FALSTAFF By Joe Masterson
Bodkin Memorial Prize Essay
AMONG all the comic characters of literature one stands supreme, one who is the very soul of mirth and the king of jesters; he is Falstaff, the plump rascal of Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth. This animate Colossus who by his sparkling wit and laboured antics upon a stage which creaks and strains under his vast bulk, can, with consummate ease, draw happy, carefree laughter from the morbid and troubled, and in spite of his manifold vices can make us love him as we love the virtuous. Why he is popular no one knows; perhaps it is just because he is unique and cannot therefore be judged as one" in the roll of common men."
Caesar when he said " Let me have men about me that are fat" would doubtless have seen in Falstaff the fulfilment of his wildest hopes, for this lumbering vagabond who before he lies down must seriously enquire " Have you any levers to lift me up again, being down?" is truly as corpulent an individual as any man could ever hope to perceive. Were he not so fat indeed, I believe that he would not so easily earn our love and esteem. His rotundity seems to spread a cloak of harmlessness over his evil habits; those habits which, in a man devoid of the kindly influence of a protruding paunch, would render their owner loathsome and repulsive to us.
Nevertheless Falstaff pays dearly for this protective shroud, for his stoutness makes him a butt (or many taunts and jeers. Who could desist' from poking fun at this " greasy tallow-catch?" On observing the " circling amplitude" of his figure we naturally think of the great quantities of food which he must consume. Falstaff's dietary arrangements easily account for his profuse girth. His manhood (if his mature existence could be honoured by such a title), during which his nourishment (liquid particularly) has been his greatest concern and in which his neverending search for food, has created a little interest and a slight diversion from an otherwise otiose existence, has been a continual feast. He has an inordinate liking for a pale Spanish wine "yclept sack" and has acquired his superfluous flesh throughout a life of slavery to a clamouring stomach and a tempting bottle.
Still, for Falstaff's great gluttony, as for his other vices we can find an excuse. Is it not natural that the maintenance of such prodigious corpulence, in a man who at the slightest exertion" lards the lean earth as he walks along," should require immense quantities of raw material for reconstruction purposes? Falstaff's sack and mashes keep alive this wonderful character by supporting and increasing his stoutness which is his greatest asset.
His great size, however, is not his only means of creating laughter for if this were so we could esteem him only as we would a clown. He would in fact be little better than one of these painted buffoons ~who romp around, slap each other's faces and fall to the ground accompanied by deafening bangs from the bass drum. We can laugh at clowns it is true, but this laughter cannot contain a trace of admiration, it is tainted only with pity and disdain for these creatures ~who must degrade themselves to amuse us.
No! Falstaff is definitely not a clown. He is a true humourist, one whose very nature it is to be witty. He is never at a loss for something to say and can by using his wits save himself from awkward and embarrassing situations. On dramatic and tragic occasions he can shatter the tense atmosphere by a witty remark and without a moment's premeditation can flash forth an ingenious pun such as "Were it not here apparent that thou art heir-apparent."
Would I be expressing a general opinion if I stated that Falstaff seldom lies ? I don't think so. I imagine that my statement would be met with a shower of protest and ridicule. People would perhaps nod their heads and whisper "--just a little odd, not really dangerous though." Or the more tactful might suggest a quiet rest in the country for me with no work, no worry and no mental strain of any kind. Still! I'm going to say it now-Falstaff seldom lies! A lie is meant to deceive and Falstaff's mistruths which would not deceive a babe are " Gross as a mountain, open, palpable." He speaks untruly, usually not to deceive us but to make us laugh at his obvious lack of veracity. He swears that he has not had a drink all day whilst he is yet wiping the wine from his lips and during his account of the robbery the number of his aggressors miraculously increases from two to eleven.
A less jocular side of Falstaff's nature is his dishonesty. His life of ease and luxury is not a result of honest toil on his part but is paid for by the earnings of his unfortunate victims. He hoards himself in his comfortable inn, where he lazes, devours and makes his rowdy comrades laugh until his sluggish spirit, encouraged by a ~ light pocket, yearns for a little action. Then some dark night an unwary traveller is waylaid and deprived of his hard-earned money and thus is Falstaff supplied with the price of another month's recumbency.
" Can honour set a leg ?-no, or an arm ? no, or take away the grief of a wound ? No, then it should not and must not be sought after." Thus soliloquises the knight, Sir John Oldcastle, our hero, Falstaff. From this, his opinion of honour we can easily discover the extent of his valour and daring. He hath no desire to " pluck bright honour from the palefaced moon" all he asks of life in fact is food, luxury and fun. Is it not strange then that he should have led his troops where they were mown down at the Battle of Shrewsbury? Perhaps in the midst of dying nobles, men who were so much more upright and honourable than he, a spark of valour was kindled in Falstaff's ignoble breast and feeling that life meant more than just existing, he gave this unusual demonstration of bravery.
Well! this is Falstaff. What a conglomeration of good and evil he is ! We have examined him in his qualities good and evil, in his likings and his humour and still we cannot but wonder why he has been and always will be the best-loved and most popular character in Literature. With men more worthy than himself this portly villain will live for ever in our memories and affection, an unsolved mystery, a paragon of merriment.