Essay: Shakespeare and Orson Welles

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William Shakespeare's Henriad And Orson Welles Five Kings:

Rewriting the role of Falstaff in the Shakespearean English history cycle

Orson Welles' Mercury Theater adaptation of Shakespeare, a saga entitled Five Kings, seems very calculating and self-interested on its surface. Welles shifts the focus of the history cycle from the rulers of England to Sir John Falstaff. This seems convenient for Welles as an actor -- physically he resembles Falstaff more than the lean Prince Hal. This rebalancing of the narrative also creates a more 'meaty,' sympathetic, and tragic role for Falstaff. Hal's rejection of his old friend is not seen as necessary for Hal and England's future success, but as a tragedy for Sir John. However, this shift in emphasis also suggests Welles hopes to create a more American Shakespeare, a Shakespeare where commoners have equal significance as kings.

The usual interpretation of Shakespeare's history cycle of plays is that it is the story of Henry IV and Henry V. Henry IV, first known as Bolingbrook, commits the unpardonable sin of killing a king, Richard II. This moral crime is seen as justified from a practical point-of-view, given Richard's capricious and dictatorial nature (though Shakespeare is ambiguous upon this point). But a kingly deposition, even a justified one, results in cosmological chaos and civil war. Only after the slate is wiped clean, and Henry V assumes the throne does the fortunes of England begin to change. Henry, by virtue of associating with the 'lower orders' has a populist touch that his father (and Richard II) lacked, and thus is an ideal king.

By using 'foils' for Henry such as the lowly Poins and the dissipated Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare is able to show that Prince Hal is equally comfortable amongst high and low society. Prince Hal is able to enjoy drinking in the tavern, yet when needed, he goes to war for England and fights with honor and distinction. Welles' interpretation is not incompatible with that of the Bard. He emphasizes Falstaff's status as a critic of the value system of honor and warfare endorsed by Henry IV and later by his son. In Richard II, even Bolingbrook (Henry IV) marvels at how capriciously Richard as a king is able to change his mind.

RICHARD II

Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes

I see thy grieved heart: thy sad aspect

Hath from the number of his banish'd years

Pluck'd four away.

HENRY BOLINGBROKE

How long a time lies in one little word!

Four lagging winters and four wanton springs

End in a word: such is the breath of kings (Richard II, I.3).

Of course, the capricious breath of kings also enables Henry IV to kill Richard II, yet pretend he'did not want to do so:

EXTON

Didst thou not mark the king, what words he spake, 'Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?'

Was it not so?...

And speaking it, he wistly look'd on me,

And who should say, 'I would thou wert the man'

That would divorce this terror from my heart;'

Meaning the king at Pomfret (Richard II, V.4).

Publically Henry IV says he never made such an order to Exton. Similarly, the king also keeps up the pretence that he forced Richard II to give up his crown 'willingly' when Richard, whose military forces were overwhelmed, really had no choice. The divide between the king's public and private self, Shakespeare suggests, is duplicitous, something that Henry V understands very well but which only Falstaff really challenges aloud.

In fact, the younger Henry is a more astute politician than his father. Prince Hal knows that by pretending to be like the commoners before he assumes the throne, he will win their love when he is king. At the beginning of Henry IV, Prince Henry says:

PRINCE HENRY

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at, …when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am (Henry IV, Part 1, I.2).

Henry V is a calculating man, not someone who truly loves 'wine, women, and song' like Falstaff. He enjoys teasing Falstaff, but even during the play 'pageant' in a tavern he 'deposes' Falstaff when Falstaff is pretending to be the king. "Depose me?" says Falstaff, dangerously joking about how Henry IV came to the throne. This indicates that Falstaff does not truly understand Hal's position -- at any time Hal can turn the force of the law upon Falstaff, as well as use it to protect his friend (Henry IV, Part 1, II.4). After his father's death, Hal publically rejects Falstaff, and the rejection of Falstaff confirms in his subjects' eyes that Hal is now a fitting king -- Prince Hal is literally a new man named Henry V.

KING HENRY V

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;

But, being awaked, I do despise my dream (Henry IV, Part 2, V.4)

Later, Hal's ability to be comfortable with both commoners and aristocrats enables him to put on a persona, literally, and mingle with his common soldiers before the critical battle of Agincourt. Again, the skillful balance between public and private persona that Falstaff is never able to strike is manifest in Henry's behavior. Henry V is able to understand his soldier's fears, and then use these fears to make a motivating speech to propel them to fight. Privately Henry V prays, knowing his men are critically outnumbered and that his throne rests upon shaky ground:

KING HENRY V

O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts;

Possess them not with fear; take from them now

The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers

Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,

O, not to-day, think not upon the fault

My father made in compassing the crown! (Henry V, IV.1).

But Henry, in his Agincourt speech says that the fewer the men who are fighting, the more honor gained. If he had been like Richard II or his father, Henry V never would have understood his men's fears and able to address them -- and turn them around. Hal learns from his friendship with Falstaff and other 'lower' men. Thus Falstaff, over the course of the history plays as written by Shakespeare is used as a foil, not a character of the same complex subjectivity as the prince. Henry V is at once duplicitous, a master politician yet oddly compassionate towards his men. For Welles, the more interesting character is Falstaff, not Henry. The climax of Five Kings, and its later cinematic version, Chimes at Midnight, is not when England beats France (long after Falstaff has died) but when Henry V pardons Sir John. In the Shakespearean text, an unidentified man is pardoned. In Welles' version, it is Falstaff: this shows how Henry reconciles with Falstaff before he dies, which does not occur in the real Henriad.

In Henry IV, Part 2, on his deathbed Henry VI says to his son: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days" when by "indirect crook'd ways" he won the crown (Henry IV, Part 2, IV.5). Henry does so, and knows that Falstaff would easily sees through this pretence. In Welles' version and Shakespeare's version of events, Falstaff always took a very dim view of fighting and honor, saying "Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? No" (Henry IV, Part 1, V.1). To become Henry V, Henry must reject such notions and thus reject Falstaff because the entire system of kingly authority rests upon the idea of honor, and the subject's loyalty and debt to the king, right or wrong. Even though Henry does not compel his subjects to fight on pain of death (wisely understanding they will be better fighters if they fight freely) he cannot remain friends with a man who takes a viewer of honor like Falstaff.

Welles' use of Falstaff as a critic who takes a deflationary view of kingship, who is a true radical unlike Henry's pretence of being like the commoners. This is solidified by making Falstaff's emotional journey the centerpiece of Five Kings. Instead of Henry V growing progressively more confident and more independent and crafty than the honest Falstaff, Falstaff transitions from a sexual, lusty and vibrant man (an image confirmed by including some of Shakespeare's non-history comedy the Merry Wives of Windsor in the play) to an old man whose heart… [END OF PREVIEW]

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