Act 5 begins with another seemingly superfluous scene with Falstaff again visiting Shallow. Its point seems only to mock Shallow. Is this meant as a contrast to the Lord Chief Justice, who will be reconciled to the new king? But its point escapes me. The next scene leads up to the confrontation of the LCJ and Hal’s acceptance of his having imprisoned him in his wild days, which clearly portrays his reformation and intent soberly to follow law.
Then more Falstaff, but this time with more effect and leading to the final scene. Shallow and Silence celebrate the merry and rather vacuous life that has characterized Falstaff and his crew throughout, until Pistol comes in with the news of the new regime. Pistol appears to have wandered in from a Marlowe play, full of bluster and fustian, and rather baffles Shallow and Silence. The news of course is that Hal has succeeded to the throne, which gives Falstaff the idea that “the laws of England are at my commandment,” that he will replace the LCJ.
The next scene, the arrest of Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet by the beadles of course suggests otherwise, but they are confident that Falstaff will save them. It’s the thinness of the first beadle, as opposed to the corpulence of Falstaff? that gives them this assurance. In fact the play grows to a distinction between thin and fat.
The last scene is the painful one for Falstaff as he, Pistol, Shallow and Silence line up to accost “King Harry” on his return from the coronation. Falstaff’s term is “King Hal, my royal Hal” and Hal responds not to Falstaff but to the LCJ, who admonishes Falstaff. Then Hal’s speech to Falstaff, “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers” fulfills the vow back in Part 1, “I know you all . . .” Falstaff is entirely out in the cold, and this might be seen, I think, as a quasi, or mini- tragedy. But of course it’s also a triumph on Hal’s part. Initially Falstaff thinks it’s a ruse, a p.r. move on Hal’s part, that he will be sent for in private, at night. But the the LCJ comes in with a detail to carry Falstaff to the Fleet, along with “all his company.” Prince John says that the tavern characters “Shall all be very well provided for,” but banished. And in its final lines the play turns entirely to the political world and the rumor of war in France.
How the banishment of Falstaff is seen depends, I’m supposing, on the way it’s played. Falstaff’s last words are “My lord, my lord!” to the LCJ, but nothing more. Maybe the banishment is less a loss here than it would have been at the end of Part 1, as the Falstaff scenes in this part have got a bit tedious. Was that an intended effect? They didn’t seem to comment as cogently on the political world, and that world itself became more dubious in the betrayal of Prince John and Henry’s admission of the way he came to the throne. Hal’s glory also seems somewhat thin.
The epilogue is odd. First, just a seemingly routine request for favor and, presumably, applause. But then it promises more of Falstaff in the play that will include Harry’s marriage to the French princess. But perhaps Falstaff’s death as well. Of course this will change with Henry V, and maybe because we’ve already had too much of Falstaff. But the death of Falstaff recounted there will be a fairly tender sendoff.
Falstaff’s role in 2 Henry IV seems somewhat disruptive and not as well integrated into the overall play as it had been in the first part. In general this second part doesn’t seem to me as well structured, and it may be that the popularity of Falstaff was the cause; his presence had become necessary, but was in danger of taking too much space. And it may be the reason that we hear of his death in the final play. Of course he’s also sent off into Merry Wives. Did Falstaff get away from Shakespeare? I’ve always felt the best part of his afterlife was when he learned to sing in Italian.
But what do you think of the banishment of Falstaff? Have you too had enough of him?
I think we are in pretty close agreement about the latter part of 2 Henry 4. I found it both disconcerting and dis-spiriting, and thought some of it uninteresting. The first two scenes of Act 5 are presumably designed to contrast two justices. But do we care about Justice Shallow? Since I think we don’t, then the first scene is tedious. 5.2 shows that the Lord Chief Justice is upright and candid, not a yes-man or a flatterer. Hal concedes that LCJ had acted properly in committing Hal to prison. Perhaps it makes sense that we don’t get the details of Hal’s striking the LCJ until now, but why did Shakespeare not give us more hints about it before?
5.3 gives us more Falstaff, with Shallow drunk and Silence weirdly singing. In 5.1 Falstaff had said he would make a fool of Shallow, so as to make Hal laugh. But he does not follow through. Yes, Pistol is a strange one: where did he pick up his smattering of learning? You’re probably right that 5.4 shows that Falstaff’s world will be punished under the new regime, but do we really care what happens to Quickly and Doll Tearsheet?
The only thing in Act 5 that a director could not cut is the final scene, with the banishment of Falstaff. Yes, “I know thee not . . .” recalls “I know you all,” but somehow I don’t recognize Hal: has he completed his reformation, or has he disappeared into his new role as king? Falstaff tries to display his old resilience. An actor might play him as convinced (but self-deluded) in his declaration that Hal doesn’t really mean what he says, or might play him as pitifully aware that this time the game is up.
I had not noticed before that the banishment is less than total: Falstaff and his crew get some sort of allowance to maintain them until they fully reform, when they are permitted to return.
The Epilogue (or epilogues, as my Signet editor suggests) suggest how far we are from the Elizabethan theatre, where this appeal for applause was conventional. None of it seems especially witty or apt. The advertisement for coming attractions suggests that when this epilogue was written — perhaps some time after he finished 2 Henry 4 — Shakespeare was planning to carry the story of Henry 5 forward, and to carry the story of Falstaff to his death, but had not worked out the details yet. Maybe Shakespeare also felt a need to satisfy the heirs of Sir John Oldcastle, by assuring the audience that “this is not the man.”