IN TWO PARTS.
IF Shakespear's fondness for the ludicrous sometimes
led to faults in his tragedies (which was
not often the case) he has made us amends by
the character of Falstaff. This is perhaps the
most substantial comic character that ever was
invented! Sir John carries a most portly presence
in the mind's eye; and in him, not to
speak it profanely, "we behold the fulness of
the spirit of wit and humour bodily." We are
as well acquainted with his person as his mind,
and his jokes come upon us with double force
and relish from the quantity of flesh through
which they make their way, as he shakes his
fat sides with laughter, or "lards the lean earth
as he walks along." Other comic characters
seem, if we approach and handle them, to resolve
themselves into air, "into thin air;" but
this is embodied and palpable to the grossest
apprehension: it lies "three fingers deep upon
the ribs," it plays about the lungs and the
diaphragm with all the force of animal enjoyment.
His body is like a good estate to his
mind, from which he receives rents and revenues
of profit and pleasure in kind, according to its
extent, and the richness of the soil. Wit is
often a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation;
an effusion of spleen and petty spite
at the comforts of others, from feeling none in
itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine
constitution; an exuberance of good-humour
and good-nature; an overflowing of his love
of laughter, and good-fellowship; a giving vent
to his heart's ease and over-contentment with
himself and others. He would not be in character,
if he were not so fat as he is; for there is
the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury
of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence
of his physical appetites. He manures
and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does
his body with sack and sugar. He carves out
his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of
venison, where there is cut and come again;
and pours out upon them the oil of gladness.
His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers
of his brain "it snows of meat and drink." He
keeps up perpetual holiday and open house,
and we live with him in a round of invitations
to a rump and dozen.--Yet we are not to suppose
that he was a mere sensualist. All this
is as much in imagination as in reality. His
sensuality does not engross and stupify his other
faculties, but "ascends me into the brain, clears
away all the dull, crude vapours that environ
it, and makes it full of nimble, fiery, and delectable
shapes." His imagination keeps up the
ball after his senses have done with it. He
seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the
freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his
ease, of his vanity, in the ideal exaggerated descriptions
which he gives of them, than in fact.
He never fails to enrich his discourse with allusions
to eating and drinking, but we never see
him at table. He carries his own larder about
with him, and he is himself "a ton of man."
His pulling out the bottle in the field of battle
is a joke to shew his contempt for glory accompanied
with danger, his systematic adherence
to his Epicurean philosophy in the most trying
circumstances. Again, such is his deliberate
exaggeration of his own vices, that it does not
seem quite certain whether the account of his
hostess's bill, found in his pocket, with such an
out-of-the-way charge for capons and sack with
only one halfpenny-worth of bread, was not put
there by himself as a trick to humour the jest
upon his favourite propensities, and as a conscious
caricature of himself. He is represented
as a liar, a braggart, a coward, a glutton, &c.
and yet we are not offended but delighted with
him; for he is all these as much to amuse others
as to gratify himself. He openly assumes all
these characters to shew the humourous part of
them. The unrestrained indulgence of his own
ease, appetites, and convenience, has neither malice
nor hypocrisy in it. In a word, he is an actor
in himself almost as much as upon the stage, and
we no more object to the character of Falstaff in
a moral point of view than we should think of
bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent
him to the life, before one of the police
offices. We only consider the number of pleasant
lights in which he puts certain foibles (the
more pleasant as they are opposed to the received
rules and necessary restraints of society)
and do not trouble ourselves about the consequences
resulting from them, for no mischievous
consequences do result; Sir John is old
as well as fat, which gives a melancholy retrospective
tinge to the character; and by the disparity
between his inclinations and his capacity
for enjoyment, makes it still more ludicrous and
The secret of Falstaff's wit is for the most
part a masterly presence of mind, an absolute
self-possession, which nothing can disturb. His
repartees arise involuntary suggestions of his self-love;
instinctive evasions of every thing that
threatens to interrupt the career of his triumphant
jollity and self-complacency. His very
size floats him out of all his difficulties in a sea
of rich conceits; and he turns round on the pivot
of his convenience, with every occasion and at
a moment's warning. His natural repugnance
to every unpleasant thought or circumstance of
itself makes light of objections, and provokes
the most extravagant and licentious answers in
his own justification. His indifference to truth
puts no check upon his invention, and the more
improbable and unexpected his contrivances are,
the more happily does he seem to be delivered
of them, the anticipation of their effect acting
as a stimulus to the gaiety of his fancy. The
success of one adventurous sally gives him spirits
to undertake another: he deals always in round
numbers, and his exaggerations and excuses are
"open, palpable, monstrous as the father that
begets them." His dissolute carelessness of
what he says discovers itself in the first dialogue
with the Prince.
"Falstaff. By the lord, thou say'st true, lad; and is not
mine hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?|
P. Henry. As the honey of Hibla, my old lad of the
castle; and is not a buff-jerkin a most sweet robe of durance?
Falstaff. How now, how now, mad wag, what in thy
quips and thy quiddities? what a plague have I to do with a buff-jerkin?
P. Henry. Why, what a pox have I to do with mine
hostess of the tavern?"
In the same scene he afterwards affects melancholy,
from pure satisfaction of heart, and
professes reform, because it is the farthest thing
in the world from his thoughts. He has no
qualms of conscience, and therefore would as
soon talk of them as of any thing else when the
humour takes him.
"Falstaff. But Hal, I pr'ythee trouble me no more with
vanity. I would to God thou and I knew where a commodity
of good names were to be bought: an old lord of council
rated me the other day in the street about you, sir; but
I marked him not, and yet he talked very wisely, and in
the street too.|
P. Henry. Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the
street, and no man regards it.
Falstaff. O, thou hast damnable iteration, and art indeed
able to corrupt a saint. Thou hast done much harm unto
me, Hal; God forgive thee for it. Before I knew thee,
Hal, I knew nothing, and now I am, if a man should speak
truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give
over this life, and I will give it over, by the lord; an I do
not, I am a villain. I'll be damn'd for never a king's son
P. Henry. Where shall we take a purse to-morrow, Jack?
Falstaff. Where thou wilt, lad, I'll make one; an I do
not, call me villain, and baffle me.
P. Henry. I see good amendment of life in thee, from
praying to purse-taking.
Falstaff. Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal. 'Tis no sin
for a man to labour in his vocation."
Of the other prominent passages, his account
of his pretended resistance to the robbers, "who
grew from four men in buckram into eleven" as
the imagination of his own velour increased with
his relating it, his getting off when the truth is
discovered by pretending he knew the Prince,
the scene in which in the person of the old king
he lectures the prince and gives himself a good
character, the soliloquy on honour, and description
of his new-raised recruits, his meeting with
the chief justice, his abuse of the Prince and
Poins, who overhear him, to Doll Tearsheet,
his reconciliation with Mrs. Quickly who has
arrested him for an old debt, and whom he persuades
to pawn her plate to lend him ten pounds
more, and the scenes with Shallow and Silence,
are all inimitable. Of all of them, the scene in
which Falstaff plays the part, first, of the King,
and then of Prince Henry, is the one that has
been the most often quoted. We must quote
it once more in illustration of our remarks.
Falstaff. Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest
thy time, but also how thou art accompanied: for though
the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows,
yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears. That
thou art my son, I have partly thy mother's word, partly
my own opinion; but chiefly, a villainous trick of thine eye,
and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip, that doth warrant
me. If then thou be son to me, here lies the point;----Why,
being son to me, art thou so pointed at? Shall the
blessed sun of heaven prove a micher, and eat blackberries?
A question not to be asked. Shall the son of England prove
a thief, and take purses? a question not to be ask'd. There
is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is
known to many in our land by the name of pitch: this pitch,
as ancient writers do report, doth defile; so doth the company
thou keepest: for, Harry, now I do not speak to thee
in drink, but in tears; not in pleasure, but in passion; not
in words only, but in woes also:--and yet there is a virtuous
man, whom I have often noted in thy company, but I
know not his name.|
P. Henry. What manner of man, an it like your majesty?
Falstaff. A goodly portly man, i' faith, and a corpulent;
of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage;
and, as I think, his age some fifty, or, by'r-lady, inclining
to threescore; and now I do remember me, his
name is Falstaff: if that man should be lewdly given, he
deceiveth me; for, Harry, I see virtue in his looks. If
then the fruit may be known by the tree, as the tree by the
fruit, then peremptorily I speak it, there is virtue in that
Falstaff: him keep with, the rest banish. And tell me
now, thou naughty varlet, tell me, where hast thou been
P. Henry. Dost thou speak like a king? Do thou stand
for me, and I'll play my father.
Falstaff. Depose me? if thou dost it half so gravely, so
majestically, both in word and matter, hang me up by the
heels for a rabbit-sucker, or a poulterer's hare.
P. Henry. Well, here I am set.
Falstaff. And here I stand:--judge, my masters.
P. Henry. Now, Harry, whence come you?
Falstaff. My noble lord, from Eastcheap.
P. Henry. The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.
Falstaff. S'blood, my lord, they are false:--nay, I'll tickle
ye for a young prince, i'faith.
P. Henry. Swearest thou, ungracious boy? henceforth
ne'er look on me. Thou art violently carried away from
grace: there is a devil haunts thee, in the likeness of a fat
old man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why dost thou
converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch
of beastliness, that sworn parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard
of sack, that stuff cloak-bag of guts, that roasted
Manning-tree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend
vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity
in years? wherein is he good, but to taste sack and drink
it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a capon and eat
it? wherein cunning, but in craft? wherein crafty, but in
villainy? wherein villainous, but in all things? wherein
worthy but in nothing?
Falstaff. I would, your grace would take me with you;
whom means your grace?
P. Henry. That villainous, abominable mis-leader of youth;
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
Falstaff. My lord, the man I know.
P. Henry. I know thou dost.
Falstaff. But to say, I know more harm in him than in
myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old (the
more the pity) his white hairs do witness it: but that he is
(saving your reverence) a whore-master, that I utterly deny.
If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to
be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I
know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharoah's
lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish
Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack
Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being as he is, old
Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company; banish
plump Jack, and banish all the world.
P. Henry. I do, I will.
[Knocking; and Hostess and Bardolph go out.
Re-enter BARDOLPH, running.
Bardolph. O, my lord, my lord; the sheriff:, with a most
monstrous watch, is at the door.|
Falstaff. Out, you rogue! play out the play: I have much
to say in the behalf of that Falstaff."
One of the most characteristic descriptions of
Sir John is that which Mrs. Quickly gives of him
when he asks her "What is the gross sum that
I owe thee?"
"Hostess. Marry, if thou wert an honest man, thyself,
and the money too. Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt
goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round
table, by a sea-coal fire on Wednesday in Whitsun-week,
when the prince broke thy head for likening his father to a
singing man of Windsor; thou didst swear to me then, as
I was washing thy wound, to marry me, and make me my
lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife
Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then, and call me gossip
Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar; telling
us, she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst desire
to eat some;j whereby I told thee, they were ill for a
green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone
down stairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with
such poor people; saying, that ere long they should call
me madam? And didst thou not kiss me, and bid me
fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath;
deny it, if thou canst."
This scene is to us the most convincing proof
of Falstaff's power of gaining over the good will
of those he was familiar with, except indeed
Bardolph's somewhat profane exclamation on
hearing the account of his death, "Would I were
with him, wheresoe'er he is, whether in heaven or hell."
One of the topics of exulting superiority
over others most common in Sir John's mouth
is his corpulence and the exterior marks of good
living which he carries about him, thus "turning
his vices into commodity." He accounts for
the friendship between the Prince and Poins,
from "their legs being both of a bigness;" and
compares Justice Shallow to "a man made after
supper of a cheese-paring." There cannot be
a more striking gradation of character than that
between Falstaff and Shallow, and Shallow and
Silence. It seems difficult at first to fall lower
than the squire; but this fool, great as he is,
finds an admirer and humble foil in his cousin
Silence. Vain of his acquaintance with Sir
John, who makes a butt of him, he exclaims,
"Would, cousin Silence, that thou had'st seen
that which this knight and I have seen!"--"Aye,
Master Shallow, we have heard the
chimes at midnight," says Sir John. To Falstaff's
observation "I did not think Master Silence
had been a man of this mettle," Silence
answers, "Who, I? I have been merry twice
and once ere now." What an idea is here conveyed
of a prodigality of living? What good
husbandry and economical self-denial in his
pleasures? What a stock of lively recollections?
It is curious that Shakespear has ridiculed
in Justice Shallow, who was "in some
authority under the king," that disposition to
unmeaning tautology which is the regal infirmity
of later times, and which, it may be supposed,
he acquired from talking to his cousin
Silence, and receiving no answers.
"Falstaff. You have here a goodly dwelling, and a rich.|
Shallow. Barren, barren, barren; beggars all, beggars
all, sir John marry, good air. Spread Davy, spread Davy.
Well said, Davy.
Falstaff. This Davy serves you for good uses.
Shallow. A good varlet, a good varlet, a very good varlet.
By the mass, I have drank too much sack at supper. A good
varlet. Now sit down, now sit down. come, cousin."
The true spirit of humanity, the thorough
knowledge of the stuff we are made of, the practical
wisdom with the seeming fooleries in the
whole of the garden-scene at Shallow's country
seat, and just before in the exquisite dialogue
between him and Silence on the death of old
Double, have no parallel any where else. In
one point of view, they are laughable in the extreme;
in another they are equally affecting, if
it is affecting to shew what a little thing is human
life, what a poor forked creature man is!
The heroic and serious part of these two plays
founded on the story of Henry IV. is not inferior
to the comic and farcical. The characters
of Hotspur and Prince Henry are two of the
most beautiful and dramatic, both in themselves
and from contrast, that ever were drawn.
They are the essence of chivalry. We like
Hotspur the best upon the whole, perhaps
because he was unfortunate.--The characters
of their fathers, Henry IV. and old Northumberland,
are kept up equally well. Henry naturally
succeeds by his prudence and caution
in keeping what he has got; Northumberland
fails in his enterprise from an excess of the same
quality, and is caught in the web of his own
cold, dilatory policy. Owen Glendower is a
masterly character. It is as bold and original
as it is ineligible and thoroughly natural. The
disputes between him and Hotspur are managed
with infinite address and insight into nature.
We cannot help pointing out here some very
beautiful lines, where Hotspur describes the
fight between Glendower and Mortimer.
--"When on the gentle Severn's sedgy bank,|
In single opposition hand to hand,
He did confound the best part of an hour
In changing hardiment with great Glendower:
Three times they breath'd, and three times did they drink,
Upon agreement, of swift Severn's flood;
Who then affrighted with their bloody looks,
Ran fearfully among the trembling reeds,
And hid his crisp head in the hollow bank,
Blood-stained with these valiant combatants."
The peculiarity and the excellence of Shakespear's
poetry is, that it seems as if he made his
imagination the hand-maid of nature, and nature
the play-thing of his imagination. He appears
to have been all the characters, and in all the
situations he describes. It is as if either he had
had all their feelings, or had lent them all his
genius to express themselves. There cannot
be stronger instances of this than Hotspur's rage
when Henry IV. forbids him to speak of Mortimer,
his insensibility to all that his father and
uncle urge to calm him, and his fine abstracted
apostrophe to honour, "By heaven methinks
it were an easy leap to pluck bright honour from
the moon," &c. After all, notwithstanding the
gallantry, generosity, good temper, and idle
freaks of the mad-cap Prince of Wales, we
should not have been sorry, if Northumberland's
force had come up in time to decide the
fate of the battle at Shrewsbury, at least, we
always heartily sympathise with Lady Percy's
grief, when she exclaims,
"Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,|
To-day might I (hanging on Hotspur's neck)
Have talked of Monmouth's grave."
The truth is, that we never could forgive the
Prince's treatment of Falstaff; though perhaps
Shakespear knew what was best, according to
the history, the nature of the times, and of the
man. We speak only as dramatic critics. What
ever 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. We think of him and quote him oftener.