Some essays containing revelations
about the Bard and his work
as they come to Dan.
March 10, 2011
The Battle of the Wills: Or, Who Really Killed Falstaff
Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Bard:
Those of you who know me in real life or those others who've learned a bit about me through the various dialogues here on this web site know that for the last decade (or two) (or three) I've tended to wander back to a close reading of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets for some months each year, in part as a way to continue, in my unorganized manner, my slow-self-instruction in all things Shakespeare.
Such attempt at self-instruction re: Shakespeare over the decades seems like a lonely, solo hobby, but of course it's not. Any concentrated effort to learn more about William Shakespeare immediately puts the would-be learner into the brilliant company of Harold Bloom, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Stephen Booth, Stanley Wells, Jonathan Bate, James Shapiro, W.H. Auden, Helen Vendler, A.D. Nutall, Stephen Greenblatt, Harold C. Goddard, and literally hundreds of other fine minds and brilliant historians and close-readers who've come to Shakespeare before you. Even Jacques Derrida and the group I sometimes refer to as the Claque of French Midgets can be put to some use here (as long as they're properly harnessed and gagged).
So it is that I start this series of brief* essays on various aspects of Shakespeare and his work, composed as some idea obsesses me or minor revelation occurs to me. (* well, all right, already I see that this first essay has turned into Velcro® -- historical hooks connecting to thematic loops everywhere -- and may be the longest %*&@! essay I've ever thrust upon my loyal readers, but I trust (and pray) that my future Shakespeare essays will be "brief" when compared to this Velcro® megillah or to my regular Messages from Dan or Writing Well Installments.)
Why did Shakespeare kill off Falstaff when he did? This question has bothered me for years now and was really answered only recently, during a late-night re-reading of James Shapiro's wonderful 2005 book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare -- 1599.
The clue as to "Why did Shakespeare kill Falstaff when he did?" was in there the first time I read it, but I must not have been paying attention. Or perhaps I've learned a little more about the Bard in the last five years and Shapiro's revelation now clicks more easily into place.
Also, as I'll explain later, the actual solution to the mystery of who killed Falstaff and why came to me as I was watching the 1967 guy-classic "The Dirty Dozen". But more on that later.
The question of why Falstaff died when he did -- why Shakespeare hadn't included him in Henry V, as he'd promised to -- has been around quite a while and even those "fine and brilliant minds" I mentioned above had some trouble with it.
Dr. Johnson, more than 200 years ago, did his best to act as Shakespeare's defense attorney on this matter (James Shapiro writes, " . . . does his best to exonerate Shakespeare.") The good doctor argued that perhaps the Bard "could contrive no train of adventures suitable to his character, or could match him with no companions likely to quicken his humour, or could open no new vein of pleasantry."
But I suspect that even Dr. Johnson knew than any argument centered on accusing Shakespeare of lack of invention was doomed. Besides, Shakespeare had promised that Sir John would go to France with Henry V and it was all but certain that he'd take his old pals and partners in rascalry from Eastcheap, including Bardolph, Nym, the Ancient Pistol, and the Boy given to Falstaff by Prince Hal to serve as a squire. And Falstaff would have met new adversaries in wit there in the battlefields of France, including the fascinating comic Shakespeare created for debates in the trenches -- Fluellen.
Harold Bloom who adores Falstaff (and who seems to identify heavily with him, no pun intended, including with Fat Jack's (in)famous speech debunking "Honour") dislikes Shakespeare's Henry V and, in his huge Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human dismisses the play in a few irritated pages, most centered on what a boor and failure the historical Henry V was.
No Elizabethan or Jacobean theater-goer ever saw Falstaff in Henry V and Shakespeare wrote no role for him, only Mistress Quickly's wonderfully comic eulogy for him (in which she beautifully mixes up mythologies and says that Falstaff is safe in Arthur's bosom, rather than Abraham's.) So don't believe your lying eyes if you saw Kenneth Branagh's 1989 movie version of Henry V, since the appearances of Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane) were either scenes stolen from Part 2 Henry IV or visualized from Mistress Quickly's brilliant cockney eulogy for Falstaff, in which she tells us of Fat Jack's dying minutes.
Harold Bloom's only real explanation for Shakespeare killing off Falstaff as a character -- completely offstage -- came when Bloom theorized:
" . . .that the heroic posturings of Agincourt (in Henry V) could not withstand a Falstaffian commentary, a counterchorus that would have sunk the play, however gloriously."
But Shakespeare had promised us that Falstaff would go to France with Henry V!
It was the only time the Bard had ever made such a specific promise about an upcoming play. And the groundlings must have thrilled to it much as I did as a teenager when those small white letters appeared at the end of the credits in the early James Bond movies --
James Bond will return in
(or Thunderball, or whatever)
When the Chamberlain's Men (then the name of Shakespeare's troupe) put on The Second Part of Henry the Fourth at the Curtain theater in late autumn of 1598, they watched as Sir John Falstaff -- played by their favorite clown Will Kemp -- was hauled off to Fleet Prison. Falstaff, who's escaped so many bad endings during the course of this wonderful two-part play, surely will escape this mess! Or will he? The theater patrons are enthralled.
Suddenly Falstaff steps out on stage again (there's no curtain at the Curtain, remember, nor at the soon-to-be-built Globe nor in any other theater of the time) and begins bouncing around and talking. This is the unexpected Epilogue to The Second Part of Henry IV and I'll get to it by and by.
But wait, it's not "Falstaff" speaking to us now in this important Epilogue, it's the clown actor Will Kemp still in his Falstaff costume and makeup. Kemp -- a fit and muscular acrobat -- has a special "giant hose" false belly made up for his Falstaff appearances. But no matter what role Will Kemp plays, he's always "Will Kemp" to his audiences and fans.
And Kemp has more fans than does William Shakespeare. I try to imagine a modern equivalent to the late 1590's Will Kemp and it's hard to come up with names. An acrobatic stand-up comedian-turned-actor-comic who remains himself no matter what character he plays? Well, W.C. Fields was a juggler and acrobat before he left vaudeville for the movies, and W.C. Fields was always W.C. Fields, no matter what the name was of the character he played in a movie. (He even played himself when he was Dickens's "Mr. McCawber" in the 1935 film version of David Copperfield.)
But Will Kemp was also a dancer, famous for his jigs that ended all of the Chamberlain's Men's plays. We forget that today. Imagine watching the newly written Romeo and Juliet (Kemp played the comic figure of "Peter", Nurse's insolent servant in it) and you're weeping and clapping and then weeping again at the end of the play, only to hear drums and flutes playing and you watch everyone around you start dancing a wild, erotic "jig" for twenty minutes or more. The jigs at the end of the plays were so popular that many of the groundlings came to the theater only when the play was over, to dance the jig and watch it danced.
And Will Kemp was the master of the jig.
So who else might Will Kemp be compared to? Buster Keaton was a pratfall clown and acrobat who parlayed that (and his ferocious intelligence) into becoming a true auteur in the new medium of silent film: actor, director, writer, cinematographer, editor, producer. Charlie Chaplin, like Will Kemp, always played his Chaplin persona of The Little Tramp in every film -- even up to and including The Great Dictator.
Perhaps a more modern comparison might be Fred Astaire. Audiences came to Fred Astaire movies -- at least up to his amazing non-dancing acting-only performance in the 1959 movie "On The Beach" -- to see Fred Astaire dance. Astaire's persona, especially the black tie and tails and the seemingly effortless dancing, remained the same through more than three decades of different movie roles. Who remembers the names or script personae of the "characters" he played during those decades? Fred Astaire had his own audiences and they showed up no matter who directed the film or what character he played or who his leading-lady dance partners were.
Much the same could be said for the clown-dancer Will Kemp in the late 1590's. Kemp had been such a leading star at least since the mid-1580's when he'd been a member of the leading acting troupe of the day, Leicester's Men.
Kemp was also a populist and played lower-class fellows even in Shakespeare's plays: the fool Launcelot, the surly servant Peter in Romeo and Juliet, and the country bumpkin Costard in Loves Labour's Lost. James Shapiro points out that even while playing Sir John Falstaff -- technically an aristocrat and a knight -- Kemp wore a working man's cap in the role. It was a matter of principle for him. It's said that Will Kemp "loathed social climbers and went out of his way to praise those who didn't stand on rank." (This is quite the opposite of the other "Will" in the troupe -- William Shakespeare -- who acted the gentleman, wrote appallingly sycophantic letters to the would-be aristocratic "patrons" of his serious published poems, and who, with his aging father, was actively seeking a family coat of arms to seal his gentleman's position.)
Kemp was the older of the two Wills -- a "decade or so"older than Shakespeare -- and by far the taller, more muscular, and more physically imposing of the two men. In his jigs -- and remember that he was thought of as the most skillful jigs-dancer in all of England -- Will Kemp was also famous for his amazing stamina. But he was also known for his gracefulness in movement and dance.
So, if we're in the audience at the Curtain theater in late autumn of 1598 when Will Kemp steps to the front of the stage while still in his "giant hose" as part of his fat Jack Falstaff costume, we see a big man, well into middle-age, with a grizzled beard and longish hair sticking out from under his working man's cap. All of us in the audience know that when Kemp isn't in a character's costume, he'll come out dressed as a traditional Morris dancer -- his roots -- and someday soon will end the post-play jigs by literally "dancing out of the world" -- i.e. out of the Globe theater and down the muddy streets of Shoreditch. Hundreds would follow him.
We know that Will Kemp impressed his personality so heavily onto the characters he played that even Shakespeare, the creator of those characters, confused Kemp with the character he played. We have errors written on scripts, in William Shakespeare's hand, where he mistakenly wrote "Enter Will Kemp" in the stage directions when he should have written"Peter" in Romeo and Juliet. In act 4 of Much Ado About Nothing, we can see today that instead of writing "Dogberry" -- a "natural fool" in the play, a pure clown's role -- Shakespeare had written "Kemp".
To this day, there's a stage entrance for a strange character named "Will" in act 2, scene 4 of The Second Part of Henry IV -- a character never mentioned before and who appears only once -- and who doesn't seem to have any lines. Modern directors tend to give this "Will" some lines assigned to other characters and then to hustle him offstage as quickly as possible. The truth is that once again Shakespeare had jotted down Will Kemp's name instead of the character he'd meant to give an entrance to.
Shakespeare never made this mistake with any other actor/character.
So by late autumn and winter of 1598, Will Kemp (and his wildly popular post-play jigs) has become a serious obstacle to Will Shakespeare. Somewhere during this time, the Battle of the Wills commences in earnest.
But first (I haven't quite forgotten to come back to this!), the Epilogue that Will Kemp, still in his "giant hose", working man's cap, and Falstaff make-up, gives to the audience immediately after The Second Part of Henry IV concluded:
"If my tongue cannot entreat you to accept me, will you command me to use my legs? And yet that were but light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a good conscience will make any possible satisfaction, and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have forgiven me. If the gentlemen will not, then the gentlemen did not agree with the gentlewomen, which was never before seen before in such an assembly.
"One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and will make you merry with fair Katharine of France. Where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a be killed with your hard opinions: for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man. My tongue is weary: when my legs are too. I will bid you good night.
So Will Kemp signals the beginning of the jig that would formally end the play and the proceed to dance his admirers right out of the theater with him.
It should be noted again that Kemp and the Chamberlain's Men are performing at the curtainless Curtain at this time, rather than at the yet-to-be-built Globe Theater. Indeed, it's the next month after Kemp's rousing Epilogue here -- December, 1598 -- that Richard Burbage (the actor star of the Chamberlain's Men, as opposed to the clown-Kemp star) and a group of armed men (armed from the weapons' locker of this same Curtain theater) were to tear down the abandoned hulk of The Theatre (closed by the Chamberlain Men's irritable landlord, Giles Allen) and store the walls, roof, timbers, and other building materials in a Thames-side warehouse until spring.
When the spring thaw came in 1599, these same Chamberlain's Men will transport the bits and pieces of the old Theatre to their newly purchased property and -- in the roughest section of rough, bear-baiting, whorehouse-rich Shoreditch -- will build the new Globe through that same spring into summer.
But that's the future.
This night in autumn 1598, we can look a bit at Will Kemp's spoken Epilogue.
It's the only time in Shakespeare's entire career that he shared with his audiences what he planned to write next -- obviously Henry V. And, even more surprising in some ways, he promised he " will continue the story, with Sir John in it . . .".
Was this Will Shakespeare's idea to announce this? Or Will Kemp's?
One part of Kemp's Epilogue demands some explanation: "Where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a be killed with your hard opinions: for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man."
This is an apology of some sort and evidently written by the playwright himself, but who is Oldcastle and why is Shakespeare apologizing?
It seems that more than a decade earlier, a much younger Will Shakespeare, still learning his craft, had some part in crafting -- and botching -- The Famous Victories of Henry IV, although evidence tells us that the troupe's clown at the time, the legendary Dick Tarlton (Will Kemp's mentor), had written most of the play. In this early version, Sir John Falstaff was called "Sir John Oldcastle". That was a mistake on Shakespeare's part. The historical Oldcastle had not been a fat wastrel but had died a Protestant martyr. His descendants were not amused and when the playwright reworked the poorly written Famous Victories into Parts One and Two of Henry IV , they threatened legal action -- and perhaps a more immediate form of revenge. The older and wiser Will Shakespeare took the threats seriously.
When the new First Part and Second Part of Henry IV are produced in London, Shakespeare allows Hal to call Falstaff "my old lad of the castle" but he also has Will Kemp perform his nightly Epilogue in which the Bard seeks to avoid the audience's -- and especially any descendents of Sir John Oldcastle in the audience --hard opinions, "for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not your man."
The audience loved Will Kemp and -- according to those playgoers writing in their diaries at the time -- loved the character of Sir John Falstaff more than they'd loved any other Shakespearean creation to date. Usually a new play in Shakespeare's day was lucky to play for a full week, since most people in London who went to plays would have seen it in the first three or four nights, but the two parts of Henry IV continued being shown through that autumn and winter of 1598 and into 1599.
So why on earth would Shakespeare kill Falstaff? And kill him offstage so that there is not even a goodbye scene, only the deathbed scene described after-the-fact by Mistress Quickly?
We've heard Dr. Johnson's excuse that Shakespeare, the most inventive man ever to write, "could contrive no train of adventures suitable to his character, or could match him with no companions likely to quicken his humour, or could open no new vein if pleasantry." We can dismiss that lame effort to explain it and throw away Harold Bloom's sad explanation as well.
All the apologists for the early death of Falstaff argue that Shakespeare's inventiveness and cleverness as a playwright wasn't up to the challenge of transforming the young Hal into the heroic Henry V of the Saint Cripsen's Day Speech while having Fat Jack Falstaff still alive.
I reject that.
As a professional writer myself, I can see the places where Shakespeare must have sketched in Falstaff for wonderful parts of Henry V.
But, you ask, would Falstaff -- shown to be a base coward in both parts of Henry IV -- even go to France to fight?
He wouldn't have had much choice, would he? First of all (and it's easy to forget), Falstaff is Sir John Falstaff a knighted aristocrat (despite his base behavior and choice of friends) and a servant of his liege lord. It would have been Sir John's duty to follow his former student "Hal", now Henry V, to France.
More than that, Falstaff would have gone to the war in France for the loot, just as Bardolph, Ancient Pistol (a new character, and a wonderful one), Nym, and the Boy do in the final version of Henry V. For these were the days when the kings and important noblemen fought for glory and honor -- or "honour" as we have to think of it here -- and all the rest of the lesser knights, archers, infantry, and "men with no name" fought for loot.
And finally -- and most importantly -- Falstaff would have followed Henry V to France because Falstaff loved the king. Or, rather, he loved the boy, "Hal", for whom -- at the East Boar Tavern and other dark places in Eastcheap -- Falstaff had been mentor: part Robin Hood, part Socrates, and part the fat Lord of Misrule from the medieval pageants.
Falstaff would have followed the newly crowned Henry V anywhere because the king's rejection of him at the end of The Second Part of Henry IV literally broke his heart. He died of this love, despite Rosalind's reprimand to Orlando in As You Like It when Orlando insists he will die if his love is not returned:
"But these are all lies. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love."
But Falstaff is dying from a broken heart after Henry V's devastating public rejection of him:
"I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
. . . .
Presume not that I am the thing I was."
I think Falstaff would have followed Henry anywhere to regain that love he'd enjoyed in the Eastcheap days and Shakespeare must have seen the perfect places in his projected Henry V where there could be a true climax of the long debates between Hal/Henry V and his fat mentor -- the man who was not only a source of wit in himself, but who brought forth wit from others.
Imagine Henry V giving his famous rallying speech outside the walls of Harfleur:
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead."
(Henry V, 3.I.1-2)
And Falstaff, with Bardolph and his usual band of nihilistic ruffians, responding with a more updated version of Fat Jack's anti-heroics commentary when he was given gold to pay good conscripts for the war against Hotspur and he kept the gold and conscripted misfits, beggars, syphilitic cretins, and consumptives:
""O, give me the spare men, and spare me the great ones."
If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused
gurnet. I have misused the king's press damnably.
I have got, in exchange of a hundred and fifty
soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds. I press me
none but good house-holders, yeoman's sons; inquire
me out contracted bachelors, such as had been asked
twice on the banns; such a commodity of warm slaves,
as had as lieve hear the devil as a drum; such as
fear the report of a caliver worse than a struck
fowl or a hurt wild-duck. I pressed me none but such
toasts-and-butter, with hearts in their bellies no
bigger than pins' heads, and they have bought out
their services; and now my whole charge consists of
ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of
companies, slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the
painted cloth, where the glutton's dogs licked his
sores; and such as indeed were never soldiers, but
discarded unjust serving-men, younger sons to
younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers
trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a
long peace, ten times more dishonourable ragged than
an old faced ancient: and such have I, to fill up
the rooms of them that have bought out their
services, that you would think that I had a hundred
and fifty tattered prodigals lately come from
swine-keeping, from eating draff and husks. A mad
fellow met me on the way and told me I had unloaded
all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies. No eye
hath seen such scarecrows. I'll not march through
Coventry with them, that's flat: nay, and the
villains march wide betwixt the legs, as if they had
gyves on; for indeed I had the most of them out of
prison. There's but a shirt and a half in all my
company; and the half shirt is two napkins tacked
together and thrown over the shoulders like an
herald's coat without sleeves; and the shirt, to say
the truth, stolen from my host at Saint Alban's, or
the red-nose innkeeper of Daventry. But that's all
one; they'll find linen enough on every hedge."
(Part One of Henry IV, Act IV, Scene2)
I did never see such pitiful rascals.
Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food
for powder; they'll fill a pit as well as better:
tush, man, mortal men, mortal men."
(Part One of Henry IV, Act IV, Scene2)
Some even more witty and bitter line would be Falstaff's response to Henry V's rallying speech outside the walls of Hafleur -- "Cry for Harry, England, and Saint George!"
How much would we give to hear that line? How much did William Shakespeare ache to pen new anti-heroic-bombast catechisms from Falstaff?
And how wonderful it would have been to have Sir John Falstaff there in the crowd to frame a debunking response to Henry V's famous Saint Crispin's Day speech:
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
(Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3)
This speech was so powerful that Laurence Olivier -- someday to be Sir Laurence Olivier -- was asked by the British government to recite it repeatedly on BBC radio during World War Two. Olivier was driven and flown around England to give the (almost) full text of that rallying cry speech to factory workers and new military recruits.
For reasons of social equality and morale, Olivier left out these lines --
"For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,"
Henry V hadn't forgotten the importance of social class, but Olivier and the British government thought it best to do so.
But what antithesis would Sir John Falstaff have raised to the thesis of Henry V's rousing St. Crispin's Day speech? We have a hint of the power from Falstaff's immortal speech about "honour", spoken from the battlefield where Henry IV meets the rebels who seek to overthrow him -- the same English battlefield where Falstaff played dead rather than face the deadly Hotspur (Sir Percy) -- and still perhaps the strongest single anti-war statement ever made. From Part One of Henry IV, Act V, scene I:
Falstaff: Hal, if thou see me down in the battle and bestride me, so!
Tis a point of friendship.
Prince: Nothing but a colossus can do thee that friendship. Say thy
prayers, and farewell.
Falstaff: I would 'twere bedtime, Hal, and all well.
Prince: Why, thou owest God a death. [Prince exits]
Falstaff: '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 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.
(Part One of Henry IV, Act V, Scene 1)
I've always been deeply touched by the humanity of Falstaff's -- " I would 'twere bedtime, Hal, and all well" -- the ultimate human antidote to all of the bombast-poison of Hotspur's, King Henry IV's and even Prince Hal's calls to come out and to die for "honour."
Falstaff's catechism here is the ultimate answer to the drill sergeant's manly shout of "Do you want to live forever?" The answer is -- "Yes." Or at least as long as I can. And not to die here, today, forever, uselessly, for the breath of foul air that is the word "honour".
Falstaff's "Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No." may be the ultimate refutation of the St. Crispin's Day speech.
But how wonderful it would have been to see if Falstaff retained his anti-war, anti-honour fervor in France. Or increased it! What eloquence would we have heard from Fat Jack when set in a battle of wits with these new characters Fluellen and Williams and Bates and the rest?
As a writer, I even feel that the hangman's noose that eventually found Falstaff's boil-nosed henchman Bardolph (whose inflamed nose was the butt of a thousand sallies of wit from Falstaff, up to and including one recited by his friends on the day Sir John died) was really meant for Falstaff.
In Act III, Scene 6 of Henry V we find that Bardolph has been accused of looting -- stealing a "pax", a small metal disk engraved with a crucifix, kissed during celebration of Mass -- from a local church as Henry's retreating army marched by. The punishment for any looting, upon Henry's explicit order, is death. But we see the Ancient Pistol arguing wildly with Captain Fluellen, who knows the Duke of Exeter who sentenced Bardolph but might pardon him with a word:
Fortune is Bardolph's foe, and frowns on him;
For he hath stolen a pax, and hanged must a' be:
A damned death!
Let gallows gape for dog; let man go free
And let not hemp his wind-pipe suffocate:
But Exeter hath given the doom of death
For pax of little price.
Therefore, go speak: the duke will hear thy voice:
And let not Bardolph's vital thread be cut
With edge of penny cord and vile reproach:
Speak, captain, for his life, and I will thee requite.
Aunchient Pistol, I do partly understand your meaning.
Why then, rejoice therefore.
Certainly, aunchient, it is not a thing to rejoice
at: for if, look you, he were my brother, I would
desire the duke to use his good pleasure, and put
him to execution; for discipline ought to be used.
So the appeal is ignored. Bardolph is hanged.
But imagine the narrative power here if it had been the King's old mentor and dear friend whom Henry comes upon hanging there.
In the Kenneth Branagh film version of Henry V, Act III, Scene 6, the King is weeping in the cold rain as he gives the even colder line:
KING HENRY V
We would have all such offenders so cut off: . . .
But imagine the power if this were Hal/Henry's last lines for his -- and our -- once beloved Falstaff. Imagine the line spoken under the heavy mass of Fat Jack Falstaff, hanging dead from a French tree limb in the rain. I think the groundlings would have rioted.
I would have. Four hundred years of theater-goers would have.
But Shakespeare did not follow this obvious powerful final confrontation between the "reborn" Henry V and Falstaff. He kills Falstaff -- off stage, out of sight -- just as Henry V is getting under way. And Falstaff dies, according to Mistress Quickly, playing with his fingers as a child would and muttering about green fields and play.
Cut to the fate of Trini Lopez in "The Dirty Dozen".
1967's The Dirty Dozen" may be one of the ultimate testosterone-movies of all time. The plot is idiotic -- a combat major is punished with the task of taking a dozen losers, in the army prison for everything from manslaughter to rape to cold-blooded murder, and training them to parachute into France just before D-Day and to blow up a huge chateau -- a sort of fancy whorehouse -- where German Wehrmacht officers will be relaxing with naughty French ladies. Most of the movie concentrates on the pranks, high-jinks, and jokes of the dozen thieves and murderers being whipped into shape -- and finding their odd unit morale -- in England before the jump.
"The Dirty Dozen's" star, Lee Marvin, called the film "crap" and "just a dummy moneymaker" and told interviewers for years that it had nothing to do with actual war. (Marvin should know; he was a decorated Marine who fought in the South Pacific.) I've never met a woman who sat (willingly) through all of "The Dirty Dozen". We guys tend to like it, especially with a cold beer and some chips and our sock feet up on the coffee table.
The young 'sixties recording star, 'Trini Lopez', was one of the Dirty Dozen. Lopez was a Latin singer who specialized in loopy 60's songs that didn't survive the decade. But as the movie ran overtime and over budget, Frank Sinatra advised Trini to quit before the "acting" cut into his recording and touring time, or, as other versions of the story go, to demand more money and a bigger role.
This is the way I heard it in the late 'sixties. Trini's agent demanded more money and script approval. In the original script, Trini's lovable character-- "Pedro Jimenez" (or "Mayonnaise" as the other killers, rapists and thieves affectionately call him) -- was supposed to climb to the roof of the Nazi chateau and blow up the radio antenna there.
Trini demanded a bigger scene. The writers added a nonsense scene where Trini's character steps through the roof of the huge chateau -- his GI-booted foot appearing in a well-lighted room below -- and where he then gets stuck. The Trini character now has to decide whether to survive by compromising the mission or die heroically. With Trini's demands escalating, the writers expanded the scene until all the rest of the Dirty Dozen pause in their many killing-Germans tasks and watch Trini's character sacrifice himself by lobbing grenades at the nearby radio antenna, thus blowing himself to bits but carrying out his mission.
It wasn't enough for Trini. He demanded more. He wanted his wounded character then to light the dynamite that blew up all of the chateau . . . and then to get away as one of the few survivors.
Watching the movie, you won't see much of Trini Lopez. He was cut from most of the scenes where he was anything more than part of the group. His one singing scene -- playing a guitar at night in the Dirty Dozen compound and singing a wretched 1960's Latin tune that was completely anachronistic for World War II -- was shortened to a "Knock it off, Mayonaise" shout and Trini hustling for cover.
You see the director's and writers' decision about Trini's agent's demands when the Dirty Dozen land at night, by parachute, in France.
Lee Marvin looks up when Charles Bronson and Clint Walker (playing the lovable illiterate idiot who killed a man by accident) show up in the dark.
"You find Jiminez?" asks Lee Marvin.
"Yeah," says Bronson with a visible smirk. "Hung up in the apple orchard. His neck was broke."
Lee Marvin shrugs and the movie moves on.
(Note: It's fun to hunt for Trini Lopez Deaths in other movies. One of the most notorious was the sad off-screen death of "Fat Clemenza". Richard Castellano, the actor who played Peter Clemenza in the first "Godfather", received the highest pay of any of the non-star actors and received some of the best lines in the movie, including our guy-favorite, " Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. " Everyone agreed that Castellano had put in a wonderful performance opposite Al Pacino and the other up and coming superstars.
Castellano knew that the story for "Godfather II" had Clemenza as a central character in the sequel. Since both the history of Vito Coreleone (now played by Robert DeNiro) and the "current-day" 1950's strand of the two-part tale had the character of Peter Clemenza in it -- the young Clemenza played beautifully by the young actor Bruno Kirby -- Castellano knew that he had a lot of negotiating leverage. And it was to be the Clemenza character who, thinking Michael Corleone had attempted to assassinate him, betrays Michael and become the number one government witness at the federal (and televised) organized crime commission hearings.
Richard Castellano, "Clemenza", demanded not just script approval but the contractual right to create his own lines. And he wanted a lot more money -- money right up there with Al Pacino (and, of course, more than the newcomer Method Actor Robert DeNiro.)
So there we are in the opening of Godfather, Part II -- the long scene at the new Corleone compound on the shores of Lake Tahoe with hundreds of people there, Nevada politicians, casino owners, and rich folks, all to celebrate little Anthony Vito Corleone's confirmation -- and Fredo (the brilliant John Cazale) and his bodyguards welcome an old-time Mafia mustache "from Back East"(and new character to the story) Frankie Pentangeli (played by Michael Gazzo) and his bodyguard Willi Cicci (played by Joe Spinell) and the old-man Pentangeli character has a black armband on, and after they're finished hugging, Pentangeli -- who's obviously had almost as much to drink as the drunken Fredo -- points to his mourning armband, and Fredo looks down and says, "Oh, yeah, old man Clemenza. We were all real sorry to hear about that. Heart attack, wasn't it?" and Pentangeli, who's been given all of Clemenza's great scenes in "Godfather Part II", right down to the Roman suicide in the bath on the army base while in protective custody, says --
"Heart attack! That was no heart attack!"
And nobody comments on that during all the rest of the movie, but somewhere Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, the co-screenwriter, were smiling. They'd found Clemenza in the apple orchard and his neck was broke.
And so, sometime in the cold winter of 1598-1599, quiet, sober, soft-spoken poet William Shakespeare decided that he absolutely had to Trini Lopez his clown's ass.
Did Kemp know that he was going to be Clemenzaed?
Odds are good that he did.
But why would Shakespeare force out the troupe's most popular actor and the most famous jig-dancer in all of England? Why would he lose Falstaff, the London audience's favorite of all of Shakespeare's stable of characters?
For a change, we have the answer -- and we have it in multiple parts and in Shakespeare's own words.
It's been said too often that Shakespeare never spoke directly to us in his own words about anything truly personal -- not in his Sonnets, not in his plays, not in any legal document or even in his will (except where he leaves his wife Anne their second best bed) -- but that's not quite right.
There are two places where we know that William Shakespeare, the man and playwright, spoke directly to us. And, strangely enough, in both those cases there are clues as to why he had to Trini Lopez Will Kemp's ass into oblivion.
The first speech spoken directly by Shakespeare was made as a special Epilogue to The Second Part of Henry IV and spoken by Shakespeare himself, before Queen Elizabeth and England's finest, at the Whitehall Palace, on the evening of Tuesday, December 26, 1598.
Google as you will for this astounding speech from Shakespeare and odds are great that you won't find it. At least not in the proper form. This unique epilogue survived by accident -- or, as James Shapiro explains -- through sheer carelessness.
Even though dances were on the evening's agenda for Whitehall that Christmas-celebration evening of Dec. 26, 1598, it wouldn't have done at the end of the Lord Chamberlain's Men play for Jack Kemp to pop out and give his usual "our humble author will continue the story" epilogue and then leap into his lively jig. Queen Elizabeth enjoyed dancing -- even with the more strenuous "modern dances" (and jigs) -- well into her sixties, but the kind of jig that would have entertained the groundlings at the Curtain theatre (or the future Globe) was not appropriate for Whitehall Palace.
According to a letter of complaint from a secretary named Edward Jones to the Earl of Essex, the formality of seating in Whitehall was far too strictly enforced. It seems that Jones had married a lady of much higher social status than he, and they were seated accordingly in the rigid protocol of Whitehall. It was a Christmas pageant in 1596 -- led by a play, much as it was on Dec. 26, 1598 when Shakespeare spoke -- and Jones complains to Lord Essex that when he, Jones, merely moved forward in the seating for a few minutes to be next to his very pregnant wife, Lord Chamberlain Cobham -- the man in charge of protocol for Whitehall -- pointed his white staff of office at Jones, loudly berated him in front of the other lords and ladies, called him "a saucy fellow" for sitting where he did not belong, and ordered Jones back to his seat.
Jones's January 1597 letter to the Earl of Essex is a masterpiece of whining and hurt feelings; Jones said that he was just checking on his pregnant wife out of fear she had been taken ill and certainly didn't deserve to be called a "saucy fellow" and "other words of disgrace". There's no record that Lord Essex did anything to soothe Jones's ruffled feelings.
So we understand why Will Kemp's informal epilogue and invitation to join him in a jig wasn't an appropriate epilogue for the Whitehall performance.
The reason you'll have trouble finding Shakespeare's extraordinary personal epilogue via Googling or any other search method is because of a compositor's mistake that persists to this day.
The Second Part of Henry IV was so popular that it was published less than two years after the Christmas 1598 performance. The compositor setting the type was confronted with two epilogues for the piece -- the one that Will Kemp had given dozens of times at the Curtain and elsewhere, and Shakespeare's person epilogue that -- as far as we know -- was given only once, at the December 26 performance at Whitehall.
Instead of investigating the matter, the compositor simply bundled both epilogues together -- Shakespeare's going first -- and printed them as one. If he or later compositors had thought about it, they might have realized that it makes no sense for the person giving the epilogue -- noted only as DANCER even in today's versions -- to offer to kneel down to pray for the Queen halfway through the piece, only too jump up and offer to end the epilogue a second time with a jig.
The editor-compositor of the more faithful 1623 Folio also left the two epilogues conflated, but tried to make some sense of it by moving the prayer to the queen to the end. It's ridiculous that modern editors continue to conflate the two quite different epilogues when they set The Second Part of Henry IV in print -- thus obscuring one of only two direct statements from William Shakespeare to his audience -- but they do.
But we won't.
Set the scene for yourself now: it is the evening of December 26, 1598, in the "great chamber" at Whitehall Palace. This year Shakespeare's and Kemp's troupe -- the Chamberlain's Men -- are sharing the stage for the several days of Christmas-celebration performances with the Admiral's Men. Each troupe gets two performances each and the rivalry to impress the Queen is very great.
We're told that "The great chamber was the most intimate playing space at Whitehall" -- sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, with a twenty-foot ceiling, we see a beautiful wooden floor, a huge fireplace roaring with flaming yule logs, and bright woven tapestries everywhere. Despite the crowd of elaborately dressed lords and ladies sitting on upholstered benches and stools pushed back from the playing space to make room for the formal dancing that will come later (perhaps with a bank of raised seats against the back wall to accommodate more guests), and despite Queen Elizabeth on her tall, canopied throne, the acoustics in the great chamber are excellent -- much better than in the adjacent and larger "Great Hall" with its stone floor, where Shakespeare's troupe has performed on some previous occasions.
The play ends with Falstaff faced with imminent arrest and the fat knight begging for an audience with the new King Henry. Falstaff has told his friend that his dear friend Hal will save him from jail and reward him with some wonderful post. Arriving in a hurry, Falstaff rushes toward the new king and cries -- "God save thy grace, King Hal, my royal Hal!" and then, pathetically, "God save thee, my sweet boy!", only to be turned away by Henry V's cold -- "I know thee not, old man."
And then Sir John, Pistol, Bardolph and his friends are hauled away under arrest, Lancaster and the Chief Justice talk a brief moment about the odds of civil war breaking out and the rumors that Henry made invade France, and then the play ends.
There is no immediate applause. Without a curtain, it's a little hard to tell when a play ends at the end of the Sixteenth Century. So the lords and ladies wait to see if there is more. Most importantly, Queen Elizabeth has not yet put her white hands together in delicate applause. Until she does, no one in the great chamber will.
William Shakespeare steps forward. The sight of this playwright closing one of his plays with a personal epilogue is not just unusual, it is unique. The great chamber creaks with silence as everyone strains to hear the soft voice of England's most popular playwright.
Here is what they heard that night of Dec. 26, 1598:
"First my fear, then my curtsy, last my speech. My fear, is your
displeasure; my curtsy, my duty; and my speech, to beg your pardons.
If you look for a good speech now, you undo me; for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what, indeed, I should say will, I doubt,
prove mine own marring. But to the purpose, and so to the
Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the
end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it and to
promise you a better. I meant, indeed, to pay you with this; which if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle
creditors, lose. Here I promis'd you I would be, and here I
commit my body to your mercies. Bate me some, and I will pay you some,
and, as most debtors do, promise you infinitely; and so I kneel down
before you—but, indeed, to pray for the Queen. "
To our modern ears, the Epilogue may sound sycophantic -- similar to Shakespeare's near-groveling tone when dedicating a volume of his serious poetry to a lord and possible patron -- but it's actually anything but.
We need to deconstruct it a bit and compare it to Will Kemp's epilogue in order to understand just how clever Shakespeare's personal statement to the royal audience really is. (And how it may spell doom for the most popular actor in the play, the much-beloved Falstaff -- literal doom for the character and career-doom for the actor-clown under the makeup and giant hose, Will Kemp.)
First of all, and beneath and after all the audible and visible curtseying and begging, the playwright seems to be plugging not a possible Henry V -- and certainly not one with Will Kemp as Falstaff in it -- but, rather, a subtle mention of and connection to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The talk here, as Shapiro explains it, is about the playwright and playgoers being bound in a partnership and being co-shareholders in a new venture. The words are those of a merchant: paying and bating, credit and venture, promising and breaking, and they reflect the growing new world of venture capital that is engulfing both the wealthy lords of London and the Queen.
Shakespeare seems to be describing his plays as a form of treasure offered by a merchant-adventurer -- Will Shakespeare -- and the audience there that night as investors. He goes on to explain that any "ill adventure" that bankrupts him -- i.e. a play that fails -- will bankrupt the investors as well. It's all in the language of joint-stock operations, but it also puts the playwright on the level of these successful merchants who have earned themselves a coat of arms and the rank of gentleman.
Instead of "standing up the for working man", as Will Kemp has done for years (at least in his public pose), William Shakespeare is here claiming his equality with many of the wealthy and socially placed men and women in his audience. In other words, his money and share holdings in this theatrical troupe have bought him more than small fame as a playwright -- they have brought him gentility. (Something Will Kemp never wanted and does not claim.)
Shapiro points out the riskiness of Shakespeare's claim: in the past decade many acting troupes have played before the court -- Sussex's Men, Pembroke's Men, (Lord) Strange's Men, even the Queen's Men -- but they'd all failed to make a profit and had broken up.
Shakespeare appears to be saying that his troupe -- based on his skill as a writer -- will be the exception. And so they would be. Seven years later, after Queen Elizabeth's death in 1603, Shakespeare will be putting on MacBeth at a 1606 Christmas celebration in this same great hall, but before King James this time. And his troupe, consisting mostly of the same actors -- sans Will Kemp -- will now have the highest patronage possible and will be called The King's Men.
There are some apologies and specific references in Shakespeare's epilogue that may need some explanation:
You may be wondering about that strange, almost parenthetical statement in Shakespeare's epilogue -- "I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray for your patience for it, and to promise a better"?
The "here" suggests strongly that the displeasing play, whatever it was, had been performed at court, perhaps at Whitehall itself in this very same great hall.
And certainly in front of Queen Elizabeth.
At that time, the only "pleasing" or "displeasing" that counted during a royal performance was that of the Queen. What recent play, perhaps performed as recently as that late summer or early autumn of 1598, making it the most recent court performance prior to this Christmas presentation of The Second Part of Henry IV, had displeased Her Majesty?
Odds are great (how many times, I wonder, are weasel-phrases like that used in attempts to tell Shakespeare's story?) that the displeasing play was The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth had been quite taken with the character of Falstaff in Part One of Henry IV and, even before The Second Part of Henry IV was finished, she'd all but commanded a new play about Falstaff, one in which Fat Jack falls in love. As the early 17th Century editor Nicholas Rowe put it:
"She was so well pleas'd with the admirable Character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more, and to shew him in Love. This is said to be the Occasion of his Writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obey'd, the Play itself is an admirable Proof."
Rowe says clearly that Queen Elizabeth had seen both parts of Henry IV before she demanded a concluding play of a trilogy, this time with Falstaff in love. That would seem to blow out of the water our theory above that she saw (and disliked) The Merry Wives of Windsor before she saw The Second Part of Henry IV, which, of course, makes the most sense. But those ink-stained wretches -- scholars -- working with boring little things like court records and payments to lead actor Richard Burbage and "Master Wm Shkspr" -- actually support our weird idea that the queen got her Falstaff-in-Love farce before she learned of Fat Jack's banishment by the new King Henry V in The Second Part of Henry IV.
That debate (on the precise chronology of the writing and presentation of all three of the plays) is still going on, but the idea that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in a mad rush, at the Queen's command (and without any enthusiasm for it or for the idea behind it from the playwright) -- as well as the shocking premise that she and the court had seen Merry Wives even before they learned of Falstaff's real fate of banishment by the new king in the last installment of Henry IV -- explains not only parts of Shakespeare's epilogue on Dec. 26, 1598, but also his (and chronic leading man Richard Burbage's) growing resolution to kick Will Kemp out of The Chamberlain's Men.
Unabashed bardolator Harold Bloom not only despises and dismisses The Merry Wives of Windsor but begins his brief (and contemptuous) analysis of the play in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human with -- " . . . the firm declaration that the hero-villain of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a nameless impostor masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff. I shall call him pseudo-Falstaff throughout this brief discussion."
Although Marjorie Garber in Shakespeare After All and growing cohorts of feminist (of both genders) scholars, actors, and theater directors keep insisting on including this mean-spirited farce as a serious and wildly humorous triumph of the Bard's, I join the infinitely-more-learned Harold Bloom in saying that it's a humbug. The "Falstaff" in Merry Wives, far from being the source of great wit in himself and the cause of wit in others, is a witless and pratfall-prone butt of all jokes and injuries.
The great Shakespeare scholar A.C. Bradley (whose writing I admire and adore) rose in indignation about The Merry Wives of Windsor and roared:
"[Falstaff] is baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible."
Jack Falstaff repentant and didactic? Never!
But feminist scholarsand stoutly feminist modern directors and actors revel in putting on The Merry Wives of Windsor largely -- it seems -- to find more and more horrible ways of humiliating Falstaff. It results, as Harold Bloom says, with "Sir John-in-love" dressed as a bear in a scene of brutal bear-baiting of the sort that was going on all around the Globe Theater in the wretched slum areas of largely lawless 1599 Shoreditch. (Indeed, the only known map-illustration of the Globe Theater mislabels the round structure as a "Beere Bayting" ampitheater.)
The primary joke in this False-Falstaff sadomasochistic farce called The Merry Wives of Windsor centers around the knee-slapping joke of emasculation, cuckolding, and making jokes about an aging male's loss of sexual vitality. Feminist critics have suggested that William Shakespeare himself -- although he was only thirty-three at the time -- wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor as he did out of his own growing impotence and fears of losing all sexual ability, and that the mocked and abused (False) Falstaff in the play should be seen as a surrogate for Shakespeare himself. These feminist critics go on to say that The Merry Wives of Windsor is -- at its core -- a wildly funny castration pageant (their phrase) with the "merry wives", in Bloom's words, "enjoying the labors of emasculation."
My opinion (and the "humble" before that noun is always assumed, but always invisible) is that Shakespeare was commanded by Queen Elizabeth to write this farce about Falstaff being in love -- even while he was laboring to finish the infinitely more complex and serious The Second Part of Henry IV -- and he did write it with all the displeasure, surliness, and dismissive "take this piece of crap" attitude that any great artist will manage to convey when commanded to write to someone else's topic, schedule, and pleasure.
But I also firmly believe that Queen Elizabeth, contrary to today's top crop of feminist scholars and theater people, saw The Merry Wives of Windsor for the raised-index-finger it was and had learned her lesson about telling geniuses what to write.
Bloom's last statement on the matter looks at Shakespeare's very real horror at the reach and brutality of the Elizabethan state -- the shadowy Secret Service under Queen Elizabeth's master spy Francis Walsingham which had murdered Christopher Marlowe (by putting a dagger through his eye and into his brain) and tortured playwright Thomas Kid (author of the earlier Hamlet from which Shakespeare borrowed) into an early death -- summarizes things thusly:
"I have to conclude that Shakespeare himself [in writing The Merry Wives of Windsor] is warding off personal horror by scapegoating the false Falstaff in this weak play."
So, after this evening performance of The Second Part of Henry IV on December 26, 1598, we understand that the "displeasing play" Shakespeare is talking about as he addresses the queen is his The Merry Wives of Windsor. And we understand that this real conclusion of Falstaff's story -- rejected by King Henry, Falstaff's heart broken by the rejection, and Sir John hauled off to prison at the end of The Second Part of Henry IV -- is the payoff mentioned in the playwright's phrasing of "to pray your patience for it, and to promise a better."
Join me in standing with the others in the great hall that night -- most likely we're in the open dancing area in the center of the hall with the rest of the full cast of The Chamberlain's Men, all of us players still bowing low (or curtseying gracefully if you're one of the young men in a dress this night playing a woman) -- and join me also in watching the Queen's face as carefully as we can in the flickering light of a thousand candles in the high-ceilinged box of a room in Whitehall Palace.
Shakespeare's personal Epilogue -- indeed, the entire grim (for Falstaff) ending of the Henry IV saga, with Sir John not merrily in love but hopelessly in exile from his beloved Prince Hal -- has a cockiness to it that falls just short of insolence towards Her Majesty.
Or has that epilogue and its author crossed the line into insolence, in Queen Elizabeth's opinion? (And hers, as always, will be the only opinion that matters.) On this evening of December 26, 1598, the fate of Shakespeare, The Chamberlain's Men, Will Kemp, Richard Burbage, and you, all await the Queen's response.
Did she just wink at Shakespeare? Or was that the slightest nod of recognition from the Queen when Shakespeare, also bowing, paused a second in his epilogue after apologizing for the "displeasing play"? Is it possible that the Queen just signified -- by that slightest of nods -- that she understands now that using her power to command a play about Falstaff in love had been a terrible idea? By forgiving Will Shakespeare for the "displeasing" spectacle that had been The Merry Wives of Windsor, has Elizabeth somehow acknowledged that it had been her mistake for requesting the play in the first place?
Or -- look harder! -- perhaps the Queen's unnaturally white, heavily painted and powdered and rouged face under that elaborate crown is showing nothing at all -- remaining completely impassive -- as she waits for Shakespeare to finish his unusual curtsy, epilogue speech, and "duty to beg her pardon".
Now he is finishing his elaborate merchant-investor metaphor --
" . . . and here I commit my body to your mercies. Bate me some and I will pay you some and, as most debtors do, promise you infinitely. And so I kneel down . . ."
Silent confusion breaks out in the Whitehall Palace room!!
Shakespeare's offer to kneel has taken everyone by surprise. The playwright kneeling as if in supplication at the end of his new play had been in fashion when Elizabeth was a young Queen, but the tradition had all but disappeared in recent decades. If William Shakespeare is actually "kneeling before them" here in modern 1598, it's an amazing act of self-abnegation -- almost a pitiful begging the Sovereign for mercy and forgiveness of precisely the sort we just saw Sir John Falstaff perform.
And Falstaff was rebuffed by His Majesty.
As Will Shakespeare begins his sentence by promising to kneel down before them, no one in the room disturbs the silence by so much as a cough or breath. Is this a form of surrender from the upstart crow of a playwright? Will Queen Elizabeth show him more mercy than King Henry V did Falstaff?
As Shakespeare will soon write it, Falstaff dies alone -- in exile from the court and from his prince's love -- his great heart broken by a few cold words of rejection.
Perhaps Will Kemp, still frozen in his own graceful bow, smiles here. His opponent in the Battle of the Wills for the future of the Chamberlain's Men is groveling. The reputation that William Shakespeare has built up over all these years as being a quiet but infinitely firm man, a gentleman in his own right and someone willing to bow to no one who does not deserve it -- is on the verge of being shattered forever as Will Shakespeare starts to kneel before thesescores and hundreds of lords and ladies, and before the Queen herself, in what seems as much abject surrender as groveling apology for a play that failed.
But then, before his knee touches the floor, Shakespeare finishes his sentence --
"And so I kneel before you; but indeed, to pray for the Queen."
Instantly, everyone in the great hall save for the Queen -- even Master Edward Jones's imminently pregnant wife -- is rushing to get to his or her knees to join in the prayer for the Queen's health and happiness. The rustling of silk and heavily starched cotton and linen must have blended to a roar that could be heard outside the great hall by the guards standing with their tall pikes there.
Even the soldiers, guards, serving men, and costumed dancers waiting for the post-theater revels to begin look at each other briefly and then scramble to get to their knees.
We can see the smile on Will Kemp's face disappear as the muscular actor, still in his Falstaff's-belly "giant hose", awkwardly hurries to drop to his knees in prayer for the queen. This is a prayer that no one in the room, no matter their age, sex, degree of pregnancy, infirmness, or costumed clumsiness, can afford not to kneel for.
Instead of "kneeling before them", William Shakespeare has shown, in James Shapiro's words, that -- "Relative to the monarch, debtors and creditors, servants and lords, players and patrons -- who are all falling to their knees to join in this prayer for the queen -- are on the same level here after all."
The second time Shakespeare spoke directly to us, as himself through the persona of the Prince of Denmark turned theatrical-director, is in Hamlet where the entire pace and narrative and plot of the play screeches to a stop so that Shakespeare -- through Hamlet -- can air his opinions on acting, on clowns, and on theater in general.
I have no doubt that you remember this scene where Hamlet has decided to add "eleven to sixteen lines" to the script being performed that night before King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. (Hamlet's addition, oddly enough, turns out to be the same length as Shakespeares' Epilogue to The Second Part of Henry IV.)
Here it is almost certainly Shakespeare speaking through Hamlet as he gives advice to the head of the troupe of players (who are, essentially, the Chamberlain's Men just up from London and dropping in on Denmark for a weekend), the head of the players here being called First Player:
Hamlet: Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you,
trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players
do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the
air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently; for in the
very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion,
you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it
smoothness. Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split
the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of
nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise. I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant — it out-Herods Herod.
Pray you avoid it.
First Player: I warrant your honour.
And after more such advice for a more naturalistic acting style, Hamlet-Shakespeare turns his scorn directly onto the antics of a Will-Kemp-style clown:
First Player: I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir.
Hamlet: Oh reform it altogether. And let those that play your clowns
speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that
will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators
to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of
the play be then to be considered. That's villainous, and shows
a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready.
Once again, as in Shakespeare's Epilogue, we have the playwright asserting his ascendency in deciding how the plays should be acted while at the same time calling the Kemp-style improvisational clowning distracting the audience "though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered" as villainous.
For this finalé of our look at the Battle of the Wills, I'll ask you to pretend that you're a member of the acting troupe called The Chamberlain's Men in these years of our Lord, 1598 and 1599. Everyone in the troupe will have to choose sides soon -- for either Will Shakespeare or Will Kemp obviously has to go -- so keep your best interests in mind.
Let's say that you're more than a day player: you own some shares in the company that is The Chamberlain's Men. You don't own a lot of shares in the way that Will Kemp does, or Will Shakespeare does, or even as lead-actor Richard Burbage does, but you own some.
If this troupe fails as so many do, you'll be in real trouble. You're relatively young but you're married -- with three children already (two died in childbirth) and another on the way. The times are hard: open rebellion in Ireland which Lord Essex refuses to go put down; the constant threat of Spanish invasion; the equally constant threats -- and attempts! -- at assassination of Her Majesty, (called for by the pope of the Catholic Church); and chaos in the traditional investment markets since everyone in England with two farthings to rub together has caught the merchant-voyager, joint-stock madness.
Two days after this strange Epilogue from your playwright at Whitehall, on December 28, 1598 -- with the silence about Falstaff appearing in the upcoming Henry V ringingas loud as a church bell to you and the other players who've heard Will Kemp promise Falstaff would go to France with Henry V . . . promise it . . . every night for six weeks at the Curtain theater -- you find yourself carrying a heavy mace borrowed from the Curtain's weapons-prop department and, with ten or eleven other men from The Chamberlain's Men (also armed with heavy weapons from the prop bin), are out in the cold and heavy snow and not only trespassing on angry Giles Allen's land, but actively stealing the every long board and half-ton, foot-square oak post of the old Theatre.
You are breaking down and stealing -- or "repossessing" if your part of the courtroom drama wins out -- Allen's entire theatre, board by board, post by post.
You know that Giles Allen was away on a Christmas trip, but you also know that Allen had planned to tear down the old Theatre himself and to use the wood to build a new theater just as the new primary shareholders in The Chamberlain's Men -- (William Shakespeare, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, and Will Kemp) (note: actor Richard Burbage owned far fewer shares but was still central to the troupe's success) -- plan to erect in Shoreditch.
Finally, you know that there will be a legal hell to pay when Giles Allen returns, including lawsuits against your troupe and physical threats from Allen and his thugs. It will be a miracle if this new Globe Theater ever gets built over there amongst the whorehouses and bear-baiting pits. And an equal miracle if you and most of The Chamberlain's Men don't end up in prison.
Still, The Chamberlain's Men troupe is your best hope -- the first time in the history of professional theater in London where the actor-sharers (including you!) will be part owners of the playhouse itself as well as partners in the company.
But now, as legal battles drag along and the oak posts and other building materials sit safe in a padlocked warehouse on the north bank of the Thames, waiting to be brought across when the ground and river-ice thaws, you're watching the troupe tear itself apart from within through this Battle of the Wills.
It's unlikely, but maybe -- just maybe -- all the members of the troupe not traveling or down with the flu or plague had agreed to meet in a nicely disreputable inn on the Shoreditch side of the river. The "Privayte Dyning Roome" the five main shareholders paid for to hold this meeting in is separated from the main part of the pub by a thin wall and a thinner curtain, but the roar of those drunken patrons on the other side of the curtain makes it necessary for those speaking here to raise their voices just to be heard.
The following dialogue is totally fictional and the only certainty about it is that these words were not spoken in this sequence or context or by these people. Other than that, everything following is 100% accurate:
(There are more than a dozen of you gathered there, but all attention is on Will Kemp and the other primary shareholders. There's no Lord Chamberlain Cobham here, as there was in Whitehall Palace, to enforce strict seating according to social rank, but it's no accident that these primary shareholders -- Will Kemp, Will Shakespeare, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, and Thomas Pope -- take up one end of the table, with Richard Burbage at the head of the table. The two Wills -- Kemp and Shakespeare -- sit directly across from each other and the mood in the little room is set by Will Kemp's angry glare at the playwright.)
John Heminges: . . so you see, Will, most of us think that it's time to take The Chamberlain's Men in a new direction.
Will Kemp: (still glaring daggers at Shakespeare even as he answers Heminges) Across the river, you mean. Into the most pox-ridden and lawless suburb of all of London's pox-ridden, lawless hells of suburbs.
John Heminges: (smiling slightly) Well, yes, there, but I was referring to taking the . . . type of plays we do, the quality of them . . . in a new direction.
Will Kemp: (still staring and glaring at Shakespeare as if willing him to speak) 'Serious' as in 'without a clown', you mean.
Thomas Pope: (softly) Perhaps without your type of clowning, Will.
Will Kemp: Without a funny type of clowning, you mean. Otherwise, what other type is there?
Augustine Phillips: (to Kemp) You know how much I love your work, Will. But there are other types of clowning that don't involve . . . well . . . pratfalls and a bit with a dog.
Will Kemp: (more angry now) I remember you laughing your arse off at my Launce bit about my dog Crab, Gus Phillips. Everyone in the theatre were laughin', including our new upstart crow, there, Master Shakespeare -- and those funny words weren't writ down, you remember. It was Will Kemp doin' what Will Kemp does best -- and what he learned from the great Dick Tarlton himself -- take the funny moment and run with it. The audience howled at my Launce bit about my dog. All of you howled! And never a word o' it were scribbled, not even by our upstart crow.
(Several men at the table look down at their drinks in embarrassment at the double use of 'upstart crow'. In 1590, Robert Greene -- a scold who specialized in writing books "from hys deth bedd" (and the last two actually were) -- had repeatedly attacked the young playwright Shakespeare, perhaps in his most memorable phrasing -- "Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie." Greene had been attacking Shakespeare for borrowing ideas, scenes, and entire plots from earlier -- and better -- playwrights such as Thomas Kyd (thus the "beautified with our feathers" line, since Greene himself was also a playwright).
To make absolutely sure everyone knew it was Shakespeare he was insulting, Greene's "his Tygers heaert wrapt in a Players hide" made obvious reference to one of the most famous lines from young Shakespeare's most successful early plays, Henry VI Part 3 where the memorable line had been -- "O, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide". This was an attack that had to be taken seriously since it accused London's popular young playwright of outright plagiarism.
Interestingly, the wasp-tongued Robert Greene did die after his two "deathbed" pamphlets in 1592, and almost immediately thereafter Henry Chettle, Greene's publisher (and sometime collaborator) apologized profusely and publicly to William Shakespeare. The same Chettle did not, however, apologize for much more serious attacks by Greene on the equally young (but more famous) Christopher Marlowe, although it was Marlowe who was famous for his lawsuits and duels, including murdering a man in a bar fight. One has to wonder why Shakespeare -- the less famous and less violent of the two playwrights attacked --received the public apologies. Something about the sober, serious, ambitious young man had convinced Chettle that such public and repeated apologies were in order.)
William Shakespeare: (smiles ever so slightly at Will Kemp but says nothing)
Richard Burbage: (to Kemp) And there's the matter of the jigs, Will. Some of our new performances should we get into the new theater . . .
Thomas Pope: God willing!
Richard Burbage: Aye, and Giles Allen's stones and arrows having fallen short. A pox be on the man!
(Everyone drinks, as if it had been a toast.)
Richard Burbage: (continuing) There's the matter of the jigs . . .
Will Kemp: (exploding) Surely you're not saying that you'd not end our performances with jigs! Without dancing the patrons out of the world? That will be my jest for the new theatre, boys -- dancing them out of the world, out of the Globe. Get it?
(No one speaks.)
Will Kemp: (continuing) But the tradition of the jig . . . boys, it goes back to the time of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers! The Mystery Plays of our great-grandfathers with their Hell Mouths, their Porter of Hell, and the Fool getting the better of Vice and the Devil. As clown, I speak for the Lord of Misrule . . .
Richard Burbage: (using his richest, most commanding Marlovian 'Tamburlaine' voice) The Lord of Misrule no longer rules here, sir. Old plays and old ways are for the old days. And old days reek of the old religion.
(The very mention of the 'old religion' causes a sudden silence in the little room. It can be death to praise -- or even discuss -- the Old Faith in this time of assassination threats from the pope and his agents against Her Protestant Majesty while Jesuits are being publicly disemboweled for their treachery. The fact that Burbage used the phrase at all in this public place shows -- was meant to show -- that he trusts his fellow share-holders with his life.)
John Heminges: (breaking the awkward silence) There's also the problem, Will, with you departing from the script, inventing your own lines as you go, and talking directly to the audience.
Richard Burbage: (murmuring softly to himself) This last sin, speaking out to the audience when it's not a soliloquy, 'tis done so often that there should be a name for it. 'Breaking the invisible wall' or somewha'.
Thomas Pope: Good, sir, good. A palpable hit. But not quite there yet.
(Nevertheless, Shakespeare has removed from his pocket a battered leather journal he carries everywhere and now makes a note in it with a stub of graphite he keeps handy.)
Will Kemp: (dragging the conversation back to the last accusation) What's this? (to Heminges) Have ye never committed this 'sin', Jack? (to Pope) Or you, Tom? (to Burbage) Nor you, Dick? (Kemp looks long and hard at Shakespeare) I'd ask our last serious shareholder here, but Master Shakespeare has moved beyond the ungentlemanlike hurly and burly of mere . . . acting.
(Kemp spits into the sawdust at his feet and the sound of the spitting and last word blend together.)
(Shakespeare smiles again, slowly sets his pencil stub in the leather loop of his commonplace book, and seems ready to speak. But it's Richard Burbage who jumps to his feet in some agitation.)
Richard Burbage: That's not fair, sirrah! Will . . . Master Shakespeare . . . has continued working with us as an actor, accepting even small roles, when other playwrights . . . although I'll not mention any names . . .
John Heminges: Ben Jonson.
Richard Burbage: (without missing a beat) When other playwrights gave up their thespian profession as soon as their finances allowed them to do nothing but write plays.
Thomas Pope: Would God that our finances as actors with The Chamberlain's Men soon give us all such choices in how to spend our days!
Will Kemp: So there remain your charges -- evidently capital offenses -- that I speak directly to the audience when the whirlwind of comedy takes both them and me and that I wander from the script. Well, let me ask my esteemed prosecuting attorneys . . . what is a script other than mere words, words, words?
(Shakespeare pulls his stub of graphite form the book's loop and makes a note within.)
Will Kemp: (continuing) And our worthy and resident scribbler here -- (Kemp nods toward the writing Shakespeare) -- keeps inventing new words out of God's thin air, evidently hoping that the mob ye all want left unassailed by extemporaneous wordsmithing will hug these new contrivances to their hairy or sagging bosoms, depending upon age or sex of she or he who huggeth, and begin using them as the new lexiconic coin of the realm.
(Kemp pauses to fix every other man at the table with his actor's baleful stare . . . pausing to give each man the same alarming few seconds of glare, even you where you sit at the far, silent end of the long-planked table with the other meagerest share-holders.)
Will Kemp: (continuing) But tell me, my fine fellow actors, knowing that each of you has, by birth-given and profession-honed, a memory as tenacious as a crocodile's unyielding-to-death-and-beyond grip, if you can remember a single confabulation word or phrase, concocted easily over playwright's candlelight and later, in the cold light of winter's day on th' well-trod boards, launched, spittle-like, from our beloved stage, by this man . . .
(Kemp points a long finger at the end of a longer and muscular arm directly at Will Shakespeare, everything in Kemp's powerfully assumed manner now being that of a Grand Inquisitor in some popish dungeon)
Richard Burbage: We're not on stage, Will. Are you asking us to tell you if we remember of any of the hundreds of words and phrases that Will Shakespeare has coined?
John Heminges: Thousands.
Richard Burbage: What say ye, Jack?
John Heminges: Thousands of words and complete phrases that Master Shakespeare has coined anew. I believe they must be in the thousands by now.
Will Kemp: (snorting triumphantly) And can'st thee, with e'en your vaunted actors' memories, recite a single one o' them? A single word or single phrase from our vaunted phrase-maker that has struck true?
Richard Burbage: ( He looks at the other three senior actors.) Nay, not one.
(Kemp smiles and drinks deeply from his tankard of ale.)
John Heminges: Of words there may be too many to cite in one tavern night. But those I hear other using of these days, I give you beautified, abstemious, frugal, dwindle, extract, antipathy, critical, hereditary, vast, horrid, excellent, barefaced, eventful, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others, Will. Including, I should remind you, 'countless'.
Will Kemp: Aye, aye, our inkstrained wretch turns out words the way a goose churns out turds. But I'll wager my shares that not one of these silly constructs shall be remembered in ten years time!
John Heminges: And then there are the complete phrases, Will. Of phrases new for our use on the boards and England's use for this time on, I give thee one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, find yourself in a pickle . . .
Thomas Pope: (picking up smoothly where Heminges had left off) . . . budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, more in sorrow than in anger, the wish is father to the thought, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, be cruel to be kind, blinking idiot, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, foregone conclusion . . .
Richard Burbage: Will, I was reading a new, unfinished manuscript by Master Shakespeare the other day -- he kindly let me peruse a few pages when I came upon him at work between scenes being rehearsed -- and the page had what I considered two interesting new coinings in a single sentence, to wit -- Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is custom more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
Will Kemp: (squinting suspiciously) A new manuscript, you say? What play is this?
(Shakespeare sets down his commonplace book and seems ready to speak, but Burbage -- who started this -- holds up a hand and speaks instead.)
Richard Burbage: As I said, it's not finished, Will. From the small I bit I read, it seems to be a reworking of Hamlet.
Will Kemp: (roaring with laughter and spilling much of what's left of his ale) What! Thomas Kyd's tired old ridden-hard whore of an ancient revenge play? That pathetic piece from decades back where a chain-rattling ghost spends five dismal acts shrilly howling 'Hamlet, revenge!" like an oyster wife!?
(One thinks that Shakespeare should look embarrassed or insulted at this jibe, but the playwright continues to sit there calmly, still smiling slightly, observing Kemp's performance with a cool gaze.)
Will Kemp: (continuing, still trying to get a rise out of the writer) God knows you'll need a clown in any hundredth rewrite of Kyd's old Hamlet . . . and ye'll need more than one jig at the doleful end to get the cramp of that pitiful tale out of the audience's weary legs and brain!
(Shakespeare says nothing.)
(Kemp slams his tankard down onto the table hard enough to send ale flying.)
Will Kemp: This is all about class. You all know it is. About a certain self-styled gentleman at this table no longer being willing to share the stage with a working man!
John Heminges: Oh, for God's sake, Will. With you, it's always about class . . . .
Will Kemp: That's because it always is about class! The false so-called "gentlemen" in this country oppressing the honest working class . . . .
(The other shareholders at the table, save for Shakespeare, send up a general groan.)
Will Kemp: You've all seen our scribbler-from-Stratford's . . . Stratford! . . . sad attempt at a coat-a'-arms. It's been pamphleted. All yellow on yellow with that sad upstart crow on one face of the shield . . .
Thomas Pope: (speaking quickly and then setting his mug down and covering the top of it with his palm as if sorry he had spoken) That's a falcon, not a crow.
Will Kemp: (laughing harder now, certain that this will bring a rise from the passive playwright) Aye, aye, a crowlike excuse for a falcon on a piss-yellow background with bars of darker yellow. It has a Latin or Greek motto on it, don't it? What's it say?
Dayplayer: (You had not planned to speak from your place at the far end of the table and you're shocked when you do. But everyone had seen the pamphlet ridiculing Shakespeare's coat of arms.)
Non sainz droict. Not Latin. Old French.
Will Kemp: (whirling on you, triumphant) What's that in a working man's language, laddie?
Dayplayer: (blushing, almost whispering the words) "Not without right."
Will Kemp: (visibly pouncing) What'd Master Shakespeare's friend and fellow scribbler Ben Jonson turn that to in Every Man Out of His Humour, which we played at the Curtain not two months ago? "Not without mustard!"
(Kemp howls with laughter. No one joins him. Kemp stops and looks around, obviously realizing that he has gone too far. From outside they can hear calls from the rivermen -- those boatmen who ferry gentlemen and ladies across the Thames to theatres and other entertainments in Shoreditch and then back to London with their boatlamps glowing -- that customers should hurry because the tide is turning. But Will Kemp has already felt the tide turn in this small and crowded room. And it has turned against him.)
Richard Burbage: We can no longer end the plays with your jigs, Will. That's the long and the short o' it. Do you remember how that felt at the end of Romeo and Juliet -- the girl and me dead on the stage, two young lovers cut off by civil strife and foolish feud, cat-faced Tybalt dead, Mercutio dead . . . the theater full of weeping patrons, the actors themselves weeping backstage . . . perhaps the saddest tale ever told anywhere, the epilogue causing them to weep all the harder . . . and then you leap out and begin your merry jig.
Will Kemp: Then the playwright shouldn't kill off so many of his characters, Dick! The last acts of Will Shakespeare tragedies make the burial pits outside o' London during the height of the Black Death look empty by comparison. He shouldn't leave so many bodies a'lyin' around. 'Tis untidy at best!
(No one laughs. No one is even smiling.)
Will Kemp: Dick! Be reasonable! That's the purpose o' the jig, man. To wipe away the false feelings a silly sad play brings and to let the audience leave the theatre merry and not thinking that Death is out there in the dark waiting for them . . .
Richard Burbage: Death is waiting for us, Will. For all of us.
Will Kemp: Arrrr!!
(He goes to take a deep drink to end his growled syllable of contempt, but finds that his tankard is empty.)
John Heminges: The jig's time has come and gone, Will. Your time has come and gone.
(Kemp looks from man to man. You can see his realization that his days as star clown of The Chamberlain's Men are over. It flows over him as surely as the blood drains from his face.)
Will Kemp: (looking straight at Shakespeare) Damn your eyes. You've already gone out and found another clown.
(No one speaks. A few men shake their heads, although whether in sadness or in denial of the charge, you're not sure.)
Will Kemp: (letting out a long breath) I expect my shares to be bought in gold . . . nothing less.
John Heminges: (the primary business man of the troupe) They will be paid in gold.
(Kemp moves toward the curtain-door of the little room but pauses)
Will Kemp: I stood in the snow with a mace in my hands and a dagger in my belt when we faced down 'enry Johnson and Giles Allen's other friends as we dismantled Giles Allen's Theatre, piece by piece, and was promised by all you shareholders that I'd get to play in the Globe . . . if it ever gets built.
Richard Burbage: And so you shall, Will. If the Globe rises by midsummer, you'll be our clown in a final re-playing of an old favorite or two. But by the time the new Henry V is to be played in the autumn, you'll have to be gone.
Will Kemp: (grunting) So there's to be no Falstaff in Henry V?
Richard Burbage. No, Will. His day is also over.
Will Kemp: So be it. I'll be out and away before the first yellow leaf falls, but be warned that I fully intend to dance my way of the world -- out of your stolen Globe, perhaps Morris dance my way from London to Norwich as in the old days -- and I'll take my thousands of loyal fans with me. The Chamberlain's Men may not survive this folly. They'll never forgive you for throwing away my Falstaff.
(No one speaks.)
(Will Kemp shoves aside the curtain but pauses to look again at Will Shakespeare. This time the playwright does rise and takes a step toward the weeping clown. Kemp towers over the shorter, thinner, less muscled Shakespeare. You're not sure if they're going to exchange blows or shake hands. They do neither.)
Will Kemp: (to Shakespeare, and in a strange and strained voice) I was the best possible Dogberry in your Much Ado About Nothing, was I not, Master Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare: (his usually mild voice firm) Indeed, Master Kemp, you were a most absolute and excellent . . . Dogberry.
(Will Kemp leaves the room.)
(Some months later, in the long-awaited Henry V, [which does not have Falstaff or a clown in it] you will get the best role you've had to date with The Chamberlain's Men -- the French Dauphin, a braggart and coward. In the wee hours before the dawn on the day of the Battle of Agincourt, your character of the Dauphin will go on and on in praise of his horse -- indeed, as the Dauphin, you brag that you write poetry to your war horse rather than to your mistress -- but your galloping paean to your horse is cut short by the hard and cynical Constable who growls -- "Indeed, my lord, it is a most absolute and excellent . . . horse".Each time you hear that line in performance, you will hear the Constable speaking with precisely the same devastating tone and pause that Shakespeare used with Will Kemp in that little tavern room in Shoreditch.)
William Shakespeare: (into the silence that follows Kemp's departure) Well, gentlemen, we've had our talk and we've had our drinks. Would anyone other than me be interested in ordering our food?
Kemp was right. Will Shakespeare has already chosen his next clown for the troupe.
Henry V will have comical interludes with Luellen, the Ancient Pistol, Mistress Quickly, and others, but no single clown, as such. In Hamlet -- a script Shakespeare had been working and reworking for years and which, by the time Will Kemp laughed at it in the spring of 1599, bore only the most cursory comparison to Thomas Kyd's much-derided play of the same name in the 1580's -- there is no clown. Hamlet himself will provide the antic displacements that a more intellectual version of Will Kemp might have offered.
But the Gravedigger in Hamlet is the new type of clown that Shakespeare has wanted for years. The Gravedigger is the only character out of all the myriad characters of Hamlet who can hold his own in wit with Hamlet himself. Indeed, the Gravedigger -- although encumbered with a totally literal mind -- is so quick-witted that at the end of the three remarkable set pieces between the Gravedigger and Hamlet, the prince must say to Horatio -- "How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us." The "card" Hamlet mentions is a seaman's navigation card, with 52 directions of the compass clearly marked.
The new clown's name is Robert Armin and he could hardly be more different from Will Kemp.
Where Will Kemp is tall and muscular, Robert Armin is so short that he might be mistaken for a dwarf were it not for his normally shaped features, hands, and extremities.
Where Will Kemp excels as a dancer, Robert Armin does not dance, but is a beautiful singer and a gifted mimic.
Where Will Kemp is approaching the far side of middle-age (and shows it), Robert Armin is a young man, having just turned thirty when Shakespeare and Richard Burbage hire him into the troupe.
Where Kemp had spent his life in showbusiness, being trained as a clown by the legendary Dick Tarlton when Kemp was but a boy, Armin has been a well-respected goldsmith, then a ballad writer, and finally a pamphleteer who'd become a playwright and comedian.
Armin was already doing private performances for audiences of aristocrats --precisely the sort of thinking-man's plays that Shakespeare wanted to do for young lawyers at the Blackfriars or for the adult-students at the Inns of Court. Had Shakespeare and Burbage seen an early version of Two Maids of More-Clack early in 1599, it wouldn't have escaped their notice that Armin not only had written it, but also starred in the two major comic roles in it.
(Note -- in Shakespeare's day, the "men" of Oxford and Cambridge were much younger than students there today, mere boys by our standards. But the Blackfriar indoor plays (at night, by candlelight) were performed for lawyers and law students, a situation in which Shakespeare dearly wanted The Chamberlain's Men to find themselves, and Shakespeare would one day present his highly intellectual -- and incomparably cynical and rancid -- Troilus and Cressida for the older, brighter students at the Inns of Court. This is where England's future intellectuals could be found: John Donne, who loved going to the theatre, was then at Lincoln's Inn. Shakespeare needed a "clown" who could perform at such intellectual venues, in plays such as Troilus and Cressida that would be booed off the stage if performed at the Globe. Armin would someday play as "Thersites", the incredibly venomed "Fool", Greek slave, enemy of honor, and traitor, in one of the few Inns of Court performances of Troilus and Cressida.)
Robert Armin was also a serious writer and it seems more than possible that, when approached by our playwright and Richard Burbage in the winter of 1598-99, he would have given the two a peek at one or both of his two works in progress, both books being about the art of the clown -- Fool upon Fool and Quips upon Questions.
In this second book, Armin shows beyond a doubt that he's expert at engaging others in riddles and "witty, catechizing dialogue." (We might remember Falstaff's classic "catechism" upon Honour.) This skill of Armin's soon shines when he plays the riddling Gravedigger in Hamlet.
One of Armin's first outings for The Chamberlain's Men would be as the witty, jaundiced, professional Fool Touchstone in Shakespeare's next bright comedy of the period, As You Like It. (Even the character's name -- "Touchstone" -- was a troupe in-joke, since touchstones had been the emblems for professional goldsmiths in London.) While Armin showed that he could easily handle the broad-humor, malopropism-spouting role of Dogberry's when Much Ado About Nothing was brought back by popular demand, he would also be up to the much greater challenge of playing the doomed Fool in King Lear.
Shakespeare was showing in the amazing As You Like It that he had ever-increasing confidence in two of his performers -- the boy or young man who would play Rosalind, the wittiest female in any Shakespeare play (and certainly a better mate for Hamlet than the unsteady Ophelia would have been) -- and Robert Armin. Fools generally have relatively small roles, even in Shakespeare's plays, but "Touchstone" received more than three hundred lines, the longest single part that Shakespeare ever wrote for any of his fools.
So after this spring 1599 Battle of the Wills, Shakespeare led to the troupe to being renamed The King's Men with King James himself as their patron. And it was as The King's Men that the troupe went on to such incredible milestones in modern theater as Hamlet, As You Like It, Macbeth (wherein Robert Armin played the Porter, perhaps the most powerful clown role in the history of theater), Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra (where Armin plays the slave who brings Cleopatra the fatal asps and all but steals the show with his cynical, perfectly timed lines) to possibly playing (as has stayed the tradition) both the doomed daughter Cordelia and the Fool of all Fools in King Lear.
(Note -- When Lear learns that his daughter Cordelia has been killed, he cries "And my poor fool is hanged!" What cosmic theatrical complexity is this?)
With the Battle of the Wills over and his troupe of actors reinforced with new intellectual comedian in Robert Armin -- a talent so profound and versatile that he is ready for each and every one of the ever-more-complex roles Shakespeare creates for him -- William Shakespeare is free to become the Bard.
This freedom led to what Samuel Coleridge later explained as a transcendental intensity beyond anything given to us by any other writer or playwright in history: "Shakespeare is the Spinozistic deity -- an omnipresent creativeness."
And for Will Kemp, the loser of the Battle of the Wills?
Christopher Marlowe (before he was murdered), Ben Jonson, and other top playwrights of the day had joined Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in criticizing the jig that closed the plays. By the early 1600's, no serious theater included Will Kemp's sort of improvisational clowning or closing jig.
Shortly after leaving The Chamberlain's Men, Kemp kept his promise that he would do his Morris dance from London to Norwich and bring his "thousands of admirers" with him. (Dan's note -- you are infinitely weary of me explaining things to you by now, and I am weary of explaining, so for those of you who would like to know more about "Morris dance", I recommend --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_dance.
It had been a cold, snowy winter and a terribly wet spring and summer in 1599 and the building of the Globe (whose new owners won their various lawsuits launched at them by Giles Allen and his associates) had been delayed by the rain and wet weather. When Kemp jigged and Morris-danced his way from London to Norwich that summer, we have it in his own words that he rarely could dance in the road due to deep puddles and mud and so had to dance his way along the wet, grassy roadside.
Some of his old friends and fans turned out to watch, but not the huge crowds he'd predicted in his flyers for the event. The era of Morris-dancing between towns also seemed to be over.
Playgoers at the Globe called for revivals of the two plays in which Falstaff had such a leading roles -- the two parts of Henry IV -- and Thomas Pope donned the "giant hose" and became much-loved in the part of Falstaff. The theater-goers did indeed love Falstaff but seemed to care little who played Fat Jack.
Will Kemp never played Falstaff again.
Kemp bounced from theater to theater for a while, finally returning to the Curtain, where he did his old jigs and clown pratfalls with an ad hoc troupe called Worcester's Men. James Shapiro tells us that they tried to get a touring company going on the Continent but nothing took hold. He was soon borrowing money from old friends, including some still working for the successful The King's Men, the new name for The Chamberlain's Men.
As William Shakespeare's name became more famous -- "Richard Burbage" (who was to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, and King Lear) was the only other name from the acting troupe, really known by the public -- the playwright still spent much of 1599 and 1600 exorcising Will Kemp's ghost. The former clown's style of acting had to be untaught and removed from the other players' list of habits.
After 1599, the jig was never played again at the ending of a William Shakespeare play.
Henry V went on to become one of Shakespeare's most powerful and frequently staged plays, even without Falstaff's presence. (Falstaff is there only in the beautiful description of Falstaff's last minutes given in Mistress Quickly's cockney accent. To sample that scene at its brilliant best, catch Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly in a DVD of Kenneth Branagh's 1990 Henry V.)
Robert Armin's roles as the Gravedigger in Hamlet, the rancid Fool-in-motley Touchstone in As You Like It, the Porter in Macbeth, the Fool in King Lear, the inhuman Caliban in The Tempest -- and many other roles -- were not only popular with the audiences but changed the tone of what being a "clown" meant in modern theater.
By 1603, Shakespeare's greatest plays were being shown in the Globe Theatre, Blackfriars, the Inns of Court, and at King James's palaces. The Bard's plays and poems were being readied for publication and the name "William Shakespeare" was prominent on those printings, making Shakespeare not only the most popular playwright in England but also the most famous name among published English writers and poets.
And after the Battle of the Wills in the spring of 1599, William Shakespeare never again carelessly alluded to an actor's name on his script page rather than to the name of his character.
It was Shakespeare's characters, not the actors who played them, who became the prime reality to him now. And so, across more than four centuries, it remains so for all of us.
As Harold Bloom has written -- "When we confront the greatest of his tragedies -- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra -- we are alone with Shakespeare. We enter a cognitive realm where our moral, emotional, and intellectual preconceptions will not aid us in apprehending subliminity."
Will Kemp died, penniless and out of work, sometime in 1603. The entry on the official burial page read simply -- Kemp, a man.
Brothers and Sisters in the Bard, I close wishing all of you the blessings of Falstaff's wit, Rosalind's wisdom, and Hamlet's ever-expanding consciousness.
May the Bard be with you.
Acknowledgments: All of the serious research, higher reasoning, and academic acumen shown above was obviously done by other men and women. First and most centrally, I wish to acknowledge Jame Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. It's rare that a single book can solve so many serious mysteries. Also helpful were A.D. Nutall's Shakespeare the Thinker, Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Serious thanks are also due to Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography, Frank Kermode's Shakespeare's Language, Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition and the Pelican Shakespeare collection of Shakespeare's plays, most specifically the Penguin editions of Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V, all with introductions by Claire McEachern.