Start Back Next End
  
Chapter Twenty-Three                                            Chapter Twenty-Five
 
   
   CHAPTER 24.
NEEDIE NOTHING TRIMMED IN JOLLITY
Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks….
--Hamlet
W.H. Auden captures the elusive character of the great comic symbol of the Shakespeare
canon, Sir John Falstaff -- sometimes thought to be a mere Lord of Misrule -- when he calls him
at heart "a comic symbol for the supernatural order of charity” (1962 198).  Roy Battenhouse,
pursuing Auden's insight, asserts that the traditional image of Falstaff as inveterate trickster is
"more mask than inner man.” The inner man, maintains Battenhouse, reveals depths of wisdom
concealed beneath the libidinous braggadocio of his exterior display of anti-heroism:
The Sermon on the Mount enjoins Christians to show charity through a secret almsgiving. 
Could this be a clue to the enigma of Falstaff's behavior? Perhaps so, I think, provided we put
beside it Lord Raglan's intuition that Falstaff's vocation in the public world is that of court fool
and soothsayer.  Such a double hypothesis, in any case, seems to me to warrant a trying out and
testing.  For it could mean that while as "allowed fool" Falstaff is shamming vices and enacting
parodies, his inner intent is a charitable almsgiving of brotherly self-humiliation and fatherly
truth-telling.
(1994 303)
Battenhouse's perception of the division between Falstaff's public role as "court fool and
soothsayer" -- an "allowed fool" to Prince Hal as Feste is to Olivia -- and his covert identity as a
holy almsgiver seems eminently plausible to this writer.  That many details which confirm this
impression, perhaps the most vivid and memorable ones, are delivered in comic fashion need not
be any deterrence to the theory.  On the contrary, the paradox is implicit in Auden's analysis of the
character, for whom nothing -- and therefore everything -- is sacred. Battenhouse even discovers
the scriptural basis for Falstaff's peculiar claim that he was "born about three of the clock in the
afternoon" in the passage from Mark 15.39 in which the Roman Centurion, at three o'clock in the
afternoon, cries out "Truly, this man was a Son of God.”  As Battenhouse goes on to indicate,
moreover, the two identities -- the "son of God" and the "tun of tallow" -- coalesce in Falstaff's
subtle moralizing against the courtly hypocrisy of heroic figures such as Hotspur, Hal or Henry
Word to PDF Converter | Word to HTML Converter