To engage young people in the wonderful world of Shakespeare, educators tend to begin with old faithful: Shakespearean insults. The exercise is easy to set up and on top of being hilarious, the obscure jokes help educators to sneak in little lessons on Shakespeare’s language: “Why is that particular word insulting? Here’s a history lesson!” Truth be told, most of the expressions are slang for erectile dysfunction or venereal disease! Pretty risqué!
Today, while watching The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1 (2012, dir. Richard Eyre), I thought about another way of bringing Shakespeare into classroom conversation: let’s talk about bullying. So often we read Shakespeare’s speeches as meditations on virtues we should possess: selflessness, mercy, and courage. But what about when Shakespeare shows us a really awful character, someone who has charisma, but delights in causing others pain? Do we ignore those characters? Not a chance.
We find a Shakespearean bully in Prince Hal, Henry IV’s son and the future Henry V. Hal spends all of his time at a tavern in a scummy part of town, and it pains his father that he’s not participating in his courtly duties. Hal delivers a soliloquy about how he’s just waiting for the perfect time to show the whole kingdom that he’s worthy of the crown. Yet, even after he shares these lofty aspirations, Hal maintains his persona as the guy who can “drink with any tinker in his own language during my life”; he prides himself on being able to speak the language of the common people, and sees that as a selling point for his new generation of kingship.
But is it possible that Hal genuinely enjoys being at the pub because he can lord himself over all the guests and staff? This is a big change from being shamed by his father back home at court! Hal asserts his dominance at the Boar’s Head Tavern by playing a trick on the slack-witted busboy, Francis. Francis has a busy role, and as all the customers call out to him, he delays helping them by calling back, “Anon, anon!”, showing that he’ll be there soon. Hal gets his buddy Poins to call out to Francis from another room, while Hal monopolizes the busboy through meaningless conversation. Francis is forced to keep shouting “Anon, anon!” to Poins, but Hal laughs hysterically because he asks Francis stupid questions that he keep answering with, “Anon, anon!” This goes on for a while, much to Francis’s increasing anxiety.
Francis’s limited vocabulary is the butt of Hal’s joke; it’s easy for the one brought up by the kingdom’s finest tutors to laugh at the uneducated, but I find Hal to be the worst kind of hypocrite because he prides himself on his ability to speak the language of the people and then uses it to exploit them. Francis is overworked and underpaid, and instead of pitying his need to work so hard, Hal creates more obstacles to prevent him from getting his job done.
It’s important to ask: Why is Hal doing this? We know he does this to share a laugh with Poins – is it because Hal doesn’t have friends in the manipulative world of court, and is trying to cement his friendship with the bar rat Poins, instead? The joke definitely indicates something about Hal’s self-consciousness. Even beyond his desire for friendship, I see a character that is so busy delaying his own coming of age that he’s displacing his own anxieties onto the innocent Francis.
What might seem to be a silly prank is nonetheless bullying because Hal is exploiting Francis’s subservient position. No matter how loudly Poins calls for him, Francis is obviously going to delay helping Poins (calling back “Anon, anon!”, on cue) because it is his responsibility to make the Prince comfortable; his livelihood depends on the Prince’s favour. So it is okay when Hal finally lets Francis finally leave by bellowing at him, “Away, you rogue! dost thou not hear them call?”? No! He’s exploiting his social inferior for his own amusement! That’s not fair, and it’s not the kind of attitude that people should emulate when trying to be “princely.”
So the next time you’re studying one of Shakespeare’s plays, look for the bullies. It could be Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, the terrible Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, or maybe the bully is a woman, like Goneril or Regan in King Lear. Watch out for them: Shakespeare’s bullies are everywhere. They offer us the chance to learn about the motivations and weaknesses of all kinds of difficult people, and with those lessons, we can develop strategies for how to overcome negative influences and channel our struggles into something positive.