Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Henry IV


Today we had some fabulous tutorials exploring the kind of language Shakespeare uses in the opening scenes of Henry IV. Here is the king trying to bind together his empire with a proposal that all the civil warmongering British unite in one force and go on a crusade to rescue Jerusalem from the “infidels”. This is such a topical theme: did not George Bush attempt the same in his invasion of Iraq,hoping thereby that his own position as president be strengthened and that all the American people be united behind him in bringing American democracy to the Middle East. History clearly teaches us nothing. For Shakespeare, King Henry IV’s efforts are amplified through his powerful imagery, the pulsing regular unrhymed iambic rhythm, and the sounds of his words which make his listeners feel the horror of the civil wars that he is trying to avert:

No more shall trenching war channel her fields,

Nor bruise her flow’rets with the armed hoofs

Of hostile paces…

The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,

No more shall cut his master.

“shall”, “trench”,”channel”, “hoofs”, “hostile”- the harsh consonance, sibilance and strong pentameter, mirror the destruction that has taken place and that he now hopes to avert by bringing everyone under a common banner:

Therefore, friends,

As far as to the sepulcher of Christ-

Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross

We are impressed and engaged to fight-

Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,

Whose arms were moulded in their mother’s womb

To chase these pagans in those holy fields….

Karen Amstrong has written about the outrageous bloody slaughter that the crusaders actually brought to Jerusalem in total, blasphemous mockery of everything that Jesus had ever represented. But “poor” King Henry IV doesn’t actually get a chance to bring his soldiers to this battle field. Within minutes of finishing this opening speech, his country is plunged into a continuing civil war. And a great irony in this whole situation is that King Henry cannot even control the life of his eldest son, Prince Hal, who is spending much of his time with this rollicking, life affirming character Sir Jack Falstaff:

Wells Falstaff

Jack Falstaff is here presented by the greatest Falstaff actor of all-time (in my humble opinion!) Orson Welles. Orson Welles, brought a new understanding of the nature of Falstaff to the theatre. He was not just an old knight who had gone to the bad, but in some way he was an embodiment of the “Merry England” that had been destroyed by the power-play of wars waged by Kings, earls and dukes. In a curious way, Orson Welles reminds me of a slightly more outrageous version of Grandfer Cantle in The Return of the Native. While we might say of Falstaff that he is a misleader of youth, that he is a drunk, that he is a petty thief…. none of these things are as bad as the gross errors of judgement that are made by those people in power (who get away with all their destructive decisions). Think about George Bush and about any of politicians, local and world wide who create havoc through ill-thought out decisions. Does Anzac day come into this picture? Which politician or military leader made that decision to launch 20,000 young men at the base of a steep mountain defended by machine guns!

Orson Welles, is central to this revisioning of the role of Falstaff as can be seen in the following clips from Chimes at Midnight,  a film made by bringing together many of the Falstaff episodes from the plays Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor

Within these scenes is also that wonderful moment in the play where Shakespeare creates the opportunity for a play-within-a-play, having Falstaff and Prince Hal playing the role of Father and Son in preparation for Hal’s meeting with his real father on the following day. “All the world’s a stage” Shakespeare affirms in As You Like It and here in Henry IV the stage within the stage provides a space where Hal and Falstaff can reveal their true colours. Hal shows his essential distaste for Falstaff, and Falstaff demonstrates the virtues of his own nature in a world that has gone war-crazy and has lost the spirit of fun:

No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, 

Banish not him they Harry’s company,

Banish not him thy Harry’s company,

Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

Of course there is room for debate on all this, and not everyone will agree with this interpretation of Falstaff or of the play as a whole. There are many who will see Falstaff as someone the world would be best without, someone who is subverting the course of justice and preventing the world from being well-ordered.

Here is Orson Welles demonstrating his transformation into Falstaff and also affirming what he sees to be the value of Falstaff in a world committed to bloodshed and murder. Remember Falstaff’s greatest speech at the end of Act 5 Scene 1: ” Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm?… What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning!”

Here is the white-board shot which helped demonstrate the difference between poetry and prose in Shakespeare, and the key differences between poetry and prose anywhere: regular rhythm, form….


CREATIVE: 1. Invent your conversation between the young prince Hal and his older mate Falstaff just as Falstaff is waking up after a night of heavy drinking.

2. Imagine your father is about to call you into line for the reckless way in which you have failed. Prepare a paragraph justifying yourself, expressing your disenchantment with the way the establishment lead their lives.

3. Write an ekphrastic description of the statue of Falstaff in Sydney (outside the State Library). What characteristics has this sculptor invested Falstaff with (find a good image of the statue to accompany your description).

CRITICAL: 4. Draw up a list of Shakespeare’s women characters in the plays we have studied so far and give a brief description of the qualities of each character.

5. Do you think King Henry is justified in complaining so bitterly about his eldest son’s behaviour? Write a short paragraph on this.

6. Find a series of images of actors who have played Falstaff and write a short descriptive sentence on each summarising how well you think these actors look the part.

  2 comments for “Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Henry IV

  1. April 26, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    You know, I never really studied Shakespeare before. I always thought his language to difficult to understand. But now, I think I am finally ready. I look forward to this course next year.

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