No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Falstaff to Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1, II.4
The Henry IV plays are not really about King Henry IV. They are about his son, Prince Hal, aka the young “Harry,” who will grow up to be King Henry V. More specifically, these plays are about Hal’s transformation from a reprobate who is a consummate disappointment to his long-suffering father into a man who will be king—and a really inspiring one at that. Falstaff and a band of degenerate comrades play a pivotal role in this transformation.
Hal’s transformation is triggered through a series of fun and games, during which Hal is prompted to take a hard look at a charismatic elder whom he clearly adores.
Falstaff and several members of his coterie plan to rob a pair of travelers and invite Hal to join in the “madcap” adventure. Prince Hal agrees, but, meanwhile, he and another of their pals, Ned Poins, secretly plan a counterplot, such that they will show up late in disguise and rob their own comrades and see how they react. The Prince has a good laugh watching his rotund friend swing in short order from one pole to another. In one instant, Falstaff—the man known for his capacious belly—terrorizes the poor travelers in grandiose fashion by, of all things, insulting their girth:
Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone? No, ye
fat chuffs: I would your store were here! On,
bacons, on! What, ye knaves! young men must live.
You are Grand-jurors, are ye? we'll jure ye, 'faith.
Then, the moment the tables are turned on him by his friends (disguised as rival thieves), Falstaff squeals in terror, abandons his booty, and flees. As Hal puts it: how “Falstaff sweats to death,/ And lards the lean earth as he walks along:/ Were 't not for laughing, I should pity him.”
Having witnessed this spectacular pendulum swing, Hal and Poins then meet up with Falstaff and the others at The Boar's-Head Tavern in Eastcheap for what happens to be the longest scene in the play and among the longest scenes in all of Shakespeare. In this scene that unfolds in the wee hours at a bar, Hal and Falstaff take an emotional journey together during which Hal lures Falstaff into describing a great feat that never happened and then Hal exposes Falstaff as a liar and a coward; then Falstaff induces Hal to do a little role-playing, with Falstaff taking the role of Hal’s father, the King, so that Hal can practice what he is going to say the next day when he will be called before his father for a thorough scolding about his unseemly ways.
While playing the role of Hal’s father, Falstaff warns the Prince about all of the unsavory characters with whom he has been seen cavorting—but one: “[a] goodly portly man, i' faith.” Falstaff-as-the-King swears he sees "virtue in his looks.” Then Hal declares that he wants to play the King’s part and insists that Falstaff stand in for him. Hal-as-the-King chides Falstaff-as-the-Prince for hanging about with that “villanous abominable misleader of youth,/ Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.” And in response to this assault, Falstaff-as-the-Prince urges Hal-as-the-King to banish everyone else—just not sweet, kind, valiant, old plump Jack Falstaff. And during this speech, one sees the mask slipping, the game shifting into a more desperate, authentic exchange in the hours after midnight. In response to this speech, Hal—who may no longer be merely playing the King but starting to see himself as a king—says in response to the insistence that he not banish Jack Falstaff: “I do, I will.”
In an instant, the spell is broken—both the spell created by the game they have been playing in the bar and the spell that has permitted Falstaff to bind Hal to him.
Immediately thereafter, the sheriff and his men come bursting in, looking for “the fat man” who is “as fat as butter,” for he is wanted in conjunction with a robbery. Hal covers for the fat man as he hides behind an arras. And when the coast is clear, Falstaff is found passed out, “fast asleep behind the arras, and snorting like a horse.” Hal takes the opportunity to go through the old man’s pockets and finds no more than papers, which he vows to read later at his leisure. He also pledges to return the money that he and Poins had stolen from the thieves to the rightful owners. Hal seems to be laughing off the whole incident, but he isn’t. He knows his days of “uphold[ing] the unyoked humour of [their] idleness” are numbered.
This scene has got to be one of the greatest in all of literature. We, like Hal, see Falstaff revealed in all his comic glory and unbearable, embarrassing humanity. He is unethical, arrogant, conceited, desperate, self-serving—but also hilarious, eloquent, brazen, exciting. He is transcendent; he is a joke. He is bizarrely lovable and profoundly dangerous.
I think of Falstaff when I see headlines about “ex-Big Firm lawyer charged with tax fraud involving beach homes” or “prison recommended for lawyer involved in Ponzi scheme.” And I think of the Hal-Falstaff relationship when I hear stories about a client who ceased doing business with a firm after a golf outing in which in-house counsel noticed how a charming partner kept taking mulligans or about a young associate who lost faith in a dazzling mentor after seeing mysterious round-trip, 1st-class tickets to and from New York on the expense report for a small personal injury case where all the parties and witnesses were located in Texas.
Let Falstaff be an object lesson: just because people in power find you fun to carouse with, that doesn’t mean they are giving you permission to lie, cheat, and steal with impunity. Eventually, they may assume that, no matter how passionately attached to them you seem and how much fun you are to drink with, you are not someone to be trusted and, therefore, must be banished for the sake of some larger good.