In a flashback, the Hostess of a public tavern in London narrates the moments leading up to the death of Sir John Falstaff, an important figure in Shakespeare's earlier plays Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. Speaking to the various friends and acquaintances of Falstaff who have gathered in the tavern, she states:
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, for his nose was as sharp as a pen and he talked of green fields. “How now, Sir John?” quoth I. “What, man, be o’ good cheer!” So he cried out “God, God, God!” three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him he should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.
Shortly after Falstaff's passing, the Hostess, who attended to Falstaff as he was dying, describes the scene of his death. First, he began to lose touch with reality, playing with the embroidered flowers on his bedsheets as if they were real. Then, he spoke of “green fields” and started calling out repeatedly to God. At this point, she knew with certainty that death would come for him soon, as “his nose was sharp as a pen,” and so (she assumes) he must have been able to smell the afterlife.
It is significant that Shakespeare chooses to depict this important scene as a flashback or memory rather than portraying it directly on the stage. Falstaff was a major character in two earlier plays, serving as a mentor and close confidante to the young Prince Hal (the future King Henry). Indeed, Falstaff has long been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most popular fictional creations. In depicting Falstaff’s death only as a brief flashback, Shakespeare suggests that the merry old knight has no place in this relatively serious play, reflecting the development of King Henry into a more mature figure whose responsibilities weigh heavily upon him.