The Shakespeare tragedy that truly speaks to us now

Drunken knight John Falstaff is no-one’s idea of a tragic hero. But in our pandemic age of increasing inequality, the sadness of his story hits harder than ever, writes Sally Bayley

There may be Shakespeare characters who are more celebrated, or whose tragedies are grander, but perhaps none is as easy to empathise with as John Falstaff, the portly knight of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor.  John Falstaff, that charismatic drunk, who lodges at the Boar’s Head Tavern and keeps company with Prince Henry, aka Hal, soon to be Henry V; the chaotic old man who distracts the young prince from his more serious business of becoming king.

We feel a certain sympathy for Falstaff because he is a dependent: in need of company, food and fellowship, of social acceptance. He reminds us how in need we all are. As US critic Harold Bloom put it about his own very intimate relationship with Falstaff as a boy of 12: “I turned to him out of need because I was lonely.” Falstaff reminds us we are all children at heart wanting love and attention, family and community. Rejection and isolation are never far away for any of us. We relate to the disreputable Falstaff as a wayward form of kin, a relative in need of reforming, a character in whom we see aspects of our own dented personalities: the character who tells lies and improvises his story when under pressure; who speaks wittily through his drink. You might say he speaks wittily because of his drink and not much else, because Falstaff is not a man of action. He fails to carry out the Gadshill robbery plot planned in the first part of Henry IV, and instead, runs away from his assailants. Despite this, he is ready with a tall tale to impress his audience. But what else does Falstaff have to rely on but his capacity for consumption of dry white wine or ‘sack’, and his gift of the gab?

Falstaff (seen here in an illustration by George Cruickshank) is known for his carousing, but there is a deeper poignancy to the character (Credit: Alamy)

In 2021, as we approach Shakespeare’s putative birthday tomorrow, there are more profound reasons why his character is pertinent. During this difficult year of lockdowns and isolation, Falstaff has emerged in my mind as a potent symbol of dispossession and social misfortune. His status is painfully precarious, depending upon the good grace and favour – as well as the good humour – of his friend and associate, the future King of England. It is the two Henry IV plays that most firmly announce his character: his capacity for banter and word play, his role as the butt of jokes and sharp repartee, which often go too far. In the end, though, Falstaff most endures in the imagination because of that unforgettable denunciation at the end of the second part of Henry IV by his former friend, who is now King Henry V: “I know thee not old man, fall to thy prayers.” We feel for Falstaff because of his sudden loss of royal favour, his rapidly sinking  patronage, as he is publicly rebuked and cast out from the social order.

Falstaff is the man of the current moment in a world asking us to reconsider who we are both publicly and privately. Lockdown has forced us all to come to terms with sudden reversals in our mode of living and working; to face our shifting public and private reputations, our social standing. History seems to have been radically interrupted as we rush into rapid and jerry-rigged arrangements.  Those of us fortunate enough to do so are now working from home, compressed into the narrow space of our laptop screen.

Aged 14, I adopted Falstaff as my outsider friend during a time when I was looking for a way out of my dysfunctional childhood home

But the pandemic has exposed the harsh differences between those who can live through a computer and those whose lives do not afford even the most basic necessities. By the end of June 2020, research from UK homeless charity Shelter showed that 98,300 homeless households were living in temporary accommodation, a rise of 7% in just three months and 14% in a year. Meanwhile a report this month in Time looked at how,  in West Virginia in the US, the spread of Covid meant that the essential work of homeless charities was ended; soon after, the homeless population began to die in increased numbers: not from the virus, but from lack of basic food and shelter. “There was not one indoor place to go from March until fall of 2020” said one regional charity worker. Globally, Covid has dramatically exacerbated all the harsh inequalities we already knew were there.

How, I wonder, would the impoverished Falstaff have fared during this extended period of lockdown? As a literary character, he experiences a dramatic reversal of fortune from the man in history to the character we meet in Shakespeare’s plays. The Falstaff of history is based on the character of Sir John Oldcastle, a Protestant martyr who stood by his beliefs in the face of Catholic oppression. Oldcastle was also a courageous knight who served under Henry IV in France and Wales, famous for his show of military courage. Shakespeare’s fictional knight is quite the reverse: he is a coward who runs away from the Battle of Shrewsbury on July 1403; he is the old man who leads Prince Henry, and the future King of England, into disrepute: to drinking and carousing at the Boar’s Head Tavern. But there is a deeper sadness to Falstaff’s trajectory, and one that resonates more intimately with our contemporary situation. Falstaff spends most of his time “fast asleep behind the arras” – the arras being that tapestry or wall hanging that stands in for a separate room. His sleeping arrangements, like his days, are chaotic and out of time, dependent upon pleading yet another favour with the hostess of the tavern, Mistress Quickly, to whom he is indebted.

A personal resonance

Falstaff’s story has a particular personal resonance with me. As such, he is the central character of my recent book, No Boys Play Herethe second part of a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story. Aged 14, I adopted Falstaff as my outsider friend during a time when I was looking for a way out of my dysfunctional childhood home. In 1986, I was reading about Falstaff and his friend, Prince Hal, on top of Highdown Hill in West Sussex. As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, my seaside town of Littlehampton was becoming increasingly deprived, while the remnants of the middle class moved out. In some sense, my hometown was being banished from the national imagination, as Falstaff is from Hal’s imagination, relegated to the side lines of history. I imagined Falstaff had come to live with us and was snoring down in the cellar where I read my Shakespeare borrowed from the local library.        


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