The Epilogue: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

At the end of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, a “dancer” (V.v.110, stage direction) steps forward to deliver an Epilogue:


First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech. My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty; and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring. But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it and to promise you a better. I meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you I would be and here I commit my body to your mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and, as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a good conscience will make any possible satisfaction, and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a' be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.

Is it just me or is this a weird ending?

What a mess.

In the past, at the end of a “displeasing play,” he came before the audience and promised them a better play. This has been it, or at least he “meant to pay” with this play. Only, this has been “like an ill venture” and he still owes them one.

If the audience won’t accept his words, he offers to use his legs (a dance)… which I would say he does after the “so would I” line, since after that, “all the gentlewomen here” have forgiven him.

He then goes on to promise a continuation of the story “with Sir John in it, and… Katherine of France.” It seems that “our humble author” knew that he was going to include Princess Katherine, and thought he was going to include Falstaff. As anyone who’s seen Henry the Fifth knows, only half of that prediction comes true, and it isn’t the Sir John part. Did Shakespeare know he was going to cut Falstaff loose (and thus hints that the old fat man may “be killed by… (the) hard opinions” of the audience. [and here, I’ve got to hand it to blog reader Kevin Landis, who a few days back, when we were discussing Falstaff, wrote:

For me, the reason Hal pretty much drops out of the middle of the play, and why Falstaff takes over, is to firmly establish the justification for Hal rejecting his past. In Part 1, Falstaff is a lot of fun (in a delinquent sort of way), but in Part 2, I find him somewhat mean spirited and nasty. I'm not amused by his antics the way I was in Part 1. The same is true for the rest of the tavern gang. They're not loveable reprobates in Part 2 like they were in Part 1.

I’d say that qualifies as a “hard opinion”…

Our speaker then closes by telling us that Falstaff is NOT Oldcastle (especially important now since the opinion re: Falstaff is even “hard”er than it was in The First Part), and bids us to pray the for Queen.

Is it just me or is this a weird ending?

Comment?