We Heard the Chimes at Midnight (On Friendship)


By Wayne Allensworth

In Act 3, Scene 2 of King Henry IV, part II, Shakespeare’s grand comic knave, Falstaff, reminisces about old times with his friend Justice Shallow, particularly a memorable night more than 50 years in the past. 

They recall a woman, Jane Nightwork, who, like Falstaff and Shallow, has fallen victim to advancing age, as time flows on, and the chimes will eventually toll for the last time:

Shallow: Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen! Ha, Sir John, said I well?

Falstaff: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

They have seen their best days. Falstaff reminds Shallow there will be “no more of that,” and that good Jane Nightwork—like them—is “old, old Master Shallow.”

Falstaff is a calculating rogue, but one who values friendship. His hopes for advancement are in his dear friend and companion young Prince Hal, who will be king one day. Upon his ascension to the throne, however, Hal turns his back on his friend. 

His father, Henry IV, had long admonished his son about his ties to the disreputable Falstaff. At his father’s passing, Hal grants his father’s dearest wish, that he break with his friend. Perhaps an experienced man like Falstaff should have expected it. His hopes in young Hal vanish. 

But not his hopes for him. Nor his love for a friend. Nothing remains of his past except his memories, and Falstaff dies of a broken heart. Yet in Orson Welles’s cinematic version of the story, John Falstaff had faintly smiled as Hal took his place as King. And the new King turned with one last wistful glance, for the sake of past friendship.

The film’s narrator tells us that Henry V was a good and wise ruler who never left friendship unrewarded.

Orson Welles had hoped for decades to portray Falstaff, and in his masterful Chimes at Midnight (1965) he pieced together segments of several of Shakespeare’s works, for Falstaff was a recurring character, with a suitably aging, corpulent Welles playing the part. Welles himself was entering his Falstaffian phase. And perhaps, he was hearing the fainter and fainter chimes of past midnights.

Welles was once asked if he had ever cast a friend in a part in one of his films who may not have been the best person for it. Welles answered, as I remember, “I hope so.” Welles expanded on his reply, saying that he had never bought into the romantic view of the artist as someone who sacrificed all for the sake of his art. Friendship, for him, was more important.

God bless him for that. Many of his critics had claimed that Welles never lived up to his potential, but if that’s so, then maybe it was partly, at least, for the best of reasons. Welles, like Falstaff, seemed to love life, and friendship is one life’s great delights. And one of its greatest rewards. Welles was right to value the good opinion of critics less than he valued the bonds of friendship.

Emily Dickinson once wrote,

Opinion is a flitting thing,
But Truth, outlasts the Sun—
If then we cannot own them both—
Possess the oldest one—

Friendship is part of the truth of our lives, of what is good and true. And maybe it can outlast the Sun. For as Dickinson wrote elsewhere, Truth is as old as God, His twin identity.

The poet Frank O’Hara wrote these lines to his friend John Ashbery:

I can’t believe there’s not
another world where we will sit
and read new poems to each other
high on a mountain in the wind.

We can hope. Hope is in those bonds with others that make us, that create us in some sense, and that leave us with a longing for, and an intuitive sense of, that high mountain in the wind. Emily Dickinson also told us that hope is like a bird:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—  

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops-at all—

Truth, hope, love, friendship. All of a piece.

In Sonnet 104, Shakespeare wrote,

To me, fair friend, you never can be old.

Old friends, time’s doting chronicles. Time passes, but we are never old in memory. We heard the chimes at midnight.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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R. Cort Kirkwood

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