Shakespeare Preceptorial Essay: Counterfeit Chances?

Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups, so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great pelly doublet. He was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks.
Fluellen in Henry V 4.7:45

As king, Henry V conveys a feeling of tremendous control over all the people and situations around him, whether getting his court to go along with his intentions, making grand speeches to motivate his army, or carrying out his reformation so as to shine forth unexpectedly, like the sun. He even assumes control over the actions of his enemies by responding according to his own considerations rather than simply reacting as Hotspur or the Dauphin would. While this ability to control situations makes for brilliant statecraft, it may present a problem for his character as a person, making it difficult to tell what’s going on behind his political words and actions. What is the significance of the way in which Henry V presents other characters with choices the outcome of which is seemingly predetermined or in jest? I would like to focus upon Henry’s actions as he apparently makes an effort to bring Falstaff up to a position where he might still be able to remain in the King’s company, and would also look at his sentencing of the three traitors to France.

Is it enough to be a great leader, or is something more needed in order to be admirable as a person? It seems the latter, and I want to think that both are true of Henry V, but his very mastery as a leader casts doubt on that assessment. At the beginning of Richard II, the king’s language shifted so strongly between those times when he was acting as a king before his court and those when he was speaking his mind more directly, it was less difficult to tell what his mind was, even though he himself could less readily separate himself from his role as anointed king. Henry V, on the other hand, has apparently, with foresight and at some risk, planned out his course both publicly, in disrepute followed by a spectacular reformation, and privately, educating himself as “a strawberry growing up among thistles” (H.V, 1.1:60 ). His plan is especially clear in his opening soliloquy (H.IV P1, 1.2:190-212), and he carries it out beautifully, keeping every promise and fulfilling every hint he has made along the way. In class we often speak of him as being a “Machiavellian” leader, but such soliloquies as that on “thrice-gorgeous ceremony” (H.V 4.1:260) and his prayer “O God of Battles Steel my soldier’s hearts…” (282) show that there is a great deal to him, underneath the statecraft, and that even that craft may have a nobler and more idealist end than the glories of ceremony alone.

On a smaller scale, Henry boasts of his ability to know people well enough to be able to predict how they will act, and then perhaps to manipulate them into doing as would suit his purposes.  This attitude stands out especially clearly in his youth, with his assertions of “I know you all,” his certainty concerning how things will play out in robbing Falstaff and then teasing him about it, along with other interactions with those around him, such as the conversation with Poins where he declares he has become “so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life” (H.IV P1, 2.4:16). Nevertheless, Henry also seems willing to consider others possibilities people may hold, even if they are somewhat out of line with their character as he has known it. This is especially puzzling when he is breaking off his relationship with Falstaff in order to begin to show himself as a proper prince. He does send him away, but not before he has at least seemed to offer him a chance to reform and join Henry in his new status, through making him an officer in battles against the rebellion, sending a page with him, and then withdrawing more and more from his company as he shows no interest in reforming. This culminates in “I know thee not, old man” (H.IV P2, 5.5:47) and banishment on the way to Henry’s coronation; was that certain all along? Did Henry really believe that there was some possibility that Falstaff might change, or, if not, what did he hope to accomplish?

It may be worth considering that Hal is apparently not above joking with those below him in such a way as is likely to cause others trouble and introduce them to suggestions they would get by better without. Between the exclamations of “anon, anon, sir!” Hal seems to be trying to corrupt Francis’ sense of duty toward his employer (H.IV P1, 2.4:50). He says that he will find out why the drawer gave him sugar, but instead fills the few uninterrupted moments with “darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture?” and “I will give thee for it a thousand pounds,” and “wilt thou rob this leather-jerkin, crystal-button… Spanish pouch?” It is true that Francis seems to be so confused by the entire situation he’s unlikely to have taken much harm from the encounter, but all the same it’s the kind of thing an unsuspecting indentured servant might well take to heart, coming from a prince who has just convinced everyone in the place of his likeability. There’s a side to the conversation that seems to be more pointed, though all the calls of “Francis!” and “anon!” keep it from getting too serious; Hal seems, beside enjoying the joke itself, to want to learn something about the server he might not have gotten out of drinking together. Amidst the distraction and confusion of both the prank and the Prince’s company Francis hardly has time to think, and perhaps Hal is trying to get out of him whether he has ever consider something like running away, or how easily such a person might be bought, without actually risking that he would take Hal up on what may or may not be an offer of the means to do so.

Throughout their conversations in Henry IV Part 1 Falstaff seems to be jestingly probing for what kind of king Hal intends to be so as to know what to expect from him concerning the treatment of thieves. It’s as though Falstaff and Hal’s friendship is precarious and nearly falling apart from the beginning, though they surely enjoy each other’s company and have great fun together. Because of Falstaff’s intelligence and the answers Hal gives, I expect that they both know what’s going on, and have similar expectations for how the friendship will end, yet the ending of the Henry IV plays suggests otherwise, as Falstaff still says he expects Henry to acknowledge him, even before his court, or if not to at least send for him in private.

From the very first scene between Hal and Falstaff there is a question of what kind of relationship they have, and how that might play out in the future. This is especially brought to the fore when Falstaff asks Henry whether he will hang a thief (1.2:60). It’s difficult to know how to take Hal’s response that he will, and Falstaff will be the hangman. It’s certainly a funny image, and as Falstaff’s response of “O rare!” testifies, but it’s also rather a disturbing suggestion, to have the thief responsible for hangings. In light of Hal’s eventual actions it might even be taken as serious, if figurative: that Falstaff will have to reform and subscribe to the laws of the realm or face the consequences; perhaps not only subscribe, but even be expected to participate in enforcing them. Yet this is not a realistic expectation, and thus the jest. It could otherwise be a figure for the anarchy that would result if Hal were to keep his friend when he becomes king, so that it would be the criminals who would be charged with carrying out the effects of the law.

What kind of friendship is this? Falstaff and Hal can have a lot of fun together, which is appealing in itself, and each seems the only person around equal to the other’s wit. As Hal’s soliloquy at the end of that first scene makes clear, he has alternate, political reasons for the company he keeps, though it’s not clear he would have come up with such a scheme if those with whom he was spending his time lacked the capacity of Falstaff to also joke seriously and so sharpen his intelligence, quick tongue, and capacity for useful illusions. Even that, taken by itself, makes it exclusively like a friendship of utility. Is it? That hardly seems likely, given the sense of mutual delight as they while away their time in the first three or so scenes. Simply having a good time might be a tenuous base upon which to build a friendship; they are also alike in verbal sharpness and the ability to hide a serious meaning behind a façade of fast moving jokes. Besides the obvious divide of their circumstances, however, Hal seems serious in his contention that “if all the year were playing holidays,/To sport would be as tedious as to work” (H.IV P1, 1.2:200), which may leave little room for Falstaff’s company as something more than temporary; or, if long-term, as more than a kind of buffoon off on the sidelines, a role he is altogether too big in every way to be well suited for.

Given another opportunity to probe Hal’s mind regarding his future kingship, Falstaff holds the mock interview by way of preparation for the real interview in the next scene. True to form, he makes it all about himself, in the most glowing terms possible. When Hal finally comes out with an answer too direct to easily make light of, “I do. I will.” (H.IV P1, 2.4:475), Falstaff seems dismayed that interruptions force him to leave off any further banter, perhaps to see if he can get another, happier answer. That seems to direct an answer not to credit with seriousness, and might be taken either as saying that Hal certainly will banish Falstaff, or that he might, should circumstances require him to, as seems likely.

If he is not already aware of Falstaff’s indifference to honor or sticking it out in a fight, Henry’s experience fighting with him over stolen goods and the subsequent series of hilarious lies he uses to cover it up should be enough to overcome any remaining uncertainty regarding Falstaff’s utter unsuitability for any work requiring that he risk his life for anything, especially something as intangible as honor. Nevertheless, Henry gives him a commission, and, so as to be especially unfitting, one on foot. What comes of that commission is somewhat disturbing. If Falstaff’s own words are to believed (in this case they apparently can), he find the most pathetic, scruffy, starving people he can, thinking that they will only be bodies anyway, and then loses all of them in the battle of Shrewsbury. Of all Falstaff’s actions, this might show most clearly how the kind of irresponsibility that’s funny in small robberies and trading gags at a bar can suddenly become disgusting and deeply harmful when applied to a position of responsibility – in this case for the lives of his soldiers. It may in one way be the sanest position available to hold honor cheaply and one’s own body as a more valuable possession, but in an army, and in an unstable government, there are serious repercussions for that opting out, as when Falstaff says that he lost all but three of 150 men and came away himself unscathed, with the cynical excuse that they were only really there to be a mass of bodies anyway. Hal would have found out about this at some point, and while it probably did nothing to change his later actions, it may well have made it easier to stick with them.

What passes between Hal and Falstaff before the battle is harsh, but may be warranted, once the latter is there at all. Having sat through the negotiations between the King and Worcester (5.1), knowing well enough that he has little but his wits to keep him alive and that the two Henrys are engaged in what everyone else in the scene would consider to be very important matters, he asks Hal to help him should he find him in need in the battle, to which he gets a refusal couched in a fat joke. Hal is, of course, responsible for Falstaff being there at all, but his response does seem reasonable, if not friendly, both because of the realities of the situation, and perhaps even more so because of Falstaff’s own character: he would surely not return the favor if it might put him in any additional danger, as is in fact the case when the Douglas comes into the same area as himself, Hal, and Hotspur. Having spent a good deal of time with Falstaff and fought him in disguise, Hal would hardly need to hear the “catechism” speech to know his friend’s attitude toward danger and honor.

Given all of the above, which seems to have played out rather predictably given Falstaff’s habits of cowardice, selfishness, and his physical state, why would Hal have given Falstaff a commission to begin with? Even in conversation he’s a liability, given the company Hal spends his time on the battlefield, so any advantage of companionship he might represent must be very slight. If it’s a test to see if he might just rise to the occasion as Hal intends to do himself, it seems a needlessly brash one, costing the lives of more than a hundred others along the way. Falstaff might have been correct in his cynical assessment of the situation, but surely a more able commander could have gotten more out of the commission regardless of the expendability of his unit. That doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be worth the risk, as the King risks much of the battle upon the abilities of Hal, but Falstaff has not expressed any desire to be so trusted. What would be the best that could be hoped from the situation? That Falstaff would manage to survive without utterly disgracing himself? Or is the experience not so much a test as a message – that if he’s going to continue to be Hal’s friend he’ll have to be able to deal with situations like quelling the rebellion, so he might want to think twice about what kind of friend he is?

Alternately, it might be a different kind of a test, intending a wider scope. Is it really possible for someone whose only concerns have been drinking and carousing to rise to meet a grand situation? Does a great occasion necessarily create great actions and inflate a person’s sense of honor? Is the rhetoric of Henry’s speeches in France true; does Agincourt truly “gentle the conditions” of those who “ne’re so vile?” (HV 4.3:64) It might depend upon whether they are vile more on account of birth or of habit, but in the case of Falstaff, as later with Bardolph and Pistol, the answer seems to be that, no, they’ll be just the same as before, with perhaps a greater capacity for harm if anyone should be so foolish as to rely on them. A great speech might stir some of them to action, but a clever soldier of vile habits might not even be much moved even then, being able to come up with a much more pragmatically sound speech of their own, as with Falstaff’s “catechism.”

Whatever the best outcome of Falstaff’s involvement with the army might have been, Hal seemed genuinely surprised and digested that he hadn’t even bothered keeping his pistol, and had replaced it with sack (5.4:50 ). “What, is it time to jest and dally now?” Though Hal seemed to have known, and indeed made much of the fact that, Falstaff has no sense of the timing of things except to rob by moonlight, he may not have credited that it should extend so far outside of their usual sphere. There’s something charming about Falstaff’s lack of timing in grand matters, but it hardly seems compatible with Hal’s own sense of time as a ruling force in his life.

Hal’s comments at seeing Falstaff apparently dead on the field are rather peculiar. He seems a little sad, not too surprised, and makes a couple of fat jokes, as though it were rather a shame, but not much more. That does not speak very well for the genuineness of his friendship, though it may be reasonable considering how terribly Falstaff has served as a soldier and the great excitement and danger of the proceeding battle. All the same, upon coming back and seeing Falstaff alive Hal is apparently glad enough to let him get away with telling outrageous lies about Percy’s death without even taunting him too much for it, and even granting that “if a lie may do thee grace I’ll guild it with the happiest terms I have” (H. IV P1, 5.5:157).

Whatever chance Falstaff may have had, however so slim, of remaining friends with Hal after his ascent to the throne must have been destroyed by his wholehearted reversion to his former life after the rebellion was quelled. Always an optimist where his own person is concerned, he doesn’t give that much credit, using his connection to the new King as a way to borrow a thousand pounds and convince Shallow that they are shortly going to undergo a sharp rise in status. Henry’s reply to his utterly inappropriate greeting in the street is certainly harsh in a rather majestic, cold, and lonely kind of way, and also appropriate to the situation of having just left his father’s deathbed to be crowned king. Is it more fully justified, though? It’s hard to have more than an opinion. In class we talked about whether it is possibly a moral action to disown a friend; it seems like it must be, if there’s no way to keep the friend without him doing harm to not only oneself, but also to the realm, as Falstaff showed at the battle of Shrewsbury that he almost certainly would. Being a thief, a liar, and of a very hopeful disposition concerning his own worth, it hardly seems possible that Henry could have ended the friendship quietly and in private, so it seems that a public banishment could have been the only possible course at that point. Or rather, the alternative would potentially ruin England and could not be considered. All the same, Prince John’s summary that “He hath intent his wonted followers/Shall all be very well provided for,/but all are banished till their conversations/Appear more wise and modest to the world. ” sounds rather like grasping at straws, which is too much unlike Henry V.

What, then, was Henry’s intent in giving Falstaff opportunities to reform which so little suited his character? There seem to be three possibilities. In the first, Hal really did suppose that Falstaff, being of such enormous stature in his way, would through off the yoke of humorous timelessness and rise to the occasion and be able to join him at the court once he was king, or at least have some minor but superficially respectable position from which he could trade witty but not entirely inappropriate advice disguised as banter. This has in its favor Henry’s own game and Falstaff’s facility for lying, but not much else. The middle position would be that Hal knew that it was unlikely that Falstaff would so rise, but it had to be tried because he’s such an enormous gem of a lying thief who contributes so much to Hal’s growth. Either way they could be really friends, but in the latter case Hal would have to know in advance that they would hardly be likely to stay such, though it would be great if they could. The most cynical interpretation would be that Hal, who is usually such a good judge of character, knew all along that Falstaff would fail to achieve anything but scorn in trying to be a real knight, but wanted to make that perfectly clear to everyone concerned so that there would be no question as to why he had him banished when he ascended to the throne. I believe the second case to be most likely true, because it’s hard to believe that Hal would be so naive as the first case would require, or so cruel as in the third.

I also wanted to examine the scene where Henry shows Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop as the traitors they were and sentenced them (Henry V 2.2). On one level Henry is, as always, showing great political acumen by having this happen in public and in so well staged a way so that there can be no doubts or complaints when they are sentenced, but I like to think there’s something else going on as well: that they’re being offered a sliver of a chance at obtaining mercy. Rather than simply show the traitors for what they are, Henry creates a three stage conversation, first about how he’s sure that everybody is eager to support his cause, then on the subject of mercy, and finally he reveals their treachery and makes a moving speech on just how heinous it is. Did they ever have an opportunity to ask the King for mercy in those first two phases?

Upon their entry onto the scene, where Exeter, Bedford, and Westmoreland already know basically what’s going on, Henry begins a conversation concerning their chances of winning in France and the support of the people. The way he talks from the start sounds falsely sweet, and the group only becomes more so as they go on, as when Cambridge says that “There’s not, I think, a subject/That sits in heart-grief  and uneasiness/Under the sweet shade of your government,” and Grey replies that “Those that were your father’s enemies/Have steeped their galls in honey.” They manage to combine the false sweetness of flattery with their lies, which hardly seems a good choice for speaking with Henry V even if they didn’t already have cause to be uneasy. Neither do they let up when Henry responds to this flattery that the people shall indeed be rewarded in accordance with their worth. In this first phase there may be a very subtle hint that he’s onto something, but more obviously Henry seems to be asking them if they are willing to name any legitimate problems or complaints which might account for their treachery, and they not only will not do so, but even sugar coat the goodness of his reign with over the top praise that would be unlikely to please him at any point. The other two fellows may not have spent much time around Henry, but Scroop at least must begin to suspect that either something’s wrong or this is not the same Henry who was accustomed to speaking with so much force and fire. With so much at stake, however, it would hardly make sense that they should give themselves away on such sleight evidence.

The next part of the conversation seems like it might come across as rather more pointed for people who would were surely on guard to begin with. Henry will show himself magnanimous: he pardons an insolent commoner without even being asked: “O let us be merciful.” It seems like they might catch on at this point; Henry is being too careful with the way he handles the conversation and gives them several opportunities to make a case in favor of mercy, and they will have none of it. It might be that even if they’re wary that he’s onto something they misread what he’s doing. If he were a little suspicious of them but not certain they might want to reassure him of their trustworthiness by making a great show of guarding him even from minor insults. It’s a bad bet, of course. If there’s a point in this scene where they might stand a chance, it would seem to be here; they might not even have to admit guilt if only they were to argue well in favor of leniency. Henry’s reply that “If little faults proceeding on distemper/Shall not be winked at, how shall we stretch our eye/When capital crimes, chewed, swallowed, and digested,/Appear before us?” both shows the rest of the court how much these three will deserve their punishment, and is the last flicker of a chance, however slim, they might have of getting out of the situation alive.

In the following speech Henry uses the traitors’ own words against them in a way that suggests there had been some other possible answer had they done differently: “The mercy that was quick in us but late,/By your own council is suppressed and killed.” There’s a chance the same result would have followed whatsoever answer they gave, since he later says “Touching our person seek we no revenge,/but we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,/whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws/We do deliver you,” but since they are guilty before the law already, and provably so, there hardly seems a need to have gone through the preceding conversation, and it might have even harmed Henry’s ability to sentence them strictly had they either put forward legitimate complaints (which is unlikely) or, more likely, have argued well for mercy.

Neither in Falstaff’s case nor in that of the three traitors does there seem to be much room for reformation, but what little room there is could be worth at least making an attempt, especially with the former. Nevertheless, I believe that Henry is giving a legitimate chance, which happens to also make him look good and protect him from criticism of having used people unjustly. It’s still unclear to me what that means for Henry’s overall character, however. He will take a chance with a friend that could cost the friend a great deal and himself nearly nothing; that does not speak well for the kind of friend he is. He may not, Like Alexander, kill his friend in a fit of rage, but it does seem that he is perfectly willing to step all over them for the sake of his own ends. Or, more nobly, for the sake of his kingdom of England?

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