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Home :: Archive :: 2011 :: September ::
Henry V - Falstaff's Death

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0248  Friday, 30 September 2011

From:         Mark Alcamo < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         September 30, 2011 12:40:13 PM EDT

Subject:      Henry V - Falstaff's Death

 

I earlier submitted a picture of the 'Winchester [King Arthur's] Round Table' which was painted in the Tudor colors of green and white and suggested Shakespeare may have had this very Table in mind when he had Mistress Quickly refer to, 

 

'for his Nose was as sharpe as a Pen, and a Table of greene fields.'

 

I thought this was very interesting because as far back as Lewis Theobald (1733), this was recognized as something unintelligible and so within the Editor's purview to attempt making sense of.  Theobald came up with 'and a [he] babbled of green fields', an emendation that even the discerning Dr Johnson found 'uncommon happy' … but Now we have actual evidence: a 'Table of greene fields' to consider.  In my first post I didn't persecute the issue to the endgame of why we should be interested in a table of green fields other than the possible uncommon happy we may experience thinking ourselves closer to Shakespeare.  So now I'll attempt to convey 'Why' I think this find goes beyond trivial pursuit and could have some added significance in understanding the speech ... the play ... (and Shakespeare).  …  (A tall order, I know.)     

 

I have to start off by confessing, in the theater, I can't defend the existing First Folio 'Table' reading as critical to the audience's experience or appreciation of the speech and/or scene.  Some may have clicked on the reference to [King] Arthur and table, as I had, but how many would know of the Winchester Table?  It's obviously a poignant send-off for Falstaff with some gentle good humor and certainly some well-known bawdy connotation, ending with,

 

… so a bad me lay more Clothes on his

feet: I put my hand into the Bed, and felt them, and they

were as cold as any stone: then I felt to his knees, and so

vp-peer'd, and vpward, and all was as cold as any stone.

 

And it's once more interesting to Note, the last line in the Quarto reads,

 

' … and so upward, and upward, and all was cold as any stone.'

 

And again, 'vp-peered' seems (relatively) unintelligible and most Editors will reflect the upward or 'up'ard' idea.  But there is another interesting consideration, which is a possible literal use of 'peer' - the highest of English nobility … 'and all was as cold as any stone'.  An incredibly subversive notion for an Early Modern English playwright (to say the least), even without recognizing the plausible wordplay in up-peered and up-reared.  I find this line of 'speculation' interesting, and although my comments on this speech may initially be thought too unusual, too precise and too evocative, my hope is some may sense more than my illusions - and that the allusions may also be characteristically Shakespearean.

 

I certainly recognize I've exposed myself to charges of 'too close' a read, or arbitrary, or 'rumatique' ... but in the context of where's there's smoke there's fire, I believe it's worth keeping in mind.  I say this because there is quite a lot of scholarship that is invested in the belief that Falstaff started off named Oldcastle in Henry IV Pt 1 but 'feedback' caused him to change the name to Falstaff for 2HIV and Merry Wives, (and HV).

 

There are extant apocryphal references that the Cobham family, ancestors of Oldcastle, objected to the named character and Shakespeare accommodated with the change of name to Falstaff.  There are also literal Oldcastle DNA traces in the 1HIV text but mainly convincing, is the (plausibly disingenuous) apology at the end of the 2HIV Epilogue,

 

One word more, I beseech you: if you be not too much cloid with Fat Meate, Our humble Author will continue the Story (with Sir Iohn in it) and make you merry, with faire Katherine of France: where (for any thing I know) Falstaffe shall dye of a sweat, vnlesse already he be kill'd with your hard Opinions:

 

For Old-Castle dyed a Martyr, and this is not the man. My Tongue is wearie

 

when my Legs are too, I will bid you good night; and so kneele downe before you:

 

where Shakespeare clearly holds out the hope Falstaff will return for HV … which doesn't happen.

 

At this point, I'd have to admit, I always had a memento mori (Remember your mortality) sense about this scene.  Elizabethans liked the idea of a moral sense to their Art, the belief that Art should strive to docere, delectare, movere – to teach, to delight, to move; and it's generally often noted Falstaff plays a Vice-type character, who's role in the big scheme of things, is to provide a 'Cautionary Tale' lesson - crime doesn't pay, etcetera.  The memento mori as appropriated by Christian culture essentially says, 'whatever' you get away with in this Life, you're reminded of an accountability in the next life.  With this sort of orientation the speech remains funny, 

 

so a [he] cryed out, God, God, God, three or foure times: now I, 

to comfort him, bid him a should not thinke of God; I 

hop'd there was no neede to trouble himselfe with any 

such thoughts yet: 

 

but underneath and in a poetic sense, it pretty much turns the table on the Vice character in this memento mori sense, 'You are dying, what do you have to say for yourself now?'

 

But my root point being Shakespeare, with the specific allusions in this speech I've mentioned:  King Arthur (the chivalric ideal), the topical Winchester-Tudor table appropriating that ideal, and 'vp-peer'd, and vpward, and all was as cold as any stone' may be a coherent albeit oblique reference to the 'Oldcastle Controversy' by Shakespeare and how he (personally) responded to it.

 

When we recall the rather brusque and insensitive rejection of Falstaff at the end of 2HIV, and how much scholar's ink has been spilled considering it, and now the untimely death of Falstaff . . . I'm only suggesting there may be more here than one enthusiast's impressionistic response.  IOW - I am aware this may initially sound like I'm coming to you from out in Left Field via a wildly speculative train of thought, but as I mentioned in my first post, I have studied this play a great deal and I believe there is much more going on in it than has previously been appreciated.

 

I picked the Table picture as particularly appropriate for my first post because the last time there was round table discussion on this web site, it concerned 'Authorial Intent'.  Very generally, this seems to have two major branches of thought,

 

1 - the bibliographic, 'What did Shakespeare write?',  and 

2 - 'What 'meaning' did he intend (or hope) to convey?'

 

So what I've attempted to present here, is one speech where what was written is usually emended, but which as written, is plausibly intelligible and may possibly hide under beatified feathers some kernels of truth regarding our author's intent.  Something akin to

 

'I created a rogue named character that cut too close to the bone, and now he's been sacrificed (as directed).'

 

For those who let loose their sense of poetry and wordplay when studying Shakespeare, please allow me to jump to the endgame conclusion with another possible connection for consideration which initially will sound even farther far-fetched:

 

In 4.1, the little touch of Harry in the night scene, the King in disguise has an argument with a character (coincidentally) named Williams.  To summarize, the King is arguing with Williams whether the King will pay (a King's) ransom to avoid his own personal bloodshed and the King says if he did, then he'd never trust him (self) again.  And Williams responds,

 

You pay him then: that's a perillous shot out 

of an Elder Gunne, that a poore and a priuate displeasure 

can doe against a Monarch: you may as well goe about 

to turne the Sunne to yce, with fanning in his face with a 

Peacocks feather: You'le neuer trust his word after; 

come, 'tis a foolish saying.

 

It's an incredibly 'feudal' notion - fanning the Sun with a feather?  And poetically once more, this is what I believe Shakespeare is (actually) doing in this play - the Sun (a metaphor for the monarch and a play on the royal responsibility to the Christian Son of God), gets some icy treatment from the tip of Shakespeare's peacock feather quill pen.  

 

Although this may sound like I'm relying on a series of oblique and subtle conjectures, I intend (hope) to show there is actually quite a lot of 'undiscerned' poetic imagination and wordplay at work in HV, such that once the consistency, the coherence, and the magnitude of it is set before you, the reasonable finding would be that it was intended, and then the question becomes what the author meant by it …  

 

Cutting loose the wordplay I mentioned,

 

'for his Knows was as sharp as a pen, and a Table of greene fields …'

 

Now I certainly don't expect a naturally (and reasonably) skeptical academic audience to immediately jump aboard this train of thought, but I hope for your patience to allow me to present enough evidence to convince those interested to themselves take another turn on the play . . .

 

Thank you,

Mark Alcamo

 

 

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