Henry IV, Part 1
Act III, scene iii
In the Boar’s Head Tavern in London, Falstaff complains to -Bardolph about how thin and weak he has gotten of late (an obviously ridiculous claim for the hugely fat Falstaff to make). The hostess of the tavern, Mistress Quickly, appears and demands payment from Falstaff for the food and drink he has consumed, as well as for some clothing she has recently bought for him. Falstaff responds that his pocket was picked the previous night while he was asleep, and he accuses her of having done it. He claims to have had money and a valuable ring in the pocket. The hostess accuses Falstaff of trying to get out of paying his bill, but their argument is interrupted by the entrance of Prince Harry and Peto.
Harry’s news is unsurprising but important: war is at hand, and all must go off to fight. But first, the group must settle the matter of Falstaff’s picked pocket. After some bawdy teasing at the expense of the dim-witted hostess, Harry reveals that he himself emptied -Falstaff’s pockets the night before (as detailed in Act II, scene v) and that he found nothing in them but tavern bills, receipts from whorehouses, and a handful of candy. Falstaff, with his usual quick--wittedness, promptly weasels out of admitting wrongdoing once again, tells the hostess that he forgives her, and orders breakfast.
Harry informs Falstaff that he has bailed him out yet again: he has paid back the money that Falstaff and the others had stolen and lost the day before. Finally, he gets around to assigning the war commissions to his friends. He sends Bardolph off to deliver letters on horseback to King Henry’s troops, who are already on their way—one letter to Harry’s younger brother, John, Lord of Lancaster, another to the Earl of Westmoreland. He orders Peto to come on a different errand with him, and he tells Falstaff that he has put him in charge of a brigade of foot soldiers, commanding him to meet him the following afternoon to get the details of the commission. All business now, Harry departs on his military errand with Peto. -Falstaff, for his part, does not plan to let the war effort come between him and a good breakfast.
This little scene is largely an exercise in wit, full of Falstaff’s easy bantering with Bardolph, the hostess Mistress Quickly, and Harry. Like so many of Falstaff’s other scenes, this one entertains and adds a depth and humor to the play (especially in performance), but unlike some of the play’s other seemingly incidental scenes, this one carries little in the way of plot development. On some level, Falstaff’s jokes must simply be enjoyed rather than analyzed in depth.
We do see an excellent example here of Falstaff’s ability to adapt swiftly to change. His reaction to being trapped in a lie is the same as in the earlier scene of the foiled highway robbery: he pretends he was managing the situation all along and turns it to his advantage. In this case, he turns the fact that he was pickpocketed into an accusation of the hostess, enabling him to deflect her demands for payment. Falstaff exaggerates the cheap “eightpenny matter” of his lost ring (III.iii.94) into a valuable object worth the large sum of “forty mark” (III.iii.73), and he pretends that the shirts the hostess bought him were made of coarse material. He lets no opportunity for his own betterment slip by, even at the cost of telling quite extraordinary lies. When Harry catches him barefaced in his falsehood about the lost money, Falstaff weasels out with marvelous adroitness and lands on his feet by making himself the victim of Harry’s thievery. He is so successful in turning the situation on its head that he even forgives the hostess and compels her to fetch him breakfast.
This scene also spotlights the continuing ambivalence in the relationship between Harry and Falstaff. Their verbal sparring here seems to be largely affectionate, and Harry has done Falstaff another unsolicited kindness: after hiding him from the sheriff the night before, he has paid back in full the money that Falstaff’s party stole on the highway. While Harry considers himself a “good angel” to Falstaff for returning the money, it seems possible that the desire to protect himself from any serious criminal charges is also one of Harry’s motivations, since he is, after all, partially responsible for the theft (III.iii.163). Furthermore, while Harry has procured -Falstaff a good position—a command of infantry soldiers—in the upcoming war, in doing so he has rehashed the Act II, scene ii joke about Falstaff’s distaste for walking.
Despite the comedy attached to the notion of Falstaff on foot again, Harry has begun to take the war very seriously. His remark that “[t]he land is burning, Percy stands on high, / And either we or they must lower lie” reveals his understanding of the gravity of the situation—he is well aware that one side and one side only will prevail in this high-stakes battle (III.iii.187–188). Falstaff acts as a foil for Harry: whereas Harry respects his opponent, Falstaff issues a cynical declaration of praise about the Percy clan (“Well, God be thanked for these rebels—they offend none but the virtuous” [III.iii.174–175]). Additionally, whereas Harry focuses on the upcoming battle, Falstaff thinks of nothing but gratifying his physical desire for food, shouting, “Hostess, my breakfast come!— / O, I could wish this tavern were my drum!” (III.iii.189–190). His silly closing rhyme of “come!” and “drum!” parodies Harry’s solemn closing rhyme of “high” and “lie.”