So, when this loose behaviour I throw off
. . .My reformation . . .
Shall show more goodly. . . .
In his dwelling somewhere in London, Prince Harry passes the time with his friend Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is an old, fat criminal who loves to drink sack (sweet wine), eat, and sleep away the day. He makes his living as a highwayman and robber and sponges off Harry and his other friends. But Falstaff is clever and entertaining, and he and Harry exchange familiar banter and quick-witted puns.
Harry and Falstaff are joined by their acquaintance Edward (“Ned”) Poins, who is also a highwayman. Poins tells them that a robbery has been set up for early the following morning. He and Gadshill, another thief, have learned that some rich pilgrims and prosperous traders will be passing Gad’s Hill (a place on the London road famous for its robberies) at around four o’clock in the morning. Falstaff says that he will participate in the robbery, and he urges Harry to come along too. Harry refuses, saying that he is not a thief, but Poins asks Falstaff to leave him alone with Harry, suggesting that he will be able to persuade the prince to go with them.
When they are alone, Poins explains to Harry that he has a marvelous practical joke planned: Poins and Harry will ride out to Gad’s Hill with their four friends during the night, but they will pretend to get lost and not show up at the meeting place. Instead, they will hide and watch as the robbery occurs. Then, Poins and Harry will rob Falstaff and the others, taking the money that their friends have just stolen. Poins assures Harry that he has masks to hide their faces and suits of rough cloth (“buckram”) to hide their clothes (I.ii.159). He also points out that since Falstaff and the others are complete cowards, they are sure to run away as soon as Poins and Harry attack them. The best part of the trick will be listening to the enormous lies that Falstaff is sure to tell about the encounter. At this point, Poins and Harry will be able to cut him down when they reveal that they themselves were the thieves. Amused, Harry agrees to play along.
As soon as Poins leaves the room, however, Harry begins to muse aloud to himself. He reveals that he hangs around with these low-class friends as part of a clever psychological plan: he is deliberately trying to make his father and the English people think poorly of him so that he can surprise and impress them all when he decides to grow up and start behaving like a royal prince. Harry feels that if he lowers people’s expectations of him, it will be much easier to awe and please them later on than it would be if people expected great things of him. Thus, he deliberately chooses friends and a lifestyle that he knows will disappoint his father and the populace. Harry concludes by suggesting that sometime very soon he plans to reveal his true nature to those around him.
Act I, scene ii is of considerable importance because it introduces one of Shakespeare’s most famous and beloved characters: Harry’s friend and mentor Falstaff. The Shakespearean critic Harold Bloom says of him that “no other literary character . . . seems to me so infinite in provoking thought and in arousing emotion.” This assessment may seem surprising since, after all, Falstaff is presented as a zany, antiquated criminal who does nothing but make outrageous puns. But Falstaff develops throughout the rest of this play and its sequel into something quite unusual: a cheerful, unembarrassed, self-confident lowlife whose value system runs counter to that of all the noblemen and kings who figure in the main plot of the play.
On the one hand, Falstaff is obviously a criminal, as all his banter about judges and hanging and his extravagant references to himself and other highwaymen as “squires of the night’s body”—nocturnal thieves—suggest (I.ii.21). More than that, however, Falstaff seems to live with a sense of gusto and enjoyment that is completely foreign to royalty. His approach to life and honor and the way he regards himself are very different from the rigid and complicated systems of pride and vengeance that cause the noblemen to fight bloody wars and attempt to overthrow kings.
Critics are intrigued by the complexity of Falstaff’s character: Falstaff is an opportunist, always turning a situation to his own advantage and usually not hesitating to step on other people as he does it. On the other hand, he seems to have no need for revenge—the lack of which differentiates him from the noblemen, including Harry. Falstaff does not hesitate to lie outrageously, but he is not concerned when he is caught. He sees no value in gaining honor by risking his life but instead believes he can find more honor in -keeping his life. In short, Falstaff is interested in his own self--preservation and in living and enjoying his life to the fullest. As Bloom states: “All the self-contradictions of [Falstaff’s] complex nature resolve themselves in his exuberance of being, his passion for being alive. Many of us become machines for fulfilling responsibilities; Falstaff is the largest and best reproach we can find.” Alongside the principal plot of kings and earls doing battle for the fate of a nation, Falstaff constantly provides a counterpoint to their logic and values.
The relationship between Falstaff and Harry is complex. Falstaff seems to be fond of Harry, but it is strange that Harry enjoys spending time with Falstaff. This introductory scene demonstrates the apparently good-natured, joking sort of relationship that exists between them. But as Falstaff’s extraordinary facility with language and knowledge of the seedy underbelly of London come to light, it becomes clear that Harry is also learning from Falstaff. The older man is, in a sense, instructing Harry in a robust way of life quite outside the noble sphere—the life that Falstaff himself leads and the philosophy that governs it.
Harry’s unexpected monologue at the end of the scene reveals the complexity of his character. In stating that he will shock others’ expectations “[b]y how much better than my word I am,” Harry establishes a dichotomy between what his deeds compel others to think he is like and what he is actually like (I.ii.188). He thus enjoys, and is aware that he enjoys, a certain power over others by being able to control how they perceive him. His belief that “[m]y reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly . . . / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” reflects the absolute deliberateness of his actions (I.ii.191–193). He sets himself up as his own “foil” in order to accentuate the seeming near miracle of his eventual transformation from lowliness to nobility.
This monologue also emphasizes Harry’s plan to cast off his ruffian friends in order to cut a more impressive figure in the eyes of the world. But Harry’s plan is morally ambiguous. On the one hand, it is a movement toward the honorable conduct that his father and the other noblemen want for him, but, on the other, it is extremely deceitful. Harry is now concealing the truth from everyone—his current friends, his father, and the English people.
I think it should have been called Sir Jack, First Part, as Falstaff towers over everybody else in King Henry IV, Part 1. See my blog on the play:
Most Shakespeare plays have a jester, who is able to perceive certain things better than the "noble" person. There are other elements that make Falstaff more interesting, such as the juxtaposition of "fortune," class, or perhaps simply initiative.