Language, Lies and Truths
Henry IV Part One
Shakespeare is known for his language. Among other things of course, but ask anybody what they know about him and the answer will probably include his linguistic brilliance.
What is maybe less obvious, but clearly there if you look for it, is how Shakespeare, through the characters themselves, reflects upon the question of language. In Henry IV Part One that's one of the aspects (along with the juvenile delinquency of the future Henry V, in this play known as Hal or the Prince of Wales) that I find most fascinating.
I'm going to explore three examples here. First, a scene in which the characters don't understand each other's language at all, realize it and don't care. Second, a scene in which the character claims to understand but doesn't. And third, a scene in which the character reinterprets an overused word and turns the play upside down. So to speak. I am referring to Mortimer and his nameless Welsh wife, to Prince Hal, and to Sir John Falstaff.
To begin with the first: in the unusual Act 3.1 we see an odd little group, the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr, his daughter Lady Mortimer, her husband Mortimer, Henry Percy (known as Hotspur) and his wife, Lady Kate. The scene is unusual because all five partake freely in the discourse, odd because in spite of the language situation they all seem to understand each other. Furthermore, within the play as a whole, the conversation itself is significant in that the two wives play an active part. In her introduction to the Norton edition, Jean E. Howard points out that there are no wives or girlfriends in Henry's court and thus Act 3.1 gives us more insight into the rebels' world than we get into the king's (p. 1181-82). Welsh women were earlier mentioned in the play in the report of the rebellion attacks on English soldiers upon whom Welsh women were claimed to have committed atrocities ( Act 1.1) but in Act 3.1 we are given another picture. Yes, Lady Mortimer would rather go to war with her husband than stay home weeping - “She'll be a soldier; she'll to the wars,” says her father but for love, not viciousness. She openly shows her love for her husband, and this brings us to the question of language. She speaks no English, her husband no Welsh. And yet a tenderer love scene can hardly be found in all of Shakespeare.
While Hotspur makes nasty comments about how awful Welsh sounds – Howard tells us that to English ears of the time the language was considered barbarous and the Welsh were seen as rebellious (page 1179) (which they were) – Shakespeare, for reasons that would be very interesting to explore, elevates the language to poetry. He writes not a single word of Welsh but gives very clear directions – most unusual for him – not once but six times: “The lady speaks/sings Welsh”. Though her father translates everything for Mortimer and for us it is almost unnecessary. Mortimer understands:
I understand thy looks. That pretty Welsh
Which thou down pourest from these swelling heavens
I am too perfect in, and, but for shame
In such a parley should I answer thee. The lady kisses him and speaks again in Welsh
I understand thy kisses and thou mine,
And that's a feeling disputation...;
Furthermore he promises to learn Welsh:
But I will never be a truant, love,
Till I have learned thy language, for thy tongue
Makes Welsh as sweet as ditties highly penned,
Sung by a fair queen in a summer's bower,
With ravishing division, to her lute...
And when he doesn't understand, he expresses frustration: “O, I am ignorance itself in this!” His father-in-law explains that she wishes Mortimer to lay with his head in her lap while she sings to him and he replies, “With all my heart, I'll sit and hear her sing.” In spite of the annoying Hotspur, she sings and Mortimer listens until Glyndwr is compelled to interrupt:
Come, come, Lord Mortimer, you are as slow
As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go (all quotes Act 3.1).
Neither Lord nor Lady Mortimer appear again in this play but this scene of love in the face of great odds contrasts sharply with the petty but violent rivalry of the English lords in the rest of the play.
And these two very minor but unusually likeable characters, with their language problems, contrast sharply with one of these violent men, the Prince of Wales (how ironic is that!), Hal, who is not likeable at all and who claims to understand languages not his own but who probably doesn't.
Prince Hal, to his father's dismay and the amusement of the rebels, is a carousing wastrel. He hangs out with drunken thieves. His character has often been analyzed and it as often been shown how Hal is simply preparing for his takeover of the crown when his father Henry IV dies. No arguments there. Hal is a calculating and manipulative rogue. He runs around with the workers and with petty criminals not because he likes them but because he can make use of them in the future. And he makes no bones about one of the ways in which he is building up power: language.
We see this in another odd scene (which is, in fact, cut from the BBC version, unfortunately), Act 2.5 in which Hal brags that, “I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life.” This to further his claim that, “When I am the King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap.” What follows is an unpleasant display of power. In a jocular tone, Prince Hal teases the hapless apprentice Francis by first exclaiming how oppressive apprenticeship is: “Five year! By'n Lady, a long lease for the clinking of pewter”. With these words he is also belittling the skill demanded of a tinker and he goes on to prod Francis to rebellion: “But Francis, darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture, and show it a fair pair of hells and run from it?” Knowing full well that this isn't an option for Francis, Prince Hal continues to tease him for awhile but finally tires of it and dismisses him with, “Away, you rogue. Dost thou not hear them call?” and exits. Poor Francis, Shakespeare tells us explicitly in his stage directions, “stands amazed, not knowing which way to go” (all quotes from Act 2.5).
Stephen Greenblatt places this small exchange into a much large picture of language and power in his chapter “Invisible Bullets” from his book Shakespearean Negotiations. Unfortunately the scope of this essay is too limited to further connect to Greenblatt's analysis of language and power within the historical context of the emerging colonialism of the Renaissance world, but relevant here is how Hal claims to master his future subjects' vernacular only in order to exploit it, and them.
A figure who is not so easy to exploit and who hopes to benefit by Prince Hal's slumming is Sir John Falstaff. There is much to be said about the fat knight, and much has indeed been said, written, analyzed, ridiculed and loved about the bigger-than-life rambunctious, obnoxious and loveable character. His friendship with and betrayal by Prince Hal is one of the masterpieces of literature. Even within the confines of the subject of language much could be written about Falstaff. Harold Bloom idolizes him and goes to such lengths to convince us of Falstaff's superiority as a character that one has the inclination to disagree (which I did frequently when Bloom scoffed, as usual, at other Shakespeare scholars) but I must agree with his assessment that, “If you love language, you love Falstaff” (p. 289).
In this essay however I will limit myself to one monolog, Falstaff's famous reflection when Hal tells him that he owes God a death then leaves him alone on stage:
'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o' 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. (Act 5.1)
This is spoken on the battlefield. Noblemen are killing each other and common foot soldiers for no good reason. Prince Hal has more or less just told Falstaff to go and get himself killed. And suddenly Falstaff isn't a buffoon anymore. He's the speaker of a profound truth. Honor – that word that so many have killed and died for – is just that, only a word. It cannot mend, it cannot be enjoyed by the dead, it can easily be lost by the living. It is worse than useless. It is harmful. Falstaff decides wisely to “have none of it”.
Thus in one of the shortest and most brilliant monologs in all of Shakespeare, one of the most loaded and misused words in any language, is revealed to be ridiculous. Still, it is deadly. Hotspur is soon killed by it and Prince Hal takes a great stride towards the power he has had his eye on all along Falstaff, as we will see in Part Two, ends up the loser.
But he has uttered a profound truth and for the time being, decidedly chooses life over honor. In the words of the Polish scholar Jan Kott, Falstaff “will not not let history take him in. He scoffs at it” (p. 49).
Love, power, honor. Understanding, lies and truth. In this play with the less than eloquent title Henry IV Part One, the language plays its own part and with great eloquence, subtlety and sometimes startling clarity it weaves in and out among the contrasts between peace and war, amiability and aggression, death and life itself.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations.1988.
- Howard, Jean E. Introduction in The Norton Shakespeare, see above.
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. 1964.
Seen on stage: No.
- BBC, 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: Prince Hal – David Gwillim; King Henry – Jon Finch; Falstaff – Anthony Quayle; Hotspur – Tim Pigott-Smith; Mortimer – Robert Morris; Lady Mortimer – Sharon Morgan; Owain Glyndwr – Richard Owens. This is a well-done production. Jon Finch is very good as Henry, Quayle is a convincing Falstaff and the others are generally very good too. The only question mark is Gwillim as Hal, probably because I saw Branagh as Henry V first. Gwillim was better the second time (or was it the third) that we watched the play, but for me Hal will always be Branagh.