Posts Tagged ‘ W.H. Auden ’

Carson McCullers at 100 (Pt. 4)

the “… how can the living go on living when there is death?”

When The Member of the Wedding was published in March 1946, Carson McCullers had published four novels within six years, all before she was 30. This time, however, she did not immediately commence work on the next one. In fact, it would be five years before she took up work and 10 more before she published her fifth and final novel, Clock Without Hands. The book was a popular success, remaining in the top 10 of the New York Times best seller list for four months. Its critical reception, however, was mixed, with nearly all agreeing that the latest novel did not have nearly the same merit as her previous novels, although they contradicted each other on how the novel fell short. And much of the criticism had more to do with preconceived notions than the actual text.

[The first three parts of this series are linked here:  Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.]

Clock Without Hands (1961)

McCullers’s last novel was in many ways quite different from the four others. Perhaps the most important difference is that it has no major female characters. This characteristic itself gives the work an unfamiliar cast. Unlike the other four novels, there is no character who faces the prospect of a life trapped in gender bonds, who has unwillingly accommodated herself to them or who faces communal retribution for breaking them. This undoubtedly disappointed some. Moreover, there are no themes of economic privation. Money is not at issue for the main characters in this novel.

The four main charters are: (1) a middle-aged pharmacist, who, although married, is physically and emotionally estranged from his wife, who plays almost no part in the story; (2) a very old judge and former congressman, who is a widower and has only one relation, his grandson; (3) that teenaged grandson is a repressed homosexual, who never knew his parents (first his father committed suicide, then his mother died in childbirth), who develops a close relationship with a young black man; (4) that black man seems to have no friends of either sex and eventually becomes a secretary to the old judge. The judge has an African American cook, but she plays a very minor role, unlike the housekeepers in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Member of the Wedding.

The second departure can be seen in the architecture of the novel. It is true that each of her four previous novels employs a different narrative method, but in each of them the major elements (themes, characters, images, subplots, etc.) were tightly bound to each other. This is the case whether the plot played out over many years (as in The Ballad of the Sad Café) or in a couple of days (as in The Member of the Wedding). So important to McCullers was adhering to a recognizable structure that she sometimes points the reader to the struts and ties (as with the spokes-of-the-wheel metaphor with Singer at the center in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the title of The Ballad of the Sad Café). Clock Without Hands, by contrast, seems at first like two barely related stories. The two stories are regularly connected as a matter of plot (although sometimes these connections seem a bit forced), but thematically they are not effectively related (at least by anything the narrator says).

The first story is about the 40-year-old pharmacist, J.T. Malone, a man who has led an entirely uneventful life, almost, in retrospect, a purposely uneventful one. He has been guided by a vague sense of what was expected of him. That was how he got married; his wife was the daughter of the pharmacist from whom he bought his store. She was, it now seems, part of the package. He did not set out to become a pharmacist either. He once had been a student in a Northern medical school, but he was not one of those who “studied every night in the library until closing,” as he remembered it, and so he flunked out. And it seemed to him that from then on all his life amounted to standing behind the counter “listening to complaints, prescribing medicine, making cokes and sundaes, compounding prescriptions.”

This realization did not come to him until he was diagnosed with leukemia. The news was delivered by his good friend and customer Dr. Kenneth Hayden, who practiced on the second floor above Malone’s drugstore. The consultation during which Malone learned his prognosis is given in painful detail. He learned that he has no more than 12–15 months to live. The news flummoxed him and caused him to lose his composure. When he gathered his thoughts his reaction was to hate: first, his friend Dr. Hayden (who he now realizes is a Jew, like the Jews who drove up the curve in medical school and caused him to flunk out) and then everything that would survive his death. He looked back over his existence and realized he had not really had a life. So a question plagued him, How could he die if he hadn’t lived? He would begin his last chapter facing a mysterious drama, which terrified him. “The terror questioned what would happen in those months—how long?—that glared upon his numbered days. He was a man watching a clock without hands.”

In his remaining months he fitfully seeks to make sense of his life in the face of death. Some have said that this story is McCuller’s Death of Ivan Ilyich. There are indeed some indications that McCullers had Tolstoy in mind in connection with her tale, not the least of which is the similarity her novel has to the famous “unhappy families” opening of Anna Karenina. Her novel begins: “Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way.” And perhaps Anna Karenina is what led McCullers to believe that she could attach the second story to Malone’s. After all, the sub-plot involving Konstantin Levin, which introduces many themes that might be thought incongruous to the main story, often seems entirely unmoored to Anna’s story. So let’s look at the second story in McCullers’s case.

Here we see the third departure from McCullers’s other novels. Instead of introspective character-examination almost entirely removed from the larger world, this story is steeped in the political-social ferment of racial politics in the South in the early 1950s. This might be strange enough given her output (not only the novels but also her play and the stories she wrote and published in the 1950s), but her method for this examination is also utterly unexpected, for she employs broad satirical portraits of the characters, close to burlesque. The old judge, Fox Clane, is described as “an enormous man with a red face and a rough halo of yellow-white hair.” His weight is not simply a physical attribute; it helps explain his peculiar habits and for the narrator it is a reason for ridicule. The judge, for example, took baths around 9 at night and 4 in the morning every day. Says the narrator: “The Judge held that a person as corpulent and free-sweating as he was needed two baths a day, and those who were around him would agree with this. So at those crepuscular hours the old Judge would be splashing, snorting and singing … his favorite bathtub songs were ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘I’m a Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech.'” He is not only ridiculous but also remarkably ignorant. But that did not prevent him from holding his opinions tenaciously. It did not matter how trivial his opinion, he obstinately held onto it rather than make even the simplest accommodations to reality. After the only doctor he trusted died, the judge developed a severe tooth ache. But instead of finding another doctor he “went to Doc’s brother who was the best mule doctor in the country” and the veterinarian extracted the tooth “with novocain and antibiotics which he uses for mules.” Yet the judge’s own mulishness got him into his ninth decade, and he had cheated death more than once. While his wife (Miss Missy she is called!) was alive, the judge suffered a stroke. She kept him on a diet that maintained his weight under 300 pounds. But after her own death, he went back to his preferred diet filled with gravy-soaked biscuits and sweets. He again had a stroke, this time while teaching his grandson to golf. He fell into a pond, and it took his son and the “little colored caddy” to save him. They were both seven at the time, and the event took place 10 years ago. He went to Johns Hopkins after this stroke, and the doctor gave him the choice of eating as he wanted and dying soon or going on a diet. After much agonizing and seeing that the diet said nothing one way or the other about liquor, he agreed, and then had his grandson secretly supply him with bourbon. (He had brought his young grandson along on the trip because he was afraid to die alone in a place with nothing that belonged to him.)

Among the many unappealing ideas maintained by the judge was one that reached far back into Southern social history and mythology—white supremacy and the need to maintain it strictly. The enforcement of Jim Crow was a large part of the judge’s judicial career. In Congress he battled to limit federal intrusion into Southern ways (which largely consisted of opposing economic and racial justice). But as we will find out in the novel, the judge not only supported legal and quasi-legal means to subordinate blacks economically, socially and educationally, he was also willing to promote vigilante-style violence. These were not quirky beliefs of a senile grandfather. They were those of a terrorist. And the judge harbored these beliefs not as an idiosyncrasy but viscerally, as part of his tribal beliefs, replete with the fears of sexual contamination/forbidden allure that lay at its heart. To him, the slightest relaxation of the Southern regime of repression was a threat to whites, particularly their beloved women. He articulated this fear by his question to his grandson, who seemed to the judge rather dull on the issue of segregation: “How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?” He was proud when he learned that the Atlanta Constitution called him a reactionary, because, he explains, a “reactionary is a citizen who reacts when the age-long standards of the South are threatened.” The judge himself, who wanted nothing to change, is himself a clock without hands.

Everything considered, the judge is a buffoonish character, and this raises a number of objections. Dorothy Parker saw the judge as one of “the old familiar idiots” that authors about racial relations in the South “feel obliged to use … to drive home their point.” What surprised Parker was that McCullers had never found the need to resort to such tired stereotypes in the past.1 Parker seems to have wished the novel was more “realistic,” a common enough perspective of newspaper and magazine critics (the”how-I-would-have written-it” review). This perspective makes her miss any other feature of the novel while she counts the ways in which the judge’s family is a “type.”

Irving Howe, the Times reviewer, was also disturbed with how unrealistic the judge was. (He panned the book more generally though.) What he found particularly unbelievable was the judge’s proposal, which the judge thought would propel him back to the House of Representatives and once there to immortality as one of the great American statesmen. The judge disclosed his plan to his grandson during a Sunday dinner at the beginning of the novel. He explained that no vanquished country had been allowed to languish in poverty and that the victors had always “redeemed” the currency (perhaps at some discount, he allowed). He pointed to the mark, the lira and even the yen. It was only good policy, therefore that the federal government allow the South to get back on its feet by redeeming the paper money issued by the Confederacy. This was fair, according to the judge, not only owing to the physical destruction of the war but principally to compensate the South for emancipation, because slavery was the key feature of the Southern economy. A matter of self-interest was also important in the judge’s calculus—the family had bought up large stashes of this currency which was now stored in a safe in the judge’s library. His grandson was stunned by the peculiarity of the proposal and wondered whether the strokes had significantly impaired his grandfather. Howe sees this proposal as a fundamental flaw of the novel, “for a man shrewdly realistic enough to be a Southern politician,” he assures us, “would hardly succumb to anything so fatuous as redeeming Confederate money.”2 It is curious that Howe would believe that reactionary politicians could not have fatuous ideas. One wonders if the likes of Louie Gohmert and Steve King are only an invention to mock our current politics. But this criticism, like Parker’s, fails to see the portrayal of the judge as anything other than an attempt to describe a more-or-less realistic character in a conventional political narrative. We will see later how this proposal functions not only as a plot device (as Howe sees it) but also as part of the larger view McCullers had in creating the character.

The judge’s grandson, John Jester Clane, is 17.  He is on the verge of adulthood but is plagued by doubt, indecision and lack of “passion,” according to the judge. Jester was stung by the accusation because he agreed with it, although the two attached entirely different meanings to the word. For the judge “passion” meant “the passion of the posse, the passion of the Southerner who defends his womankind against the black and alien invader.” To Jester, it was heterosexual desire, and Jester was a virgin. Jester’s father, the judge’s son, also had passion, but of a type the judge did not approve of or understand. At the beginning of the novel Jester has tentatively come to the conclusion that his grandfather is wrong on the race question, but it takes all his strength just to offer his opinion. He was trapped between his affection and duty to his grandfather, who constantly prattles on about race, and his own nascent feelings about justice. Two things allowed him space. The most important one was flying. He saved his own money and without seeking his grandfather’s approval took flying lessons at the local airport. His other personal buffer zone was music. He spent much time practicing classical music on the piano. It was this latter interest that caused him to meet the fourth major character, a young black man his own age.

Sherman Pew boards in a house owned by his foster brother not far from the judge’s house. It is so close in fact that Jester was able to hear from his bedroom Sherman singing and playing the piano. (Perhaps the building is a former servants’ quarters, but the novel really gives no reason why the Judge happens to live so close to the lodgings of a black man. That it does not seem to bother the judge makes what happens in the novel all the more remarkable.) Jester, who was dispirited from the quarrel with his grandfather over segregation and his proposal, gravitated to the sound, and Sherman invited him in. During this first encounter Sherman revealed his odd character. He saw himself as a distinguished gentleman, one who serves only Lord Calvert whiskey and brags of eating caviar. He preens himself on his possessions, his vocabulary and his knowledge of German lieder. It was the singing of such a German art song that attracted Jester’s attention. How an orphaned black child in the deep South of the 1940–50s, now alone at 17 and apparently living off odd jobs, could have learned to sing and play Schubert is never explained. But this talent soon disappears from the novel once it has served its purpose of showing us that Sherman has personal ambitions above what was available to him in the time and place he found himself. In the first meeting with Jester, Sherman constantly belittled his new friend. Jester did not react because he was erotically attracted to Sherman. We learn that Sherman does not know his mother, who he believes was raped by a white man. (Sherman has blue eyes and was abandoned shortly after birth inside a church—hence the last name he was given.) Attempting to construct a bridge to him, Jester gives Sherman the idea that Marion Anderson might be his mother, a foolishness that propels Sherman to write a letter to her (addressed to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial). Sherman also has delusions about his role in avenging white oppression. He pretends he is a member of an organization, the Golden Nigerians, who pledged their lives to register and vote.

Sherman Pew is thus something of a complement to the judge. Both are self-delusional and have vaguely romantic notions of their importance. It is therefore not odd, for purposes of the story’s structure, that the judge hires Sherman to administer his daily insulin injections and to act as his personal secretary (his “amanuensis,” as the judge called him), however unlikely that would have been in reality. Tying the fates of the three together more closely, it is revealed that Sherman Pew was the young caddy who dragged the judge out of the pond on the golf course ten years before. But their relationship has also a mysterious deeper dimension to it, one that involves also Jester and ultimately even Malone by the end. While Jester, the judge and Sherman are almost destined to unravel their secret interdependency, Malone’s involvement is his own doing, an accidental result of his own restlessness following the diagnosis of his terminal disease.

After his initial diagnosis, Malone was admitted to the hospital for further tests. When the diagnosis was confirmed, he was cut loose from humanity. He found himself “surrounded by a zone of loneliness.” He was so alienated from his wife that he did not even tell her of his condition, afraid that this might provoke her to display affection that he was unwilling to reciprocate. He realized that the subject was one that people recoiled from discussing, at least with the terminally ill patient himself. Even Dr. Hayden fumbled with his letter opener and avoided eye contact with Malone when delivering the death sentence. So Malone wandered about the town looking at things in disbelief, unable to accept that ordinary objects would exist after he was gone. He walked about with “the bewildered look of an absent-minded person who seeks something but has already forgotten the thing that is lost.” Thoroughly bourgeois, Malone believed in things of financial worth. And to him the First Baptist Church had the imprimatur of wealth. The leading citizens of Milan, lawyers, bankers and the mill owner, all attended. Wealthy men were its trustees. And one of the founders of Coca-Cola left the church a half-million dollars to construct a wing. Even the judge, the first citizen of Milan according to a local paper, was a regular (and we later learn that his wife was a member of the choir). So Malone prized the teachings of this church and when, shortly after his diagnosis, the preacher delivered a sermon in which he proclaimed that salvation had drawn a bead on death, he was at first impressed. But the more he considered it, the more nonsensical it seemed. So he left church to return to the drugstore no more fulfilled than before, when the banality of his family life and his daily routine “swirled around him as dead leaves ring the center of a whirlpool, leaving him curiously untouched.”

It was on this Sunday that Malone broached his illness for the first time. The judge was in the habit of dropping by Malone’s store after church each Sunday where he would chat with locals and eventually retire to the compounding room to have a drink with Malone. It was then that Malone asked the judge to make his will, as an opening to tell someone he had leukemia. The judge feigned ignorance and insisted that doctors could not be trusted in such matters. And then he turned the conversation to himself: how he had cheated death, how his doctors were wrong, and especially how he suffered in the past with the death of his own son (17 years ago). By the end Malone, the terminally ill, found himself comforting the judge, over a tragedy 17 years past. The scene is our introduction to the judge and shows both how monumental his ecocentrism is and how that self-promotion has a hypnotic effect on listeners like Malone. Malone, of course, was predisposed to believe in the eminence of the judge and had followed him politically all his career. But it took only minor blandishments (about things Malone wanted to hear) that not only calmed and flattered Malone but also made him grateful to the judge. Now that the judge became his only confidant in this dark knowledge, Malone would take the opportunity to see the judge more frequently.

Malone thus becomes an occasional and mute witness to the judge’s relations with Jester and Sherman, both of whom he disliked. Malone is also witness to the casual cruelty of the town towards its black citizens, but he has no reaction, even when an innocent boy is killed by a policeman who unnecessarily struck his head with his club. As time goes on, he seems less perplexed, less lost. He was so concerned at the beginning that he visited the Baptist minister at his parsonage and asked him point blank what was behind death. But the minister was uncomfortable with the question and dodged it so obviously that Malone politely left him without further discussion. Perhaps Malone realized then that there was no point seeking opinions from others. Perhaps he came to agree with the judge, who answered his question with a more responsive, if no more enlightening, answer: “No, I don’t believe in eternity as far as religion goes. I believe in the things I know and the descendants who come after me. I believe in my forebears, too. Do you call that eternity?”

It was not until Malone’s health declined significantly that his questioning revived, although by accident. In November about eight months after his diagnosis, a relapse forced him back into the hospital. Bored with a murder mystery he was reading, when the book cart was wheeled past him, he took a book he knew nothing about, attracted by its title: Sickness unto Death. But Malone found nothing interesting in Kierkegaard’s turgid writing and soon dozed  off. When he awoke, he came across the sentence: “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc., is sure to be noticed.” The sentence awakened something in his mind, but he could make sense of nothing else in the book. Yet he pondered back over his life to find out when he lost himself. It was the certain knowledge of death that “quickened his livingness” and made him desire the answer. He resolved to make this his priority as he remained in the hospital, “but even while he was there he was worried about the twenty-dollars-a-day bill.” Even though Malone did not become a Christian existentialist from reading Kierkegaard, the quote would help him save his “immortal soul” when the crisis came. And in the end, he ultimately played out the essence of Kierkegaard’s thought by giving up all forms of despair.

The judge on the other hand was wrapped up in himself. All of his memories and interests were fascinating to him, and he believed others would find them so too. He was excessively vain for an old obese man. Despite his diabetes, he believed he followed his motto: mens sana in corpore sano. Nor can he believe that his weight was excessive. “Fat man: of course not. I was just stout and corpulent.” Indeed he finds nothing about himself objectionable.  Even his bathroom odor pleases him: “since he was pleased by anything that belonged to him, and his feces were no exception, the smell rather soothed him.” The judge wastes no time in despair over the loss of himself, because it was clear to him that being alive was the ultimate virtue (at least being alive as Judge Fox Clane). He tells his secretary Sherman Pew the reason he preferred being himself to Shakespeare or Julius Caesar or Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain or Babe Ruth: “Because I’m alive. And when you consider the trillions and trillions of dead people you realize what a privilege it is to be alive.” To him death was what happened to other people. As for his connection to it, he did not conduct deep searches into Kierkegaard or any other professional thinker. Instead, he dredged his wisdom from the Ladies’ Home Companion, a magazine he studied for its pictures of food that accompanied the recipes. The magazine had occasional sidebars with inspirational quotes—”the sayings of Emerson, of Lin Yutang, and the great sages of the world.” What he remembered was a saying from an Indian proverb: “How can the dead be truly dead when they are still walking in my heart?” Always susceptible to sentimentality (he would have Sherman read him Dickens and the judge would cry over the mistreatment of orphans), the saying comforted him over the loss of relatives. As for himself, his hopes were pinned on ever longer life.

The contrast between Malone and Judge Clane is not meant as a debate between legitimate viewpoints. If it is offered as a contrast at all, it only further shows how untethered to serious concerns the judge has become. His proposal comes from this same state. It came about when he was convalescing from his second stroke. He worried that his productive life was over, that he  had nothing to offer. And then gradually he began to see how everything interrelated, how he could be the instrument for a New Deal for the South, how it was supported by objective considerations of justice and historical practice and how it would not only send him back to Washington, but also insure his fame for generations to come. It was, in short, a desperate gambit, by an old man who had, really, only one more chance for glory. Perhaps all his latest peculiarities were from the same source. Perhaps his common sense was as palsied as his left hand. But it is useful to note that the judge’s proposal is designed (notwithstanding the aspects of self-interest) as a means to ingratiate him among the only constituency he cares about, the South of mythology. The principal attraction of the proposal was how it would make him beloved. (Walking in the heart of others?) His need to be admired and esteemed was at the root of his peculiar history of making people love him. It became easy among whites once the judge attained prominence. As with Malone, all the judge had to do was draw his listener into his orbit of intimacy. With blacks it require strange gifts and little liberties. He “spoiled” his servants (as his cook saw it). He had a history of giving them expensive (but useless to them) gifts. After fishing him out of the pond, for example, the judge gave the seven-year-old Sherman a watch engraved with the motto mens sana corpore sano. When he hired Sherman as his secretary, he treated him like a protégé or perhaps like a dependent relative. Although he did not allow him to eat lunch with the whites, he did not require him to eat in the kitchen with the cook, instead permitting him to make “fancy sandwiches” and eat in the library. He indulged him in ways that seem inconsistent with his proclaimed bigotry. Indeed, so long as the strict Jim Crow rules were obeyed, the judge seemed quite willing to treat blacks with more than a modicum of decency. But when any African American asked him for anything as of right, he immediately resisted. He lost his cook rather than pay his share of her Social Security contributions. And when Sherman Pew made his much greater demand in the face of Jim Crow, the judge was thrown back into his role as the enforcer of segregation and racial inequality.

I will not here follow that story through because it is deftly handled by McCullers and deserves a fresh reading. Considering how the political part of the novel functions both psychologically and thematically (for example, by having the peculiar personality traits so prominently displayed earlier now operate to make the climax inevitable), it is easy to dismiss Howe’s complaint that the novel is so “fragile in its structure” that “the symbolic scheme fails to carry strength or conviction.” I will go a step further. While maintaining its thematic and symbolic purpose, the climactic scenes offer an entirely realistic account of how anonymous racial crimes are committed—their spontaneous origin, their liquor- and testosterone-fueled plotting, their haphazard execution—showing how it comes from a roiling boil of insipidness and terror. It recalls the shuffling feet of the village men silently deciding on how to deal with Miss Amelia in The Ballad of the Sad Café. 

The events sweep J.T. Malone up into a conspiracy he did not want to be part of. His new vague sense of what it means to have lived, however, served him in making a courageous decision to disassociate himself. He does not prevent the crime or even urge others to give it up, for the pathology of Jim Crow is too powerful for a man like Malone, who spent his life uncritically conforming to the mores of a morally corrupt society. But having for some time (even if only very late in his allotted life) considered his purpose, he was able to make a decision for himself. Living involves making such decisions.

McCullers does not let us reach an easy conclusion, however. A memento mori is not a moral guide. The judge, after all, despite trivializing his strokes as “falling-off spells,” understood how close he came to death. And he told Sherman that “if I hadn’t gone through the shadow of death I might never have seen the light.” The light, however, did not show the judge a morally ordered universe; rather, it showed him his proposal, the one that would turn the clock back a hundred years, as Sherman put it. “Livingness” is one thing, properly living is entirely different. In fact, the conditions of both Malone and the judge are described by Kierkegaard as types of sicknesses (he calls them “despairs”) that result from misunderstanding one’s place in the universe. Malone’s is the simplest. He is unable to see himself separate from his finite limitations. The judge is caught in a separate despair, for he cannot see himself outside of his “immediacy.” Both lead to inauthentic existences because those suffering such despairs have yet to see how their lives are part of an enveloping purposefulness.

It is in the denouement that McCullers returns to the question that propels all of her novels. This time instead of negating the possibility of meaning, she seems to offer a path, one grown over with weeds, perhaps, but nonetheless, not one blocked by the negations of her earlier novels. Jester, who has resolved his questions (“Who am I? What am I? Where am I going?”) with the decision to emulate his father by becoming a lawyer to work for social justice, in the end must decide whether to succumb to the desire for the instant gratification of revenge or inform his new found direction with forgiveness. He makes his decision in an airplane he is piloting. It is largely based on the pitifully hollowness of the criminal. It was an aesthetic rather than a judicial decision. But once the decision was made, he was able to take a larger picture of life.

Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small gray honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: … The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.

That is not the height that men, in their self-centered obsessions, are able to see the world. Perhaps it is an unnatural perspective.

[T]his is an order foreign to the heart, and to love the earth you must come closer. Gliding downward, low over the town and countryside, the whole breaks up into a multiplicity of impressions. … As you circle inward, the town itself becomes crazy and complex. You see the secret corners of all the sad backyards. Gray fences, factories, the flat Main Street. From the air men are shrunken and they have an automatic look, like wound-up dolls. They seem to move mechanically among haphazard miseries. You do not see their eyes. And finally this is intolerable. The whole earth from a great distance means less than one long look into a pair of human eyes. Even the eyes of the enemy.

This seems totally at odds with the teachings of Kierkegaard, which Malone gave up trying to understand. It suggests that it is not simply “despair” that keeps man from uniting with creation, it is part of man’s makeup. He must connect with others, not the whole, in order to continue living, at least as we have been taught to live.

For Malone too there was need for a pair of human eyes. A year ago, in March 1953, after an unusually bitter winter, he thought spring had brought him a fever. Death had crept up on him so furtively that “for a time he confused the end of life with the beginning of a new season.” But the spring of 1954 did not confuse him. Living with death for a year had changed him.

[T]here was no longer a revulsion against nature, against things. A strange lightness had come upon his soul and he exalted. He looked at nature now and it was part of himself. He was no longer a man watching a clock without hands. He was not alone, he did not rebel, he did not suffer. He did not even think of death these days. He was not a man dying … nobody died, everybody died.

He eventually becomes confined to his bed, and while there his resentment towards and alienation from his wife disappear. On May 15, 1954, Malonoe’s new doctor came twice, the second time having a private consultation with Mrs. Malone in the living room. That night she gave her husband a bath and put cologne behind his ears. “Malone said, ‘Darling, no man has ever had such a wife as you.’ It was the first time he had called her darling since the year after they were married.” He would call her that twice more before he died.

Two days later he read in the paper about a man who had died saving a boy from drowning. Although he did not know either the man or the boy, he cried. That day the life seemed to drain from him. In the evening, the judge arrived in an apoplectic state. He announced that the Supreme Court had made a decision about school integration and that he was going to fight it, first by going that very night to the radio station to give a speech about resistance. “It will be a historic speech and will do you good, dear J.T.” Malone barely understood what was going on around him. And when his wife turned on the radio to hear the judge, the speech turned into a disaster. The judge was so seized by “passion” that he was unable to form a coherent thought, and instead recited an oration that was entirely the opposite of his opinion. There was confusion in the studio and Malone’s wife said she did not understand what happened. “‘Nothing, darling,’ Malone said. ‘Nothing that was not a long time in the making.'”

As Malone died that night, “living assumed an order and a simplicity that Malone had never known before.” He asked for a glass of cold water, but before his wife returned, he died.

And so the hedgehog McCullers ended her pursuit of the one Big Idea that dominated her long fiction. She probably did not plan this as her last word on this subject. But sickness (she developed breast cancer) and treatment for old ailments (she had surgery on her palsied hand) and new calamities (she would break her hip in a fall) combined with various businesses related to her old properties (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter became a movie and Edward Albee staged a Broadway production of The Ballad of the Sad Café) to prevent any further long fictions. She suffered another stroke, went into a coma and 47 days later died in 1967.

This, her last treatment of her big idea, was not entirely successful. In her first novel she anticipated the concept of the “absurd” that Camus would begin examining the following year. And in her last novel, she seemed to circle around the existentialism of Kierkegaard. But there is nothing in the work that suggests that she really engaged in the writing of Kierkegaard. I suppose that she had been directed to the Danish author either by Dinesen or, more probably, by W.H. Auden. From 1940–41, McCullers lived with Auden (and several other New York intellectuals and oddly Gypsy Rose Lee) in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Throughout the 1940s Auden, who was also obsessed with the isolation of each person, sought his cure in Kierkegaard. In 1952 he edited a collection of the writing of the Danish theologian/philosopher.3It is probable that McCullers received regular does of Kierkegaard from him, at least second hand. I also suppose (but on this point I depend only on what I have gleaned from the novel, having never closely compared McCullers’s writing with Kierkegaard’s, although I believe that someone might pursue a graduate degree in this area) that McCullers herself had not much more interest in Kierkegaard than did Malone. She never showed any interest in theology, existential or otherwise (although I noted echoes of Martin Buber in The Member of the Wedding). Indeed, Malone’s interview with the town’s Baptist minister was a strong argument that theology was irrelevant on important existential questions. It is true, on the other hand, that Kierkegaard himself disdained the comfortable religiosity of the type displayed in Milan, but there is no indication that McCullers subscribed to Kierkegaard’s more severe form or any other type.

Consider, for example, what is missing from McCullers’s fiction. There is almost no treatment of nature (broadly what Kierkegaard considered as “the creation”). Animals and birds are almost wholly absent. The most memorable are the rat behind the kitchen wall and the moths outside the window in The Member of the Wedding. The horse in Reflections of a Golden Eye, Firebird, is less Black Beauty and more Moby Dick—metaphysical rather than entirely natural. Plants and natural landscapes receive little mention. When Jester flies above Milan, he see cultivated land and the city plan, not a vista of natural beauty. In the Ballad of the Sad Café the only prominent natural feature outside of town was a swamp. The creation that is found in McCullers’s books is one made by man—cotton mills, diners, houses (some quite shabby), roads under repair by convict laborers. If there is “grotesque” in McCullers, it is in her natural world, not her characters. Some of the characters long for a world of natural beauty. Frankie Addams and Mick Kelley desire to visit a place covered by snow. Martha Malone dreams of seeing the ocean. J.T. Malone wants to go to Vermont by himself. Everyone in the fictional world of McCullers longs to be anywhere but where they are: in a sad, poverty-plagued, bigoted backward town in the deep South, that finds itself further and further behind the rest of the world.

So if McCullers is not underwriting Kierkegaard’s resolution of the existential question, what does she offer in this her final novel? It might be argued that she suggests that nature will take care of everything. After all, Malone slowly descends into death without pain and without any terror. Perhaps, we should accept that is what it is. But this does not explain how one can live in the face of death. Perhaps Jester is the answer: take on a romantic or heroic quest and dedicate one’s life to it. But McCullers hardly makes any effort to sell that thought. And Jester is probably the least realistic character in all of her long fiction. And it is unlikely that she actually is lauding the work of liberal white Southern lawyers as heroes. This book is not To Kill a Mockingbird with its white savior (who actually does not save anyone) at the center of the story. And that brings up one last feature of the time theme in Clock Without Hands.

The final deus ex machina of the novel is the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That case and its follow-up decision directed integration “with all deliberate speed.” When McCullers novel was published in 1961, that decision was already seven years old, and almost nothing had taken place, except when federal marshals were used. White Southerners had tried all varieties of subterfuge to avoid integrated public schools, including disbanding public schools altogether. Litigation had achieved, at best, very small gains and created a very big backlash. The hope generated by the Court’s decision would be weakened even further in the years after 1961 as Nixon’s court watered down the rules and circumscribed remedies, most especially by allowing states to hide behind the artificial boundaries of school districts to prevent bussing from one district to another. The Supreme Court did not in fact go very far to solve the injustices of the South, and everyone knew this by 1961. So Jester’s decision about how to lead his life looked less heroic and romantic in retrospect, and, in any event, there is no guaranty he would follow through. For all we know he became a partner in a corporate law firm in Atlanta. In any event, far from producing results “with all deliberate speed,” the Supreme Court’s promise of justice itself became a clock without hands.

It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that McCullers’s conclusion was that there is no answer at all to the existential isolation she probed her whole life. And furthermore the ending seems to show there was no hope that any social justice would come to the socially corrupt South, whose social organization was based on inequality and oppression. The judge makes that point to Malone clearly when he explains to Malone that segregation is necessary as a matter of justice to poor whites

[Y]ou and I have our property and our positions and our self-respect. But what does Sammy Lank have except those slews of children of his? Sammy Lank and the poor whites like that have nothing but the color of their skin. Having no property, no means, nobody to look down on—that is the clue to the whole thing. It is a sad commentary on human nature but every man has to have somebody to look down on. So the Sammy Lanks of this world only have the Nigra to look down on. You see, J.T., It is a matter of pride. You and I have our pride, the pride of our blood, the pride in our descendants. But what does Sammy Lank have … ?

This pessimism, and the foundation for it, subjected McCullers to criticism from both conservatives and leftists. The reviews of Parker and Howe principally derided the article for not presenting a version of the tale which would have more neatly packaged the liberal version of the Southern racial problem: uniquely venomous bigots who oppress blacks from motives of pathological greed and spite (Harriet Beecher Stowe, after all, furnished a view of the South that rallied Northerners under a similar programme.) Conservatives, unwilling to enter the fray over the origins of and solution to the Southern pathology over race, took up a different, and frankly irrelevant, criticism—that McCullers did not write a artistically or realistically satisfying “Southern” novel.

Delma Eugene Presley was the most strident of this approach and her 1974 article in The Georgia Review4 influenced many academic critics whose approach to literary criticism is of the “sorting” variety. Things either fit into pre-defined categories or they don’t, so much the worse for the latter. Presley herself was a teacher of English at a small Georgia college, which remained all white until 1965 (four years after Clock Without Hands was published.) Among her other duties would be to run the school’s Museum of the South. Presley has written several journal articles on Southern writers, all of which tend to opine on how faithful their work was to the Platonic ideal of a Southern novel. As for her critique of McCullers, the thesis is that the quality of her work varied inversely to the time McCullers spent away from the South. Her first novel was written in the South (North Carolina, but that’s closer to Georgia than New York City) and the rest were written in the North after McCullers permanently moved to New York City. Of course, Clock Without Hands is the worst because it is the longest from her stay in the South, and significantly so because it was considerably farther than her stay in writers’ Eden. What McCullers was doing after publication of The Member of the Wedding that prevented her from writing another novel until much later, Presley helpfully speculates: “After 1946, she embarked on a slow voyage in the shallow waters of uncritical public acclaim. It was to be an undistinguished tour of life’s harbors—a journey which ended only at her death some twenty years later.” When she was unable to form a self-satisfied sneer, Presley was forced to rely on the worst sort of unreliable sources to fill in her view of McCullers’s biography. A principal font of insight into the mind of Carson for Presley were letters written by the troubled alcoholic Reese McCullers, who after a first divorce, begged Carson for a second chance, which she granted until she found that he had passed forged checks on her account. After the second divorce Reese eventually committed suicide. (Presley says that his friends considered him “a disciplined young man whose goals and accomplishments were noteworthy.” At the time she wrote that she had to know this turned out differently. She, however, decided to take the part of the serial killer’s neighbor who says that he was a nice quiet guy.) She also quotes unpublished remarks about McCullers delivered by her high school math teacher to a Milledgeville, Georgia book club in 1969, 30 years after this teacher knew McCullers.  If anything else were needed for Presley to analyze the shortcomings of McCullers’s inner life, she was able to find in her writings. After all, a novelist’s characters are clearly an unerring source of insight into the psychology and biography of the writer. You don’t have to run a Museum of the South to know that. It hardly matters, however, that Presley was factually wrong in a way that invalidates her critical theory. McCullers, for example, tells us in her unfinished autobiography that she substantially wrote The Ballad of the Sad Café in Columbus, Georgia. Because Presley did not know that she rates it lower than the previous two novels which were closer in time to when Presley last thought she was there. The point is this: Faulkner stayed in the South (except when he was in Hollywood or Europe) and that’s that. The fact that Tennessee Williams hardly set foot in the South after he left Missouri when he was eight (except for a brief stint in New Orleans) does not affect her view of his work. But her essay on him proceeded on a different critical theory. (The fact that Williams was one of McCullers’s most fervent supporters also does not faze Presley.) But when you finish the essay, you are left with the question: What exactly is it that demonstrates the deterioration of her talent once she was deprived of Dixie’s healthful atmosphere? Well, she quotes Howe (not his radicalism of course, just his panning of her last novel in The Times). And she gives us the helpful portrait of an indifferent math student who actually worked on her novel rather than prepare herself by reading up on current literary trends as her husband Reese did. (In the end Reese would never publish anything.)

But a good, albeit unsupported, theory should never go to waste. And Presley’s concept that McCullers belongs among the “Southerners” (except that she wasn’t good at it) has a long heritage. Klaus Lubbers shortly after the last novel lumped her in with two other Southern women writers (a group that she remains chained to), Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Helpfully he defined the criteria of the Southern novel, based on the “basic Faulknerian themes” of “lust, disease, mutilation, defeat, idiocy and death.”5 (It might have surprised Euripedes, not to mention Shakespeare, that Faulkner invented these themes in 20th century Mississippi.)

It is interesting that Presley, the guardian of Southern aesthetic virtue, never discusses what McCullers herself had to say about Southern writing. In July 1941 a month after The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was published, McCullers wrote in Dissent an article entitled “Russian Realists and Southern Literature.” This remained one of McCullers’s few efforts in literary theory/history. She did not expressly include herself in a Southern literary tradition (having published only one work at the time, it would have been pretentious to do so), but she found the source of the tradition to go back before Faulkner and located it in late 19th century Russia. The reason for the similarity in literary approaches was sociological. According to McCullers both Tsarist Russia and Jim Crow America treated life as worthless.

People are born into a world of confusion, a society in which the system of values is so uncertain that who can say if a man is worth more than a load of hay, or if life itself is precious enough to justify the struggle to obtain the material objects necessary for its maintenance. (p. 288.)”6

While realism had developed in Western Europe just before the middle of the 19th century, according to McCullers, it took the politics of brutality and degradation in Russia to propel their literary figures to become moral agents. She points to Dostoevsky especially.

It is almost as though having a long looked on life and having faithfully reflected what he has seen in his art, he is appalled by both life itself and by what he has written. And unable to reject either, or to delude himself, he assumes the supreme responsibility and answers the riddle of life itself. … Dostoievsky demands magnificently, but his solution, the “new Christianity,” does not answer; it is almost as though he uses Christ as a contrivance. (p. 298.)

It is interesting here to note, in connection with the discussion earlier on whether McCullers accepted the conclusion of Kierkegaard, that in 1941 she not only rejects  the “new Christianity” (albeit in Dostoevsky’s not Kierkegaard’s garb) but seems to suggest there really can be no answer.

The important effect of the political situation is not to propel moral thinkers to an answer to the dilemma of whether living has meaning, but rather on how it impacts literary art.

But the measure of success achieved by these metaphysical and moral exploration is not of the greatest importance in itself. Their value is primarily catalytic. It is the way in which these moral problems affect the work as a whole that counts. And the effect is enormous, for Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, and the minor moralists brought to Russian realism one element that had hitherto been obscure or lacking. That is the element of passion. (p. 290.)

So at the beginning of her career the quality of passion was singled out as preeminent. Its degraded use by the judge in Clock Without Hands must be significant to McCullers. It is yet another imposture by the man who claimed he could have been as great as Shakespeare (or at least Ben Jonson). But he can only recite great sentiments (as he does at his final, disastrous, public performance in what he considers the gravest of perils—his radio address designed to gin up opposition to Brown v. Board of Education). Political hucksters in the end cannot usurp the power of art.

This passion that she evokes is “a new tenseness, a gathering together of resources, a radically tightened nervous tone.” (p. 291.) It is something that Southern literature had not fully arrived at. That is why, according to McCullers, critics pointed to the “cruelties” of Southern literature. She acknowledged that there was some truth to the charge. Writers had reached the point of acknowledging the spiritual inconsistencies of life, however, “without asking the reason why, without attempting to propose an answer. Undeniably there is an infantile quality about this clarity of vision and rejection of responsibility.” (p. 292.) McCullers believed that Southern literature had to take the next step.

Southern writing has reached the limits of a moral relativism; something more must be added if it is to continue to flourish. As yet there has been no forerunner of an analytical moralist such as Tolstoi or a mystic like Dostoievsky. … If and when this group of writers is able to assume a philosophical responsibility, the whole tone and structure of their work will be enriched, and southern writing will enter a more complete and vigorous stage in its evolution. (p. 292.)

In Russian literature McCullers believed that only two writers had reached that level—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And while McCullers acknowledged that Tolstoy was the more beautiful writer, she was always closer to Dostoevsky. I hope over the last three essays I have demonstrated the connection. Let me give one more. The metaphorical concept of Clock Without Hands is the moral dilemma of a man who knows he is soon to die but not knowing the day or hour. Dostoevsky treats the converse of that situation in The Idiot. Prince Myshkin on his first day in Moscow (having travelled from Switzerland where he was undergoing a cure for his seizures) twice explains the problem of the man who has been condemned to death. Myshkin believes that the most inhumane part of this is how it makes the condemned man concentrate his mind on dividing up the time until his death which he knows will take place at a specific time. In desperation he tells himself on the way to the scaffold how many streets are left and tries to convince himself that there is plenty of time, an eternity of time, before the next street is reached. It is only when the hood is about to be put over him that he realizes, or is no longer able to deny, what faces him. And at that moment Myshkin saw the most extraordinary transformation: “he suddenly grew as white as a sheet of paper, a sheet of white note-paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden and he must have felt sick too—as though something were choking hi and that gave him a sort of tickling sensation in his throat … I can’t help feeling that, for instance, in a moment of unavoidable destruction, if a house is collapsing on top of you, you are suddenly overcome by a desire to sit down, and close your eyes and wait—come what may! … It is odd that people seldom faint at those last moments. On the contrary, the brain, tremendously alive and active, must, I suppose, be working hard, hard hard, like an engine going at full speed. I imagine all sorts of thought—all unfinished and absurd too, perhaps, quite irrelevant thoughts—must be constantly constantly throbbing through his brain: ‘That man is looking at me—he has a wart on his forehead—one of the buttons on the executioner’s coat is rusty. …’ and all the time he knows everything and remembers everything; there is one point which one can never forget, and one can’t faint, and everything goes round and round, round that point.” (pp. 87–88.)7 Malone acts out that same drama, in his own way, watching Dr. Hayden fumble with his letter opener, on the first day he knew of his sentence.

Malone at first, without the deadline, tries to make every moment count, but really cannot. None of us can. In the face of death, we continue to muddle on. And this too Myshkin anticipates on the same day during his conversation with the Yepanchin daughters. He tells them of an execution that was called off, something that the author Dostoevsky was quite familiar with, since a similar thing happened to him. Myshkin describes a group of prisoners lining up for a firing squad. The first three were tied to the posts and long white smocks were put on them before white caps were pulled over their eyes. (This scene follows Dostoevsky’s death sentence farce, following his arrest for political crimes.) The convict who told Myskhin of this story is not among the first group as so he too divides up the rest of his short time and plans how to use it. “The uncertainty and the feeling of disgust with that new thing which was bound to come any minute were dreadful, but he said that the thing that was most unbearable [according to Myskin] was the constant thought, ‘What if I had not had to die! What if I could return to life—oh, what an eternity! And all that would be mine! I should turn every minute into an age, I should lose noting, I should count every minute separately and waste none!’ He said that this reflection finally filled him with such bitterness that he prayed to be shot as quickly as possible.” (p. 83.) The prisoner (like Dostoevsky) received an unexpected reprieve. After a moment of silence, one of the daughters eventually asks Myshkin “Well, what did he do with with that wealth afterwards? Did he count every minute separately?”

“‘Oh, no, he told me himself—I asked him about it—he didn’t live like that at all, and he wasted many, many minutes.’

“‘Well, let that be a lesson to you. It seems it’s impossible actually to live ‘counting every minute separately.’ Whatever the reason, it’s impossible.’

“‘Yes, whatever the reason, it’s impossible,’ the prince repeated. ‘I thought so myself. And yet I somehow can’t believe it. … ‘” (p. 84.)

Malone, as we have seen, first sets off to make every minute count, wandering the streets to look at the things that will outlast him, taking in the teachings of those he thought were spiritually wise than he. But eventually, he drops his quest and falls back into his routine, perhaps more resentful and occasionally dreaming of a change, a trip to Vermont, but nothing comes of it, because it is really impossible to contemplate “livingness” every moment. But when the end comes he dies much like Myshkin’s reprieved convict thought he would die: “There was a church not far off, its gilt roof shining in the bright sunshine. He remembered staring with awful intensity at teat roof and the sunbeams flashing from it; he could not tear his eyes off those rays of light: … he felt that in three minutes he would somehow merge with them.” (p. 83.) Although Malone was much weaker, to weak for any kind of intense scrutiny, he died in much that same way, by merging into his surroundings: “his livingness was leaving him, and in dying living assumed order and a simplicity that Malone had never known before. The pulse, the vigor was not there and not wanted. The design alone emerged.”

McCullers and Dostoevsky were two hedgehogs who knew the same big thing: that one can tug and sniff and rattle the question, but death confers a mystery on life that really cannot be resolved by some edifice of philosophy or belief in orthodox spirituality. There is simply the intense desire to hold on to livingness. When McCullers accepts a challenge posed by Dostoevsky that is the best she can do. But perhaps it is the best even Dostoevsky could do. For if you take away all the breathless writing, all the bizarre characters whose characterization borders on the burlesque, all the operatic plot devices, all the tumult of words of half-formed ideas (all of which McCullers recapitulates in a less grandiose way in Clock Without Hands), does Dostoevsky have anything more to add? Stavrogin in the Demons (The Possessed) says that a man would accept to live in a four by two space rather than die. In the same book, a radical, who has promised to commit suicide as an act of anarchic revolution, has terrified second thoughts at the last minute. Is this any more than McCullers asserting that “livingness” takes priority over everything?

McCullers, of course, is not Dostoevsky. But she was following down the path of intense moral scrutiny of the ultimate question. That she did not find the answer is not as important as that she was one of the few American writers who even cared to ask the question.


1Dorothy Parker, “Clock Without Hands Belongs in Yesterday’s Tower of Ivory,” Esquire (December 1961), pp. 72–72, reprinted in Beverly Lyon Clark and Melvin J. Friedman (eds.), Critical Essays on Carson McCullers (New York: G.K. Hull & Co., 1996), pp. 58–60, at 58. [Return to text.]

2Irving Howe, “In the Shadow of Death: The Clock Without Hands,” New York Times Book Review (September 17, 1961), p. 5. [Return to text.]

3W.H. Auden, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, Presented by W.H. Auden (New York: D. McKay Co. [1952]). [Return to text.]

4Delma Eugene Presley, “Carson McCullers and the South,” The Georgia Review, Vol. 28, no. 1 (Spring 1974), pp. 19-32. (JSTOR; subscription required.) [Return to text.]

5Karl Lubbers, “The Necessary Order: A Study of Theme and Structure in Carson McCullers’ Fiction,” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, Bd. 8 (1963), pp. 187-204  (quote at p. 187). (JSTOR; subscription required.) It is slightly unfair of me to lump Lubbers in with Presley since the former has many useful things to say about McCullers’s work. [Return to text.]

6The essay is reprinted in the collection entitled The Mortgaged Heart ed. by Margarita G. Smith, originally published in 1971. The page citations are from the Bantam edition (1972). [Return to text.]

7Quotations from The Idiot were translated by David Magarshack. Page citations are to the Penguin edition (1955). [Return to text.]


Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”

The Prince Hal Problem

Chimes at Midnight-Final Scene

Final shot in Chimes at Midnight: As Falstaff’s coffin is wheeled out of the inn into the blighted landscape, Ralph Richardson narrates the virtues of the new king: “… he left no offense vnpunished, nor fréendship vnrewarded … for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both liued & died a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour, and … famous to the world alwaie.” (Holinshed, Chronicles …, Vol. VI, p. 583 (1587 ed.).)

Since the post on Chimes at Midnight two months ago, I kept coming back in my mind to the “Hal question.” In this piece I will look at how Shakespeare himself delineated Prince Hal (before he became Henry V), how critics and other analysts considered Hal’s behavior and then return to the treatment by Orson Welles. To 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 OneHenry 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 signaling his intention to reform later at the beginning of our view of Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, a particularly inappropriate time to declare such a 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 IIHenry 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 (all of which can be heard via The Internet Archive): 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.

Digression: Three Additional Style Observations on Chimes at Midnight

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that cassio proof of Desdamona's infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago.

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that Cassio told of Desdemona’s infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago and he is seen as though in a cage. and darkness obscures most of our view of him.

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. And 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.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent. Welles’s scenery and staging is reminiscent of compositions by Thomas Gainsborough (except for the corpse).

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 estate 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 Federal Theatre Project 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 representing him.

Falstaff: “[H]ow subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to me of the wildness of his youth, … every third word a lie” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:292-96.) Silence (Walter Chiari), Shallow (Alan Webb) and Falstaff (Welles), l-r.

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 are 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 inasmuch as it not only deals with the wild oats supposedly sown by Hal, but also his confrontation with his father Henry IV and Hal’s volte-face.

Thus were the father and the sonne reconciled, be|twixt whom the said pickthanks had sowne diuision, insomuch that the sonne vpon a vehement conceit of vnkindnesse sproong in the father, was in the waie to be worne out of fauour. Which was the more like|lie to come to passe, by their informations that priui|lie charged him with riot and other vnciuill demea|nor vnséemelie for a prince. Indeed he was youthful|lie giuen, growne to audacitie, and had chosen him companions agréeable to his age; with whome he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and de|lights as he fansied. But yet (it should séeme by the report of some writers) that his behauiour was not offensiue or at least tending to the damage of anie bodie; sith he had a care to auoid dooing of wrong, and to tedder his affections within the tract of ver|tue, whereby he opened vnto himselfe a redie passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was be|loued of such as could discerne his disposition, which was in no degrée so excessiue, as that he deserued in such vehement maner to be suspected. In whose dis|praise I find little, but to his praise verie much, par|cell whereof I will deliuer by the waie as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. (Holingshed, Chronicles … (1587 ed.), Volume 6, page 539. For  version of this passage with modernized spelling by Rosemary Gaby’s see Note 2 below.)

Holinshed’s treatment of the reign of Henry V is heavily varnished hagiography. So I suspect that if there were not 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 emphasizes 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 contradicts 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.3) 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).

Hal (Keith Baxter): “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

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 from 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 who 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 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.)

Between 12 and 1

Hostess Quickly (Margaret Rutherford) remembers Falstaff: “‘a cried out, ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him ‘a should not think of God – I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.” (Henry V, II:iii:18-21.)

Despite the bantering about the audience’s “hard opinion” of Falstaff, this epilogue by a narrator standing in for the author suggests to me that Shakespeare himself was troubled by his 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 of left vacant by the death of Falstaff 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 the author. 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 of 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 an understanding personality (such as Freud’s) which posits that most formative events take place within a family and involve sexual tensions and competition for affections.

“Falstaff is dead,” says his little Page (Beatrice Welles) sadly in the courtyard where his coffin lies.

Yet Freud limited himself to two comments about the Henry IV-V plays. 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 for this explanation seems not only class-bound but also unconvincing.) 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) Richard 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.4 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 principle 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.

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach (the source for Richard Wagner) Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Print Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach’a Parzival (the source for Richard Wagner’s opera). Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

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 by 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 Saturnalia 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 said 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 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 is possible to fill in evidentiary holes by faith.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff. Hal directs the royal wrath as Falstaff, but when Henry finally confronts Hal (the next day), it is Hal’s treatment of him, as his father, he laments.

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 off 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 psychoanalysts. The last we see of Falstaff (forever) is when he is being ordered off to jail by the Lord Chief Justice. 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 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 put too 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 to Hal a woman. Much of it comes from 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.

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff's pocket (and given the contents of Hal).

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff’s pocket (and given the contents to Hal).

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 equation 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 completely 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 description 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 TwoII.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 writing 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

Hours before he died before a typewrite in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Hours before he died before a typewriter in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

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 ShowThe 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, especially of Shakespearean characters. (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. In all of Welles’s films the one exception, one that he even hinted had a Freudian explanation, was Citizen Kane.) 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 psycho-biography 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 Shakespearean 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 of 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 from Holinshed (Shakespeare’s own source). Welles 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 (whatever Shakespeare’s intent was) in one aspect, his characterization of Falstaff, while remaining consistent with Shakespeare’s intent with respect to the political-court aspect of the story, which though much abridged, 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.

thou'll forget me

Sensing the end, Falstaff is no longer the wit. He tells Doll (Jean Moreau): “Thou’ll forget me when I am gone.” And it’s not even an accusation. (Henry IV, Part Two, II:iv:270-71.)

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 at all.

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 plays 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).5

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, though not altogether accurate, understanding of “machiavellian”) is by Prince John of Lancaster, the son Henry is most proud of. In the second Henry IV 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 everything 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 Welles sees “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 Welles 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 not 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.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

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 disrupts this story arc. And while Hal gives hints even before Shrewsbury what the “necessity” will cause him to do, Welles portrays 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 as he conceives it.

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 his master. 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.

We last see Falstaff as he disappeares under arches having half-heartedly assured himself that “I shall be sent for soon.” Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:92-93).

The rejection comes soon after. It is brutal and humiliating. It strikes deep within us watching it. Welles’s 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—a death march of sorts), 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 …” All encomiums are lies.

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 whom 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.

All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

This is the way the world ends: All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

That Shrewsbury was the turning point 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 distant past as present, and both as nightmare.) 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 them 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 antiquated, and in some ways Freudian, concepts.) What Welles seems to be saying is that the political overwhelms the personal, because the state has become so 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.]

2Rosemary Gaby’s modernized version of this passage is as follows:

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. [Return to text.]

3One 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.]

4Both 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.]

5Although 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 murderer, 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 letter 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, [1953]) [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.

Witter Bynner’s “Passing Near”

Witter Bynner was one of the vanguard of poets who in the 1910s and 1920s would bring about something of a poetic rebirth in the United States after several decades of undistinguished works mainly by writers better known for their prose. This is not a modern conclusion. At the time, the dearth of American poetry was lamented in most of the serious literary periodicals. Seemingly in spite of the barren plot, serious poets (or at least writers with serious ambitions to be professional poets) sprumg up in numbers, and seemingly, all at once.

This new flourishing took place slightly behind the modernist experiments going on by poets in London. While some Americans attempted to follow the new techniques pioneered there (notably Hart Crane, for example), American poets of the time never subscribe to the burden of the English modernist, unable to subscribe to the haughty elitism, the reactionary politics and the ethnocentric bigotry of the leading modernists (Hulme, Pound, Eliot and Lewis). Nor did the Americans find the need to form schools (except, perhaps, for Amy Lowell, who personally interacted with Pound and who purchased the leadership of the Imagist movement at the time that Pound was working up other manifestoes). The Americans displayed interest in a variety of approaches and techniques, although none seemed interested in in competing with the English modernists in announcing the death of civilization.

Bynner was not tempted by the modernist song of Tiresias either in subject or tone or technique. He was, however, capable of donning their voice as he and Arthur Davison Ficke proved by hoaxing the literary establishment with their publication Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916). Bynner was more interested in exploring the mysteries of an interior world in finely wrought traditional lines.

Born in Brooklyn in 1881, he made his way to Harvard where he was selected to join the Harvard Advocate by editor Wallace Stevens. He diligently dedicated himself to writing verse from the turn of the century and only nine years after he was graduated, returned to Harvard in 1911 to deliver the annual Phil Beta Kappa verse recital, with a poem entitled “An Immigrant,” which was amplified (according Book Review Digest, volume 11, 1916 (p. 72)) when collected in The New World, printed by Mitchell Kennerley in 1915. (You can read the version reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf in 1922 in Google books). Incidentally, as traditional as the poem now sounds, The Nation (September 30, 1915) was uncomfortable with its form and panned it thus: “I am sorry that the cult of novelty should have besprinkled with those queernesses which pass muster in certain quarters for originality. There is a smack of exclusiveness in in the very emphasis on democracy.” Bynner’s work would never thereafter be known for “queerness.” Rather the works’ surface simplicity belies mysteries worked up by rigorous technique.

Bynner went on to lecture at Berkeley, mainly to accommodate soldiers recently demobbed (as Eliot would put it). A trip to China convinced him to study the language and poetry. On his return ill health caused him to recover in Santa Fe, where he would take up residence for the rest of his life. Here he was host to stars (including Rita Hayworth) and literati (Auden, Frost and others). A trip into Mexico with visiting D.H. Lawrence landed him a portrait in The Plumed Serpent.

He continued writing poetry until a stroke in the mid 1960s disabled him. When he died in 1968, his will bestowed the funds that created a foundation to sponsor American poets.

The poem below is an early example of his lyric. First published in 1913 it was collected in Grenstone Poems: A Sequence (New York: Frederick A. Stockes Co., 1917). In the collection it is grouped in a section entitled “News” with the epigraph: “If a word of doom arrives—love, hearing it, / Can make the deathful tidings exquisite.”

Passing Near

from Poetry, February 1913

by Witter Bynner

I had not till today been sure,
But now I know:
Dead men and women come and go
Under the pure
Sequestering snow.

And under the autumnal fern
And carmine bush,
Under the shadow of a thrush,
They move and learn;
And in the rush

Of all the mountain-brooks that wake
With upward fling
To brush and break the loosening cling
Of ice, they shake
The air with Spring!

I had not till today been sure,
But now I know:
Dead youths and maidens come and go
Below the lure
And undertow

Of cities, under every street
Of empty stress,
Or heart of an adulteress:
Each loud retreat
Of lovelessness.

For only by the stir we make
In passing near
Are we confused, and cannot hear
The ways they take
Certain and clear.

Today I happened in a place
Where all around
Was silence; until, underground,
I heard a pace,
A happy sound.

And people whom I there could see
Tenderly smiled,
While under a wood of silent, wild
Wandered a child,

Leading his mother by the hand,
Happy and slow,
Teaching his mother where to go
Under the snow.
Not even now I understand—
I only know.