[We are pleased to introduce you to another new posting category at SPR—On Character(s). Here we hope to light the recesses of our favorite literary personages by close textual reference and the reflection you’ve come to expect from SHARKPACK. Our first installation is by Krystal Marsh, a recent graduate of King’s College in the UK. Like Landfair in The Reductivist category, Krystal sets a high standard for acuity and joy in her examination. —Ed.]
Sir John Falstaff is a dissipated knight who escapes—with sublimnity—the bounded world of Henry IV through his wit, opportunism, and empirical sense of being. Aside from Hamlet, Falstaff has received more critical attention than any character in Shakespeare’s canon, and is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions. Stephen Greenblatt notes that Falstaff is ‘a rich amalgam of popular and literary traditions,’ and Harold Bloom poetically advises us to ‘turn him and turn him for everything is in him.’ Falstaff is an earthy, warm-blooded, sack-drinking Epicurean, constantly clashing with a cold, repressed, war-trodden England. He is an enigmatic figure, being referred to as everything from a ‘whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch’ and ‘a sanguine coward’ to a ‘sweet creature of bombast’ and ‘worth five of Agamemnon.’
We learn very little about Falstaff from Falstaff himself. Though he is loquacious in conversation and soliloquizes often, he reveals very little about his internal landscape. In Act II of Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff jests
[W]hen I was about thy years, Hal, I was
not an eagle’s talon in the waist; I could have
crept into any alderman’s thumb-ring: a plague of
sighing and grief! It blows a man up like a
Though he reveals his physique to be an outward manifestation of inward perturbations, the ostentatious manner of this revelation detracts (distracts?) from whatever truth may be behind the jest. The nature and substance of Falstaff’s inwardness remains subject to interpretation. All we know for certain about Falstaff is the condition of his corporeal self, which is aged and portly. Even Falstaff’s origins are strangely speculative, though popular belief has it that Shakespeare based Sir John Falstaff on the historical Sir John Oldcastle, a knight who served Henry IV in battle.
Though some scholars understand Falstaff as no more than ‘the grey Iniquity,’ an allegorical figure representing vice and overindulgence, I find this interpretation to be far too reductive. Falstaff is, to use his own words, ‘the true and perfect image of life itself,’ which is what makes him so elusive to us as readers and theatergoers. Falstaff is indulgence, merriment, cleverness, cowardice, and grief all packaged into one character. Falstaff’s capacity for life is his greatest quality as not only a literary character, but as a man living in a world that is evolving without him. His capacity for living life ‘all out of order, all out of compass’ is his greatest gift, but also (as usual!) what brings him to his heartbreaking tragedy.
Orson Welles famously recalled someone once telling him that ‘Falstaff [was] Hamlet who stayed in England and got fat.’ While this insight is perceptive and certainly possible, I believe Falstaff is too visceral to ever be Hamlet, who is characterized primarily by his interiority. Falstaff is bubbling o’er with life and excess, like a human satyr. Rich food delights him, sweet wine gives him virility, mischief and jests make him merry. He is a man completely governed by his humours, and only trusts that which he can outwardly sense (Ecce signum, as he says). This is primarily what early modern audiences recognized in Falstaff. In the 1600 quarto printing of Henry IV Part 2, for example, the title page promises ‘the humours of fir [sic] John Falstaffe,’ above all else.
Let it not be forgotten that for all of his good qualities, Falstaff is still a criminal, thief, liar, and flatterer. There seems to be an inherent dissonance within his character, making it impossible to label him as simply a good or evil man. However, his ability to embellish and make us laugh paired with his pathetic lack of success as a villain prevents anyone from perceiving him as a true scoundrel. He is a man who plays upon possibility, and is seemingly unashamed of his failures. Falstaff is forced to live by his wit—without it, he wouldn’t have a place to sleep or food to eat. As Prince Hal puts it, ‘Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him.’
Falstaff is the complete antithesis to King Henry IV, a man concerned primarily with abstract concepts such as duty and honor. In the famous play-within-a-play scene of Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff collapses these two opposing worlds of royalty and Eastcheap together, essentially destabilizing ideas of monarchial duty and exposing the symbolic faults of the king’s war. Though Falstaff is playing the parts of the King and Prince Hal, his performance ends up becoming more of a reflection of himself than a reflection of the men he’s enacting. When he is playing Prince Hal, he is defending Falstaff while revealing the fears and desires he cannot reveal as himself. Falstaff says:
If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Falstaff is acutely aware that his friendship with Hal is due to expire when Hal becomes king. Falstaff has a keen ability to hold tragedy at bay, but when he is no longer himself—when he is ‘acting’—he is able to speak freely. Falstaff tries to converse with Hal in Hal’s own language, while also self-creating through words and constructing a ‘myth of Falstaff.’ The Falstaff he constructs is valiant, true, and sweet—all traits that contradict his current reputation. In this speech, Falstaff—a man who notoriously speaks in verbose and wearisome prose—assembles order to his language and pleads to Hal in iambic pentameter. He rhythmically begs for Hal’s everlasting friendship: like a mantra, like a hymn, like a heartbeat.
Sir John Falstaff is a remnant of Old England, a reminder of the elemental nature and sensible joys of being human. His journey throughout the Henry IV plays are those of a man trying to make sense of the new England that is emerging without him: the England of the future King Henry V, the England of embodied interiority. Falstaff consistently attempts to make sense of this new emerging world in a Socratic manner, trying to distill answers from an endless series of questions. He concludes only what he has always believed—that sensible and phenomenological life is the only thing worth fighting for. Falstaff says ‘I am no counterfeit: to die,/is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the/counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man[.]’ Falstaff’s cowardice is nothing more than egocentric Eros. He is a man trying to preserve the only things he is certain of: his own life and what he can outwardly sense.
When Prince Hal becomes king, he publicly rejects Falstaff because of his surfeit lifestyle and tawdry tricks, which are unsuitable in a king’s company. Falstaff loses a part of himself when he loses Hal, though he tries to conceal his grief and dismiss the new king’s judgment. Falstaff tells himself simply to ‘Fear no colours,’ unaware that the king has painted him the color in which he will die.
Upon his death, it is said he cried out for sack and smiled.