Shakespeare—That Villainous Abominable Misleader of Youth | Dustin Lovell


[They] Shall now…
March all one way, and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.

King Henry IV, Henry IV Part 1, I.1

In her notes laying out the philosophy and character of Ellsworth Toohey, the primary antagonist of The Fountainhead who, from his perch as a cultural commentator, subtly seeks to effect a socialist takeover of the early 20th-century America of the book, Ayn Rand wrote:

“Communism…is not merely an economic theory…Communism is, above all, a spiritual theory which denies the individual, not merely as an economic power, but in all and every respect…In opposing the existing order of society, it is not the big capitalists and their money that Toohey opposes…He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan; he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare…”

(quoted in Leonard Peikoff’s afterword to The Fountainhead).

Now, I have already written about why one should read Ayn Rand with a grain of salt, and her evaluation of Shakespeare as the godfather of nihilism is, in my opinion, a short-sighted “her problem”. Nonetheless, written in 1935, Rand’s description of Toohey have stuck with me since first reading it over a decade ago. Of course, further reading of writers before and after Rand, as well as contemporary attempts to equalize elements of the culture along with elements of the economy, have confirmed such an idea: that the impulse to collective equity is and has always been aimed at art as much as at economics, and that, because of its more fundamental power and meaning, for Marxists art may be the more important of the two to equalize.

The conceit that the movement initially presenting itself as an economic and political one might eventually come for Shakespeare and other greats motivated me to prepare as I studied the canon, should such a thing start to happen—and it left me unsurprised when it did.

It was inevitable that the restructuring of society proposed by Marxism—coming through a restructured higher academia, which, ironic to its erstwhile identity as the safeguard of knowledge, has become the vanguard of anti-canon advocacy—would eventually come for Shakespeare. Many of the liberal assumptions of what we call “Western Culture” arguably find their best, if not earliest, concretization in his works. That the targeting of Shakespeare has required such a long and deep process shows that he and the canon he represents are more fundamental to Western Culture than the politics or economics of any one generation. To speak generally, we may as well call it “Shakespearean Culture,” since the men and women who formed the classical liberal tradition were entertained, vitalized, and tempered by his plays.

Of course, this touches on the main argument against Shakespeare. Far from attesting the idea that there are universal elements in human nature that can find expression in great art, regardless of its place and time of origin, the very ubiquity of Shakespeare’s acceptance in non-English communities around the world is taken as evidence of the rapacious past of Western Culture, which is all the more vicious for having been made attractive to other peoples through the inuring subtleties of art. It is not a full representation of humanity one sees onstage—it is cultural propaganda; it is not human catharsis one experiences at the climactic moment—it is the internalized acceptance of an imperialistic oppression. And as for those Englishmen and women who esteem Shakespeare, it’s not because he’s “good”—you’ve only been told he is by the dominant power structure (he said humbly as a damned Yank).

I am, I’ll admit, overstating things; after all, diversifying what and how we read, as many institutions are doing, is very different from cutting any one writer (even if that writer is foundational to nearly all other writers). Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many advocating a reevaluation of what and how works are taught in primary schools and universities are in earnest; having been a teacher for over a decade and a reader for longer than that, I, myself, believe in taking the occasional Nietzsche’s hammer to our literary assumptions, if only to rediscover why authors like Shakespeare are worth reading. Yet, those who want to humbly and seriously decolonize their bookshelf, as the saying goes, might find no greater ally than Shakespeare, should they dare to read him seriously.

“Shakespeare’s First Folio,” British Library
Photo Credit.

My purpose here is not to elaborate all the ways that our culture—not just Western Culture but also its various counterculture movements—finds much of its origin in Shakespeare’s works, though there are many examples thereof. From giving the perspective of and examining the psychology of seeming villains (Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth), to examining the tension between the elites and the plebs (Henry VI Part 2, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus), to giving women their due as multifaceted beings who at times dwarf the men in their lives (Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale), to undermining the assumptions surrounding gender and behavior (As You Like It, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline), to humanizing and taking seriously the perspectives of  the “other” and of minorities (The Merchant of Venice, Othello, The Tempest), to exposing the pretensions of language and cultural myths (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV Part 1, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet again, King Lear, Pericles), Shakespeare’s works are as deep as we’re willing to look, and his corpus stands as an edgeless Rorschach test where people of diverse and opposite views can both find what they’re looking for (and fight over which side Shakespeare belongs to in the process!).

But no, I come not to praise Shakespeare, for academia hath told you Shakespeare was problematic, and academia is an honorable clan! My purpose here is, rather, to say that we do not need to fear the removal of Shakespeare from our higher institutions, for whom, it’s worth noting, he was not writing in the first place. He can defend himself better and more cannily than we can, and, if the experience of Prince Hal can tell us anything, it’s that Shakespeare knows how to survive a culture’s reevaluation of its fundamental premises.

“Well, God be thanked for these rebels. They offend none but the virtuous.”

Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1, III.3

Prince Hal did not choose the prince life—the prince life chose him. The son of Henry Bolingbroke, whose campaign to take back family land recently removed by Richard II puts him on the throne, Hal is described in Richard II as being notably absent, instead recreating “‘mongst the taverns…With unrestrained loose companions” (V.3). From his first mentioning, Prince Hal is caught between the chivalric tradition of King Richard’s court and the populism of his father’s move to usurp the king.

However, Richard II’s plot is no mere case of revolt against tradition. The play opens with Bolingbroke accusing the Duke of Norfolk (and, implicitly, the king) of killing the late Duke of Gloster to secure Richard’s claim to the throne. For all of his assuming the title and benefits of Divine Right and chivalric tradition established by Edward III and his son, Edward, Black Prince of Wales (called thus because of his dark armor—an aspect of the tradition Richard unpopularly neglects), Richard II is not a substantial representative of the forms he has received. Taking his authority for granted, he is blindsided when Bolingbroke, supported by the people and key members of the nobility, topples his pretentions and assumes the throne.

Yet, in doing so, Bolingbroke does not just kill a king and gain a crown. Because the royal hierarchy of Shakespeare’s plays is as metaphysical as it is literal and temporal, when Bolingbroke kills Richard (through insinuation, which he later denies, no less!), he is not just killing a man but the central source of authority and English identity—as well as the basis for his own legitimate rule. It should not be surprising, then, that for all his popular support, Bolingbroke is harried by counter-claims, rebellions, and his own neuroses throughout his reign. Once one shows that the previous source of authority can be questioned, how can one’s own authority with the same terms be assured? Does one simply try to uphold the previous forms of authority, or does one seek to further tear them down?

These are the two choices before Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1, a main theme of which is the tension between Hal’s obligations as prince and future king and his lifestyle. The first choice is embodied in the “all-praised knight,” Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the other in Percy’s thematic opposite, the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. While Hotspur presents himself as Harry’s rival (the characters compare the two from the first menion in RII V.3 to their climactic fight in 1HIV V.4), I believe it is Falstaff that is the greater threat to Prince Hal, and I believe the prince knows it. But more on that below.

The character who behaves the way everyone else expects Prince Hal to, Hotspur is all a father and king would want in a son and subject. He exemplifies the chivalry of England’s past, and even when he rises in rebellion against Henry IV, it is on behalf of maintaining honor against the slight of being dismissed by the king after helping him to the throne (Bolingbroke having recognized the awful truth that if Hotspur and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, can make a king, they can break a king). Reaching the point of caricature, Hotspur even flirts with his wife in a martial tenor (1HIV II.3).

However, because he so completely follows the form of the chivalric knight, Hotspur is easily manipulated. Previously used by Bolingbroke to achieve his throne in Richard II, Hotspur is similarly used and nearly abandoned by his uncle Worcester once his chivalric chauvinism becomes a liability. Not only does Hotspur’s tunnel-visioned maintenance of the old forms make him vulnerable to comprehension, but it blinds him to the threat that is Prince Hal. Dismissing him as the “nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (IV.1), implying that he believes Hal will run from battle, Hotspur is unprepared for the frat-boy-turned-warrior he meets and is killed by at Shrewsbury. Like Laertes in Hamlet, Hotspur’s refusal to pause and question his assumptions does not make him stronger but weaker, and he thus displays the danger for Hal to simply be the son his father wants him to be. To mimic Hotspur (who, himself, is a mimic and possible parody of previous knights) and simply play out the forms appropriate to his station would make Hal vulnerable to all the threats, martial and psychological, that surround his usurping father. Much safer (and more fun!) to let everyone believe, as does Hotspur, that he is merely a drunk in dereliction of his princely duties—or, as he calls them, “the debt I never promised” (1HIV I.2).

“Hal listens to Falstaff’s lies in Henry IV, Part 1,” Folger Shakespeare Library
Photo Credit.

And yet, the tavern is not without its dangers. If Hotspur represents an established but, thanks to Richard and Bolingbroke, empty tradition, then the knight of the public house, Sir Jack Falstaff represents the implicit razing of tradition and its hierarchy—again, both literal and metaphysical.

Falstaff advocates as much! In his first scene’s banter with Prince Hal, Falstaff pleads against punishing thieves with capital punishment. “[S]hall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fobb’d as it is with rusty curb of old father antick the law? Do not thou, when thought are king, hang a thief,” Falstaff asks, to which, in a phrasing readable as both humorous irony and ambiguous prophecy, Hal replies, “No; thou shalt” (1HIV I.2). In their ridiculous back-and-forths, which often contain as much sarcastic bite and, on Harry’s part, ominous prediction as open affection, Falstaff’s saturnalia and Harry’s royalty contest. Upon later hearing in Henry IV Part 2 that King Henry IV has died and Hal is king, Falstaff cries to his other taverngoers, “choose what office thou wilt in the land, ‘tis thine!…Let us take any man’s horses; the laws of England are at my commandment” (V.3). Throughout his time with Prince Hal, Falstaff represents and often advocates the overturning of the national order, placing thieves on top and men like the Lord Chief Justice (with whom he’s had a rivalry in 2HIV) on the bottom.

Like Falstaff’s gut, the irony of the situation is bottomless. One major joke is that in a state of usurpation, a thief is already on the throne, and the undoing of the metaphysical order of things has already been achieved. From this perspective, by advocating (not without constant irony and foolishness) his revolutionary goals for the court, Falstaff is merely making literal what is already implicit. The connection between Falstaff’s nihilism about royal hierarchy and the courts of Richard II and Henry IV is not merely theoretical; in a brief reference in 2HIV III.2, country justice Shallow reveals that Falstaff was once page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk—the same Norfolk used by Richard II to secure his throne, and who was exiled and died for the privilege. Knowing this, is it any surprise that, in V.1 of 1HIV, Falstaff should declare the emptiness of English chivalry, saying, “What is honour? a word…air”? Further, would not such a man try to prevent his young friend, Prince Hal, from assuming the highest position of that honor, at least not without a healthy dose of disillusionment?

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, I.2

Just as the prince cannot afford to blithely act out the form of chivalry like Hotspur, Hal cannot safely doff the idea of that form, as Falstaff might implicitly have him do. Worse than killing a king is to kill the idea of kingship—to advocate the discarding of the virtues at the nation’s center. That such virtues have been emptied by such men as Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke is the central problem of Prince Hal’s accession to the throne: how to revive those virtues in an authentic and popularly-supported way.

Now, as with any virtue, such things must be lived out before they can be known as real, and nothing will lead to a disbelief in virtues as literally real things more than a literally real apathy concerning them. To paraphrase Aristotle, one must do courageous things before one experiences courage; so much for the confluence of Falstaff’s—or anyone else’s—unrestrained lifestyle, his seeming disbelief in things like honor, and his inveterate cowardice. Though the wild Prince Hal may be Hotspur’s worst enemy, Hotspur is not Prince Hal’s, since Hal is, after all, trying to restore the good aspects of Hotspur’s example. Harry’s real nemesis, so far as his kingship is concerned, is Falstaff, for he represents the nihilistic end and leveling of everything Hal is trying to resurrect. Hal identifies as much, as well as the caution with which he must treat Falstaff, et al., from the first. “I know you all, and will a while uphold | The unyoked humour of your idleness,” he says, switching from tavern prose to courtly verse as he predicts his future rejection of Falstaff just before his coronation in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 (1HIV I.2).

Of course, there are many worthwhile interpretations of this speech and its implications for the rest of the plays. Which is the real Hal, the one cavorting with Falstaff in the tavern, or the King Henry who hangs one of his previous tavern mates for stealing in Henry V? As Prince Hal transitions into King Henry V, is he progressively removing or putting on a mask? When are we hearing the real Harry? Between Bolingbroke and Falstaff, who is his more influential father figure, and who is Hal using to prepare him for his future? Or, in all of it, is the answer a nuanced mix, Hal being not a cipher for an ideology but a character—one of the roundest and most humanized in Shakespeare’s corpus?

These questions have enriched my life since my first semester of college, and I fully encourage my readers to consume Shakespeare’s history plays and decide for themselves. As with anything in life, we do not want to ask such questions without nuance; to assume we have Hal figured out is to risk being misled like so many Hotspurs. Harry can love and learn from Falstaff even while he rejects his politics—an enormous lesson there. Harry’s developing such nuance is kind of the point. In my opinion, Harry’s achievement is his realizing (indeed, surpassing) the popular support of his father while embodying chivalric honor in his campaign for land rightfully belonging to England. Against the constant criticism of Richard II and Henry IV for their lack of such a campaign, Harry’s revival of the mantle of English royalty last embodied by Edward III and his son is established in the words of the King of France in Henry V: “Think we King Harry strong…he is bred out of that bloody strain | That haunted us in our familiar paths…This is a stem | Of that victorious stock” (II.4).

Of course, cynics may say that this is just so much propaganda, placed into the enemy king’s mouth by an English author to justify imperialism—a criticism in which Shakespeare, himself, engages, having written King Harry to question the merits and methods of chivalric campaigning. Nonetheless, for the present argument, is King Charles VI here describing the same Hal who has previously described his own ability to drink with the lowest Londoner “in his own language,” and of humbly wishing for “small beer” (1HIV II.4; 2HIV II.2)? Yes—and that’s Prince Hal’s great power: that he is noble enough to embody the highest virtues of his country while still being humble enough to share life with the least of his constituents (politicians of all persuasions take heed!). Moreover, he is not precious about the forms wherein nobility appears, having learned the capacity of inherited traditions to inveigle reality, as well as the necessary balance between being and seeming.

(By the way, if anyone’s eyebrows rose at my painting Falstaff as Prince Hal’s ideological nemesis, I guarantee they did not rise so high as my faculty overseers’ when I claimed as much at my undergraduate thesis defense. Over a decade of further study, experience, and ruminating has shown me I dare not pretend to have Sir Jack Falstaff figured out; I doubt he is merely a short-sighted advocate of political saturnalia, just as I doubt he is a shrewdly disguised architect of the destruction of value. Indeed, from a certain perspective, Falstaff may very well want Hal to reestablish the authority of the crown, and is using his life as a wastrel as cover to cannily train Hal to understand and maneuver the absolute state of things. It’s noteworthy that for all his verbal poinards, he is always willing to be the butt of the joke, and that every exchange leaves Prince Hal looking better—or that may just be political expediency! Like the playwright whose name his parallels, Falstaff is smarter than we, and we underestimate him at our peril).

“A Trio of Fools”
Photo owned by Dustin Lovell

The thieves have bound the true men. Now could thou and I rob the thieves…

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, II.2

But what does any of this have to do with the cancellation (real or threatened) of Shakespeare in our higher institutions? Well, what does the emptying of chivalry or the razing of the social hierarchy in Shakespeare’s histories have to do with Prince Hal? The answer is, everything, and our response should be Hal’s. If the institutions of recent generations have, like Richard II and Bolingbroke, shaken the past’s regard for Shakespeare, the answer may not be to do as Hotspur does and devote our energy to keeping that regard alive in those institutions; one does not beat a juggernaut by charging it head-on. Nor should we simply roll over and accept the premises of the anti-canon push by assuming, as do they, that because such things seem shakable they are meaningless or malignant. In the end, it may not be Shakespeare who has been shaken. If the academy has lost its conviction for Shakespeare, it is not Shakespeare who is dead, remains dead, and whom we have killed.

Though the subject of his education is fraught with debate and the vicissitudes of time, Shakespeare was notably the only member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men who was not university-educated, which I think significant when considering the purpose of his work. Yes, the highest chambers of thought have discovered great revelations in his plays, but we must remember that they were written for entertainment, as much for the groundlings on the Globe Theatre’s floor as for the aristocrats in the box seats. They can be understood as well outside of the university as in—perhaps better! Frankly, the assumption that one needs to be more educated than was Shakespeare to understand Shakespeare is an honor I think he would have, in Falstaff’s words, considered “a mere scutcheon”—a coat of arms declaring one’s heroism after death and which can just as easily obscure the quality of their life (1HIV V.1).

Like Hal, we should consider the perspectives that might jeopardize the tradition. We should never read less, and, as I said above, supplementation is very different from cancellation. Indeed, perhaps a few years of focusing on other works will serve to make society, if not the academy, miss Shakespeare, that, “Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, | By breaking through the foul and ugly mists | Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (1HIV 1.2). If the self-declared point of universities is no longer to motivate and equip people to read writers like Shakespeare, we should be relieved that they are losing interest in him, taking succor from the fact that the pearl’s greatest defense against being mangled is its being unrecognizable to swine. Instead, let those who value the pearl sell all we have to purchase the field wherein it lies.

Indeed, while (or because!) we love him, perhaps, as conservatives—for all who love Shakespeare are, in their desire to maintain him, at least a mote conservative—we should eschew Shakespeare’s place at the head of university literature department curricula, at least for a time. After all, to prepare himself to reinvigorate the chivalric royalty Prince Hal leaves court to avail himself of the tavern. It may do more for Shakespeare to read his plays on one’s own, or listen to an audio lecture series on him, or take part in a discussion group, or join a local production, than to fight to maintain his position in institutions for whom, again, he was not writing. Doing so might even make explicit the choice before higher academia, which is the same as that before Henry Bolingbroke: will they seek to kill the king, and, thus, remove the basis of their own authority? They would do so at their peril, for it is they and their height, not Shakespeare and his, who are threatened by their opposition to the Playwright.


Photo Credit.

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