The joy of tangents: “He hears with ears”

I had re-watched The Merry Wives of Windsor for a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) I’m taking, this time the 1982 BBC-TV version with Richard Griffiths as Falstaff, and I was struck once again by Pistol’s line, He hears with ears.” (Riverside 1.1.148, RSC 1.1.137)

Shakespeare didn’t do throwaway lines, and this one isn’t just a one-liner; it’s immediately commented on by Evans, the Welsh parson: “The tevil and his tam! What phrase is this? He hears with ear? Why, it is affectations.”

The line is essentially repeated, so we’re supposed to notice it. Yet, for all that, I wasn’t sure to whom Pistol is speaking: one of the three townspeople (Evans, Page, and the Host of the Garter) hearing evidence about the theft of Slender’s money, Falstaff (who calls him forward), Slender (who accuses him), the audience, or even himself. Furthermore, I idly thought for the umpteenth time, what does it mean? The story bowls right along, however, and such whimsical thoughts are easily set aside.

A few days later, I was watching an episode of Midsomer Murders (“The Glitch”) with my family, and one character had the habit of spouting off in Latin. One of the first things he says to DCI Barnaby and DS Jones, is “Deus, auribus – We have heard with our ears.” It’s appropriate in two ways: first, he has overheard a conversation between the two detectives and is interrupting, and second, he has information to pass on to them.

My ears pricked up, and later that evening I did a quick search online. Google came up with Psalm 44, Deus Auribus, out of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer: “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us what thou hast done in their time of old.”

Psalm 44 goes on to contrast those great past deeds with a present abandonment of the people, leaving them to be killed like sheep by their enemies, and begs for a divine awakening to deliver them.

That source dates from the early 19th century, although it’s descended directly from Edward VI’s original by Thomas Cranmer and the Elizabethan version so Shakespeare would have known it. Another tangent led me to the book’s introduction, where there’s a brief history that’s well worth reading, if only to see how richly religious authors can imbue their words with revulsion even as they maintain their cloak of impartial edification.

However, this is just one link in a chain of literary hand-me-downs. So, digging back further, I found this translation of the fourth-century Vulgate Bible, Psalm 43:2: “We have heard, O God, with our ears: our fathers have declared to us, The work thou hast wrought in their days, and in the days of old.”

The original Latin may be less frilly; I’ve only just started trying to pick it up with a facsimile copy of an Elizabethan-era Lily’s Grammar, but it just feels more muscular: “Deus auribus nostris audivimus patres nostri narraverunt nobis opus quod operatus es in diebus eorum in diebus antiquis.”

If this is what Pistol is referring to, then Shakespeare’s contemporary source may also have been Sternhold and Hopkin’s Whole Booke of Psalms Collected into Englishe Metre (1584), which set the psalms to music. Sternhold and Hopkins render the verse in English as “Our eares have heard our fathers tell, and reverently record, the wondrous workes that thou hast done in alder tyme (O Lord).”

Furthermore, it’s not the only time Pistol quotes a psalm. A little later, tipping off Ford about Falstaff’s plan to seduce his wife, Pistol says, “He woos both high and low, both rich and poor, both young and old, one with another, Ford.” (Riverside 2.1.113-114, RSC 2.1.110-11)

That’s straight out of Psalm 49:
All people hearken and geve eare
to that that I shall tell:
Both high and low, both rich and poore,
that in the world do dwell.

As fascinating as I found all this, I couldn’t see a clear connection between Psalm 44, Pistol’s line, Evans’ reaction, and the context of the earlier scene. I contrived a number of explanations, but they all seemed forced.

So I widened my search, explored different directions, and, after a diversion into the King James Bible, eventually came up with this, from the Elizabethan-era Geneva Bible, Isaiah 11:3-4: “. . . he shall not iudge after the sight of his eies, neither reproue by ye hearing of his eares. But with righteousnesse shall he iudge the poore . . .”

Here’s my egregious one-sentence summary of the whole story to put those lines in context (it’s all about context, this). David and his descendants will be wise, smart, fair, and strong as judges, rulers, and defenders of the faith; their messianic kingdom will be peaceful and glorious, one in which the wolf dwells with the lamb, the lion turns vegetarian, small children play on asp holes, and God intervenes directly to convert non-Christians in the Middle East.

There you have it, holy peace and holy war all in one, an antithesis worthy of Shakespeare himself.

But that, at last, made a clear connection, at least in my head. Pistol is saying to Evans, who’s not only a parson but the one who convenes the judging panel, that “he hears with ears” – in other words, he judges by surface appearances, he lacks insight, he’s no David. It’s an insult.

Which is why Evans, a parson, instantly recognizes the insult, takes offense (“The tevil and his tam!”), and upon further thought dismisses Pistol’s slur as “affectations,” a put-on.

Whew! I think I’ve managed to explain, to myself, at least, the meaning of those four little words “he hears with ears,” spoken by a minor character, to a supporting character, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Along the way, I found a great resource for learning Latin, an online/downloadable copy of an Elizabethan psalter, and an online facsimile of an early King James Bible, complete with old and modern text. And it’s all thanks to Midsomer Murders.