Sunday, June 23, 2013

Go Quickly

A handful of motley characters, including the variable Mistress Quickly, makes multiple appearances in Shakespeare’s canon. People tend to focus on the supremely interesting Falstaff who appears in multiple plays (though not as many as Mistress Quickly).  And fascination with Falstaff seems to be the reason why he and his compatriots (including Mistress Quickly) were resurrected after he had been killed off in Henry V. Rumor has it that, after the great success of the King Henry history plays, Queen Elizabeth personally requested a play showing “Falstaff in love.” Merry Wives of Windsor is what followed. That play, however, does not so much show Falstaff in love but Falstaff in lust—with various married ladies all of who find him less than tempting. The guy who is so central to Prince Hal’s evolution to manhood in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and whose pitiful death is described so soulfully in Henry V (by none other than Mistress Quickly) bears little resemblance to the character with the same name in Merry Wives. More on that later.

Now I want to discuss Mistress Quickly (in case you haven’t noticed). What is bizarre and interesting about Mistress Quickly is that, as opposed to Falstaff who appears to be two different people, one in the history plays and another in a comedy, she seems to be a different person every time we encounter her.

In Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, Mistress Quickly is the “hostess” of the Boar's Head Tavern in a sketchy London neighborhood called Eastcheap. Her name is only used once in the first play, in a manner that suggests it is an irreverent comment on the ease with which she will engage in a certain type of relationship. As for her personality, in Part 1 she does little more than marvel at the verbal antics of Falstaff and Prince Hal and gives them shelter from various members of the King’s court who are searching for Hal in hopes of forcing him to behave himself. She has but one brief moment when, after Falstaff accuses her of running an institution where his pocket has been picked, she stands up to him:

Go to, I know you well enough.
No, Sir John; You do not know me, Sir John. I know you, Sir John: you owe me money, Sir John; and now you pick a quarrel to beguile me of it: I bought you a dozen of shirts to your back.

Dowlas, filthy dowlas: I have given them away to bakers' wives, and they have made bolters of them.

Now, as I am a true woman, holland of eight shillings an ell. You owe money here besides, Sir John, for your diet and by-drinkings, and money lent you, four and twenty pound.
On that occasion, Falstaff easily soothes her ruffled feathers, and she goes back to waiting on him and Prince Hal hand and foot. But by Part 2, Mistress Quickly is demanding that the authorities arrest Falstaff for having run up excessive debts and making a fraudulent proposal of marriage to her. (Other indications that Mistress Quickly has become someone else from her incaranation in Part 1 is that she no long refers repeatedly to “her husband” and is no longer easily manipulated by the big man.) Mistress Quickly now has a dear friend named Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute who frequents the tavern. And Mistress Quickly’s principal concern is protecting her friend and her establishment from “swaggerers.”

Hang him, swaggering rascal! let him not come hither: it is the foul-mouthed'st rogue in England.

If he swagger, let him not come here: no, by my faith; I must live among my neighbours: I'll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best: shut the door; there comes no swaggerers here: I have not lived all this while, to have swaggering now: shut the door, I pray you.

Dost thou hear, hostess?

Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John: there comes no swaggerers here.

Dost thou hear? it is mine ancient.

Tilly-fally, Sir John, ne'er tell me: your ancient swaggerer comes not in my doors. I was before Master Tisick, the debuty, t'other day; and, as he said to me, 'twas no longer ago than Wednesday last, 'I' good faith, neighbour Quickly,' says he; Master Dumbe, our minister, was by then; 'neighbour Quickly,' says he, 'receive those that are civil; for,' said he, 'you are in an ill name:' now a' said so, I can tell whereupon; 'for,' says he, 'you are an honest woman, and well thought on; therefore take heed what guests you receive: receive,' says he, 'no swaggering companions.' There comes none here: you would bless you to hear what he said: no, I'll no swaggerers.

He's no swaggerer, hostess; a tame cheater, i'faith; you may stroke him as gently as a puppy greyhound: he'll not swagger with a Barbary hen, if her feathers turn back in any show of resistance.

Cheater, call you him? I will bar no honest man my house, nor no cheater: but I do not love
swaggering, by my troth; I am the worse, when one says swagger: feel, masters, how I shake; look you, I warrant you.

So you do, hostess.

Do I? yea, in very truth, do I, an 'twere an aspen leaf: I cannot abide swaggerers.

At the end of Part 2, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are themselves arrested in connection with the beating death of a man.

Then in Henry V, she has become “Nell Quickly,” and has married Pistol, one of Falstaff’s cohorts, which has apparently offended another member of their crew, Nym, who also took a shine to her. But she is the one proves to be the peacemaker, urgently beckoning the bickering reprobates to come to Sir John’s bedside in the tavern as he is consumed by a fever: “As ever you came of women, come in quickly to Sir John. Ah, poor heart! he is so shaked of a burning quotidian tertian, that it is most lamentable to behold. Sweet men, come to him.” She is also the one who is with Sir John in his final moments, which she describes with tenderness and without affectation:

. . . .'How now, sir John!' quoth I 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him [he] should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.  

The strangest transformation of all comes in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Suddenly, Mistress Quickly is working as nurse for a French physician. But her main role in the play—and it is a central role—is to act as a messenger between the wives who busily manipulate Falstaff, communicating love notes meant to lure him into exposing himself as an unduly trusting and utterly untrustworthy buffoon. No reference is every made to her former life as the hostess of a bawdy tavern in Eastcheap (or to the fact that Falstaff had already died during the reign of Henry V who ruled England many, many years before the “Queen” who appears to be on the throne during Merry Wives.)

Mistress Quickly is a flexible creature indeed. And her flexibility should certainly be an inspiration to the lawyers of this earth. Lawyers, like Quickly, have to shift their shapes to serve the interests of larger forces—i.e., their clients—for whom they labor. One minute lawyers must be a comforting counselor, the next an adviser telling the client painful truths it may not want to hear, the next charging into battle against dark forces amassed on the other side of a dispute or a big deal, and then suddenly playing peacemaker, conciliator, seeking out a reasonable compromise to a seemingly intractable problem that needs to be put to bed so that people can get on with their lives. So, lawyers, let Mistress Quickly be a guiding light—not in terms of her specific roles, but in her quick, functional malleability; and “I'll be sworn on a book, they’ll love you.” [Mistress Quickly, Merry Wives I.4].

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Trust No One

There's no trust,
No faith, no honesty in men; all perjured,
All forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers.

“Nurse,” Romeo and Juliet, III.2
One of my mantras when teaching legal writing is “trust no one.” I pepper the semester with bone-chilling tales of real-life missteps that befell some law student or lawyer who trusted WestLaw’s KeyCite function to tell them all they needed to know about the state of the law or trusted someone else’s explanation of what happened in a case that they were relying on as a key authority or trusted themselves to catch all of their own typos when finishing a draft just before an electronic filing deadline. Therefore, I was delighted to get an email from a former student this week sharing his own near-horror story. He was saved from being unfairly maligned as incompetent by a voice shouting in his inner ear, “Hold on a minute, buddy. Don’t trust that other lawyer! Before you press ‘Send,’ go check the status of the proposed rule you were asked to analyze. . . .”  He did so, and, as he put it, “SURE ENOUGH, the ‘proposal’” he had been provided was “only a draft and did not resemble the most recent version” that was to be the subject of a pending meeting. What if he had proceeded on trust?! Would the supervising lawyer who had trusted him to do the analysis have taken full responsibility for giving him an outdated rule to evaluate? I trust not.
Shakespeare certainly does his bit to caution us against trusting others. In Measure for Measure, for instance, all hell breaks loose when the Duke trusts his most seemingly upright deputy, Angelo, to run things while the Duke (pretends) to skip town. In Othello, trusting Iago’s reports about Desdemona prompts Othello to murder an innocent and seal his own doom. Perhaps the “Fool” in King Lear (which is all about misplaced trust) says it best: “He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath.”
The point is: a healthy bit of terror is good for every lawyer. If you make a habit of relentless skepticism, you wouldn’t necessarily evade every mine waiting to explode underfoot; but at least vigilance and a certain amount of second-guessing will mean you will only have yourself to blame in the end—and will not be tempted to indulge the grievous sin of blaming someone else, usually someone below you in a hierarchy, after it turns out that your blind trust is really what caused you to trip in the minefield.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Jade’s Trick

The first scene between Shakespeare’s wittiest lovers, Beatrice and Benedick (of Much Ado about Nothing), ends with Benedick pulling “a jade’s trick.” Literally, a “jade” is an ill-conditioned horse; so a “jade’s trick” is what you would expect from such a creature—that it drop out of a race before the finish. Figuratively, Beatrice means that Benedick is lamely dropping out of the battle of wits because he can’t keep up.  Basically, his response to Beatrice’s last barb is to say, “Oh, yeah? Well, whatever.  I have to be somewhere.” Here’s the great opening repartee that defeats Signior B such that he decides to drop out of the race before he loses anyway:

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.

Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.

Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i' God's name; I have done.

You always end with a jade's trick: I know you of old.

Ending any kind of argument with a “jade’s trick” is a lame way to go. But when it comes to legal arguments, stopping when you have nothing new to add, even if it means letting the other side have the last word, is far superior to yammering on just because you don’t want to yield the floor. This is especially true in oral argument or when examining a witness at trial; if you are going to take up the court’s time with rebuttal, you better really have some new zinger or insight to offer instead of just prolonging the game by regurgitating your principal points. Same thing with reply briefs; they should focus the reader on the details key to the dispute, not recap what has already been covered in the opening brief. 

In short, you can’t win a battle of wits just by dropping out before you lose; but you also can’t win one simply by being the last person talking. As clever Beatrice puts it, “an excellent man” is one “just in the midway between … the one [who] is too like an image and says nothing, and the other [who is] too like my lady's eldest son, evermore tattling.” (I.2)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Lighten It Up

As the days grow lighter, I decided lawyers and those who must deal with them could use some lighter fare. Therefore, I commit this month’s blogging to looking at the lighter side of Shakespeare, some of his riotously funny bits.

When thinking of scenes that fit that description, the drunken porter scene in Macbeth springs to mind. I used to think that that scene was evidence that someone—perhaps Will’s demented half-brother, someone with a 14-year-old boy’s obsession with fart and erection jokes—was responsible for this and other interpolations throughout Shakespeare’s cannon. I mean, how could the artist who had drafted a play as unrelentingly dark and intense as The Scottish Play really have meant for the most unsettling scene in the play to be followed immediately by an inebriated servant bantering about how drink is “a great provoker of three things … nose-painting, sleep, and urine”? Is the plot really advanced by the porter explaining in choice detail that “lechery” is a thing that drink both “provokes and unprovokes” because it “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance,” makes a man “stand to, and not stand to,” etc. (II.3)?
The porter scene only seems to fit in because the end of the scene before it is interrupted with urgent knocking and a porter is the person whose job it is to respond to knocking. (“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should grow old turning the key.”) But the knocking that interrupts Lord and Lady Macbeth has an ominous quality; and, after the little diversion with the porter, we find out that the knocker was Macduff. Macduff is the guy who will eventually topple Macbeth. So the knocking that interrupts Lady Macbeth—as she describes having smeared the warm blood of King Duncan all over the young grooms who sleep in the King’s chambers after the Macbeths drugged them so “that death and nature do contend about them,/ Whether they live or die”—that knocking serves as foreshadowing; it is the bell tolling for Macbeth; it is an immediate indication that his dark course is not going to turn out so well. The knocking agitates Macbeth and induces him to express regret about stabbing the King to death; and even as Lady M brags that she has no regrets, she too is unsettled by all the knocking—the hand of fate pounding out its disapproval for all the world to hear.
Is that message lost or heightened by the porter’s entrance and all his hilarious talk about the knocking of an “equivocator”—i.e., a lawyer—who “could swear on both the scales against either scale”?
Well, I don’t know. It would be fun to see a production that takes the porter scene out one night, and puts it back in the next night. A kind of active equivocation regarding Shakespeare’s artistic intentions. In any case, once a person gets a grip on all the earthy references, the porter’s scene, as a stand-alone piece, is pretty damn funny. No equivocation necessary.