Document Type


Date of Award



William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Characters, Sir John Falstaff (Fictitious character), King Henry IV, Criticism and interpretation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Melvin Seiden

Second Advisor

Christian P. Gruber

Third Advisor

Philip Friedheim


The purpose of this study is admittedly narrow: to chart and explain the experience and responses of the audience to a dominant character in a Shakespearean drama which is text as well as playscript. It is less a total reading of Henry IV than an interpretation of Falstaff’s progress through it, particularly when that progress is interwoven—as it so frequently is—with Prince Hal’s own movement toward kingship. I have limited myself to selected scenes even among those in which Falstaff participates; the reader, for example, will find only sketchy discussion of the second tavern scene in Part I (III.iii), but only because I found the scenes upon which I genuinely concentrate far more revelatory of Falstaff’s movement toward humanization.

Beneath even so modest an aim, however, lies the problem of definition. What precisely am I talking about when I refer—as I shall again and again—to “the audience” or “the reader”? Who or what is “the audience”? It is best, perhaps, to begin with a negative definition. I am not, except at particular moments, addressing myself to that entity commonly known as “Shakespeare’s audience” or “the Elizabethan audience.” Such an approach would necessarily involve me in endless historical speculations about the responses of what would be—at best—a “consensus” of the possible audiences which frequented the London playhouses in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Nor am I attempting to locate, however implicitly, a consensus among my contemporaries and peers, a consensus which I then call my “audience,” and for which I then describe responses at such-and-such a moment. Instead, when I refer to the audience and its experiences of and responses to Falstaff and the Prince, it should be understood that I am referring primarily to myself. In the scenes upon which I focus, I attempt as nearly as possible to probe my own responses to a play and character with which I am familiar, and to generalize from myself about what a similarly informed reader might find in that same play.

The arguments against such an essentially subjective approach are many, and the best of them are both weighty and persuasive. The interpreter who adopts such a method (so runs the essential argument) must inevitably misread, thereby rendering his judgments highly questionable if not altogether valueless. I would respond, however, by saying that a questionable interpretation—one, that is, which is subject to questioning—is perfectly permissible, and may even be desirable. For even if I am describing my own responses, someone who reads what I have written may find my approach fruitful, for it will permit him to measure his own responses against mine (and in the essentially lonely craft of literary interpretation, finding that you have an ally—or even an enemy—can be heartening). Moreover, the interpreter shares with his culture a large common body of experiences, values, and senses of verbal meaning which he, like any reader, brings with him into an encounter with a literary work. Thus, many of his insights will be shared by—or at least plausible to—other readers in the common culture. And even if the interpreter’s insights are not shared in all cases, this need hardly be damaging: it is, in fact, the stuff of which debate, dialogue, and further interpretation can be made. One could, of course, argue that an approach which gives primacy to the individual interpreter’s responses creates a climate of excess which might even—at the farthest extreme—validate a remark attributed to H. Rap Brown, that he knew Shakespeare was a “f*gg*t” when he read the Sonnets, and a racist when he read Othello. This is the essential risk in reading: any author can become the prey of the reader’s special interests or hobby-horses. Yet it is to be hoped that a fully responsive reader will bring with him—as part of his “equipment” or experience of life—a reasonable historical and literary knowledge, or at least a sense for the past and for literature’s nuances. In such circumstances an affective reading will not smack of mere impressionism; rather, it will be an example of informed subjectivity. The interpreter will monitor his own responses to the work according to literary and historical probability.

When I refer to “experience” in this context, I am not suggesting that the word should be narrowly defined so that it can be associated with the banality “Write about what you know.” If that were the case, Shakespeare’s Histories would be virtually inaccessible to a modern audience which has no experience, presumably, with absolute monarchy, or, if we are talking about Falstaff, with a life of petty crime. And Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra would be unintelligible to someone who had not committed murder (preferably regicide) or adultery. The fact is, of course, that Shakespeare’s works remain not only “classic” but also remarkably popular at a time when the works of his contemporaries survive largely by dint of scholarly interest alone. And one of the reasons, surely, for the endurance of Shakespearean drama is the fact that the plays have within them resonances for the audience which transcend surface considerations, matters of “story” or setting. Indeed, the surface concerns serve as a kind of entry or portal for the audience, allowing it to experience the deeper patterns or concerns which—when given dramatic life through character—might even be said to create dramatic action. In other words, the audience applies its own experience of the world, of literature, of drama—the things it brings with it to the play—to the character in action, and locates for itself the essential struggle, crisis, or concern which, although it is represented in a necessarily heightened form, may exist at less charged levels in the audience itself. And the fact that individual members of an audience may find that a play tends, over a period of time, to “change shape,” as it were, merely indicates that they themselves have changed, that new knowledge, new experience, new perceptions may alter the meaning of an individual line or an entire play.

The extent to which my interpretation of Falstaff’s progress is successful will be determined not so much by the blanket acceptability of my readings, but by the extent to which those readings evoke a response from my audience. If I have persuaded the informed reader that Falstaff is such-and-such at a given time for particular reasons, well and good; hopefully, however, the reader who takes exception to what I have written will be moved to examine his own conception of Falstaff, and answer me, if not to my face, then in his own mind. I have not sought the bubble “definitiveness.” Rather, I have endeavored to persuade my audience that my interpretations are at least plausible and worthy of an informed and intelligent response.

Throughout this dissertation, I have quoted from Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968).