“Falstaff understands everything and so is never serious.” — Mark Van Doren

Henry IV, Part One

Act Five, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


As we finish up our reading of Henry IV, Part One, a few odds and ends, a couple of other ways to view the play:

First picking up Goddard’s final thoughts on Part One:

“’Give me life,’ cries Falstaff on the field of Shrewsbury.  ‘Die all, the merrily,’ cries Hotspur.  That is the gist of it.  The Prince killed Hotspur in the battle, and Falstaff, with one of his most inspired lies, claimed the deed as his own.  But Falstaff’s lies, scrutinized, often turn out to be truth in disguise.  So here, Falstaff, not Prince Henry, did kill Hotspur.  He ended the outworn conception of honor for which Hotspur stood.  The Prince killed his body, but Falstaff killed his soul – or rather what passed for his soul.

The dying Hotspur himself sees the truth.  The verdict of his final breath is that life is ‘time’s fool’ and he himself dust.  And the Prince, gazing down at his dead victim, sees it too, if only for a moment.

Ill-weav’d ambition, how much art thou shrunk!

When that this body did contain a spirit,

A kingdom for it was too small a bound,

he exclaims, and, turning, he catches sight of another body from which life has apparently departed:

What, old acquaintance!  could not all this flesh

Keep in little life?  Poor Jack, farewell!

I could have better spar’d a better man.

But nobody was ever more mistaken on this subject of life and flesh than was Henry on this occasion, as the shamming Falstaff proves a moment later, when the Prince goes out, by rising from dead.  “’Sblood,’ he cries,

‘twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too.  Counterfeit?  I lie, I am not 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.  To better part is discretion.

‘I fear thou art another counterfeit,” Douglas had cried, coming on Henry IV on the field of Shrewsbury,

Another king!  they grow like Hydra’s heads.

I am the Douglas, fatal to all those

That wear those colours on them.  What art thou,

That counterfeit’st the person of a king!

The literal reference of course is to the knights, disguised to represent the King, that Henry had sent into the battle to divert the enemy from his own person.  ‘The better part of valour is discretion.’  This, and that repeated word ‘counterfeit,’ is Shakespeare’s sign that he intends the contrast, the deeper unconscious meaning of Douglas’

           What art thou,

That counterfeit’st the person of a king?

(a king, notice, not the king) is just one more of the poet’s judgments upon Henry.  [MY NOTE:  Nice catch on Goddard’s part – I had never noticed that one.]  For all his ‘discretion,’ the Douglas would have killed this counterfeit king who tries to save his skin by the death of others if the Prince had not come to his rescue at the nick of time.

But that was earlier in the battle.  At the point we had reached the Prince comes back with his brother John and discovers the ‘dead’ Falstaff staggering along with the dead Hotspur on his back – a symbolic picture if there ever was one.

Did you not tell me this fat man was dead?

cries Lancaster.

I did; I saw him dead,

Breathless and bleeding on the ground,

replies Henry.  He has underrated the vitality of the Imagination, and even now thinks he sees a ghost:

Art thou alive?

Or is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?

I prithee, speak; we will not trust our eyes

Without ears.  Thou art not what thou seem’st.

‘No, that’s certain,’ retorts Falstaff, ‘I am not a double man.’  And to prove it, he throws down the body of Hotspur he is carrying.  But beyond this obvious meaning, who can doubt that Falstaff, in the phrase ‘double man,’ is also having a thrust at the dual role of the man he is addressing, or that Shakespeare, in letting Falstaff deny his own doubleness, is thereby calling our attention to it?  At the very least the expression proves that the world did not have to wait for Dostoevsky before it heard of the double man.

Truth has made it necessary to say some harsh things about Prince Henry; so it is a pleasure to recognize the character of his conduct on the field of Shrewsbury:  his valor in his encounter with Hotspur, his courage and loyalty in rescuing his father from Douglas, and his generosity in letting Falstaff take credit for Hotspur’s death.  Dover Wilson makes much of this last point – too much, I think, for the good of his own case – declaring that it proves the Prince thought nothing of renown, of ‘the outward show of honour in the eyes of men, so long as he has proved himself worthy of its inner substance in his own.’  But if was as self-effacing as all that, why did he cry at the moment he met Hotspur? –

all the budding honours on thy crest

I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.

Those words flatly contradict the ‘grace’ he does Falstaff in surrendering to him so easily the greatest honor of his life.  The paradox arises, I think, from the presence of those conflicting personalities, Hal and the Prince.  Touched momentarily at the sight of what he believes to be his old companion dead at his feet, the fast-disappearing Hal returns and survives long enough after the surprise and joy of finding him still alive to accept Falstaff’s lie for truth.  But we wonder how much longer.  Wilson’s assumption that the Prince would or could have kept up the fiction permanently is refuted by the fact that Morton had observed the death of Hotspur at Henry’s hands and reports the event correctly:

     these mine eyes saw him in bloody state,

Rendering faint quittance, wearied and outbreath’d,

To Harry Monmouth; whose swift wrath beat down

From whence with life he never more sprung up.

Everything, from the famous first soliloquy on, proves that the Prince not only craved renown but craved it in its most theatrical form.


And this interesting excerpt from Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary.  (We’ll be seeing a lot more from Kott when we get to the tragedies)

“Of all the important works written by Shakespeare before 1600, i.e., in what nineteenth-century scholars called his optimistic period, only Henry IV can be called a cheerful play.  In both the Richard plays, and in the other Henrys, history is the only dramatis persona of the tragedy.  The protagonist of Henry IV is Falstaff.

The great feudal barons are still butchering one another.  King Henry IV, who had recently deposed Richard II, and let him be murdered together with his followers, did not atone for his crimes by a journey to the Holy Land.  The allies who have put him on the throne are rebelling.  For them he is a new tyrant.  Wales and Scotland rise.  History will begin from the beginning.  But in Henry IV history is only one of many actors in the drama.  It is being played out only in the royal palace and its courtyards of feudal castles; not only in battlefields, in dungeons of the Tower, and in the London street where frightened townsmen are hurrying by.  Nearby the royal palace there is a tavern called ‘The Boar’s Head.’  In it Falstaff is king.  Somehow, between the chapters of an austere chronicle there has been interpolated a rich Renaissance comedy about a fat knight, unable for many years to see his own knees under his huge belly.

I prefer Richard II and Richard III to Henry IV.  [MY NOTE:  Not me.  I prefer Richard II and Henry IV to Richard III.]  They seem to me a far deeper and more austere kind of tragedy.  Shakespeare exposes in them the mechanism of power directly, without resorting to subterfuge or fiction.  He dethrones regal majesty, strips it of all illusion.  He finds that the succession of reigns, the mere mechanism of history, is sufficient to achieve this.  In Henry IV the position is different.  The successor to the throne is a future national hero, the victor of Agincourt.  Henry IV is already a patriotic epic.  [MY NOTE:  Is it?]

Shakespeare never renounces his great confrontations.  It is only that he poses them differently.  Against the feudal barons butchering one another he sets the gargantuan figure of Falstaff.  Sir John Falstaff not only personifies the Renaissance lust for life and thunderous laughter at heaven and hell, at the crown and all other laws of the realm.  That fat knight possesses a plebian wisdom and experience.  He will not let history take him in.  He scoffs at it.

There are two excellent scenes in Henry IV.  The first one shows Falstaff as a newly created captain walking with his men to the place where the army has assembled.  He has recruited only cripples and the poorest wretches in rags and tatters, because all those who had a little money could evade enlistment.  The young prince looks aghast at his sorry army.  But Falstaff, undisturbed, replies:

Tut, tut!  good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder.  They’ll fill a pit as well as better.  Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

This entire scene might have been put, as it stands, into a play by Brecht.  [MY NOTE:  Excellent point!]  And only on reading it does on realize how much Brecht has taken from Shakespeare.

The other scene shows Falstaff on the battlefield.  He soliloquizes while looking for the best place to hide himself:

What is honour?  A word.  What is that word honour?  Air.  A trim reckoning!  Who hath it?  He that died a 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 scrutcheon – and so ends my catechism.

In Henry IV two notions of England are continuously set in contrast to each other.  The feudal barons slaughter one another.  The young crown prince robs merchants on the highways and has a gay time in taverns with a band of rascals.  Henry IV is one of the few apologetic dramas written by Shakespeare.  The young prince grows up to become a wise and brave king.  [MY NOTE:  I think Shakespeare is more equivocal on this subject than Kott does.]   There is, however, a sting in the moral.  It appears that the company of Falstaff and cutpurses is a far better school for royalty than the feudal slaughter.  After all, the two occupations are not so very different.  It is enough to recall King John:

Cousin, away for England!  Haste before;

And ere our coming see thou shake the bags

Of hoarding abbots; set at liberty

Imprison’d angels.  The fat ribs of peace

Must by the hungry now be fed upon.


And finally, from Mark Van Doren:

“Falstaff understands everything and so is never serious.  If he is even more amusing to himself than he is to others, that is because the truth about himself is something very obvious which he has never taken the trouble to define.  His intelligence can define anything, but his wisdom tells him that the effort is not worth while.  We do not know him our words.  We know him in his – which are never to the point, for they glance off his center and lead us away along tangents of laughter.  His enormous bulk spreads through “Henry IV” until it threatens to leave no room for other men and other deeds.  But his mind is still larger.  It is at home everywhere, and it is never darkened with self-thought.  Falstaff thinks only of others, and of the pleasure he can take in imitating them.  He is a universal mimic; his genius is of that sort which understands through parody, and which cannot be understood except at one or more removes.  He is so much himself because he is never himself; he has so much power because he has more than maximum which for ordinary man is the condition of their identity’s becoming stated.  His is not stated because there is no need of proving that he has force; we feel this force constantly, in parody after parody of men he pretends to be.  The parodist, the artist, is more real than most men whom we know.  But we cannot fix him in a phrase, or claim more for ourselves than that we have been undeniably in his living presence.


So, fellow Bardolators…now that we’re at the end of Henry IV, Part One…what do you think?  Were you pleasantly surprised?  Disappointed?  What are you think about Falstaff?  Hal?  Henry IV?  Hotspur?  How does the play rank among the plays we’ve read?  Share with the group!


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning:  Sonnet 107.  On Thursday evening/Friday morning, I’ll post my introduction to our next play, Henry IV, Part Two


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3 Responses to “Falstaff understands everything and so is never serious.” — Mark Van Doren

  1. I can’t decide what I think about Falstaff, which no doubt is part of what he is about. That I can’t decide makes me admire Shakespeare’s skill even more. I’ve certainly come to dislike Harry, the future king.

    And as always, I recognise these characters in the power-holders of the modern world. I wonder what/who would be a Falstaffian figure today? Hardly Jon Stewart, though he has the wit and the laugh – but not the girth. A modern Falstaff would have to figure on social media I guess, and would likely despise social media too much to take part in it.

    The only more-or-less contemporary writer I have read (died 2008) who dissects our times with the wit and brilliance Shakespeare did his is David Foster Wallace, but he examines the lives of “us” rather than the powerful. See what Shakespeare does to my mind? I think the biggest thing I am taking from these readings, with lots of other insights and pleasures along the way, is that everything changes and everything stays the same. In the Maori language there is a saying “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!” which translates as “It is the people, it is the people, it is the people!” Was, and always will be.

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