Henry IV (1597)
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Many of us remembering Sir John Falstaff (Fat Jack) blustering about the stage in Shakespeare’s Henry IV wouldn’t nominate that character as an example of a person living in the present moment. And yet for all of us, our True self is always there waiting in the wings to take the stage when we stop exerting so much energy to repress our natural state. Fat Jack, as it turns out, may have been living more of an authentic existence that we might have supposed.
“Not that there is anything ethereal about Fat Jack. This whiskery swag-bellied omnivorous cornucopia of appetites, red-eyed, unbuttoned, sherry-soaked. This nightwalker and whoremonger, a ‘muddy conger,’ swinging at his old mistress Doll Tearsheet, a life-affirming liar whose truth is never to be a counterfeit.”
Perhaps we can find something of value in a dissolute life lived honestly as opposed to the life lived by many of us, that of the unconscious and life-denying upright citizen. Harold Bloom calls Falstaff “the true and perfect image of life.” Let us try to unravel what Bloom might have meant by that.
Before we condemn Fat Jack’s “dissolute life” perhaps we would do well to take a more honest look at our own. Perhaps Falstaff (Shakespeare) saw more deeply than we might suppose into the hypocrisy and self-medicated identity of his fellow Englishmen, who were not all that different from the actors on life’s stage in the 21st century. After all, most of us are still in neurotic and hot pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. “‘Essentially mad without seeming so’—Shakespeare anticipated Freud by 300 years in recognizing how madness can be hidden behind ambition, success, money and especially the cold calculations of power.”
Who was the more authentic human being, King Henry or his rejected and erstwhile drinking buddy? “Falstaff, excessive, loving, outrageous, overblown, but true, stands against Hal’s counterfeit. Prince Hal, morphing into Henry V, may be a great leader, but he dumps his friends, rewrites his past, and in carnage is a self-aggrandizing commander of the Death Star. Falstaff is on the side of life; messy, silly, unplanned, all for love, life.”
Of course, we can compare the disingenuous English king with our own blustering president who, strutting about like a tall and blond Mussolini caricature, is lost in the haze of his own delusional identity. “Shakespeare was a showman [too], and his Henry plays played to English jingoism and mythmaking [“let’s make America great again”]. They look as if they’re about nation building, kingship and pride in warfare. But Falstaff is the comic counterpoint to all that posturing.” Our false self has always been nothing but “posturing.”
President Trump is clearly a “bad actor” and embodies traits of both Falstaff and Henry V and is clearly in the thrall of his false self. While Shakespeare’s comic characters keep us laughing we can only remember to breathe, quaff another sherry and wait for the blustering clown to finish his lines and exit stage left or is it right, he never seems to know.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.