Falstaff: Friend or Father Figure?
When studying the characters of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, one can not help but observe Falstaff. Falstaff is considered by many to be one of the greatest comic inventions ever. Critics have called Falstaff everything ranging from a buffoon to “an instance of the predominance of intellectual power” (Coleridge cited in Hemingway 418). He is by far one of the most dynamic characters ever constructed by Shakespeare. Yet, “the question persists, ‘wherein is Falstaff good, but to taste sack and drink it? Wherein worthy, but in nothing?'” states Charlton (cited in Hemingway 446). Falstaff’s main purpose in the play is to provide the audience a character to laugh at, in what would be – with the absence of Falstaff – an extremely serious historical play. His grotesque bodily features and his constant yearn for sack tends to add to the comedy of his constant lies and allusions. Schlegel states, “His contemptible qualities are not disguised: old, lecherous, dissolute; corpulent beyond measure; constantly in debt and unscrupulous in the choice of means for procuring money; a cowardly soldier, and a lying braggart; a flatterer to the face, and a satirist behind the backs of his friends; – and yet we are never disgusted with him.” (cited in Hemingway 418) Falstaff’s underlying purpose of the play is to act as a father figure to Hal, Henry IV. So, how does a man of such a personality attract noble followers such as Hal? In order for us to answer this question we must first observe the character of Hal. Hal can be compared to a chameleon. At the beginning of the play, the audience witnesses Hal’s constant indulgence in drink and pranks. But, as the play progresses the audience begins to realize that behind the drunken escapades of Hal and his friends, lies a “man” who is both intellectual and honorable – traits that embody a successful King. Although it is not specifically stated, Hal benefits greatly from his experiences with thieves and rogues. From his companions he sees the commoner’s approach to everyday life. He not only experiences the life of nobility, but he also tastes the excitement of being a rebel. The greatness that is later bestowed to Henry IV stems from Hal’s experiences with both the commoners and those of the royal family. Knight describes Hal’s relationship with his friends best by stating, “He is a gentleman; a companion, indeed, of loose revellers, but one who infinitely prefers the excitement of their wit to their dissipation.” (cited in Hemingway 459) Now the question arises, what is Hal’s relationship to Falstaff?
Hal is definitely attracted to Falstaff’s quick wit and loathsome ways. Hal’s attraction to Falstaff may best be described by Schlegel’s interpretation of Falstaff – “he is an admirable companion for youthful idleness and levity. Under a helpless exterior, he conceals an extremely acute mind He is so convinced that the part which he plays can only pass under the cloak of wit, that even when alone he is never really serious.” (cited in Hemingway 418) Falstaff embodies the characteristics that Hal wishes to poses but cannot because of his status as Prince. Because Hal has to maintain a decent reputation, he surrounds himself with these robbers and buffoons such as Falstaff to stimulate and amuse him, knowing that when the time comes for him to reign, he will abandon his easily disposable friends. At the beginning of the play Hal’s most favorable companion seems to be Falstaff. But as the play progresses to the battle of Shrewsbury, we begin to see how devoted Hal is to his so-called friends in his what at the time seems to be Falstaff’s eulogy speech. As Prince Hal stands over Falstaff he says, “I could have better spared a better man. O, I should have a heavy miss of thee, If I were much in love with vanity!” (Shakespeare cited in Abrams 546) However, it is known that Hal is not much in love with vanity. Now that we have examined the relationship of Hal to Falstaff, let’s examine the association of Falstaff to Hal. Throughout the play, Falstaff tries to take Hal under his wing. He tries to show Hal the better things of life, and to Falstaff these things consist of drink and games. Falstaff tries to play the role of a father figure to Hal because Henry III is seemingly nonexistent as a father. Falstaff is constantly trying to win over Hal’s appreciation by exaggerating his tales and matching wits with whomever he wishes. Falstaff’s true love for Hal is evident in part two of Henry IV. After assuming the crown, Hal chooses to forget his friend Falstaff. Because of Falstaff’s dismissal to the Fleet and his rejection from his at one time friend Hal- perhaps his only friend, Falstaff dies a subsequent death from a broken heart.
So, is Falstaff a friend or a father figure to Prince Hal? It really depends on whose eyes you are viewing it from. If you were viewing it from Hal’s eyes, Falstaff would be nothing but a disposable friend that is good for a laugh or two when you are bored. If you are viewing it from Falstaff’s point of view, Falstaff is a kindhearted man who tries to benefit young Hal by showing him the better things of life. Even though there is evidence of Hal using Falstaff for a short-term friend, there is more logic in saying that Falstaff did play the role of a father to Hal, thus having a positive influence on Hal’s life. In return, Falstaff also benefited from his relationship with Hal by gaining prestige and having a friend to share his days with. J. Dover Wilson sums up Falstaff best by saying, “He is an emancipated spirit, free of all the conventions, codes, and moral ties that enwrap us What we chiefly admire him for is his abounding vitality. Falstaff is more than man; he is, like all great mythological figures, the incarnation of a principle of the universe.He is the Joy of Life, exuberant, intoxicating, and irrepressible.” (cited in Hemingway 439)