Excerpt – Shakespeare and Forgetting – by Peter Holland

Shakespeare and Forgetting coverShakespeare and Forgetting by Peter Holland considers how Shakespeare explores the concept of forgetting and how forgetting functions in performance.

The excerpt below focuses on the character of Sir John Falstaff, who appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Why do multiple characters struggle to remember Falstaff’s name?

Shakespeare and Forgetting was published in July by The Arden Shakespeare, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.


In Henry V, in the middle of the battle of Agincourt, as Fluellen is trying to cope with the traumatic impact on him of the slaughter of the boys, he constructs an elaborate comparison between Henry and Alexander, based on their places of birth and events in their lives. Just as Alexander when drunk killed his friend Cleitus, ‘so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet: he was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries and mocks; I have forgot his name.’ (4.7.46–50). What John Walter in his Arden 2 edition called ‘the delicious dissimilarity between the drunken Alexander killing Cleitus and the sober Henry turning away Falstaff’,13 we might see as less dissimilar. Though Gower says Henry ‘never killed any of his friends’, the audience has heard, much earlier, as the news of Falstaff’s serious illness is discussed, that, in Mistress Quickly’s mind, ‘The King has killed his heart.’ (2.1.87). And it is after the next scene, the one in which Henry orders the execution of the traitorous Scroop, another erstwhile friend, that Pistol announces baldly ‘Falstaff he is dead’ (2.3.6), which, since Mrs Quickly refers to him as ‘Sir John’ (2.1.116), is the only time we hear Falstaff’s name in this play until Gower fills in the blank in Fluellen’s memory: ‘I have forgot his name.’ ‘Sir John Falstaff.’ (4.7.49–51).

But how does Gower say the name? Immediately? After ransacking his brain for it? Helpfully? Surprised? Sympathetically? Tentatively? It’s just the name, nothing more, and elicits from Fluellen nothing more than ‘That is he.’ How can Falstaff’s name slip anyone’s mind, even in the middle of a battle, even after the terrible news of the murder of the boys in the camp?

Trauma affects memory, of course, but is that what Shakespeare wants us to be thinking about? We cannot forget Falstaff and so are probably less than sympathetic towards Fluellen’s lapse. The most memorable of the whole vast array of characters in the previous two plays in the cycle, someone whose death has been so poignantly mourned in this play, surely his name deserves to be remembered. As Hamlet says mockingly, when Ophelia reminds him that it is four months since his father’s death, (deliberately?) mishearing her ‘twice two months’, ‘O heavens – die two months ago and not forgotten yet? Then there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year!’ (3.2.124–6). The more we recall of the complexity of individuality that was Falstaff, the less we can accept the absence of his name. As Anne Barton argues, forgetting Falstaff’s name

seems a harsh fate for the man who once claimed that ‘I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name.’ (2 Henry IV, 4.2.18–20), not foreseeing that when the belly went the way of all flesh so would the name.

This was not the first time that Shakespeare had played on the forgettability of Falstaff’s name. In Merry Wives of Windsor, he wrote this exchange:

FORD
Where had you this pretty weathercock?
MISTRESS PAGE
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. – What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?
ROBIN
Sir John Falstaff.
FORD
Sir John Falstaff?
MISTRESS PAGE
He, he; I can never hit on’s name.
(3.2.16–22)

Gary Taylor argued that both moments of forgetting, Fluellen’s and Mrs Page’s, are simply and exclusively metatheatrical jokes, references to the name change Shakespeare had to make for the character, turning Oldcastle into Falstaff:

… slyly and ironically, Shakespeare reminds audiences of Sir John’s previous identity, and of ‘how [he has] been transformed’ … Mistress Page’s lapse of memory, in what was probably the first play Shakespeare finished after Sir John’s surname had been censored, has no dramatic point beyond its comic allusion to the confusion created by the change in name of an already famous character. An almost identical oblivion, equally pointless, overtakes Fluellen ….

It might well have been intended in that way and have been heard in that way by some, perhaps even many or most, of the audience. After all, at the end of Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare’s epilogue carefully explains, as he anticipates Henry V, in the event inaccurately, that ‘Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man’ (Epilogue 2.15). If, as is frequently argued, the Epilogue (or part of it at least, though perhaps not this part) was written to be spoken at court, in the presence of the Queen, then the concern over the character’s naming might well have been familiar to nearly all the audience. But I am fairly confident that the proportion of playgoers at the Globe or the Curtain (if this section of the Epilogue was written to be spoken at one or more performances in the public playhouse) who would have known about the name change would have been nothing like as high as at court.

Even if the argument for these passages being metatheatrical references in both Merry Wives and Henry V were proven and even if this were widely recognized among early playgoers, it has not been true for the playgoers who throughout the plays’ stage histories have heard these lines. Good performers of Mrs Page can make the moment very funny and Fluellen’s memory lapse has struck many as a strange moment. The former can have ‘dramatic point’ well beyond ‘its comic allusion to … the change in name’ and the latter is very far from being ‘equally pointless’.

Mrs Page’s mistake plays on the comedy of faked forgetting. I assume, given Mrs Quickly’s comment earlier that leads to Robin’s moving to the Page household (‘But Mistress Page would desire you to send her your little page, of all loves’ [2.2.108–9]), that Mrs Page knows Falstaff’s name perfectly well and simply pretends to have forgotten it in this conversation with Ford. Here forgettability is feigning, where Fluellen’s is markedly troubling, as it was to Anne Barton, as I quoted above.

Fluellen’s act of forgetting also mimics Henry’s deliberate forgetting as he turns Falstaff away: ‘I know thee not, old man’ (2H4, 5.5.46). Henry’s two uses of ‘old’ in this speech (‘so surfeitswelled, so old’) are the last of the more than forty times the word ‘old’ has resounded through the play: Falstaff who tells Mrs Quickly ‘I am old, I am old’, ‘old Double’, the ‘old King’, Mouldy’s ‘old dame’, ‘old mistress Ursula’ and many more. Henry’s deliberate refusal to identify Falstaff by name so that he becomes only an ‘old man’ is the denial of the reality of the particularity of Falstaff’s existence, that individuality that names confer and which the generic ‘old man’ effectively denies, a presence restricted only to the dream state from which Henry has ‘awaked’ and which he now ‘despise[s]’. Not knowing is to feign forgetfulness, to perform an act of consigning Falstaff to oblivion, of deliberate forgetting, of turning Falstaff away as he has ‘turned away my former self’. One failure of memory echoes, then, an act that will make Falstaff forgotten.


© Peter Holland, July 2021, Shakespeare and Forgetting, The Arden Shakespeare, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

One Comment


  • “We have heard the Chimes at Midnight Maatsre Robert Shallow!” “That we have Sir John, Oh! God the things we have seen!” My favorite all-time Shakespearean character! Good Sir John!


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