Sir John Falstaff has a number of functions in 1 Henry IV, the most obvious as a clownish figure providing comic relief. His many lies and exaggerations entertain because of the wit and cleverness he employs to save himself from paying debts and answering for crimes. He in many ways represents an everyman--a sinner with little shame or honor, who nonetheless maintains at least an outward concern for honor and appearances. "If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damn'd. . . . [Banish the others] but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff . . . banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." (II.iv) Clearly, Falstaff hopes to exculpate himself by arguing that his sins are no worse than everyone else's.
And it is this aspect of Falstaff, that he is like the others, that is perhaps the most intriguing--Is Falstaff a foil or mirror of the other characters, notably Hotspur and Prince Hal? We see Shakespeare setting up parallel situations that reveal how we should read the characters. For example, many critics see a kind of teacher/student or even father/son relationship in Falstaff and Hal's relationship. This relationship is not filled with mutual respect however. Falstaff no doubt hopes that his fraternizing with the young Prince will mean a pay-off in titles, money, and prestige when Hal comes into power. Falstaff asks the Prince, "Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief" (I.ii); thieving is after all Falstaff's "vocation," so he shows here that he is already thinking of how to gain an advantage of the future king's influence. As for Hal, he c...
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...honor of the bawdy house, of the drunken boast, but true honor that is based in fact and in deed. He can rise to the occasion of besting the best of the foemen. He rejects his false "father" Falstaff and rushes to the aid of his real father, saving him in battle. Yet, he has taken something from Falstaff too, and that is his humor, his flexible mind, his joy of life. He lets stand Falstaff's absurd claim that he Falstaff has killed Percy. In this, Hal shows modesty and true self-confidence. To that he has blended Hotspur's valor and honor while avoiding Hotspur's brittle hair-splitting and unalloyed pride. In Hal, Shakespeare successfully merges the two extremes of Falstaff and Percy into a human and humane whole.
Shakespeare, William.Henry IV.In The Norten Anthology of English Literature.Eds.
M.H. Abrams et all. 5th Ed. New York: Norton, 1987.
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