Understanding Falstaff

Robbie Coltrane as FalstaffWhen Kenneth Branagh made Henry V and threw a bit of Henry IV in with Falstaff, he used the most famous speech of the character. Kind of. The whole truth is that he cut it savagely.

The scene is one where Falstaff and Hal role play Hal’s upcoming meeting with his father, Henry IV. At first, Falstaff plays the king, but as is his way, has nothing but praise of himself come out of the acted King’s mouth. Falstaff and Hal switch roles, with Falstaff playing Hal. Falstaff, as Hal, says:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it. But that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff. Banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.[1]

This speech is one that I’ve memorized. It is rather easy to do so, either because of the repetition or because I’ve heard it so much. As I’ve noted before, memorizing something really allows you to get inside it. In this case, what’s really bothersome is the repeated line, “Banish not him thy Harry’s company.” Why?

Here is Branagh’s edit from Henry V:

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry be a sin… If to be fat be to be hated… No, my good lord, [when thou art king] banish Pistol, banish Bardolph, banish Nym, but… sweet Jack Falstaff… valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff. Banish not him thy Harry’s company… Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

You see what I say about Shakespeare getting a lot of help from editors, writers, and actors? This is barely Shakespeare anymore. Whatever: it works.

But how are we to interpret these last sentences? I think the speech, starting with “But for sweet Jack Falstaff” should be divided into three parts. At first, Falstaff is boastful. He is sweet, kind, true, and valiant. But then, he slips and falls into self-pity when he notes that he is old. This self-pity continues through the first “Banish” line. To me, it should be broken in two: “Banish not him” and “they Harry’s company.” Here the pause would be a small choke, as though almost crying.

At this, or even as he says the second part of the line, Falstaff catches himself. He instantly becomes the boastful Falstaff and says the last lines with gusto: banish plump Jack and banish all the world!

This, of course, is not the way the lines are normally delivered. Robbie Coltrane, in Branagh’s film, is almost pleading with Hal, reading his face for clues. Orson Welles, in Chimes at Midnight, does the whole speech in full-tilt braggart. He gets going so fast that the second line slips past almost without notice. For Welles, the sadness of the character seems tethered to his soul: Welles in many ways was Falstaff. Regardless, both great actors manage the part using their great skills. I’m trying to figure it out with an empty acting quiver.

More and more, I prefer my Falstaff complex. This is certainly not how he was written. I’m sure that audiences in Shakespeare’s time saw him as simply an object of ridicule to be laughed at, much the same as Don Quixote. But the modern viewer wants more. We realize that people strike more than one or two notes. For my part, as a writer of fiction, I cannot write a character I do not understand. I can’t write a character who is simply bad. The whole process of writing characters is about discovering how they came to be. This was not true of Shakespeare, and so people like Coltrane and Welles must go through this process themselves.


Here is Robbie Coltrane:

Here is Orson Welles:

[1] These last three lines are in iambic pentameter, but given that they are part of prose dialog, it doesn’t seem important to write them line by line. Some of Moby Dick is in iambic pentameter, but it isn’t written that way.

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