Sir John Falstaff: Who ate all the pies?

He's fat, he's round, his social footing is unsound. Not only that, Sir John Falstaff is drunk, dishonest, debt-ridden, whining, manipulative, self-deluding and cowardly. Mind you, he is witty and sly as a fox. But then he'd have to be to get away with the rest of it. Paul Taylor goes in search of the ultimate Englishman

He's a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. Yet he's been glowingly described as "the personification of England". He'll do anything with a debt but honour it, and makes light of accepting bribes from fit men and leading a troop of 150 decrepit soldiers to their deaths. Yet he's also taken, at his own admiring estimate, as a great booster-jab of infectious liveliness: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men." He has a spectacular obesity problem and he's referred to - with epic freedom from euphemism - as "that swoll'n parcel of dropsies", "that stuff'd cloak-bag of guts", "this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this hill of flesh" - a man who secretes sweat in such quantities that he "lards the lean earth as he walks along". Yet his most prominent characteristic, according to many commentators, is his "jubilant brain". Meet, if you will, Sir John Falstaff.

He's a drunk, a liar, and a cheat. Yet he's been glowingly described as "the personification of England". He'll do anything with a debt but honour it, and makes light of accepting bribes from fit men and leading a troop of 150 decrepit soldiers to their deaths. Yet he's also taken, at his own admiring estimate, as a great booster-jab of infectious liveliness: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men." He has a spectacular obesity problem and he's referred to - with epic freedom from euphemism - as "that swoll'n parcel of dropsies", "that stuff'd cloak-bag of guts", "this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this hill of flesh" - a man who secretes sweat in such quantities that he "lards the lean earth as he walks along". Yet his most prominent characteristic, according to many commentators, is his "jubilant brain". Meet, if you will, Sir John Falstaff.

The great critic William Empson wrote that "To stretch one's mind all round Falstaff is hard", a remark that wittily implies that to circumnavigate the physical girth of him would be no easy schlep either. The dimensions (mythic and fleshly) of Shakespeare's fat knight awed Ralph Richardson, one of the greatest portrayers of Falstaff on the 20th-century stage. "Not until you play Falstaff do you realise how small the mere actor is... It's like trying to play a huge organ with too vast a keyboard to reach the steps up at the top and down at the bottom at one and the same time." Through the two parts of Henry IV, "Falstaff proceeds," said Richardson, "at his own chosen pace, like a gorgeous ceremonial Indian elephant". Now just about to open as Sir John in Nick Hytner's National Theatre production of this Shakespearean diptych is the man who, quite early in his career, was dubbed by Richardson as "the great Gambon". Anticipation is keen - the fleshy, raffish, ruminative and deep Michael Gambon would seem to be the most natural choice for the role since the late Robert Stephens gave a dark-stained, brooding, Rembrandtesque interpretation of the part for Adrian Noble and the RSC in the early 1990s. Matthew Macfadyen co-stars as Hal, the Prince of Wales who tactically slums it with this alternative father-figure in the fleshpots of Eastcheap before dramatically disowning him ("I know thee not, old man") in a calculated public-relations exercise when he assumes the throne. This lusciously cast, eagerly awaited opening prompts a reconsideration of the fantastical phenomenon that is Falstaff.

The fat knight features in four of Shakespeare's plays - fully-fledged in the two parts of Henry IV; in diminished form as an outwitted would-be adulterer amongst the respectable middle-classes in The Merry Wives of Windsor; and in Henry V, where he does not appear in person but where the nostalgia-coloured report of his affecting offstage death ("babbling of green fields") arguably starts that process of sentimentalisation of the character discernible in the subsequent critical tradition.

But Falstaff is also one of those figures who refuse to stay within the confines of the works of art in which they make their first appearance. It is no coincidence that it is Falstaff, whose legend quickly preceded him as far as the outermost tip of his stomach precedes his backside, inspired one of the earliest pieces of extended character criticism in English literature. In 1777, a politician and philosopher named Maurice Morgann published his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff. An idealistic and highly subjective attempt to prove that the fat knight was not a coward but a man of honour, the piece soon finds itself equipping the character with a virtuous past and a speculative biography. Falstaff is swiftly promoted from being a character in a set of plays to a less bounded novelistic existence and thence to being thought a real person.

From which it is a short step to becoming an icon. Everyone wants shares in his creative afterlife - composers as diverse as Verdi, Vaughan Williams (whose opera Sir John in Love is to get a rare revival at the English National Opera in 2006), Salieri and Elgar and novelists that range from Herman Melville (who wrote, in fact, an intriguing poem entitled "Falstaff's Lament over Prince Hal Become Henry V": "Come, drawer, more sack here/ To drown discontent,/ For now intuitions/ Shall wither to codes,/ Pragmatized morals/ Shall libel the gods") to Robert Nye whose award-winning 1976 feat of fictional impersonation (the world according to an 81-year-old Falstaff) presents him as an "English Bacchus", a kind of scapegrace fertility god who was conceived on the mighty penis of the Cerne Abbas Giant. And not forgetting film-makers such as Orson Welles whose Chimes at Midnight (1965) is an intensely personal meditation on the Falstaff plays.

As we shall see, Nick Hytner thinks it important to keep the Shakespeare character distinct from his posthumous publicity - publicity which, he'd rightly argue, includes the work of critics who imagine they are interpreting the knight as embodied by the Bard but who, in fact, are projecting their own desires upon him.

It's a most revealing exercise to ask people who are the most "Falstaffian" figures of recent times. Revealing not so much about the nature of the Shakespearean Falstaff as about how promiscuously applicable and shrunken the term has become. You begin to imagine that the only qualifications you now need to be called Falstaffian are a weight problem and a healthy/unhealthy appetite for food and drink. The suggestions I received ranged from John Mortimer (who is far too assiduous and knowing) to Clarissa Dickson Wright (in her hard-drinking days), taking in along the way such seemingly plausible candidates as Nicholas ("Fatty") Soames. As a crony of the Prince of Wales and a good trencherman, Soames might seem to fit the bill. The missing ingredient is the wily, never-stumped intelligence that enables Falstaff to be such a genius at escape-artistry, ever-ready with the fertile improvised excuse that, even if it does not convince, will charm his accusers into submission. Even Soames's mother is genially willing to allow that her son is not over- endowed with grey matter. In Richard Eyre's reign at the National Theatre, Mary Soames was chairman of the board of governors. He records in his Diaries how, after John Major had left one reception, Mary told everyone to relax and sent Nicholas off to get more drink. "As he left the room, she said, 'He's frightfully nice, but frightfully stupid.' Nicholas came straight back: 'Maasie, are you talking about me?' 'Yes, darling, and you know it's true.'" Falstaff's mama (God help her) could never have had such an exchange with her boy.

One thing is certain, though. Falstaff is a deeply English creation. To assess the truth of this, you need only look at the drama of a culture contemporary with Shakespeare. We have had the opportunity of late to revel in the relatively unexplored riches of Spanish Golden Age theatre thanks to the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent season, and wonderful one-off productions such as the revival by Rufus Norris at the Young Vic of Lope de Vega's tragedy Peribanez. A cardinal difference between this world and the world of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is the Hispanic obsession with the code of honour. As distinct from the guilt culture of the Protestant north, these Spanish plays spring from the shame culture of hot Mediterranean climes where life is lived more communally out of doors and reputations are consequently at greater risk. The downside of being able to get a terrific natural tan is that you would, as a male in those circumstances, probably wind up having to fight a duel every other day.

Wittgenstein's somewhat gnomic remark that "If a lion could speak, we would not understand it" becomes a whole lot clearer if you try to imagine the rigid, honour-mad folk in these plays trying to fathom the pragmatic, larger-than-life Falstaff and his own sentiments on the subject. He would sound to them like an incomprehensible alien: "Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? What is honour? A word. What is that word 'honour'? Air. A trim reckoning." To be sure, the Spanish plays offer astringent critiques of the honour code, but these come from demonstrating the hypocrisy to which it leads and the extent to which it is mostly show. A Spanish nobleman who took Falstaff's disreputable, easy-going attitude is inconceivable. The fat knight would have had a lean time of it over there.

Nick Hytner, who is directing the new National Theatre production of the two parts of Henry IV, thinks that Falstaff represents something "distinctively English" because "our whole political history shows an evolving mistrust of absolutism and our dramatic literature is always fascinated by the place where authority exists". It's for fear of meeting anyone with Falstaffian inclinations, he argues, that top politicians in the current election campaign are so protected from having to go out on the stumps. But Hytner is also dismissive of the kind of sentimentalisation of Falstaff that "allows a certain lecherous kind of ageing drunk to identity with him". Sir Les Patterson were he ever to find himself obliged, as cultural attaché, to sit through the Henry IV plays would doubtless finger the fat knight as being an olde-worlde precursor of his own good self, quite a dab hand with the tinnies and the Sheilas (or the less user-friendly equivalents of these in those far off days). Where Falstaff had got things less sussed than Sir Les, Sir Les might think, is in having no decoy-wife and/or any political benefits of being a robust but bogus card-carrying Christian. In Sir Les's indispensable book, The Traveller's Tool, (a veritable vade mecum to "gratuitous behaviour"), he tells us that her experiences as mature student are making his spouse Gwen doubt in the existence of a Superior Being: "Now I'm no bloody saint for Christ's sake, but I yield to no one in my abhorrence of elitist Uni-types bucketing the Good Book. Are you with me?" Falstaff needs no lessons from anyone in tactical hypocrisy, but that kind of crass cant would, you feel, make him want to chunder.

Of course, identification with the fat knight is endemic among creative and critical folk. In a recent lecture to celebrate the 400th birthday of Don Quixote (Falstaff's dreamy, idealistic anti-type), the novelist Margaret Atwood made the following remark about the many metamorphoses of interpretation of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance: "He becomes - it seems - whoever is reading him." This recalls Orson Welles in the pre-publicity to Chimes at Midnight, his Falstaff-centred distillation of five of Shakespeare's history plays: "Falstaff is the best role that Shakespeare ever wrote. He is as outsize a character as Don Quixote. I've always wanted to play him, which is unusual, as there are very few characters who really tempt me as an actor. Chimes at Midnight will be a dark comedy, the story of the betrayal of a friendship..."

Opening in a snow-covered landscape, Welles's Falstaff is seen on one of his intermittent visits to his doddering friend, Justice Shallow, in Gloucestershire. The pair of oldsters are seated by a fire. "Jesu, the days that we have seen," quavers Shallow. "We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Shallow," replies our hero. Cue a flashback to the past that is more tragic than comic, possibly because, by the 1960s, Welles had come to identify with the melancholy and self-pitying side of Falstaff, who is presented as the straightforward victim of Hal's duplicity. A more complexly dark vision of the character was given by Robert Stephens in the early 1990s RSC version. When he uttered the line, "If I had a thousand sons..." his voice caught slightly on the words as though they had brought him short and you got a sudden sense of a whole hinterland of essential loneliness and regret in this childless man.

Rather than try (in Empson's words) to get their minds round the whole complex circumference of Falstaff, people tend to take the bit they need and use it as a symbol. In his Back to Methuselah cycle, George Bernard Shaw imagined a future society in which the people have erected a statue to Falstaff. It's often said that no one ever erected a statue to a critic, but they are surely nearly as rare in relation to cowards. But, almost along the "happy is the society that needs no hero" Brechtian lines, the people here have become so battered by relentless war that cowardice has become a civic virtue, and one that publicly recognised in this monument to Shakespeare's fat scapegrace.

It was Shaw who wrote admiringly that in his Falstaff - Symphonic Study in C minor, Edward Elgar had "made the [orchestra] do it all, and with such masterful success that one cannot bear to think of what would have been the result of a mere attempt to turn [the two parts of Henry IV] into an opera." In Falstaff, his last, late masterpiece, Verdi and his librettist Boito had taken The Merry Wives of Windsor and brilliantly re-infused the hero with some of the complexity that he has in the Henry IV plays (the speech about "honour" is imported and turned into a glorious, if creakily motivated aria). Most composers plump for Merry Wives and operatic form. Elgar chose the earlier, better dramas and wordless programme music that evocatively encompasses everything from wide-compassed fortissimi which parade the hero's booming boastfulness and gargantuan mendacity to a lovely nostalgic "dream-picture", inspired by the single line "He was page to the Duke of Norfolk", an interlude of transfiguration that has no counterpart in the plays. On a much higher level, we are back here, though, with the impressionistic and novelistic Falstaff of Maurice Morgann whose rather rose-tinted view of our hero as "a knave without malice, a liar without deceit; and a knight, a gentleman and a soldier" was a spur to Elgar's work.

It has been said of Verdi's Falstaff that he is "the amoral connoisseur of his own prodigious powers of creative self-transformation; he is his own work of art, and even relishes the distance separating his virtuoso performances from their occasion and audience". But in the broad-canvassed national epic of the Henry IV plays, Falstaff has to fit into a carefully constructed pattern of father-figures (including the grim Lord Chief Justice) who compete for the soul of the future monarch. One of the key problems for any actor (or director) approaching the part is finding the precise psychological motivation behind Falstaff's outrageous milking of his own myth. Portrayals have ranged from the largely cynical (John Woodvine in the English Stage Company's Wars of the Roses marathon) to the largely genial (Desmond Barrit in the RSC's version of the same). The poet Coleridge had an intriguing theory about this. "Falstaff was no coward," he declared, "but pretended to be one merely for the sake of trying experiments on the credulity of mankind; he was a liar with the same object, and not because he loved falsehood for itself. He was a man of such pre-eminent abilities as to give him a profound contempt for all those by whom he was usually surrounded, and to lead to a determination on his part, in spite of their fancied superiority, to make them his tools and dupes."

Coleridge's assessment piquantly recalls a recent anecdote that has been told about Michael Gambon. In a bar with friends, Sir Michael concocted the fantasy that in England a knight of the realm has a kind of droit de seigneur that allows him to sleep with any woman that he fancies. This joke was shared, straight-faced, with some female fellow-drinkers. But in the report that I heard, Gambon pushed the jest further. He went to the bar, got the women on the gag, and gobsmacked his friends by walking out with a lady on each arm. If true, it's pure Falstaff - though without the contempt that Coleridge probably rightly sees in the fat knight's experiments in testing human nature.

"I don't want to make a case against Falstaff. I just want to redress the balance against the sentimentalisation," says Hytner. The director sees the fat knight as a study in "hunger for experience. He goes into battle not as a coward or a beggar but as someone who is looking for what he can get out of it. He has a relish even for the avoidance of danger. There is a kind of absolutism about his search for immediate self-gratification."

There's an appealing side to that, but it should not blind you, argues Hytner, to the sheer selfishness in all of Falstaff's relations - even with Hal whom he professes to love. He may be better and more humanising company than the Lord Chief Justice, but the idea that Falstaff has Hal's best interests at heart does not survive a close look at the text: "When he looks forward to Hal's kingship, all he's concerned about is his own power and influence in the new reign." Moreover, Hytner insists, he betrays his young friend repeatedly, not least when he muscles in and takes false credit for killing Hotspur, the almost idolised arch-rival whose defeat he knew had such personal significance for the prince.

William Empson once wrote that Falstaff was the first great joke about the English class system, an attempt to see just how much a gentleman could get away with while remaining a gentleman, or at least a "gentleman". It's significant that with the next historical strand of well-placed wastrel - the Restoration rake - the equation alters. With them, the "kind of absolutism about the search for self-gratification" about which Hytner speaks, becomes a systematic almost nihilistic philosophy, most compellingly and wittily exemplified by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Here it's not a case of seeing how much you can get away with and stay a gentleman, it's a matter of being obliged to go to the limits of decadence in order to qualify as a gentleman. In a letter to his friend, Henry Savile, Rochester quotes and makes reference to Falstaff, "Harry, If sack and sugar be a sin, God help the wicked, was the saying of a merry fat gentleman, who lived in days of yore, loved a glass of wine, would be merry with a friend, and sometimes had an unlucky fancy for a wench." It's hard to gauge the tone of that. Is the affection cynical, with the implication that this loveable old cove had a pretty cosy time of it by comparison with us connoisseurs of strenuous depravity? Or can it be that our hero has even managed to seduce this thoroughgoing cynic.

Falstaff can clearly be an intoxicant. Listening to some critics on him (the name Harold Bloom will not pass my lips), you're reminded of a host parading a guest of honour around at a party and over-revelling in the reflected glory. The fat knight is not only inebriated himself, but the cause that inebriation is in others. It will be good to have a production that offsets this irresistibility by according his more sobering aspects their due.

Meaty in more senses than one, Gambon has both the physical presence (massive and yet capable of surprising delicacy) and the capaciousness of mind (that incorporates, so to speak, the deep melancholy of a real thinker as well as the nimble craftiness of the roué and liar) which are needed to embody the many contradictions in this man. Looked at in one light, Falstaff is like the love-child of Dr Johnson and James Boswell. He subsumes the robust, talkative, humorously generalising power and underlying sadness of the one and the debauched scapegrace qualities of the other. He is the spirit of the incorrigible and the irrepressible incarnate. This is symbolised not just when he springs up from his fraudulent pose as a corpse on the battlefield in the first part of Henry IV, but by the outrageous resurrection act he continues to perform throughout art. Even in the later autumnal Shakespeare comedy All's Well That Ends Well, the Falstaff spirit descends like a brief last-minute blessing on an out-and-out coward Parolles, who has got himself into a more painful and humiliating version of the kind of scrape from which the fat knight would have extricated himself with ease. But the abject, hounded Parolles suddenly rallies: "Simply the thing I am shall make me live," he declares. That momentary guest appearance, when he has supposedly been killed off in an earlier work, is a good example of how, both inside Shakespeare and in the culture in general, Falstaff continues to be the wittiest and the weightiest of escape-artists.

'Henry IV Part 1' and 'Henry IV Part 2': NT Olivier, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), now previewing, opens Wednesday, in rep to 31 August

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