In Henry IV Part I, Shakespeare presents a collection of traditional heroes. Hotspur’s laudable valor, King Henry’s militaristic reign, and Hal’s princely transformation echo the socially extolled values of the Elizabethean male. Molding themselves after societal standards, these flat characters contrast Sir John Falstaff’s round, spirited personality. Through Falstaff’s unorthodox behavior and flagrant disregard for cultural traditions, Shakespeare advocates one’s personal values above society’s.
Extolled as the "essence of Shakespeare’s dramatic art" (Bloom 299) and ridiculed as the symbol of self-indulgence and vice, the character of Sir John Falstaff, a loquacious knight, elicits a dichotomy within the Shakespearean critical community. This controversy originates in the rendition of Shakespeare’s intention in creating Sir John Falstaff. Literary critics such as John Dover Wilson and Edgar Stoll espouse that Shakespeare created Falstaff to serve as Hal’s "attendant spirit...typifying Vanity in every sense of the word" (Wilson 17). These anti-Falstaff carpers claim that the theme of Henry IV Part I, being a morality play, is the "growing-up of a madcap prince into the ideal king" (Wilson 22). If this were the case then Falstaff, "a besotted and disgusting old wretch" (Shaw qtd. in Goddard 71), represents an obstacle that Hal must overcome to tranform into a regal king. Asserting that Hal "associates Falstaff...with the devil" (Wilson 20), being the antithesis of heroism and virtue, Falstaff "symbolizes...the feasting and good cheer for which Eastcheap stood, and reflects...the shifts, subterfuges, and shady tricks that decayed gentleman and soldiers were put to if they wi...
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...is rivals; Hal gives up any personal freedom he might have displayed in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. Falstaff survives, not only years, but through centuries as well. Lauded, ridiculed, and analyzed Falstaff surpasses death by continuously published literary criticism and interpretation. No other Shakespearean character is as studied, examined, or investigated. Fascinating to spectators, Falstaff is a "character that will follow [the audience] out of the theatre."
Hazlitt, William. Hazlitt's Works. 8 vols. Ed. W. Carew Hazlitt. London: George Bell, 1905.
Hazlitt, William. Hazlitt’s Criticism of Shakespeare: A Selection. Ed. R. S.White. New York: Edwin Mellen, 1996
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998
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