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An Essay on the Dramatic Character of
Sir John Falstaff
The following sheets were written in consequence of a friendly conversation, turning by some chance upon the Character of Falstaff, wherein the Writer, maintaining, contrary to the general Opinion, that this Character was not intended to be shewn as a Coward, he was challenged to deliver and support that Opinion from the Press, with an engagement, now he fears forgotten, for it was three years ago, that he should be answered thro' the same channel: Thus stimulated, these papers were almost wholly written in a very short time, but not without those attentions, whether successful or not, which seemed necessary to carry them beyond the Press into the hands of the Public. From the influence of the foregoing circumstances it is, that the Writer has generally assumed rather the character and tone of an Advocate than of an Inquirer ;—though if he had not first inquired and been convinced, he should never have attempted to have amused either himself or others with the subject.—The impulse of the occasion, however, being passed, the papers were thrown by, and almost forgotten : But having been looked into of late by some friends, who, observing that the Writer had not enlarged so far for the sake of Falstaff alone, but that the Argument was made subservient to Critical amusement, persuaded him to revise and convey it to the Press. This has been accordingly done, though he fears something too hastily, as he found it proper to add, while the papers were in the course of printing, some considerations on the Whole Character of Falstaff; which ought to have been accompanied by a slight reform of a few preceding passages,
may seem, in consequence of this addition, to contain too favourable a representation of his Morals.
The vindication of Falstaff's Courage is truly no otherwise the object than some old fantastic Oak, or grotesque Rock, may be the object of a morning's ride ; yet being proposed as such, may serve to limit the distance, and shape the course : The real object is Exercise, and the Delight which a rich, beautiful, picturesque, and perhaps unknown Country, may excite from every side. Such an Exercise may admit of some little excursion, keeping however the Road in view ; but seems to exclude every appearance of labour and of toil.—Under the impression of such Feelings, the Writer has endeavoured to preserve to his Text a certain lightness of air, and chearfulness of tone; but is sensible, however, that the manner of discussion does not every where, particularly near the commencement, sufficiently correspond with his design.-If the Book shall be fortunate enough to obtain another Impression, a separation may be made ; and such of the heavier parts as cannot be wholly dispensed with, sink to their . more proper station,-a Note.
He is fearful likewise that he may have erred in the other extreme; and that having thought himself intitled, even in argument, to a certain degree of playful discussion, may have pushed it, in a few places, even to levity. This error might be yet more easily
reformed than the other.—The Book is perhaps, as it stands, too bulky for the subject ; but if the Reader knew how many pressing considerations, as it grew into size, the Author resisted, which yet seemed intitled to be heard, he would the more readily excuse him.
The whole is a mere Experiment, and the Writer considers it as such : It may have the advantages, but it is likewise attended with all the difficulties and dangers, of Novelty.
ON THE DRAMATIC CHARACTER OF
SIR JOHN FALSTAFF
The ideas which I have formed concerning the Courage and Military Character of the Dramatic Sir John Falstaf are so different from those which I find generally to prevail in the world, that I shall take the liberty of stating my sentiments on the subject; in hope that some person, as unengaged as myself, will either correct and reform my error in this respect; or, joining himself to my opinion, redeem me from, what I may call, the reproach of singularity.
I am to avow, then, that I do not clearly discern that Sir John Falstaff deserves to bear the character so generally given him of an absolute Coward ; or, in other words, that I do not conceive Shakespeare ever meant to make Cowardice an essential part of his constitution.
I know how universally the contrary opinion prevails ; and I know what respect and deference are due to the public voice. But if to the avowal of this singularity I add all the reasons that have led me to it, and acknowledge myself to be wholly in the judgment of the public, I shall hope to avoid the censure of too much forwardness or indecorum.
It must, in the first place, be admitted that the appearances in this case are singularly strong and
striking; and so they had need be, to become the ground of so general a censure. We see this extraordinary Character, almost in the first moment of our acquaintance with him, involved in circumstances of apparent dishonour; and we hear him familiarly called Coward by his most intimate companions. We see him, on occasion of the robbery at Gads-Hill, in the very act of running away from the Prince and Poins ; and we behold him, on another of more honourable obligation, in open day light, in battle, and acting in his profession as a Soldier, escaping from Douglas even out of the world as it were ; counterfeiting death, and deserting his very existence; and we find him, on the former occasion, betrayed into those lies and braggadocioes which are the usual concomitants of Cowardice in Military men, and pretenders to valour. These are not only in themselves strong circumstances, but they are moreover thrust forward, prest upon our notice as the subject of our mirth, as the great business of the scene : No wonder, therefore, that the word should go forth that Falstaff is exhibited as a character of Cowardice and dishonour. What there is to the contrary of this, it is my
business to discover. Much, I think, will presently appear ; but it lies so dispersed, is so latent, and so purposely obscured, that the reader must have some patience whilst I collect it into one body, and make it the object of a steady and regular contemplation.
But what have we to do, may my readers exclaim, with principles so latent, so obscured? In Dramatic composition the Impression is the Fact; and the Writer, who, meaning to impress one thing, has impressed another, is unworthy of observation.
It is a very unpleasant thing to have, in the first setting out, so many and so strong prejudices to contend with. All that one can do in such case, is, to pray the reader to have a little patience in the commencement ; and to reserve his censure, if it must pass, for the conclusion. Under his gracious allowance, therefore, I presume to
declare it as my opinion, that Cowardice is not the Impression which the whole character of Falstaff is calculated to make on the minds of an unprejudiced audience ; tho' there be, I confess, a great deal of something in the composition likely enough to puzzle, and consequently to mislead the Understanding.–The reader will perceive that I distinguish between mental Impressions and the Understanding.-I wish to avoid every thing that looks like subtlety and refinement; but this is a distinction which we all comprehend.—There are none of us unconscious of certain feelings or sensations of mind which do not seem to have passed thro' the Understanding ; the effects, I suppose, of some secret influences from without, acting upon a certain mental sense, and producing feelings and passions in just correspondence to the force and variety of those influences on the one hand, and to the quickness of our sensibility on the other. Be the cause, however, what it may, the fact is undoubtedly so; which is all I am concerned in. And it is equally a fact, which every man's experience may avouch, that the Understanding and those feelings are frequently at variance. The latter often arise from the most minute circumstances, and frequently from such as the Understanding cannot estimate, or even recognize; whereas the Understanding delights in abstraction, and in general propositions ; which, however true considered as such, are very seldom, I had like to have said never, perfectly applicable to any particular case. And hence, among other causes, it is, that we often condemn or applaud characters and actions on the credit of some logical process, while our hearts revolt, and would fain lead us to a very different conclusion.
The Understanding seems for the most part to take cognizance of actions only, and from these to infer motives and character ; but the sense we have been speaking of proceeds in a contrary course ; and determines of actions from certain first principles of character, which seem wholly out of the reach of the Understanding. We cannot