Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falstaff and the Art of Living

 

I like to get up when I want, when I feel like it. As a child, I’d set my clock late, to the last possible minute. I regarded school as a severe limitation on my freedom, even, at times, a prison. At ten, I remember looking out the window of my fifth-grade classroom; in the distance, I saw the high school building. An oppressive gravity pulled my spirit down. “When I finish here, I’m going to have to put in four years over there.” As an adult, I have done all I can to avoid work that would force me to get up according to someone else’s idea of time.
 

This is why I love Falstaff, why I loved him from his first words exchanged with Prince Henry (also known as Hal or Harry) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV histories. These plays, set in early 15th-century England, chronicle the civil war King Henry IV plunged the country into after his murder of Richard II. The prince becomes Henry V when his father dies at the end of the second play. For me, the most important aspect of the Henriad is not the royalty or their wars, but the chance to meet Falstaff! Regardless of the outer circumstances he faces—poverty, the threat of arrest, war—Falstaff maintains an inner equanimity. Like any great sage, he feels free to enjoy the blessing of life. In his very first line of dialogue, he asks the prince, “Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” And the prince, who knows him well, replies: “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of day?” For Falstaff is the master of his own time, that is to say, of his own life. Actually, his freedom lies in the fact that he has no idea what time it is. When what you devote your life to is roasted capons, Spanish wine, and bawdy women, but most of all, to the power of your own wit—what has the time of day to do with you?
 

His joyful spirit seems to me to be just the antidote to these barren times of overwork in jobs that afford little meaning, and to an increasing oppression by the machine of state. Falstaff possesses an overflowing exuberance about his own existence. He thieves by night, sponges off the prince, well, really off anybody he can, especially Mistress Quickly, proprietress of his favorite tavern in Eastcheap. Glutton, drunk, debauch, what are the Seven Deadly Sins to this Lord of Play? Falstaff constructs his own morality, believes in his right to live as he wants. When informed by Prince Hal that he must command a brigade of soldiers in the ongoing civil war, the fat knight responds with a practical intelligence: “Hostess, my breakfast; come!”
 

Those he uses come back for more, drawn by the magnetism of his life force. Let us dispense with any dreary analysis of the merry crowd at the Boar’s Head Tavern as codependent enablers, affixed to a sociopath. Falstaff can’t be explained by technical jargon—his energy bursts beyond the bounds of categories. If Mistress Quickly in a rare fit of pique tries to have him arrested because for decades, “He hath eaten me out of house and home,” she soon realizes she has never known “an honester and truer-hearted man.”
 

He is true, true to himself, true to his deepest value—the playful expression of his wit. One of his grandest stories is the tale of how last midnight on a highway near Gadshill, he held up some pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Then, in turn, he was attacked by a mob of thieves and had to fight “with fifty of them.” Prince Hal, however, catches his friend in faults of logic. Everyone knows the story is a big fat lie, especially the prince as he was one of the two masked men who robbed Falstaff as a prank. But that’s not the point! It’s not about literal truth but soaring metaphor made into myth. As an artist, Falstaff takes all the time he needs to entertain the crowd around the tavern’s fire. But when the prince tries to pierce his story with the prick of reason, with demands for consistency, Falstaff refuses to be commanded to explain himself: “What, upon compulsion?” Even, he says, if he were being tortured on “all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion.” Oh, to be as strong and self-composed as Falstaff in the face of a hectoring bully. Not even the prince, heir to the throne, can force him to act against himself.


For Falstaff likes himself and, unlike the prince, is capable of love. He takes relish in the experience of being alive. Perhaps this magnanimous nature is why I can forgive Falstaff everything and Henry nothing. From the prince’s first soliloquy, we can see that he has already gone over to the dark side, secretly allied himself to the royal forces of power and greed. He lies to his friends with menace and icy calculation to ensure his ascent to the throne. Falstaff creates for the joy of it. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on Hal when one considers his family. What could one expect from him with that butcher of a father, Henry IV, who usurped the throne and set all of England aflame in civil war? And that monster of a brother, Prince John, who swore by the honor of his blood to give amnesty to the rebel nobles, then without hesitating, executed them all. Such is the inheritance of Prince Henry.


Often the play is viewed by critics as the story of a young man growing up—casting off the sins of his youth to take up his manly responsibilities. I reject this analysis; the prince never changes! From the first, he only pretends to be “base” so that when he reveals his true kingly essence, it will appear all the more glorious. The prince does not transform from a state of dissolution to one of maturity. Mature to do what—become the biggest warmonger on the continent? Let us not forget, his first act as king, as Henry V, is to invade France and renew the Hundred Years War. This fatal aggression confirms that he has cunningly followed his father’s deathbed advice:

 

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels…

 

An old but still effective political trick—distract the populace from civil unrest by unifying them with the threat of a foreign enemy. It seems so clear to me that the moral of the plays is not about how young Hal learns to become a wise king by shedding off those disreputable characters of Eastcheap, but how he betrays the vital qualities of life embodied by Falstaff. Hardly a model of leadership, he becomes a killer, a warrior-king bent on expanding his territory through military power.


If, in the meantime, he loses his resolve and lingers in the pleasures of Falstaff’s company, who can blame him? He knows the terrible burden of his dying father’s ambition and is drawn to Falstaff’s vitality, his freedom to be himself. To be fair, young Hal has some wit himself, or he couldn’t find Falstaff so attractive. And Falstaff couldn’t take such delight in their conversations, couldn’t comment on the prince’s “unsavory similes,” or be inspired to “keep Prince Harry in continual laughter” with tales of his misadventures. But who really is there in that world to understand Falstaff? The old man mistakenly thinks it is the prince.


He loves Harry as a son. It is the one way that Falstaff is not free—he has a heart. He calls out frequently for love from Hal: “[A]nd thou lovest me,” “if thou lovest me,” “thy love is worth a million.” Never do such words escape the prince’s lips. Strange to say, perhaps, that the chaotic Falstaff has something to teach the prince about how to live, but he does. There is much fun and sport available to the lads at the Boar’s Head Tavern with their companionable drinking, wild stories, playacting. One evening, Falstaff takes on the role of Prince Henry and, as him, pleads his case for the rightness of their relationship. Falstaff strongly defends his qualities: is it a sin to be “old and merry”? The king may have cause to banish others from his son’s company, but he must never, never do so to “sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff.” To banish the protean Falstaff would be as immense as to “banish all the world.”


Even so, the prince, in his role as the king, replies with coldness, “I do, I will.” The old knight can only hope this rejection is still part of the pretense of their play. But Hal’s unforgivable malice cannot be disguised when he sends Falstaff to war on foot. The prince amuses himself with the image of the fat Sir Jack fatally collapsing from the exertion of marching a few hundred yards. But the irrepressible Falstaff has his own way of preparing for war. Whereas the king calls for “never-dying honour” and whereas young Henry vows to wash away his past shame with the blood of the rebel Hotspur (some call this taking on mature responsibility) and whereas Hotspur, eager to kill the prince, cries out before the battle: “Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily,” Falstaff has one concern and one concern only, which is to “fill me a bottle of sack.” And, of course, he doesn’t pay for it.
 

Nothing reveals the greatness of Falstaff’s character more than his thoughts and actions during the climatic Battle of Shrewsbury. While rebel and royal forces clash in deadly combat, Falstaff remains a whole human being. He can, with tenderness, tell the prince, “I would ’twere bed-time, Hal, and all well.” How these few words do puncture all that inflated worship of hot revenge, heroics, glory, honor. He knows that this war is being fought for the betterment of nothing, for a meaningless exchange of political power, a useless waste of life. When he falls down on the bloody field and pretends to be dead in order to escape certain slaughter at the hands of the defiant Earl of Douglas, Falstaff serves life. He then famously resurrects himself and muses, “The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part, I have saved my life.”
 

Often scholarly pundits cite this incident as proof of Falstaff’s cowardice. Nothing could be further from the truth! Falstaff is in full possession of his faculties when he decides with a droll wit to “counterfeit” death; he shows no trace of terror. It is not fear of death that motivates him but a love of life. One of the earliest defenders of Falstaff, critic Maurice Morgann, despite universal opinion to the contrary, declares that Falstaff’s courage “was manifest in the conduct and practice of his whole life.” His controversial essay, written centuries ago in 1777, argues that Falstaff has a natural courage that is “independent of opinion.” It is a kind of courage that does not conform to “prevailing modes of honour, and the fashions of the age.”
 

The acquisition of honor runs as a thematic thread in the Henry plays through the dreary court scenes and the broodings over the king’s honor, Harry’s honor, Hotspur’s honor. Their notions of honor cause the tremendous, violent suffering of war. Shakespeare gives us only one heavy counterweight to all of this—the mind of Falstaff. He alone has the courage to stand against the entire culture and its values. By Falstaff’s reckoning, honor serves neither the living nor the dead. It can give no relief to the wounded, and nothing can help the dead. Honor is like a scutcheon, a coat of arms to decorate the coffins of the dead—it is of no use. Alone on the stage, he delivers his damning disquisition on honor:

 

[H]onour pricks me on. Yea, but how now if honour pricks me off when I come
how then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of
a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? a word.
What is in that word, honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’
Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. It is insensible then? Yea, to
the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer
it. Therefore I’ll none of it: honour is a mere scutcheon; and so ends my catechism.

 

Through Falstaff’s words, Shakespeare deflates a literary tradition of millennia, which began with Homer in the Iliad; the hero-soldier slaughters his enemies for the glory of an immortal name, an honor often cemented by then dying himself in combat. Thus when the battle starts, the prince desires only to prove himself as a man in order to attain honor; he also bids Falstaff to say his prayers because “thou owest God a death.” But Falstaff refuses to give up his life for an abstraction.


How I wish I could say that this warrior’s ethos linking brutality to honor has been put to rest, this exultation of life destroying life, but clearly, it is not so. A brief look at popular culture confirms this. Ten minutes in almost any movie theater watching the preview trailers will give you a clear picture of the themes of our culture—violence, more violence, fear, death by guns, death by fiery explosions. Witness the new release of Halo 3 video war games (tested by the military), which had the highest grossing opening day in entertainment history. I read that mingled in the crowds waiting to buy the game were army recruiters, as this was their perfect target audience.
 

Recently I saw the film 3:10 to Yuma, a good film with a great actor (Russell Crowe!), a witty, intelligent script, beautiful cinematography, all the grandeur and sweep of the southwest. The whole moral weight of the film leads inexorably to its climax: a man chooses to die, to leave behind a wife and two sons to prove he is honorable. He decides it’s better that he should die in a shoot-out as a lesson in honor to his teenage son.

Better than being with his boy? Seeing him grow up, taking pleasure with his family, looking into his son’s face, holding his wife, working his land? Maimed as a soldier in the Civil War, this impoverished rancher hates his life. One can get caught up in the man’s decision—he has no choice, it’s the right thing to do, he wants respect.

As I sat in the dark in the theater, I found myself falling under the seductive spell of the film, but when the thief (whom the rancher is trying to take to justice) wants to rescue the poor man’s life from a useless sacrifice, he quotes Falstaff. “The better part of valor is discretion.” That’s when I woke up! It’s the same old bill of goods being sold, the lone hero who saves civilization through violence. The only lone hero I can think of is Falstaff, who saves himself and the rest of us by refusing to be enthralled by death; he saves us all by choosing to live.
 

It is encouraging, however, to hear the words of the liberating spirit of Falstaff being spoken in a mass-market movie—that he is at least part of the current zeitgeist. On a smaller scale, a few weeks back, I experienced another tribute to Falstaff while attending a new play, Clay, at the prestigious Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre here in Los Angeles. It’s the story of a nerdy Jewish kid who is rescued from his miserable life in the suburbs by an older mentor through their mutual love of music. And just what new form does our age give Falstaff? An African-American hip-hop artist named Sir John who lives in Flatbush. A master rapper, a wordsmith of the highest order, the older black man transforms the white boy Clifford into the self-expressive performer Clay. At least in this play, the young man rejects his toxic father and chooses the tonic Sir John and the path of artistic freedom.


One last word on popular culture. I must say I picked up with dread the last Harry Potter book. I didn’t want Harry to die, but an equal anxiety was: does Harry have to turn into a killer? For at least the last two books, Harry’s mentor, the supposedly benign wizard Dumbledore, has been telling him he’s “got to kill” the evil Lord Voldemort. There can’t be any other way. This means that only Harry, today’s most famous incarnation of the lone hero, can save the magical world and the ordinary world the rest of us muggles are stuck in.
Harry, too, believes he is the Chosen One. “It’s got to be me.” But at the final battle of Hogwarts, Harry as a hero does something different—he shows mercy. He offers Voldemort the chance to repent his evil deeds, to salvage his soul. And he doesn’t try to kill his enemy but just to disarm him. Voldemort dies by his own hand when the green light of his own killing curse fatally rebounds on him. What a relief that our Harry doesn’t have to maim his soul by becoming a murderer. Bless him!


My encounter with Falstaff has been a boon for me. To play is one of life’s great enhancements. A hundred years ago, the English critic A.C. Bradley named the essence of Falstaff: “the bliss of freedom gained in humour.” Everything he does, he does “with the gaiety of a boy.” Falstaff’s astonishing vitality remains undimmed by age or circumstance. He answers to no law other than the creative urge to express his wit. Renouncing the tyranny of repressive social codes, his joy is to be himself.


In our time of declining empire, would that every child on the Fourth of July be required—no, required is the wrong word when writing of Falstaff—would that every child be allowed the opportunity of reading Falstaff’s words on honor instead of the usual exhibitions of nostalgia for military glories. May his speech be on the wall of every army recruiting station should some young man or woman be beguiled by empty promises of honor. Let them be beguiled by Falstaff’s wit. And please, god of mercy, no more romanticizing of Hal’s oft-quoted St. Crispian’s Day speech in Henry V. Never am I more dry-eyed than when I hear his words to rally the English troops outnumbered by the French on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt:

 

If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

 

I remember sitting in the front row at a production of Henry V, watching the action unfold as the English ministers and clergy came up with the flimsiest of legal pretenses to invade France. Then as the Battle of Agincourt progressed, as I sat with red Jell-O spilling over from the stage onto my clothes, I had one sure thought—this battle is for nothing. History bears me out— in a few short years, the French (Joan of Arc led the charge!) drove the English out.


And yet, only yesterday I heard on the radio an NPR report about an executive-training seminar called Movers and Shakespeare meeting in Aspen, Colorado, to study Henry V for his leadership skills. Author Jacob Weisberg has just published The Bush Tragedy, which compares George W. to Prince Hal, “who rises from ne’er-do-well youth to become the warrior king Henry V,” and he argues that both ascensions have disastrous consequences. Further research on the NPR story led me to a Washington Post article about a witty debate held in 2004 with Washington insiders and media pundits, on whether Henry V was right or wrong to invade France (with much comparison to the current war in Iraq). At the end of the argument, Dame Judi Dench, the renowned British actress, was asked to judge who won. Her response was to read the last lines of the play, which point to the complete futility of the war as the young Henry VI and his counselors straightaway “lost France and made his England bleed.”


The last word belongs to Falstaff. Only he can reveal in an indelible moment of humanity all we really need to know about war. Falstaff, surveying the carnage of battle, says, “Give me life.”

 



Starr Goode is a poet and a writer and teaches literature at National University. Her work on the Sheelas has been published in Irish Journal of Feminist Studies and ReVision. Winner of The David L. Kubal Memorial Essay Prize, she is also a recipient of The Henri Coulette Memorial Poetry Award from The Academy of American Poets. As a poet, her work has appeared in numerous publications, most recently in Expanding Circles: Women, Art & Community and Sage Woman. She has been profiled for her work as a cultural commentator in the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.