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The Undesirable Fate of Falstaff

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The world of Shakespeare has many beloved heros and loathed villains, but never so beloved a villain as Sir John Falstaff. Through his comic appearance and endless witticisms, this incorrigible rouge has won the affection of audiences for centuries. Falstaff first appears as the intimate of Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1, but is brutally rejected by his friend at the end of Part 2. As a character who expresses so much clever comedy, and who so delightfully captures the world’s adversity in parody, why does Shakespeare suffer Falstaff so undesirable a fate? The answer lies in the historic and histrionic role of Prince Hal. In Henry IV, the rejection of Falstaff is the necessary result of Hal’s finding his place among the three worlds pressing in around him. King Henry IV, Falstaff, and Hotspur represent these worlds2E Examining the roles of these three characters, as well as Prince Hal himself, illuminates the nature of Hal’s choice to banish his friend.

Influences on Hal

The tetralogy of plays that concludes with Henry IV is permeated with political commentary on kingship. In Part 1 of this group of plays, Henry IV represents the world of politics and faces the brunt of this commentary. In Richard II, King Henry (then Bollingbroke) returns from banishment to usurp the crown from the fairly inept monarch, Richard II. Henry’s actions are not only slightly irreligious, but also resulted in much anger from a number of his subjects. It turns out that the brave and ambitious Bollingbroke evolves into a politically ineffective ruler who has split his kingdom in two.

The play opens with Henry relating that “so shaken we are, so wan with care,/ Find we time for frightened peace to pant/ And breath short-winded accents of new broils/ To be commenced” (I,i, 1-4). Henry’s worry over his crumbling kingdom, guilt over his uprising against Richard II, and the vagaries of his son’s behavior, have diluted his earlier energy and strength. The legitimacy of Henry’s rule is uncertain, even to himself and it seems that Prince Hal holds the key to validating Henry’s position through successful succession. To Hal, his father represents a world of responsibility and politics. Hal intends to claim the crown and begin a legitimate reign such as his father was never able to enjoy. The problem is that Hal seems unwilling to conform to the duties required of him by the State. This may be due to the influences of two other worlds

One of these conflicting realms comes in the form of Henry Percy, or Hotspur, as nicknamed in battle. Hotspur is quick-tempered, impatient, and has decided to go to war against the king as Henry failed to repay a debt to his family. Hotspur is obsessed with the idea of honor and glory and represents rebellion, distinction, and war to Prince Hal. Hal and Hotspur are around the same age and become archrivals. This may be aided by the fact that Henry wishes that “Some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,/ And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!/ Then would I have his Harry, and he mine” (I,ii,86-89). Hal must feel hurt that his father would prefer an enemy to his own son. As a result, Hal is much pressured to distinguish himself as a war hero, with Hotspur as his obvious archenemy. While the two worlds of war and politics have much to do with one another, there is yet another influence on Hal’s life that is quite opposite the first two.

An irresponsible world and deplorable lifestyle of drink, petty theft, and witticisms is chaperoned by Sir Falstaff himself. Falstaff seems to represent a shapelessness that is personified by his own swollen body. If Falstaff’s girdle were to break, Hal speculates “how [his] guts would fall about [his] knees” (III,iii,161-162). Falstaff also serves as a axiomatic king to the tavern world of Eastcheap. Eastcheap is a world of parody, inversion, and simple people who seem to represent the real England, going about it’s business, that is yet untouched by the upheaval of the governing class. Within this world of shapeless parody, Falstaff also seems characterizes as Vice. He is constantly made to speak using a dagger of lath, or a wooden dagger, which is associated with Vice. This characterization is proven accurate by his unruly behavior and the effect it has on Hal.

For Hal, Falstaff serves as a sort of mentor who shows him a good time, and helps to plot a future where Hal is King and Falstaff is still his trusty side-kick. Together, the two engage in a travesty of a future conversation between Henry and Hal that serves to comment on the kingship of Hal’s father. Falstaff points out that, though he himself may be a thief of purses, Henry stole an throne and is, therefore, no better. After Falstaff imitates the king, Hal asks him, “Doest thou speak like a king?” and then removes him from the throne. By using the words “a king” and not “the kind” Hal implies that Falstaff’s impression of the King confirms that Henry is not kingly at all and ought not to have the throne. Though both Hal and Falstaff know that the prince will eventually become king, Falstaff would very much like to claim Hal for the realm of Eastcheap, which will serve his own interests. The world of Falstaff is quite critical of and in opposition to that of the political king and pursuit of glory in war. What role does Hal play within these conflicting interests?

Hal is a bridge which unites the two major plotlines, the three different worlds, and, eventually, England. Hal is complex, devious, and cunning, but demonstrates that he is capable of making the difficult personal choices that a king must in order to rule a nation well. Hal has the strength of character and skill that will make him the king that his father could never be. As king, Hal will redeem England by creating peace. He confirms this in Part 1 when he pardons Douglas in Act V. This act shows that he not only possesses great statesmanship, but also confidence in his own abilities to win Douglas’ support in the future. Hal will become the leader that England so desperately needs, but how does such a leader emerge from the pressures of these conflicting worlds, and why must this accomplishment result in the rejection of Falstaff?

Hal’s Influence

Henry IV Part 1 is the story of a prince, who knows what he needs to become, but isn’t sure how to get there. He starts out as a madcap brat who shirks his royal responsibilities, but divulges much of his true identity when he tells the people of Eastcheap that “I know you all, and will a while uphold/ The unyoked humor of your idleness” (I.ii.173-174). The prince demonstrates that he will only temporarily be a common criminal, but will eventually rise to the royal occasion. He is using his current position to act the prodigal son, so that he may shine even brighter later on. Hal eventually moves smoothly between the worlds of politics, war, and the pleasure of the common man, and the prince seems able to do this because of an uncanny ability to assume the best characteristics of each. As result of this skill in manipulation, he will eventually rule them all.

Hal has long pushed his luck in the world of politics. He was banished from the council after striking the lord chief justice and is constantly disappointing his father by entertaining himself with “barren pleasures” in a “rude society.” Still, despite his reckless behavior, Hal is able to redeem himself in one brief interview with the King. He tells the king exactly what he wants to hear when he promises to slay Hotspur. He also calls forth an uncharacteristic display of his father’s emotion: “Not an eye/ But is aweary of the common sight, / Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more, / Which now doth that I would not have it do, / Make blind itself with foolish tenderness” (III, ii, 89-93). It is not clear if these tearful emotions are genuine, but they do the trick. Henry and the prince become reconciled and, in the next scene, Hal announces that the two are good friends. Hal is very much his father’s son and seems to understand his father far better than Henry understands Hal.

Hal comes away from the experience practiced in the political art of making peace and telling people what they want to hear. Hal has promised that he will “redeem all on Percy’s head,/…When I will wear a garment all of blood” (III,ii,132,136). This statement, derived from Revelations 19:13, refers to the time when the King of Kings will wear a garment dipped in blood. Hal is intent upon becoming a King, as well as a redeemer, and has taken what he needs from the political world of his father in order to accomplish this. Still, there are the two others forces that stand in his way.

Prince Hal sees that Hotspur and his world of war can further solidify his political position. Hal uses the battle at Shrewsbury to shed his former self and claim his new identity as a heroic prince. Once again Hal proves that he understands everyone a little better than they understand him. Not only is Hal able to best Hotspur in battle, he also captures Hotspur’s last words as well. As Hotspur lies mortally wounded, he says “No Percy, though art dust,/ And food for-…” As he trails off, Hal picks the words out of his mouth, saying “For worms, brave Percy” (V,iv,85-86). The victory over Hotspur serves as a rejection of the world of war and of his opposition. Hal has proven his abilities in war but chooses to reject it (which he establishes by pardoning Douglas). The political world is the one Hal desires, but there is an alternate influence that plagues his ability to rule.

Though in the end Falstaff’s influence is terminated, this jolly man is the most significant world for Hal in a number of ways. Not only does Hal spend most of his time with Falstaff, but the world of Eastcheap enables Hal to try out different roles and scenarios, which helps him to evolve into the person he feels he must become. In the famous “mock kingship” scene in Act 2, Falstaff helps Hal to practice his upcoming interview with the King. Not only does the prince get to experiment with both the roles of himself and as the king, the scene leads Hal to realize and vocalize the fact that he will eventually have to make a choice between Falstaff and political success2E Though Falstaff and the prince seem to be good friends, Hal knows that he will eventually have to reject the world of Eastcheap if he wants to succeed. The interactions between Falstaff and Hal lead to several moments of intense foreshadowing. Falstaff tells Hal that “By the lord, I’ll be a traitor then, when thou art a king” (I, ii, 130) but later begs him to “Banish not him thy Harry’s company, Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (II, v, 437-438). Hal only answers him “I do; I will” (II,v,439). Hal is obviously practicing for the banishment that he intends to impose in Part 2.

Of all the characters Hal uses to perfect his own identity, Falstaff seems to understand Hal a little better than the rest. Falstaff almost appears to know his fate as he jokingly, but desperately, promotes himself to Hal. Despite this possible knowledge, he can do nothing to stop it. The fact is, Falstaff is doomed to be banished by history long before Shakespeare estranges him. Still, though the rejection if Falstaff is necessary in the transformation of Prince Hal to King Henry V, Hal seems to have a hard time with it. He tries out the rejection in jest, but then gives Falstaff charge over part of the army. He becomes furious with the lazy man when Falstaff refuses to take the battle seriously, but then gives him credit for vanquishing Hotspur (when Hal had promised his father that he would do the job himself). Hal continues to vacillate in his approval of Falstaff and this can be read as Hal’s final struggle.

As it turns out, Hal’s transformation is not as easy as the prince may have calculated. Hal cannot easily give up his ties to Falstaff and when Falstaff takes the credit for Hotspur, it can be seen as a victory for Eastcheap. In the end, though, Hal makes the decision that politics and history demand. While Hal is happy to drift in and out of the world of Eastcheap, gleaning what benefit he could, he is not willing to let Eastcheap have power over him. Falstaff demonstrates this sort of power in Part 2 when he assures a friend that he “will make/ The King do you grace” (V,v,1-2). As king, Hal can no longer tolerate these two worlds bleeding together, as Falstaff attempts to manipulate the king’s power. Hal makes his final decision to “turn away from my former self;/ So will I those that kept me company” (V,v,56-57). It is at this moment that Hal fully chooses the political realm and banishes all others to death.

The rejection of Falstaff is not only warranted, but is necessary, in the transition of Hal, and according to history. Hal takes what he needs from all the influences in his life and eventually chooses one with which to take up permanent residence. Once Hal becomes King, he can no longer travel easily between the different worlds and has to make a permanent decision. Though Hal has a hard time with it, he is able to do the right thing and becomes the King that England so desperately needs. By including the rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2, even Shakespeare seems to recognize that what a nation needs more than good entertainment is good leadership.

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GradesFixer. (2018, April, 21) The Undesirable Fate of Falstaff. Retrived February 24, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/why-falstaff-falls-a-sad-twist-by-henry-the-fifth/
"The Undesirable Fate of Falstaff." GradesFixer, 21 Apr. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/why-falstaff-falls-a-sad-twist-by-henry-the-fifth/. Accessed 24 February 2020.
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