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

William Shakespeare


(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 scene fails to display any hope of advancement. That hope rides on the rhetorical surface of his excitement. But the message conveyed by the totality of his utterances and actions up to this point is that he also wants to put both his hope and Harry to the test; he wants to see how far Harry will let him go, to probe the limits of transgression, to expose himself to the risk of the rejection and punishment he half looks forward to. And it is further confused by another motive: he knows the king needs a public occasion, a ritual of exorcism, to dramatize his reformation, and he cooperates in provoking it. Yet even as he yields to the temptation to offer himself up to Harry, he continues Being Bad. For if Harry shifts responsibility in calling Falstaff his misleader, Falstaff's provocation gives him the opportunity and makes the king appear solely responsible for the rejection the two had been conspiring to bring about from the start. It is in the context of this discursive tug of war that one can begin to appreciate the ethical constraints on Harry and the meaning of his response to it.

"I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. / How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester" (5.5.47-48). These words signal Harry's rejection not only of Falstaff but also of the knowledge of what really went on between them. The distance of the refusal to know is increased by the generic appellation "old man," which Harry's subsequent words interpret in a religious context so that "old man" becomes synonymous with "my former self." (These connotations reverberate in Henry V in Canterbury's scary characterization of the king's violent conversion: "Consideration like an angel came / And whipped th' offending Adam out of him" [1.1.29-30].) "I know thee not" asserts the reality of Falstaff's sinfulness by forcefully and publicly rejecting it and asserts the validity of Harry's conversion. This seeming knowledge keep's Harry from submitting to an unknown or half-known fear of himself, but of course it does so by a strategy that must reactivate the fear, since he is at this very moment falsifying the hopes of his corruptibility that he earlier aroused.

Without such knowledge Harry could win the crown of England but could not ensconce himself on the throne of his self-esteem. Therefore he rejects the ironic Falstaffian voice that refuses to sanction this knowledge and stubbornly reminds him he was a falsifier of hopes. Yet even here the traces of guilt and his need to manage it are registered in the sentence he passes. Those who criticize Harry for the harshness of his treatment of Falstaff, for the narrowing of his sensibility, for the sacrifice of humaneness demanded by the royal office, perhaps overlook the character of the sentence. Given the severity of his rhetoric, it is oddly anticlimactic:

When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.


Because "I banish thee, on pain of death" sounds so threatening, the actual terms of banishment specified two lines later seem surprisingly lenient, producing at the rhetorical level the effect of a feint toward strict justice countered by a gesture of clemency.3 The sentence is proclaimed in words that express the speaker's full assurance of his moral superiority. But what he brandishes is a carrot, not a stick.

I view this maneuver as an act of moral self-protection. The motivation behind it may be suggested by comparing a section of Harry's first soliloquy in Part 1 with the declaration in Part 2 that precedes the passage quoted above:

So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes. . . .
I'll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

(1 Henry IV 1.2.202-11)

Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

(2 Henry IV, 5.5.56-59)

Since these two passages represent a promise and its fulfillment, they dramatize the singleness, the integrity, of the speaker's purpose over time. Thus they contradict the assertion that he is not the thing he was. He knows he never was but only played the prodigal, that he was and therefore remains the misleader of his misleaders and the falsifier of the hopes he falsely planted in others. That this is something he has not been able conveniently to forget is evidenced by the continuing traces of anger and violence his language betrays from the time of his interview with his dying father to the end of Henry V.4Henry V as a whole reflects the consequences of Harry's need to produce and maintain a ten-mile trouble-free zone around his conscience. This may be sensed in the language with which he protests to the French ambassadors that "We are no tyrant, but a Christian king," whose passion "is as subject [to our grace] / As is our wretches fettered in our prisons" (1.2.241-43), an odd analogy that exposes his dim view of his passion. The anger he directs toward Henry, Falstaff, and the French is rooted in what I have elsewhere described as the self-purging fury with which he "scours [the] faults" of others while persisting in his famous disclaimers of responsibility.5 These signs of anxious concern for moral solvency indicate his abiding suspicion that he may be more sinning than sinned against. It is in this general context that I view Harry's tempered rejection of Falstaff as a defensive maneuver of self-exculpation, part of a pattern in evidence from their first appearance together in the second scene of I Henry IV.

Nothing in this interpretation of Harry's language would surprise the speaker who emerges from my reading of Falstaff's language. His awareness of the prince's project and of his own relation to it is suggested from the beginning, conveyed by such teasingly indirect means as the parody of sanctimoniousness discussed above. It peeps forth with equal diffidence before the Gadshill robbery when he complains about the removal of his horse:

I am accursed to rob in that thief s company. The rascal hath removed my horse and tied him I know not where. . . . Well, I doubt not but to die a fair death for all this, if I scape hanging for killing that rogue. I have forsworn his company hourly any time this two-and-twenty years, and yet I am bewitched with the rogue's company. If the rascal have not given me medicines to make me love him, I'll be hanged; it could not be else—I have drunk medicines. Poins! Hal! A plague upon you both!


This passage is ambiguous for two reasons. First, as David Bevington points out, though Poins is the obvious referent of the complaint, "much of what Falstaff says . . . about the rascal's bewitching company applies no less aptly to Hal."6 Second, until the outburst at the end, it isn't clear what kind of speech act it is. This can be determined only—like the "open silences" Philip McGuire discusses in Speechless Dialect—by the way it is staged.7 The speaker could utter or mutter it to himself. He could say it loud enough to indicate that he wants to be overheard, and those at whom it is directed could be either offstage or visibly within earshot. If he aims his vexation at potential eavesdroppers, he could do so simply to register a complaint; but he could also do it to keep the game in play by telling his persecutors what they want to hear. It becomes clear as he continues—and even clearer if we note the echoes of the previous scene with Gadshill and the carriers—that he is performing the victim's discourse, exploiting its dialectical turnings, the alternation of its rhetoric between the specious probity of injured innocence and the villain's compensatory bluster:

I'll starve ere I'll rob a foot further. An 'twere not as good a deed as drink to turn true man and to leave these rogues, I am the veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth. Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore-and-ten miles afoot with me, and the stony-hearted villains know it well enough. A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true one to another! .. . A plague upon you all! Give me my horse, you rogues, give me my horse, and be hanged!

(11. 21-29)

When a speaker echoes the words and sentiments uttered in an episode from which he was absent (in this case, 2.1), it usually means that he is inscribed in the same discourse. Here, Falstaff articulates the discourse and inscribes himself in it. Allowing himself to be set up, pretending to be an unwilling victim, and feigning indignation at the disloyalty of thieves, he stages the complicity and self-deception that drive the intertwined discourses of the victim-revenger and the villain. He parades himself as an example of what he mocks.8

The structure of eavesdropping in this performance is complex, but it is considerably clarified by the sense Bevington conveys of the staging of the episode. In his account of the textual difficulties that make for indeterminate stage directions, he speculates that since Harry "comes forward to torment Falstaff about his horse, . . . he presumably overhears with Poins the soliloquy of comic grumbling that Falstaff directs at them. Conventions of darkness on the Elizabethan stage allowed the audience to suppose that Falstaff could not see those who are teasing him and overhearing his complaint."9 Falstaff, then, is listening to them listen to him, and letting them know it. The speech is itself a kind of eavesdropping performed by someone who rustles conspicuously behind the arras. Since, in the analogy this metaphor suggests, Falstaff resembles Polonius less than Harry resembles Hamlet, I am attracted to Bevington's suggestion that his opening remarks easily bounce from their putative target, Poins, to Harry.10 What he says is not "I love him" but "he has made me love him; it's his fault; he has bewitched me, seduced me, misled me, victimized me; he is indeed able to corrupt a saint." This is another piece of innuendo by mimicry. It continues Falstaff's knowing parody in 1.2 of the purposes subsequently revealed in the "I know you all" soliloquy.

If, then, he submits "with comic grumbling" to the project he mimics, a project that (the mimicry suggests) will victimize him sooner or later and of which the present episode is a proleptic parody, an anamorphic reduction, is it because he believes what he says: "I am bewitched with the rogue's company"? Does he believe it about Harry? About himself? Is he expressing what he thinks Harry feels or what he thinks Harry pretends to feel? What he himself feels or what he pretends to feel? Is he—and this is a possibility the Shakespearean soliloquy always promotes—eaves-dropping on himself as well as the others, testing his ability, his desire, to believe the sentiments he utters? His ability and desire to deceive himself and justify yielding to the affection he knows will undo him? And if the innuendo by mimicry is intended for Harry's ears, is he prompting Harry to listen to him listen to Harry so that Harry will understand "I know you all" has been overheard? And, understanding that, will perceive that Falstaff perceives "I know you all" supplies the real force, the real meaning, behind the comic colting/uncolting of Falstaff?

At this point we can do little more than sift aimlessly through these questions because they encode the unresolved condition and ongoing interrogations of the bond between Falstaff and Harry. They represent questions I imagine Falstaff continually to ask himself, to ask Harry, and to ask Harry to ask himself; questions asked through the safely indirect medium of practical jokes and wit wars, questions that aren't yet answerable and whose darker implications are lightly broached in Falstaffs soliloquy, then carefully thrown away by the comic form the episode as a whole gives to the victim's discourse. The spectacle of Falstaff colted and uncolted condenses, displaces, reduces—in a word, detextualizes—those implications and thereby controls them. But because they are very much alive in the illocutionary fireworks of the soliloquy, their latent power overshadows the spectacle. Its comic circumstances anamorphically foreshorten the deep encounter embedded in the textual conditions of the scene's language. This limitation has strategic value: it enables Falstaff and Harry to go on colting and testing each other, sounding each other out, circling about each other.

I have been at this game long enough to know that the preceding analysis of interlocutory and illocutionary action is not something readers are inclined to accept at face value, especially those readers whose interests tend to be stage-centered and who are impatient with what they view as needlessly complexifying accounts of language intended to be spoken and heard in real-utterance time. Since I stand by the defense of decelerated close reading worked out in Imaginary Audition, I won't repeat it here. But there are some methodological premises informing my view of speakers' relations to their language and language games that may seem counterintuitive enough to violate conventional assumptions about the interpretation of speech acts in theatrical texts, and especially of two aspects of deixis: the direction and recipients of address in speech marked as soliloquy, and the reflexivity of address in speech acts of any kind. What does it mean for a fictional speaker to address a theater audience? Can a speaker who performs for and before others be shown to address himself as one of those others? What theoretical distinctions and moves are necessary to orient reading toward the signs of self-representation and self-auscultation in dialogue as well as in monologue and soliloquy?

Methodological Incipit

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Old Law: In the beginning Shakespeare created the script and the characters, and the script was inky-still and unsound, while the characters were without body; whereupon he created actors and performances to give soundness to the script and body to the characters.

The New Law; In the beginning is the speech prefix, and the speech prefix is with the text, and the text is speech. And the text transforms its speech prefix into the name both of the object represented by the speech and of the subject that represents itself through the speech.11 And neither the object nor the subject named by the speech prefix is with body until the actor's manlike or boylike body fills...

(The entire section is 3629 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The aim of this methodological exercise has been to set up and render explicit an interpretive framework that, in addition to dissociating the character's audience from the actor's, makes possible a double articulation of the speech prefix into the subject of the speech acts it performs and the object of the language that performatively interprets it. My emphasis is on the articulation of the speaker as the subject of his speech because my survey of several major treatments of Falstaff leads me to believe that their failure to give the subject's performance its due occasions what is simultaneously an oversimplification and an overvaluation of the object educed from their interpretations of the speech. And as I shall...

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Coda: The Thin Man

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!" (2.4.194): Pistol is not the only speaker in this community who seeks to lay his head "in Furies' lap" (5.3.107). In Part 2, "death turns and stalks Falstaff . . . in the form of thinness,"91 and the thinness Falstaff harps on ("This same starved justice" [3.2.303], "the very genius of famine" [11. 312-13])92 is a kind of memento mori calling the fat man to account. The Thin Man reappears in 5.4 in the form of the beadle whom Doll and Quickly later revile:

DOLL . . . you filthy famished correctioner . . .

BEADLE Come, come, you she knight-errant, come.


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