Henry IV, Part I The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Prince's Dog: Falstaff and the Perils of Speech-Prefixity

Harry Berger, Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz

Throughout the two Henry IV plays, from his first appearance in the second scene of Part 1, Falstaff knowingly collaborates with Harry on the scenario entitled "The Rejection of Falstaff," subplot of "The Return of the Prodigal Son." Harry's resounding "I know thee not, old man" near the end of Part 2 (5.5.47) fulfills the scenario he entertained in the "I know you all" soliloquy that concluded the second scene of Part 1 (1.2.189-211).1 But Falstaff had already anticipated the scenario, alluding to it several times during conversations leading up to the soliloquy. Consider, for example, his sanctimonious parody at 1.2.89-96:

O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal, God forgive thee for it. Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give over this life, and I will give it over. By the Lord, an I do not I am a villain. I'll be damned for never a king's son in Christendom.

Substituting "Falstaff for "Hal" in this passage makes it clear that the sentiments he utters in the first person are those he attributes to Harry. They indicate his awareness that Harry will sooner or later run bad humors on the knight and that the rejection of Falstaff will be necessitated by a Puritan impulse to self-purgation in the prince. Falstaff impersonates Harry's response to his report that "An old lord of the council rated me the other day in the street about you" (11. 82-84), and this suggests that he already anticipates Harry's famous "I do, I will" (2 Henry IV, 2.4.476) and his more famous "I know thee not, old man." He knows from the beginning both that Harry has chosen him to play the role of misleader and that his misrule must have an end. He also recognizes the particular version of the Prodigal Son story that will best accommodate not only Harry's political needs but his moral needs as well: the naïf victimized by misleaders. That he knowingly, ironically, accepts this role turns out to be motivated by his own need for the Judgment he seems so enthusiastically to flout and thus to ask for. His deliberate assumption of the role in the second scene of Part 1 sharpens its challenge and its risk by giving Harry the moral advantage along with the chance to misuse it.

I find it difficult, therefore, to interpret his excited rush toward the royal presence in Act 5 of Part 2 as motivated only by a simple desire for preferment. Everything about the episode vibrates uneasily with the desire to bring his carnival to an exorcistic conclusion, to make himself "bait for the old pike" (3.2.329) and get his comeuppance. This orgiastic prospect spurs him to transgression and provocation: "Master Shallow, my lord Shallow—be what thou wilt, I am fortune's steward. .. . I know the young King is sick for me. Let us take any man's horses; the laws of England are at my commandment" (5.3.132-39). His plan to greet the king "stained with travel and sweating with desire to see him" is explicitly voiced as a histrionic fantasy: "to ride day and night, and not to deliberate, not to remember, not to have patience to shift me . . . thinking of nothing else, putting all affairs else in oblivion, as if there were nothing else to be done but to see him" (5.5.20-27).2 That he thinks the newly crowned king will appreciate his "zeal .. . to see him," his "earnestness of affection," his "devotion" (11. 14, 16, 18), is hardly credible in view of his previous knowing assessments of Harry. If he is in a state of "inflammation" similar to the one he mockingly ascribes to the "operation" of sack in the soliloquy at 4.3.95-115, it is because he has prepared himself for the long-deferred expulsion or sacrifice that will end the "lingering act" (1.1.156) of his carnival.

This is not to suggest that Falstaff's behavior in this...

(The entire section is 19,013 words.)