Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part K

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulting from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane;
But being awak'd, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body (hence) and more thy grace,
Leave gormandizing, know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest,
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
(2 Henry IV 5.5.47-65)

Ah, divorce. Medieval style. Is Henry V's restraining order against Falstaff the first instance of the proverbial "ten-foot pole" concept? Ten miles is significant. If you have Google Earth, and you type in "London, England" you'll notice the city's current sprawling urban density goes on for miles and miles. To keep out of Henry's way today, Falstaff could just pick up and move to East Ham, where there is sure to be a sufficient number of pubs for him to satisfy his craving for a capon and a small beer. But in the 15th century, Falstaff's ten-mile punishment means complete expulsion from London, for the city is barely two miles in diameter (click on the historical map above). If London is heaven, Falstaff has been tossed out.

I think the religious imagery here is intriguing. It feels like Hal has a bit of anxiety about his transition from bad boy to good king, so he evokes God's omniscience to corroborate his transformation. The people may be skeptical, but God knows. Falstaff (along with Poins and Bardolph), on the other hand, is a "misleader" and "tutor" of dissolute behavior, which sounds distinctly fiend-like. Thus, Henry V's banishment of him is like God's expulsion of the rebel angels:

"And the great dragon, that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, was cast out, which deceiveth all the world; he was even cast into the earth, and his Angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12.9).

Notice the neat connection between "old serpent" and Hal's double taunt ("old man," "so old") regarding Falstaff's age. To take this one step further, Falstaff's banishment, by analogy, elevates King Henry into the place of God. His decree, then, further establishes the divine right of his rule.


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