Today is Veteran’s Day in the United States, where we remember and honor the sacrifices of our veterans. In Elizabethan times, they had veterans and conscripts too, and as poorly as veterans are treated today, it was even worse back then. Shakespeare realized this, and used the deplorable practice of forced conscription into Elizabeth’s army to highlight Falstaff’s immoral activities. In his first Henry history play, Shakespeare has his villainous and corpulent Sir John Falstaff conscript a haggard bunch of ‘pitiful rascals’, only so that he himself can collect the conscription money.
I think, to steal cream indeed, for thy theft hath
already made thee butter. But tell me, Jack, whose
fellows are these that come after?
Mine, Hal, mine.
I did never see such pitiful rascals.
Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food
for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better:
tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.
Ay, but, Sir John, methinks they are exceeding poor
and bare, too beggarly.
‘Faith, for their poverty, I know not where they had
that; and for their bareness, I am sure they never
learned that of me.
No I’ll be sworn; unless you call three fingers on
the ribs bare. But, sirrah, make haste: Percy is
already in the field.
What, is the king encamped?
He is, Sir John: I fear we shall stay too long.
To the latter end of a fray and the beginning of a feast
Fits a dull fighter and a keen guest.
–from Henry IV Part I, Act IV, scene ii
The image is of American Players Theatre’s Brian Mani in the role of Falstaff–dressed up, of course, in military regalia that doesn’t deserve to wear.