I recently returned from a visit to the United Kingdom, where I saw a matinée performance of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 at the reconstructed Globe theater. In two key scenes, Falstaff eloquently declares his preference for life over honor. The first occurs on the eve of the climactic battle:
Honor prickes me on. But how if Honour pricke me off when I come on? How then? Can Honour set too a legge? No: or an arme? No: Or take away the greefe of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in Surgerie, then? No. What is Honour A word. What is that word Honour? Ayre: A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that dy’de a Wednesday. Doth he feele it? No. Doth hee heare it? No. Is it insensible then? yea, to the dead. But wil it not liue with the liuing? No. Why? Detraction wil not suffer it, therfore Ile none of it. Honour is a meere Scutcheon, and so ends my Catechisme.1
He reiterates this sentiment during the battle, upon encountering the corpse of his ally, the eminently honorable Sir Walter Blunt:
Though I could scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot heere: here’s no scoring, but vpon the pate. Soft who are you? Sir Walter Blunt, there’s Honour for you: here’s no vanity, I am as hot as molten Lead, and as heauy too; heauen keepe Lead out of mee, I neede no more weight then mine owne Bowelles. I haue led my rag of Muffins where they are pepper’d: there’s not three of my 150. left aliue, and they for the Townes end, to beg during life. …
If Percy be aliue, Ile pierce him: if he do come in my way, so: if he do not, if I come in his (willingly) let him make a Carbonado of me. I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath: Giue mee life, which if I can saue, so: if not, honour comes vnlook’d for, and ther’s an end.2
Faithful readers of this blog will realize that Falstaff’s attitude is the exact antithesis of Abravanel’s (see here and here). Falstaff would no doubt argue that his view is explicitly endorsed by the wisest of all men:
כִּי-מִי אֲשֶׁר יבחר (יְחֻבַּר), אֶל כָּל-הַחַיִּים יֵשׁ בִּטָּחוֹן: כִּי-לְכֶלֶב חַי הוּא טוֹב, מִן-הָאַרְיֵה הַמֵּת.3
but on the other hand, many have maintained that some of the opinions mentioned in Ecclesiastes are not actually correct, but are citations of the views of the wrongheaded. Indeed, Rav Saadia Gaon says just this about our verse:
והפן השלישי מה שאמר הכתוב:
כי מי אשר יבחר אל כל החיים יש [רכו] בטחון, כי לכלב חי הוא טוב מן האריה המת, כי החיים יודעים שימותו והמתים אינם יודעים מאומה, ואין עוד להם שכר כי נשכח זכרם. גם אהבתם גם שנאתם גם קנאתם כבר אבדה, וחלק אין להם לעולם בכל וגו’
שלשת הפסוקים הללו, ואף על פי שהם דברי החכם, לא אמרם דעת עצמו, אלא סיפור מה שאומרים הסכלים. …4
Later that day, I visited London’s National Portrait Gallery, which has an entire room dedicated to representations of one of the most sympathetic and attractive of all the British monarchs, Lady Jane Dudley (née Grey) (The Nine Day’s Queen). As William Hone says:
Young, beautiful, and learned Jane, intent
On knowledge, found it peace; her vast acquirement
Of goodness was her fall; she was content
With dulcet pleasures, such as calm retirement
Yields to the wise alone;–her only vice
Was virtue: in obedience to her sire
And lord she died, with them a sacrifice
To their ambition: her own mild desire
Was rather to be happy than be great;
For though at their request she claimed the crown,
That they through her might rise to rule the state,
Yet the bright diadem and gorgeous throne
She viewed as cares, dimming the dignity
Of her unsullied mind and pure benignity.
One particularly interesting portrait is actually a direct reference to her “intentness on knowledge”:
This print illustrates an episode recounted in Roger Ascham’s treatise on education, The Scholemaster (1570). In 1550, the royal tutor Ascham visited Lady Jane and found her reading Plato’s Phaedo in Greek while the rest of the household were out hunting. Ascham contrasted the joy that this ‘sweet and noble’ girl took in learning with her fear of her cruel parents. In the nineteenth century, Lady Jane’s reputation as a gentle and modest scholar made her a preferred role model for the education of girls.
Before I went into Germanie, I came to Brodegate in Leceter- shire, to take my leaue of that noble Ladie Iane Grey, to whom I was exceding moch beholdinge. Lady Iane Hir parentes, the Duke and Duches, with all the Grey. houshould, Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, were huntinge in the Parke: I founde her, in her Chamber, readinge Phædon Platonis in Greeke, and that with as moch delite, as som ientleman wold read a merie tale in Bocase.
After salutation, and dewtie done, with som other taulke, I asked hir, whie she wold leese soch pastime in the Parke? smiling she answered me: I wisse, all their sporte in the Parke is but a shadoe to that pleasure, that I find in Plato: Alas good folke, they neuer felt, what trewe pleasure ment.
And howe came you Madame, quoth I, to this deepe knowledge of pleasure, and what did chieflie allure you vnto it: seinge, not many women, but verie fewe men haue atteined thereunto. I will tell you, quoth she, and tell you a troth, which perchance ye will meruell at. One of the greatest benefites, that euer God gaue me, is, that he sent me so sharpe and seuere Parentes, and so ientle a scholemaster. For when I am in presence either of father or mother, whether I speake, kepe silence, sit, stand, or go, eate, drinke, be merie, or sad, be sowyng, plaiyng, dauncing, or doing anie thing els, I must do it, as it were, in soch weight, mesure, and number, euen so perfitelie, as God made the world, or else I am so sharplie taunted, so cruellie threatened, yea presentlie some tymes, with pinches, nippes, and bobbes, and other waies, which I will not name, for the honor I beare them, so without measure misordered, that I thinke my selfe in hell, till tyme cum, that I must go to M. Elmer, who teacheth me so ientlie, so pleasantlie, with soch faire allurementes to learning, that I thinke all the tyme nothing, whiles I am with him. And when I am called from him, I fall on weeping, because, what soeuer I do els, but learning, is ful of grief, trouble, feare, and whole misliking vnto me: And thus my booke, hath bene so moch my pleasure, & bringeth dayly to me more pleasure & more, that in respect of it, all other pleasures, in very deede, be but trifles and troubles vnto me. I remember this talke gladly, both bicause it is so worthy of memorie, & bicause also, it was the last talke that euer I had, and the last tyme, that euer I saw that noble and worthie Ladie.5
The Lady’s custom is reminiscent of Rema’s, as per his autobiographical note:
ומכל מקום אומר שסהדי במרומים שכל ימי לא עסקתי בזו [חכמת הפילוסופיא] רק בשבת ויום טוב וחול המועד בשעה שבני אדם הולכים לטייל, וכל ימות החול אני עוסק כפי מיעוט השגתי במשנה ובתלמוד ובפוסקים ובפירושיהם ושרי לצורבא מרבן לאודועי נפשיה כו’:6
[We have discussed this responsum of Rema here.]
Another interesting portrait that I saw in the Gallery is Thomas Jones Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness’ (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor):
This group epitomises the Victorian concept of the British Empire, which was seen as conferring the benefits of European civilisation, and Christianity in particular, on the peoples over whom it ruled. Prince Albert stands to the left of Queen Victoria, while on the right in the background are the statesmen Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell. In the foreground Victoria presents a Bible to a man wearing African dress. Although the portraits of the British sitters are accurate as is the setting of the audience chamber at Windsor, including Benjamin West’s large painting of The Institution of the Order of the Garter carefully indicated in the background, no actual occasion for the picture’s subject has been identified. It was engraved under the title The Bible: The Secret of England’s Greatness in 1864, suggesting that it was conceived, in part at least, as an allegory of Empire.
This compares favorably to a story told of Ben-Gurion, who at a speech at Yeshiva University once declared:
הִנֵּה לֹא-יָנוּם, וְלֹא יִישָׁן– שׁוֹמֵר, יִשְׂרָאֵל.7
A member of the audience challenged Ben-Gurion: “Who is the שומר ישראל, God or the Haganah?” According to one version of the story, Ben-Gurion did not answer; another has him muttering “The Haganah, of course.” In any event, the heckler was forcibly removed from the room, protesting all the way.
The next day, after a repeat visit to the Portrait Gallery, I visited the National Gallery. I was only able to spend a very brief time there, as it was almost Shabbas, but one painting that caught my attention was Peter Paul Rubens’s The Brazen Serpent:
Image removed at the behest of the censor, due to the dishabille of a woman therein.
Moses at the left, with the hooded Eleazar beside him, calls to the people of Israel who are being attacked by a plague of serpents that God sent them because of their sinfulness. He tells them to look at a bronze serpent he has set up on a pole, upper left, because ‘everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it shall live.’ Old Testament (Numbers 21: 6-9).
[The image of this last one taken from here.]