Summary and Analysis
The king bids the Prince of Wales and his brother, John of Lancaster, to rest. Despite his wounds, the prince will not do so: ". . . God forbid a shallow scratch should drive / The Prince of Wales from such a field as this, / Where . . . rebels' arms triumph in massacres" (11-14). He has high praise for his younger brother, whose courage inspires them all. The two depart.
Douglas enters, faces Henry IV, and exclaims: "Another king!" He identifies himself and demands to know the true identity of his foe. The king expresses his regret that, until now, the Scottish warrior has met only "his shadows" — nobles whom he mistook for the king. While his son seeks out Percy, Henry will take on Douglas. The king is in danger of defeat when Prince Hal enters. The latter identifies himself as the heir-apparent, engages Douglas in single combat, and forces his adversary to flee for his life. King Henry is particularly touched by this evidence of his son's courage.
After the king leaves, Hotspur enters, addresses the prince by name, and identifies himself. Now at last Harry does meet Harry face to face in combat. Falstaff appears to cheer Prince Hal, who will, as he says, "find no boy's play here" (76). At this point in the action, Douglas re-enters and engages Falstaff, who soon falls down as if he were dead. Just as Douglas leaves, Hotspur himself is wounded and falls.
In moving words, young Percy begins to recite his own epitaph but dies before he can finish. It is the prince who, in generous terms, completes it.
The prince sees the fallen Sir John Falstaff. Believing his old companion to be dead (if one takes his words literally), he now provides an epitaph for "Poor Jack," referring to him as "so fat a deer" and declaring that he will see him "embowell'd" (103-10). Hal departs.
Falstaff promptly revives and rises up. As in earlier, far less serious, episodes, he indulges in witty rationalization for his unheroic behavior — specifically, in this case, counterfeiting death. Next, he expresses his fear of "this gunpowder Percy," who is apparently dead. Perhaps, he says, young Percy is "counterfeiting" as Falstaff himself did. He decides to "make him sure" — and then to claim that it was he who killed the valiant rebel leader. No living person is nearby to see him; so he stabs the corpse of the fallen Hotspur. He lifts the body onto his back just as Prince Haland John of Lancaster re-enter.
Prince John is puzzled: Did not Hal tell him, that the old knight had been killed? Hal replies that indeed he saw Falstaff "dead, / Breathless and bleeding on the ground" (137). Sir John, he concludes, is not what he seems.
Indeed he is not, replies Falstaff. As conqueror of the great Percy, he looks to be made either an earl or a duke. He is deeply shocked to hear the prince claim to have slain Hotspur. Prince Hal is not perturbed; he is not concerned with refuting Sir John. As he says to his brother, if a lie will serve Falstaff, he will not interfere.
A trumpet sounds retreat. All know that the rebels have been defeated. The two princes leave to find out how their comrades have fared. Falstaff will follow — for his reward, as he makes clear.
Although another scene follows, this one provides the essential resolution of the action. From the start, the character of Prince Hal is enhanced. He refuses to leave the battlefield, despite his wounds; he demonstrates at once his humility and his magnanimity in praising the deeds performed by his younger brother. Even more impressive is the fact that he saves the life of Henry IV, exponent and symbol of law and order in the realm. That the father should be deeply touched comes as something of a surprise. He had distrusted his son, believing that Hal wanted him to die. Now the reader knows how malicious indeed were the slanders against the spirited young prince who had chosen to play the truant for a while.
Although the battle necessarily is presented in a series of separate episodes, the encounter between Prince Hal and Hotspur is the climactic one, for it conveys the impression that the prince's triumph ended the conflict. It will be recalled that Douglas, believing that he had slain the king, was convinced that his action meant total victory for the rebels. Young Percy was the leader of the insurgents.
Hotspur, whose high courage and gallantry have received increasing emphasis, invites one's whole-hearted sympathy as he falls before the prince's sword; his indeed was "a great heart." Surely no one would care to gloat over the fact that this same Hotspur had spoken contemptuously of Hal, refusing to believe that the prince was capable of serious action. For one thing, it was not life per se but his matchless reputation as a great warrior which concerned him most. Nor does this suggest undue vanity. He had been no braggart warrior; his titles had been won honestly. Like other dying great men elsewhere in Shakespeare, but perhaps unexpected in this heretofore unreflecting young soldier, Hotspur philosophizes in almost a medieval fashion, seeing himself as "time's fool." Those near death were thought to have the gift of prophecy; Hotspur, had he time, could prophesy. What could he foresee? Unquestionably the triumph of Henry V over the numerically superior French — the emergence of Prince Hal as hero-king of England. Just as Hotspur's courage, sense of honor, and gallantry were stressed increasingly in the later scenes, so Prince Hal's pre-eminence is emphasized. Young Percy has been established fully as the most worthy of all opponents; his conqueror emerges as a completely heroic figure, one almost larger than life itself. Appropriately, there is no suggestion of personal triumph in Hal's words. Magnanimity determines their tone, for he dwells up on young Percy's knightly virtues, his breadth of spirit, the high respect merited by one of such "great heart."
If valid military honor is the subject of this episode, the Falstaffian one which follows provides a grimly comic exercise on bogus military honor. When Hal sees Falstaff lying on the battlefield, he has a valediction for him, one no less appropriate than the one for Hotspur. The prince's statement that he could have "spar'd a better man"
(104) probably is purposely ambiguous. For holidays, those occasional times when care may be put aside, there is no better man than Falstaff in the sense of being more entertaining. But life, certainly for the heir to the throne, cannot remain a perpetual holiday. It follows that the prince is not so much in love with "vanity" as to be crushed by the end of all that Falstaff represents.
There is another possibility here. "I know you all," the prince soliloquized at the end of Act I, Scene 1; and his remarks to and concerning Falstaff throughout the play have left no doubt that he does fully understand his amusing companion. With this in mind, it may be argued that he is fully aware now that Falstaff is up to his old tricks again. Perhaps his play on the words heavy ("O, I should have a heavy miss of thee") and deer ("so fat a deer") and the reference to "embowelling" may well be taken as an indication that Hal knows Falstaff hears every word spoken. But admittedly all this is conjecture.
The Gadshill episode established the fact that Falstaff was a coward on principle, not a born coward like Peto or Bardolph. So he is here, as his famous line, "The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life" (120-22), makes clear. To be sure, there is an important element of truth in what he says, just as there was in his comments on honor. But there is also a cynical perversion of an abiding truth. Young Percy, prior to the Battle of Shrewsbury, well could have employed discretion without sacrifice of valor, for he was far above self-centered consideration. Discretion to Falstaff means self-preservation and no more.
There was sufficient falling off in the character of Falstaff, with reference to his recruits; there is more now. Sir John Falstaff, knight of the realm, stabs the fallen Hotspur in the thigh, an act which involves complete renunciation of the chivalric code. It is an act of monstrous desecration, absolutely inexcusable.
One may presume that he no more expects to be believed when he claims to have slain Hotspur than he had expected Hal and Poins to believe his story of what happened at Gadshill, for one cannot deprive the witty, knowledgeable Falstaff of ordinary common sense. Hal had tricked him there; now he tricks Hal. And, if on principle he is cowardly where physical action is involved, in the realm of rhetoric he is dauntless. "There is Percy," he exclaims, throwing the body to the earth (142) — a salvo defying refutation. With the same confidence, he expects great reward. At the end of this scene, he says: "I'll follow, as they say, for reward. He that rewards me, God reward him" (166-67). That too has been a great part of his life's philosophy; throughout the play he has followed for reward.
But Falstaff will not permit us to dismiss him scornfully, for his superior wit never deserts him and, in a sense, he has considerable capacity for self-criticism. The thought strikes him that, should he be elevated to a dukedom, actually he will "grow less," for such high rank has its obligations: The king of jesters would have to abdicate.
One other point relating to Falstaff's conduct needs to be settled. Those who refuse to find any fault in this man, who is to them the true hero of this play, make much of his statement that he led his men into the heart of battle. This, it is argued, is irrefutable proof of his personal valor. But is it? Did he actually place himself at the head of his company when he committed it to battle? And did he then, thanks to great martial prowess, survive without a scratch despite his enormous girth? In the next episode he counterfeits death as a means of escaping once more "shot free." Perhaps that was not the first time in which he employed the ruse. Certainly Elizabethans would not interpret the word "led" as proof of Falstaff's courage — not in view of the frequent charges made against leaders who committed their troops to battle but avoided danger themselves. These charges may well provide a revealing insight into Falstaff's actions — and may be at one with his having "misused the king's press damnably" in recruiting his soldiers.
Prince Hal deserves the last word. His superiority and his magnanimity are well illustrated by his refusal to argue with Falstaff or to show the slightest concern about being deprived of the credit for the defeat of a great adversary. He is quite willing to humor this knight of the "latter spring." Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, since Shakespeare indubitably had the sequel to this play in mind, Falstaff cannot be rejected at the end of King Henry IV, Part 1.