Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 3: Falstaff’s Wholesomeness

Ralph Richardson as Falstaff, Laurence Olivier as Shallow

Time catches up with Falstaff in the end.  2 Henry IV resonates with the ticking of clocks – ‘we are time’s subjects’, says one of the elderly rebels as the insurrection gets under way (1.3.110) – and clocks are Falstaff’s enemy, bringing him always closer to humiliation and death.  It is full, too, of fragile and broken friendships, of which Falstaff has his share.  Justice Shallow masquerades as his lifelong bosom buddy despite the fact that they both know Shallow’s account of their wild youth together to be fraudulent, a crude and hasty fabrication designed to screen their mercenary desire to profit by one another.  ‘I do remember him at Clement’s Inn’, says Falstaff, ‘like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring.  When a was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife’ (3.2.303-7); and he later adds that he could make a dozen Shallows from the superabundant material of his own body (5.1.62-4).  Shallow clearly hopes that Falstaff will ‘make’ him in another sense by making his fortune, and this is the shallow foundation of their friendship.  The casting off of Falstaff is the moment when his accumulated debts catch up with him, as the newly-crowned Hal reminds him of what he said in Part One – that ‘thou owest God a death’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.126) – and forestalls any ‘fool-born jest’ he might invent to inveigle his way out of due payment (2 Henry IV, 5.5.55).  Shallow at once calls in his loans (‘let me have five hundred of my thousand’ (5.5.84-5)) and Falstaff is clapped into prison to atone for his misdeeds, financial and moral.   The fat knight’s promised reappearance in Henry V, which is flagged in the epilogue, never materializes except in the account given by the hostess of his death (Henry V, 2.3.9-25) – as if he has managed one last time to escape shot-free from his creditors, in this case the theatre audience which is responsible for his success, and which clamoured for a sight of his curtain call.  Falstaff’s reign ends with Hal’s betrayal, and the ancient moral and social hierarchies of England are both reinstated at once, their restoration ushered in with tired old moral commonplaces such as ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ (5.5.48).

Shallow and Silence, by J. Coghlan (c. 1820)

But this is not the whole story; because Hal’s crowning coincides with the figurative crowning of Falstaff, and it is on the body of Falstaff, as it were, that Hal erects his kingdom.  Falstaff is the presiding spirit of the unhistorical ‘merry’ or comic England over which Hal plans to reign; the England where lions recognize the true prince ‘by instinct’ and where Shallow’s glowing account of his youth is true.  ‘Merry England’ is created in 2 Henry IV by the sheer force of Falstaff’s laughter.  ‘The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man,’ he tells us, ‘is not able to invent anything that intends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me; I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men’ (1.2.7-10).  And he triumphantly bears out this claim in the rest of the action.  His arraignment by the Lord Chief Justice is transformed at his hands into a jest; Shallow’s falsifying of the past furnishes him with comic material to ‘keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions’ (5.1.77-81); and even the grim Prince John, despite the fact that ‘a man cannot make him laugh’ (4.3.87-8), prompts one of his most brilliant flights of fantasy, the disquisition on sack.  The fat knight’s disease-ridden body, then, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until near the end of the play it erupts in the cheeriest party in theatrical history.  The party takes place in an orchard on the eve of Hal’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song, a male servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master (5.3.10-11) – meaning both a good steward and a good marriage partner; Falstaff’s red-nosed retainer Bardolph is told he speaks like a king (5.3.68), a young page finds himself welcomed with the same enthusiasm as his old employer (‘Welcome, my little tiny thief and welcome indeed, too!’ (5.3.56-7)), and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’ (5.3.68), to discard the years of penury they have suffered and to feast instead on the fruits with which Shallow’s orchard, and England in general, is stocked.  The contrast with the orchard scene where the starving Jack Cade was killed in the midst of plenty could not be more pronounced.  And the party ends with a promise that this genial atmosphere will soon extend itself throughout the nation, as Falstaff hears the news of Henry’s death and declares that ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’ (5.3.136-7), while his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future: ‘welcome these pleasant days’ (5.3.141).

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Of course the casting-off of Falstaff puts a dampener on these celebrations.  The authority of a monarch could not tolerate a rival of Falstaff’s size and energy, and although we are assured that Hal’s former friends ‘Shall all be very well provided for’ (5.5.100), the fact that it is the odious Prince John who tells us so – and that such sensible provisions seem so much less glorious than the comic vision we glimpsed in Shallow’s orchard – detracts from the pleasure we might otherwise derive from these reassurances.  If Prince John delights in Hal’s transformation, we as an audience have good reason to distrust it.  And sure enough, there are plenty of Prince John moments in the career of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Henry’s humour is as calculated as Hal’s, and recalls at times the cruelty of Prince John’s coldly jocular betrayal of the rebels.  We have already mentioned his witty exposure of the treachery of his friends Cambridge and Scroop, whom he mocks for having ‘lightly conspired’ against his throne (Henry V, 2.2.89); but far more disturbing is the gigantic jest that is the invasion of France.  It is one of a series of dazzling diversions designed to draw attention away from the problematic aspects of Henry’s inheritance.  If his claim to the throne of England is poor, he must stress his claim to the throne of France, obedient to his father’s advice to busy the ‘giddy minds’ of his subjects with foreign quarrels (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-4).  If he is the aggressor in a war let him transfer the blame to his enemies, telling the besieged citizens of Harfleur that ‘you yourselves are cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation’ (Henry V, 3.3.19-21) (he sounds here as if he is recalling a lesson from the laughing conquest of Asia by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine).  If military action is in his interest he must make sure it is represented as God’s war, divine punishment on any English criminals who die in battle.  It is the very lightness of touch, the comic sleight of hand involved in all these post-Falstavian evasions that makes them chilling.  Hal’s lies are not gross as a mountain, as Falstaff’s were, but breezy and scarcely visible.  And their breeziness kills people, like the jovial folksiness of a modern warmonger.

Felix Aylmer, Laurence Olivier and Robert Helpmann in the opening scene of Henry V

The link between laughter and slaughter in Henry’s reign is at its strongest in Act One, when the Archbishop of Canterbury – eager to divert Henry’s attention from his plans to tax the church by sending him to France – describes England’s former French campaigns as a grotesque spectator sport, in which the Black Prince’s father ‘Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp / Forage in blood of French nobility’ (1.2.109-10), while half the English army stood ‘laughing’ next to him, ‘All out of work and cold for action’ (1.2.113-4).  Henry at once catches the Archbishop’s tone, and seizes the pretext of the Dauphin’s mocking gift of tennis balls to represent his own French campaign as a still bloodier joke than the wars waged by his ancestors:

        …tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down…
His jest shall savour but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it. (1.2.282-97)

Henry’s campaign is designed to show that the English King is wittier than the French Prince, that all debts to him will be repaid with interest, and that all insults aimed at him will produce an instant and devastating retaliation.  Henry, in fact, must be the undisputed master of ceremonies in the play that bears his name.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

But Falstaff leaves Hal with another legacy besides the ability to forge brilliant ripostes and improbable evasions.  The fat knight acted as a bridge between the Prince and the common people, whose language Hal learned in Falstaff’s company.  As Hal puts it in Part One, ‘I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life’, and ‘when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap’ (2.4.13-19); and the heir apparent even goes so far as to disguise himself as a tapster in Part Two.  This familiarity with the people and their language provides Henry with his most brilliant evasive stratagem: that of avoiding the issue of his shaky claim to the throne by rhetorically ennobling the entire population of his nation.  In Henry’s language, though not in his policies, the hopes of Falstaff and his gang to be elevated to the aristocracy are abundantly borne out.  As he storms the breach at Harfleur Henry urges all his men, not just the aristocracy, to remember their ancestry with pride: ‘On, on, you noblest English’, he cries, and describes their fathers as ‘so many Alexanders’ (3.1.17-19).  Later the Welsh captain Fluellen attests to the success of this stratagem when he compares Henry to Alexander partly on the strength of the resemblance between Monmouth in Wales and Alexander’s Macedonia (4.7.11-52).  Henry has clearly succeeded in giving his subjects – even his non-English subjects – a sense of ownership, of full participation in his triumphs.  ‘There is none of you so mean and base,’ he tells them, ‘That hath not noble lustre in your eyes’ (3.1.29-30), and in saying so he draws their attention away from the less than royal lustre of his own coat of arms.  The Prince John aspect of Henry’s humour prompts him to trick one of his common soldiers, Michael Williams, into being falsely accused of high treason (4.8.9ff.) – though he pardons his victim at the last minute and compensates him for his terror.  The Sir John aspect of his personality, by contrast, permits him to demystify the role of King (‘his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man’ (4.1.104-5)), and to address his followers as ‘brothers, friends, and countrymen’ (4.0.34).[1]  When he imparts to both his ‘mean and gentle’ soldiers ‘A little touch of Harry in the night’ (4.0.45-7), he transforms them into aspects or clones of himself, thus strengthening his power to the extent that it can never be undermined.  The skill with which he achieves this he owes to the ‘tutor and… feeder of his riots’, Falstaff (2 Henry IV, 5.5.62).

Henry is no egalitarian.  All his rhetoric is designed to strengthen his position as undisputed monarch of England and France, not to establish a new English commonwealth based on fairer principles than the old.  But his reign involves due recognition of the central role played by the common people in the changing fortunes of England; and from this time forth their status as major players in history is confirmed.  Henry dies young, and his predictions of the future, like Falstaff’s, prove over-optimistic from his own point of view.  He never fathers a son who is capable of leading a crusade to Constantinople or of forging a lasting peace between the French and English peoples – or even between rival factions in the English aristocracy.  But the common people he figuratively ennobled, and whose power he understood, live on, and comprise the audience of Shakespeare’s Henry V, a play that reminds them repeatedly of their capacity to make a difference in affairs of state.  It is the common people, the play seems to say, who make or break monarchs, just as the collective power of the people’s imagination can recreate a Henry on the Elizabethan stage.  Without the precedent of Falstaff’s outrageous imaginings this Shakespearean revelation could never have acquired the force it has.

Falstaff in the laundry basket, by Eduard von Grützner

And Falstaff’s imaginative construction of ‘merry England’ has another outlet besides the career of Henry V.  The merry-making in Shallow’s orchard is recalled in the title of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only Shakespearean comedy set in England; and the play provides a kind of escape from the nightmare of history.  There is just one mention in it of the grand narrative of the Second Tetralogy, when we are told that the impoverished aristocrat Fenton was once a companion of ‘the wild Prince and Poins’ (3.2.65-6); but this merely disqualifies him, in the minds of the middle-class married couples who dominate the play, as a suitable match for their daughter (3.4.4-10).  In the same way, the middle classes are carefully excluded from the Tetralogy, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters, betrayals and machinations that are the province of their nominal rulers.  The events of chronicle histories are irrelevant to these people’s lives; and this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it is purveyed in the jest-books, whose pranks and japes are faithfully reproduced in the farcical situations with which it is filled.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space where nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or preserve each other’s marriages.[2]  It is a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’ (4.2.100), in contrast to the dishonest merriment of aristocrats and hereditary knights like Sir John.  And it is a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us.  The host’s deception of the doctor, Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from doing each other damage in a duel; the wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him hurting their husbands by committing adultery; Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony.  As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘admirable pleasures and ferry honest knaveries’ (4.4.79-80), and Master Page piously confirms his view: ‘God prosper our sport.  No man means evil but the devil, and we shall know him by his horns’ (5.2.12-13).  The authoritarian anti-theatrical lobby, then, is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge; and so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe this as Shakespeare’s only pure comedy, the only play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.29

Falstaff as Herne the Hunter, by Robert Smirke

The egalitarianism of the play asserts itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played on them.  Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a deep ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies.  But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he so often seemed to be in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by the bulk of the Windsor community.  Master Ford, Mr and Mrs Page, Slender, Shallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’ (5.5.232).  So if Falstaff is toppled from his position of supreme comic pre-eminence in this play, as many commentators have remarked, his former absolutist monarchy is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England.  In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the Henriad, the fat knight is given a crown composed of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’ (5.5.12-13).  And while the stag is the most lordly of wild beasts, it is also the principal ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of the amity between them (1.1.181).  In the play’s last scene, then, Falstaff has become a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle.  He has been defused, in other words, but not deflated, and the genial metamorphosis is completed at the end of the scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh this sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’ (5.5.234-7).  In The Merry Wives of Windsor merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat.  It is not the land where the Elizabethans lived, but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

Falstaff, by Mihály Zichy

NOTES

[1] He again makes his followers his brothers – thus ennobling them – in the famous St Crispin’s Day speech (Henry V, 4.3.56-67).

[2] Leah S. Marcus argues that the version of the play printed in the First Quarto of 1602 is more egalitarian in its drift than the version in the Folio: ‘Levelling Shakespeare: Local Customs and Local Texts’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), pp. 168-78.  For the relationship between the two texts see The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1231-3.

[3] Apart, of course, from the ruler who may have been watching the play’s first performance.  For the theory that the play was written at the command of Elizabeth I for performance in her presence at the Garter Feast of 1597, see Peter Erickson, ‘The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York, 1987), pp. 116-45.  It should be noted, though, that the one direct reference to Elizabeth in the play – as a future owner of Windsor Castle who is blessed by Mistress Quickly in her capacity as Fairy Queen – stresses her absence from the play’s world; the castle is blessed while it is seemingly empty (5.5.55-74).

 

 

 

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