William Shakespeare's Henry IV

William Shakespeare's Henry IV

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Part I was written in 1597. This history play had begun to
appear on the London stage around a decade before. The play gained
such an enormous popularity, that Shakespeare produced a sequel to it
- Henry IV - Part II . These two plays were very much amusing to the
public, having many of the same characters, and are therefore usually
discussed together by the critics.

Shakespeare mainly tried basing most of his characters on real people,
and later adapting them to their role. This happened with Falstaff
himself, but it is said that Falstaff is "the child of Shakespeare's
creative imagination, and, like most children of most fathers, must
have given Shakespeare considerable trouble and great joy."(1)
Falstaff is a character based on a real person, who goes by the name
of Sir John Oldcastle, and this can also be concluded from scene ii of
Act I, when Henry, Prince of Wales, who is the King's son puns:

"As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle;" (A.I.ii.41) (2)

Sir John Oldcastle's wife's descendant, William, Lord Cobham, who was
Lord Chamberlain of England, was putting pressure on Shakespeare,
telling him to change the name, as it was seemed to be offensive to
his family. One book states the following:

"In the epilogue to Part II of Henry IV, Shakespeare underlines the
alteration by denying any connection between Oldcastle and Falstaff -

For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.

So Oldcastle became Falstaff, by what exact process we do not know."

The Queen herself was very fond of Falstaff, and requested from
Shakespeare that he writes another play set around this, and other
comic charatcters from Henry IV, and adjust them to a contemporary
late-Elizabethan setting. She wished him to show Falstaff in love, and
this resulted in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Even though Henry, Prince of Wales, the King's son, who throughout the
play is referred to as Hal, is the hero of this history play, Sir John

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Falstaff is said to be its more memorable, interesting and popular
character. His main purpose in the play is to use his power, in order
to amuse both himself, and the others - those being the rest of the
characters in the play, or us, the audience. He achieves this by using
both his verbal and his physical skills. Most of the play is written
in blank verse, in iambic pentamemer - lines of ten syllables, with a
stress on every other sylleble - many of the characters tend to switch
to prose at times, depending on the situation, which tells a lot about
the character himself . This change between verse and prose is a way
in which Shakespeare provides his characters with different kinds of
language to suit their personality, and the role they play, as well as
the situation itself. One of the characters, who tends to use this
technique, is of course Falstaff, although he never really uses verse,
but speaks mainly in prose using a large amount of figurative
language. Repetiton is also one of the characteristics used in this
play for different purposes, and appears from time to time. For
instance, it is used in scene iii of Act III, when the hostess speaks
to Falstaff:

"No, Sir John, you do not know me, Sir John, I know

you, Sir John, you owe me money, Sir John, and now

you pick a quarrel to beguile me of it. I bought you

a dozen of shirts to your back."
(A.III.iii,63-66) (4)

This repetition of "Sir John", indicates how fast and with an
irritated manner the hostess is speaking. Falstaff, by using prose as
his way of communicating, also tends to use repetition, as one of the
characteristics of his language, as well as variation and figurative
language. We can see this in his response to Hal's request when he
asks Falstaff to explain how he saw the robbers dressed in "Kendal
green"(5), when it was pitch dark and he wasn't able to see anything:

"What,upon compulsion? 'Zounds, and I were at

the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would

not tell you on compulsion. Give you a reason on

compulsion? If reasons were plentiful as black-

berries, I would give no man a reason upon com-

pulsion, I." (A.II.iv,231-236) (6)

The repetition of the words "upon" and "compulsion" shows how
effectively Falstaff structures his sentences. Some critics call him
'an improviser', who works quickly to respond to any type of
situation. By some, he has also been described as a clown, as he is
able to twist language in any way he wiches, and speak about wisdom,
under a cover of a joke. A good example of this is the situation,
where he mocks catechism on honour:

"'Tis not due yet I would be loath to pay him before

his day-what need I be so forward with him that

calls not on me? Well, 'tis no matter, honour pricks

me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I

come on, how then? Can honour set to a leg? No.

Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound?

No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No.

What is honour? A word. What is in that word

honour? What is that honour? Air. A trim reckon-

ing! Who hath it? He that died a-Wednesday.

Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis in-

sensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live

with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suf-

fer it. therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere

scutcheon-and so ends my catechism." (A.V.ii,127-141) (7)

This is one of a number of soliloquies that Falstaff makes, this
particular one referring to honour, which is interesting, since honour
appears to be one of the plays major themes, perhaps the most
important one. To him, honour is just a word, and can not cure the
paint which one has in gaining it. He clearly understands the world
which he mocks, but does not wich to be a part of it, and his comment
about the uselessness of honour, adds tension to Hal's pursuit of it.

Sir John Falstaff is described to be a fat man, but always capable of
action, about the age of fifty, as we find out from his speech in Act
II, scene iv:

"as I think, his age some fifty, or by'r lady inclining to
threescore;" (8)

He is greedy and deceitful, and a liar. He exploits others and attacks
those who seem to be less smart than he is. Having no ambitions, never
wanting to work, and giving to specifice importance to life except
being able to eat, drink, womanize, and sleep. He is a philosopher.
But his most amazing quality of all is the fact that he is able to get
out of any situation.We see an example of this again in Act II, when
he is confronted by Hal about having seen the three robbers were
dressed in Kendal green, as it was dark. He refuses to answer "upon

Another example of this amusing quality of his is the agrument he has,
as he discovers that his pocket has been picked in scene iii of Act
III. He accuses the hostess of picking his pocket, as to coeme in
terms with not having to pay the money he owes her. he claims that it
was money and a valuable ring inside it, when in the end, he learns
that it was infact the Prince who has picked his pocket, finding
nothing but some papers, and claiming that the ring, which was now
lost, was on the contrary made of copper. When he becomes aware of the
fact that his lies have been discovered, he gives no apologies to the
Prince, but asks him "You confess, then, you picked my pocket?"
(A.III.iii,168) (9), which again gets him out of another complicated

In the eyes of some, Falstaff is seen as a coward:

"Falstaff's cowardice, if such it can be called, is directed to saving
his skin; not so his lying. His lies are not mean little lies, but
huge ones, told with vast enjoyment and with an eye to their effect."

Others tend to see him as counterfait, and a vice character in the
play. But pretending to be somebody else does not necessarily have to
be a bad thing. Switching roles is quite common even these days, and
on one hand it is maybe a good quality, since it helps us learn more
about ourselves, as well as others, and it is the same with the
characters in this play. The world without Falstaff's counterfait
becomes reality and without him, the play would have a totally
different meaning.

Falstaff, as a character in Henry IV, makes use of soliloquies, also
knows as solo speeches, which give us, the audience, an insight to his
mind, and this way helps us learn more about him. This following
speech is made by Falstaff in Act I, scene ii, where after the robbery
he carries out, he complains about the trick that the Prince and Poins
played on him, and states that only witchcraft can explain his
affection for Poins:

"I am accused to rob in that thief's company; the

rascal hath removed my horse and tied him I know

not where. If i travel but four foot by the squier fur-

ther afoot, I shall break my wind. Well, I doubt not

but to die a fair death for all this, if I escape hanging

for killing that rogue. I have forsworn his company

hourly any time this two and twenty years, and yet

I am bewitched with the rogue's company. If the

rascal have not given me medicines to make me love

him, I'll be hanged. It could not be else, I have

drunk medicines. Poins! Hal! A plague upon you

both! Bardolph! Peto! I'll starve ere I'll rob a foot

further-and 'twere not as good a deed as drink to

turn true man, and to leave these rogues, I am the

veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth: eight

yards of uneven ground is threescore and ten miles

afoot with me, and the stony-hearthed villains know

it well enough. A plague upon it when thieves can-

not be true one to another! (They whistle.) Whew! A

plague upon you all, give me my horse, you rogues,

give me my horse and be hanged!"
(A.II.ii,10-30) (11)

Hal suggests that he lies down on the ground and listen until he hears
the travellers, is an example of mockery, of needing levers to stand
up again. This is also an example of physical comedy in this scene, of
Falstaff's inability and difficulty in moving around without his

Another one of the important soliloquies, Falstaff makes, is in scene
ii of Act IV:

"If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused

gurnet; I have misused the King's press damnably.

I have got in exchange of a hundred and fifty soldiers

three hundred and odd pounds. I press me none but

good householders, yeomen's sons, inquire me out

contracted bachelors, such as had been asked twice

on the banns, such a commodity of warm slaves as

had as lief hear the devil as a drum, such as fear the

report of a caliver worse than a struck fowl or a hurt

wild duck. I pressed me none but such toasts-and-

butter, with hearts in their bellies no bigger than

pins' heads, and they have bought out their services;

and now my whole charge consists of ancients, cor-

porals, lieutenants, gentlemen of complanies-slaves

as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the

glutton's dogs licked his sores: and such as indeed

were never soldiers, but discarded unjust serving-

men, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted

tapsters, and ostlers trade-fallen, the cankers of a

calm world and a long peace, ten times more dis-

honourable-ragged than an old fazed ancien; and

such have I to fill up the rooms of them as have

bought out their services, that you would think that

I had a hundred and fifty tattered prodigals lately

come from swine-keeping, from eating draff and

husks. A mad fellow met me on the way, and told me

I had unloadd all the gibbets and pressed the dead

bodies. No eye hath seen such scarecrows. I'll not

march through Coventry with them, that's flat: nay,

and the villains march wide betwixt the legs as if they

had gyves on, for indeed I had the most of them out

of prison. There's not a shirt and a half in all my

company, and the half shirt is two napkins tacked to-

gether and thrown over the shoulders like a herald's

coat without sleeves; and the shirt to say the truth

stolen from my host at Saint Albans, or the red-nose

innkeeper of Daventry. But that's all one, they'll

find linen enough on every hedge."
(A.IV.ii,11-48) (12)

This is a soliloquy made by Falstaff about his recruits. H
e managed to make money from them, and he chose those who could 'buy
their way out of things'. This speech gives us an insight into
Falstaff's character, and we eventually find out that he is not an
honourable man.

The play reaches its climax in scene iv of Act V, and all the
protagonists are involved: the King, Prince Hal, Hotspur and Falstaff.
Hotspur has now been killed, and in the battle against Douglas,
Falstaff fakes death in order to escape it. A tribute is paid to both
Hotspur and Falstaff, but just as Hal leaves, Falstaff gets up
claiming he has killed Hotspur, in order to amuse the Prince, and be
given a reward, and make himself seem honourable.

Henry IV - Part II was written in 1598. It, the other hand, as I
mentioned in the beginning of my essay, gives a totally different
perspective of Falstaff, the character. This part is said to be a
'darker play' than the previous one. As part I mainly deals with the
triumph of Shrewsbury, part II mainly concentrates on Hal's tragic
betrayal of Falstaff. He again in this play tends to have a lot of
clever speeches, they however seem to be more pathetic than comic. He
experiences a change from a witty, and clever man, to a pathetic one.
In this part, we also see the distancing of the relationship between
Hal and Falstaff. They no longer spend time together, and have now
grown apart, as we see from a letter which Falstaff sends to Hal,
written in an irrelevant style. The Lord Chief Justice is one of the
'new' characters in the play, and does not approve of Falstaff,
thinking that he is bad influence of Hal, especially now that he has
become king. Falstaff hoped that Hal's position will influence his
also, but the Prince slowly drifts away from him and their
friendship.Falstaff's character has changed. He has become
hypocritical. He has become a liar, and a loudmouth, and he has never
had so much hatred for anyone until now. He is now jealous of his
friend Hal, and his position as king. He feels regret, and seems
unhappy with his decisions, and his posiion in life, which is rather
unusual, compared to the first part of the play. We can conclude this
from another one of his soliloquies:

"Fare you well, gentle gentlemen. Exeunt [Justices].

On Bardolph, lead the men away. [Exeunt Bardolph

and recruits]. As I return, I will fetch off these jus-

tices. I do see the bottom of Justice Shallow. Lord,

Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of

lying! This same starved justice hath done nothing

but prate to me of the wildness of his youth, and the

feats he hath done about Turnbull Street, and

every third word a lie, duer paid to the hearer than

the Turk's tribute. I do remember his at

Inn, like a man mad after supper of a cheese-

paring. When a was naked, he was for all the world

like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved

upon it with a kinfe. A was so forlorn, that his di-

mensions to any thick sight were invisible; a was the

very genious of famine, yet lecherous as a monkey,

and the whores called him mandrake. A came ever

in the rearward of the fashion, and sung those tunes

to the overscutched housewives that he heard the

carmen whistle, and sware they were his fancies or

his good-nights. And now is this Vice's dagger be-

come a squire, and talks as familiarly of John a

Gaunt as if he had been sworn brother to him, and

I'll be sworn a ne'er saw him but once in the tilt-

yard, and then he burst his head for crowding

among the marshal's men. I saw it and told John a

Gaunt he beat his own name, for you might have

thrust him and all his apparel into an eel-skin-the

case of a treble hautboy was a mansion for him, a

court; and now has he land and beefs. Well, I'll be

acquainted with him if I return, and't shall go hard

but I'll make him a philosopher's two stones to me.

If the young dace be a bait for the old pike, I see no

reason in the law of nature but I may snap at him:

let time shape, and there an end." (A.III.ii,293-327) (13)

The end makes the audience pity Falstaff, in a way. He has been
rejected. He hopes that Hal is only acting like this in the face of
the public, but he knows that he is wrong. Time has separated them.
Shakespeare did not actually leave any statements about the purpose of
Falstaff in Henry IV - Part II, but the change he makes of him from
the first to the second part is drastic, which makes part II perhaps
less interesting than the previous one.

There are many critics, who claim their own ideas about the character
and the play itself. The two, perhaps most important ones, are A.C.
Bradley and Maurice Morgann. In Bradley's The Rejection of Falstaff,
he talks about the relation between Hal and Falstaff and its
significance in the play. He says that Falstaff is "a character almost
purely humorous, and therefore no subject for moral judgements". (14)
He also states that he stands for something greater than himself,
"the bliss of freedom gained in humour in the essence of Falstaff".
(15) Morgann mainly has the same views about Falstaff's character as
Bradley, and they see Falstaff as an actual coward rather than
pretending to be one.

"If we sympathise with Falstaff, we shall not be content to see him
rejected; worse still, whoever rejects him will arouse our antagonism.
And so we close the book or leave the theatre at the end of Henry IV
with a feeling of profound dissatisfaction which Shakespeare could
never have intended us to feel, and which no amount of ably-reasoned
argument can satisfactorily dispel." (16)
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