Friday, November 18, 2016


Falstaff gives virginity to a rotten situation


The plot itself is nothing very complicated. Henry IV is confronted to a rebellion from the Scots, from the House of York and York’s archbishop, and finally from Wales. We are fully engaged in the War of Roses and Henry IV has to postpone his crusade to Jerusalem to stop the rebellion that had reached the point when they were dividing the country into three shares as if they were sure to win.

He decides to go to war but he has to chastise his son, the Prince of Wales, first before going because the Prince is having a very sorry life, low life actually with some thieves and dissolute people among whom Falstaff, Sir or no Sir, is a flamboyant and out of proportion character.

And off they go to war. The main leader of the Scots, Hotspur, is killed by the Prince of Wales after the prince had saved his father from the rebel, and the other rebels are taken into captivity, but not for long since they are all sentenced to death except Archibald, Earl of Douglas. Then half of the army goes to York to pacify them and the second half under the King’s and the Prince of Wales’ command go to Wales to clean up the place.

But the play is remarkable because of elements that have little to do with the plot or story, or even history. It is the invention of Sir Falstaff, a character that has become an opera of his own due to his Shakespearean fame. He is a marginal character, fat and constantly under the influence of sack, some alcohol common in those days, and permanently eating. When he is not eating or drinking he is sleeping and snoring. He is the main companion of the Prince of Wales who spends a lot of time in a tavern with a band of shady people, half thieves, half anything illegal that pays. These scenes in this history are comical scenes, pure farce indeed with tremendous wit in the language, popular wit that is not for children’s ears, though in Shakespeare’s time that was not a problem at all, children learning about bees, birds and moss quite early in life and with their own eyes, at times hands.

That’s the first element of interest, in fact a genial invention or innovation: mixing farce into a history that is supposed to be dramatic, and what’s more that farce is the darker side of the Prince of Wales. That first element has an equivalent among the princes, on the rebellion’s side: their wives are entertainers and the Welsh wife of one sings them, and us, a Welsh song to put their husbands to sleep, though in fact it does not achieve such an aim since they are suddenly called by military duty.

The second innovation is to send these people to the war, Sir Falstaff at their head. He is not a valiant soldier but he knows how to die with courage and enough simulation for everyone to believe it is true. He also reveals another side of these wars: the survivors picked the pockets of the dead, nobles or not.

That is well shown but television is not the best medium for battles. It is perfect for tavern scenes that are locked up in small spaces but not for a battlefield. It was already true in Shakespeare’s time who only had a very limited stage. No army could be seen on the stage and no army is really shown on the screen. This TV adaptation centers on individuals, on fights between two people at the most and what’s more centered on close-up images that erase the fight really and we only have two bodies more or less entangled into some struggle to the death.

The problem that is clearly experienced by the King is the fact that he did not receive power in a pure feudal way. In fact he seized it. He forced Richard II to abdicate and give him his crown, hence going against the sacred nature of kingship, and then he suggested he be killed and he was, even if later on Henry IV condemned the killer and thus denied his desire and yet a King’s desire is a command, as is well known. A king with pangs of conscience is rare, isn’t it, but yet the play is kind of hollow as Richard II as often been qualified. And the production is just wrapping up that hollowness.


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