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Falstaff is an old, fat, disgraced knight and Prince Hal's partner in crime. Always looking for a good time, Falstaff eats, drinks, steals, trash talks, and celebrates his way through life – in between naps, of course. A larger than life figure, he's one of Shakespeare's most popular and written-about figures. But why? (Verdi wrote an opera based on his character, Orwelle made him the centerpiece of his film Chimes at Midnight, and literary critics can't get enough of him. Falstaff also makes encore appearances in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV Part 2.) What is it, exactly, that makes Falstaff so appealing? And why is Falstaff so central to the play?
Much of what attracts audiences to Falstaff is the same thing that attracts the prince, who's hell-bent on rebelling against his father. For Hal (and audiences) Falstaff is the embodiment of rebellion and disorder. Literary critics frequently link his character to "carnival," a religious festival season that celebrates the inversion of social order and the indulgence of unruly and riotous behavior. Much like Mardi Gras, it was seen as a temporary way for ordinary folks to cut loose and engage in rebellious behavior without getting into permanent trouble. And, much like a "Lord of Misrule" (one who was appointed to reign over carnival festivities, which included drinking, eating, and raucous theatrical productions), Falstaff presides over the Boar's Head Tavern.
Sounds like fun for us and Hal, but audiences also wonder what it is that Falstaff sees in the prince. Hal, after all, can be pretty cruel – he frequently insults his friend by referring to him as a "trunk of humors," a "bolting-hutch of beastliness," and a "stuffed cloakbag of guts" (2.4.466, 466, 468) while Falstaff responds with a clever, good-natured jokes. Hal also promises to "banish" Falstaff from his life (2.4) and Falstaff is clearly concerned about what will happen when Hal becomes king (2.4). So, why does Falstaff put up with Hal?
There are lots of answers to this question but, our best guess? Falstaff loves Hal unconditionally, like a doting father. And, like a father, Falstaff's eventually left behind when the prince "grows up" and moves away from the world of Eastcheap, where Falstaff has mentored the young prince in a life of debauchery. Although Hal doesn't officially banish Falstaff from his life until Henry IV Part 2, we see the prince begin to reject him on the battlefield at Shrewsbury when Hal upbraids his friend for acting like a clown instead of a soldier (5.3).
Does this mean we should we sentimentalize Falstaff? Probably not. Let's not forget who Falstaff really is. He's the guy who takes bribes from able-bodied soldiers and recruits a rag-tag crew that's not fit for battle. He also refers to his foot soldiers as "food for [gun] powder" (4.2.66) and later, on the battlefield, he stabs Hotspur's corpse and treats the body like a trophy that will bring him a reward from the king (5.4). This aligns Falstaff with the literary figure of the "braggart soldier" and also the "Vice" figure from morality plays.
The behavior also makes Falstaff the complete opposite of honor, a concept central to the play's notion of leadership. (Check out our discussion of how Falstaff is a "foil" to Hotspur's character in "Character Roles.") The play makes it pretty clear that Hal must redeem his "honor" if he's to be a successful ruler. Ultimately, then, Prince Hal, must reject Falstaff too. We should also point out that Falstaff's ideas about honor may provide some important insight. In a famous speech, Falstaff rejects honor as "air," a mere "word" that's used by the nobility in an attempt to elevate the horrors of warfare to something loftier (5.1).
Literary critics have uncovered some interesting information about the origins of Falstaff's character and name. Originally, the character was named "Oldcastle," but the descendants of the historical Sir John Oldcastle were unhappy about the unflattering association between Shakespeare's disreputable knight and their relative, so Shakespeare had to change the name to "Falstaff." The remnants of the original name can be found in the play when Prince Hal calls his pal "my old lad of the castle" (1.2.44). Literary critic Stephen Greenblatt makes a good case that Shakespeare may have based Falstaff's character on fellow writer Robert Greene, who famously criticized Shakespeare in a pamphlet called Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit. Whatever the case, we do know that there's never been another character quite like Falstaff.