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The Spirit of Falstaff

(Reprinted from SOBRAN’S, December 2000, page 3)

I fell in love with Shakespeare in 1961, when I was 15. This was quite apart from the authorship question, which I ignored until I was 40. Among the countless books of criticism I read, A.C. Bradley’s classic Shakespearean Tragedy and Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare stood out.

But the book that changed my entire way of seeing Shakespeare was The Meaning of Shakespeare, by Harold Clarke Goddard — to my mind the most original commentary on Shakespeare ever written. It appeared posthumously in 1951, the rather inapt title supplied by the publisher; a better title would have been The Spirit of Shakespeare. Goddard would have resisted the suggestion that Shakespeare can be captured by any single “meaning.”

Goddard writes of Shakespeare with an unabashed love bordering on adoration. He was a Quaker who taught at Bryn Mawr, and his tone is that of a wise and affectionate teacher who would rather impart his enthusiasm than impose his ideas; he is fond of quoting William Blake’s saying that “enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of knowledge, and the last.” He never sounds academic.

[Breaker quote: Harold 
Goddard, the incomparable Shakespeare commentator] I didn’t like Goddard at first; in fact he enraged me. I began with his chapter on Hamlet, in which he rejects the general assumption that Hamlet is duty-bound to avenge his father’s murder. This struck me as perversely wrong. Nevertheless, as I read on I gradually saw that Goddard was right. Hamlet’s descent into the cycle of violence, driven by a false conscience which his father’s spirit encourages, results not in justice but in chaos and destruction. He, his mother, and several others, including the innocent Ophelia, die along with his murderous uncle, and Denmark falls under the sway of a foreign power, Norway: that is the price of revenge.

In Goddard’s view, Hamlet exemplifies a recurrent pattern in Shakespeare. In play after play, the hero is torn between Force (the male, atavistic, and often paternal influence) and Imagination (the feminine principle). Romeo, the tender lover, is drawn into an ancestral feud that destroys him and Juliet; noble Brutus tries to defeat tyranny by force, only to produce an even worse tyranny; Hamlet’s revenge mission results in the ruin of Denmark; Richard III and Macbeth resort to murder, issuing in wars that consume them; King Lear tries to impose his will on his children, plunging England into madness; Coriolanus comes to a tragic end because, under the influence of his domineering mother, he sacrifices his natural feelings to military power and patrician intransigence, until even she begs him to relent. In the comedies, on the other hand, the feminine principle wins out in the end; anger and enmity (or even the “merry war” between the sexes) yield to the creative spirit: mercy, peace, and reconciliation, included in and symbolized by marriage.

But Goddard’s pinnacle may be his interpretation of the Henry V cycle, beginning with Richard II. He challenges the prevalent notion that Henry V is Shakespeare’s ideal king. Instead, he sees the cycle as subtly debunking a national hero.

In the traditional legend of Henry V, Henry — as Prince Hal — led a wild youth until his father’s death, then underwent a sudden reformation, banishing his lowlife companions and rising to military heroism. And this is the way the Henry V cycle is usually described: Shakespeare takes the legend at face value, most critics agree, and Hal has no choice but to reject Falstaff and the rest.

But according to Goddard, Hal must choose between the principle of Force represented by his father, Henry IV, who has deposed Richard II, and the principle of Imagination, represented by Falstaff. Hal’s cold-blooded rejection of Falstaff proves that he is too much his father’s son, and the ghost of Falstaff hovers over Henry V as the “mirror of all Christian kings” cynically invades and conquers France, using threats of mass rape and massacre to induce surrender. He warns the city of Harfleur that it will see its naked infants impaled on his soldiers’ spears if it resists. (The action scenes in Laurence Olivier’s film of the play, made to boost British morale during World War II, show Henry fighting righteously and valiantly; in the play itself, we never see Henry fighting at all, and Olivier had to cut several passages portraying his ruthless brutality in order to sustain his heroic aura.)

Goddard supports his interpretation with a close reading of the text. But beyond that, he sees Falstaff as close to the essence of Shakespeare, not in his vices (which Goddard agrees are real and indefensible), but in his ability to transcend “the tyranny of things as they are. Falstaff is immortal because he is a symbol of the supremacy of the imagination over fact. He forecasts man’s final victory over Fate itself. Facts stand in our way. Facts melt before Falstaff like ice before a summer sun — dissolve in the aqua regia of his resourcefulness and wit. He realizes the age-old dream of all men: to awaken in the morning and to know that no master, no employer, no bodily need or sense of duty calls, no fear or obstacle stands in the way — only a fresh beckoning day that is wholly ours.”

But “freedom is only the negative side of Falstaff. Possessing it, he perpetually does something creative with it. It is not enough for him to be the sworn enemy of facts. Any lazy man or fool is that. He is the sworn enemy of the factual spirit itself, of whatever is dull, inert, banal. Facts merely exist — and so do most men. Falstaff lives. And where he is, life becomes bright, active, enthralling.”

On the other hand, “the Immortal Falstaff” is undermined by “the Immoral Falstaff,” and in the end he gives Hal plenty of color for rejecting and denouncing him. All the same, it’s a terrible pity, even a tragedy for both men, that Henry and Falstaff come to such a parting of the ways.

This is not the usual language of literary criticism. Goddard is frankly concerned with what Shakespeare has to say about human life and the spirit, and he refuses to treat the plays as closed texts. He sees them as illuminating each other, showing how Shakespeare’s insight deepens from one work to the next. For all their wonderful variety and pageantry, they also have a collective integrity, an inner unity of purpose. “His plays and poems deserve to be considered integrally, as chapters, so to speak, of a single work.” While Shakespeare the Playwright achieves wonderful dramatic effects, Shakespeare the Poet complicates or even contradicts the plays’ ostensible meanings with hidden ironies.

Falstaff at his best is the very spirit of Shakespeare, marvelously free and creative. All the greatest Shakespearean characters — Hamlet, Cleopatra, Rosalind, even the repentant Lear — have something of the old knight’s ability to transmute a situation through the power of imagination. At their peak moments, they refuse to be defeated by mere fact. They are united by their “refusal to value life in terms of anything but life itself”: they never measure life by worldly standards.

quote: Shakespeare dramatizes the struggle between Force and 
Imagination.]Goddard audaciously suggests that Lear dies in joy at seeing that the dead Cordelia is truly alive after all, despite what a literal reading of the text may seem to say; and in dying, he joins her in eternal life. Whether such a proposition can be “proved” is irrelevant to Goddard; he insists that every reading of the plays involves a meeting between Shakespeare’s imagination and the reader’s. There is no single inherent meaning apart from what we make of the plays, provided we read them with full attention. They mirror our own spirits. The more we put into them, the more we get out of them. For Goddard this is true of all poetry, not just Shakespeare. He delights in quoting, with full sympathy, the naive reactions of his own students. He thinks they can tell us more about Shakespeare than the sophisticated judgments of sober scholars who abstain from offering opinions about life outside the plays.

For Goddard, poetry is a kind of prophecy, and Shakespeare is among the supreme oracles of literature. He sees not only Shakespeare’s works but all literary works and spiritual writings as commenting on each other; he appeals to the Bible, the Upanishads, Blake, Goethe, Emerson, Thoreau, Dostoyevsky, Samuel Butler, and William James, to name a few.

This makes his style of commentary embarrassing to most academic scholars. But it gives his book urgency, and he captures something vital in the perennial appeal of Shakespeare. We don’t read Shakespeare merely to learn about Elizabethan life; we read him because he shows us life itself. Goddard acknowledges that we should understand the historical context of the plays, but he denies that that context explains those plays. Rather, it is like the soil in which a flower grows: “The secret of why the germinating seed selects certain ingredients of the soil, while utterly ignoring others, lies in the seed, not in the soil.”

Even Shakespeare, if we could interview him, wouldn’t have the last word on what his plays “mean.” Once they exist, their meaning is up to us. In this sense, Goddard resembles the recent deconstructionists, though he has none of their nihilism. For him the impossibility of a final, definitive “meaning” is reason for hope, not despair. “For my part,” he says, “I believe we are nearer the beginning than the end of our understanding of Shakespeare’s genius.”

Nobody has explained Shakespeare’s power to enhance life better than Goddard. Everyone praises Shakespeare; a few critics deepen one’s understanding of him. But only Goddard leaves the reader feeling that Shakespeare is even greater than anyone has realized.
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