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“O, while you live, tell truth, and shame the Devil!”
― William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1
Yes, I knew who he was. But until this year my exposure to Falstaff was mainly second-hand, through books that spoke of him. I hadn't touched any of Shakespeare's histories (I'm not counting Julius Caesar, etc., as a history) and so was surprised at just how much I liked this character. There are plays where the character and the play are equally matched (Othello, Hamlet, etc), but there are those plays where the character seems to float beyond the play. Henry IV, Part I seems like one of those. The play was great. I enjoyed it. But every time Falstaff arrived it seemed to jump up a level. It was certainly not a play where Falstaff played a central role. Obviously, Henry, Prince of Wales plays that part (and he is fascinating himself) but Falstaff just dervishes around the play making everything better. Breathing color and dynamics into every scene he is a part of. And he doesn't do it through and other-worldliness. He does it through his humanity, his base motives, and his complicated affections. There is no doubt that Henry loves Falstaff and that Falstaff loves Henry, but it is also clear that they are both using each other and KNOW the other is using them. It is perfect.
And the lines! Some of Shakespeare's great lines and great musings jump energetically from Falstaff's lips:
"Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism."
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