Speaking Truth to Power: The Nature of Discourse Between Falstaff and Prince Hal
It is good to be the king, they say. What is perhaps not so good is being close enough to the king that you are presented with the opportunity to speak the truth when you clearly see somebody needs and nobody will. Kings, of course, lied under the delusion that they were anointed by God to take their positions of power and with that anointment came a certain sense of infallibility. Even those kings who did not buy into that concept themselves were in no rush to disabuse the notion among their subjects. Presidents and prime ministers may (or may not) see themselves as invested with power by the grace of god, but perhaps the illusion of infallibility is only heightened as a result of being placed into through the will of masses far more tangibly apprehended than any supreme being. History is full of moments where one close enough to the king to see the truth and speak it held back for fear of retribution for questioning the infallibility just as it is also full of moments where truth was put ahead of fear of retribution. Those in the latter who managed to survived the perilousness of speaking truth to power very likely did so owing at least some allegiance to Falstaff in William Shakespeare’s Henry, IV Parts I and II for the fat knight is one of the greatest instructors in how to proceed along the dangerous path of telling the truth to those in power while still keeping your head firmly attached to your shoulders.
Of course, the iconic Shakespearean character who represents the ability to be brutally honesty with the king is Lear’s Fool. But we are given insight into that complicated relationship only after Lear has ceased to be king. Power lost is not power at all. Power that may come when a Prince becomes a King is something else entirely and ensures for Falstaff that “Practical solutions are all but determined: Hal cannot continue his tavern brawling. Beneath his wit and flippancy thuds the heart of the true Prince, as Falstaff well knows” (Williams 127). That Falstaff acts to a degree in a role comparable to Lear’s Fool cannot be denied, but as counselor is role in guiding the young Hal on his path to the throne must by necessity stand apart.
The slothful, sack-consuming, pun-inducing Falstaff becomes the stand-in for Hal’s father, King Henry, IV whenever the Prince goes undercover as a wastrel. Significantly, Falstaff delivers advice that could have been framed with almost equal language from his father when he counsels “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” (Shakespeare 430).
Both father figures obviously have much advice gained from experience to dispense to the young heir-apparent, but the difference between them is that Henry IV is king and Falstaff if Falstaff. Within that difference lies a chasm larger than any appetite Falstaff exhibits. The king may feel free to speak directly to his son in complete honesty. Falstaff, however, must proceed with utmost caution despite perhaps holding far more useful advice for the young Prince and despite, perhaps, being a fountain of much greater experience for ruling over the common folk.
Falstaff most assuredly recognizes that vital importance of one particular aspect related to the kingly future of his drinking buddy that escapes his father, the King, as it relates to those common folk. “Falstaff ruthlessly pricks the prince’s conscience about his family’s theft of the crown” (Caldwell). Why? Because he can? Well, possibly, but more likely because Falstaff is able peer into the future and apprehend the problems that will face Prince Hal upon taking his seat on a throne if there is still among the people a sense of illegitimacy in his sitting there.
He is able to dispense advice of a more cutting nature only by couching it in theatrics or the comic, however. The result, nevertheless, is not lessened by the necessity to frame truths within an ironic system of transmission. It is a fact that in both parts of Henry IV Hal is a an extraordinarily manipulative character who seeks the company of Falstaff only partly because of his entertainment value and “if Hal’s deceptive roleplaying seems Machiavellian, there is an obvious difference between his performances and those of Falstaff…Falstaff plays for pleasure while Hal plays for advantage” (McKinney). That latter description may not be entirely true, of course, since there is an advantage for Falstaff to play a role.
The delivery of hard truths to those who wish not to hear them or from those whom seem unqualified to offer criticism based on their own lapses is usually easier to deliver when that transmission takes place within a framework of roleplaying. So, the massive array of jokes, puns and playacting that make up the discourse between Falstaff and Prince Hal may, in fact, all be a part of Falstaff’s seeking the advantage. The story that Falstaff tells of what happened during that robbery provides great insight the character of the relationship existing between the fat old knight and the future King. How else could Prince Hal react upon hearing “By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye. Why, hear you, my masters: was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was a coward on instinct” (Shakespeare 429). It is a brilliant conceived means of saving face for within that span of those few short sentences is an amalgamation of what Hal knows to be absolute lies, absolute truth and a vague commingling of both. Such is the nature of the special code that exists between them. They are both acutely aware the explicit and implicit meaning that takes places during discourse between them and the fact that Falstaff couches his harsh truths behind a comic front while Hal’s father is direct and to the point is highly suggestive.
The truth is that though Henry IV faces no obstructions to speaking plainly and simply to his son while Falstaff must provide a certain amount of entertainment for Hal to deem his worthy as a Machiavellian advisor may reveal that it is actually Falstaff who is the superior counselor to a Prince rather than King himself. Such is the deceptively close alignment between king and knight that “Falstaff, despite being such a humorous character, seems to seriously imitate at least a part of a kingly speech; however, the speech is organized so that first, he can jokingly make fun of his friend (first by calling him illegitimate); second, he can move to a condemnation of Hal’s friends; and third (as shown below), he can employ his own deliberative argument” (Sweat).
Ultimately, of course, Hal will make good on his promise to banish fat Falstaff from all the world, but there is no reason to take that banishment as a personal indictment of Falstaff, much less his worth in speaking the truth to the potential power invested in the Prince. Over the course of three plays, Prince Hal will prove himself to be capable of banishing anyone who has outlived their usefulness to his plans to take his seat on the throne. Worth noting is that by the time Prince Hal has become King Henry V it has become clear that he has all along viewed Falstaff a source of serious counsel rather than a mere object of affectionate entertainment. The King who walks among his warriors on the battlefield in anonymous disguise as one of their own is a man who has obviously learned lessons that could only come from the depths of the Boar’s Head Tavern rather than the heights of the royal palace.
Caldwell, Ellen M. “”Banish All the Wor(l)d”: Falstaff’s Iconoclastic Threat to Kingship in I Henry IV.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 59.4 (2007): 219+.
McKinney, Ronald. “The Trickster as Comic Hero: Falstaff and the Ethics of Chaotic Dissent.” Philosophy Today 51.2 (2007): 176+.
Shakespeare, William. The Works of William Shakespeare Gathered into One Volume. New York: Oxford UP, 1938.
Sweat, Chance. “The King’s Speech: A Rhetorical Analysis of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I.” Univ. of New Orleans, 4 August 2011.
Williams, Robert I. Comic Practice/Comic Response. Newark, DE: U of Delaware, 1993.
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