At best, they tolerate each other for Hal’s sake. At worst, they are at each other’s throats competing for Hal’s attention. And quite possibly, every action Poins takes in The Hollow Crown is towards the purpose of proving to Hal that Falstaff is an unfit companion.

EVIDENCE!

When Poins enters in 1 Henry IV, Falstaff says his name with a heavy sigh and a look of great annoyance. Poins returns Falstaff’s less-than-enthusiastic greeting with both a verbal fat joke and an invasive tickling of his ample belly. When later in the same scene Poins goes in for a second tickle, Falstaff beats him away and scowls. Poins leans in to tell Falstaff details of the brilliant robbery plan, and Falstaff jerks away, refusing to meet Poins’s gaze as he’s being spoken to.

Scant minutes later, once Hal is talked in to listening to Poins’s plan, Poins grits his teeth as he looks on Falstaff and Hal’s parting hug and cheek-kiss.

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Falstaff offers him a returning scowl as he and Hal leave the room.

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Less than ten minutes in, and I’m already pretty sure these dudes are not friends.

As we all know, Poins’s real plan is to have Falstaff, Peto, and Bardolph do the actual robbery, only to be attacked by Hal and Poins himself. However, when Poins details this plan to Hal, it is not Peto or Bardolph’s future humiliation that gives Poins such glee. No, the jest lies in the “incomprehensible lies” of that “fat rogue,” Falstaff. Falstaff forms the punchline of Poins’s joke, a joke he is making specifically for Hal’s benefit, as Hal is the only other person he lets in on it.

At any rate, the robbery is carried out, Poins and Hal giggling together over Falstaff’s plight all the while. (Though Falstaff does get a chance to declare, “There’s no more valor in that Poins than in a wild duck.”)

Once Falstaff rejoins Hal and Poins back at the tavern, another accusation of cowardice directed at Poins has Poins leaping out of his chair to get in Falstaff’s face and threaten him with a good ol’ fashioned stabbing. (This is not, I think, what idle jokes between friends at each other’s expense might look like.) And while Poins ultimately backs off, his body language remains hostile; he crosses his arms, closing himself off physically from Falstaff while remaining nearby.

The way this bit is filmed, Falstaff is physically between Hal and Poins. Once Falstaff gets out of the way, Poins moves in to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Hal and his posture relaxes slightly, though his arms remain crossed.

While Falstaff tells his wild story of what happened in the woods, Hal smiles and laughs throughout, displaying open body language. In contrast, Poins borders on scowling, taking humor only when he and Hal get a chance to whisper a private joke or two in each other’s ear. A true smile reaches his lips at last when Hal calls Falstaff out on his lies. When Hal asks Falstaff to explain himself, Poins repeats the question with smug satisfaction, laying a condescending hand on Falstaff’s shoulder, which Falstaff dislodges with a violent shrug.

And when Falstaff talks his way back into Hal’s favor with his very next line of dialogue, watch Poins’s face fall from a satisfied grin to a set jaw of rage. It’s a hoot and a half, let me tell you.

Moving on to Falstaff and Hal’s little play in imitation of Henry IV. While Poins is as enthusiastic about the evening’s entertainment as the next Eastcheap patron, his face bears a critical expression whenever Falstaff speaks; prepared to laugh, but needing to be convinced first that Falstaff’s words are humorous. In contrast, whenever Hal opens his mouth, Poins is already smiling before he’s even heard what he has to say. And while Peto and Bardolph are able to laugh off Falstaff’s suggestions of banishment, Poins stops mid-laugh and almost sneers.

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Later, when Falstaff has fallen asleep under the stairs and Prince Hal orders Poins and Doll Tearsheet to search his pockets, Poins steals Falstaff’s ring.

In what is colloquially known as “the hangover scene,” Poins marches in with Prince Hal just as Falstaff has threatened to give the Prince a beating. While Poins doesn’t get to say much, he does get his characteristic “prepared to laugh at Falstaff’s pain” smirk on just as Falstaff starts in on his lies. As the scene progresses and we get to this exchange––

PRINCE HAL
Sirrah, do I owe you a thousand pound?

FALSTAFF
A thousand pound? Ha. A million. Thy love is worth a million. Thou owest me thy love.

––the camera focuses in on Falstaff seated behind Poins’s shoulder, which gives us a great view of Poins’s face as he first turns to regard Falstaff and turns away with a disappointed look when Falstaff, once again, manages to talk his way out of insulting the Prince.

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It turns back into a cautiously-hopeful smirk when it is revealed to Prince Hal that Falstaff has threatened to cudgel the Prince. And as the camera shifts to show us the room from behind Falstaff and Poins, Poins (while still having no lines) turns himself around so the audience can see his continued disgust with Falstaff’s behavior.

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Poins can also be heard clicking his tongue in reproach to back up Hal’s scolding of Falstaff.

At Hal’s signal, Poins coughs up the sugar and receipts he took from Falstaff earlier… along with Falstaff’s ring, which, judging by the look of disappointment on Hal’s face, he was NOT instructed to take.

Despite Poins riding off with Hal at the end of this scene, we do not see him at the Battle of Shrewsbury, so there isn’t any more Poins/Falstaff animosity until 2 Henry IV

While Falstaff has a few scenes to himself beforehand, we don’t see Poins again until he shows up with Hal in what has been affectionately dubbed “the sauna scene.” Hal is in the midst of bemoaning his sad mental state of being torn between hanging out with his friends, his family and the associated royal responsibility, and being true to himself and his actual feelings. Some of this seems to fly over Poins’s head, so Hal attempts to instruct him with a pop quiz on why Hal isn’t allowed to cry over his sick dad. Poins has the answer.

POINS
Why because you have been so lewd and so much engraffed to Falstaff.

PRINCE HAL
And to thee.

POINS
By this light, I am well spoke on! I can hear it with mine own ears!

In The Hollow Crown, Hal delivers “And to thee” in a deadpan accompanied by a cold, hard stare. Poins jumps out of his seat to answer with a shout. Conclusion: comparison to Falstaff is not a good thing, probably downright insulting, at least in Poins’s mind.

Bardolph’s arrival calms Poins’s rage, but not for long, since he comes with a letter from Falstaff. Hal looks the letter over and passes it to Poins to read aloud. Poins does so, and has a grand ol’ time mocking Falstaff’s phraseology until he reaches this line:

POINS [reading]
“…Be not too familiar with Poins. He misuses thy favours so much that he swears thou art to marry his sister, Nell. Repent at idle times as thou mayest, and so, farewell.” My lord, I’ll steep this letter in sack and make him eat it.

PRINCE HAL
Must I marry your sister?

POINS
God send the wench no worse fortune, but I never said so.

Again, it’s all in the delivery. Poins’s threat to force-feed Falstaff the letter is similar in tone to his stabbing threats in 1 Henry IV. Hal’s “Must I marry your sister?”, like “And to thee.”, is given in a deathly serious manner, to which Poins struggles to respond. At last, with a barely-audible “oh” of realization and no small bit of fear, Poins stammers out his reply.

With a single letter, Falstaff has broken Hal’s trust in Poins, or at least given Hal the opportunity to show Poins that he isn’t trustworthy in the Prince’s eyes. Hal laughs off the incident, and Poins feels safe enough to join after a bit, but they never quite go back to being at ease with each other. Falstaff wins this round.

Together, Hal and Poins concoct a plan to spy on Falstaff while he dines at the Boar’s Head. This plan is acted out in their next scene together, as they sneak up into the attic crawlspace above Falstaff’s room in the inn.

At the time of Poins and Hal’s arrival, Falstaff is snuggling with Doll Tearsheet in an upstairs room at the Boar’s Head. Doll asks Falstaff his opinion of Prince Hal and Poins. Falstaff tells her the Prince would make a good servant and that Poins is a baboon and thick-witted to boot. This prompts Doll to ask why the Prince hangs out with Poins. Falstaff’s answer has already been talked about elsewhere but at any rate, Poins doesn’t appreciate it. Neither does Hal, who idly wonders how Falstaff would like it if he had his ears cut off. Poins’s response is a little more direct––

POINS
Let’s beat him before his whore.

––and delivered in a tone that suggests this is something he’s been wanting to do for some time now. Poins then looks to Hal to see if Hal will go along with the whole “beating the crap out of Falstaff” thing, but realizes Hal isn’t really paying attention to him (or at least isn’t as serious about doing physical harm to Falstaff as Poins is). Better luck next time.

The scene plays on. Poins and Hal watch and analyze Falstaff’s attempted sexytime with Doll (sidenote: is anyone else weirded out by that?). Poins keeps glancing at Hal to gauge his reaction to Falstaff’s behavior.

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When Falstaff calls for more sack, Poins and Hal crash into the room through a hole in the ceiling. (Whether or not this is intentional on their part, I’m not sure.) Hal’s greeting of “Anon, anon, sir,” is generally toneless, while Poins’s delivery of the same phrase sounds more aggressive.

Falstaff tries to play it off with the same joking insults that worked so well the last time the Prince was mad at him, but this time Poins is ready.

POINS
My lord, he will drive you out of your revenge and turn all to merriment unless you take not the heat.

The Prince heeds his words and asks Falstaff to admit to insulting him behind his back. But rather than take the hint, Falstaff goes with the strategy of deny, deny, deny, even after Hal prompts him again to confess. Poins is frankly astounded that Falstaff could persist in this denial despite knowing full well that he and Hal were present for all of it; he expresses this with a half-shouted repetition of Falstaff’s own denying phrase “No abuse!”

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Sensing it’s time to change up his strategy, Falstaff claims that yes, while he did say super mean nasty things about Hal and Poins, it was only so that his conversation partner (Doll Tearsheet, a woman of ill repute, and therefore unworthy of the Prince) would think badly of Hal and not bother him. So really, he was doing the Prince a favor! Throughout this explanation, Falstaff sounds like he’s on the verge of tears. Hal and Poins remain unmoved.

Just then, Peto runs in to remind everyone that there’s a war on. Hal expresses his disappointment in his time-wasting self to Poins. To Falstaff, he says simply “Good night.” The Prince exits. Poins follows, but not before he and Falstaff share one last glare as he brushes past him.

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Then, as Poins is out the door and closing it behind him, he aims one last smirk at Falstaff.

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This is the last we see of Poins in The Hollow Crown, and thus it is the end of the undercurrent of animosity between Falstaff and Poins.

OKAY SO WHY DOES ANY OF THIS EVEN MATTER?

Throughout the background of the entirety of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Falstaff and Poins wage war against each other. The prize? Prince Hal’s affection, platonic or otherwise. (Whether Prince Hal knows about this secret war is unclear.)

It seems that Poins is far more invested in this conflict than Falstaff. Perhaps this is a false impression given by the screentime disparity between Poins and Falstaff. Even with The Hollow Crown giving other characters’ lines and actions over to Poins, he still only appears in six scenes and only speaks in five. (Compare this to Falstaff’s sixteen scenes, all of which give him lines.) Still, we work with what we are given, and in those six scenes, what we are given is a Poins whose only thoughts seem to be a) pleasing the Prince, or b) disparaging Falstaff.

The Gadshill plot proves Falstaff is a coward. The taunting of Francis amuses the Prince. The aftermath of the Gadshill plot proves Falstaff is a liar. Pickpocketing Falstaff causes Falstaff to reveal his lack of respect for the Prince’s position (the argument over whether Falstaff’s ring is worth 40 mark or merely copper leads directly to Falstaff declaring he fears Hal only as he fears “the lion’s whelp”). And when Falstaff finally strikes back at this series of insults with his fateful letter, Poins hits even harder, not just with the spying plot but also with outright telling Hal not to listen to Falstaff’s pleas for mercy. These are the sum total of Poins’s actions over the course of two plays.

While Falstaff has entire scenes where he does not even speak of the Prince, much less see him, Poins’s entire purpose in the play revolves around Hal. Falstaff may be Hal’s friend, but Poins is the Prince’s shadow. And when Hal becomes King and ceases to be a Prince, the Prince’s shadow blinks out of existence.

So who wins in the epic battle of Poins v. Falstaff? Assuming they are fighting for the Prince’s affection, neither one gets what they’re after. But one still comes out on top.

We all know what happens after Poins disappears from the narrative: Hal becomes King, Falstaff and all the rest of the Eastcheap crew get arrested. In Henry V, Falstaff dies offstage. What becomes of Poins? Since we do not see him die or hear of his death from another character, we can come to but one conclusion: he lives.

While Poins may not have his affections for the Prince reciprocated, by removing himself from the narrative he manages to save himself even as the aftermath of his battle with Falstaff gets Falstaff killed.

Poins 1, Falstaff 0

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