The Fatness of Falstaff

Barbara Everett

One day early in the 1590s a clown came onto a London stage, holding a piece of string. At the end of the piece of string was a dog. The dog, possibly the first on the Elizabethan stage, I want to leave where it is for a moment. My main subject isn’t Launce and his dog (for this is, of course, the first entry of the clown in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), but the much more complicated character who, charged by the Lord Chief Justice with having led astray the Prince of Wales, answers: ‘The young Prince hath misled me. I am the Fellow with the great belly, and he my Dogge.’ No one now quite follows this joke, which may be an airy reference (to distract attention) to the Man in the Moon. What is more interesting than Falstaff’s ancient joke is his capacity to make us listen to him while he tells it. We concentrate.

Falstaff can get away with this debate as to who precisely, as between him and the future King of England, is whose dog, because the Henry IV plays give him peculiar authority. This is an authority that works not only inside the plays but outside them as well. One of the few early stories, rare but trustworthy, that come straight from Shakespeare’s own theatre-world reports that when Falstaff walked out on to the stage the groundlings stopped cracking their nuts so that they could hear him better. From the time of this anecdote up to the beginning of our own critical period, some sixty or seventy years ago now, Falstaff was widely agreed to be the dramatist’s greatest character.

We now tend not to believe in Character in general, or in Falstaff in particular. The time-span of this disbelief can probably be synchronised with the full professionalising of literary studies into the academic: the process by which the thing worth knowing was standardised into the thing capable of proof. The Shakespeare industry has brought into a kind of perfection something begun perhaps as early as the First Folio’s categories, which made the Falstaff plays Histories and Launce’s play a Comedy.

Those decades during which Shakespeare studies have matured in our own time have been governed by a concept of history primarily political and constitutional. The King is dead; long live the King. As a result, certain inflexible presuppositions are lodged in even the best of the earlier academic work on Shakespeare’s Histories: and I am thinking here of basic studies of the 1940s and 50s, like Dover Wilson’s The Fortunes of Falstaff, or useful popular books like Tillyard’s on Shakespeare’s History Plays.

These early studies, with their monarchical interests, tended to be strongly conservative in their attitudes. They worked to defend the rejection of Falstaff. In the course of time, they generated in opposition a series of essays implicitly radical in their attitudes. Looking back to Bradley’s very fine, essentially liberal, praise of Falstaff, Auden’s and Empson’s essays, for instance, like Orson Welles’s film, Chimes at Midnight, make a brilliant case, in different ways, for the old knight’s generous, even loving, even saintly cast of character. Yet these remarkable studies, like more recent writing with a radical stance (Greenblatt’s powerful essay, ‘Paper Bullets’, would be a case in point), do little to dislodge the intellectual bases of more conventional criticism: they merely reverse them. Stress on the whole Tudor Myth, concern with the source materials Shakespeare took from contemporary historians, whether primarily ‘for’ the Prince or ‘for’ Falstaff, prejudges the actual form and substance of these plays.

Scholarly criticism of the Henry IV plays is haunted by an interesting problem of structure. There is marked difference of opinion as to whether they constitute one or two dramas, whether the second is separate, a continuation or a sequel – whether envisaged from the beginning or enforced by the success of what became Part One. These questions appear to depend on a decision to define plot in political terms. Both parts of Henry IV are commonly described as working in terms of what is called its main plot – which is to say, the story about how Henry IV overcomes rebellion in his kingdom. The sub-plot describes how Henry’s son Hal, on his way to becoming the great and good Henry V, at once helps his father and defeats riotous impulses in his own character and in his companions, the chief of them Falstaff. The trouble with this main plot is that it leaves much of the actual and fascinating substance of both plays to be known as the subplot, which merely entertains by its account of the adventures of the Prince’s riotous group. Even those most firmly appreciative of the Henry IV plays often display not only the anxiety about structure I have mentioned, but a tendency to praise in terms which have a telltale imprecision, a sheer inaccuracy: words like ‘epic’ and ‘panoramic’ recur disturbingly. Both are attempts, I suspect, to categorise what is always thought of as the realism of these plays – a realism made synonymous with randomness and used to explain how the greatest character in Shakespeare, or one so considered for centuries, comes to be lurking in a sub-plot.

Other odd circumstances attend Falstaff’s connection with the political. It is now generally accepted that the character was invented under the name of Oldcastle, but that Shakespeare’s acting company was forced to alter the name after protest from powerful descendants of the original or historical Oldcastle. Yet political incaution of this kind hardly characterised Shakespeare in general: he was a writer with a prudent tendency to keep his hands clean. Moreover, and odder still, Shakespeare took his name, Oldcastle, from a major source for the comic side of his play, the rambling and formless but not lifeless chronicle drama called The Famous Victories of Henry V, where the knight Oldcastle is one of the small group of companions of the wild young Prince.

Shakespeare created Falstaff; and the role had no real sources except a name. The name I shall return to. The character’s chief attributes are startling in their apparent incompatibility. He has an extreme, wittily fantastic and talkatively humorous intelligence. And this free mind is – paradoxically, according to the stock physiology of the age – united to an enormous body. That Hal’s Vice-like and riotous tempter, the ever-thirsty if in practice rarely gluttonous Falstaff, should be a ‘whoreson round man’ of course makes sense. But I want to record an impression that, just as the character becomes preposterous as the offspring of a sub-plot, so is his fatness something more than an incidental attribute. Falstaff is fat necessarily. Certainly we may say that the groundlings fell silent because of his superlative freewheeling play of wit, enthrallingly dangerous in a political milieu. But perhaps they also fell silent when he first walked onto the stage: entranced to find the simple individual body (and so much of it!) given a star part in the drama of History.

Here I want to turn back to Launce’s dog, still there on the stage of the early 1590s. There aren’t, so far as I know, many other acting dogs in the considerable amount of Renaissance drama in English that has come down to us. There is one – and it doesn’t seem likely that Ben Jonson was uninfluenced by Shakespeare when, in Every Man out of his Humour, only a few years after the earlier comedy, he gave a dog to his foolish country knight. Jonson’s knight doesn’t just have a dog – he totes around a cat as well, though we never see her because she isn’t let out of her bag. And the dog, too, might have been better-off in a bag, because before very long he is poisoned. So much, Jonson may have felt, for Shakespeare.

Despite the cat at home – ‘wringing her hands’, Launce the fool tells us, for grief of the parting – there is no invisible cat on stage to challenge the solitary splendour of Shakespeare’s dog. Moreover, he survives. In fact, he triumphs. Launce does everything for the creature he calls his ‘servant’. ‘I have,’ he says crossly, ‘sat in the stockes, for puddings he hath stolne’; he has ‘stood on the Pillorie for Geese he hath kil’d’. And lastly, the dog has a name. He’s called Crab, presumably short for crab-apple, for his Petrarchan-mistress-like hardness and bitterness of heart: he is, reports Launce regretfully but still dotingly, ‘the sowrest-natured dogge that lives ... this cruell-hearted Curre’.

The Two Gentlemen illustrates through its pair of gentlemen and their ladies the crazy if beautiful things romantic love can make human beings do; and its plot is merely a dazzle of love’s permutations and possibilities. The perplexed and innocent feeling of the clown for his dog is the matching shadow of that dazzle. Both more and less than ‘gentlemanly’, his experience limited to an acquaintance ‘with the smell before’, and yet given (as in the remark about the stolen puddings) thought-provokingly Scriptural verbal cadences, the fool is without argument a fool, and hardly a holy one. Yet he is happy, and we are glad he is happy, a man who gets what he wanted: a dog.

This early comedy, full of weaknesses as it is, is nonetheless decidedly agreeable on the stage: and its intrinsic affectionateness focuses on Launce and his dog. All the play’s Elizabethan paradoxes of love shimmer round the clown and finally embody themselves in the entirely original figure of the dog. We have to say ‘figure’ rather than ‘character’. In the first place, Crab can’t talk. Talked-at, his silence promises the huge capacity to contain meaning which is common to all true theatrical presences. He is, beyond analysis: to be is as much the dog’s function as it is Hamlet’s. He is character as an end more than a means, the thing in itself: a dog (Gertrude Stein might have said) is a dog is a dog. Or, as Shakespeare himself put it with some desperation in a sonnet: ‘You alone are you.’ Opaque, incurable and absolute, the beloved is.

Dogs can’t talk; and they can’t act, either. Qua dogs, they aren’t gentlemen, aren’t civilised, don’t tell lies and don’t betray. It’s this pleasant lack of the complicit that makes animals amusing in their domestic relations. To quote another and finer Modernist, about another and subtler animal,

He will do as he do do,

And there’s no doing anything about it.

The basic joke about the Petrarchan ‘cruell-hearted Curre’ depends on a shared understanding of writer and reader, or actor and audience. The first on-stage dog, like all his successors, must have been the kind of reliable creature that can be counted on to do little worse than sit on the boards and smile and pant and thump his tail. If the dog’s silence says something about his own nature, then his simple recalcitrance – his inability to be either good or bad to order – says something about ours, as loving beings and as audiences. Our loves are not meaningless, but we imagine things.

The clown seems almost to perceive this when he acts out his departure from home, casting himself and the dog: ‘I am the dogge: no, the dogge is himselfe, and I am the dogge: oh, the dogge is me, and I am myselfe.’ He can try in this way to rationalise and mutualise their relation, despite his protest that, unlike the compassionate cat, the dog did not ‘shedde one teare: he is a stone, a very pibble stone, and has no more pitty in him then a dog.’ The circularity is instructive. The clown is thinking through things more than philosophically difficult. The animal gains our and the fool’s feeling by natural sympathy, and holds it by equally natural (natural to him) resistance to sympathy: ‘No, the dogge is himselfe.’ Like the future Cleopatra’s superbly theatrical hold on the heart, Crab’s opacity is of the essence. He is real enough to attract startled attention, but obdurately bodily or thingy enough never to bore the imagination by satisfying it.

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This essay was based on Barbara Everett’s British Academy Shakespeare lecture for 1990. A full text of the lecture was published in the Proceedings of the British Academy.