Mediterranean Falstaff


Giorgio Melchiori

Shakespeare, Harold Bloom maintains, is "the centre of the Western Canon"`[1], and he places Falstaff and Hamlet at the centre of the Shakespeare canon. He remarks that had Shakespeare died at the time when Marlowe was murdered in 1593, "he would have compared poorly with Marlowe". But in the five years after 1593 Shakespeare created a new kind of stage character, light years beyond Marlowe’s talents. … By 1598 Shakespeare is confirmed, and Falstaff is the angel of the confirmation. … Sir John Falstaff is so original and so overwhelming that with him Shakespeare changes the entire meaning of what it is to have created a man made out of words[2]. Bloom is obviously thinking in terms of the Falstaff appearing in the two parts of Henry IV and by no means of the character that has gained tremendous popularity among non-English audiences in the comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor. In fact, in his next book on Shakespeare[3] Bloom, while devoting no less than forty four pages to Henry IV, confines Merry Wives to hardly four pages, and the comedy is hardly mentioned in Frank Kermode’s recent study of Shakespeare's language[4]. Both critics recognize in Merry Wives only one merit. Bloom, though considering it Shakespeare's slightest comedy, comments that "nobody can wholly dislike what became the basis for Verde's Falstaff [5]". Kermode remarks in passing: Perhaps the playas greatest virtue lies in its having been a quarry for the libretto of Verde's Falstaff, where the wit, being in the music, suffers less from the lapse of time[6]. The quality of wit is best defined by Falstaff himself not in the comedy but in 2 Henry IV. As he comes on the stage at the beginning of that play, Sir John explains to his diminutive page: Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me. The brain of this foolish compounded clayman is not able to invent anything that intends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me; I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men. (2HIV, I.ii.6-10) There could be no better description of the spirit in which Verde's and Booties Falstaff was conceived. And in fact Falstaff's last monologue in the opera is a close musical rendering of this statement:
Ogni sorta di gente dozzinale
Mi beffa e se ne gloria;
Pur, senza me, costor con tanta boria
Non avrebbero un briciolo di sale.
Son io che vi fo scaltri.
L’arguzia mia crea l’arguzia degli altri.
The fact is that Verde's and Booties Falstaff is a composite figure: he is not only the pompous impecunious philandering poor knight of Windsor, as in the comedy. Arrigo Boito, in devising his libretto for Verdi, included those passages in Shakespeare's previous Histories that most vividly present a fully rounded character: for instance at the close of the first scene of the opera Falstaff magnificent outburst: "L'onore! Ladri…" is a vigorous musical rendering of Falstaff catechism on honour in 1 Henry IV V.i.121-41, while Shallow's brief evocation of Falstaff as "a boy, and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk" in 2 Henry IV III.ii.25-6 suggested Falstaff's haunting aria in act II scene ii: Quand'ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk
Ero sottile, sottile, sottile,
Ero un miraggio
Vago, leggero, gentile, gentile.
Conscious of the fact that one of the main strands of the plot of Merry Wives, the story of the jealous husband Ford, was of Italian origin, based on a novella in Il Pecorone by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (1558)[7], Boito borrowed from the greatest of Italian storytellers, Giovanni Boccaccio, a phrase that Verdi transformed into a marvellous musical refrain characterizing the two young lovers Ann Page and Fenton: Bocca baciata non perde ventura
Anzi rinnova come fa la luna.
In spite of the fact that Merry Wives is the only comedy of Shakespeare with a thoroughly English setting, the presence of Falstaff in it abolishes any notion of a precise location. Boito and Verdi have not transformed it, they have merely discovered that this English comedy is actually more Italian than any of those which Shakespeare set in Venice, Verona, Vicenza, Padua or Messina.

Sir John Falstaff is not a national type, he is an archetypal figure belonging to all ages and nations[8]. Though Harold Bloom sees him as the direct descendant of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath [9], and others have identified him with the type of the miles gloriosus, the Lord of Misrule, and the Morality Vice, Falstaff is all of them and at the same time an independent creation. He is born for the stage and on the stage, where he acquires a life of his own, even beyond the intention of his creator. Shakespeare is fully conscious of it when he makes him reply to the Lord Chief Justice who sees him as "written down old with all the characters of age":

My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head, and something a round belly (2h4, I.ii.187-89) Three p.m. was the time when performances began in public theatres. Falstaff is a creature of the stage and it is on the stage that we must look to find his closest ancestor. And this leads us back not to an English but to an Italian background. It leads us back to a Commedia erudita published in 1576 by the Venetian nobleman Alvise Pasqualigo, Il Fedele. Like all the plays belonging to that elitistic genre, it is a mixture of classical allusions, stylistic refinement, and unrestrained bawdiness. A minor character in it is Frangipietra, a cowardly braggart hired by the heroine to kill — unsuccessfully - the most disaffected of her two current lovers. An extremely versatile English playwright, novelist, and pamphleteer, Anthony Munday, decided to adapt the comedy for presentation at Court. The play was published in 1585 under the elaborate title Fedele and Fortunio. The deceits in Loue excellently discoursed in a very pleasant and fine conceited Comoedie, of two Italian Gentlemen. Translated out of Italian, and set downe according as hath beene presented before the Queenes moste excellent Maiestie[10]. Munday’s was in fact not a translation, but a complete re-elaboration of the Italian text eliminating all morally objectionable parts of the original plot so that Fedele and Fortunio or The Two Italian Gentlemen became the first example and model for the English romantic comedy, a model soon imitated by Shakespeare in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Munday retained all the Italian names of the characters except in the case of the bravo Frangipietra, he called him Captain Crackstone and gave him the second longest role in the play, creating a fully rounded character, based on contemporary English everyday experience: Crackstone is a dishonest army sutler posing as a captain and boasting of imaginary military feats. Munday invented for him a highly personal language, mixing together military boasts, new polyvalent word coinages, original adaptations of proverbial expressions, and long soliloquies revealing a taste for conscious self-mockery — a language that cannot fail to call to mind the soliloquies and the posturing of Shakespeare’s fat knight. Munday, by transforming the common braggart of Pasqualigo’s comedy into the eloquent and self-important Crackstone, created out of the model of the Italian bravo the prototype of an English character that Shakespeare enriched by making him more mature in years and much ampler in size. Besides, the language that Munday invented for him provided Shakespeare with a number of suggestions for the irregular humorists surrounding Prince Hal in the two parts of Henry IV. Crackstone suggested not only the general outline of the character of Falstaff, but he also provided Pistol with his emphatic doggerel and his high-sounding misquotations, and Mistress Quickly with her gift for transforming pretentious malapropisms into ever new polysemic creations[11]

The Falstaff that we all know, born on the stage and for the stage, as Shakespeare tells us, had originally been conceived as a Mediterranean character. He acquired his Englishness (and his knighthood) essentially through his — and Shakespeare’s — gift of language. It is curious to trace the tortuous way by which he became the endearing anti-hero of two of Shakespeare’s Histories as well as of Shakespeare’s only English comedy. I have tried elsewhere to follow the transformations of this character in Shakespeare’s works, and to explore the way in which he acquired his name and status[12].

When Shakespeare undertook in 1596 to provide his company with a second play in the historical cycle he had begun with Richard II, he based his story of the reign of Henry IV, including the youthful adventures of Prince Hal, the future Henry V, on an anonymous play which had held the stage since the late fifteen eighties, but published only in a very corrupted form in 1598 under the title The Famous Victories of Henry the fifth. In that play the leader of the Prince’s companions during the wild years of his youth is called Sir John Oldcastle. Shakespeare duly included this character in his play on the reign of Henry IV, but the presence of Oldcastle in it got Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, into trouble. In July 1596 the patron of the company, Henry Carey Lord Hunsdon died, and was succeeded as chamberlain by William Brooke, Baron Cobham. The company remained under the patronage of the Hunsdon family but the new Lord Chamberlain, who had control over the performance of plays on the stage, objected to the way in which Sir John Oldcastle was presented in the play: Cobham was a descendant of the historical Oldcastle, a nobleman burnt as a heretic in Henry V’s time, but considered after the reformation as a proto-martyr of the protestant religion. The company had no alternative but to withdraw the play. Shakespeare and his fellow players, though, found a way out: the play had to be rewritten not abolishing but rather extending the comic part of the elderly fat knight under a different name so as not to give offence[13]. The question was what name to give him. In the meantime the queen decided to elect the present Lord Hunsdon, George Carey, to the exclusive Order of the Knights of the Garter. The players in Lord Hunsdon’s company were presumably asked to devise an entertainment on the occasion of the proclamation of the new Garter knights in April 1597. This apparently resulted in the creation of a masque celebrating the virtues of the Queen and of the Order of the Garter, accompanied by a comic anti masque presenting the figure of a philandering knight unworthy of the Order. Now, several years before, in two brief scenes of Henry the VI part I (ca. 1592), Shakespeare had presented a Garter knight who had been ‘disgartered’ because of an act of cowardice. The historical name of this knight was Sir John Fastolf, but in the play it appears as Falstaff, presumably playing on "false staff" i.e. unreliable spear, the spear being the emblem of chivalry (after all Shakespeare must have been conscious of the implications of his own surname "shake spear"). What better name for the anti-hero in the masque than that of Falstaff? Just at that time Shakespeare must have been busy re-writing his play on Henry IV and it would have come natural to him to transform Sir John Oldcastle into Sir John Falstaff and extend his role to such lengths that one play was insufficient to contain him: Henry IV was followed by a sequel in 1598, The Second Part of Henry IV, and the masque devised for the 1597 ceremonies was later incorporated in that comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written, according to Nicholas Rowe, because Queen Elizabeth

was so well pleased with the admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry IV, that she commanded [Shakespeare] to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love[14]. Falstaff, before achieving the status of archetypal myth thanks to Shakespeare, went through a number of reincarnations. Born on the stage as an ineffectual braggart in a forgotten Venetian commedia erudita, he was transformed by Anthony Munday into Captain Crackstone, displaying new linguistic resources in his empty boasts, arguments about honour and ingenious devices to justify his cowardice; at the same time the anonymous author who evoked the legend of the dissipated youth of prince Hal called the most sober of his companions Sir John Oldcastle in The Famous Victories of King Henry V, and Shakespeare used the name and endowed the figure with a more portly presence and a more mature age in the first version of Henry IV. But the crucial transition was that to the fifth reincarnation, when Shakespeare was forced to rewrite his history play which had been banished from the stage. He built the new version round the central figure of the fat ageing "villainous abominable misleader of youth", borrowing from a disgartered knight in his early history, The First Part of Henry VI, the new name of Sir John Falstaff. Under that name he had perhaps already appeared as a disreputable philandering knight in a Garter entertainment in 1597, incorporated a few years later in a comedy where he figured as a poor knight of Windsor attempting to seduce the wives of wealthy burgers. Falstaff’s last words in The Merry Wives of Windsor are a proverb: "When night dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased", that is to say what cannot be avoided must be accepted. The extraordinary vitality of the Falstaff figure resides in his capacity to make the best of a bad job, even at the end of the Second Part of Henry VI, when he is rejected by his prince, now King Henry V, with the words "I know thee not, old man". It is this joyous acceptance of the faults and shortcomings of human nature that endeared Falstaff to all ages. Boito and Verdi traced this incomparable gift to his Mediterranean origin.

©  Dr. Giorgio Melchiori
University of La Sapienza de Roma, Italy

(1) Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages (London: Macmillan, 1995), 45-75.
(2) Western Canon, 46-7.
(3) Harold Bloom, Shakespeare. The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999).
(4) Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language (London: The Penguin Press, 2000). 
(5) Bloom, Shakespeare,315.
(6) Shakespeare’s Language, 76.
(7) After the first performance of Falstaff at La Scala in Milan on 9 February 1893, Arrigo Boito invited the French critic Camille Bellaigue to see “this Latin lyric comedy”, adding “Shakespeare’s sparkling farce is led back by the miracle of sound to its clear Tuscan source, to Ser Giovanni Fiorentino”.
(8) See especially on this Roderick Marshall, Falstaff: The Archetypal Myth (Longmead, 1989).
(9) Western Canon, 47-9, and compare 118-19.
(10) Anthony Munday Fedele and Fortunio, 1585. A Critical Edition by Richard Hosley (New York: Garland, 1981) 
(11) For an ampler treatment of these points see G. Melchiori "’In fair Verona’: commedia erudita into romantic comedy” in Michele Marrapodi et als. editors, Shakespeare’s Italy: Functions of Italian locations in Renaissance drama (Manchester University Press, 1993), 100-11.
(12) G.Melchiori, Shakespeare’s Garter Plays: ‘Edward III’ to ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ (Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1994), see also the introductions to my editions of The Second Part of King Henry IV (Cambridge 1989), King Edward III (Cambridge 1998), and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Arden Shakespeare, 2000).
(13) Shakespeare made public amends for the use of Oldcastle’s name in the first version of Henry IV by adding an Epilogue to The Second Part of Henry IV in which, after promising to “continue the story with Sir John in it” in his next play (actually in Henry V there is only the moving report of Falstaff’s death by Mistress Quickly) “where … Falstaff shall die of sweat, unless already a be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man”.
(14) Nicholas Rowe, Introductionto The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, Vol.1 (1709)

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