Friday, September 26, 2008

RE: 2 Henry IV - Some Opening Thoughts

Ernst said: 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.

Gil replied: Railing Captains indeed people the city comedies of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and continued unabated [sic] into the Eighteenth Century: Behn’s Willmore, Congreve’s Petulant; Garrick’s Fribble in Miss in Her Teens, and most gloriosus of all, all ten acts of Almanzor in Dryden’s Conquest of Grenada. Ancient Pistol is one of four candidates I have for who might replace Hotspur in 2 Henry IV (the others are Prince John, Lady Percy, and Francis Feeble, of whom more later). Pistol is indeed a braggart soldier, a miles gloriosus, a stock type I may have applied to Falstaff in 1 Henry IV, but Pistol better conforms to the narrower dimension of this humour character.

Doll Tearsheet offers the grace note to Pistol before his entrance (Act II scene 4) as a ‘swaggering rascal, the foulmouth’d’st rogue in England,’ and Mistress Quickly expands: “If he swagger, let him not come here … I’ll no swaggerers … Shut the door, there comes no swaggerers here … I have not liv’d all this while to have swaggering now.” [Do you remember the Beyond the Fringe skit, “I’d Rather Be a Judge than a Miner,” in which the miner says it is boring down the mine, boring is the word that comes to mind, when he thinks of conversation down the mine, it is boring, etc.?] And when we meet him, he is part of the flurry of those sallies which make Eric Partridge, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, blush: “I will discharge upon her, Sir John, with two bullets" [he’s Pistol, get it, and goes off half-cocked], and “I know you, Mistress Dorothy,” until Sir John says “No more, Pistol, I would not have you go off here. Discharge yourself of our company, Pistol.”

But the characteristic of Pistol that caught my ear is how he laces his bombast with garbled allusions to heroic drama. My notes identify George Peele, Turkish Mohomet and The Battle of Alcazar, but best is:

Shall pack-horses
And hollow pamper’d jades of Asia,
Which cannot go but thirty mile a day,
Compare with Caesars, and with cannibals,
And Troiant Greeks? (II.iv.163-67)

which mangles “Holla, ye pamper’d jades of Asia” from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Part II in which Tamberlaine has harnessed Asian kings to his chariot. I don’t even want to think of Hannibal the Cannibal. Anyway, Tamberlaine is the most monumentally heroic figure in Elizabethan drama, and I am impressed that Shakespeare could tweak his rival Marlowe and send up his own chivalric hero Hotspur with the swaggering—did you note that he swaggers?—Pistol. Thus, the concept of honor, catechized by Falstaff at the end of 1 Henry IV, is here degraded, not to survive the cold-hearted Prince John in Part 2.

Back in the beginning, at my prep school in the North of England, we performed Henry V, and I still remember my classmate Johnny Edwards (the boy) greeting Pistol’s entrance with “Mine host Pistol” with his inflection revealing “hoss piss.” How could I not love Shakespeare’s language ever after? And we still have ahead of us Cressida's entrance: “Hark. The Troyan’s trumpet,” don’t we?


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