Summary and Analysis
Falstaff deplores his alleged physical decline resulting from lack of activity since the Gadshill "action." Bardolph's frank comment on the knight's corpulence leads him to a rhetorical exercise, the subject of which is Bardolph's flaming nose. When Mistress Quickly enters, Sir John accuses her of having picked his pockets and he refuses to pay his bill for wine, food, and even items of clothing. The hostess has occasion to mention the prince, whereupon Falstaff calls him a "Jack" (knave) and declares that he would cudgel him if he were present.
The prince enters, marching with Peto. Falstaff joins them, playing on his truncheon (a short staff) as if it were a fife. Falstaff then renews his altercation with the hostess, but when Hal tells him that he directed the search of Sir John's pockets, the old knight magnanimously forgives her.
Falstaff is much relieved to learn that all matters relating to the robbery have been settled. Yet the news of Hal's reconciliation with the king hardly elates him, particularly when he is told that he is to command foot soldiers. A serious Prince Hal then gives orders to Bardolph, Peto, and Falstaff, all relating to their services in opposing the rebels.
Falstaff's reference to "this last action," a term commonly used for military activity, serves to remind the reader of the connection between the comic subplot and the main plot in this chronicle-history play. One hardly needs the testimony of Bardolph to know that Falstaff has not "dwindled," not "fallen away," either physically or mentally. He is his redoubtable self. His answer to his own questions which begin this scene, complete with witty similes ("like an old lady's loose gown . . . like an old apple-john") tells us as much. Like an old apple, he keeps his flavor; unlike it, he is not shriveled. We have seen him before in a mood of apparent repentance like the one which follows and are not at all surprised to hear him attribute his fallen state to "company, villainous company," no more than we are surprised to witness the sudden revival of his spirits, thanks to his recourse to hedonist philosophy. When Bardolph remarks that he cannot live long, Sir John replies: "Why, there is it. Come sing me a bawdy song; make me merry" (15-16).
But it is his brilliant comments on Bardolph's physical appearance (27-59) which dominate the first part of this scene. This is an unsurpassed example of the comedy of physical appearance and of words — more specifically the "comedy of noses" (See Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, wherein the titular hero expounds wittily on the subject of his own nose). To put it another way, this is a comic aria, a bravura piece, all action stopping to give the performer his special opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity. His evoking of the image of hell's fire (and making another accurate biblical reference) is especially effective; at this point he sounds like a zealous preacher putting the fear of the Lord into the hearts of his listeners.
One additional point may be added. Falstaff has provided the wine for Bardolph for some thirty-two years, we are told (51-55). The time element, probably exaggerated to add to the fun, is not applicable, but the Falstaff of this play has depended upon Hal for the same courtesy. Thus the parasitical aspect of his character again receives notice. As a matter of fact, the interlude involving Mistress Quickly develops this. One learns that the old knight has been victimizing the kindly hostess, who has provided him with drink, food, and clothing.
In this kind of skirmish, or action, be it with the lowly tavern mistress or with the prince himself, Falstaff shows a kind of military genius. His method is to attack; that, quite often, is the best defense. Not irrelevant in this connection is the amusing military pantomine when Hal and Peto march in.
Falstaff is no less accomplished in his responses to the prince. When the hostess reports that Sir John had claimed Hal to be in his debt to the extent of one thousand pounds (a fortune in Shakespeare's day), Falstaff has an unanswerable reply: His love for Hal is worth millions. Nor does he hold the prince in awe, for that emotion is properly to be reserved for the king. He caps all this, tacitly admitting that his pockets had contained only "tavern-reckonings, memorandums of bawdy houses, and one poor penny-worth of sugar-candy" (178-80). He reminds Hal that Adam, progenitor of the human race, fell from a state of innocence, proving that all flesh is weak — and does not he, Falstaff, have more flesh than any other man? Clearly, it will not do to see Falstaff as symbolic of Prince Hal's irresponsible youth any more than it will to reduce him to a single comic type character. He is uniquely himself.
But that is not to say that his wit absolves him from all faults. His status as privileged jester makes it possible for him to urge Hal to "rob . . . the exchequer" at once, now that the prince is on good terms with the king; to suggest that Hal steal a horse for him so that he will not have to lead his soldiers afoot; and to praise rebels on the grounds that they offend only "the virtues" (205 ff.). But the course of life cannot be determined by the atmosphere of an Eastcheap tavern — not if one is to follow it honorably. Unlike Prince Hal, Falstaff is unwilling to give up life as a long series of holidays, even though the fate of the nation is at stake. Quite in character, then, he has his own way of applauding the prince's stirring call to arms ("The land is burning; Percy stands on high"):
Rare words! brave world! Hostess, my breakfast, come!
O, I could wish this tavern were my drum! (229-30)
His sensitive appetite must be satisfied under all circumstances. And it is suggested that he would like to transfer the tavern to the battlefield. Perhaps, in a metaphorical sense, he will do exactly that.