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Let’s Play – A plague on all cowards (Henry IV Part I – A2S4)

As part of our exploration of the relationships between Henry IV, Prince Hal, and Falstaff, this extract explores the scene in A2S4 of Henry IV where Poins and Prince Hal try to trick Falstaff into recognising that he has been a coward.

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Earlier in the play, in A2S2, Falstaff and his cronies have robbed some travellors at Gadshill, and have, in turn, been robbed of their booty by Prince Hal and Poins in disguise. Now the robbers and the robbed meet up again at The Boar’s Head, but the Prince and Poins know that they have robbed Falstaff.

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A plague of all cowards

A plague of all cowards

 

When Falstaff enters, he is angry with Hal and Poins, because they had, so he thinks, deserted them during the robbery. “A plague on all cowards” he repeats again and again in this first part of the scene, with Hal and Poins in mock astonishment and anger at Falstaff’s rudeness.

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These nine in buckram that I told thee of

These nine in buckram that I told thee of

Soon, they persuade Falstaff to tell them the story of the robbery. Falstaff, like a fisherman talking of the fish that got away, lets his imagination get the better of him. He starts with two attackers in buckram suits. This soon turns into four, then seven, nine, and finally eleven, as Falstaff gets carried away with the imaginative re-telling of his tale until this is punctured by Prince Hal’s “These lies are like their father that begot them, gross as a mountain, open, palpable.”

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What upon compulsion?

What upon compulsion?

But Hal does not reveal that he and Poins were the attackers, he wants to milk Falstaff for yet more humour. Instead he asks how Falstaff could see the colour of the buckram suits in the pitch dark. Falstaff refuses to anwer “upon compulsion”.

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I knew thee as well as he that made thee!

I knew thee as well as he that made thee!

And now we’re heading for the denouement. Hal tells Falstaff that it was he and Poins that robbed them, and that they have the money and that they can show it to him. He is caught, unlike the fish that got away, so how can he escape the shame of his cowardice? Poins is particularly keen that Falstaff should be humiliated, but  Falstaff is too quick for them. “By the Lord, I knew you as well as he that made thee…. Was it for me to kill the heir apparent?”

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Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Poins, know that Falstaff is lying, but the humour lies in the wit with which Falstaff has escaped, yet again, their trap.

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There is very little overtly in this scene that plays on Prince Hal’s ‘public’ position as Prince of Wales.  The scene’s humour arises from Prince Hal and Poins trying to trick Falstaff, and his successful attempts to escape every trap they set for him. By the end of the scene, they all know the games that they have been playing, and can all take pleasure from Falstaff’s ability to escape.

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And yet… why does Prince Hal want to shame the old man so? His father the king shows him the road of responsibility, and wants him to take it. But Falstaff gives free reign to his irresponsibility and egoism, and perhaps this has a certain fascination for the Prince who is currently running away from responsibility until it will be thrust upon him.

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Perhaps the scene is not susceptible to detailed analysis, and should be enjoyed for what it is, which is why it’s worth playing this scene out loud which may stimulate your own ideas as to what is going on. It needs three players, with Hal and Falstaff playing in “Parts and Cues” mode, and Poins (the smallest part) reading in “Highlit Text” mode, so that he can prompt Hal or Falstaff if they get lost. Links to each player’s script are outlined below:

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Play the scene from Falstaff’s entrance. This means that Prince Hal and Poins need to scroll their scripts down to Falstaff’s entrance. And stop playing the scene at the entrance of the Hostess – we’ll play some of the later part of this scene in another extract.

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If you don’t know about “Part’s and Cues”, “Highlit Text”, or “Standard Script”, we’ve written an article which brings you up-to-speed with that and other aspects of MFFEV5. You can find it at: Let’s explore ‘Parts and Cues’, ‘Highlit Text’, and Standard Script

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This extract is one of a series of five which explore the relationship of Henry IV, Hal, and Falstaff. If you want to explore further, you could have a look at Let’s Play: Falstaff, Prince Hal, and Henry IV which gives an overview, and provides links to the four other articles.

Let’s Play!!!

‘The Director’,
Players-Shakespeare.com
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