A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
History, Comedy, and
Shakespeare’s English Histories
In following chapters, we will be considering comedic import and humor texture in Henry IV Part 1 and in Henry V. However, to fully understand the comedic integrity of these plays, we need a better vision of the history cycle of which they are a part. Thus in this chapter, we step back from close examination of humor texture and comedic import in individual plays to consider the relationship of Shakepeare’s English Histories to the dramatic forms of tragedy and comedy as well as to consider the overall generic pattern of the English history plays.
Traditionally, following the First Folio, Shakespeare’s plays have been divided into Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. It is a neat set of categories that allows us to move swiftly forward to many conclusions.
Unfortunately, many of these swift conclusions are incorrect, but every new attempt to make progress in understanding Shakespeare has to contend with them, sadly often succumbing to them in the process. Thus, any attempt to see Shakespeare’s Tragedies as a distinct form must confront the fact that almost all of Shakespeare’s proclaimed tragedies are also proclaimed to be histories. Hamlet is a history of Denmark. Macbeth is a history of Scotland. Julius Caesar is a history of Rome. What then justifies plays being assigned to Tragedy rather than History in the Shakespeare canon?
The problem works in reverse, of course, for Richard II and Richard III which are consigned to History, no matter that they are proclaimed also to be Tragedies. Well, yes, it is argued, they are indeed tragedies, but they are also English history plays in which Shakespeare had separate historical interest. That historical interest is evidently limited to English history in and after Plantagenet reigns, thus allowing King Lear to rejoin the Tragedies. With enough sub-rules, the categorization can be made to work—though recent centuries have felt that a new category, the Romances, is necessary along with such sub-rules.
Whatever this might or might not do for a study of Shakespearean Tragedy, it has been debilitating for serious consideration of the full corpus of Shakespearean Comedy. For Tragedy and History, criticism has been happy to fudge, to not notice that two different concepts are at work within the same play. By and large, however, criticism has not been willing to allow History plays to simultaneously be Comedies. And there is even less in the critical tradition to take seriously the possibility that Shakespearean practice allows the possibility of Tragedy and Comedy overlapping within a single History, as, for example, the Comedy of Richmond/Henry VII being incorporate with the Tragedy of Richard III in a history of the rise of the House of Tudor.
In the following chapters of this study, Shakespeare’s English Histories will play a very prominent part. We will be considering Henry V as the great example of heroic comedy within the Shakespearean canon without denying that Henry V also holds an impossible-to-exaggerate centrality within Shakespeare’s design of the English Histories as an artistic cycle of plays. And while many quickly accept such a generic identification as heroic comedy, we will be at pains to show that heroic comedy can legitimately be seen as a particular form of formal comedy as we have been discussing it throughout this study.
We will also be considering Henry IV Part 1. And for that play, we will essentially have to run a double analysis of the play as Hal’s comedy and as Falstaff’s comedy.
It is, of course, also Henry IV’s play. And as such it would probably best be thought of as a tragedy—the tragedy of a man who believed initially that he was only defending his rights and by implication others’ rights in the exalted positions in which God had placed them only to find that somewhere along the line he had deserted the high road and had grievously sinned in overthrowing a legitimate king by the grace of God. His life thereafter is a long day’s journey into night, superficially successful in maintaining the kingship, yet losing spectacularly the loyalty of his most faithful allies, having little assurance of the character and quality of his son as an heir to the throne, and leaving behind a monarchy so shaken that even magnificent success in the son cannot reassert the legitimacy of the king more than temporarily.
Any true understanding of Shakespeare’s achievement either in these individual plays or in the corpus which can be thought of as the English History plays needs to start with a clear-sighted understanding of the complexity of these issues of genre and their centrality to any legitimate conclusion about Shakespeare’s success or lack thereof.
Since we intend to make contributions toward that clear-sighted understanding, we pause in this chapter to make explicit a number of critical principles about the interrelationship between Comedy and History as exemplified in Shakespeare’s great Historical achievement. Arguably it was Shakespeare’s Historical achievement that introduced him to London celebrity status and laid the foundation for his subsequent great successes[i]—successes first in Comedy, then in Tragedy, and finally in experimental plays that we typically call Romances, which include not only the triumphant culmination of Tempest but plays which, like Winter’s Tale, provide important seminal moments in the development of dark or sombre comedy.
Let us begin then by considering the relationship between a dramatic genre called history and a dramatic genre called formal comedy. Behind the dramatic genre of history is history itself. And behind history is life itself. In both dramatic history and dramatic comedy, art imitates life. In the case of history, art compresses life and makes partial aspects of it more intelligible. Dramatic history turns such compression into dramatic action. Dramatic comedy also compresses life and makes partial aspects of it more intelligible having turned it into dramatic action.
Histories purport to confine themselves to narratives of reality. Comedies do not so confine themselves, but there is no reason why a comedy cannot be based in “real life” history. And there is no reason why real-life history cannot strike the contemporary audience, recognizing it to be real life, as having strong comedic meanings and emotional power.
Let us expand on this point with a clear historical example. In doing so, we not only see the relationship of history to comedy better, but we can also see with historical clarity the presence and character of comedic dynamis, the power of comedy to move its audience—but comedic dynamis occurring within experiential history itself, not mediated by comedic, concentrated art. We will be looking at the Battle of Quebec and at Fred Anderson’s account of how it was perceived by the British.
The 1750’s created a new world, a British imperial world the like of which no one had ever seen, the result of the Seven Years War and thus the conquest of New France in North America, French sugar islands in the Caribbean, and French interests in India from Bengal to the Cormandel coast.
The key pieces to Pitt’s strategy for England lay in North America. Perhaps wrongly, the British government believed that the strategic center of empire was the city of Quebec in Canada. After several abortive campaigns in the late 1750’s, General Wolfe reached Quebec, only to recognize that he had almost no chance of taking the city.
And then at the very end of the campaign season, Wolfe found a way to run past the guns of Quebec and to find a lightly guarded path up the bluff to an open field called the Plains of Abraham on the western flank of the city. Wolfe climbed the slope prepared to fail, made several tactical mistakes because he hadn’t dared to truly envision success, but nevertheless ultimately broke the French lines hurriedly thrown up before him. Wolfe bled to death during the battle from multiple musket wounds, but the city of Quebec was doomed to fall to the resultant siege.
The basic historical material lends itself to may literary forms, as medieval criticism recognized for the Gospel story. One of those possibilities is the possibility of Wolfe as tragic hero. This perspective has been memorialized in oils in “The Death of General Wolfe,” painted in several versions by Benjamin West (Anderson, 367). And by and large, this is the story as it comes down in survey world history courses and in high school American and Canadian history courses, especially in the more patriotic days of the early 20th century.
It can also be told as a very dark comedy, filled with stupidities, especially misunderstandings by the British both of their own colonists and of their Indian allies and enemies. These blunders don’t sound very funny to North American readers, but if emphasized, they must still be fit with an enormous victory, the success and survival of British arms generally. In short, the material can make for very dark comedy, with few if any real laughs, but perhaps with a sense that there are jokes here, just jokes that are immediately and overwhelmingly undercut by everything serious around them.
There is at least a third possibility, the possibility which in actuality resonated with the British and colonial audiences who were most attentive to the drama enacted on the world stage in their time. Civilian colonials and British subjects were “right there” and at the same time, like a theater audience, they were separated from the real action. What form did they give to that action—an action perhaps reported but not mediated by concentrated art?
Fred Anderson’s superb discussion of the enormous transformation of the mid-18th century, Crucible of War, tells us:
Perhaps predictably, the reactions of civilians and government officials to the news of Quebec’s fall were more ecstatic—because they were unmingled with the irritations and anxieties of military service—than those of the soldiers themselves. Everywhere local and provincial governments staged elaborate public ceremonies, while people in general demonstrated their joy in less structured ways. In Pennsylvania, where the war-driven market for agricultural produce was helping to counter the memory of a devastated frontier, Philadelphians—except for Quakers, who refused to observe holidays set aside to recognize military victories—celebrated by illuminating their windows and building so many bonfires that they were said to dim the moon. In New York, where merchants and artisans were feasting on military contracts, an evening celebration “was ushered in with a large Bonfire and Illuminations,” continued with “an elegant Entertainment” for “all the principal Persons of the Place,” and concluded with “every . . . Toast that Loyalty and Gratitude could dictate . . . ; each being accompanied with the Discharge of a Round of Cannon, amounting in the Whole to above a Hundred.” (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Gazette, 24 Jan. 1760. New York: Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 Nov. 1759) (Anderson, 373)
In short, for the British world, Wolfe’s victory was an unalloyed comedy! It was celebrated with joy, with exuberance, with public, social outpouring. Though Anderson doesn’t report it, it is difficult to believe that this exuberance was not matched with shouts, laughter, and smiles past description. This is serious comedy. There aren’t any recognized jokes. There is simply a celebration of faith in success and survival. It is impossible to imagine a stage comedy of the era that was greeted with one ten thousandth the comedic response that greeted the news of Quebec as it swept through the American colonies and back to the British home isles.
One can, of course, ask why this is a comedic response rather than simply a response to a victory—essentially an adventure story dynamis. The reason is again that Pitt had envisioned a comedic scenario and that scenario had been set into practice around the world—hold or even withdraw on mainland Europe, attack isolated French overseas possessions, capitalizing on British naval superiority. People had come to understand the comedic import; the question was, could it be successful. Since Quebec was the supposed lynchpin for answering that question, its fall was the completed comedy.
It should not be thought that this serious comedy ignored Wolfe’s death or the other tragic particulars of Quebec. As Anderson goes on to say,
The fact that Wolfe had died in the battle only made the victory somehow richer, more meaningful to the self-consciously sentimental members of the English ruling and middle classes. “The incidents of dramatic fiction could not be conducted with more address to lead an audience from despondency to sudden exultation” than the circumstances of the conquest, wrote that accomplished fictioneer, Horace Walpole. (377)
So there is a serious comedy—comedy by the definition of formal comedy we have given—which may have laughter but doesn’t have literarily constructed jokes or conscious attempts at humor of any sort. As indicated, historically there were massive blunders involved at both the strategic and tactical level in everything that led up to Wolfe’s victory, just as there was tragedy in its culmination on the Plains of Abraham. But neither the darkly comic material nor the tragic material was allowed to seriously compete with the serious comedic interpretation so obvious to the civilians who waited anxiously at home, paid the bills, encumbered the astronomical debts, and tried to carry on with their ordinary lives.
A year after Quebec, incidentally, Montreal fell, and perhaps that was the real necessarily strategic point from the beginning. By the time Montreal fell, however, the kind of celebrations that greeted the fall of Quebec had run their course. There had been too many victories, the grim faith in success that responded to the news of Quebec’s fall had given way to a much lesser faith of certainty that the war and history were crowning Britain with success. Anderson’s discussion of that second, subdued serious comedic reaction we highly recommend to any serious reader (415-16). But in reading that description, we are impressed precisely with its proof that very significant differences in the texture of comedic celebration are possible, even with comedic action which seems close to identical.
Comedy then, as a formal dramatic genre and history as a formal dramatic genre can easily overlap one another. In fact, once we recognize that history is a condensation of reality that makes aspects of experience more easily and clearly perceived, it should be fairly obvious that histories by and large can be thought of as failure stories, success stories, or muddling through—survival—stories. Some may be indeterminate or blended. At the same time, comedy often concerns itself with success, and therefore has something in common with the success-story history. And comedy often concerns itself with survival, and therefore has something in common with muddling-through histories. What makes formal comedy by our definition distinct from the simple success story, adventure story, action story and the like is that comedy has not merely an outcome of success or survival but a pattern to the success or to the muddling through, a pattern demonstrating the possibility of success or survival.
Now we have just said that history can be a success story or a failure story, thus on the road to comedy or tragedy respectively, or a muddling through story, thus also on the road to comedy. But we also said that history might be “blended.” One suspects, in fact that, history is normally blended because it is condensing reality, and reality as opposed to art hasn’t normally the chance to strain out the contradictory, contrasting, ironic, ambiguous, hypocritical, irrational, inconsistent in significant experience. When history compresses reality into a more understandable abstraction, it need not necessarily weed out all the inconsistency and the like.
As it turns out, Shakespeare’s theatre was remarkably able to leave in these doublenesses of reality, these inconsistencies, these multiple interpretations and plottings which 1300 years earlier rationalized Greek theatre, as enshrined in Aristotle, had compressed out of drama. As something of an oversimplification, we can say that Shakespeare’s theatre allowed such doubleness and ambiguity primarily through its penchant for multiple-plot dramatic structures.
What we are talking about here can be summarized in a word—“muddled”—which should be dear to English hearts and imaginations. Shakespeare’s theatre found it comparatively child’s play to put into the same dramatic work both a comedic line of development and a tragic line of development and to resolve the two in one artistic, dramatic conclusion.
(One suspects this was not just easy but was seen as something of an artistic ideal because by Shakespeare’s time, medieval criticism had strongly suggested if not absolutely proved that the greatest story ever told was precisely that kind of muddled, that the Gospels could be seen as the world’s greatest tragedy and at the same time the world’s greatest comedy. Medieval critics often called this tragicomedy. The Coventry Cycle and others like it would strongly suggest to the medieval mind not only that the Gospels as the Greatest Story Ever Told was tragicomedic in this sense but that the entire cycle of biblical stories breathed a fundamental tragicomedic principle.)
In short, everything in Shakespeare and everything in the theatre surrounding Shakespeare is at ease with history that is muddled but also generic, that embodies more than one generic strain in the same narrative.
Please note that our use of “muddled” here to describe drama which weaves together more than one generic line is entirely separate from our use of “muddling through” comedy, a kind of survival comedy, again presumably particularly dear to English hearts because the comedic import centered on muddling through survival rather than definably decisive success. If muddling through comedy is particularly dear to a people with at least incipient democratic tendencies and a recognition that everyone’s consent is somehow important to societal success, then perhaps Americans too at heart are particularly attuned to muddling through comedy because democratic decision-making is inevitably a muddling through and around the diverse interests, attitudes, and values of the community as a whole.
So the most serious history can be comedic in structure though as we have just seen complications can—and in Shakespeare do—abound.
The combined assertion of high national seriousness in subject matter and dramatic comedic form leads us almost inevitably to the concept of heroic comedy.
Heroic comedy is typically thought of as distinct from other comedy in a negative—in its not being driven by or depending on humor. That negative approach to understanding seriously undercuts all discussion of heroic comedy. For example, when we consider Henry IV Part 1, the humor question is clearly inter-related to the heroic comedic question of the play. Falstaff is one of the great comic creations of all times. If heroic comedy must be defined or even consistently characterized by the lack of conscious humor, then either I Henry IV is not heroic comedy or Falstaff is not funny.
Of course, there is more to the play than Falstaff. There is an interest in Hal as the most unlikely of successful princes, becoming himself and achieving glory against traitorous challenges to his father’s shaky throne. And, as Moody Prior has reminded us in The Drama of Power, the play's action revolves around the efforts of Hal's father, the play's namesake, to secure and legitimize his throne and its succession (183).[ii] All that drama of power sounds appropriate to heroic comedy.
Henry V is even more typically discussed as a heroic comedy. The play obviously has its comic moments from the Archbishop of Canterbury in the first scene to Hal’s courting of Katherine in Act V. But these humorous scenes clearly do not comprise the essential heroic comedy of the play, especially compared to the little touch of Harry in the night before Agincourt or compared to the St. Crispin’s Day speech two acts earlier.
From this cursory discussion of 1 Henry IV and Henry V, it is clear that comedy and history are not fundamentally opposed to one another. It is further clear that relative absence of humor can not be considered a defining attribute of heroic comedy.
Furthermore, as we have clearly demonstrated in earlier chapters, the relative absence of seriousness can not be considered a defining attribute of formal comedy or even a common attribute. Almost the reverse is true. By the definition we have been consistently employing, even light-fluff comedy often if not always conveys some underlying serious import through its comedic patterning, a serious import which the author may be at pains to disguise and which a critical audience may be at pains to discover.
There are, however, at least two forms of comedy the seriousness of which is hardly disguised, but rather made quite obvious in their comedic patterning. One of these forms is heroic comedy, which we have just argued is a necessary concept for considering Shakespeare’s achievement in 1 Henry IV and Henry V. The second is rogue comedy, for which, as we will see, Falstaff is perhaps the preeminent example in all drama.
In rogue comedy, we typically have a right to some even a great deal of moral outrage at the success of the rogue. Lords of misrule may simply please the lowest classes of society whose outward behavior has been heavily regulated by society or even by government. For any higher class audience with some vested interests in society as it has come to be, lords of misrule may be amusing, even intellectually freeing, but at some level they are also very threatening and thus serious issues are routinely obvious in rogue comedy.
We will examine more carefully the nature of rogue comedy and heroic comedy in 1 Henry IV and Henry V respectively, with our thesis that while humor is not inherent in the definition of comedy, humor plays a major role in creating texture and spirit in the vast majority of comedies.
Along with the misconception that Shakespearean drama is cleanly divided between Tragedies, Comedies, and Histories, there is another convention regarding the English Histories which works to obfuscate a great many of the issues of comedy in 1 Henry IV and Henry V. This is the popular idea that the English Histories comprise two tetralogies.
A double tetralogy seems like a fairly neutral and even an unchallengeable assumption about Shakespeare’s investment in history as a dramatic genre. Unfortunately, the obviousness of the classification itself leads to quick and uncritical conclusions, based on the assumption that once we have outlined the double tetralogies, we need think no more about it.
But we have every reason to think that Shakespeare himself thought quite a bit about it. Shakespeare and his age were well aware of dramatic cycles, particularly based in biblical narratives, and they understood that a great deal of meaning, perhaps the great lion’s share of meaning in these biblical cycles, was not in the individual unit but in the formation of the cycle as a whole, a formation fundamentally attributed to God Himself.[iii]
From this fundamental vision of the cycle itself having meaning and form, it is close to inconceivable that we could adequately treat the form and meaning of any of the constituent parts without first giving careful consideration to the cycle as a whole. We offer here an alternate interpretation of the English History plays as a whole. We think it makes considerably more sense out of both parts of Henry IV and Henry V as comedies. We think it also provides a more solid foundation for the humor textures we find in these plays.
The conventional, commonly held critical tradition is, of course, that 1 Henry IV is one of four plays reasonably considered to be a tetralogy. It is further confidently suggested that the tetralogy in question was the second such venture undertaken by Shakespeare. We can outline the two tetralogies so asserted (in their order of composition rather than their historical order) as follows:
Double Tetralogy-Compositional Order
Since this double tetralogy schematic is well-rehearsed, we will leave others to speak for it. (It should be noted and accepted that King John is an English history play but isn’t part of the double-four structure. Additionally, Shakespeare evidently returned after retirement to work on a play called Henry VIII. That, too, is not accounted for in the formal structure so proposed.) For our purposes, we notice immediately that it is difficult and not very fruitful to discuss the generic nature of 1 Henry IV within this framework.
From a genre perspective, it certainly looks like the first tetralogy—in historical chronology—moved from the tragedy of Richard II through a rather muddled two plays ostensibly about Henry IV perhaps qualifying as survival comedy, to triumph in the reign of Henry V. The second tetralogy in historical chronology seems to be four tragedies in a row. Such a structure, historically culminating in four tragedies, doesn’t seem to accord well with the optimism and innate aspirations of Englishmen in the wake of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.[iv]
Since our concern is with issues of genre, and since generic questions are normally swept under the rug with the tetralogies proposed, let us suggest, in the roguish spirit of Falstaff, an alternate hypothesis—an alternate hypothesis based in an understanding of genre as dramatic form and also in recognition of the practical political realities of the theatre industry in Shakespeare’s day.
Very little Shakespeare criticism takes serious account of the fact that Shakespeare’s theatre was firmly and fully controlled by royal censors.[v] As a historian of theatre, Ashley Thorndike includes an entire chapter on “Governmental Regulation” of the theaters, particularly noting the levels of regulatory office, all finally going back to the court (200 ff.). There weren’t very many people in all England licensed to be a company of players. The London companies needed not only a license to play but also the patronage and protection of very high-ranking courtiers. As in the Essex Affair it was assumed that the theatre could be used for propaganda purposes, that such propaganda could be a form of rebellion, and that such rebellion could carry mortal consequences for those concerned.
Moreover, Shakespeare’s times were some of the most perilous times for British national survival on record. Plots and counterplots were everywhere, and the government of the monarch was entirely capable of using spies even within the theatre community, witness Christopher Marlowe.[vi]
Now into this caldron of intrigue, treason, and imbroglio, let us introduce Will Shakespeare, a country boy with some limited experience of politics through his father, a local politician in Stratford-on-Avon. And what does our young playwright almost immediately set out to do? To write two tetralogies about English history, a great deal of it still the basis of feuds between powerful noble houses. Happily our young playwright is a poet beyond comparison, and generally he has the good fortune to meet with approval from the censors on virtually everything he writes pertaining to the history of the British monarchy.
If such a rendition doesn’t discredit Shakespeare, it certainly refuses to take censorship in England seriously. Modern students hearing of such censorship and reading Shakespeare’s histories are perfectly justified to assume that censorship was no more powerful than Congressional oversight of the American motion picture industry.
So let’s try to be a little more realistic. If a theatre company needed the protection of a very powerful courtier, what would a young playwright need if he proposed to write a grand series of plays—modelled somewhat on the great theatrical cycles familiar to so many playgoers—a grand series of plays on the history of the British monarchy? Shakespeare’s abilities to undertake such a task might be judged by some of his early poetry and perhaps by a play or two like Comedy of Errors. It is highly doubtful that any powerful courtier would see in these so much potential as to make the enormous risks worth undertaking.
But with the right approach, one powerful figure might be able to imagine the possibilities. That person was Elizabeth I herself. She would not lose place in court if the project misfired, just as she would not suffer the consequences Drake might endure when she underwrote his voyages. Let us consider the possibility that Shakespeare showed her not only his poetic and theatrical potential but also an outline for three trilogies, here presented in historical order, not in the order they were written:
Triple Trilogy in Historical Order
Clearly, everything would lead up to Elizabeth I as the ultimate fruition of the British monarchy. The Queen would like that.
Happily, the people of England would probably like it too. It would compliment them as the Greatest Generation. And it would compliment their national heroine queen. In some ways, the whole endeavor would be the Greatest Monument to the British national spirit that had just defeated the Spanish Armada.
It was a mind-boggling proposition.
Happily, it could be broken down into more manageable units. King John, for example. This play by the outline would always stand outside the three trilogies to come. But it would in some ways set the tone of everything, for King John’s reign was the time when England lost the French half of the Angevin Empire. It was also the time when England moved decisively away from the autocracy inherent in William the Conqueror’s claim to all England by right of conquest, beyond Henry II’s practical genius at asserting centralized royal control. It was the moment when all such thinking would be essentially checked in favor of ideas like Common Law, constitutionality, and the Rights of Englishmen, however embryonic in their initial, Magna Carta form.
(As Americans, we tend to think of King John as the Bad Guy and the Surety Barons who forced him to sign the Magna Carta as the first great democrats! Shakespeare stood closer to the realities, and the play he produced actually allowed his London audience to accept John as an international upholder of English liberty. Perhaps then, at some very deep level, the structure of the English History plays included a grand pageant of England’s forward movement as a blessed isle of in-the-main social progress and even of liberty expanding as it flowed down through history.)
Building on the King John foundation but not proposing to start writing with King John, Shakespeare might have proposed the great Aristotelian principle of starting in medias res with the second trilogy.
Elizabeth could buy in to the first installments and see how it went. She could always pull her support before any greater part of the design was undertaken. Drake was kept on a tight leash of having repeatedly to look for the Queen’s support as he increasingly boldly twisted the tail of the Spanish lion. Shakespeare can be assumed to have been on an equally tight leash.
The Henry VI plays were also appropriate for beginning the experiment because it was clear how everything had to work out: Henry VI and his heir, Edward, would eventually have to be assigned to the dustbin of history. Thus a tragic tone could predominate throughout, and the plays could concentrate on the tragic results of a nation divided against itself. Elizabeth would like that.
At the same time, there would be interesting political problems to solve. One could see how Shakespeare did, navigating issues that divided major noble parties within Elizabeth’s England. There were even the curious problems like the Tudors and Elizabeth herself being descended from the Beauforts—prominent in these plays, not typically heroes thereof—and arguably disqualified from ever attaining the throne. Elizabeth’s censors would see to it that Shakespeare either passed these tests or didn’t have his English histories produced.
Elizabeth had been playing long shots for survival all through her life and all through her reign. This one might be a long shot too. But think what might be produced! An epic series of plays celebrating ultimately the maturation of the English nation as a cooperative undertaking between monarch, nobles, and people of England, who together were a greater whole than the inevitable feuds that divided all European nations.
One of the benefits of this virtual outline is that the plays start to make sense generically within the larger whole. King John is a basically somber play, but within that somberness there is a sense that England turned a decisive and necessary corner in his day. That description starts to suggest what in the 20th century would be called dark comedy—let’s leave it simply that there is a dark comedic strain within the structure of King John.
The first trilogy performed (the second trilogy of the virtual outline) is a long descent from the seeming overarching triumphs of Henry V’s unfortunately shortened reign. This is not a book on tragedy, but all three of the Henry VI plays are easily discussable as de casibus tragedies—the falls of great men—and in this case the progressive falling of England, culminating in the deposition of the House of Lancaster.
From our perspective, the Henry VI plays do not show Shakespeare at his full poetic dramatic power. But evidently they passed the censors, and they passed whatever test Elizabeth had set up. Compared to most history plays attempted by other authors, the trilogy was already starting to evidence genius. That allowed Shakespeare to move backward to where it all began, in the troubled reign of Richard II, just as in the modern era, Star Wars began in the middle and then moved back to where it all began.
Probably writing Richard II with its deposition of a legitimate king and an abrupt end to the Plantagenet line in the usurpation of the Lancastrians was the greatest political test Shakespeare ever faced under Elizabeth. (One performance of the play did, in fact, bring Shakespeare and his company into peril in the Essex Affair.) It would have to be an exquisitely adroit artistic undertaking, and it would probably have to show Shakespeare at his poetic best and to move its audience away from the intensely practical implications of the action to metaphysical and dramatic-poetic heights instead.
The second performed trilogy, beginning with Richard II, actually starts with another tragedy, the tragedy of Edward III being succeeded not by his brilliant warrior son Edward the Black Prince, but by his grandson after Prince Edward’s premature death. A child king was always the great political catastrophe of medieval Europe, and Shakespeare’s opening scenes are carefully chosen as the moment when the wise counsel of Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt is discarded once and for all by a king already weighed down with complicity in the murder of another uncle, Thomas of Woodstock.[vii]
That brings us to Henry IV Part 1, in which Hal is an unenviable heir to the throne. For now, we will call the play a comedy of Hal ascending from the depraved conditions to which he was born to model kingship, becoming the kind of king all Europe wanted to have. Hal’s comedy in 1 Henry IV is perhaps best thought of not as success but as survival, a muddling-through survival in which Hal moves toward maturity and kingship very indirectly.
Contrastively, if 1 Henry IV is also the story of its namesake, Henry IV, Shakespeare’s rendition is probably best thought of historically as a muddling through but more a tragic muddling through, a long day’s journey into night. Henry’s claim to the throne is clearly shaken throughout. His illness is highlighted in the first scene of the play, though again Shakespeare is extremely tactful in characterizing the diseased king as “wan and pale.” And from Henry IV’s point of view, his son is a constant concern, even after his victory over Hotspur.
Without 2 Henry IV, this muddling- through tragedy would be much more obvious, obvious because there wouldn’t be the reconciliation between Henry and Hal in the sense that we have it in the second play. It has been argued that 2 Henry IV must be part of the fundamental cyclical design because of this reconciliation. Stand that argument on its head and we have 2 Henry IV clearly not part of the cyclic pattern because the middle play is muddled intentionally to leave in suspense whether Hal has or hasn’t betrayed his father and thus portrays Henry IV tragically.
The Hal muddling-through comedy and the Henry IV muddling-through tragedy joined in one play of course means that the generic form of 1 Henry IV is muddled. It is all the more muddled because there is a third line in the play, Falstaff’s. In many senses, Falstaff too is a muddler, but as a dimension of the comedy as a whole, his is a very special kind of success comedy. He isn’t just getting by. As an old whoring, drinking, swindling, stealing debauchee, and simultaneously as minor gentry hobnobbing with the heir apparent, Falstaff is going through life with the successful swaggering of unimaginable success denying Judgment Day itself.
That too gets changed in 2 Henry IV, so that Falstaff does in fact face a stern judge by the final scenes of the play and has been found derelict rather than successful. For a cyclic achievement, these complexities don’t make any real sense. But Falstaff was worth another play and people felt they had gotten their money’s worth and more seeing 2 Henry IV. The second play, however, cheapened the cyclic structure. 1 Henry IV by itself did make cyclic sense, that after a muddled tragedy in Richard II, history moved on to an even greater muddle, a comedy of misrule governed by Falstaff while Henry moves lugubriously toward night and Hal struggles through toward finding a new day.
And that sets the stage for the culminating play of the second-composed trilogy, Henry V, in which all of the potential slowly being discovered in Henry IV is revealed in one dazzling move after another, culminating in the marriage with Katherine of France. It is clearly the case that Henry V is the great patriotic drama of England, to be pulled out in every hour of dire national emergency, as, for example, the classic Lawrence Olivier film version produced in the midst of World War II.
The completion of the second trilogy with the heroic comedy of Henry V allows a third trilogy to begin. Any such third trilogy would be based in an original tragedy turned to glorious comedic triumph in the first historical trilogy and a very long and lugubrious tragic journey into night in the second trilogy.
The third trilogy, starting with Richard III, begins with the tragic horror of what has been left to England under the Yorkists, especially after Edward IV’s death and the murder of his sons in the Tower of London. The tragedy is best thought of not as the tragedy of Richard III. He is presented as a devil figure from birth, another Iago, the Vice of the medieval morality plays. Instead, as for the entire cycle, if there is tragedy, it is the tragedy of England under the chastising hand of God.
The general tragedy of England is often presented as the personal tragedies of individuals like Lady Anne, the widow of Henry VI’s son, the woman who in another world would have been Edward’s queen, but instead is married to Richard the monster. (A great deal of modern scholarship has been addressed at resuscitating Richard III as a reasonably competent monarch. For Shakespeare’s purposes, this is a waste of breath: Richard is a necessary monster in the total design, and attempts to rehabilitate his character have never had a snowball’s chance in hell against Shakespearean artistry.)
Instead, the true tragedic center of Richard III is England as his victim, just as the first performed trilogy, beginning with 1 Henry VI, began with the true tragedic center being England as victim of the disintegration of English victory in the reign of Henry VI. Equally, the first trilogy in historical order went back to the fatal discords surrounding Richard II, discords announcing England’s tragedy of descent from legitimate monarchy.
Like Richard II, Richard III has a multiple structure, a comedic structure represented by Richmond somewhat counterbalancing the tragedy of England under Richard III. Richard’s despair (“My kingdom for a horse”) and death stand in marked contrast to Richard II’s death in Pomfret castle near the end of Richard II. Richard II’s death was the omen and harbinger of the desolation of England. Richard III’s death and the triumph of Richmond is the signal for a grimly tried and refined England to reemerge into the light of a positive divine plan.
Ultimately that should mean that the middle play of the third trilogy would be about the reign of Henry VIII. It would recount the necessary reform of the Christian Church in England constantly bruted about for centuries, championed notably by the same John of Gaunt who had been so cavalierly cast off in the first act of the first play of the first trilogy. Like the middle play of the first historical trilogy, Henry IV Part 1, the Henry VIII play would necessarily be a muddling-through play, a play centered in the messy intersection between lofty but controversial necessities of church renewal and the sordid realities of Henry as often-immature power politician and licentious autocrat.
And that design would allow a final play about Elizabeth, about a people at peace with themselves, religious accommodation allowing every man and woman a large measure of freedom of conscience, led by a beloved queen who wisely chose to regulate men’s actions but to leave their hearts and minds free.
Henry VIII, then, is free to be a double-structured play again, the many tragic elements of Henry’s reign providing a somber backdrop (just as King John sets a somber backdrop for the whole epic cycle) but moving inexorably forward to one of the great milestones of God’s history for the world in the reign of Elizabeth (just as the reign of King John also provides a comedic theme for the whole cycle of the development of a united people under a Common Law with providential Rights of Englishmen).
The Elizabeth play could have multiple structures but ultimately would be an overwhelming comedy, just as Henry V provided an overwhelming comedic finale for the first historical trilogy.
It was a beautiful design.
If Shakespeare was the politically sensitive paragon implied by this design, he probably should have had real doubts whether the design could ever be ultimately realized. The practical political intricacies even of Henry VIII’s reign were almost insuperable. And the play about Elizabeth would seem sycophantic in the extreme if written during Elizabeth’s life (which was a lot longer than anyone could have expected and yet too short for the completion of such a stupendous project.) And that would mean writing the Elizabeth play in the reign of her successor, who would have no reason to appreciate being cast into such a profound and long shadow of Elizabethan greatness.
Since Elizabeth was also a paragon of political acumen, we doubt that she could ever seriously and practically contemplate Shakespeare writing that final play. But as a consummate politician and as an admirer of the greatest of playwrights, she probably also realized that Shakespeare should not complete the design. The last play would be a virtual play, the play everyone knew in his or her heart was where the rest was all trending. The London audience would know intimately well the end of the story, and simple political prudence would have them write the story for themselves in glowing terms that made them the Greatest Generation and Elizabeth’s Court the nonpareil exemplar of Christian monarchy in an ordered state.
Today, the great wave of Elizabeth movies in recent decades bears testimony that the Elizabeth play has become a many-movie actuality, having evidently become that virtual reality about 400 years ago. The virtual reality only lacked embodiment for lesser lights to try to flesh out (even Shakespeare in Love can be seen as an unlikely entrant in the Elizabeth-play sweepstakes.)
Sometimes epics are not finished and aren’t seriously contemplated to be finished. As of this writing, Star Wars has not been finished. And a theatrical epic can be greatly designed yet prove unfinishable because audience tastes change or because, in any one of innumerable ways, the theatrical costs of completion run too high.
Moreover, sometimes there are good reasons, practical economic reasons of theatre, for writing individual cycle segments in a rather odd order. This would account for Richard III, in our rendition the first play of the third trilogy, being written before the second–composed trilogy.
Thus the case for Shakespeare’s intended Triple Trilogy.
The double tetralogy scheme of Shakespeare’s English history plays not only has little to say for itself generically, it also, as we noted earlier, leaves out King John and it leaves out Shakespeare’s post-retirement collaboration on a Henry VIII play. But in fairness, we have left out a play, too—Henry IV Part 2.
Sensitive criticism has always seen 2 Henry IV as something of an afterthought, another chance for Falstaff to rake it in at the box office. It has always looked like an add-on. (And, in fact, a tradition within the theatre has evidently always maintained that Falstaff so entranced Elizabeth that she demanded Shakespeare write another play featuring him. Let us then briefly flesh out how we would fit Henry IV, Part 2 into this scheme.
Henry IV Part 1 was in one sense Shakespeare’s biggest theatrical mistake. If our triple trilogy outline is accurate, it was supposed to be Play 2, historically, of a 9-play triple trilogy. Because of practical considerations of theatre and of artistic build, it was actually the 6th play written. Probably Shakespeare felt with the completion of Henry IV, that he was almost finished. He would write Henry V, then get on with other things, notably Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello. (Whether this new agenda in Shakespeare’s writing career was related to personal crises occurring at the time in his own life or to a darkening preoccupation in England and throughout Europe with the realization that the Reformation could no longer be handled peaceably between Christian men of fundamental good will but must instead yield to the horrors of a generation of war can be argued over by Shakespeare’s biographers.) Henry VIII could wait—probably would never be undertaken, and Elizabeth was probably never meant to be an actualized play in any case.
But then everyone who was anyone in London theatre fell in love with that most loveable of rogues, John Falstaff. He was a sensation.[viii] People talked about him to the exclusion of the key structural place Henry IV was designed to fill in the epic story of England’s apparent reprieve from its national tragic fall from grace, the first dim light of redemption for the overarching purposes of God.
Even Elizabeth, who had to be in on the grand design when no one else was, fell in love with Sir John. And theatre tradition says that she demanded a new play to enjoy Falstaff more. (Or perhaps, the politically acute Elizabeth dreaded the possibility that Shakespeare would actually take on the challenges of writing the Henry VIII play and was glad to have Falstaff as an excuse for moving away from the original triple-trilogy structure.)
From Elizabeth’s point of view as a shrewd politician and here a shrewder investor in poetic myth-making, once Henry V was completed, the essential story—the story of Henry II’s empire dismembered but growing into an ordered national state shared by Queen, loving nobles and loving people, with an admitted long digression into a fall from grace and a long period of judgmental refinement of England, broken only by the glimmer of hope in Henry V for God’s eventual restored blessing—that story would be complete in the English imagination. Englishmen could and probably should be allowed to write their own imagined, virtual versions of the Henry VIII and Elizabeth plays. The final outcome, the triumph of a nation state united under a loving and temperate queen, ready to take its place in the forefront of nations, was an outcome Englishmen had been sharing with each other since 1588.
In any case, Shakespeare bowed to reality and to his monarch’s wish. He picked up his pen, consulted his wide-ranging knowledge of the realities of English history, and set out to write another play. When it actually came down on paper, it must have been a disappointment to Shakespeare as nothing worthy of his grand design. In fact, he may have deliberately sabotaged the play from being any part of the grand design at all. And he certainly consciously deprecated Sir John at entirely new and generally less artistic levels than anything he had done in Henry IV, Part 1. Sir John may have interrupted the grand design, but Shakespeare would have the last laugh in degrading Falstaff beneath contempt.
And that didn’t really work very well either.
People continued to love Falstaff even in a debased form. And we suspect the queen was not pleased.
She had asked for a play about Falstaff, knowing full well her end was near and the great epic culminating in her reign wasn’t being progressed by the digression she herself had proposed or at least accepted. And now this rather over-proud if certainly unparalleled genius had deliberately debased the digression.
If Elizabeth prided herself on anything, it was probably that she didn’t play the fool gladly.
So Master Shakespeare was made aware—and Elizabeth had infinite ways of making him aware—that she did not think her request had been well responded to. Shakespeare must try again, a real play about Sir John, and no dilly-dallying in further interference with the epic design.
Shakespeare was just as practical as his queen and just as pragmatic as Prince Hal. So he acquiesced again and as much as possible feigned true remorse. He sat down again, sharpened his pen and his wit, and what came out was really an entirely new kind of play, a play which didn’t much resemble Much Ado about Nothing or other comedic attempts of Shakespeare’s mid-career. What came out was a comedy of manners that looks much more like something from the Restoration than from the Elizabethan theatre—Merry Wives of Windsor. And if Sir John was humiliated and calumniated in 2 Henry IV, that was nothing compared to what he was about to suffer in Merry Wives, wash-basket deliverance and all.
And everyone loved Falstaff all the more, and the wash-basket scene entered into its own life as subject for etchers and illustrators over the centuries. We hope that even Elizabeth herself was satisfied—and Shakespeare probably hoped it most fervently.
So a funny thing happened to Shakespeare on his way to an epic trilogy. Somehow and without really wanting to, he had inserted a farce trilogy for Falstaff anchored in the first trilogy of his epic: 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Merry Wives of Winsor. True, the middle play of this farce trilogy wasn’t something to be proud of—not by Shakespearean standards, anyway. But like so much else in Shakespeare, he pulled off the impossible and turned the farce trilogy into something wonderful in itself.
Thus when he finally got to Henry V, he could be a little more mellow about Falstaff. It was good business practice to include Falstaff for one final cameo appearance, and that cameo (and virtual) appearance turned out to be in its own way strangely touching, Shakespeare’s farewell to the character who had most defied him and fought him to a draw of unforgettable theatre.
The speculative account above for the composition of 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Merry Wives of Windsor must remain just that, speculation. It is, however, speculation that accords with the general critical appraisal over the centuries of Henry IV, Part 2 as a vastly inferior play with very confused design in relationship to both Henry IV Part 1 and to Henry V.
It also accords extremely well with the critical reception of Merry Wives of Windsor as a new kind of comedy that would give Falstaff a trilogy of his own while simultaneously dismissing him from the epic structure he had interrupted. And the speculative design fits well with the historical facts of an aging queen who knew that her reign couldn’t live peaceably with a play about her father’s reign and knew, as well, that the Elizabeth play had already become a virtual reality of theatre best kept outside the censor’s office and left to that free heart and mind that Elizabeth protected in the English people.
So much depends on the generic, cyclical structure of Shakespeare’s English Histories. And so much seems a necessary preface to good critical understanding of genre in the wonderfully enjoyable play, 1 Henry IV.
We’ve tried to keep our Falstaffian alternate vision of the English Histories as short as possible. In that effort, let us close with two schematics, generic structures of the double tetralogy putative structure and of the triple-trilogy alternative structure.
Double Tetralogy Structure with Dominant Generic Identification
Richard II tragedy 1 Henry VI tragedy
1 Henry IV muddled comedy 2 Henry VI tragedy
2 Henry IV muddled 3 Henry VI tragedy
Henry V heroic comedy Richard III tragedy into light
Triple Trilogy Structure with Dominant Generic Identification
King John dark prologue, national comedy despite loss
Richard II tragedy 1 Henry VI tragedy Richard III tragedy
1 Henry IV muddled comedy 2 Henry VI tragedy Henry VIII muddled comedy
Henry V heroic comedy 3 Henry VI tragedy [Elizabeth] triumphant comedy
[i] cf Michael Wood’s description of Shakespeare’s rise on the London scene, his surpassing of Marlowe in popularity, riding on the wave of national historical interest following the defeat of the Armada (142-5). [Return to text.]
[iv] Numerous books have been written about the pivotal character of the defeat of the Armada in redefining the British sense of kingship. A recent wided-ranging discussion is Patrick Williams’ Armada. [Return to text.]
[v] An exception is Jack Lynch, who in Becoming Shakespeare argues for thinking of major differences in various versions of Richard II as attributable not so much to error and incompetence as to political censorship (139). [Return to text.]
[vii] The full structure of Richard II, also beyond our present purposes, is quite complicated, composed as it is of Richard’s tragic fall, Bollingbroke’s tragic moral decline in finally deposing the man to whom he had sworn undying if undeserved allegiance, and Richard’s spiritual rise as a man, something of a redeeming if overwhelmingly dark and intensely serious and painful comedy. In shorter words, Richard II proclaims itself to be tragedy, but it is a muddled tragedy. [Return to text.]