When thinking of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, obvious comparisons arise to the Riot or Vice of the medieval morality play, the parable of the Prodigal Son from the Bible, and the Plautine braggart soldier. But Falstaff is more than just a combination of these, he is greater than the sum of his parts. What truly distinguishes Falstaff is his mode of speaking.
Falstaff speaks in a very peculiar way. In brief, he rambles. He will start with a single point, and expound and expand on it, throwing in Biblical references or long lists, and yet somehow end up exactly where he wants to be. When he speaks to Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I, Act II, scene iv, this trait is very clear. On his entrance, he begins cursing cowards, rambles off into lime being put into his sack and how he is one of only three good men in England, yet somehow ends up back on track with his original point about cowardice (114-134). Later in the scene, he does it again while lecturing Hal in the person of King Henry IV. He begins to lecture, and then pulls himself off-track into metaphors and discussions about his own virtue as Falstaff, but somehow makes it all into a coherent representation of a chiding father, ending back where he began (397-432).
He continues in a similar vein with Bardolph in Act III, scene iii of the same play. He lectures to Bardolph about his inflamed face, pulling in Latin, religious imagery, and the chandlers in Eastcheap, and manages to return at the end to his point at the beginning: that Bardolph’s face is as irredeemable as Falstaff’s life (24-49). This is the same vein as his speeches to Hal, rambling on and on through different metaphors and images only to tie it together at the end by bringing back the beginning.
This tendency towards rambling yet coherent speech continues into Henry IV Part II as well. Falstaff first appears in that play in Act I, scene ii, complaining that no one does right by him. He catalogues through his own virtues, the faults of the page and Hal, the indignities his tailor puts upon him, and Bardolph’s imperfect service, while simultaneously rambling through Biblical references, pagan imagery, and metaphors from coinage and husbandry (6-54). All of it is brought back to the theme of Falstaff not getting the respect he believes he deserves.
There are other instances as well that space limitations will not allow to be brought up. Falstaff’s general mode of speech is the rambling monologue, which, though it may be interrupted by other characters, follows a common thread despite its free-flowing form. This is greatly distinct from the speech patterns of his predecessors, who all spoke directly to their purpose; the Riot, boisterously advertising his Riotousness, calling out the benefits of sin; the Prodigal Son, first being beguiled by his own riotous comrades, and then repenting; the Braggart, smugly complimenting himself on his achievements and how all goes “exactly as [he] planned [it]” (Plautus, the Braggart Soldier, 947). Due to this directness of speech, they all got their points across, and were tremendously popular images. However, none of them could pull in their audiences or their fellow characters like Falstaff. Falstaff was so popular that the Epilogue to Henry IV Part II advertising the coming Henry V by promising more Falstaff (although Shakespeare did not deliver), and that Queen Elizabeth is said to have requested The Merry Wives of Windsor so she might see Falstaff in love. He was also more beloved by his fellow characters: the Riot is rejected, the Prodigal Son despised until his redemption, and the Braggart is transparent. Yet, Falstaff is only rejected or despised by Hal and Poins. The rest of his circle still follow him, even after Hal’s unequivocal rejection at the end of the second play. The reason for Falstaff’s greater popularity, both inside and outside of the plays, is his difference in speech. Without his gift of gab, he could not pull in both the interior and exterior audience. That is his great change from his predecessors, and it is what makes him more than the sum of their parts.
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