- Shakespeare’s Falstaff:‘The cause that wit is in other men’
Towards the end of Henry iv Part 1, Shakespeare's Falstaff conducts himself in ways apparently designed to unsettle an audience's responses. At this point the play has reached a crescendo in the Battle of Shrewsbury, pivotal to the ferocious Hundred Years (civil) War. Falstaff has expressed his view of military honour in the famous catechism which Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi reprise in their opera, Falstaff:
... but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word.(5.1.130-33)
And now, on the battlefield, Falstaff will bump into the Earl of Douglas, a fierce rebel against the king. On another part of the stage Prince Hal engages with his most important adversary, Hotspur, and a stage direction tells a reader what happens next:
Enter Douglas. He fighteth with Falstaff, who falls down as if he were dead. The Prince killeth Percy.(22.214.171.124-3)
Of course, an audience seeing this play for the first time would not know that Falstaff was pretending, acting out his lack of conviction in the value of honour.
When Hal sees Falstaff on the ground, he delivers a short eulogy: 'What, old acquaintance, could not all this flesh / Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell! / I could have better spared a better man' (5.4.101-3). An audience new to the play might appreciate Hal's sentiment; an audience familiar with it would adopt an ironic point of view. In either case, when 'Falstaff riseth up' at Hal's exit, the effect is suddenly comedic, even farcical. But then it takes another turn in the soliloquy which follows, when Falstaff contemplates the dead Hotspur lying beside him: 'I'll make him sure,' he decides, 'yea, and I'll swear I killed him' (5.4.122-23). With that he stabs Hotspur in the thigh and hoists him on his back, as if he were a devil carrying Percy off to hell.
The sequence epitomizes what Shakespeareans like to call the 'rich ambivalence' of Falstaff in the English history plays. Within this dramatic context the character seduces audiences and readers because he subverts [End Page 722] social values as he critiques them, creating opportunities for psychological release and festivity. He seduces them also with his strikingly imaginative and original idiom, which infuses the texts with energy. Yet Falstaff's antics can modulate into a disturbing key, as they do at the end of Henry iv Part 1, and before we know it we are the uncomfortable witnesses of a desecration.
At the corresponding point in Henry iv Part 2, an even more famous sequence unsettles audience response in a different way: the fourth and fifth scenes of the last act present the rejection of Falstaff by the newly crowned King Henry V. Through invented episodes before the climactic one, the play makes it clear that Falstaff must go if the new king is to govern responsibly. When Falstaff hears that Henry IV is dead, he expects to redesign government to his specifications. 'I know the young King is sick for me,' he tells his old cronies. 'Let us take any man's horses - the laws of England are at my commandment' (5.3.131-34). Immediately we witness a violent scene - a glimpse of Falstaff's world - as Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are dragged off by beadles for participating in a murder. The coronation follows, Falstaff watching the procession and anticipating a warm welcome from Hal. Instead, he hears a speech of twenty-five lines or so about reforming himself, a speech notable for its coldness and distance:
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester! I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane; But being awaked, I do despise my dream.(5.5.46-50...