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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: May ::
Gambon as Falstaff
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0966  Monday, 23 May 2005

From:           Bill Lloyd <
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Date:           Friday, 20 May 2005 13:49:41 EDT
Subject: 16.0954 Gambon as Falstaff
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0954 Gambon as Falstaff

Barring new evidence we'll never know who was the original Falstaff, but
if we are to speculate, I'd go with Thomas Pope rather than John Heminge.

We know that John Lowin eventually inherited the role of Falstaff, at
least by the 1630s. (Interesting tangent-- compare the beard and dress
in Lowin's portrait with the representation of Falstaff in "The Wits"
illustration. Even after Lowin's death Falstaff was thought of as
looking like him, even as we think of Frankenstein as looking like
Karloff or Sherlock Holmes as looking like Rathbone.)  Lowin joined the
King's Men in 1603 and was probably the original Sir Pol in Volpone
[1606] and Sir Epicure in Alchemist [1610]-- at least he was playing
these foolish knights by 1615<>1620. Also, his girth well fitted him for
the part.

Heminge on the other hand did not die until 1630, was certainly still
acting as late as 1611, and seems to have acted at least occasionally as
late as 1615<>1620. It's unlikely Lowin would have taken a famous part
from Heminge while the latter was still on the boards. And Heminge,
while he seems to have played old men, is not associated with corpulent
parts-- we know he played the cadaverous Corbacchio in Volpone, and
suspect he played Polonius and Julius Caesar.

Thomas Pope is known to have played at least some comic parts, and he
died in 1603, just as Lowin was joining the King's men. The transition
from Pope to Lowin seems natural.  This leaves the question of why
Falstaff was written out of Henry V-- again we don't really know. It
tends to support the Kempe theory, but doesn't work any better for
Heminge than for Pope.

We should be careful however in assuming that 'clowns' could only play
foolish servingmen and rustic dolts. More substantial parts (often with
a comic element) were within their range. John Shanks, the jigging
clown, played the clergyman Sir Roger in Fletcher's The Scornful Lady.
Thomas Pollard, who played the Kemp-worthy roles of The Cook in The
Bloody Brother and the eponymous role in The Humourous Lieutenant, also
played Silvio in Duchess of Malfi and other 'courtly' parts [see
Bentley, JCS, ii]. There's some reason to suspect that Robert Armin, who
we tend to think of as a 'jester', may have taken straight-ish roles as
well-- Matt Flowerdale in The London Prodigal [1601<>1605], Edgar in
King Lear [1605] and Abel Drugger in The Alchemist.

I tend to go with Pope as Falstaff but I don't find it inconceivable
that Kempe may have risen to the occasion when presented with such a
role. He often played fools but was not himself a fool-- see Juliet
Dusinberre's recent article detailing his musical skills. If we go for
Pope as Falstaff, I'd nominate Kempe for Gadshill in Part 1 and Shallow
in Part 2.

Ah, speculation! (but not unreasonable speculation I hope...)

Bill Lloyd

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