A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Henry IV, Part 1 :
It can be with no small trepidation then that we turn our attention from comedy to the humor personality and texture of Henry IV, Part I. Critics have always been fascinated with Falstaff, some, like Hardin Craig, having come to the conclusion that Falstaff is “a very happy accident, which will not bear analysis” (65). Falstaff has a 400-year-old fan club and has no doubt been the subject of more toasts than any other character in dramatic history. Yet despite trepidation, we could not in conscience, especially with Robin’s investigations in senior humor (December Comedy), skim over the humor of Sir John Falstaff, the consummate senex, the classic example of comic relief and yet so much more. Falstaff’s comedic/humorous tenacity demands not merely a literary analysis but a humor analysis.
At the very beginning of this discussion, however, we must realize that humor-of-the-mind analysis which has been sufficient to make progress in the preceding essays of this volume, is finally inadequate for 1 Henry IV and within it for Falstaff. At a minimum, we will need to consider a tripartite division of humor reminiscent of medieval theology: Humor of the Body, Humor of the Mind, and Humor of the Spirit.
Both in academic presentations and in empirical testing, we have been elucidating Humor of the Spirit as well as Humor of the Mind for many years. Humor of the Body, as a humor structure concept, needs much fuller empirical investigation. As for both Humor of the Mind and Humor of the Spirit, we can create a quadrilateral analytic framework for Humor of the Body and presumably six humor-of-the-body personalities associated with the four analytic sub-types. But since the theoretical work of those divisions is still in embryo form, we will be dealing with Humor of the Body generically.
It is well-observed that the human body is funny—its unseemly parts and functions, its excesses and its deformities, its turn-off parts and its turn-on parts, its ausfahrting parts and its infahrting parts. As the “lowest level” of humor, as aptly observed by stand-up comedian Stevie Ray (19), it is often accused of being inappropriate, immature, politically incorrect, or downright mean. But there it is. And as for Falstaff, he’s fat. Very fat. Grossly fat, according to Shakespeare. And fat not because of an exasperatingly low metabolism or some other hormonal imbalance but because of lifestyle choices—too much sack and too many capons and not enough exercise. And Shakespeare asks us to laugh at his fatness. It should be noted that the established church had long considered gluttony sin. Thus in this context, our laughter may be seen as appropriate, even socially correct. And for the structure of the play, it becomes comedically necessary.
While Shakespeare’s minimal stage notes and directions do not specify it, the patterning of the play demands that Falstaff be played by a large, roly-poly, older actor. Hal in Act II asks, “. . . how long is’t ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?” (II.iv.327-328). Clearly the actor’s largeness is to be accentuated by costuming, acting, and stage direction, so that from the moment Falstaff steps on stage, we are asked to focus on his size. Nor do we wonder that Prince Hal’s opening line is a humorous assault on Falstaff’s size and lifestyle:
Falstaff: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
Prince: Thou are so fat-witted from drinking of cold sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know.” ( I.ii.1-5)
Prince Hal’s appraisal of Falstaff sets us up for a heavy seasoning of imagery related to fatness—butter, sugar, honey, oil, lard—of epithets related to fatness—“greasy tallow-catch” (II.iv.228), “this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh” (II.iv.242-243). Fat puns sprinkle the scenes involving Falstaff; for example, when Hall calls him “Sir John Paunch”` (II.ii.66), Falstaff admits that he is not John of Gaunt. Despite his friendship with Falstaff, Hal is merciless in his humorous jabs at the man:
“Falstaff sweats to death, and lards the lean earth as he walks along.
Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him.” (II.ii.109-110)
But Hal does not pity Falstaff; the heir apparent cannot afford to. For Falstaff must be portrayed as an unsavory character, to be eventually rejected by Hal. Thus from the start, Humor of the Body serves several key functions in the play beyond entertainment. By making Falstaff a butt of humor, Hal weakens his identification with Falstaff and his loose living, which association would, as we have already noted, cast some doubt on Hal as kingly material, particularly in his father’s eyes. Humor tells us we should not fear that Hal is truly taken in by Falstaff’s way of life. Humor also foreshadows Hal’s eventual outright rejection of Falstaff. And since for centuries the church had considered gluttony and sloth to be two of the seven deadly sins, fat jokes keep Shakespeare on the right side of the church, all the while Shakespeare is raking in a good box-office take on the great popularity of Falstaff.
Without committing ourselves to a formal quadrilateral analysis of Humor of the Body, the examples given suggest that the Humor of the Body dominant in Falstaff is first a matter of grossness and second perhaps a matter of deformity, including the normal deformities of age which provide some of the humor of imagining all Sir John’s efforts in connection with the Gadshill robbery. What might we call such a humorous juxtaposition of deformity and grossness?
We would suggest that the Humor-of-the-Body personality of 1 Henry IV is something like Over-ripe, Unhealthy, or Decadent. (Consider in this context, Falstaff's opening speech in III.iii: “. . . am I not fall’n away vilely since this last action? Do I not bate? Do I not dwindle? . . . I am wither’d like an old apple-john. . . .”) Any such texture, of course, would reinforce a very serious thematic texture of the play epitomized in the opening lines of the play: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care/ Find we a time for frighted peace to pant/ And breathe short-winded accents of new broils.”
In short, Humor of the Body associated with Falstaff allows Hal to associate with Falstaff socially while disassociating himself morally. And it generates for the play an over-ripe, unhealthy personality and associated texture, which texture is reinforced by the script. What, then, can be said for Humor of the Mind?
It is arguable that the most prominent feature of Falstaff after his belly is his mouth. He has been called “a virtuoso in the arts of language” (The Riverside Shakespeare, 887). Falstaff is an endless source of puns, verbal twists, wit, verbal virtuosity, and logic tricks. And thus the predominant form of Humor of the Mind associated with Falstaff is Word Play.
The exchanges between Falstaff and Hal are wit fests, full of puns, tropes, word games, and argumentative play. Typical is Falstaff’s line, “... were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent . . .” (I.ii.57-58). Yet, the Prince’s stature as heir apparent does not prevent Falstaff, when his blatant lies are challenged, from peppering the Prince with vile names: “…you starveling, you [eel-]skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish!” (II.iv.244-245). Falstaff’s complaint to Hal, “Thou hast the most unsavory [similes]” (I.ii.79), accentuates the rhetorical combat common to the exchanges between these two characters. It also again foreshadows Hal’s rejection of Falstaff. In contrast, the dialogue between the Prince and Poins, as the Prince plots to trap Falstaff in his own villainy, is straightforward, succinct, and without metaphor. The contrast suggests that verbal gymnastics are for Falstaff inherent to his character but for the Prince, a skill, to be applied—or set aside—as needed.
Falstaff’s scenes are also characterized by humorous and involuted rhetorical argument and exaggerated lying. For example, in II.iv, when explaining how it came that he and three others lost the booty of their Gad’s Hill robbery to the disguised Prince and Poins, Falstaff blows up exponentially the number of men he originally set upon, the number of reinforcements, the number of men wearing buckram (that would have been the Prince and Poins), and the number of wounds inflicted upon his body, all the while decrying others for their cowardice. When the Prince reveals the truth, that Falstaff had quickly run from just two, one of them the Prince himself, Falstaff without a pause argues that, since “The lion will not touch the true prince,” he was “a coward on instinct” (II.iv.271-273). Falstaff is a master of excuses and rationalization.
He is also a master of ingenious argumentation. In preparation for Hal’s appearing before his father, the King, where he will be called upon to explain his recent slumming with Falstaff, the prince and Falstaff take turns role-playing the King and his son, a rhetorical exercise in which Falstaff argues to justify his own disreputable character. Hal’s retorts, however, foreshadow Falstaff’s political demise.
Thus from these extensive examples, we see again that Word Play as a humor form is far broader that mere puns, and rather includes rhetorical gymnastics, outrageous rationalizations, extended metaphor, and ingenious argumentation. And we further must conclude that Word Play is clearly a key component in the Humor of the Mind surrounding Falstaff.
From there we turn to the other forms, Sympathetic Pain, Incongruity, and Gotcha. Sympathetic Pain humor concerning Falstaff, if it exists, is quite subordinate to other humor, and while there is considerable incongruity in the Prince’s social associations, this incongruity is not presented as funny but rather as troublesome and in need of resolution. And, in fact, it is resolved in part by Gotcha humor. The Gad’s Hill robbery is a classic robber-robbed scenario, in which Falstaff is the butt of a well plotted Gotcha. The prank itself, extending over several scenes, is Gotcha in form, and it is further played out with numerous line-by-line Gotchas, exposing Falstaff with hoots and hollers, all individual gotcha jabs. The later scheme to hide Falstaff from the sheriff results in another Gotcha on Falstaff, the discovery of his unpaid bill at the inn. In fact, Falstaff is offered up as the butt of everyone’s kicks, insults, and general Gotchas.
Gotcha humor serves numerous functions in the play. Since by nature Falstaff is a braggart, liar, and general scoundrel, he is preeminently qualified to be got, thus allowing us to satisfy all those aggressive urges that farce is supposed to assuage. At the same time, as a surrogate for Hal’s father, Falstaff becomes through Gotchas the target of Oedipal frustration and hostility which cannot be legitimately leveled at a father, much less at a king. And if Dover Wilson is correct that 1 Henry IV is “Shakespeare’s morality play,” (138), then Gotcha humor is one of the instruments for executing moral judgment.
If the two dominant forms of Humor of the Mind associated with Falstaff are Word Play and Gotcha, and if Falstaff by himself defines the humorous center of the play, then 1 Henry IV has a humor-of-the-mind personality of Advocate, a highly apt humor personality for I Henry IV.
Falstaff himself is an advocate as sure as he’s a thief. He is constantly advocating—for himself, for a place in court, for his life style, and for his lovability. Our laughter at his Word Play is a concession that we are to some extent swayed by his argument. In contrast, Humor of the Body and Gotchas advocate that Falstaff can not have a place in court or even in Hal’s future life and that Hal must be seen as princely material despite his association with Falstaff. Our laughter itself concedes that Falstaff must go and that Hal is neither a fool, nor a dissolute democrat.
Furthermore, as we argued in Chapter 8, the entire play has a great deal to do with advocacy. The prince and Shakespeare advocate to the king and to all of England that Hal is indeed qualified to ascend to the throne and that his associating with low life is excusable and perhaps even commendable. The argument is twice rehearsed between Hal and Falstaff, then delivered in a third form before the throne, and then acted out on the battlefield by Hal’s slaying of Hotspur, who himself has been advocating that Hal is not fit to be dogcatcher, let alone king. The grand design of Shakepeare’s History trilogies makes it essential that the argument be effectively advocated in order that we be prepared for Henry V as heroic comedy.
Thus Humor of the Mind, while it provides comic relief, is not extraneous to the overall issues of the play but rather emphasizes the moral and political arguments that run throughout the play and the tensions raised by them.
We have so far established, then, that 1 Henry IV embodies a humor-of-the-body humor personality which is Over-ripe, Unhealthy, or Decadent, and a humor-of-the-mind personality which is Advocate. It should be clear as we have discussed humor personalities that both are appropriate for the play but within very different dimensions of literary analysis of Shakespeare’s achievement in 1 Henry IV. And because of the dimensional difference, it would not be very good criticism to say something like, “The humor personality of the play is one of Over-ripeness or Decadence and of Advocacy,” or “Over-ripe Advocacy.” Both halves are right, but they aren’t halves of a oneness, of a single humorous personality, but are instead two different personalities within two different humor dimensions.
And this complexity and doubleness is true even before we turn, as we now do, to Humor of the Spirit.
While Falstaff is the repeated butt of Gotchas, he always has a comeback. He is irrepressible. And it is probably his irrepressible spirit that has most endeared him to theater goers over the ages. David Bevington in his introduction to Henry IV, Part I summarizes, “Falstaff is the epitome of merriment and joie de vivre. We excuse much in him because he lusts after life with such an appetite and ingratiates himself to others by inviting them to laugh at his expense” (764). Falstaff epitomizes vitalist humor, Humor of the Spirit.
The vitalist view of humor was first articulated in 1900 by Henri Bergson in Le rire, where he argued that we laugh in defiance of death at the mechanical encrusted upon the living Five decades later Susanne Langer in Feeling and Form argued that laughter is a response to life itself. She pointed us to the laughter elicited by babies and puppies or by a fish that has lost part of its tail to a predator and swims with a list but survives nevertheless. And the underlying feeling of comedy, she argued, is "the immediate sense of life" (331). Certainly in Falstaff we have an “immediate sense of life.”
Vitalist humor, or Humor of the Spirit, is more complex than Humor of the Mind in that it has two voices: Langerian, which affirms life, and Bergsonian which defies death. Like classical humor, vitalist humor can be seen in four forms: Tenacity, Potential, Creativity, and Performance. As an example of the two voices of Tenacity vitalist humor, we laugh in affirmation, we laugh with, the bull dog that tenaciously holds on, while we laugh in defiance, we laugh at, the “Blondie” cartoon character Dagwood who wimps out on lawn mowing with one drop of rain. For Performance, we laugh in celebration of a Hail Mary pass caught on the fingertips and at the vaudevillian who slips on the proverbial banana peel. Gravian analysis uses the affirmation forms of vitalist humor to define a vitalist humor personality of a work according to the circle below.
Turning to Falstaff, there is no question that Falstaff is a very alive character, despite his age, despite his weight, despite his criminal record, and despite our knowing that Falstaff will not serve in the court of King Henry V. The scene which perhaps most captures his aliveness is the second to the last of the play, Falstaff's feigned death and resurrection.
Following the Prince's touching but not very complimentary eulogy to an evidently dead Falstaff, the Prince exits and, according to the stage notes, “Falstaff riseth up,” to modern audiences perhaps reminiscent of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, and delivers a vitalist manifesto:
“Emboweled? If thou embowel me today, I’ll give you leave to powder me and eat me too tomorrow. ‘Sblood, ‘twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me, scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.” (V.iv.111-121)
Falstaff saves his life through Henry IV, Part I, and through Henry IV, Part II, and through Merry Wives of Windsor. And even though he dies in Henry V, he has remained alive as a comic character in the hearts of theater goers and Shakespeare lovers for over 400 years.
The history of the character itself points us to the predominant form of affirmational Vitalism associated with Falstaff: Tenacity. As noted earlier, Falstaff can never be knocked down; like the blow-up clown with the sand base, he bounces back up, Gotcha after Gotcha after Gotcha. Did he get caught running from the Prince in disguise? He has a ready answer: it was instinct that told him not to fight the heir apparent. Did he get caught accusing his hostess wrongly of picking his pocket? He has a ready answer: he has “more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty” (III.iii.167-168). Has Hal covered for Falstaff’s robbery by paying back the money? Falstaff retorts, “O, I do not like that paying back. “Tis a double labor. . . Rob me the exchequer the first thing thou dost, and do it with unwashed hands too” (III.iii.179-184). Falstaff is tenacious in his “vocation” of thievery, tenacious in lying, tenacious in pleading for a place in court, tenacious in cowardice, tenacious in wit. And we laugh in celebration of his tenacity.
What form of affirmational Vitalism least characterizes Falstaff? That would have to be Potential. Bevington sums it up: Falstaff is “old, . . .fat, humorous, and without honor” (785), hardly the promise of the future. If anything, we laugh at his lack of potential, but that is defiant rather than affirmational Vitalism and thus not part of the Langerian affirmational analysis we are expositing.
We are left, then, with Creativity and Performance vying for next dominant form of affirmational vitalist humor, and an argument can be made for either. Affirmational Creativity laughs in delight over a great new idea, a creative way of approaching things. Affirmational Performance laughs in amazement over the impossible feat performed.
Let us consider first Creativity. Falstaff lives by his creative argument, by his wit. He sets the example for Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion as the original moralist. His rhetorical arguments make hair-pin turns. All of the repartee which is dominated by Word Play becomes an artistic medium through which Falstaff expresses his creative spirit. We laugh intellectually at his wit and spiritually at his creativity.
If we combine Tenacity and Creativity to create a vitalist humor personality, we get Entrepreneur, someone with an ingenious idea and the tenacity to bring it to fruition. And Falstaff is indeed a consummate entrepreneur. He is the great military entrepreneur of the Middle Ages, turning a military obligation into a money-making venture. He is also a shrewd social entrepreneur, using an unlikely barroom affiliation with the Prince to try to secure a place in court.
However, there is also a case for Performance as the second dominant vitalist humor form. Stage history tells us that Falstaff was originally played by a nationally renowned actor, beloved for his extraordinary abilities coupled with his large girth—something of a John Candy and Robin Williams rolled into one. Yet Falstaff’s immensity as a character is not confined to a particular actor. Anthony Quayle, who played Falstaff twice on stage and again decades later in the BBS TV series, is quoted as saying of Falstaff, “ . . .in the theatre, he is a titanic character—in Part I he dominates” (25). So while the lines of the play point to Creativity Vitalism, the role of Falstaff demands Performance Vitalism. If we combine Performance with Tenacity, we get Hero, one who performs extraordinary feats with great tenacity.
Now we have struck at the heart of critical division over Falstaff. For many, Falstaff is the heart and soul of the play, and thus a hero. For some he is an unfortunate victim of Hal’s callous political image-making, but he’s still alive and thus a hero—a rogue hero, yes, but a hero nonetheless. For some he is a willing and sacrificial mentor to the heir apparent, truly a hero. And for many he is such a loveable old son-of-a―― that he can’t possibly be thought of as just an entrepreneur; he’s—well, a hero.
Thus far, we have a three-sided analysis of the humor of 1 Henry IV which so centers on Falstaff as to also be the humor of Falstaff himself. As Humor of the Body, the humor of Falstaff is Over-ripe, Unhealthy, Decadent. As Humor of the Mind, the humor of Falstaff is stridently Advocate. As Humor of the Spirit, the positive Langerian spirit, he is either Entrepreneur or Hero—let’s call him Entrepreneurially Heroic. All are highly relevant to any other analysis of 1 Henry IV. But as already argued, these three parts are not part of a oneness, the humor personality of the play or of Falstaff. Each exists separately, operates on its own dimension, and provides its own humor texture.
Yet there is a fourth humor dimension, that of Bergsonian, or defiant, vitalist humor, a dimension that particularly for Falstaff must be addressed. In empirical research, we are only now, with results from something over 200 respondents, in a position to begin to test theoretical hypotheses about Bergsonian humor. The following discussion then is based in theory alone, not theory which has a track record of extensive empirical demonstration.
In theory, while Langerian humor speaks to our inner self, Bergsonian humor speaks to our professional, practical, social, establishment self. In Bergsonian humor, again, we laugh at vitalist failure, whereas in Langerian humor, we laugh with vitality itself. Most Falstaff criticism is highly positive toward Falstaff, and rightfully so. It sees him as a refreshing new intellectual current in stuffy, hierarchically aristocratic European establishment, and rightfully so. But Falstaff is also the butt of much of the humor of 1 Henry IV. We laugh at him as well as with him. Using the same four sub-forms of Vitalism as we have for Langerian humor—Performance, Tenacity, Creativity, and Potential—we can consider which two most characterize our laughing at Falstaff.
We would argue that Potential is the dominant form of Bergsonian laughter in the play. Ultimately, Falstaff has very limited potential for anything except to make us laugh and to appreciate his roguish eccentricity. Falstaff’s retorts against Hal’s attacks, clever as they are, are all finally inadequate defenses, which is proved, if nowhere else, by the fact that Hal is never put down but always returns to these centrally humorous attacks.
Falstaff may be humorously alive in thinking up the Gad’s Hill gig, but everyone in England knew that being that kind of alive didn’t have great potential for a life sans an appointment with the hangman. Falstaff may have a flair for putting off paying his bills, but even the apprentices in the pit would understand that such flair depended on the pretensions of aristocracy and ultimately wasn’t very likely to end outside debtor’s prison. And in all this, there was reason to laugh at Falstaff even while highly appreciating him.
He’s a fat, old, parasitic, profligate bar fly! How could Shakespeare have made it more obvious that Falstaff didn’t have real potential?
Neither Creativity nor Tenacity seems to be a base for Bergsonian laughter in 1 Henry IV. Bergsonian Vitalism tends to engender laughter at a lack—lack of creativity, lack of tenacity. As we have seen, Falstaff has no lack of either. Falstaff’s creative wit may be finally inadequate to making him the de facto king he would like to be, but it is thoroughly sufficient to keep him roguishly moving on. And Falstaff’s roguish existence is the final proof of his unending tenacity.
That leaves Performance. Like Creativity and Tenacity, Performance is a source of Langerian humor in Falstaff. But at the same time, there is much in Falstaff’s performance which is laughable, meaning worthy of laughing at. His size will almost certainly force his movements, his performance, to be awkward and laughable; he can’t even see his own feet! His sexual performance is clearly if not demonstrably in eclipse. His martial performance and even his performance as a robber are seriously compromised by his girth and by his cowardice. His performance as a member of the upper classes, notably his economic performance, is pathetic. His political perspicacity—whether it is about the mortal dangers materializing against King Henry and Prince Hal or about what really is at stake in Hal’s relationship to his real and royal father—is routinely inept.
Thus we would argue that on the Bergsonian side of Vitalism, we laugh at Falstaff primarily in his lack of Potential and secondarily in his lacks in vital Performance. We will not outrun our research by assigning a humor personality to the play emerging from the synthesis of these dominant Bergsonian vitalist humors. However, several observations are in order based on the strong presence of these humors.
The presence of strong and varied affirmational vitalist humors alongside strong defiant vitalist humors, all focusing on a single character, contributes greatly to our sense that Falstaff is bigger than life, not merely in his body but as a personality. He is seemingly on the verge of expiration, yet he is indefatigable. He is so alive, and he is so corrupt. He is amazing, and he is awful. He is amazingly awful!
Additionally, the presence of both affirmational and defiant vitalist humors contributes greatly to the tension of affection that we feel toward Falstaff; our minds tell us that he is a rogue—an attractive villain—but so do our emotions. If we are willing to fully entertain all the affirmational and all the defiant Vitalism of Falstaff which Shakespeare has built into the play, we love him and we despise him; we cheer him on, and we give him the raspberries.
Furthermore, that tension is compounded by the particular presence of strong Performance vitalist humors, both Langerian and Bergsonian. As we noted earlier, it is the strength of Langerian Performance that makes possible a humor personality of Hero. The tension between the affirmational and the defiant humors focused on Performance is likely to contribute to critical divisions precisely over Falstaff’s heroic stature.
No wonder the response of critics and playgoers alike is so divided over Falstaff. It is easy to see how Hardin Craig arrived at the conclusion that Falstaff was a happy accident and an unanalyzable one at that. It is also easy to understand from the importance of the Langerian/Bergsonian vitalist analysis why so many Falstaffians over so many centuries have thought of him as the most alive character in Shakespeare.
Among many other singularities, Henry IV, Part 1 is remarkable for how the play’s humor personality is tied up in humor centering on a single character, Sir John Falstaff. And this is true for many different dimensions of humor analysis: physical, mental, Langerian vitalist, and Bergsonian vitalist. Shakespeare was a master in creating a play with multiple plots and yet with humor centered largely around one character. But in no other play has he demonstrated that talent as well as in Henry IV, Part 1.
The multidimensionality of the humors of 1 Henry IV makes the humor-of-the mind thesis of this book seem relatively narrow, which of course it is. Humor is not one thing; it is many different things that make us laugh in many different ways. It would seem from the example of Falstaff that ultimately we must talk about humor personality for complex plays in terms of several different humor dimensions. However, for the sake of clarity and brevity, we have chosen to focus our humor analysis in this volume on Humor of the Mind. Even that one dimension of humor is so powerful that for most plays, such analysis provides significant supporting commentary to comedic import. And the texture created by predominant mental humors is so effective that by itself it is worth investigation.
Given that both the character Falstaff and the play 1 Henry IV have Advocate humor-of-the-mind personalities, what, then is the texture created by this Advocate humor personality? The texture of Advocate humor tends to be rather hard-finished and in-your-face. It is almost always intensely talkative. So in texture, because of its predominance of Word Play, 1 Henry IV has something in common with As You Like It in being a talkative play. But unlike As You Like It, which uses talk to temporize, to wait it out, 1 Henry IV uses talk to prove a case, to move to a verdict. To shut the book, not to open an unending discussion. Advocate texture does not have a highly contemplative feel nor a compromising feel.
In its Humor of the Mind, 1 Henry IV stands opposite Comedy of Errors. We noted in Chapter Five that the Reconciler humor combination of Comedy of Errors—Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain—created a texture of maturity, inclusiveness, mercy, and gentleness, the opposite of the hard finish of sharp verbal sparring and judicial conclusiveness of the Advocate humor combination, Word Play and Gotcha.
In CTCV, where our example of Advocate humor personality was the Disney movie Aladdin, we considered the Advocate texture in contrast to our humorously opposite Reconciler example, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That discussion, originally meant for a critical humor analysis of a children’s movie, actually has much to say about the Advocate texture of 1 Henry IV:
“Recognizing that both Aladdin and its [Reconciler] humor opposite, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, define and symbolize comedic success with a marriage, a marriage of two people from very different cultural backgrounds, we can ask ourselves in each case, what does it take to make that marriage happen. In the case of Aladdin, it takes Aladdin’s strongly asserting—advocating—his own strengths and self-identity, it takes Jasmine advocating a new way of doing sultanic business to her father, and it takes the villain, Jaffar, getting got. It is straightforward: somebody wins, somebody loses, the Sultan losing happily while Jaffar is considerably more discomfited. But the couple lives proverbially happily ever after. The deal is sealed.” (Chapter 9: “Aladdin,” 12 on-line version)
We can rephrase this summation in for 1 Henry IV. Both Hal and Falstaff strongly advocate for their lifestyles. It is straightforward: somebody wins (Hal permanently, Falstaff fleetingly), somebody loses (Hotspur, Mortimer, Glendower). The King ultimately but rather happily loses to his son who has turned out to be ready for kingship; the Percies and friends are considerably more discomfited. The deal is sealed.
The deal that is sealed justifies the title of the play: Henry IV, Part 1 is the play of a doomed and cursed, illicit kingship. As such, it could easily be tragedy, except that the tragedy has already been played out in Richard II. Henry IV, Part 1 moves on in a rather dark comedic vein—the death of an illicit kingship, but a death in which a new and ideal king is given his education and earns his spurs. Henry IV, Part 1 stamps “paid” on the illicit Lancastrian acquisition of the throne, a stamping advocated throughout in the advocacy of Hal’s unorthodox progress to the throne.
Aladdin and King Henry IV, Part 1 are worlds apart, one a simple tale made into a sophisticatedly animated movie and the other one of the most intricately complex plays of world drama. But with respect to Humor of the Mind, they are very similar in their Advocate structure. In terms of humor texture, what was originally said in a discussion of Aladdin we ask be considered word for word for Henry IV, Part1:
“Advocate texture is likely to be self-assured, assertive, highly directed, and unambiguous. Perhaps most of all, it moves toward settlement, toward a sealed or done deal, and in this sense, Advocate texture moves toward finality and closure.” (12)
This can and does sound like a description of the play, but again, at the deepest level, texture is in us not in the work of art. It is our emotional feel. The interminable conflict between the Halians and the Falstaffians over who is the hero in 1 Henry IV is its own strong evidence that we, as audience, feel moved to settlement, toward a sealed and done deal, finality, and closure. We can see this unending conflict as Shakespeare’s biggest theatric mistake. But probably we should see it as yet another of his paradoxical triumphs—in the same breath to consign Falstaff to an obvious dustbin of history and to make him immortally still holding his own.
We must not, however, forget Shakespeare’s other, indubitable advocacy running alongside the Falstaffian paradox: the expansive, politically ambitious, throne-approved comedic import of Henry IV, Part I which we argued for in the last chapter—that Hal has found an unconventional way to legitimize his throne, to prepare himself to be the overwhelmingly successful king of Henry V, not incidentally complimenting the acumen of Elizabeth herself. This import advocacy has been fully supported and enhanced by the Advocate humor structure of the play. The mental humor structure itself brings the question of Hal’s legitimacy toward finality and closure. The deal is done.
At the same time, Humor of the Body and Humor of the Spirit centering in the immense character of Falstaff arguably contributed to the waylaying of an epic dramatic structure, forcing Shakespeare onto a detour that developed even further the degenerate Falstaff, much to audience delight, while it did nothing to further the grand dramatic design and historic import of the English Histories. But after all, by the end of Henry IV, Part 1, that also had become a done deal.
Related works in ITCHS: The Irrepressibly Complex Falstaff: A Humor Structure Analysis of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I.