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What Is Honor?

Posted in Henry IV Part 1 with tags , , on 2014/04/13 by mattermind

King Henry IV: Part I, Act V

FALSTAFF: Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then?  No.  What is honor?  A word.  What is that word honor then?  Air – a trim reckoning!  Who hath it?  He that died a Wednesday.   Doth he feel it?  No.  Doth he hear it?  No.  ‘Tis insensible then?  Yea, to the dead.  But will it not live with the living?  No.  Why?  Detraction will not suffer it.  Therefore I’ll none of it.  Honor is a mere scutcheon – and so ends my catechism.

On the heels of finishing Act IV, I couldn’t wait to begin Act V.  One way or the other, the play was hurtling toward a dramatic climax.  Either Prince Hal would clash with Hotspur in an epic duel, or somehow convert him over to the royal side.

Not knowing the actual historical events (not that this seemed to bother Shakespeare), I found myself rooting for a Hollywood-like ending, a conversion scene where Hotspur is won over to become Hal’s partner in crime.  With Robin as his sidekick, together they could clean up Gotham and take a bite out of crime.  Surely Shakespeare had to realize that Hotspur was his best character in the story.  What writer wouldn’t be loathe to kill that guy off and let him go?

Breaking: I’m a romantic.  But I don’t think I’m that far off, at least in my sense that Shakespeare was reluctant to see Hotspur leave the play.  We have reason to believe from Worcester’s treachery that – if Hotspur knew the truth – he would most likely have surrendered.  This turn of events thoroughly angered me (yes, I get wrapped up in these things).  King Henry goes the extra mile to offer the rebels a way out of their predicament: state their claims, and he will address them and offer a full pardon to all involved.  In addition, Prince Hal volunteers to grapple with Hotspur against the longshot odds in one-on-one combat.  He is determined to win back favor in his father’s eyes come what may.

Unfortunately, Hotspur is not present to hear either the conditions for pardon or the terms of Ultimate Fighting against his shadow nemesis.  We are virtually certain he would accept the latter in a heartbeat – he has been looking for a way at Hal since the start of the play.  But as for the former, we have only Worcester’s deceit to understand that Hotspur may have taken the gentleman’s way out.

So instead of recapitulating the king’s words and allowing Hotspur to decide, Worcester deliberately lies to stoke Hotspur’s outrage and engage him in the battle.  And why does Worcester do this?  Because he’s convinced that Hotspur would be forgiven for his youth, valor and reputation for rashness, while the rest of the rebels would never fully be trusted again.  The king, he is sure, would only look for a convenient excuse later on to get them all back.

This argument has logic, but absolutely no moral grounds other than self-survival.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Worcester, in fact, gets his in the end.  Rounded up by the king’s men, he is summarily sentenced to death.  No honor, no valor, no glory to accompany his decision.  If, as Isaac Asimov says, Worcester was the “brains” of the operation, then the plan was doomed to failure from the beginning.  There was never a team here but a collection of self-interested individuals.

I am most intrigued, however, by Asimov’s suggestion that Hotspur and Falstaff represent polar opposites on the spectrum of the future Henry V’s personality traits – characteristics that must be reconciled for him to ascend to greatness.  As much as I hate to see Hotspur die, we comprehend in graphic terms how important it is that Hal adopt a more humble approach to honor.  Honor, in the ancient and medieval sense which means acquired glory from battle.  It stems back to the Greeks when such heroes as Achilles and Hector fought fearlessly – not for the tactical advantages or team-building, but rather for reputations that would survive them as a legacy (the riches, fame and women weren’t bad either).

Here, then, it becomes crucial to study the contrast between Falstaff and Hotspur, and how Hal manages to reconcile and transcend them both.  After killing Hotspur, he does not boast of the accomplishment, but allows Falstaff to make the claim if he can. It doesn’t say a lot for Falstaff that he would try.

As Hotspur dies, he cares less about the mortal life fleeing his body than for the honor that will now pass from him to the prince who defeated him.  In his eyes, honor is a zero-sum game. Nothing he ever achieved in his lifetime will matter.  You are only as notable as your final triumph or defeat. Sigh.

Thus, we close Part One with the death of Hotspur and the rout of the rebel force.  Because the attack was launched prematurely, before the full storm of opposition had gathered its strength, there are still opposition armies out in England that need to be dealt with.  But now, with Hal on the ascendant, Douglas captured and converted, and even Hal’s little brother John finding his mettle in the field, there seems little doubt that Henry will seize back the initiative and his reign will regain its footing.

But that remains to be seen in Part II.


Why So Serious?

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , on 2014/01/03 by mattermind

Othello, Act IIImage

How am I then a villain

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,

Directly to his good?  Divinity of hell!

When devils will the blackest sins put on,

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,

As I do now.   – Iago (Scene 3)

How does he do it?  How does Shakespeare create such memorable characters time and time again?  For if Hollywood can hold us spellbound with its “Fava beans and a nice chianti,” how much moreso does Shakespeare with the suave lechery of Iago?

It would be one thing if Iago were pure villainy, dripping vengeance and violence.  But as the quote above indicates, he works with a smile, gaining the trust and confidence of those he would corrupt and destroy.

I have to laugh again at what Harold Bloom has said, his insistence that Shakespeare has beaten every other writer to the punch in his characterizations of human behavior.  For I kept thinking, what is this play but Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment set nearly three centuries earlier?  In exploring the play, must we not address the question of evil itself and where it comes from?

What exactly is driving Iago into such a frenzy?  He states early in the play that he hates the Moor for passing him over for promotion, favoring Cassio to be his lieutenant.  It isn’t hard for us to see why Othello made the wise choice in doing so, because even if he had selected Iago it is clear that Iago only serves Iago.  There is a deeper rot inside him, a malignant narcissism, if you will, to borrow a song title from Rush.  He seems to care only about himself.

Iago has a wife, whom we haven’t met yet but will shortly as his machinations take a deeper turn.  For in Act II we see that his plans are playing out perfectly.  Exploiting alcohol, but really as an accentuation of trust, he gets Cassio drunk on a little wine and uses Roderigo to provoke a skirmish that leads to removal by Othello – exactly what Iago had set out to do.

I don’t want to merely recount the story beat by beat or reveal SPOILERS for those who wish to read the play for themselves because you should, you really should.  Complexities pile atop another.

One gets the sense that for Iago, all the human chaos he causes is just a game.  In that sense, it seems in keeping that he often cites the devil, whose motives are more to undo God than to gain any particular advantage.  Iago’s delight – if one can call it that – stems from his takedown of trust, goodness and honor, the very qualities upon which God’s house is built.  The more loyal and heartfelt Cassio is in service to Othello, the more delight in seeing him fall.  And to do so by exploiting “honesty” and “trust,” maintaining his own good reputation while demolishing that of the truly good Cassio – who but the devil would take pleasure in that?

As we leave Act II, Iago has convinced (it doesn’t take much) Cassio to appeal to Desdemona for reinstatement, to state his case and cause for her to take up.  While it sounds a reasonable course of action, it will only play into Iago’s next bit of foul play as he attempts to convince Othello that both his wife and lieutenant are frauds who are carrying on an affair behind his back.  You can see what’s coming a mile away…mostly because Iago tells us himself, in mischievous asides that wrap up each bit of action in which he’s involved.

If I’m critical of one aspect of the play in particular, it is this: the overuse of those asides to tell us precisely what Iago is thinking and planning next.  It leads me to wonder if Shakespeare isn’t manipulating me by making it too easy to decipher Iago’s intent.  Is he playing me as well?  Is there another layer that I’m missing?

Nevertheless, these monologues deliver all the best lines — oozing with full-fanged treachery.  It causes me to question why I take delight in the starkness of that revelation of pure evil.  I despise what he’s doing.  I fear for Cassio and Othello and Desdemona and the whole state of goodness that Iago is unraveling with his devious plot.  So why is he so much fun to watch?  What makes those monologues the best part?  Might this be what Shakespeare is driving at?  Has he uncovered our Freudian thanatos, a deepset desire to revel in the destruction of order and applaud the descent into chaos?  Can that be?

I despise what is happening, yet I cannot look away.  I revile the monster, yet admit that he is by far the “best” character.  Othello is unquestionably the hero, yet Iago holds our fascination.

In contemporary terms, this is the Joker hanging upside down, laughing at Batman! Try snuffing out the illogic of evil, caped crusader! Iago (and Shakespeare) sees us for who we really are, and how easily our plays at goodness are outdone.