Falstaff As Zarathustra

There is much that is admirable in Falstaff. He is funny; he has a flair for verbal pyrotechnics; he is lustful; he enjoys food and drink, he is a good friend; he might commit highway robbery, but it is not clear he would want to hurt anyone in the process. Moreover, one suspects he would only rob those who could afford to be robbed by him. Most admirably, he appears entirely unconcerned by the opinions of others; he is secure in his estimation of himself. We may–like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One–mock him endlessly and mercilessly but it is unclear whether our barbs really do sink in, whether they cause more anguish to the reader than they do to Falstaff himself. Falstaff might be fat, out of shape, and a liar, but he seems to be malice and resentment-free; and those are not inconsiderable blessings. He mocks the so-called ‘kingly’ or ‘noble’ values in disdaining the notion of honor; the only time that he will deign to speak in the pompous, affected manner of the landed aristocracy and those who ascend to thrones is when he is role-playing. He understands that those who occupy such stations are engaged in a similar sort of acting and dissembling. He is artful and slippery; when caught in a lie, he quickly extracts himself from the social disaster that has resulted and quickly turns it to his advantage.

This sort of take on Falstaff’s character is not novel; germs of it appear in many assessments of one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. It should be evident though that these descriptions show that Falstaff also embodies many Nietzschean virtues: he does not seek to bring others down to his level but walks along his own chosen path; his qualities and traits might be out of sync with the surrounding normative order of appropriate speech and behavior, but Falstaff cares little for that; he has an acute understanding of his strengths and limitations and knows how to deploy them in a concerto of sorts so that he may ensure for himself the life he wants. Falstaff, in sum, even though appearing to be a ‘low-life’ in some respects is possessed of many ‘noble’ qualities; his character has its own distinctive ‘style‘ and it is his own ‘will to power‘ applied to the particulars of his life that has brought this style about. Falstaff’s presence in the ‘low scenes’ of the Shakespearean plays he appears in serve as an acute counterpoint to the values visible in the ‘high scenes’; thus through his actions and his words does he instantiate a peculiar and particular ‘inversion of values.’

Falstaff could be understood as a prophet heralding the presence of an alternative way of being, which could be ours if only we could shake off the encrusted weight of centuries of slavish obedience to inherited values. But we are bound too tightly to this mast; our socially constructed ambition drives us on. And so, like Hal, we must discard him, and bid him farewell. The time is not yet right for him. Perhaps it never will be.

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