(Henry IV Act II Scene 4)
Well, here I am set.
And here I stand: judge, my masters.
Now, Harry, whence come you?
My noble lord, from Eastcheap.
The complaints I hear of thee are grievous.
‘Sblood, my lord, they are false: nay, I’ll tickle
ye for a young prince, i’ faith.
Swearest thou, ungracious boy? henceforth ne’er look
on me. Thou art violently carried away from grace:
there is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an
old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion. Why
dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that
bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel
of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed
cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with
the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that
grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in
years? Wherein is he good, but to taste sack and
drink it? wherein neat and cleanly, but to carve a
capon and eat it? wherein cunning, but in craft?
wherein crafty, but in villany? wherein villanous,
but in all things? wherein worthy, but in nothing?
I would your grace would take me with you: whom
means your grace?
That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
My lord, the man I know.
I know thou dost.
But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
You knew this was coming didn’t you? You didn’t seriously think I was going to do a whole week of Shakespeare without getting in at least a few plugs for that greatest of all Shakespeare’s characters – my namesake, Falstaff.
This dialogue is as good an illustration as any of just why Falstaff is such a favourite of mine – it’s a delightful exchange, featuring the Bard at his most playful. Prince Hal has been summoned to the court of his father, and Falstaff and Hal are acting out, in jest, the scene that shall ensue when Hal appears before his father and is roundly scolded. At first Falstaff plays the King, while Hal plays himself, and Falstaff proceeds to admonish Hal for keeping company with a bunch of villians and thieves (they have just, as a trick stolen money from Falstaff), condemning all of Hal’s companions save one, one only, a man of cheerful look, pleasing eye and most noble carriage, one Falstaff, who alone among Hal’s friends bears the mark of true virtue. At this point Hal, accusing Falstaff of not being royal enough, takes over the role of his father and makes Falstaff stand in for himself, after which the scene above is played out.
It’s a glorious, glorious scene, full of bombast and wit, mined with clever little asides that are guaranteed to make the audience laugh as much as the two characters playing out the scene, but the ultimate effect is as tender as it is hilarious – you can feel the warmth between these two people, the easy-going nature of the friendship between this fat, aging knight, and this prince of the realm.
Taken outside the context of the play though, the speech says much more (isn’t it amazing how Shakespeare can do this – even the silliest speeches he writes turn out to have such a wealth of meaning and beauty). Falstaff is craven and ridiculous, he is a person who cannot be taken seriously, he is a man to be laughed at, to be scorned, a man with little merit save the fact that he is mostly harmless. And yet without Falstaff, without the spirit of folly and jest that he represents, this would be a poorer play. Without Falstaff the world would be unbearably dry, suffocatingly serious. Without Falstaff, we would have no one to laugh at, and reality would overwhelm us.
Falstaff is more than just a brilliant character in a memorable play. Falstaff is a reminder to all of us that we must not take ourselves too seriously, that we must remember to laugh, must be prepared to make ourselves ridiculous. Falstaff speaks for the fool in all of us, and his is a merry yet human voice.