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In Shakespearean histories, there is always one individual who
influences the major character and considerably advances the plot. In I Henry
IV by William Shakespeare, Falstaff is such a character. Sir John Falstaff is
perhaps the most complex comic character ever invented. He carries a dignified
presence in the mind's eye; and in him, we recognize our internal admiration
and jealousy of the rebellious dual personality that we all secretly wish for.
The multi-faceted Falstaff, in comic revolt against law and order, in his role
as father figure to Prince Hal, and ultimately, in his natural ability to
discern and adapt to any situation, emerges as the most complex and paradoxical
character in drama.
Frequently, in literature, the sun represents royalty, or in this case
the king, who strives to uphold law and order. Rhetorically, the moon,
symbolizes instability, not only because it does not remain the same size to
one's eyes as time passes, but because it reigns the ebb and flow of the tides.
Therefore, as a knight guided by moonlight, Falstaff is a dissenter against law
and order. This conclusion finds support in his witty tautologies and epithets.
Falstaff is invariably aware that Hal will one day become king, and when that
happens, robbers will be honored in England by "Let[ting] us be indulgence
Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, monions of the moon; and let[ting]
men say we be men of good government, being governed as the sea is, by our novle
and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal" (I, ii, 25-30).
Falstaff's final dismissal of law and order culminates with a comic plea to the
prince, urging him to have nothing to do with "old father antic the law? Do not
thou, when thou art King, hang a thief" (I, ii, 62-63). We see a similar
epithet in the next act, "send him packing" (II, iv, 301), in which Falstaff
again denounces responsibility, law, and order. Despite his lack of care for
order and responsibility, the rebel dormant in readers applauds Falstaff's
defiance of the establishment of his defense. Falstaff seems to appeal to the
average reader, for he relates to them, just as a twentieth-century American
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would relate to ---------------. With this in mind, when examining Hal's one
line response after Falstaff said, "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the
world," the prince says: "I do, I will." Therefore, playing the role of king in
this spontaneous exchange, the prince embraces law and order, because he has the
consecrated obligation to fulfill, one that affects the lives of all Englishmen.
The relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal is an unusual one. The
two frequently exchange spontaneous, good-natured insults and the reader comes
to see that in reality, they are not unfitting for each other. Prince Hal is
Falstaff's surrogate son; and for the fractious Prince himself, Falstaff is a
second father, a parent he neither fears nor respectshas . He is one on whom he
executes all his whims, even persuading Falstaff to emulate a parental role,
while he kneels at Hal's feet and pretends to listen to his reprimands. In
looking at the following passage, we see Hal's description of Falstaff as a
gluttonous derelict who has feels no sense of responsibility for either himself
Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old
sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleep-
ing upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten
to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know.
What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the
day? (I, ii, 2-7)
Time, a symbol of the ordered life, could not concern a man who
spends his days drinking sack, eating, sleeping, and frequenting brothels.
Finally, Falstaff's natural ability to perceive or know how to react in
a situation is ultimately, what makes this character so complex. Wit is often an
insubstantial substitute for pleasurable sensation; emanating from trivial spite
at the cost of others. Falstaff's wit emerges from a copiousness of good humor
and good nature. He would not be in character, if he were not so fat as he is;
for there is the greatest awe in his imagination and the pampered self- of his
physical appetites. Shakespeare represents Falstaff as a liar, a braggart, a
coward, a glutton, etc., and yet he is not offensive, but delightful; for he is
all these as much to amuse others as to gratify himself. As such, Falstaff uses
his wit to redeem himself from embarrassing or complex situations and is always
successful in doing such. The audience virtually forgets the conflict because
they are so enamored with his wit. Fundamentally, he is an actor in himself
almost as much as upon the stage, and we refuse to object to the character of
Falstaff in a moral point of view. The unrestrained indulgence of his own ease,
appetites, and convenience, has neither malice nor hypocrisy in it. We only
consider the number of witticisms in which he puts in conflicts, and do not
trouble ourselves about the consequences resulting from them, for no mischievous
consequences ever result.
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 retorts are
instinctive suggestions of his self-love; inherent evasions of all that
threatens to interrupt the career of his triumphant joviality and self-
absorption. His natural aversion to every unpleasant thought or circumstance,
of itself makes light of objections, and provokes the most exorbitant and lewd
answers in his own mind. His indifference to truth does not hinder his
reputation, and the more unexpected his contrivances are, the happier he seems
to be rid of them, the anticipation of their effect acting as a stimulus to the
liveliness of his character. His wit is contagious and those around him tend to
emulate his extraordinary talent for his ingenuity.
Falstaff ultimately trains Hal and molds his reputation such that he
undoubtedly becomes the most beloved king of that era. Hal's popularity enables
him to consolidate power and unite the country against the older aristocracy.
Hal is a man of the people through theft, wit, and exposure in the streets of
London. Through Falstaff's friendship, Prince Hal rises from the gutter and
overcomes familial oppression to become a hero who absorbs the spirit of London.
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Cruttwell,Patrick. Hernry IV. Shakespeare For Students, Vol. II. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1999.
Kantor, Andrea. Henry IV, Part One. London: Baron's Education Series, Inc, 1984.
Princiss, G.M. Henry IV Criticism. Shakespeare For Students, Vol.II. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1999.