Now I want to discuss Mistress Quickly (in case you haven’t noticed). What is bizarre and interesting about Mistress Quickly is that, as opposed to Falstaff who appears to be two different people, one in the history plays and another in a comedy, she seems to be a different person every time we encounter her.
In Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, Mistress Quickly is the “hostess” of the Boar's Head Tavern in a sketchy London neighborhood called Eastcheap. Her name is only used once in the first play, in a manner that suggests it is an irreverent comment on the ease with which she will engage in a certain type of relationship. As for her personality, in Part 1 she does little more than marvel at the verbal antics of Falstaff and Prince Hal and gives them shelter from various members of the King’s court who are searching for Hal in hopes of forcing him to behave himself. She has but one brief moment when, after Falstaff accuses her of running an institution where his pocket has been picked, she stands up to him:
Go to, I know you well enough.
No, Sir John; You do not know me, Sir John. I know you, Sir John: you owe me money, Sir John; and now you pick a quarrel to beguile me of it: I bought you a dozen of shirts to your back.
Dowlas, filthy dowlas: I have given them away to bakers' wives, and they have made bolters of them.
HOSTESSNow, as I am a true woman, holland of eight shillings an ell. You owe money here besides, Sir John, for your diet and by-drinkings, and money lent you, four and twenty pound.
On that occasion, Falstaff easily soothes her ruffled feathers, and she goes back to waiting on him and Prince Hal hand and foot. But by Part 2, Mistress Quickly is demanding that the authorities arrest Falstaff for having run up excessive debts and making a fraudulent proposal of marriage to her. (Other indications that Mistress Quickly has become someone else from her incaranation in Part 1 is that she no long refers repeatedly to “her husband” and is no longer easily manipulated by the big man.) Mistress Quickly now has a dear friend named Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute who frequents the tavern. And Mistress Quickly’s principal concern is protecting her friend and her establishment from “swaggerers.”
Hang him, swaggering rascal! let him not come hither: it is the foul-mouthed'st rogue in England.
MISTRESS QUICKLYIf he swagger, let him not come here: no, by my faith; I must live among my neighbours: I'll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best: shut the door; there comes no swaggerers here: I have not lived all this while, to have swaggering now: shut the door, I pray you.
Dost thou hear, hostess?
Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John: there comes no swaggerers here.
Dost thou hear? it is mine ancient.
Tilly-fally, Sir John, ne'er tell me: your ancient swaggerer comes not in my doors. I was before Master Tisick, the debuty, t'other day; and, as he said to me, 'twas no longer ago than Wednesday last, 'I' good faith, neighbour Quickly,' says he; Master Dumbe, our minister, was by then; 'neighbour Quickly,' says he, 'receive those that are civil; for,' said he, 'you are in an ill name:' now a' said so, I can tell whereupon; 'for,' says he, 'you are an honest woman, and well thought on; therefore take heed what guests you receive: receive,' says he, 'no swaggering companions.' There comes none here: you would bless you to hear what he said: no, I'll no swaggerers.
He's no swaggerer, hostess; a tame cheater, i'faith; you may stroke him as gently as a puppy greyhound: he'll not swagger with a Barbary hen, if her feathers turn back in any show of resistance.
Cheater, call you him? I will bar no honest man my house, nor no cheater: but I do not love
swaggering, by my troth; I am the worse, when one says swagger: feel, masters, how I shake; look you, I warrant you.
So you do, hostess.
Do I? yea, in very truth, do I, an 'twere an aspen leaf: I cannot abide swaggerers.
At the end of Part 2, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are themselves arrested in connection with the beating death of a man.
Then in Henry V, she has become “Nell Quickly,” and has married Pistol, one of Falstaff’s cohorts, which has apparently offended another member of their crew, Nym, who also took a shine to her. But she is the one proves to be the peacemaker, urgently beckoning the bickering reprobates to come to Sir John’s bedside in the tavern as he is consumed by a fever: “As ever you came of women, come in quickly to Sir John. Ah, poor heart! he is so shaked of a burning quotidian tertian, that it is most lamentable to behold. Sweet men, come to him.” She is also the one who is with Sir John in his final moments, which she describes with tenderness and without affectation:
. . . .'How now, sir John!' quoth I 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him [he] should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
The strangest transformation of all comes in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Suddenly, Mistress Quickly is working as nurse for a French physician. But her main role in the play—and it is a central role—is to act as a messenger between the wives who busily manipulate Falstaff, communicating love notes meant to lure him into exposing himself as an unduly trusting and utterly untrustworthy buffoon. No reference is every made to her former life as the hostess of a bawdy tavern in Eastcheap (or to the fact that Falstaff had already died during the reign of Henry V who ruled England many, many years before the “Queen” who appears to be on the throne during Merry Wives.)
Mistress Quickly is a flexible creature indeed. And her flexibility should certainly be an inspiration to the lawyers of this earth. Lawyers, like Quickly, have to shift their shapes to serve the interests of larger forces—i.e., their clients—for whom they labor. One minute lawyers must be a comforting counselor, the next an adviser telling the client painful truths it may not want to hear, the next charging into battle against dark forces amassed on the other side of a dispute or a big deal, and then suddenly playing peacemaker, conciliator, seeking out a reasonable compromise to a seemingly intractable problem that needs to be put to bed so that people can get on with their lives. So, lawyers, let Mistress Quickly be a guiding light—not in terms of her specific roles, but in her quick, functional malleability; and “I'll be sworn on a book, they’ll love you.” [Mistress Quickly, Merry Wives I.4].