Sir John Falstaff and the sense of humour

Fall staff, Shake Spear: just impotent puns?

Fall staff, Shake Spear: just impotent puns?

Sir John Falstaff is a Shakespearian character, with the highest number of lines in Shakespeare’s work next to Hamlet. He is a fat, vainglorious, cowardly knight who is the focal point of humour in three of Shakespeare’s plays. Although primarily comic, he suggests a tragic depth through his actions. I quote about him, from Wikipedia:

What makes portly Sir John so entertaining? How is it, when his actions would repulse many in both a modern and medieval context, we find ourselves so attracted to this lying tub of lard? Speculation over the years has produced many possible answers, one no more likely than the next. Whether or not the Queen of England truly requested Merry Wives of Windsor for herself because she was so fond of the “huge hill of flesh” (Henry IV pt I, Hal, Tavern Scene), most do find some sort of affectionate connection. Possibly his openness in his crimes, his lack of loyalty being so apparent — essentially his frankness (not so much honesty) in life, and his grinning self-determination, self observance.

At best, it can be said that Shakespeare’s Falstaff reaches beyond merely making the audience laugh. “He is aware that life is a charade” and is markedly responsible for his situation. He besets our hearts, yea deeper still, to our diaphragms. We are his. He has been too great a humoristic character to forfeit all good impressions within the length of one play.

—MacLeish, Kenneth, Longman Guide to Shakespeare’s Characters, Harlow, England: Longman, 1986. pp87-88

He is one of the most selfless characters from what I understand by reading the above paraphrase. He is needed to develop other characters, to suggest behaviour of other characters. Can anyone deny a depth of understanding in such a person? Beneath his apparent impotence and ridiculousness, there is a melancholy worthy only of a philosopher and an aesthetic sense appropriate for an iconoclast. If Falstaff were real, he would be proud of his love of truth. He would know that truth can never hurt, and if it does, then it is not the truth. Shakespeare only knows what secrets Falstaff bears beneath that famous smile.

There is an essay by Albert Camus in which he is describing his experience visiting different pubs in French-colonised Algeria. He visits one such pub a lonely evening, probably contemplating another philosophical suicide, and finds a fat, porky woman singing ‘cheap songs’ and belching and rolling in her sweat and the entire pub swooning around her. Camus writes on to reveal that he sees in her the manifestation of life itself, threatening to collapse at any time. Behind the veneers of an austere charm, Camus must have sported a benign sense of humour.

Certainly, the misuse of the word ‘humour’ is lamentable. Once V S Naipaul remarked that he considers himself a humourous writer. A biased critic responded by saying that Naipaul was not funny at all. The critic could’ve put his foot in his mouth. Naipaul is a humourous writer. Humour is a response, like a season of an year. Those who stick to the funny humour (hasya rasa) miss out on a variety of other experiences. Also, the funny humour itself can subjected to misuse. An improper usage leads to loss. Loss is what gives rise to the need for humour.

Ancient philosophers have treated humour with respect and erudition. The Greeks defined four humours — choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic. Each of these humours is capable of interacting with each other, and they can lead to an encounter. Consider, for example, a sanguine person and a choleric person. A sanguine person is light-hearted, loves to entertain, but can be whimsical. A choleric person has a lot of ambition and passion, but is bad-tempered. Such an encounter is likely to produce a misunderstanding. To avoid any misconception, let is be said that a person loosens himself into diffeerent humours depending upon his maturity, erudition and wit.

Sense of humour is not only a capacity for responsiveness, but also an awareness of the response. A humourous person is not a moody person; he is a person in control of his moods, and therefore he can create moods. Moods are the climate; humour is the wind. A sense of humour can dispel moods as well as usher them in. It is a necessary aspect of a civilized being.

Since responsiveness to environment brings geography into consideration, the numbers of seasons in a larger precinct may determine the richness of humours in the resident. At the risk of sounding simplistic, Europe has four seasons and four humours. The ancient Indian philosophers distinguished nine humours or nava-rasa: shringar/bhakti, hasya, krodh, karuna/daya, vibhatsa, bhayanak, veer/oj, adbhut, shant.

A humour is a developed state of feeling, permanent and relishable. It has to be inspired in an audience and a failure to elicit the intended response is the failure of an artist. But the artist can only do so much as to remain true to his ethic of behaviour. And when the encounter is one like that between the sanguine and the choleric, it is not the artist who is the only loser. Since we have come back to discussing loss, let us remember that it is loss that invites the onset of humour.

Sir John Falstaff  must have known suffering and sacrifice, perhaps as much as anyone else. He expected nothing in return for his behaviour, except a response in kind. He must only have wanted everyone to have a sense of humour, an awareness like his own. Such people are usually called fools. Honest fools. They forgive everything hoping to be forgiven in return. Maybe, this is why they smile.

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~ by Bombadil on July 13, 2009.

One Response to “Sir John Falstaff and the sense of humour”

  1. […] characters represent a specific humor: Hamlet with his melancholy, Laertes as choleric, Falstaff as sanguine and Ophelia with her phlegmatic […]

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