A teacher I had many years ago proved Shakespeare’s greatness in forty lines. Out of the thousands and thousand of lines the Bard wrote, these forty lines, which I will present below, these simple forty lines in common speech were the argument, the proof that Shakespeare is the poet of the English language.
The excerpt concerns the death of Sir John Falstaff in Henry V, Act 2, Scene 3. Of all of Shakespeare’s creations, only Falstaff can rival Hamlet in the capacity to capture the attention of the audience and the scholars alike. Hamlet, from the nineteenth century on, seems to speak of the modern age, our existential angst, whereas Falstaff is the drinking buddy, the ultimate party animal, and braggart everyone knows was no fool, who saw through the BS around him. Never lose sight of the fact that Falstaff is a knight: Sir John Falstaff. He is the guy who makes you forget about Prince Hamlet. Falstaff can make up his mind.
Prince Henry calls Falstaff a ‘sanguine coward,’ ‘this bed-presser,’ this horseback-breaker, ‘ and this huge hill of flesh’ (Henry IV, Act 2, Scene 4). Falstaff is a man of monumental girth; the man Shakespeare tells us can’t even see his own knees, yet inexplicably gets all the girls. Sir John is Drinker and Fornicator extraordinaire, Advisor and Friend, Provocateur and Raconteur, a blend of Vice and Morality who stiffs everyone with the tab. In the passage below the Hostess of the tavern is reporting the death of Falstaff to Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym.
Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now,
sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good
cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or
four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’
should not think of God; I hoped there was no need
to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So
a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
I’ll gloss over the importance of Heaven and Hell to the Elizabethans. I’ll also gloss over the fact that she botches the Biblical allusion: it is to Abraham’s bosom and not Arthur’s (Luke 16.20-23), or that in the last few lines Shakespeare borrowed (or plagiarized?) Plato’s description of Socrates’ death from The Phaedo, with a pun on ‘stone’ for ‘testicle.’ Yes, she is reaching under the sheets and her hand is traveling northward. I’m certain Sir John, like any decent Elizabethan, wants to get a good prayer in before he departs us.
Draw your attention to these lines, for it is in these very lines that Shakespeare shows just what an extraordinary writer he is:
When I read these particular lines years ago, I (and others in class) interpreted them as part of Falstaff’s deathbed delirium since the context is simple: he is dying. I had envisioned a dying man, regressing to an earlier memory, possibly of being in a garden, since there are ‘flowers’ and his fumbling ‘with the sheets’ could allude to his hand at play in a field of flowers; but the ‘his nose was as sharp as a pen’ bothered me. I would discover Doctor Shakespeare.
I learned in class that the Elizabethans were fascinated with death. Bestsellers of the era were all about how to die well. I guess in our age the bestsellers are nonfiction and self-help books on finance and managing anxiety and depression (hello Hamlet). For a very long time, people often died at home, with family and friends around them. In my own family I have heard stories of wakes held in the house, with the coffin brought in and taken out through the window, and the coffin placed on a block of ice (remember the scene in the movie Perdition?). Some editions of the play footnote the fact that the Elizabethans embroidered their bed sheets with flowers. The scene could be again, regression with delirious ranting or the simple delirium of a man trying to call God and nervously playing with the embroidery. Still doesn’t explain the nose. Paging Doctor Shakespeare.
My teacher explained to us that ‘fumbl(ing) with the sheets and play with flowers’ is something often seen when alcoholics are dying. What about the ‘sharp as a pen’ nose? In the end stages of life, he explained, overweight people lose a lot of the fat in their faces and the bones become more pronounced. In short, Shakespeare as a keen observer of Life had been drawing upon his personal experience of witnessing an alcoholic’s death. In these lines, Shakespeare is conveying his clinical observations. In modern medical terminology, Falstaff has hepatic encephalopathy. Falstaff had been a heavy drinker all his life. But of course, ever-resourceful Shakespeare could have cribbed the ‘sharp as a pen’ nose from Hippocrates and Galen, both of whom had written medical essays and detailed the signs and symptoms of impending death.
Many readers enjoy Henry V because it is an invigorating, rousing play of a heroic king, who, I think, is Shakespeare most eloquent king, rivaled only by the language used by one other monarch, his Richard III. I see Henry V as agitprop. Shakespeare illustrates the cost and horrors of war. As an aside, Richard III is the only character Shakespeare created in which the audience never learns his innermost thoughts. The king tells the audience what he will do but not why.
Falstaff was a popular character in the Bard’s day. Falstaff appears in other plays by Shakespeare, but he is the recurring character that Shakespeare chose to kill off. This is a brave thing for any author to do. J.K. Rowling did it (almost twice!). In 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did it. The Queen was most unhappy (Doyle was knighted in 1902). Marvel Comics did it. The reading public is outraged. Thou shalt not kill off a main character. Shakespeare did. Sigh.
Shakespeare enriched the English language. The popularity of his plays encouraged a standardization of the English language. He created new words; many of his similes and metaphors have become shopworn clichés. No other poet until Milton would stretch the language’s diction, rhythm, and structural capabilities in poetry and prose. Generations would react to Milton for his political and religious views, but everyone has at least one poem or play by Shakespeare that they cherish.