Falstaff Give Me Life, by Harold Bloom
I must say that unlike many people I have not generally found Falstaff to be particularly appealing. The author, it should be noted, finds Falstaff very appealing, but he has never particularly appealed to me, partly because he is an old man who has never grown up, is somewhat cowardly and disreputable, and not a virtuous person whom I can view with respect nor someone whose definition of fun is close to my own. I can understand how the author, writing this book as he did in his 80’s, could identify with the themes of death and aging and rejection that the Henriad (Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V) talk about so movingly with regards to this character, but Falstaff is not someone whom I have identified with, and so while this novel features a great deal of warm charm from the author, the subject of this book is not quite as gripping as many others would be. Thinking about Falstaff may give the author life, but he doesn’t do very much for me, I must candidly admit, and that is perhaps a bit disappointing. Yet if you like Falstaff, there is much to enjoy here.
Most of this short book of around 150 pages deals with Falstaff as he appears in Shakespeare’s historical plays. It should be noted that the character of Falstaff also appears in the Merry Wives of Windsor, but the author only briefly and disparagingly relates the Falstaff in that play as being beneath his notice and bordering if not crossing into self-parody in obedience to royal command. The book has 21 chapters and most of them consist of close and often intriguing readings of the places where Falstaff appears in the plays. Many of the discussions relate to the author’s appreciation of Falstaff’s cleverness, his integrity, and his love for whores and sacks of wine, two pleasures I must admit I lack a great interest in. The author also spends a great deal of time in the book talking about the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, where Falstaff fears the (inevitable) rejection that comes from the hypocritical and somewhat cold Prince Hal, who is destined to be a successful but ephemeral king of England. The discussions of Falstaff as a father figure to Hal are certainly of interest, and those who like the historical plays of Shakespeare would do well to give this book a respectful read.
Yet although this book is definitely one that I can respect, it’s not a book I particularly enjoyed. The historical plays of Shakespeare, especially when compared with his enjoyable comedies and thoughtful and melancholy tragedies and his delightful problem plays, have always left me a bit cold. They are not particularly great histories, and the English elites portrayed in those plays are often pretty loathsome. Henry V is casual about the deaths of innocent French people and casts off his friend Falstaff in a cruel way, and he is widely thought of as one of the most praiseworthy characters to be found there. The author certainly does not whitewash it, but a great part of the difference between the author and I is that the author celebrate the largeness of Falstaff’s personality, while I consider him the sort of rot on society that our realms would be better off without. The difference in the author’s considerable sympathy and fondness and even empathy for Falstaff and my lack of a positive view of it likely accounts for my own rather cold feeling about this book and its subject matter despite the obvious skill in textual criticism that the author possesses. If you lack my antipathy to Falstaff, though, you will find much more of enjoyment here.