shakespeare treated the “Hal problem” (which is the crucial component in the characterization of Falstaff), how we can interpret Hal and Falstaff psychologically, and how all this allows us to evaluate Welles’s film. But first, the reviewing and the other thinking crystalized certain observations about Welles as a film-maker that I omitted in the last post, failed to elaborate satisfactorily or missed in my earlier view of the movie. So I’ll make three observations before returning to the questions I posed.
Three Additional Style Observations on Chimes at Midnight
First, in all his Shakespeare films, Welles has a superb visual style. It is not necessarily a personal style (in the way that we can say Eisenstein, Bergman and Malick, for examples, have personal styles), because it is subordinate to individual movies rather than an overall “aesthetic.” The cage motif in Othello, for example, is stunning. At the beginning of the film (which takes place after the end of the play) Iago is hoisted in cage where he will presumably die. Welles told Bogdanovich that the idea for the cage came from the treatment of defeated Berber guerrilla leader Abd el-Krim, who was driven in a mule-drawn cage to show tribes during the Riff War. As a punishment for Iago it is entirely consistent with the play, which has Iago explaining early on (I:i) that if he did not hide his true intent (to poison Othello’s mind) he would “wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at.” In the cage, after he has been exposed, he will die with jackdaws (corvids, i.e., crows) and other birds pecking at his flesh. But that is just the beginning. The cross-hatch shadows and cage-like window fixtures and other spatial divides continue through the film. And increasingly the cross-hatches and their shadows separate us from what takes place on screen. Othello is a prisoner of his own naiveté, jealousy and misplaced trust as much. Like Desdemona herself, we find ourselves caught within or viewing into a snare we did not create but cannot escape.
The long crane shot is probably his signature visual expression, but all the famous examples (the opening of Touch of Evil, the warehouse scene in Citizen Kane and the ballroom scene in The Magnificent Ambersons) serve a narrative purpose. Of course such shots could only take place when Welles had the resources of a studio. But even when the studio provided the train set that every boy wanted (in Welles’s famous quote) they never understood what could be achieved. So for reasons that defy explanation, they broke up the continuous ballroom shot in Ambersons, probably for the same reason that public high school administrators destroy student individuality—because they are stupid and because they can. Lacking the full technical apparatus that Hollywood studios would have provided him, these long crane shots are missing from the Shakespeare movies, but other devices abound.
I already noted some visual highlights of Chimes at Midnight: the austere court scenes with their militaristic trappings, the deadened outdoor landscapes (the fields around Justice Shallow’s estate, the battleground at Shrewsbury and the burial field of Falstaff, for examples). There is one scene that on reviewing is quite noteworthy. The only scene of “normal” life with vegetation is when Prince Hal is talking to the dead Hotspur. Behind him are trees that look just like “England in springtime.” This would be a perfect visual cue for Hal’s “rebirth,” which it is in the film (at least the beginning of the rebirth) but given the plot vagaries (discussed below) that is not the case in the plays.
The set and view of the large room in Shallow’s estates with Falstaff in the deep background and Shallow and Silence in the foreground— Shallow on the floor after a night of drinking—provide the perfect visual context for Falstaff’s musings on the vanities of old men. The ground level view (what Marlene Dietrich called Welles’s “frog’s eye view”) allows Falstaff to tower over us in the triumph of discovering that Hal has become Henry V. We watch Falstaff’s joy as though from the front row below the apron, knowing all the while that his delusion will end in humiliation. (The difference between tragedy and comedy is always a matter of personal taste.)
All of this seems to me to put to rest all the attempts to attribute the visual magic of Kane solely to Gregg Tolland.
Second, Falstaff is finally a role that Welles fully inhabited. From the beginning, way back in FWA and Mercury Theatre days, there was always the nagging doubt that Welles could truly act rather than simply rely on his baritone voice and idiosyncratic pacing. It is true that as some pointed out during the run of Five Kings, early on Welles depended in his recitation of Shakespearean (and Marlowian) verse on peculiar tempos, with word groups followed by odd pauses unrelated to meaning. You can hear this peculiarity by listening to Welles’s Brutus in Julius Caesar or indeed any other role in his radio broadcasts. It is also true that Welles depended more on poses than Method early on. You can see a bit of this in his film role of Macbeth. If you trace him from Othello through King Lear to Falstaff, you will see that the mannerisms are gradually shed and in Chimes at Midnight he becomes Falstaff rather than simply represents him.
Finally, the soundscape of Welles’s films is quite striking, and it is particularly notable on experiencing several films together. It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary the sound of Citizen Kane was at the time. Kenneth Tynan attended it five times in short order and one time closed his eyes solely to absorb the sound of the film. Of course, Kane had music by Bernard Herrmann. Brilliant in itself, the score (including and especially the composed “opera” that Susan Alexander attempts to master) quietly underlies the disintegration of Kane. The Germanic opera leitmotif semblance (music this time by Jacques Ibert1) was again tried in Welles’s Macbeth, which enhanced the obviously low-budget set. That score was spoiled only by the overly bright “triumph theme” (of the forces attacking Dunsinane). The Herrmann score for Kane, by contrast, is truly a moving work, intellectual and subtle. It will be a long time before we hear that quality of music in American movies. The local strip mall multiplexes are equipped with very loud (but low quality) speakers, designed for the banal hammering in movies like Inception, where special effects and loud minimalist music is supposed to cover poor writing and insipid plot. Although Welles (according to Virgil Thompson) had no especial ear for music, he always knew what “worked.” If one compares the released version of Touch of Evil with the version much later produced according to Welles’s 58-page post-production memo, it is entirely obvious who knew how the movie should sound, as between Welles and the studio flacks who commissioned a Mancini score!
Once Welles was cut off from the studio system he was forced to contract with composers (or rely on classical music in the public domain). For both Othello and Chimes at Midnight Welles made the inspired choice of Angelo Lavagnino as composer. (Welles told Bogdanovich that Lavignino also composed a completely different score for Welles’s later stage version of Othello.) Lavagnino’s score for the film Othello is chilling. From the very beginning (with the simultaneous funerals of the pagan Othello and the Christian Desdemona and the caging of Iago) we in in the grip of music that is profoundly “epic,” although it marries the modern with the pre-Baroque. Like the score of Kane it is not intrusive, but holds our attention as we watch the trap that Iago devises to ensnare two helpless victims. The score of Chimes at Midnight is equally effective and involved a wider range, including folk dances, court music, the background for a brutal battle scene, chant-song and the melancholy backings for several soliloquies. As with all of Welles’s films (except when the studio interfered as it did with Touch of Evil), the musical score does not intrude; nevertheless, some figures remain with you long after the film is over (as does the general atmosphere of the film which is intertwined with them).
But the musical score is not the only part of the soundscape of this film. Throughout Chimes at Midnight, we hear the natural sounds that place in context and comment on the action and the places where it takes place: church bells in the background, dogs running through the common spaces, soldiers’ boots tromping on stone (an effect Welles discovered in his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar), rain outdoors and the wind that swirls as the armies are about to face off. The battle scene (which lasts quite long and marks a turning point for the characters in the movie, and to a lesser extent in Henry IV, Part One) is filled with thuds of clubs and swords hitting bodies, hisses of arrows, whistling of slings, the metallic clangs of armor and swords and the slosh and squelch of mud under foot of the fighting and under the parts of those engaged in the lonely and futile struggle to live. The human voice is also used as part of the soundscape independent of the dialogue. Conversations overlap to keep scenes moving (a trick he developed in his Mercury Theatre plays), crowd noises punctuate speeches, and rather than have everyone miked at the same volume, Welles tries to simulate the location of characters within large spaces or long hallways by positioning the microphone where the camera is, rather than where the character is. This concern for three-dimensional placement is similar to his interest in “deep focus” in Kane (although in some ways it works in the converse way since there is no equal auditory access as there is visual access in the camera technique, rather we hear less distinctly the voices that are farther away). This technique is especially notable after the death of Henry IV, when Hal addresses the courtiers. We hear him up close, next to him, as he addresses the crowd in the large room separated by the long, narrow walkway to the throne, and then we hear him from behind the crowd in the large room. The change subtly marks the transition of Hal from a private person we know intimately to the public figure we can only distantly observe.
I will note one other feature of the film, Welles’s editing of the plays, in the course of the discussion of the “Hal problem,” which begins, as it must, with Shakespeare’s own treatment.
How Shakespeare Created the “Prince Hal Problem”
The place to begin is the constraint I suppose Shakespeare felt so as not to depart too greatly from popular conception of Hal (who had become a highly popular king in England’s historical imagination by Shakespeare’s time). And that conception ultimately comes from England’s preeminent historical popularizer of the time, Raphael Holinshed. His Chronicles treats the issue of Hal’s youthful behavior rather gingerly. It is worth setting out the passage at full length since it not only deals with the wild oats supposedly sown by Hal, but his confrontation with his father Henry IV and Hal’s volte-face.
Thus were the father and the son reconciled, betwixt whom the said pickthanks had sewn division, insomuch that the son, upon a vehement conceit of unkindness sprung in the father, was in the way to be worn out of favor. Which was the more likely to come to pass, by their informations that privily charged him with riot and other uncivil demeanor unseemly for a prince. Indeed, he was youthfully given, grown to audacity, and had chosen him companions agreeable to his age with whom he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and delights as he fancied. But yet (it should seem by the report of some writers) that his behavior was not offensive or at least tending to the damage of anybody, since he had a care to avoid doing of wrong, and to tender his affections within the tract of virtue, whereby he opened unto himself a ready passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was beloved of such as could discern his disposition, which was in no degree so excessive, as that he deserved in such vehement manner to be suspected. In whose dispraise I find little, but to his praise very much, parcel whereof I will deliver by the way as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. (Holingshed, Chronicles … (1587 ed.), Volume 3, page 539 (edited with modernized spelling by Rosemary Gaby).)
Holinshed’s treatment of the reign of Henry V is unvarnished hagiography. So I suspect that if there weren’t a strong tradition of Hal’s dissolute youth, Holinshed would just as soon have passed over it, particularly given that the sudden change plays no heroic or moralistic role in the historian’s story of Hal’s life. Indeed, he treats Hal’s behavior defensively, alternating between attributing it to the gossip of pickthanks (a word that sadly is not often seen these days, which causes me to overuse lickspittle) and minimizing the severity of the misbehavior. This suggests that his readers must already have believed in Hal’s youthful reputation, otherwise, why would he include it?
Shakespeare could have followed Holinghed’s lead and downplayed the stories, but he ventured in the other direction. Far from participating in only harmless pranks, Hal is made to agree to join Falstaff in a highway robbery. (It is true that he does so only to trick Falstaff and Hal never joins in the robbery, but he nonetheless agrees to the plot, furthers its enterprise and thus under law would be guilty as a joint venturer, just as Northumberland is later a party to the rebellion by agreeing to and furthering it, even though he fails to participate at the last minute). Shortly after he became king (in the previous play), Henry complained to Hotspur’s father that Hal daily frequented taverns “With unrestrained loose companions, / Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes, / And beat our watch, and rob our passengers …” (Richard II, V:iii:7-9). By playing up Hal’s transgressions, Shakespeare emphasize the differences between Hal and Hotspur, in order to measure Hal’s aptitude to succeed his father (or at least to test his father’s patience). To make this comparison, Shakespeare treats Hotspur and Hal as equivalent in age, something not found in Holinshed, and in fact untrue. Hotspur in life was only three years younger than Henry IV and 22 years older than Prince Hal. It is thus not a wish that plausibly could have occurred to the king that “some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle-clothes our children where they lay, / And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!” as Henry fantasizes (Henry IV, Part One, I:i:86-88) when comparing Hotspur’s martial virtues to Hal’s “riot and dishonour.” (By changing the age of Hotspur for the first Henry IV play Shakespeare also contradictions Richard II, which has Hotspur meeting the young Henry (then Bolingbroke) when the latter returned prematurely from exile at Ravenspurgh, as Hotspur himself reminds the audience in Henry IV, Part One (I:iii:244). (Shakespeare not only neglected established facts, he often contradicted events that he himself made up.2) Thus it seems that Shakespeare went out of his way to deal with Hal’s riotous youth so that we can watch Hal overshadow Hotspur and become the glorious Henry V, victor of Agincourt (among the many other virtues that Holinshed lists, but Shakespeare ignores).
What then are we to make of Hal’s soliloquy, announcing his plan to continue his debauchery until such time as he is required to convert and then change completely to the amazement of all? We could attribute this to self-delusion (all dissolutes think their debauchery can continue to some unspecified future time; and that he compares his eventual reformation to the sun emerging form behind clouds might support this thought), except that in the end he does reform. We could look at it as an aspiration which he works to bring to fruition, and against all odds succeeds. This might have been the interpretation if Henry IV, Part One were the only play. For in it Hal carouses only until it’s necessary for him (and Falstaff and his retainers) to “go to the wars” to face the forces of Hotspur. In the meantime he is aware that he really doesn’t measure up to Hotspur (“I am not yet of Percy’s mind”), a man who has already covered himself in glory with a reputation of ferociousness which Hal bravely parodies: “he that kills me some six or seven / dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says / to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work'” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:101-03).
When summoned before the king and facing the dressing down that Henry V has been waiting to deliver, Hal acknowledges his misbehavior (with extenuation for the exaggerations of “smiling pickthanks and base newsmongers”) and vows to take Hotspur down in combat in order to “… redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son …” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-34). At Shrewsbury he offers to save the destruction of innocents in both armies by adding to Henry’s offer of reconciliation by engaging in sole combat with Hotspur. In the battle that follows the refusal, Hal saves his father from certain death then goes on to kill Hotspur. One would expect that his conduct in this battle would mark the promised reformation and Hal’s rejection of Falstaff (who had falsely claimed that he killed Hotspur upon his revival after after Hal left the scene), but no! The play ends with Henry IV ordering his forces to carry the fight to the rebel in the north and the east.
In Henry IV, Part Two, Hal returns from the east, and the cycle begins again. (It’s as though the two plays were about alcoholics and their codependents.) With his father physically ill, Hal pairs up again with Poins and again heads to the tavern to play a prank on Falstaff. More merriment ensues. Hal does not chastise Falstaff for his conduct at Shrewsbury, nor warn him that when he assumes the throne, he must dissociate himself from his “riotous” friends. And so, Falstaff goes on to aid the prince’s brother in the north (Hal stays behind as part of Henry’s plan to divide him from Falstaff), and when he comes back Falstaff stays with his acquaintance Justice Shallow, a ridiculous old man from whom Falstaff hopes to “devise matter enough out of / this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter / the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms, or / two actions, and ‘a shall laugh without intervallums” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:i:71-74). In the mean time, Henry IV has become gravely ill and is once again lamenting the depravity of his son, when he discovers that Hal is in London dining with Poins:
Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them; therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
(Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iv:54-61.)
When Hal returns to the castle, he finds his father asleep, barely alive. He takes the crown from the pillow and leaves the room. Henry awakes, demands to have the crown brought back and finds that it was his own son that took it. He excoriates his son for wishing him dead. Hal convinces his father that he only took the crown to speak to it and “upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending / Hath fed upon the body of my father …'” (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:159-60). He again speaks of his (still!) unrealized plan to reform: “The noble change that I have purposed!” (line 155). And he does this with sufficient pathos to convince the king who is now finally reconciled, content now to die.
We learn of Henry’s death in a scene involving the Lord Chief Justice (V:ii), who now fears for his own safety having once committed the prince, now king, to jail for riotous behavior. When the new king confronts him, the justice explains that he was acting on authority of the king (in loco parentis, I suppose) to deliver the rebuke that was due him. Hal, now Henry V, assures him that he did well and hoped that he would do the same to a wayward son of his own. Falstaff is still at Shallow’s when he learns of Henry’s death; he rushes to see Hal, believing that they will rejoice together in Hal’s new station. Instead, in the presence of his own train as well as Falstaff’s entourage, the new king rejects and banishes Falstaff in the most brutally abusive language:
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But being awaked I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace …
(Henry IV, V:v:50-55.)
Stunned, Falstaff tries to explain it to his friends: “I shall be sent for in private to him …” (line 80) and “I shall be sent for / soon at night.” (lines 92-93.) Instead, the Lord Chief Justice has him taken away to the fleet prison, while Prince John remarks favorably on his brother’s “fair proceeding” with his “wonted followers.” Lest anyone improperly conclude that the King’s treatment was harsh, Shakespeare has the prince say that they will all be “very well provided for” and their banishment will last only “till their conversations / Appear more wise and modest to the world” (lines 102 & 103-104). But possibly Shakespeare still worried that the this ending for Falstaff was not satisfactory and has a dancer give an epilogue, promising to bring back Falstaff in yet another play:
… If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you
merry with fair Katharine of France—where, for anything
I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already
‘a be killed with your hard opinions …
(Henry IV, Part Two, Epilogue, 25-30.)
Despite the bantering about the audience’s “hard opinion” of Falstaff, this ending by a narrator standing in for the author suggests to me that Shakespeare himself was troubled by this ending to Falstaff and hoped to resolve it in the next play or at least to postpone finally resolving the business.
In that play (Henry V) Shakespeare gives King Henry the lines ordering Falstaff’s release, attributing the old man’s ill behavior during the king’s procession to “an excess of wine.” This allows us to soften our of opinion towards old Hal. But to bolster the case that the original treatment was justified, Shakespeare has this offer of clemency trigger a dissent from the king’s advisers, who urge that the punishment be continued “lest example / Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind” (Henry V, II:ii:45-46). As someone might say, Shakespeare seems to protest too much over the treatment. And probably he could not find a way out of the dynamics he had created, because Falstaff does not appear as promised by the dancer in the last play. Instead Falstaff receives something of a wake in the next scene with Hostess Quickly, Falstaff’s small page (played charmingly in the film by Welles’s daughter Beatrice), Pistol, Bardolph and Pym. It is Mistress Quickly, despite her fights with Falstaff, who offers the only eulogy: “Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. ‘A made / a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom / child; ‘a parted e’en just between twelve and one, e’en / at the turning o’th’ tide / … / and ‘a babbled of green / fields” (Henry V, II:iii:9-17). Quickly and Pistol and others fill the comic role for the rest of the play.
There are very few modern commentators who defend Hal’s behavior towards Falstaff. Even those who reflexively defend Shakespeare’s treatments are at least defensive about Hal. Allan G. Chester, for example, in his preface to Henry IV, Part Two in the Pelican Shakespeare, says: “We need not condemn Hal too severely. Good judgment would have taught Falstaff that the laws of England would not be at his commandment after the death of the old king, and delicacy would have forbidden him to obtrude himself so abruptly into Hal’s new situation. … It is Falstaff, not the prince, who compels the rejection.” But does boorishness require imprisonment? And would not the laws of England, not to mention the example of the prudence of his own father (as the king expressly tells him in Henry IV, Part One, III:ii) be equally instructive to Hal against participating in a robbery, not to mention continuing in Falstaff’s company long after he had been repeatedly urged against it by the king? Even Poins, Hal’s “shadow,” tells him that the world would consider him a hypocrite if he were to weep over the illness of his father “because you have been so lewd, and so much / engraffed to Falstaff” (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:58-59).
Last time I mentioned Nuttall’s theory that Shakespeare patterned Hal after the Friend of the sonnets to whom we was (homosexually?) attracted as an explanation of why Hal troubles us and not him. I left the analysis at that, but I should emphasize now that the theory is useful only in showing us that Hal’s behavior troubled even eminent literary critics, who usually act as if it were a professional obligation to reject all suggestions of unsuccessful dramatic conceptions by Shakespeare. But Nuttall’s explanation, based as it is on a predilection of the drama’s author inferred from a construction of another literary text, requires that we believe that in one case the narrator is speaking on behalf of Shakespeare relating his biography and in the other the character is modeled on the assumed features of the recipient (Shakespere’s real life “Friend”) of the other text. However dazzling one might think this analysis is as an example of academic virtuosity, at bottom it makes the twin mistakes of assuming that the narrator of a text (or a character in a literary drama) speaks the thoughts of the author and that the tidbits of biographical information concerning the author that we can mine from a text has some importance in evaluating another text. But beyond that, Nuttal’s conclusions, even if true and relevant, amount to nothing more than that Hal is simply a boorish jerk, of a kind that Shakespeare somehow liked, but a jerk nonetheless. But one need not have gone through the hoops Nuttal did if that is all one wanted to say about Hal’s character.
Traditional literary critics, therefore, being less than helpful on this issue, we might as well consult a field, which brings a form of psychological insight into literary tests (albeit a field that is not much consulted these days for that purpose). And psychoanalysis is a field that routinely comments on literary productions and has a structure (whether you subscribe to it or not), which allows for discussion of behavior and what prompts it. To many the Freudian apparatus creaks with age and totters with odd ideological baggage, but it is the latter feature which allow us to talk about the subject. We cannot say there is an accepted “literary” way of looking at Hal’s conduct. But we can expect that there might be a psychoanalytical way, just as there might be a “Christian” or “historical” way to explain his behavior. After all, much of Freud’s theory depends on his view that literary archtypes illustrate certain mental phenomena, and Freud himself often analyzed literary characters and their authors solely on the basis of literary evidence. So let’s see what psychoanalysts have to say on the problem.
A Psychoanalysis Prince Hal
Although Freud himself had much to say about certain of Shakespeare’s characters (particularly Hamlet and Lear), he has only fairly banal comments on the historical plays. This might seem odd, considering that the themes in those plays revolve around authority conferred by patrilineal descent, threats to the continuity of that authority, and the central feature, inherently creating a psychological division: the fact that the heir apparent can only realize the potential for which he spent his entire life preparing (kingship) through the death of his father. Monarchy of the English type also has the political necessity for male heirs and the strategic bonding through marriage, resulting in the trading of females for political purposes. These features all depend on a sexual differentiation, which necessarily affects all aspects of personal development and identity. The monarchy really ought to be a fertile soil for an approach to understanding personality which posits that most formative events take place within a family and involve sexual tensions and competition for affections.
Yet Freud limited himself to two comments about the Henry IV-V play. First, he discussed Falstaff as an example of the humorous technique of “economized expenditure of effect” (Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious, §VIII). Falstaff’s size, harmlessness and the “lowness” of those he abuses prevents us from objecting to his gluttony, cowardice and deceit, says Freud. (The nature of humor must have changed much more between our time and Freud’s than from Freud’s to Shakespeare’s, or else I have been stricken with the cursed “political correctness” that they condemn these days.) He also notes that with respect to Falstaff himself his ego is “superior” so that his physical defects do not rob him of his psychic security.
Second, Freud mentions Hal in Interpretation of Dreams (Chapter VI) where he observes that when Hal puts on his father’s crown (thinking his father near death) he was acting out his (unconscious?) wish for his father’s death. “Whenever there is rank and promotion,” says Freud, “the way lies open for wishes that call for suppression.” Of course this is hardly a clever insight, for King Henry himself makes that very point (less prosaically) when he surprises Hal wearing the crown. Hals says: “I never thought to hear you speak again.” Henry replies: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.” (Henry IV, Part II: IV:v:92-93.) Indeed, isn’t the putting on the crown merely the stark culmination of Hal’s brooding over the course of the two plays (namely, that Hal’s behavior was a the punishment inflicted on him for taking the crown (and killing) Richer II)?
So we have Hal’s wish to toss aside his father. What about Falstaff? For that we have to figure out what Falstaff meant to Hal, and for that in turn we must go deeper into the mire of psychoanalysis than Freud did with either Hal or Falstaff.
There is a pair of father-son relations in Richard II and Henry IV, Part one, and all are named Henry. In Richard II, Henry IV begins as Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gault, the Duke of Lancaster (who happens to be uncle to the king, Richard II). Henry Percy (the father of Hotspur), the Earl of Northumberland, is an early supporter of Henry Bolingborke on the latter’s return from unjust banishment to fight the king for his rightful estates (taken by Richard II on the death of John of Gault to pay for his extravagance, we are told, and to defend against uprisings by the Welsh and Scots). Northumberland introduces his son, “Harry” Percy (known as Hotspur) to Henry, and Hotspur pledges allegiance to Henry. That play ends with Henry Bolingbroke becoming King Henry IV, and we know only little about his own son, Henry (Hal), now Prince of Wales and heir apparent, except that he spends his time “‘mongst the taverns” in London and that Henry has not seen him for three month (V:iii:1-12).
Hotspur in some ways once saw both Henry and Northumberland as fathers in Richard II. But in Henry IV, Part One the new king refuses to ransom Hotspurs wife’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower, because Henry believed he had gone over to Glendower’s side. This constitutes in Hotspur’s mind Henry’s “rejection” of him, and under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, and his father Northumberland, Hotspur goes into revolt against Henry, in effect “rejecting” his adopted father.3 But it is Hotspur’s martial glories both before and after the revolt that causes Henry to prefer him over his natural son and heir, Hal. Despite his knowledge of his father’s displeasure, Hal for his part remains a companion of Falstaff, and even after Hal, as he promises his father, washes off his “bloody mask,” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:136-37), by killing Hotspur, he returns to Falstaff. Why?
The easy answer (the Psychoanalysis 101, or perhaps Psychoanalysis for Humanities Students, answer) is the “pleasure principle,” the prominent princple from Civilization and its Discontents. This force, which directs the id to seek physical gratification is buried by social forces so that everyone is able to bring himself to go to the office in order to work on spreadsheets in a cubicle rather than doing things that are more physically gratifying. This drive seldom is responsible for any socially unhealthy actions in normally maladjusted individuals (because it is so under the control of socially embedded rules) but can bubble up in dreams or even neurotic impulses. That Falstaff is the physical embodiment of the pleasure principle for Hal is hinted at when the new king says in his rejection speech that “I have long dreamed of such a kind of man [Falstaff, whom he addresses in the third person], / So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane, / But being awaked I do despise my dream.” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:52-54.) If you want to read ripe prose on what a carefree sprite Falstaff is (“… he is so happy and so entirely at ease. ‘Happy’ is too weak a word; he is in bliss, and we share in his glory. …”), you can read A.C. Bradley’s essay from the beginning of the last century (before modernism disturbed the complacency of Edwardian men of letters). But while Falstaff is not Peter Pan, the play has ample evidence that he partakes of Dionysian qualities. (Although probably due to commercial considerations and not with a view to mythological parallels, Shakespeare even resurrects Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor after killing him off in Henry V.) No social rules stand in the way of his gratification, and he led other to do likewise.
Norman Holland points out that Falstaff is the only major figure who is “whole” in the Henry IV plays. The other major characters are “dyads” (my word, not his): Hal/Hotspur; Worcester/Northumberland, Henry IV/Richard II, John of Lancaster/Hal and Shallow/Silence. Falstaff therefore is more “significant” than the “historical” characters. Indeed he rises to folk-mythological status. J.I.M. Stewart sees Falstaff as the Fisher King from the Arthurian/Parsifal traditions. (In the last post, I pointed out Falstaff’s own imaginative association with King Arthur.) The Fisher King receives a wound to his thigh/groin, which does not heal, causing infertility throughout the land. There are many medieval versions of the tale, and the attributes of his character are found in many figures. (A concise summary can be found in the “Fisher King” article by Matthew Annis at the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project.) In the Parzival version by Wolfram von Eschenbach (followed by Wagner in his opera) it is up to the hero to journey to Amfortas’s castle (where the Holy Gail is kept) to heal the king and restore fertility (spiritual and agricultural) to the land. As for the hints in Shakespeare, the most telling (to me) is after the “duel” between Pistol and Falstaff, Hostess asks: “Are you not hurt i’th’ groin? Methought ‘a made / a shrewd thrust at your belly (King Henry IV, Part 2 II:iv:205-06) (in Welles’s film Doll says the lines). The Fisher King’s association with seasonal fertility makes him one of the saturnalian figures of folk harvest/renewal festivals. Stewart writes that the description of Falstaff in the plays points to those cyclical festivals. Hal (playing his father) calls Falstaff a “roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:140-41) (referring to the Whitsun festival in Manningtree when an ox is roasted whole), and Poins describes him as Martlemas (Henry Iv, Part Two, II:ii:96), meaning the salted beef served at Martinmas, a feast in November. He is also referred to as kinds of pork appropriate for feasts: “brawn” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:109) and Bartholomew boar pig (Henry IV, Part Two, II:iv:228-29). Perhaps the clinching evidence is that, like folk characters, Falstaff dies “at the turning o’th’ tide”, as Hostess Quickly makes a point of noting in her eulogy (Henry V, II:iii:13), like many a folk figure.
At such seasonal festivals there is a spirit of abandon presided over a Saturnalian figure, a Lord of Misrule. (Falstaff shows himself to be Saturn to Hal’s Jupiter when he calls out to the new King: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!” Henry IV, Part Two: V:v:49.) During the Saturnalias ordinary rules are suspended: Vice is Virtue. But with the end of the festivities the Lord of Misrule is killed (and so Falstaff is rejected by Hal). Norman Holland pointed out that Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego that Saturnalia “derive from a temporary, therapeutic abrogation of the incorporated parental demand on the ego; they are lawful release from the superego.” So in this view Falstaff provides a replacement for Hal’s biological father. But why would Hal want to replace his father?
The only suggestion that seems to have any support in the plays revolves around Henry IV’s regicide of Richard II. We know that Henry IV himself worries himself over his guilt. That guilt is what that blights the land with rebellion. (So it is Henry IV’s actions and not the wound to Falstaff’s groin that renders the land infertile.) This is how Ernest Kris explains Hal’s attachment to Falstaff: Because Henry IV is a regicide (and therefore a political parricide), Hal rejects his authority and must develop his own superego under the guidance of the substitute father Falstaff. We’ve seen that Hal in effect has two fathers and Philip Williams drives home the point by showing how Hal mistakes both of them as dead, and then robs them (of a crown from his father and the charges of the Hostess of Falstaff). When they actually die, they both die in the custom of folk figures: in Jerusalem for the king (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:239) and with the tides for Falstaff. Is there any evidence in the plays that Hal was disturbed by his father’s regicide or that it (or to avoid a subconscious impulse toward parricide himself) motivated his rejection of his father and preference for Falstaff? If there is, I cannot find it. But the advantage of psychoanalytic criticism is that if you follow a long enough argument based on the “logic” of psychoanalytic theory, it’s possible to fill in evidentiary holes by faith.
So if we have followed this line thus far, the ending is easy enough. Once Hal’s father dies, Hal no longer is plagued by his father’s crime, he emerges as the rightful king and the substitute father is superfluous, and so he figuratively kills of Falstaff (who dies a little later from the figurative killing) as part of Hal’s transition from his pre-Oedipal stage.
There is one other aspect that seems to have escaped the psychoanalysits. The last we see of Falstaff (forever) is when he is being ordered off to jail by the Lord Chief Jusitce. That man had been commended by Henry V, to act to any future wayward child of his to treat him the same way the justice treated Hal (i.e., as a wayward son would be treated by a parent). And so the justice treats Falstaff. Thus Falstaff’s regression has become complete. Starting off as the substitute father, he is rejected when he becomes unneeded and finally becomes the son, one in need of correction himself. Far from informing the superego of Hal when Hal’s own father was not capable of doing so, Falstaff will now receive the Law of the Father from Henry V.
We can thus see that Shakespeare wrote the perfect fin de siècle Vienna play, unmatched by any (except perhaps Hamlet).
But this is not the only (neo)Freudian explanation of Hal’s development. Valerie Traub argues that Falstaff is not Hal’s substitute father, but rather his substitute mother. The idea that Falstaff is a faux woman is not solely the province of Freudian feminists. W.H. Auden saw him as both a baby and a pregnant woman. He eats, Auden thought, to combine both aspects in order “to become completely self-sufficient emotionally.” Traub, however, does not see Falstaff’s shape as the result of an intention to become self-sufficient, but rather as the outward manifestation of his woman-ness (or non-man-ness), which carries with it, not comfort, but rather exclusion from the male (phallic-based) world. That world is the “serious” part of the drama. Take Hotspur, for example. His wife makes every effort to draw him into the world of healthy domestic sexuality. Hotspur, however, will have none of it. He is off to war because, as he says, the world he inhabits, that of rebellion and martial matters, is not a world for women (or sex): “This is no world / To play with mammets, and to tilt with lips. / We must have bloody noses, and cracked crowns …” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iii:94-96). He eludes her clutches and won’t even say he loves her until he is on his horse, so that he can escape her. It is significant (as we will see very shortly) that when Hal thinks of Hotspur and his relationship to his wife, he thinks of himself and Falstaff and says: “I prithee call in Falstaff. I’ll play Percy, and that / damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife” (Henry IV, Part One, II: iv:107-08). And aside from Lady Mortimer, who has no speaking part (because she only speaks Welsh and Mortimer only English), the only other woman’s role in the first Henry play is Hostess Quickly, who is rendered genderless by Falstaff who calls her an otter, because “[s]he’s neither fish nor flesh, a man knows / not where to have her” (Henry IV, Part One, III:iii:125-26). In the second play Hotspur’s widow returns and has a small scene with her mother-in-law (both of whom persuade him Northumberland not to fight (to act the woman?), causing him to again betray the rebels). The only other woman to appear is Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute, the agent of venereal disease (which is why Falstaff sends his “water” off to the doctor) and vessel for a fetus, who worries that she will miscarry when she is rounded up by the beadle (and the Hostess in fact prays that she does: Henry IV, Part Two, V:iv:12-13). It is a phallogocentric world (not to point to pretentious a point on it), where women are drags on the real business of men (killing), when they are not infecting them or carrying their issue.
Traub marshalls the evidence that Falstaff represents a woman to Hal. Much of it comes form Falstaff’s own mouth:
I do here
walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all
her litter but one. (Henry IV, Part Two, I:ii:10-12.)
I have a whole school of tongues in this belly
of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other
word but my name. …
my womb, my womb, my womb undoes me. (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iii:18-22.)
Traub goes so far as to imply that Falstaff’s name can be seen as indicating a fake phallus (False-staff), but perhaps sometimes a name is just a name.
If Falstaff plays the part of a woman, then perhaps Hal’s relationship with him is homoerotic. (Is this what Henry means when he calls his son a “young wanton, and effeminate boy”? Richard II, V:iii:10.) If this is the nature of their relationship, Traub concludes: “Hal’s rejection of Falstaff serves simultaneously to temporarily assuage anxieties, first, about male homoeroticism and, second, about a heterosexuality based on the equatoin of woman and maternity. His repudiation of Falstaff exorcises both threats to Hal’s development of adult heterosexuality.” This is a plausible explanation of Hal’s character (at least if one accepts as a working hypothesis Freud’s concept of psychic development). But the physically grotesque appearance of Falstaff (supported by the language of the play) makes erotic attraction unlikely. And Traub has a different explanation that I think more covmpletely explains both Hal’s attraction to Falstaff and its violent rejection—Hal’s emotions towards Falstaff are Oedipal.
This would mean that Falstaff’s body (as Auden points out) is maternal. And Traub points out how Medieval concepts of the maternal body (with all its various orifices constantly expelling things to the horror of men) is consistent with the physical decription of Falstaff. Hal more than once rattles off numerous insults all amounting to seeing him as a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:439-40), like one with child and the organs that hold it. Moreover, Falstaff is constantly emitting or leaking substances: he is an “oily rascal” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:511), an “obscene, greasy tallow-catch” (line 224), who “sweats to death, / And lards the lean earth as he walks along” (Henry IV, Part One, II:ii:107-07). Even the dancer in the epilogue to Henry IV, Part Two promises the audience a continuation “where, for anything / I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat” (Epilogue 28-29). And it is not just oils and sweat that Falstaff excretes. Coming from the chamber pot, he interrupts his singing of Arthur to order “Empty the jordan” (Henry IV, Part Two, II.iv.33).
Child birth of course is the paradigmatic maternal function that historically has engendered the most disgust in males, taking place, as Freud delicately latinized it: inter urinas et faeces nascimur (a fact, he noted, that neurotics and many others took exception to). Perhaps it is the discontent of all civilization but George Barker expanded the disgust among modern Anglophones to all aspects of procreation. Here are stanzas from his “True Confession”:
The act of human procreation—
The sore dug plugging, the lugged out bub,
The small man priming a lactation,
The grunt, the drooping teat, the rub
Of gum and dug, the slobbing kiss:
Behold the mater amabilis,
Sow with a saviour, messiah and cow,
Virgin and piglet, son and sow:
The act of human procreation,—
O crown and flower, O culmination
Of perfect love throughout creation—
What can I compare it to?
O eternal butterflies in the belly,
O trembling of the heavenly jelly,
O miracle of birth! Really
We are excreted, like shit.
Hal describes to his father his promised rebirth—when he slays Hotspur—in similar terms with blood and gore as though rebirth like birth must be accompanied with all the excretions:
I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.
(Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-37.)
And when Hal in fact fulfills this promise, he sees that Falstaff is also down. If Shakespeare had only read his Neo-Freudians more carefully he probably would have ended the Hal-Falstaff relationship here, where Hal’s rebirth, his “breeching” (the stage in Medieval son rearing where the boy puts on pants and leaves the company of women caregivers) and resolution of his Oedipal drive take place all at once. But Shakespeare did not end it there; Falstaff had been feigning death, Hal’s father does not see the shame removed from Hal, and there is another play to be got through where Hal returns to the taverns of London and Falstaff. It is only at the end of the second play that Hal rejects Falstaff. Perhaps the violence of the rejection has something to do with how belated it was under this theory, involving a near completion followed by backsliding. As it was, it took place only after Hal’s father had died and Hal took up yet another father figure, the Lord Chief Justice. So the rejection does not tie up all the Freudian threads we have been weaving, and maybe they are irrelevant, because Shakespeare was wrting a comic-drama, not a case study, and for him the play was the thing, not the couch.
Welles ignores Freud and takes Medieval politics seriously
Orson Welles was an open book to the public. He loved giving the kind of interviews that let the public see deep inside him. It didn’t matter who the interviewer was, whether a serious student of French cinema or a network entertainment talk show host. And while Welles was more than happy to let audiences into his world, he made much of it up out of whole cloth (or exaggerated real events beyond recognition). During his many interviews his contradictions (of himself, on his opinions of others, his own and others’ contributions to his projects, his intentions and even basic factual matters) became so numerous that one hardly knows what to believe. He was not shy about divulging personal details, depending on the circumstances and the effect he was trying to achieve. But as he was always spinning the mythology of Orson Welles, the content of that mythology and the lessons he drew from it changed over time. He could be perfectly demure (as on middle- and low- brow television talk shows like The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show) and at other times crude, vulgar and slanderous (see his conversations with Henry Jaglom). Although his life was filled with stuff that psychoanalysts could prattle on about (and amateurs did), and although his films echoed (sometimes starkly) things in his life, Welles never offered psychological explanations for his characters or his films, at least not Freudian ones. (His discussions of the motivations of Othello and Lear in his Bogdanovich interviews is entirely uninformed by any Freudian approach: He says that the shortcomings of both men arise from their inexperience with the ways of women.) He also denied that his films were intended to have autobiographical themes. I think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt on that and therefore set aside Nuttal’s example (and the approach of many Welles’s critics) and not try to interpret the movie based on some understanding of his biography.
More reliable than Welles’s views of himself or others’ analysis of his psychobiography are Welles’s own views on how Shakespeare ought to be presented. Shakespeare is possibly the one passion of Welles that lasted a lifetime. From a boy he produced Shakespeare plays at the progressive Todd School at a time when Shakespeare was usually absent from American secondary education. Partly to rectify that after graduation, Welles together with the head of Todd School edited a number of Shakespeare plays with commentary, set illustrations and production suggestions for high schools. When he was 16 Welles performed Hamlet’s father at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. At 18 he toured the country with a Broadway company performing the role of Mercutio. He produced three Elizabethan plays in New York by the time he was 23 and had an out-of-town preview tour of the Henry IV-V plays (which closed before reaching New York). Before Chimes at Midnight he had filmed two other Shakespeare plays, performed in another and had produced and played Falstaff in a Dublin stage version of Chimes at Midnight. In short, Welles was as serious a person in Shakespeare stage and film as anyone not permanently associated with a repertory or national theater company. So his opinions in how Shakespeare should be approached (generally and specifically with respect to specific plays, characters or scenes) ought to be accorded some weight. Indeed, John Gieguld (who had played Hotspur to Ralph Richardson’s Prince Hal in a production at the Old Vic in 1930) said that in his experience Welles had “extremely perceptive appreciation of the Shakespeare text.”
According to interviews late in his life, two principles guided his general approach. First, according to his 1974 interview with Richard Marienstras (who occasionally sounds dubious in Welles’s answers), Welles believed that stage productions ought to respect the theatrical traditions and avoid experimentation. (He was forced to admit that his own Julius Caesar violated that principle, but he claimed that world political exigencies required that an anti-fascist cast be put on the production.) Second, as he told Bogdanovich (and others), he believed that film, being an independent art form, did not need to strictly follow Shakespeare’s “intentions.”
I don’t see why there’s an argument about it. A movie is a movie, and if we are going to take movies as a serious art form, then they’re no less so than opera. And Verdi had no hesitation in doing what he did with his Otello, which is an enormous departure from the play; nobody criticizes him. Why is a movie supposed to be more respectful to play than an opera?
But in both theatrical and film versions Welles always only used Shakespeare’s words (or very occasionally paraphrases) except for the narration in Chimes at Midnight, which all comes form Holinshed. He believed that he was free to abridge (in fact required to, given attention constraints of modern audiences) and occasionally he distributed lines from one character to another. In Chimes at Midnight he significantly re-arranged scenes and sequences (and drastically cut the story that did not involve Falstaff). But he always contended that he remained true to the characters as drawn by Shakespeare and delivered the perspective Shakespeare intended (despite the fact, as Mareinstras pointed out, that by cutting he was “changing the general balance of the play”).
With respect to Chimes at Midnight specifically, Welles strays from the accepted Shakespearean interpretation in one aspect), his characterization of Falstaff), but is consistent with Shakespeare’s intent with respect to the political-court aspect of the story, which though much abridge, provides the framework of the drama, even that part involving only Falstaff and his associates. But because the political aspect provides the overall context of the tale, Welles is able to fold his characterization of Falstaff into the overall political world in a way that produces a perspective that may or may not represent Shakespeare’s ideas, but resolves the “Prince Hal Problem” better than commentators and psychoanalysts do, by condensing the tale so that we follow a more logical story arc and characterization of Hal. In the end, I submit that the surgery Welles performs on the plays results in a story that is much more satisfying dramatically, politically and psychologically, at least to the modern audience, and by taking that approach his characterization of Falstaff is entirely justified. Let’s take the treatment of Falstaff first.
Welles early fell in love with the character, probably around the time he produced Five Kings in 1939. The press reports (particularly from Boston) say that he played Falstaff with much more pathos, and less bawdy humor, than the reviewers had seen before. Over the years this role must have percolated in him (especially given the failure of the Five Kings production) until he converted Falstaff from the buffoon that nineteenth century stage producters regarded him into something of a holy fool (like Prince Myshkin or Quixote), although Welles equivocated on just how “good” Falstaff was, depending on when he talked about him. Here’s what he said to Marienstras:
I think that Falstaff is the only great imaginary character who is truly good. His faults are so minor. No one is perfect, and he’s filled with imperfections, physical and moral defects, but the essential part of his nature is his goodness. That’s the theme of all the plays he appears in.
He described Falstaff to Tynan not as Christ-like (which Auden had suggested) but rather like “a Christmas tree decorated with vices. The tree is total innocence and love.” Welles told Bogdanovich that “his goodness is basic—like bread, like wine.” Back in 1947 Welles wrote in the New York Post (quoted in the Bogdanovich interviews) that Shakespeare was “a sociable sort who liked to trade gags with the boys at the Mermaid” and that he “surely wished that Hamlet could have joined him for a drink after the show. I think Falstaff is Hamlet—an old and wicked Hamlet—having that drink.” Three and a half decades later he told Megahey that Falstaff could not have been the Hamlet that stayed in England rather than return to Denmark, because “Hamlet is not a good man … .” We can gather from all this that Welles over time laid greater and greater emphasis on the “goodness” of Falstaff and minimized the faults of the character.
But Shakespeare shows none of the infatuation with Falstaff that Welles does. The insults hurled at him by Hal and Poins are designed not to elicit audience sympathy for Falstaff but rather to have them laugh at him (and give the actor an opportunity to exaggerate those features by playing the buffoon). Falstaff also does nothing to show “goodness” to anyone (if by “goodness” is meant something like charity or benevolence). He had enemies (like Poins) and treated his retainers shabbily (Bardolph, reminded, after Falstaff’s death, of a joke Falstaff made at his expense, replied: “Well, the fuel is gone that maintained that / fire—that’s all the riches I got in his service” (Henry V, II:iii:40-41). He insulted Hostess to whom he owed money in a way we would now consider vile. He stole from the funds used to recruit soldiers and his drafting of soldiers was influenced by bribes. He committed armed robbery against religious pilgrims, and repeatedly lied, including by taking credit before the king of killing Hotspur. Right before his own end (when he confronted his own mortality) he even mused, with some regret, on the shortcomings of old men who had the habit of lying.
The best that can be said for Falstaff is that he was ingenuous or guileless, which, perhaps, makes him virtuous enough, inasmuch as both are rare enough qualities. Or maybe the more accurate description is that he acted better than could be expected under his circumstances. Isn’t that what Welles is really saying when he says that Falstaff never expected anyone to believe his lies? And the point of his statement to Bogdanovich: “All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and bluff is simply a turn of his—it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about”? If put that way, perhaps it does express how Shakespeare felt. Falstaff was more sinned against than sinning. And the abuse that the rabble in the Globe heaped on him was just more of the circumstances he overcame, until it became too much even for Falstaff—Shakespeare couldn’t bring himself to put Falstaff in Henry V.
Whatever Welles’s conception of Falstaff, his realization does not make the movie markedly different from the play. In fact, it only informs his acting. The tragedy of Falstaff does not depend on his being good or innocent or deserving. His tragedy is that he conceived that he deserved more than his circumstances allowed. It is that sin that Shakespeare’s Tudor audience could not forgive. It was why they found it riotously funny that he might “die of a sweat.” Welles exaggerated the “goodness” of Falstaff in order avoid portraying Falstaff in a way that we no longer can accept. The twentieth century has taught us too much to laugh at fools who are stripped of dignity they do not deserve, because we have seen how easy it is to strip anyone of their fundamental dignity, and it is not a matter for humor, and deep down we are doubtful that any of us have any dignity.
It is on the second point, the politics of Shakespeare’s plays, that Welles is perfectly aligned with Shakespeare’s thinking. He told Marienstras: “The idea that there is something essentially corrupt on the political confrontations of the court pervades his whole oeuvre.” But the king himself, as the embodiment of sovereignty, was outside accountable corruption. “The idea that the crown was sacred, that around the crown corruption reigned but that the crown itself, whoever wore it, was a sort of Holy Grail—for Shakespeare, this idea was very real.”
The concept that the king could legally do no wrong (at least nothing that should cause a forfeiture of the crown by rebellion), by definition, was a maxim of Medieval monarchy. It was what Richard II believed protected him de jure from lawful revolt and de facto meant God would defend him from his enemies. This was why Richard II was so confident in the face of the threat of Henry: “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord.” (Richard II, III:ii:56-57). This ancient principle was so ingrained that it applied even to a usurper who had overthrown a legitimate king. That is why the Duke of York, who counseled Henry against his revolt, tried to turn over his son Aumerle to Henry (once Richard was deposed) when he discovered that his son had plotted to take down Henry and restore Richard (Richard III, V:ii).
By the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s day that notion of the king above the law had frayed beyond recognition, and the concept of legitimacy was central to sovereignty. The Tudor dynasty (which replaced the House of York, which itself was a rival to the claims of the House of Lancaster founded by Henry IV) hardly had the best claim to legitimacy. Henry VI had usurped the throne. Henry VIII had abrogated the church’s authority, and his heirs had resorted to bloody means to obtain their thrones. Shakespeare witnessed real challenges to Elizabeth, who in any event was childless, and succession was the chief matter of political concern by the end of the sixteenth century. There was even a plot against her, which relied on historical and literary references to Henry IV’s deposition of Richard II, a circumstance that caused Elizabeth, when she reviewed the documents of the plotters, to say: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” (I will not here delve into Elizabethan politics, deferring that to a later post.) Shakespeare himself uses the usurpation by Henry as a dividing line between the days when kings believed in their divine right and those that worried about legitimacy. Richard on one half the divide assures himself:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.
(Richard II, III:ii:58-62.)
By contrast Henry broods through both play over his right to rule. He sees the rebellions (as predicted by Richard) as a consequence of the way he gained the throne.
There were practical reasons why the legitimacy of the crown could not be questioned. Anything less than absolute sovereignty in the crown demanding total allegiance might easily lead to civil war, the gravest plight on the land, and one that invited even further disaster—foreign invasion. Given that Elizabeth was childless, the political issue of succession must have been on many minds at the time the plays were first performed. Legitimacy plagues Henry IV throughout the plays because he has none according to traditional notions, but somehow hopes he can pass it on, if only he can retain the crown against those grasping for it. What further troubles him is his son’s behavior and he worries that Hal’s misconduct might be related to his own lack of legitimacy, as “the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven” to punish him for his past “mistreadings” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:8-13). It is why sleep eludes him even to the end.
Without legitimacy he must use his own wits to defend the throne. And it is here that occurs what Hugh Grady calls the “Machiavelli moment.” In this respect as well I will defer delving into his particular take on this, which is convoluted (one would think from his analysis that Shakespeare wrote plays and poetry only because Venn diagrams had not yet been invented) and steeped in turgid academic prose. But what Grady points to is obvious from much of Shakespeare’s political dramas. A stereotypical view of Machiaelli’s thought (in crudest form; namely, that the prince is justified in doing whatever is necessary to remain in power) can be found throughout the works. E.g., “policy sits above conscience” (Timon of Athens, III:ii:89). “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe. / Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!” (Richard III, V:iii:310-12). In the two Henry IV plays, however, we see Shakespeare first working out the implications.
It is uncertain whether Shakespeare read The Prince. Since it was not translated into English until 1640, if he did read it, it would have had to have been a French or Latin translation. If he did not read The Prince, he may have encountered him through a French pamphlet which grossly caricatured Machiavelli’s writings and slandered his person. Or he could have encountered the concepts of Machiavelli from Marlowe in Tamerlane (1577-78) or The Jew of Malta (1589), in which Machiavel is the Prologue speaker.But even if he had been ignorant of all the foregoing, Shakespeare would undoubtedly encountered talk of the concepts at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, or wherever else Shakespeare drank. After all, the techniques themselves were not innovative; Machiavelli’s genius was in cataloging them, and showing how a treacherous prince best used them (like the first modern business leadership book, which in fact it was). By 1540 Cardinal Pole had said that the ides of Machiavelli had already poisoned England and would soon do likewise to all Christendom (although Pole perhaps was referring to Machiavelli’s writing on democracy and republicanism, which Machiavelli preferred, than his writing on treacherous court politics, which Pole himself was an adept).4
The Henry IV plays (and later Henry V) are strikingly reminiscent of advice from The Prince. When Henry first confronts his son, he lectures him on how he had maintained the throne, and his advice seems to come from Chapter XVIII of The Prince (In What Way Princes Must Keep the Faith), namely that a prince, even if he did not possess appealing virtues, should pretend to have them by clothing himself in them: “I stole all courtesy from heaven, / And dressed myself in such humility / That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:50-52). By contrast, like the “skipping king,” Richard II, Hal had been mingling “his royalty with cap’ring fools . . .” and “Enfeoff’d himself to popularity,” (lines 63 & 69), behavior which diminishes authority. Moreover, in the “latest counsel / that ever I shall breathe” Henry warns Hal that despite all the “peril I have answered” to make Hal’s reign “a more fairer sort,” dangers still lurk. So Hal must make Henry’s friends, “their stings and teeth newly ta’en out,” Hal’s own (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:182-83, 186, 200, 205). As for policy, Henry recommends foreign war: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds /
With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days” (lines 213-15). What could be more platitudinously Machievellian than foreign war to manipulate domestic authoritiy? It certainly did wonders for the popularity of Presidents Bush (père and fils). And it appears strikingly similar to the technique described in Chapter XXI of The Prince: How a Prince Should Act in Order to Gain Reputation). But the plays’ most treacherous use of an ends-justify-the-means act (which is the common understanding of “machiavellian”) is by Prince John of Lancaster, the son Henry is most proud of. In the second play, having sent an emissary to the rebels before battle to seek their terms, in IV:ii Prince John arrives and appears to agree on everythng with Mowbry and the Archbishop. When the rebel leaders then disband their army, Prince John has them arrested and sends them to their execution. That feat of bad faith, which even shocks us in this time of targeted assassination, torture, unlimited drone strikes, terrorist attacks, apparent immunity for homicide by police offices, not to mention massive secret government surveillance goes beyond anything found in Chapter XVII (Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared).
Welles recognized this machiavellian undertow in the court. He told Marienstras that Shakespeare “couldn’t do otherwise” than to justify Prince Hal “in all sorts of ways” because Hal was “an official patriotic hero.” But he maintained that Shakespeare portrays Hal ambiguously. This answer deserves full quotation:
[Hal] loves Falstaff, but he prepares a betrayal necessary from a Machiavellian point of view. I’m speaking of the Machiavellianism, that of the real Machiavelli that we know and who is so far superior to the one Shakespeare judged to be so sly. Hal is certainly a great Machiavellian prince. He loves Falstaff, and, still, is ready to betray him from the get-go.
It is the “love/necessity” dichotomy that drives the film in a way that it does not drive the plays. Where does this “necessity” come from? As Welles puts it” “How could he have forced the respect of the English court and the people if he had kept vulgar acolytes as his play-mates?” And yet as Welles sees it “this kind of betrayal is still an infamy, even if it’s a Machiavellian necessity.”
Maybe I can push this point a bit further in analyzing the film. Certainly by the end, Prince Hal/King Henry V has become the “that terrible creature, a great man of power” as he described him to Bogdanovich. And Hal had the kernel of that in him from the start when he “has a beady Welsh eye on future dignity and glory … .” And certainly Welles directs him according to that conception: “Here is a complicated young man with a curious, rather spooky internal coldness. And there’s also the charm, the comradely joie de vivre—all part of his vocation, the basic equipment of Machiavelli’s perfect prince.” But what makes the drive and the ultimate infamy logical is that first, Hal knows what he must do when he becomes the “perfect prince” and yet evidently abhors what he will become. If we follow the story beyond where the film ends we find that Henry V will execute no only the conspirators against him but also the foot soldiers he made prisoners who followed them. He will then lay siege (in effect) on Katherine in as inept a suit as you are likely to witness. The only way he “wins” her is because she is already his prisoner. Official patriotic hero or not, he becomes something that we moderns cannot like.
Welles is able to dramatically show the transformation from the fun-loving, comradely friend of the guileless Falstaff to that terrible creature by drastically cutting the Henry IV plays and rearranging the sequences. He makes the battle of Shrewsbury the turning point in Hal’s view of himself—the point where Hal has reluctantly decided that he must now change. Welles then cuts out all the “backsliding” on this resolution that Shakespeare’s Falstaff scenes in Henry IV, Part Two constitute and which disrupt this story arc. And while Hal gives hints even before Shrewsbury what the “necessity” will cause him to do, Welles portraya him as genuinely affectionate towards Falstaff and reluctant to truly harm him (by, among other things, drastically cutting the most vicious “gag lines” Shakespeare has him direct at Falstaff and by the way he has Hal protect Falstaff from the sheriff’s men). All of that takes place before Shrewsbury. In the scene after the battle, however, Falstaff celebrates the virtues of wine, which all take including Hal. But we see the resolution forming in Hal’s face, and he turns, leaves Falstaff, and drops the cup of sack on his way to rejoin the army. Falstaff’s smile disappears; the metamorphosis has begun. By cutting scenes inconsistent with that change from the film, Welles remains faithful to the story arc.
In the scene with Poins that shortly follows Hal broods over his situation. He despises himself for his desire for “small beer” and wonders what the world would think of him if he weeped over his father’s imminent death. Poins tries to advise him like an equal, but Hal cuts him off and insults him, mindful of his imminent “glory.” Sensing the change, Poins retreats, signifying his subordination: “Go to, I stand the push of your one thing that you / will tell (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:35-36). And yet Hal is still able to treat the young page he gave Falstaff kindly and promises to visit him. The last scene that Hal and Falstaff have together, before the rejection, is one of unstated regret and nostalgia. When Hal is gone, Falstaff becomes old and thinks of his mortality. After a parting that breaks Doll’s heart, Falstaff leaves to visit Shallow, who an old man himself is filled with thoughts of his associates who are are now “dead, dead …” Falstaff sees himself in the vanity of Shallow, but tries not to accept what has happened between himself and Hal. In the same scene when he learns Henry has died and his friend is now king, he comes alive, convincing himself there is something to live for. He assures all around that he will take care of them.
The rejection comes soon after. It is brutal and humiliating. It strikes deep within us watching it. Welles portrayal of Falstaff is one of memorable impact. He shows surprise, horror and devastation all at once without speaking and barely moving. When he leaves the procession, he is hounded by Shallow, who now is only interested in recovering as much of the money he loaned Falstaff as possible. Falstaff wanders slowly off, to disappear among columns (which reminded me of the mirror scene at the end of Kane), and assures Shallow in a tired and unconvincing voice, “Sir, I will be as good as my word. This that / you heard was but a colour.” Shallow replies prophetically, “A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John” (Henry V, V:v:89-90). The sad self-deception, rendered as if by rote, that Falstaff will be as good as his word is shortly exceeded by Ralph Richardson’s epilogue over the lonely funeral procession for Falstaff as the words of Holinshed about Henry V are recited, including that he left “… no friendship unrewarded …”
As we see the lonely end of Falstaff we fully understand the “terrible creature” Hal has become, for we have seen him enter the castle that Henry left, with its stone floors, empty walls and dark corners, filled by no friends or family, only courtiers who he must police and military with pikes who serve as the “knife in hand” a prince must have (see The Prince, Chapter VIII). Then we see that Henry is setting off to engage in the war in France just as his father had advised. The two, the new king and the old knight, were bound to part, because what Hal must become is so repellant to what Falstaff always was.
That Shrewsbury was the turningpoint is quite logical, especially as Welles depicted the battle. It is a brutal, unglamorous slaughter where men confront each other face-to-face with barbaric arms that hack and pound and tear. In the end there is nothing but body parts slowly, dying, making sucking noises in the mud. It is, as Welles intended, a modern war. It is the inevitable result of the modern state, the state guided by “policy,” using the techniques Machiavelli catalogued.
Vincent Canby, as he usually did, was able to hone in on the essence of Welles’s achievement:
Chimes at Midnight carries an astonishing emotional kick that seems to grow each time I see it. Shakespeare really isn’t supposed to be so moving in this day and age. Yet this film has a way of creeping up on you … Shakespeare doesn’t get much better than that. Nor does Welles.”
Perhaps the film is not really Shakespeare in some “authentic” sense. But it really is the only way I have seen to solve the Prince Hal problem, and it is a stunning emotional rendering of plays that are described as merely :”historical.” The conclusion one reaches on seeing the film again is that this is the way we must view the events, even if it was not how they wanted to see it a couple of centuries ago by those who had, fortunately for them, not become as “modern as we have. In some ways as they used to say, the personal is political. (That phrase was current in the days when the struggle was to liberate the political from antiquate, and in some ways Freudian, concepts.) What Welles seems to be saying is that the political overwhelms the personal, because the state has become to efficient and rational, perfecting Machiavelli’s Renaissance findings. As a result, now Falstaff must be a tragedy, not a comedy, because “Jesu, the days we have seen.”
1Incidentally, Jacques Ibert wrote the music for René Clair’s 1928 film of the French farce The Horse Ate the Hat, a theatrical performance of which Welles produced for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936. [Return to text.]
2One example of this concerns Henry IV. In Richard II, Richard prophesied that Northumberland, having betrayed him to Henry would soon betray Henry (V:i:55-68). Henry IV later reminds Warwick of the prophecy given at a time when the king says “God knows” he (Henry) had no intention to ascend to the throne at the time (Henry IV, Part Two, III:i:62-75). The problem is that the prophecy of Richard (a scene of Shakespeare’s invention) took place after Henry had ascended his throne (Richard was on his way to the Tower of London when he makes the prophecy) and neither Richard nor Warwick was present when the scene took place. [Return to text.]
3Both Shakespeare and Holinshed are confused on the issue of Edmund Mortimer. While it was true that the brother-in-law of Hotspur’s wife married the daughter of Welsh rebel Owen Glendower (in Welsh, Owain Glyndŵr), it was his nephew, also named Edmund Mortimer, who was the Earl of March and whose pretension to the throne the Percys supported in their revolt against Henry. [Return to text.]
4Although Machiavelli was not published in English until 1640, long after Shakespeare’s death, it was published in French in 1553, in Latin in 1560 and in Italian in 1594. (See De Pol, in Citations, below.) There were several manuscript translations of other Machiavelli works at Cambridge. Arte della Guearra had been translated into English in 1570 and others later. See Weissberger, below, who also discusses Gentillet, the French pamphleteer who depicted Machiavelli as a murdered, and whose Contre-Machiavel had been translated into English in 1577. As for Marlowe, who had attended Corpus Christi College, where interest in Machiavelli first showed itself, see Bawcutt, below. For the quotation from Cardinal Pole (in a leetter from John Leghe to Henry VIII’s Privy Council) see Weissberger. [Return to text.]
Tracy Alexander, “A Note on Falstaff,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly Vol. II (1944), pp. 592-606.
W.H. Auden, “The Prince’s Dog,” The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 182-208.
George Barker, The True Confession of George Barker (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965).
N.W. Bawcutt, “Machiavelli and Marlowe’s ‘the Jew of Malta,'” Renaissance Drama, New Series, Vol. 3 (1970), pp. 3-49.
Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, c1992).
A.C. Bradley, “The Rejection of Falstaff,” Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 247-273.
Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15.
Allan G. Chester, “Introduction to the Second Part of King Henry the Fourth,” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works; The Pelican Texts Revised ed. by Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books, c1969), pp. 703-05.
T.P. Courtenay, “Shakespeare’s Historical Plays Considered Historically—No. IV,” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 54, Part 3, p. 42 (1838).
Peter Cowie, Ribbon of Dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles (South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes, 1973).
Roberto De Pol (ed.), The First Translations of Machiavelli’s Prince: From the Sixteenth to the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2010).
David Ellis, Shakespeare’s Practical Jokes: An Introduction to the Comic in his Work (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, c2007).
Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Strutures in Shakespeare’s Drama (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985).
Mark W. Estrin, Orson Welles: Interviews (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, c 2002), including
Interview by Kenneth Tynan, originally in Playboy (March 1967);
Interview by Richard Marienstra, from French television series in December 1974, published in Positif (July-August 1998).
Interview by Leslie Magehy, from an interview filmed in Las Vegas in 1982 for the BBC program The Orson Welles Story, which aired in May 1983.
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams trans. by James Strachey and Anna Freud with Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, ) [from the complete works of Freud 1901-02].
Sigmund Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious trans. by Joyce Crick (London: Penguin, 2002) [original German publication in 1905].
Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (n.p.: Boni and Liveright, 1920).
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents trans. by James Strachey (New York: Norton, 2005) [original German publication in 1929].
John Gielgud (with John Miller), Acting Shakespeare (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1991).
Hugh Grady, “Shakespeare’s Links ot Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe,” Comparative Literature, Vol. (Spring, 2000), pp. 119-142.
Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford Universikty Press, c2002).
Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004).
Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., c1964).
Ernest Kris, “Prince Hal’s Conflict” (1948), collected in Ernest Krist, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: International University Press, 1952). pp. 273-88.
Henry Jaglom, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles edited by Peter Biskind (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt Books, 2013).
Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).
J.I.M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined (London: Longmans, Green, 1949).
Valerie Traub, “Prince Hal’s Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40 (Winter 1989), pp. 456-474.
Kathleen Tynan (ed.), Letters of Kenneth Tynan (New York: Random House, 1998).
L. Arnold Weissberger, “Machiavelli and Tudor England,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 42 (December 1927), pp. 589-607.
Philip Williams, “The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. VIII (1957), pp. 359-65.