“I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,/Redeeming time when men think least I will.”

Henry IV, Part One

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Before returning to Tony Tanner’s examination of the first three scenes of Act One, a little more background on Falstaff.  In the earliest versions of 1 Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff is nowhere to be seen; in his place instead is one “Sir John Oldcastle.”  All well and good one would think, except that Shakespeare had made the near fatal mistake of naming one of his finest comic creations, “the whoreson round” man of the second tetralogy, after an unimpeachably zealous Protestant martyr.  Oldcastle’s descendants, one of whom was Elizabeth I’s influential Lord Chamberlain – were none to impressed, and Shakespeare was forced not only to rechristen him, along with Russell (Bardolph) and Harvey (Peto), but to insert a somewhat groveling retraction in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV, making clear that “Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”


Continuing from my last post from Tony Tanner:

“’When thou art king’ – the words are often in Falstaff’s mouth:  ‘shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king?  And resolution thus fubbed as it is with the rusty curb of old father Antic the law?  Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.’  Falstaff is, of course, imagining and anticipating a, to him, Utopian upside-down world of permanent carnival and anarchy – ‘when thou art king.’  He is, of course, to be hopelessly, cruelly?, disappointed, and in the event ‘old father Antic the law’ will prove to be a good deal less ‘Antic’ than Falstaff can ever have feared.  But as long as the Prince is content to play, or be, a ‘madcap,’ Falstaff feels free to expand, ‘unbutton,’ and luxuriate – which is, of course, our, very considerable, fun.

But the ‘fun’ is full of potentially serious points and allusions (as perhaps all really good fun is).  When he says to the Prince ‘I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity of good names were to be bought,’ we can recognize the shameless cynicism, but may pause to ponder where some of the established men of repute – the King, for example – procured their ‘good names.’  And when, after a farrago of Puritan cant (which he does very well), Falstaff announces ‘I must give over this life, and I will give it over!  By the Lord, and I do not, I am a villain!, we are alerted to a theme of repentance and ‘conversion’ (transformation) which will become crucial.  The Prince deflects Falstaff ‘from praying to purse-taking’ and they are soon planning the robbery at Gad’s Hill.  At which point, Poins engages the Prince in his planned ‘jest’ to allow Falstaff and his gang to rob the travelers they have in mind, and then to ‘rob’ them of their booty – just what the King was planning to do to Hotspur in the previous scene.  When the Prince asks how they can avoid recognition, Poins has disguises of buckram ready – ‘to immask our noted outward garments.’  We are still in that lawless night-time world in which robbery and jesting are scarcely distinguishable.  But even at this point, as they prepare for ‘fun,’ they are adumbrating the use of disguise and ‘counterfeit’ by the King at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

At the end of the scene the Prince is left alone, and he has a soliloquy (it is notable that he has just one soliloquy in each of the three Henry plays).  Men tend to be honest in soliloquies; they are, as we have seen, often rogues who play a deceptive role to the other characters, a role which they drop when they are alone (alone with us).  The Prince’s speech has been seen as problematical, but we can be sure that he is speaking in his own, princely, voice; that this is the man.  Significantly, he reverts to the courtly mode of poetry – buttoning himself up again we might say.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humor of your idleness.

Yet herein I will imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wond’red at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

He’s just playing with them.  This is the realization that has shocked some, while others seem to think that he is revealing his true princely quality as one who can handle pitch without being defiled.  It is – I think – unarguably unpleasant, and if it is so for us it is simply calumny to think it wasn’t for Shakespeare.  Nobody likes someone who so coldly uses other people.  We don’t now, and the presumption must be that they didn’t then.  And more:

So when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;

And, like the bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

First, his patrician disgust at the company he has decided to keep – base contagious clouds, foul and ugly mists.  Then, behaviour he can apparently ‘throw off’; as, perhaps, he can ‘throw on’ royalty – this is conduct as costume.  Conduct as ‘commodity’ we might say.  Certainly, his talk of ‘debt’ suggests the market world of ‘business,’ and he treats his ‘reformation’ as, indeed, a commodity which must be shown to its best advantage ‘to attract more eyes.’  There is nothing very inward going on here – in a later age, such a ‘reformation’ might well be termed ‘other-directed.’  As Ornstein points out, the Prince is talking like a clever shopkeeper who ‘knows how to display the merchandise of his behaviour.’  From any point of view, it is a speech of extreme and unappealing calculation.  He might, he will, turn out to be a good king.  But what sort of a man will he be?  Rossiter once suggested that Sonnet 94 might provide a way of reading the Prince:

They that have pow’r to hurt and will do one,

That do not do the thing they must do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense;

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others but stewards of their excellence.

It may not fit in every respect, but it will do to be going on with.

The next scene opens with a speech from the King which could almost be a continuation of his son’s, which it immediately follows.

My blood hath been too cold and temperate,

Unapt to stir at these indignities

I will from henceforth rather be myself,

Might and to be feared, than my condition.

Myself – as king?  My condition – my natural disposition?  It is a wise man who knows the one from the other if, indeed, they are finally separable.  Whether Prince Hal eventually manages to bring ‘self’ and ‘condition’ harmoniously together will remain a debatable point.  For a prince in line for the throne, where lies the ‘self’ and when and where is he most ‘being’ it?  But the importance of this scene lies in the introduction of Hotspur – and his barely controllable fury at the King’s peremptory demand that he hand over his prisoners.  Hotspur is the leading representative of the third important realm of the play, termed by Maynard Mack ‘the feudal countryside.’  This is a world away from the court and the tavern; based on the north of England, it is more in touch with Wales and Scotland than London, though of course the lines of communication are open, and indeed, this scene takes place in the council chamber at Windsor.  But this is not Hotspur’s natural habitat, and, as Holinshed rather nicely puts it, he is ‘not a little fumed’ at the King’s arrogant and even supercilious deportment towards him.  Hotspur, with his almost fanatical chivalric code, and his headlong, uncalculating (note!), impetuosities, is an almost anachronistic figure, at times made to sound foolish, even childish (petulant beyond constraining, more interested in his horse than with his wife, more concerned with romantic honour than prudent strategy); yet he speaks some of the most powerful, trenchant lines in the play, and we would do well to attend to his opinion of King Henry – or, as he would more forcefully have it, ‘this unthankful king,/…this ingrate and cank’red Bolingbroke.’  Anger sometimes arrives at ferociously penetrating perceptions.

Harking back to a chivalric age in which he would have been more at home, Hotspur bitterly regrets that his family and friends did help ‘To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose’ – they are always good, being gone).  Henry IV, he sees, is a ‘vile politician…this king of smiles, this Bolingbroke’ and he recalls ‘what a candy deal of courtesy/This fawning greyhound then did proffer me’  Readers of Shakespeare will not need reminding of the nausea associated with candy-courtesy in his plays.  Hotspur and his associates plan ‘revenge’ (the old code).  By the end of Act I, Henry is not looking so good or so secure – ‘wan’ indeed.  He has grief from his own son whom he takes to be a derelict delinquent (in time, a would-be parricide); and he is threatened by a potentially more serious act of insubordination on the part of his wished-for surrogate ‘son’.  All my sons – and they are all against me.  Hotspur is certainly after both father and son:

All studies here I solemnly defy

Save how to gall and pinch this Bolingbroke;

And that same sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales

And, to keep vividly alive our sense of the contrast between Prince Hal – so sunk in ‘dishonor’ as far as his father is concerned – and Hotspur, we have Hotspur’s vainglorious address to honour:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap

To pluck the bright honor from the pale-faced moon,

Or dive into the bottom of the deep,

Where fathom line could never touch the ground,

And pluck up drowned honor by the locks

A lot of ‘honor’ is ‘drowned’ in this play, and how much is finally ‘plucked up’ is perhaps a moot point.

The scene ends, as have the previous two, with plotting.  Hotspur, being Hotspur, can hardly wait.

O let the hours be short

Till fields and blows and groans applaud our sport!

Every realm has its sports – Hotspur’s are fields and blows and groans; Falstaff’s sack and thieving and unbuttoning; the King’s are, well, the somewhat subtler sports of expediency, counterfeit-regality, and crown-retention.

In this first Act Shakespeare has laid out the topography – geographical and psychological – of his play, and the main figures from each realm have, variously, ‘disported’ themselves.  Bolingbroke, Falstaff, Hotspur – plus the, apparently, so far disengaged and floating Prince; the main thrust of the play will be to trace how the Prince manages his relationship with these three men, and these three worlds.  It matters; it greatly matters – because he is unavoidably due to become the most famous of all English kings.  The King and Falstaff look like opposites – true paternal authority and legitimate rule versus a disreputable corrupter of youth and the spirit of misrule.  But the King’s ‘legitimacy’ won’t bear such scrutiny, and the disorder abroad and spreading in the land is, arguably, of his own bringing and making; and Falstaff, as an undeniable sort of father-figure, can show to the Prince a spirit of inclusive, tolerant humanity, which his real, ‘expedient,’ father shows no sign of possessing.  (William Empson once wrote:  ‘if you compare Hal to his brother and father, whom the plays describe so unflinchingly, it is surely obvious that to love Falstaff was a liberal education.’)  Again, Hotspur and Falstaff seem to offer the Prince quintessential examples of opposed codes – chivalry and cynicism.  Yet both are rebels against the constituted authority in place; both – it is part of their undoubted appeal – are in some ways childish, retarded (from the somber standpoint of joyless, unenthusing maturity), and both are marked, or marred, by a disabling excess; for if Falstaff drinks too much sherris-sack to be good for anything much, Hotspur so intoxicates himself with fuzzy notions of ‘honor’…[DON”T WANT TO GIVE THIS PAET AWAY]….Yet Hal is like Hotspur in being young and brave (which is why Shakespeare suggests, unhistorically, they are of an age).  Hal is also like Falstaff, at least for a time, joining him in anarchic mockeries on the uncourtly side of town.  Hal is also like the King – his first calculating soliloquy reveals him to be very much his political father’s son, even if repentance and reconciliation are deferred.  That is  perhaps the main point.  Hal is ‘like’ everybody, and can beat them all at their own game…Certainly he is the lord and owner of his face.

We have had ruthless kings and rebellious lords before.  The crucial addition in the two Henry IV plays is, of course, Falstaff and his milieu.  The court and the tavern, or the tavern revelers and the noble rebels, might initially seem worlds apart, but they are brought into all sorts of provocative relationships by what A.R. Humphreys nicely calls ‘the fabric of linkage.’  The behaviour, and thus the authority and proclaimed values, of the court and the nobles, are too often parodied, or travestied, or comically paralleled by what goes on around Falstaff, for us to regard them as anything but seriously challenged and called into question, if not actively undetermined.  Nothing and no one remains uncontaminated by the prevailing, often quite corrosive, irony – except, perhaps, our ice-cool Prince.  But that might prove to be the biggest irony of them all.  The point about the various alternating plots – they come together at Shrewsbury – is that ‘the more they are scrutinized, the more connected they appear, the connection being sometimes of parallelism and reinforcement, sometimes of antithesis and contrast, sometimes a reversal by which serious or comic is judged by the other’s values’ (A.R. Humphrey’s).  And the main point about the differing worlds is that, mutually exclusive though they may seem, they all co-exist in one world.  For this is all England; and, the point enforces itself, this is all – all – history.  Well, as far as Shakespeare is concerned.

Before considering the rest of this play, I think it might be advisable to say something about Falstaff as a character, a figure, an emanation, a whatever he-is.  There was a real Sir John Oldcastle (Falstaff’s original name) who lived from 1378-1417.  He was, apparently, a serious gentleman (though he might have had a wild youth), who became High Sheriff of Herefordshire, and later Lord Cobham.  A friend of King Henry, he was, subsequently, ‘banished.’  He was a Lollard convicted of the Wycliffite heresy, for which he was condemned, captured, and, finally, hanged and burnt.  He next appears, or rather his name does, in a play called ‘The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth,’ probably written around 1594.  This anonymous play is crude and chaotic (‘like going through the Henry IV-Henry V sequences in a bad dream’ as A.R. Humphreys says), and, apart perhaps from its depiction of the young Prince as an out-and-out delinquent, its main interest lies in the fact that one of the Prince’s madcap companions s called Sir John Oldcastle.  But he is neither funny nor fat, and it’s not even clear that he likes a drink.  He only speaks some 250 flat words, the likest of which to any spoken by Shakespeare’s Falstaff are:  ‘We shall never have a merry world till the old King is dead.’  From Oldcastle to Falstaff is truly a miraculous metamorphosis.  (Maynard Mack pointed out another example of what Shakespeare could do with a hint from this play.  Mistress Quickly springs from an offhand reference by the Prince to ‘the old tavern in Eastcheap’ where ‘there is a pretty wench that can talk well.’

Of course, there are other detectable influences.  John Dover Wilson set out some of these clearly enough in his The Fortunes of Falstaff (1943).  Of first importance is the figure of the Devil, or his Vice, from Miracle and morality plays and interludes.  He gives as an example ‘Youth’ (1520) in which Youth insolently banishes Charity to be joined by Riot who introduces him to Pride and Lechery.  Youth repents, and is saved by Humility.  (Falstaff is specifically referred to as riot and Vice and the Devil – ‘old white-bearded Satan’ – in Shakespeare.)  Gluttony was a common tempter of youth in these morality plays and interludes, as was Sensual Appetite, Sloth, Idleness, and World, Devil, and Flesh (see, for example, ‘The Castell of Perserverance,’ ‘The Interlude of the Four Elements,’ ‘The Trial of Treasure’).  You can find traces, and more than traces, of all of them in Falstaff.  And of many other figures too – the Clown, the Jester, the Fool, the Lord of Misrule, and the miles gloriosus (boasting of bravery but avoiding battle – the braggart, cowardly soldier).  Throw in, too, the parasite, the sponger, the trickster – the lists seems almost indefinitely extendable – many of them, says Dover Wilson, ‘antic figures the origins of which are lost in the dark backward and abysm of folk custom.’  With all this, we must never forget that Falstaff is never remotely stupid.  He is phenomenally adroit and inventive with words, endlessly resourceful, unflaggingly creative.  It is interesting that, according to J.P. Collier, Coleridge said:  ‘It was in characters of complete moral depravity but of first-rate wit and talents, that Shakespeare delighted,’ and ‘instanced Richard the Third, Falstaff, and Iago.’  Richard III and Iago!  Falstaff is no Father Christmas, but, while Coleridge is justified in according him a comparable mental fertility and agility, I don’t believe that Falstaff deserves quite to be grouped with such unmitigated evil (would you like a meal with Richard, a drink with Iago?).  [MY NOTE:  Harold Bloom, of course, would be appalled by the comparison.]  Dr. Johnson hits perhaps a happier note:  “But Falstaff, unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee?  Thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised but hardly detested.  Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt.’  Johnson lists the faults – forcefully enough, as you may imagine – and concludes:  ‘Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the Prince that despised him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting laughter…’  The thought of Dr. Johnson enjoying Falstaff is one which, I think, we can all savour.  But, here again, ‘perpetual gaiety’ doesn’t seem quite right by the end of these two plays…

‘And who, in fact, is “he?”  “He,” really, is the comic personality given a chance by the dramatist to revel in a comic role.’  Thus A.R. Humphreys in his admirable Arden edition.  And when Humphreys concludes his comments on Falstaff, he is closer to Dr. Johnson than to Coleridge.  ‘In other words, Falstaff, though immensely ‘living,’ is not like any single real man.  But he is symbolically like life itself; the large comedy of humanity is embodied in him.  He expresses the indispensable spirit of fun.’  This is certainly one way of looking at Falstaff, though I think it takes us a step closer to Father Christmas than is appropriate.  We should, perhaps, set against this a mordant and extremely negative view of Falstaff and the whole world of the play, articulated by John Danby in Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature.  We have presented, says Danby, a nation ‘disintegrated into mutually exclusive spheres,’ which is pervaded by ‘pitiless fraud.’  Falstaff’s code of ‘Commodity’ is the code by which everyone, high and low, lives:

Analysis leaves us, then, with symbols of Power and Appetite as the keys to the play’s meaning:  Power and Appetite, the two sides of Commodity…The England depicted in Henry IV…is neither ideally ordered nor happy.  It is an England, on the one side, of bawdy house and thieves’ kitchen, of waylaid merchants, badgered and bewildered Justices, and a peasantry wretched, betrayed, and recruited for the wars:  an England, on the other side, of the chivalrous wolf-pack…Those who see the world of Henry IV as some vital, joyous, Renaissance England must go behind the facts that Shakespeare presents.  It is a world where to be normal is to be anti-social, and to be social is to be anti-human.  Humanity is split in two.  One half is banished to an underworld where dignity and decency must inevitably submerge in brutality and riot.  The other half is restricted to an over-world where the same dignity and decency succumb to heartlessness and frigidity.

This is eloquent, and certainly reminds us of aspects of the play(s) which we must not forget.  But ultimately, this isn’t quite right either.  [MY NOTE:  Hardly right at all, in my view.]

Falstaff is not quite such a nihilistic figure as Danby would seem to imply.  It is probably better to see him as, in part, embodying the spirit of carnival, as defined by Mikhail Bakhtin in his seminal work, Rabelais and His World.  this has been done at some length by Graham Holderness (in Shakespeare Recycled), to which more interested readers are referred.  For Bakhtin, in the Middle Ages ‘a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture…the culture of folk carnival humour.’  In carnival, social hierarchies are inverted, authority mocked, conventional values profaned, official ceremonies and rituals grotesquely parodied, the normal power structures dissolved – in a world, Misrule, Riot, the world-upside-down.  For Bakhtin – he has a political programme – carnival amounted to ‘the second life of the people, who for a time entered into the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance.’  In particular, carnival emphasized, often grotesquely, the flesh and all bodily appetites and functions – ‘all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.’  Most of this fits ‘fat-guts’ Falstaff very well (his gross fleshy size and general immersion is often emphasized; on the other hand, he shows no very great interest in ‘equality’ – he has his own knightly contempt for the poor wretches beneath him, though he will rob and drink with them).  To this extent, Holderness is justified in his general claim that Falstaff is a figure of carnival (though it should be stressed that Falstaff ‘embodies’ traces and vestiges and lineaments of many other figures and types – long before Walt Whitman, Falstaff ‘contains multitudes.’)

Falstaff clearly performs the function, in Henry IV Parts One and Two, of carnival.  He constitutes a constant focus of opposition to the official and serious tone of authority and power:  his discourse confronts and challenges those of king and state.  His attitude to authority is always parodic and satirical:  he mocks authority, flouts power, responds to the pressures of social duty and civic obligation by retreating into Bacchanalian revelry.

Of course, carnival was a strictly controlled and temporary period of liberation and inversion – a permitted period of license which arguably served to consolidate the social hierarchies and institutions which obtained for the non-carnivalesque rest of the year.  Inasmuch as Falstaff wants carnival to be the permanent and everyday state of affairs, he represents – Holderness would argue, I think rightly – a potentially dangerous, subversive, uncontainable force or spirit.  And, inasmuch as Falstaff is not pinned down and penned down in the chronicles – he inhabits the unconfined spaces of unwritten history – he allows Shakespeare to introduce something dangerous, subversive, and perhaps ultimately uncontainable into his history plays.”


You’re going to love this, I hope.  Along with clips from more “traditional” productions of I Henry IV, I’m going to be including clips from Orson Welles’ seldom-seen masterpiece, “Chimes at Midnight.”  It’s his own retelling, with some cuts and rearranging from the original, but…it’s rather brilliant and, not surprisingly, Welles is extraordinarily good as Falstaff.


Our next reading:  1 Henry IV, Act Two

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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