Henry IV, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Not trusting the King’s offer of clemency, Worcester remains convinced that the rebels must fight, and the Battle of Shrewsbury begins. Although Henry has arranged for several soldiers to impersonate him in order to confuse the enemy, Douglas discovers the real King and is about to kill him when Prince Hal burst in and saves his father’s life. Hotspur appears and the two fight, Hal finally killing his rival. He then notices Falstaff’s body lying close by and laments (kind of) the death of his old friend, who isn’t actually dead and who tries to claim credit for killing Hotspur. The battle is won, Worcester and Vernon are sentenced to death, and King Henry prepares to rout the remaining rebels.
Amazing conclusion. And of course, I loved Falstaff’s take on “honour.”
A word. What is that word “honour?” What is that “honour?” Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon.
Falstaff reaches the conclusion that “honour,” so much a central issue for Hotspur (and, eventually Prince Hal), is “a mere scrutcheon [cheap heraldic emblem).” That Falstaff has little need or taste for bravery is apparent following the episode at Gadshill in the first half of the play, where the disguised Hal and Poins rob their companions in order to see what ludicrous stories of derring-do Falstaff will invent – invention is very much his forte – after the event. And of course, following the death of Hotspur and Falstaff’s miraculous resurrection, his talent for invention once again comes to the forefront.
The finale of 1 Henry IV, has all the ingredients for a blockbuster finish: a military showdown between the royal forces and the rebels; the long-awaited combat between Hal and Hotspur, and perhaps most importantly, the moment where we get to see whether Hall will continue in his role as Henry’s ‘near’st and dearest enemy’ or prove himself his father’s heir. Masterfully plotted throughout (at least I think), the play keeps us hanging on until the very end. It is not until the rebels falter (and argue amongst themselves), lacking Northumberland’s support, that it becomes clear that the King will prevail (in how many plays have we seen the King lose to rebels?), and that father and son will be reunited. The outcome of the battle between Hal and Hotspur, though, is somewhat simpler. Meeting in battle, Hal quickly warns Hotspur that he can no longer tolerate rivalry. “Think not, Percy,/To share with me in glory any more,” he announces,
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.
Slaying his double and at last stepping out of his shadow, Hal defines himself.
But the play has one more surprise in store. Near Hotspur’s corpse, Hal sees Falstaff lying on the ground, and is struck by emotion:
What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell.
I could have spared a better man.
Hal wants his address to Falstaff’s corpse to be a defining moment, another stage in his “reformation.” The only problem, of course, is that reality isn’t compliant with Hal’s neat ending – Falstaff is only pretending (or counterfeiting) being dead in order to keep himself alive, and his typically obstreperous resurrection from the battlefield (which seem like a burlesquing prelude to the reawakening scenes Shakespeare uses in his late romances) refuses to finish things off. It seems obvious that there is going to have to be a sequel.
From Tanner, going back to his earlier reference to the use of the word “wardrobe:”
“The aforementioned use of the word ‘wardrobe’ occurs during the Battle of Shrewsbury. Fierce Douglas thinks he has killed the King, only to be told by Hotspur that, in fact, he has killed Blunt, who is ‘semblably furnished like the King himself’ (i.e., disguised as the King). Hotspur explains – ‘The King hath many marching in his coats,’ to which Douglas – angry at the rather cowardly cheating (a true soldier would hardly stoop to this) – answers:
Now, by my sword, I will kill all his coats:
I’ll murder all his wardrobe, piece by piece,
Until I meet the King.
When he does meet up with King Henry, he suspects another disguised substitute – another coat to kill:
Another king? they grow like Hydra’s heads.
… What art thou
That counterfeit’st the person of a king?
When the King asserts ‘The King himself…the very King,’ Douglas is understandably skeptical:
I fear thou art another counterfeit;
And yet, in faith, thou bearest thee like a king
The word ‘counterfeit’ was first heard in Act II, scene iv, when they are told that the Sheriff has arrived at the tavern, and Falstaff, very cryptically, says to Hal: ‘Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit. Thou art essentially made without meaning so.’ This is a much discussed passage, of uncertain meaning and undecidable application. Who is the ‘true piece of gold?’ Falstaff? The Prince? And in what sense is Hal ‘essentially made’ (some editors rather desperately suggest it should be ‘mad’)? We have already seen both Falstaff and the Prince to be notable counterfeiters in their different ways, and it becomes evident that ‘counterfeiting,’ in one form or another, is widespread at every level in the land. The battle scenes quite clearly and centrally present us with a ‘counterfeit’ king, leaving it quite uncertain how far back the counterfeiting goes; where – on all levels – it started, where it stops. Whether, that is, ‘appearance’ ever gives way to ‘essence;’ where, and if, true gold is to be found. By extension, I don’t think we can ever be quite confident that we meet the ‘true,’ the ‘very,’ Prince – as opposed, that is, to another part of his – undoubtedly well-stocked and carefully maintained – wardrobe. And yet, in faith, he bears himself like a prince at Shrewsbury? Certainly he does. Whatever else, he is his father’s son.
The danger and threat of counterfeiting (a hanging offence until comparatively recently) is that it destroys trust and devalues the currency. Something like this happens to the crucial notion of ‘honor.’ Hotspur, we might say, is the ‘essence’ of chivalric honour, albeit of a distinctly feudal kind, at times verging on hyperbolic self-parody. Prince Hal overtly parodies him, but at Shrewsbury it seems as if he is determined to replace him – on the self-equivalizing grounds that there is no room for ‘two stars.’:
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.
Specifically, he is determined to take Hotspur’s honour:
And all the budding honors on thy crest
I’ll crop to make a garland for my head.
A cynic might suggest that he wants the garland for his wardrobe; the line at least implies that honour is a movable, removable commodity – not, that is, of the essence. You can crop it off and put it on.
While Hotspur is being truly killed by Henry (for which, incidentally, there is no proper chronicle evidence. Shakespeare clearly wants them to seem rather like ‘doubles,’ with one finally vanquishing the other; the Renaissance displacing feudalism, perhaps – but I won’t push that), Falstaff is pretending to be killed by Douglas. Seeing him lying on the ground, the Prince bids him a fairly fond farewell and passes on. As he ‘rises up’ once the coast is clear (some have detected a resurrection joke), Falstaff self-justifyingly soliloquizes:
‘Sblood, ‘twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I like; I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed…Zounds, I am afraid of this gunpowder Percy, though he be dead. How if he should be counterfeit, too, and rise? By my faith, I am afraid he would prove the better counterfeit.
So he stabs Hotspur’s corpse – a kind of ultimate physical profanation and desecration of chivalry. And by the time he has repeated the word ‘counterfeit’ for the ninth time, h e has done even more damage, for he has sent the word mockingly echoing into every corner of the play. This occurs barely eighty lines after the exchange between Douglas and the King just discussed, and it opens up the possibility, or suggests the thought, that perhaps the only pertinent consideration, at every level is, — who proves the better counterfeit?
Falstaff, stabbing dead Hotspur, is ‘killing’ chivalry, and he has already had a comparable deflating effect on the concept and notion of ‘honor.’ We have already heard his ‘catechism’ on honour on the eve of the battle – ‘What is honor? A word. What is in the word honor? What is that honor? Air – a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No.’ (And so, famously on — ). He strikes the same note when he comes across the body of Blount. ‘I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life; which if I can save, so; if not, honor comes unlooked for, and there’s an end.’ At such moments, Falstaff is the honest coward, laying no claim to any of the martial, heroic virtues. (We have just seen that he carries a bottle of sack in his pistol case.) Such words and sentiments have an irresistible appeal to the life-at-all-costs coward who exists in, at least, most of us. We invariably feel a spasm of pleasure and liberation when someone ‘blows the gaffe on human nature,’ as Falstaff so often, consciously and unconsciously, does. By a recognizable convention, a soliloquizing figure is telling the truth to us, and himself, about what he is, what he believes, what he desires, what he intends. At such moments, at least, Falstaff is not counterfeit. He may not be gold, but he is, we feel, being true. The effect he has on the play can hardly be calculated. By what he says, by what he is, Falstaff calls into question, makes a mockery of, undermines (many verbs are applicable to this effect) the ideals, values, virtues, which men cherish and invoke (if not embrace) as giving meaning, dignity, purpose to their lives. He does, indeed, seem to have the effect, intended or not, of devaluing – perhaps disvaluing is better – all values: not just, as we have seen, kingship and honour; but honest, courage, responsibility (‘I have misused the King’s press damnably’), compassion (‘food for powder, food for powder, they’ll fit a pit as well as butter. Tush man, mortal men, mortal men,’), continence, and so on indefinitely. There is no being serious about any serious things around Falstaff – he can reduce them to absurdity with a word. A great unbuttoner, indeed! Falstaff’s effectual destruction of values and, let us call them, the official virtues, wherever he goes, has led some to detect more than a touch of the true Devil (Uncreator, Disvaluer Supreme) about him, and one can see why. Certainly, we can hardly take the King, Hotspur, and, I think, Prince Hal, at face value, or at their own self-estimations, with the proximity of Falstaff. We can never quite get away from the possibility that, simply, they prove the better counterfeits. Just before the Battle of Shrewsbury, the King says – ‘nothing can seem foul to those that win,’ while after the successful conclusion, in the last words of the play, he says:
And since this business so fair is done,
Let us not leave till all our own be won.
Simple. If you win, the ‘business’ is ‘fair.’ ‘Foul-ness’ is losing. It is impossible not to call this Machiavellian. If Falstaff makes ‘fair’ things ‘foul’ – or simply dissolves the difference between them – he is certainly not alone in so doing.
But because there is widespread ‘counterfeiting’ it does not mean there is nothing ‘true,’ nor does the shameless displaying of cowardice discount the reality of courage – even if you will find most honesty in a tavern hostess (Mistress Quickly) and true bravery in a poor country conscript, Feeble (Part Two). It may be, as Falstaff laments, ‘a bad world’ but it is not the case, as he all too self-applicably asserts, that ‘there is nothing but roguery to be found in a villainous man.’ There are no (or few) absolute conditions. Things come mixed, and in the matter of values and virtues too, it is nearly always a matter of more and less. A usurper king still has to reign, and he may be better at it than his legitimate predecessor. Shakespeare was not a nihilist, though all his all-encompassing realism necessarily made him skeptical – and nowhere more far-reachingly so than in the Henry IV plays which comprise his finest achievement in the history genre (and in which the poetry is everywhere marked by a particular metaphorical force and pungency, abstractions constantly becoming physical – ‘Supposition all our lives shall be stuck full of eyes,’ says one of the rebels — ;I choose almost at random. There is, in the Henry IV plays, poetry of the sort of compact power and metaphorical velocity we associate with Macbeth.) What Shakespeare does, in these plays preeminently, is expose the realities of the amoral concern for power behind the pious orthodoxies and beneath the self-protective carapaces of men in high – and not so high – places. These words by A.P. Rossiter get it right, I think:
Because the Tudor myth system of Order, Degree, etc., was too rigid, too black-and-white, too doctrinaire and narrowly moral for Shakespeare’s mind; it falsified his fuller experience of man. Consequently, while employing it as FRAME, he had to undermine it, to quality it with equivocations: to view its applications with sly or subtle ambiguities: to cast doubts on its ultimate human validity, even in situations where its principles seemed most completely applicable. His intuition told him it was MORALLY inadequate.
There is a lot of unfinished business left by the end of the play, and it seems clear that Shakespeare already had the second part in mind.”
And from Garber:
“The final dramatic resolution of the conflict within Hal, and the emblematic unification of the two poles between which he had been moving, occurs in the splendid double epitaph in the play’s final scene at Shrewsbury. Hotspur is dying, slain by Hal – a Harry killed by a Harry – and Hotspur’s language here, as so frequently, is lofty, mythic, reaching beyond the common world. Hal speaks in replay a language of pragmatic realism that represents a necessary acknowledgment of mortality (Falstaff’s ‘mortal men, mortal men’):
O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth.
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts more than thy sword my flesh.
But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time’s fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust,
And food for –
For worms, brave Percy.
[MY NOTE: How beautiful is Hotspur’s first line, “O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth?”
The stage picture here may mirror the dichotomy, for no sooner does Hal bid farewell to Percy than he spies Falstaff stretched out on the ground, apparently dead as well, and we hear the Prince speak in a different voice:
What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell.
I could have better spared a better man.
This is the language of charity, the language of inclusion and acceptance, an acknowledgment of the nature of (a) literally fallen man.
Next to Hal’s solemn gesture, Falstaff’s counterfeit resurrection is already somewhat out of key. Part 2 will make the linguistic pun explicit, but even here Sir John is a ‘false staff’ (see act 1, scene 2). Although the stage direction tells us that ‘Falstaff rises up,’ it is hard to regard his reascension without ambivalence, since – even if we have come to love him – his actions here are troubling. Stabbing the dead body of Hotspur, Falstaff will falsely claim to have conquered him. An audience sufficiently attentive to the nuances of the plot will, albeit perhaps reluctantly, begin at this point to separate itself from the resilient fat knight, as does the Prince. Although Falstaff’s power as a dramatic character was, and continues to be, enough to assure him a starring role in productions from the eighteenth century to the present, one that often upstages the more centrist Prince, who is trammeled by considerations of state, office, and history, both audiences and critics are invited by the structure of this play to judge him. The real figure who ‘rises up’ at the end of this play is Prince Hal.
Hal’s pardon of Falstaff is one of a series of acts of charity, both heartfelt and strategic, that mark the closing action of the play. Hal lies, willingly, to do Falstaff grace. He pardons the Scottish captain, the Earl of Douglas, behaving in a way more generously than his father, who had prisoners put to death in accordance with the rules of war. The pardon of Douglas is a political act – this Prince of Wales understands that Scotland and Wales are necessary parts of any new nation – but is also an ethical response. Behind the act of pardon a Christian audience would once more have heard the voice of the Christian Bible, and recognized the pattern of typology from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ (Matthew 6:12, King James Bible.) Economic language here merges with the language of redemption.
More than anything else, this play finally challenges the audience to deal with its complicated response to Prince Hal. Is the Hal of Henry IV Part 1 ‘good’ or bad,’ agreeable or disagreeable, fun-loving or calculating? Although it is difficult to find some common ground between Machiavelli and Matthew, Hal occupies precisely this difficult middle ground. An audience infatuated with Eastcheap may be suspicious of this calculation, and feel discomfited, itself too well ‘known,’ in his ‘I know you all’ speech. In the second scene of the play he has, through the powerful stage conventions of aside and soliloquy, already made us his confidants and co-conspirators. It seems fair to suspect that we will retain an affection for Falstaff and the others longer, and better, than Hal will once he becomes King. But this is one of the things the play would have us learn about kingship: that it demands a shutting-away of feeling as well as an expression of it. Like Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet, and many others of this type – but more than any of them – a Prince Hal destined to be King must be by his very nature both less and more than a generous-minded audience may wish him to be. The condition of Renaissance – or early modern – kingship is a condition of limitation and loss, as well as of power and possibility. When Hal, finding Falstaff alive after taking him for dead, speaks to him in a suggestive phrase for this play: ‘Thou art not what thou seem’st,’ Falstaff replies, ‘No, that’s certain: I am not a double man.’ Not a double man. Falstaff means ‘not a ghost or a specter’ and ‘not two men,’ an allusion to his girth as well as to his apparent rebirth. But Hal, Prince Hal, is by role and by nature himself a ‘double man,’ a living perspective painting, which takes one form when viewed directly and another when viewed awry. The design of Shakespeare’s play – and it is a very brilliant and intricate design, but also a very clear and balanced one – makes this point extremely clear. To acknowledge a conscious as well as an unconscious doubleness, putting the personal man and the public man in equipoise and sometimes in conflict, is perhaps the most essential lesson in the education of a prince. It is a lesson that Hal learns here, as well as in the succeeding history plays that tell his story. It is also a vital lesson for another Shakespearean prince, equally gifted in soliloquizing and in the arts of the play-within-the-play; Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”
So where do you stand so far? On Falstaff? On Prince Hal? Did Falstaff’s stabbing the already dead Hotspur turn you off to him? Did Tanner’s description of Falstaff somehow bring to mind Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies? Whose side are you on?
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning: More on Act Five