Shakespeare: Sample Writing
Every Time a Fat Knight Dies, a King Turns Into a Pig:
Implications of Falstaff’s Death in Henry V
It is reasonable to assume that, in Henry V, Sir John Falstaff could not have functioned properly in the role that he inhabited in Henry IV. Falstaff is subversive, lecherous, too clever for his own good, and, most importantly, fun. Henry V has no place for such a character. The former Prince Hal must rally his troops and march steadily on to France, crushing the Dauphin and his sleazy tennis balls. Never mind if Bardolph is executed for stealing a minor bit of Church-ware; he was a thief anyway. Why should the King care that Pistol loses everything and turns to a life of crime? The death of Sir John, among his other former low-brow friends, serves Henry just as well; their liveries and jests could only get in the way of the imperial real-estate grab to be. Falstaff, though never present in this play, has a major impact on the portrayal of Henry’s character. The King, not far from his days at play, is not only highlighted as a hypocrite, but also as a traitor.
At the end of Act V of Henry IV, Part 2, Shakespeare promises that he will bring back Sir John, and that the audience need not fear a bitter end to him. Though Falstaff is mentioned throughout Henry V sporadically, he never actually appears. His death, however, makes a major impact nonetheless. “The theatrical gamble of creating a character by not creating him, of giving him life by destroying him yields the most memorable scene of the play” (Cubeta 197). Cubeta argues that for all intents and purposes Falstaff had at least thematically perished at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 (209). In dying, Falstaff lives up to his subversive reputation and seriously inconveniences the audience concerning the integrity of the King.
The account of Falstaff’s death itself is as confusing as it is inexplicable. The cause of death is summed up by Pistol’s wife: “The King has kill’d his heart” (II.i.88). Nym puts his spin on Sir John’s malady by suggesting, “The King hath run bad humors on the knight, that’s the even of it” (II.i.121). Pistol chimes in, agreeing that “His heart is fracted and corroborate” (II.i.124). Nothing seems to be wrong with Falstaff beyond Henry’s betrayal. The description of his deathbed behavior is a strange blend of comedy and tenderness; Shakespeare had no intention of letting us easily forgive Henry for killing the beloved old man, who had already become a popular character. Disturbingly, Falstaff is described as being “as cold as any stone” (II.iv.24), foreshadowing not only the lack of humor in this play, but the savage war crimes that Henry is about to commit in good conscience.
Tolman points out the problem the audience faces in light of Falstaff’s death, noting that it is impossible to represent a character that is both an honorable king, but also a betrayer of friends (8). Audience sympathy for Henry, therefore, must not be made from the perspective of having love for Falstaff, but of having sound judgment befitting a true king. Thus, the audience must view Falstaff’s influence as fun, but obviously poor and inappropriate for a king to follow (11). Tolman argues that the complexity of the nature of Falstaff’s character itself allows for this duality of sympathies. Judging Falstaff in this regard purely from the context of his involvement in Henry V, however, is impossible. Shakespeare expects his audience to know the old knight well, and only ever mentions his full name twice. Tolman’s assertion that the audience must also reject Falstaff may be short-sighted; he is assuming that there is something about Henry worth sympathizing over.
Armirthanayagam P. David, with similar reasoning to Tolman, suggests that Falstaff, upon entering the first act of Henry IV, was already on his way out, as he reveals himself to be more reprehensible and disgusting than the audience can handle (210). At the rejection scene itself, he argues that Falstaff was merely being opportunistic, attempting to exert his influence over the newly crowned king (212). This vision of Falstaff’s motive, to say the least, is far darker than seems suitable to the old knight’s character. In rejecting Falstaff, Hal manages to redeem his irresponsible days spent with the old knight (226).
Evidence in the text, however, seems to indicate that Henry is in fact a frightening character. If rejecting the old fool redeemed him, then Henry’s actions in the succeeding play cast considerable doubt as to the purity or sincerity of his character. “I will not leave the half-achieved Harflew / Till in her ashes she lies buried” (III.iii.7-8). Henry makes even more disturbing threats in this speech:
[Defile] the locks of your shrill-shriking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus’d
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughter-men.
These words, even in the context of being used by a conqueror, are not honorable. Rape of women, the murder of old men, and the slaughter of infants are difficult to justify, even at a hard-won siege. Those people that Henry threatens have no connection to the battle, and have only the potential to be its victims.
Henry executes his prisoners, threatens to spit babies on pikes, and commits to any number of other morally reprehensible purposes. The king’s character is not easily defended, especially since Chorus suggests that the audience’s imaginations must deck their kings, widening the gap between plausibly cheering Henry on and reviling him. Imaginations must be stretched to the brink in order to make this king look good. Worse still, his involvement in the action at any given point is questionable. After Henry’s victorious return home, Chorus makes the following commentary:
Where that his lords desire him to have borne
His bruised helmet and his bended sword
Before him through the city. He forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent
Quite from himself to God.
Though Chorus makes Henry sound humble, this could be interpreted as the King hiding the fact that his sword and helmet were never damaged. An even more pessimistic reading of this passage suggests that Henry is attempting to downplay his role in starting the whole bloody affair in the first place.
Henry never actually accepts responsibility for his own actions, choosing instead to carefully craft the situation so that he may escape any blame. For example, at the beginning of the play, Henry seems to carefully consider the implications of going to war with France. He warns the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war-
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed;
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint,
‘Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords
That makes such waste in brief mortality.
It seems here that Henry is truly concerned for the potential loss of life that would result from a needless war with France. After the Archbishop launches into a frightful commentary on Salic law, that in fact reduces Henry’s credibility as it highlights his own progenitor’s illegitimate succession, Henry repeats his original question: “May I with right and conscience make/this claim?” (I.ii.96-97). This apparent concern was merely a pretext to pushing his imperialistic agenda, and covering his royal backside(s). The Archbishop quotes some scripture to seal the deal, giving the affair supposed religious legitimization.
Although Henry does in fact commit his troops to a terrible war, few characters fault him for it. Even though they admit to Henry being the cause of Falstaff’s death, the old knight’s companions, Hal’s old cronies, remain loyal to the king. Nym asserts that “The King is a good king, but it must be as it may; he passes some humors and careers” (II.i.125-126). Even after Bardolph is executed, Pistol ends up blaming Fluellen, who refuses to hear the ancient’s pleas by order of the king himself.
Henry’s behavior is not lost upon his companions, but rather is twisted in their perceptions to properly suit how they think their king should act as a man. In Act IV, Fluellen chides Gower for taking the words out of his mouth:
Alexander kill’d his friend Clytus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turn’d away the fat knight with the great belly doublet.
David Quint suggests that though Fluellen makes ridiculous comparisons between Alexander and Henry regarding their places of birth, “Macedon” sounding similar to “Monmouth,” and both towns having rivers, he accidentally exposes the King’s character for what it really is when the Welshman snaps at Gower for taking his tale too literally regarding the matter of Henry killing friends (62). Quint argues that Shakespeare challenges the assumption that notable historical individuals function as normative behavioral models for the present; they certainly are not necessarily reflections of laudable human agency (49).
If Quint’s argument is credible, then ambivalence over Alexander’s character is conferred over to Henry (53). If Henry is the second Alexander, and Alexander is a pig, then surely as a river flowing through Monmouth, Henry is a pig as well. As Fluellen notes, Alexander was completely drunk when he killed his friend, and Henry deliberately rejected Falstaff being sound of mind. This has even worse implications for Henry’s character; Alexander was remorseful over the death of Cleitus, Henry certainly is not for his betrayal of Falstaff (52). Colder still, the King easily dismisses news concerning the execution of Bardolph as if he never knew the man. Pistol’s miserable plight is also ignored, as Henry may have been merciful, or at least charitable, to his old crony. Instead, he leaves Pistol a hardened criminal: “To England I will steal, and there I’ll steal” (V.i.87). At this point, the audience will have to stretch their imaginations beyond any plausible point, and the ever-present Ghost of Falstaff should make this exceedingly difficult.
“Alive or dead, Falstaff haunts the play from the wings. Shakespeare intensifies rather than alleviates the feelings of uneasiness about Henry’s character aroused by the rejection of the fat old knight” (Quint 52). The same could be said, if somewhat indirectly, of the historical Sir John Oldcastle, who was the original namesake of Falstaff’s character. King Henry V had him executed after the insurrection of 1413, burning him at the stake for treason (Scoufos 176). Scoufos also suggests that Falstaff’s broken heart and burning fever are analogous to Oldcastle’s martyrdom (177). Though Falstaff’s gormandizing and womanizing would no doubt have left him in poor health, the emphasis of his malady is entirely explained by his friends as a broken heart. Moreover, Oldcastle’s sin of treason is juxtaposed with Henry’s own calculated betrayal; Falstaff burns either way.
It is interesting to note that Henry’s final show of anger, or any real feeling worth noting, is expressed immediately after Fluellen and Gower mention Falstaff for the last time in the play. “I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” (IV.vii.55-56). Though this was said in the context of having just beheld a train of slaughtered boys, Falstaff’s nearness is unsettling. Henry goes about committing yet another atrocity by ordering his prisoners executed, yet another worrisome connection to the invocation of Falstaff’s name. If the old knight had any evil influence, certainly his death did not alleviate any of the king’s worst behavior. This gives the startling impression that humankind, not just England, may have been better off if Hal continued to play with Falstaff and his cronies until the end of his days. Womanizing, scheming, playing pranks, and robbing all certainly pale in comparison to even the death of a single individual as a result of Henry’s war. This war, after all, will in the long run result in nothing but more pain and death for the future. Henry’s legacy does not survive him.
Though Shakespeare does not entirely live up to his promise that Falstaff would return in Henry V to entertain his audience again, the old knight hardly remains dead in death. His hurtful absence casts a never-ending shadow over all of Henry’s accomplishments. As the jolly and devilishly clever gourmand dies, the king transforms himself into a soulless pig, interested only in sating his imperialist palate. Henry is a gourmand unto land and power. Taking this view of the king would be significantly more difficult if Sir John had lived, or even died under differing circumstances. In effect, the old man, in many ways, gets an insidious last laugh. The seething rage of audiences and readers through the span of generations has to potential to sear Henry’s reputation in more severe ways than his continued association with Falstaff, or if the old man had even stabbed him in the gut, could ever hope to.
Cubeta, Paul M. “Falstaff and the Art of Dying.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 27.2 (1987): 197-211.
David, Amirthanayagam P. “I Know Thee Not Old Man: The Renunciation of Falstaff.” Literary Imagination, Ancient and Modern. Ed. Todd Breyfogle. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. 209-227.
Quint, David. “Alexander the Pig: Shakespeare on History and Poetry.” boundary 2 10.3 (1982): 49-67.
Scoufos, Alice Lyle. “The ‘Martyrdom’ of Falstaff.” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 174-191.
Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 979-1017.
—. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 928-965.
Tolman, Albert H. “Why Did Shakespeare Create Falstaff?” PMLA 34.1 (1919): 1-13.