Would this be the same Falstaff?

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, July 02, 2009 ,

Tory Historian is used to being puzzled by critics’ comments about some film or play and wondering whether they had seen the same one. Usually, one can dismiss such discrepancies by assuming that the critic in question is probably quoting some semi-literate hand-out written by a PR person who had most certainly not seen the work in question.

However, when it comes to serious historians writing about very well known plays and characters in a way that suggests there is a certain lack of understanding, the puzzlement increases.

Tory Historian is reading a book about that Whig stronghold, the Kit-Cat Club by Ophelia Field. (Know thine enemy.)

She describes the “cultural wars” (an anachronism, of course, but one can see why Ms Field is using it) around the theatre and gives a detailed though to some extent imagined account of a group visit to a performance at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields of a play that has Sir John Falstaff in it. As this could be one of three, a little more explanation would be useful but the documents she quotes, including a poem by Matthew Prior, refer merely to the actor Betterton playing the fat knight.

Then Ms Field explicates:

It is significant that the Kit-Cats so honoured Falstaff, a character moderating tragedy with comic excess and abundance, resilient in his frivolity, regenerative in his adaptability and a patriotic nobleman who fondly mentors young Hal, the future King of England. Falstaff could be viewed as a hero of English paternalism and materialism, while his love of food and drink was a straightforward connection to Kit-Cat dining.
Her only other quotation from Kit-Cat writing refers to Falstaff’s girth and is clearly jocular. The rest of her analysis is, if one may put it that way, tosh. Even allowing for the inexplicable opinion present in some Eng. Lit. specialists that Falstaff is the real hero of the two Henry IV plays and his rejection by Henry V is a tragedy, this makes very little sense.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Falstaff is the patron of English drunkards through the ages who think there is something wrong with eating as well as drinking. He consumes but two anchovies with a prodigious amount of sack.

He is actually a Knight of the Shire, which is not quite the same as a nobleman but we can let that one pass. But patriotic? Falstaff? The man who never fights if there is any running away to do, who desecrates Harry Hotspur’s body in order to claim the reward, the man who can mentor Hal merely in drinking, wenching, lying and cheating?

When Falstaff hears towards the end of Henry IV, Part II that the King is dead and his Hal will now inherit he does, indeed, hasten to Westminster but not to serve the country or the king but to leach on to England’s body politic with his deplorable friends, to get as much as he can out of his royal friend. When he is, quite properly, shown the door by the real patriot, Hal, now King of England, Falstaff collapses assuring all and sundry that he would be summoned privily later. The last thing we know of him is that he dies a broken man “babbling of green brooks”. There is no adaptability and whether one views the story as tragic or merely pathetically dramatic (in the original sense of the word “pathetic”) Ms Field’s analysis makes one wonder what else she might have got wrong.


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