Have you ever watched a war movie when, in the midst of a huge battle with thousands of soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat, two important and opposing characters, protagonist and antagonist, make dramatic eye contact? And instantaneously, a imaginary, absurd bubble with a radius of about 10 yards seems to shield them from the throng of other warriors, flying projectiles, and general danger so that they can safely duke it out, one-on-one, sans interruption? I’ll call this the ‘safety-zone’ convention.
This clip from The Patriot is a perfect example of the ‘safety-zone’:
Shakespeare’s representation of the Battle of Shrewsbury (as well as a number of his other plays) calls for this type of dramatic action multiple times. Duels between Blunt and Douglas, Henry and Douglas, Hal and Douglas, and Hal and Hotspur all are given dramatic privilege above the general fray—time for these characters to not only fight, but also embark on unrealistically extended dialogues of verse.
There’s a similar scene in which Hal meets Falstaff on the battlefield. With this meeting, however, Shakespeare parodies the ‘safety-zone’ convention. The difference here is that Falstaff creates his ‘safety zone’ not by engaging an enemy, but by avoiding any sort of interest in the fight. Instead of physically fighting, Hal and Falstaff enter into a verbal duel. Hal, as the ‘straight man’, tries to re-enter the fray by arming himself with Falstaff’s sword, but Falstaff prevents him, at least momentarily, by tricking him with another example of his never ending game of make-believe. Instead of giving him a pistol, Falstaff gives Hal a bottle of sack.
Derek Peat, in his article, “Falstaff Gets the Sack,” sees this moment as particularly crucial in the general plot-arc of Henry IV Part 1. He describes how two different interpretations of Shakespeare’s stage directions, “He [Hal] throws the bottle at him [Falstaff],” provide two different kinds of ‘safety-zones’ which speak to Falstaff’s relationship with Hal (5.3.55).
In the first staging interpretation, Hal simply throws the bottle down in disgust rather than directly at Falstaff. This action signals that Hal is no longer willing to indulge in Falstaff’s flippant outlook on life, marking the beginning of the end for their relationship. Falstaff, in reaction, adopts a pleading tone with the audience, perhaps, as Peat explains, “pleading with us not to reject him as Hal just had” (Peat 381). Peat explains that this action follows a general desire of the RCS to present a fluid narrative of Hal’s gradual rejection of Falstaff that follows through both 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. As a side effect, the interpretation downplays the potential comedy in the scene in favor of seriousness.
The second interpretation explores the possibility that Falstaff actually catches the thrown bottle, and consequently uses it to engage the audience in a continuation of his care-free, drunken demeanor. Thus, the alternative provides Falstaff an outlet to continue to be comical and engaging, even if Hal is fed up with him. According to Peat, this staging solution has Falstaff turning the bottle into a prop. First he uses it as mock sword while saying, “Well, if Percy be alive, I’ll pierce him” (5.3.56). Then he drinks its contents before exclaiming, “there’s an end,” thereby punning on Shakespeare’s verse (5.1.61). Through these actions, the director returns to allows Falstaff to ‘recover’ from Hal’s complaints at his pretending as he does so often earlier in the play, making the scene more in line with the rest of Part 1 and thus making Part 1 more cohesive as a single play.
Peat’s article deals with the consequences that these stagings have on Falstaff’s character development. But what I find more interesting is how these alternative stagings interpret the ‘safety-zone’ in different ways. In the first interpretation, you get the sense that Hal is not comfortable with Falstaff’s mockery of the safety-zone—and so he run’s back to the battle, unwilling to play in the game. In the second interpretation, Hal uses the bottle as a type of mock weapon, and in a way, reintroduces physical contact into a scene that unrealistically lacks it. But the physicality that he introduces is, obviously, a bottle of wine. Thus, Falstaff’s ability to re-convert this weapon into, once again, a comedic tool would be his way of emphasizing his parody of the ‘safety-zone’ farce.
Even if this might be a stretch, I think it’s valuable to examine how Falstaff, with all his pretending and make-believe, might be commenting on the absurd theatrics that Shakespeare himself employs.
Peat, Derek. “Falstaff Gets the Sack.” Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 53. Number 3. Fall 2002: 379-385. Project MUSE. Web. 21 July 2015.
Shakespeare, William. The First part of King Henry The Fourth. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. London: Penguin Books, 2002. 1044-1079. Print.