Henry IV, Part 1: Act 5


In 5.1 we get another long denunciation of Henry, this time from Worcester, who makes his case in more than 40 lines. I don’t think the charges against Henry are ever really answered in the play. It’s a bit odd that Hal caps Henry’s offer of peace by proposing to settle the dispute by single combat, which seems as out of tune with political reality as Hotspur’s honor. In fact, it’s the sort of proposal Hotspur would make. Then follows Falstaff’s famous “catechism” — Q and A — about “honor,” which squarely opposes him to Hotspur. And insofar as Hal has offered praise of Hotspur, it also squarely opposes Falstaff to Prince Hal.

5.2 is another important scene: Worcester basically betrays Hotspur by withholding crucial information of Henry’s offer. The scene also brings more praise of Hal from Vernon, so effusive that Hotspur reasonably wonders is Vernon is “enamored” of the Prince. And Hotspur impatiently and foolishly does not take time to read letters which would have advised him to avoid battle. (Henry has good “intelligence,” and values it; Hotspur doesn’t pay enough attention to it.)

5.3 gives us a quick Homeric scene (with minimal vaunting) of individual combat, Douglas vs. Blunt, though Douglas thought he was killing Henry.Then, after the stage is briefly empty, Falstaff and Hal come in. Falstaff’s joke about his weapon (sack) — which can “sack a city” — is pretty feeble, or at least Hal, who is preoccupied with battle, thinks so.

5.4 is strange, with Douglas coming upon what he thinks is another Henry, wondering whether it is “another counterfeit.” This time it’s Henry himself, but the exchange invites us to consider whether Henry is in fact not a true king, but a counterfeit of a king. (Falstaff had earlier raised the idea of “counterfeit”). Hal is in heroic mode, first rescuing the King and then meeting Hotspur in more single combat. This time the combatants politely introduce themselves, and when Hal has won, they praise each other. I am not sure what it is that Hotspur would “prophesy” — maybe that Hal will become a good king. Immediately we turn from Hotspur to Falstaff, his great opposite, who lies beside him.

But he “riseth up.” You can’t keep him down. He says it was high time for him to “counterfeit” death, but then catches himself in a kind of internal dialogue: “Counterfeit? I lie; I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit. . .” Maybe we are asked to consider the idea that Falstaff, despite his lies, is in fact not a counterfeit. Or as he says a bit later, “I am not a double man.” He is plainly and always “Jack Falstaff.” By contrast, both Henry and the Prince are counterfeiters, who seek to deceive, as are Worcester and Northumberland. But not Hotspur: he is always Hotspur and always the same. in that respect, he is linked with Falstaff. Falstaff has more soliloquies than anybody else in the play; Hal is the only other one, and he only gets one.

Hal knows perfectly well that it was he and not Falstaff who killed Hotspur, and oddly, it seems to me, is ready to “gild” Falstaff’s lie. (Maybe he can do that because he has proven his own worth to his father, his side has won, and he’s feeling confident and generous.)

5.5 seems to settle things. Rebellion has been rebuked. Worcester and Vernon are condemned. Hal frees Douglas, in another gesture that makes him seem like Hotspur. But Hal, unlike Hotspur, graciously (and with “high courtesy”) passes the “honorable bounty” to his brother, John of Lancaster. Hotspur is the “king of honor” but Hal is the “king of courtesy.”

But in fact things really aren’t settled. The war is still to be pursued. Is is worrisome that the king announces that “we divide our power”? Division was the problem at the outset of the play. And Falstaff has not been called to account. So we need Henry IV Part 2.


I find Hotspur comic in his quick reversals, as when he seems to despair over the loss of support, then quickly pivots to finding it a spur to the rebellion in the challenge it represents. An audience must recognize the absurdity of Hotspur’s over-the-top valor. But “darkly comic” would better describe Falstaff’s description of his company, comic in the pathetic character of his “soldiers,” but dark in his estimate of their effectiveness or survival. We certainly disapprove of his admittedly damnable misuse of the king’s press. I guess I don’t imagine laughter so much as a recognition that Falstaff is absurdly out of place in the “serious” world of politics and warfare. But this must fold back over onto the political and martial world; how can that be accepted when Falstaff’s use of the king’s press is possible? I’m unsure how a good comic actor would play Falstaff’s soliloquy; no, not as a Vice, but he is boasting at the same time he recognizes the absurdity, indeed, the horror of it. How would this have engaged Elizabethan sensibilities? Onstage now it’s always effective, comic and horrible.

Part of the effect of Hotspur must be the way he slots into the world of realpolitik represented by Northumberland, Glendower, and Worcester. Bolingbroke’s usurpation is part of the realpolitik denounced by Worcester. And Falstaff’s catechism buts up against Hotspur’s honor and Hal’s offer of single combat with Hotspur.
A good deal of the effectiveness of the play must lie in this wonderful mix of positions on battle/war/honor/political legitimacy. I think we’re encouraged to find Hotspur foolish at the same time we admire his bravery, and of course he’s diametrically opposed to Falstaff, who’s not brave or in any way admirable, but funny in the way he mocks the aristocrats just by being there. The “wound” he give the dead Hotspur is shocking, but somehow what could be expected. Though it’s not apparent in the reading, Falstaff’s “death” is momentarily shocking onstage, as we think it’s real, and when he “riseth up” I suppose we’re relieved and amused and ready to respond to his argument about counterfeits. And of course we also think about the counterfeit versions of the king on the battlefield.

It’s interesting and significant that Hal somehow emerges from all this mix, with a sense of gallantry unmixed, or almost unmixed, with the lie of Falstaff and, apparently, with the dark realpolitik of his father’s usurpation. He has somehow taken over the valorous element of Hotspur and evaded whatever it is that Falstaff represents. So the king can now recognize him as he “true prince” that Falstaff said he saw at Gadshill.


You say that Falstaff “mocks the aristocrats.” Yes, there is a class difference between Sir John and the several royals and earls. But does he mock them as a class, or for their hypocrisy and pretense? (Glendower’s rank is not clear, is it?) Would the play have been different if Falstaff were not a knight? (There are a couple of other figures of Falstaff’s rank in the play, Sir Walter Blunt and Sir Richard Vernon. The former is loyal, but a little ineffective as gatherer of intelligence. The latter is good at intelligence, oddly lavishes praise on Hal, and is nonetheless sentenced to death by the King — maybe that’s a sign of Henry’s ruthlessness.)

I think you’re right that for a moment we think Falstaff is dead. The stage directions in my edition say that Falstaff “falls down as if he were dead” but the audience in the theatre of course doesn’t know the printed stage directions. A director could probably play the scene either way: Falstaff dead, or Falstaff taking an obvious cowardly dive.

And I think you’re right that Hal has “taken over” or at least demonstrated the ‘positive’ elements of Hotspur. But I remain troubled by other elements: his readiness to “gild” Falstaff’s lie, and his complicity with Henry’s politics. Yes, the King recognizes Hal as the “true prince,” but I am not sure that the audience does, which is why I find the ending of the play somewhat unsettling.

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell