Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters. He was that in Shakespeare’s time and subsequently over the next four hundred years, and he still fits that bill. He is arguably the most famous comic character in all English drama. Shakespeare and his audience enjoyed Falstaff so much that Shakespeare placed him in four plays, although, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in a different context in time and place than in Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. In The Merry Wives Falstaff is a different person but he is, in all respects, the same fat, vulgar, disgusting old man – in other words, the same character.
Falstaff is dishonest and cowardly, boastful and narcissistic. At the same time, he is intelligent and insightful. He has a great command of language and repartee. All that makes for a great, watchable character in a play. But characters in plays are not real people, even if they are extremely realistically realised, as most of Shakespeare’s characters are. They are essentially dramatic devices and, as always in Shakespeare, the characters perform functions that are essential to the success of the play.
Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1
In Henry IV Part 1 Falstaff is the leisure companion of the young Prince Hal who frequents the tavern where Falstaff and his often disreputable friends and associates – thieves, swindlers, prostitutes – hang out, eating and drinking and planning their petty criminal projects. It’s a great play, partly because it is a drama with very serious themes relating to kingship, politics, war, and such important issues, while at the same time being one of the funniest English plays. Falstaff is at the centre of that comedy and is also essential to the more serious themes. In some respects he performs the function that the chorus does in Greek drama, commenting on the political action, albeit in an egotistical, reckless manner, but with sharp observation and underlying good sense. He and his companions’ environment gives Shakespeare the opportunity to immerse the young prince in the lowest social level of the realm that he will one day rule over as king. One of the most important themes of the play is the question of what makes a good king. Later, as Henry V, Hal becomes the best king England has ever known, and Shakespeare is suggesting that that is partly because of his education, which has given him intimate knowledge and understanding of all the levels and conditions of his realm.
Falstaff in Henry IV Part 2
Falstaff’s next appearance is in Henry IV Part 2. Hal, as King Henry V, assumes the dignities and responsibilities of the crown at the end of the play. He is approached by his old companion, Falstaff, looking for favours. In one of the most famous moments in Shakespeare’s plays, Hal publicly rejects the old man, as well as his disreputable gang.
Falstaff in Henry V
In Henry V we don’t see Falstaff as a dramatic character but instead, we get a moving account of his death. First, we see his friends talking about his condition. He is seriously il: they say he is dying of a broken heart because King Henry has rejected him. One of his women friends says, “The king has killed his heart.” and everyone nods in agreement. Soon after that, we hear that Falstaff is dead. There is a suggestion that he’s died from a nasty venereal disease. The landlady delivers a poignant speech in memory of her old friend.
Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor
According to tradition Queen Elizabeth so enjoyed Falstaff that she commanded Shakespeare to write another play about him. It’s a lovely tradition but unsupported by any evidence. However, the tradition may have sprung up more as a focused liking for Falstaff by London theatre-goers. Indeed, Shakespeare wrote a play with Falstaff as the principle character – The Merry Wives of Windsor in which Falstaff is an opportunistic and comically unsuccessful seducer.
Falstaff appears in numerous works of drama, fiction, poetry, and music. Two of the most famous appearances are Otto Nicolai’s 1849 opera, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, and Verdi’s Falstaff, both remaining among the most popular comic operas of the 19th century.
Top Falstaff Quotes
The better part of valour is discretion – Henry 1V Part 1, Act 5, Scene4
Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse ― Henry 1V Part 1, Act 2 Scene 4
A man of my kidney – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3 Scene 5
I hope good luck lies in odd numbers – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5 Scene 1
O powerful Love, that in some respects makes a beast a man, in some other a man a beast – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5 Scene 5
I think the devil will not have me damned, lest the oil that’s in me should set hell on fire – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5 Scene 5
Thou seest I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty – Henry 1V Part 1, Act 3 Scene 3
All? I know not what you call all, but if I fought not with fifty of them I am a bunch of radish. If there were not two- or three-and-fifty upon poor old Jack, then am I no two-legged creature – Henry 1V Part 1, Act 2 Scene 4