Kenneth Branagh’s New York stage debut as Macbeth

Last night, I found proof that the theatre gods exist. That’s a pretty big claim to make – what event could be so huge?? I’ll tell you: in June 2014, Kenneth Branagh is making his New York stage debut!!!

Why is this a big deal? For a number of reasons!

Branagh as Macbeth

–       First off, Branagh has brought so much to the world of Shakespeare in performance. He has directed a number of Shakespeare films, including As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, and has performed some of the greatest Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet, Richard III, Iago, and Henry V. At the rate he’s going, it’s no surprise that people (myself included), consider him the Laurence Olivier of our generation.

–       He’s just getting off an eleven-year hiatus from the Shakespearean stage. He has spent the interim busying himself by directing small art house films like Thor, you’ve probably never heard of it.

–       Branagh’s initial return to the Shakespearean stage was this summer, where he co-directed, and delivered a critically acclaimed performance of Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival. The incredibly short run, only 18 performances, was fuelled by such high demand that it sold out instantly. I was so excited when I found out that he’d be performing in England at the same time that I was there, but no matter who I begged, what scalpers I Googled, or which favours I tried to call in, the response was the same: sold out.

–       Despite the demand, the audiences were limited to less than 300 viewers per performance. To appease disappointed Bardolators, the production was at one point relayed on giant screens outside the theatre in Manchester, bringing in no less than 5000 people!

–       For those of you who indulge in the “Mackers Myth” (the rubbish superstition that saying the name “Macbeth” will bring your production bad luck), according to some shady reports, one actor in Manchester was struck by Branagh’s sword, and needed to go to the hospital after final curtain.

–       In an age of unique Macbeths, this one made its presence known by being staged in a deconsecrated church in Manchester. And while I have every intention of dashing to the movie theatre on October 17 to catch National Theatre Live’s broadcast of the Manchester production, I am still going to jump on the opportunity to book tickets for the New York production. As opposed to making his New York stage debut on Broadway, Branagh’s Macbeth will be staged at the Park Avenue Armory. Rather than replicating the original production, it will be re-imagined to best suit the vast, 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall.

–       Although Branagh calls this setting “epic”, Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian teases us by saying that the space has a capacity for audiences sized anywhere between 200-5000! I can’t tell if I’d prefer the former or the latter, as long as I can be one of them!

So: where will you be in June 2014?

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My trip to England, Part 2 + Review: Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare’s comedies leave themselves wide open for exhibitions of sexuality, nowhere more so than The Merry Wives of Windsor. Legend has it that after seeing I Henry IV, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write a play in which Falstaff falls in love. A creature of such loose morals, though, cannot just fall in love.

Mistress Page, Mistress Ford, and Mr. Page

Can you imagine these women as gangsters?

The result is a play in which Sir John tries to convince two married women to forsake their husbands by sleeping with him, while these wives end up leading Falstaff on in order to take revenge on their husbands, who believe that if their wives remain “merry”, they cannot possibly be chaste.

Ali G, bruv.

Ali G: Note the chav’s range of postures

While I didn’t make it to Shakespeare’s Globe or to see the Royal Shakespeare Company while I was in England, I saw two fantastic productions by local theatre companies in Cambridge and Oxford. Yesterday, I posted on Cambridge Shakespeare Festival‘s The Comedy of Errors, and below is a review of Oxford Shakespeare Company’s spectacular outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The most impressive part of this production was the actor doubling: the ladies playing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (the merry wives) also played the roles of Falstaff’s henchmen, Bardolph and Pistol! The director chose to make these characters chavs: think silly English “gangstas” like Ali G. They wore low-waisted pants and never stood straight: they were constantly moving as they spoke, which makes more sense when you see it yourself, but also reminds me of hype men at rap concerts. These performances were impressive on their own, but the director amped up the comedy by having these actresses then portray respectable housewives, one dressed in Hunter Boots and a handkerchief in her hair like the Queen at Balmoral, and the other in hot pink high heels. It took me a couple of acts to realize that the same women played such different characters; such a transformation just didn’t seem possible!

The Queen as inspiration for Mistress Page

The Queen as inspiration for Mistress Page

This play, like so many Shakespearean comedies, revolves around mistaken appearances. Mr. Ford catches onto Falstaff’s lechery, and decides to disguise himself as “Mr. Brook” in order to get Falstaff to inadvertently assist in his own plot to prove that his wife is indeed unchaste. To do so, he pretends to be a Texan, but in the most parodied way possible. “Brook” walks like a bow-legged cowboy, and every time his mustache threatened to fall off, the audience awarded him with laughs.

A horn-y Falstaff in Oxford

A horn-y Falstaff in Oxford

Smaller outdoor productions also necessitate smaller casts. In order to circumvent child labour laws, for instance, this company got audience members themselves to act as the children who dress like woodland nymphs and scare Falstaff into admitting his misdeeds. As much as I’ve been known to mutter at my paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays, there was something much more fulfilling about wearing a child’s mask and getting to hiss at Falstaff myself!

It’s that lightheartedness that I’ve been missing over the past year. Going to England, for me, is always a mix of business and pleasure. I always make time to return to England because these trips are even more important as opportunities to study on my feet. No matter how much of a bibliophile I insist to be, by returning to England and watching these productions, I’m reminded to enjoy the wider world of Shakespeare that exists off the page.

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My trip to England, Part 1 + Review: Cambridge Shakespeare Festival’s The Comedy of Errors

So I’m a year into my time as an “All but dissertation” PhD candidate. Yay! I’ve spent a year reading and writing without the threat of comprehensive exams, which has been a pleasure, and even though I can’t say that I’ve put a complete chapter “to bed”, I’m proud of my work-in-progress. The most cohesive section that I’ve written so far is a piece on The Comedy of Errors, which, in its most primitive iteration, was an exercise to put into practice the research that I compiled on early modern medical tracts earlier this year.

The humours

The humours

I submitted the idea in abstract to The Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe at Newcastle University, and was invited to give the paper in person. I reworked and refined the paper to argue that in Shakespeare’s comedies, the playwright shows individuals as inextricably social figures and that, consequently, their humours cannot exist in a vacuum. I discussed how Shakespeare depicts humoural shifts as the result of interpersonal interaction, and that the bodies of the individual and those interacting with him/her can be close-read like texts for evidence of these shifts. The paper was more esoteric than I’d like my critical style to be, but has been excellent practice and really helpful in getting my mind around bigger ideas that I’ll be tackling throughout my dissertation.

Cambridge: It's kind of a big deal.

Cambridge: It’s kind of a big deal.

After visiting Newcastle for the first time, and trying to understand the Geordies, I headed to Cambridge to catch up with my dear friend Charlotte Ellen, who was in rehearsals to play the role of Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival. Seeing the wonderfully lighthearted production, I found truth in Wordsworth’s words: “We murder to dissect”. Spending the past year close-reading passages to explore the darker side of affect in Shakespeare’s comedies and this one in particular, I realized that I had lost sight of the lighter, brighter tones that dominate the comedies as a whole. As an homage to the genre that I’ve been “murdering” in order to fulfil the tall order of producing an original piece of Shakespeare criticism, I’d like to offer reviews of the CSF’s Comedy of Errors, as well as another post reviewing  Oxford Shakespeare Company’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Going against my usual darker readings of the plays, these reviews will focus on the lighter side of Shakespearean comedy in performance.

I’ve been quite outspoken in my belief that we should not subordinate Shakespeare’s text to performance, because only by reading the text can we unfold Shakespeare’s countless potential meanings at once. On paper, I can mull over a word or phrase for hours but by contrast, I can’t press pause on live performance, and a director must confine his or her production to one interpretation at a time: Does the ghost of Banquo sit at Macbeth’s table, or should the seat be left empty to imply Macbeth’s insanity? Should Perdita depict a shadow of the dead Mamillius, or should the characters remain separate, played by separate actors? Is it Lear’s fool, or strictly his endeared “fool”, Cordelia, who is hanged?). Despite my bias for Shakespeare on the page, I have to admit that what I miss out on in only reading the plays is the physical act of performance. The two productions that I watched in England have reminded me how physicality is such an invaluable tool for bringing Shakespeare’s comedies to life.

posterIn Cambridge, Charlotte brought this physicality to life in her role as Dromio. In one scene, she performed acrobatic feats off the wooden slats at the back of the stage in order to hide in plain view from Antipholus who, upon finding his servant, would most certainly beat her. The trauma scholar in me tends to focus on Dromio’s fear of beating, but the Bardolator on vacation was just happy to be part of the happy audience, laughing in appreciation of the dramatic irony. Charlotte’s fellow Dromio kept this physicality going, and the two actresses, upon their characters reuniting at the end of the play, crossed the stage by cartwheeling over each other’s bodies. Because the two actresses didn’t look alike, the audience spent the earlier part of the play suspending their disbelief that these two were twins. This cartwheel action, though, made their twinship believable, and in a flurry of burgundy costumes, the two embodied the play’s spirit of mistaken identities by blurring the line where one Dromio ended and the other began.

The production was full of such physicality, bringing the text to life. For instance, they had Luciana, singleton sister to Adriana, binge-eating cupcakes while her sister droned on about her troubles as a married woman. Luciana took such refuge in those dainty cupcakes, and the frustrated Adriana closed the scene while stamping all over them. I derived special pleasure out of this moment, having seen the tech rehearsal the day before, in which there was much discussion over what baked good would provide the most laughs when stepped on.

Codpieces: they're just better in person!

Codpieces: they’re just better in person!

The funniest use of physical comedy goes to Doctor Pinch and his codpiece. I’ll be honest, I thought Charlotte was crazy when I found her up at 7 am, sewing together primary-coloured felt; it looked more like a child’s toy than a body part! Let me tell you, though: it got laughs! The actor playing Pinch thrust his hips to the beat of a bongo, infusing the ridiculous character with sexuality, while bringing up one of the play’s central questions: who’s the crazy one? Who is the doctor, and who is the patient, or is Shakespeare teaching us to blur the line between caregivers and genuine quacks? As much as I’d love to get this production on DVD so I can relieve the moment that Pinch made his way into the audience, it’s impossible to relive that sense of pee-your-pants laughter I felt as the actor shook his money-maker!

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Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

In early April, I had the privilege of watching an advance screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America. Needless to say, the two hundred Bardolators in the room were pretty darn excited to mouth the entire play in unison. We were even luckier because the director himself sent the film over with a special introduction for us. In it, he gave his answer to that frequently asked question, “Why Shakespeare?” His gleeful response: “Why cake?” Those words assured me that Shakespeare’s text was in good hands.

A black-and-white romantic comedy in 2013? Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing

Why do I say “text”? Isn’t the whole point of this film that it’s a play performed, and then edited for the screen? Let me explain. The earliest buzz around 2012’s Much Ado was that it was filmed in black-and-white. That’s a pretty risky decision for someone producing a play by a 400-year old writer, and in the wake of Kenneth Branagh’s colourful Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s tripped-out R+J. Those were both released in 1996, and we’ve only gone further down the rabbit hole of CGI and HD ever since. I’d like to suggest not the reason (because that’s Whedon’s job), but the effect of Whedon’s decision to go black-and-white, and that’s that it reduces distraction. The party that goes on in this film is but a smaller version than that in Luhrmann’s recent Gatsby, but the difference is that in this film, you can enjoy the spectacle while also being able to pay attention to the words of “Sigh no more (Hey nonny nonny)“. Instead of looking at what Beatrice is wearing, we can focus on the way she “speaks poniards and every word stabs”. As long as Benedick shaves his beard and Hero wears white on her wedding day, it’s all kosher to me.

Old-school Ken and Em in Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The other question that people have asked me about this film is: “How does it compare to Branagh’s 1993 film?” Good question. I’m going to go right ahead and say this: Whedon’s is better. And that’s not to say that I don’t love watching “Ken and Em” fall in love, because I really, really do, but that film came out two decades ago and even though none of us have aged a single bit, the play has earned a touch-up. Branagh’s version was sentimental and set with lovely ladies in white dresses, frolicking in the Tuscan sun. The “merry war” took on a more literal resonance in Branagh’s film, as he and the Duke’s men appear in military uniforms. Whedon’s version, on the other hand, is set in his own LA mansion. Don Pedro’s men wear finely-tailored suits, and lacking the swagger or any sort of non-WASP ethnicity to pass for mobsters, they seem like movie producers with concealed weapons. That prompts me to ask what this mise-en-scene does to illuminate the play’s themes of honour, chastity, betrayal, and second chances. In this case, the question for me is as follows: where does honour stand in 2013 LA, where people party all night and go jogging at first light? My answer is that this modern revision of the play concerns itself with pride rather than honour. But Whedon complicates this notion of “rather than”: his production brings to light how honour and pride are two sides of the same coin. The currency? Vanity. This play revolves around appearances: was it Hero making love to another man on the night before her wedding? Can Beatrice and Benedick really trust each other until they read each others’ sonnets? Whedon accentuates this obsession with the visual through an omni-present camera-person, closed-circuit security cameras, and mirrors. Four hundred years old and still rife for adaptation, Shakespeare’s plays offer themselves up for this sort of filmic imagery.

"Forget not that I am an ass."

“Forget not that I am an ass.”

Alas, I cannot make any comment on how the cast fits in to the other television shows and movies of the Whedon-verse, and thus I can’t address Nathan Fillion’s performance, but people were really excited about it, and tickled by his role as Dogberry the malaproping constable. What I can say is that you don’t need to have watched Buffy and Angel in order to love this movie. This is a must-see in theaters, a must-buy when it comes out on DVD, and if you want to recreate that feeling of hot summer nights, drinking wine and flirting with the rich and handsome, pick up the soundtrack, too!

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Happy Birthday to Shakespeare…and me!

Another year older, and hopefully a little bit wiser! In honour of my shared birthday with the Bard, I’d like to produce a second annual “Shakespeare’s Birthday Resolution” list, in which I make a game plan with all the ways I can work towards becoming a more active Shakespeare enthusiast, aka, Bardolator!

But first things first: let’s have a look at which of last year’s resolutions I can cross off my list!

  • I was able to audit a super interesting summer course on Shakespeare and Early Modern Print Culture, where I got to learn with a slushie in my hand and no stress of deadlines.
  • I got to visit the wonderful Stratford Festival, where I saw a touching production of Cymbeline, as well as Much Ado About Nothing, starring one of my Festival favourites, Ben Carlson.
  • Me and Alan Cumming after Macbeth!

    Me and Alan Cumming after Macbeth!

    Traveling a bit further, I had a veritable Shakespearegasm seeing Alan Cumming’s exceptional one-man production of Macbeth. I couldn’t understand how it could be done, but Cumming makes it work, bringing the gender issues of the text to life in a dynamic (demonic?) way. The production has since transferred to Broadway; if you’re in the city sometime before June 30, it’s a must-see!

  • While I did not get the chance to custom-make Shakespearean Wall decals, I did finally get the posters up in my Shakespeare shrine…I mean, home office!
Paul Gross as Hamlet, 2000

Paul Gross as Hamlet (2000)

  •     Likewise, I did not write a groundbreaking essay on the Shakespeare references in the Hunger Games trilogy (the avox Lavinia being the “speechless complainer” whose voice begs to be heard), nor did I get to see Benedict Cumberbatch perform something Shakesperean, but my fingers are still crossed for him to blow minds as a deep-voiced Richard III. A worthwhile consolation was meeting my Canadian Shakespeare idol, Paul Gross, who signed my copy of Hamlet and hinted at an eventual return to the Stratford Festival stage.

Despite all the ambition, my proudest accomplishment of this year was surviving: I took the tremendous weight of grief and trauma that I experienced over my father’s illness and death, and used my research as a tool to help me overcome it. Having to leave school for a short while and deal with what was far too much “real life”, I threw myself into my work upon my return. My research took on the flavour of blessed escape, rather than the thing to procrastinate away from, and from this experience, I’m proud to have published my very first  article (in the Shakespeare Institute’s spankin’ new Shakespeare Institute Review), which deals with loss in Twelfth Night.

Joss Whedon's Much Ado (2012)

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado (2012)

The cherry to top off my year, inspiring me towards another year of Shakespearean awesomeness, was the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Toronto. There, I got to work on some much needed professionalization and networking, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that in the years to come, I can meet the scholars (with whom I’m intimate friends, insofar as they’re names on the well-worn books in my personal library!) without letting my mouth hang open, and blurting out the painfully terribly rookie words: “Wow! You’re a big deal!” The conference also hosted a special advance screening of Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated Much Ado. Most of all, I helped bring the conference hashtag, #ShakeAss13, to life by dancing my tail off at the annual Malone Society Dance. There, I got to boogy down with the great David Bevington (the first Shakespeare scholar to edit the entirety of Shakespeare’s corpus…to say nothing of his immensely valuable editorial work on many other early modern playwrights), and even experienced my first Shakespeare conga line!

My most ambitious goal from last year was to attend BritGrad, one of the most exciting events for grad students of Shakespeare, as the biggest English Shakespeare scholars often come out to offer sage words. I didn’t make it, but have found a couple of ways to make up for it:

  • One, is that British Shakespeare Scholar extraordinaire Stanley Wells will come to me, leaving his island to visit the Stratford Festival in August.
  • Before that, though, I am finally returning to England, to attend a conference on Reading and Health in Early Modern England, where I’ll be showcasing some new dissertation work!
  • I’ll also be mixing some business and pleasure by visiting some dear friends living in London, Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon. At the latter, I hope to celebrate Gregory Doran’s first year as Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director, and resolve to plant myself at the “Dirty Duck” Pub until I meet him and his partner, my favourite English Shakespearean actor, Sir Antony Sher.

So what do I resolve to do this coming year? More Shakespeare!

Computer-generated image of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, opening in 2014

Computer-generated image of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, opening in 2014

  • Before even leaving to England, I’m already planning my next trip! I’d really like to get to BritGrad before I graduate, and I am also just too excited to visit the brand-new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is a replica of the type of indoor playhouse at which King Lear and Cymbeline would have been performed. This year, they’re showing some of the best non-Shakespearean drama, including John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Francis Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle.
  • I’d also like to continue my annual pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival. Aside from hearing Stanley Wells speak, I’m also hoping to see Measure for Measure, featuring Stephen Ouimette and Geraint Wyn Davies, who played alongside Paul Gross in Slings and Arrows.
  • As a blogger, I’d like to revamp the site. A new, easier-to-pronounce nickname (that doesn’t include the oh-so-90’s number afterwards!), a new look. If you have any suggestions, or any free design services to offer, inquire within!
  • I’m also hoping to get back blogging with more frequency. I recently posted about the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, and I plan to watch and blog about the rest! Ditto goes for finally posting my review of Whedon’s Much Ado!
  • As a scholar, I’ve just got to keep working! I want to finish a dissertation chapter, start another one, and have something to publish on the go, but I realize that these are “marathon efforts.” They require longer spans of time and exertion, so I’ve got my thinking cap on and my Starbucks card fully loaded, so I’m ready to tackle the Shakespearean New Year with my best foot forward!

Shakespeare2To Shakespeare, and everyone celebrating, Cheers!

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Getting ready the the SAA and Celebrating hendiadys!

So it will come to nobody’s surprise that I’m exceptionally excited for the Shakespeare Association of America conference that’s taking place in my hometown, Toronto, later this week. I’m looking forward to using the hashtag, #shakeass13. I’m looking forward to meeting other people who care about what I care about and want to talk about it with no shame or self-deprecation. I also am ready to learn more about Shakespeare, more about how to talk about his work, and get a rush of creative energy that I can put into my dissertation, which I have really started to enjoy working on, and hope never to have it feel like a burden. Like any cat owner who hears the endless thunking sound of a cat’s head hitting a closed door, I like to think of it as another baby that I can nurture.

20130326-102723.jpg

So in the spirit of nurturing that baby with gusto, I decided to brush some of the dust off my Shakesmarts. I was thinking about Hamlet, not the person but the play, and rather uncle/father Claudius. I was thinking about what makes him so great and I forgot the word, and frantically emailed a friend in England to ask him what that word is…his signature rhetorical device and he reminded me : hendiadys! What an excellent word! Say it out loud! It sounds like a mountain range somewhere!

But what does he do? How does he use it? Claudius is a diplomat, which means that he understands the necessity for verbal economy, and tries to add that extra bit of detail, complexity, irony, sincerity…into that sentence.

20130326-102902.jpg

Take, for example: “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son–“, he manages to link the two with that and, but also using that little ampersand to divide two things that aren’t one and the same. He embodies Facebook’s need for “It’s complicated” relationship statuses, as we can also see when he sums up the opening plot of the play in these two lines of hendiadys:

“With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,

With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage…”

Wonderful. I love it. Here he adds an extra iamb for effect, but for the most part, Shakespeare fits these almost Mr. Collins-like additions into the iambic pentameter that his stage royalty speak. Claudius, of course, makes a big mistake in this sarcastically “gentle and unforc’d accord of Hamlet”, who then stays home from university long enough to kill his stepdad. Bad call, Claudius. Bad call.

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The Hollow Crown: Henry IV part 1

One way to fight the winter blues is to accept that it’s too cold for any sane person to leave the house. Instead, we must find ways to enjoy the great indoors. My proposed solution is twofold: the first is the miracle of slow-cooked applesauce. While you don’t get the pleasure of licking the tinfoil lid off the childhood favorite, eating it warm, straight out of the slow cooker, will change your life forever. The second part of the solution is to get into your jam-jams and comfiest robe, and watch lots and lots of movies.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

…Shakespeare movies, that is! I’ve been downloading way too many BBC adaptations and watching too few, so last night I decided to change that. I’ve been on a little Tom Hiddleston kick lately (can you blame me?), so I started with 1 Henry IV. I consider this the most unfortunately-named Shakespeare play, as its boring title doesn’t signify its compelling main character (Prince Hal), the fun he has with Shakespeare’s most comic character (Falstaff), and coming of age that Prince experiences in this play.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy

This production is certainly well cast. Few actors make better brooding, guilt-ridden rulers than Jeremy Irons, slightly less lecherous than in his role as Rodrigo Borgia, and Hiddleston plays a bright-eyed mischievous Prince Hal. Michelle Dockery, fresh from Downton Abbey, glows, alabaster as ever, and I really enjoyed the way Richard Eyre amped up the flirtiness between Kate and Hotspur, who is often portrayed as loving his horse more than his wife.

Prince Hal and Falstaff

Prince Hal and Falstaff, besties for life?

Simon Russell Beale, who has been treading the boards of the English stage nonstop for the past couple of years, was a good Falstaff. Good, not great, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. I love the character, an irresponsible, lecherous, glutton who leeches off friends both high and low, yet his true devotion to Hal peeks through. What I don’t appreciate is that Richard Eyre thought it necessary to back each of Falstaff’s sympathetic speeches with an affecting violin track. I recognize that medium of film allows for certain enhancements to the text that the stage does not, but that does not mean that Shakespeare’s words themselves need more enhancing than an actor’s clear voice. Take, for example, the following speech:

Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ 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. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

This is one of the most profound speeches in the Shakespearean canon. Honour inspires me to fight, by why should I, when I might just die? What is the value of dying in the name of honour? Will honour heal my bloody wounds? Will honour take care of my family when I’m gone? The dead man can find few, if any, practical applications for honour, so why pursue it? Falstaff asks these rhetorical questions, offering a catechism in the name of the Abbot of Unreason, all the while showing just exactly how reasonable he is. Falstaff is the one to make us question the nature of heroism: is the king heroic for forcing his army to fight and kill a hundred thousand “rebels”, who on any other day would be counted as fellow countrymen? Is Hal heroic for leaving the tavern in order to aid the King in a war that was only brought on after his father took the crown from Richard II? Falstaff may be a leech on society, but Shakespeare’s words show he is the one shrewd enough to know the finality of death, a truth that need no violins to prove it.

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