Over the Top Over Falstaff — Into the New Year With Shakespeare and Sir John
By Stuart Mitchner
… the brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.
—Sir John Falstaff
Shakespeare did not become real to me until I was out of college and reading the plays on my own. The breakthrough came when I read Falstaff’s words aloud and felt for the first time that I was not merely in touch with a character but with the author himself. Here he was coming to life for me in the form of a hugely fat, scheming, whoring, lying, wine-guzzling rogue whose boozing makes his brain “full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” It also “warms the blood” and makes it “course from the inwards to the parts extreme” and “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart.”
Reading and rereading passages like the above excerpt from a lengthy exhortation in Part 2 of Henry IV or the speech from Part 1 that ends with Falstaff saying “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men,” I had no doubt that what might sound like the drunken ravings of a tavern degenerate to the critics and scholars who think Falstaff is overrated was nothing less than the sublime arrogance of the author himself speaking from the heart of his excitement in the act of writing.
In the third month of the Bard’s 450th anniversary year — which this column’s new year’s resolution for 2014 defined as “the year of reading Shakespeare” — I found Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. Writing in the New York Times (“Soul of the Age,” Nov. 1, 1998), James Shapiro suggests that “While few readers will disagree with Bloom’s choice of Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s two greatest creations, many may be puzzled by the other: Falstaff, ‘the mortal god’ of Bloom’s imaginings,” a choice in which Shapiro finds “more than a little projection going on” since both character and critic “are aging, charismatic, brilliant teachers, masters of language.”
Needless to say, I’m not in the least puzzled by Bloom’s choice of Falstaff, whose claim about inventing and being invented is echoed in the title of his book. Once you’ve found your access to Shakespeare through Falstaff, you know whose side you’re on in the battle outlined in a Nov. 9, 2003 New York Times article by Ron Rosenbaum (“Corrupt Buffoon or Joyous Inspiration?”). The so-called Falstaff Wars of that period centered on Jack O’Brien’s Lincoln Center production of both parts of Henry IV in which Kevin Kline played the character at the center of the controversy. To O’Brien’s complaint that Bloom’s reading of Falstaff was “over the top” (“You can’t have him, Harold!”), Bloom stood firm: “You can do a hell of a lot worse than go over the top over Falstaff. I am very over the top over Falstaff.”
When you read The Invention of the Human, you find that “over the top” doesn’t begin to describe the dimensions of Bloom’s awe (as if the title itself didn’t already express it) in the “pervasive presence” of Shakespeare “here, there, and everywhere at once,” as of “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” The plays “abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” These claims sound less and less extreme the more you read of “an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”
A Christmas Walk
Driving down Bridgepoint Road through the sunny clarity of Christmas Day, a pleasant shock after Christmas Eve’s rain and gloom, I find “the pervasive presence” in the vastness and blueness of the sky ahead of us and all around us, masses of storybook clouds, each a world in itself. What can I say? It’s a Shakespearean sky.
During our walk along the path that begins near Pike Bridge, I’m thinking of Bloom’s reference to the ways Shakespeare’s characters connect with or affect our reality (a word that has become a genre in itself in the years since the millennium) and his seemingly out-there notion that the plays read us better than we read them. At one point near the end of the introduction, Bloom reminds himself and the reader that he once claimed “Falstaff would not accept being bored by us” if he deigned “to represent us.”
What a thought, that our behavior as readers may be subject to the watchful eye of he who is not only witty in himself, “but the cause that wit is in other men.” Instead of God judging us according to the merit of our actions, we’re being judged according to how interesting and amusing we are. It made me think of Keats’s letter in which he imagines “superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude” his mind “may fall into,” as he is “entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer.”
Not long after the paved trail gives way to a boardwalk, my wife and I find ourselves looking over a fence into a field where a mother and her teenage daughter are coaxing two horses to pay some playful attention to their Christmas presents (a pair of glorified beach balls). Instead, the horses come over to the fence, hoping we might have something edible to offer them. I like to think Falstaff would not be bored by us at this moment, eye to eye with the immense animal reality of a horse 18 hands high, and then to touch the solid, sturdy, burr-rough brow, to flinch from a sudden prodigious snort. The moment feels even worthier if you’ve been reading that same morning of Sir John’s reaction to the theft of his horse (“Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore and ten miles afoot with me”) or the night before watching Hotspur’s steed rearing under him as he bids goodbye to his comely Kate before riding brashly, boldly off to die on the point of Prince Hal’s sword in Orson Welles’s celebration of Falstaff and life in Chimes at Midnight (1966).
One way to appreciate Falstaff is through the process of elimination. After imagining the Works without certain major characters, a Mercutio here, a Cleopatra there, it soon becomes clear that Hamlet and Falstaff are ultimately and equally indispensable, though losing the inventive energy and street-wise wit of Falstaff might be even a greater loss than Hamlet. In an online interview, Orson Welles, whose centenary looms in 2015, calls Falstaff a “gloriously life-affirming good man … defending a force — the old England — which is going down. What is difficult about Falstaff … is that he is the greatest conception of a good man, the most completely good man, in all drama. His faults are so small and he makes tremendous jokes out of little faults. But his goodness is like bread, like wine.”
The review of Falstaff/Chimes of Midnight by Pauline Kael reprinted in James Shapiro’s excellent anthology, Shakespeare in America (Library of America 2014) is characteristically well-written and wilfully misguided: Welles has an “inexpressive” voice,” she claims of one of the 20th century’s most compelling voices; “there was no warmth in it, no sense of a life lived,” and Falstaff is “the braggart with the heart of a child who expects to be forgiven everything, even what he knows to be unforgivable — his taking the credit away from Hal for the combat with Hotspur.” It’s true, this would seem to be a moral low point for the play’s dominant life- and word-force, to take boastful possession of the body of a slain hero as if he and not Prince Hal had done the deed. In the strict bounds of the plot, Falstaff pays for his sin through the royal banishment he and Hal have already comically rehearsed in one of the play’s most memorable scenes. But if you’ve heard the voice of Shakespeare speaking through Falstaff, again and again whenever he holds forth, never mind the exact nature of whatever knavery the character is performing, you know that the true slayer of Hotspur is in fact the playwright, and that no one is closer to Shakespeare than Falstaff.
Keats as Falstaff
One of the joys of reading Keats’s letters is the way the young poet’s diction and playful allusiveness signals how deeply and happily he, as Bloom might put it, has read and been read by Shakespeare, and by Falstaff, in particular. Keats takes the identification to the limit, writing on his death bed, “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the natural world impress its beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields.” As R.S. White notes in Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare, “there is a comic twist in the diminutive Keats’s semi-identification with the corpulent Falstaff.” Surely this is the ultimate instance of being one with the reality of the character, which “was so immediate for Keats that he feels on the pulses experiences Shakespeare depicts Falstaff going through.” In other words, Falstaff is as “real” to Keats as a friend, or an alter ego, or as his very self, the way an actor feels the reality of a role.
As Big Ben tolled midnight last New Year’s Eve, London launched a fireworks display that transcended all superlatives. Almost all, anyway. What else could you call all that glorious imagery exploding in the skies above the Thames but Shakespearean? Though it’s true that those partial to another supreme source of creative energy might as easily call it Homeric or Miltonic, there’s simply nothing else with the overarching magnitude of Shakespeare.