The many faces of Falstaff: Shakespeare’s tragicomic knight is as complex as Hamlet

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

When asked why he had never played Falstaff, Charles Laughton said: “We had to throw too many of his kind out of our family’s hotel in Scarborough.” Undeterred by such niceties, Ian McKellen will shortly be taking on the “fat knight” in Player Kings, Robert Icke’s conflation of the two parts of Henry IV. Great actors of the past, such as David Garrick and Edmund Kean, chose to play Hotspur rather than Falstaff. But today most actors would bite your arm off for the chance to have a go at the role – and you can see why.

Falstaff, as a dramatic character, is as complex, contradictory and multilayered as Hamlet. At one extreme WH Auden saw him as a figure of supernatural, Christ-like charity: at another, he is viewed as the embodiment of Vice as portrayed in the medieval morality plays. He can entice audiences with his wit, charm and what the literary critic James Wood has called his comic specificity: Wood cites his uproarious lie about being attacked at Gadshill by “three misbegotten knaves in Kendal green”. But Falstaff can also repel spectators with his predatoriness and casual cruelty. The contradiction is there from the start when Falstaff seeks to justify nocturnal theft to Hal by saying: “Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon.” Was night-time robbery ever more seductively phrased?

But, looking at a handful of first-rate Falstaffs over the past 40 years, I see a greater stress on the character’s dark side. One reason is that we increasingly play Part Two, in which Falstaff is aware of old age and death, alongside the more boisterous Part One. Another is that actors and directors have shed the sentimentality of the past. Although I had qualms about Michael Bogdanov’s Marxist reading of the plays, John Woodvine was wonderful in the English Stage Company’s 1987 Henriad. As I wrote at the time, he was alternately “sly as a fox and warm as a coal-fire” and relished his verbal ingenuity. At the height of the Gadshill scene, he crucially urged Hal to mark his tale “for it is worth the listening to”.

If Woodvine was a Falstaff who knew his own worth, Robert Stephens in Adrian Noble’s 1991 production was a growingly tragic character; indeed I was more moved than by Stephens’ acclaimed King Lear. For a start, Stephens hinted at his knowledge of a better self: when, at the end of Part One, he vowed “to live cleanly as a nobleman should do” I was reminded of a fallen Lucifer aware of a paradise lost. But the clinching moment came in Part Two. Although Stephens caught the viciousness of a Falstaff prepared to devour Justice Shallow like an “old pike,” I shall never forget the way his voice broke on the line: “If I had a thousand sons ...” For the first time I fully grasped that Falstaff, for all his pungency, is haunted by his lack of progeny.

After this, there was no possibility of going back to the simple idea of jovial Jack Falstaff. Desmond Barrit made the part very much his own by playing it for Michael Attenborough at Stratford in 2000, for Peter Hall in Bath in 2011 and for Phillip Breen at the RSC in 2012 – and highlighted the character’s selfishness as well as his seductiveness: his big achievement was to make you see the necessity for Falstaff’s ultimate rejection. David Warner also made the most of that moment in his fine performance in Michael Boyd’s 2008 version of the complete history cycle: publicly humiliated by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s new-crowned king, Warner rocked back on his heels as if he had been struck in the face by his surrogate son.

The idea of Falstaff as both pub entertainer and conscienceless predator reached its apotheosis in Antony Sher’s performance for the RSC in 2014. Sher played down the fatness and played up the character’s aristocratic origins but, above all, he exposed Falstaff’s rapacity. When, at the end of Part One he dismissed his ragged recruits, shuffling across the stage to certain death, as “food for powder, they’ll fill a pit as well as better”, you saw Alex Hassell’s Hal looking at his old friend with total horror. I also remember the sight of Sher’s eyes lighting up as Justice Shallow offered him bulging money bags in the hope of court promotion.

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The truth is, of course, that there is no easy way to sum up Falstaff’s character. As AR Humphreys says in his introduction to the Arden edition, he is like Walt Whitman in that he is large, he contains multitudes. But if modern theatre has taught us anything it is that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation and at the same time one of his most deeply tragic.

Player Kings is at New Wimbledon theatre, London, 1-9 March; Opera House, Manchester, 14-23 March; and the Noël Coward theatre, London, 1 April-22 June