Old, fat, lazy, selfish, dishonest, corrupt, thieving, manipulative, boastful, and lecherous, Falstaff is, despite his many negative qualities, perhaps the most popular of all of Shakespeare’s comic characters. Though he is technically a knight, Falstaff’s lifestyle clearly renders him incompatible with the ideals of courtly chivalry that one typically associates with knighthood. For instance, Falstaff is willing to commit robbery for the money and entertainment of it. As Falstaff himself notes at some length, honor is useless to him: “Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. . . . What is honour? A word” (V.i.130–133). He perceives honor as a mere “word,” an abstract concept that has no relevance to practical matters. Nevertheless, though Falstaff mocks honor by linking it to violence, to which it is intimately connected throughout the play, he remains endearing and likable to Shakespeare’s audiences. Two reasons that Falstaff retains this esteem are that he plays his scoundrel’s role with such gusto and that he never enjoys enough success to become a real villain; even his highway robbery ends in humiliation for him.
Falstaff seems to scorn morality largely because he has such a hearty appetite for life and finds the niceties of courtesy and honor useless when there are jokes to be told and feasts to be eaten. Largely a creature of words, Falstaff has earned the admiration of some Shakespearean scholars because of the self-creation he achieves through language: Falstaff is constantly creating a myth of Falstaff, and this myth defines his identity even when it is visibly revealed to be false. A master of punning and wordplay, Falstaff provides most of the comedy in the play (just as he does in 2 Henry IV,The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V). He redeems himself largely through his real affection for Prince Harry, whom, despite everything, he seems to regard as a real friend. This affection makes Harry’s decision, foreshadowed in 1 Henry IV, to abandon Falstaff when he becomes king (in 2 Henry IV) seem all the more harsh.
More characters from Henry IV, Part 1