"What is honour?"— the deconstruction of chivalric values

At the onset of the battle of Shrewsbury Falstaff, the figure of carnival, is afraid. "I would `twere bedtime, Hal, and all well" (5.1. 125) He speaks as if he were a little child. He has just asked his friend for protection and help and has received a rather discouraging answer. Falstaff seems to be in the wrong place and at the wrong time. His mock sword, the dagger of lath Vice used in the Tudor moralities, (Dessen,125) and which he flaunted to Hal - "A king's son! If I do not beat thee out of thy kingdom with a dagger of lath and drive all subjects afore thee like a flock of wild geese, I'll never wear hair on my face more " (2.4.115) - this weapon can be of little help here.

What is this figure of carnival doing on the battlefield? How are we as audience to assess this intervention of the low, of the body, of the transgressive into the high world of honour and glory? Are we to resent it as Hal does when he finds Falstaff idle, carrying a bottle of sack where he should have had his pistol? The prince perceives Falstaff's carnivalesque intrusion as polluting the high military spirit of the battle and objects to any mockery of the military enterprise: "What, is it time to jest and dally now?" (5.3.52).[16] Hal would like to keep the two worlds separate — the carnivalesque low-life of the tavern, with its playful theatricality and inverted system of values, and the serious world of war which is associated with work and the positive moral values derived from work. Because it produces a contamination of the two worlds, Falstaff's intervention is highly destabilizing.

If one adopts an oppositional, Bakhtinian perspective, which celebrates transgressions against the established order, Falstaff's destabilizing presence is valued positively as a political intervention. It questions dominant values and encourages in the audience the kind of deconstructive scepticism, which can generate critical distance towards widely accepted myths, values and naturalized ideological constructions. One nevertheless cannot help wondering if this reading does not run the risk of smoothing out Falstaff's radical ambivalence and perplexing complexity. Furthermore we may ask ourselves whether Falstaff's mockery does not display a certain degree of excess, which spills over into cynicism. Doesn't this excess, this supplement, undermine the politically positive quality of the intervention of the carnivalesque into the serious world of power and honour? We shall trace the way Falstaff's marginal perspective on martial events, the moral stance he adopts is not only oppositional but at the same time repeats in a parodic key, of course, the dominant positions adopted by figures of authority in the play. Chivalric honour is translated in the carnivalesque language of the body, whereby abstract concepts such as duty to God and to one's king, honour are reduced to merely material realities.

Falstaff's "translation" of dominant values into the language of the margins, does not necessarily privilege the "original" (i.e. the version of dominant values as promoted at court) over the translation (the derivative, parodic version circulated in taverns like the one in Eastcheap), the latter often exhibiting an excess of meaning in relation to the former.[17] I would further like to insist that this perspective does not exhaust the multiplicity of meanings that Falstaff's figures discharges on the stage. The scope of this essay does not permit us to investigate the theatricality, which Falstaff shares along with the female figures of Eastcheap (the Hostess, Doll Tearsheet in 2Henry IV), [18]his effeminacy, which renders him gender ambivalent[19], and many other aspects. What cannot be emphasized enough is that no definitive conclusion can be reached, when dealing with a character like Falstaff, whose most interesting aspect may be the deferral of closure and of fixed meanings. (Belsey, 44-45)

Falstaff's insistence on the body, cynical as it may sound, is not totally amiss, since chivalric value does depend upon injuring the body. His speech foregrounds the broken limbs, the wounds, the inevitability of death, which the ideological discourse of warfare tries to conceal, and which do underlie the pursuit of honour. Falstaff points out the shocking truth that the pursuit of military honour involves destruction, the undoing of the world, as Elaine Scarry has put it,[20] without the attending process of remaking what has been destroyed. The wounds inflicted on the body are not healed — "Honour has no skill in surgery".

The grim reality of dismembered bodies, "of all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopped off in battle…some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them…" will emerge in Henry V, act Iv, scene 1, where Williams warns the king about the responsibility he will have to bear for these acts of destruction. In Henry IV part one Falstaff dismisses the chivalric notion that postulates that honour is a triumph over death, or at least over the limitations of the body.

"Who hath it [honour]? He that died a' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. `Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead." In Falstaff's carnivalesque, down-to-earth view there is no room for abstract notions that cannot be circumscribed within a concrete embodied experience. The reduction of symbolic values such as honour to sensory perceptions (" Doth he feel it? Doth he hear it?") while being a rhetorical sleight of hand in a carnivalesque style, also points to the centrality of death in the pursuits of military glory.

Falstaff questions the symbolic capital that can accrue to a pursuer of honour. To Falstaff the glory won in battle is necessarily short-lived "Detraction [i.e. slander] will not suffer it." Falstaff's deconstructive considerations wind up denying honour any substance or reality. " What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air".

If viewed from this perspective Hotspur's dedication to the pursuit of military honour seems gratuitous and hardly intelligible. The play seems strangely to endorse this view as it foregrounds the loss of value Hotspur experiences before his death and which Alexander Legatt compared to Macbeth's bitter speech uttered upon hearing of his wife's death. (Legatt, 86) The same message can be derived from the indignities that Hotspur's dead body is subjected to—it is Falstaff himself who stabs him in the thigh thus replicating the shameful acts of castration the Welsh women were earlier on reported to have perpetrated upon the bodies of the English soldiers. It is significant that after Hal has delivered his epitaphs to both Falstaff and Hotspur, it is Falstaff and not Hotspur, the embodiment of chivalric honour, who "rises". Falstaff's death has, of course, been "counterfeited", but the surprise of seeing him rise, when along with prince Hal we have just considered him dead and have mourned for him, underscores the symbolical significance of his coming back to life.

Falstaff's cynical and derisive account of honour, however, goes clean counter the Weltanschauung of both the medieval world as captured by the chronicles and of Elizabethan England. In the latter world honour was still an important political asset for an aristocrat like Essex. Honour understood not in military but in civic terms was a major lever of power of the Elizabethan administration. It involved the acquisition of positions of public responsibility and provided powerful incentives for members of the middle class or petty aristocracy to participate in the public sphere and ensure the smooth functioning of the state.[21]

Let us consider Falstaff's honour speech from the perspective of ethical issues related to gift and sacrifice. When delivering this speech, Falstaff takes his cue from Hal, who does not mention the word honour but insists on Falstaff's duty and debt to God: "Thou oweth God a death". Hal does not add that Falstaff, qua soldier and vassal, owes his king a death, but Falstaff fully gets this meaning. One should notice that Hal defines the duty Falstaff has to perform as a form of debt: Falstaff has to give something in return for the protection he has received. What he has to give is his life, or rather, as Derrida puts it, "the gift of death".(Derrida, 33) Falstaff questions, parodies and eventually dismisses the ethics involved in the request for such sacrifice.

In the first place the word God no longer appears in his speech and the whole treatment of the injunction made on him is radically desacralized and secularised: there is no "call" from a transcendental being (God to whom he owes his life) to perform his duty and pay his debt. God is displaced by a worldly kind of honour. Secondly what appeared to belong to the realm of spiritual matters — duty, God— is rendered in highly material terms. God's (or by analogy, the king's) summon is turned into something that reduced to a low bodily experience. (In 2 Henry IV, act three, scene two, Falstaff puns upon the meanings of the verb "to prick" and plays upon the sexual innuendos the word could be made to convey.) The audacity, if not the insolence, of his iconoclastic, desacralizing moves is all the greater as the format Falstaff has chosen for his reasoning is that of a catechism, that is, the very format by means of which believers were taught the basic knowledge on God and on one's duties towards God. These rhetorical moves enable Falstaff to twist the meanings of honour until he reaches the conclusion that there is nothing essential or imperative about a request made in its name.

I think that, next to trying to convince the audience of the absurdity of any pursuit of honour, Falstaff is trying to bypass the feudal law that demands that an act of sacrifice be made for the king. He is looking for a loophole in the hierarchic structure where he can dodge the issue of his debt or his duties to the king. What Falstaff ends up doing is questioning the necessity of doing any duty and of paying any debt. This is no news to the audience, as all through the play he has shown his reluctance to pay his bills or any money he owed. ("O, I do not like that paying back, `tis double labour" 3.3 149). The ethical vision his speech conjures can be described as one of utter amorality, selfishness and total lack of responsibility. It is the fantasy of a spoiled child. This is not to deny his lucid insights into the violence and the destruction that the pursuit of chivalric honour presupposes. As always with Falstaff the meanings of his statements cannot be arrested into a single reading.

In 2 Henry IV there is a character called Feeble, whose views can be considered to offer a counterfoil to Falstaff's arguments on honour. Having recently been recruited or "pricked", as Falstaff puts it, Feeble does not bribe Falstaff to write him off the list but is surprisingly willing to do his duty and give his life for his king. He uses the proverbial expression - to owe God a death—, which Hal uttered in Henry IV part one: By my troth, I care not, a man can die but once; we owe God a death. I'll ne'er bear a base mind; and't be my destiny, so; and't be not, so. No man's too good to serve's prince, and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next. (3.2.191-195)

Feeble is determined to "ne'er bear a base mind" and to act in way that contradicts both his name ( an allegorical one, which has to be read from an unexpected perspective) and the bad name that his trade had in Shakespeare's time. Being a woman's tailor, Feeble is expected to be a coward.

Unlike his companions, unlike the noblemen in the play, whether rebels or the ruling prince, Feeble is ready to pay his debt and give his life in a way that goes beyond any calculations. Feeble does not pursue anything, whether material gains like Falstaff for whom war is a source of increasing his income nor political power or symbolic capital like the rebels or Prince John. He stands to gain nothing. His stoic resignation -"nd't be my destiny, so; and't be not so" does not detract from the moral nobility of his act, but to the contrary it emphasizes it. Feeble is ready to give his life as a gift, going beyond calculations.

At the same time he fully assumes his own death, a position that is expressed by means of the proverbial phrase of "a man can die but once". To use Derrida to paraphrase Shakespeare's Feeble, this means that a man's death is nobody's but his own and he should therefore assume it and make the most of it. (Derrida, 63) Feeble assumes it and gives it as a gift to his prince. Thus he acquires an honour that hardly any other character in the play rises up to. "Strong" Feeble is one of those minor (feeble?) allegorical characters, whose function is to map out the moral terrain of the fictional universe of the play and to establish standards against which the other characters are to be judged.

To Falstaff this alternative definition makes no sense as he values actions only by what he might gain from them. Honour is not worthwhile pursuing since such an action involves far more losses than gains. As we have shown above, Hal in his heroic pose seems to reason along the same line. He expects the victory over Hotspur "to engross up glorious deeds upon [his] behalf" (3.2. 145-148), to ensure him the monopoly over honour in the country. The chivalric fervour at the beginning of his speech - "I will redeem all this on Percy's head/ And in the closing of some glorious day/ Be bold to tell you that I am your son" (3.2.134-132)— is displaced by cool, pragmatic calculation.

Since as our discussion of ethical issues has involved the idea of paying a debt, we have to point out that in this respect the difference between Hal and Falstaff couldn't be wider: unlike Falstaff, Hal pays not only his debts, the debts he never promised as he announces in his first soliloquy in act one, scene two, but he also pays other people's debts with advantage, such as Falstaff's bills. His way of paying debts takes on the structure of excess that Derrida likened to that of sacrifice (Derrida, 62-63) and projects him as a Christ-like figure. (After all he will redeem an ignoble past when he becomes king)

The one debt that Hal will eventually fail to pay is the debt of friendship he owes to Falstaff. When Falstaff requests his help and protection in battle, a request explicitly made in the name of friendship, Hal turns him down:

Falstaff: Hal, if thou see me down in the battle and bestride me so, `tis a point of friendship.

Prince: Nothing but a Colossus can do thee that friendship. Say thy prayers and farewell (5.1. 121-123). . [bestride me- stand over me in order to protect me.]

Hal's failing to pay this debt does not differ radically from his father's. Henry IV does not want to pay the debt he owes Northumberland and Worcester, for their having helped him seize the crown. As Hotspur puts it, the king "studies day and night/To answer all the debt he owes to you, /Even with the bloody payment of your deaths" (1.3. 183-185). A web of betrayals, of failures to pay the debt of friendship, connects Hal, the King and Falstaff.

The idea of honour is related to that of counterfeiting, one of the major themes in 1 Henry IV. Falstaff looks at Sir Walter Blunt's body as a proof in support of his theory on the futility of any act of sacrificing one's life in order to gain honour :

"I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter Blunt hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so. If not, honour comes unlooked for, and there's an end" (5.3. 55-57).

Sir Walter Blunt, Lord Stafford and presumably many more, all " semblably furnished like the king himself" die as counterfeit images of the king. At the most heroic moment of their lives— their death for the king - their identities are suppressed. They are mere "coats", as Douglas calls them. Their sacrifice includes not only their lives but also their identities: they die wearing "borrowed titles". Falstaff rejects the idea of such sacrifice (or of any sacrifice, for that matter) and asserts his strong belief in the superiority of life over honour. This amounts to an inversion within the chivalric code, which further triggers a dismantling of the opposition between what is genuine, authentic and what is counterfeit, fake:

Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit. To die is to be 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 itself. (5.4.112-116)

Falstaff's mock, counterfeit death is "the true image of life", whereas Sir Blunt's dead body is a double counterfeit.


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