Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Henrys and Hemingway

Followers of Hank the Cinque,

I’d like to add a note on Hemingway and Shakespeare. I know, I know, but I am acquainted with a bizarre ex-prof who would lecture frequently not on Marxist theory applied to Shakespeare, but, a-chronologically, on the influence of Marx on Shakespeare.

I was familiar with Henry V before I first taught Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in which the rich and glamorous couple, Francis and Margot Macomber, go on a Kenyan safari led by the Great White Hunter Wilson. Macomber displays unmanly cowardice by running from a wounded lion. Wilson and his African beaters and bearers are embarrassed, and Margot further emasculates her husband by brazenly spending the night in Wilson’s tent. Despite that, Macomber hunts again the next day, and the guys shoot three fearsome Cape Buffalo, but after some chest beating and whiskey, they learn that one wounded buffalo has gone into the bush. The exultant Macomber jabbers on about how fearless he has become, says he would like to go after another lion because, “After all, what can they do to you?”

"That’s it," said Wilson. "Worst one can do is kill you. How does it go? Shakespeare. Damned good. See if I can remember. Oh, damned good. Used to quote it to myself at one time. Let’s see. ‘By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.’ Damned fine, eh?" He was very embarrassed, having brought out this thing he had lived by, but he has seen men come of age before and it always moved him.

Then, the wounded buffalo charges, and so forth…

I was inclined to attribute this philosophy to the calm and courageous epic hero Henry V, the once-more-into-the-breech Henry, the we-few-we-happy-few Henry as I taught this story to hundreds of freshmen. Perhaps more stoical than Christian humility. Lots of chat about Hemingway’s concept of manly greatness. When I taught Henry V in other courses, I was not alert for this quotation.

But then Ernst, last September 7, was considering 2 Henry IV and how its characters relate themselves to a larger vision of “how the world goes,” that those who do this right are the winners. He cited a scene in Gloucestershire at Justice Shallow’s house where Falstaff and Bardolf are cynically gathering cannon-fodder recruits from among Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf, though they encourage them to ransom themselves from battle. Yet one among them, Ernst notes, does not bail out:

“By my troth I care not; a man can die but once, we owe God a death. I’ll ne’er bear a base mind. And’t be my destny, so; and’t be not, so. No man’s too good to serve’s prince, and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next” (2 Henry IV, III.ii.234-8). [Ernst cites this quotation used in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, which I don’t know.]

For me, the startling revelation is this, the most noble speech in the play, this anti-base stoical philosophy, is articulated by Francis Feeble. In Henry V, it will be echoed, though degraded, by the petulant Corporal Nym: “Faith, I will live so long as I may, that’s the certain of it; and when I cannot live any longer, I will do as I may: that is my rest, that is the rendezvous of it” (Henry V, II.i.14-16). And what a contrast Feeble’s stoicism is to Henry V’s dog soldiers, Bates, Court, and Williams [in my high-school production, after I scrubbed off the aged-Canterbury makeup, I was Williams] the night before Agincourt who, though resigned to death, nonetheless shift responsibility to the King:

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp’d off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them … I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument. Now if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it. (IV.i.125-140, 141-145)

And this leads Henry to muse on ceremony, which Derek has so powerfully analyzed.

I’m moved to consider three things. Thirdly, where did the Great Hunter Wilson go to school that he knows 2 Henry IV by heart? Secondly, the contrast between Feeble’s eloquent stoicism and Williams’s rational resignation to the ugliness of battle, even as preface to the greatest English military victory of all time, deepens my response to Henry V from the potential propaganda piece it superficially appears to be. But primarily, to restate Ernst’s original position, Feeble’s satiric name is the opposite of his nature, “a double-sided nature” that humanizes 2 Henry IV and supports the double-sided natures of the now-old men, Henry IV, Northumberland, and Falstaff. And Wilson may know his source—Shakespeare, is it? Damned good—but did Hemingway? I don’t remember any irony in Hemingway, yet here is the most noble, manly moment in “The Short Happy Life,” and he is quoting Francis Feeble.

Good? Oh, damned good.


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