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929 Project: Genesis 4 – Cain the wisecracker

July 18, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

The story goes that at a synagogue a kid once asked a famous visiting rabbi whether there were any jokes in the Hebrew Bible. 

Without blinking, the rabbi replied, “Yes, but they’re all old.”

Arguably, the first joke in the Hebrew Bible is Genesis 4:9:

ויאמר ה׳ אל קין אי הבל אחיך ויאמר לא ידעתי השמר אחי


And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? (KJV)

Is it fair to call this humor? 

The question of whether to read Genesis 4:9 as humor reminds of a similar challenge of presenting Falstaff in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV (both parts).  Do we show Falstaff as being funny, or being decrepit and foul?

On the one hand, Falstaff is presented as a center of wit in the King Henry IV plays (becoming so beloved that according to legend Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare to write more about Falstaff, resulting in Merry Wives of Windsor.)  On the other hand, a central arc of these plays is Prince Hal maturing and abandoning his roguish friends as he prepare to assume the throne.  In Part 1 Act 1 Scene 2 (starting at line 186) Hal explicitly predicts this maturation in his surprising monologue to the audience announcing his intention to abandon friends:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.


These questions came to the fore to me as I watched The Hollow Crown, the (terrific) BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad (the Richard II/King Henry IV parts 1&2/King Henry V tetralogy).  The Hollow Crown portrays Falstaff in a constantly negative fashion, unlike many earlier treatments (consider Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Harold Bloom’s book length treatment of Falstaff).   Ada Palmer (an acquaintance who is also a history professor at U. Chicago, a successful science fiction author, and a composer) writes:

ada palmer

What are these plays about, the prince, the tavern or the king? The structure of Henry IV makes it particularly easy for the director to change the answer, since for much of both plays the action literally alternates between funny scenes at the tavern, with Prince Hal and his old friend Falstaff playing drunken pranks, and scenes of war and politics with King Henry IV facing bold rebels. The two halves are united by the process of the young prince gradually facing up to his political destiny, but the director can completely change which half seems to be the thrust of it by deciding which scenes to do quickly and which to do slowly, which to trim and which to extend with music or dance or horse chases or battle drama.

We know that in Shakespeare’s day the big hit was Prince Hal’s funny friend Falstaff, who was so popular in Part 1 that Shakespeare added a ton more (completely gratuitous) scenes with him in Part 2 plus wrote the entire comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor just to give us more Falstaff—pandering to one’s fans is not a modern invention! But the modern audience of The Hollow Crown is in this for the high politics dynastic warfare epic, so the director has made the shockingly radical decision to give us a version of Henry IV which actually seems to be about King Henry IV.

Below on the left, Prince Hal smirks at Falstaff’s antics in the Globe production of Henry IV (portrayed by Jamie Parker and Roger Allam) while on the right, Hal is being told off by his father, King Henry IV in The Hollow Crown (Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons). Both scenes appear in both versions of the play, but guess which is extended and which trimmed?

Only part of this shift comes from directors actually cutting lines, though The Hollow Crown […] does trim the silly scenes and extend the serious. What makes focus feel so different is the emotion and body language behind an actor’s delivery, which can make a line have a completely different meaning. For anyone who wants an amazing quick demo of this, check out two short videos Mercator A and Mercator B, created by an NEH Workshop on Roman Comedy, demonstrating how the same short scene from Plautus’s ancient play feels completely different without changing a word—the jealous wife’s body language is altered. (The hard-core can also watch the scene in Latin where body language alone tells all).

For me, in Henry IV, the centerpiece issue is how any given director chooses to present Falstaff, the vice-ridden, drunken, witty, thieving, lecherous, eloquent old knight with whom our young trickster Prince Hal plays away his youthful hours. The crux of this is the finale of Henry IV part 2 when (415-year-old spoiler warning) Prince Hal becomes King Henry V and, rather than taking Falstaff to court as one of his favorites, suddenly banishes Falstaff and all the immoral companions of his youth. This decision wins Henry the respect of his nobles and subjects, but breaks Falstaff’s heart and hopes, resulting in the old knight’s death. How Falstaff and Henry’s nobles react is locked in by Shakespeare’s script, but it’s up to the director and the actors to determine how the audience will react—by deciding how to present Falstaff, Prince Hal and their relationship to the audience throughout the four-plus hours leading up to Hal’s decision.[…]

Falstaff can be (as he is in the recent Globe and Royal Shakespeare Company productions) show-stoppingly, stage-stealingly hilarious, delivering all his absurd and nonsensical jests with brilliant comic timing, so you’re almost eager for the battles to be over so you can have more Falstaff. Or he can be (as he is in the 1960 Age of Kings) a conversational tool for Prince Hal designed to show off our beloved prince’s wit and delightfulness, cutting many of Falstaff’s lines to minimize how much the audience bonds with him and make as much room as possible for the long-term protagonist. Or, as in The Hollow Crown, he can be portrayed as a remarkably unappealing and lecherous old man who mutters and rambles nonsense jokes that are too obscure to even be funny, so you spend your time wondering why Hal is wasting his time with this guy. This is not a difference of acting skill but of deliberate choice, highlighting the moments at which Hal is critical of Falstaff (or Falstaff is critical of himself) and racing through the jests instead of stringing them out, focusing the play (and the audience’s attention) more on Hal’s choices and less on Falstaff’s jokes.

(Even this extended excerpt from Palmer’s brilliant essay does her a disservice — her essay is among other things, an extended meditation on the difficulty of producing the play after John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding — how can directors and actors can solve this puzzle: “The audience has just spent five hours bonding with the hilarious Falstaff, and now Hal is going to betray and destroy him. But we then have to spend another entire play watching Hal, so we need to still like Hal after he casts out Falstaff. Thus, the performance needs to show us motivations for Hal’s action which we can understand, sympathize with, respect, and generally accept.”)

Given the complexity of how we present Falstaff to an audience; how can we understand Cain’s wisecrack to God?  Is it a problem that we find this progenitor of an evil act?

Perhaps the Cain story was a second account of the introduction of sin to humankind, parallel to the story of Adam and Eve’s fall.  This is certainly the interpretation of at least one LXX.  The NETS is a translation of LXX versions keyed to the NRSV, and it is especially interesting to see how divine instructions to Cain in Genesis 4:12 changes between the NRSV and LXX:

[And the LORD said, “] When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” (NRSV)

[And God said, “] For you will till the earth, and it will not continue to yield its strength to you; you will be groaning and trembling on the earth.” (NETS)

The NETS translation portrays the Old Greek as being far more bereft of humor.

The challenge of presenting evil and decadence in a horrific fashion, stripping it of jokes, is a challenge even for the highest peaks of literature.  Consider, for example, the challenges faced by Milton in writing Paradise Lost.  Milton’s presentation of Satan is so noble and the lines Milton assigns to Satan are so passionate that Satan comes across as a type of hero in that poem – certainly contrary to Milton’s intentions.

So, is Cain a wisecracking smart-ass or not?  It’s all in how you read the text.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 30, 2018, and backdated to July 18, for reasons explained here.)

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