Henry IV, Part 1 was popular from the time it was first staged around 1597; it was published six times during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and more afterward. The Hostess seems to have been a favorite character from the beginning, ruling the tavern where Prince Hal hangs out with Falstaff. Evidently aware of her popularity with audiences, Shakespeare developed her character further in Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Referred to primarily as “the Hostess” in Part 1, she evolves into the more substantial Mistress Quickly as the plays progress.
She first appears well into the tavern scene of Act 2 in Henry IV, Part 1, with the words “O Jesu, my lord the Prince,” and she goes on to tell Prince Hal that a messenger has come from his father. Nineteenth-century productions cut such profanities as “O Jesu” but kept much of the rest of her rough and straightforward speaking. In this scene, she acts as audience for the “play” put on by Falstaff, who pretends to be the King, so that Prince Hal can practice answering the scolding he knows is coming from his real father. The Hostess delights in their little performance, as do we, and shows that she herself is a theater-goer when she says, “O Jesu, he doth it as like one of these harlotry players as ever I see,” referring to the very players from Shakespeare’s company who are putting on Henry IV. Shakespeare loved these kinds of theatrical “in” jokes. Victorian artist George Cruikshank, known for his illustrations of the novels of Charles Dickens, did a series on Falstaff including the etching here, showing the Hostess giggling as she watches Falstaff and the prince perform.
It is really in Act 3, scene 3 that the Hostess comes into her own. Falstaff accuses her of harboring a pickpocket in her tavern, but she sees through him and gives as good as she gets:
No, Sir John, you do not know me, Sir John. I
know you, Sir John. You owe me money, Sir John,
and now you pick a quarrel to beguile me of it. (1 Henry IV, 3.3.69-71)
She goes on to remind him of his debt to her for food, drink, and “a dozen of shirts” which she has bought for him. When Falstaff tries to pass the debt to Bardolph, the Hostess says, “He? Alas, he is poor. He hath nothing” (3.3.82). Here is the type of woman Shakespeare and his friends must have known in the taverns they frequented: witty, shrewd, not above playing one man off against another, sympathetic to the downtrodden, but always ready to defend her honor.
The Hostess returns in Henry IV, Part 2, with two officers of the law (aptly named Fang and Snare). She is on a rampage to have them arrest Falstaff for the money he owes her: “A hundred mark is a long one for a poor lone woman to bear, and I have been fubbed off, and fubbed off, and fubbed off from this day to that day, that it is a shame to be thought on” (2 Henry IV, 2.1.31-34). Falstaff’s response, “Throw the quean in the channel,” is answered by her, “Throw me in the channel? I’ll throw thee in the channel” (2.1.47-50). “Quean” refers to a whore, and Falstaff has a history of making such rude remarks about the Hostess, but she always hurls it back at him.
When the Chief Justice arrives, the Hostess points out that in addition to the money, Falstaff owes her himself. She launches into a long, very detailed speech about the exact day, time, and setting in which Falstaff proposed to marry her: “Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber at the round table by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson [Whitson] week, [etc.]” (2 Henry IV, 2.1.89-92). The details of her description point to a woman who keeps a good tavern; she can afford a gilt goblet, a separate room for special entertaining, and a sea-coal fire. Sea-coal, a mineral picked up off the coasts of Northumberland or Wales and shipped to London, was rapidly replacing wood because of serious deforestation. Shakespeare’s is the earliest recorded use of “sea-coal fire.”
The scene is interrupted when news comes of the arrival of the King and Prince Hal. In the meantime, Falstaff takes the Hostess aside. We don’t know exactly what he says to her, but it seems to be another proposal, because she agrees to lend him more funds, even if she has to pawn her plate, tapestries, and her gown. Here is Cruikshank’s depiction of her capitulation.
The Hostess generally speaks in prose, not in verse, and the specificity of her references to everyday things as well as her straightforward approach set her squarely within the ranks of London working women. Her language is carefully calibrated by Shakespeare to a level somewhat above that of Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute, who speaks more “gutter.” The Hostess is also careful to keep up her good reputation, scolding Falstaff and Doll for always arguing, and refusing at first to admit Falstaff’s associate Pistol, a “swaggerer.” She makes a point of saying that when she was before the deputy Alderman, he told her “you are an honest woman, and well thought on. Therefore take heed what guests you receive,” specifically, “no swaggering companions” (2 Henry IV, 2.4.93-95). She seems proud of her reputation, but we know that she would not have been called before the law in the first place unless there had been some complaint. The London tradeswoman would become a popular character on the stage in “city comedies” written by some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries beginning around this time, playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, and others.
The Hostess plays a smaller but important role in Henry V, written around 1599. Here the mood is elegiac as she goes to tend the dying Falstaff, then sees her (now) husband Pistol and his companions off to war. Her eulogy of Falstaff is both bawdy and touching. She describes death in the intimate details of those who watch when it occurs at home:
He parted ev’n just between twelve
and one, ev’n at the turning o’ th’ tide; for after I saw
him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers
and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was
but one way. (Henry V, 2.3.12-16)
Then, feeling his cold feet, she moved her hands “upward and upward, and all was cold as any stone.” The sensuality of this “feeling” is tempered by the Hostess insisting that Falstaff did not call for women. To the end, she tries to preserve what reputation he has, saying:
Nay, sure, he’s not in hell! He’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. He
made a finer end, and went away an it had been any
christom [Christian] child.” (Henry V, 2.3.9-12)
While she may be confusing Arthur with the Biblical “Abraham’s bosom” as the place of comfort after death, it is possible that the Hostess thinks also of the ancient British myth of the immortality of King Arthur. Such folk mythology was still current in Shakespeare’s time, and we know from other plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that he had an ear for folktales.
Folklore also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which (according to the editor Giorgio Melchiori) was probably written in late 1599. It stands apart from the history plays, though includes a few favorite characters such as Falstaff, Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph. Here the Hostess, now called ‘Mistress Quickly,’ is housekeeper to the French Dr. Caius and helps the “wives” play a joke on Falstaff. Her speech, in prose, is full of the witty repartee and detail we have come to expect, even to mentioning again a “sea-coal fire.” At the end of the play, however, when she takes on the role of Fairy Queen, leading a troop of children dressed as fairies who come to tease Falstaff in Windsor Forest, her language changes to the poetry found in court entertainments or masques. The words of her final speech are reminiscent of Puck’s at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, calling down blessings on Windsor Castle, a favorite residence of Elizabeth I. The Hostess who enjoyed watching Falstaff and Prince Hal in their little play, and who had been called “quean,” now gets to perform the role of a Fairy Queen, elevated by her creator William Shakespeare.