A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Henry IV, Part 2 and Unwitting Enlistment


There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II where the bard casts his great comic creation Falstaff as an army recruiter. The King must put down a rebellion, and Falstaff is charged with finding a few good men for the royal cause. Falstaff is holding a list of the potential recruits’ names, and in the language of the day to select one for enlistment, he will ‘prick’ the man’s name:

Fal: “Is thy name Moldy?”

Mol: “Yea, an ‘t please you.”

Fal: “’Tis the more time thou wert used….
………….Prick him.”

Mol: “I was pricked well enough before, an you
could have let me alone. My old dame will be
undone now for one to do her husbandry and her
drudgery. You need not to have pricked me.
There are other men fitter to go out than I.”

‘Pricked,” among other meanings, here means vexed or grieved. Mr. Moldy is displeased to be enlisted in the pressing and perilous campaigns of his day, preferring to remain pricked at home, performing his wife’s husbandry and drudgery. Thus do, for example, the sullen, underused manhood of France, Germany and Spain now molder at home while the flowering manhood of America, Britain, Australia and Japan risk their lives bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq.

Fal: “Shadow, whose son art thou?”

Sha: “My mother’s son, sir.”

Fal: “Thy mother’s son! Like enough, and thy
father’s shadow. So the son of the female is the
shadow of the male….Shadow will serve for
summer. Prick him (aside), for we have a number
of shadows fill up the muster book.”

“A number of shadows” refers to fictitious names enrolled on the army roster for the purpose of embezzling the royal fee paid for their enlistment. We are spoiled for choice in identifying such modern shadow-soldiers. Certainly the missing United Nations soldiers who could today be in Darfur, one of the bloodiest of the globe’s many current Islamist killing grounds. China and Russia, who continue to block UN action on the ongoing genocide in favor of trade with Sudan, must be charged as the corrupt recruiters whose acts have turned to shadow an army that could have ended a genocide. And by the way, can there be a greater or more humanitarian use of military might than to end a genocide?

In the end, the soldiers Falstaff has recruited line up to bribe a man named Bardolph to be relieved of their duty to enlist (Base means low or self-serving):

Bullcalf: [He gives money.] In very truth sir, I had
as lief be hanged, sir, as go….”

Bar: “Go to, stand aside.”

Moldy: “…My old dame…has nobody to do anything
about her when I am gone, and she is old and cannot
help herself. [He gives money.]”

Bar: “Go to, stand aside.”

Feeble: “By my troth, I care not. A man can die but
once. We owe God a death. I’ll ne’er bear a base mind.
An ‘t be my destiny, so; an ‘t be not, so. No man’s
too good to serve’s prince. And let it go which way it
will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.”

Whoops! The knowing, cynical, world-weary pacifism we thought Shakespeare was endorsing has been punctured by this unlikely working class hero, Mr. Feeble, who is introduced earlier as a women’s tailor. This noble man reminds us of no one so much as of Fabrizio Quattrocchi, the Italian security guard who was taken hostage by Islamists in Iraq. The fanatic killers proceeded to videotape Quattrocchi’s murder, hoping to transmit images of his humiliation back to Italy. But instead, Quattrocchi tore off his mask as the knives approached and shouted, “Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies!”

“A man can die but once. We owe God a death.
I’ll ne’er bear a base mind.”

Quattrocchi will live eternally in Italy’s heart (provided Italy itself endures). And not only in Italy’s. Mrs. Bardseye and I are expecting our first child, a son, this August. Quattrocchi was among the names we considered for him.

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