Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Vicki K. Janik; Emmanuel S. Nelson | Go to book overview
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Sir John Falstaff

( England: In William Shakespeare Middle Play of the Second Lancastrian History Tetralogy, Henry the Fourth, Part I, c. 1596, and Henry the Fourth, Part II, c. 1597- 1598; Offstage Death Detailed in the Tetralogy's Last Play, Henry the Fifth, c. 1599; Main Character in The Merry Wives of Windsor, c. 1597-1601)

Alan Lutkus


BACKGROUND

In the history plays, Falstaff is the central character at the London Eastcheap Tavern habituated by young Hal, Prince of Wales and later King Henry V, estranged from his father Henry IV (usurper of the throne in Richard the Second (R2), the tetralogy's first play). For the first half of Henry the Fourth, Part I (1H4), Falstaff embodies tavern-world "holiday" influences (1.2.192), keeping Hal from helping his father's side as Henry IV faces mounting threats -- rebel forces, particularly -- in what has become the everyday world of civil war. Unknown to Falstaff, Hal in an early soliloquy (1.2) marks his intention of rejecting the tavern crew; he shows himself largely distinct from them at Gadshill, where Falstaff's band robs a group of pilgrims, while Hal robs Falstaff (2.2) and later has the loot returned to the pilgrims (2.4). In partly comic charade, Hal playing King Henry to Falstaff as Prince, Hal rejects Falstaff (2.4), yet then protects him from a tavern search by the law.

The play subsequently traces Hal's turn back toward his father as Falstaff raises troops for the impending climactic Shrewsbury battle with the rebels. There Hal rescues his father's life and in single combat kills his heroic rebel rival Harry Hotspur, "king of honour" (4.1.10) in the play. Hotspur's heroic notions of honor are also dangerous, as Falstaff makes clear with a realistic if cowardly counterassessment of their costs: "Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No" (5.1.131). At the play's end Falstaff gains public credit for dispatching Hotspur because Hal is willing to "gild" a lie for Falstaff (5.4.153),

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