— 2.3 —
In front of a tavern in London, Pistol, Nell Quickly, Nym, Bardolph, and the boy who had been Sir John Falstaff’s page were standing and talking about the death of Sir John, which had occurred just after midnight.
Nell Quickly said to Pistol, “Please, honey-sweet husband, let me accompany you to Staines, a town on the way to Southampton.”
“No, because my manly heart yearns — it is grieving,” Pistol replied.
He said to the others, “Bardolph, be blithe. Nym, rouse your vaunting veins. Boy, bristle your courage up. Falstaff is dead, and therefore we must yearn — we must grieve.”
Anyone overhearing Pistol might laugh. The verb “yearn” means to want someone. To want someone means either to grieve for someone or to feel sexual desire for someone. Some other words could be understood in more than one way. Someone overhearing Pistol could think that he was saying this:
“My manly heart feels sexual desire. Bardolph, do something to make yourself very, very happy. Nym, rouse your vaunting veins — the ones that are in the appendage that hangs below your waist. Boy, make your ‘courage’ — the appendage that hangs below your waist — bristle and rise up. Falstaff is dead, but we live, and therefore we must feel sexual desire.”
Bardolph said, “I wish that I were with Falstaff, wherever he is, whether in Heaven or in Hell!”
Nell Quickly said, “I am sure that he’s not in Hell; instead, he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.”
Nell Quickly meant Abraham’s bosom rather than the bosom of King Arthur, famous in part for his knights of the round table.
She added, “Falstaff made a finer end than the one that would have sent him to Hell. He died as if he had been a christom child — a child who died sinless and baptized in its first month of life. He died just between twelve and one — as the old belief states, his life ebbed with the tide. After I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with the flowers lying on the bed and smile because his fingers were not obeying his commands, I knew that he was dying because of these signs and other signs: His nose was as sharp as a pen, and he babbled about green fields. I tried to comfort him and to give him good advice: ‘How are you, Sir John?’ I asked, and said, ‘Be cheerful!’ He cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, advised him that he should not think of God; I said that I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So he told me to lay more clothes on his feet because they were cold. I put my hand under the sheets and felt his feet, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt up to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all the parts of his body were as cold as any stone.”
Nell Quickly was being unintentionally bawdy as she spoke. One meaning of “stone” is “testicle,” so we have an image of Nell Quickly moving her hands from Falstaff’s feet higher and higher on his body until she felt his testicles.
Falstaff’s death was similar to the death of Socrates as recounted in Plato’s Phaedo. Socrates drank hemlock, as required by the jurors of Athens when he was found guilty at his trial. As the poison worked, Socrates’ body grew colder and colder, starting with his feet and working upward.
Falstaff’s reference to “green fields” may have been a reference to this famous Biblical passage (Psalm 23, King James Version):
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
Nym said, “They say he cried out against alcohol.”
Nell Quickly said, “Yes, he did.”
Bardolph added, “And he cried out against women.”
Nell Quickly said, “No, he did not.”
The boy said, “Yes, he did. He said that women were Devils incarnate.”
The word “incarnate” reminded Nell Quickly of another word: “He could never abide carnation; it was a color he never liked.”
The boy said, “Falstaff said once that the Devil would have his soul because he pursued women.”
Nell Quickly said, “Falstaff did, occasionally, touch on the topic of women.”
The boy thought, He also occasionally touched women.
Nell Quickly continued, “But when he talked about women, he was rheumatic, and talked of the whore of Babylon.”
The boy thought, Falstaff was not rheumatic; Nell probably means lunatic. On his deathbed, Falstaff was in and out of his right mind. This is something that sometimes happens to alcoholics when they die. Falstaff’s nose grew “sharp as a pen,” as Nell Quickly said. The faces of the dying sometimes grow thinner and their noses seem to grow sharper.
The boy asked, “Do you remember when he saw a flea light upon Bardolph’s nose, and he said that it was a black soul burning in Hell-fire?”
Bardolph said, “Well, the fuel is gone that maintained that fire. The consumption of alcohol is what made my nose red, and Falstaff bought that alcohol for me. That is the way that he paid me for my services to him.”
The dying Falstaff was not like the living Falstaff. The living Falstaff enjoyed sack, and he enjoyed women. His testicles were hot, not cold. He enjoyed laughing and making people laugh. When he prayed, he prayed as a joke. He was in his right mind, although that mind was evil.
At the end of Falstaff’s life, he was trying to pray or to recite a Biblical Psalm. He was afraid of being damned to Hell. He was also repenting his sins of drunkenness and fornication.
As evil as Falstaff’s life had been, he may have died well. According to Christian theology, an evil man who sincerely repents on his deathbed will be accepted into Paradise.
Nym asked, “Shall we amscray and shove off? The King will soon sail from Southampton.”
Pistol said, “Come, let’s leave.”
He said to his wife, Nell Quickly, “My love, give me your lips. Kiss me. Look after my property and prevent it from being stolen. Keep on the alert; remember these words of wisdom: ‘Cash down, no credit:’ Trust no one; oaths are like straws, and men’s promises are like thin wafer-cakes. Promises and pie crusts are easily broken. Promises are good, but deeds are better. A dog named ‘Brag’ is good, but a dog named ‘Steadfast’ is better, my love. Therefore, let Caveto be your counselor.”
If anyone who knew Latin had been present, he or she would have thought, Pistol means Cavete — Be careful. This is the vocative plural.
Pistol added, “Go, clear your crystals — wipe the tears from your eyes. Yoke-fellows in arms, let us go to France. We will be like leeches that attach themselves to horses, my boys, and suck and suck and suck the blood of the French!”
The boy said, “Blood is an unhealthy food, they say.”
Pistol said, “Touch my wife’s soft mouth — kiss her — and let’s march.”
Bardolph said, “Farewell, hostess,” and kissed Nell Quickly.
Nym said, “I cannot kiss her, that is the long and short of it; but I say, adieu.”
Pistol said to his wife, “I command you to practice good household management and stay out of trouble.”
His wife replied, “Farewell; adieu.”
The males left.
Note: The above is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s Henry V: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: