Falstaff is not only a masterpiece of opera but, sui generis, both a comedy of pure fun and a great work of art. This combination is an impossibility according to Bergson, who regarded the function of comedy to be the criticism of society and social conventions. Other philosophers argue that the principal targets are human, either moral, such as Molière’s hypocrites, or physical, the misfit or freak (Cyrano de Bergerac). It is implicit in most comedy that the audience should feel superior to its prototypes on stage, thinking itself less prone to vice, less vain, less stupid.
The exceptions to these definitions are found in certain plays by Shakespeare, and, supremely, not in any play but in the character of Falstaff. It may even be that some of Shakespeare’s comedies are the only ones that do not rely on ridicule, in which the humor is free from malice, the irony untainted by bitterness, and the purpose to entertain rather than to teach. Instead of exposing the follies of his characters for the scorn of the audience, Shakespeare offers a variety of amusing scenes with no other aim than its delectation.
But “fun” for its own sake is not usually held in high esteem, nor have many philosophers taken laughter seriously. Studies of it are rare, in fact, and some of the best-known fail to comprehend more than one or another aspect of the phenomenon. Thus Hobbes’s much-quoted description, “sudden glory,” begins loftily, even suggesting a metaphysical dimension, then disappoints by attributing the exalted effect to a demeaning cause, hypothesizing that laughter arises from a “sudden conception…of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.” And another observer on the subject, George Meredith, trips conspicuously over his thesis that “Larger natures are distinguished by the greater breadth of their power of laughter.” Dante for example?
Laughter, like most other innate behavior, is culturally determined. Homer’s gods are allowed to laugh, but Plato’s Republicans should not. And though Aristotle may have composed a poetics on comedy, none survives, nor does other proof that he gave much consideration to the cathartic value of laughter. But if early Greek comedy is ritualistic, and political, the Roman brand farcical and pornographic, the medieval moralistic, then the comedies of Shakespeare do not fall into any single category. (Certainly The Merry Wives of Windsor does not aim to propound a moral truth; Falstaff upbraids Pistol and Bardolph for robbing Dr. Caius, not because it is wrong, but because the manner of the theft was so unaesthetic.) Shakespearian comedies divide, instead, into the serious and the light, according to theme and to whether all’s well that ends well. That the light ones are less highly valued today may be due partly to a prejudice in twentieth-century criticism, over which Chesterton lamented: “A light touch is a mark of strength and not of weakness.”
According to John Dover Wilson, “In studying the character of Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor may be left out…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.