There was a significant cultural shift in England from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century as the culture moved from a medieval to a ‘modern’ (or early modern) world view:
- The medieval world was essentially Christian; the early modern was moving towards a more science-based world view.
- Medieval kingship depended on The Divine Right of Kings; early modern kings used the principles of Machiavelli.
- Medieval economy was based on the Feudal system and the guilds; the early modern was moving towards Capitalism: – banking; joint stock companies; limited liability.
- Medieval society was hierarchical: kings; aristocrats; peasants; early modern society was moving towards parliamentary democracy.
The effects of these cultural shifts can be seen in Shakespeare’s plays:
- The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 & 2, Henry V) explore in some detail the shift in religio-political ideas from Richard II‘s belief in the Divine Right of Kings, to Henry IV’s (and V)’s more Machiavellian view of the world.
- The Merchant of Venice explores the development of banking and financial loans, and the importance of limited liability, as well as its more obvious plot elements.
- In The Tempest, Prospero can be seen as a proto-scientest based, as many scholars think, on John Dee, adviser to Queen Elizabeth, alchemist, astrologer, and stage effects maestro, and advocate in the development of a ‘British Empire’. This led indirectly to the Pilgrim Fathers setting off for the New World in 1620. Proto-science led to the founding of The Royal Society in 1660.
How does this relate to us? We still live in the culture of science and capitalism, but now challenges resulting from that set of beliefs are becoming significant. Now the world can barely sustain the rapidly growing population; the environment is degrading rapidly; multi-national corporations escape their responsibilities to society; while parliamentary democracy is breaking down. Exploring the development of our modern culture, and contrasting it with the medieval culture that came before, can give us some clues as to how we could respond to current challenges and change our culture.
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Let’s turn to the Henriad to explore the change in politics, focusing first on Richard II and then on Henry IV Part 1:
Richard II explores the overthrow of a king who believed the Divine Right of Kings entitled him to the crown and its powers, and doesn’t accept the political necessity of taking the power of the nobles into consideration. The play starts with a medieval ‘Trial by Combat’ between Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, who both are banished by Richard. When John of Gaunt dies, Richard II seizes all his land and money to fund a war in Ireland. Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s heir, returns from banishment to claim his title and lands, and money, and is supported by other nobles, notably Northumberland. Gradually Henry’s power grows through Machiavellian methods, and Richard’s power diminishes, until Richard is forced to abdicate in favour of Bolingbroke who becomes Henry IV. Shortly afterwards Richard is murdered, “some say, by the new king.”
As I read it, as a young man at the start of the play, Bolingbroke behaves in a ‘heroic’ manner. He challenges Thomas Mowbray to Trial by Combat on behalf of the king, and gets exiled for his trouble. When, on the death of John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, Richard confiscates his lands and money, Bolingbroke returns to protect his rights, but this time he determines to try to be more effective than his earlier heroic action. Slowly he builds his political power, and weakens Richard’s until he replaces him. By the end, Bolingbroke has shifted from a ‘heroic’to a more manipulative, or Machiavellian approach to politics so as to be more effective.
In Henry IVth (Parts 1 and 2), the Machiavellian king is struggling with two rebellions: the rebellion of the lords who brought him to power, particularly the Percys; and of his son who prefers Falstaff and his adventures in Eastcheap to royal responsibility.
Poignantly, the manipulative King Henry, admires the old-fashioned, impetuous Hotspur, who, like all heroes, is obsessed with honour. Sensitivity towards honour is a characteristic of the type of the ancient hero, and often leads to serious consequences. For example, if we restrict ourselves to Shakespearean and Elizabethan heroes:
- In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles is slighted when Agamemnon claims Achilles’ girlfriend as a prize. The serious consequences of this slight lengthen the Trojan War, (and lead to Cressida’s tragic story).
- Coriolanus‘ honour is so slighted when the Roman citizens reject him as consul and exile him, that he decides to raze Rome to the ground.
- In Shakespeare’s times, the Earl of Essex – a famous aristocratic hero – was dangerously slighted when Elizabeth got angry with him for messing up the suppression of the Irish revolt led by the Earl of Tyrone. He responded by leading a revolt against Elizabeth which lost him his head and nearly got The Lord Chamberlain’s Men locked in the Tower.
In Henry IV Part 1, Hotspur is sensitive about his honour and is not afraid to behave in a way that has serious political consequences. In A3S1, when he teeases and irritates Glendower., he says:
“Sometime he angers me
With telling me of the Moldwarp and the Ant,
Of the Dreamer Merlin and his Prophecies,
And of a Dragon, and a finless Fish,
A clip-winged Griffin and a moulten Raven,
A couching Lion and a ramping Cat,
And such a deal of skimble-skamble Stuff
As puts me from my Faith.”
Failing to understand that Glendower’s support is a necessary eveil, Mortimer (and later Worcester) have to correct Hotspur:
“I warrant you, that man is not alive,
Might so have tempted him as you have done
Without the taste of danger and reproof.
But do not use it oft, let me entreat you.”
When they expect and need his support, Glendower doesn’t turn up for the battle.
Another example of Hotspur risking much in defence of his honour has occurred much earlier in A1S3. Speaking of the prisoners that Henry IV has demanded from him, Hotspur says:
“And if the devil come and roar for them
I will not send them. I will after straight
And tell him so, for I will ease my heart,
Although it be with hazard of my head.”
Northumberland rebukes him, and holds him back: “What, drunk with choler? Stay and pause awhile” So Hotspur fits the type of the ancient hero with an obsession with honour:
“By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap
To pluck bright Honour from the pale-faced Moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where Fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned Honour by the Locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence, might wear,
Without Co-rival, all her Dignities.”
But Hotspur is hot andyoung, and perhaps the virtues of the hero are outweighed by the lack of experience.
Prince Hal is not portrayed as a medieval hero in Henry IV. Prince Hal takes after his father and shares his Machiavellian streak right from the very first scene where we meet him. He enjoys playing the fool with Falstaff and Poins, but he is quite careful to avoid going to the Gad’s Hill exploit until he is sure that he is not directly implicated in theft on the king’s highway. And then, in his soliloquy at the end of the scene he shows he knows he is going to discard his friendship with Falstaff, ending with:
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
The young Prince Hal, young like Hotspur and so lacking a mature view of how to use his royal power most effectively, shows, in the start of A2S4, disdain for the ‘common people’ in his fraternizing with the drawers and his teasing of Francis. This ability to fraternize will be put to good use in Henry Vth. His Machiavellian behaviour goes further: his awareness that he will reject Falstaff i(soliloquy at the end of A1S2); his explicit promise to reject Falstaff towards the end of A2S4 (“I do, I will”), and his actual rejection of Falstaff (A5S5 of Henry IV Part 2:
“I know thee not, old man: Fall to thy Prayers:
How ill white hairs become a Fool, and Jester?”)
So the weaknesses of the young manipulative Prince Hal, are reflected in similar weaknesses in the equally young (at least in the play,) and heroic Hotspur. They both are interested in power, one using the techniques of the hero type bound up with honour, the other playing a more political game. They can be seen as the two horns of a dilemma: Shall I behave honourably, or shall I be effective?
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And so we come to Falstaff. He has no time for honour:
“What is in that word Honour? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere Scutcheon. And so ends my Catechism.”
And he does not like Henry IV – indeed the two parts of Henry IV can be seen as a competition between the king and Falstaff for Prince Hal’s love, if he has any.
So who is Falstaff, and what are his characteristics? To me, he seems to be the life force, almost a Green Man. He is greedy for food and for money and sex. He is amoral in his search for that which will keep him alive and enjoying himself. He has two redeeming features: first, his sense of humour, and particularly his ability to laugh at himself; and secondly he seems to be able to love. Perhaps he loves Prince Hal, and he certainly wants to be loved by him: “A thousand pound, Hal? A Million. Thy love is worth a Million. Thou owest me thy love.” And in Henry IV Part 2, he certainly seems to love Doll Tearsheet.
When my partner read this essay, she said: “In the hierarchy of parasites, it is hard to see who is eating whom.”
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