The Fun of Falstaff
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 Lears 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 Vanessa.
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. Its almost as if the same composer had written not only Don Giovanni, but also The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute.
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!
Thats Falstaffs note: mock indignation and mock dignity, simulating piety and repentance. He is, in Mark Van Dorens 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 Falstaffs great bulk great gravity and an air of indomitable distinction, making him a lord among wits.
When youre doing something funny, Charlie Chaplin said, you dont have to be funny doing it. If the situation is hilarious in itself, theres no need to ham it up. The great comedians know the power of deadpan humor. Only the poor ones fear that the audience wont 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 ladys 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 arent 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 Falstaff!
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 Macbeths tragic verse, and nearly as true of Falstaffs comic prose. Both spring from the same mysterious source.
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