The Reactionary Utopian
                      March 1, 2007

by Joe Sobran

     As a boy growing up in Michigan half a century ago, 
thousands of miles from London during the golden age of 
Shakespearean acting, I wished I could have seen Laurence 
Olivier on the stage as Macbeth, or Paul Scofield as 
Hamlet, or Richard Burton as Coriolanus, or Alec Guinness 
as Lear's Fool.

     England was crawling with wonderful actors, but I 
had to settle for glimpses of them in movies and 
recordings. I fell in love with the voice of a young 
actress named Judi Dench, long before she became famous 
over here. I might also mention another young actress, 
Vanessa Redgrave, who moved me to name my first daughter 

     But most of all I wished -- and still wish -- I 
could have seen Ralph Richardson as Sir John Falstaff in 
both parts of HENRY IV.

     How could the creator of such supreme tragic heroes 
as Hamlet, Lear, and Othello also create the most 
delightful comic figure in drama? It hardly seems 
possible. It's almost as if the same composer had written 

     Falstaff is the obese knight who, with his lowlife 
circle, keeps company with Prince Hal and is blamed for 
corrupting him. In the end, Hal, upon ascending to the 
throne as King Henry V, disowns and banishes Falstaff, 
who, meanwhile, lies, boasts, drinks, gourmandizes, robs, 
defrauds, and generally sins with abandon, always citing 
Scripture and vowing to reform.

     "God send the prince a better companion," scolds the 
humorless Lord Chief Justice. "God send the companion a 
better prince. I cannot rid my hands of him," retorts 
Falstaff instantly, refusing, as always, to be outfaced 
or cornered. He habitually assumes the moral high ground 
and the role of the offended party.

     He is shameless; blamed for seducing Hal, he blames 
Hal for seducing him! "Thou hast done much harm upon me, 
Hal," he says; "God forgive thee for it! Before I knew 
thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man should 
speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must 
give over this life, and I will give it over!"

     That's Falstaff's note: mock indignation and mock 
dignity, simulating piety and repentance. He is, in Mark 
Van Doren's words, "a universal mimic," forever imitating 
and parodying the respectable official voices of 
self-important men. He is never at a loss for words; like 
Hamlet, he seems infinite. He talks his way out of every 
spot with inexhaustible effrontery.

     Because he is so fat, many actors have made the 
crude mistake of playing him as a buffoon. Here is where 
Ralph Richardson was inspired. He knew that Falstaff is 
much funnier if he is master of the situation, not its 
butt; so he gave Falstaff's great bulk great gravity and 
an air of indomitable distinction, making him a lord 
among wits.

     "When you're doing something funny," Charlie Chaplin 
said, "you don't have to be funny doing it." If the 
situation is hilarious in itself, there's no need to ham 
it up. The great comedians know the power of deadpan 
humor. Only the poor ones fear that the audience won't 
get the joke without mugging.

     Falstaff knows how contagious his humor is: "I am 
not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in 
other men." He can lament his own spectacular 
decrepitude: "My skin hangs about me like an old lady's 
loose gown; I am withered like an old apple-john."

     After leading an ambush-robbery of a group of 
pilgrims, he plays the victim with a straight face and an 
air of injured innocence: "Company, villainous company, 
hath been the spoil of me." His capacity for ingenious 
self-excuse is boundless: "Thou seest I have more flesh 
than another man, and therefore more frailty."

     After feigning death in battle, Falstaff has the 
perfect rationalization of cowardice: "The better part of 
valor is discretion." Caught in a barefaced lie, Falstaff 
shakes his head sadly over the mendacity of the human 
race: "Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying." 
Even his own sins aren't his fault: "Thou knowest in the 
state of innocency Adam fell; and what should poor Jack 
Falstaff do in the days of villany?" Yes, poor Jack 

     The test of the greatest art is that once you know 
it, you can hardly imagine the world existing without it. 
You know that something has been created forever, as 
imperishable as a primary color. That is true of 
Macbeth's tragic verse, and nearly as true of Falstaff's 
comic prose. Both spring from the same mysterious source.


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