Falstaff and the Stolen Valor Act

Größe, "Falstaff with the Body of Hotspur"

On Monday I was sitting on a park bench enjoying a beautiful morning in Manhattan’s Union Square Park (Julia and I are in the city visiting our new grandson) when I found myself in a conversation with a passerby about Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Richard II and Henry IV, Part I.  This in turn led to thoughts about Falstaff and the “Stolen Valor” case currently before the Supreme Court. It’s amazing where a casual conversation can lead.

Here’s how it happened. I was madly typing away on my Mac laptop when a man, James Gomez, asked me how I liked my computer. He was planning to buy one, he said, but his children were recommending an iPad instead. I told him that, as an English professor, I needed something I could type on, and that led James to tell me about how he is a recently retired Con Edison project manager who is taking advantage of retirement to take a Shakespeare course at Drew University.

Of course, I then wanted to know which plays were his favorites.  James said he had once liked Macbeth best—he mentioned that it was Harold Bloom’s favorite play—but that now he preferred Richard II.

James then wanted me to weigh in on a disagreement that he was having with his teacher over the figure of Falstaff in the Richard II sequel, Henry IV. He said that, while his teacher likes Falstaff, he himself doesn’t care for him at all.

There were good reasons for his dislike, I discovered. James served in Vietnam as a member of the infantry and finds unpardonable the way that Falstaff takes credit for having killed Hospur.  I affirmed that his complaint was perfectly legitimate.

I would have liked to continue the discussion but he had to go off and buy his laptop (or iPad) so we parted with me recommending that he read Henry V. Given his military background, I think James would like Henry’s camaraderie with his serving men and his St. Crispin’s Day speech.

As I thought about it afterwards, however, what I would really would have liked to discuss with James is Shakespeare’s relevance to the U.S. vs. Alvarez “Stolen Valor” case currently before the Supreme Court.

The question is whether the Congressional act is constitutional.  Passed in 2006, it makes it a federal offense (with jail time awarded) to lie about being awarded military decorations or medals. Xavier Alvarez, the defendant who never served in the military, sounds a bit like Falstaff.  According to news reports, when he was elected to a municipal water board,

he introduced himself to his fellow directors by saying he was a 25-year Marine Corps veteran who had been wounded many times and received the Medal of Honor.

None of that was true, nor were claims that he had played hockey for the Detroit Red Wings, worked as a police officer, rescued the U.S. ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis, secretly married a Mexican starlet and been shot down when he was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

I can see both sides.  I can see why military people who put their lives on the line would be livid but I also see why you wouldn’t want to make telling tall tales a federal offense.  Granted, Falstaff (unlike Alvarez) is guilty of more than mere lying—by claiming to have killed Hotspur, he stands to gain something tangible and to take the credit away from someone else. This indeed is a crime because it amounts to theft, and it’s not the only theft that Falstaff commits in the course of the play.

But that being said, I think Hal (who actually has killed Hotspur and so is the one robbed) handles Falstaff the way that the Supreme Court should handle U.S. vs. Alvarez. In a way that shows that he has matured, Hal shrugs off Falstaff’s lies. They are offensive to some but, in the end, not that big a deal.

Opponents of the law point out that the liars are almost always found out by veterans’ groups and publicly humiliated when the truth is known. Falstaff gets his own punishment when he thinks he can trade in on his friendship with Hal once Hal becomes Henry V, only to be told, “I know thee not old man.” Harsh though the rejection is (it breaks Falstaff’s heart), the king doesn’t have the luxury of being dragged down by his old friend.

I gave James my card and got his permission to use his name in a post.  So if  you read this, James, send in your thoughts on the matter. And keep reading and thinking about Shakespeare.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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