Sam Leith Sam Leith

Life at the Globe | 7 March 2019

Merian Global Investors

Last time in this space we were talking about Harry Hotspur’s role as a shadow-self for Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One. But nor, of course, can we ignore the other pole around which the play swings: the sack-swilling anti-Santa Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations — some, among them Orson Welles, who played the fat knight in The Chimes at Midnight, have said the greatest — and, perhaps even more than Romeo, Prospero and Hamlet, has escaped the play to take on the quality of a mythological figure.

Henry IV, Part One — on from April 23 at the Globe — sees Sir John in his pomp. He is not (yet) pitiable. He is a life-force: ‘not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.’ He is a madcap philosopher. And he encapsulates a quality of drama in general and Shakespeare in particular: that dramatic energy trumps moral character when it comes to our sympathies. Falstaff chews the scenery, and it doesn’t matter that he’s a cheat, a thief, a liar, a coward and an alcoholic: we love him.

So does the young Hal – for whom the drunken company of Falstaff and his cronies in the Boar’s Head Tavern counterpoints the stiff formalities of court. He’s not a shadow-self for Hal; rather, a surrogate father. But in the course of the play we see Hal sliding in the odd barb. A key scene in Act Two has them role-playing: Falstaff and then Hal take turns pretending to be the king reproving Hal for his low company. A jocular exercise turns, covertly, earnest:

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