Reading Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part II

Henry IV, Part 2 is a drama without a lot of obvious drama of the kind that occupies much of Part 1. Instead the highest drama comes from the transformation of Harry from Hal to King Henry V of England and the continued anarchic life and fall of Falstaff, who has more lines than anyone else in the play.

Following Falstaff’s raucous life as portrayed in the first part of the play, here he becomes a tragic figure, consumed with thoughts of death that pervade even his humorous monologues, and destined–it is clear early on–to be at least disappointed by his reunion with Hal. In his first appearance he is all vain, but good natured, bluster. He tells page that is “not only witty” himself, but “the cause that wit is in other men,” and that Page is “fitter to be worn in his cap than to wait at my heels.”

But Falstaff’s arrogance and confidence in his relationship with Hal foreshadows the trouble to come, assuming that he will be taken care of by his friend, the prince who is soon to be king:

“If the prince put thee into my service for any other reason than to set me off, why then I have no judgment.”

Further, he spars with the Chief Justice, a powerful figure, on the subject of his character and youth, accusing him of himself being old and thus “measuring the heat of my liver with the bitterness of your galls.” If Falstaff appears old, it is because:

“…I was born with a white head and something of a round belly. For my voice, I have lost it with halloing and singing of anthems. […] The truth is, I am only old in judgment and understanding.”

Even in the face of arrest for the debt he owes Hostess Quickly, he can’t resist a few sexual puns (admittedly in response to Hostess Quickly’s amazing capacity for the same) while defending himself solely, it seems, on the premise that he is Falstaff and only acting as Falstaff does. But there is a first taste of pathos in the obvious fact that he is saved from arrest only by the call to arms and the muster of soldiers for the king’s defense.

Soon, lingering still at Hostess Quickly’s establishment, he continues to dig his own metaphorical (for now) grave deeper while in conversation with the disguised Hal and Poins. Of Poins he notes:

“His wit is as thick as Tewkesbury mustard. There is no more conceit in him than is in a mallet.”

Asked why the prince has such a high regard for Poins, he characterizes the prince by comparing him to Poins:

“Because their legs are both of a bigness [… and he] swears with good grace and wears his boot very smooth […] and other such gambol facilties he hath, that show a weak mind and an able body, for which the prince admits him; for the prince himself is such another. The weight of an hair will turn the scales between their avoirdupois.”

Upon realizing he has been speaking to the Hal, Falstaff makes a pathetic defense of himself, repeating “No abuse” and trying to turn Hal’s accusation of that he has “vilely” spoken of him on its head:

“I dispraised him before the wicked, that the wicked might not fall in love with him–in which doing, I have done the part of a careful friend and a true subject.”

But Hal will have none of it and his curt dismissal of Falstaff–“I feel me much to blame, so idly to profane the precious time”–isn’t just a result of being interrupted with news that he must go at once to see the ill king, but a demonstration that he is in fact no longer Hal, but Prince Harry, no longer a consort of commoners now matter how much they may fancy themselves his friend.

The effective end of Falstaff comes after he hears the news that Prince Harry as ascended to the throne. “Master Robert Shallow,” he proclaims, “choose what office thou wilt in the land […] I am fortune’s steward. […] I know the young king is sick for me.” Rushing to meet the newly minted King Henry V, still believing that the old bonds that tied them together remained intact. What follows is one of the saddest moments in the Shakespearean canon:

FALSTAFF: Save thee, my sweet boy!

KING HENRY V: My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.

LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: Have you your wits? Know you what ’tis you speak?

FALSTAFF: My king, my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

KING HENRY V: I know thee not, old man. Fall to they prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit swelled, so old and so profane.
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace,
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.

But merely insulting his former friend and companion isn’t enough for the king, whose character has been transformed along with his position. He goes on:

“Presume not that I am the thing I was
For heaven doth know–so shall the world perceive–
That I have turned away my former self,
So I will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost here I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and feeder of my riots:
Til then, I banish thee, on pain of death.”

The ignominy! There are other worthy moments in the play, some of which will find their way into my Commonplace Book but nothing approaches the story and character of Falstaff, who I find compelling in a way second only to Hamlet, and peer with Brutus, Lear, Mark Antony, Othello, and other great Shakespearean characters. Falstaff is so many things at once, his excesses capturing–through stark relief–the reality of the human condition. He is:

  • A father figure. Falstaff is practically a father to the younger Hal…and suffers, ultimately, the rejection so many fathers do. Perhaps King Henry would, after a time, come to a more moderate position as those rebellious sons often do, but Falstaff doesn’t appear poised to live long enough to enjoy such a change.
  • Anarchy personified. Falstaff blithely ignores the rules everyone else is subject to. Can we not envy him even if we would never admit it? But in this way he also represents freedom, man living in as natural a state as it is possible to imagine while still being any part of society.
  • A living dichotomy. Though he has come to be seen as an endearing figure in modern popular culture, we do Shakespeare’s character a great disservice not to recognize his contradictions. Falstaff is often jovial, quick-witted, an engaging storyteller…the kind of person who brings life to the party that he has often created himself. Yet while some of his actions can be portrayed as buffoonery, when one thinks about it, those same actions are often truly reprehensible. Falstaff feigns death while Hal fights Henry Hotspur, collects money for rounding up phantom troops and sends the rest to death without equipping or preparing them, practically ruins Hostess Quickly, and conceives of a plan for–and executes–a highway robbery. Most of these are serious crimes, if not downright evil.
  • Necessary. Most of all, Falstaff is necessary. He is an obvious foil to demonstrate Hal’s growth from reckless youth to perhaps overly-officious king, but he is more than: without his presence it is hard to imagine Hal being able to achieve the change that is demanded of him. A feckless Hal would be a Hal with nothing to work with and against, no one from whom to gain strength through his breaking free of their influence.

There are many more interesting aspects of King Henry IV I don’t have time to consider and write about right now: the importance of the play-within-the play acted out by Hal and Falstaff, the way Shakespeare uses high and low language styles to suit–and indicate–the changing inner-state and circumstances of Hal, the interesting mix of humor and drama, the constantly present, intertwined themes of death and decay, and (obviously) the significant parts of the plot I am eliding, most importantly those involving Northumberland and the dying king, who each deliver stunning soliloquies…to name just a few off the top of my head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *