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Shakespeare & Beyond

Chimes at Midnight: Orson Welles is Falstaff

Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight
Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight, the 1966 film directed by and starring Orson Welles, constructs a rich, complex, and moving portrait of the larger-than-life Sir John Falstaff, who appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays and is among the best-known characters in all of literature.

Embraced by audiences at the very beginning of his theatrical life (Queen Elizabeth, so the story goes, was so taken with him that she asked Shakespeare to write a play, which became The Merry Wives of Windsor, showing Falstaff in love), the orotund knight lives on, having taken on many new identities over the years in opera, film, and television adaptations, together with an almost constant presence on Shakespearean stages the world over.

Chimes at Midnight is a particularly notable version of the Falstaff saga. Welles, of course, was himself larger than life, and it was often said — partly based on his ballooning appearance in his later years —that he was born to play Falstaff. Certainly, he was attracted to the role from an early age. At boarding school, the 14-year-old Welles planned to act as both Falstaff and Richard III in his own adaptation of all of Shakespeare’s “War of the Roses” plays, though in the end he only played Richard. A decade later, he adapted, directed, and took the role of Falstaff in an unsuccessful production of the same history plays under the title Five Kings. Another 20 years on, he played Falstaff in Ireland, once again in his own adaptation — a rehearsal of sorts for the 1966 film.


What a wonderful, nuanced appreciation of Welles’ almost-limitless imagination and technical skills. We’re so fortunate to have had him take on the plays that he did and compress them into a marvelous amalgam called “Chimes at Midnight.” His directorial and acting and costume choices were indeed, brilliant, and among the most memorable of filmed Shakespeare plays. Thank you, professor. Hope your book on filmed Shakespeare is still available. We’re off to Ashland this month, and looking forward to enjoying the Rep Company’s performances.

RObb — September 14, 2019

I’ve wanted to see this film for a while; your wonderful assessment convinced me that I must. If my memory serves, I think Falstaff appeared in 4 plays, a very minor role in 2 Henry VI?

Richard Martin — May 9, 2021