If The First Part of Henry the Fourth introduces John Falstaff, then The Second Part puts him front and center.
Last week, we talked a little about how Falstaff’s role increased in size while Hal’s shrunk. And yesterday, we saw how the play is thrown off balance by Shakespeare’s refusal to have Hal (whom you’d figure would be the main character) interact with either father figure (real or symbolic).
It’s a play without a royal protagonist at its center.
And so who fills the void?
He’s the closest we have to a protagonist.
Heresy? Think about it… What is Henry trying to achieve? Hal? See what I mean?
Instead, we have Falstaff’s hunger for power (and if not power, then what passes for power to Falstaff… proximity of power).
We have Falstaff ruling the Tavern, but being antagonized by the Chief Justice, who wants–ahem–justice for The First Part’s Gad’s Hill robbery.
Falstaff faces a turning point near the midpoint of the play when he must head back off to the wars.
He gains more power–captures the rebel Coleville, who he then turns over to Prince John, currying favor with another heir–and even more power–gaining an ally (and a loan) in Justice Shallow.
He is seemingly close to victory–power and revenge on the Chief Justice–when the newly crowned Henry the Fifth turns him away.
He’s the centerpiece of the play, dominating it with his wit. His comedy fills this history’s void left behind the lack of any real historical stakes. But for what worth? He doesn’t end with a seat at the court. He can’t, not historically speaking. He must be discarded. But this renders all his scenes at the center of the play ultimately meaningless.
If The First Part of Henry the Fourth introduces John Falstaff, then The Second Part puts him front and center… to the detriment of the play as a whole.