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.