Monday, 16 July 2012

There’s Something About Falstaff | What Makes Falstaff Such a Popular Character?

Eduard Von Grutzner's 1896 painting of
Falstaff - happy as a sandboy with his
big ol' jug of wine

We have always been enamoured by the ‘lovable rogue’. Whether it’s the Artful Dodger or Captain Jack Sparrow, we invariable root for charmers, who possess somewhat dubious morals. But it seems to me that Falstaff’s popularity goes far beyond his belonging to a certain character type.

Part of the reason the Elizabethans and Queen Elizabeth (The Merry Wives of Windsor was penned to satisfy the queen’s desire to see more of the plump, old knight) loved Falstaff is that he is very funny.

In many ways, the rotund fellow is a comedy grotesque. With an adoration for all the excesses of life and a propensity for laziness, Falstaff can be seen as a precursor to Homer Simpson.

How Can We Love a Coward and a Liar?

Despite Falstaff’s flaws (and there are many of them), and the ‘fat drunkard’ gags, we actually feel great empathy for the old knight. Why? Because we know that he is, at heart, not all bad. Yes, he’s prone to lying, but his lies are laughably transparent and, consequently, innocent.

Falstaff knows himself, and realises that he is incapable of any genuine scheming (of the sort that would see him work his way up the rungs of power and status). And the fact of the matter is, he doesn’t want power or status. He simply wants a large meal and a bottle of sack. There is no genuine malice in Falstaff, he is, essentially, harmless. Of course, Orson Welles went a step further by stating that Jack Falstaff is, in fact, a "good man".

The World-Weary Falstaff

Having said that there are similarities to be drawn between Falstaff and Homer Simpson (and there undoubtedly are), there is one very significant difference: Falstaff is intelligent; he’s a deep thinker. With his exploration of ‘honour’ he even becomes something of a philosopher.

Old Falstaff has seen it all and, unlike Hal and Hotspur, he knows exactly what price must be paid for honour and he is simply unwilling to pay it. While this may be perceived as cowardice, I think it is more likely to be viewed as ‘good sense’. Falstaff’s assessment of honour and chivalry is convincing. It is, “insensible” to the dead, and “detraction will not suffer it” for the living. These are valid points that are difficult to argue with.

Falstaff The Everyman

Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Moreover, Falstaff’s view of life and his attempts to get by - taking the path of least resistance whenever possible - gives the very ordinary members of Shakespeare’s audience a character with whom they feel connected. Most of them weren’t (and aren’t) princes. To them, the notions of chivalry are as alien as they are to Falstaff.

So, Sir Jack is much more than just a comedy character; a grotesque; a figure of fun. There is a real pathos to him, because he is us.

He represents the good, the bad, the greedy, the lazy and the witty in every single one of us. He is by no means perfect, but that’s why we love him. To put it in his own words, “…banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

If you haven’t been watching the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, ‘Henry IV parts 1 and 2’ (with Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff) is currently still available on iplayer. 


  1. Great piece!

    Did you hear about the Bodleian Library's request for submissions from bloggers?

    Looks like fun!



  2. Hello, David.

    I wasn't aware of the Bodleian's 'Many Voices' project, so thank you for the links. Much appreciated!