Falstaff will exceed the bounds of whatever box you try to put him in, a truth I found out for myself in the last Short Sheldrake on Shakespeare. I return to complete some unfinished business on this occasion, finishing off some remarks about why Falstaff is so popular in the Henry IV plays and giving some thought to his influence after his off-stage death early in Henry V.
Twelfth Night seems to be everyone’s favourite Shakespeare play. Why is this the case? Could it be something to do with the fact that it is a play about playing? This play is a hymn to the pleasure and virtue of playing and play wins over anti-play, though of course the real motto is that it’s the taking part that counts.
Sir John Falstaff is a river who has burst his banks. He has taken on a life beyond Shakespeare’s plays and become a myth in his own right. Anybody who has a thirst for life is described as Falstaffian, he has had operas written for him, actors at the mature height of their comic powers have repeatedly enjoyed success as this embodiment of festivity and he remains an unassailable favourite with audiences. Is he just very entertaining, or is there more to it than that?
In a new Book Review format designed to highlight a few critical classics to add to the shelves, Sheldrake outlines the relative merits of Professor Jonathan Bate’s acclaimed 1997 book The Genius of Shakespeare.