Shakespeare's Falstaff

The most intriguing character in William Shakespeare's Henry IV plays is Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is a likable character of ill repute. He is a drunkard, a thief, a liar, and a coward, but we love him

The most intriguing character in William Shakespeare's Henry IV plays is Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is a likable character of ill repute. He is a drunkard, a thief, a liar, and a coward, but we love him, because he is also humorous, jovial, childish, and free living. Eventually, his behavior becomes so apprehensible that he is rejected. The rejection of Sir John Falstaff by Prince Hal begins in The First Part of Henry Fourth with the play acting scene, is fueled by Falstaff's misuse of the kings fund's and cowardice in the field, realized by Hal's acceptance of his father, and culminates in the final scene of The Second Part of Henry IV.

The first sign that Hal is weary of Falstaff's behavior is in the play acting scene. Falstaff and Hal are play acting. Falstaff is making believe he is Prince Hal and the Prince plays the King. The Prince states: wherein is he good , but to taste sack and to drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty but in villainy? wherein villainous, but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing. (1H 4 2. 4. 455-459)

In The film version of Henry IV, presented by the British Broadcasting company, Prince Hal becomes more serious as his speech to Falstaff progresses. Hal's facial expressions and vocal tone change; as if the speech he makes pretending to be his father enlightens him about Falstaff's character (Henry IV). Falstaff seems to recognize that Hal's attitude towards him is changing. He tries to sway the Prince with his own speech pitying himself.

"Valiant being 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. (I H 4 2. 4. 472-480) The Prince answers "I do, I will" (I H 4 2. 4. 481) indicating his intent to eventually reject Falstaff . Harold S. Goddard agrees. In his essay "The Meaning of Shakespeare," Goddard points out that the play acting scene is in a sense a rehearsal for the banishment to come (Goddard 206-207). Goddard states about Prince Hal "now he pretends to be his father and does banish Falstaff. A little later he will become like his father and will banish him" (207). The play acting scene is the beginning of Falstaff's rejection.

The Prince may have been enlightened to some of the faults of Falstaff, but he certainly has not yet totally rejected him. The Prince, in fact, secures Falstaff a commission in the King's army (1H4 3.3. 186). Unfortunately, Falstaff's actions while representing the King's army are cowardly and unforgivable. Falstaff misuses the King's funds. He accepts bribes to keep men out of battle and hires men who are worthless. Falstaff states in his soliloquy in 1H4 4.3. 11-15, "If I not be asham'd of my soldiers, I am a sous'd Gurnet. I have misused the Kings funds damnably. I have got. in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers, three hundred and odd pounds." The Prince seeing the men Falstaff has hired states "I did never see such pitiful rascals" (1H4 4.3. 64). Falstaff's answer "Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder; they will fill a pit as well as better" (1H4 4.3. 65-67). The men Falstaff has chosen are "food for powder" and in the Battle of Shrewsbury only three will survive and those Falstaff states "are for the town's end, to beg for life" (1H4 5.2. 38). The Prince being a man of the people can not be happy with Falstaff's actions and contempt for the commons. Falstaff has only added fuel to the Prince's vow in 1H4 2.4. 481 "I will, Ido."

Falstaff's repugnant cowardice continues further into the Battle of Shrewsbury. The Prince, having lost his weapon and tired from battle, comes across Falstaff resting on his sword. "What, stands thou idle here? Lend me thy / sword. / Many a nobleman lies stark and stiff / under the hoofs of vaunting enemies, / Whose deaths are yet unreveng'd. I prithee lend me / thy sword" (1H4 5.3. 44-47). Falstaff in classic cowardice refuses to lend Hal his sword. Falstaff tells the Prince that if Percy is alive "thou gets not my sword, but take my pistol, if thou wilt" (1H4 5.3. 50-51). The Prince grabs the pistol and finds it to be a bottle of sack. He is quite annoyed with Falstaff stating "What, is it a time to jest and dally now" (1H4 5.3. 55)? Hal's anger at Falstaff's irresponsible behavior is shown when he takes the bottle of sack and throws it at Falstaff before exiting to re-enter the battle. A. C. Bradley in his essay "The Rejection of Falstaff" claims Falstaff was not a coward. Bradley states that "when he saw Henry and Hotspur fighting, Falstaff, instead of making off in a panic, stayed to take his chance if Hotspur be the victor. He led his hundred and fifty ragamuffins where they were peppered, he did not send them" (105). Bradley is wrong. Falstaff made believe he was dead during the fight between Hal and Hotspur and would have continued to do so had Hal lost. Falstaff shows his true colors when he states ""˜the better part of valor is discretion, in which the better part I have sav'd my life. Zounds, I am afraid of this gunpowder Percy though he be dead. How if he should counterfeit too and rise"(1H4 5.4. 119-124)? Falstaff, the coward, is afraid of the dead Percy. Falstaff did lead his ragamuffins into battle, as Bradley says, but he knew fully well they would not live. A brave man would have chosen more gallant soldiers, not the dregs of society. The stage is now set for Falstaff's later rejection. The future King certainly will not be able to socialize with such a cowardly, irresponsible character after his coronation.



Henry, IV the current King, detests Hal's socializing with Falstaff and his companions. Clarence, the Prince's brother, informs the King that the Prince is in London "with Poins, and other his continual followers" (2H4 4.4. 53). The King is not happy and states "

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,

And he, the noble image of my youth,

Is overspread with them; therefore my grief

Stretches itself beyond the hour of death. (2H4 4.4. 54-58)

The King is upset that on his death bed Hal chooses to be with his rogue friends. He use's his anger later to help turn Hal against Falstaff when he berates Hal about taking his crown (2H4 4.5. 92-135).

Warwick, however, sees wisdom in young Hal associating with Falstaff and his companions he states that "The Prince doth study his companions / Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language" (2H4 4.4. 68-69). D. A. Traversi in An Approach to Shakespeare notes that Falstaff represents "all the humanity which the politicians, bent on the attainment of success, seem bound to exclude" (30). The Prince is merely learning from Falstaff what he cannot learn from his father. The King, blind to his own short comings can not foresee his son's intentions. Warwick, as we discussed in class, has a much better understanding of the Prince than the King. Warwick predicts to the King that Hal will "Cast off his followers, and their memory / Shall as a pattern or measure live, / by which his Grace must mete the lives of other, / Turning past evils to advantages"(2H4 4.4. 75-78). Warwick is capable of seeing Hal for who he is, a fun loving young man that will meet his responsibilities when it his time.

The King remains irate despite Warwick's explanation. He later awakens to find his crown missing along with the Prince. The Prince thought the King dead when he took the crown and was deeply upset. He states to the King upon his return to the King's chambers "I never thought to hear you speak again" (2H4 4.5. 61). The King believes the Prince had other intentions "Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought. / I stay to long by thee, I weary thee" (2H4 4.5. 92-94). The King feels Hal wants him dead, so he can ascend the throne. He uses the opportunity of Hal's mistake to give Hal an old fashioned father to son lecture. The lecture is pure psychology. Henry tells Hal "Thy life did manifest thou lovdst me not, / and thou wilt have me die assur'd of it" (2H4 4.5. 105-106). Henry is doing the same thing every parent does; he uses guilt to discipline his son. He asks Hal "canst thou bear me half an hour"(2H4 4.5. 109)? Henry is asking could not you wait till I was dead? Do you really hate me that much? The lecture, as we discussed in class, is full of irony in an attempt to gain Hal's sympathy.

Hal is extremely moved by his father's dying words. He has tears in his eyes and is completely repentant for his past and current behavior in his reply:

O, let me in my current wildness die,

And never live to show th' incredulous world

The noble change that I have purposed!

Coming to look on you, thinking you dead,

And dead almost, my liege, to think you were. . . . (2H4 4.4. 151-156)

Hal tells Henry that he wore the crown "to try with it, as with an enemy / That had before my face murdered my father" (2H4 4.4. 166-167). The Prince's reply to the King is the turning point in Hal's relationship with Falstaff. He is his father's son and will bear the honor of King admirably from this point forward in the play.

Falstaff hears of Henry IV's demise and immediately leaves for the Prince's coronation. He believes the new King will dispose upon him great honors and wealth. Falstaff is unaware the Prince has rejected him and accepted the wishes of his father and responsibilities of a King. Harold E. Toliver in his essay "Falstaff, The Prince, and the History Play", notes "the rejection scene is the first time, of course, that Falstaff is aware that a tutor and feeder of riots is unwelcome in court" (Toliver 150). Falstaff is surprised when the King responds to his shouts of "my King, my Jove! I speak to thee my heart" (2H4 5.5. 46)!

I Know thee not, old man . . .

When thou dost hear I am as I have been

Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,

The tutor and feeder of my riots.

Till then I banish thee, on pain of death. . . . (2H4 5.5. 45, 60-63)

The King has severed all ties with his former comrades. He is King now and beyond their approach. A King's responsibilities will not allow the young man once dubbed the "nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales" (1H4 4.1. 95) by Harry Hotspur, to associate with his former mentor, Falstaff.

Harold E. Tolliver believes the King was merely acting when associating with Falstaff and his companions and now he gets to be himself (Toliver 150-151). The Prince, however, was not acting, but merely enjoying life while he had a chance. The Prince was quite aware of the strains of the crown. He proves so in 2H4 4.5. 158-159 when he says of the crown "the care on thee depending / Hath fed upon the body of my father." Hal's rejection of Falstaff is not the culmination of a great long acting ruse, but; a culmination of all of Falstaff's misdeeds, Henry IV's guilt ridden death bed speech, and Hal's coming of age as King.

The rejection was a necessary step in the Prince's elevation to King. Hal no longer can be a follower; he has to be a leader. Falstaff was always the leader of his cohorts. Hal was merely a member of Falstaff's troop, a student. King Hal is now the divine ruler of all England and can no longer follow in the footsteps of a drunkard and a fool.

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