Emma Smith on Falstaff: An excerpt from ‘This Is Shakespeare’

This is Shakespeare book coverShakespeare scholar Emma Smith takes 20 chapters to discuss 20 different Shakespeare plays in her new book This Is Shakespeare, offering insights on key characters, plot twists, and performance challenges. The excerpt below, which focuses on the character of Falstaff and his physical description, comes from the chapter on 1 Henry IV, the play where Falstaff makes his first appearance.

Smith, who has been featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast in episodes about Shakespeare myths and the First Folio, is lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, and a Fellow of Hertford College.

This Is Shakespeare by Emma Smith is available now in the UK from Pelican Books, and will be published in the US by Pantheon in April 2020. The excerpt below is used with permission

Fat, dodgy, cash-strapped, self-interested Falstaff. In inventing this anti-hero, Shakespeare had launched a cultural phenomenon that he milked in two further plays: the success of 1 Henry IV was the success of Falstaff.

So what made Falstaff so compelling? Why did Elizabethans recognize Falstaffs in the world around them, when they did not, for example, see Hamlets? Why did this character come alive for audiences in a way that no other Shakespearean character did? Crucial to Falstaff ’s characterization is his morbid obesity. Hal’s first words to him in the play’s second scene call him ‘fat- witted’ (1.2.2), and there is constant banter about his appetite for food and drink. Other names for Falstaff reiterate his size: ‘fat- guts’ (2.2.31), ‘whoreson round man’ (2.5.140), ‘fat rogue’ (2.5.548), ‘a gross fat man’ ‘as fat as butter’ (2.5.517). ‘How long is’t ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?’ goads Hal, as Falstaff blames sighs and griefs for blowing him up like a bladder (2.5. 330– 31). When Hal advises him to hide on the ground during a trick, Falstaff asks if he has ‘any levers to lift me up again’ (2.2.34). In an important sequence in 2.5 where Hal and Falstaff rehearse in the tavern an interview between the prince and his father, Falstaff ’s fatness and its interpretation is their main topic of conversation. Ventriloquizing his father’s disapproval, Hal (playing the king) addresses Falstaff (as if he were the prince): ‘There is a devil haunts thee in the likeness of an old fat man; a tun of man is thy companion’ (2.5. 452– 3). He extemporizes an extravagant sequence of similes for Falstaff ’s size: ‘that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-beg of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly’ (2.5. 454– 8). Falstaff sticks up for himself against this fat-shaming: ‘If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved’ (2.5. 477– 8), referring to the cattle that are the biblical symbols of famine in Joseph’s dream. Images of bulk, size and, above all, fatness, pepper the play. It is impossible to get away from the fact that Falstaff is fat.

It’s worth stepping back a moment to see how unusual this level of physical description is in Shakespeare’s writing. Very few characters in Shakespeare are given specific physical characteristics. […] While we know that Shakespeare writes with a definite group of actors in mind – the Lord Chamberlain’s Men where he was actor, resident playwright and shareholder – he seems more interested in their acting ability than their physical appearance. So what? Well, Falstaff ’s fatness is the most thoroughgoing physical designation we ever get in Shakespeare, or, to put it another way, Falstaff is the most insistently physical character Shakespeare ever wrote.

One Comment

  • Descriptions were as is Falstaff’s
    Replies very entertaining- for someone so grossly unattractive, he is amazingly comfortable in his on skin (or fat). Perhaps there is something to be noted in our time of physical self-consciousness.

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