He's a lustful, gluttonous drunk who borrows money and doesn't pay it back, lies as easily as he breathes, and brags about feats he never performed. Yet no one wants to see him fail, and many weep when he's dropped into the garbage can of history.
Parts I and II of Henry IV are running at Ontario's Stratford Festival this summer, which means Sir John Falstaff is replaying his raucous, doomed friendship with Prince Hal, the future Henry V. I won't get to Stratford for a couple of weeks, but the prospect of once more watching Falstaff (played by Douglas Campbell) stagger across the stage has made me think about the question he raises: Why is that oaf so lovable?
Certainly he's not reassuring. Audiences can hardly take comfort from recognizing aspects of themselves or their friends in Falstaff. At his most pathetic, he's what some people dread becoming. He's an articulate adolescent's nightmare future, a blowhard and figure of fun, the class clown who doesn't know when to stop and ends up dreaming in vain of dignity. Yet he's always been among those rare characters who jump out of fiction and lodge themselves separately in our imagination. People who have never read Cervantes think they know Don Quixote, people who can't remember Conan Doyle's plots remain intimate with Sherlock Holmes -- and Falstaff seems even more alive than the magnificent two-part drama in which he's imbedded. (He also dies offstage in Henry V and appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.)
W. H. Auden believed so deeply in Falstaff's separate reality that he claimed Shakespeare never depicted him properly; Auden thought Falstaff didn't truly flower on stage until Verdi wrote his Falstaff in 1893. To Auden, Falstaff seemed as real as Julius Caesar or, for that matter, Henry V. In truth, Shakespeare drew on an actual man named Oldcastle, but used only a little of him.
Samuel Johnson, a devout Christian royalist who couldn't allow himself to love a scoundrel, felt he had to note Sir John's hypocrisy: "he satirizes in their absence those whom he lives by flattering." True, but Johnson admitted that Falstaff exhibits the most pleasing of all qualities, "perpetual gaiety." William Hazlitt liked his "absolute self-possession." At times, Falstaff seems a pre-modern man, lacking in self-doubt, but his self-awareness is as remarkable as his ego. Sigmund Freud was impressed: "We can see that he knows himself as well as we do."
Unlike most major stage characters, Falstaff doesn't change as we watch him, but change surrounds him -- and destroys him. The two conflicting lives of Prince Hal generate the dramatic electricity. Part-time prince and part-time denizen of Eastcheap's taverns, Hal seems to discover through Falstaff a freedom from convention that only humour makes possible. At the same time, perhaps, he pursues a furtive career strategy. He plays madcap prince (with Falstaff as a prop), lowering everyone's expectations, and then emerges as the grand and kingly Henry V, in the process discarding his old friend. Falstaff's partisans naturally find this intolerable. Hal appears in Harold Bloom's recent study of Shakespeare as a cold political opportunist who cares for nothing but glory and power.
Orson Welles had a love affair with Falstaff. They were kindred souls: both infinitely charming, both chronic liars, both perpetually short of money, both undone by the belief they could talk their way out of anything. The Welles-Falstaff partnership ended unhappily, as Falstaff's relationships (not to mention those of Welles) had a way of doing.
In 1939, Welles put together a play, Five Kings, from bits of the Falstaff story. He directed it in Boston and Philadelphia, to pained reviews and much animosity from his colleagues. He played Falstaff, simulating the knight's famous girth with layers of rubber that became unnecessary in later years. Welles revived the play in 1960 in Ireland and soon made it into a film, Chimes at Midnight, with John Gielgud as Henry IV. He shot it in bits and pieces as money became available, using remnants of medieval Spain to play medieval England.
It might have been wonderful, our modern showman Falstaff breathing fresh life into the old fellow, but it turned out to be one more of the ruins littering the landscape of Welles' career. When first shown in 1965, it was admired for a few of its scenes but disliked for its solemn tone: Welles perversely made it more tragic than comic, perhaps because by then he identified with Falstaff's self-pity. Moreover, the dialogue was often inaudible, a severe limitation in Shakespeare. Recently, a new print was advertised as having a clear soundtrack, but when I saw it, that claim turned out to be wishful thinking.
Falstaff and Don Quixote, the great comic stars of the Renaissance, embody opposing faiths. Where Don Quixote exists in a dream of knightly idealism, Falstaff preaches realism. Falstaff reacts against a world driven mad by twisted idealism; early in the 15th century, people are still talking about another crusade to the Holy Land. Falstaff's soliloquy on honour at Shrewsbury ("What is honour? A word ... Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No ... I'll none of it") must have been a shock when first spoken. It says what men may think during war but don't say till years later.
Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah cycle includes a drama about a future in which people erect a statue to Falstaff. The experience of war has taught humanity that cowardice is a virtue, so a monument commemorates the great thinker who first articulated this truth. Falstaff appeals to the part of everyone that distrusts the heroic.
In discussions of Shakespeare's most famous creations, Sir John sometimes turns up beside Hamlet, for purposes of comparison: the clown and the prince, the lowly and the high. The results of their actions are as revealing as their differences in personality. Brave, noble Hamlet's rage for justice produces a pile of corpses, including his own. Cowardly, ignoble Falstaff does little harm. Given a choice of leaders, we would be better off with Falstaff than Hamlet. But, perhaps fortunately, we rarely get either. We tend to live instead under the prig Prince Hal, after he discards Falstaff and wraps himself in monarch's ermine.