UNREMEMBERED PUT-DOWNS: William Shakespeare, Prince Hal and the Art of the Insult

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By Ken Zurski

In William Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I & II, King Henry is troubled by his son Hal’s disreputable behavior. That’s because the youthful Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, is a rabble-rouser in his father’s eyes. For example, throughout the play, Hal forsakes his roots by frequenting taverns and conversing with peasants and lowlifes. This royal debauchery gives Shakespeare a chance to introduce the character of Falstaff, Prince Hal’s friend and foil.

Described as “fat, drunk, and corrupt,” Falstaff is satirically based on Sir John Oldcastle, a historical figure who was much more sagacious than the buffoonish character portrayed in the play.  Still, Shakespeare originally wanted to name Falstaff, Oldcastle, but descendants of the family objected. Regardless, Falstaff is one for the ages: An entertaining braggart, liar and cheat, who both interjects and deflects colorful and deviously intended barbs.

This Clearly amuses Prince Hal, who berates Falstaff with his own words or those of others, lest he be the one judged.

His descriptions, however, are some of the greatest put-downs of the 16th century. “Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours?’ he explains, then unleashes a folly of insults mostly in relation to Falstaff’s girth: “The bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly.”

The prince’s jabs are meant to solidify the future King’s own disregard for those who criticize the “merry and old,” as Falstaff relates. But Falstaff doesn’t mind. When Prince Hal calls Falstaff, “the old white bearded devil,” Falstaff gleefully responds:

“My lord, I know the man.”

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