Here and there – Populism in Henry IV

 

Clowns have a licence to go over the top with their audience.  That is an essential part of their schtick.  The populist tends to be amoral.  He – it looks to be in the male domain – can joke about his lack of candour. He exults in his capacity to thrill his audience – whom he despises – by going flagrantly over the top.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.  (Henry IV, Part I, 1.2.212 ff)

It is so cold blooded, it takes your breath away.  But that is the hallmark and thick skin of the con man.  He will turn giving offence into an art – and be applauded by his audience.  (The Everyman says that ‘Redeeming time’ is a reference to Ephesians 5:7 ff: ‘Be not ye therefore partakers with them, for ye were sometimes darkness, but now ye are light in the Lord….Redeeming time because the days are evil.’)

Well, if a king could say ‘L’état, c’est moi’, the leader of the people can say: ‘Touch not me – I am the people.’  The French Revolution would see the glorification of le peuple, and ideologues of a certain caste glory in the term ‘the masses’.

No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.  (2.4.474 ff)

And then the prince says he is up to it in words that make the Godfather look like a croquet player.

I do.  I will.

Is he the coldest prince you ever saw?

Well, the king, his father is past all that.  His wild days are behind him.  He will not be ‘so stale and cheap to vulgar company’ (3.2.41). He can lecture his wayward son on debasing the majesty and mystique of the Crown.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But like a comet I was wonder’d at;
That men would tell their children ‘This is he;’
Others would say ‘Where, which is Bolingbroke?’
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dress’d myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crowned king.  (3.2.46 ff )

The problem with putting yourself in hock with the motley – when he ‘enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – is:

For thou has lost thy princely privilege

With vile participation. (3.2.69, 86-87)

That’s what happens when you are truant chivalry (5.1.94).

Unsurprisingly, the man Bolingbroke deposed had a different version.

Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people;
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As ’twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench…..(Richard II, 1.4.23 ff)

The populist needs more than a thick skin.  He needs more face than Myers.  When caught on a lie, he bluffs it out with pure front.

FALSTAFF: There is Percy: if your father will do me any honour, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either
earl or duke, I can assure you.

PRINCE: Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.

FALSTAFF: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to
lying! 

You can be gracious and condescending at the same time – especially if you went to the right school and bear the insignia of the establishment.  There is no harm in humouring the lower classes and you may get some fun between the sheets.

Thine, by yea and no, which is as much as to
say, as thou usest him, JACK FALSTAFF with my
familiars, JOHN with my brothers and sisters,
and SIR JOHN with all Europe.  (Part 2, 2.2.130)

But when it comes time to cast aside the disguise, you show no mercy.

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
…..
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.  (5.5.48 ff)

And you utterly repudiate all your former comrades – even the most pathetic, like that portable lighthouse Bardolph.  Even unto death.

We should have all such offenders so cut off…(Henry V, 3.6.112).

If that means that the people will think that their leader has killed the heart of his closest companion (2.1.91), what boots it?  They are after all just the people.  But it is quite in order for the leader to beseech Almighty God not to take it out on him because his father broke the rules in laying his hands on the Crown.

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow’d more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood….(4.1.297 ff)

The parallels with today are so obvious that they chill the blood.

 

 

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