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with Poins should take a station separate from the rest, so that if the travellers should escape one party, they might light on the other : Falstaff does not object, though he supposes the travellers to be eight or ten in number. We next see Falstaff attack these travellers with alacrity, using the accustomed words of threat and terror ;—they make no resistance, and he binds and robs them.
Hitherto I think there has not appeared the least trait either of boast or fear in Falstaff. But now comes on the concerted transaction, which has been the source of so much dishonour. As they are sharing the booty (says the stage direction) the Prince and Poins set upon them, they all run away; and Falstaff after a blow or two runs away too, leaving the booty behind them.-“Got with much ease," says the Prince, as an event beyond expectation, “ Now merrily “ to horse.”—Poins adds, as they are going off, “ How the “ rogue roared !” This observation is afterwards remembered by the Prince, who, urging the jest to Falstaff, says, doubtless with all the licence of exaggeration,“ And you, Falstaff, carried your guts away as nimbly, with as “quick dexterity, and roared for mercy, and still ran and “ roared, as I ever heard bull-calf.” If he did roar for mercy, it must have been a very inarticulate sort of roaring ; for there is not a single word set down for Falstaff from which this roaring may be inferred, or any stage direction to the actor for that purpose : But, in the spirit of mirth and derision, the lightest exclamation might be easily converted into the roar of a bull-calf.
We have now gone through this transaction considered simply on its own circumstances, and without reference to any future boast or imputation. It is upon these circumstances the case must be tried, and every colour subsequently thrown upon it, either by wit or folly, ought to be discharged. Take it, then, as it stands hitherto, with reference only to its own preceding and concomitant circumstances, and to the unbounded ability of Shakespeare to obtain his own ends, and we must, I think, be compelled to confess that this transaction was never intended by Shakespeare to detect and expose the false pretences of a real Coward; but, on the contrary, to involve a man of allowed Courage, though in other respects of a very peculiar character, in such circumstances and suspicions of Cowardice as might, by the operation of those peculiarities, produce afterwards much temporary mirth among his familiar and intimate companions : Of this we cannot require a stronger proof than the great attention which is paid to the decorum and truth of character in the stage direction already quoted : It appears, from thence, that it was not thought decent that Falstaff should run at all, until he had been deserted by his companions, and had even afterwards exchanged blows with his assailants;—and thus, a just distinction is kept up between the natural Cowardice of the three associates and the accidental Terror of Falstaff.
Hitherto, then, I think it is very clear that no laughter either is, or is intended to be, raised upon the score of Falstaff's Cowardice. For after all, it is not singularly ridiculous that an old inactive man of no boast, as far as appears, or extraordinary pretensions to valour, should endeavour to save himself by flight from the assault of two bold and vigorous assailants. The very Players, who are, I think, the very worst judges of Shakespeare, have been made sensible, I suppose from long experience, that there is nothing in this transaction to excite any extraordinary laughter ; but this they take to be a defect in the management of their author, and therefore I imagine it is, that they hold themselves obliged to supply the vacancy, and fill it up with some low buffoonery of their own. Instead of the dispatch necessary on this occasion, they bring Falstaf, stuffing and all, to the very front of the stage ; where, with much mummery and grimace, he seats himself down, with a canvas money-bag in his hand, to divide the spoil. In this situation he is attacked by the Prince and Poins, whose tin swords hang idly in the air and delay to strike till the Player Falstaff, who seems more troubled with flatulence than fear, is able to rise : which
is not till after some ineffectual efforts, and with the assistance (to the best of my memory) of one of the thieves, who lingers behind, in spite of terror, for this friendly purpose ; after which, without any resistance on his part, he is goaded off the stage like a fat ox for slaughter by these stony-hearted drivers in buckram. I think he does not roar ;—perhaps the player had never perfected himself in the tones of a bull-calf. This whole transaction should be shewn between the interstices of a back scene : The less we see in such cases, the better we conceive. Something of resistance and afterwards of celerity in flight we should be made witnesses of; the roar we should take on the credit of Poins. Nor is there any occasion for all that bolstering with which they fill up the figure of Falstaff; they do not distinguish betwixt humourous exaggeration and necessary truth. The Prince is called starveling, dried neat's tongue, stock-fish, and other names of the same nature. They might with almost as good reason search the glass-houses for some exhausted stoker to furnish out à Prince of Wales of sufficient correspondence to this picture.
We next come to the scene of Falstaff's braggadocioes. I have already wandered too much into details; yet I must, however, bring Falstaff forward to this last scene of trial in all his proper colouring and proportions. The progressive discovery of Falstaff's character is excellently managed. In the first scene we become acquainted with his figure, which we must in some degree consider as a part of his character ; we hear of his gluttony and his debaucheries, and become witnesses of that indistinguishable mixture of humour and licentiousness which runs through his whole character ; but what we are principally struck with, is the ease of his manners and deportment, and the unaffected freedom and wonderful pregnancy of his wit and humour. We see him, in the next scene, agitated with vexation : His horse is concealed from him, and he gives on this occasion so striking a description of his distress, and his words so labour and are so loaded with
heat and vapour, that, but for laughing, we should pity him; laugh, however, we must at the extreme incongruity of a man, at once corpulent and old, associating with youth in an enterprize demanding the utmost extravagance of spirit, and all the wildness of activity : And this it is which make his complaints so truly ridiculous. “Give me “ my horse !” says he, in another spirit than that of Richard; “Eight yards of uneven ground,” adds this Forrester of Diana, this enterprizing gentleman of the shade, “ is threescore and ten miles a-foot with me.”—In the heat and agitation of the robbery, out comes more and more extravagant instances of incongruity. Though he is most probably older and much fatter than either of the travellers, yet he calls them, Bacons, Bacon-fed, and gorbellied knaves : “ Hang them,” says he, “ fat chuffs, they “hate us youth: What! young men, must live : You are “grand Jurors, are ye? We'll jure ye, i faith.” But, as yet, we do not see the whole length and breadth of him : This is reserved for the braggadocio scene. We expect entertainment, but we don't well know of what kind. Poins, by his prediction, has given us a hint : But we do not see or feel Falstaff to be a Coward, much less a boaster ; without which even Cowardice is not sufficiently ridiculous; and therefore it is, that on the stage we find them always connected. In this uncertainty on our part, he is, with much artful preparation, produced.—His entrance is delayed to stimulate our expectation; and, at last, to take off the dullness of anticipation, and to add surprize to pleasure, he is called in, as if for another purpose of mirth than what we are furnished with : We now behold him, fluctuating with fiction, and labouring with dissembled passion and chagrin : Too full for utterance, Poins provokes him by a few simple words, containing a fine contrast of affected ease,—“Welcome, « Jack, where hast thou been ? " But when we hear him burst forth, “ A plague on all Cowards! Give me a cup “ of sack. Is there no virtue extant !”_We are at once in possession of the whole man, and are ready to hug him, guts, lyes and all, as an inexhaustible fund of pleasantry and humour. Cowardice, I apprehend, is out of our thought ; it does not, I think, mingle in our mirth. As to this point, I have presumed to say already, and I repeat it, that we are, in my opinion, the dupes of our own wisdom, of systematic reasoning, of second thought, and after reflection. The first spectators, I believe, thought of nothing but the laughable scrape which so singular a character was falling into, and were delighted to see a humourous and unprincipled wit so happily taken in his own inventions, precluded from all rational defence, and driven to the necessity of crying out, after a few ludicrous evasions, “ No more of that, Hal, if thou lov'st me."
I do not conceive myself obliged to enter into a consideration of Falstaff's lyes concerning the transaction at Gad's-Hill. I have considered his conduct as independent of those lyes; I have examined the whole of it apart, and found it free of Cowardice or fear, except in one instance, which I have endeavoured to account for and excuse. I have therefore a right to infer that those lyes are to be derived, not from Cowardice, but from some other part of his character, which it does not concern me to examine : But I have not contented myself hitherto with this sort of negative defence; and the reader I believe is aware that I am resolute (though I confess not untired) to carry this fat rogue out of the reach of every imputation which affects, or may seem to affect, his natural Courage.
The first observation then which strikes us, as to his braggadocioes, is, that they are braggadocioes after the fact. In other cases we see the Coward of the Play bluster and boast for a time, talk of distant wars, and private duels, out of the reach of knowledge and of evidence; of storms and stratagems, and of falling in upon the enemy pell-mell and putting thousands to the sword; till, at length, on the proof of some present and apparent fact, he is brought to open and lasting shame; to shame I mean as a Coward; for as to what there is of lyar in the case, it is considered