Arts: The fat man in history

Falstaff is one of the great characters of Western literature, but he is not Shakespeare's exclusive creation. As Simon Callow prepares to play him, he explores the ancient roots of a mythic figure

Sir John Falstaff has been widely described as Shakespeare's greatest creation and his best loved character, which in the circumstances is no mean claim. The adjective "Falstaffian" has long passed into the language. We all know what it means: fat and frolicsome, gloriously drunk, bawdy, boastful, mendacious; disgraceful but irresistible; above all, fun. Not only, as he says in Henry IV Part Two, witty in himself, "but the cause that wit is in other men," Falstaff provokes cascades of comparisons both from critics and from his fellow characters in the play; to see him is to be irresistibly impelled to describe him.

Because of all this, we feel we are familiar with the character, comfortable with him; we know who he is. It is easy to overlook how original and unprecedented a creation Falstaff is. There is no other character in Shakespeare to match him; no other character in Western literature, as far as I am aware, quite like him. There are braggarts, innumerable sots and reprobates galore: in the theatre alone there is the miles gloriosus, the bragging soldier of the Roman comedy of Terence and Plautus; mischievous rogues are a staple of the city comedies of Johnson and his contemporaries; and comedy, from Aristophanes to Terry Johnson, could scarcely survive without the drunkard. There are even similar characters in Shakespeare: Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, elements of the Thersites of Troilus and Cressida. But even to mention these other characters is to affirm the uniqueness of Falstaff. In his never-failing wit, the abundance of his appetite and the bigness of his spirit, he contains - embodies, indeed - a life-force which is so overwhelming as to be beyond type, certainly beyond morality and even beyond psychology.

Above all, he is extraordinary in the two parts of Henry IV because of the relationship he has with the young Prince of Wales, soon to be the great warrior-king, Henry V. Here is the 17-year-old heir apparently choosing to spend his life with a debauched, besotted, monstrously fat old reprobate in an East End brothel. It is as if the young Prince Charles had slipped away from Buckingham Palace to hang out with Francis Bacon - except that Falstaff is not only debauched, he is positively criminal: he and his dubious cronies beat people up in dark alleys and take purses from innocent travellers; and the young Prince Henry is no constitutional monarch's son, he is the heir of the divinely anointed and absolute monarch, who in his very person is England. What is going on, then? Is this mere truancy? Is the boy simply getting it out of his system, sowing his wild oats? Or is there something deeper going on? It seems there is.

It would be one thing if Hal were to have taken up the company of tarts and pimps, or to be slumming around with chums of his own age and class, in the manner of Darius Guppy and the young Earl Spencer. But it is quite another for the prince to have adopted this old scoundrel not merely as a friend but as a mentor, and to have extended to him every appearance of love and tenderness. What do they want from each other, this odd couple? What Falstaff gets is, in a sense, obvious: the excitement of being so close to the heir to the throne, and the opportunity to practise his habitual lese-majeste at the closest quarters; and the delight of being connected to youth, the most gilded youth of all, clearly has a tonic effect on the old rascal. But what does Hal want from him? Alienated from his cold, anxious, controlling and guilt-ridden father, he has chosen Falstaff as a surrogate father, an antidote to the sterilised atmosphere of the court. He is liberated, relieved, made to think by this fallible, permissive, funny creature of animal warmth, who inverts the pieties and the truisms he has had dinned into him. It is with Falstaff that he discovers his humanity, the common touch which enables him to do what his father has never been able, to unify the kingdom and to reach out to his subjects in a way they can understand.

But Falstaff is just a phase he's going through, the supervisor of his rites of passage. To have this absurd, impudent figure at his side after he has ascended his throne would be out of the question. He has to go, as Hal understands from the beginning of the play; it is not a question of whether, but of when. The scene at the coronation in which Falstaff is rejected is upsetting and necessary; Old Hal makes way for New Hal, and Falstaff is his Clause Four.There is a sense of elation at the establishment of a new order, but also a sense of the price that has to be paid. "Banish plump Jack," Falstaff says in Part One, "and banish all the world." Not all the world, perhaps, but some rich, natural, flawed, human part of it without which we are all poorer. It is this theme that Orson Welles stressed when he made his version of the two plays which, with elegiac intent, he entitled Chimes at Midnight, focussing on the advancement towards kingship of Hal as he outgrows and outstrips both his fathers. For Welles the rejection of Falstaff was the death of Merrie England, with its natural harmony, and the birth of the modern world, willed and coldly realistic.

This is a convincing and effective conception of the plays. But as so often with Shakespeare, there is a sense of something else, deeper, stranger, behind the narrative, an impression of buried rituals, ancient lore, vanished conceptions, which account for the profundity of our response. England had undergone a profound change just before Shakespeare's lifetime with the Reformation, and it becomes more and more clear that the old faith, and the even older faith that it had absorbed, were still present, both in the dramatist's consciousness and that of his audience. The glorious, abundant, anarchic life in Falstaff, credible within the world of the play, has an additional energy which is also somehow pagan, primitive, even primal. Shakespeare's sources are diverse; first named Sir John Oldcastle, after the real-life rebel of that name, he was re-christened when Oldcastle's surviving family, the powerful Cobhams, objected to the scurrilous portrait Shakespeare presented. Sir John Fastolfe, whose name Shakespeare borrowed more or less at random, also existed, but bore no resemblance to the character in the play. But behind these shadowy historical personages lay another figure, one often referred to in the course of the plays: the Vice of the Medieval Morality Plays, with whom Falstaff is specifically identified again and again, corrupting the youthful hero and finally overcome himself. Dover Wilson's monograph, The Fortunes of Falstaff, makes a clear case for Shakespeare's re-working of this relationship.

Something in it does not ring true, however. It neither explains the loving warmth of Hal's feelings, nor does justice to the magnificence, the regal expansiveness of Falstaff's spirit. It was a little-known American anthropologist, the late Roderick Marshall, who pointed to the existence of another tradition which is more likely to be the underlying matrix of the character and the relationship. He identified Falstaff with a figure common to many cultures, known variously as the Substitute King, or the Inter-rex. When the Divine King in these cultures becomes ill or incapable, a Substitute King is sought from among the banished descendants of the Divine King of the previously conquered peoples; once captured, "this King for a day, a week or an indefinite period of atmospheric danger, has to perform rites of over-eating, over-drinking and excessive coupling ... to reinvigorate the reproductive powers of nature." His job is to initiate the heir of the Divine King into the rituals necessary to make the conquered soil flourish - secrets unknown to the conqueror.

The parallels with Falstaff, Hal and the ailing Henry IV are evident. Marshall identifies various figures in different cultures who correspond to the Inter-rex. Some are familiar and obviously Falstaffian: Silenos, grossly fat, drunken, debauched, was the tutor of Dionysos and was one of the pre-Athenian gods, the children of Kronos, whose task was to shriek, dance, and copulate as noisily as possible after midnight to waken the sun, which might otherwise slumber on indefinitely. Bes, the Egyptian god, tutor to Horus, is the god of life's pleasures, who presides over parties and children; he is described, in perfectly Falstaffian terms, as "the old man who renews his youth, the aged one who maketh himself again a boy." Janus, the Roman god, lord of the Saturnalia, is identified with the god of sowing and husbandry, and presides over "the golden age of eternal summer" - Merrie England by another name. It is at the Saturnalia that the declining powers of the sun are encouraged by sympathetic magic: roles are reversed, the Mock King is appointed, and perhaps at some point killed. "The whole state becomes childlike to encourage the sun to do the same." And thus, at the court of King Falstaff, Hal is able to become the child that his father's court refuses to indulge; and having been truly a child, he can then become truly a man.

These figures (and many more with similarities to Falstaff, always including great girth, bibulousness, hairiness, great age and seeming agelessness, profanity, sedition and endless wit) suggest the profundity of the archetype: but how did they filter through to Shakespeare? Marshall suggests a link. Researching the 17th century Mummer plays, which almost certainly derive from folk plays which Shakespeare may well have known, Marshall was struck by the familiar pattern of the characters: the leading character simply called the Presenter but also known as the Recruiting Sergeant, Fool, Clown and Father Christmas; his wife Mother Christmas, also known as Dolly; the subsidiary characters Little Devil Don't and Old Tossip, the red-nosed drunk, his followers; and Saint George, also known as King George or any other English King, including Henry. Father Christmas is fat, red-faced, wears bullock's horns and has a bladder. He is "in many ways a bearded child who ... though just turned into his 99 years of age ... can hop skip and jump like a blackbird in a cage." Father Christmas helps the King to fight two battles, but, like Falstaff, he is dismissed and dies.

Falstaff is part of the culture of fertility which underlies our civilisation. We may control fertility, chemically and socially, but the grand patterns of human nature will not be so easily manipulated. Hal's initiation and growth to manhood can only be achieved as a result of a negotiation with nature, a negotiation which we have largely abandoned. It is salutary to think that as recently as 400 years ago, the greatest genius of the language placed a primitive figure right at the centre of his great saga of English life.

'Chimes at Midnight' runs at the Chichester Festival until 5 September (01723 784437)

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