When we write about Henry IV we write about Falstaff. Critics are merely following the lead of Shakespeare himself, who transforms this comedic supporting character into one of the most memorable in literature. Falstaff is not merely comic foil, he is the moral center of a narrative without heroes or villains. When called to battle for King Henry against the rebellion, Falstaff wants nothing to do with bloodshed: “Can honour set to a leg? No: or an arm? No: or take away the grief of a wound? No. What is honour? A word.” On the battlefield, he is a coward and a liar, faking his own death and falsely taking credit for another. He treats war as a farce, as he should – Falstaff is informed by the same comedic dissidence as Dr Strangelove. “When anything military enters his presence, it instantly looks ridiculous and begins to shrink,” writes Goddard. Recall John of Gaunt’s speech about patriotism and chivalry in King Richard II, to which Falstaff surely stands (or stumbles) opposed. We cannot imagine him delivering any sort of speech in support of god and country except in jest, and here Shakespeare has given him a wider stage with free rein to commit these heresies. Everybody loves Falstaff, for good reason.
But we must not lose sight of the plot of Henry IV Part I, for while many critics may be fairly accused with running away with their favorite character, the author did not. It requires some contextual knowledge to fully appreciate. King Henry, essentially a fair man who is nonetheless unafraid to bloody his hands with political intrigue, has been pining for a good old religious war to cleanse his soul. A murderous crusade was like yoga for a 16th century king, a nice way to excise some stress and maybe get a little fresh air. But pressing matters at home have prevented him from embarking on his war, for the men who helped him to the throne have grown envious. After a recent victory against the Scots, Hotspur – the young Henry Percy who had pledged allegiance to Henry in the previous play – has refused to deliver over his prisoners to the king. Hotspur is looking to ransom his captured brother-in-law Mortimer, which strikes a foul note with the king as Mortimer has a claim as the true heir to the throne. This is a small part of what becomes a larger gamble. Thus the Percys – Hotspur, his father and his uncle – set in motion a plan to unite with the Scots against the king. If King Richard II witnessed the end of divine monarchy, then this play envisions the wars that will follow.
Do the Percys even care so much about the proper heir? No. They are dissatisfied with their treatment under King Henry thus far but they have neither the troops nor the mettle to openly challenge him. We see this in that first scene before the king, in which Henry harshly cuts Worcester off mid-sentence: “Worcester, get thee gone; for I do see danger and disobedience in thine eye: O, sir, your presence is too bold and peremptory, and majesty might never yet endure the moody frontier of a servent brow.” Ouch. We will note that only Hotspur has the courage to stand up to the king, refusing the prisoners and barking with impudence at the rejection of the Mortimer bargain. And yet he is not even aware of Mortimer’s claim as such when he first challenges the king. He initially recounts a story in which a foppish general who had not sullied his own hands in the battle (“and but for these vile guns, he would have himself been a soldier”) approached him and demanded the prisoners. Hotspur flatly refused, for while the prisoners are surely a valuable spoil, Hotspur prizes above all else his own honour. Seizing upon this opportunity, the elder Percys begin their manipulation, disclosing to Hotspur the Mortimer connection and their plan to align with the Scots. King Henry, for his part, respects Hotspur, particularly in comparison with his own feckless son: “O, that it could be proved that some night-tripping fairy had exchanged in cradle-clothes our children where they lay,” he had pined in the first scene when hearing about the young Percy’s victory in battle. King Henry will thus allow him more leeway than Worcester and Northumberland, but he wants his prisoners and will not tolerate dissent.
Hotspur serves as the heart of the rebellion. Though he is ostensibly the main antagonist, he is given enough attention in this play to warrant real empathy: we see his relationship with his wife, who is rightly concerned about the integrity of his plans and his comrades. She keenly sees through their facade: “I fear my brother Mortimer doth stir about his title, and hath sent for you to line his enterprise.” But Hotspur wants to run tha streetz, and though he can be fairly censured for being blinded at times by his own ambition, there is virtue in his brave candor in among his devious allies. Consider his encounters with Owen Glendower, the infamous Scottish general who has joined with the Percy rebellion. Glendower is a bizarre fellow who commands his troops with tales of his own supernatural powers; “Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil,” he says to which Hotspur replies: “And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil by telling truth…If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither, and I’ll be sworn I have power to shame him hence. O, while you live, tell truth, and shame the devil.” Wise words, which would surely given round applause in Eastcheap. Hotspur’s open distrust of Glendower is not a politically savvy tact, as the Percys need him against the king’s army. Their attempts to scuttle his unfettered spirit are usually in vain, as Hotspur doesn’t have patience for politisse (“Well, I am school’d; good manners be your speed!” he mutters after another dressing down by Worcester). Hotspur will later find a spiritual ally in the Douglas, a monstrous Scottish warrior who lives to whoop ass and kill kings. (After murdering an imposter disguised as the king in battle, the Douglas vows: “Now, by my sword, I will kill all his coats; I’ll murder all his wardrobe piece by piece, until I meet the king.”)
In the end, Hotspur is undone by abandonment of the elder Percys and the cowardice of the Douglas. Northumberland feigns sickness while Worcester deviously does not disclose to Hotspur the terms of a peace treaty offered by the king even as the rebellion’s forces have been diminished. As always Shakespeare gives his characters fair reasoning; Worcester intuits that the king will not only hold a grudge for the stifled rebellion but will focus it on the elder Percys: “My nephew’s trespass may be well forgot – It hath the excuse of youth and heat of blood…All his offences live upon my head and on his father’s.” This play is so full of self-referential detail and poetic logic that lifts it well above mere politics and traditional narrative. For the Percys – it ain’t a game, it’s the life. But the politics are getting twisted: they helped Henry to the throne over King Richard, and yet now invoke his name and divine succession with their own claim to the throne with under Edmund Mortimer.
Shakespeare has a lot to say about ‘bravery’ and ‘honour’ in war in this play – should we even be setting moral parameters on such a vile sport as war? We know Falstaff’s answer to that question, but from the way we see the military coalition collapse and the high talk of ‘honour’ expire to slain bodies and cowardly captures, I think we know Shakespeare’s as well. And yet his portrayal of Hotspur is fair and nuanced, even if it ultimately serves to demonstrate the futility of war borne honour. When Hotspur is finally slayed in battle, Prince Henry commends him: “Ill-weaved ambition, how much thou art shrunk! When that body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound.”
Prince Henry’s narrative looms the largest in the play, even in the shadows, or the pubs as it were. The heir to the throne, with compassion and wit equal to Falstaff’s, he fritters his time away in the bars, playing pranks with “his comrades, that daft the world aside, and bid it pass,” in Hotspur’s phrase. (Hal offers his own characteristically clever summation of Hotspur: “he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.'”) While his father is defending his throne against an insurrection, Hal is busy devising a complicated prank on Falstaff involving a botched robbery; while Hotspur bickers with the Scottish general, Hal teases a hapless waiter at the pub.
Hal is conflicted, aware of his indiscretions and tugging of royal responsibilities. His early soliloquy feels more like justification than explanation: “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.” That famous speech has been criticized as authorial meddling, of Shakespeare protecting his future king by not making him seem too vulgar. But it makes sense to me – even though Hal prefers the company of these villains, he is not without ambition; he has the wit but not the will. A young man who might outwardly be caught up in debauchery may still dream of a more responsible life, but this is Hal’s problem – it is easier to soliloquize about one’s future than to begin to live that better life in the present. “There are two princes,” some have argued, affecting a far too easy critical summation (and bringing to mind an awful Spin Doctors song). No, there are many sides of Prince Henry, as with all of us. And even in his pub adventures, we see kindness and loyalty in Hal; that he is so conflicted, and seemingly unable to attend to greater responsibilities, only makes him more human.
Henry IV Part I is about Prince Henry’s maturity to later becoming a great king, but Shakespeare does not define this transition merely by his valor in battle. Though his victory over Hotspur and his saving of his father against the Douglas provides the obvious celebratory setpiece, Hal is characterized by his wit, his humor, his compassion. His teasing of the waiter is good natured, and he fully repays with interest the money stolen in the robbery. He has the respect of barmaids and thieves, if not earls and dukes, but this doesn’t seem to bother him; he values friendship and witty banter over political reputation.
Hal’s exchanges with Falstaff are like extended comedy routines, running through all sorts of levels of references and puns. One will not encounter a more perfect comedic rhythm in literature than their dialogues. My favorite is their preparation for Hal’s meeting with his father the king, in which Hal, in the role of his father, slanders his son’s infamous companion: “Wherein is he good but to taste sack and drink it?…Wherein cunning but in craft? Wherein crafty, but in villainy? Wherein villainous, but in all things? Wherein worthy, but in nothing?” Falstaff, playing the role of the son, withers the remarks and feigns ignorance: “I would your grace would take me with you: whom means your grace?”
Prince Henry’s actual meeting with his father is a key scene, a turning point in his maturation. King Henry airs him out: “Such poor, such base, such lewd, such mean attempts, such barren pleasures, as thou art matcht withal and grafted to, accompany the greatness of thy blood, and hold their level with thy princely heart?” He goes further to document his own ascent to the crown, in which, rather than mingling with the commonfolk, he kept himself concealed (“like a comet, I was wonder’d at”). He also can’t help but take a few shots at his old nemesis Richard: “The skipping king, he ambled up and down with shallow jesters and rash bavin wits, soon kindled and soon burnt…” We can understand his frustrations with his son, and with the rebellion forces growing stronger, this meeting takes the tone of an intervention of sorts. He can no longer overlook his son’s transgressions – he needs his help. We might also find some parallel with Hal’s own earlier soliloquy; though their means are at odds, their ends (and metaphors) are similar in the way they may affect a royal transformation from the mask of youth.
What then of Falstaff? If the Henry/Percy struggle is the beginning of post monarchial political struggles, then Falstaff’s high wit represents the stage that should rightly follow, that which we still have not achieved. We must not mistake pacifism for cowardice. Falstaff defends his feigning death on the battlefield: “The better part of valour is discretion; in which better part I have saved my life.” But it’s all played for humor – everything is grist for the mill. How many genuine laughs can we find in the Bible? Very few, at least unironically. Nor is there much comedy to be found in the Constitution. But why should not humor and wit be an end to themselves, as highly prized as spiritual or political thought? Harold Bloom: “Falstaff, who is free, instructs us in freedom – not freedom in society, but freedom from society.”
Shakespeare instructs us in narrative freedom, allowing his main plot to derail to a little pub in Eastcheap, and for his fat rogue to shine brighter than his king, his prince, or his rebels. I don’t think this was of a political intention as much as a creative one. He simply took great joy in writing Falstaff, and rather than damping down the humorous subplots and exchanges or jettisoning them to another play (though he did that as well: see The Merry Wives Of Windsor), he follows his instinct. That word becomes the pivot of one of Hal and Falstaff’s jokes, being turned on its head much like ‘honour.’ When pressed for a reason for fleeing the robbery prank, Falstaff absurdly claims that his instinct compelled him to run: “Why thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct, the lion will not touch the true prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was a coward on instinct.” Of course Falstaff is playing with words, while subtly jabbing at the prince, but instinct for an author is a “great matter.” One of Shakespeare’s greatest gifts is the freedom he enjoys within the plays to follow trails and characters wherever they might lead – Falstaff in this sense (and others) is his crowning achievement.
And yet he seems to relish in showing us the worst of his favorite rogue: thievery, whoring, swearing, cowardice, sloth, dishonesty, debauchery. We are introduced to him with a similar sort of litany in Hal’s taunting: “Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of sack…What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day? unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flamecolour’d taffeta.” But Falstaff always has a retort, and we get the sense that his irrepressible wit routinely charms the other characters as much the audience; the poor barmaids put up with unpaid tabs and raunchy insults, while Hal himself seems primarily invested in this little pub for Falstaff’s company. Another funny word – Falstaff is always blaming his own troubles on others: “Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me.” Of course we, and even Falstaff himself, know better than that but he can’t help but chide his comrades, from getting that last unnecessary shot in at their expense. Falstaff will always get the last word.
Even for his lyrics musings against ‘honour’ and his detest of politics and war, Falstaff is hardly a paragon. When Hal loyally charges him with a high rank in the battle, Falstaff takes bribes from the better men to outfit his troop with beggars and weaklings who will become mere fodder for the enemy. Hardly an ‘honourable’ enterprise, but a humorous one, so much so that Shakespeare expanded the same scheme to several scenes in Henry IV Part II. Asimov offers an explanation: “In many places in his plays Shakespeare manages to show his distaste for war, and here he bitterly satirizes the kind of corruption which war makes common, the general erosion of human values which it brings about.” A fine and true sentiment, but Falstaff nonetheless resists some of these attempts at critical explanation. He is flawed, but he is very, very funny – perhaps this is simply enough.
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In the final tally, the scheming politicians and honored warriors fare not well in Henry IV Part I: Hotspur is slain, the Douglas flees, Worcester is sentenced to death, Northumberland doesn’t even show up. But is this a victory? King Henry: “Three knights upon our party slain to-day, a noble earl, and many a creature else, had been alive at this hour, if, like a Christian, thou hadst truly borne betwixt our armies true intelligence.” There is so much humanity in this play, lurking as it must in the unlikeliest of places: a dirty pub, the ruins of a battlefield. And so much narrative invention and audacity. Perhaps most of all: old Jack Falstaff survives the final battle, even when it seems that his death could have provided a conclusion to the Hal subplot, so that the future king might move away from his wild youth to his royal concerns. No – Shakespeare loved his fat rogue too much. Falstaff is too important, more than any king or priest. As Shakespeare more than any sacred text. “[I]f to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved…old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company – banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”