Who Was John Falstaff?
John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in several of William Shakespeare’s plays. He is originally introduced in two history plays as a drinking companion and mentor to Hal, the son of King Henry VI. The character also crosses over into comedy as the hero of one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest comedy. From the 16th century until modern day, he remains one of the most memorable characters in all of Shakespeare’s work.
Experts suggest that Falstaff was not the original name for the character. There is evidence that asserts Shakespeare intended to name him “John Oldcastle,” but was forced to change it after the protests by a descendent of a real man of that name. Textual support shows that the name “John Falstaff” is consistently out of poetic meter in Henry IV, Part I, suggesting the name was changed after the play was completed. Additionally, the epilogue to Henry IV, Part II explicitly denies any connection between the character and the historical Oldcastle, implying that a connection might be drawn. Their does not appear to be any similarity between Shakespeare’s character and the historic figure, and experts are unsure why the author chose to use Oldcastle’s name at all.
In Henry IV, Parts I and II, Falstaff is a fat, jolly and corrupted knight in the constant company of Prince Hal. He is a great storyteller and braggart, forever telling tall tales of his own bravery. In truth, he is cowardly, not above playing dead on a battlefield to avoid fighting, or taking credit for another man’s kills. While Hal is initially his devoted companion, he eventually tires of the deceptions and double-talk. Upon becoming King Henry V, Hal renounces Falstaff and publicly ends their friendship.
Falstaff’s death is announced in Henry V, but Shakespeare quickly resurrected the character for use in The Merry Wives of Windsor. His appearance in the comedy is somewhat perplexing, as the Henry plays are set in 15th century England, while The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place during the late 16th or early 17th century. A popular theory suggests that Shakespeare acted on the whim of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who wished to see a play where the character fell in love. This theory is highly questioned by experts, as it did not appear for more than a century after the play was first performed.
In the comedy, the character continues his life of bawdiness and debauchery, lusting after two married women and their fortunes. When Falstaff fires his two pages for refusing to aid his schemes, the servants tell the women and their husbands of his plan. The remainder of the play consists of the wives conspiring to make the old knight look foolish, leading to him being beaten, thrown in a river, and eventually convinced that fairies are attacking him while he is dressed like a deer. In true character, Falstaff enjoys a hearty laugh when his plans go awry, realizing he has gotten what he deserved.
Experts are divided on the importance of Falstaff, particularly in the Henry plays. He is considered essential to the character of Hal, as he represents the prince’s wastrel youth that must be left behind before Hal can become king. Others suggest that the character is an embodiment of the common man and humanity, and that Hal’s rejection of him is a negative symptom of the detachment between monarch and subjects. The controversies over his meaning and importance may never be settled by experts, but the arguments do not diminish the popularity of this character believed by some to be Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation.
In spite of all the comments on Falstaff, I think he is hugely misunderstood -- especially by followers of Professor Harold Bloom (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human). Who is Falstaff?
1. He is an alcoholic. (Ask any health professional.) He does not carry a bottle or sack instead of his pistol onto the battlefield because he is "free" [Prof Bloom]. That bottle is more important to him than the battle.
2. What would Shakespeare (and his audience) have thought about a highwayman?
3. When given command of a troop of foot, he uses the appointment as a chance to swindle his employer. First, he impresses a troop of reluctant well-to-do and allows them to buy their way out, then he impresses a troop of starving beggars. He does nothing to equip them; even to clothe themselves they must steal laundry as they march. Then he deliberately leads them to pointless death on the battlefield, so he can keep their pay.
This is genuine evil. He is an ogre who fattens himself on the flesh and blood of the poor and destitute.
4. Who is his employer that he is defrauding? His friend and patron, Prince Hal! Prince Hal is engaged in a desperate fight, not only for his throne but for his liberty and life. (Pretenders to the throne tend to die when they fall into their enemies' hands.)
5. At the same time, he is desperate to retain Prince Hal's favor, and when he finally loses it, the shock of it kills him.
Evidently, Falstaff is not only dishonest, but he does not even understand the concept of honesty. He is, in the clinical sense of the term, a psychopath.
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