William Shakespeare’s “1 Henry IV”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scene 2

— 4.2 —

Falstaff and Bardolph were talking in a public road near Coventry. Falstaff’s company of men whom he had drafted into military service for King Henry IV were with them.

Falstaff said, “Bardolph, go before me to Coventry. Fill up a bottle of sack for me. Our soldiers shall continue to march. Tonight we will reach Sutton Coldfill.”

“Will you give me money to pay for the sack, Captain?” Bardolph asked.

“Use your own money,” Falstaff replied.

“This bottle will make your debt ten shillings,” Bardolph calculated. “Ten shillings equal an angel, so this bottle will make one angel.”

Falstaff pretended that the bottle could actually make angels: “If it makes an angel, keep it in return for your labor. If it makes twenty angels, keep them all. Since they are angels, I am sure that the coinage is good. Tell Lieutenant Peto to meet me at the edge of the town.”

“I will, Captain,” Bardolph said. “Goodbye.”

He departed.

Falstaff said to himself, “If I am not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a pickled fish. I have damnably misused the King’s power of drafting citizens to fight in the war. I drafted a hundred and fifty people, but for three hundred and odd pounds, they bribed me to draft other people to be soldiers. I was able to get all this money by drafting no one except people with money. I drafted wealthy property-owners and the sons of wealthy farmers. I inquired about men who were about to be married and drafted them. I drafted people who live comfortably and who would rather hear the Devil than to hear the sound of a military drum. I drafted wealthy people who love comfort and are more afraid of the sound of a gun than is a wild duck that has been shot. I drafted only weaklings who dine on toast and butter, who have hearts no bigger than the heads of pins. All of these people have paid me not to draft them, and now my company officially consists of lots of ensigns, corporals, lieutenants, and other junior officers. The rich people I drafted I made officers; that entitled them to more pay. The rich people paid me to draft someone else, and I then drafted privates, who don’t make much money, and now I keep for myself the difference in pay.

“My company consists of rascals as ragged as Lazarus in scenes on a painted cloth where the glutton’s dogs licked Lazarus’ sores. These people now in my company were never soldiers: They are servants who were fired because they were dishonest; they are the younger sons of younger brothers, and so they are impoverished; they are apprentice bartenders who ran away from their servitude; and they are unemployed hostlers. They are parasites even when the world is calm and has been long at peace. They are ten times more dishonorably ragged than is an old tattered flag. Such are the kinds of men whom I have drafted to fight in the King’s war. Anyone who would look at them would think that I had a hundred and fifty tattered prodigal sons recently come from keeping swine and from eating hog swill and garbage. A madcap fellow met me on the road, looked at my men, and told me that I had unloaded all the gibbets and drafted the dead bodies.

“No eye has ever seen such scarecrows. I’ll not march through Coventry with them — that’s for certain. Coventry has a prison, and my ‘soldiers’ might be arrested as suspected escaped prisoners because my ‘soldiers’ march with a wide space between their legs, as if they had fetters on their legs; and indeed I got most of them out of prison — prisoners are sometimes released so they can fight in a war.

“There’s but a shirt and a half in my entire company. The half-shirt is two handkerchiefs attached together and thrown over the shoulders like the sleeveless coat of a herald. The whole shirt, to say the truth, was stolen from my host at Saint Albans, or from the red-nosed innkeeper at Daventry. But that doesn’t matter. The members of my company can steal shirts that are set out on hedges to dry after being washed.”

Prince Hal and the Lord of Westmoreland rode up to Falstaff and his company.

“How are you, fat Jack! How are you, thickly quilted friend!” Prince Hal said.

“What, Hal! How are you, mad wag!” Falstaff replied. “What the Devil are you doing in Warwickshire?”

He noticed Westmoreland and said, “My good Lord of Westmoreland, pardon me for not greeting you more quickly. I thought that you had already reached Shrewsbury.”

“To be honest,” Westmoreland said, “I ought to be there already, and so should you. But my soldiers are already there. The King, I can tell you, is looking for all of us. We must march all night.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Falstaff said. “I am as vigilant as a cat on the lookout to steal cream.”

“I think that you have already stolen the cream and drunk it, too,” Prince Hal said. “It has been churned in your belly and turned into butter. But tell me, Jack, whose fellows are these behind you?”

“Mine, Hal,” Falstaff said. “They are mine.”

“I never did see such pitiful rascals.”

“Tut, tut,” Falstaff said. “These men are good enough to be stabbed by a bayonet and then tossed aside. They are good enough to be food for gunpowder. They will fill a pit of corpses as well as better men. They are mortal men after all.”

The purpose of war is to kill men, Falstaff thought. Why kill the best men? Why not kill the worst men? Why not kill the men who are not valued?

“True,” Westmoreland said, “but, Sir John, I think that they are exceedingly poor and bare-bone — exceedingly beggarly.”

Westmoreland thought, These men are inferior and threadbare.

“They know poverty,” Falstaff said, “but I do not know how they came to learn that. These men are lean, certainly, but they did not learn that from me.”

“No,” Prince Hal said. “They did not learn leanness from you, unless you call three fingers of fat over the ribs lean. But hurry to Shrewsbury. Hotspur is already camped near there.”

“Is the King there, too?” Falstaff asked.

“He is, Sir John,” Westmoreland said. “I fear we shall stay behind too long and miss the battle.”

Prince Hal and Westmoreland departed.

Falstaff said to himself, “I am a dull and sluggish fighter and so I don’t mind showing up at the end of a battle; however, I am a keen and hungry guest and so I always show up at the beginning of a feast.”

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