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Though Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One is ostensibly about the titular character and his son, the future King Henry V, both Henry’s are constantly upstaged by Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and enduring characters for a reason; his character contains pieces of multiple archetypal personalities and stock characters including the Vice, the Picaro, the Fool, the Miles Gloriosus, and the Plautine Parasite. Each of these character types contributes its best, or worst, parts to create an unforgettable whole. Frye points out that, “We know very little about the contemporary reception of Shakespeare’s plays, but one of the things we do know is that Falstaff was exactly the same kind of popular favorite that he is now, and for exactly the same reasons” (271). Shakespeare has used some of these character types in the past, most notably the Vice. In Richard III Shakespeare uses the Vice to great extent in creating his fictional composite of the historical King. The same skill in grafting fictional qualities onto historical characters comes into play again with Falstaff and is the main reason why Falstaff remains such an enduring icon of drama.
The medieval vice character is the descendant of The Vice, an archetypal villain who represented the seven deadly sins in the allegorical English morality plays. Though the Vice spreads dissent and disdain for law and order he is usually portrayed as a comic trickster rather than a purely evil force. The Vice is distinguishable from other villains in that he uses his skill with words to achieve his goals through trickery and confusion. Oftentimes the Vice appeals to the audience even as he is upsetting the natural order of any situation in which he meddles.
Falstaff, long a fan favorite character from all of Shakespeare’s plays, clearly fits the description of amusing, witty, and sinful. His fat figure attests to his gluttony and sloth, his frequenting the tavern proves his weakness for lust, and his thievery and bragging stem from his avarice and pride. Critics like Withington have long taken note of this saying, “Beneath the individuality which makes Falstaff such a lovable figure, critics have found gluttony, lechery, and other deadly sins, together with traces of the parasite” (743). Indeed the Prince himself, role-playing his father the King, accuses Falstaff of being the Vice: “Why dost though converse with that trunk of humors…that reverend Vice, that gray Iniquity” (2.4.443-448). Falstaff also subverts those around him, dragging down Prince Hal from his royal pedestal and further corrupting Bardolph and Nym. Though Hal has the good sense and keen wit to escape Falstaff’s influence, Bardolph and Nym are not so bright and end up hanged for looting. Sir John’s corrupting influence, barbed tongue, and sympathy with the audience all tie into the traditional role of the Vice character.
The picaro is a type of renaissance rouge, a believer in counter culture who has no personal or societal ties. The picaro is often depicted as a nomad, moving often and following a shifting trail of opportunity. What he finds he quickly consumes before moving on, never focusing on the future or by extension the accumulation of wealth or power. The picaro is a survivalist. Falstaff easily fits this description as well. Having no career, no ambition, and no home but the tavern he survives by riding the coattails of Prince Hal. Rothschild notes that, “Falstaff’s life on this social fringe is marked by a chronic impecuniosity, which he relieves mainly with his wit” (18). When war comes he adjusts and takes advantage of the situation to squander the army’s money. With the possible exception of the Prince and his drinking companions Falstaff has no sympathy for the plights of men and sees others solely as exploitable resources. He audibly voices his disdain for ideals and values in his “what is honor” soliloquy. The attitude he expresses in this speech lends further credence to the argument that at least part of his personality is rooted in the renaissance picaresque tradition.
The Miles Gloriosus, or braggart soldier, is a classical Roman and Greek stock character of drama whose main trait is his overreaching braggadocio — which contrasts with his underperformance or cowardice in battle to much comic effect. Grady summarizes this aspect of Falstaff’s nature by writing: “Falstaff is also an embodiment of the destructive egoism that is one of modern subjectivity’s most prominent potential outcomes” (613). Falstaff plays this role in a plethora of situations throughout the play. When he tells Prince Hal about the robbers he fought off the number steadily increases each time he opens his mouth. The same thing happens later in the battle scenes, when Falstaff boasts of his conquest over Hotspur, despite having played dead on the battlefield to avoid risking his life in combat. This act in particular shows characteristics of not only the braggart but the picaro and the parasite as well. Falstaff does no fighting, claims he fought valiantly, saps off Prince Hal’s valor by claiming he killed Hotspur, and uses the unearned honor to further his own survival.
The Plautine Parasite is a character based on the idle poor of republican Rome who eked out a living by attaching themselves to the idle rich. They led lives of frivolous amusement and degenerate luxuriate through flattery, oftentimes suffering the butt end of a joke with nary but a smile. Similarly, Falstaff leeches off of not only Prince Hal but the hostess of the Tavern as well, suffering rebukes and insults and responding only with witticisms and smiles. An entire scene is devoted to Prince Hal’s participation in a robbery for the sole purpose of humiliating Falstaff by catching him in a lie. Falstaff waxes increasingly lyrical on food and wine, the only interests of the parasite. Draper argues that “Falstaff, indeed, is no respecter of his social inferiors, his equals, or his betters: he seems to respect only those who may provide his dinner and only when they do it” (396-397).
The fool, finally, is a kind of court jester or wise idiot who, though seemingly crazy, helps other characters realize the truth behind the actions or events that occur around them. Royalty often employed professional fools for both amusement and advice giving, with the main requirement being a razor sharp wit and the tenacity to use it. Falstaff can be seen as Prince Hal’s fool, as Hal derives amusement and companionship from him and sustains him in his erratic behavior in return. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho portrays the Falstaff character as a wandering homeless man who dispenses advice and wisdom to the children of the streets. Sir John possesses an epic wit and is not afraid to use it. Falstaff’s battlefield speech about the nature and worthlessness of honor cuts to the heart of the matter in a way that only a fool can.
Shakespeare’s use of stock characters and archetypal personalities advances in leaps and bounds when comparing Richard III to Sir John Falstaff. Richard III was a Vice character through and through. Though Shakespeare was very effective in creating Richard in the form of the Vice he pulls off an even more impressive feat with Falstaff. In Sir John he successfully integrates the Vice and at least four other characters into one stunning amalgamation of personality. Falstaff is a much more nuanced and rounded character than Richard. The more light shone on Falstaff the more facets of his character are revealed. In the approximately five years between the composition of Richard III and Henry IV Part One Shakespeare clearly gained more confidence in his skill with characterization and his willingness to expand on the format of the history play that he himself invented. Possessing both the techniques to create and complex character like Falstaff and the tenacity to insert him into a historical account, Shakespeare gave birth to one of the most celebrated characters of all time.
1. Draper, John W. “Falstaff and the Plauntine Parasite.” The Classic Journal 33 (1938): 390-401.
2. Frye, Northrop. “Characterization in Shakespearean Comedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 4 (1953): 271-277.
3. Grady, Hygh. “Falstaff: Subjectivity between the Carnival and the Aesthetic.” The Modern Language Review 96 (2001): 609-623.
4. My Own Private Idaho. Dir. Gus Van Sant. New Line Cinema, 1991.
5. Rothschild, Herbert B. “Falstaff and the Picaresque Tradition.” The Modern Language Review 68 (1973): 14-21.
6. Withington, Robert. “Vice and Parasite. A Note on the Evolution of the Elizabethan Villain.” PMLA 49 (1934): 743-751.
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