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The Dream of Escape

Excerpted from the full article published in the e-book Guide to the Season Plays available for purchase for the Kindle or Nook. Visit

Painting of Falstaff mit Zinnkanne und Weinglas by Eduard von Grützner (c. turn of the 19/20th century)

In Henry IV, Part 2, the burdens of the crown hinted at in Henry IV, Part 1 begin to bear down with ever intensifying weight. The King, who dreams of escaping to the Holy Land to fight in a crusade, is plagued with sleeplessness. As he seems to know, his deposition and execution of a sitting king in Richard II form a primal crime that must be answered for. Elsewhere, the claustrophobic pressures of history, of Machiavellian politics and the endless watchfulness that comes with them, descend as a kind of inheritance. Hal’s plot also enacts the dream of an escape: the dream of another father, a father who will nurture rather than discipline him, who stands for pleasure rather than ambition, who is, in a certain sense, a mother (notably absent here, as in many of Shakespeare’s plays). It is a dream, in other words, of Falstaff. Falstaff embodies those qualities lacking elsewhere in the world of these plays: generosity, idleness, playfulness, appetite, wit. His spirit seems to replenish the community of men. “I am not only witty in myself,” he remarks at one moment, “but the cause of that wit is in other men” (act 1, scene 2).

There are problems, however, with this dreamed-of escape. Falstaff also embodies danger, betrayal, and disease. He has the maternal power to smother life as well as to nurture it. “I do here walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one,” Falstaff says in act 1, scene 2. Elsewhere in the play, Falstaff closes his ecstatic rhapsody to the virtues of “sherry sack” —one of Shakespeare’s greatest odes to drunkenness—with a striking image: “If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack” (act 4, scene 2).

Falstaff may be a genius, Shakespeare seems to be saying, but a debauched genius, a fathomlessly cynical, almost irresistible confidence man; a diseased, cowardly, seductive, lovable monster; a parent who cannot be trusted. Perhaps this is why Falstaff and Hal’s intimacy curdles so easily into antipathy. In act 2, scene 4, Falstaff gives his view of the prince: “A good shallow young fellow.”

The drunkenness in Falstaff is inextricably linked to gaiety, improvisational wit, noble recklessness—a celebration of the commonwealth in all of its human variety. But it is unnervingly disclosed at the same time to be part of a strategy of cunning, calculation, and ruthless exploitation of others. Invariably, it is a failed strategy: the grand schemes, the imagined riches, the fantasies about the limitless future—all come to nothing, withering away in an adult son’s contempt for the symbolic parent who has failed him. “God save thee, my sweet boy!” exclaims Falstaff at the end of the play, when he sees Hal in triumph in London. “I know thee not, old man,” Hal replies, in one of the most devastating speeches Shakespeare ever wrote.

Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awake, I do despise my dream.
(act 5, scene 5)

Costume rendering by Ann Hould-Ward.

These are words written deep within the history play, words spoken by the newly crowned king of England to the exceptionally amusing, exceptionally dangerous friend whose company he must now abjure. Yet all along the relationship between Hal and Falstaff has conjoined an unusually intimate and personal energy with an unusually intimate and personal betrayal.

Indeed, betrayal is the great principle of Henry IV, Part 2. Henry IV, Part 1 had offered a tantalizing illusion that the common had distinct realms, each with its own system of values, its soaring visions of plenitude and its bad dreams. Now there is only a single system, one based on predation and betrayal. Hotspur’s intoxicating dreams of honor are dead, replaced by the cold rebellion of cunning but impotent schemers. The warm, roistering noise overheard in the tavern—noise that seemed to signal a subversive alternative to rebellion in the earlier play—turns out here to be the sound of a whore and bully beating a customer to death. And Falstaff, whose earlier larcenies were gilded by fantasies of innate grace now conjures a frightening image of illness in commerce: “I will turn diseases to commodity” (act 1, scene 2). All of the ideal visions and dreams of Part 1 are betrayed in Part 2.

Only Prince Hal seems, in comparison to the earlier play, less meanly calculating. It is not Hal who announces his intention to betray, but Warwick, who reassures the king in act 4, scene 4 that the prince’s interests in the good lads of Eastcheap are entirely what they should be:

The Prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,’
Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your Highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
The Prince will in the perfectness of time
Cast off his followers…
(act 4, scene 4)

The darkness of Warwick’s words – “to be known and hated”—immediately pushes the goal of Hal’s linguistic researches beyond proficiency. When, in Henry IV, Part 1, Hal boasts of his mastery of tavern slang, we are allowed to imagine that we are witnessing a social bond, the human fellowship of the extremest top and bottom of society in a homely ritual act of drinking together. This ritual forms what the anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas – a union based on the momentary breaking of the hierarchical order that normally governs a community. In Part 2, as Warwick’s words reveal, that apparent community is in fact an illusion, one that will be betrayed as the state coalesces into a hierarchical chain of command.

“The right people of the play,” Norman Holland observes, in the Signet Classic edition of Henry IV, Part 2, “merge into a larger order; the wrong people resist or misuse that larger order.” True enough, but the “larger order” of the Lancastrian state seems, in this play, to batten on the breaking of oaths. Its founding is based upon acts of calculation, intimidation, and deceit. Over the course of the two parts of Henry IV and in Henry V, Shakespeare takes us from a late medieval world of distinct realms and thriving communities and toward something much more contemporary, a constricted and claustrophobic world that closely resembles the Elizabethan security state of Shakespeare and his audience.

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, the editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and the prize-winning author of many books, including The Swerve, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory and Renaissance Self-Fashioning.

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