Locating Shakespeare’s Revisionist Perspective in Henriad

Deconstructing the Tutor Myth

In Shakespeare’s time period, Tudor historians projected the authoritarian world they wished to build for themselves onto an imagined medieval past with only sketchy basis in reality when it suited their purposes. Shakespeare’s national story that has its start with Richard II and concludes with Henry VII illustrates the passage from an idealized medieval England through the tremendous crime against God and state that destroyed this nation and then the long process of suffering and penance that finally led to England’s contemporary redemption in the divinely ordained accession to the throne of the Tudor dynasty. The plays follow the structure of the Biblical and medieval cycles that dramatized literature and history to this point beginning with the myth of the fall, deposition and murder of Richard II who should have been the perfect representative of God and ending with a story of rebirth and accession in the figure of Henry VII. Between these two events, Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV portrays a fallen world much like Adam and Eve’s eviction from the garden and in which Henry V must undergo a long period of hardship and struggle in order to rebuild the authority and power of the past. It is questionable whether he or anyone will be able to reassert the uncontested might of the older, idealized world of kings with unambiguous heredity authority bestowed on them with the crown in a ceremony that asserted his position in this place of power was bestowed upon him as a divine right of blood. It is established as a given that Henry V cannot inherit the idealized England of the past because of the taint in his blood brought about by his father’s usurpation, but he does what he can to reproduce it. When he conquers France, for example, he ‘achieves … the world’s best garden’ (Epilogue 7) human endeavour can produce. The final redemption of England, however, doesn’t appear until the advent of Henry Tudor and the restoration of the proper order.

In presenting his plays, Shakespeare was supporting a specific ideology that he was attempting to convey to his audience. The basic idea behind this concept is to legitimate inequality and exploitation by carefully representing a social order that will perpetuate these constructs as immutable and unalterable. The ideology found in Shakespeare’s work as it has been revealed through study is designed to ratify the Tudor claim to the throne of England. This is the story that Shakespeare found in his historiographic sources as well as the story that twentieth century conservative critics have found in Shakespeare’s history plays. Shakespeare wasn’t alone in this sort of figuration of political ideology. Elizabethan social ideology was woven into everyday life activities. This kind of dominant ideology transmission is conveyed through the institutions of education, the family, legal code, religion, journalism, and culture. In his book The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), Foucault defined this institutionalised way of thinking as a ‘discourse.’ He defined a discourse as the systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak (1972). In his book, Foucault traces the essential role of these discourses in the wider social processes of legitimating and power. In doing so, he emphasizes the construction of current truths, how they are maintained and what power relations they carry with them. Foucault later theorized that power and knowledge are inter-related. If this is true, then it follows that each human relationship is necessarily a struggle and negotiation for power at its core. Thus, power is an ever-present element that has the ability to produce and constrain the truth at the same time.

Although the position of theatre as an ideological institution was complex in the Elizabethan age because it was constantly and closely monitored by the state, Elizabethan theatrical performances were one of the most powerful modes of cultural production in which these ideologies could be conveyed. It was in theatre that market forces were strongest, and as such it was especially exposed to the influence of subordinate and emergent classes. In the past 20 years, new historicists’ scholarship on Shakespeare’s English histories has focused on the construct of the English nation ideal and considered it to have been the role of the theatre to consolidate the identity of the early modern nation state and establish its accepted history. Historicists perceive that Shakespeare frequently transposed Elizabethan realities into his history plays. Examples are found in Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV, and Henry V, all of which afford us nothing less than a review of the past. At the same time, the plays pose many of the key questions facing radical criticism today. What is the relationship between the reality of history and its imaginative representation? What is the political role of the work in its own world? Should the role of the work be to shore up or shake the foundations of power? Can the literature of the past speak only of the past, or has it secrets to reveal to the present and appointments to keep with the future? These questions into the historiography of Shakespeare made it inevitable that Elizabethan history would experience a revisionism revaluation. The revisionist historicists constantly reject the existing value-based interpretation in the name of value free history and overlook the intellectual processes by which the historical past is reconstructed and represented.

My purpose in this chapter is to examine how the fantasies of nationhood are tied to certain formulations of ideological race, class, and gender in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. In doing so, I will discuss three different main contributing issues: first, the perpetual instability of Elizabethan order in spite of institutional exertion of deliberate Tudor mystification for national unity and racialised others; second, a recognition of revisionism on the historical perspective and the subject of historical consciousness (reorientation from the contemporary sovereign or aristocratic group to dialectical confliction among the polyphonic cultural agents in one society); third, the recognition of new social formations in the Elizabethan age and the hegemonic struggle between residual, dominant, and emergent agents.

The Discourse of Self and Other: Dialectical Ideology of the English nationhood

A reflection of the triumphant historical memory of English military victories over France, Henry V is notoriously preoccupied with nationhood. However the question of racial identity problematises the discourse of English nationhood. Their fantasies of national origins are primarily based on a discourse limited by ‘self and other’ and a narrative of ‘racialised bodies’. In the play, the English nation is idealized not simply through the mythified commemoration of battle but also through barely repressed reproduction of social conflicts. In addition, there is a dynamicity in the plays shaped by emergent conceptions of race and class. These plays do not represent static visions of the nation; instead, their plots turn on the uneasy relations between an English national body and the other bodies that are required to sustain that imaginary ‘us’. Benedict Anderson’s conception of the nation as an ‘imagined political community’ provides profound insight as to this chapter’s aims. It demonstrates how all this attention to kingship and the vision of a world in which traditional dynastic configurations are being challenged was actually the witnessing of a new form of social formation, the rise of capitalism. It thus is not surprising that Henry V has emerged in recent criticism as the Elizabethan discourses of the nation. Benedict Anderson interprets Henry’s promise on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt that ‘he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother’ (4-3.62) as a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ on which national identity depends. Obviously, the purpose of this play is to consolidate national identity by appealing to his subjects’ willingness to die for England. However, the play is not simple nationalism with a language of ‘blood’ and ‘brotherhood’; rather, it is an exploration of complex narratives of racial difference. In fact, Henry’s speech signals the paradox of the play’s discourse regarding nation making. In other words, membership in the English nation means one is willing to shed one’s blood on its behalf, constituting nation as a physical body of many parts.

These allusions to body politics evoke racialised fantasies in relation to the discourse of ‘other’ that surface repeatedly throughout the play. The existence of others is crucial in defining what is ‘us’ and ‘normal’ and in locating one’s own place in the world. Thus the French king’s explanation for French/English differences in act 2 is underlain by a discourse of inventing racial difference. The scene juxtaposes the great victory of the Black Prince, Edward, and his ‘heroical seed’ (2.4.59) and the historical trauma which is unforgettable, ‘our too much memorable shame’ (2.4.53). This is a phrase that suggests that he is at once Edward III’s offspring as well as that which may be heir to Henry V. In addition, as Patricia Cahil points out, the French king’s speech suggests not only that Henry is bound to other Englishmen in a web of kinship, but also that he represents a heritable essence: ‘The kindred of him hath been fleshed upon us, / And he is bred out of that bloody strain / That haunted us in our familiar paths’ (2.4.50-2). Here, English origins are explained in terms of the engendering or breeding of a fearsome stock or ‘strain,’ a word that is clearly inflected by the discourse of racial ‘kinds’.

This repetition of racialised rhetoric and the emphasis on the masculine fantasy serve to evoke the image of masculine English identity as opposed to effeminate France. It is obvious that that Henry’s speech at the siege of Harfleur, for example, his admonition to soldiers to claim and manifest their Englishness, is simultaneously intended to evoke the Englishness of audiences who already participated in war. Thus, the effectiveness of the theatre was enhanced through the historical memory of the English people:

… And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding – which I doubt not
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

low your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George! (3.1.24-28)

The images in this speech present the mother-nation and English protective sons within the period’s evolving nationalist paradigms. Its fantasy of English men depends upon the notions of discourse of the familial, the dynastic, the regional, or the religion.

However, staging this racialised national body as a seamless unity is impossible, even on the stage. The reproduction of the English body must inevitably admit its hybrid constitution even at the site of English origins. This is a preoccupation that may be seen in those moments when the play brings the English into proximity with the Scots, Welsh, and Irish. Throughout these plays, there is an uneven patchwork body image thrown upon the metaphorical English flesh comprised of heterogeneous parts. For example, Fluellen, the Welsh Captain, insists upon Henry’s Welsh blood (4.7.98); Irish captain Macmorris’s repulsive reaction upon Irishness ‘What ish my nation?’ (3.2.122); and the real “intendment of the Scot, / Who hath been still a giddy neighbour to us’ (1.2.144-5). Yet, this notion of the England body and her national identity in terms of ‘self and other’ discourse is destroyed by the historical question of the illegitimacy of offspring between French and English bodies. This is seen in Bourbon’s description of the English as ‘bastard Normans, Norman bastards’ (3.5-10).

From the same perspective, sexuality and gender issues also constitute a place of controversy in the England of Henry V. In the wooing scene of Henry V, old historicism commentators have suggested the marriage of Henry to Princess Katharine is the key embodiment of the harmony supposedly attained at the play’s closure. In other words, Henry’s wooing of Katharine is a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic conflict between the two nations of England and France. In this relationship, the English represent masculine aggressiveness and the French represent feminine passivity. However, Katherine of France may also be seen avoiding collusion with Henry through a minimalist strategy of courtesy. ‘I cannot tell’, she says three times. ‘I do not know’, her father must decide. She declines to join in the pretense that her preferences matter – it is as much resistance as she can manage. In the customary masculine manner, Henry decides that her reluctance means yes: ‘Come, I know thou lovest me’ (line 205). But Katharine objects to the king kissing her hand – insisting on the power relations – that it is inappropriate for a conqueror (‘mon tres puissant seigneur’) to abase his grandeur and kiss the hand of ‘votre seigneurie indigne serviteur’ – he takes this statement as a pretext to kiss her lips. It should not therefore need demonstrating that Princess Katharine is planted in the play as the reward for and final validation of Henry’s manliness, the symbol of enforced French submission. In fact, the French queen’s description of the marriage of Henry and Catherine as an “incorporate league” that will ensure “[t]hat English may as French, French Englishmen, / Receive each other” (5.2.338-40) enacts the blurring of the two identities into one; with the birth of a boy who is ‘half-French half-English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard?’ (5.2.206-9)—of course that becomes Henry VI.

In the consideration of historical context, Essex’s Ireland campaign of 1599 and its failure, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield have proposed this scene may also be read as English-Irish intermarriage and a reflection of Elizabethan anxieties about the consequences of English-Irish mixture. Such racial anxiety over the English body dangerously mixed up with its national other was persistent and widespread.2 In this way, Henry V embraces the English nation as a whole as well as its hybridism, and these plays make it clear that the production of Englishness was indissolubly tied to reproduction. It also shows that Elizabethan imaginative racial understandings were of crucial importance to the emergence of national consciousness.

The battle of classes: The rise of new social formation in the Henriad

As discussed in the introduction, the purpose of Henry V’s battle for France represents an effort to wipe out the family taint and legitimate his status as King of England. Henry uses Agincourt as an enormous trial by combat to establish the legitimacy of his rule and earn his place in providential history. This exposes Henry V’s anxiety, the keen sense of the absence of divine right that Henry attempts to fill by the exercise and mystification of earthly power. It takes three plays for Henry to reconstruct the royal authority that was lost when Bullingbrook usurped the English throne. Although he finally succeeds in producing the perfect icon of royal authority in Henry V, the authority he reconstructs is deeply compromised by his recourse to Machiavellian strategies of political manipulation and theatrical display. His role-playing celebrates the power of theatre to produce the perfect image of authority, but it also erodes this authority by associating it with Machiavelism, and emerging capitalism. A deep contradiction thus divides Shakespeare’s English history plays from their medium. In doing so, he shows he opposes the patriotic sentiment of historical mythmaking against the Machiavellian subversion of theatrical performance. The Henriad is thus the theatre of iconoclasm. It is associated with every sort of transgression of the social and religious order that the historical myths were designed to support. Common actors given the opportunity to act the parts and dress the dress of the noblemen and royalty were already pushing the hierarchical status system to the breaking point despite its support by providential order and genealogical history.

By examining the seemingly marginal characters in the farcical scene of 2 Henry IV a better sense of this vision of the nation as constituted by class distinction and rigid ranked order can be obtained. In this scene, Falstaff examines a group of five men whose names suggest their inadequacies – Ralph Mouldy, Simon Shadow, Francis Feeble, Peter Builcalf, and Thomas Wart. These men are potential royal army draftees rounded up by country justice Shallow. There are clear distinctions made between Falstaff and Shallow’s opinions regarding who should serve the king, revealing philosophies of commodity and exchange value in capitalism, i.e. pricing and trade. In this case, the division is between someone who knows the principles of capitalism and someone who remained in the traditional system – feudalism.

The Henry IV plays continually equate men with goods to be bought and sold. This implicitly divided men into two classes: men who know the value of civil service and his capacity to quantify life for money; and men who adhere to the chivalric subjection to monarchy and religious providence. It is necessary to understand the dynamics of social classes in this early modern period. This period was defined by emerging mercantilism and capitalism. It ushered in a new social formation in which people were not judged by their existing social status, aristocracy, or dauntless bravery in war as seen in Hotspur, but instead by an understanding of economic value as represented by Prince Hal and Falstaff. In other words, it was a contest between a man of medievalism versus a man of capitalism. This new vision of the nation can be seen in the tavern scenes. Here, the play focuses on Hal’s interest in the practices of human resource management. Hal’s reformation and his rejection of Falstaff are inextricably bound up with his vision of a national economy and his ideas regarding how to discipline subordinates and correctly appropriate the labour of the lowborn. The tragic ending is thus inevitable for a man of the chivalric romance representing medieval England and feudal systems while the uprising of a man of proto-capitalism seems inevitable, regardless of his innate wealth and social position. Likewise, the mustering scene focuses on the new science of managing men, taking apart the discourse of chivalry medievalism and revealing traces of the culture’s anxiety about new imperatives. As a result, new practices place social class on either side of this economic division rendering the English transition to capitalism.

The plays establish Hal’s language of early capitalism which is envisioned as the key to the emergent new order busily substituting medievalism. Jonathan Goldberg has observed that the play’s narrative about the redemption of a son is fundamentally an economic narrative: Hal’s ‘reformation’ implies his embrace of habits of thrift and industry, and his arrival on the throne coincides with his being ‘written into the economics of an emerging middle class’. Hal himself calls attention to these economies in I Henry when he uses the language of accounting such ‘factors’ and ‘engrossments,’ ‘accounts’ and ‘reckonings’ (3.2.147-52) to explain to the king his relationship with Hotspur.

In the second tetralogy, Machiavellianism is contained by association with characters who threaten to destroy or usurp royal authority at the same time that it paradoxically plays a role of iconoclasm to the English sovereignty. In 1 Henry IV, Worchester and Northumberland are both rebels identified as Machiavels because of their calculation and duplicity, but so is ‘this vile politician, Bullingbrook’ (I.iii.241), the king. The most ruthless act of Machiavellian cunning in the Henry IV plays is used, significantly, to subdue rebel forces. Prince John deceives the rebels at Gaultree Forest when he swears ‘by the honour of my blood’ and gives his ‘princely word’ (IV.ii.55-66), corrupting and compromising the very authority he invokes simply to win an ignoble victory. This characterization of the royal prince as a cold-blooded Machiavellian deceiver demonstrates that the royal authority has been compromised in the second tetralogy as compared to the earlier period.

In fact, the only character in the world of Henry IV who is thoroughly animated by the old feudal values is Hotspur, and it is to uphold those values of personal honour and Mortimer’s hereditary right to the throne that Hotspur rebels against the king. Hotspur’s honour is never questioned in the play, but the absoluteness of his commitment to honour paradoxically compromises honour itself. To Douglas, Hotspur is the very ‘king of honor’ (IV.i.10); and even the king he opposes calls him ‘the theme of honor’s tongue’ (I.i.81). Personified in Hotspur, the old knightly honour is doubly compromised in the plays not only by the slightly comical enthusiasm with which he embraces it but also by the fact that it inspires him to rebel against the king.

Prince Hal is the antithesis of the feudal knight. His and his royal kinsman’s medieval concept of royal authority is compromised again and again. Not only he is opposed to Hotspur in the plot, but he is also characterized as the calculating political antithesis to the impetuous, idealistic young rebel. However, the king has none of the honour that should belong to royalty and that the prince requires if he is to win loyalty. Prince Henry is perfectly aware that he must appropriate the honour he needs from Hotspur. He tells Hotspur before their battle, ‘all the budding honours on thy crest / I’ll crop to make a garland for my head’ (V.iv.72-73). Earlier, he used the same chivalric language, even the same metaphor, when he promised his father that he would ‘redeem’ his shame ‘on Percy’s head’:

And stain my favors in a bloody mask,
Which wash’d away shall scour my shame with it.
And that shall be the day, when e’er it lights,
That this same child of honor and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet,
For every honor sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! (III.136-44)

Hal’s promise is a heroic vaunt in the old chivalric tradition. He promises to ‘die a hundred thousand deaths / Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow’ (III.ii. 158-59). Even in the course of making that promise, he thoughtlessly slips into another idiom, contaminating the language of chivalry with gross terms taken from the new commercial economy. When he swears to ‘make this northern youth exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities’ (III.ii.145-46), the prince transforms the noble concepts of glorious deeds and indignities into baser objects of commercial exchange:

Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart. (III.147-52)

The ‘factor’ image foreshadows Hal’s victory over Hotspur in knightly combat as a repossession of the honour that rightly belongs to royalty, but it also compromises that honour by commercial terms – ‘factor’, ‘render up’, ‘engross’, ‘strict account’ and ‘reckoning’ – that reduce the chivalric battle to a closely calculated financial transaction. Like the aspiring commercial men of Shakespeare’s time, the future Henry V must struggle to achieve a status he did not inherit, but he must earn his legitimacy.

Dismantling monolithic history: Toward new historicism

As this analysis demonstrates, Shakespeare’s historiographies construct the Tudor myth and consolidate their ruling ideologies and ideologies often serve to foster a spurious unity, effacing social conflict and contradiction. It is such a successful tactic that these methods of delivery are rarely identified while actively engaged in the process of transmission. In fact, the endless process of contest and negotiation between these elements and the dominant culture is often overlooked by some structuralist perspectives within cultural analysis processes. However, ideology sometimes faces the contradictory situation, consciously or unconsciously, and these factors make for an inconsistency and indeterminacy in the representation of ideological harmony in writing. These divergencies have to be considered if the insistence on unity is to have any purchase, yet at the same time their inclusion invites sceptical interrogation of the ideological appearance of unity. There may be no way of resolving these tendencies (unity versus divergencies), but the indeterminacy helps us signify the complexities of cultural dynamism via the process of theatrical representation and political and social process.

In the soliloquy found in Act 4, scene 1, Henry V speaks about the burden of responsibility carried by the ruler and the loneliness of office, but then expresses it as carrying a particular kind of fear. As the soliloquy develops, its subtext comes to the fore. This subtext has echoes in the confrontation with Bates and Williams as the possibility and the danger of subjects who disobey is considered. What really torments Henry is his inability to ensure obedience. Henry indicates a paradox of power, only to misrecognize its force by mystifying both kingship and subjection. His problem is structural since the same ceremony and role-playing that constitute kingship are the means by which real antagonisms can masquerade as obedience.

On the eve of Agincourt, Henry gives spiritual counsel to his soldiers:

Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience; and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained. (4.1.182-89)

It is the high point of Henry’s priestly function, the point at which the legitimization religion could afford to the state is most fully incorporated into a single ideological effect. Yet Henry is defensive and troubled by the exchange, and Williams is not satisfied.

In this way, the plays circle obsessively around the inseparable issues of unity and division, inclusion and exclusion. Before Agincourt, the idea of idle and implicitly disaffected people at home is raised (4.3.16-18), but this is converted into a pretext for the king to insist upon his army as a ‘band of brothers’ (4.3.60). Conversely, unity of purpose may be alleged and then undercut. The act 3 Chorus asks:

For who is he, whose chin is but enrich’d
With one appearing hair, that will not follow
These cull’d and choice-drawn cavaliers to France? (lines 22-24)

But within fifty lines Nym, the Boy, and Pistol are wishing they were in London.

The similar threat of disunity is found in the multi-nationalised king’s army. It is undeniable that Henry V is a patriotic work, written in a time of colonial war with the express purpose of justifying the expansionism and xenophobia of a nation consolidating an empire. Essex’s campaign of 1599 in Ireland is usually held up as a historical backdrop, and we are reminded of Shakespeare’s invocation of him as ‘the General of our gracious Empress /… from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broache’d on his sword’ (5.0.30-32). Under the colonial context, Captain Macmoris’s furious rebuttal—“what ish my nation?” stages a destabilizing disintegration of sense and reference within which ethnic identity is neither completely effaced nor altogether present, but displaced.

Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villain,
and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish
my nation? Who talks of my nation? (III. 122-4)

This self-alienated Irish character, a foreigner in an English army, and what does ‘nation’ mean when he says it? Has he borrowed an English term to denote an Irish synonym (which is?), or is he speaking now as an Englishman, fracturing a language other than his native dialect? Even these questions are difficult to resolve because, ‘in Tudor parlance’, we are told, ‘each Gaelic clan was called a “nation”: a clan chief’, for example, ‘when being recognized in his authority by the English, would be called “chief of his nation”.

Which was MacMorris’ usage? MacMorris’ assertive voice shifts within the multidirectional terms of his speech. His vilification can attach itself to his antagonist, or turn back on himself, or the nation he serves, or even be directed at Ireland, so that the English violence inflicted on his homeland is, so to speak, revisited on it by himself in his own insistent but equivocal rhetoric. When MacMorris speaks in this tongue, he cannot be loyal or traitorous – not to England, not to Ireland, not to himself. Each of these is displaced within the language he speaks. At issue, neither MacMorris articulates a genuine Irish identity, nor does he escape being an ethnic stereotype. In MacMorris, Shakespeare created a caricature of the quintessential colonialist and by doing so he helped to determine literary representation of the stock Irishman for centuries to come.

In his lines, MacMorris iterates the terms of this discourse (‘nation… nation… nation’) until paradoxically we become aware of the almost effaced differences that are inscribed within them. Therefore MacMorris’ outburst rephrase these answers as the questions they were designed to preclude. His queries are thus definitive for (and defined by) colonialist discourse. But by disordering the form of the colonizer’s knowledge, by stretching it in his repetition, he destabilizes its certainties. Something happens to change the form of the rhetoric from self-evident assertion to drawn-out interrogation. So if there is any point in this scene where subversion occurs, it is not marked on the page. An unseen place of shift, it ties in the gap – the literal white space – between Fluellen’s colonialist insult and the enraged reiterations that interrupt, rephrase, and question it.

In the Heniad, Falstaff forms the centre of a popular comic history located within the framework of the chronicle-history play. This challenges and subverts the imperatives of necessitarian historiography. Embodying himself as a Lord of the Misrule, opposed to the existing ethical, religious, hierarchical order, Falstaff is typically compared with the other oppositional tendencies which challenge the state in these plays. In relation to the specific social significance of Saturnalian custom and its underlying implication of festivity, recent criticism on Falstaff have fairly often employed Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on ‘carnivalization’ in medieval and Renaissance literature, developed during his study of Rabelais (1940).

Bakhtin argues that such carnival customs expressed and embodied an oppositional ideology and that in such events the people themselves could temporarily live out an ideology of alternative values: ‘The carnival and similar marketplace festivals… were the second life of the people, who for a time entered into the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance.’ In carnival everyone was equal. All everyday order and hierarchy dissolved, leaving people reborn to new and more truly human relations. These relations required a new philosophy, a new language, which Bakhtin calls ‘dynamic expression’. It was a new kind of logic in which the real world is criticized for living out a fantasy of its dissolution – the world turned upside down, the logic of parody and travesty, comic humiliation of power and greatness, comic uncrowning of authority and the crowning of the low.

Falstaff clearly performs this function, in Henry IV part, One and Two, of carnival. Within his representation, he serves as a consistent force of opposition as contrasted against the official and serious nature of authority and power. As a result, his interactions continue to challenge the activities of his king and state, confronting them and their motives. Falstaff has no respect for authority and demonstrates this in ways that are both parodic and satirical. As often as he can, he mocks authority, flouts power and retreats into Bacchanalian revelry any time he begins to feel the pressure of social duty or civic obligation. He has created a world for himself by inverting the abstract society along with all its oppression of social hierarchy. Within this world, he enjoys a life of complete ease and moral license. His every appetite and desire is fulfilled and he spends his time engaged in humour and ridicule, satire, theatricals, freedom and abundance. Within the tradition of Saturnalian revelry, the fool is sovereign within the tavern, the thief becomes the honest man on the road and the royal court, with its real world cares and duties, can do little but frown on the absurdity of the condition. It would be possible then to locate Falstaff within that popular tradition of carnival and utopian fantasy defined by Bakhtin.

Falstaff’s satirical humour ‘degrades’ – that is, transformation contains the processes of both creation and dissolution. This deep ambivalence is utterly characteristic of Falstaff, who seems to constitute a medium in which these antithetical processes generate simultaneously. Physical sloth and inertia coexist with vivid vitality of imagination; king and prince, father and son, age and youth are interchangeable. Interestingly Falstaff’s description of thieving deploys chivalric and courtly terms. The description of his band of footpads as “squires of the night’s body” and “gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon” and the image of the “noble and chaste mistress” affirm Falstaff’s link with aristocratic culture. For him, courtship is clearly about theft—in terms of its national scale. Indeed the tavern world of East Cheap is often depicted as the antithesis of the court, but given the manner in which Falstaff’s band parodies court structures, the tavern starts to look like an inversion of the court rather than its opposite, especially as it is here that Falstaff and Hal play at ruling. The sense of an upside-down court accentuates the awareness of the origins of disorderly conduct within the aristocratic culture.

There is clearly much in Falstaff’s dramatic contribution in this play in relation to the carnival-like freedom. The essential Raison d’être of Falstaff is in fact a site of the world upside down in fantasy:

Indeed, you come near me now, Hal, for we that take purses by the moon and the seven stars, and not ‘by Phoebus, he, that wand’ring knight so fair’… when thou art king let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty: let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal. (I HIV, 1, ii, 13-15; 23-29)

Falstaff identifies himself and the Prince with a culture of inversion: in which the reality of the world is to be sought in darkness rather than in light, ruled by the moon rather than the sun; and in which ‘good government’ is reversed from its normal moral and political associations (firm political rule of the state, strenuous personal discipline of the self) to signify a universal surrender to natural appetite (‘being governed as the sea is…’) in a kingdom of thieves. In his rhetoric, the world is turned upside down in both these fantasies: the Prince’s vision of a world in which those objects regarded as securities of reality are carnivalized, transformed into images of appetite and vice, is no different from Falstaff’s imaginative ability to invert the world of positive reality in his fantasy of criminal romance.


Not only the last play in the two tetralogies, Henry V is also their centre; for the plot of Shakespeare’s historical reconstruction bends the teleological, chronological line of his historiographic sources into a circle, beginning and ending with the death of Henry V. The circle is joined at the point that represents the moment of loss of the heroic past and royal authority that the name of Henry V denotes. It replaces the purposeful, linear progress of history with the endless work of historiography and the endless repetition of theatrical performance, obsessively moving about a lost centre they can never recover.

Yet, the unresolved contradictions of Henry V are those of Shakespeare’s entire historiographic project. Infused by nostalgic yearning, the plays begin in a heroic effort to recuperate a lost, heroic past, but they end by calling attention to the ineluctable absence of that past and their own uncompromised social conflicts between its polyphonic constituents of theatrical representations.


Patricia A. Cahil (2003) National Formation and the English History plays in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Histories (eds., Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard), (Oxford: Balckwell Publishing) 70-90:72.

J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield (1992). History and Ideology, Masculinity and Miscegenation: The Instance of Henry V. In A. Sinfield (ed.) Faultilines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading. Berkeley: University of California Press, 109-42:151.