Robert Smirke. Falstaff Examining Prince Hal..

Oil on canvas, approximately 62.5 x 86 inches. Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina.

This painting was one of the twenty-six that Smirke prepared for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Act II, Scene iv, of Henry IV, Part 1 is set in the Boar's Head Tavern where Falstaff and Prince Hal play the parts of Hal's father the King and the Prince. Falstaff first plays the part of Henry IV and questions Hal about his companions and in particular about Falstaff. "The King" of course speaks most kindly about Falstaff. Looking on are the hostess, Mistress Quickly, and Hal's companions Bardolph and Peto. Adding to the irony of the scene is the portrait of the rather stern King that hangs on the back wall.

Hal and Falstaff then reverse roles; Hal plays the King and Falstaff plays Prince Hal. This is "the Prince's" evaluation of Sir John Falstaff:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved. 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.

What starts out in merriment may have turned serious. I remember in Orson Welles's film Chimes at Midnight Keith Baxter, who plays Hal, answers, "I do, I will." At that moment, Falstaff, played by Welles, registers a look that suggests the play may be over and that Hal now speaks not in his role as the King but in his own voice; Falstaff may have a premonition of the ending of Henry IV, Part 2 when Hal, now Henry V, does indeed banish old Jack Falstaff. The moment and the expression on the face of Welles are chilling.