Obrazy na stronie
PDF
ePub

own expense; but what matters it now? In other times Bardolph could resent the everlasting merriment at the expense of his nose -he might wish it in the belly of the jester; but that's past. The dying knight compares a flea upon his follower's nose to a black soul burning in hell-fire; and no remonstrance is now made. Let him joke as he likes," says and thinks Bardolph with a sigh, "the fuel is gone that maintained that fire. He never will supply it more; nor will it, in return, supply fuel for his wit. I wish that it could." And Quickly, whom he had for nine-and-twenty years robbed and cheated — pardon me, I must retract the words-from whom he had, for the space of a generation, levied tax and tribute as a matter of right and due-she hovers anxiously over his dying bed, and, with a pathos and a piety well befitting her calling, soothes his departing moments by the consolatory assurance, when she hears him uttering the unaccustomed appeal to God, that he had no necessity for yet troubling himself with thoughts to which he had been unused during the whole length of their acquaintance. Blame her not for leaving unperformed the duty of a chaplain : it was not her vocation. She consoled him as she could — and he kindest of us can do no more.

[ocr errors]

66

Of himself, the centre of the circle, I have, perhaps, delayed too long to speak; but the effect which he impresses upon all the visionary characters around, marks Shakespeare's idea that he was to make a similar impression on the real men to whom he was transmitting him. The temptation to represent the gross fat man upon the stage as a mere buffoon, and to turn the attention of the spectators to the corporal qualities and the practical jests of which he is the object, could hardly be resisted by the players; and the popular notion of the Falstaff of the stage is, that he is no better than an upper-class Scapin.* A

* Mr. Verplanck says, "In a more literal sense, he is the most original as well as the most real of all comic creations - -a character of which many

proper consideration, not merely of the character of his mind as displayed in the lavish abundance of ever-ready wit, and the sound good sense of his searching observation, but of the position which he always held in society, should have freed the Falstaff of the cabinet from such an imputation. It has not generally done so. Nothing can be more false, nor, pace tanti viri, more unphilosophical, than Dr. Johnson's critique upon his character. According to him:

"Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt. He is a thief and a glutton, a coward and a boaster, always ready to cheat the weak, and prey upon the poor; to terrify the timorous, and insult the defenceless. At once obsequious and malignant, he satirizes in their absence those whom he lives by flattering. He is familiar with the prince only as an agent of vice, but of this familiarity he is so proud, as not only to be supercilious and haughty with common men, but to think his interests of importance to the Duke of Lancaster. Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gayety; by an unfailing power of exciting laughter, which is the more freely indulged, as his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy scapes and sallies of levity, which make sport, but raise no envy. It must be observed, that he is stained with no enormous or sanguinary crimes, so that his licentiousness is not so offensive but that it may be borne for his mirth.

"The moral to be drawn from this representation is, that no man is more dangerous than he that, with a will to corrupt, traits and peculiarities must have been gleaned, as their air of reality testifies, from the observation of actual life; and yet, with all his ponderous and tangible reality, as much a creature of the Poet's 'fugitive fancy' as the delicate Ariel himself. In his peculiar originality, Falstaff is to be classed only with the Poet's own Hamlet, and the Spanish Don Quixote."-M.

VOL. III.-2

hath the power to please; and that neither wit nor honesty ought to think themselves safe with such a companion, when they see Henry seduced by Falstaff."

What can be cheaper than the venting of moral apophthegms such as that which concludes the critique? Shakespeare, who had no notion of copy-book ethics, well knew that Falstaffs are not as plenty as blackberries, and that the moral to be drawn from the representation is no more than that great powers of wit will fascinate, whether they be joined or not to qualities commanding grave esteem. In the commentary I have just quoted, the Doctor was thinking of such companions as Savage; but the interval is wide and deep.

*

How idle is the question as to the cowardice of Falstaff. Maurice Morgann wrote an essay to free his character from the allegation; and it became the subject of keen controversy, Deeply would the knight have derided the discussion. His retreat from before Prince Henry and Poins, and his imitating death when attacked by Douglas, are the points mainly dwelt upon by those who make him a coward. I shall not minutely go over what I conceive to be a silly dispute on both sides: but in the former case Shakespeare saves his honor by making him offer at least some resistance to two bold and vigorous men when abandoned by his companions; and, in the latter, what

* Morgann, whose "Essay on the Character of Falstaff" is here referred to, spent his life, chiefly, in diplomatic and political pursuits, and was secretary of the embassy for the Treaty of Peace of 1783, acknowledging the independence of the United States. Morgann contended ("quite ineffectually," says Mr. Verplanck) that courage was one of Falstaff's attributes. Henry Mackenzie declined going to this length, but said that his very cowardice was "not so much a weakness as a principle," and that Falstaff "has the sense of danger, without the discomposure of fear." A former critic considered Falstaff "a living parody on the chivalry of the age." Cervantes, who produced Don Quixote some years after the character of Falstaff was created, might have been indebted for the idea to Shakespeare, his contemporary ?-M.

fitting antagonist was the fat and blown soldier of three-score

for :

"That furious Scot,

The bloody Douglas, whose well-laboring sword
Had three times slain the appearance of the king?'

He did no more than what Douglas himself did in the conclusion of the fight: overmatched, the renowned warrior :

"Gan vail his stomach, and did grace the shame
Of those that turned their backs; and, in his flight,
Stumbling in fear, was took."

Why press cowardice on Falstaff more than upon Douglas? In an age when men of all ranks engaged in personal conflict, we find him chosen to a command in a slaughterous battle; he leads his men to posts of imminent peril; it is his sword which Henry wishes to borrow when about to engage Percy, and he refuses to lend it from its necessity to himself; he can jest coolly in the midst of danger; he is deemed worthy of employing the arm of Douglas at the time that Hotspur engages the prince; Sir John Coleville yields himself his prisoner; and, except in the jocular conversations among his own circle, no word is breathed that he has not performed, and is not ready to perform, the duties of a soldier. Even the attendant of the chief justice, with the assent of the hostile lordship, admits that he has done good service at Shrewsbury. All this, and much more, is urged in his behalf by Maurice Morgann; but it is far indeed from the root of the matter.

Of his being a thief and a glutton I shall say a few words anon; but where does he cheat the weak or prey upon the

poor

- where terrify the timorous or insult the defenceless-where is he obsequious, where malignant-where is he supercilious and haughty with common men— - where does he think his interest of importance to the Duke of Lancaster? Of this last charge I see nothing whatever in the play. The "Duke" of

Lancaster * is a slip of the Doctor's pen. But Falstaff nowhere extends his patronage to Prince John; on the contrary, he asks from the prince the favor of his good report to the king, adding, when he is alone, that the sober-blooded boy did not love him. He is courteous of manner; but, so far from being obsequious, he assumes the command wherever he goes. He is jocularly satirical of speech; but he who has attached to him so many jesting companions for such a series of years, never could have been open to the reproach of malignity. If the sayings of Johnson himself about Goldsmith and Garrick, for example, were gathered, must he not have allowed them to be far more calculated to hurt their feelings than anything Falstaff ever said of Poins or Hal? and yet would he not recoil from the accusation of being actuated by malignant feelings toward men whom, in spite of wayward conversations, he honored, admired, and loved?

Let us consider for a moment who and what Falstaff was. If you put him back to the actual era in which his date is fixed, and judge him by the manners of that time; a knight of the days perhaps of Edward III.-at all events of Henry IV.was a man not to be confounded with the knights spawned in our times. A knight then was not far from the rank of peer; and with peers, merely by the virtue of his knighthood, he habitually associated as their equal. Even if we judge of him by the repute of knights in the days when his character was written—and in dealing with Shakespeare it is always safe to

* He is once called so by Westmoreland, Second Part of Henry IV. Act IV. Scene 1:

"Health and fair greeting from our general,

The prince Lord John and Duke of Lancaster;"

but it occurs nowhere else, and we must not place much reliance on the authenticity or the verbal accuracy of such verses. He was Prince John of Lancaster, and afterward Duke of Bedford. The king was then, as the king is now, Duke of Lancaster.-W. M.

« PoprzedniaDalej »