Hal and His Pal
The Convoluted Relationship between Prince Harry and Falstaff in
Henry IV Part Two
This is another one of those plays that inspire several ideas for further exploration – in this case lying, aging, fathers, and more – but in which one glaring aspect has to be dealt with before going on to others: the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff. It was plenty complex in Part One. In Part Two it becomes positively torturous. Poor Hal. Poor Falstaff. Who's the good guy? Who's the bad guy?Haven't we asked this question before? Doesn't Shakespeare always do this to us? Well, yes. So we know the answer before we even start. Both are both. But that only makes it more interesting to look at.
We've already observed the boisterous relationship between Hal and Falstaff in the altogether more comical Part One. Although they were already at loggerheads with each other the tone was generally that of good, wild, prankish fun. At least sometimes. Hal, in spite of his early monolog in which he told us that he was just playing around with his plebeian gang and that he would grow up and return to his proper place, we could easily forget that in the rest of his romps with Falstaff et. al. Hal was sharp-witted, energetic, one of the boys. Falstaff was rambunctious, funny and, in his “honour” monolog, heroic.
Part Two is something else. The play is filled with ”many images of sickness, disease and old age, [and] permeated with intimations of mortality...” (Howard, p. 1323). Rarely funny, this play is “melancholy” and “somber” (ibid). Falstaff is no longer the mischievous and wise anarchist, he is a fat, old, pathetic and often cruel drunkard. And Hal is realizing that not only does he love his father from whom he has chosen to be estranged, but that old dad is dying and he will soon find himself – abruptly and shockingly – king.
Friendship can get messed up for less.
What we have here isn't merely the parting of ways of an old man in decline from a young man in ascension. It is the separation of the world of the tavern in which the working class characters know “that staying indoors by a warm fire with good company, food and drink was infinitely more sensible than braving the dangers of traveling at night or fighting a battle” (Egan, p. 18), from the world of courtly power, pomp and circumstance and, as we are told (and already know if we've seen or read Henry V) war with France.
But even this is not simple. The cozy world of the tavern of Part One was really a rather sinister place of petty theft and quarrels and in Part Two the “warm , roistering noise overheard in the tavern – noise that seemed to signal a subversive alternative to rebellion – turns out to be the sound of a whore and a bully beating a customer to death. And Falstaff, whose earlier larcenies were gilded by fantasies of innate grace...” (Greenblatt, pp. 47-48), now romps about with Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet but we don't find him loveable any more. Instead he is revealed as a two-timer and a long-term sponge who has borrowed money from Mistress Quickly while promising to marry her then calling her a madwoman (one wonders why she would want to marry him, she seems to be doing pretty well on her own). Still, he is caught between the tavern and the battlefield and in his blustering braggart way, already sensing perhaps that he's living in a fantasy, he boasts that though old and fat he is a man “of merit...sought after” (Act 2.4) as he heads off on his recruiting mission.
This is not Falstaff's best moment of shining nobility. He mocks the poor sods he's sending off to a more or less certain death and happily lets himself be bought off by those who can afford it. This “recruiting scene [is] one of the most brilliant passages Shakespeare ever created [but] we don't know whether to laugh or cry. Of course the five potential recruits are ludicrous. Falstaff' jeers at them, rather leadenly...Yet is is hard for us not to smile too. Does this not make us partly complicit in Falstaff's chicanery?” (Poole p. xliv). Yes, it does. We laugh, and cringe, at this cruel Sir John.
Just one more example of “Falstaff in decline” (Poole, p. liv): his long-winded monolog about the splendid qualities of sack in which he claims that “...valour comes from sherry...Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant...If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack” (Act 4.2). As Poole writes, “Does he know what nonsense he's talking?” (p. liii)
While Falstaff is embarrassing himself, and us who quite liked him (oh! where is the Falstaff of the honour soliloquy?), Prince Hal – how banal and yet how grand – is growing up. And sobering up in more ways than one.
In the first of only two scenes in which Hal and Falstaff are on stage together we see that, as previously arranged, Hal and Poins are disguised in order to spy on Falstaff. In an earlier scene, in which Falstaff's page, provided by Prince Harry not so much to help the old man as to spy on him, we see that if Hal has ever trusted Falstaff (probably not), he doesn't now. He says to Poins: “How might we see Falstaff bestow himself tonight in his true colours, and not ourselves be seen?” (Act 2.2)
And so they spy. And Falstaff insults him. The Prince, he tells Doll Tearsheet, is, “A good shallow young fellow. A would have made a good pantler” (the Norton edition explains: pantry worker). Falstaff goes on to compare Hal to Poins as both having “a weak mind and an able body” (Act 2.4).
When Hal reveals himself Falstaff's first greeting is “Ha, a bastard son of the king's!” Their bantering exchange of insults continues and a deeper analysis of all the insults exchanged by the two in both plays would surely yield a book. Suffice it to say here that Falstaff is in fact disconcerted this time: “No no no, not so. I did not think thou wast within hearing” and, quickly running out of the sharp retorts he produced effortlessly in Part One Falstaff pleads, “No abuse, Hal”. Six times. He tries ungallantly to turn the Prince's abuse onto Mistress Quickly but Hal is having none of that. Shakespeare wisely ends the exchange by the arrival of Peto announcing the threat of war. The switch in Hal is immediate:
By heavens, Poins, I feel me much to blame
So idly to profane the precious time (all quotes Act 2.4).
As Poole puts it, “The Prince turns from prose to verse and exits from comedy into history, never to return...” (Poole, p. lv).
And indeed the next time they meet, Hal has become King Henry the Fifth. And Falstaff?
“I know thee not, old man.” Perhaps the most heartbreaking, but most inevitable, of all lines in Shakespeare.
Falstaff has been sure from the very beginning that once Hal has become king, he, Falstaff will have it made. Life will be a bed of roses, or more likely an endless fountain of sack. He has not seen the signs of Hal's distancing himself from him and right up to the very moment of King Henry the Fifth's entrance Falstaff - foolishly, with us crying, “No, don't!” - rejoices:
God save thy grace, King Hal, my royal Hal!
...God save thee, my sweet boy,
...My King, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart! (Act 5.5)
“Oh, Falstaff,” we want to say. “You don't talk to a king like that, especially not in public. He isn't your sweet boy Hal anymore. You foolish old drunk, how could you not see this coming?”
We could. From the moment Hal left the tavern he was no longer Hal. He disappears from the stage and doesn't reappear until Act 4.3 as the prince to be reunited with his dying father. As he contemplates the crown, does he give a single fleeting thought to his old pal Falstaff? No. There is only the crown and his apparently dead father to whom he says:
...Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness
Shall, O dear father, pay the plenteously.
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate from thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me.
[He puts the crown on his head.] (Act 4.3)
Henry IV has not died however but awakens to the pain of what he believes is the Prince's eagerness to ascend the throne. In his long and bitter monolog to his eldest son we can't help but see the hapless Harry as an ungrateful greedy pup, but then the soon-to-be king emerges when he answers his father:
God witness with me, when I here came in
And found no course of breath within your majesty,
How cold it struck my heart! ...
Coming to look on you, thinking you dead,
And dead almost, my liege, to think you were,
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: 'The care on thee depending
Hath fed upon the body of my father;
Therefore, thou best of gold art worst of gold:
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in medicine potable;
But thou, most fine, most honoured: most renowned,
Hast eat thy bearer up.' Thus, my most royal liege,
Accusing it, I put it on my head... (Act 4.3)
The king is overwhelmed with relief at hearing these words and hastens to give some last advice: cultivate our noble and true friends, confound the rebels by making war on France. He ends with:
How I came by the crown, O God forgive,
And grant it may with thee in true peace live! (Act 4.3)
The prince's reply:
My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be,
Which I with more than with a common pain
'Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain. (Act 4.3)
Not a wisp of thought, memory, feeling for the world of the tavern. In the next act, in his confrontation with and acceptance of the authority of the Lord Chief Justice, Henry V makes only the vaguest reference to his wild youth, so recently ended:
...sadly I survive
To mock the expectation of the world,
To frustrate prophecies and to raze out
Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down
After my seeming. The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flowed in vanity till now,
Now doth it turn, and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods,
And flow henceforth in formal majesty (Act 5.2).
Gone is the juvenile delinquent, who was only pretending all along. The new King has come forth in his rightful role.
Therefore, what else can King Henry the Fifth possibly say to the silly, joyous delusional old Falstaff's “My sweet boy Hal” but, “I know thee not, old man”?
The tragedy isn't in Hal's sudden meanness, the tragedy comes much earlier than the rejection. It is in the inevitability of the breaking of Falstaff's heart. Falstaff, the glorious anarchist who has spent his life poking fun and guffawing and conniving – to our immense amusement – at the powers-that-be, has metamorphosed into a lonely buffoon in a fantasy world in which he is not old, in which he is important, in which he and his great pal Hal will, stumbling and laughing, ascend the throne with a flask of sack in one hand and a young Doll Tearsheet by the other. Oh foolish Falstaff! Subversion doesn't work like that. Everything Hal has done has been part of the power structure of the Kingdom of England.
Yes, it is heartbreaking to see (or imagine) the look on Falstaff's face at the words “I know thee not, old man.” Yes, King Henry V regrets having to say them and banish his former fellow-carouser. But what choice did he have, really? He is bound up in the Great Mechanism that brought his father to the throne and will in time bring the pathetic Henry VI to the throne. In his repudiation of Falstaff, Henry V convinces us all “to magnificent and crushing effect” (Poole, p lx) that he is the king, and rightfully so. Falstaff may, as Jan Kott (of Great Mechanism fame) describes him, personify “the Renaissance lust for life and thunderous laughter at heaven and hell, at the crown and all other laws of the realm...[and possess] a plebeian wisdom and experience...” He may “not let history take him in.” He may “scoff at it” (Kott p. 99). But he is still, like the fierce Katherine and the enraged Shylock, crushed by the Great Mechanism. His time, like theirs, has not come. Hal's has.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Egan, Gabriel. Shakespeare and Marx. Oxford University Press. 2004.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations, “Invisible Bullets”. Clarendon Press. 1988.
- Howard, Jean E. in The Norton Shakespeare, see above.
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. W.W. Norton and Company. 1964.
- Poole, Andrew. “Introduction” to the Penguin edition, 2005.
- BBC, 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: Prince Hal – David Gwillim; King Henry – Jon Finch; Falstaff – Anthony Quayle; Mistress Quickly – Brenda Bruce; Doll Tearsheet – Frances Cuka. As in Part One, Anthony Quayle is a masterly Falstaff, John Finch is perfect as Henry IV and David Gwillim can simply not compete with Kenneth Branagh who is forever and always Hal even though he never played him, at least not on film.
- Chimes at Midnight”, 1965. Director: Orson Wells. Cast: Prince Hal – Keith Baxter; King Henry – John Gielgud; Falstaff – Orson Welles; Mistress Quickly – Margareth Rutherford; Doll Tearsheet – Jeanne Moreau. Combining both plays as well as Henry V, Orson Welles portrays a tragic Falstaff in this beautiful black and white somewhat low key labor of love.
- My Own Private Idaho, 1991. Director: Gus van Sant. Cast: (Scott Favor) Prince Hal – Keanu Reeves; (Jack Favor) King Henry – Tom Troupe; (Bob Pigeon) Falstaff – William Richert; ) Mike Waters) Poins (or somebody) – River Phoenix. Truly a strange movie, this too makes use of both Part One and Part Two. Why Van Sant chose to incorporate a great deal of the plays, often literally word for word, into his story is a mystery to me but somehow it works. Sort of.