Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Act IV, Scene 2
Falstaff and Bardolph are on their way to the battlefield, with Falstaff's soldiers following behind. Falstaff sends Bardolph to buy some sack (sweet wine) and asks him to bid Peto to meet him at the end of town. Falstaff then engages in a long monologue, in which he confides that he has earned three hundred pounds by pressing only those men who were willing and able to buy themselves out of service. Instead of soldiers, he has instead filled his ranks with the lowest and poorest class of men. They are such ragged "scarecrows" (39), in fact, that he is ashamed to be seen in town with them.
He is overtaken by Prince Hal and Westmoreland, who ask him about the "pitiful rascals" (65) following him. Falstaff comments that they are merely "food for powder" (67) - cannon fodder. The prince realizes that he has misused his command but does not chastise him. He and Westmoreland urge Falstaff to hurry, for the battle is soon to begin.
Falstaff’s ridiculous gathering of "scarecrows" serves as more than just comic relief. In Henry's day, and even into the Elizabethan era, standing armies such as nations maintain now did not exist in England. It was common for soldiers to be recruited and pressed into battle by local lords, who were presumably responsible for maintaining them, or for communities to assemble militia forces as the need arose. Often, well-off men could buy their way out of service. Falstaff represents one of those many nobles who were asked to raise a number of men for the king's service. As the king's representative, he cannot be refused, and so, rather than recruit able-bodied men, he deliberately impresses only "toasts-and- butter" (21) types, soft, cowardly men with the means to pay money to avoid service. He then gets the most rag-tag bunch of recruits he can find and allows them to fend for themselves. Shakespeare here satirizes the corruption that occurred in the impressment process.
The thought of the portly, well-fed Falstaff leading an army of two-legged creatures that look more dead than alive is certainly comic. "There's not a shirt and a half in all [the] company, and the half shirt is two napkins tacked together" (43-4), he says. While the picture is initially amusing, however, the humor turns black toward the end of the scene. When Hal notes that his "soldiers" look pitiful, Falstaff replies that they are "good enough to toss" and will, indeed, fill a grave "as well as better [men]" (66-8). Their fate is a grim reminder that for the common man, war is more bitter than glorious.