King Henry IV, Part I Characters Analysis features
noted Shakespeare scholar William Hazlitt's famous critical
essay about the characters of King Henry IV, Part
IF Shakespear's fondness for the ludicrous some-times
led to faults in his tragedies (which was not often
the case) he has made us amends by the character of
Falstaff. This is perhaps the most substantial comic
character that ever was invented. Sir John carries a
most portly presence in the mind's eye; and in him,
not to speak it profanely, "we behold the fulness
of the spirit of wit and humour bodily." We are
as well acquainted with his person as his mind, and
his jokes come upon us with double force and relish
from the quantity of flesh through which they make their
way, as he shakes his fat sides with laughter, or "lards
the lean earth as he walks along." Other comic
characters seem, if we approach and handle them, to
resolve themselves into air, "into thin air";
but this is embodied and palpable to the grossest apprehension:
it lies "three fingers deep upon the ribs,"
it plays about the lungs and the diaphragm with all
the force of animal enjoyment. His body is like a good
estate to his mind, from which he receives rents and
revenues of profit and pleasure in kind, according to
its extent, and the richness of the soil. Wit is often
a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation; an effusion
of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others,
from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation
of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good-humour
and good-nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter
and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart's ease,
and over-contentment with himself and others. He would
not be in character, if he were not so fat as he is;
for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury
of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence
of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes
his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and
sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon
or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come
again; and pours out upon them the oil of gladness.
His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his
brain "it snows of meat and drink." He keeps
up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with
him in a round, of invitations to a rump and dozen.
—Yet we are not to suppose that he was a mere sensualist.
All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His
sensuality does not engross and stupefy his other faculties,
but "ascends me into the brain, clears away all
the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it
full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes."
His imagination keeps up the ball after his senses have
done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment
of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his
ease, of his vanity, in the ideal exaggerated description
which he gives of them, than in fact. He never fails
to enrich his discourse with allusions to eating and
drinking, but we never see him at table. He carries
his own larder about with him, and he is himself "a
tun of man." His pulling out the bottle in the
field of battle is a joke to shew his contempt for glory
accompanied with danger, his systematic adherence to
his Epicurean philosophy in the most trying circumstances.
Again, such is his deliberate exaggeration of his own
vices, that it does not seem quite certain whether the
account of his hostess's bill, found in his pocket,
with such an out-of-the-way charge for capons and sack
with only one halfpenny-worth of. bread, was not put
there by himself as a trick to humour the jest upon
his favourite propensities, and as a conscious caricature
of himself. He is represented as a liar, a braggart,
a coward, a glutton, etc., and yet we are not offended
but delighted with him; for he is all these as much
to amuse others as to gratify himself. He openly assumes
all these characters to shew the humourous part of them.
The unrestrained indulgence of his own ease, appetites,
and conveni-ence, has neither malice nor hypocrisy in
it. In a word, he is an actor in himself almost as much
as upon the stage, and we no more object to the character
of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should
think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should
represent him to the life, before one of the police
offices. We only consider the number of pleasant lights
in which he puts certain foibles (the more pleasant
as they are opposed to the received rules and necessary
restraints of society), and do not trouble ourselves
about the consequences re-sulting from them, for no
mischievous consequences do result. Sir John is old
as well as fat, which gives a melancholy retrospective
tinge to the character; and by the disparity between
his inclinations and his capacity for enjoyment, makes
it still more ludicrous and fantastical.
The secret of Falstaff's wit is for the most part
a masterly presence of mind, an absolute self-possession,
which nothing can disturb. His repartees are involuntary
suggestions of his self-love; instinctive evasions of
everything that threatens to interrupt the career of
his triumphant jollity and self-complacency. His very
size floats him out of all his difficulties in a sea
of rich conceits; and he turns round on the pivot of
his convenience, with every occasion and at a moment's
warning. His natural repugnance to every unpleasant
thought or circumstance, of itself makes light of objections,
and provokes the most extravagant and licentious answers
in his own justification. His indifference to truth
puts no check upon his invention, and the more improbable
and unexpected his contrivances are, the more happily
does he seem to be delivered of them, the anticipation
of their effect acting as a stimulus to the gaiety of
his fancy. The success of one adventurous sally gives
him spirits to undertake another: he deals always in
round numbers, and his exaggerations and excuses are
"open, palpable, monstrous as the father that begets
them." His dissolute carelessness of what he says
discovers itself in the first dialogue with the Prince.
"Falstaff. By the Lord, thou say'st true, lad;
and is not
mine hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?
P. Henry. As the honey of Hibia, my old lad of the
castle; and is not a buff-jerkin a most sweet robe of
Falstaff. How now, how now, mad wag, what in thy
quips and thy quiddities? what a plague have I to do
P. Henry. Why, what a pox have I to do with mine
hostess of the tavern?"
In the same scene he afterwards affects melancholy,
from pure satisfaction of heart, and professes reform,
because it is the farthest thing in the world from his
thoughts. He has no qualms of conscience, and therefore
would as soon talk of them as of anything else when
the humour takes him.
"Falstaff, But, Hal, I pr'ythee trouble me no
vanity. I would to God thou and I knew where a com-
modity of good names were to be bought: an old lord
council rated me the other day in the street about you,
but I mark'd him not, and yet he talked very wisely,
in the street too.
P. Henry. Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the
street, and no man regards it.
Falstaff. O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed
able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm unto
me, Hal; God forgive thee for it. Before I knew thee,
Hal, I knew nothing, and now I am, if a man should speak
truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must
this life, and I will give it over, by the Lord; an
I do not,
I am a villain. I'll be damned for never a king's son
P. Henry. Where shall we take a purse to-morrow, Jack?
Falstaff. Where thou wilt, lad, I'll make one ; an I
not, call me villain, and baffle me.
P. Henry. I see good amendment of life in thee, from
praying to purse-taking.
Falstaff. Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal. 'Tis no sin
for a man to labour in his vocation."
Of the other prominent passages, his account of his
pretended resistance to the robbers, "who grew
from four men in buckram into eleven" as the imagination
of his own valour increased with his relating it, his
getting off when the truth is discovered by pretending
he knew the Prince, the scene in which in the person
of the old king he lectures the Prince and gives himself
a good character, the soliloquy on honour, and description
of his new-raised recruits, his meeting with the chief
justice, his abuse of the Prince and Poins, who overhear
him, to Doll Tearsheet, his reconciliation with Mrs.
Quickly who has arrested him for an old debt, and whom
he persuades to pawn her plate to lend him ten pounds
more, and the scenes with Shallow and Silence, are all
inimitable. Of all of them, the scene in which Falstaff
plays the part, first, of the King, and then of Prince
Henry, is the one that has been the most often quoted.
We must quote it once more in illustration of our remarks.
"Falstaff. Harry, I do not only marvel where thou
spendest thy time, but also how thou art accompanied:
for though the camomile, the more it is trodden on,
the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted,
the sooner it wears. That thou art my son, I have partly
thy mother's word, partly my own opinion; but chiefly,
a villainous trick of thine eye, and a foolish hanging
of thy nether lip, that doth warrant me. If then thou
be son to me, here lies the point;—Why, being son to
me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed sun of
heaven prove a micher, and eat blackberries? A question
not to be ask'd. Shall the son of England prove a thief,
and take purses? a question not to be ask'd. There is
a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and
it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch:
this pitch, as ancient writers do report, doth defile;
so doth the company thou keepest: for, Harry, now I
do not speak to thee in drink, but in tears; not in
pleasure, but in passion; not in words only, but in
woes also:—and yet there is a virtuous man, whom I have
often noted in thy company, but I know not his name.
P. Henry. What manner of man, an it like your majesty?
Falstaff. A goodly portly man, i'faith, and a corpulent;
of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble
carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty, or, by'r-lady,
inclining to threescore; and now I do remember me, his
name is Falstaff: if that man should be lewdly given,
he deceiveth me; for, Harry, I see virtue in his looks.
If then the fruit may be known by the tree, as the tree
by the fruit, then peremptorily I speak it, there is
virtue in that Falstaff: him keep with, the rest banish.
And tell me now, thou naughty varlet, tell me, where
hast thou been this month?
P. Henry. Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand
for me, and I'll play my father.
Falstaff. Depose me? if thou dost it half so gravely,
so majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up
by the heels for a rabbit-sucker or a poulterer's hare.
P. Henry. Well, here I am set.
Falstaff. And here I stand:—judge, my masters.
P. Henry. Now, Harry, whence come you?
Falstaff. My noble lord, from Eastcheap.
P. Henry. The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.
Falstaff. S'blood, my lord, they are false:—nay, I'll
tickle ye for a young prince, i'faith.
P. Henry. Swearest thou, ungracious boy? henceforth
ne'er look on me. Thou art violently carried away from
grace: there is a devil haunts thee, in the likeness
of a fat old man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why
dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoln parcel of dropsies,
that huge bom-bard of sack, that stuft cloak-bag of
guts, that roasted Manning-tree ox with the pudding
in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity,
that father ruffian, that vanity in years? wherein is
he good, but to taste sack and drink it? wherein neat
and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat it? wherein
cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty, but in villainy?
wherein villainous, but in all things? wherein worthy,
but in nothing?
Falstaff. I would, your grace would take me with you;
whom means your grace?
P. Henry. That villainous, abominable mis-leader of
youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
Falstaff. My lord, the man I know.
P. Henry. I know thou dost.
Falstaff. But to say, I know more harm in him than in
myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old
(the more the pity) his white hairs do witness it: but
that he is (saving your reverence) a whore-master, that
I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help
the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many
an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to
be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved.
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 thy Harry's company; banish plump Jack, and
banish all the world.
P. Henry. I do, I will.
[Knocking; and Hostess and Bardolph go out.
Re-enter BARDOLPH, running,
Bardolph. O, my lord, my lord; the sheriff, with a
most monstrous watch, is at the door.
Falstaff. Out, you rogue! play out the play: I have
much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff." One
of the most characteristic descriptions of Sir John
is that which Mrs. Quickly gives of him when he asks
her "What is the gross sum that I owe thee?"
"Hostess. Marry, if thou wert an honest man, thyself,
and the money too. Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt
goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round
table, by a sea-coal fire on Wednesday in Whitsunweek,
when the Prince broke thy head for likening his father
to a singing man of Windsor; thou didst swear to me
then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me, and make
me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife
Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then, and call me
gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar,
telling us, she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou
didst desire to eat some; whereby I told thee they were
ill of a green wound? And didst thou not, when she was
gone down stairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity
with such poor people; saying, that ere long they should
call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me
fetch thee thirty shil-lings? I put thee now to thy
book-oath; deny it, if thou canst."
This scene is to us the most convincing proof of Falstaff's
power of gaining over the good will of those he was
familiar with, except indeed Bar-dolph's somewhat profane
exclamation on hearing the account of his death, "Would
I were with him, wheresoe'er he is, whether in heaven
One of the topics of exulting superiority over others
most common in Sir John's mouth is his corpulence and
the exterior marks of good living which he carries about
him, thus "turning his vices into commodity."
He accounts for the friend-ship between the Prince and
Poins, from "their legs being both of a bigness,"
and compares Justice Shallow to "a man made after
supper of a cheese-paring." There cannot be a more
striking grada-tion of character than that between Falstaff
and Shallow, and Shallow and Silence. It seems diffi-cult
at first to fall lower than the squire; but this fool,
great as he is, finds an admirer and humble foil in
his cousin Silence. Vain of his acquaintance with Sir
John, who makes a-butt of him, he exclaims, "Would,
cousin Silence, that thou had'st seen that which this
knight and I have seen!"-" Aye, Master Shallow,
we have heard the chimes at midnight," says Sir
John. To Falstaff's observation, "I did not think
Master Silence had been a man of this mettle,"
Silence answers, "Who, I? I have been merry twice
and once ere now." What an idea is here conveyed
of a prodigality of living? What good husbandry and
economical self-denial in his pleasures? What a stock
of lively recollections? It is curious that Shakespear
has ridiculed in Justice Shallow, who was "in some
authority under the king," that disposition to
unmeaning tautology which is the regal infirmity of
later times, and which, it may be supposed, he acquired
from talking to his cousin Silence, and receiving no
"Falstaff. You have here a goodly dwelling, and
Shallow. Barren, barren, barren; beggars all, beggars
all, Sir John; marry, good air. Spread Davy, spread
Well said, Davy.
Falstaff. This Davy serves you for good uses.
Shallow. A good varlet, a good varlet, a very good varlet.
By the mass, I have drank too much sack at supper. A
good varlet. Now sit down, now sit down. Come, cousin."
The true spirit of humanity, the thorough knowledge
of the stuff we are made of, the practical wisdom with
the seeming fooleries in the whole of the garden-scene
at Shallow's country-seat, and just before in the exquisite
dialogue between him and Silence on the death of old
Double, have no parallel anywhere else. In one point
of view, they are laughable in the extreme; in another
they are equally affecting, if it is affecting to shew
what a little thing is human life, what a poor forked
creature man is!
The heroic and serious part of these two plays founded
on the story of Henry IV. is not inferior to the comic
and farcical. The characters of Hotspur and Prince Henry
are two of the most beautiful and dramatic, both in
themselves and from contrast, that ever were drawn.
They are the essence of chivalry. We like Hotspur the
best upon the whole, perhaps because he was unfortunate.—The
characters of their fathers, Henry IV. and old Northumberland,
are kept up equally well. Henry naturally succeeds by
his prudence and caution in keeping what he has got:
Northumberland fails in his enterprise from an excess
of the same quality, and is caught in the web of his
own cold, dilatory policy. Owen Glendower is a masterly
character. It is as bold and original as it is intelligible
and thoroughly natural. The disputes between him and
Hotspur are managed with infinite address and insight
into nature. We cannot help pointing out here some very
beautiful lines, where Hotspur de-scribes the fight
between Glendower and Mortimer.
—"When on the gentle Severn's sedgy bank,
In single opposition hand to hand,
He did confound the best part of an hour
In changing hardiment with great Glendower:
Three times they breath'd, and three times did they
Upon agreement, of swift Severn's flood;
Who then affrighted with their bloody looks,
Ran fearfully among the trembling reeds,
And hid his crisp head in the hollow bank,
Blood-stained with these valiant combatants."
The peculiarity and the excellence of Shakespear's
poetry is, that it seems as if he made his imagination
the hand-maid of nature, and nature the plaything of
his imagination. He appears to have been all the characters,
and in all the situations he describes. It is as if
either he had had all their feelings, or had lent them
all his genius to express themselves. There cannot be
stronger instances of this than Hotspur's rage when
Henry IV. forbids him to speak of Mortimer, his insensibility
to all that his father and uncle urge to calm him, and
his fine ab-stracted apostrophe to honour, "By
heaven, me-thinks it were an easy leap to pluck bright
honour from the moon," etc. After all, notwithstanding
the gallantry, generosity, good temper, and idle freaks
of the mad-cap Prince of Wales, we should not have been
sorry if Northumberland's force had come up in time
to decide the fate of the battle at Shrewsbury; at least,
we always heartily sympathise with Lady Percy's grief,
when she exclaims,
"Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,
To-day might I (hanging on Hotspur's neck)
Have talked of Monmouth's grave."
The truth is, that we never could forgive the Prince's
treatment of Falstaff; though perhaps Shakespear knew
what was best, according to the history, the nature
of the times, and of the man. We speak only as dramatic
critics. Whatever terror the French in those days might
have of Henry V., yet, to the readers of poetry at present,
Falstaff is the better man of the two. We think of him
and quote him oftener.