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Redeeming the Debauched Falstaff

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Britain, British Literature, Creativity, Fiction, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Shakespeare, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 15, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The American Conservative. 

In The Daemon Knows, published in 2015, the heroic, boundless Harold Bloom claimed to have one more book left in him. If his contract with Simon & Schuster is any indication, he has more work than that to complete. The effusive 86-year-old has agreed to produce a sequence of five books on Shakespearean personalities, presumably those with whom he’s most enamored.

The first, recently released, is Falstaff: Give Me Life, which has been called an “extended essay” but reads more like 21 ponderous essay-fragments, as though Bloom has compiled his notes and reflections over the years.

The result is a solemn, exhilarating meditation on Sir John Falstaff, the cheerful, slovenly, degenerate knight whose unwavering and ultimately self-destructive loyalty to Henry of Monmouth, or Prince Hal, his companion in William Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy (“the Henriad”), redeems his otherwise debauched character.

Except Bloom doesn’t see the punning, name-calling Falstaff that way. He exalts this portly, subversive figure as the charming master of deception and rogue scheming, and more importantly as a courageous vitalist “unmatched in all of Western imaginative literature.” Bloom’s astounding reverence for this clever, corrupting, calculating, mischievous Bacchanalian—whose life-affirming zest is as delightful as it is disconcerting—reveals he’s capable of the same kind of strategic indulgence that animates his transgressive subject.

His opening lines establish an affectionate, worshipful tone: “I fell in love with Sir John Falstaff when I was a boy of twelve, almost seventy-five years ago. A rather plump and melancholy youth, I turned to him out of need, because I was lonely. Finding myself in him liberated me from a debilitating self-consciousness.”

This isn’t academic prose. Bloom doesn’t write scholarship in the sense in which English professors, who chase tenure and peer approval, understand that term. Could you imagine a graduate student in literature showing up at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention and pronouncing from behind a podium that “Falstaff wants us to love him”? Or that Falstaff “is the mortal god of our vitalism and of our capacity for joyous play of every kind”? That would end a career before it began.

To hold Bloom to professional academic standards is fundamentally to misunderstand the man. His criticism is art unto itself; it’s genre-defying literature: part memoir, part fiction, part psychoanalysis. He’s a character of his own creation, as imaginary as Falstaff, and yet real and alive. In his psyche, the mysteries of which he plumbs with Freudian apprehension, Falstaff, too, is alive—and more than that, he’s a deified “embassy of life.” Bloom calls him the “greatest wit in literature,” whose vices “are perfectly open and cheerfully self-acknowledged.”

Immediately objections spring to mind: Didn’t Falstaff take bribes from competent soldiers who wished to avoid battle, thereby dooming his innocent, rag-tag band of unready troops? Doesn’t this bawdy gambler fake his own death to avoid injury and then seek credit for Hal’s slaying of Hotspur? Isn’t he a compulsive liar and self-serving fabricator? Rather than earn his keep, doesn’t he mooch off borrowed and stolen money while fraternizing with lowly criminals in disreputable taverns? Doesn’t he find stealing entertaining? Doesn’t he fail miserably in his attempt to seduce married women? Doesn’t he thrive in the seedy underbelly of impolite society?

No matter. The venerating and visionary Bloom sees Falstaff’s flaws as part of his appeal. Falstaff, prefiguring Nietzsche and Sartre, stands outside ethical jurisdiction as the lovable übermensch, the seductive sum of his own deliberate actions and unbridled agency in a world without God. Falstaffianism can be reduced to an abrupt imperative: “do not moralize.” These are Bloom’s italics, emphasizing, perhaps, the enthusiasm with which Falstaff rebuffs normative codes and basic standards of decency, vivaciously embracing the self—the subjective, knowing, self-aware “I” that wills a future into being—with laughter and existential rapture.

Kate Havard argues in Commentary that “Bloom must actually reckon with the sorts of things Falstaff does that would seem monstrous in real life.” I’m not sure about this mandate. Everyone is susceptible to wickedness. We’re fallible. Yet the magnitude of our evil acts is proportionate only to our capacity and will for achieving them. Greater power over others has the potential to increase the enormity of our chosen wrongs. Two hearts, equally blameworthy, can enact varying degrees of harm. With our meanness and malevolence, depravity and double-dealing, we’re all like Falstaff at some instant, even if we “cannot say that we are Falstaff’’ (my italics this time) because Falstaff cannot be universal—he’s too shrewd, raucous, and riotously convivial to be an archetype.

That we haven’t occasioned rank violence or mass damage is only evidence of our own powerlessness to do so in our moment of darkness. Our minds have contemplated horrors that our bodies never brought to bear. Knowing this, one begins to appreciate Bloom’s melancholy voice in such an adoring account. “Falstaff is no everyman,” he intones, “[b]ut all of us, whatever our age or gender, participate in him.” This truth, if it is one, doesn’t excuse Falstaff; rather it makes his decisions disturbingly recognizable.

Falstaff stands for absolute freedom, challenging dogmatic pieties even as he uses them to his advantage. He signals human choice and authenticity, but he’s elusive and multifaceted. “There is no single Falstaff,” Bloom submits. “In my youth and middle years I thought I knew Falstaff. That Falstaff has vanished from me. The better I know Sir John the less I know him. He has become one of the lost vehemences my midnights hold.”

This tragicomic Falstaff is so complex and ambiguous that he undermines expectations, avoids patterned behavior, and escapes simple explanation. “Falstaff is as bewildering as Hamlet, as infinitely varied as Cleopatra,” says Bloom. “He can be apprehended but never fully comprehended. There is no end to Falstaff. His matrix is freedom but he dies for love.”

Falstaff is a more cunning and charismatic version of Chaucer’s drunkenly crass miller, whose hilarious tale of casual adultery lacks the stark intentionality that makes Falstaff so treacherously in control. He’s like a flatulent Santa Claus, without the meekness or mildness of Christian self-denial. He is, in a word, exuberant, and as Bloom opines, “Exuberance in itself is a shadowy virtue and can be dangerous to the self and to others, but in Falstaff it generates more life.”

Bloom commendably acknowledges the charges leveled against him: “I am weary of being accused of sentimentalizing Falstaff.” He says he’s “been chided for sentimentality when I observe Falstaff betrays and harms no one,” and he pleads with us to enjoy Shakespeare’s rendering of the Fat Knight, adding, “Do not moralize.” The point is not to elicit agreement but to move you emotionally, although his expressive mode is less sentimental than it is spiritual or mystical. He has a jovial appetite for living, thinking, and loving that resembles Falstaff’s in its sheer capaciousness—hence his aside that he’s a “lifelong Falstaffian.”

The Book of Genesis asserts that God made man in his image. One wonders whether Bloom’s ecstatic Bardolatry—he once called Shakespeare “a mortal god”—leads to a different but related conclusion: that Shakespeare, as God, created Bloom in Falstaff’s image. Although age has thinned his once corpulent physique, Bloom is, at times, the boastful embodiment of the bombastic, iconoclastic genius (Sir John) whose chief weakness is his fondness and devotion. At other times, he’s a prophetic seer haunted by the daemon, devoid of merry wit, laughter, or redemptive charm and enthused by ineffable forces to cry out with beautiful despair and angst. His gusto seems ever-present, as does his displayed interiority.

Yet there is no single Bloom. You may think you know him, but then he vanishes as a lost vehemence.

“He has never abandoned me for three-quarters of a century,” Bloom muses of Falstaff, “and I trust will be with me until the end. The true and perfect image of life abides with him: robustly, unforgettably, forever. He exposes what is counterfeit in me and in all others.” Perhaps that’s why Falstaff is so threatening: he lays bare that manipulative, liberated part of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge or even fathom, that’s alienated and estranged from other people, accessible only to the “I myself”—the only thing we know that we know.

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The Trial Scene in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”

In Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Shakespeare, Theatre, Western Civilization on August 31, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following excerpt is adapted from my essay “A Time for Bonding: Commerce, Love, and Law in The Merchant of Venice,” which may be downloaded at this link.

Act IV, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice involves the climactic court scene in which Shylock and Antonio confront one another, in person, before Portia, who will determine Antonio’s fate.

At this point Portia has already revealed to Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, her plan to “wear my dagger with the braver grace / And speak between the change of man and boy / With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps / Into a manly stride, and speak of frays / Like a fine bragging youth.” She and Nerissa will cross-dress, in other words, and once “accoutred like young men” will act as though Portia is a doctor of laws, or a law clerk, administering justice and adjudicating disputes in the Duke’s Venetian courtroom.

Bassanio attempts to settle the case on Antonio’s behalf by tendering Shylock double and then triple the amount of the original loan, but Shylock unmercifully insists on exacting a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia appears to support Shylock, saying, “[T]here is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree established: ‘Twill be recorded for a precedent, / And many an error by the same example / Will rush into the state: it cannot be.” Although she says that Shylock’s “suit” is “[o]f a strange nature,” she submits that “in such rule that the Venetian law / Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.”

Praising Portia as a “Daniel come to judgment,” Shylock demands that a judgment be entered against Antonio immediately: “When [the bond] is paid according to the tenour. / It doth appear you are a worthy judge; / You know the law, your exposition / Hath been most sound: I charge you by the law, / Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar, / Proceed to judgment: by my soul I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me: I stay here on my bond.” Antonio himself conveys a preference for swift judgment: “Make no more offers, use no farther means, / But with all brief and plain conveniency / Let me have judgment and the Jew his will.”

Portia readies the others for the judgment by telling Antonio to “prepare your bosom for [Shylock’s] knife.” That the bond calls for the pound of flesh to be exacted “nearest [Antonio’s] heart” draws attention to the metaphorical implications of the judgment and the plural meaning of the bond: it is not just the contractual relationship but the potential for friendship that is about to be carved apart.

Just before the judgment is to be perfected, Bassanio and Antonio profess their love for one another. Portia then explains to Shylock—turning his literalism against him—that the judgment calls for the removal of a pound of flesh but “no jot of blood.” If any blood should be drawn, then Shylock must forfeit his lands and goods to Venice. There being no way to cut a pound of flesh without drawing blood, Shylock finds himself in a precarious situation. Portia tells him that

The law hath yet another hold on you.

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,

If it be proved against an alien

That by direct or indirect attempts

He seek the life of any citizen,

The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive

Shall seize one half his goods; the other half

Comes to the privy coffer of the state;

And the offender’s life lies in the mercy

Of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.

In which predicament, I say, though stand’st;

For it appears, by manifest proceeding,

That indirectly and directly too

Thou hast contrived against the very life

Of the defendant; and thou hast incurr’d

The danger formerly by me rehearsed.

With these words, Shylock is defeated. The Duke pronounces that, as a consequence of the legal proceeding, Shylock shall render half his wealth to Antonio and half to Venice, but Antonio pleads that he will forego his share if Shylock converts to Christianity. The Duke concedes; Shylock acquiesces. The litigation comes to a close.

 

Bond and Bonding in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, British Literature, Economics, Essays, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Shakespeare, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 6, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

A bond is an agreement, the unification of individuals or groups under mutual terms. Parents may bond affectionately with their children just as friends may bond affectionately with one another. Marital bonds join spouses in a sacred contract that confers conjugal rights and duties.

A bond is also a security for a debt. Banks may issue and underwrite bonds with fixed interest rates or correlative maturity dates in exchange for the promise of repayment. Bonds may be defeasible, high-yield, low-yield, covered, subordinated, or perpetual. They may be backed by liens or mortgages. There are government bonds, municipal bonds, fiduciary bonds, war bonds. A bond may be an instrument or the name for a type of covenant between persons. Love is not just a bond but something within a bond, if we believe the Countess in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

In light of this rich multiplicity of meaning, the referent for the isolated term bond is not immediately clear but, instead, contextual. Serviceable explanations for bond depend upon the situation in which it is employed and the circumstances with which it is surrounded. The diverse meanings for bond have in common a reciprocal obligation or indebtedness that is voluntarily undertaken: a bond, whatever else it does, secures a promise or duty.

Sometimes that promise or duty is implicit, as with romantic bonds between monogamous lovers. The term bond is thus pregnant with possibility, yielding manifold associations. “The word itself,” submits Frederick Turner, “contains a fascinating amalgam of positive and negative connotations.”

My essay “A Time for Bonding: Commerce, Love, and Law in The Merchant of Venice,” which may be downloaded at this link, considers the role of bonds and bonding in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to undermine the notion that Shakespeare was, to employ a term by Ian Ward, “anti-market” in the play. The Merchant of Venice is instead as multifaceted and polysemous as the term bond and open to an array of interpretations favorable to commerce and business. This essay is part of this collection of essays edited by Edward W. Younkins titled Capitalism and Commerce in Imaginative Literature (2016).

Liberty and Shakespeare, Part One

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Shakespeare, Western Civilization on May 17, 2012 at 7:51 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here on Mises Daily.

In an October 2002 article in the New York Times, “Next on the Syllabus, Romeo v. Juliet,” Adam Liptak investigates the curious if questionable move to install literary texts in law-school curricula. Liptak’s opening lines betray his skepticism:

The fact [that Kafka was a lawyer] got the discussion started on a recent afternoon in a sunny seminar room at the New York University School of Law, where 17 law students and 2 professors gather every week for a sort of book club, for credit, in a class called Law and Literature.”[1]

Liptak’s likening of the class to a book club, quickly followed by his strategic comma usage setting off the phrase “for credit,” implies that, in effect, the course is more about enthusiasm than scholarship. How could the activities of book clubbers, Liptak seems to suggest, merit course credit in professional school? Liptak implicitly raises an even greater question: Does literature matter to the so-called “real” world?

In arguing for the inclusion of humanities courses in law school curricula, law-and-literature professors have had to answer that question. They have convinced professional school deans and administrators that literature is important and relevant to actual problems. The turn to political criticism among English faculty is also a move to show that literature has some practical bearing beyond entertainment or leisure. As humanities programs lose funding and students while law-and-literature faculty, courses, conferences, and journals proliferate, it bears asking whether law-and-literature adherents have done a better job persuading university officials that literature is socially significant.

Nearly every Anglo-American law school offers a course called Law & Literature. Nearly all of these courses assign one or more readings from Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Why study Shakespeare in law school? That is the question at the heart of these courses. Some law professors answer the question in terms of cultivating moral sensitivity, fine-tuning close-reading skills, or practicing interpretive strategies on literary rather than legal texts. Most of these professors insist on an illuminating nexus between two supposedly autonomous disciplines. The history of how Shakespeare became part of the legal canon is more complicated than these often defensive, syllabus-justifying declarations allow.

This essay examines the history of Shakespeare studies vis-à-vis legal education. It begins with early law-and-literature scholarship, which focused on Shakespeare’s history or biography — speculating as it did about whether Shakespeare received legal training or became a lawyer — and concludes with recent law-and-literature scholarship treating Shakespeare as a source of insight for law students and lawyers. Early law-and-literature scholarship on Shakespeare anticipated new-historicist theory. More recent law-and-literature work, with its turn to presentism, seems in lockstep with current Shakespeare studies. In law-and-literature classrooms, Shakespeare is more fashionable (like a hobby) than scholarly (like a profession). But law-and-literature scholarship on Shakespeare represents high-caliber work based on interdisciplinary research and sustained engagement with legal and literary texts.

This essay concludes with a note about the direction of the university in general and of the law-and-literature movement in particular. My closing argument is, I admit, tendentious. It raises issues usually raised by confrontational academics and suggests remedies for what William M. Chace has called “the decline of the English Department”[2] or what Harold Bloom has called “Groupthink” in “our obsolete academic institutions, whose long suicide since 1967 continues.”[3] If Chace and Bloom are right about a decline in academic standards — evidence shows that they are at least right about a decline in the number of English majors — then the fate of literary studies seems grim. Nevertheless, Chace and Bloom overlook the migration of literature professors into American law schools, a phenomenon that has not received enough attention.

One aspect of this phenomenon is the migration of students from the humanities to professional schools. I have known students who hoped to attend graduate school in the humanities but quite understandably viewed that route as impractical and went to law school instead. A positive result of this trend is that many law students are open to the idea of law and literature and find luminaries like George Anastaplo or Stanley Fish more interesting than other law professors. The final comments of this essay will address the strange exodus of literary scholars into professional schools, which pay more money and arguably provide vaster audiences and readership, more generous funding opportunities, and reduced teaching loads.

Perhaps more than other literary disciplines, save for cultural studies, Shakespeare studies has moved into the realm of interdisciplinarity, albeit without large contributions from scholars outside of literature departments. The law-and-literature field would have perished without the expertise of literature professors; likewise, Shakespeare studies, if it continues down the path of politics and cultural criticism, will perish without the expertise of economists, political scientists, and law professors, whose mostly non-Marxist ideas, when pooled with the ideas of the literature scholars, might fill out a space for interesting scholarship and redeem the interdisciplinary label. Information sharing is especially crucial for literature scholars who, in order to examine the history of Shakespeare in American culture, have turned to practices and methods traditionally reserved for other disciplines. In this respect, the direction of Shakespeare studies is representative of the direction of the humanities in general.

It may be possible to overcome disciplinary boundaries while recognizing the importance of disciplinary expertise. For understandable reasons, conservative literary critics decry political trends in current literary theory. What these critics ought to decry, though, is the nature of the political trends rather than political trends themselves. What if, instead of Marxist or quasi-Marxist paradigms, literary critics adopted the theories of free-market economics?

Adherents of law and literature unwittingly have carved out an approach to literary studies that jettisons Marxism and quasi Marxism but that retains civic goals. Law and literature cuts across labels like “conservative” and “liberal.” It demonstrates how professional or vocational studies are incomplete without teachings in liberal arts. At a time when antitraditional, quasi-Marxist ideologies have taken over graduate programs in literature, and when humanities funding and enrollment are wanting, the burgeoning law-and-literature courses offer an avenue for restoration of literary study with a civic focus. Read the rest of this entry »

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