Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Once More Unto Falstaff

The witty reprobate in the Henry IV plays is not the same Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor. The latter is the butt of jokes in a frothy comic world dominated by women smarter than he (as opposed to being the source of jokes in a painfully real world where his inability to grow up wears thin even though he dominates those in his circle with his superior wit). The fact of these irreconcilable Falstaffs might lead a person to conclude that the same guy could not possibly have written the plays with these disparate depictions. The Falstaff in Merry Wives is so transformed as to be unrecognizable—except by recourse to his name and some of his cohorts. After all, one can observe a more subtle version of this phenomenon in popular TV shows, where episodes are often written by different folks (or committees of folks) such that the same set of characters can seem wildly different in different episodes even though played by the same actors.

But instead of settling for the hypothesis that the same “Shakespeare” did not write the Falstaff history plays on one hand and Merry Wives on the other, I decided to push myself to find another theory, one that might prove more illuminating in the end. This exercise is what lawyers often have to do to try to reconcile judicial opinions that seem to involve very similar issues but which were resolved in opposite ways. Instead of just saying, “Well, one of these courts just got it wrong” or “It’s all political anyway”—by drilling down into the details, you can often find a more nuanced and satisfying way to resolve the tension between the seemingly contradictory holdings.
While trying to do this, it occurred to me that Shakespeare’s diametrically different Falstaffs are a bit like the contradictory portraits that we get of Socrates thanks to his disciple Plato on one hand and to Aristophanes a comedic playwright (and Socrates’s contemporary) on the other. Plato presents a Socrates who is a humble, deeply reflective mystic willing to die to preserve the rule of law and his fundamental commitment to questioning inherited wisdom; Aristophanes’s Socrates, by contrast, is a fraudster who runs a school called “The Thinkery” where he spends time on absurdly petty speculations, such as how best to measure the size of a flea’s foot. Can Plato and Aristophanes have really been seeing the same man? Who was right? Or were they both right—and wrong—about the True Socrates? Maybe that is what “Shakespeare” was demonstrating with his very different takes on Falstaff. He was giving his audience a lesson in the power of perspective; he was showing how easy it is to reduce a complex human being to a cartoon and how hard it is to see someone who is ancillary to our own unfolding narrative in all his dimensions.

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