Falstaff

Falstaff

Falstaff

Falstaff

Excerpt

In an earlier study (Ruin the Sacred Truths, 1989) I ventured the judgment that Shakespeare's Falstaff was a successful representation of what Freud thought impossible, a human being without a superego. Nietzsche, I remarked, had attempted just such a representation in his Zarathustra, and rather conspicuously had failed. What I forgot then, or more likely repressed, was that Freud had commented upon Falstaff in his jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). As a fierce Falstaffian, and a rather ambivalent Freudian, I rather dislike Freud on Falstaff, and I quote it here with some distaste:

The grandiose humorous effect of a figure like that of the fat knight Sir John Falstaff rests on an economy in contempt and indignation. We recognize him as an undeserving gormandizer and swindler, but our condemnation is disarmed by a whole number of factors. We can see that he knows himself as well as we do; he impresses us by his wit, and, besides this, his physical misproportion has the effect of encouraging us to take a comic view of him instead of a serious one, as though the demands of morality and honor must rebound from so fat a stomach. His doings are on the whole harmless, and are almost excused by the common baseness of the people he cheats. We admit that the poor fellow has a right to try to live and enjoy himself like anyone else, and we almost pity him because in the chief situations we find him a plaything in the hands of someone far his superior. So we cannot feel angry with him and we add all that we economize in indignation with him to the comic pleasure which he affords us apart from this. Sir John's own humor arises in fact from the superiority of an ego which neither his physical nor his moral defects can rob of its cheerfulness and assurance.

Freud's economics of the psyche certainly are not Shakespeare's, and I am reminded again how much we need a Shakespearean reading of Freud and how little use is a Freudian reading of Shakespeare. The cheerfulness and assurance of the greatest wit in all literature do not stem from the superiority of his ego but from his freedom, specifically freedom of his ego from the superego. It is dangerous to . . .

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