Is Falstaff too large a character to bring to life?

Falstaff is, along with Macbeth, perhaps the hardest major Shakespearean role to fully inhabit.

Orson Welles as Falstaff in the Chimes At Midnight.
Orson Welles as Falstaff in the Chimes At Midnight. Credit: Contributor: Cinematic / Alamy Stock Photo

The recent news that Sir Ian McKellen is to return to the stage in early 2024 as Falstaff in Player Kings, a new adaptation of the Henry IV plays by wunderkind director Robert Icke, is both welcome and concerning. It is welcome, because McKellen – who in recent years has given us a mixed-bag, age-blind Hamlet and a mighty Lear – is a veteran theatre actor who is always worth seeing, whatever the play and whatever the production. Yet it is also concerning because Falstaff is, along with Macbeth, perhaps the hardest major Shakespearean role to fully inhabit.

It was not for nothing that Olivier and Gielgud – the two greatest Shakespeareans of the twentieth century – both avoided playing the part, although Gielgud played the role of Henry IV in Orson Welles’ mighty film adaptation of the Falstaff plays, Chimes at Midnight. The character of Sir John Falstaff is quixotic, knowingly contradictory and, despite his vast stature (the unkind call it bulk, or ‘this huge hill of flesh’), a nimble and quicksilver creation who many leading actors have failed to fully grasp.

In recent years, Roger Allam and the late David Warner both did a respectable job of capturing the Falstaffian contradictions – Allam played him as a charismatic rogue, Warner as a manipulative chancer – but there have been many other theatrical knights who haven’t even begun to come close to a satisfying interpretation. On the stage, Antony Sher’s Falstaff was a whinging ne’er-do-well, and Michael Gambon (who frequently castigated his own performance in later years as inadequate) was a left-behind hippy. On television, meanwhile, Simon Russell Beale – usually a compassionate interpreter of the roles he undertakes – clearly decided that his Falstaff, in The Hollow Crown, was a repellent guttersnipe and played him without sympathy, or understanding.

One of the joys of Shakespeare is that his richest and most interesting characters can be viewed in an infinite variety of ways. It is rare, for instance, to see two Hamlets that are even remotely similar to one another, so rich and nuanced is the role. Yet only the very worst Hamlets tend to be without some residual interest. The worst Falstaffs – and there have been many bad ones, alas – tend to squat on the stage, dominating the space but also draining away audience engagement and involvement. One does not want to speak ill of the dead, but when I saw Sher’s hammy, busy performance, given for the RSC in 2014, I spent a good deal of the evening wearily predicting how he was going to play each of the most famous set-piece moments and speeches; I was seldom disappointed.

Still, he at least got a book out of it, The Year of the Fat Knight, which chronicled his ‘journey’ into the role. Perhaps the most interesting revelation, amid the backstage gossip and actorly hand-wringing, was that the original intention on the part of Sher and his director (and husband) Gregory Doran was to play Falstaff as a Vietnam veteran, but the idea was quickly abandoned during rehearsals on the grounds that it was a conceit too far. It’s an enormous shame that the more conventional approach that the production took was opted for, because the sense of Sir John – coward, wit, gourmand and connoisseur of fine and not-so-fine sack alike – as a man for all seasons, equally at home in the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap and the jungles of Vietnam, would have been a fascinating way of looking at the character.

Falstaff is, of course, the figure who even Shakespeare seemed not to have the firmest of handles on. The man who appears in the two Henry IV plays is almost entirely different from the broader, more farcical buffoon who takes centre stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor; a play written, as legend has it, because Elizabeth I ‘was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to shew him in love’. The play has its entertaining moments, but very few critics have ever considered it superior – or even equal to – the Henry plays. The critic Harold Bloom, who considered Falstaff one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, if not his greatest, dismissed his appearance in Merry Wives entirely, writing ‘No longer either witty in himself or the cause of wit in other men, this Falstaff would make me lament a lost glory if I did not know him to be a rank imposter. His fascination, indeed, is that Shakespeare wastes nothing upon him. The Merry Wives of Windsor is Shakespeare’s only play that he himself seems to hold in contempt, even as he indicts it.’

No, in order to understand Falstaff, it’s back to Eastcheap and rural Gloucestershire, where, in some of the greatest scenes in Shakespeare, Sir John and the rural justices Silence and Shallow contemplate mortality and the vainglory of their own pasts, even as the ever-alert Falstaff complains ‘Lord, lord, how subject we old men are to the vice of lying!’ The fat knight is, of course, a variant on the Vice character from the medieval morality plays, witty and charismatic and tempting even in his disreputable slovenliness, and in order for Prince Hal to attain his rightful position as king, he must cast off his boon companion of times past, which he duly does, in some of Shakespeare’s greatest and coldest lines:

‘I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.’

In his great 1959 essay on the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, ‘The Prince’s Dog’, W.H Auden suggested that ‘from an actor’s point of view, the role of Falstaff has the enormous advantage that he only has to think of one thing – playing to an audience’, and goes on to write that ‘Shakespeare has written his part so that it cannot be played unsympathetically’ (tell that to Simon Russell Beale). Auden also insists that ‘Falstaff loves Hal with an absolute devotion’ – an idea that is sure to be played to the hilt in the Icke/McKellen version – but the love is very much unrequited. Early in Henry IV Part One, Hal declares that:

‘So when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.’

So much for a princely affection for his rotund would-be mentor. Yet even after Falstaff is rejected and dies, anti-climatically, offstage – the tidings of his death are reported in Henry V, leading Mistress Quickly to declare, not inaccurately, ‘The king hath killed his heart’ – there is a sense that the character has not died, and cannot die, like a more benevolent Justice Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Instead, Falstaff is eternal, and absolute; he is ‘for all waters’.

When Boris Johnson was compared to Falstaff by some of the more generous conservative commentators during his miserable tenure as Prime Minister, the implication was that Johnson stood for Merrie England, for wenching and drinking and good cheer at the expense of the Puritans who would like to see the frivolous and licentious punished. It was a kind, even over-indulgent, comparison, but it does, inadvertently, capture one aspect of Falstaff’s personality. He is not so much a man of action as a commentator on its idiocy, making sardonic remarks about death and glory and nobility and the like, just as Johnson – like Trump – was less a politician and more a one-man satirical observation on the iniquities of a system that would allow him to rise to the top, virtue and morality be damned.

When McKellen steps onto the stage at the Noël Coward Theatre in March next year in Player Kings, then, he will be faced with a difficult challenge. Not only will he have to embrace the artifice and contradiction of the character, but he will have to do so in a new, as yet untested adaptation of the plays in which the rotund one appears, which will struggle to escape from under the considerable shadow of Welles and Chimes at Midnight. Still, an actor as intelligent and versatile as McKellen should be able to rise to the occasion in a fascinating and unusual way. And he will have to be honest in his approach to the character, too, to dig under his capacious skin. As Falstaff himself says, ‘Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, call me horse.’ Let us hope that such an epithet could never be thrown at this most respected of British thespians.


Alexander Larman