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tavern of Mrs. Quickly in Eastcheap. Falstaff is the greatest of Shakspeare's comic characters—the greatest comic character in English literature—the progenitor of an innumerable succession of such, down to the Sam Wellers and Dick Swivellers of recent days.
He is a mountain of a man, though, he tells Hal, “When I was about thy years, I could have crept into any alderman's thumb-ring: a plague of sighing and grief: it blows a man up like a bladder”. He rules in the kingdom of the tavern ; and its frequenters -the drinking, thieving, bragging ex-soldiers, the drawers and the women—worship him. distinction, however, is the observance of the Heirapparent, to whom he performs the office discharged by the fool of yore in the courts of kings.
He serves as a whetstone for the Prince's wit: “I am not only witty in myself," he says, “but the cause that wit is in other men ”; and he treasures up fun for the Prince's entertainment. Thus, when he is with Justice Shallow in the country, he says: “I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing-out of six fashions"; and he adds the'shrewd remark: “Oh, it is much that a lie, with a slight oath, and a jest, with a sad brow, will do with a fellow that never had the ache in his shoulders ".
He is a mighty swiller of liquor: “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”. He is a monstrous bragger: in the war he pretends to consider himself the pivot on which the whole action is turning : “There is not a dangerous action can peep out his head but I am thrust upon it. Well, I cannot last ever; but it was alway yet the trick of our English nation, if they have a good thing, to make it too common ": though in the battle he turns out an arrant coward and, when danger approaches, lies down and feigns himself dead. He is deeply afflicted with impecuniosity : “I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse; borrowing only lingers and lingers it out; but the disease is incurable”. When, as an officer, he is sent to raise soldiers for the war, he fills his pockets by allowing those drafted to pay for substitutes, till he says : “Such have I, to fill up the rooms of them that have bought out their services, that you would think I had a hundred-and-fifty tattered prodigals lately come from swine-keeping. A mad fellow met me on the way and told me, I had unloaded all the gibbets and pressed the dead bodies. No
hath seen such scarecrows; there is but a shirt and a half in all my company. I'll not march through Coventry with them, that's flat.” He tells prodigious lies; and Harry's diversion is to egg him on to further and further exaggerations. But Jack knows well enough the fun he is causing by thus drawing the longbow, and he enjoys as much as anyone the jokes at his own expense.
There is a shrewdness in him almost amounting to wisdom, and he has the most dexterous way of getting out of scrapes. Thus, when the Prince, in the disguise of a drawer, overhears him undervaluing him to Doll Tearsheet and, throwing off the disguise, charges him with the treason, Jack has his answer ready: "I dispraised him before the wicked, that the wicked might not fall in love with him”.
No scene could be funnier than when they agree that Falstaff should personate the King, Hal's father, and give the Prince a lecture on the wildness of his ways. As if he were on the throne, Jack begins : “ Stand aside, nobility!” and, when the hostess utters an ejaculation, he says, with kingly pomp, “Weep not, sweet queen, for trickling tears are vain” and orders her to be led out of the presence. Then, turning to the Prince, he says: “Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thy time, but also, how thou art accompanied. If thou be son to me, here lies the point—why, being son to me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries ?—a question not to be asked. Shall the Son of England prove a thief and take purses ?-a question to be asked. There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch: this pitch, as ancient writers do report, doth defile; so doth the company thou keepest: for, Harry, now I do not speak to thee
in drink, but in tears; not in pleasure, but in passion; not in words only, but in woes also. And yet there is a virtuous man whom I have often noted in thy company, but I know not his name. A goodly, portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage; and, as I think, his age some fifty or, by'r lady, inclining to threescore; and, now I remember me, his name is Falstaff. If that man should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me; for, Harry, I see virtue in his looks. If, then, the tree may be known by his fruit, as the fruit by the tree, then-peremptorily I speak it—there is virtue in that Falstaff: him keep with, the rest banish.”
Such is the world of low life into which Prince Henry, fleeing from the ceremonies of the court, loves to descend. But Shakspeare's representation is that, though in it, he is in nowise of it. He goes into it merely as a spectator, to gain acquaintance with real life, and is no more corrupted than the sun is by looking on a dunghill. When he was summoned out of it to take part in the civil war, he instantly answered to the summons; and, when he appeared in camp, one who saw him thus described him :
I saw young Harry—with his beaver on,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
He distinguished himself in the war; yet, after it was over, the attractions of low London drew him back again. His evil courses were a grief to his father, who spoke ominously of what might befal the nation under such a king; but other observers were more hopeful :
You shall find, his vanities forespent
His father's death is the turning-point of his career. The dying king deals closely with him; and the Prince comes out of the death-chamber an altered man. At the same time the responsibility of kingship, descending on his head, steels his resolution. Falstaff, hearing in the country of the old king's death, hastens to town, thinking that his fortune is now made and squandering places and titles, by anticipation, among his comrades, and he salutes Harry in the old way, as he passes in procession through the street; but Harry cries :