Henry IV, Part One, has always been one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, maybe because of Falstaff. Much of the early criticism I found concentrated on Falstaff and so will I.
This may begin in the eighteenth century with Samuel Johnson. For Johnson, the Prince is a “young man of great abilities and violent passions,” and Hotspur is a “rugged soldier,” but “Falstaff, unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee?
Thou compound of sense and vice . . . a character loaded with faults, and with faults which produce contempt . . . a thief, a glutton, a coward, and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the defenseless. . . his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity [yet] he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.”
Johnson makes three assumptions in his reading of the play:
1. That Falstaff is the kind of character who invites a moral judgment mainly that he can answer to the charge of being a coward.
2. That you (the reader) can detach Falstaff’s frivolity from the play and it can exist for its own sake apart from the major theme of the drama.
3. That the play is really about the fate of the kingdom, and that you (the reader) do not connect Falstaff’s scenes with the main action. This means that the play has no real unity.
Starting with Johnson’s first assumption, I do agree with this. Any discussion of Falstaff is bound to include a judgment about his moral character. Is he a coward, a thief, a glutton? No one can deny that he is in fact a glutton and a thief. A coward is debatable. I choose to think he is. He is self-centered and cares only for his own profit and enjoyment. He will protect himself at all costs including playing ” possum” if necessary to avoid injury.
When he misuses the money intended to buy troops and weapons, he turns it into profit for himself. Once again, with no concern for anyone else, he potentially jeopardizes the troops, the battle, and the kingdom with substandard men and materials while making money for himself. It makes the reader question, what kind of friend is he to Hal that he would misuse the trust that has been given him. It all easier for Hal to ultimately recognize that this is not the kind of person or people he wants to associate himself with, let alone approve of.
Johnson’s second assumption that you can detach Falstaff’s frivolity from the real drama is in fact true, but what would you have left? A less interesting, less amusing drama with only one main plot. Falstaff is of paramount importance to the sub-plot dealing with Hal’s decision between continuing his carefree lifestyle or maturing into the role he is destined to play as a respected prince and later king. This story would be pretty dull if Hal didn’t have to choose between an entertaining life like Falstaff’s or an honorable one as a gallant warrior and respected leader.
Johnson’s last assumption that the “Falstaff” scenes have nothing to do with the main action is incorrect if you agree that this sub-plot is necessary for an engaging drama. In Act 2, Scene 4, after Hal says, while role-playing as the King with Falstaff, “That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan”.
Falstaff, as Hal, tries to reason, “No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish him not thy Harry’s company; banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”. Hal, again as the King, says, “I do, I will”.
He indicates that after becoming king he would choose to rid the kingdom of people the likes of Falstaff. He is indicating that he has chosen the path for his life and made his own moral judgment on Falstaff. This scene and therefore Falstaff’s very being is significant to show Hal’s evolution into a “true” prince.
Falstaff’s character is necessary to Hal’s character development just as Hotspur’s temperament is necessary to his. Falstaff’s wit, humor, and amusing antics are needed to develop Hal. He helps us relate to Hal and his decision. We know people of all types of character and personality in our lives. They influence our thinking and decisions. So it is also necessary for Hal.
Whether Falstaff is only a coward and glutton, or a person who has an “amusing” way of expressing his deeply felt personal and political beliefs is a matter of individual interpretation. I am not sure that it really matters as long as it contributes to Hal’s maturing process, and it does.
In conclusion, every age of man has and will continue to judge Falstaff’s role based on the morals and the thinking of the day. His frivolity is necessary to make the play amusing and interesting enough to hold the reader’s/viewer’s attention. However, that Falstaff’s scenes are needed should go without question leaving the critics and us only to debate his motivation and his tactics.