A Man of My Kidney

Falstaff was a particular favourite of Queen Elizabeth's. She so much enjoyed the chubby rake's wit and scathing humour in Henry IV that she ordered Shakespeare to write a new play with him in it, a play about Sir John in love. Which is precisely what the Bard did. He wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Of course there's absolutely no proof that the Queen ever commissioned the play. No tangible facts whatsoever. It's just a story that everybody keeps repeating. But it's a good story - and a jolly marvellous play. One of my absolute favourites.

Not everybody likes it, though. The very thought of The Merry Wives of Windsor makes Harold Bloom quite livid. According to him (and he's Falstaff's greatest admirer of all time, not barring the Queen), as he write in his exhaustive book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, the Falstaff in Merry Wives is not the same Falstaff as in Henry IV. He may bear the same name, he may sport a physical likeness - but most definitely he isn't the same man. He's only a cheap caricature. "I begin, though, with the firm declaration that the hero-villain of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a nameless impostor masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff. Rather than yield to such usurpation, I shall call him pseudo-Falstaff throughout this brief discussion." Bloom quotes A.C. Bradley who concurs in his absolute dislike of the play: "[Falstaff] is baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible."

"Commerce is commerce", writes Bloom, "but why did Shakespeare inflict this upon a character who represents his own wit at its most triumphant?" Did, Bloom wonders, Walsingham's Secret Service and Marlowe's horrible and shady death somehow influence Shakespeare? Make him turn to trite things and try to blend into the background, as it were? "I have to conclude that Shakespeare himself is warding off personal horror by scapegoating the false Falstaff in this weak play."

The Falstaff in Henry IV, according to Bloom is witty and philosophical, great and immortal, Shakespeare at his very best, while his namesake or pseudo-Falstaff in The Merry Wives is but crude and silly.

Which, of course, is fine with those of us who like crude and silly humour.

Falstaff - the crude and silly fellow of The Merry Wives, to be precise - has always been quite remarkably popular with composers of opera. Small wonder. There's the obvious one - Giuseppe Verdi's last opera Falstaff (1893). Another classic is Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1846), also by curious chance its composer's last opera. Sir John in Love (1929) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is interesting as the libretto also makes use of other Elizabethan authors and utilises text snippets by Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas Middleton and Beaumont and Fletcher. Gustav Holst's At the Boar's Head (1916) is the odd man out in this company as the opera isn't about the Merry Wives Falstaff but rather the Henry IV Falstaff. Seldom heard, this one, which is a definite pity. Another fairly forgotten one (and possibly the earliest Falstaff opera, at least the earliest one I'm aware of) is Falstaff (1719) by none other than Antonio Salieri. We do tend to neglect Salieri's operatic output dreadfully, but the situation is definitely improving and there's now almost a plethora of recorded performances of his operas on the market.

Then there's the movie.

The 1965 Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight is an amalgam of several of Shakespeare's plays: Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and part 2, and Henry V. It's by and large based on his old play in two parts from 1938, The Five Kings, but with the added element of a narrator whose lines are taken from the chronicler Raphael Holinshed, upon whose chronicles Shakespeare based pretty much all of his Histories. The play was revived in 1960 and some of the stage cast appear in the film. The Chimes is Welles's third Shakespeare film (the two previous being Macbeth and Othello) and in fact his personal favourite among all his films, a film Welles himself rated far above Citizen Kane, for instance.

Still it's very rarely seen, partly I believe because of copyright problems.

Chimes at Midnight is ostensibly about the raging throne wars and the kings and the coming of age of prince Hal, soon to become King Henry V, but really it's all about the fat knight, plump Sir Jack, good old Falstaff. Who, no mere chance this I'm willing to bet, is played by Welles himself. (The alternative title of the movie is, by the way, Falstaff!) King Henry IV is none other than Sir John Gielgud, the man who in his time a couple of decades earlier revolutionised Shakespeare acting on the British stage. (He did surprisingly few Shakespeare roles on film.)

As is the case with Welles's previous Shakespeare films, The Chimes at Midnight is quite uneven. Funding has obviously been a problem, which is nothing new, though the budget in this case seems to have been nowhere near as strained as in Othello. There is a hurried air of nervousness in almost every scene, possibly beacause time is short and must be made use of. (I doubt there were a great number of retakes.) Sometimes this lends dynamic energy to the scene and makes it tick. Sometimes the scene just comes off as shoddy and muddled.

The cast, a singularly motley crew, is another problem. Most members thereof simply aren't Shakespearean actors. We have the old hands Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Margaret Rutheford and Welles himself, others seem not to get much out of their lines, at times hardly understanding anything they say. Marina Vlady and Jeanne Moreau are pleasing to the eye but severely lacking as Shakespearean thespians, at least in such a textually heavy and fundamentally theatrical production such as this. A fair amount of the actors have been dubbed - never a particularly happy solution - and, if my ears play no tricks on me, a lot of them dubbed by Welles. As was his wont.

Gielgud is quite splendid and with his royal presence he calms down every scene he's in, lifting it up and ennobling it. Norman Rodway (Percy) is remarkably good and balances the film nicely. Keith Baxter (Hal) has his moments, though not frightfully many of them.

It's in the battle scenes that the film really comes to life. They're raw, vicious and brutal - and totally convincing. No heroism here, merely savagery and ruthless slaughter. And most of the fighting is simply total chaos. It's all muddy and filthy and horrid. Only the archers seem to have any control of what they're doing, sending cloud upon cloud of their lethal arrows into the thick of the fighting. Falstaff, being the sensible chap that he is, avoids any scrapping whatsoever and only claims the glory after the victory.

Ultimately the movie suffers from being drawn together from too many plays. Too much is cut, too much isn't. It lacks in coherence, the elements never quite come together, a satisfactory balance is never reached.

The end is quite tragic. Prince Hal is crowned and transforms into King Henry V, upon which he immediately disowns Falstaff: "I know thee not, old man." And thus Falstaff dies of a broken heart.

If ever there was a role an actor was born to play then that actor was Orson Welles and that role Falstaff.

In his biography Simon Callow claims that what first drew Welles to the part of Falstaff was that the unreliable yet irresistible alcoholic reminded him of his father Richard Welles. In the beginning Falstaff for Welles was his father. In the end he himself became Falstaff, quite literally, girth and all.

It was always his destiny.

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