13Accounting for Falstaff in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Eighteenth-century responses to the two parts of Henry IV initiated debate about the figure of Falstaff that continued into the nineteenth century and beyond. As late as 1927, critics like E.E. Stoll were still constructing detailed refutations of Morgann's essay. In 1817 William Hazlitt claimed that Falstaff was one of the greatest comic characters ever invented, stressing his "exaggeration of his own vices," (354) his "masterly presence of mind" and the indulgence he elicits as both an actor and as someone whose age "gives a melancholy retrospective tinge to the character" (355). Like Nicholas Rowe, Hazlitt felt that "we could never forgive the Prince's treatment of Falstaff" and that "whatever terror the French in those days might have of Henry V., yet, to the readers of poetry at present, Falstaff is the better man of the two" (356). Bernard Shaw, writing at the end of the nineteenth century held a similar view, seeing Hal as "consciously and deliberately treacherous" in Henry IV, Part One, and Falstaff as "the most human person in the play" (albeit "a besotted and disgusting old wretch") (119).

14Concern about the Prince's treatment of Falstaff reached a climax in A.C. Bradley's essay, "The Rejection of Falstaff," first published in 1902. Bradley notes that the Prince's rejection of Falstaff in Part Two is consistent with his characterization in Part One, and that the moment is well prepared for, but, he argues, it is troubling nevertheless because the rejection scene elicits a kind of resentment towards Henry that could not have been Shakespeare's intention. Bradley describes Falstaff as "the humorist of genius" who "makes himself out more ludicrous than he is, in order that he and others may laugh" (68). He finds that Falstaff's lies about the men in Buckram and killing Hotspur are, like so many of his statements, symptomatic of his refusal to take anything seriously, and he develops Morgann's evidence that Falstaff is not a coward. Bradley assumes that Shakespeare meant to steadily weaken Falstaff's appeal but failed: "In the Falstaff scenes [Shakespeare] overshot his mark. He created so extraordinary a being, and fixed him so firmly on his intellectual throne, that when he sought to dethrone him he could not" (66).

15Bradley's notion of Falstaff as a larger-than-life character, who somehow transcends his context and the author's plans for him, has informed much subsequent criticism. Even towards the end of the twentieth century Harold Bloom could talk about Falstaff as, along with Hamlet, "the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it" (4) and as "a character deeper than life, a wit unmatched by anyone merely real whom we will ever know" (15). Early twentieth-century critics did, however, develop commentary on the character in new directions, both by seeking to situate Falstaff within the context of older theatrical and literary traditions, and by asking how Shakespeare's fat knight contributed to the plays' depictions of history and politics.

16John Dover Wilson's 1943 book, The Fortunes of Falstaff, links the two Henry IV plays--described as "this great twin-play" (1)--to Medieval morality plays and the shorter moral interludes of the Tudor court. Wilson notes the various theatrical antecedents assigned to Falstaff by Hal, including "the Devil of the miracle play, the Vice of the morality, and the Riot of the interlude" and argues that Falstaff "inherits by reversion the function and attributes of the Lord of Misrule, the Fool, the Buffoon, and the Jester . . . In short, the Falstaff-Hal plot embodies a composite myth which had been centuries in the making " (20). Wilson's argument that the play itself is a kind of morality fable which presents Hal's prodigal reformation and the rejection of Falstaff as something to be admired prompted some disagreement from critics wanting to stress Shakespeare's dramatic ambiguity (notably William Empson in his 1953 article, "Falstaff and Mr Dover Wilson"), but it also fed into a stream of myth-focussed interpretations of the play. These include J.I.M. Stewart's suggestion that Falstaff's association with images of oxen, brawn and meat provides a symbolic link to festival sacrifice--animals sacrificed to ensure new fertility--and this in turn is why we accept his eventual rejection in the theatre (131-32).

17Probably the most well-known discussion of festive elements in the Henry IV plays is by C.L. Barber in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (1959). Barber develops Stewart's idea of Falstaff as a kind of ritual comic scapegoat, whose sacrifice deflects bad luck away from the Prince. Barber relates the comic elements of the plays to traditions of saturnalia, with Falstaff as the figure of Misrule. Like Wilson, Barber places Prince Hal at the centre of Henry IV, Part One, as a prodigal figure surrounded by tempters, but he argues that Shakespeare complicates this by shifting emphasis onto the issue of whether Hal "will be noble or degenerate, whether his holiday will become his everyday" (195). For Barber that holiday is clearly limited by Hal and by history:

18The Falstaff comedy, far from being forced into an alien environment of historical drama, is begotten by that environment, giving and taking meaning as it grows. . . . Shakespeare dramatizes not only holiday but also the need for holiday and the need to limit holiday. (192)

19Barber's focus on festive traditions has influenced much subsequent work on Shakespeare's history plays, with varied responses to the question of how festivity and order are pitted or balanced against each other in the plays and which of them the audience is invited to applaud. Later critics have further developed the idea of festival with reference to Mikhail Bakhtin and the idea of the "carnivalesque" developed in his 1965 book Rabelais and his World. Bakhtin coined the term the "grotesque body" to describe how in comedy we focus on the earthier aspects of the human body. Comedy makes us laugh by reminding us that everybody farts and belches, even the king. In Bakhtin's vision, comedy is all about cutting people down to size, dissolving and confusing distinctions and embracing chaos. In this way literary texts can change the way we think about the world, contesting accepted ideas about what is normal, and challenging power structures that seek to justify one group's authority over another.

20Bakhtin's ideas have proved particularly apposite for the Falstaff plays. Michael Bristol pointed out in 1985 that "the Battle of Carnival and Lent is an explicit structuring device in the two parts of Henry IV" (204) and this approach has been developed further in studies like Graham Holderness's Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (1992), Jonathan Hall's Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State (1995), and David Ruiter's Shakespeare's Festive History (2003). Psychoanalytic criticism has also drawn on Barber and Bakhtin to discuss Falstaff, as for example in Valerie Traub's Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (1992), where the relationship between the grotesque body and the female reproductive body comes to the fore. Hugh Grady's article, "Falstaff: Subjectivity between the Carnival and the Aesthetic," reflects the direction of much recent criticism by reading Falstaff as an early modern experiment in a new kind of subjectivity that draws on recognizable literary types, but playfully resists being pinned down to any fixed identity. Grady notes how Falstaff creates fictions about himself, drawing on and inverting the language of the puritans. He sees Falstaff as posing questions about the limits of carnival:

21When Hal remarks "If all the year were playing holidays . . . " he is not only rationalizing his own sowing of wild oats, but also enunciating the problem that Sir John lives: what are the limits of a carnival wrenched out of its setting in the cycle of the year's months and seasons and set up as an end in itself in a society of constant moral and cultural disintegration and reconfiguration, such as is constituted by modernity? (620).