Many are familiar with Shakespeare’s King Henry V, or at least the St. Crispin’s speech.
Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both played Henry in film versions of the play.
King Henry V is actually the conclusion of the Herniad — a four-part series of historical plays. Of the plays I read when I took a Shakespeare class in college, those four were my favorite.
King Henry V is introduced as “Hal” in King Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare portrays Hal as a rebellious prince who hangs out with thieves and drunkards. Among Hal’s friends is Falstaff, an old, fat jester. Longwinded, cowardly and prone to exaggeration, Falstaff provides the play with plenty of comic relief. My professor said Falstaff was actually very popular among audiences.
It seems strange a future king would spend his time with a man like Falstaff. But Hal has less than noble motives for the company he keeps. He hopes to keep expectations low so his reign as king will be viewed as more glorious when compared to his rowdy past.
He isn’t really Falstaff’s friend, but is using him.
This becomes painfully obvious to Falstaff when Hal becomes king. Falstaff runs to meet the newly crowned Hal—expecting to be honored.
“My King! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”
But instead of being greeted like a friend, he is rejected.
“I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers,
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.”
Poor Falstaff had every right to expect to be welcomed as a friend. He had been received as a friend when Hal was prince. Why not when he was king?
When I think of Falstaff’s fate at the end of King Henry IV Part 2, I am reminded of a passage in Matthew.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
This is, in my opinion, the most disturbing passage in the entire Bible. There is a large group of people expecting to be welcomed by Jesus on judgment day who will instead be rejected.
This seems very similar to Falstaff’s fate. There is an expectation of welcome that is met with dismissal.
But I believe there is a difference between Falstaff and those who aren’t welcomed on the last day. Falstaff had a real reason to believe Hal would welcome him but Hal strung him along and fooled him. The people Jesus turns away on judgment day have fooled themselves. Jesus gives nobody false hopes, but makes it plain in scripture how to be saved.
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
It is only through faith in Jesus that somebody can enter heaven. I believe many have fooled themselves into thinking they have earned heaven by religious works. This seems clear from what they say to Jesus as reasons for why he should let them into the kingdom of heaven. They believe they should be let into heaven because of what they have done for God instead of what God — through Christ — has done for them.
Now this may seem to contradict what Jesus says at the beginning of the passage.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
Jesus seems to be making a clear statement that our obedience to God is what allows us to enter heaven. That is absolutely true. James says “faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.” (James 2:17).
When we are saved — through faith — we are transformed so that we act in a way that is consistent with God’s character. I believe this is why Jesus says only the one “who does the will of My Father” will enter the kingdom of heaven. I don’t believe he means that works save us, but that true faith will lead to good works.
There are many who are confused about grace — trusting in religious experiences or works to save them instead of the grace God has shown them in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
We can be worse fools than Falstaff — and fool ourselves out of eternity.