Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Henry Explications - Part G

The following is one in a series of mini-articles resulted from an exercise I had my St. Paul Academy 2011 Shakespeare students complete. The articles focus on selected speeches spanning Shakespeare’s Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V.

What, old acquaintance, could not all this flesh
Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell.
I could have better spared a better man.
O, I should have a heavy miss of thee
If I were much in love with vanity.
Death hath not struck so fat a deer today,
Though many dearer in this bloody fray.
Emboweled will I see thee by and by;
Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.
(1 Henry IV 5.4.104-112)

Since Prince Hal believes that he is completely alone with the body of an old acquaintance, Falstaff, his small monologue is almost a soliloquy. It is addressed to Falstaff, but since Falstaff is “dead,” it’s much more for the benefit of the audience/himself in intention.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the passage is the dramatic irony. In some ways, Hal is forgiving Falstaff for all of his cowardice by confessing that he cares for him and will mourn his passing. It’s an interesting commentary on how much more fondly we remember the dead than we appreciate the living. But it’s not just because he’s dead. Falstaff becomes more worthy of Hal’s forgiveness because Hal assumes that Falstaff has done the honorable thing and died defending the monarchy. But the audience knows that Falstaff is just pretending to be dead to save his own hide, an act of cowardice so complete that (the new) Hal would probably never forgive him for it. It completely tints the audience’s perception of Hal’s speech.

At the same time, Hal isn’t forgiving all of Falstaff’s faults, even if he does think he’s dead. In fact, he seems to switch back and forth between insulting and complimenting Falstaff, revealing that Prince Hal really does have one foot on the throne and the other on the table of a bar. He begins by calling Falstaff an acquaintance. Not a love, not a friend, but an acquaintance. His next sentence is a fat joke, as usual. But after that, the tone get’s a bit more serious. “Poor Jack, farewell,” says Hal, “I could have better spared a better man.” This is the most important line. In this line, Hal comes to realize (or has he realized it all along? It’s hard to tell with him) that he knows there are many men better, more honorable, more true than Falstaff. And yet he wishes that one of them could have died, that Falstaff could have lived. This suggests that there is something lasting and loving about Hals feelings for Falstaff.

His next line basically expresses the amount he would have missed Falstaff (heavy; another fat joke) if Hal were still the man he used to be (a man of frivolity). He then compares Falstaff to a Deer (an animal? A fat animal? A dumb animal? A sweet and defenseless animal? I’m still not sure) and again states that many who were more valuable than Falstaff died today. But he’s talking to Falstaff’s body, not to those other bodies. He knows, intellectually, that Falstaff’s life is not as valuable as others, but emotionally, Falstaff’s death hits him hard.

In his final line, Hal lays the body (drags the body? Doesn’t move it at all?) near Percy and says “Till then [your funeral], in blood by noble Percy lie.” The added bit about “in blood” implies that Falstaff wouldn’t be good enough to lie next to Percy in, say, honor, but he is good enough to lie next to him in blood. Or maybe it’s just an appropriate expression considering that there’s probably blood everywhere.

Nadja Milena (SPA '11)

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