The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0822  Monday, 17 April 2000.

From:           Clifford Stetner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 15 Apr 2000 17:17:23 -0400
Subject:        Falstaff

Mike Jensen:

>I assume you know Oldcastle is the name used in one of Shakespeare's
>sources, so surely you have a >stronger reasons for this idea.  Care to

It's just that I always saw Falstaff as special in that he clearly
occupies a special place.  He is one of the few characters that owes his
whole nature to Shakespeare, and he is (leaving aside MW) a fictional
character in a play about real people.  Where did Shakespeare,
accustomed to carving characters from rough statues left to him by
others, get the material to compose Falstaff?  What is the relationship
of the fictional world of Falstaff and Hal to the historical world of
Henry the IV and Hal?

I just finished Heaney's Beowulf.  Being of the last class that had to
take Old English as a requirement at CUNY, I could read much of it in
the original.  It reminded me of Sean's comment that the aesthetic has
an annoying habit of intruding on the political.  What I should have
said then was that it is only recently that these two have been
separated from each other in poetry, and Beowulf is a good example.  My
favorite part of the poem were the descriptions of the wyrm (dragon)

The guard of the mound
Was swollen with anger; the fierce one resolved
To requite with fire the theft of the cup. [....]
He sallied forth surrounded with fire,
Encircled with flame.

But the enemies against which Beowulf wars are of two orders: human and
supernatural.  My question is: where do we draw the line between the
political world of wars between clans of earls and thanes and the
poetic/aesthetic world of wars between heroes and dragons?

The dragon, I note, once raised, wreaks destruction on the coastal
settlements.  Well, this is also what invading bands of Vikings did, and
it seems to me that the dragon is to be understood as the representation
of real forces of menace and destruction with which the audience of
Beowulf was familiar (at least historically).

Beowulf is then a poem in which the political intrudes on the aesthetic
and the aesthetic intrudes on the political, and as such, it is only a
relatively un-subtle version of a conflation of meanings that
characterizes all epic poetry, and which can be discovered to some
degree, I would argue, in all forms of pre-modern art.

Falstaff, although no Grendel, plays the role of legendary foil to a
national hero.  The drama between Hal and him takes place on a humanist
rather than a supernatural plane, but they both involve the moral
development of the young monarch.  Shakespeare, in casting his mind back
to the days before the Wars of the Roses for representations of the
early influences on Hal, had little material to draw from that was not
in one way or another influenced by the poetry of Chaucer.

I would argue that the latter poet was to them what Shakespeare is to
us, and that, although I would not go so far as to say that Falstaff is
Oldcastle is Chaucer, the character who jokes about his own obesity in
Shakespeare's drama bears a strong family resemblance to the one who
does likewise in the Canterbury Tales.

Clifford Stetner
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