The enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s Falstaff

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The New Year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This momentous occasion invites us to explore one of his most beloved characters, Sir John Falstaff. The wayward, hapless comic character was so popular that Shakespeare included him in three plays, and mentioned him in a fourth. He is emblematic of the playwright’s timeless depiction of the human heart and condition.

Falstaff’s most distinctive qualities are his mischievous audacity, animated scheming, and his comically inflated view of his ability to seduce women and deceive people without arousing suspicion or inciting revenge. Shakespeare’s sympathetic portrayal of the character as a fallen but congenial rascal reverberates with audiences, who find his amusing follies refreshingly human.

Falstaff first appears as the carousing friend and gleefully disgraceful mentor of the youthful Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I (1597). When Falstaff returns in Henry IV, Part II (1599) and Prince Hal ascends the throne as Henry V, the newly appointed king casts him into prison to avoid tarnishing the monarchy. Falstaff is also the central character in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), and is then discussed briefly by his friends while on his deathbed offstage in Henry V (1599).

Yet Falstaff is more than an amusing buffoon; his witty banter emerges as subtle satire when it commingles with the political scenes.

In the Henry plays, Shakespeare reacted to the political developments in his country by exploring questions such as the legitimate use of force. Falstaff provides comic relief to the otherwise serious plots. Yet he is more than an amusing buffoon; his witty banter emerges as subtle satire when it commingles with the political scenes. As T.S. Eliot said, “When we turn to Henry IV we often feel that what we want to re-read and linger over are the Falstaff episodes.”

Falstaff returns in full splendor in the leading role of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a romantic tale in the fabliau tradition. It’s a classic farce, with myriad comic twists in the plot. The play opens in Windsor with three men conversing about the irrepressible scoundrel. Falstaff is in need of funds, and has conspired to seduce and then steal from two married women of means, Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page. Falstaff’s ruse to give identical love letters to the married ladies is foiled when his recently-fired servants report the transgression to their husbands.

The two wives tell one another they’ve received the letters, and decide to seek revenge by feigning a romantic interest in Falstaff. Meanwhile, after hearing about the letter to his wife Alice, Francis Ford is worried that she’ll commit adultery, and assumes the disguise of “Master Brook” to discover how far the plan has gone.

As the story unfolds, several funny episodes stand out. The first is when Ford learns that Falstaff is planning to meet his wife in secret. When Falstaff arrives at the designated tryst, the two wives convince him to hide in a dirty laundry basket. But when Ford arrives to investigate the supposed adultery, the basket is quickly tossed in the river. Undeterred, Falstaff returns wet and smelly from his adventure, and tries to contract yet another assignation with Mistress Ford.

A second amusing twist is when the wives convince Falstaff to disguise himself as an aunt of Alice’s maid.  When Ford returns home, he sees this “aunt” whom he hates, beats her (Falstaff) and shoves her out.  At last, the wives reveal the truth behind their game to their husbands and the story concludes with a final joke played on Falstaff by the Ford and Page couples. When he realizes the game is up, Falstaff reacts good humoredly by saying, “I do perceive that I am made an ass.”

Shakespeare’s brilliant use of wit and metaphoric imagery in his text is evident throughout The Merry Wives of Windsor. As T. S. Eliot put it, “Again and again, in his use of a word, he will give a new meaning or extract a latent one.” The poet John Dryden (1631-1700) also observed: “Shakespeare was the man, who, of all modern and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul . . . When he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too.” Four centuries later, we still chuckle at “Vile worm, thou wast o’erlook’d even in thy birth.”

In the Henry plays and Merry Wives, Falstaff sought humor in the face of misfortune. He persistently rebounds from quandaries that have either been imposed on him or that are of his own making. Although his words are pompous and his behavior dissolute, when put to the test, his heart is rather good.

Shakespeare shows benevolence toward the characters he creates, and tries to find redemptive qualities in those who falter.

Falstaff’s repeated presence in Shakespeare’s plays, and the deep mourning displayed by the other characters when he dies in Henry V, make him an archetype of Shakespeare’s compassionate view of the relative strengths and weaknesses that coexist in everyone.

Shakespeare preferred sympathy over severity toward human frailty. Although he did not hesitate to expose wickedness in the unrepentantly malicious like Iago (Othello) or Aaron (Titus Andronicus), he was nonetheless sensitive to the many degrees that obtain between absolute vice and absolute virtue. Shakespeare shows benevolence toward the characters he creates, and tries to find redemptive qualities in those who falter.

Both Elizabethan and modern audiences find comfort in the return visits of Falstaff since, as H. J. Oliver says, they are “happy to be reminded of old friends.” And because old friends reflect something of ourselves, and treat us affectionately with all our faults, we are more receptive to what they have to say.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].