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Bardolph, Pistol, and the others (all the commoners but Nim) are veteran Shakespeare characters, introduced and developed in the Henry IV plays. In those plays, they take a secondary role to Sir John Falstaff, a larger-than-life comic creation and the bosom friend of the present-day King Henry, who is known in the Henry IV plays as Prince Hal. Falstaff does not appear onstage in Henry V, but the characters talk about him, and in Act II, scene iii we learn of his death.
Henry’s history with Falstaff has important implications for Henry’s character. Falstaff was a mentor and constant companion to Prince Hal before the death of his royal father, Henry IV. Much to Henry IV’s chagrin, Falstaff taught the young Hal all about the underworld’s way of life. When Prince Hal became king, though, he rejected Falstaff publicly. According to the friends who go to Falstaff’s deathbed, this rejection was the beginning of the end for Falstaff. As the hostess explains it, Falstaff will die because “[t]he King has killed his heart” (II.i.79).
The juxtaposition of the announcement in Act II, scene i of Falstaff’s impending death and the announcement in Act II, scene ii of Scrope’s impending death creates an interesting implication—that the amount of power a person has plays an important role in determining what it is right or wrong for him to do. Falstaff, one of the king’s former friends, is dying because Henry betrayed him. Scrope, another former friend, is also going to die, but because he betrayed Henry. There is a certain disturbing irony to this fact, but, at the same time, one of the reasons that power plays such a large role in determining a person’s behavior is that with increased power comes an enlarged set of responsibilities. However he might have felt about Falstaff personally, Henry knew that Falstaff was a confirmed outlaw and thief and understood that keeping such a person close to the throne would not serve the larger needs of England. Along the same lines, it is likely that Henry conducts the execution of the traitorous noblemen as he does because he gives priority to his country’s stability over the stability of his personal relationships. He considers it of utmost importance to send a signal to the other nobles that the war is a deadly serious business and will be conducted as such. Henry shows kindness when he can, freeing the insignificant drunkard, but when the fates of nations are at stake, he knows that he must act from motives larger than his own personal feelings. To spare Scrope out of love would weaken the stability of the throne. This sense of responsibility and the necessity of acting justly underlies Henry’s apparent coldness. Henry himself later expounds upon this idea when he describes the pressures of living as a king.
I just finished Henry V, the 19th Shakespeare play, in my quest to read all the Bard by his 450th birthday next year. If you're interested, visit my blog to find out what I thought of it and more on what I thought of Henry:
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