Monday, June 28, 2010

TSI 2010 - From ThighMaster to Ballbuster

As most of you know, I’m doing the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute (TSI) this summer, four weeks of scholarship, pedagogy, and performance studies focusing on 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Measure for Measure. I will devote a bit of this space for the next month to exploring some topics and ideas that relate to what we’ve been doing here at the William Shakespeare Experience. Comments, as always, are welcome.

TSI 2010 began with a lecture by Gail Kern Paster, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Director, on 1 Henry IV. After begging off her original topic – “Why Shakespeare?” – Paster took us through a detailed comparison of Hotspur and Hal, looking at questions of governance (what makes an effective leader?), character (Hotspur’s intemperance vs. Hal’s calculation), and poetic motif (hot vs. cold).

I thought the most interesting moment came during the question-and-answer. Asked to extend her comments to Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, Paster explained that she finds Falstaff a very disturbing character and, because of his actions on the battlefield in Act 5, unredeemable. Falstaff rises after his feigned death and finds Hotspur dead near him. He remarks, “How if he should counterfeit too, and rise? By my faith, I am afraid he would prove the better counterfeit. Therefore I’ll make him sure, yea, and I’ll swear I killed him. Why may he not rise as well as I? … Therefore, sirrah, with a new wound in your thigh, come you along with me” (5.4.125-131).

The editors of the Folger edition have added the stage direction, “stabbing him,” between “sirrah” and “with a new wound.” The Arden edition adds “stabs the body” in the same place. (The 1613 Quarto available in the Folger Library has no stage direction.) Paster compares this action to the horrors committed by Welsh women after Mortimer’s battle with Glendower before the play begins. Westmoreland reports to King Henry:

A post from Wales loaden with heavy news,
Whose worst was that the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight
Against the irregular and wild Glendower,
Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken,
A thousand of his people butchered,
Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,
Such beastly shameless transformation
By those Welshwomen done, as may not be
Without much shame retold or spoken of. (1.1.37-46)

What is this misuse, this shameless transformation? Paster argues that the Welshwomen have castrated the dead soldiers. What’s more she suggests that Falstaff has done the same to Hotspur. Then he lies. And on the battlefield, where his actions matter in a way they do not in Eastcheap, it becomes impossible to disconnect him from these reprehensible actions.

I would add that Falstaff’s actions at Shrewsbury are startlingly disturbing even before the incident with Hotspur. He’s been given money by the King to conscript an army, but he has taken bribes to excuse his men, and instead gathered a weak force of “ragamuffins,” all but three of whom are summarily killed. Robbing passers-by is one thing, but robbing the king and putting a battle strategy in jeopardy seems a bit traitorous to me. Second, Prince Henry demands a sword of Falstaff in the middle of the battle. But Falstaff refuses to give one to him, offering him instead a bottle of sack, a jest that seems beyond inappropriate considering what, and who, is at stake.

So there’s a lot on which to build an argument about Falstaff’s dishonor and atrocious behavior. But Chris Lavold, a teacher from Wisconsin, asks Paster the key question: how does one get from Falstaff’s explicit “a new wound in your thigh” to castration? To most readers, that requires a bit of a leap. Paster argues that the specificity of Falstaff’s words implies something. Why does he single out the “thigh”? And from there the discussion moves to where the wound would have to be, what armor Hotspur might be wearing (cuisses), and the relation of this moment to Westmoreland’s earlier horror at Welsh battlefield atrocities.

For me, the conversation revealed the tension that exists between literary criticism as a means of explicating a text or addressing ambiguities and the world of lay readers that tends to include high school students like the ones I teach.

Quick exercise: right now, point to your thigh.

Where’s your finger? Are you pointing at your groin area? In the mind of a student, we have a new question: when does “thigh” not mean “thigh”? Leading students toward successful, complex critical thinking involves a certain amount of decoding, which is not a huge stretch since reading itself is a form of decoding. But it also involves trust, established by clear lines of connection between disparate ideas. The more tenuous those lines, the more we need to clothe conclusions in the language of possibility or probability (Holden Caulfield might be struggling with repressed homosexual feelings). But where critical theory can be frustrating is in its necessary tone of certainty (Holden is gay). And this is doubly frustrating in the teacher’s milieu where we necessarily entertain any line of thought that can be supported by thoughtful argument and avoid definitive or exclusive conclusions.

In the end, I very much enjoyed Paster’s concept of Falstaff’s craven behavior, although I didn’t agree with the castration interpretation. Where I’d like to see her vision realized, and where skeptical opinions would become moot, would be on stage. There the academic argument would be easily sidestepped by the reality of the performance.

Perhaps the director could set the play in the milieu of American politics circa 2000 (we’re back to George W. Bush as Hal). The audience would be left to confront a particular view of Falstaff and debate whether his action is supported by the text. Would W.’s fat father figure, Dick Cheney, really emasculate his fallen Democratic counter-part (well, maybe). Or would he simply gore him?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.


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