"To Falstaff," said John Russell Brown, raising a festively ruddy glass of Campari and soda last night at dinner in a Capitol Hill restaurant.
Then the Elizabethan scholar and theatrical director paused, though. "Oh no, we're supposed to be celebrating the Bard's birthday tonight." He wiped out the previous toast with a wave of his glass and proposed a new one: "To the Bard."
As it turned out, three hours, later this distinguished author of this year's Shakespeare's Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library doesn't see that there is a tremendous difference between the creator and his most colossal creation. At the end of the question period following his address, he divulged a theory that he doesn't think is quite ready for publication:
"I think that because he gave Falstaff so many qualities he admired, Shakespeare also decided to give him his name. After all, a staff is something like a spear, and a fall is only the ending of a shake."
It is a somewhat unusual view of the old reprobate-and also of his name, in which some scholars have seen no more than a negative phallic symbol. It is fairly certain that Shakespeare had to change the name at one point in the development of Falstaff's character. He was originally named Oldcastle, and there were Oldcastles around who objected ("For Old-Castle dyed a Martyr, and this is not the man," Shakespeare explains in the epilogue to King Henry IV, Part II.)
It is obvious why the Oldcastles should object. The man was a glutton, a drunkard, a liar, a theif; a swindler of his friends and a braggart; an impotent lecher and a cowardly soldier; an exemplar of all the Seven Deadly Sins and a breaker of all the Commandments expects possibly "Thou shalt not kill," which soldiers are expected to break. But why would Shakespeare give him his own name?
Why, for that matter, is this character so clearly beloved-a man whom few Shakespeare fans would invite to dinner and probably none would leave alone in the company of a wife or daughter? Brown reflected on the question during his talk and in a conversation before he gave it.
"Falstaff is-if you will pardon me-an enormous subject, the most extraordinarily independent of Shakespeare's characters," he said, sitting in a comfortable conner of the Folger's Founder's Room. "He seems to have outreached the poet, and he has a life of his own independent of the plays for which he was created. There are so many paintings and drawings; I know of seven operas on Falstaff, and I'm sure the inherent limitations of his physical form are the only reason I have not yet heard of a ballet called 'Falstaff.'"
This kind of non-Shakespearian life puts him far ahead of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet-in a class with Faust and Don Quixote among literary characters who have become public property.
In allusion by other writers, Falstaff ran second to Hamlet until 1649, and has been the leader since then among Shakespeare's characters. "I am not only witty in my self," as Falstaff himself observed prophetically, "but the cause of wit in other men."
In his address, Brown traced Falstaff's deep roots among the stock characters of ancient Roman and medieval dramas and entertainments: the glutton, the braggart soldier, the allegorical figures of "Vice" and "Riot," the "Lord of Misrule" and others. In symbolic terms more significant to modern minds, he is a reincarnation of Dionysus, and affirmation of the life force; he is the scapegoat who must be cast out for the health of the community; he is perhaps a substitute father whom Prince Hal "has to kill-symbolically-before he can come of age and inherit his true father's real power."
But Brown sees more in Falstaff than these standard interpretations. He finds his closest kinship among Shakespearean characters in Hamlet and Lear, and suggests that historically the best Falstaffs have been actors noted for tragic rather than comic roles. Among his common qualities with Hamlet are his wit and imagination, his affectionate response to others; he resembles Lear in his impatience with justice, mortality, and the helping hands of others, in his grotesque plans to recover his losses. Like both, he has a spirit that the world will not allow to live in peace, but he is better equipped for it with his optimism, his comic resources, his ability to live with folly.
The three qualities which commend Falstaff most warmly to modern fans (and probably commended him to his creator) are his lively imagination, his restless search for peace (which can be mistaken for cowardice), and finally his capacity for good fellowship, "speaking to the hearts of men and women."
Apparently, we are willing to overlook a bit of gluttony, lechery and evenlarceny in one who has these qualities. Or even a lot.