Falstaff “Railed Against Our Person”?

Chimes at MidnightI’ve been thinking about Falstaff for a couple of weeks now, as is evidenced by my trolling around over at Shakespeare Geek. So I’ve been hitting The Book (my old and rather bad Complete Works of That Bard), trying to make some sense of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. In particular, there is a scene after Henry turns away from Falstaff, in which Henry says, “Enlarge the man committed yesterday.” At this, one of the king’s advisers asks, “Falstaff?” That was a bit of surprise, but I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t just because I hadn’t been paying attention.

King Henry’s line is from a speech in Henry V, where he uses it to trap (sort of) Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey:

Enlarge the man committed yesterday
That railed against our person: we consider
It was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.

Going back to Kenneth Branagh’s filmed version of Henry V, I watched and listened carefully: was he talking about Falstaff? No. But that hardly means anything. I knew from experience that Branagh had cut the hell out of the play and added some of Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2—quite awkwardly, I think, which is too bad because Robbie Coltrane is really wonderful as Falstaff (better than Welles).

So I went to the text itself, and the truth is that it could be. Henry gives the speech in Act 2, Scene 2 and we don’t find out that Falstaff is dead until Act 2, Scene 3. So it could be Falstaff he is talking about. But it doesn’t matter. And it probably isn’t. In fact, it is probably the case that there was no one “that railed against our person.” The scene uses it only as a ruse.

Thus we come to Welles’ brilliance as a storyteller. There is a real problem with Henry V: after two Henry IV plays, he is clearly a dick. Welles manages to fix this problem by taking this little speech entirely out of context, to show that Henry really does still care about Falstaff. It is interesting that in My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant uses the two funeral scenes to do the same thing. As much as I like Van Sant, I doubt he would have come up with this on his own. Welles was a great director (film and theater) almost from birth and this is a perfect example of his greatness.

Tune in Tomorrow

Tomorrow, I will write about something else that has been bugging me about Falstaff. And even more so: That Bard.

Update

Make that “today” because it is already tomorrow.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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