To those who have followed Harold Bloom’s writings on Shakespeare, his love of Sir John Falstaff, as portrayed in the two Henry IV plays, has never been a secret. I use the word ‘love’ here as a consuming passion, one approaching a romantic love, in that it knows no proportion or objectivity. For instance, in Bloom’s very clear and helpful book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998) his chapter on Hamlet is completely overrun with discussions on Falstaff. This even led to Bloom writing a supplemental book Hamlet: Poem Unlimited (2003) to correct the imbalance when he apparently realised what he had done. And now Bloom has dropped all pretence and has given us in Falstaff: Give Me Life, released today. This book is nothing short of a 158 page love letter to a fictional character created in 1597… and it’s a pure joy to read.
Were any of us to write a book or essay on our spouses or significant others, we could hardly submit an unbiased view or treat the work academically. Bloom here, although a brilliant scholar, admits himself too much of a lover to offer any pure criticism. To whit, any discussion of Falstaff as he appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor is completely out of the question and the play is discussed only once. Falstaff’s (or Fostolf’s) early, and apocryphal, appearance in Henry VI Part 1 is not even mentioned.
What is it about Falstaffian characters that attract us so greatly to them? Characters who are unfiltered, who seem to give themselves over to their id without heeding any sort of external check, hold a special appeal for us. It’s easy for any of us to compile a list of these characters: Withnail of Withnail & I (1987), Eric Cartman of South Park, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Donkey in Shrek (2001), and Ron Burgundy are some of my favourites. Not quite hedonists, but all of them unapologetically selfish, and all the more compelling for that. Of course, if these people existed in real life they would be some of the worst people that you would ever meet, but seeing them on the page, or the screen, we participate in an act of catharsis.
Catharsis is a term which Aristotle first applied to drama, meaning the cleansing of emotions, which fiction provides. A part of us wants to be these characters, to be selfish, to be unrestrained, but almost all of us push those impulses aside, or tie them down. By seeing them performed outside of ourselves, however, we experience a kind of release. These people we don’t allow ourselves to be allow us to relax our hold on ourselves for a short time in the safe environment of our imagination.
Bloom’s love for the villainous rogue Falstaff is infectious, and if you are thin in your admiration of his enormous personality, you are fat with it by the end of this book. Personally, I will admit that I disagree with Bloom more than I agree with him on the intent of Shakespeare’s plays and what there is to admire in them–I far prefer Richard II and Henry V to the middle to of the second Henriad, and will add my vote to that of T. S. Eliot’s when he says that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet… an opinion for which Bloom considers him deliberately perverse. Nevertheless, I completely warmed to Falstaff halfway through the book.
Passion for Falstaff can be all-consuming. I studied Henry IV Part 2 at school, and vividly remember seeing it in Oxford where Falstaff was played by Timothy West, and Prince Hal by his son, Samuel West, and I think that’s the best cast that you can hope for these days. (I found Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff in The Hollow Crown TV series far too stark, delivering the “chimes at midnight” line with a sepulchral hollowness that Richard Eyre should have known better than to admit.) It is my belief that Shakespeare clearly invented Falstaff as a mechanism to propel Henry V to the height that he reaches at the end of his own play. The reason that he was written out in Henry V was to not detract from his ascent, for although there is comedy, in the classical sense, in that play, there is very little humour. Orson Welles famously rewrote Henry IV 1 & 2 to centre around only Falstaff, editing out all that didn’t support his arc. Bloom joins him in the opinion that there is little reason for the Henriad except to give us Falstaff, and after reading his book it’s hard to disagree.
I am now of the opinion that Falstaff is the most intelligent character that Shakespeare ever created. His mind is faster and more manoeuvrable than any other character. Iago could be another contender but he lacks self-preservation, such as Falstaff shows at Shrewsbury. Hamlet is an obvious benchmark for fictional intelligence, but although he has an acute sense of mortality, he does not have so complete a perspective on actual living as Falstaff does. Shylock is very sharp but too easily overwhelmed by wrath. All of Shakespeare’s characters have deep flaws; his most brilliant characters all tend toward self-destruction.
Falstaff admittedly is no exception, for he is very famously betrayed. But as Bloom rightly points out, his downfall comes from having a surfeit of life. He dies because a raging bonfire cannot last forever, and although a young prince was once attracted by it, his ambition was never his downfall. That he expected to gain by his relationship is very clear, and expressed, but the old knight lacks the animus to actually change his environment. He has something of the stoic in him in battle. Falstaff will pretend to be dead in order to avoid fighting, but he will still march to war when called. He is painfully aware of what war will do to the ‘food for powder’ that he leads to battle, yet he allows some of those with familial obligations to buy their way out of it.
I almost feel that I could write a book myself about Falstaff, but if I did it would not be a better one. Bloom’s small book is fun, easy to grasp, and laced throughout with poignancy as the author draws on his own feelings of age and mortality in his analysis. And the scholar’s complete command and comprehension of Shakespeare’s context, particularly when it comes to biblical texts, is second to none. Could not recommend more. Five stars.