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Falstaff: subjectivity between the carnival and the aesthetic.

The Many Layers of Sir John

The new historicism and cultural materialism have not been kind to Falstaff. In fact, in many ways they have been scandalously unresponsive to the great complexity of this singular Shakespearean creation. Such under-appreciation of one of Shakespeare's creative triumphs was perhaps inevitable, as Falstaff had been, since the late eighteenth century, one of the principal cases in point for late Enlightenment and Romantic notions of transcendent subjectivity, notions that have served as perhaps the chief target for the postmodernist-influenced critical methods (including new historicism and cultural materialism) that have prevailed in Shakespeare studies since about 1980. With all due respect to the exhilarating paradigm shifts in Shakespeare and Renaissance studies in the UK and USA over the last twenty years, the most characteristic weakness of these methods has been reductionism: in defining the influence of ideology and discourse on the subject, they have too often eliminated the subject as such, producing uneven, at times unworkably deterministic theoretical models. (1)

The answer to this weakness is not, however, what Harold Bloom has done in his recent best seller Shakepeare: The Invention of the Human, to revert to an outmoded Romantic bardolatry and reproduce the very notions of Romantic transcendental subjectivity that have been so effectively dismantled in recent years. (2) Instead, the solution is, I believe, to account for the historical emergence of new forms of subjectivity in Shakespeare's plays in ways that do justice both to their historicity and to their complexity. This will mean a critical look at new historical and cultural materialist accounts of subjectivity, and an advocacy of more adequate theoretical models of subjectivity than those used in recent years.

In one of the defining documents of new historicism in contemporary Shakespeare studies, Stephen Greenblatt's much reprinted 'Invisible Bullets', (3) the influence of Foucault led Greenblatt (and elsewhere other new historicists) to define all-encompassing systems of power, with little if any room for resistance, and therefore little room for those qualities that have made Falstaff repeatedly hailed over three centuries as the best of all comic characters. The power-dominated world of new historical analyses is simply not very funny. Despite the availability of Bakhtinian notions of heteroglossia and carnival to describe Falstaff's potential to invert and resist the ideologies of power into which Hal is being interpellated, Falstaff's challenge to basic tenets of 1980s newer criticisms has been underappreciated and underdefined. (4)

However, the new historicist views of the Henriad were right, in my view, in seeing these plays as centrally involved in a study of early modern political power, and as I am arguing in related work, which cannot be brought out here for reasons of space, the power in question is a specifically Machiavellian one unfolding in the secular space of emerging modernity. (5) The play that preceded the two Falstaff-dominated histories, 1 and 2 Henry IV, was of course Richard II, and it portrayed a kind of crisis of Machiavellianism in depicting the triumph of skilled power, via Bolingbroke, over the crowned king's empty symbolics, but left us finally in an ethical vacuum. The two plays that follow, one might say, investigate one of modernity's characteristic responses to this vacuum, a turn to subjectivity: here specifically the potential of selves unfixed from traditional roles and world views to imagine and act out new roles and potentialities as an alternative to now outmoded religious ones. It is in this context, I believe, that Falstaff's role and characteristics should be studied. Falstaff is an experiment in a kind of imagined autonomous, autotelic subjectivity ('My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head and something a round belly') (6) specifically designed as a refuge from (and possibly as an alternative to) the Machiavellian logic of power slowly unfolding between the high jinks of the tavern scenes.

One of Falstaff's central paradoxes, however, is the extent to which this secular simulacrum of post-Reformation subjectivity is a manifestly artificial synthesis of pre-existing theatrical, folk, and literary types. It has been one of the most popular pastimes of twentieth-century academic criticism to define and analyse them. There are, for example, the direct theatrical forebears: the miles gloriosus and the Plautine parasite from Latin comedy; (7) the comic Vice of the late medieval moralities; (8) the tradition of fools and folly from the Middle Ages (9) and the related carnival tradition delineated by Barber, Bakhtin, Weimann, Bristol, and Laroque, to be discussed below; the picaro tradition and the related discourse on Elizabethan underground or rogue literature in sixteenth-century tracts and pamphlets; (10) the Renaissance celebration of the body in Cervantes and Rabelais. (11) Early on Falstaff was, and has again recently been, also connected to the so-called anti-Marprelate tracts, a series of satirical pamphlets against the aggressive and irreverent Puritan wit of the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate, including lampooning plays whose texts have not survived but which, according to the allusions to them in surviving pamphlets and tracts, were designed to satirize Puritanism as a grotesque, hypocritical carnival. (12) Many of these traditions, it can be presumed, were directly embodied in the comic style of the celebrated performer who created the role of Falstaff, William Kempe, himself an apprentice to the famous Dick Tarlton, and through him to an older popular comic tradition. (13)

Complex and contradictory as all these different attempts to conceptualize Falstaff are, they also overlap and suggest some themes in the present context and should not simply be relegated to the status of what Stephen Greenblatt called 'the traditional pieties' of that most dreary precinct of Shakespeare studies, source studies. We should recognize that Falstaff's rapid referencing of numerous stage, literary, and cultural types is the paradoxical key to what Harold Bloom has called, in his inflated way, 'the invention of the human'. A less inflated approach to the function of Falstaff's protean theatricality takes one instead squarely within some of the key topics of the 'French Shakespeare' that Harold Bloom has dismissed, the post-structuralist-influenced attempts to define the impact of modernity on subjectivity. While, as I indicated above, there are significant problems with these attempts, they by no means deserve Bloom's cavalier dismissal. Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy in particular is valuable in defining a disjuncture between the brave new world of available social identities of early modern London and the older inflexible ideologies of social station. Dollimore delineated this growing gap between received ideologies and the new practices of developing modernity, and he thought that the ubiquitous 'malcontent' figure, epitomized by Marston's play The Malcontent but instanced in several other plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was a crucial dramatic representation of the new dynamics. (14) However, the impact on the theatre of new modes of subjectivity goes far beyond the malcontent type. Falstaff exemplifies the same socio-historical development that Dollimore described for the malcontents, but in a very different mode. Like numerous other Shakespearean characters, he resists being tied down to any single identity and instead continually reinvents himself through a lengthy series of dramatic improvisations. In that way the theatre itself, in that fruitful topos that Shakespeare exploited over and over from his earliest to his latest work, becomes the model for life in a world newly open to the unfettered subjectivity created through shifting ideologies, religions, social stations, changing gender roles, and malleable sexuality.

This brave new world is of course a theatre, not only for Falstaff but for Prince Hal, whose identity crisis is, in many ways, the dramatic centre of 1 and 2 Henry IV. However, precisely because the Prince is one of those legendary Shakespearean characters, like Brutus, Cleopatra, or Antony, who 'becomes' his legend only after a lengthy dramatic investigation of numerous alternatives, Hal is destined to lose his protean subjectivity and take up the fixed identity of his own legendary self. (15) In this context Falstaff fulfils a kind of allegorical role, figuring the unfixed or protean subjectivity Hal must banish as he takes up his burden as king.

'Subjectivity' is, of course, a word of many meanings, and there are senses of the term that seem wholly inappropriate to the case of Falstaff. For example, he is one of the least self-reflective, solitary literary creations imaginable; instead he is always involved in friendship, socializing, scheming and other gregarious acts. If by 'subjectivity' we mean the thought processes characteristic of a solitary inner life, such as in the versions of Protestant asceticism associated by Weber with an emerging modernity, then Falstaff seems the very opposite of subjective in that sense. Indeed, Kristen Poole's study of Falstaff and the anti-Marprelate materials alluded to previously suggests that he is in fact in important part designed as the very opposite of the Protestant ascetic: communal, pleasure-loving, and self-centred rather than solitary, penitential, and self-denying.

Other critics have defined subjectivity in an Althusserian sense as the formation of an identity in ideology through the processes of interpellation. (16) In this view, subjectivity is simply social discourse internalized. However, here again, Falstaff seems to embody a constant resistance to interpellation, whether to that which would make Prince Hal a dutiful son and political agent, or that which would unkindly define him as tavern parasite and superannuated, impoverished knight.

However, Falstaff embodies facets of the new post-medieval subjectivity in other, no less important ways, ways that are linked to that dynamic quality of his which some critics have called his 'theatricality' (17) and which I am calling a protean or unfixed subjectivity. This quality can also be described as a kind of counter-factual self-fictionalization. In short, what Falstaff embodies is the ability of aspects of the self to resist or surpass the specific, fixed social roles of Althusserian interpellation.

This kind of resistance to interpellation, while it has its heroic potentialities, is by no means automatically to be applauded, rife as it is with possibilities of the denial of reality, escapism, self-indulgence and self-centredness, egotism and other kinds of self-destructive behaviour. Falstaff is indeed an excellent example of many of these potentialities as well. However, in a series of plays that will feature the absorption of the playful and harmless Prince of Wales into a formidable Machiavellian politician responsible for the deaths of thousands, Falstaff's resistance to the ways of the world is not to be dismissed lightly. William Hazlitt got it exactly right: Falstaff is the better man of the two, and he is a better man because he understands that ideology need not be the be-all and end-all of human social reality. Instead, one can play with it, and against it, as Hal does for a while and as Falstaff attempts until his end. This playfulness, this ability to subvert ideological interpellation through theatricality, is Falstaff's crucial characteristic, both as foil to Prince Hal and as thematic embodiment of resistance to power in all the plays of the Prince Hal trilogy.

If this reading is correct, it must be acknowledged that there is a kind of polarity in Falstaff's role connected to the plays' complex, layered, and contradictory evaluations of the role-playing demanded and forbidden by monarchy. At first Hal's tutor in role-playing and the unfixing of identity, Falstaff becomes at the end a victim of the logic of power that fixes, as it were, Hal's mobile sense of self. In addition, however, and to complicate things further, Falstaff is also an embodiment of the destructive egoism that is one of modern subjectivity's most prominent potential outcomes. His dramatic functions, then, are as contradictory and many-layered as the rich and contradictory critical discourse on him over three centuries suggests, but while his is a multi-layered dramatic function, some parts of his complex dramatic role should not be allowed to obscure others. Thus, while Falstaff is designed to be the very opposite of a Puritan saint (I come back to this below), there are clear moments in 1 and 2 Henry IV when his very theatricality, his ability to perform different selves and roles and escape the various tight spots that continually threaten him, is highlighted as a means of resistance to early modern power, and in such moments he emerges as a kind of anti-saint in the same inverted category twentieth-century wits have formed in the designations Saint Genet and Saint Foucault. I want to call attention to these precisely because they have been overlooked due to the preoccupation of recent criticism with power tout court.

At these moments, refusing to be limited by his actual material and social circumstances, Saint Falstaff creates a fictional world and acts out (as far as he is able within his material constraints) a fictional counter-reality. Thus, his cultivation of subjectivity is more like that of Richard II in prison than it is like Prince Hal's, or in another mode, but with a very similar notion of the potentials of unfixed subjectivity in flux, like that of Michel de Montaigne. (18) Much less directly oriented towards success in the world than is his companion, he fulfils his ambitions by trying to be amusing to the Prince, and so cultivates imagination (even specifically Lacan's Imaginary order, that locus of a lost unity and access to the (m)Other), and creates for himself and his companions a fictional, utopian projection of self similar to that of his thin counterpart in Don Quixote, the knight-errant, with, of course, important similarities to Sancho Panza, for Falstaff's utopian self is a pampered, self-indulgent recipient of bodily pleasures more like Quixote's squire in that regard than like his thin master. (19) Falstaff attempts to live out a carnival ideal suffused with a libido that is among the most successfully communicated of the multiple associations swirling around the remarkable prose Shakespeare has written for him, (20) and this libidinally charged speech is perhaps the key feature behind the centuries-old legion of followers and champions of Falstaff who have responded to the multivalent and subversive richness of passages such as the following, in which his powers of self-fictionalization are fully operative:

Marry then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night's body be call'd thieves of the day's beauty. Let us be 'Diana's foresters', 'gentlemen of the shade', 'minions of the moon', and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal. (1 Henry IV, I.2.20-27)

Unlike Quixote's mad vision, however, Falstaff's seems to contain within itself some tacit knowledge of its own fictionality, (21) some unspoken acknowledgement with his fellows in fantasy that this is, after all, a grand joke, based actually on an inversion of the situation which everyone, including Falstaff, knows to be the case. Consider the following reply to Hal:

O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal, God forgive thee for it. Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give over this life, and I will give it over. By the Lord, an I do not, I am a villain. I'll be damned for never a king's son in Christendom. (1 Henry IV, I.2.80-86)

With their allusions to scripture, saints, the wicked, and damnation, these lines form part of a subtext within 1 Henry IV connecting Sir John to that Elizabethan satirical view of Puritanism which, as mentioned previously, has been unearthed by Shakespeare scholarship. However, these allusions lost a good deal of their point when the character's name was changed to Falstaff from Oldcastle, since Oldcastle had clear Puritan connections, his namesake having been made into a Proto-Protestant martyr in John Foxe's widely distributed Actes and Monuments of Martyrs. With the new name of Falstaff, this subtext becomes a set of veiled allusions, yet another layer of contextual complexity in Falstaff's character, (22) so that in the text as we have received it, the implied anti-Puritan satire merges unobtrusively into Falstaff's general self-fictionalizing project of creating inverted and inflated carnivalesque images of himself as a consummately good man in a grossly unfair, wicked world:

You rogue, here's lime in this sack too. There is nothing but roguery to be found in villainous man [...]. Go thy ways, old Jack, die when thou wilt. If manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face of the earth, then am I a shotten herring. There lives not three good men unhang'd in England, and one of them is fat and grows old, God help the while. A bad world, I say. (1 Henry IV, II.5.112-19)

This profound project of inverted fictionalizing is behind his strange assertions of youth: 'They hate us youth. Down with them, fleece them!', Falstaff cries out during the robbery (1 Henry IV, II.2.76-77), and when this particular fiction is so profoundly punctured near the end of Part 2, in the 'chimes of midnight' dialogue with Master Shallow, it is perhaps the most important of the many signs that Falstaff's carnival is coming to an end, his self-fictionalizations having reached their material limits.

The fact that the many lies of this white-bearded old Satan form the very structure of the counter-factual carnival he attempts to inhabit is crucial to our understanding the paradoxical irrelevance, insisted upon in their different ways by Morgann, Hazlitt, Bradley, and Bloom, of Falstaff's manifest vices and self-serving proclivities. If he were a murderer like Richard III, the same effect could not prevail. (23) However, his failings generally involve victims, such as Mistress Quickly, Master Shallow, the Prince and associates, even the hapless but careless robbed pilgrims at Gadshill, and the improvident inductees of the wars, who are at least partially complicit with or tolerant of their own fleecing. Falstaff makes little secret of his self-serving and weakness: 'Dost thou hear, Hal? Thou knowest in the state of innocency Adam fell, and what should poor Jack Falstaff do in the days of villainy? Thou seest I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty' (1 Henry IV, III.3.151-54).

However, beyond the misdemeanour-like quality of most of Falstaff's failings is the ritualistic, non-rational, wish-fulfilling, and symbolic nature of the carnival discourse that forms such an important part of Falstaff's dramatic function. Much of this role, therefore, imaginatively subverts the reality principle in favour of the pleasure principle and thereby renders irrelevant objections from the real. The fuel of Falstaff's subjectivity is desire. The play of his wit and the motivation of his actions each manifest that Lacanian 'logic' of desiring that notoriously leads modern subjects from one coveted object to the next in an endless chain. This association of Falstaff, and modern subjectivity, with desire itself helps to account for the marked critical polarization of opinion about him in the long tradition of Falstaff criticism from Dryden to the present. For desire is the ultimate double-edged sword. Without it, there is no human motivation, the world is colourless and empty, and life has no joy. On the other hand, desire is that blind striving that enthrals humans to addictions and irrational cravings destructive of dignity and accomplishment. Falstaff seems to evoke both these sides of desire.

'Henry IV': From Carnival to Metatheatre

Falstaff's gargantuan body (a comedy in itself, Dryden said), (24) his love of the pleasures of the 'lower bodily stratum', and his attempt to create a timeless realm of perpetual holiday, all link him with that plebeian, subaltern tradition, inherited from the ancient and medieval worlds, that was described by Mikhail Bakhtin in one of the great critical works of the twentieth century, Rabelais and his World. Bakhtin linked the grotesque aspects of the carnival tradition, its emphasis on swollen bodies, beatings, even dismemberments and bodily mutilations, to a half-conscious, ancient and peasant-based vision of life as a communal, earth-oriented, materialistic but meaning-imbued process encompassing death as a condition for life's renewal and vigour. The carnival is thus a locus for an inarticulate but powerful subaltern tradition of resistance to that series of official ideologies (ancient Platonism and its allied philosophies, spiritualist Christianity, and Stalinism) that have exalted the spirit over the body, the upper classes over the lower, or the state over society. C. L. Barber of course defined the relevance of the carnival tradition to Shakespearean comedy independently of Bakhtin, and his work remains a valuable source of ideas in this area. (25) However, Barber, specifically in the case of the Henry IV plays, interpreted saturnalian comedy essentially as a social pressure valve, an instance of licensed merriment that, in fact, reinforced rather than challenged authority. As Michael Bristol has previously argued, Bakhtin's analysis goes deeper, taking a much longer-range view of things, one which, while not blind to carnival's escapist functions, emphasizes instead its transgressive potential, its function as a continuing locus for embodying and preserving centuries of counter-memories and challenges to authority. (26) While both Barber and Bakhtin are highly relevant to the case of Falstaff, I am relying on Bakhtin here for what I find to be his profounder sense of the long-term meaning of the carnival tradition, a meaning crucial to an understanding of how these plays embody within their complex layers challenges to, as well as celebrations of, royal authority.

In my opinion, Bakhtin survives very well the oblique attacks on him (or at least on his relevance to understanding Falstaff) in Harry Berger's recent intricate meditation on Falstaff as an embodiment of the complex mimetic effects implicit in the conventions of the stage as an illusionistic performance. (27) When Berger argues that a number of recent cultural materialist readings of the Henry IV plays are in danger of missing much of this complexity by viewing Falstaff strictly as an object of various social discourses, I believe he is defining an important point, particularly so since he appreciates that many of these readings have their own areas of adequacy and truth. I am intrigued when Berger goes on to insist that Falstaff must be conceptualized as a subject of his own discourse, not merely as an object of language itself (p. 62 and throughout), but the kind of subject Berger has in mind, it appears as his argument develops, is that of Falstaff as self-punishing masochist, as a subject of his own degradation and punishment who is complicit throughout 1 and 2 Henry IV in the production of his own ultimate banishment. There is, I believe, something to this as well: Falstaff is, as Berger argues, continually imagining and proleptically parodying his own future banishment, and he is continually creating himself as the butt of jokes and japes. However, precisely because Berger downplays theatrical performance and the social functions and provenance of Falstaff's carnivalesque comedy, (28) he misses Falstaff's paradoxical triumph with the audience despite his losses within the dramatic narrative in which he is a character. An important part of Falstaff's positive impact over several centuries springs from his metatheatrical function, which allows him to stand apart as a commentator from the character he portrays in the plot, very much as in Bertoh Brecht's 'alienation effect'. In my opinion, Berger's reading robs Falstaff of much of his vitality and subversiveness by interpreting him as caught up in self-punishment and failure, and by denying his metadramatic relation with the audience. Berger thus ends up making Falstaff appear to be serving power in the vein of Greenblatt's 'Invisible Bullets', an essay of which Berger is otherwise quite critical. Here I want to give a quite different account of Sir John, and one cognizant of what seem to me his palpable metatheatrical qualities.

It is in the second half of 1 Henry IV,, as the action builds up to the climactic battle-scenes and the carnival world per se has been left behind, that Falstaff is transformed into the most metadramatic (29) and Brechtian of Shakespeare's characters; or, to put it perhaps more precisely, he provides a dramatic precedent, itself based on older festival traditions, which Brecht learned to exploit to the hilt. (30) In these scenes, in the absence of a chiding Hal, Falstaff becomes his own accuser, and he wins the audience's sympathy because he is the character closest to the heavily plebeian popular audience of the play, pointedly exposing the corrupt manipulations of the wars, which he himself has acted out for us. In this way, too, his role is reminiscent of the medieval fool or Lord of Misrule who frequently acted as a kind of master of ceremonies at village processions or festivals. Similarly, this is another way in which he recalls the dramatic descendant of the Lord of Misrule in the medieval moralities, the Vice character, who stands, according to Robert Weimann, 'on the threshold between the play and the community occasion' and who, as an 'ambidexter', is 'both object of and spokesman for the attack' on vice (Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, pp. 43, 154, 224-46).

To see these effects at work, it is worth quoting at length from this remarkable soliloquy, in which Sir John is clearly speaking directly to the audience: (31)

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 householders, yeomen's sons, inquire me out contracted bachelors, such as had been ask'd twice on the banns, such a commodity of warm slaves as had as lief hear the devil as a drum. [...] and they have bought out their services; and now my whole charge consists of ensigns, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of companies--slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton's dogs lick'd his sores--and such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust servingmen, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters, and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace [...]. 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 [...]. 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 not a shirt and a half in all my company; and the half-shirt is two napkins tacked together and thrown over the shoulders like a herald's coat without sleeves; and the shirt, to say the truth, stolen from my host at Saint Albans, or the red-nose innkeeper of Daventry. But that's all one; they'll find linen enough on every hedge. (1 Henry IV, IV.2.11-42)

Sir John the interlocutor has stepped out of the role of Sir John the corrupt recruiter; the former in fact denounces the latter. His voice, as Weimann puts it in a passage on a group of Shakespearean characters, including Falstaff, helps to embody a 'sense of freedom from the burden of the ruling ideologies and concepts of honor, love, ambition, and revenge [...]. The power of negation is [thus] turned against the representatives of the vicious world itself: the negation of negation dialectically gives them a structural function' (p. 159). (32) The effect is one of a simultaneous condemnation of exploitation and a dark, worldly-wise acknowledgement of the world's ways. However, we begin to realize (and this is a theme amplified in the plays to come), it is a way of the world and of 'commodity' (that subject of a similar puncturing soliloquy in King John) showing no signs of withering, an ancient and modern outcome of warfare as an instrumentalizing incursion into the lives of communities that destroys normal inhibitions and customs and opens them up to new forms of exploitation. Thus the exposure of the abuses of early modern recruiting is also a kind of proleptic demonstration of the logic of modernization more generally. Here, Sir John is both the instrument and the critic of such an incursion.

Falstaff between the Carnival and the Aesthetic

In the passage quoted above, Robert Weimann emphasized Falstaff's role as an ideological 'negation' in the Hegelian Marxian sense, a character who illustrates the shortcomings and untruths of an era's received ideology. In the case of his famous catechism on honour, Falstaff is negating concepts which in a sense were already critical negations, since honour, courage, and so on represented ideals against which the empirical world could be measured and found wanting. Falstaff's catechism in turn suggests how these ideals themselves are imbued with assumptions of the world they pretend to criticize. However, this leads to a further question. If, as Weimann suggests, Falstaff is a negation of a negation, can we approximate this double negativity in terms of some positivity? What do Falstaff's negations add up to?

On the one hand, it is clear (and Weimann himself seems to suggest as much) that Falstaff is allied to the ancient carnival traditions, whose function over several centuries was to serve as a continuing negation of ruling ideologies repressive of the peasantry and other labouring classes, their vision and their values. The character of Falstaff is clearly constructed in large part from carnival and related traditions, as I have shown, and he exemplifies in many ways the world of holiday and festival.

However, C. L. Barber (and a host of followers) long ago pointed out, in connection with this play, that carnival unfolds itself through Falstaff within a modernizing society, in an urban commercial enterprise in which the ancient communal pastimes are now the stuff of nostalgic remembrance. In the absence of those communal structures, Sir John's plebeian cunning and self-preservation easily become the egoistic self-maximization that is the socio-psychological linchpin of emergent systems of power and capitalism of the early modern period. A Falstaff at liberty in a land where all the laws are at his command is dangerous in a way the charming rogue at the Boar's Head decidedly is not, the complaints of his creditors notwithstanding. In short, there is an important social as well as a psychological component to Sir John's emotional and ethical complexity, productive of disparate audience responses to him. Contained within the proto-communal structures of the tavern (themselves emblematic of the rural communities from which many members of the audience carne, and partially recreated in new urban settings), Sir John's comic championing of the bodily self and its pleasures functions as a communal, class-conscious discourse of a plebeian social element oppressed by the idealisms of church and state. Understood, however, in terms of a new Renaissance individualism, as an atomistic ego contending in the war of each against all, he is an emblem of the community-destroying dynamics of an embryonic capitalist society just visible at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Everything depends on the social context.

Thus the exploitative side of Falstaff can be seen as enacting one of the dangerous aspects of unfixed subjectivity in the service of unchecked appetite. Here, as in several other Shakespearean plays, the limits of subjectivity and pleasure as solutions to the crisis of emerging modernity are worked out in its very earliest stages. Whereas joie de vivre and pleasure are crucial values to assert in an instrumentalized world, they, too, in the evacuated cultural space of modernity, can be reified and established as a system of pointless circulation and exchange capable of enthralling individuals and entire societies, as Troy illustrated in Shakespeare's jaundiced Troilus and Cressida, (33) and as modern consumer society demonstrates afresh in our own day. When Hal remarks early in the play 'If all the year were playing holidays, | To sport would be as tedious as to work', he is not only rationalizing his own sowing of wild oats but also enunciating the problem that Sir John lives: what are the limits of a carnival wrenched out of its setting in the cycle of the year's months and seasons and set up as an end in itself in a society of constant moral and cultural disintegration and reconfiguration, such as is constituted by modernity?

In his metatheatrical soliloquy on the king's press, as in his many fits of remorse and resolutions to repent, Sir John himself temporarily becomes his own severest, if ultimately forgiving, critic. The carnival world that he both embodies and criticizes, takes its place as a crucial piece in play of a larger puzzle of modernity represented in this drama, rather than some static solution to its problems. In short, while Falstaff is a figure from the carnival tradition, he is one given a new function within a world no longer the same as the agrarian societies in which the carnival tradition developed. Falstaff has gone beyond the carnival, which is one of his points of origin. The carnival takes on new meanings and ultimately is transformed into something different, because it begins in Shakespeare's London to function as a negation of something different from what it had negated in earlier, more stable centuries. (34) The carnivalesque character Falstaff has become in the Henry IV plays is a foil for the cold, value-free, Machiavellian political world. Falstaff has thus come to embody a good deal of what is repressed in the construction of a world of value-free objects by a modernizing instrumental rationality. His libido-infused, pleasure-oriented subjectivity, represented verbally and symbolically in a popular genre, but destined to become a classic successively of high bourgeois, Modernist, and postmodernist cultures, might even be said to evoke that sublime, unrepresentable 'subjectivity itself' that has been the elusive quarry of so much nineteenth-century and twentieth-century literary criticism. The carnivalesque, which had functioned as the negation of medieval ruling-class ideology, begins to lose some of its communal qualities in Falstaff, becoming by the end of 1 Henry IV atomistic and egotistical. To understand why this is happening to Falstaff, to help understand the process of his movement out of a medieval carnival into something we can recognize as modernity, we can look to the insights of Frankfurt School critical theory on the emergence of modern subjectivity in the process called the dialectic of enlightenment.

In their depiction of modernity and its construction of an instrumental rationality that disembodies objects of their sensual qualities the better to dominate them, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno turned to and allegorized the episode in Book XII of The Odyssey, when Odysseus and his crew have to sail past the Sirens. Odysseus, availing himself of the privileges of his rank, allows himself to hear the proverbial beauty of the Sirens' song, while preventing his men from doing the same by having them stop up their ears with wax. Of course, he has himself tied to the ship's mast so as to be unable to give way to the desires the Sirens' song produce in him. This story, write Horkheimer and Adorno, is a prescient representation of the dialectic of enlightenment that strips the world of all values except those of immediate utility, making its practitioners deaf to the world's beauty, except for those few modern Odysseuses who allow themselves to hear as long as they are unable to swerve from the paths of utility in which they are set. What they hear are works of modern art, which represent something of the world's beauty but in a form separating it off from all other social reality. (35)

In Falstaff, particularly in his relation to Prince Hal, Shakespeare has given us his own version of this myth, in which the tavern world is a kind of Siren song potentially seducing the Prince from the instrumental path of Machiavellian politics. In the new context of modernity, carnivalesque Falstaff and his world embody the potential for pleasure and beauty within the emerging subjectivities of modernity. No longer anchored in communal celebrations, they have become individual and subjective, freed in the process from communal forms and open to all the new possibilities and dangers of the individual imagination.

Falstaff thus manifests a version of the carnivalesque that has been recontextualized and given new meaning by the modernizing impulses of Puritanism/ capitalism. Henceforth, what had been ritual and sanctioned disorder for premodern Europe would have to be transformed into an emerging, historically new category of autonomous, subjective art, and the London commercial theatres of Shakespeare's day were early prototypes for this development. (36)

In classical Frankfurt School theory, the aesthetic, like the other fragmentary components of modernity, entered the world in the Enlightenment, and this chronology is supported empirically by the fact that the idea of the aesthetic as we understand the term came into being in the eighteenth century. Here as elsewhere, however, the status of the Renaissance as a precursor of Enlightenment complicates the issue, and the fact that we are dealing with works of Shakespeare complicates it even further. The plays of Shakespeare were crucial documents in many of the seminal discussions of the aesthetic, particularly those of late eighteenth-century Germany, where Shakespeare had emerged as a major figure, both a vehicle for and a major instance of the new aesthetic thinking. For example, he was a key case in point in the paradigm-changing work of G. E. Lessing. (37) For Lessing and the German Enlightenment and Romantic periods generally, Hamlet was the key document, and much of the fascination of it centred on the elusive subjectivity of the Prince, seen as an alienated artist or near-artist whose restless subjectivity rebelled against confinement to the role of revenge-tragedy hero. Harold Bloom, as I mentioned above, is palpably arguing a version of this moment of cultural history some two hundred years after its original construction, with Bloom adding Falstaff to Hamlet as a figure for his putative 'creation of the human', but what Bloom is describing could be more accurately termed the construction of the aesthetic and the subjective. I would add that, although there is no question of identity between Shakespearean practice and Romantic aesthetic theory, they are at least sufficiently analogous to each other to have supported two hundred years dominated by the idea that reading Shakespeare is essentially an aesthetic experience. I would posit that in the case of the emerging concepts and practices of the aesthetic and subjectivity, Shakespeare broke ground that post-Enlightenment art and theory cultivated centuries later to produce much of the conceptual world we still inhabit. In short, the great impact of the characters Hamlet and Falstaff, in their own time and subsequently, is connected to their embodiment of characteristics of the subjective and the aesthetic destined to be central to the reified world of emerging modernity. However, not Harold Bloom, but the Frankfurt School, can best guide us in understanding these developments. In that theoretical context, it is not hard to see why Falstaff became a representation of what is always already missing in the disenchanted world of modernity: the modern concepts of subjectivity and the aesthetic are related categories that preserve, refunction, and mystify the sense of (eroticized) feeling and rich meaning of which the world is bereft in the visions of instrumental reason, and Falstaff is entangled in these emerging forms.

This is not the occasion to try to tease out answers to the elusive question of just where to place Shakespeare's Falstaff in the cultural continuum between the carnivalesque and the aesthetic that was developing apace in Renaissance London. What can be said is that Falstaff, in all his contradictoriness, is a beautifully constructed instance of the process whereby the carnivalesque metamorphoses into the aesthetic. This is a process above all of refunctioning and recontextualization. Because the social and intellectual contexts that had defined the carnival were crumbling, the contents of the plays' medieval materials, including the carnivalesque, took on new meanings in the new situation. One may look, for example, at the oft-repeated claim that Falstaff is a reincarnation of the Vice figure of late medieval moralities, as suggested within the text by his off-hand reference to 'a dagger of lath' (1 Henry IV, II.5.124), the traditional stage prop of the Vice. What has been far less often discussed in this connection is what it could mean to refunction such a figure in the secular space of the public theatres. For this particular Vice is functioning quite autonomously from any clearly fixed moral categories, in a comic grey area in which his own peccadilloes seem small change in a larger Machiavellian world of power politics, with its wars and betrayals.

What Falstaff retains from the Vice of the moralities is his libidinal energy, his wit, and zest for transgression. In the kind of cultural negotiation theorized by Greenblatt, but with an outcome quite different from those he discussed, (38) the commercial theatre has de-mythologized and secularized a figure from a religious tradition, replacing the certainties of the one with the prolix, shifting, and uncertain moral frames seen in play here in aesthetic space. The morally imbued cosmology of the moralities has been replaced, in short, by an emerging modern subjectivity that erects an aesthetic sphere to refunction within an otherwise bleak space of autonomous Machiavellian power the possibilities of counter-values of pleasure, community, and solidarity drawn from a declining medieval tradition. (39) Falstaff stands within this inverted secular morality playas a kind of figure from a Blakean hell, representing a libidinal counter-weight (of gargantuan proportions) to the Machiavellian power dynamics that Richard II (and a plethora of other plays of the era) had established as the most evident of the Renaissance outcomes of an emerging modernity.

Thus, as Weimann's history of popular stage traditions perhaps makes clearest, in Falstaff's contradictory amoral, self-serving, but community-associated virtue, we are in touch with central paradoxes associated with the centuries-old traditions of clown, carnival, and plebeian mirth. As Frankfurt School aesthetic theory implies, these are also the very qualities refunctioned and uneasily contained in the modern category of the aesthetic. Because Falstaff is located precisely between these two moments, two quite different conceptual contexts can be constructed for him, one, however, for which he is too late (the carnival), the other for which he is too early (the aesthetic). What has to be said is that he is transitional between the two and thus embodies a central moment in the development of Western modernity.

Falstaff thus steps out of the boundaries of the plays in which he is featured and becomes for a subsequent modernity a figure of an almost vanished subaltern world uneasily afoot in an emerging modern one, and he becomes thereby simultaneously a dream or wish-fulfilment, within an aesthetic register. That is why this comical figure, so often bested in his wit-duels with Hal in the two plays, so often submitted to devastating deflations and humiliations in the course of three plays, and so often sullied by his own misdemeanours, finally triumphs in a cultural collective memory as a comic colossus which indeed Hal is unable to bestride.

(1) I am thinking particularly of the 'containment' theory of Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and the influential Althusser-Foucault synthesis of two key British cultural materialist works of the 1980s, Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985) and Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984). All three of these works contain important insights. For a developed critique of these approaches, see my 'On the Need for a Differentiated Theory of (Early) Modern Subjectivity', Philosophical Shakespeares, ed. by John J. Joughin (London: Routledge, 2000).

(2) Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead, 1998).

(3) In Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 21-65.

(4) In a single sentence Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), p. 143, linked Falstaff to Rabelais's treatment of the carnival, but his focus remained on Rabelais and the traditions he drew on. Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985), eloquently defined the relevance of Bakhtin and his carnival tradition for an appreciation of Shakespeare, and he writes briefly and tellingly of Falstaff (pp. 202-06), but the book presents no longer analysis of Falstaff as a carnival character. Bakhtin's relevance to Falstaff was briefly pointed out by Graham Holderness, Shakespeare's History (New York: St Martin's Press, 1985), pp. 83-95. Other definers of the carnivalesque in Shakespeare with little to say on Falstaff are Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986); Leah Marcus, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Francois Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage, trans. by Janet Lloyd (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). In the most recent collection of essays on Shakespeare and carnival, Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin, ed. by Ronald Knowles (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), the imbalance is somewhat redressed, through a new essay by Francois Laroque, 'Shakespeare's "Battle of Carnival and Lent": The Falstaff Scenes Reconsidered (1&2 Henry IV)', pp. 83-96, which makes up for the absence of Falstaff in his earlier book; and through a revised and abridged essay by Kristen Poole on Falstaff and Puritanism, 'Facing Puritanism: Falstaff, Martin Marprelate and the Grotesque Puritan', pp. 97-122. I return briefly to each of these essays below. However, further discussion of Poole's work will refer to the fuller and earlier version of this essay with a different title, 'Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism', Shakespeare Quarterly, 46.1 (Spring 1995), 47-75.

(5) See my, 'Shakespeare's Links to Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe', Comparative Literature, 52.2 (Spring 2000), 119-42.

(6) William Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV, I.2.170-71, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 1997). All subsequent quotations from Shakespeare plays are from this edition.

(7) E. E. Stoll, 'Falstaff', Modern Philology, 12.4 (October 1914), 65-108.

(8) Alfred Ainger, 'Sir John Falstaff', in his Lectures and Essays, 2 vols (London: Macmillan, 1905), I, 119-55; John W. Spargo, 'An Interpretation of Falstaff', Washington University Studies, 9.2 (April 1922), 119-33; T. A. Jackson, 'Letters and Documents: Marx and Shakespeare', International Literature, 2 (February 1936), 75-97; J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943); Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. by Robert Schwartz (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 128-31.

(9) Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London: Faber, 1935); Willard Farnham, 'The Mediaeval Comic Spirit in the English Renaissance', in Joseph Quincy Adams: Memorial Studies, ed. by James G. McManaway, Giles E. Dawson, and Wedwin E. Willoughby (Washington, DC: Folger, 1948), pp. 429-37; Walter Kaiser, Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963).

(10) Herbert B. Rothschild, Jr, 'Falstaff and the Picaresque Tradition', Modern Language Review, 68 (1973), 14-21.

(11) Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (London: Worthington, 1880), pp. 105-08 and Wyndham Lewis, The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (London: Richards, 1927), pp. 201-27.

(12) Ainger, 'Sir John Falstaff'; Barrett Wendell, William Shakespeare: A Study in Elizabethan Literature (New York: Scribner, 1895); Poole, states 'The person of Falstaff is in and of himself a parody of the sixteenth-century puritan' ('Saints Alive!', p. 54).

(13) See Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, pp. 185-92 and E. W. Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), pp. 7-60 and pas sim.

(14) Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology, and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2nd edn (London: Harvester, 1989).

(15) See Linda Charnes, Notorious identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

(16) Louis Althusser, 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation', in his Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971)' pp. 127-86. This of course has been a central text for British cultural materialist works by Belsey, Barker, Dollimore, Sinfield, and many others.

(17) See, for example, Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 144; Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (London: Routledge, 1997), P. 166.

(18) See my article 'Shakespeare's Links to Machiavelli and Montaigne', for a much-expanded discussion of this parallel.

(19) See Lewis, The Lion and the Fox, pp. 201-27, Bloom, pp. 281-82, also finds important parallels between Falstaff and Sancho Panza.

(20) See Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1990), pp. 235-36, for an argument that the use of prose for Falstaff's speech is an emblem of his freedom and a marker for the subversion his lines enact against the dignified blank verse of the so-called official historical material.

(21) The text of Don Quixote itself is replete with such signals of fictionality, for which it has been rightly and repeatedly celebrated, but Quixote himself as a character is sublimely indifferent to virtually all these signals, and thereby depends a good measure of what Lukacs once called that novel's cosmic irony.

(22) Poole, 'Saints Alive!'; on the significance of the earlier name Oldcastle, see Gary Taylor, 'The Fortunes of Oldcastle', Shakespeare Survey, 38 (1985), 85-100; for counter-arguments to Taylor's, see Jonathan Goldberg, 'The Commodity of Names: "Falstaff" and "Oldcastle" in 1 Henry IV', in Reconfiguring the Renaissance: Essays in Critical Materialista, ed. by Jonathan Crewe (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1992), pp. 72-88, and Harry Berger Jr, Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 25-42.

(23) This formula echoes a similar one from Samuel Johnson, 'Notes on Shakespeare's Plays', The Tale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. by Arthur Sherbo, 16 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958), VII (1968), 522-24, and it has been repeated, and heatedly contested, many times over the centuries. Echoing the classic argument of Paul A. Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956), pp. 64-71, Charles Whitney, 'Festivity and Topicality in the Coventry Scene of 1 Henry IV', English Literary Renaissance, 24.2 (Spring 1994), 410-48, attacks this viewpoint as insensitive to the plebeian response to Falstaff's recruiting abuses (pp. 438-39), but he then goes on to define a kind of festive vision in which Falstaff is seen as a plebeian symbol, his exploitations notwithstanding (pp. 439-44).

(24) John Dryden, quoted in The Shakespeare-Allusion Book: A Collection of Allusions to Shakespeare from 1591-1700, 2 vols, ed. by John Munro (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), II, 146.

(25) C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedies: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (1959; repr. Cleveland, OH: Meridian, 1963).

(26) Bristol, Carnival and Theater, pp. 26-39 and passim; Ronald Knowles, in his introduction to Shakespeare and Carnival, pp. 6-7, makes a similar point.

(27) Harry Berger, Jr, 'The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity', Shakespeare Quarterly, 49. I (Spring 1998), 40-73.

(28) At least this is how I interpret Berger's remarks that he wishes to create a reading that 'recentralizes interpretive activity and desire in Falstaff as the self-testing subject of his speech' (p. 62), in opposition to Whitney's interpretation of Falstaff as directly addressing an empirical audience, members of which construe him differently according to their own interests and ideologies, and as opposed to Weimann, who sees Falstaff as essentially a character with an interlocutor's relation to the audience.

(29) D. A. Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957) defined a role for Falstaff very close to the idea of the metadramatical (without using the term): 'The essence of Falstaff lies in his standing, alone in this play and [...] outside the categories by which those round him are respectively defined and limited [...]. Falstaff is, let us say, a coward who can contemplate his own cowardice with detachment' (p. 102). Twenty years later James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: 'Richard II' to 'Henry V' (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 71-75, provides an excellent discussion of these qualities for the Falstaff of Part 1. Unlike Calderwood, however, I believe Falstaff's metadramatic function extends into and is intensified in Part 2.

(30) Falstaff's Brechtian dimensions in the battle scenes were first pointed out by Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans, by Boleslaw Taborski (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 43, and more recently discussed, in a somewhat different analysis from my own, by Whitney, 'Festivity and Topicality', p. 416.

(31) I find unconvincing Berger's argument that the implied audience here is really one of Falstaff-the-character's imagination ('The Prince's Dog', pp. 60-62, 66-70); or, to put it another way, there is nothing in the text that requires us to preclude a metatheatrical reading and much that comes alive if we assume one.

(32) Weimann discusses the porter in Macbeth, the gravediggers in Hamlet, Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Falstaff, all as characters of the platea, that half-symbolic theatrical space which for Weimann mediates between audience and represented reality (p. 244); see pp. 224-46 for the general discussion of the platea.

(33) I discuss this theme in Troilus and Cressida and Othello in Shakespeare's Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 88-89 and 135-36. Other Shakespearean plays with a similar theme include Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale.

(34) Laroque, 'Shakespeare's "Battle of Carnival and Lent"', provides a detailed account of how Falstaff's numerous carnival associations involve parody (and thus negation) of authoritative discourses, but he tends to see these as producing 'the negative counterpart of the heroic dimension' (p. 88), where I would stress their socially critical functions. In the telegraphic conclusion of his article, however, Laroque seems to shift his ground and affirms Falstaff as a 'triumph of life at the expense of tragic sacrifice' (p. 95).

(35) Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans, by John Cumming (Boston, MA: Seabury, 1972), pp. 30-80.

(36) See the interesting argument in Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 195-245, that Shakespeare and company undertook a more or less conscious strategy of making their theatre less popular and carnivalesque over the years, mirroring a larger process creative of a new national culture.

(37) See, for example, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hamburgische Dramaturgie (1769; repr. Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1986). Available in English as Hamburg Dramaturgy, trans, by Helen Zimmern (New York: Dover, 1962).

(38) Shakespearean Negotiations, pp. 1-20.

(39) If this is correct then Weimann's eloquent assertion of the crucialness of the carnivalesque popular theatrical traditions to Shakespeare's 'myriad-minded' critical rationality and richness (Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, pp. 174-77), should be supplemented with the recognition that this amounted to a refunctioning of those traditions within an emerging modern category of the aesthetic.

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Author:Grady, Hugh
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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