Rebels had their Charles Bukowski, and romantics their Jack Kerouac, but when it came to literary characters of drunken ill-repute, my precocious, poetic soul was a Falstaff-man through and through. Nothing surprising about this, as I was an English doctoral candidate studying Renaissance literature from whence William Shakespeare’s immortal character originated, and I saw moving from seminar to barroom as a natural progression, a natural right, and ultimately an inevitable compulsion (that is when I wasn’t drinking alone).
For the sad young literary men who thrived on Pabst and American Spirits, there were Bukowski’s characters like Henry Chinaski in Ham on Rye and Factotum, or his creator who would opine in Notes of a Dirty Old Man that “drinking and smoking should be the daily bread of all poets.” Then, for the alcoholics of writerly ambition who sketched out in Moleskins lofty ideas which never saw fruition while parsing the differences between disgustingly flavored IPAs, there was Kerouac’s Sal Paradise in On the Road, who was “mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time.”
But for me it was always John Falstaff, simultaneously the tragic and comedic heart of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays Henry IV Part I and Part II (as well as appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor); the drunken, corpulent, elderly, bawdy, hilarious, cowardly, soulful, friend of Prince Hal, who drinks his days away in an Eastcheap tavern called the Boar’s Head Inn spinning elaborate stories, described by his drinking buddy as “Falstaff [who] sweats to death,/And lards the lean earth as he walks along.”
Little is known about Shakespeare’s biography (other than he was indeed the one who wrote these plays), but when Falstaff tells his young charge that his disreputable life “is my vocation, Hal; ‘t is no sin for a man to labour in his vocation,” one can’t help but imagine that the Bard knew a bit about alcoholism. I don’t mean to imply that Shakespeare was an alcoholic, I have no idea. We know that he was a drinker, though everybody in Elizabethan England was; and I imagine that he could probably drink quite a bit, though everybody in Elizabethan England could as well. We do know that Bukowski and Kerouac were alcoholics, as well as any number of other writers, and yet I think that Shakespeare was able to inhabit the consciousness of an active drunk in a way that those who were notorious drinkers couldn’t.
You read Bukowski and Kerouac and you see the rationalizations, the justifications, the fantasies of an active alcoholic – there is a lack of self-knowledge in the romanticizing of their affliction, and consequently in some of their most fervent readers as well. But in Falstaff, particularly in 1597’s Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare presents very particular type of gentlemen whom you meet in dark wooded booths in the back of barrooms, old guys with overflowing ashtrays next to them while having put Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash on the jukebox. Men who tell you stories that you know couldn’t possibly be real, because the actual story was probably too pathetic, and they’ve forgotten it anyhow. What Falstaff’s much younger friend Prince Hal might describe as an “argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest forever.”
When I was an active alcoholic, who spent days reading plays like Shakespeare’s, writing about them, talking about them in seminars, and teaching them to college students, it was hard for me not to romanticize Falstaff and his adventures with Prince Hal. Falstaff allowed me to embrace my inner Renaissance Faire affectations; in him I could project the joyful drunkenness that I attested to believe in, the consequence free carnival of carousing and joviality as opposed to the antiseptic, clinical, disturbing reality of alcoholism. It was a simple reading of the play, as indeed a willed lack of self-awareness gave me a simple reading of my own character and affliction. In some sense, one could argue that Henry IV Part 1’s depiction of young Hal, the profligate, prodigal prince who later reforms himself onto the straight and narrow, is an example of the first recovery in English literature.
In an aside Hal tells the audience about “this loose behavior I throw off” and how his “reformation, glittering o’er my fault, /Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes, /Than that which hath no foil to set it off.” Often this is read as evidence of Hal’s duplicitous side, the young politico and heir to the throne spreading his wild oats in cheap bars to acquire a bit of the common touch, until he’s good and ready to become the king. That’s certainly how a very smart colleague read the character in a seminar, taking Hal at his word that his drinking is largely an act, but I knew better. I remember thinking to myself maybe he just can’t stop?
Such moments of clarity can be few and far between, because normally I applied to Hal (and Falstaff) the same fiction which I applied to myself, that I was drinking because it was fun and I wanted to, and that I’d be able to quite whenever I felt like it. After a dozen beers in an evening, with a dozen left to go, I’d “write” and often I’d play the same YouTube videos over and over, one of my favorites of which was the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III’s “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” a brilliant reimagining of the play. Like Henry IV Part 1 it was also a song that I refused to see the import of, rather imagining that the chorus of “Give me a capon/And some roguish companions/A wench, and a bottle of sack” expressed an exuberant philosophy of life that I was doing my best to live up to. If some dreamed to be Bukowski or Kerouac, then I imagined myself to be an unreformed Hal growing into a happy Falstaff, because for all of my knowledge I lacked the wisdom to understand that Falstaff wasn’t happy.
A character with a seeming overabundance of life, mirthful and full of what appears to be good cheer, but how I read him when I was an active alcoholic and how I read him in recovery are very different, and I think it speaks to the brilliance of his creator that he so perfectly embodies the nuance and complexity of the alcoholic mind, which is to say the contradictions and hypocrisies. The way in which a drunk will lie to everyone, especially to himself. Easy to romanticize Falstaff, many people do. He’s funny, he gets the best lines, he is “not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” Orson Welles who played him on screen could say that he was “Shakespeare’s greatest creation,” and he’s not wrong (though perhaps not for the reasons that I thought back when I drank).
There’s not much you can actually discover about somebody’s alcoholism based on who their favorite fictional drunks are; though perhaps you can discover something about how that person understands their own alcoholism. Regarding the proper interpretation of anybody’s alcoholism, all that there is to know is that some combination of brain chemistry, genetics, and acculturation makes it impossible for some of us to drink responsibly, and then if we want to stay alive, we have to quit drinking. But who our favorite fictional alcoholics informs us about our illusions concerning our affliction, how we interpret it, perhaps how we justify it. Those who (think they) are suave have Ian Fleming’s James Bond; though who are (think they) are mysterious have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby; those who (think they) are macho have Ernest Hemingway’s Jack Barnes; those who (think they) are hard-boiled have Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe; those who (probably) are terrifying have Stephen King’s Jack Torrance. And I had Falstaff (and Prince Hal). What I’ve discovered, however, is that sometimes you can read clearer when it isn’t through the bottom of a pint glass.
That seminar instinct that I had was the correct one, Prince Henry IV Part 1 isn’t about the cavalier joy of drinking with roguish companions, it’s about the lies and fears and illusions that an alcoholic will invent rather than facing dry reality, when Hal plaintively says “how much better than my word I am,” as if that means anything, as if that isn’t another lie to everyone else and himself. If we measure ourselves by fictional alcoholics, then powerful is the poetry in a character who stays with us before and after we’ve put the bottle down, albeit for different reasons.
Recently my wife and I had an occasion to see a stunning performance of Henry IV Part 1 at a venerable Shakespeare theater in the northeastern city which we call home (even that sentence would have sounded unbelievable to me five years ago). The actor who played Falstaff was able to endow that character with all of that nuance, the deep reservoir of sadness that exists beneath the funny drinking stories and the quaffed ale. As with Shakespeare, I know nothing of the actor’s own history with alcohol, but he was certainly able to portray Falstaff as an alcoholic with just enough self-awareness where you can tell that the character knows he is defeated, but where he doesn’t know enough to be saved.
When he delivered Falstaff’s last line wherein he promises to “leave sack, and live cleanly,” it’s with that death in the eye where you know it’s a lie (as indeed Henry IV Part 2 shows). For some reason, unclear most of all to those who live through it, sometimes us Falstaffs do leave sack, and then live cleanly. In the Boar’s Head Inn scenes, I had a brief whiff of euphoric recall, but by the end I could walk into the autumn coolness with my wife and realize that it never pays to be a character. I’d been humming the Wainwright song to myself for a few days, never noticing that for all of the romanticizing of drinking that I thought it extolled, that chorus also contained the line “if I vomit/keep me off of my back.” We’re not always the best readers of these characters, us drunks. But sometimes, they’re perfect readers of us.
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018. His latest book, as editor and contributor, is The Anthology of Babel, published 24 Jan 2020, by punctum books.