In rural Gloucestershire in central England, we meet two prosperous rustic men: Justice Shallow and Justice Silence. They are justices of the peace, or minor law officials, who also own farms; they are typical of the rural upper-middle class of Elizabethan England. They are also cousins, and Justice Shallow is an old school friend of Falstaff. The two are getting ready for Falstaff's arrival, for he will be coming through Gloucestershire looking for recruits to draft into the king's war against the rebels in the north.
Shallow, living up to his name, talks jovially and abundantly; Silence, living up to his, answers Shallow but seldom says anything on his own. Shallow's conversation is largely about farming, neighbors (which of his old friends are dead and which are still alive), and fond memories of his school days. He and Falstaff went to college together at the Inns of Court, the elite law schools in London. Apparently, Falstaff has not changed very much since then; Shallow fondly recalls their visits with the "bona-robas" of London (an Elizabethan word for a high-class prostitute). He proudly describes having seen Falstaff beat up a man named Scoggin, at the very gate of the court, when Falstaff was a mere "crack," or boy (22, 28-30).
Falstaff and Bardolph arrive, and the two justices present to them the recruits they have rounded up. The recruits--country men named Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf--are mostly ragged and skinny, as their names suggest, but Falstaff chooses all except Wart to come with him, ordering Bardolph to "prick them," or write down their names in the book of draftees. However, Bullcalf and Mouldy bribe Bardolph to let them off the hook, and when Bardolph quietly passes on the word to Falstaff, he tells them they can go. Justice Shallow, unfamiliar with Falstaff's usual way of doing business, is confused and protests loudly that Falstaff has not chosen the best men. Falstaff responds by confusing him with high-flown language about how a soldier's physical strength is not always the best measure of his valor, and he declares that he will take only Shadow, Feeble, and Wart.
Shallow presses Falstaff to stay for dinner, but Falstaff says, in a surprising moment of responsibility, that he must march on tonight toward the war. They exchange fond good-byes, and Falstaff, alone, recalls aloud that Shallow has always been a fool. Now, however, he is also rich, and Falstaff decides that if he returns from the war he will come back and get Shallow to lend him some money.Read a translation of Act III, Scene ii →
This long scene shows us a part of English life we have not seen before: country living. Shallow and Silence are presented as members of the country bourgeoisie. They are comfortable, middle-class, conservative men, who live a lifestyle that the English of the Renaissance associated strongly with tradition: long before urbanization created the slums of London, people had been living in small towns and farming the countryside in ways that had continued, more or less unchanged, for centuries. Shakespeare himself was born and raised in the country, and many critics read these Gloucestershire scenes as a loving tribute to traditional English country life, despite the way in which the pompous Shallow and simple Silence are clearly being mocked.
Shakespeare also makes interesting use of the images of country life--lush vegetation and prosperous farmers' livestock--to cleverly bring into relief a theme that recurs throughout the play: human mortality. Justice Shallow mixes his farm talk and college memories with discussions of death. In remembering his years spent partying with Falstaff at college in London, Shallow says, "Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have had! And to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead!" When Silence responds, pragmatically, "We shall all follow, cousin," Shallow's pious but scattered reply is: "Certain, 'tis certain, very sure, very sure. Death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all, all shall die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?" (32-38) Following up a comment about the inevitability of death with a question about the current price of livestock, Shallow unwittingly juxtaposes life and death--thereby both trivializing the seriousness of death and reminding us how closely related it is to day-to-day life.