“Presume not that I am the thing I was.”

Henry IV Part Two

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Five:  As reports spread that Hal has inherited the throne, the courtiers question his ability.  Falstaff certainly believes that his friend has no intention whatsoever of reforming, and rushes to London to be by his side, while also hoping to release Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet from prison.  But a shock awaits him:  the “new” King Henry renounces his previous life, pointedly refusing to recognize Falstaff or his companions.  Henry V promises to be every inch a king, and, according to rumor, plans a campaign against the French.


We should have seen it coming – there were debunkings galore as well as Hal’s own words on the subject.  We knew it was only a matter of time before Falstaff would be rejected by the Prince – a conclusion even rehearsed at Shrewsbury.  Yet, the scene still has the power to shock, even as Falstaff and his followers had no such expectations as the news reached them that Henry IV was dead.  Grabbing the first horse he could find (“The laws of England, he boasts, “are at my commandment,”) Falstaff is sure that “the young King is sick for me”   But when he reaches out from the crowd that throngs the new King Henry, his welcome is icy to say the least:


God save thee, my sweet boy!

King Henry V:

My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.

Lord Chief Justice (to Sir John):

Have you your wits?  Know you what ‘tis you speak?


My king, my love, I speak to thee, my heart!

King Henry V:

I know thee not, old man.  Fall to thy prayers,

How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man.

So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;

But being awake, I do despise my dream.

“Presume not that I am the thing I was,” Henry continues, “I have turned away my former self.”  His reformation is over, seemingly before it has begun, even if some critics (notably the great A.C. Bradley, whose essay I’ll be posting later in the week), have questioned whether one of Shakespeare’s finest comic creations can be dismissed and disposed of so easily.  Yet, when Falstaff attempts to joke away the situation, arguing to Shallow that “this that you hard was but a colour [pretext],” the effect, for me at least, is heartbreaking.  Shallow’s response, that it is ‘a colour I fear that you will die in,” is typically morbid, but in this case, unusually prescient.

Having wasted time with Falstaff (or was it really a waste?  How much did he learn from Falstaff?), and watched his father serve it, Hal now vows to redeem his misspent hours.  His education as prince, one of the major strands tying together the two Henry IV plays, has been achieved, but Shakespeare does not attempt to hide from us its personal costs, nor does he try to protect us by insisting that the perfect prince has to be a perfect man.  Indeed, questions concerning the sacrifices of kingship are at the forefront of 2 Henry IV, and in the next and final play in the cycle, Henry V, they will loom even larger.


Not surprisingly, critics have had much to say about Act Five of Henry V Part Two, and in particular the rejection of Falstaff.  First up:  Marjorie Garber:

“For King Henry IV, and for the old order, time is rapidly running out, and Henry now knows that he will never make his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  His motives for that pilgrimage have always been complex – his dying advice to Hal is to ‘busy giddy minds/with foreign quarrels,’ to turn the energies of chaos and war outward, toward other lands, avoiding the divisive scourge of civil warn, that unnamed sickness that has, throughout this play, threatened to consume the land.  There is no question but that Henry’s planned pilgrimage and Crusade were in part political, a strategy to dissipate what he calls ‘inward ward.’  But increasingly, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem has become a moral or ethical journey as well, an intended voyage of expiation, to free the King of the sin of Richard’s murder.  The last Englishman named in these plays who died a heroic death in the Holy Land was Thomas Mowbray, Henry’s first opponent at the beginning of Richard II.  His last opponent, here in Henry IV Part, is Falstaff, the living embodiment of anarchy, misrule, and dissent within England – Falstaff, who had once been Mowbray’s page.  King Henry seems to view the voyage to Jerusalem as a kind of spiritual cure, but he dies, ironically, not in the Holy Land but in a chamber called ‘Jerusalem.’  The prophecy that told him he would ‘die in Jerusalem’ is fulfilled, but, as always, with a bitter twist.  Prophecies in these plays, once made will always come true – but the meaning of the truth is a kind of riddle, as it was with Richard III (who was told he would die once he ‘saw Richmond’) and as it will be, famously, with Macbeth.  Henry’s death in the Jerusalem Chamber has some affinities with the death of Moses, who led the Israelites to the mountaintop and glimpsed the Promised Land but could not enter it.  It is Hal, and not his father, who will complete the journey, and will attempt to restore the Edenic land of milk and honey.

With the death of the King, the way is clear for Prince Hal to acquire a new father in the final scenes of the play, a father whose symbolic nature, representing the law, will displace both Henry IV and his antitype in Falstaff.  This new ‘father,’ so named by Hal himself, is the Chief Justice.  The Chief Justice, we may recall, had entertained the direst views of the future of England with Hal as its king:  ‘I fear all will be overturned,’ he said.  This view, it appears, is shared at least in part by Prince Hal’s brothers, for when he enters in act 5, scene 2, as the new King, Henry V, their faces show something of their fear.  To them the King speaks in words that establish England as the land of civility as well as civilization:

This new and gorgeous garment, majesty,

Sits not so easy on me as you think.

Brothers, you mix your sadness with some fear.

This is the English not the Turkish court;

Not Amurath an Amurath succeeds,

But Harry Harry.

The allusion is to Amurath of Turkey, a sultan who strangled his brothers when he came to the throne so they would not rival or threaten him.  The line, in its rich incantation, serves, I think, as a final rejection of the exoticism and savageness of Marlowe, whose plays resound with the names of pagans and Turks.  Henry V’s language in this scene becomes the language of kingship, the language of majesty and transformation, never more powerful than in this amazing speech:

My father is gone wild into his grave,

For in his tomb lie my affections;

And with his spirits sadly I survive

To mock the expectation of the world,

To frustrate prophecies, and to raze out

Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down

After my seeming.  The tide of blood in me

Hath proudly flowed in vanity till now.

Now doth it turn, and ebb back to the sea,

Where it shall mingle with the state of floods,

And flow henceforth in formal majesty.

This speech is, structurally and emblematically, the pendant or reply to his ‘I know you all’ soliloquy in Part I.  It is not, of course, itself a soliloquy, but rather a formal address to the nation.  Hal, now Harry, is no longer a prince in training, or a man in disguise.  He will now ‘raze out/Rotten opinion,’ which is another way of saying that he will defeat ‘Rumour painted full of tongues.’  And the ‘tide of blood’ in him, which will now flow in formal majesty, defeats and reverses all the images of overflowing rivers we have encountered in this play and in its predecessor, including the river that overflowed at the King’s death, and the river Hotspur wished to move out of its course.  What is perhaps most striking about the new King’s address is that he picks up, for the first time, the royal ‘we,’ legitimately speaking for England, before returning to the more comfortable and familiar ‘I,’ ‘my,’ and ‘Harry:’

Now call we our high court of Parliament


Our coronation done, we will accite,

As I before remembered, all our state;

And, God consigning to my good intents,

No price nor peer shall have just cause to say,

‘God shorten Harry’s happy life one day.’

‘Nor prince nor peer.’ This phrase deliberately includes the Lord Chief Justice, for the new King in this scene chooses, as his inescapable destiny, the law as his father.  There is a mastery to the way in which he deals with the Chief Justice while still playing out his old role of the prodigal son who has ‘wasted his substance in riotous living’ (as Saint Luke has it), and who returns to his father – here a new father – as if from the dead.  Curiously but appropriately, the Chief Justice presents his case to the new King in the form of a projected play, a play very like the Hal-Falstaff mumming play of Henry IV Part I:

Question your royal thoughts, make the case yours,

Be now the father, and propose a son;

Hear your own dignity so much profaned,

See your most dreadful laws so loosely slighted,

Behold yourself so by a son disdained;

And then imagine me taking your part,

And in your power soft silencing your son.

The King’s reply is swift and conclusive:  ‘You shall be as a father to my youth.’  In this play, which reduces so many characters to symbols and names, the King now embraces a ‘father’ who is the living symbol of justice, law, and rule.

The audience cannot be entirely surprise – although the irrepressible Falstaff is – that in the next scene this King will reject Misrule.  Just as in Part I Hal was measured by his similarity to, and distance from, the apparently antithetical figures of Hotspur and Falstaff, so in Part 2 Falstaff is juxtaposed on the one hand to the Lord Chief Justice of England and on the other to the elderly, lecherous, and foolish Justice Shallow. Shakespeare points up this comparison by focusing attention on the sum of a thousand pounds, for at the beginning of the play Falstaff tries to borrow that amount from the Chief Justice, and at the end we learn that he has in fact succeeded in getting the loan from Justice Shallow.  Falstaff does not grow and change as his world changes, and as Prince Hal changes, and so the play, regretfully, leaves him behind.  The last scene shows him virtually indistinguishable from Shallow, whom he both resembles and despises; they are two self-deluded old men unfit to live in Hal’s new world.  The Chief Justice has all along been Falstaff’s enemy, hunting him from tavern to tavern.  Falstaff’s receipt of the news of his Hal’s succession is therefore a cry of triumph:  ‘[T]he laws of England are at my commandment.  Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe to my Lord Chief Justice.’  Although he has noticed that his old friend Shallow now closely resembles his own servants, and that the servants are foolish justices like Shallow, Falstaff fails to see that he himself has undergone a similar downward metamorphosis, so that of the two schoolfellows who once heard the chimes at midnight together there is now little to choose between them.  So, with Shallow in tow as a morsel of amusement, Falstaff goes off to London to meet the new King.  But Falstaff, the Lord of Misrule, makes a fatal error, for the king he greets is the wrong one.  ‘God save thy grace, King Hal, my royal Hal!…God save thee, my sweet boy!’  What a mistake to make.  Hal, and the ‘boy,’ are gone.  this is King Henry V.  Rule, Christian rule, now sits on the throne.

The moment that follows, although it is inevitable, is nonetheless one of the most devastating in any of Shakespeare’s plays, as the young King, with ice in his voice, instructs, ‘My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.’  When Falstaff persists, the King says:

I know thee not, old man.  Fall to thy prayers,

How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man.

So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;

But being awake, I do despise my dream.


Presume not that I am the thing I was.

“Presume not that I am the thing I was’ is the final echo of ‘I know you all,’ and indeed of the clipped and chilling ‘I do; I will’ with which a younger Hal responded to Falstaff’s ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’  Falstaff, who has throughout these two plays boasted of his youth (‘They hate us youth,’ he half joked in Part I), is now unmasked as an ‘old man,’ and as a ‘fool and jester.’  Falstaff, together with his fellows, is indeed banished.  The punishment that was given to Bolingbroke and Mowbray at the beginning of Richard II now comes home.  Falstaff himself becomes, in effect, one of the figures excluded from a comic world whose exclusion helps to define and delimit that world.  The audience cannot help but feel that this is harsh.  Characteristically, it is the cold-blooded Prince John, the betrayer of Gaultres forest, who most applauds the banishment of Falstaff, and this is, incidentally, a brilliant move on the part of the playwright, who allows us a soupcon of righteous indignation on Falstaff’s behalf, while at the same time preparing us to accept the necessity of the new King Henry’s action.  Misrule must be banished in order for Rule to thrive, for order to live and not to die.

The banishment of Falstaff, at the end of this kind of holiday, is part of the essential hardship of being a king.  The king’s role, as will become even clearer in Henry V, is a quintessentially lonely one, and the lack of forgiveness shown to Falstaff is part of the cost of being King.”


I’ll have more from Goddard in my next post, but before ending, I’d like to include his take on John of Lancaster’s endorsement of the banishment of Falstaff:

“When Falstaff has been rebuffed, and he and his followers have been carried off to the Fleet, the play is a dozen lines from its end.  Those lines (except for six significantly terse and reticent words from the Chief Justice) are all spoken by John of Lancaster.  Why does Shakespeare, who is so fond of remarking that ‘the end crowns the whole,’ give the crowning speeches of this play to a person whose sole distinction lies in the fact that he is the most dastardly character in it?  Why does he permit him, and him alone, to pass judgment on his brother’s act in rejecting Falstaff?

I like this fair proceeding of the king’s.

If you know the devil’s opinion, you can infer the angles’.  The safest way to vote is to find out how the most ‘intelligently’ selfish man in the community is voting and then vote the other way.  It was in recognition of this principle, I believe, that Shakespeare reserved the most emphatic place in his play for the judgment on the King’s rejection by the man whom Falstaff, in just six words, causes us to cast forth into everlasting darkness;  ‘a man cannot make him laugh.’  Dostoevsky declares that a man’s character can be read by the way he laughs.  By that token, John of Lancaster has no character.  He ‘doth not love me,’ said laughing John of sober John.  And so when sober John welcomes the humiliation and degradation of laughing John by saying,

I like this fair proceeding of the king’s,

it sounds like a statement straight from Shakespeare that the proceeding was not fair and that he did not like it.”


Two questions:

1.  Whose take do you agree with the most:  Garber or Goddard?

2.  Our next play is schedule to be The Merry Wives of Windsor.  On the other hand, the action of Henry V proceeds pretty much directly from the end of Henry IV Part 2.  So…would it be easier to continue straight into Henry V?  Or, do you need/want a break from history and prefer to read a straight comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor first?




My next post:  Thursday night/Friday morning:  more on Act Five.


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4 Responses to “Presume not that I am the thing I was.”

  1. Mahood says:

    I’d be happy to go with ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ first.

    It’s not that I want a break from the history plays, but it’s interesting to track how Shakespeare’s plays may have been written ‘chronologically’ … and it’s nice to have time to reflect on the mammoth that was ‘Henry IV’!

    But that’s just me…

  2. Catherine says:

    I vote for saving Merry Wives until after and continuing the history.

  3. GGG says:

    I vote for Merry Wives next.

    Once the crown goes on, Hal is a different person. Or is he? I wasn’t too surprised by Hal’s treatment of Falstaff. I didn’t think he ever really “liked” him, witness the language and pranks used whenever Hal dealt with Falstaff. Does this mean Hal is the bad guy? Not so sure about that either, rather that Shakespeare is showing that although Hal lies down with the dogs, he is not getting as flea-bitten. After all, he’s got to be a hero in Henry V.

    Also, I thought the banishment was in a way merciful, compared to the justice that the Lord Chief Justice and Lord John could have meted out. Although it is in effect banishment for life, because without Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, support groups, ankle bracelets or parole officers, how could our Falstaff reform? (Might have made a funny play though, Falstaff on the road to redemption–or not….)

    I disagreed with Goddard that Lord John’s comments were Shakespeare’s way of saying the banishment of Falstaff was unfair. To me, having Lord John make the comments about a “fair proceeding” would remind the audience that Lord John’s “fair proceeding” would have probably been execution, as with the rebels.

    To me, Shakespeare gave Falstaff a harsh, but funny farewell, and better than he might have expected. Don’t forget, he’s being banished with Justice Shallow’s thousand pounds (that he has not yet spent!) in his pocket.

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