Shakespeare uses the classical comic archetype of the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) to probe social and ethical issues regarding military honour. These issues are still with us. This article takes as its point of departure the US Supreme Court’s 2012 decision finding the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 unconstitutional on free speech grounds. This high-profile case, centring upon a latter-day avatar of Falstaff or Pistol, suggests both continuity and change in how militarist societies address the challenge of distinguishing true and counterfeit valour. Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and Henry V, like the Supreme Court opinions, stage a contest between classical epic ideologies of honour and comic recuperations of the coward or braggart. These literary and legal discourses are further contextualized through historical anecdote and Aristotle’s account of courage and cowardice. The Aristotelian figure of the alazōn (impostor) creates a complex interplay between ethics and poetics which plays out in theatre and courtroom alike.
David Currell is Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Beirut, where he teaches early modern drama and poetry. His work has appeared in English Studies, Shakespeare Survey and collections including Fall Narratives and Critical Insights: Macbeth. He is coeditor of the forthcoming book Digital Milton.