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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Gobbo; Falstaff's Death; King John
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0291  Tuesday, 31 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Mar 1998 13:30:13 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Lancelot GOBBO

[2]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Mar 1998 09:55:08 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Falstaff's Death

[3]     From:   Michael Ullyot <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Mar 1998 17:16:05 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0278  Re: King John


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Mar 1998 13:30:13 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Lancelot GOBBO

I apologize to Chris Stroffolino for the delay in responding, but I am a
graduate student teaching two classes at CUNY.  By the way, are you at
Brooklyn or C.W. Post?

Shakespeare reveals the anagogical level of the comedy through this
apparently diversionary comic interlude. Launcelot begins reversing
religious terms when he says "this is my true-begotten father," which I
take to be an allusion to God the Father's words concerning Jesus.

He proceeds by offering directions to his blind father who knows him
not, a reversal of the true situation of the English Reformation in
which God the Father is attempting to show to his true offspring the way
to earthly paradise.

The directions echo the casket trial in that they involve three turns: a
left way, a right way, and a way "down indirectly..." Gobbo complains
that "by God's sonties t'will be a hard way to hit." Kittredge says that
the epithet "be god's sonties" was unintelligible to the Elizabethans,
but it may be a corruption of "sactities."

Even the obscurity of the oath in relation to the sanctity of God
contributes to the themes of the scene: the Englishman trapped in the
apparently irresolvable moral dilemmas created by the Reformation, and
God's presence, right at the moment that man has resolved to transgress
the moral absolute against apostasy.

The left way (I'm not sure if "left" and "right" had political
connotations yet) may signify the radical Protestantism of Edward VI,
the right, the Catholic recusansy of Mary and the "hard way to hit," as
does Nerissa's comment to Portia that "it is no mean happiness to be
seated in the mean" point to Elizabeth's "middle way" as the answer to
the dilemma, but in the reversed, mock heroic terms of the two clowns
the middle way has become a way down (i.e. to hell).

The bond of man to master was based on the same essentialist hierarchy
as the bond of a knight to the king and a Catholic to the Church. They
were part of the great chain of being.  Launcelot realizes that by
breaking his master/man bond, he should forfeit the titles "good" and
"honest"

His conscience dictates that he must observe the master/man bond, but he
reasons rightly that if his master is the devil than a moral paradox
exists which his conscience cannot resolve adequately.  The only way out
of the dilemma, unfortunately is to act against his conscience and the
law.  The English commoners in Shakespeare's audience would relate to
Lance's dilemma after having being required by the aristocracy to adjust
their church loyalties several times over the course of the previous
century.

But God would not leave his true-begotten in such a dilemma, in which
obeying his own law could be an evil, and so old Gobbo shows up, blind
to signify man's blindness, a father seeking directions to his son (read
son seeking father) who is currently living at the Jew's house (i.e.
scripture).

This reading seems to me consistent with the rest of the scene and with
the themes of the play as a whole.  It is a comedy of the Reformation in
which Elizabeth's middle way brings England to a happy ending.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Mar 1998 09:55:08 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Falstaff's Death

Emrys Jones pointed out long ago that Falstaff's death is a classical
imitation of Socrates' death, as told by Plato in the Phaedo. What are
the comparisons/contrasts between Falstaff and Socates that the audience
is invited to think about?  I can think of three comparisons:

1. Both are reductive thinkers. Is honor only a word? Is rhetoric only a
"knack," like cookery?

2. Both are falsely charged with the crime of "misleading youth."

3. Both engender a teacher/pupil relationship: Socrates is Plato's
teacher, and Falstaff is Hal/Henry's.

Can other SHAKSPEReans add more comparisons/contrasts?

--Ed Taft

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Ullyot <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Mar 1998 17:16:05 -0500
Subject: 9.0278  Re: King John
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0278  Re: King John

Ed Taft wrote in response to my question about _King John_'s lack of
reference to the Magna Carta:

>As for the
>Magna Carta, I think that its importance was not well recognized until
>the early 17th century, when historians were preoccupied with ways to
>constitutionally limit the powers of monarchs.

The point is valid, but I wonder if considerations of the playwright's
valuations aren't secondary. The primary concern is really that the two
most prevalent cultural associations we have with King John (the
historical figure) -- Robin Hood and the Magna Carta-aren't present in
Shakespeare's play, and how this affects the play's reception. I think
questions of what Shakespeare *could* have added-while this is always
dangerous territory-are interesting because they begin to piece together
what elements of literature must be present in order for it to achieve
high canonical stature.

Drew Whitehead further writes, on the history plays:

>I have never really been
>bothered, or concerned, by the historical accuracy of the plays.  They
>are fascinating pieces of work and the fact that they are "based on
>fact" in on way hinders of even effects my enjoyment of them, in much
>the same way that a movie like "Titanic" is only "based on fact" and we
>can enjoy it.  In reality any movie, like any play is a "lie", a piece
>of fiction and "based on fact" should never be confused with the "truth"

My intuition is the same, of course-fictions that are only loosely based
on fact, and interpret actual events with artistic liberty, are
everywhere.  The interesting thing about them is how they test the
boundary between fiction and fact, between history and poetry. I'm
inclined to think (and perhaps this would be better said in the
"Postmodernism" forum on SHAKSPER) that poetry based on history is the
best kind of historiography, even if it is less 'true' than textbook
accounts of history. Not that textbooks don't have an important
function-where would Shakespeare's histories have been without
Holinshed? But historical facts, like all things in the world, are
accentuated and (I daresay) improved by poetic treatment.

Michael Ullyot
 

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