Henry IV, Part 1

by: William Shakespeare

Act I, scene ii

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.