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What the Critics Said: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff could not love, but by ceasing to be Falstaff.
Samuel Johnson on Merry Wives (1765)

Falstaff’s wit is the wit of a man who knows that other men are waiting to hear what he will pretend, what he will become, or how he will get out of it.
Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1953)

Falstaff and his cohorts are, by any worldly standards, including those of the criminal classes, all of them failures. […] The drunk is unlovely to look at, intolerable to listen to, and his self-pity is contemptible. Nevertheless, as not merely a worldly failure but also a willful failure, he is a disturbing image for the sober citizen. His refusal to accept the realities of this world, babyish as it may be, compels us to take another look at this world and reflect upon our motives for accepting it. The drunkard’s suffering may be self-inflicted, but it is real suffering and reminds us of all the suffering in this world which we prefer not to think about because, from the moment we accepted the world, we acquired our share of responsibility for everything that happens in it.
W.H. Auden, “The Prince’s Dog” (1962)

Falstaff is the most unusual figure in fiction. He is almost entirely a good man, a glorious, life-affirming good man, and there is hardly a good man in dramatic literature. There has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer, where the hay smelled better and the weather was always springtime and the daffodils blew in the gentle warm breezes. You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all throughout Shakespeare. Falstaff is a refugee from that world. He has to live by his wits, he has to be funny, he has no place to sleep if he doesn’t get a laugh out of his patron. It’s a rough modern world that he’s living in. You’ve got to be able to see that look in his eyes that comes out of the age that never existed, the one that exists in the heart of all English poetry.
Orson Welles (c. 1985)

Falstaff is nothing less than the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to know it.
Harold Bloom, The Invention of the Human (1998)

The enormous power of [Falstaff’s] language, which is at the center of the inexhaustible linguistic vitality of The Merry Wives of Windsor, has no design to make him more than the fat old man he is, but only to establish a sense of the tremendous, usually unseen, energy which underpins the ordinary; and the various humiliating accidents that occur to him fail to make him less than the fat old man he is, and it is fat old Falstaff who survives to the end of the play, indestructible, untransformable […] It may very well be that simple survival represents Shakespeare’s fundamental view of Falstaff, and that The Merry Wives is Shakespeare’s attempt to give the most unvarnished meaning to Falstaff’s words in Henry IV, Part 1: ‘I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life.’
David Crane (2010)

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