Henry IV Part 2
Act V, Scenes iii-iv
Still in Gloucestershire, Falstaff eats a merry dinner with Justice Shallow and Justice Silence, as well as Bardolph, Davy, and Falstaff's page. The group enjoys itself enormously, devouring good country fruit and meat, drinking wine, and laughing. Justice Silence surprises Falstaff by becoming very noisy: he is tipsy, and as a result sings snatches of hearty, old-fashioned songs throughout the meal. When Falstaff comments on this approvingly, Silence tells him that there is nothing to be surprised at--he has been cheerful three times already in his life.
An unexpected messenger arrives: Ancient Pistol enters, bringing news from the court in London. As usual, his meaning is buried under elaborate but muddled dramatic references. But his news finally comes out: old King Henry IV is dead, and Prince Hal is now King Henry V. Naturally, Falstaff and his friends assume that Falstaff will now be in a position of great comfort and power, since he is the closest friend of the former Prince. Falstaff generously offers all his friends high positions in the court, and he calls for his horse: he, Pistol, Bardolph, and Shallow will ride all night to reach London as soon as they can. Justice Silence, who seems to have succumbed to the effects of the wine, is dragged off to bed.
Meanwhile, on a street in London, two beadles (minor law officers) appear, dragging with them the prostitute Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly from the Boar's Head Tavern. The Hostess and Doll are struggling against the lawmen and cursing them; Doll's insults are especially impressive and seem to come close to unmanning the beadles. Apparently, a man whom Pistol beat up while in their company has died, so they are being dragged off to jail--probably for a punishment such as whipping but possibly for execution. Doll claims to be pregnant (a standard way in which women criminals could avoid punishment or hanging in the Elizabethan era), but the beadle answers that she is lying and has merely padded her belly with a cushion. The Hostess wishes that Falstaff were there, since he would show those beadles a thing or two. But the women cannot free themselves and are dragged off to see a justice.
Scene iii is the last of the Gloucestershire scenes, and it is as cheerful and relaxed as the two that came before it. The sheer fullness of life that we see in this scene--the continuous stream of food and wine flowing to the table, the relaxed jokes, the snippets of merry songs sung by the unusually vivacious Silence--evoke an idyllic life. (And, perhaps, if we think of Shakespeare as a country boy writing in the heart of the city, it also evokes a sense of nostalgia for a lost but simpler time.) Silence's first song seems to be a perfect example of this kind of feeling: "We shall / Do nothing but eat, and make good cheer, / And praise God for the merry year, / When flesh is cheap and females dear, / And lusty lads roam here and there, / So merrily . . ." (16-21).
Ancient Pistol makes his second and final appearance in this scene. Falstaff begs him to deliver his news "like a man of this world," instead of some character from an exotic play (94-5), but Pistol will not be rushed. He replies with lines like, "Shall dunghill curs confront the Helicons? / And shall good news be baffled? / Then, Pistol, lay thy head in Furies' lap" (101-103). Finally, of course, Falstaff manages to extract his information from him.
In his impetuous rush to his horse and his offers of high placement for all his friends, we see both Falstaff's usual hurried overconfidence and a real generosity in his nature. He also seems to be genuinely anxious to see Hal: "I know the young King is sick for me," he says (131). We know that Falstaff constantly takes advantage of people, but we also know that he is genuinely fond of Hal, and his glee at the prospect of power and money may be mixed with a genuine wish to be with the newly crowned king at this time of crisis. The optimism he is building up, however, will soon be shattered, and his apparent affection for Hal will be betrayed.