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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.Read a translation of Act I, scene ii →
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.