Book Review

Bloom’s Falstaff

Mihály Zichy: Falstaff with a Tankard of Wine and a Pipe, 1873. (Public Domain)

I’m no expert on Shakespeare, but as a student I took classes with three of the biggies—Jan Kott, a Stalinist Pole whose Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964) is largely responsible for the now widespread (and usually unfortunate) practice of staging Shakespeare in modern dress; Richard L. Levin, a stuffy but solid University of Chicago formalist who made a side career out of attacking feminist and New Historicist criticism (and who publicly dismissed Kott’s work as a heap of rubbish); and Joseph Pequigney, whose Such Is My Love (1985) is perhaps the definitive argument for the case that some of the sonnets are homo­erotic.

Though I loved Shakespeare in college, I thought there must be something wrong with me, because my favorite among his plays wasn’t Hamlet or Lear—it was Henry IV, Part One, closely followed by Henry IV, Part Two. For a long time I assumed that these were bizarre favorites. But it turned out I was wrong. “No play of Shakespeare’s,” wrote Mark Van Doren (the mentor, by the way, of another professor of mine, the late, great Louis Simpson) in his 1939 book Shakespeare, “is better than ‘Henry IV.’” Then there’s Harold Bloom, who, in the opening pages of his short, charming new book Falstaff: Give Me Life,[1] writes that he has “come to believe that if we are to represent Shakespeare by only one play, it ought to be the complete Henry IV, to which I would add Mistress Quickly’s description of the death of Falstaff in act 2, scene 3 of Henry V.”

For Bloom, what puts Henry IV on top is not the starring role, Prince Hal, but the supporting character Sir John Falstaff. “I think of this as the Falstaffiad,” writes Bloom, “rather than the Henriad, as scholars tend to call it.” For Bloom, who has been teaching at Yale since 1955 and who is considered by many to be the most distinguished living literary critic (he’s 87), Falstaff is not just “the glory of the Henry IV plays” but (his italics) “the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.” This isn’t the first time Bloom has placed Falstaff front and center: in his 1998 book on Shakespeare, Bloom named Falstaff and Hamlet as the Bard’s two key characters.

And here I used to think that, if we were to exalt any of the Henry plays, it was supposed to be Henry V, in which the former Prince Hal—having inherited the throne from his father, put behind him his dissolute days of drinking, whoring, and carousing, kicked his elderly, corpulent sidekick Falstaff to the curb, and instantly, magically metamorphosed into the perfect king—brilliantly leads his army on a successful conquest of France, pausing only to deliver the immortal lines beginning “Once more into the breach, dear friends” and the equally famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. When I took a course in the history plays with Pequigney and we moved from the Henry IV plays to Henry V, I openly expressed my disappointment in Prince Hal for having so easily, and cruelly, tossed his old pal aside; in response, Pequigney made clear his disappointment in me, explaining that Henry V was, indeed, the perfect king, and that, in order to step fully into that role, had to jettison Falstaff in the coldest, most definitive way possible.

I wasn’t convinced. Nor did I share Pequigney’s obvious preference for Henry V over the Henry IV plays. Pequigney even dragged in a film projector and a giant reel of celluloid and showed us Laurence Olivier’s 1944 motion-picture version of Henry V (this was before you could rent a movie at Blockbuster, and long before you could buy one online). To me, Olivier’s Technicolor Henry V was a grand, colorful pageant, and his Henry (played, of course, by Olivier) a bigger-than-life hero. And that was just the way it should be: Shakespeare’s Henry V is indeed a pageant about a bigger-than-life hero.

Which was why I preferred the Henry IV plays—they were about people I felt close to, none more so than Falstaff.

It would be decades before I actually caught up with another film: Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965). In it, Welles does the sort of thing that any cultivated individual is expected to contemplate with alarm: he performed on Shakespeare a ruthless cut-and-paste job (one thinks of Thomas Jefferson’s severely condensed Bible), cobbling together scenes and lines from the Henriad as well as from Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The result is nothing less than a sheer masterpiece with Falstaff (played by Welles) as protagonist. Welles considered it his best work, and Bloom, it turns out, loves it, calling it a “neglected masterpiece” and agreeing with Welles’s descrip­tion of Falstaff as “the greatest conception of a good man, the most completely good man, in all drama. His faults are so small and he makes tremendous jokes out of little faults.” (Then, of course, there’s Verdi’s opera Falstaff, which borrows its plot from the exceedingly lame Merry Wives of Windsor—funny how it works far better as an Italian opera than as an English play—and incorporates material from both Henry IV plays. Bloom recalls that W. H. Auden, a personal friend and no mean judge of literature himself, “preferred Verdi’s Falstaff to Shakespeare’s.” Apples and oranges.)

Welles identified with Falstaff. So does Bloom. The most obvious shared attribute is heft: Prince Hal famously derides Sir John as “an old fat man; a tun of man . . . that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly.” Bloom has always been a portly figure, and Welles, when he played Falstaff, was at his most rotund, more famous to TV audiences for his impressive waistline than for Citizen Kane. But Welles’s and Bloom’s sense of identification with Falstaff isn’t just about avoirdupois; it’s about the way in which all three men—one dead, one living, one fictional—exude(d) life. It’s about their wit, their joie de vivre, their intellectual energy, their playfulness. “Hamlet is death’s ambassador,” proclaims Bloom, “while Falstaff is the embassy of life.” Other major characters in Shakespeare are killed right in front of us, in a pool of fake blood; but, Bloom notices, and insists on its importance, “Shakespeare will not allow Falstaff to die upon stage.” The Bard doesn’t want us to witness his passing, and we don’t either. Why? Because Falstaff “is life itself,” Bloom avers, whereupon (as he does frequently in this book) he turns personal: “Every other week I lose another friend or good acquaintance to death. My generation passes. It comforts me that Falstaff is among the Everliving.”

Nowadays, of course, academic literary critics don’t write this way. If a student in another Yale professor’s Shakespeare class were to hand in a paper including some of the sentences Bloom writes in this little volume, he’d get an F—and a serious talking-to about what “serious criticism” is all about. A younger Bloom, too, would likely have been displeased by much of this book—after all, he was, in his day, one of Yale’s notorious purveyors of supposedly advanced literary theory, although his own pet theory (“the anxiety of influence”) was never as far-out (never, that is, as abstruse or cynical or nihilistic—or as French-influenced) as those of J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and Paul de Man. While Bloom’s deconstructionist colleagues in New Haven sought to dethrone the Author and replace him with the Critic (i.e., themselves), in much the way that Henry IV ousted Richard II, Bloom was always an enthusiast, happy to applaud the author from some anonymous place amidst the groundlings. Part of the deconstructionists’ schtick was to malign the idea of greatness; by contrast, Bloom ultimately became the canon’s leading defender, publishing in 1994 the massive, best-selling Western Canon.

Originally a specialist in the Romantic poets, moreover, Bloom spent much of the 1990s writing about the Bible and American religion. One is tempted to suggest that he was on some kind of spiritual quest, at the end of which he decided that the closest thing possible to a deity was Shakespeare—the chief evidence for which is that, in 1998, he published another bestseller, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he made no less a claim than that “Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” Meaning what? The critic Robert Atwan summed up Bloom’s contention as follows: “Shakespeare—especially in his creation of Falstaff and Hamlet—so utterly altered human consciousness that after him the world was a different place and we were different creatures.”

How to prove such a thing? In fact Bloom doesn’t try: by the time he wrote his Shakespeare book, he was less preoccupied with substantiating arguments than with sharing scattered insights about plays and characters and, above all, with bestowing praise. Tons and tons of praise. For Bloom, to read Shakespeare is to be in the presence of the sacred; whenever he is writing about the Bard, then, he is less often enacting the role of a critic come to analyze than that of a parishioner come to worship. In Bloom’s view, Shakespeare was not only the supreme literary genius in human history, but also—and, yes, he appears to mean this literally—the greatest intellect who ever lived. It seems a stretch, even for a lover of Shakespeare. But it’s clear that for Bloom this assertion, however hyperbolic, fulfills some extremely deep-seated need.

In any event, what Bloom gives us in Give Me Life turns out to be a highly personal mélange—a treasury of reflections on Falstaff, digres­sions into Shakespeare’s life and times and into other items in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, and extensive quotations not only from the Henriad but also from other plays, as well as from Biblical passages to which Falstaff and other characters in the Henriad allude. Falstaff, Bloom points out interestingly, “speaks only prose.” He “continually finds fresh delight in play.” Bloom suggests that Falstaff, as a creation, owes something to Shylock (The Merchant of Venice was written just prior to Henry IV, Part I). Without Falstaff, Bloom muses splendidly, the Henriad “would be an elevated version of the Henry VI plays.” (If you don’t see what he means, go read all the Henry plays and you’ll get it.) Similarly, he offers this: “Take Falstaff out of the plays and you get the empty sensation I experience when moving from Henry IV to Henry V.” In a reminder that the hobbyhorse of his youth was the “anxiety of influence,” Bloom serves up a list of writers who’ve influenced Shakespeare as well as of those who’ve been influenced by him—but these lists are so long and lacking in specifics that you might as well be reading the table of contents in a Norton Anthology.

Bloom also makes flat-out pronouncements that he doesn’t even bother to try to demonstrate: “the essence of Falstaffianism” is “do not moralize.” He speculates, again without seeking textual corroboration, about the characters’ feelings and motives: “It would seem [Prince Hal] sought out Falstaff as an act of truancy.” And: “Falstaff loves Hal and urgently needs to be loved in return.” He pinpoints Falstaff’s crucial role in Shakespeare’s own career, noting that the fat knight made Shakespeare’s name as a playwright and reminding us of the legend that The Merry Wives of Windsor, that dog of a play (the first work of Shakespeare, unfortunately, that I ever saw onstage), came into being because Queen Elizabeth wanted to see Falstaff in love. Bloom passes on a friend’s thought-provoking comment that “Falstaff’s function was to humanize Hal.” He lets fly the kind of grandiose, if sometimes head-scratching, dicta that only an accredited sage can get away with. “Falstaff, of all Shakespeare’s personalities, is a creator of language.” And: “With the creation of Falstaff, Shakespeare discovered there were no limits to his art.” After Falstaff, Bloom notes, Shakespeare undergoes a steady “darkening” that takes him to Hamlet, Iago, Lear. “The better I know Sir John,” says Bloom, “the less I know him.”

So it goes. If you are on the lookout for some university-press tome that meticulously seeks to validate some abstruse thesis about Falstaff—especially one that’s steeped in postmodern ideology, equipped with the usual pretentious jargon, and packed with references to Foucault and Lacan—this isn’t what you’re looking for. If, on the contrary, you’re in the mood for something that approximates the experience of sitting in a comfy chair in Professor Bloom’s living room while he holds forth meanderingly—by turns ecstatic, wistful, whimsical, and penetrating—on his very favorite personage in all of Shakespeare, you will surely want to spend your dime, and your time, on this amiable bauble.

[1] FALSTAFF: Give Me Life, by Harold Bloom. Scribner. $23.00.