By Ace G. Pilkington

Sometime between the fall of 1596 and the spring of 1597, John Falstaff first stepped onto the boards of the Globe Theatre. His coming was an extraordinary event, like the sighting of a new and huge planet in the sky. In his case the planet must have been a gas giant, accompanied by a number of smaller satellites and so luminous that it all but eclipsed even the royal son it accompanied. In large measure because of Falstaff, Henry IV, Part I was an instant, and has been a continuing, success. If quarto editions are anything to go by, the play was the most popular of all Shakespeare’s works during his life and soon after his death, with seven editions before the First Folio and two following it. Falstaff’s fame (and unmistakable form) were carried on into Henry IV, Part II, and his dying words give a reverberating pathos (even in the Hostess’s mouth) to the early scenes of Henry V.

The roguish old knight and highwayman, whose cowardice was exceeded only by his cunning, established himself as the best known of all Shakespeare’s creations in the seventeenth century. The Shakspere Allusion-Book cannot deal with him as a mere character in a play but indicates, “For the purposes of this Index, Falstaff is treated as a work.” He has, as the Allusion-Book says, “131 references while Othello (the next highest) . . . scores only 55” (“Introduction,” Shakespeare: Henry IV, Parts I and II, A Casebook, ed. G. K. Hunter [London: Macmillan, 1983], 16).

According to legend, Falstaff’s popularity was not confined to the groundlings and middle class but extended to Queen Elizabeth herself: “The Restoration theatre tradition recorded by John Dennis in 1702 and Rowe in 1709 was that the Queen had demanded a play about Falstaff in love, and Shakespeare wrote it in a fortnight” (Peter Levi, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988], 209). That play was, of course, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

WITS’ COMBAT AND CRITICS’ CONFLICT. But, as Falstaff knew, honor will not live with the living (or even with literary immortals) because detraction will not suffer it, and the fat knight’s very popularity engenders arguments, just as his many incarnations inspire partisans. He says in Henry IV, Part II that “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men” (The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972], 1.2.9-10). He is in addition the cause of wits’ combat and critics’ conflict; there are those who believe that even for someone of Sir John’s appetites, his appearances in the second tetralogy constitute a surfeit of sequels, and The Merry Wives of Windsor is one course too many. Further, they believe that Falstaff in moving from history to comedy has lost much of his savor and most of his weight and is not, so to speak, a “twentieth part the tithe of [his] precedent” lard (Hamlet, 3.4.98-99).

A. C. Bradley, who calls this comic Sir John “the imposter,” wrote in 1909, “To picture the real Falstaff befooled like the Falstaff of the Merry Wives is like imagining Iago the gull of Roderigo. . . . The separation of these two has long ago been effected by criticism, and is insisted on in almost all competent estimates of the character of Falstaff” (“The Rejection of Falstaff,” Shakespeare: King Henry IV Parts I and II, A Casebook, ed. G. K. Hunter [London: Macmillan, 1983], 57).

However, I am about to insist that Sir John is “constant as the Northern Star,” jumping genres with the same nimbleness that he avoids debts and finding himself much the same man whether he is matched with the wild prince or the merry wives. Part of the problem with Bradley’s position is that, having rightly idealized Sir John as a wonder of wit, he insists, against all the evidence, that the fat knight is also a master tactician. Nothing could be more wrong. Falstaff is a superb talker, an incomparable performer, a veritable “star of England,” but he could never be considered for the criminal mastermind Oscar. As W. H. Auden observes in “The Prince’s Dog,” Falstaff and his cohorts are “by any worldly standards, including those of the criminal classes, all of them failures” (emphasis his; The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays [London: Faber and Faber, 1962], 183).

In Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff has his horse stolen and his pocket picked and is outmaneuvered by Poins with Prince Hal’s help so that the fat knight finds his ill-gotten loot stolen from him in turn by two mysterious figures in buckram. Further, even the first part of this robbery goes awry; he is recognized as a result of his size and pursued to his tavern lair. Only the intervention of the Prince of Wales and the paying back of the twice-stolen money saves Falstaff from prison.

In Henry IV, Part II, the Lord Chief Justice accuses Sir John of crimes in general, the Hostess joins in with the specific accusations of evasion of debt and breach of promise, Hal and Poins fool him by disguising themselves once again, Prince John threatens him with a hanging for coming late to the battle, and, finally, when Jack Falstaff interrupts Hal’s coronation procession, the young king rejects and banishes him. At the last, the Chief Justice gives orders to “Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet” (5.5.93). The Fleet was a prison for distinguished prisoners, but it was a prison just the same.

CONSTANTLY BEING CAUGHT. Where is there anything in Falstaff’s history to justify Bradley’s confidence that the fat knight cannot be fooled? It is true he cannot be outfaced or outtalked, but he is constantly being caught by a plot or caught out in one of his schemes. Indeed, Poins early identifies the central comic satisfaction which attaches to Sir John, “The virtue of this jest will be the incomprehensible [unlimited] lies that this same fat rogue will tell us when we meet at supper” (Henry IV, Part I, 1.2.183-5). It is vital that Falstaff be caught so that he may save himself with his wit, be fooled so that he may whip his persecutors with words, and be abused so that he may strike back with his most unsavory similes. In short, Falstaff is funniest when he fails and most enjoyable when he is least at ease, giving us his best when he is suffering the worst. It is a measure of his comic power that no defeat can vanquish him and a feature of his character that no disappointment (until Hal’s rejection) can put out the light of his optimism.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff suffers the pangs of three several deaths and gives birth to much humor. Here, he is among the bourgeoisie and not the aristocracy, and (as Sir John to all Europe) he tends to underestimate his opposition, but he is the same Falstaff still with the same glorious foibles and follies. As Ruth Nevo writes, “the character of Falstaff has not changed. The craft, the shrewdness, the brass, the zest are all there. The very accents and rhythms, the vivid similes, the puns, the preposterous hyperboles, the loving ingenuity with which he enlarges on his monstrous girth” (Comic Transformations in Shakespeare [London: Methuen, 1980], 155). It is a prose that in Peter Levi’s words “sparkles and crackles along . . . crammed with short, sensuous phrases” (The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, 210).

There is, however, one difference between Falstaff’s defeats in the second tetralogy and his griefs in The Merry Wives of Windsor that may be troubling some critics. In Merry Wives, the fat knight is not bested by that royal manipulator Prince Hal but by two middle class women. And here, I suspect, is the real center of Bradley’s outrage, the real reason for his cry of “imposter.” But this, after all, is Shakespeare’s universe, a place much like the real thing, where women are almost always as clever as men and usually cleverer.

Indeed, Ruth Nevo sees The Merry Wives of Windsor as a turning point in Shakespeare’s development, a shift from masculine to feminine merrymakers, and “comic heroines, it will transpire, may even better their instruction” (Comic Transformations in Shakespeare, 153).

THE SAME SIR JOHN STILL. If Falstaff is defeated in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he is the same Sir John still, unsinkable in any water, irrepressible in any difficulty, impervious to discouragement because he knows and loves his own ability to slip from the grip of any adversity. He is a scapegoat whose own weight of sin is so great that he can bear all of Windsor’s in addition without noticing the difference.

And if, at the end of the play, he is laughed at, he gets to laugh in his turn. As James J. Christy writes in his preliminary notes to the 1992 Utah Shakespeare Festival production, “the Pages, who fancy themselves so well on top of things with respect to Sir John, find themselves the dupes of their daughter and Fenton and have to accept an aristocratic alliance that has the blessing of true love.” Fenton, too, is a friend of the wild prince, and the victory goes at last to Falstaff’s party, as it must in any stage performance where that great, glowing, humorous planet fills the skies with his unique warmth. And, oh yes, there is only one Sir John, wherever he may show himself and whatever laundry baskets he may hide his light under. “Is not the truth the truth?” (Henry IV, Part I, 2.4.230-31).