What I love about this play: Most people don’t rate Part 2 as high as Part 1, and I have to admit that the first two acts sag a little – although they do have my favorite Prince Hal moment, that conversation with Poins in which he almost owns up to grieving for his father’s sickness, and Poins misses the gravity of what he’s trying to say. The last three are like setting off a string of firecrackers. There’s the “uneasy lies the head” speech, and our first glimpse of the ordinary country folk, and dirty tricks at Gaultree Forest, and Henry’s death scene (during which he drops not one, but two bombshells about that crusade he’s been planning for the last three plays; first, that it is a calculated move to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” And then, when we’ve scarcely absorbed this seemingly Machiavellian counsel, he reveals that he has always believed he’ll die there, and has been voicing this death wish all along without any of the other characters recognizing it for what it is). And then “I know thee not, old man” – a punch to the gut, no matter how many times I read it or watch it.
This is kind of a diffuse, decentered play – it’s named after a king that we don’t even see until Act 3, and who promptly dies in Act 4. If there’s a hero, I think it has to be Falstaff. I love the way that, after all of his shenanigans in Part 1, he turns out to have his own brand of courage – the courage to jest in the face of aging and sickness and death.
I really like the little interlude between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, observed by Hal and Poins, who see the absurdity of the relationship but miss its poignancy – “Do not speak like a death’s head, Doll; do not bid me remember mine end.” (Poor Doll. She’s dying of syphilis, which is a horrible way to go despite all the uneasy jokes that the characters make about it, and she sincerely loves Falstaff. I love the way even the bit parts get infused with humanity.)
Favorite moment: The scenes at Justice Shallow’s, with everyone having wine and pippins in the orchard, and Silence getting drunk, and all those glimpses of everyday life – bills to pay, conversation about the price of cattle, reminiscences about old friends. It’s a moment of warmth in an increasingly chilly and impersonal play, and it’s sweet and low-key and a bit tragic, because you know what’s coming, at least for Falstaff. Above all, it’s stable; in spite of all these convulsions in the state, things have not, after all, changed so much for the majority of the English.