The Kiss-Off: A Speech of Two Kings

At the end of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Hal rejects Falstaff in public:


I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old and so profane,
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace.
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see performed the tenor of our word.
Set on.

— V.v.47-71

The kiss-off begins with a refusal to acknowledge his old companion. What follows is a double-shot of layered kingly reference. Henry refers to the old man as “a fool and jester,” an entertainer of kings, a king who is a God on earth, the anointed one, a king to whom one must “pray.” Henry then calls his time with Falstaff nothing but a “dream,” one that he has realized (in waking) that he now “despise(s).” Almost sensing he’s gone too far and buried the needle on the brutalometer, Henry then changes tacks and discusses Falstaff’s appetites, as if a more healthy discussion might help. But obviously it doesn’t as Henry then moves to a quick direction: “Reply not.” This won’t work, so Henry must then go on to the ultimate rejection, not just the rejection of Falstaff and the tavern life, but rejection of his own former self as well: “the thing I was…my former self.”

With the old Hal now gone, he can now reject the commoners and become The King. Henry will lose “those that kept (him) company… (his) misleaders.” In fact, he banishes them “not to come near our person by ten mile.” As I noted yesterday, this royal “our” is importance. While Hal does use second person when he speaks to his brothers and  the Chief Justice, those usages can be seen as collective rather than royal. Here, however, it is unmistakable.

Still, he’s Hal and cannot summarily dismiss the old man, saying, “For competence of life I will allow you” the ability to work and live. He’s back to the single first person. Hal will allow Falstaff, not King Henry. King Henry though is not out of the picture: if Falstaff can reform, Henry says, “We will, according to your strengths and qualities, // Give you advancement.” Hal and Henry, the two sides–to borrow a phrase from a future play–are willing to be cruel to be kind.

But before he will allow Falstaff any time to respond, with only a period separating the sentence, he tells the Chief Justice (Falstaff’s foe) to “see performed the tenor of our word.” Again, the royal second person. And Henry is gone.

Henry leaves Falstaff with the promise of “advancement.” But it’s conditional. And from Falstaff’s reactionary speech to Justice Shallow, they are not conditions he thinks he can meet.

Hal leaves Falstaff with a chance. Falstaff won’t take it. Henry has successfully cut ties with his non-princely “misleaders.”

And the scene is set for the heroic, legendary, King Henry the Fifth.

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