While his student at Naropa Institute in 1977, I heard the poet Gregory Corso drunkenly inform the entire class that Jack Kerouac’s favorite line in Shakespeare was, “As fat as butter; as cheap as an egg” (the first half of the phrase appears in Henry IV, Part I, Act 2, Scene 4, line 443). Over the years, I have researched the exact phrase in the play and tried to ascertain its meaning, not only in the play, but in the vast canopy of Shakespeare’s work, and Kerouac’s work, and Corso’s work.
Recently, Naropa University has uploaded audio recordings of many of the classes. Corso quotes the line in a 1975 class that Ginsberg gave on Shakespeare. While Ginsberg is discussing various poems within the play Love’s Labour’s Lost, Corso chimes in with the Kerouac tidbit. When Ginsberg asks Corso to identify what year Kerouac said that it was his favorite line, Corso says, exasperated, “Leave me alone!”
The discussion begins at about the 5:50 mark:
In a class by Philip Whalen in 1977, the Buddhist poet was asked by a student about the phrase. Whalen looked it up overnight in a Shakespeare Concordance, and discovered that the first half of the phrase was in reference to Falstaff. He couldn’t find “as cheap as an egg,” and I can’t find it in Shakespeare either. Was the second half of the phrase an attempt of Kerouac’s to mimetically rival Shakespeare’s act of comparison? The Shakespeare part of the 80 minute long discussion is at 43:21 in the recording:
Corso’s class in 1977 sketched out gigantic eras in human history. He talked about the Zodiac and the age of Aquarius and Aries. Recently, Corso’s lectures were partially published by The CUNY Documents Initiative as Naropa Lectures 1981: Gregory Corso Part I and II (2016). Corso takes the students through the arc of human evolution. “In Egypt, we’re still matriarchal. […] If you ever see statues of the Virgin Mary, you’ll see her with a half moon under her feet. The snake, a half moon, seven stars. And you know, that’s got nothing to do with Christianity, if you really give it a good checkout. It comes from these people. The lesser ones would’ve been Artemis, for the Greeks. Artemis [writes on chalkboard].” (26-27). Corso’s discussion is far from scholarly and doesn’t have notes or references, but is instead inspired by discussions of mythological and astrological divagations from the period. Corso rarely reveals his sources. We are on far firmer ground when dealing with Shakespeare himself.
When Falstaff’s men ambush the postal carriers at Gads Hill, they take their stuff and ruin them. In the scene in the Inn, the carrier fingers Falstaff as being the man that is “As fat as butter.” On the literal level, that’s all there is. However, Alan Stewart, in an article in Shakespeare Quarterly called “Shakespeare and the Carriers,” illuminates a system of carriers and the inns in which they stayed, and how precarious their lot was within the legal landscape of early modern England. The carriers could easily fall prey to highwaymen. The charge of this specific carrier, as he attempts to identify Falstaff, is ludicrous in its brevity (it is not a complete sentence), but there is also something poignant in it. Some directors drop the line to cut down on personnel, as it’s the carrier’s only line.
Alan Stewart, however, demonstrates its central importance, as it is the cry of the beleaguered poor, as their livelihoods are destroyed by those who identify themselves as “we that take purses go by the moon” as Falstaff says (Part I, Act 1, Scene 2, 13-14). The Beat writers saw in Falstaff a kindred spirit, as the characters in Falstaff’s milieu were petty criminals, much as the Beats were enamored with petty criminals, and surrounded themselves with grifters, junkies, unapologetic adulterers, and con artists. The petty criminality and drug use in the Beat milieu is a constant, as can be seen in many of their interviews and texts, as they slummed amongst the poor, much as the prince does in Shakespeare’s play.
Kerouac’s favorite line, however, may have reflected his ironic devotion not only to Falstaff and his merry band, but to the honest working class and their struggle for survival. He himself turned from the Beats and became a more conservative Catholic toward the end of his life. In that respect, Kerouac (whose conservative final years are not well-documented), sided with the Gaunts (the family name of the Henrys), while also pointing toward a possible physiological differentiation between the thin (Gaunts) and the fat (represented by Falstaff and his men and identified as such by the carrier’s line).
Perhaps it’s best to place Kerouac’s favorite phrase into a larger context, as the play opens on to mythological cycles which the great Swiss mythologist, Johann Jakob Bachofen, first identified. Bachofen argues that the matriarchal religions place a greater emphasis on night. “The night is identified with the earth and interpreted as a maternal-chthonian power; here the night is the oldest of deities and stands in a special relation to woman. The sun, on the other hand, exalts men’s eyes to contemplate the greater glory of the male power” (114). This gendered difference in turn opens into a mythological difference between the matriarchal and the patriarchal which is at work in the Shakespeare play with Falstaff on the side of the matriarchal (the realm of night based on desire) whereas the prince increasingly devoted himself to the patriarchal (the realm of day based on principles of law and order); in Bachofen’s work, this dichotomy separates early from later civilizations. The dichotomy is also made visible in its symbolic form between the fatness of the Venus of Willendorf and the “gaunt” nature of Christ. The fatness of the matriarchal symbol represents the horizontal realm of desire. The gaunt points vertically. Bachofen’s separation of matriarchy and patriarchy is not based on actual genders, but on the symbolic statuary and vase painting that the various civilizations left behind. A quick summary can be found in the Wikipedia entry on Bachofen:
“Bachofen’s 1861 Das Mutterrecht proposed four phases of cultural evolution which absorbed each other:
1. Hetaerism: a wild nomadic ‘tellurian’ [= chthonic or earth-centered] phase, characterised by him as communistic and polyamorous, whose dominant deity he believed to have been an earthy proto Aphrodite.
3. The Dionysian: a transitional phase when earlier traditions were masculinised as patriarchy began to emerge. Its dominant deity was the original Dionysos.
4. The Apollonian: the patriarchal ‘solar’ phase, in which all trace of the Matriarchal and Dionysian past was eradicated and modern civilisation emerged.”
Bachofen’s thinking was reworked by feminist scholars such as Marja Gimbutas and many others, who saw in the early “matriarchal” societies a place of enchantment and harmony that was later overtaken by angry “patriarchal” sky-gods. A generation or two after this, it is once again necessary to “dig down” into the original work of Bachofen himself, as his schema was never meant to imply that there were a group of women who ruled early societies. Instead, the early societies were ruled by men, just as were the later societies. The difference was that the earliest societies were run by dictatorial men whose every whim was catered to, but this slowly gave way to a society of law in which law and order applied to all, including the most powerful men. Along with figures of Venus and Aphrodite, other feminine gods were worshipped, such as Artemis, whose name in the Roman canon is Diana.
The importance of the Diana and Actaeon myth can be seen throughout Shakespeare’s work, as this myth is central to one part of his thought, and is distinguished from the Christian thought that forms its counterweight. James O. Wood in his article “Intimations of Actaeon in Julius Caesar” provides a brief overview of the literature, wherein he cites the story as appearing not only throughout the Henry IV cycle but also in Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, and Macbeth (86). In Pericles, the action ends at the foot of Diana’s temple of Ephesus, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Falstaff himself cites this myth and inserts himself within it when he says of himself and his merry men, “…let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon” (King Henry IV, Part I, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 25-26).
Falstaff’s references to the Ephesians point to a Shakespearean reconstruction of matriarchy, but this reconstruction is always fruitfully contrasted with Christianity. In Part 2 of Henry IV, the prince says to Poins, “…the boy that I gave Falstaff – a had him from/ me Christian, and look if the fat villain have not/ transformed him ape” (Act 2, Scene 2, lines 66-68). When this same is asked where Falstaff is gone and in whose company he might be, he responds that Falstaff is with, “Ephesians, my lord, of the old church” (line 142). What old church would this be, if not the old church of Diana? The notes to the Arden edition hint at a Christian interpretation. “The allusion is perhaps to the unregenerate Ephesians, with the sensual faults that St. Paul warns against” (57). No mention is made of the myth of Actaeon and Diana, and how this would point to a deeper structure in the play, as Falstaff is actually, as he points out himself, a “minion of the moon,” or a disciple of Diana, and not simply a generic pagan, as the note would indicate. He represents the repressed matriarchy, against the overall patriarchy of the play.
The myth of Diana is discussed in detail in the twentieth century French theologian Pierre Klossowski’s books Diana at her Bath and The Women of Rome. Diana, Klossowski reminds us, was the goddess of the Ephesians.
“In his vast work on ancient matriarchal laws (Mutterrecht, 1861) Bachofen, the archaeologist from Basel, seems to have laid the foundations for a sociology of sexual life in antiquity, taking into account the essential fact that the function of sex was inseparable from religious piety in those vanished societies” (93).
Pierre Klossowski writes of contemporary debates (he was writing in the 1960s) over matriarchy, that,
“As debatable as various aspects of the conception may seem, and indeed it is criticized today for the evolutionary principle it presupposes, that is, that all civilizations followed an analogous development – we believe that it remains valid on the fundamental level of the collective unconscious… Our Western world is still feeling the effects of the long and stubborn efforts that Rome had to make in order to overcome the last Helleno-Asiatic influences and become free of ‘matriarchal’ memories” (The Women of Rome, 95).
Gregory Corso’s most famous poem is “Marriage,” which is an inventory of all the reasons he couldn’t stay married. Marriage, Bachofen says, is a patriarchal invention. It is a structure that did not exist initially, but Bachofen traces a unilinear evolution of societies in which he claims that higher societies create marriage as a means of stability, and as a way to give women legal equality. He cites Helen of Troy as the antithesis of her cousin, Penelope, in that the latter is loyal to her marriage, while the former is loyal to hot love. Those loyal to hot love lose their marriages, and in doing so, can also lose their families in the process. Falstaff has had many lovers, but has no family. The prince, on the other hand, rejoins his family, and marries. This return to the patriarchal order is depicted as the source of his legitimacy and his strength.
Johann Bachofen comments elsewhere that, “The dog is an image of the hetaeric earth which delights in all fecundation. Given to unregulated and always visible copulation, he represents the principle of animal reproduction in its crudest form” (135). In the Book of Revelation, a list of those who will not enter into the New Jerusalem includes dogs. “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (22:15). Against the naturalistic impulse of hot sex stands civilization and the marriage bed. Shakespeare closes the cycle with Henry V’s marriage. Marriage is the mark of maturity, and something that Falstaff (like Corso) instinctively avoids.
In the Henry IV plays, if Falstaff represents the matriarchal era, then Henry V can be seen to embody the triumph of patriarchal Christianity over that earlier phase. Not only was Falstaff time’s fool, he is meant to represent the pagan belief in nothing beyond this world. Falstaff is a fool in more than one sense: a debauched glutton, a liar, he is the seven sins rolled into one. When he is rejected by Henry V, the lesson is historical and represents a tremendous span of time. There is a new regime in place, less tempestuous perhaps, than the older one, and to some extent less fun. But it is also more just.
Brian P. Levack writes in The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe that witches were associated “…with Diana, the Roman goddess of fertility, who had close associations with the moon and the night” (Levack 41). Diana was also the pagan goddess for whom a great temple had been built at the city of Ephesus in the era before Christ. She was “a pagan goddess and patroness of witches, to the early Christians Diana was a demon, and traces of her in this capacity survived into the Middle Ages” (Cavendish 576). Diana haunts the imagination of Shakespeare, and can be seen in Pericles, Titus Andronicus, Twelfth Night, and is especially prevalent in the Henry IV-V cycle. In that cycle, Falstaff is closely associated with the moon, while Henry V is closely associated with the sun.
Brian Levack says of the witch-hunts in early modern Europe that “The period from 1580 to 1650 was certainly the height of the European witch-hunt” (175). This period corresponds with Shakespeare’s life-span. Falstaff is a bewitching pagan figure associated with brothels and drink, while his protégée Henry V is a Christian figure who is part of the new world order. Falstaff is a figure of the night and moon, and a herald of an older order.
The interactions between Henry V and Falstaff can therefore be seen to represent a dialogue between reasonable Christian thought and the older matriarchal thought. Stella Georgoudi writes of Johann Bachofen that, “He saw, in short, the obsession of the good Greek citizen with all that was thought to be primitive, chaotic, obscure, undisciplined, and dangerous in the ‘female element’“ (463).
Although the prince’s banishment of Falstaff was not as extreme as the witch-hunts which went on intensively during Shakespeare’s epoch and which often ended in the death of witches, his plays nevertheless reflect the reality of a society which feared the demand for and exercise of power by uncivilized elements. Falstaff’s banishment reminds us that within any given community there can only be one principal deity, or what theologian Paul Tillich calls “ultimate concern” (126). Falstaff has placed his faith in Diana as a “minion of the moon.” The Bolingbrokes have placed their faith in God. There can be no true community between Falstaff and Henry V unless and until Falstaff changes his beliefs. As Paul Tillich writes, “…there is no community where there is not a community of faith” (118). It is only in the rejection of Falstaff that Henry V’s virtue can be seen through Shakespearean eyes, and hence, Falstaff could be seen as an agent of sin, as surely as great sin awakens us to temperance, or as day follows night. Yet as much fun as that night, and as that figure have been, Shakespeare comes down on the side of daylight, leaving Falstaff as a liminal twilight figure, a false father, to Henry V. It is only when Henry V returns to his true father, and rejects Falstaff, but rejoins and stands up for his true family, that his redemption can be achieved.
When Falstaff himself is turned into a stag at the end of Merry Wives, like Actaeon, he is torn apart by his solipsistic hedonism.
Pierre Klossowski reveals that sacred prostitution was an organic component of the ceremonies at Ephesus (63), and it is central that Falstaff resides in brothels. Klossowski’s book on the Diana and Actaeon myth, like Shakespeare’s Merry Wives, shows the conundrum of desire in that one can be torn apart by one’s own unchecked fire.
In stark contrast to the Christianity of Henry IV and V, who try to redeem the time they spend on earth through conscientious deeds, Falstaff is thoroughly pagan. He believes in nothing beyond the moment. He never marries.
Many scholars rejoice in the matriarchal. Jacob Rabinowitz, in his volume The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity, sees a striking similarity between the end of the rotting goddess, and the beginning of dualistic Platonic philosophy and valorizes the former:
“Bear in mind that the negative witch depiction, like the dark Hecate, appears only in the 5th century, contemporary with Plato. The same dualism which made the great philosopher and his followers see the world and sex as the doomed and rotting prison of the soul is operant on the goddess who represents the earth and sex. The witch, a late echo of the Earth Mother, is vilified in exactly the same terms as the material world: infernal Hekate with her torch and her cave meaningfully parallels the setting of Plato’s allegoric troglodytes” (121).
Rabinowitz gives a positive role to Diana and to Hecate. Shakespeare differs. Diana and/or Ephesians appear in several of Shakespeare’s plays as we’ve already pointed out, but they are dark and unregenerate, rather than fertile, as in Rabinowitz’ thought. Tamora in Titus Andronicus is compared to Diana; in Pericles, the final scene is set at Diana’s temple; in Julius Caesar, there is a comparison to Actaeon. In every mention of Diana, she is an awful creature. Her most benign incarnation is Falstaff himself when he becomes a witch in Merry Wives. This goddess, once hailed throughout the pagan world, and the site of much wonder at her temple in Ephesus, has since been replaced by the unrotting Christ who is a transcendent figure after his anastasis or resurrection. In Shakespeare’s Henry plays, and particularly in the Falstaff sequence, we see this replacement of one regime by another. It is a major shift in world religions, theatricalized.
In the Bolingbroke faction, time is a positive force. As Northrop Frye writes,
“For a king to be successful, a sense of timing is perhaps the most important ability he can have: in Henry V it is said of the new king, when he is about to invade France:
Now he weighs time
Even to the utmost grain.
The first remark Falstaff makes in this play is to ask Prince Hal what time it is, and he is told that such people as Falstaff, who sleep all day and drink all night, don’t need to know the time. Falstaff is a time-blocking figure, someone who gets in the way of the movement of history. Hotspur’s hair-trigger reactions also indicate that he has no sense of time, though for opposite reasons: he tends to jump his fences before they are there, and only in the enlightenment of his dying speech does he realize that life is time’s fool, the plaything and often the victim of time” (77).
What distinguishes Falstaff and Hotspur from the Bolingbrokes is their lack of patience: whether it’s a battle for Hotspur, or a woman or a glass of ale for Falstaff, they cannot exercise restraint. The passage of time is not meaningful to them (they live in the present).
Falstaff and his band are men of change, unlike the king and his son, who change outwardly, like chameleons, but inwardly are unchanging like the logos of Heraclitus. Whereas the king and his son are Christians, Falstaff and his men are matriarchs, and their truest divinity is Diana of the Ephesians. The Prince says at the end of Act I of Part 1 in Henry IV that “Herein will I imitate the sun, who doth permit the base contagious clouds/ To smother up his beauty from the world” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 192-194). On the other hand, Falstaff and his men are linked to the moon, traditionally a feminine figure in Shakespeare, as it is personified by monthly cycles, and constant alteration. The clownish rogues of Shakespeare are linked with night. Lucio remarks in Measure for Measure that “…women are light at midnight” (Act V, Scene 1, line 279).
While Bachofen’s theory of an original matriarchy has found limited confirmation within the archeological record, the myth remains widespread. There is some evidence within classical sources for a changeover from “earth gods” to “sky gods.” St. Paul preached at Ephesus, and apparently converted some in the city from believers in matriarchy to believers in God. Those who continued to believe in Diana, like Falstaff, would be unregenerate pagans. Much of this changeover is recorded in the New Testament Book of Acts, especially in chapter 19, in which a craftsman named Demetrius complains and creates a riot. “And when they heard sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28).
In Titus Andronicus, the Goth queen Tamora possesses many of the striking characteristics of Diana. She has no husband, she loves to hunt, and she is violent towards all those who would disobey her. In Act 1 Scene 1 line 321 she is compared to Diana by Saturninus, as being “like the stately Phoebe ‘mongst her nymphs.” Bassianus, shortly before his murder at the hands of Tamora’s sons, questions whether Tamora is not “Dian, habited like her,/ Who hath abandoned her holy groves/ To see the general hunting in the forest?” (lines 57-59). Tamora describes what she would do to Bassianus if she were indeed Diana, “Thy temples should be planted presently/ With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds/ Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs” (lines 62-64).
In the historical city of Ephesus, Christian temples were ultimately built on top of pagan. “Archaeological evidence suggests that during this time pagan temples and shrines were either destroyed or transformed into buildings serving the Christian cult. The inscription of Demeas, who boasts that he had taken the daemon Artemis from its site … and replaced it with a Christian cross, may be typical of the zeal of Ephesian Christians” (Scherrer 2). If we see the underlying layer of paganism as being the unconscious of the city, then it is possible to see a goddess-worshipping culture as the remains of a matriarchal culture transformed by Christianity. Such prior cultures are said to abound in the era before patriarchal cultures. Bachofen himself often confused the symbolic and the literal aspects of his scheme, making a mess of his system.
“The progress of civilization is not favorable to woman. She is at her best in the so-called barbaric periods; later epochs destroy her hegemony, curtail her physical beauty, reduce her from the lofty position she enjoyed… the more primordial the people, the more the feminine nature principle will dominate religious life and the higher women’s social position will be” (Bachofen 170, cited in Davis 264).
Shakespeare’s most brutal representation of a pagan matriarch is Tamora in Titus Andronicus. Falstaff’s brutality is harder to see as he hides it beneath wit. He gets his men killed in battle, and doesn’t care, as he gets the pay for any soldier who dies in his company. We find Shakespeare’s Falstaff likable, but underneath his casual mayhem lurks a bad father-figure. Shakespeare has a better understanding of the symbolic versus the literal realm than the mythologist had, and his plays are far more coherent as a result.
In Corso’s summer course, we were supposed to read several books. He had assigned At-Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien, as well as Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott, and The Epic of Gilgamesh. However, he never spoke of these books. I can’t even remember what he discussed except for his merriment at Kerouac’s favorite line in Shakespeare. I’ve thought about the line, but I have never seen a Kerouac essay or story in which he opens up about why he liked it, and Corso never discussed the image with any precision. Kerouac died in 1969, and the Naropa Institute didn’t open until 1974. Had Kerouac lived, we would perhaps have his own recollection of the line “as fat as butter,” and we would be able to read about his reasons for favoring it with Ginsberg and Corso. As it is, the origin of Kerouac’s valorization of the line appears to be lost.
Alan Stewart demonstrates the central importance of the line “as fat as butter,” in his article on the early modern carriers, as it is the cry of the beleaguered working poor against those who identify themselves as “we that take purses go by the moon” (Part I, Act 1, Scene 2, 13-14). Was it early Kerouac or later Kerouac that loved the line? I would guess it’s the earlier Kerouac. Falstaff represents an uprising within patriarchal civilization and a return to the matriarchal, much as the Beats did themselves, and in that brief image of Falstaff’s fatness, we get, perhaps, a symbol similar to that of the Callipygian Venus, and a symbol of the Beat movement itself that Kerouac initially inspired but later outgrew, like the prince, in order to return to his family and faith.
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Georgoudi, Stella. “Creating a Myth of Matriarchy,” in A History of Women: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1992) 449-464.
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