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channel I can furnish no irrational amusement, the reader will not, perhaps, every where expect from me the strict severity of logical investigation.
Falstaff, then, it may be observed, was introduced into the world,—(at least we are told so) by the name of Oldcastle. This was assigning him an origin of nobility; but the family of that name disclaiming any kindred with his vices, he was thereupon, as it is said, ingrafted into another stock ? scarcely less distinguished, tho' fallen into indelible disgraces; and by this means he has been made, if the conjectures of certain critics are well founded, the Dramatic successor, tho', having respect to chronology, the natural proavus of another Sir John, who was no less than a Knight of the most noble order of the Garter, but a name for ever dishonoured by a frequent exposure in that Drum-and-trumpet Thing called The first part of Henry VI., written doubtless, or rather exhibited, long before Shakespeare was born,3 tho' afterwards repaired, I
1 I believe the stage was in possession of some rude outline of Falstaff before the time of Shakespeare, under the name of Sir John Oldcastle ; and I think it probable that this name was retained for a period in Shakespeare's Hen. 4th, but changed to Falstaff before the play was printed. The expression of “Old Lad of the Castle,” used by the Prince, does not however decidedly prove this ; as it might have been only some known and familiar appellation too carelessly transferred from the old Play.
2 I doubt if Shakespeare had Sir John Fastolfe in his memory when he called the character under consideration Falstaff. The title and name of Sir John were transferred from Oldcastle not Fastolfe, and there is no kind of similarity in the characters. If he had Fastolfe in his thought at all, it was that, while he approached the name, he might make such a departure from it as the difference of character seemed to require.
3 It would be no difficult matter, I think, to prove that all those Plays taken from the English chronicle, which are ascribed to Shakespeare, were on the stage before his time, and that he was employed by the Players only to refit and repair ; taking due care to retain the names of the characters and to preserve all those incidents which were the most popular. Some of these Plays, particularly the two parts of Hen. IV., have certainly received what may be called a thorough repair ; that is, Shakespeare new-wrote them to the old names. In the latter part of Hen. V. some of the old materials remain ; and in the Play which I have here censured (Hen. VI.) we see very little of the new. I
think, and furbished up by him with here and there a little sentiment and diction. This family, if any branch of it remained in Shakespeare's time, might have been proud of their Dramatic ally, if indeed they could have any fair pretence to claim as such him whom Shakespeare, . perhaps in contempt of Cowardice, wrote Falstaff, not Fastolfe, the true Historic name of the Gartered Craven.
In the age of Henry IV. a Family crest and arms were authentic proofs of gentility; and this proof, among others, Shakespeare has furnished us with : Falstaff always carried about him, it seems, a Seal ring of his Grandfather's, worth, as he says, forty marks : The Prince indeed affirms, but not seriously I think, that this ring was copper. As to the existence of the bonds, which were I suppose the negotiable securities or paper-money of the time, and which he pretended to have lost, I have nothing to say ; but the ring, I believe, was really gold ; tho' probably a little too much alloyed with baser metal. But this is not the point : The arms were doubtless genuine ; they were borne by his Grandfather, and are proofs of an antient gentility ; a gentility doubtless, in former
should conceive it would not be very difficult to feel one's way thro' these Plays, and distinguish every where the metal from the clay. Of the two Plays of Hen. IV. there has been, I have admitted, a complete transmutation, preserving the old forms; but in the others, there is often no union or coalescence of parts, nor are any of them equal in merit to those Plays more peculiarly and emphatically Shakespeare's own. The reader will be pleased to think that I do not reckon into the works of Shakespeare certain absurd productions which his editors have been so good as to compliment him with. I object, and strenuously too, even to The Taming of the Shrew ; not that it wants merit, but that it does not bear the peculiar features and stamp of Shakespeare.
The rhyming parts of the Historic plays are all, I think, of an older date than the times of Shakespeare. - There was a Play, I believe, of the Acts of King John, of which the bastard Falconbridge seems to have been the hero and the fool : He appears to have spoken altogether in rhyme. Shakespeare shews him to us in the latter part of the second scene in the first act of King John in this condition ; tho’he afterwards, in the course of the Play, thought fit to adopt him, to give him language and manners, and to make him his own.
periods, connected with wealth and possessions, tho' the gold of the family might have been transmuting by degrees, and perhaps, in the hands of Falstaff, converted into , little better than copper. This observation is made on the supposition of Falstaff's being considered as the head of the family, which I think however he ought not to be. It appears rather as if he ought to be taken in the light of a cadet or younger brother ; which the familiar appellation of John, “the only one “(as he says) given him by his brothers and sisters," seems to indicate. Be this as it may, we find he is able, in spite of dissipation, to keep up a certain state and dignity of appearance; retaining no less than four, if not five, followers or men servants in his train. He appears also to have had apartments in town, and, by his invitations of Master Gower to dinner and to supper, a regular table : And one may infer farther from the Prince's question, on his return from Wales, to Bardolph, “ Is your master here “ in London,” that he had likewise a house in the country. Slight proofs it must be confessed, yet the inferences are so probable, so buoyant, in their own nature, that they may well rest on them. That he did not lodge at the Tavern is clear from the circumstances of the arrest. These various occasions of expence,—servants, taverns, houses, and whores,—necessarily imply that Falstaff must have had some funds which are not brought immediately under our notice. That these funds were not however adequate to his style of living is plain : Perhaps his train may be considered only as incumbrances, which the pride of family and the habit of former opulence might have brought upon his present poverty: I do not mean absolute poverty, but call it so as relative to his expence. To have “but seven groats and two-pence in his purse” and a page to bear it, is truly ridiculous; and it is for that reason we become so familiar with its contents, “ He can find,” he says, “no remedy for this consumption of the purse, borrowing “ does but linger and linger it out; but the disease is incurable.” It might well be deemed so in his course of dissipation : But I shall presently suggest one source at least of his supply much more constant and honourable than that of borrowing. But the condition of Falstaff as to opulence or poverty is not very material to my purpose : It is enough if his birth was distinguished, and his youth noted for gallantry and accomplishments. To the first I have spoken, and as for the latter we shall not be at a loss when we remember that “he was in his youth a page to “ Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk”; a situation at that time sought for by young men of the best families and first fortune. The house of every great noble was at that period a kind of Military school, and it is probable that Falstaff was singularly adroit at his exercises : “ He “ broke Schoggan's head,” (some boisterous fencer I suppose) “ when he was but a crack thus high.” Shallow remembers him as notedly skilful at backsword; and he was at that period, according to his own humourous account, “scarcely 5o an eagle's talon in the waist, and could have crept thro' an “ alderman's thumb ring.” Even at the age at which he is exhibited to us, we find him foundering, as he calls it, nine score and odd miles, with wonderful expedition, to join the army of Prince John of Lancaster; and declaring, after the surrender of Coleville, that “had he but a belly of “any indifferency, he were simply the most active fellow in “ Europe.” Nor ought we here to pass over his Knighthood without notice. It was, I grant, intended by the author as a dignity which, like his Courage and his wit, was to be debased; his knighthood by low situations, his Courage by circumstances and imputations of cowardice, and his wit by buffoonery. But how are we to suppose this honour was acquired ? By that very Courage, it should seem, which we so obstinately deny him. It was not certainly given him, like a modern City Knighthood, for his wealth or gravity : It was in these days a Military honour, and an authentic badge of Military merit.
But Falstaff was not only a Military Knight, he possess'd an honourable pension into the bargain ; the reward as well as retainer of service, and which seems (besides the favours perhaps of Mrs. Ursula) to be the principal and only solid support of his present expences. But let us refer to the passage. “ A pox of this gout, or a “gout of this pox; for one or the other plays the rogue with my “ great toe: It is no matter if I do halt, I have the wars for “ my colour, and my pension shall seem the more reasonable.” The mention Falstaff here makes of a pension, has I believe been generally construed to refer rather to hope than possession, yet I know not why : For the possessive My, my pension, (not a pension) requires a different construction. Is it that we cannot enjoy a wit till we have stript him of every worldly advantage, and reduced him below the level of our envy? It may be perhaps for this reason among others that Shakespeare has so obscured the better parts of Falstaff and stolen them secretly out of our feelings, instead of opening them fairly to the notice of our understandings. How carelessly, and thro' what byepaths, as it were, of casual inference, is this fact of a pension introduced! And how has he associated it with misfortune and infirmity! Yet I question, however, if, in this one place, the Impression which was intended be well and effectually made. It must be left to the reader to determine if, in that mass of things out of which Falstaff is compounded, he ever considered a pension as any part of the composition : A pension however he appears to have had, one that halting could only seem to make more reasonable, not more honourable. The inference arising from the fact, I shall leave to the reader. It is surely a circumstance highly advantageous to Falstaf (I speak of the pensions of former days), whether he be considered in the light of a soldier or a gentleman.
I cannot foresee the temper of the reader, nor whether he be content to go along with me in these kind of observations. Some of the incidents which I have drawn out of the Play may appear too minute, whilst yet they refer to principles which may seem too general. Many points require explanation ; something should be said
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