Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sir John Falstaff, Knight

Nothing screams culture like 6 hours of Shakespeare in the National Theatre on the banks of the Thames on a lazy Saturday afternoon in May, so it was with a tired sense of delight that I watched the new Albus Dumbledore, Michael Gambon, light up the stage as Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts I and II yesterday.

I've loved this roguish character since last summer's Bard on the Beach performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor in Vancouver - [the good friend who came along to the show after rescuing me from the Nanaimo ferry is urged to keep the faith in that saying: “In love the heavens themselves do guide the state. / Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate”.]

Beyond the vast scope of the epic history, excellent acting, and the constantly surprising beauty of the language, three moments stood out as particularly wondrous:

(1) Early in Part I, (Act II Scene iv), Prince Hal (future King Henry V) play-acts the role of his Father in the tavern, condemning the companions of his "son". Falstaff, speaking in return as if he were the young Prince, responds with a genuine plea on behalf of himself as follows:

"to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world."

(2) Act III, Scene ii - Falstaff and Lord Shallow reflect on the boisterous nature of their youth and many exploits. All the sad tragedy of time and thoughts of growing old, and what a line for Falstaff!

Shallow: Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that
this knight and I have seen! Ha, Sir John, said I well?

We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith,
Sir John, we have: our watch-word was 'Hem boys!'
Come, let's to dinner; come, let's to dinner:
Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come.

(3) Falstaff's ode to good sherry (sack) in Act IV, Scene iii. The whole speech is worth reading (what words of Shakespeare's are not?), but the final culminating lines that top it all off:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit.
The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.
Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for
the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his
father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land,
manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent
endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile
sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If
I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle
I would teach them should be, to forswear thin
potations and to addict themselves to sack.


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