By Taylor, Paul
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
He's a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. Yet he's been glowingly described as 'the personification of England'. He'll do anything with a debt but honour it, and makes light of accepting bribes from fit men and leading a troop of 150 decrepit soldiers to their deaths. Yet he's also taken, at his own admiring estimate, as a great booster-jab of infectious liveliness: 'I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.' He has a spectacular obesity problem and he's referred to " with epic freedom from euphemism " as 'that swoll'n parcel of dropsies', 'that stuff'd cloak-bag of guts', 'this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this hill of flesh' " a man who secretes sweat in such quantities that he 'lards the lean earth as he walks along'. Yet his most prominent characteristic, according to many commentators, is his 'jubilant brain'. Meet, if you will, Sir John Falstaff.
The great critic William Empson wrote that 'To stretch one's mind all round Falstaff is hard', a remark that wittily implies that to circumnavigate the physical girth of him would be no easy schlep either. The dimensions (mythic and fleshly) of Shakespeare's fat knight awed Ralph Richardson, one of the greatest portrayers of Falstaff on the 20th-century stage. 'Not until you play Falstaff do you realise how small the mere actor is... It's like trying to play a huge organ with too vast a keyboard to reach the steps up at the top and down at the bottom at one and the same time.' Through the two parts of Henry IV, 'Falstaff proceeds,' said Richardson, 'at his own chosen pace, like a gorgeous ceremonial Indian elephant'. Now just about to open as Sir John in Nick Hytner's National Theatre production of this Shakespearean diptych is the man who, quite early in his career, was dubbed by Richardson as 'the great Gambon'. Anticipation is keen " the fleshy, raffish, ruminative and deep Michael Gambon would seem to be the most natural choice for the role since the late Robert Stephens gave a dark-stained, brooding, Rembrandtesque interpretation of the part for Adrian Noble and the RSC in the early 1990s. Matthew Macfadyen co- stars as Hal, the Prince of Wales who tactically slums it with this alternative father- figure in the fleshpots of Eastcheap before dramatically disowning him ('I know thee not, old man') in a calculated public-relations exercise when he assumes the throne. This lusciously cast, eagerly awaited opening prompts a reconsideration of the fantastical phenomenon that is Falstaff.
The fat knight features in four of Shakespeare's plays " fully- fledged in the two parts of Henry IV; in diminished form as an outwitted would- be adulterer amongst the respectable middle- classes in The Merry Wives of Windsor; and in Henry V, where he does not appear in person but where the nostalgia-coloured report of his affecting offstage death ('babbling of green fields') arguably starts that process of sentimentalisation of the character discernible in the subsequent critical tradition.
But Falstaff is also one of those figures who refuse to stay within the confines of the works of art in which they make their first appearance. It is no coincidence that it is Falstaff, whose legend quickly preceded him as far as the outermost tip of his stomach precedes his backside, inspired one of the earliest pieces of extended character criticism in English literature. In 1777, a politician and philosopher named Maurice Morgann published his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff. An idealistic and highly subjective attempt to prove that the fat knight was not a coward but a man of honour, the piece soon finds itself equipping the character with a virtuous past and a speculative biography. Falstaff is swiftly promoted from being a character in a set of plays to a less bounded novelistic existence and thence to being thought a real person.
From which it is a short step to becoming an icon. …