PTS 015/091: The Man of a Thousand Faces

lon chaney
Lon Chaney jr trailblazes Bilbo Baggins, Sherlock Holmes, Pennywise, and Forrest Gump

1 Henry IV Act I scene ii is, really, all about that devastating soliloquy in which Hal channels Lon Chaney jr.

But before that, I want to have a word about … EXPOSITION.

Exposition is a significant part of my literary life: when you read as much SF or historical fiction as I do; when you listen to so many radio dramatisations, it’s a vital part of orienting the reader in an unfamiliar landscape.  Done well, you don’t notice it.  Done clumsily …

So, in trying to find something new to say about a familiar play, I wanted to talk about the skill with which Shakespeare opens this scene.

Falstaff   Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?

Henry V   Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack
and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon
benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to
demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know.
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the
day? Unless hours were cups of sack and minutes
capons and clocks the tongues of bawds and dials the
signs of leaping-houses and the blessed sun himself
a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no
reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand
the time of the day.

What does this tell us?

Plenty.  Firstly, the relationship is close and excessively informal – I’m no monarchist, but look at Falstaff’s use of ‘Hal’, and that pretty cheeky ‘lad’, rounding off his question.  Not even a peer relationship, really.  Hal’s response sums up Falstaff’s hedonistic lifestyle: breakfast might be optional, but banter, booze, banquets, beautiful(ish) women and bad company are all in a day’s, erm, lack of work.

wtp beesThis scene’s banter is a little unsatisfactory – clever rather than funny; a warm up for the fireworks of later scenes, but again, it’s highly revealing.  Falstaff, his gang, and Ned Poins are like bees circling the honeypot that is the future king’s patronage.  Look at these lines:


Falstaff  Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief.

Henry V  No; thou shalt.

Falstaff  Shall I? O rare! By the Lord, I’ll be a brave judge.

Henry V  Thou judgest false already: I mean, thou shalt have
the hanging of the thieves and so become a rare hangman.

Falstaff is practically licking his chops in anticipation of his preferment, only to have his hopes dashed.  I see a sinister undertone to Henry’s first response.  I’ve always interpreted it as Hal predicting that Falstaff will be hanged for theft, and EMW Tillyard notes that Falstaff changes the subject as Hal seems to dwell meaningfully on the gallows. [b]

There’s a sharpness to the exchanges between Falstaff and Poins, which only gets worse, that suggests they are jockeying for position, elbows sharpened to repel all rivals.

But Hal has other plans.

I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.  (Richard, Duke of Gloucester, 3HVI, III.ii)

Let’s have a little look at the soliloquy.  It’s appallingly ruthless, and a precedent for many of the actions I find distasteful in his story.  He may be a successful king, but I find it very hard to like him.  Much as his father might not think so, Hal’s a chip off the old block; the earlier hint that he would leave his friends behind isn’t just confirmed, it’s factored into the process.  Falstaff and co. are actively being used, to be discarded at the right moment.  I’m planning to write a Forensic Friday post on the soliloquy, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

If I can’t condone or approve of Hal, there is one thing that strikes a sympathetic chord: it’s this line:

‘pay the debt I never promised’

Sure, kingship is a life of unbelievable privilege, but I see, time and time and time again that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  Hal will riff on this again, as will his father.  Other kings, who have ‘greatness thrust upon them‘ fare badly – here I’m thinking of Henry VI, Richard II, and Marlowe‘s Edward II.  Others ‘achieve greatness‘, and a fat lot of good it does them: Macbeth, Richard III, Claudius in Hamlet.  Actually, now I think of it, those born great fare little better.  Julius Caesar, anyone?

Greatness, then, is a thing to be avoided at all costs.  As Falstaff might say …


[a]  all quotations taken from

[b]  Tillyard, EMW, Shakespeare’s History Plays, (London: Peregrine Books, 1962)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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