The Enormity of Falstaff

Falstaff

In attempting to wrap my mind around Shakespeare’s titanic Henry IV, I have encountered a profound detour that I never expected. Turning to my dear Sir Isaac Asimov, my guide throughout this project, I discover over one hundred pages of a tome encompassing all the plays has been dedicated to Henry IV, Parts I & II alone.

Dissertations have been written on the character of Falstaff, so I will leave it to Mr. Orson Welles to provide our introduction:

I mentioned previously, rather tongue-in-cheekily, that the pattern of Shakespeare’s history plays had become all-too predictable.  Succession issues dominate, with the result that we come to understand that the crown sits precariously on the head of any man (or woman) who wears it.

Yet were these intended to be moral fables? Are we meant to draw lessons from them that can be applied to the present?  Shakespeare’s present? Ours?  In pouring through Shakespeare biographies, I have learned that the art of playwriting itself has had a moralistic evolution, being shaped by the pedagogical impulses of the Church.  That is, after the end of the classical period, of course, and the rise of the middle ages. It was expected, leading up to Shakespeare’s age, that staged fables would portray virtue and vice, sin and redemption, impart aspects of dogma to the large swaths of the population which could not read or write (and who may have avoided quasi-mandatory church service).

That was all radically changing, especially in cosmopolitan centers such as London.  But Shakespeare elevates his aim to a whole new level.  His plays don’t just summarize life or render it in homilies or pave it into pat clichés. No…somehow, rather, through his genius for the invention of characters, he holds a mirror to life and projects it onto the stage in three dimensions.  He presents us with complete beings such as Falstaff and Prince Hal, men (and women) who are burdened with mighty faults as well as gifted with soaring abilities, multi-layered, multivalent beings driven by complex motivations.  We cannot flatly state whether they are either good or bad, wearing a white hat or black.  They don’t represent a type.  In Shakespeare’s hands they become a type unto themselves.

Thus, we can drop the names Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo, Falstaff and they mean something, stand for a unique person as well as idiosyncratic way of being.  There is no other writer in any language for whom it can be stated so unequivocally and triumphantly that he invented an entire spectrum of characters who have become as real to us through time as anybody who ever lived.

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