Why We Love Falstaff
by Theodore Dalrymple
Falstaff appeals to us because he holds up a distorting mirror to our weaknesses and makes us laugh at them.
Perfection is not of this world, and indeed we have difficulty even in conceiving of what it could be. We suspect that it might be boring and therefore, paradoxically, imperfect. Our natures are contradictory; we desire incompatible things and pursue incompatible ends, often at the same time; and we sometimes secretly love what we disapprove of or hate. Universal agreement and goodwill, if possible, would be tedious to us because we know that malice has its rewards. As William Hazlitt put it in “On the Pleasure of Hating”: “Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men.” And while a detective certainly wants to catch criminals, he does not want there to be no criminals, for he enjoys his work and desires it to continue.
In like fashion, I spent many years tending in hospital and prison to the victims and perpetrators of human weakness, folly, or wickedness. It goes without saying that the weak and foolish, far more than the wicked, were frequently their own victims, and that they exasperated me by their refusal to see or act upon the most evident common sense. But I had to admit, when I thought about it, that they had enriched my life enormously, the weak, the foolish, and the wicked, and that in my heart of hearts I wanted weakness, folly, and wickedness, if not to flourish or grow greater, exactly, at least not to disappear (not that there seemed much prospect of that). And in the back of my mind always ran the great anti-perfectionist utterance of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s indelible comic character, in Part 1 of Henry IV: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” A world of perfect sense and good behavior would be well-nigh intolerable: we need Falstaffs, even if we are not Falstaffian ourselves.
If we were to describe a man as deceitful, drunken, cowardly, dishonest, boastful, unscrupulous, gluttonous, vainglorious, lazy, avaricious, and selfish, we should hardly leave room in him for good qualities. No one would take it as a compliment to be described in this way, and we would avoid a person described in such a fashion. Falstaff was all those things, but probably no character in all literature is better loved. Only Don Quixote can compete; and our love of Falstaff is notdespite his roguery but because of it. Certainly we would rather spend an evening in his company than with the totally upright Lord Chief Justice of Part 2 of Henry IV. A world of such rectitude, in which everyone had the justice’s probity, would be better, no doubt: but it would not be much fun.
But there is everything in the fat old knight to repel us also: he is almost certainly dirty, and, as a doctor, I would not have looked forward to performing a physical examination on him. He is so fat that the slightest physical effort causes him to exude greasy sweat. As Prince Hal says, he “lards the lean earth as he walks along.” To enjoy Falstaff, you have to be in a tavern; but the world, for most people, cannot be a giant tavern, and outside that setting, Falstaff is distinctly less amusing.
The eighteenth-century economist and essayist Corbyn Morris said of Falstaff that for the sake of wit, we forgive him his cowardice, and indeed we are fond of his cowardice because it is the occasion of so much of his wit:
It is impossible to hate honest Jack Falstaff. . . . [Y]ou cannot but love him for his own talents. . . . He has nothing to disgust you, and everything to give you joy. . . . This jovial and gay humour, without anything envious, malicious, mischievous, or despicable, and continually quickened and adorned with wit, yields that peculiar delight, without any alloy, which we all feel and acknowledge in Falstaff’s company.
But this is quite wrong. Doctor Johnson, who was certainly no enemy to taverns, was much nearer the mark in his preface to Henry IV:
He is a thief, and a glutton, a coward, and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous and insult the defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirises in their absence those whom he lives by flattering. He is familiar with the prince only as an agent of vice, but of this familiarity he is so proud as not only to be supercilious and haughty with common men, but to think his interest of importance to the duke of Lancaster.
Doctor Johnson’s Falstaff is not just an irresponsible man of innocent fun, therefore; and Johnson is right. Falstaff’s vices are not minor, unless armed robbery be discounted as minor; and his jollity is mixed with an unpleasant propensity to bully underlings such as the serving staff of the tavern in Eastcheap. Prince Hal draws attention to this early in Part 1 of Henry IV, contrasting his own politeness toward them with the fat knight’s imperiousness: “Though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and [the serving staff] tell me flatly I am no proud Jack like Falstaff.”
When Falstaff toward the end of Part 2 of Henry IV learns from Pistol that the old king is dead and that Prince Hal has succeeded him, he immediately sees his opportunity for the unmerited advancement not only of himself but of his cronies. He knows the worthlessness of the rural magistrate, Robert Shallow, and of the ensign, Pistol, only too well; yet he says: “Master Robert Shallow, choose what office thou wilt in the land, ’tis thine. Pistol, I will double charge thee with dignities.” He gives not a moment’s thought—he is temperamentally incapable of doing so—to the consequences of treating public office as a means only of living perpetually at other people’s expense.
Again, when given the task of raising foot soldiers, Falstaff has no compunction in selling exemptions from service and appropriating to himself the money for arms and equipment, leaving his soldiers ill prepared for the battle and with, as he says, “not a shirt and a half” between them: “I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered [with shot]. There’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive.” Falstaff sheds not even a crocodile tear for his lost men; their fate simply does not interest him, once they have served his turn and he has made his profit from having recruited them. Even Doctor Johnson is too indulgent when he says: “It must be observed that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.” True, he is not sanguinary as a sadist is sanguinary; but depriving 150 men of the means to fight before a battle that ends in their deaths is no mere peccadillo, either.
Why, then, do we forgive and even still love him? If he had been thin, we might have been much less accommodating of his undoubted vices (Hazlitt, in his essay on Falstaff, emphasized the importance of his fatness). At a time when to be a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts,” as Prince Hal calls him, was unusual and most men were, of necessity, thin, Falstaff’s immense size was a metonym for jollity and good cheer—as fatness still is with Santa Claus. It would not have made sense for Julius Caesar, after noting that “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” to say that such men are well contented. And had Falstaff been slender, he would not have been what Johnson called him, “the prince of perpetual gaiety.”
Falstaff appeals to us because he holds up a distorting mirror to our weaknesses and makes us laugh at them. Falstaff’s dream is that of half of humanity.
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