Ancient Pistol is a brusque figure who frequents the taverns and brothels of Eastcheap in London. He’s a prideful man who insists on being known by his military title, even though “ancient” (or “ensign”) designates the lowest-ranking soldier whose chief responsibility in battle is as a standard bearer. Yet Pistol is anything but a true soldier, and he certainly isn’t the kind of man to proudly bear his nation’s flag. Rather, he’s a man who prefers to follow his own inclinations. Shakespeare first introduced Pistol in Henry IV, Part 2, where he appeared in the service of his superior officer, Sir John Falstaff. In that play, Pistol was a ridiculous and blustering figure, quick to anger over the most minor of quarrels. He remains largely unchanged in Henry V. He’s now married to Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, who had previously banned him for “swaggering.” Despite their marriage, however, he continues to swagger, getting into arguments with friends and foes alike and insulting them with his typical—and often incomprehensible—mix of languages, idioms, and references. He’s also an unrepentant coward who retreats from battle almost as soon as he enters it, as we see during the conflict at Harfleur in act 3, scene 2.

In many ways, Pistol offers something of a substitute for the deceased Falstaff. Like his former superior officer, Pistol is a comic figure who often rejects the normative conventions and expectations of his society. However, he lacks the refined wit and vivacious lust for life that has endeared Falstaff to so many audiences, readers, and critics. Indeed, Pistol is a dim reflection of and poor substitute for Falstaff. In the world of Henry V, characterized as it is by feats of heroism and the accumulation of honor, there seems to be little room for an authentically Falstaffian wit. What we get, instead, is a man who, despite his evident learning, remains little more than a cowardly buffoon. That said, Shakespeare does reveal an unexpected side to Pistol soon after his companion Bardolph is arrested for theft. Pistol pleas with the Welsh captain Fluellen to intervene on Bardolph’s behalf. Pistol’s plea is unexpectedly coherent and moving, and it demonstrates a previously unexpressed capacity for loyalty and noble speech: “Let gallows gape for dog, let man go free, and let not hemp his windpipe suffocate” (3.6.41–42). Yet when Fluellen refuses to help, Pistol reverts just as quickly back to blustering anger.