The wonder of Shakespeare’s creation [is] the immensely bold, generous imaginative work that took elements from the wasted life of Robert Greene and used them to fashion the greatest comic character in English literature.
Greene was by no means the sole source. Like many of Shakespeare’s most memorable creations, Falstaff is made out of multiple materials, much of it not from life but from literature. Shakespeare understood his world in the ways that we understand our world—his experiences, like ours, were mediated by whatever stories and images were available to him. When he was in a tavern and encountered a loudmouthed soldier who bragged about his daring adventures, Shakespeare saw that soldier through the lens of characters he had read in fiction, and at that same time he adjusted his image of those fictional characters by means of the actual personal standing before him.
In inventing Falstaff, Shakespeare started, as he so often did, from a character in a play by someone else, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which had been performed by the Queen’s Men in London and on tour. This crude anonymous play, which chronicled the near-miraculous transformation of Prince Hall from wastrel youth to heroic king, included a dissolute knight, Sir John Oldcastle, as part of the crew of thieves and ruffians in which Hal had become enmeshed. Shakespeare took over this figure (he originally use the same name, only changing it to Falstaff after the descendants of Oldcastle objected) and built upon its spare frame his vast creation. He took the stock figure of the braggart soldier, the blowhard who is always going on about his martial accomplishments but who plays dead when danger comes too close, and combined his with another venerable comic type, the parasite, always hungry and thirsty and always conniving to get his wealthy patron to pick up the tab. To these he added features of the Vice in the morality play—shameless irreverence, the exuberant pursuit of pleasures, and a seductive ability to draw naïve youth away from the austere paths of virtue. And he conjoined with these some elements of a newer cultural stereotype, the hypocritical Puritan who noisily trumpets his commitment to virtue while secretly indulging his every sensual vice. But to contemplate these pieces of literary flotsam and jetsam is already to see how complete and unexpected was Shakespeare’s transformation of them…
To a degree unparalleled in Shakespeare’s work and perhaps in all of English literature, Falstaff seems actually to possess a mysterious inner principle of vitality, as if he could float free not only of Shakespeare’s sources in life and in art but also of the play in which he appears. If a theatrical tradition, first recorded in 1702, is correct, Queen Elizabeth herself not only admired Shakespeare’s great comic character but also sensed this inner principle: she commanded the author to write a play showing Falstaff in love. In two weeks’ time, or so it is said, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written, to be first performed on April 23, 1597, at the annual feast to commemorate the founding of the Order of the Garter. Famous already in Shakespeare’s lifetime, constantly alluded to through-out the seventeenth century, and the subject of a distinguished book-length study as early as the eighteenth century, the fat knight has for centuries provoked admirers to attempt to pluck out the heart of his mystery: great wit and the ability to provoke wit in others; spectacular resilience; fierce, subversive intelligence; carnivalesque exuberance. Each of these qualities seems true, and yet there is always something else, something elusive that remains to be accounted for, as if the scoundrel had and the power in himself to resist all efforts to explain or contain him…
“An upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”: Greene and his crowd, despite their drunken recklessness and bohemian snobbery, saw something frightening in Shakespeare, a usurper’s knack for displaying as his own what he had plucked from others, an alarming ability to plunder, appropriate, and absorb if Shakespeare took what he could from Greene—if, as an artist, he took what he could from everyone he encountered—he also performed a miraculous act of imaginative generosity, utterly unsentimental and, if the truth be told, not entirely human. Human generosity would have involved actually giving money to the desperate Greene; it would have been foolish, quixotic, and easily abused. Shakespeare’s generosity was aesthetic, rather than pecuniary. He conferred upon Greene an incalculable gift, the gift of transforming his into Falstaff.
– Stephen Greenblatt
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