One does not forget time in these plays, for time is moral choice. The Prince does not; Falstaff does not. But Falstaff, who has tried to evade time throughout, as time is reckoning, speaks the final word on time in the plays, unaware of the comprehensive irony he speaks: “O, if I had had time to have made new liveries…” (2 Henry IV V. vi. 10-11).
It is in this double pattern of time for the Prince and Falstaff that certain scenes, long dismissed with a word or two as pure comedy, reveal their meaning as analogical structures similar to the first scene of Caesar. The first of these, that in which the Prince and Poins amuse themselves with Francis, the apprentice drawer, is initiated by the Prince with typical equivocation––he proposes the joke “to drive away the time till Falstaff come.” Unlike many readers, Poins eventually recognizes the ambivalence of this remark, for he asks after the joke, “But hark ye; what cunning match have you made with this jest of the drawer? Come, what’s the issue?” (1 Henry IV II. iv. 100-102).
The joke, as everyone knows, lies in Poins’s calling for the drawer from an adjoining room, and the Prince’s calling him back when he has responded, so that Francis is kept scurrying back and forth, each time crying “Anon, anon” to Poins. This is a variation of one of the oldest of farce routines, running about in some foolish way, and without doubt, it provided the usual hilarity for the general; the caviar, however, lies in what is said by the Prince and drawer between scurryings. What the Prince says, Francis does not understand, nor does Poins, who is in the next room. But much of the delight of the scene lies in the recognition by the discriminating, that in the context of the Prince’s most inward thought, “Anon, anon” has much meaning, which they are sharing with him.
The point, as the Prince says at the outset, is why Francis has given him a pennyworth of sugar. This has happened when the Prince, in joining the tapsters among their hogsheads, has been assured by them that he is no “proud Jack, like Falstaff”, and that he shall command them “when I am king of England”. The dialogue with Francis, however, deals with more than the gift of sugar; the Prince asks about his length of servitude, his feelings about abandoning it, his age, and finally the gift. If one remembers here Hamlet’s complaint about clowns, that “…there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered” (Hamlet III.ii.45-48), he will do more than laugh; he will consider and understand the necessary question. The way to understanding here, as throughout the two plays, lies in grasping the fact that the Prince is consistently introspective; that his personal inquiry is always what kind of ethical action marks a king, and what kinds of men kingship must deny and what kind take unto itself as constant and true. If here we know that the Prince’s questions are about himself, as well as about the least in the kingdom, we will have the answer to Poins’s question, “Come, what’s the issue?”
Five years is “a long lease for the clinking of pewter”. But how long is apprenticeship to the crown?