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Shakespeare's Characters: Fluellen (Henry V)

From The Aldus Shakespeare. Vol. 2. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Bigelow, Smith and Co. (1909), Public Domain

Among the more serious popular characters — the steady, worthy Gower, the rough Williams, and the dry Bates — the Welshman Fluellen, the king's, countryman, is the central point. He is, as the king himself says, a man of "much care and valor," but "out of fashion." Compared with the former companions of the prince, he is like discipline opposed to licence, like pedantry opposed to dissoluteness, conscientiousness to impiety, learning to rudeness, temperance to intoxication, and veiled bravery to concealed cowardice. Contrasted with those boasters, he appears at first a "collier" who pockets every affront.

In common with his royal countryman, he is not what he seems. Behind little caprices and awkward peculiarities is hidden an honest, brave nature, which should be exhibited by the actor, as it was by Hippisley in Garrick's time, without playfulness or caricature. Open and true, he suffers himself to be deceived for a time by Pistol's bragging, then he seems coldly to submit to insult from him, but he makes him smart for it thoroughly after the battle, and then gives him "a groat to heal his broken pate." He settles the business on which Henry sets him against Williams, and which brings him a blow, and when the king rewards Williams with a glove full of crowns, he will not be behind in generosity, and gives him a shilling. He speaks good and bad of his superiors, ever according to truth, deeply convinced of the importance of his praise and blame, but he would do his duty under each. He is talkative in the wrong place, takes the word from the lips of others, and is indignant when it is taken from him; but in the night before the battle he knows how to keep himself quiet and calm, for nothing surpasses to him the discipline of the Roman wars, in which this is enjoined. The cold man flashes forth warmly like the king when the French commit the act, so contrary to the law of arms, of killing the soldiers' boys. At the time of his respect for Pistol, the latter begs him to intercede for the church-robber Bardolph, but he made his appeal to the wrong man. It is a matter of discipline, in which Fluellen is inexorable. Indeed he especially esteems his countryman king for having freed himself of these old companions. This is the essential point to him in his learned comparison between Henry V and Alexander the Great, that the latter killed his friends in his intoxication, while the former turned away his when he was "in his right wits."

Since then his countryman is inscribed in his honest scrupulous heart, though before he had certainly made little of the dissolute fellow; now he cares not who knows that he is the king's countryman, he needs not to be ashamed of him "so long as his majesty is an honest man." Happy it is that the noble Henry can utter a cordial amen to this remark, "God keep me so;" his captain Fluellen would at once renounce his friendship if he learned from him his first dishonorable trick. The selfcontentedness of an integrity, unshaken indeed, but also never exposed to any temptation, is excellently designed in all the features of this character.
Gervinus: Shakespeare Commentaries.


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