Counterfeit honour - high and low


What is the difference between Falstaff counterfeiting death and the King's use of counterfeit versions of himself? Hardly any. The gap between the King and Falstaff may not be so great as we may tend to think, though Falstaff has generally been considered to represent the opposite of the King, as the figure of carnival, of license and theatricality opposed to that of order.

Shakespeare is continuously deconstructing the opposition between the two poles. The two worlds do not so much develop in opposite directions, as they are parallel to each other. When the Prince cannot believe his eyes seeing Falstaff alive, he tells him "Thou art not what thou seem'st"; Falstaff replies "No that's certain, I am not a double-man" (5.4. 132-133). The New Cambridge edition explains the word double-man as 1) apparition or wraith 2) two men (referring to Falstaff's appearance with Hotspur on his back).(Weil and Weil, 180) I think we may add a third meaning — I am not a double-man like someone else — which indirectly refers to the king's devious strategy of doubling his image by circulating counterfeit kings. Falstaff is, however, the King's low-life double, a projection in the margins of the latter's identity and actions.

In a number of instances Falstaff reproduces the philosophy at court within a different, carnivalesque code. At the same time King Henry's performance on stage does not strike the audience as being more valiant than Falstaff's: both fall back on counterfeiting to save their skins; both depend on Hal. Falstaff asks for Hal's help in battle whereas the King, while fighting Douglas, desperately needs his son's help, who fortunately comes to his rescue. With respect to the latter incident, Shakespeare operated significant changes on Holinshed's text that created the sense of the King's vulnerability and physical failing (this indirectly translated into his moral failing as well) . In Holinshed's text the King was a valiant soldier and set a worthy example to be followed. No mention is made of his son's intervention: "The king, in deed, was raised, & did that daie manie a noble feat of armes for as it is written, he slue that daie with his owne hands six and thirtie persons of his enimies. The other on his part, incouraged by his doings, fought valiantlie, and slue the lord Persie, called sir Henrie Hotspur"[22]

Falstaff's lawlessness is but a reproduction of the lawlessness Bullingbrook initiated when he seized the crown. (Belsey, 37-38) Falstaff steals money: Henry has stolen a crown. Falstaff's cynical description of his haggard retinue as "food for powder" replicates the King's ruthlessness in relying on violence (be it the envisaged crusade or the suppression of a rebellion which he himself had indirectly caused in order to shore up his position).

The parallels between the King and Falstaff, and implicitly between Hal and Falstaff cast doubts on the teleological thrust of the plot. They render the very idea of the Prince's reformation questionable. If the two worlds, the court and Eastcheap, are so close, if the distance between them narrows down to the point where they threaten to overlap, what is the point of Hal's change and of his separation from Falstaff? At the same time if the distance between Falstaff and the King narrows down, then the carnivalesque no longer offers an unambiguously oppositional space, an alternative to the world of power and military exploit but is in its turn contaminated by it.

Falstaff does represent the (m)other that has to be repressed (see Valerie Traub, (64-66) for Prince Hal to fully assume his subject position as King Henry V. The deconstruction of the opposition between the world Falstaff metonymically represents and the world of power suggests that the change to be operated by means of excluding Falstaff is only cosmetic, as his cynical amorality was something he shared both with Hal and King Henry IV and was therefore constitutive of power and of the subject of power. The low world of the tavern is subversive, as we shall see in the next chapter, less for the features in which it differs from the high world of power and more for those aspects it shares with the mighty.

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