Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays
Falstaff has a 400-year-old fan club and has no doubt been the subject of more toasts than any other character in dramatic history.
It is well-observed that the human body is funny. And as for Falstaff, he’s fat. Very fat.
Fat puns sprinkle the scenes involving Falstaff.
Humor tells us we should not fear that Hal is truly taken in by Falstaff’s way of life. Humor also foreshadows Hal’s eventual outright rejection of Falstaff.
Two dominant humor-of-the-mind forms generate a humor personality.
The most prominent feature of Falstaff after his belly is his mouth.
The predominant form of Humor of the Mind associated with Falstaff is Word Play.
Falstaff’s scenes are also characterized by humorous and involuted rhetorical argument and exaggerated lying.
The entire Falstaff subplot revolves around a robber-robbed Gotcha.
Gotcha humor is one of the instruments for executing moral judgment.
Predominance of Word Play and Gotcha, give the play an Advocate character.
Falstaff is an advocate as sure as he’s a thief.
The prince and Shakespeare advocate to the king and to all of England that Hal is indeed qualified to ascend to the throne.
Falstaff is the epitome of merriment and joie de vivre.
Humor of the Spirit comes in two voices: an affirmational and a defiant.
Falstaff can never be knocked down; like the blow-up clown with the sand base, he tenaciously bounces back up.
As a creative thinker, Falstaff sets the example for Alfred Doolittle as the original moralist.
Creativity and Tenacity would give Falstaff an Entrepreneaur vitalist humor personality.
Yet the stage presence of Falstaff begs for Performance vitalism.
Tenacity and Performance would make for a Hero.
The humors of Henry IV are at war.
Humor in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I is far from an add-on, an overlay, or mere comic relief. Rather it is intrinsic to the deepest critical and philosophical—even spiritual—questions raised by the work.
The Irrepressibly Complex Falstaff:
A Humor Structure Analysis of Falstaff in Shakespeare's The First Part of Henry the Fourth
Presented at the 15th International ISHS Conference,
Chicago, Illinois 2003
Edited for web publication
Eduard von Grützner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is with no small trepidation that I approach Falstaff. Critics considerably more renown than I of Shakespeare, or the 16th century, or the whole comedic tradition have written about Falstaff. Some, like Hardin Craig, having come to the conclusion that Falstaff is “a very happy accident, which will not bear analysis” (p. 65). Falstaff has a 400-year-old fan club and has no doubt been the subject of more toasts than any other character in dramatic history. Yet despite my trepidation, as a student of senior film humor, I could not in conscience ignore forever Sir John Falstaff, the consummate senex, the classic example of comic relief and yet so much more, whose popularity in Part I of Henry IV seems to have forced Shakespeare to produce Part II, who so charmed Queen Elizabeth that she insisted Shakespeare write Merry Wives of Windsor, and who long after he was pronounced dead in Act II of Henry V has lived on. Falstaff’s comedic/humorous tenacity demands not merely a literary analysis but a humor analysis. This presentation will analyze the humor structures of and surrounding the character of Falstaff in a medieval Christian tripartite division: Humor of the Body, Humor of the Mind, and Humor of the Spirit. Within that division, I will apply a Gravian analysis. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on Henry IV, Part I, the Falstaff of Part II being a tarnished form of the character who springs to life in Part I.
Humor of the Body
Since Gravian Humor of the Mind and Humor of the Spirit have both been discussed repeatedly at ISHS conferences and in the Humor Quotient Newsletter, today for the sake of brevity, I will only briefly summarize them. On the other hand, Humor of the Body, as a humor structure concept, has been only briefly discussed. Like Humor of the Mind and Spirit, it can be divided into four types, but since the theoretical work of those divisions is still in embryo form, I will be dealing with Humor of the Body generically.
It is well-observed that the human body is funny. Its unseemly parts and functions, its excesses and its deformities, its turn-off parts and its turn-on parts, its ausfahrting parts and its infahrting parts. As the “lowest level” of humor, as aptly observed by stand-up comedian Stevie Ray (19), it is often accused of being inappropriate, immature, politically incorrect, or downright mean. But there it is. And as for Falstaff, he’s fat. Very fat. Grossly fat, according to Shakespeare. And fat not because of an exasperatingly low metabolism or some other chemical imbalance but because of lifestyle choices—too much sack and too many capons and not enough exercise. And Shakespeare asks us to laugh at his fatness.
While Shakespeare’s minimal stage notes and directions do not specify it, the patterning of the play demands that Falstaff be played by a large, roly-poly, older actor. Hal in Act II asks, “How long is’t ago, Jack, since thou sawest thine own knee?” (II.iv.324-5). Clearly the actor’s largeness is to be accentuated by costuming, acting, and stage direction, so that from the moment Falstaff steps on stage, we are asked to focus on his size. Nor do we wonder that Prince Hal’s opening line is a humorous assault on Falstaff’s size and lifestyle:
Prince Hal’s appraisal of Falstaff sets us up for a heavy seasoning of imagery related to fatness—butter, sugar, honey, oil, lard—of epithets related to fatness—“greasy tallow-keech” (II.iv.226), “this horse-backbreaker, this huge hill of flesh” (II.iv.240-41). Fat puns sprinkle the scenes involving Falstaff; for example, when Hall calls him “Sir John Paunch”` (II.ii.64), Falstaff admits that he is not John of Gaunt. Despite his friendship with Falstaff, Hal is merciless in his humorous jabs at the man: “Falstaff sweats to death, and lards the lean earth as he walks along. Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him” (II.ii.105-7).
But Hal does not pity Falstaff; the heir apparent cannot afford to. For Falstaff must be portrayed as an unsavory character, to be eventually rejected by Hal. Thus from the start, Humor of the Body serves several key functions in the play beyond entertainment. By making Falstaff a butt of humor, Hal weakens his identification with Falstaff and his loose living, which association would seriously impair the image of Hal as kingly material. Humor tells us we should not fear that Hal is truly taken in by Falstaff’s way of life. Humor also foreshadows Hal’s eventual outright rejection of Falstaff. And since for centuries the church had considered gluttony and sloth to be two of the seven deadly sins, fat jokes keep Shakespeare on the right side of the church, which at times and in some forms was not altogether friendly to theater. All the while Shakespeare is raking a good box office take on the great popularity of Falstaff.
Humor of the Mind
Humor of the Body has always been a money-maker short-term, but comic endurance comes more in the likes of Humor of the Mind. First explored critically by George Meredith in “An Essay on Comedy” near the end of the nineteenth century, Humor of the Mind includes much of what we might consider classical humor, humor based on literary forms which play with or on our intellect. Meredith saw Humor of the Mind as coming in three types, which we have labeled Word Play, Incongruity, and Gotcha. Paul Grawe has added a fourth, Sympathetic Pain, which asks us to laugh in sympathy for an undeserving victim (1994).
Using Gravian humor structure analysis, we can analyze individual jokes but also entire literary works in terms of their dominant forms of humor as for example, was done in “El humor de ‘Don Quijote’” (Grawe and Grawe, 1998). And by combining the two dominant classical humor forms of a literary work, we can specify a classical humor personality of that work. For example works which emphasize Word Play and Incongruity humor can be seen as Intellectual in that from a humor perspective they are concerned with ideas, facts, words, and logic, while works which emphasize Gotcha and Incongruity are called Crusader in that they are concerned with ideas and realities but also some sense of justice. The four classical jokes have been paired in six different ways, creating the six humor personality types as illustrated by this circle:
Applying these analytical tools to the humor of and pertaining to Falstaff, we can ask what kind of humor personality is created by the humor of and surrounding Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. I would argue first that the most prominent feature of Falstaff after his belly is his mouth. He has been called “a virtuoso in the arts of language” (Riverside, 887). Falstaff is an endless source of puns, verbal twists, wit, verbal virtuosity, and logic tricks. And thus the predominant form of Humor of the Mind associated with Falstaff is Word Play. The exchanges between Falstaff and Hal are wit fests, full of puns, tropes, word games, and argumentative play. Typical is Falstaff’s line, “were it not here apparent that thou art heir apparent . . .” (I.ii.55-6). Yet the Prince’s stature does not prevent Falstaff, when his blatant lies are challenged, from peppering the Prince with vile names: “…you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish!” (II.iv.242-4). Falstaff’s complaint to Hal, “Thou hast the most unsavory similes” (I.ii.78) accentuates the rhetorical combat common to the exchanges between these two characters. (It also again foreshadows Hal’s rejection of Falstaff.) In contrast, the dialogue between the Prince and Poins as the Prince plots to trap Falstaff in his own villainy is straightforward, succinct, and non-metaphorical. The contrast suggests that verbal gymnastics are for Falstaff inherent to his character but for the Prince, a skill, to be applied as needed.
Falstaff’s scenes are also characterized by humorous and involuted rhetorical argument and exaggerated lying. When explaining how it came that he and three others lost the booty of their Gad’s Hill robbery to the disguised Prince and Poins, Falstaff blows up exponentially the number of men he originally set upon, the number of reinforcements, the number of men wearing buckram (that would have been the Prince and Poins), and the number of wounds inflicted upon his body, all the while decrying others for their cowardice (II.iv). When the Prince reveals the truth, that Falstaff had quickly run from just two, one of them the Prince himself, Falstaff without a pause argues that, since “The lion will not touch the true prince,” he was “a coward on instinct” (II.iv.268-70). Falstaff is a master of excuses and rationalization.
He is also master of ingenious argumentation. In preparation for Hal’s appearing before his father, the King, where he will be called upon to explain his recent carousing with Falstaff, the prince and Falstaff take turns role playing the King and his son, a rhetorical exercise in which Falstaff argues to justify his own character (and again, one which by Hal’s speech foreshadows Falstaff’s political demise.)
Thus Word Play is clearly a key component in the Humor of the Mind surrounding Falstaff. From there we turn to the other forms, Sympathetic Pain, Incongruity, and Gotcha. It would be hard to find any Sympathetic Pain humor concerning Falstaff, and while there is considerable incongruity in the Prince’s social associations, this incongruity is not presented as funny but rather as troublesome and in need of resolution. And in fact it is resolved in part by Gotcha humor.
The entire Falstaff subplot revolves around a robber-robbed Gotcha. The prince is invited to join in a robbery. Rather than compromise himself and his future throne, the Prince enlists Poins in a scheme to, in disguise, rob Falstaff and his compatriots of their ill-gotten gains. The money is eventually returned to its rightful owners, but not before Falstaff is exposed to hoots and hollers and numerous line-by-line Gotchas. Later a scheme to hide Falstaff from the sheriff results in the discovery of Falstaff’s unpaid restaurant bill, which will turn into another Gotcha on Falstaff. In fact, Falstaff is offered up as the butt of everyone’s kicks, insults, and general Gotchas.
Gotcha humor serves numerous functions in the play. Since by nature Falstaff is a braggart, liar, and general scoundrel, he is preeminently qualified to be got, thus allowing us to satisfy all those aggressive urges that farce is supposed to take care of. At the same time, as a surrogate for Hal’s father, Falstaff becomes through Gotchas the target of Oedipal frustration and hostility which cannot be legitimately leveled at a father, much less at a king. And if Dover Wilson is correct that Part I is “Shakespeare’s morality play,” (138), then Gotcha humor is one of the instruments for executing moral judgment.
Having established that the two dominant forms of Humor of the Mind associated with Falstaff are Word Play and Gotcha, we turn to the humor personality created by the two, and that personality by the humor-of-the-mind circle is Advocate. Falstaff is an advocate as sure as he’s a thief. Falstaff is constantly advocating—for himself, for a place in court, for his life style, and for his lovability. Our laughter at his Word Play is a concession that we are to some extent swayed by his argument. In contrast, Humor of the Body and Gotchas advocate that Falstaff can not have a place in court or even in Hal’s future life and that Hal must be seen as princely material despite his association with Falstaff. Our laughter to some extent concedes that Falstaff must go and that Hal is neither a fool, nor a dissolute democrat.
Furthermore, it could be argued—even advocated—that the entire play has a great deal to do with advocacy. The prince and Shakespeare advocate to the king and to all of England that Hal is indeed qualified to ascend to the throne and that his carousing with low life is excusable and perhaps even commendable. The argument is twice rehearsed between Hal and Falstaff, then delivered in a third form before the throne, and then acted out on the battlefield by Hal’s slaying of Hotspur, who himself has been advocating that Hal is not fit to be dog catcher, let alone king. It is essential that the argument be effectively advocated in order that we be prepared for Henry V as heroic comedy.
Thus Humor of the Mind, while it provides comic relief, is not extraneous to the overall issues of the play but rather emphasizes the moral and political arguments that run throughout the play and the tensions raised by them.
Humor of the Spirit
While Falstaff is the repeated butt of Gotchas, he always has a come back. He is irrepressible. And it is probably his irrepressible spirit that has most endeared him to theater goers over the ages. David Bevington in his introduction to Henry IV, Part I summarizes, “Falstaff is the epitome of merriment and joie de vivre. We excuse much in him because he lusts after life with such an appetite and ingratiates himself to others by inviting them to laugh at his expense” (764). Falstaff epitomizes vitalist humor, Humor of the Spirit.
The vitalist view of humor was first articulated in 1900 by Henri Bergson in "Le Rire," where he argued that we laugh in defiance of death at the mechanical encrusted upon the living. Several decades later Susanne Langer in Feeling and Form argued that laughter is a response to life itself. She pointed us to the laughter elicited by babies and puppies or by a fish that has lost part of its tail to a predator and swims with a list but survives nevertheless. And the underlying feeling of comedy, she argued, is "the immediate sense of life" (331). Certainly in Falstaff we have an “immediate sense of life.”
Vitalist humor, or Humor of the Spirit, is more complex than Humor of the Mind in that it has two voices: Langerian, which affirms life, and Bergsonian which defies death. Like classical humor, vitalist humor can be seen in four forms: Tenacity, Potential, Creativity, and Performance. As an example, for Tenacity we laugh affimantionally with the bull dog that tenaciously holds on and defiantly at Dagwood who wimps out on lawn mowing with one drop of rain. For Performance, we laugh in celebration of a Hail Mary pass caught in the fingertips and at the vaudevillian who slips on the proverbial banana peel. Gravian analysis uses the affirmation forms of vitalist humor to define a vitalist humor personality of a work according to the circle below.
Vitalist Humor Circle
Turning to Falstaff, there is no question that Falstaff is a very alive character, despite his age, despite his weight, despite his criminal record, and despite our knowing that Falstaff will not serve in the court of King Henry V. The scene which perhaps most captures his aliveness is the second to the last of the play. Falstaff has feigned death by the sword of Douglas in order to escape that death. The Prince, who has just killed Percy in battle, thinking Falstaff dead, pronounces a touching but not very complimentary eulogy, ending with, “Emboweled will I see thee by and by. Till then in blood by noble Percy lie.” The Prince exits and, according to the stage notes, “Falstaff riseth up,” to modern audiences perhaps reminiscent of Buggs Bunny or Daffy Duck, and delivers a vitalist manifesto:
Falstaff saved his life through Part I, and through Part II, and through Merry Wives of Windsor. And even though he died in Henry V, he has remained alive as a comic character in the hearts of theater goers and Shakespeare lovers for over 400 years.
The history of the character itself points us to the predominant form of affirmational vitalism associated with Falstaff: Tenacity. As noted earlier, Falstaff can never be knocked down; like the blow-up clown with the sand base, he bounces back up, Gotcha after Gotcha after Gotcha. Did he get caught running from the Prince in disguise? He has a ready answer: it was instinct that told him not to fight the heir apparent. Did he get caught accusing his hostess wrongly of picking his pocket? He has a ready answer: he has “more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty” (III.iii.168-9). Has Hal covered for Falstaff’s robbery by paying back the money? Falstaff retorts, “O, I do not like that paying back. “Tis a double labor. . . Rob me the exchequer the first thing thou dost, and do it with unwashed hands too.” (III.iii.179-84). Falstaff is tenacious in his “vocation” of thievery, tenacious in lying, tenacious in pleading for a place in court, tenacious in cowardice, tenacious in wit. And we laugh in celebration of his tenacity.
What form of affirmational vitalism least characterizes Falstaff? That would have to be Potential. Bevington sums up Falstaff as “old, . . .fat, humorous, and without honor” (764), hardly the promise of the future. If anything we laugh at his lack of potential, but that is defiant rather than affirmational vitalism and thus not part of Gravian analysis.
That leaves Creativity and Performance vying for next dominant form of affirmational vitalist humor, and an argument can be made for either. Affirmational Creativity laughs in delight over a great new idea, a creative way of approaching things. Affirmational Performance laughs in amazement over the impossible feat performed.
Let us consider first Creativity. Falstaff lives by his creative argument, by his wit. He set the example for Alfred Doolittle as the original moralist. His rhetorical arguments make hair-pin turns. All of the repartee which is dominated by Word Play becomes an artistic medium through which Falstaff expresses his creative spirit. We laugh intellectually at his wit and spiritually at his creativity.
If we combine Tenacity and Creativity to create a vitalist humor personality, we get Entrepreneur, someone with an ingenious idea and the tenacity to bring it to fruition. And Falstaff is indeed a consummate entrepreneur. He is the great military entrepreneur of the Middle Ages, turning a military obligation into a money-making venture. He is also a shrewd social entrepreneur, using an unlikely barroom affiliation with the Prince to try to secure a place in court. It is noteworthy that Falstaff as Entrepreneur is not inconsistent with theories of Falstaff as Lucifer, a dazzling temptation to irresponsibility.
However, there is also a case for Performance as the second dominant vitalist humor form. Stage history tells us that Falstaff was originally played by a nationally renown actor, beloved for his extraordinary abilities coupled with his large girth—something of a John Candy and Robin Williams rolled into one. Yet Falstaff’s immensity as a character is not confined to a particular actor. Anthony Quayle, who played Falstaff twice on stage and again decades later in the BBS TV series, is quoted as saying of Falstaff, “ . . .in the theatre, he is a titanic character—in Part I he dominates” (Henry Fenwick, “The Production,” in Wilders, 25). So while the lines of the play point to Creativity vitalism, the role of Falstaff begs for Performance vitalism. If we combine Performance with Tenacity, we get Hero, one who performs extraordinary feats with great tenacity.
Now we have struck at the heart of critical division over Falstaff. For many, Falstaff is the heart and soul of the play, and thus a hero. For some he is an unfortunate victim of Hal’s callous political image making, but he’s still alive and thus a hero. For some he is a willing and sacrificial mentor to the heir apparent, truly a hero. And for many he is such a loveable old son-of-a--- that he can’t possibly be thought of as just an entrepreneur; he’s—well, a hero.
Thus humor analysis makes it apparent that the longstanding critical divide over Falstaff is to a large extent created and encouraged by humor complexities, including the complexities of taking a written script and then enacting it on stage successfully. The script by itself empathizes Falstaff’s creative abilities to get himself out of a jam, but the actor who plays Falstaff will always upstage the script in a vital performance—if done well, bringing the house down.
To make things even more ambiguous, Humor of the Spirit is not the only form of humor at work here. Recalling the most obvious, Humor of the Body, all those fat jokes in the script demand a rip-roaring performance, encouraging a Heroic interpretation. At the same time, all those fat jokes set up Falstaff for dismissal from Hal’s life, undercutting the Heroic interpretation. Adding in Humor of the Mind, Advocate humor has underscored that Falstaff’s advocacy of his role in Hal’s future life is at odds with Hal’s advocacy of his own fitness to reign and Shakespeare’s advocacy of Hal’s, not Falstaff’s, heroic stature. Both Humor of the Body and Humor of the Mind, on balance, tend to undercut the Heroic vitalist interpretation of Falstaff. But in the end, it is the vitalist performance that will likely bring the house down.
The humors of Henry IV are at war.
Whichever humor-of-the-spirit personality we choose, Entrepreneur or Hero, humor structural analysis demonstrates that humor in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I is far from an add-on, an overlay, or mere comic relief. Rather it is intrinsic to the deepest critical and philosophical—even spiritual—questions raised by the work. And analysis of the humor structure casts another light on the irrepressibly complex Sir John Falstaff.
Bergson, Henri. “Le Rire.” Tr. Fred Rothwell. Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1956: 61-192.
Craig, Hardin, Ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Glenview, IL.: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1961.
Evans, G. Blakemore, Ed. The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
Grawe, Paul and Elizabeth Grawe. “El humor de ‘Don Quijote.’” Sudbury, Ontario: Luso-Hispanic Humor Conference, 1998.
Grawe, Paul. “Sympathetic Pain: Rounding Out Humor of the Mind.” Omaha, NE: Seventh Annual Midlands Conference on Language and Literature, 1994.
Langer, Suzanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
Meredith, George. “An Essay on Comedy.” Comedy. Ed. Wylie Sypher. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956: 1-60.
Ray, Stevie. Stevie Ray’s Medium-Sized Book of Comedy: What we laugh at . . . and why. Minneapolis, MN: Punchline Publications, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. David Bevington, Ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry the Fifth. David Bevington, Ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. David Bevington, Ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth. David Bevington, Ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Wilders, John, Literary Consultant. The Shakespeare Plays: Henry IV Part 1. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.
Wilson, J. Dover. “Falstaff and the Prince.” Eugene M. Waith, Ed. Shakespeare the Histories: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.
Related works in ITCHS: A Cheshire Smile. Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies. Chapter 7, "History, Comedy, and Shakespeare's English Histories"; Chapter 8, "Comedic Structure in Henry IV, Part I"; Chapter 9, "Henry IV, Part I: Falstaff"; and Chapter 11, "Henry V: Heroic Comedy and Considerations of Scale."