Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent!
“Robert Shallow,” Justice of the Peace, Henry IV, Pt. 2 (III.2)
One of the saddest moments in all of Shakespeare involves a silent exchange between two men, one of whom is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most comic creations: Sir John Falstaff. The other man is a Boy King who feels obligated, in classic Oedipal fashion, to cut down the “father” and forge his own way.
But even after that sad, sad moment—which culminates in Sir John’s most pathetic, heart-breaking demise—Shakespeare could not let the guy go. Falstaff was so charismatic that, seemingly, WS had to find a way to resurrect him in a mediocre bedroom farce (Merry Wives of Windsor). The inability to let Sir John go did not result in artistic pay dirt; but it is a tribute to how hard it can be to accept the death of truly Dionysian figures and how tempting it is to feed on their larger-than-life energy—until that same energy goes careening toward the lower depths.
Falstaff is a central character in Henry IV pts 1 &2. He is a dynamic reprobate, the fraternity brother endowed with uber gifts of eloquence and insight, but who doesn’t quite live up to his potential. He becomes a stumble-down drunk; yet his artistic sensibilities make him disdainful of those who merely relish debauchery. He is Prince Hal’s mentor, partner in crime, surrogate father. He is lovable, horrible; generous and cruel; entrancing and repulsive—as dangerous and intoxicating as crystal meth.
Sooner or later, the regular frat boys realize they have to learn to get up at dawn, not just be up at dawn; yet long after the party ends, they want to be able to reach back and claim an association with Sir John. They want to be able to say that, with him, they “heard the chimes at midnight”—even after he becomes a pathetic shadow of his once-glorious nihilistic self. They are not there at his tawdry, festering bedside as he turns “as cold as any stone.” They have appointments to keep, family obligations to which they must attend. But they will feed on his energy in perpetuity, “prate” about “the wildness of [their] youth, and the feats [they]
hath done,” but, as Sir John recognized, “every third word [is] a lie.”
Sir John is the only one who, by never putting on the brakes, refused to lie.
But, with such honesty, he is brought low by his own heart. And thereby proves to be as inferior as he seemed—to others and himself—superior.