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The World According to John Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff is no doubt one of Shakespeare’s most popular and well loved characters. He has a larger than life presence in the play, both literally and figuratively. By description he is a jolly, robust fellow who spends most of his time in the Boar’s Head Tavern carousing and drinking sack (sweet wine). By all accounts he is a crafty rogue and a thief wanting simply to enjoy life without the burden of formality, pageantry or protocol.

Yet Shakespeare’s genius allows us to enjoy Falstaff despite his gross shortcomings because he adds vibrant color to a world embedded in turmoil. His innate ability to deliver puns that challenge the wit of his comrades and his unfailing rationale for his antics not only distracts us from his vagrant and immoral behavior, but it also provides us with an opportunity to escape the reality of impeding war and conflict. Falstaff causes us to see the humor and irony of life. For instance, his embellishment of how he was robbed of the money he stole (2.4) averts our attention from his misdeed; the inevitable death of Hotspur is somewhat diminished as a result of Falstaff’s bogus claim to have killed him (5.4); and his soliloquy on “honor” questions whether or not there is any virtue in it (5.2.131-42).

Though Falstaff’s antics are humorous, his presence in 1 Henry IV extends beyond comic relief. His relationship with Hal is a bridge between the world of the court and the world of the tavern. Life at the tavern is brazen, bawdy, and bodacious; an environment into which Falstaff fits comfortably. On the other hand he “… was as virtuously given as a gentleman need to be” (3.3), a testament that he is familiar with courtly manners. The validity of this claim is made clear when he pretends to be Henry. His portrayal of the king is so convincing that Mistress Quickly says, “O the Father, how he holds his countenance” (4.2). More than just a comic interlude, this scene plays a key role in establishing the unorthodox father/son relationship between Falstaff and Hal. Unlike Henry who obsesses about Hal’s insufficiencies, Falstaff values the young prince for who he is and holds no expectations.

Additionally, Falstaff is instrumental, as is Hotspur, in helping Hal mature. Hotspur is sure footed, serious, and quick-tempered. Falstaff is spontaneous and riotous. As Hal matures he appears to take on the best characteristics of both men. He becomes a brave soldier and develops an appreciation for life.

Will the Real John Falstaff Please Stand Up?

In early performances, Falstaff was originally called Sir John Oldcastle. The original Oldcastle was a noted fifteenth century Protestant martyr and a courageous knight who served Henry IV in the battles of France and Wales. Shakespeare is said to have changed the name due to pressure by one of Oldcastle’s descendants.

Next: The War of the Roses
Thomas Stothard. Falstaff describing the fight at Gadshill. Oil on panel, ca. 1827.

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