Printer Friendly

Shakespeare's Dionysian prince: drama, politics, and the "Athenian" history play.

In Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, C. L. Barber notes Falstaff's likeness to Bacchus, the "festival lord," as Bacchus was represented in Erasmus's Praise of Folly.(1) Robin Headlam Wells and Alison Birkinshaw also note the "distinctly Dionysian character" of Falstaff's "musical predilections,"(2) and John Dover Wilson writes that Falstaff "does for our imaginations . . . what Bacchus or Silenus did for the ancients," temporarily freeing us from normally operative "codes or moral ties" and unleashing our delight in a holiday world of wine and merriment.(3) That Falstaff so frees audiences within and without the play-world of the Henriad is inarguable. But distinguishing between the mythic figures of Bacchus and Silenus, whom Wilson's phrase treats synonymously, may enable us to see that it is not Falstaff but Prince Hal, ultimately King Henry V, who functions as the true Bacchus, or Dionysus, of the history plays. Falstaff is his Silenus, the fat, old, drunken companion who lends humor to Dionysian celebration. According to Greek myth it was Silenus who tutored the wine-god in the god's youth and who later joined Dionysus's entourage, a pattern which in some respects prefigures Falstaff's "misleading" and following of the young Prince Hal. And it was Dionysus whose yearly theatrical festival symbolically accomplished the rejuvenation of the ancient Athenian state, just as Hal/Henry's performative skill restores health to a late medieval England "diseas'd," "infected," and "rank" with civil strife (2 Henry IV 4.1.54, 58, 64).(4)

In Henry V Canterbury describes Hal's carefully staged transformation from rakehell to Christian king in agricultural terms, reminding us of the ancient link between theater and Dionysian fertility:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle, And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best Neighbor'd by fruit of baser quality; And so the Prince obscur'd his contemplation Under the veil of wildness, which (no doubt) Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night, Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty. (1.1.60-66)

The "veil of wildness" with which, in the Henry IV plays, Hal masked his political pragmatism is here presented as a natural aid to wholesome growth: the prince's proximity to "fruit of baser quality" (Falstaff, Poins, and company) has strangely contributed to his moral health, and hence to his power to enliven England. Hal's own earlier description of his performative prodigality has similarly presented it as a natural phenomenon. In I Henry IV he vowed to

. . . imitate the sun, Who doth permit the base contagious clouds To smother up his beauty from the world, That when he please again to be himself, Being wanted, he may be more wond'red at . . . (1.2.197-201)

In this speech Hal ties the nature metaphor to the image of drama festival, continuing, "If all the year were playing holidays / To sport would be as tedious as to work; / But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come" (1.2.204-06). Line 204 carries a double meaning, signifying both "If we played holiday all year" and "If all year we celebrated 'playing' holidays": holidays consecrated to playing, like the old English rites of spring or the drama festivals of ancient Athens. The sun's reemergence, or Hal's own reformation, will be like these annual "playing holidays." And indeed, onlookers describe Hal/Henry's ensuing military exploits in terms which suggest his status as secular fertility god, who incorporates both comedy and tragedy in his celebration. Vernon's description of Hal arming for battle with Hotspur links Mayday images with much older references to satyrs and bulls, both of which are associated with Silenus and Dionysus. Hal and his comrades are "As full of spirit as the month of May" and "Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls" as they prepare, paradoxically, for possible death (1HIV 4.1.101, 103). Henry V sustains the metaphor of joint comic and tragic theatrical festival in its prediction of Henry's French campaign. Since the king is "in the very May-morn of his youth, / Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises," his feats will restage those of "Edward the Black Prince, / Who on the French ground play'd a tragedy" (1.2.120-21, 105-06). Thus, while Hal's deceptive traffic with Falstaff looks, from one angle, unappealingly dishonest,(5) an alternative and more optimistic perspective on political histrionics is urged on us by the language of various characters in the plays, including Hal himself. Mediated by and through images of the life-giving sun and of thriving natural organisms, Hal's strategic theatrical practices are made to appear eternally restorative Dionysian ritual.

Perceiving Hal/Henry rather than Falstaff as Dionysian festival lord and Falstaff as accompanying Silenus may enable us to appreciate another connection between the Henriad and the classical world: the association between Falstaff and Socrates - described as a "Silenus" in Plato's Symposium (215b)(6) - and the collateral link between Prince Hal and the Greek general Alcibiades, Socrates' brilliant pupil. The link between Falstaff and Socrates is well-known. Scholars who want to prove this connection usually cite the analogy between Mistress Quickly's description of Falstaff's death in Henry V(2.3) and Socrates' last moments as described in Phaedo,(7) a verbal echo which has led some to find deep "affinities" between the fat knight and the philosopher, "especially in the [skeptical] light in which the latter was sometimes regarded in the sixteenth century."(8) Michael Platt notes that both Falstaff and Socrates are called "misleader of youth," both are accused of "making the worse appear the better reason" in argument, and both distinguish themselves (though in radically different ways) as foot soldiers.(9) Alice Goodman first broadened the Socrates-Falstaff discussion by noting parallels between Socrates' student Alcibiades and Falstaff's "student," Hal, focusing on Symposium as a source for both Shakespearean characters. Goodman cites not only references to Socrates and Alcibiades in North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, but observes that Symposium's Silenic Socrates was made popularly known through Erasmus's commentary on Socrates in Praise of Folly and Adages, works which Shakespeare undoubtedly knew.(10) Following Goodman, I propose to expand the discussion further by exploring the Dionysian qualities which Hal and Falstaff inherit from Plato's Alcibiades and Socrates,(11) as well as from representations of one or both classical figures in Plutarch, Erasmus, and even Rabelais (a source overlooked by Goodman). In the introduction to Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534), Rabelais writes that "Praising his teacher," Symposium's Alcibiades calls Socrates,

[a] Silenus: those used to be little boxes, the kind you see, today, in drugstores, painted all round with light and happy figures . . . invented in good fun, just to make the world laugh (exactly as Silenus used to do, honest Bacchus's master).(12)

Like many of Erasmus's references to Socrates, Rabelais's introduction emphasizes the Bacchic or Dionysian quality of Socrates' influence, and highlights Alcibiades as source of the Silenus conceit.(13) As Michael Allen has noted, Marsilio Ficino also commented extensively on the Symposium passage wherein Alcibiades elevates the comic Silenus to the status of gnostic master. It is likely that the attention given by Erasmus, Rabelais, and Ficino to this Symposium passage directed Shakespeare toward its study, and influenced him to explore its comic potential through the drama of Falstaff and Hal. Whatever prompted Shakespeare's use of Symposium, his translation of Plato's Silenic Socrates into Falstaff gave him an invaluable tool for Hal's own characterization. For the Boar's Head Silenus enhances Hal's image as Dionysian festival prince and ultimately festival king.

In what follows I argue that Shakespeare's presentation of Hal/Henry recalls the Bacchanalian ideal embodied in Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium and elaborated in Plutarch's account of Alcibiades' life. Shakespeare's debt to Plutarch in the Henriad has recently been discussed by Judith Mossman, who catalogues the many allusions to Plutarch's "Alexander" in Henry V. That Shakespeare was also considering Plutarch's "Alcibiades" during this period is suggested by his reference to its companion piece, the life of Coriolanus, in the mid-1590s Titus Andronicus.(14) (As John W. Velz notes, Shakespeare tended "to read [and use] the Greek lives parallel to the Roman life he was using at any given moment."(15)) In presenting a dramatic rendition of a "life," Shakespeare expresses themes directly stated in Plutarch's narratives, but does so through an indirect, conversational structure derived partly from the Platonic dialogue. Thus both Plato's and Plutarch's treatments of Alcibiades are integral to Shakespeare's Dionysian prince. In Symposium, Alcibiades plays Dionysus to Socrates' Silenus, and engages Socrates in a conversation which shows their Dionysian rhetorical and theatrical virtuosity. Plutarch's later account of Alcibiades' career relates how Alcibiades' military and political success was intimately connected to this Dionysian association and to Alcibiades' self-presentational skill. Alcibiades' Dionysian performative strategy, which could temporarily obliterate hierarchical distinctions between himself and the company to which he spoke, brought him closer to the common multitude than did the rigid monarchical role-play of his illustrious uncle Pericles. In "Pericles" Plutarch recounts that Pericles enacted a cold, withdrawn "counterfeate" of "majestie" so that "the people should not be glutted with seeing him to ofte."(16) Similarly, Shakespeare's chameleonlike Hal/Henry V, who blends with all companies, forges a stronger bond with the English commonwealth than does his icy father, Henry IV, who cultivates aloofness, and whose regality depends on his not being "daily swallowed by men's eyes" (1HIV3.2.70). Thus, drawing on two classical sources, Shakespeare demonstrates in the Henriad the importance of improvisational, convivial theatrics not only to successful political argument, but to enduring leadership. And while this largely verbal self-presentational skill bears the taint of sophistry, or deceptive linguistic improvisation, still, paradoxically, Shakespeare makes the skill seem predominantly positive. He does this by associating it with the god of the drama, who mediates the experiences of peace and war, life and death, through the celebratory apparatus of comedy and tragedy.

The long tavern scene in 1 Henry IV (2.4) is a central stage by which the Henriad forges this association between Hal's role-play and Dionysian festival. This scene, during which Hal and Falstaff banter and playact the roles of Hotspur, Lady Percy, Henry IV, and Hal himself, closely parallels the last section of Symposium, where the drunken Alcibiades joins the tragedian Agathon's party and comically debates Socrates. In 2.4, Hal gleefully enters the tavern bragging that he has been "drinking deep" with the Boar's Head tapsters (2.4.15), and soon after bids Ned Poins "call in Falstaff" for further entertainment (2.4.109). His high-spirited speeches recall Alcibiades' "very drunk and very loud" entrance in Symposium (212e): "Good evening, gentlemen. I'm plastered. . . . May I join your party?" Alcibiades announces (213a), and sits next to Socrates (213b). In both 1 Henry IV's tavern scene and Symposium, the subsequent encounter between the young and the old men is histrionic. That is, both interactions are performative, played in front of audiences of cheering cronies in good-humored contests for best theatrical effect. And, significantly, both contests are also sophistic. In each, what is being applauded is skill at "wrenching the true cause the false way" for ulterior motives: a practice with which Socrates was charged,(17) and of which the Lord Chief Justice will ultimately accuse Falstaff [2HIV 2.1.109-11]).

Falstaff exercises sophistic virtuosity when, challenged as to "what trick" he has to excuse his cowardice at the Gad's Hill robbery (1HIV 2.4.265), he replies, "Why, hear you, my masters, was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? Should I turn upon the true prince? Why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules; but beware instinct - the lion will not touch the true prince" (2.4.268-72). Falstaff is sophistic again when, speaking as Prince Hal in the playlet, he verbally translates his own gluttony and dissoluteness to virtue: "If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! . . . If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's [lean] kine are to be lov'd" (2.4.470-74). In turn, Hal claims to outdo Falstaff's rhetorical and imitative skills as they vie to impersonate Henry IV. "Dost thou speak like a king?," Hal says critically after Falstaff's attempt. "I'll play my father" (2.4.433-34). As "King Henry," Hal uses Falstaffian eloquence to exaggerate Falstaff's failings, calling Falstaff "bolting-hutch of beastliness," "villainous abominable misleader of youth," and "white-bearded Sathan" (4.4.450, 462-63).

The mock insults, delivered in competitive attempts for the applause of a listening crowd of revelers ("Judge, my masters" [1. 439]), are like Symposium's exchange between Alcibiades and Socrates. In Symposium, Alcibiades accuses Socrates of having "figured out a way to find a place next to the most handsome man in the room" (Agathon) (213c). Socrates, evading the accusation, replies, "I can't so much as look at an attractive man but he flies into a fit of jealous rage" (213d). Alcibiades counters with the dubious accolade that Socrates "has never lost an argument in his life" (213e) (what trick hast thou, Socrates?). Finally, Alcibiades agrees to join the rhetorical contest in which the symposium guests are engaged, and speaks in ambivalent praise of Socrates, thus temporarily gaining audience attention (215-222c). But Socrates fights back with the self-serving claim, "You have already delivered your praise of me, and now it's my turn to praise whoever's on my right. But if Agathon were next to you, he'd have to praise me all over again, instead of having me speak in his honor": i.e., Agathon should stay by Socrates. Alcibiades exposes this argument as sophistry: "Look how smoothly and plausibly he found a reason for Agathon to lie down next to him!" (223a-b).

Such Socratic sophistry is a chief feature of Falstaff's whenever he appears in the history plays. Michael Platt notes that Falstaff's soliloquy at Shrewsbury, which justifies his escape from battle-wounds by discounting the existence of "honor," is not only a mock-catechism but a parody of Socratic inquiries into the nature of virtue, piety, and justice: "Can honor set to a leg? No. Of an arm? No. . . . What is honor? A word" (1HIV 5.1.131-34).(18) While Socratic dialogues generally end by affirming the speciousness of the physical world and the reality of the unseen, Falstaff's "honor" speech does the opposite, and thereby justifies his own cowardice. Thus it may initially seem that Falstaff's Socratic tendencies are ironically presented: that they disclose only the contrast between the lying knight and the philosopher who, in The Republic and Phaedrus, discredits sophistry and distinguishes his own dialectical truth-seeking from rhetorical trickery.(19) But Symposium does offer a model for Falstaff in its playfully sophistic Socrates, who contrasts with the radically anti-sophistic inquirer of the other dialogues. Of all Plato's representations of Socrates, that in Symposium comes closest to the casuistic philosopher of Aristophanes' Clouds. (Aristophanes' presence as a character in Symposium may owe something to this connection. Plato has Aristophanes "trying to make himself heard" just before Alcibiades' entrance and awake with Socrates at the party's end [212d, 223d].) In The Clouds, Socrates teaches "public speaking and debating techniques" and shows young Pheidippides - a possible caricature of Alcibiades - how rhetorically to justify evading his father's authority.(20) Erasmus's Praise of Folly invokes this Aristophanic Socrates, who was always "philosophizing about clouds and ideas, measuring a flea's foot," and "learning nothing about the affairs of ordinary life."(21) Thus the merging of the figures of dialectician and sophist was as current in sixteenth-century Europe as in fifth-century Athens, and as available for comic exploitation.

Yet the comic representation of sophistry, in Erasmus and Shakespeare as well as in Aristophanes and Plato, encourages us to experience sophistic confusion as Dionysian revelry, even as the rhetorical deceiver is gently mocked. Erasmus uses a theatrical term in announcing his "fancy to play the Sophist before" his readers [my emphasis], adding,

and I don't mean by that one of the tribe today who cram tiresome trivialities into the heads of schoolboys and teach them a more than feminine obstinacy in disputation - no, I shall follow the ancients who chose the name of Sophist in preference to the damaging title of philosopher.(22)

Thus, largely on the basis of its entertainment value, Erasmus defends his "praise of [sophistic] folly." The Falstaffian sophistry of Shakespeare's Boar's Head dialogues is Erasmian (and, we may recall, Rabelaisian), performed for various audiences in the service of fun: "What, shall we be merry, shall we have a play extempore?," Falstaff asks Hal (1HIV2.4.279-80), simultaneously evading further discussion of his Gad's Hill cowardice and pointing to the theatrical nature of his and Hal's whole interaction in this scene. Such "merry" sophistry is grounded in the ancient association between sophistry and comic theater. For although the Socrates of The Clouds is a more satirically realized figure than is Falstaff, his moral and political danger is contained by and within the licensed ritual of Dionysian festival.(23) Similarly, the more mildly sophistic Socrates of Symposium is rendered a cooperative "revels lord" by the festive context of his sophistry (a symposion, or drinking party). Indeed, in Symposium Alcibiades uses the ribbons due Agathon for Agathon's first-place play at the festival of Dionysus - the symposium's occasion - to crown Socrates (213e), an action which presents Alcibiades as Dionysus and Socrates as the divine Silenus of Alcibiades' ensuing argument ("Isn't he just like a statue of Silenus?" [215b]). Alcibiades' willingness to grant Socrates an impromptu dramatic victory because "he has never lost an argument in his life" looks toward the last act of 1 Henry IV, when Hal gives Falstaff "honors" for the slaying of Hotspur on similar grounds (5.4.146-58).

The entertainingly theatrical aspect of rhetorical contest (and conquest) in both Symposium and the Henriad is enhanced by the dizzying interchangeableness of speakers' roles. Symposium's last section is characterized by place-shifting and identity melding.(24) The drunken Alcibiades, trying to crown Agathon with ribbons, only pushes them "further down his [own] head" (213b); ultimately, as noted, he gives the ribbons to Socrates. After Alcibiades' speech, the argument over seating ensues between Agathon, Alcibiades, and Socrates, resulting in a musical-chairs game of "changing places" (223a-b). Alcibiades' speech itself dwells on the strange identity exchanges that have marked his relationship with Socrates: "So what I did was to invite [Socrates] to dinner, as if I were his lover and he my young prey! . . . he presents himself as your lover, and, before you know it, you're in love with him yourself!" (217d, 222b). Place and role alternations are similarly pervasive in the Henriad, particularly in the long tavern scene of part one. When Hal first suggests that, in sport, he "play [the rebel Harry] Percy, and that damn'd brawn [Falstaff]" play "Dame Mortimer his wife," Hal has himself just impersonated both Percys in a brief imitative dialogue (2.4.103-10). Later in the scene, Hal and Falstaff alternate the roles of king and prince 2.4.398-481), a hierarchical inversion which is, in a sense, repeated in the play's last act, when Hal allows Falstaff to claim a military victory which he himself has won,(25) and in 2 Henry IV, when Hal waits on Falstaff at dinner (2.4.234-90).

In Symposium, the role inversions help express the unstable nature of erotic attraction, a central proposition in the work. But in the Henry plays, Hal's rapid identity shifts suggest the prince's carnivalesque power to unite disparate social types within the body of a single ruler (or, in Leonard Tennenhouse's words, to incorporate "a certain popular vigor within the legitimate body of the state").(26) As Stephen Greenblatt has shown, Hal's ability to "drink with any tinker in his own language" (1HIV2.4.19), learned at the tavern, earns him the support of even the lowest social classes once he comes to rule them.(27) As Warwick tells Henry IV, "The Prince but studies his companions / Like a strange tongue" with an eye to future command (2HIV4.4.68-69). The chief director of Hal's linguistic "study" is, of course, the Boar's Head Socrates, Falstaff, who indirectly trains him in the improvisational art of winning every argument. As Alice Goodman says, Falstaff's "Socratic" teaching instructs Hal in "the speeches he will make to his father, to his soldiers, to the Princess Katharine, to Falstaff himself as he renounces him."(28)

Hal/Henry's sophistic skill is evident when he twice converts his father's wrath to appreciation by a quick turn of phrase. In part one, Hal's fanciful description of Hotspur as "factor," employed to "engross up glorious deeds" on Hal's behalf (3.2.147-48), inspires Henry IV's forgiveness of Hal's comparative slackness: now "Thou shalt have charge and sovereign trust herein" (3.2.161), the king tells Hal. And in part two, Henry IV specifically praises Hal's eloquent justification of Hal's accidental theft of the crown: "God put [it] in thy mind to take it hence/That thou mightst win the more thy father's love,/Pleading so wisely in excuse of it!" (4.5.178-80). The prelates in Henry V note the new king's power to awe listeners with his "sweet and honeyed sentences" (1.1.50), and before Agincourt Henry V effectively, if glibly, persuades reluctant soldiers that death is advantageous to the honest man (4.1.147-85).

In absorbing Falstaff's sophistic skills, Hal/Henry has become a rhetorical master reminiscent of the Socrates whom Alcibiades so elaborately praises in Symposium. The "mute wonder" (HV 1.1.49) with which Henry's "sweet and honeyed sentences" fill listeners is a restrained version of the "Bacchic frenzy" Socrates inspires in his hearers, who are "transported" by his discourse (Symposium 218c, 215d). The "moment [Socrates] starts to speak," Alcibiades says, "I am beside myself: my heart starts leaping in my chest, the tears come streaming down my face" (Symposium 215e). As the Henriads Alcibiades, Hal, similarly fascinated with Falstaff's rhetorical "tricks," gradually makes this Socratic and Bacchic technique his own.

As I claimed earlier, Alcibiades as source for the theatrical and Dionysian Henry is suggested not only by Symposium, but by Alcibiades' representation in Plutarch's Lives. Plutarch recounts how Alcibiades, originally transported by Socrates' discourse, eventually acquired Socrates' own talent for swaying others with language. In Alcibiades' youth Socrates' words brought tears to his eyes, "disturb[ing] his very soul"; in later years Alcibiades himself "wanne [won] the love and good willes of private men" to whom he spoke.(29) The pattern prefigures Hal/Henry's comic rhetorical training by means of Falstaff's "quips and . . . quiddities" (1HIV 1.2.45), a training which fosters the immense persuasive power he deploys in Henry V, most notably when he convinces the fearful privates Bates, Williams, and Court that "the King is not bound to answer for the particular endings of his soldiers" (4.1.155-56) even when it is the king who has led them to their deaths.(30) Even more significantly, Plutarch's Alcibiades is said to have had, like the theatrically resourceful Hal/Henry, a

propert[y] whereby he most robbed mens hartes: that he could frame altogether with their manners and facions of life, transforming him selfe more easely to all manner of shapes, then the Camelion. For it is reported, that the Camelion cannot take white culler: but Alcibiades could put apon him any manners, customes, or facions, of what nation soever, and could followe, exercise, and counterfeate them when he would as well the good as the bad. For in Sparta, he was very paynefull, and in continuall exercise: he lived sparingly with litle, and led a straight life. In Ionia, to the contrary: there he lived daintely and superfluously, and gave him self to all mirthe and pleasure. In Thracia, he dranke ever, or was allwayes a horse backe. If he came to Tissaphernes, lieutenaunt of the mightie king of Persia: he farre exceeded the magnificence of Persia in pompe and sumptuousnes. And these things notwithstanding, never altered his naturall condition from one facion to another, neither dyd his manners (to saye truely) receyve all sortes of chaunges. But bicause peradventure, if he had shewed his naturall disposition, he might in divers places where he came, have offended those whose companie he kept, he dyd with such a viser and cloke disguise him selfe, to fit their manners, whom he companied with, by transforming him selfe into their naturall countenaunce.(31)

This Athenian "Zelig," like his English counterpart Hal/Henry, ultimately used this self-transformational skill to lead armies in imperialistic military campaigns. As Plutarch reports it, it was Alcibiades who inspired the Athenians' desire to control Sicily, much as Henry sets "all the youth of England . . . on fire" to conquer France in Henry V (2.Pro. 1). And Plutarch's account of Alcibiades' conquest of Selybrea looks forward to Henry's siege of Harfleur, when a 43-line speech accomplishes the relatively peaceful surrender of the French town (HV 3.3). Having breached the walled city of Selybrea with only fifty men, Plutarch writes, Alcibiades parleyed for time until the rest of his army advanced to the town. He then obtained the Selybreans' offer of peace, and thus prevented his own army from pillaging them.(32) That Shakespeare had Alcibiades in mind when he wrote Henry's Harfleur negotiation is suggested not just by the obvious similarities between the Selybrea and Harfleur episodes, but also by a passage in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. There, hearing of Alcibiades' threats to return and invade Athens itself, the misanthropic Timon frightens the senators with the following warning:

. . . But if he sack fair Athens, And take our goodly aged men by th'beards, Giving our holy virgins to the stain Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brain'd war, Then let him know, and tell him Timon speaks it, In pity of our aged and of our youth, I cannot choose but tell him that I care not. . . .


The lines echo Henry V's dire description of French "fathers taken by the silver beards," and of "fresh fair virgins" given up to "the hot and forcing violation" of "impious War" (HV 3.3.36, 14, 21, 15). The Timon lines also echo Henry's disclaimer of personal responsibility in the event: "What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause . . .?" (HV 3.3.19-21). Yet in all three instances - Henry V, Timon, and Plutarch's account of Alcibiades at Selybrea - the terrifying vision of war is rhetorically contained, serving chiefly as a theatrical method of persuading hearers to capitulate. Harfleur's governor yields out of fear, as does Athens to Alcibiades in Timon (5.4) and Selybrea to Alcibiades in Plutarch.

This is not, of course, to say that either Alcibiades or Henry achieves victory chiefly in rhetorical terms, without recourse to violence. In both Shakespeare's and Plutarch's histories, Henry and Alcibiades recurrently let slip the dogs of war. My point is simply that Shakespeare, drawing on suggestions in both Plato's and Plutarch's descriptions of Alcibiades, presents a prince and later a king whose military victories are inseparable from rhetorical power, and whose rhetorical power is inseparable from Dionysian theatricality. The language which both Alcibiades and Henry V use to sanction war and death works, paradoxically, because of its cathartic effects on its hearers, whether those hearers are soldiers or playhouse patrons, and whether the vision that moves them is tragic or comic. All participate in the theatrical translation of war to communal celebration, urged by the central Bacchic figure who both governs and participates in the dramatic experience.

Plutarch's description of General Alcibiades' triumphal return to Athens after numerous foreign victories is a further source of Henry V's combined imperialistic and Bacchic vision. Plutarch recounts how Alcibiades led an army of Athenian priests and ministers "singing the holy songe of Iaccus [Bacchus]" to reclaim a roadway from the Peloponnesians, thus triumphing "in the sight of his countrie, where the people should see and witnesse both, his valliantnes, and also his corage."(33) Conducting the religious celebrants "in battell raye [array]," Alcibiades "had as muche shewed the office of a highe bishoppe [priest], as of a noble souldier and good captaine."(34) In this description, the theatricality of Alcibiades' ploy is suggested not only by the description of the rites of Bacchus, god of the drama, but by the stress Plutarch lays on Alcibiades' self-staging before an audience: the action conducted and performed by him "in the sight of his countrie," the people witnesses of his valor. In Alcibiades' public assimilation of the roles of priest, general, and Athenian citizen, he himself seems to incarnate the half-human fertility god (whom he conspicuously displaces in Plutarch's account). Predictably, Alcibiades' priest-general act was an immense success, increasing "the peoples good opinion of his sufficiencie." Also significant in this description of Alcibiades' popularity is the proximity to Alcibiades which even the "poore" and "meaner sorte" of people enjoy: to these "he spake so fayer . . . that they wished and desired he would take upon him like a King."(35) A crucial aspect of Alcibiades' Bacchic political talent is its encouragement of such familiarity. From close interaction with the populace grows the Dionysian hero's ability to read, as well as to manipulate, communal desire.

It is, of course, this quality of Alcibiades' that chiefly connects him to Hal/Henry. That the latter's political success surpasses that of his father, Henry IV, has directly to do with Hal/Henry's status as Dionysian figure according to Plutarch's (as well as Plato's) model. While Henry IV is no less theatrical than Hal in his quest for political mastery, his role-play lacks the communal inclusiveness of his son's. Hal/Henry, like Alcibiades, uses spontaneous improvisational and sophistic talent to blend with his company, but Henry IV holds himself aloof, cultivating remoteness for spectacular effect.(36) This remoteness is evident in Henry IV's curt dismissals even of noblemen during his chilly audiences with them: "Worcester, get thee gone" (1HIV 1.3.15); "Lords, give us leave" (3.2.1). In 1 Henry IV Henry IV recalls how, as the uncrowned Henry Bullingbrook, he courted the crowd by remaining distant from their gaze:

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new, My presence, like a robe pontifical, Ne'er seen but wond'red at, and so my state, Seldom but sumptuous, show'd like a feast, And [won] by rareness such solemnity.


Henry IV resists the "enfoeff[ment] to popularity" of men like Richard II and (as he supposes) Prince Hal, who,"being daily swallowed by men's eyes," cause onlookers to "sur[feit] with honey" and begin to "[l]oathe the taste of sweetness" (ll. 69-72). Henry IV's dramaturgical strategy imitates that of Alcibiades' uncle Pericles, whom Plutarch (in "Pericles") describes as shrinking both from the society of his peers and from the common folk. Once embarked on a political career, Plutarch writes, Pericles

gave up going to all feastes where he was bidden, and left the entertainment of his friendes, their company and familiaritie. So that in all his time wherein he governed the common weale, which was a long time, he never went out to supper to any of his friendes. . . . For these friendly meetings at suche feastes, doe much abase any counterfeate majestie or set countenaunce: and he shall have much a doe to keepe gravity and reputation, shewing familiaritie to every knowen friende in such open places.


to prevent that the people should not be glutted with seeing him to ofte, nor that they should come much to him: they dyd see him but at some times, and then he would not talke in every matter, neither came much abroade among them, but reserved him selfe . . . for matters of great importaunce.(37)

But what worked for Pericles doesn't ultimately work in Shakespearean history theater. Despite Henry IV's temporary success at Periclean political performance, the precariousness of authority achieved through spectacular remoteness is manifest in his predicament throughout Henry IV. Even as he describes his strategy to Hal, his erstwhile supporters, coldly alienated from him, amass in rebellion against him.

Thus the Henriad suggests the deeper political power of a Dionysian theatricality that, exploiting the rhetoric of companionship, presents ruler as common citizen, just as myth presents Dionysus himself as both god and man. Through "drink[ing] with any tinker in his own language," Hal/Henry inspires a celebratory, communal response to his leadership, which enables him finally to "command all the good lads in Eastcheap" in both civil and foreign military endeavors (1HIV 2.4.14-15). Further, the Dionysian ethos Hal/Henry invokes includes rather than obscures a tragic element. Just as the Black Prince "played a tragedy" on French soil, Hal predicts the deaths of English as well as French soldiers and citizens, including his own (HV 4.3.121-25), even as he looks toward England's regeneration in a vision of war stories told to sons (HV 4.3.50-56). Like the Dionysian drama festival, Shakespeare's "Athenian" Henriad mediates bloodshed and rebirth through celebratory theatrical rhetoric. And like Alcibiades, Hal/Henry uses the mediated vision for imperialism.

I have argued that the Henriad accomplishes its celebratory purpose by hybridizing the genres of narrative history and dialogue. In merging matter from Plutarch's Lives and Plato's Symposium, Shakespeare gives Plutarch's narrated plot a Platonic dialogic life, suggesting a variety of associations between Hal/Henry and Alcibiades. Henry displays the military leadership evident in Plutarch's account of Alcibiades as well as the Dionysian revelry Alcibiades, with Socrates, enacts in Plato's playful dialogue. Viewed another way, the merging of Plutarch's life of a fallen hero with Symposium's light-hearted presentation of Alcibiades fuses tragic and comic genres. Similarly, as Alice Goodman has shown, the Henriad blends the comic vision of Socrates found in Symposium with the tragic one found in Phaedo, thus broadening and enriching our emotional response to Hal's "Socrates," Falstaff.(38) Symposium ends, in fact, with Socrates encouraging just such a synthesis, arguing that "the skillful tragic dramatist should also be a comic poet" (223d).

I suggest that this blending of tragic and comic genres is fundamental to Shakespearean history theater, which justifies and tempers war and sophistic politics by interpreting them as Dionysian play. The Henriad in particular discloses only to celebrate the verbal tactics by which war is translated to tragedy, and sophistry to comedy.


1 Barber, 68.

2 Wells and Birkinshaw, 105.

3 Wilson, 128.

4 These and all other quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare. Henceforth in my main text I will refer to 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry Vas 1HIV, 2HIV, and HV, respectively.

5 The list of scholars who deride Hal's theatrical politics is long indeed, but as sample writings see Greenblatt; Van Doren, 149; Garber; and Cartelli, 8. For optimistic readings of Hal's theatricality see Tillyard, 271-72; Toliver, 68-69; and Webber, 534.

6 Plato, 1989. All references to Symposium are to this edition.

7 These include Moore; Stearns; Lloyd; Scoufos; Jones, 20-21; and Cubeta, 254.

8 Fleissner, 61.

9 Platt, 180.

10 See Goodman. That Shakespeare may have known Plato's dialogues in Latin is suggested by T. W. Baldwin's demonstration of the importance of Latin even to grammar-school education in Elizabethan England (passim in Baldwin). This suggestion is supported in Thomson, 15, and Muir, 1. Although two dialogues entitled Alcibiades I and II were attributed to Plato (most notably by Ficino) during the Renaissance, these works were not commonly presented in grammar school (as were Plato's earlier and middle dialogues). Baldwin does not stress them, and Shakespeare's familiarity with them is doubtful. (I am grateful to Michael Allen for pointing out to me the doubtful authenticity of these dialogues.)

11 As Baldwin notes, knowledge of Symposium was readily available to sixteenth-century scholars with even "small Latin" through a Latin translation by N. Liburnius, Divini Platonis Gnomologia, published in 1555 (Baldwin, 2, 652-53).

12 Rabelais, 7. (I thank Michael Allen for calling my attention to this passage.) Mikhail Bakhtin, the most important recent commentator on Rabelais, notes the "positive, triumphant, liberating" effect of Rabelais's humor, here incarnate in the Silenic Socrates (or Socratic Silenus). See Bakhtin, 300.

13 Edgar Wind comments on the general Renaissance interest in the image of Socrates as Alcibiades' Silenus, as well as on Erasmus's specific reference to the image in Adages. See Wind, esp. 172-73.

14 An instance noted by Frank Kermode is the "curious parallel between Tamora's attempt to divert Lucius from his purpose" - his intent to sacrifice the Goth queen's eldest son - "and that of Volumnia when Coriolanus arrives at the gates of Rome with the Volscians." See Kermode, 1022.

15 The quotation from John Velz is from private correspondence. I thank Professor Velz for drawing the references to Coriolanus in Titus Andronicus to my attention. For a discussion of Shakespeare's characteristic uses of Plutarch, see Homan.

16 Plutarch, 1:9.

17 See Plato, 1981, 18c.

18 Platt, 180.

19 See especially book 1 of The Republic, and sections 272-74 of Phaedrus in Plato, 1938, on Socrates' dispute with the Sophists.

20 Aristophanes, 40, 138-39.

21 Erasmus, 97. I am grateful to Alice Goodman for pointing to the connection between the Erasmian and the Aristophanic Socrates. See Goodman, 100.

22 Erasmus, 64.

23 This argument may seem to run counter to Socrates' own words (as reported by Plato) in Apology, where in the Athenian court he defends himself against the image presented "in the comedy of Aristophanes, a Socrates swinging about there, saying he was walking on air and talking a lot of other nonsense about things of which I know nothing at all" (19c). However, since The Clouds was produced in 423 B.C., 24 years before Socrates' trial and execution, it seems improbable that it played any major motivating role in the state's action against him.

24 See Nehamas and Woodruff for a sustained discussion of the various identity substitutions that characterize Symposium's last section.

25 This scene ironically inverts Plutarch's account of how Socrates, having saved Alcibiades' life in a battle against Potidaea during the Peloponnesian Wars, supported the Athenian generals in giving Alcibiades the honor of having saved Socrates' life. See Plutarch, "Alcibiades," 1:93ff. Also noted in Goodman.

26 Tennenhouse, 84. Tennenhouse's argument differs in some major ways from my own, the chief difference being that he interprets Hal/Henry's theatricality as essentially comic. Instead, I see the festivity Hal/Henry incorporates as specifically Dionysian, including a tragic as well as a comic aspect. In the festival of Dionysus, both aspects of human experience are celebrated.

27 See Greenblatt.

28 Goodman, 100.

29 Plutarch, "Alcibiades," 1:93, 117.

30 Henry's casuistry in this scene is evident to a careful reader of the play. Henry argues that "every subject's soul is his own" and not the king's responsibility (4.1.177), even though in the play's second scene he has charged that the Dauphin's "soul/Shall stand sore charged" for the deaths of his soldiers (1.2.282ff).

31 Plutarch, "Alcibiades," 117-18.

32 Ibid., 129-30.

33 Ibid., 135-36.

34 Ibid., 136.

35 Ibid.

36 In this I differ with Tennenhouse, who sees Henry IV's role as similar to the one perpetuated by his son, both kings embodying an England that "incorporates the robust features of festival" (80).

37 Plutarch, 1:8-9.

38 Goodman, 100.


Allen, Michael J. B. "De Libro Sexto Cum Commento." In Francois Rabelais: Critical Assessments, ed. Jean-Claude Carron, 178-212. Baltimore, 1995.

Aristophanes. The Clouds. Trans. William Arrowsmith. In Four Plays by Aristophanes, ed. William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglass Parker, 21-47. New York, 1962.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, Mass., 1968.

Baldwin, T. W. Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. Urbana, 1944.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy. Princeton, 1959.

Cartelli, Thomas. "Ideology and Subversion in the Shakespearean Set Speech." ELH 1 (1986): 1-25.

Cubeta, Paul M. "Falstaff and the Art of Dying." In Falstaff ed. Harold Bloom, 246-57. New York, 1992. First published in SEL 27:2 (1987), 197-211.

Erasmus, Desiderius. Praise of Folly and Letter to Martin Dorp. Trans. Betty Radice. Baltimore, 1971.

Fleissner, R. F. "Putting Falstaff to Rest: 'Tabulating the Facts'." Shakespeare Studies 16 (1983): 57-74.

Garber, Marjorie. "'What's Past Is Prologue': Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays." Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, 301-31. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

Goodman, Alice. "Falstaff and Socrates." English 34:149 (1985): 97-112.

Greenblatt, Stephen. "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion." In Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, 18-47. Manchester, 1985.

Homan, Sidney. "Dion, Alexander, and Demetrius - Plutarch's Forgotten Parallel Lives - as Mirrors for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar." Shakespeare Studies 8 (1976): 195-210.

Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford, 1977.

Kermode, Frank. Introduction to Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare. In The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 1019-22. Boston, 1974.

Lloyd, Roger. "Socrates and Falstaff." Time and Tide, 22 Feb. 1958: 219-20.

Moore, John Robert. "Shakespeare's Henry V." Explicator 1 (1942): item 61.

Mossman, Judith. "Henry V and Plutarch's Alexander." Shakespeare Quarterly 45:1 (1994): 57-73.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Sources: Comedies and Tragedies. London, 1961.

Nehamas, Alexander and Paul Woodruff. Introduction to Symposium, by Plato, xi-xxvi. Indianapolis, 1989.

Plato. Phaedrus, Ion, Gorgias, Symposium, Republic, Laws. Trans. Lane Cooper. New York, 1938.

-----. Republic. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis, 1974.

-----. Five Dialogues. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis, 1981.

-----. Symposium. Trans., ed., and intro. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis, 1989.

Platt, Michael. "Falstaff in the Valley of the Shadow of Death." In Falstaff, ed. Harold Bloom, 171-202. New York, 1992. First published in Interpretation 8:1 (1979), 5-29.

Plutarch. Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. 6 vols. Trans. Thomas North. London, 1579. Reprint, 1895.

Rabelais, Francois. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York, 1990.

Scoufos, Alice Lyle. "The 'Martyrdom' of Falstaff." Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 174-91.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, 1974.

Stearns, Monroe M. "Shakespeare's Henry V." Explicator 2 (1943): item 19.

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display. New York, 1986.

Thomson, J. A. K. Shakespeare and the Classics. London, 1952.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays. New York, 1944.

Toliver, Harold E. "Falstaff, the Prince, and the History Play." Shakespeare Quarterly 16 (1965): 63-80.

Van Doren, Mark. Shakespeare. New York, 1953.

Webber, Joan. "The Renewal of the King's Symbolic Role: From Richard II to Henry V." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 4 (1963): 530-38.

Wells, Robin Headlam, and Alison Birkinshaw. "Falstaff, Prince Hal and the New Song." Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 103-15.

Wilson, John Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. New York, 1944.

Wind, Edgar. Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. 1958. Reprint, New York, 1968.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Renaissance English dramatist; King Henry
Author:Tiffany, Grace
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Previous Article:The Renaissance novella as justice.
Next Article:Touching touchets: Perkin Warbeck and the Buggery Statute.

Related Articles
Elizabethan Theater: Essays in Honor of S. Schoenbaum.
The Mirror of Confusion: The Representation of French History in English Renaissance Drama.
Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland.
Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage.
Historiography and Ideology in Stuart Drama.
Touching touchets: Perkin Warbeck and the Buggery Statute.
Operating Theater.
King Henry VIII, or All is True.
King Henry VIII (All is True).
Practicing Renaissance Scholarship: Plays and Pageants, Patrons and Politics. (Reviews).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |