17 May 2013: Comments on Shakespeare’s Lowlife

20 mn supine workout first thing, a great white egg Congee with an hard-boiled egg, read act 1 of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

This play, not nearly as scintillating as the two “Falstaff” plays (Henry IV parts 1 and 2), contains my favorite Shakespearean lowlife, “Ancient Pistol”, where “Ancient” doesn’t mean “old”, rather the military rank of ensign (flag carrier?) roughly equivalent to today’s top sergeant, warrant officer, or second lieutenant.

Ancient Pistol appears only in Henry IV part 2 and Henry 5. He prides himself on being Falstaff’s friend but Falstaff and especially Mistress Quickly (Falstaff’s closest confidante) despise him as a blowhard. Whilst Falstaff thinks before he speaks (“what, is the old king dead?” when Pistol brings news, in H4 part 2, of the death of Henry IV) Pistol just runs his mouth (“A foutra for the world, and worldlings base/I speak of Africa and golden joys” at that same time).

Pistol is a miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) and he speaks “fustian”; Pistol is a crude caricature of Falstaff.

He is part of a four man group in Henry V and a three man group in Merry Wives.

In Henry V, after Falstaff dies, Pistol, the “thought leader” of Falstaff’s drunken followers, leads them into battle, or, more precisely, close, then away, to be beaten into the attack on Harfleur by Fluellen. The lads are: Pistol, Corporal Nym, Bardolph and Boy.

Nym is sly and resentful thinking he might marry Mistress Quickly after Falstaff’s death, for Falstaff was betrothed to Mistress Quickly…she gives good evidence for this betrothal to the Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV Part 2 in this charming passage:

“Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor”

Falstaff, in the Henrician trilogy, schemes to inherit Mistress Quickly’s carefully cultivated estate (a tavern in London) but when he dies, Corporal Nym and Pistol compete for Mistress Quickly’s hand and property; Pistol is the victor. Nym is apt to say “and that’s the humor of it” and other words that affirm what he has said. He’s probably slain at Agincourt: that’s what Branagh would have us believe although there are no words to that effect in Henry V; Branagh’s film shows Nym slain while looting a corpse.

In the Folio text of Henry V, there is a large amount of play text in the middle which is almost never staged and was not filmed by Branagh despite Branagh’s reputation for avoiding cuts. It includes the resolution of the dispute between a disguised Henry and Wiliams when Williams, in the night before the battle, mocks “Henry Le Roy’s” pretensions to “never trust his word after”, speaking of the King and much material about the relationship of Henry V and Montjoy far more subtle and gentle than presented by Branagh.

This material may have been a set of spare tires or cannilizable parts to be used or not depending on the requirements of specific performances which would undercut my vision of Shakespeare as an Ur-artist of the Romantic era who wanted to create complete works of art.

We know Pistol survives to turn “cutpurse” in England.

“Boy” is a young kid probably adopted by Mistress Quickly off the streets of London. His death is implied but not confirmed when in Henry V the retreating French, in Fluellen’s words, “kill the poys and the luggage” and Captain Gower says “’tis certain there’s not a boy left alive”.

In Pistol’s final speech alone, there is some self-hating self-knowledge whereas before there was just fustian. Would Shakespeare had more opportunity to develop this character beyond Merry Wives of Windsor.


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