Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

the marvellous agility and aptness of wit which, with a vesture of odd and whimsical constructions, at once hides the offensive and discovers the comical features of his conduct; the same towering impudence and effrontery which so lift him aloft in his more congenial exploits; and the overpowering eloquence of exaggeration with which he delights to set off and heighten whatever is most ludicrous in his own person or situation; - all these qualities, though not in their full bloom and vigour, are here seen in triumphant exercise.

On the whole, this bringing-forth of Sir John rather for exposure than for exhibition is not altogether grateful to those whom he has so often made to “laugh and grow fat." Though he still gives us wholesome shakings, we feel that it costs him too much : the rare exhilaration he affords us elsewhere, and even here, invests him with a sort of humorous reverence; insomuch that we can scarce help pitying even while we approve his merited, yet hardly merited, shames and failures. Especially it touches us something hard that one so wit-proud as Sir John should be thus dejected, and put to the mortification of owning that “ignorance itself is a plummet o'er me”; of having to “stand at the taunt of one that makes fritters of English ”; and of asking, “Have I laid my brain in the sun, and dried it, that it wants matter to prevent so gross o'er-reaching as this ? ” and we would fain make out some excuse for him on the score of these slips having occurred at a time in his life when experience had not yet disciplined away the natural vanity which may sometimes lead a man of genius to fancy himself an object of the tender passion. And we are the more disposed to judge leniently of Falstaff, inasmuch as his merry persecutors are but a sort of decorous, respectable, commonplace people, who borrow their chief importance from the victim of their mischievous sport; and if they are not so bad as to make us wish him success, neither are they so good that we like to see them thrive at his expense. On this point Mr. Verplanck, it seems to me, has spoken just about the right thing : “Our choler would rise, despite of us, against Cleopatra herself, should she presume to make a dupe and tool of regal old Jack, the natural lord and master of all about him; and, though not so atrociously immoral as to wish he had succeeded with the Windsor gypsies, we plead guilty to the minor turpitude of sympathy, when he tells his persecutors, with brightening visage and exultant twinkle of eye, 'I am glad, though you have ta’en a special stand to strike at me, that your arrow hath glanced.'”

There is, however, another and perhaps a more instructive view to be taken of Sir John as here

represented. I shall have occasion hereafter to note how, all through the period of King Henry the Fourth, he keeps growing worse and worse, while the Prince is daily growing better. Out of their sport-seeking intercourse he picks whatever is bad, whereas the other gathers nothing but the good. As represented in the Comedy he seems to be in the swiftest part of this worsening process. At the close of the First Part of the History, the Prince freely yields up to him the honour of Hotspur's fall; thus carrying home to him such an example of self-renouncing generosity as it would seem impossible for the most hardened sinner to resist. And the Prince appears to have done this partly in the hope that it might prove a seed of truth and grace in Falstaff, and start him in a better course of life. But the effect upon him is quite the reverse. Honour is nothing to him but as it may help him in the matter of sensual and heart-steeling selfindulgence. And the surreptitious fame thus acquired, instead of working in him for good, merely serves to procure him larger means and larger license for pampering his gross animal selfishness. His thoughts dwell not at all on the Prince's act of magnanimity, which would shame his egotism and soften his heart, but only on his own ingenuity and success in the stratagem that led to that act. So that the effect is just to puff him up more than ever with vanity and conceit of wit, and thus to give a looser rein and a

T

sharper stimulus to his greed and lust; for there is probably nothing that will send a man faster to the Devil than that sort of conceit. The result is, that Falstaff soon proceeds to throw off whatever of restraint may have hitherto held his vices in check, and to wanton in the arrogance of utter impunity. As he then unscrupulously appropriated the credit of another's heroism ; so he now makes no scruple of sacrificing the virtue, the honour, the happiness of others to his own mean and selfish pleasure.

But this total subjection of the mental to the animal nature cannot long proceed without betraying the succours of reason. When the bands of morality are thus spurned, a man rapidly sins his understanding into lameness; as its better forces must needs be quickly rotted in such a vapourbath of sensuality. In this way an overweening pride of wit often results in causing a man to be deserted by his wits; this too in matters where he feels surest of them and has most need of them. In refusing to see what is right, he loses the power of seeing what is prudent and safe. He who persists in such a course will inevitably be drawn into signal lapses of judgment, however richly nature may have endowed him with that faculty: he will stumble over his own self-love; his very assurance will be tripping him when he least expects it. And so Falstaff's conceit and egotism, working together, as they do, with his greed and lust, have the effect of stuffing him with the most childish gullibility, at once laying him open to the arts of bamboozling, and inviting others to practise them upon him. He has grown to look with contempt upon honesty as a cheap and vulgar thing, and is well punished in that honest simplicity easily outwits him: nay, more; his fancied skill in sensual intrigue brings him to a pass where ignorance itself is a clean overmatch for him, and fairly earns the privilege of flouting at him.

Falstaff is fair-spoken when he chooses to be, can talk with judgment and good sense, and has at command the arts of a gentlemanly and dignified bearing. The two

Windsor wives, meeting him at a social dinner, and seeing him in his best suit of language and manners, think him honourable as well as pleasant, and are won to some notes of respect and affability towards him : "he would not swear; praised women's modesty; and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof of all uncomeliness,” that they would have sworn his disposition was at one with the truth of his words. And because they meet his fair deportment with some gentle returns of politeness, therefore he, in his conceit of wit, of rank, and of fame, thinks they are smitten with a passion for him. Fancying that they are hotly in love with him, he resolves on making love to them; not that he is at all touched with the passion, but with the cool intent of feigning a responsive flame for other and more selfish ends. Their husbands are known to be rich, and they are said to have the free use of their husbands' wealth. So his conclusion is, that they are "a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty: they shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both." In his spendthrift self-indulgence, notwithstanding all the supplies which his purse-taking habits and his late imputed service bring in, he has come to be hard-up for cash, insomuch that his rascal followers are for deserting him and turning to other resources. By driving a love-intrigue with the women, he expects to work the keys to the full coffers which they have at such command, and thus to replenish his low-ebbing means.

Thus we here have Sir John in the process of complacently feeding his glutton fancies with matter raked from the foulest gutters of baseness. The women, burning with anger and shame, knock their wits together for revenge; and the answer which they, in their shrewdly-concerted plan, return to his advances is to him a pledge of entire success : he is so transported, that he leaps clean out of his senses forthwith, and the giddiness of his newly-fired conceit fairly puts out the eyes of his understanding. His vanity is now quite omnivorous : once possessed with the monstrous idea of having become an object of love in such a place, nothing is too gross for him to swallow. The raw and unspiced stuffings of Master Brook convey to him no hint of mistrust: he drinks them in with unfaltering confidence; and opens his breast to this total stranger as freely as if he were his sworn and long-tried counsellor; the offered bribe of he man's money so falling in with the other baits of greed as to swamp his discretion utterly. After being cheated through the adventures of the buckbasket, where he was "stopped in with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease,” he appears indeed to have some smell of the gross trickery played upon him; and vows to himself that, if he be served such another trick, he will have his brains taken out, and buttered, and given to a dog for a new-year's gift. But still his vanity and thirst of money are too much for his startled prudence: upon

the offer of a second device, that too of a very flimsy texture, and very thinly disguised, his paralysis of wit returns, and his suspicions sink afresh into their dreamless nap. In the hard blows and buffets there experienced, he has stronger arguments than before of the game practised on him; still the deep spell on his judgment continues unbroken: and now the very shame and grief of his past failures and punishments seem to co-operate with his palsy of reason in preparing him for a third hoax even more gross and palpable than the former two.

When at length the untrussed hero is made to see how matters have been carried with him, and to feel the chagrin of being so egregiously fooled, he is indeed cast down to the lowest notes of self-contempt; and though he so far rallies at last as to cover his retreat with marked skill, yet he leaves the path behind him strewn thick with the sweatdrops of his mortification. In his pride of wit and cleverness, he had looked with scorn upon plain common people as no better than blockheads; and had only thought to use them, and even his own powers of mind, for compassing the means of animal gratification. But he now stands

« AnteriorContinuar »