On a narrow street in London, Sir John Falstaff walks ahead of his page. The fat knight asks the small boy trotting along behind, “Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor of my water?”—a sample of his urine.
“He said, sir, the water itself was a good, healthy water,”—a sizeable specimen, “but as for the party that owned it, he might have more diseases than he knew of!”
The aging knight stops, annoyed. “Men of all sorts take a pride to gibe at me! The brain of this foolish, compounded clay, Man, is not able to invent anything that provokes laughter more than I invent—or is invented on me! I am not only witty myself, but the cause of wit in other men!”
Shaking his head, he glances down at the little lad. “I do here walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all her litter but one! If the prince put thee into my service for any other reason than to set me off, why then I have no judgment!”
Before the war Prince Harry, because of his father’s dubious assumption of the throne, had chosen to consort with several of Eastcheap’s disreputable denizens rather than take a regal role at the palace; now, he just wants to keep an eye on them.
Falstaff looks at the young rascal’s smiling face, rosy cheeks. “Thou whoreson mandrake, thou art fitter to be worn in my cap than to walk at my heels! I was never ‘manned’ with an agate”—a ring’s carved stone—“till now; but I will inset you in neither gold nor silver, but in vile apparel, and send you back again as a jewel for your master—the juvenile prince, your master whose chin is not yet fledged!
“I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheek, and yet he will not stick at saying his face is a royal face! God may finish it, when He will; ’tis not a hair amiss yet. He may keep it ever as a face royal,”—a play on the term for a coin, “for a barber shall never earn sixpence out of it!” says the old knight. “And yet he’ll be crowing as if he had writ ‘man’ ever since his father was a bachelor!
“He may keep his own grace,”—and the honor of being addressed as Your Grace, “but he’s almost out of mine, I can assure him!”
Falstaff sighs and resumes his late-afternoon stroll. “What said Master Dombledon about the satin for my short cloak and my slops?” The tailor is to stitch together a stylish new cape and the loose-fitting breeches—hardly military attire. And the huge knight’s order will require a considerable quantity of fabric.
“He said, sir, you should procure him better assurance than Bardolph,” Sir John’s red-haired drinking companion. “He would not take his bond”—promise to pay—“and yours! He liked not the security.”
“Let him be damned like the glutton!”—hardly a Biblical epithet Falstaff should use. He fumes, indignant: “Pray God his tongue be hotter than whoreson Achitophel’s!”—that of the counselor condemned for abandoning Israel’s King David. “A rascally, ‘yea, forsooth!’ knave, to bear a gentleman in hand,”—lead a customer on, “and then stand upon security!
“The whoreson smooth-pates”—bald shop keepers—“do now wear nothing but high shoes, and bunches of keys at their waists”—instead of weapons. “And if a man is to be through with them in honest taking-up, then he must stand upon security! I had as lief they would put ratsbane in my mouth as offer to stop it up with security!
“I looked he should have sent me two-and-twenty yards of satin, as I am a true knight—and he sends me ‘security!’ Well, may he sleep in security—for he hath the horn in abundance; and the lightness of his wife”—her promiscuous nature—“shines through it!” Horns are the emblem of a cuckold; thin sheets of horn are used in place of glass. “And yet he cannot see, though he have his own lanthorn to light him!”
He glances down the street. “Where’s Bardolph?” he asks impatiently.
“He’s gone into Smithfield to buy Your Worship a horse.” The flat, open-market area is known for the poor quality of its animals.
“I bought him in Paul’s,”—the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where workmen offer their services, “and he’ll buy me a horse in Smithfield? If I could but get me a wife in the stews,”—whorehouses, “I were manned, horsed, and wived!” grumbles Falstaff.
The boy sees two men approaching. “Sir, here comes the nobleman that committed the prince to jail for striking him over Bardolph.” The incident occurred when Sir William Gascoigne, the renowned lord chief justice, ordered Bardolph to jail for drunkenness. The high officer and his deputy are now nearing the knight.
“Walk close,” Falstaff tells the page, “I will not see him.” Both stare down as they pass, apparently deep in discussion.
The judge stops. “What’s he that goes there?”
“Falstaff, an’t please Your Lordship.”
“He that was in question for the robbery?” Just before the war began, Falstaff and several degenerate associates waylaid some travelers, including a royal agent carrying money to the king’s treasury, at Gad’s Hill on the road between London and Canterbury, and robbed them of gold. Despite his mask, the big, unruly knight was easily identified.
“He, my lord,” says the servant. “But he hath since done good service at Shrewsbury—and, as I hear, is now going with some charge under Lord John of Lancaster.” Falstaff has received a new infantry commission as a captain under Prince Harry’s young brother, whose forces will soon confront the remaining rebels.
The chief justice seems surprised. “What, to York?”—where the king’s enemies are gathering. “Call him back again.”
“Sir John Falstaff!”
The knight continues walking away. “Boy, tell him I am deaf!” he whispers.
“You must speak louder!” calls the page. “My master is deaf.”
“I am sure he is—to the hearing of anything good,” mutters the judge. “Go, pluck him by the elbow; I must speak with him.”
The servant, pushing past the page, does so. “Sir John!”
Falstaff is instantly indignant. “What?—a young knave—and begging! Is there not wars? Is there not employment?—doth not the king lack subjects?—do not the rebels need soldiers? Though it be a shame to be on any side but one, it is worse shame to beg than to be on the other side!—more than even the name of rebellion can tell how to make it worse!”
“You mistake me, sir—”
“Why, sir?—did I say you were an honest man? Setting my knighthood and my soldiership aside, I had lied in my throat if I had said so!”
The chief justice’s clerk replies angrily, “Then I pray you, sir, set your knighthood and your soldiership aside, and give me leave to tell you: you lie in your throat if you say I am any other than an honest man!”
“I give thee leave to tell me so?” scowls Falstaff. “I, lay aside that which grows to me?”—he means distinctions other than fat. He glares. “If thou gettest any leave of me, hang me! If thou takest leave, thou wert better be hanged!
“You hunt counter!”—beg in vain, he cries with scorn. “Hence! Avaunt!”
“Sir, my lord would speak—”
“Sir John Falstaff, a word with you.” The chief justice himself approaches.
Falstaff turns, then bows, smiling warmly. “My good lord! God give Your Lordship good time of day! I am glad to see Your Lordship abroad! I heard say Your Lordship was sick. I hope Your Lordship goes abroad by advice”—of a physician. “Your Lordship, though not clean past your youth, hath yet some smack of age in you, some relish of the saltiness of time!—and I must humbly beseech Your Lordship to have a reverent care of your health.”
“Sir John, I sent for you before your expedition to Shrewsbury—”
“An’t please Your Lordship,” Falstaff interrupts, “I hear his majesty is returned with some discomfort from Wales….”
“I talk not of his majesty. You would not come when I sent for you—”
“And I hear, moreover, his highness is fallen into this same whoreson apoplexy!”
“Well, God mend him. I pray you, let me speak with you—”
But Falstaff is frowning thoughtfully. “This apoplexy is, as I take it, a kind of lethargy, an’t please Your Lordship—a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling.”
“Why tell you me of it? Be it as it is—”
“It hath its original from much grief,” Falstaff persists, “from study, and perturbation of the brain. I have read the cause of his effects in Galen: it is a kind of deafness.”
“I think you are fallen into the disease, for you hear not what I say to you!”
Falstaff disagrees. “Very well, my lord, very well; it is rather the disease, an’t please you, of not listening—the malady of not marking—that I am troubled withal.”
Says the nobleman angrily, “To punish you by the heels”—a dishonored knight might be suspended upside down—“would amend the attention of your ears! And I care not if I do become your physician!”
Says Falstaff, adopting his metaphor, “I am as poor as Job, my lord, but not so patient! Now, Your Lordship may minister a potion of imprisonment to me in respect to poverty; but should I be your patient and follow your prescriptions? The wise may make some dram of a scruple,”—two tiny apothecary weights; scruple can also mean qualm, “or indeed a scruple itself!”
The justice is further annoyed by the quibbles. “I sent for you, when there were matters against you for your life,”—capital charges, “to come speak with me!”
Falstaff refers to his former military commission, from Prince Harry: “As I was then advised, by my learnèd counsel in the laws of this land’s service, I did not come.”
“Well, the truth is, Sir John, you live in great infamy!”
Oversized over all, Falstaff nods. “He that buckles him in my belt cannot live in less.”
“Your means are very slender, but your waste is great!”
“I would it were otherwise: I would my means were greater and my waist slenderer.”
The lord chief justice glares. “You have misled the youthful prince!” Many believe that Harry, who had spent time with Falstaff’s thievish friends, but is now a hero of the war’s opening battles, had been corrupted by the knight. But the sober young student of common citizens’ ways had quietly made restitution for his esrtwhile companions’ crimes.
“The young prince hath misled me!” counters Falstaff. “I am a fellow with a great belly, but is he my dog?”—follower.
“Well, I am loath to gall a new-healèd wound,” says Sir William. “Your day’s service at Shrewsbury hath a little gilded over your night’s exploit on Gad’s Hill; you may thank the unquiet time for your quiet o’er-posting that action”—getting past it so readily.
Falstaff begins to protest. “My lord—”
“But since all is well, keep it so!—wake not a sleeping wolf!” warns the old judge—adapting the sleeping-dog maxim to accommodate his own dignity.
Falstaff nods—but mutters, “To ‘wake a wolf’ is as bad as to ‘smell a fox’”—a sly scavenger.
“What?” The judge shakes his head. “You are as a candle: the better part burnt out!”
“A wassail candle, my lord: all tallow,” says Falstaff modestly. “But if I did say of wax,”—which is more costly, “my growth would approve the truth!” He is hardly waning.
The stern justice frowns, disapproving of the levity. “There is not a white hair on your face but should have its effect in gravity!”
The knight wipes the matted beard. “It’s affected by gravy,” he explains, “gravy.”
“You follow the young prince up and down like his ill angel!”—personal demon.
Falstaff objects: “Not so, my lord! Your ill ‘angel’ is light,”—because some precious metal has been removed, illegally, from the coin, “but I hope He that looks upon me will take me without weighing!”
He glances toward heaven. “And yet, in some respects, I grant, I might go in; I cannot tell. Virtue is held in so little regard in these costermonger times that true valour is turnèd bear-herd; perception is made a tapster, and hath its quick wit wasted in giving reckonings!”—adding up bar tabs. “All the other gifts appertinent to Man, as the malice of this age shapes them, are not worth a gooseberry!
“You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young; you do measure the heat of our livers”—exuberant behavior—“with the bitterness of your galls!” He shrugs. “And we that are in the vanguard of our youth, I must confess, are wags, too!”
The chief justice—who is younger than Falstaff—stands amazed. “Do you set down your name in the scroll of youth?—you who are written down old with all the characters of age! Have you not a moist eye? A dry hand? A yellow cheek? A white beard? A decreasing leg? An increasing belly? Is not your voice broken—your wind short, your chin double?—your wit single?—and every part about you blasted with antiquity? And will you yet call yourself young? Fie, fie, fie, Sir John!”
“My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon”—when he awoke today—“with a white head and something of a round belly. As for my voice, I have lost it with halloing, and singing of anthems! To approve my youth, I will say no further. The truth is, I am only old in judgment and understanding!
“And he that will not caper with me for a thousand marks”—join in a rich prank, “let him lend me the money!—and have at him!” He is irked that Harry returned the stolen gold, with interest. “As for the box on the ear that the prince gave you: he gave it like a rude prince—and you took it like a sensible lord!”
The judge, he can see, does not enjoy the jest on sensing—and is likely remembering the indignity he suffered in the incident. “I have chided him for it, and the young lion repents,” says Falstaff. “Marry, not in ashes and sackcloth,” he adds dryly, “but in new silk and old sack”—fine clothes and good-vintage wine.
“Well, God send the prince a better companion!”
“God send the companion a better prince! I cannot rid my hands of him!” complains Falstaff.
Sir William knows otherwise. “Well, the king hath severed you and Prince Harry. I hear you are going with Lord John of Lancaster against the archbishop and the Earl of Northumberland.” The Archbishop of York has rallied forces to side with the old nobleman in the rebellion.
Falstaff resents the judge’s influence with King Henry—which, he suspects, has led to the knight’s being kept, much against his will, in military service. “Yea; I thank your pretty, sweet wit for it!
“But look that you pray, all you who kiss my lady Peace at home, that our armies join not on a hot day!—for, by the Lord, I take but two shirts out with me, and I mean not to sweat extraordinarily. If it be a hot day and I brandish anything but a bottle, I would I might never spit white again!
“There is not a dangerous action can peep out its head but I am thrust upon it!” grumbles the knight. “Well, I cannot last forever. But it was always yet the trick of our English nation, if they have a good thing, to make it too common!”—overwork it. “If ye will needs say I am an old man, you should give me rest!
“I would to God my name were not so terrible to the enemy as it is,” he moans. “I were better to be eaten to death with rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion!”
The chief justice wants to be on his way. “Well, be honest, be honest. And God bless your expedition!” He wants the fighting among Englishmen to end.
“Will Your Lordship lend me a thousand pound to furnish me forth?”
“Not a penny, not a penny; you are too impudent to bear crosses!” says the justice, enjoying his own jest on coins’ marking. “Fare you well! Commend me to my cousin Westmoreland,” an earl, one of the king’s key supporters. The judge and his clerk continue walking toward the Court of the King’s Bench.
Thinks Falstaff, If I do, fillip me with a three-man beetle!—a large mallet. He frowns; he does need money. A man can no more separate age and covetousness than he can part young limbs and lechery! But the gout galls the one, and the pox pinches the other—so both decrees foretold my curses! “Boy!”
“What money is in my purse?”
“Seven groats and two-pence.”
Falstaff is exasperated. “I can get no remedy for this wasting away of the purse! Borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable!”
He pulls sealed papers from inside his doublet. “Go, bear this letter to my lord of Lancaster; this to the prince; this to the Earl of Westmoreland—and this to old Mistress Ursula, whom I have weekly sworn to marry since I perceived the first white hair on my chin.” Each letter asks for a “loan.”
“About it! You know where to find me.” He is a regular patron of an unsavory tavern in London’s tawdry Eastcheap section; the woman functions there as a madam.
The page takes the letters and trots away.
A pox on this gout! Or a gout on this pox! thinks the knight, now favoring his left foot as he walks, for the one or the other plays the rogue with my great toe! ’Tis no matter if I do limp; I have the wars for my colour, —his explanation: a battle wound— and my pension shall seem the more reasonable.
A good wit will make use of anything!—I will turn diseases into commodities!