The Errors of Falstaff
The supposed climb and eventual fall of Falstaff is one of the most fascinating in King Henry IV and lends credence to John Wilders’s argument that the characters of this play fall because of their own delusions about themselves and those around them. Falstaff’s blind conviction that his friend, Prince Hal, will place him in a position where he will be well cared for and can continue his pursuits of depravity stems mostly from his own inability to read Prince Hal. Therefore, he brings upon himself his own downfall and disillusionment. His own ineptitude in truly knowing who Hal is, his cowardice during the battle against Hotspur, lies, and thievery, sealed his fate long ago.
Falstaff is given indications during his conversations with Hal that he will not be by Hal’s side, and through ignorance, as John Wilders agrees, he continues to have the “impression that Hal is a profligate” despite Hal’s denial of this (281). This is evident when they are conversing and Falstaff tells him not to hang a thief when he is king, to which Hal replies that he, Falstaff, will hang, and Falstaff, either by accident or design, misunderstands and thinks he will have the duty of a hangman and quips, “I’ll be a brave judge.” (1KHIV 1.2.55) Once again, Hal gives him a hint with his first reply of “Thou judgest false already” (1.2.56). However, Falstaff continues to be oblivious to his fate. More evidence of this is when he and Hal decide to engage in a game of role-playing, and Hal, playing his father the king, berates Falstaff, who is playing Hal, for continuing to associate with Falstaff. Falstaff answers that to banish him is to banish the whole world, and Hal decrees, “I do, I will.” (2.4.429)
Another reason that Prince Hal abandons Falstaff is the latter’s propensity for lying, as well as his lack of courage. His lies extend even onto the battlefield when they are fighting the rebels. Falstaff runs into Prince Hal and blithely lies that he has “never did such deeds in arms” and even claims that he has already slain Hotspur (5.3.44). His fear is clear when, later during the battle, he pretends to be slain by Douglas. Then later, after Prince Hal has left and returns, attempts to take credit for the death of Hotspur (whom Prince Hal actually killed himself) and even goes so far as to say that he looks for Prince Hal’s father to make him an “earl or duke” (5.5.137). Therefore, it’s understandable that John Wilders declares that Falstaff and others in the play view people “subjectively according to their own characters and situations” which is the cause for their ruin (278). Falstaff may be an entertaining friend to have at a tavern, but he is not someone anyone would want in a position of power. He would rob, lie and cause insurmountable destruction to the throne, and Hal plainly sees what Falstaff is even if it is not reciprocated and this is why Falstaff will not be following Hal in his ascension. He has no inclination to fight (in battle) for his friend, Prince Hal, and if Hal is to take the throne he needs friends who are loyal and will stand beside him through both times of peace and of war, and it’s obvious to all that Falstaff is no such friend.
His greed for money at the expense of friendship is another reason Falstaff should have realized that Prince Hal would have nothing to do with him once he assumed the throne. He is so low in character and morals that he will not only rob from strangers, but from Prince Hal himself. This is made unmistakably clear when Prince Hal gives Falstaff soldiers to lead into battle with Prince Hal and, ever the opportunist, Falstaff in exchange for money, allows these soldiers to buy their freedom from battle, thereby robbing Prince Hal of seasoned soldiers, and in their place he has “pitiful rascal” who cannot fight at all (4.3.58). This is the worst offense, as strong men are needed to win a battle, and a true friend would not do anything that would diminish the strength of his friend’s army. The only thing that saves Falstaff from Hal’s rage is that Hal, according to John Wilders, still sees Falstaff “as an instrument in his own ascent to power.” (282) So Hal continues to use Falstaff and Falstaff continues to remain ignorant of the fact that he is being manipulated and does not even realize that this is yet another reason why Hal will be turning his back on him.
Falstaff’s character and behavior play a major role in his own downfall because he rates himself too highly in Prince Hal’s eyes and proves John Wilders’s indisputable assertions that the characters of the play suffer from delusions of themselves and those they associate with. Had he used a little common sense he would have realized that there never was the slightest possibility that someone who lies and steals without compunction would ever stand near someone who held the crown. Hal has repeatedly told him, without saying it directly, that he would not be in Hal’s life once he became king and, during their role-play, he made it patently evident that someone of Falstaff’s disreputable character should not be mingling with royal blood, but Falstaff continues to harbor a dream of Hal as a shadow of a man who will bring him along as he took his rightful place as king. This stems from Falstaff’s own ineptitude in realizing his own attributes that, when truly measured, lack the necessary length, as well as his inability to discern the difference between the Hal he imagines and the one who is actually present and that was his biggest mistake. He sees the shadow, but not the substance, which is basically what John Wilders asserts in his essay and, given all of Falstaff’s errors, I completely concur with John Wilders views.