1. Shakespeare was regarded by many as the best dramatist going by the time of this play. His Falstaff is famous, but practically inimitable (except by Shakespeare himself), but Pistol, the “railing captain” was quickly picked up by Marston, Jonson and others who used Railing Captains for satirical purpose in their satires and “humors” plays.
2. Rumor, “painted full of tongues,” is, perhaps, something out of folk drama that Shakespeare may well have encountered in his youth. He reminds me of the so-called “wild men” covered with leaves who appeared in comedies and shows in the sixties and seventies—especially in the smaller, away-from-London parts of England. Shakespeare makes brilliant use of him with splendid gossip-like language: the metaphors of Rumor as the sun, the earth as a rotund woman impregnated by him, Rumor as a pipe, the mob as a Blatant Beast (a many-headed monster out of Arthurian times), the mob as a musical instrument Rumor plays upon; and the wonderful assonance-and-consonance-rich imagery of “And this worm-eaten hole of ragged stone/Where Hotspur’s father, old Northumberland, lies crafty-sick.” (Notice the o’s and r’s in this speech and how they lead to the two s’s and k’s in the final words.)
Indeed, Rumor serves as a kind of Fate to which we are privy, but Northumberland’s court is not aware of Fate, which provokes some real dramatic tension where a lesser dramatist would simply have told the story in straight narrative. This exposition is a long way from “Stand forth, Lysander.”
This leads me to further appreciate the general density of language in this nonetheless easy-to-understand play. There is more stuff happening in the lines than (at least) begin to here with a casual reading.
3. In Scene i. we meet the first of the play’s old men, Northumberland—the David to his Absolom, the Judas to Christ, the George Bush to the Army and Marines, Henry’s disenchanted co-conspiritor and thug (in Richard II), a kind of gutless nihilist. He knows there is no honesty in politics; he believes in no God. Northumberland has nothing to hold him together except the energy of his anger at the world; one feels he would be dissatisfied even had his son become king. He is surrounded by rumors and courtiers bringing rumors and, like some of the glass-half-empty people I know, he is supremely interested in rumors because they, taken together, reinforce his scorn for life and his inability to practice or understand any practice of or capacity for Grace. His relationship to Heaven stands in sharp contrast to Hal’s (II.ii.141-3).
So Northumberland is subconsciously expecting bad news regarding his son. And, when it comes, he falls into a brilliant rising speech which, on one hand, is a splendid apostrophe to anarchism (I.i 154 [“Let order die!”] – 150 [“And darkness be the burier of the dead!”]) and, on the other hand, the words of a very shallow, but dangerous, man. (And what contemporary politician would you compare HIM to? None speak sufficiently well.) Northumberland is so shallow that, immediately after this speech, he is totally under the sway of the conspirators around him who are themselves fools for not recognizing that he will desert them much as he did his son.
4. The richness of language I mention above continues in the wonderful comic scenes that follow—all surrounding the second of the play’s “old men,” Falstaff, whose venality is as nothing next to Northumberland’s. Falstaff is perhaps the most famous version of the Braggadocio, or “braggart soldier,” of which Pistol (pronounced “pizzle” for obvious comic reasons) is a different kind of derivative. This relates him, as Wayne Burns wrote in his “Panzaic Principle,” to comic side-kicks like Leporello, Sancho Panza, (Walter Brennan?), which archetype-plus pulls the Bacchus-like notion of Pan into the archetype. Of Shakespeare’s characters, Sir Toby Belch may be the clearest example—a person in a work of literature who is set in contrast to an idealistic hero (Giovanni, Quixote, Hal).
But what most impressed me about Falstaff listening to my CD of the play was the sheer density of his comic material. In his first speech (1.2) note:
5. (Page’s response) Good diseased water;
6. “gird” means both make fun of and reflects on trying to put a belt around Falstaff’s fat belly;
7. “compounded clay” refers both to some sort of poppet or doll and also to humankind’s own creation, with a foreshadowing of Falstaff’s coming battle with his own mortality and enlarges to tiny page to encompass all humanity;
11. “the cause” is, perhaps, a side view of Falstaff as dramatist;
13. “set me off”—Falstaff=jewel (red complexion);
15. “Mandrake” is, in addition to being a man-shaped root, a penis inasmuch as it is a method for getting impregnated;
18-19: the Falstaff=jewel is reversed, now the page+jewel;
19. “vile apparel”—jewel’s setting=clothes;
20. “jewel” leads to “juvenile” leads to Prince Hal;
21. “fledge” picks up earlier feather and suggests the “fledgling” Falstaff pretends that Hal is.
Etc., etc. This is indeed dense joking and wordplay, spinning on in ways that would make my father’s college friend, Jim Agee, who—in an important essay talking about how the great silent comedians [Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd] were able to “top” their jokes, spinning on from what a normal comedian would use as a conclusion to a new joke)—jump with joy in whatever afterworld he now inhabits.
Equally delightful is the wonderful run of dirty jokes in Mistress Quickly’s beginning of 2.1: “enter the action,” “stand to it,” “stabbed me in my own house,” “most beastly,” “his weapon be out,” “foin” (see Dekker’s The Shoemakers Holiday and its comic character Firk (whose name means essentially the same thing as “foin,” a play much influenced by these tavern scenes), “undone,” “comes continually,” “Pie Corner,” etc., etc., etc. I have been told that “quickly” is also a pun—especially in Elizabethan pronunciation—but I’m not sure I get it, unless “quakely” suggests orgasms. Hmmm.Ernst