David Laird – Falstaff’s Vocation: A Response to Arthur F. Kinney

Falstaff's Vocation: A Response to Arthur F. Kinney

David Laird

Published in Connotations Vol. 13.1-2 (2003/04)

Arthur F. Kinney has written a masterful essay, well−argued and researched.1)

He contends that Falstaff so abuses language that he loses touch with his audience both on and off the stage and ends up talking to himself. Falstaff executes a series of brilliant parodies but eventually becomes the object of parody or something worse, a dead letter, forgotten, alone and out of action.2)


His verbal high jinks, trickery, and evasions cease to engage those on whom he depends. The hinge of the argument turns on the following: "But a good hard look will show that Falstaff's wit subscribes not merely to inventiveness but, finally, pays allegiance to solipsism" and, even more emphatically, that his language "ceases to function in any reliable way" (123, 124). In Falstaff's exercise of a freewheeling linguistic legerdemain, words are made to mean what he chooses them to mean and, in the resulting scramble, words are stripped of any predictable meaning. One recalls a line that describes a character in Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case: "Words meant more to him than the facts they stood for."3)


Kinney makes a similar point about Falstaff, namely, that he delights in free−floating signifiers, wordplay for its own sake, and relies "on the dictum not of Tudor humanists but of the latter−day Humpty Dumpty: 'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean (123).'" And, Kinney adds, this exercise of semantic freedom invites a certain skepticism, a loss of regard and credibility. To emphasize the point, he recalls that when the actor playing Falstaff delivers the epilogue, he [→page 24] mocks his character as a counterfeit, an imposter: "For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man" (Epilogue, Henry IV, Part II, 27).4)



The notion that the fat knight can be so easily disposed of seems to counter his commanding presence earlier in his stage career and in the very criticism that Kinney surveys with such authority and grace. We might agree that Falstaff's language is unreliable if by that we mean that the information it conveys is often inflated or wrong, at odds with what others report or what transpires on stage, not a reckoning one can count on. But, if we acknowledge that language conveys more than empirical data, that its communicative function goes beyond the representation of a particular state of affairs, then we might ask what the term "reliable" signifies in this broader context, or, if reluctant to attempt such a puzzle, then, at the very least, we might consider other ways in which language fulfills a communicative function, ways, risky and unreliable though they may be, that, nonetheless, allow us to believe that language works. My concern here is to track some of these "unreliable" ways and to claim an underlying purpose or accomplishment. I hope to defend Falstaff against charges of solipsism and linguistic truancy by showing that he is able to use words to engage others and to instruct them as well. To take the argument further, I hope to show that the instruction he offers enlists the imagination to teach a political lesson.5)


While it is certainly the case that, as Hal quips, Falstaff is out of all compass, that his rhetorical exploits are varied, ambiguous, often self−serving, he remains accessible enough to draw his audience into ways of responding that are off the beaten path, at a distance from more orthodox or predictable enforcements. Falstaff's language, more often than not, is imaginative rather than literal and furnished more conspicuously than that of any other character in Shakespeare with a wealth of mythological and biblical allusions, proverbs, puns and emblems.6)


There is an obvious distinction to be drawn between, on the one hand, incoherent, nonsensical, opinionated or biased language or language so private it fails to make sense to others and might be [→page 25] described as solipsistic and, on the other hand, language that is ambiguous, allusive, open−ended, multifaceted, capable of encoding a multiplicity of tones and meanings. Kinney locates Falstaff on one side of this division; I would argue that he belongs on the other. We can agree, however, that rhetorical excess or the vacancy of substance or support threatens any attempt to communicate, isolating the author and alienating the audience. When language becomes overblown, bombastic, or hyperbolic, it ceases to function as a credible engine of negotiation or exchange; it undercuts authority and promotes cynicism.7)

These are the abuses of which Falstaff stands accused.


In making his case, Kinney gives too little attention to the skill with which Falstaff draws on a variety of rhetorical devices and, more importantly, to the comic space he occupies. Reliable utterance is, in a sense, genre related. What we are prepared to accept as reliable witness or convincing representation varies with the mode of discourse by which it is shaped. Irony and metaphor invite a different scale or measure than do styles of utterance overtly judgmental or biased in favor of an unadorned literalness. Falstaff's rhetorical strategies, metaphor and irony included, not only seek to engage the imagination, but also to fix by example and implication its singular importance in public discourse. Kinney acknowledges Falstaff's role as an agent of satire, his quick−wittedness and humor. But he concludes that in the course of the narrative the audience comes to have second thoughts about the character of Falstaff's appeal, an amused tolerance changing to repulsion and dismay. The spirit of mockery Falstaff directs against institutions and codes of behavior reverses itself, making him its target, the mocker mocked. It is at the point where Falstaff tries to counter the humiliation of the Gad's Hill robbery that Kinney locates this shift in attitude. Foolery and sport give way to ridicule and aversion.

The Prince and Poins confront Falstaff with what they know, first−hand, about the robbery. Hal taunts Falstaff, demanding a defense of the indefensible: "What trick, what device, what starting−hole, canst thou now find out to hide thee from this open and apparent shame?" [→page 26] (2.5.242−43). That Falstaff comes up with an answer is as much a surprise to the Prince as to onlookers in the theater. He demonstrates mastery of the quick response by seizing on Hal's "apparent" and turning it back upon him.8)


By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye. Why, hear you, my masters. Was it for me to kill the heir apparent? Should I turn upon the true prince? Why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules; but beware instinct. (2.5.246−50)

The escape route, his deliverance, as it were, is variously read: "a crowning lie […] completely unexpected and quite unanswerable,"9)

an assault on common sense, a desperate and transparent evasion of the truth, a brilliantly imaginative gesture that offers transport to a realm beyond the tangled web of circumstance. Kinney is among those who view Falstaff's escape as no more than that, testimony to his agility and wit, but disturbingly unbecoming, a far−out and implausible improvisation undertaken to save face. The further point is made that Falstaff never recovers, never reclaims his former standing. As Kinney puts it, "left to his own devices, Falstaff is solipsistic" (124). The charge is enforced and amplified in the following indictment:


Style […] can override substance. Serious ideas may be diminished or even erased if their examination is funny enough. Seen this way, parody is not a means of translating ideas but a means of overturning them. This is not a matter of means overcoming ends but of means becoming both means and ends, turning upside−down along the way cherished beliefs in language taught by the humanists who, posing that language should be transparently related to substance, nevertheless saw substance as moral, educative, and finally irrevocable. (121)

To brand Falstaff as a corrupter of words, a practitioner of a kind of sophistry or rhetoric for its own sake is, I think, to discount the link between the images words transcribe and the non−verbal world those images broaden and inform. When Falstaff declares that he is a coward by instinct, that he cannot raise his arm against the true prince he is, of course, kidding Hal, speaking in jest, questioning the legitimacy of Hal's claim to be the heir apparent, teasing him about the uncertain path by which his father forged his way to the throne. But there is [→page 27] something else at play when he pays homage to instinct, to what remains inexplicable, illogical, to what frees the imagination and offers insight beyond analysis or calculation.

"Instinct" is sometimes understood as an intuitive power, the origin of which remains unclear.10)

Such a meaning is at work in Cymbeline when Belarius voices his amazement that "an invisible instinct" should produce "royalty unlearned" and "houour untaught" (4.2.177−78), or again in Richard III when men are said to be subject to "divine instinct" (2.3.42). The Renaissance sense of "instinct" implies an authority beyond practical reason or observation. When Falstaff admonishes the Prince to "Beware instinct," his tone is both imperative and threatening, positive in so far as it is a command and negative in the implication that danger lurks should the command go unheeded. Falstaff urges the Prince to pay attention, to heed the warning instinct delivers. The admonition has a biblical association, echoing the pronouncement that foretells the coming of the Angel of the Lord: "Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him" (Exodus 23:21).


Falstaff's extraordinary capacity to represent the world, to select the terms by which it is to be understood, is given eloquent testimony by A. C. Bradley in a remarkable and quite uncharacteristic passage:

These are the wonderful achievements which he performs, not with the sourness of a cynic, but with the gaiety of a boy. And therefore, we praise him, we laud him, for he offends none but the virtuous, and denies that life is earnest, and delivers us from the oppression of such nightmares, and lifts us into the atmosphere of perfect freedom.11)


Bradley sees Falstaff's energy and shaping spirit as life enhancing, liberating, as offering glimpses of a world less hostile and constrained. In addition to what so moves Bradley there is a political, perhaps even a moral dimension in which wit and imagination play decisive roles and thereby gain a validation that transcends the realm of fiction.

The lion will not touch the true prince—instinct is a great matter. I was now a coward on instinct. I shall think the better of myself and thee during my life—I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince. (2.5.249−53)

[→page 28] The notion that the lion, king of the beasts, will recognize by instinct a king or a virgin appears in a number of classical and early modern texts, most notably, perhaps, in Book I of The Faerie Queene where a lion recognizes a royal virgin and becomes her protector:

But to the pray when as he drew more ny
His bloudie rage asswaged with remorse,
And with the sight amazd, forgat his furious forse. 12)


The editors of The Johns Hopkins Press Spenser remark that "the instinctive reverence of the lion […] is […] in keeping with the whole lion cult, for, as frequently observed, the lion, like the unicorn, will offer no injury to a virgin or to a royal personage."13)

In Spenser, it is the incorruptibility of Una to which the lion responds. In Falstaff's account, the lion is tamed by the mystery that surrounds the monarchy. The appeal is to that which lies beyond reason, what must be intuited, a sovereign power commanding obedience and service, enforcing rank and hierarchy.


Falstaff's legendary lion is the creation of the imagination. So too is the aura of mystery that surrounds the true prince. There is the implication that the imagination has a vital role to play in a variety of social and political relationships and particularly in the exercise of monarchical authority. The coward−by−instinct invention is meant as much to tutor the Prince in the wellsprings of power as it is to acquit Falstaff. For his part in the rhetorical contest, he seeks to engage the imagination and, thus, to broaden the Prince's view of the office to which he will succeed. Ruth Wallerstein in Studies in Seventeenth−Century Poetic reminds us that

it is the function of rhetoric […] to appeal to the imagination, if necessary to purge and reorder it tempestuously, and thereby to combat false opinion; and also it is its function to give ceremonious ornament to great things.14)


Perhaps the Prince has not yet mastered the uses of rhetoric or learned the art of giving "ceremonious ornament to great things."15)

At the battle of Agincourt, he shows a readiness to try, suggesting that he [→page 29] not only perceives a necessary relationship between monarchy and the imagination but is prepared to exploit it as well. Such, then, is the lesson Falstaff teaches, a lesson underscored by the Chorus in Henry V who declares that the success of both actors and monarchs depends on the exercise of "imaginary puissance […] for 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings " (Prologue 25, 28). James I is by no means the first to acknowledge the role of imagination in the theater of kingship.16)


After Falstaff has exhausted himself in his own defense and in lessoning the heir apparent, it comes as no surprise that his next move should be to change the subject: "Gallants, lads, boys, hearts of gold, all titles of good fellowship come to you! What, shall we be merry, shall we have a play extempore" (Henry IV, Part I, 2.5.255−57).