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The Charismatic Scoundrel Falstaff

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Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV is one of the most outrageous and memorable characters in the entire Shakespearean Canon. His charisma that ensnared even Queen Elizabeth. In fact, the character of Falstaff inspired Shakespeare to write another play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, at the request of the Queen. Falstaff later became the subject for many operas, sculptures, films, symphonies, and novels (Pilkington). His persona is unlike any other character Shakespeare created. From the time the audience first meets the defamed knight, it is clear that Falstaff is a rowdy, big-talking drunk with few morals and no discernable sense of honor and it is unclear why so many, including the Queen, became endeared to this blustering troublemaker. In fact, Shakespeare exploited several of Falstaff’s characteristics while still being true to his deplorable nature, which ensured that the audiences of Henry IV would embrace him. Some of Falstaff’s memorable traits include his propensity with words, his oblivious penchant for the selfish pleasures of life instead of the virtues, and his helplessness which inspires pity and consequently forces the audience to side with the scoundrel in certain situations. Even with Falstaff’s negative traits, Shakespeare manages to make him a comical rascal whom an audience can’t help but develop a fondness for.

Falstaff’s shortcomings often reference his darker side. First of all, he is an unrepentant thief. In Act I, Scene II, Falstaff readily admits that stealing purses is his main source of income. When Hal dryly that Falstaff has gone from being virtuous to becoming a villain, Falstaff replies matter-of-factly, “Why, Hal, ‘tis my vocation. Hal, ‘tis no sin/ for a man to labor in his vocation” (1.2.104-105). With such snarky and darkly humorous responses, Falstaff often inspires great audience reactions during performances of Henry IV. However, Falstaff’s stoop to thievery goes deeper than noble womens’ handbags, though. In Act II, Scene II, Falstaff shows that he would rob even the King’s men by planning and describing the robbery at length. Shakespeare makes this scene comical, however, instead of shameful. Besides the fact that Prince Hal tricks Falstaff during the ordeal, Shakespeare leaves the victims of the robbery anonymous, making it difficult for the audience to sympathize with their plight, whereas there is familiarity with the robbers themselves. Also, it is clear that, although Falstaff does many reprehensible deeds, he never intends to hurt others. He is simply oblivious to the circumstances around him, seeing the world from a childlike perspective. He naively believes that he is entitled to take advantage of everything and everyone around him. The audience immediately picks up on this fact through the mix of Falstaff’s innocent answers and his blundering old age.

After the botched attempt at robbery and the subsequent retreat back to the tavern, Shakespeare offers a glimpse of another of Falstaff’s ignoble qualities: dishonesty. Prince Hal has set up Falstaff in order to garner a few laughs at his expense, and Falstaff falls into the trap perfectly, describing how large a troop of men befell the robbers when they trying to steal from the King’s men. Falstaff boasts of his fighting prowess, while Hal laughs at him, clearly knowing the extent of his falsehoods (2.4.). Yet Falstaff’s attempt to make himself appear competent by lying does not set the audience up against Falstaff. Instead, Shakespeare’s deft comic hand makes the audience pity him as he tries to save face in front of the people who have made him a laughingstock.

Pity serves as one of the central emotions that Shakespeare uses to align the audience with Falstaff, despite his many demonstrated faults. Another instance of this mechanism is when Hal and Falstaff act out a scene between Hal and his father, King Henry IV. Hal plays himself, while Falstaff plays Hal’s father. Then Hal switches roles with Falstaff and pretends to be King Henry IV while Falstaff plays Hal. The exchange starts out with a humorous tone, but when the two men switch roles, Hal begins to insult Falstaff with cruel stabs at his honor and his disgusting personal habits (2.4.445-481). Falstaff tries to keep up with Hal’s insults, but it is clear that the old knight is outmaneuvered in the conversation. As observers, the audience finds it impossible not to feel sorry for the paunchy old man as he is verbally stripped bare in front of his friends. Again, even as his faults are listed, the audience hopes that Falstaff can restore his dignity and humor.

The most questionable actions of Sir John Falstaff occur during the final battle at the end of the play. Falstaff pretends to be dead in order to survive the battle and to hear Hal speak about him as if he were dead. He also desecrates Hotspur’s body and claims that he killed the leader of the rebellion (5.4). These dishonorable acts are decidedly villainous, but the way in which the events occur is so comical that there Shakespeare leaves the audience no option to judge Falstaff’s choices. Shakespeare uses humor and farcical action to keep Falstaff as a loveable scoundrel in [the audience’s] heart (Levenson).

Another aspect of Falstaff’s character that would have garnered an Elizabethan audience’s approval is the fact that he is based on a real person. Sir John Oldcastle was a knight who had really served in battle with Henry V and was a very popular member of Parliament as well. After a brilliant military career, however, he was persecuted for his religious beliefs, which were decidedly unpopular at the time. Oldcastle was a firm believer in Lollard’s teachings, which were a precursor to contemporary Protestantism. Although King Henry gave Oldcastle a chance to escape, the once-beloved knight was eventually caught and executed for trying to start a rebellion against the king (Tuma and Hazell). An Elizabethan audience would have been very receptive to a character that was based on Oldcastle for several reasons. Firstly, he was a popular knight that when he was in favor with the monarch and served his country in many noble ways. Secondly, Queen Elizabeth, who was raised Protestant herself (Hickman), had made the Protestant faith acceptable during her reign, and as a result, it had become immensely more fashionable than Catholicism. Therefore, a character based on a man who had become a martyr for the sect that had recently come into favor in England would have been very well-received by an audience of that time. Furthermore, the change in Falstaff’s character from a respected knight to a carousing, rebellious old man would have been seen as a sort of courageous mutiny against the intolerant monarchy. This would not have offended Queen Elizabeth, however, because she was a remarkably tolerant ruler compared to her predecessors, at least in the area of religion.

Whether or not an audience or reader agrees with Falstaff’s choices in Henry IV, Shakespeare has made it almost impossible not to like the happy-go-lucky knight with his comical antics and witty rejoinders. Sir John Falstaff is yet another example of Shakespeare’s gift for rhetoric and humor. He is a contrary character if ever there was one.

Works Cited

Hickman, David. “Religious Belief and Pious Practice Among London’s Elizabethan Elite.” The Historical Journal 4th ser. 42 (1999): 941-60. JStor. Cambridge University Press. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.jstor.org/pss/3020931>.

Levenson, Jill L. “Shakespeare’s Falstaff: ‘The cause that wit is in other men'” University of Toronto Quarterly 74.2 (Spring 2005): 722-28. University of Alaska Goldmine. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.uaf.edu/ehost/detail?vid=12&hid=11&sid=2747a8f0-c08d-4137-ac6-4da0b3e6e899%40sessionmgr113&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=16500437>.

Pilkington, Ace G. “The John Falstaff of the Merry Wives of Windsor.” Midsummer Magazine, Summer (1992). Dixie College, 1997. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://dsc.dixie.edu/shakespeare/henry4ess.htm>.

Pilkington, Ace G. “1 Henry IV.” Insights, Summer (1996). Dixie College, 1997. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://dsc.dixie.edu/shakespeare/henry4ess.htm>.

“THE WICKED AGE: MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION- Address to Sir John Oldcastle.” Medieval Forum. Ed. George W. Tuma and Dinah Hazell. San Francisco State University. Web. 6 Sept. 2009. <http://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/complaintlit/oldcastle.html>.

William, Shakespeare,. Henry IV. Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

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