What I love about this play: I hardly know where to begin. I guess I’ll start by saying that it exemplifies a lot of the stuff I love about Shakespeare, especially in the complicated balance between the sordid and glorious faces of war, and between Henry’s admirable and reprehensible qualities. It’s a play that presents multiple viewpoints persuasively and makes room for multiple perceptions of the same event. Most readers, myself included, aren’t really up for dealing with that level of negative capability. Frankly, I always have to struggle to give Henry his props, since my own sympathies are with Pistol and Bardolph, and especially with Michael Williams, my favorite bit-part character in Shakespeare. But he is very, very good at what he does, and I think he honestly believes in justice – “the quittance of desert and merit / According to the weight and worthiness” – and tries to see it done. Also, I defy anyone not to get the shivers at the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and I think it’s heartfelt.
That said, I always get even more shivery at Michael Williams’s challenge to Henry’s entire ethos: “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such and such a place’; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.” How do you answer that? The king doesn’t, really – Williams gets a glove full of gold and a pardon for speaking his mind, but the bigger questions linger.
Also, Pistol’s exit at the beginning of Act 5 breaks my heart: the disaffected former soldier who has lost everything that anchors him to society and is still trying to make a go of survival – by cheating, stealing, any way he can.
Favorite moment: Falstaff’s impromptu wake, which is also the last moment the tavern characters are together. You’ve probably gathered by now that I have a soft spot for all of them, but especially for Bardolph (“Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell”) and Mistress Quickly (“Nay, surely, he’s not in hell, he’s in Arthur’s bosom if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom.”) It’s such a poignant scene, and all the more so because the best way they know how to memorialize Falstaff is by retelling his jests. It’s also the last time they’ll ever see each other.