David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s “HENRY IV, PART 2”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 2

— 1.2 —

On a street in London, Sir John Falstaff and his page, a boy who acted as his servant, stood and talked. Falstaff’s page was carrying his sword and small, round shield. Prince Hal had assigned the page to serve Falstaff.

Falstaff said to the boy who was his page, “You giant, what says the doctor about my urine?”

Falstaff had given a urine sample to a doctor.

The page replied, “He said, sir, the urine itself was a good healthy urine, but that the person who gave the urine sample might have more diseases than he could tell.”

“Men of all sorts take pride in mocking me,” Falstaff said. “The brain of this foolish compound of clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or more than is invented on me. I am not only witty in myself, but I am also the cause of the wit that is in other men. I do here walk before you like a sow that has crushed all her litter but you, her remaining piglet. If the Prince put you into my service for any other reason than to annoy me, why then I have no intelligence. You whoreson mandrake, you are fitter to be worn in my cap than to wait at my heels. You are no bigger than a brooch — an agate stone set in silver or gold — that can be worn as a decoration on a cap. I was never served by an agate stone until now, but I will inset you neither in gold nor silver; instead, I will place you in vile clothing, and send you back again to your master, Prince Hal, as a jewel — I will give you back to the juvenal — the juvenile — who is the Prince your master, whose chin is not yet covered with down. I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheeks, and yet he will not hesitate to say that his face is a face-royal. God may finish his face when He will by letting Prince Hal grow a beard. So far, Prince Hal’s face does not have a single hair amiss. Prince Hal may keep his face-royal because the face of his royal father, King Henry IV, appears on the face of the coin known as a royal, and Prince Hal need not spend that coin by getting a shave from a barber — no barber shall ever earn sixpence out of Prince Hal’s royal. And yet Prince Hal crows and boasts as if he had been a full-grown man ever since his father was a bachelor and Prince Hal was not yet born. He may keep his own royal grace, but he’s almost out of my grace, I can assure him. Yes, he can keep his title of Prince of Wales, but he is almost out of my favor, I can assure him.”

Falstaff hesitated and then asked his page, “What did Master Dombledon say about the satin for my short cloak and my wide breeches?”

“He said, sir, you should procure him better assurance of being paid than Bardolph can provide,” the page replied. “He would not take his word and he said that he would not take yours; he wants better assurance of being paid.”

Falstaff greatly wanted to wear extravagant clothing; he much less wanted to pay for it.

“Let him be damned, like the glutton!” Falstaff said. “I pray to God that his tongue grow hotter!”

Falstaff was referring to the parable of the rich man and the pauper in Luke 16:19-31. The pauper died and went to Heaven; the rich man died and went to Hell. The rich man wanted the pauper to dip his finger in water so that he could shake some drops onto the rich man’s tongue, but Abraham, who was in Heaven, pointed out that this is not permitted.

Falstaff continued, “He is a whoreson Achitophel!”

Now Falstaff was referring to Achitophel, a counselor to King David. When Absalom rebelled against David, Achitophel supported Absalom. This story is told in 2 Samuel 15. Say what you will about Falstaff, he knew much about the content of the Bible.

Falstaff continued, “He is a rascally yea-forsooth good-for-nothing! He hints that an answer of ‘yes’ is forthcoming when he does not mean it. He encourages a gentleman to hope for credit, and then he asks for security. These whoreson shopkeepers wear short hair and high shoes and have bunches of keys at their girdles; and if a man has made an honest agreement with them, then they insist upon a guarantee of payment. I would just as soon they would put rat poison in my mouth as put guarantee of payment in it. I expected that he would send me twenty-two yards of satin, as I am a true knight, and instead he sends me notice that I must guarantee that I will pay him so that payment is secure. Well, he may sleep in security because he has the horn of abundance. He has the horn of plenty, and he has the horns of a cuckold, and the heels of his wife are light when she raises them in the air when she sleeps with other men, and he does not see that although he has his own lanthorn — a lantern whose light shines through thin sheets of horn — to provide light for him.”

He paused and then asked, “Where’s Bardolph?”

This Bardolph was an alcoholic crony and most definitely was not the rebel Lord Bardolph.

The page replied, “He’s gone into Smithfield to buy your worship a horse.”

Falstaff said, “I hired Bardolph in St. Paul’s, and he’ll buy me a horse in Smithfield. If I could get myself a wife from the brothels, I would be manned, horsed, and wived.”

Unemployed men used to hang around St. Paul’s Cathedral, hoping to find work. Horses that were bought in Smithfield had the reputation of being nags. Most men would not think that a prostitute would make a good wife. A then-current proverb stated, “Who goes to Westminster for a wife, to Paul’s for a man, or to Smithfield for a horse, may meet with a whore, a good-for-nothing, and a jade.” Many brothels were in Westminster.

The Lord Chief Justice and his servant walked toward Falstaff and his page. Falstaff was not a fan of officials who enforced the law. Earlier, Prince Hal had gotten angry at the Lord Chief Justice, who was punishing one of Prince Hal’s friends for committing a crime. Prince Hal struck the Lord Chief Justice, who, acting under the authority of Prince Hal’s father, King Henry IV, threw him in jail.

The page said, “Sir, here comes the nobleman who committed Prince Hal to jail when the Prince struck him during an argument.”

“Wait nearby,” Falstaff said. “I will pretend that I do not see him.”

The Lord Chief Justice saw Falstaff, thought that he recognized him, and asked his servant, “Who is that man walking away from us?”

“He is Falstaff, if it please your lordship.”

“That man who was more than a suspect in the robbery on Gad’s Hill?”

“Yes, my lord,” the servant replied, “but he has since done good service at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and I hear that he is now going with some charge of soldiers to fight in the army of Prince John of Lancaster.”

“What? He is going to fight the Archbishop of York?” the Lord Chief Justice said. “Call him to come over to me.”

“Sir John Falstaff!” the servant called.

Falstaff said to his page, “Boy, tell him I am deaf.”

The page said, “You must speak louder; my master is deaf.”

The Lord Chief Justice said, “I am sure he is, when it comes to the hearing of anything involving justice.”

He said to his servant, “Go and pluck him by the elbow; I must speak with him.”

The servant obeyed his orders and said loudly, “Sir John!”

Falstaff said to the Lord Chief Justice’s servant, whom he pretended was a slacker and a beggar, “What! A young good-for-nothing, and begging! Are there not wars? Is there not employment? Doesn’t the King lack subjects to fight for him? Don’t the rebels need soldiers? Though it is a shame to be on any side but one — the side of King Henry IV — it is worse shame to beg than to be on the worst side — the side of the rebels, assuming that anything can be worse than rebellion.”

The servant said, “You are mistaken about me, sir.”

Falstaff said, “Why, sir, did I say you were an honest man? Setting aside my knighthood and my soldiership, both of which make it likely that I am telling the truth, I would have lied in my throat if I had said that you are an honest man.”

“Please, sir, then set aside your knighthood and your soldiership,” the servant said, “and give me leave to tell you that you lie in your throat, if you say that I am anything other than an honest man.”

“Me give you leave to tell me that!” Falstaff said. “Me set aside that which belongs to me! If I give you leave, then hang me. If you take leave, then hang yourself! When you hunt, you go in the wrong direction — away from your prey — and now you are confronting the wrong man. Leave! Go away!”

The servant said, “Sir, my lord wants to speak with you.”

The Lord Chief Justice said, “Sir John Falstaff, I want to have a word with you.”

“My good lord!” Falstaff said. “May God give your lordship a good day. I am glad to see that your lordship is out and about. I had heard that your lordship was sick, and so I hope your lordship goes abroad by the advice of a doctor. Your lordship, though you are not clean past your youth, you have yet some taste of age in you, some relish of the maturity of time; and I must humbly beg your lordship to take care of your health.”

“Sir John, I sent for you so I could talk to you officially before your expedition to Shrewsbury,” the Lord Chief Justice said.

“If it please your lordship,” Falstaff said. “I hear his majesty has returned with some discomfort and ill health from Wales.”

“I am not talking about his majesty,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “You would not come when I sent for you.”

Falstaff continued, “And I hear, moreover, his highness has fallen into this same whoreson paralysis.”

Falstaff was subtly threatening the Lord Chief Justice. One day King Henry IV would die, and Prince Hal would become King Henry V. Falstaff thought that things would then go badly for the Lord Chief Justice. After all, the Lord Chief Justice had once thrown Prince Hal in jail, and Falstaff would have the ear of King Henry V.

The Lord Chief Justice declined to be intimidated, saying, “Well, may God heal King Henry IV! Please, let me speak with you.”

“This paralysis is, as I take it, a kind of lethargy, if it please your lordship; it is a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling.”

“Why are you telling me about it?” the Lord Chief Justice asked. “Let it be as it is.”

“This paralysis has its origin from much grief, from study and perturbation of the brain,” Falstaff said. “I have read the cause of its effects in the medical treatise written by the ancient Greek physician Galen. It is a kind of deafness.”

“I think that you have the same disease,” the Lord Chief Justice said, “because you are not hearing anything that I say to you.”

“Very well, my lord, very well,” Falstaff said. “In fact, if it please you, I have the disease of not listening, the malady of not paying attention. That is the malady that troubles me.”

“I can very easily cure your disease of not paying attention when I speak to you,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “All I have to do is put your feet in a pair of stocks and immobilize you and expose you to the scorn of passersby. I would rather enjoy being your physician.”

“I am as poor as Job, my lord, but not as patient as Job,” Falstaff replied. “Your lordship may minister the potion of imprisonment to me because I am poor and so cannot pay a fine, but that I should be your patient and follow your prescriptions, some wise men may take some slight exception — they may have part of a scruple about it or even a whole scruple.”

Falstaff thought, I have a high friend — Prince Hal — who visits low places, such as taverns in Eastcheap. The Lord Chief Justice, if he is wise, should remember that.

The Lord Chief Justice said, “I sent for you, when there were matters against you that could cost you your life, to come speak with me. You were accused — and definitely identified by eyewitnesses — of being involved in the robbery on Gad’s Hill, and that is a capital offense.”

“As I was then advised by my learned counsel in the laws of my military service, I did not come,” Falstaff said. “Because I was doing military service, I was immune from your civilian summons.”

“Well, the truth is, Sir John, you have a bad reputation,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “You live in great infamy.”

Falstaff, who had an enormous beer — or wine — belly, said, “Anyone who buckles himself in my belt cannot live in less than greatness.”

“Your financial means are very slender, and your waste is great,” the Lord Chief Justice said.

Falstaff replied, “I wish it were otherwise; I wish my financial means were greater, and my waist slenderer.”

“You have misled the youthful Prince.”

“The young Prince has misled me,” Falstaff said. “I am the fellow with the great belly, and he is my dog that walks in front of me.”

“Well, I am loath to pick at a newly healed wound: Your day’s service at the Battle of Shrewsbury has a little gilded over your night’s exploit on Gad’s Hill,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “You may thank this unquiet time of rebellion against the King for your quietly not being punished for that robbery.”

“My lord?” Falstaff said.

“But since all is well, keep it so,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “Wake not a sleeping wolf.”

“To wake a wolf is as bad as to smell a fox,” Falstaff said.

“To smell a fox” was proverbial for “To be suspicious.”

The Lord Chief Justice was unhappy at hearing this remark. He was not suspicious that Falstaff had committed a robbery; he was certain that Falstaff had committed a robbery.

“What! You are like a candle, more than half of which has burned,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “Anyone can smell the smoke rising from you.”

“I might be a wassail candle, my lord, made of all tallow,” Falstaff said. “A wassail candle is a large candle that is meant to burn all night, and you can see that I am large. Wassail candles are also made of tallow, aka animal fat, and you can see that I am largely made of animal fat. If I were to say, however, that I were made of wax, my growth would make some people think that I was telling the truth: My waist waxes; it does not wane.”

“There is not a white hair on your face but should have its effect of gravity,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “A white beard denotes old age, which should denote seriousness.”

“Each white hair on my face denotes gravy, gravy, gravy,” Falstaff said.

“You follow the young Prince Hal up and down, like his evil angel.”

“That is not true, my lord,” Falstaff replied. “Lucifer was an angel of light, but anyone who looks at me can see that I am not light. Angels are coins that can be trimmed by cutting off the edges and so removing some of the precious metal. The only way to see whether they are good angels is to weigh them; if they are light angels, then they are bad angels. Anyone who looks at me need not weigh me to determine that I am not light.

“Yet, in some respects, I grant, I cannot go and I cannot tell. I cannot pass current: I am out of step with modern times. Virtue is of so little regard in these petty-shopkeeper times that a man of true valor takes a lowly job as a keeper of tame bears, a man of true wit takes a job as a tapster and wastes his quickness of intellect by not speaking except to tell customers how much they owe, and all the other gifts that are pertinent to man are not worth a gooseberry, according to the malice of this age that determines what is to be regarded as valuable.

“You who are old do not value the capacities of us who are young; you measure the heat of our lives with the bitterness of your lives, and we who are in the front lines of our youth, I must confess, are wags, too. We who are young have spirit.”

The Lord Chief Justice was surprised to hear Falstaff speak as if he were a young man — Falstaff was obviously old.

The Lord Chief Justice said, “Do you set down your name in the scroll of youth? Your name, Falstaff, has been written down in the scroll of the old — you have all the characteristics of old age. Have you not a moist eye? A dry hand? A yellow cheek? A white beard? An unsteady leg? An increasing belly? Is not your voice broken? Is not your wind short? Is not your chin double? Is not your wit single? Is not every part of you blasted with antiquity and old age? And will you yet call yourself young? For pity, Sir John!”

The Lord Chief Justice was a good man who made very few mistakes, but he did make a mistake here. Falstaff’s chin was double, but his wit was not single. Falstaff was a master of the pun, in which a word has a double meaning — or more. Falstaff’s wit was most definitely double.

Falstaff replied, “My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white-haired head and something of a round belly.”

Falstaff was telling the truth. He was a fictional character created by William Shakespeare, and the play he was performing in often was performed in the afternoon.

He continued, “As for my voice, I have lost it with hallooing and the singing of anthems. I will not give more evidence of my youth. The truth is that I am only old in judgment and understanding; I have the wisdom of old age. But if anyone wants to compete against me in a dancing contest for a thousand marks — a lot of money — then let him lend me the money, and let us compete!

“As for the box on the ear that Prince Hal gave you, he gave it like a rude Prince, and you took it like a sensible lord. I have rebuked him for it, and the young lion repents. True, he does not repent in ashes and sackcloth; instead, he repents in new silk and with old wine.”

“Well, may God send the Prince a better companion!” the Lord Chief Justice said.

“May God send the companion a better Prince!” Falstaff said. “I cannot get rid of Prince Hal.”

“Well, King Henry IV has separated you and Prince Harry,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “I hear that you are going with Prince John of Lancaster to fight against the Archbishop of York and the Earl of Northumberland. King Henry IV and Prince Hal are going elsewhere.”

“Yes, I thank your pretty sweet wit for it,” Falstaff said. He thought that the Lord Chief Justice had persuaded the King to keep Prince Hal and Falstaff separate.

He added, “But all of you who stay at home and kiss my Lady Peace, please remember to pray that the opposing armies do not join in battle on a hot day because, by the Lord, I am taking only two shirts with me, and I hope not to sweat extraordinarily. If the battle occurs on a hot day, and I brandish anything but a bottle, I hope that I will never spit white again. Spitting red is the result of suffering from tuberculosis or being wounded in battle.

“There is not a dangerous action that peeps out his head but I am thrust upon it. If a battle needs to be fought, I have to go to the battle. Well, I cannot last forever, but it has always been the custom of our English nation that if they have a good thing, they make it too common by using it continually. If you must say that I am an old man, you should give me rest. I wish to God that my name were not as terrible and frightening to the enemy as it is. I would prefer to be rusted to death than to be worn down to nothing through perpetual work.”

The Lord Chief Justice replied, “Well, be honest, be honest; and God bless your expedition!”

Falstaff, who was accustomed to borrow but not to repay money, asked, “Will your lordship lend me a thousand pounds to equip myself for the expedition?”

“Not a penny, not a penny,” the Lord Chief Justice said. “You are too impatient to bear crosses: You are too quick to borrow coins stamped with a cross. Fare you well, and commend me to my kinsman Westmoreland.”

The Lord Chief Justice and his servant exited.

“If I do, hit me with a three-man beetle,” Falstaff said.

A three-man beetle is a hammer or battering ram so big and heavy that it takes three men to use it to drive stakes or to flatten paving stones.

He added, “A man can no more separate old age and covetousness than he can part young limbs and lechery. The gout galls the old, and the pox — venereal disease — pinches the young. Both stages of life anticipate my curses. I am greedy for money. In addition, I am suffering either from the gout or from the pox — venereal disease.”

Falstaff then called, “Boy!”


“How much money is in my wallet?”

The page replied, “Seven groats and two pence. A groat is worth four-pence, and so you have thirty pence.”

Because he was Falstaff’s page, the boy carried Falstaff’s wallet and money.

Falstaff complained, “I can get no remedy against this consumption of my wallet. Borrowing increases the amount of time that I have money to spend, but quickly the contents of my wallet are again consumed. This kind of consumption is an incurable disease.

“Go, and take this letter to my Prince John of Lancaster; take this letter to Prince Hal, and take this letter to the Earl of Westmoreland.”

Because everyone falsely believed that Falstaff had killed Hotspur during the Battle of Shrewsbury, he had a military reputation that he did not deserve, and he was a figure of some importance. Prince Hal had killed Hotspur, but he allowed Falstaff to take the credit.

Falstaff added, “Take this letter to old Mistress Ursula, whom I have weekly sworn to marry ever since I perceived the first white hair on my chin.

“Go now. You know where to find me when you have finished your errands.”

The page left to deliver the letters.

Falstaff said to himself, “A pox on this gout! Or, a gout on this pox! The one or the other plays the rogue with my big toe and makes it painful. But it does not matter if I limp. I march under the colors of a battle flag, and those colors can cover the real reason for my limp — I will pretend that I was injured in the war, and that will make my being paid a pension seem more reasonable. A good intelligence can make good use of anything; I will turn my diseases into profit.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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