Falstaff

A few days back , we talked a little about Falstaff and his earlier naming (and subsequent renaming). So why did the Cobhams take offense?

After all, Falstaff is the wittiest (and at times the most profound) man in The First Part of Henry the Fourth.

Early on, Falstaff and Hal have this exchange:

FALSTAFF
God save thy grace -- majesty I should say, for grace thou wilt have none --

PRINCE HAL
What, none?

FALSTAFF
No, by my troth; not so much as will serve to be prologue to an egg and butter.

— I.ii.17-21

Here, Falstaff plays with the multiple meanings of “grace”: both a manifestation of favor and a prayer. Falstaff says that Hal will have no grace, because he will have egg and butter instead. Egg and butter was a snack of the time, not a full meal (one that would need a prayer). The wordplay continues when he tells Hal, “Were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent” (I.ii.56-57). It’s a nice bit of wordplay and punning going on in that here/heir coupling. He later tells Hal, “Thou cam’st not of the blood royal if thou does not stand for ten shillings” (I.ii.137). Here, the wordplay is not as obvious to audiences today as it would have been to that of Shakespeare’s day, since at that time ten shillings was the value of a coin called a royal. When Hal attacks him with fat jokes, Falstaff is quick to turn the tables on the skinny prince:

'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck,--

— II.iv.235-238

Falstaff not only outguns the young man (eight insults to five), but he turns his into bawdy declarations of equating the prince with a certain part of the male anatomy. Later, after Falstaff has feigned death during his fight with the Scot Douglas, he rises to tell the audience,

'Sblood,'twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too. Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die, is to be a counterfeit; for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man: but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.

— V.iv.112-119

Falstaff toys with the meaning of counterfeit: to fake. Falstaff becomes a kind of Ur-Yossarian: to fake death so as to live, is no counterfeit, but to be truly alive.

Falstaff doesn’t just play with words, he plays with the expectations of others. After Poins outlines a robbery, Falstaff declares of the crime, “An I do not, call me a villain” (I.ii.99). A criminal is a villain in most eyes, but Falstaff turns this on its head: If he does not commit a robbery, THEN call him a villain. It may be a twisted logic, but it’s a logic nevertheless. The same is true when he tells Hal that the prince owes him a thousand pounds. Hal asks, “Sirrah, do I owe you a thousand pound?” to which Falstaff responds, “A thousand pound, Hal? A million. Thy love is worth a million; thou owest me thy love” (III.iii.135 and 136-137, respectively). Great logic.

He’s lovable, too, because he has no illusions about himself. When Hal tells him to lay on the ground before the travelers’s robbery, Falstaff responds, “Have you any levers to lift me up again, being down?” (II.ii.32). He knows that if he gets down on the ground, he won’t be able to rise on his own. He knows he’s “fat and grows old” (II.iv.124), and is well aware of his “coward(ice) on instinct” (II.iv.260), as when he learns that there will be eight victims to six robbers, and asks, “Zounds, will they not rob us?” (II.ii.60). Endearing him further to us as an audience, he is more than willing to catalog his faults:

swore little, diced not above seven times a week, went to a bawdy house not above once in a quarter of an hour, paid money that I borrowed three or four times

— III.iii.15-18

Of course, what makes this funny is the timing an pauses:

swore little, diced not [PAUSE] above seven times [PAUSE] a week, went to a bawdy house not [PAUSE] above once in a quarter [PAUSE] of an hour, paid money that I borrowed [PAUSE] three or four times

He gambles every day, hits the whorehouses 4 times an hour, and borrows money three or four times, only to pay for it just the once time. He’s a funny guy, lovable almost, as long as he’s not family.

If he’s your grandfather, however, you see that Shakespeare has turned him into a drunk, a thief, and a coward. Guess that’s why Shakespeare had to change the name… Of course, an entire history of theatrical criticism bares out the character’s contemporary popularity (The Merry Wives of Windsor was written because Queen Elizabeth wanted the further adventures of Falstaff… she wanted to see Falstaff in love).

So take that, Cobhams!

Comment?