The Bard, William Shakespeare, is considered the most important playwright of the European Renaissance, if not the most important of all time. One of the reasons for his illustrious position in the world of literary studies is the characterizations that he creates in all of his plays. Each character is uniquely defined and highly memorable. Many of his characters are fictional but even the ones that are based on historical figures are portrayed with individual personalities in the Shakespearean versions of their lives. In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare illustrates a mythical version of one of the past Kings of England and how he developed from an immature young man into an idealistic and impervious ruler, capable of leading men both on the battlefield and in times of peace. The eponymous Henry, or Prince Hal as he is less formally called, is joined in his early debauchery by a group of sinful and boisterous companions, the most influential of which is the fictional character of Sir John Falstaff who would feature heavily in this play and in the subsequent stories of King Henry IV. This man who at first introduction seems a blustering, buffoonish sort is extremely important to the events of the play and, by implication and extension, to the history of the English monarchy and the ensuing war for the British lands.
Literary critics have spent a great deal of time considering the very name of the character of John Falstaff. Evidence exists that Shakespeare originally intended to give this odd man the name Oldcastle which has far more historical significance. The reason behind the name change has been most readily accepted as a concession to the royal family as the actual historical personage who bore that name was a supposedly respectable man who would not have considered the character based upon him to be anything close to a likeness, nor would he have found it at all complementary (Wilson). Historical evidence however shows that Oldcastle was reputedly quite more like Falstaff than either he or his descendants would have like to admit. According to historian Arthur Kinney:
Oldcastle's reputation long outlived the man, although it developed along two opposing paths of tradition. The path of anti-Wycliffite orthodoxy was hostile, promulgated by the poet Hoccleve, 8 in popular political verses, and in chronicles from that of Walsingham to that of Polydore Vergil. According to this line of thought, Oldcastle was frequently absent from Henry's wars and thought a coward; his Lollardism was seen as presumptuous and even diabolical, and his friendship with the King restricted to Henry's unregenerate early years (107).
Hence, his name was changed to John Falstaff which although unhistorical has a stronger reflection into the type of person that Falstaff is in Shakespeare's texts.
Etiologically, the words fall and staff indicate quite a bit about the character himself. The word fall has an obvious connotation with lack of equilibrium and distress. Those who quite often indulge in the imbibing of alcoholic beverages, such as Falstaff is depicted, are often called "fall down drunks" because the large amounts of alcohol in their systems makes it difficult to maintain verticality. Also, a staff is a device which is used in order for an individual to maintain balance when they have difficulty doing so of their own accord. Jointly, the impression that is given by Falstaff's name is a drunkard without internal balance, which is both a reflection on his alcoholism and his need to blame others or use others in order to progress in life. According to Robert Wilson, the name in its entirety "suggests an image of 'fallen staffs,' with staff here representing 'a pole used as a weapon' (199). This interpretation has a direct correlation to Falstaff's cowardly character and to his physical stance. He is now an old fat man who is past his physical prime. In essence, he is a fallen staff. If staff is taken in its religious contexts, such as the staff of a priest or bishop, then a fallen staff has the implication of a person who has betrayed the conventions and regulations of the Christian religion, which is reflective of the man's personal state, with his drunkenness and penchant for criminality and debauchery. Falstaff is not concerned with the tenets of the Christian religion or of the danger that may befall him in the afterlife for his indulgence in sin.
Physically, John Falstaff is initially described as an older man. At the very least he is middle aged while Prince Hal is barely of age. He is also described as fat. Quite often, Prince Hal derides Falstaff for his physical appearance and the fact that his girth leaves him ill-equipped to handle situations where physicality would be useful. Among the myriad of insults that are cast Falstaff's way are that he is a "stuffed cloak-bag of guts" (II.iv. 50). If one physical characteristic were to define the character of John Falstaff, it would be the fact the act that he is extremely fat. His girth is also reflective of his personality, that he always overindulges in whatever it is that he currently desires, whether that be alcohol, or food, or women, or money. In his article "Digesting Falstaff: Food and Nation in Shakespeare," author Joshua Fisher writes that Falstaff is identified with and by consumption. "Falstaff's excessive gluttony is emphasized from the start. According to Hal, why would Falstaff care about the time unless time was somehow a commodity that could be consumed to satisfy a hunger?" (Fisher 10). Falstaff is a glutton in every capacity of his existence.
In addition to his overindulgence in food, Sir John Falstaff is a complete and unrepentant drunk. "Everything that happens to Falstaff is an occasion for drinking; and the very symbol of his revels, and their natural by-product" (Tolman 45). As mentioned before, Falstaff is what many would consider a fall down drunk. He is constantly inebriated and is hardly ever seen in anything close to sobriety.
As for Falstaff's personality, it is seen in Henry IV, Part I that the man is extremely boastful. He has a strong tendency to tell stories wherein he comes off as an heroic figure while in reality he is a coward who will more than often run away from the slightest challenge rather than stand his ground. This is shown in the famous scene wherein Prince Hal and his friend Poins decide to dress up as robbers and steal the moneys off of Falstaff and three others, which those men had just stolen during a robbery of a coach. John Falstaff and the other men quickly run off, even though they outnumber their attackers two to one. When Falstaff returns to the ale house to inform Hal of what has just befallen them, the two attackers multiply rapidly until the story Falstaff tells has him single-handedly fighting off a whole band of vicious men all armed to the teeth, with courage and valiance which can only be classified as superhuman.
While at war in defense of the British crown, Falstaff does see action and is attacked. However, instead of attempting any act of heroism, the man falls down and pretends to be dead until the fighting has stopped. Later, when Prince Hal has killed his archenemy Hotspur, Falstaff miraculously recovers long enough to stab the corpse in the leg so that he can claim that he was in fact responsible for the death of the enemy (V.iv.3). There is nothing honorable in Falstaff's actions, nor in his attitude whatsoever. The man states unequivocally that he does not believe in honor or in performing actions for that reason. He says this quite eloquently by stating: "Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No…What is honour? A word (V.i.130-33). All that matters is the retention of life and if one has to sacrifice anything in the name of honor, and then it is useless to him. Pretending to be a corpse in the midst of such bloodshed and devastation is viewed by Prince Hal and by Falstaff in two directly opposing perspectives. Prince Hal sees it as an act of cowardice to mimic the dead, but Falstaff attributes the action to his own ingenuity and dedication to life. He says:
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit: to die,
Is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the Counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man:
But to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby
Liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and Perfect image of life indeed (V.iv.116- 22).
Human beings who die, for whatever reason, are the falser person because they are now only a shadow of their former selves, a counterfeit of a human being. Therefore, to pretend to be dead in order to outsmart a living foe is not any form of cowardice, in Falstaff's view. This scene is a perfect example of how…