“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,”

Henry IV Part Two

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  The pressures of kingship (as well as the guilt of the usurpation) are obviously taking their toll on King Henry.  Unable to sleep, he reflects ruefully with Warwick and Surrey on his betrayal by the very nobles who helped him to power.  Falstaff, in the meantime, is visiting Warwickshire to recruit soldiers for the royal army and is, once again, on the make – taking bribes to turn down good men.


King Henry IV.  The play’s title character, even though we don’t actually see him until act three (!) is obviously a man living on borrowed time; his demise is the long-deferred and long-anticipated event on which both plays depend.  In Part I, Henry was careworn, weighted down by the double yoke of the crown and the means by which he secured it; in Part II, he is ailing physically, plagued by illness and insomnia.  When we see him, he is an even more pitiable figure than Northumberland.  Bitterly asking, ‘How many thousand of my poorest subjects/Are at this hour asleep,” he continues,

    O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,

That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?…

With thou upon the high and giddy mast

Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains

In cradle of the rude imperious surge,

And in the visitation of the winds,

Who take the ruffian billows by the top,

Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them

With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,

That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king?  Then happy low, lie down.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Henry longs for “forgetfulness,’ craves the amnesia that sleep provides – perhaps even as far as the sleep of death.  Here, Shakespeare makes the most of hints in Holinshed’s Chronicles that the King found himself unable to ‘compose or settle himself to sleep for fear of strangling’ after an assassination attempt in 1401, but he gives them an even broader motive and introduces a heavy note of irony.  It is Henry’s very…kingliness, an office that he had no right to expect (or attain), that corrodes his own well-being.

But the undertow of the King’s wee small hours of the morning soliloquy is that of regret, distilled in the person of the anonymous “ship-boy,” who, for all the perils of his daily existence, still leads a quieter more peaceful life than that of his monarch.  The harsh mechanics of time haunt Henry’s thoughts, as he explains to his supporters Warwick and Surrey:

O God, that one might read the book of fate,

And see the revolution of the times

Make mountains level, and the continent,

Weary of solid firmness, melt itself

Into the sea; and other times to see

The beachy girdle of the ocean

Too wide for Neptune’s hips; how chance’s mocks

And changes fill the cup of alteration

With diver liquors!  ‘Tis not ten years gone

Since Richard and Northumberland, great friends,

Did feat together; and in two year after

Were they at wars…

Time brings change, and change lays waste to man.  Though the span of years in Henry’s mind is only small, it dilates into a geographic frame, placed alongside the collapse of mountains and the melting of the earth.  As in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a portion of which were probably composed by the time he wrote 2 Henry IV, “this bloody tyrant,” “devouring time,: dwarfs mere humanity; man’s “stay” on this earth is but ‘inconstant’ (as seen in Sonnets 15, 16, and 19).  As Warwick rejoins, “such things become the hatch and brood of time;” time will, in time, bring all human actions – both bad and good – to light.

The kingdom at large is, as Henry worries, poisoned with “rank diseases” and has “danger near at the heart of it;” and are many of its inhabitants (at least as the play sees it, at least in part).  Into 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare introduces us to two new characters, Justices Shallow and Silence of Warwickshire, perhaps not coincidentally, the playwrights’ home county.  In many ways completely irrelevant to the plot, this pair of old men nevertheless represent much of what the play is about.  While Henry’s memory is a burden to him, Shallow and Justice are only too pleased to drop into reminiscence at the drop of the proverbial hat.  As they discuss Falstaff, “this Sir John…that comes hither anon about soldiers,” their thoughts turn at once to that other country, the distant past:


The same Sir John, the very same.  I see him breaking Scoggin’s head at the court gate when a was a crack, not thus high.  And the very same day I did fight with one Samson Stockfish, a fruiterer, behind Gray’s Inn.  Jesu, jesu, the mad days that I have spent!  And to see how many of my old acquaintances are dead.


We shall all follow, cousin.


Certain, ‘tis certain; very sure, very sure.  Death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.

Lumbering and meandering through their conversation is – further roadblocked by Shallow’s somewhat annoying habit of repeating everything – the subject of their thoughts is still clear.  Death haunts them and looms over them as much as it does the King, for they are closer to it than most.  The “mad days,” much like the youthful combats between Hal and Hotspur, as well as the misadventures of Hal and Falstaff, are well and truly over.

Even the subject of Shallow and Silence’s musings, Falstaff, is feeling the stirrings of mortality.  If his sheer bulk is a major topic of conversation in Part I, in Part 2 it is that same body’s steady breakdown.  As we discussed earlier, Falstaff enters the play enquiring what the doctor thinks of his “water” (aka urine), and learning (in his Page’s words) that “the water itself was a good healthy water, but, for the party that owned it, he might have more diseases than he knew for.”  The comedy is obvious, but it only covers up what is a truly serious theme.  Where in 1 Henry IV Falstaff is gleefully happy (and able) to twist the time of day to his own ends, and, by extension, his time of life, in Part II even he is striving, and failing, to stave away thoughts of his own demise.  “I am old, I am old,” he frets to Doll Tearsheet, “Thou’lt forget me when I am gone.”  When she wonders “when wilt thou leave fighting o’days, and foining o’nights, and begin go patch up thine old body for heaven,” Falstaff is terrified.  “Peace, good Doll,” he urges, “do not speak like a death’s-head, do not bid me remember mine end.”


From Tanner:

“When Henry IV finally appears – which is not until Act III – he is in his ‘nightgown;’ it is hardly a regal entry.  If he started ‘shaken’ and ‘wan,’ he is in visibly worse shape now.  In a remarkably powerful, heart-felt soliloquy, he laments his terrible insomnia:

O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,

That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down

And steep my sense in forgetfulness?

Not quite ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep,’ perhaps; but not far from it.  Certainly, when he concludes –

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

— we are convinced that this head is very uneasy indeed (as usual, he never quite says why, though it becomes unmistakably clear that the cause it eh ‘unkinging’ and murder of Richard).  He is ‘weary’ and ‘sick’ throughout, complaining that ‘health…is flown/From this bare, withered trunk.’  (Falstaff, the other ‘father-king,’ is addressed as ‘thou dead elm,’ this part of the ‘forest’ is failing.)  Shakespeare’s intention is fairly clear here.  Holinshed gave Henry a healthy and active ten years between Shrewsbury and his death.  Samuel Daniel, in his long poem on the Civil Wars between The Two Houses of Lancaster and York, depicts a sleepless king, beset by ‘intricate turmoils, and sorrows deep’ some time before his death.  Shakespeare makes him continuously sick from the time of Shrewsbury.  This, no doubt, because he wishes to show, or suggest, a sick nation.  The King see it in these terms:

   you perceive the body of our kingdom

How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,

And with what danger, near the heart of it.

and so do the rebels:

   we are all diseased,

And with our surfeiting and wanton hours

Have brought ourselves into a burning fever,

And we must bleed for it.  Of which disease

Our late king, Richard, being infected, died.

In a word, each party sees the other as the source of the ‘disease,’ but all agree there is a prevailing sickness.  [MY NOTE:  Nothing like today’s Democratic and Republican parties…]  (The King foresees more ‘rotten times’ to come, when his riotous son succeeds him, though here, of course, Shakespeare, and history, have a surprise in store.)  there is much talk of individual sickness – pox, gout, gluttony, apoplexy, and son on – and the need for doctoring, physic, medicines, diet, purging, and other remedies (there are a number of references to ‘vomit’) is often remarked on.  At the very start, Northumberland is ‘crafty-sick.’  Then Falstaff, notably, makes his entrance asking what the doctor says ‘to my water,’ to be told that the diagnosis is that ‘the party that owed it…might have mo diseases than he knew for.’  It is typical of the rather acridly cynical turn his speech has taken, that Falstaff should say:  ‘A good wit will make use of anything.  I will turn diseases into commodity.’  ‘that smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity…this bawd, this broker, this all-changing element,’ as the Bastard in King John put it, shows here with more ravaged features.  The prostitute Doll (there were no manifest prostitutes in Part One – the tavern has become more sordid) asks Falstaff when he is going to ‘begin to patch up thine old body for heaven?’  And it is that ‘old body’ which is now very much to the fore.

Reminders or age and aging are everywhere.  The Lord Chief Justice has ‘some smack of an age in you, some relish of the saltness of time in you.’  Falstaff is not alone in being ‘as a candle, the better part burnt out.’  The one-time merry-making acquaintance of Falstaff and Shallow, Jane Night work, is old – ‘Nay, she must be old.  She cannot choose but be old.  Certain she’s old.’  When Falstaff, preposterously, tries to pass himself as young, he gets this from the Lord Chief Justice:

Do you set down your name in the scroll of youth, that are written down old with all the characters of age?  Have you not a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing leg, an increasing belly?  Is not your voice broken, your wind short, your chin double, your wit single, and every part about you blasted with antiquity, and will you yet call yourself young?  Fie, fie, fie, Sir John!

Falstaff has a deflecting, parrying answer – he always does, and his resourcefulness is still intact; but he may have felt, as Hamlet put it, also talking about the condition of old men, ‘we hold it not honest to have it thus set down!’  But Falstaff knows his condition; knows he is an ‘old pike’ still snapping up ‘young dace.’  He confesses in a soliloquy, ‘Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!;  And, lying in the arms of Doll Tearsheet at the tavern, he says, with an uncharacteristic simplicity which has its own pathos – ‘I am old, I am old.’ He adds – ‘A grows late; we’ll to bed.  Thou’lt forget me when I am gone, ‘and we feel that it is growing late in every sense, that this world is grown old and is entering a terminal twilight, moving towards its final sleep and oblivion as a last dusk settles over it.  It is a curiously moving moment, in what has become a rather squalid setting.  It even sets the tempestuous and rather foul-mouthed Doll ‘a-weeping.’

When Doll mentions ‘heaven,’ Falstaff gives a shiver – ‘Do not speak like a death’s head.  Do not bid me remember mine end.’  But ‘ends’ – conclusions and concludings, outcomes and terminations – are constantly referred to.  ‘Let the end try the man,’ warns the Prince while still in his tavern days.  ‘Well, hearken o’th’end,’ says Doll, fatalistically.’  ‘Let time shape, and there an end,’ says Falstaff, with perspicuous resignation.’  The sense of time past, time passing, is strong in this play.  ‘We see which way the stream of time doth run,’ says the Archbishop (IV, I, 70, referring to ‘the rough torrent of occasion’ which has forced them into rebellion:  the rebels stand in time present, aiming to change time future.  But, the ‘rough torrent of occasion’ is wearing them all down, sweeping them all away; and, from the court to the tavern, ‘the stream of time’ often runs backwards.  The King remembers Richard with a guilty sadness; Hostess Quickly recalls the twenty-nine years she has known Falstaff with a forgiving fondness; Shallow casts his mind back fifty-five years to see what he likes to think of as his wild youth at the Inns of Court.  ‘We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,’ Falstaff nods concurringly.  A slightly melancholy, ‘long-ago’ feeling is pervasive.  The ‘endless-end’ is, of course, death, and it tolls throughout the play, from Morton brining the news of the ‘hateful death’ of Hotspur – ending with ‘Brother, son, and all are dead,’ to Shallow’s intimations of mortality, ‘shallow’ though they may be:  ‘and to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead!…Death, as the Pslamist saith, is certain to all, all shall die.’  From Northumberland’s castle, to the Court and taverns of London, to the houses of Gloucestershire – all shall die.  It becomes a question of whether this sick, weary, ageing, dying world can product regenerative for the future; whether, that is, there is any new world waiting to be born – or, perhaps, waiting to reign.

From the beginning, when Northumberland, with ‘strained passion,’ hysterically cries out:  ‘Now, let not Nature’s hand/Keep the wild flood confined!  Let order die!’ – with a contradictoriness typical of the play, he talks the lion and acts the coward, persuaded by his womenfolk to flee to Scotland); to the King on his death-bed, forseeing that, under his son, his kingdom ‘wilt be a wilderness again,’ crying despairingly:

Pluck down my officers, break my decrees,

For now a time is come to mock at form.

there is a growing sense of a world about to collapse in ruin and chaos, all form and order mocked or gone.  when the King dies, the Lord Chief Justice succinctly sums up the general dread – ‘I fear all will be overturned.’  In such a state of affairs, Falstaff would be in his element; indeed, as a kind of Lord of Misrule, he is committed to the overturning (as well as the unbuttoning) of order and form.  He thinks the death of the King marks the beginning of his reign – ‘be what thou wilt, I am fortune’s steward!…the laws of England are at my commandment.  Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe to my Lord Chief Justice.’  Given what we have seen of his ‘friends,’ not to mention his disdain for all laws, this would promise anarchy indeed.  But, there is another King and, as he and we are soon to discover, he has other ideas.

In his gross, deteriorating physicality, Falstaff almost literally ‘embodies’ all the diseases, corruptions, and degenerate appetites of the dying world, which must be somehow rejected, dismissed, purged, or just left behind.  Perhaps, as has been suggested, he does figure the old ‘god’ who must be slain or banished in a sacrificial rite in order to restore health to the blighted, blasted land.  He seems, curiously, at once more threatening and less powerful in this play.  He still manifests, for the most part, that ‘absolute self-possession and masterly presence of mind’ which Hazlitt admired.  He still has his adroit way of ‘wrenching the true cause the false way.’  But when the Chief Justice says to him, almost contemptuously – ‘You speak as having power to do wrong,’ we realize he has none in any significant sense (he can still abuse a tavern hostess or a country simpleton).  His world is beginning to disintegrate around him – we last see his women being arrested and taken away, charged with complicity in some unspecified murder, and despite his boast he cannot save them.  He is not the man he was, and in his ill-founded conviction of personal invulnerability and influence in high places, he is in increasing danger of emerging more clearly as the ‘great fool’ the Chief Justice thinks him.  Crucial here is his changed relationship with the Prince, which is central to the play.

We hear at the start that ‘the King hath severed you [Falstaff] and Prince Harry,’ but there is much to suggest that the Prince has already started to separate himself from Falstaff.  When we first see the Prince, he is back with Poins and other taverners asking for ‘small beer,’ and of course we think he has simply regressed to this old low-life ha bits.  (We have already heard of his – legendary – striking of the Lord Chief Justice, dramatized in the Famous Victorians, but perhaps discreetly, left off-stage by Shakespeare.)  But the tone is different.  His opening words – ‘I am exceedingly weary’ – suggest he partakes of the general tiredness; then when he goes on to say that he is ‘out of love with my greatness,’ we may begin to wonder how far his feelings of disaffection and alienation extend.  Certainly, Poins tells him that everyone thinks he is still ‘so lewd and so much engraffed to Falstaff,’ and even near the end the King is convinced (and informed) that his son is still accompanied by his ‘continual followers,’ indulging his ‘headstrong riot.’  But, even in that first scene with Poins, it is clear that the Prince no longer knows whether Falstaff frequents his old drinking haunts, and he has never heard of Doll Tearsheet.  In the event, he shares only one scene with Falstaff (prior to the climax) and that scene merits some particular comment.

After receiving a rather pompous and patronizing letter from Falstaff, which however touches a nerve when it airly says, ‘Repent at idle times as thou mayst’ – since he will have to ‘repent’ a second time – the Prince resolves to go to the tavern with Poins, disguised as drawers, to ‘see Falstaff bestow himself tonight in his true colors.’  The resulting scene is clearly intended as a dark echo of the comparable long tavern scene in part One, and is situated at exactly the same point in the play – the end of Act II.  Almost Falstaff’s first words are ‘Empty the Jordan!’ (i.e. chamber pot) which, like his opening reference to his urine, link him more firmly than ever with the lower bodily functions.  He immediately engages in rather abrasive banter about venereal disease with Doll Tearsheet.  The Hostess has already addressed Falstaff as ‘honeysuckle villain…honeyseed rogue,’ but she means, of course, ‘homicidal,’ and in truth much of the ‘sweetness’ – the more delectable part – has drained away from this courser, ‘sourer,’ Falstaff.  ‘These are very bitter words,’ says the Hostess, accurately enough, about the general level of conversation in the tavern which is, by turns, salacious, insulting and violent.  Falstaff engages in some extravagant abuse of the Prince, unaware, of course, that he is listening.  When the Prince reveals himself and accuses Falstaff – ‘You whoreson candle-mine you, how vilely did you speak of me?’ – Falstaff can only rather lamely insist, ‘No abuse Hal.  None, Ned, none.’  It is a marked falling off from the inspired way he self-exculpatingly extricated himself from his blatant lies about the Gad’s Hill fiasco.  The Prince has no pleasant, or fond, or even friendly words for Falstaff.  The scene is interrupted, as was its counterpart in Part One, by a knocking on the door and a summons from Westminster, and ‘Falstaff, good night’ are the only polite words the Prince says to his old companion of the revels as he takes up his sword and cloak and leaves.  Falstaff follows soon after – they are all off to the wars – and we should note that the sorely-tried Hostess says to him ‘an honester and truer-hearted man – fare thee well,’ while Doll ‘comes blubbered (i.e. marked with weeping).  The tears of a sentimental whore, perhaps; but perhaps also, the man has still ‘honey’ enough in him to love.”



Not to worry lovers of Falstaff — I’ll be coming to his defense in my next post.


Our next reading:  Henry IV Part Two, Act Four

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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7 Responses to “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,”

  1. GGG says:

    Has anyone else enjoyed the irony of the modern-day travails of Prince Harry, while reading the Prince Hal plays? Wonder if he has his own “Falstaff.”

    The disease imagery is interesting–this was the same time (when Shakespeare was writing, not the historical time of the play) that syphilis was ravaging and killing so many people, and fairly quickly. (first written record of syphilis in Europe–1494/1495)

  2. Eddie says:

    Anyone want to elaborate on the meaning of the “chimes of midnight” line?

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