“But I do it more naturally”: Falstaff’s “Original Clowning Practice” vs. Theatrical Naturalism

Monday, March 17, 2014


We still have much to learn from contemporary commentators about the original practices of Renaissance English stage clowns. A case in point is the colorful satire Virgidemiarum (1597; reprinted 1598 and 1599) by the Cambridge Calvinist and neoclassical critic Joseph Hall, who used the evocative term “self-resembled show” to describe the popular clown who “laughs, and grins, and frames his mimic face …. And show[s] his teeth in double rotten row, / For laughter at his self-resembled show” (ll. 34, 43-44). Hall’s term points to ways in which these modes of Renaissance performance sometimes clash with then-emergent and subsequent opposing notions of theatrical representation, particularly those associated with movements from neoclassicism through modern theatrical naturalism. As a neoclassicist, Hall of course viewed comic scenes as inherently low, and he necessarily rejected humorous violations of decorum in the mingling of clowns and kings, calling them “A Goodly hotch-potch! when vile Russetings / Are match’t with monarchs, and with mighty kings” (ll. 39-40). More importantly for this examination, however, he also could not abide the clown’s breaches of neoclassicism’s ideals of representation and verisimilitude. Hall’s aesthetic outrage is thus potentially quite useful in underscoring early clowning practices that have long been overlooked and therefore under-utilized. Indeed, what modern actors might learn from these references to a lost art, especially when performance is attentive to both theatre history and the conventions of “original practices” theatres, is the subject of this essay.

Here I want to invite considerations of what we might call “original clowning practices” by examining some of the early performance conventions and traditions employed by Elizabethan stage clowns. After all, on some level, clowns now should (as they once did) have their own unique manner of performing. I will therefore briefly consider critical responses to early clowning (including Hall’s, Hamlet’s, and Robert Weimann’s) as case studies for those practices traditionally engaged in by Renaissance English clowns and then contrast them to an extreme example of the very different, modern theatrical “method” that too often works against the dynamics of original clowning practice. Arguing that Hall was quite clearly thinking of Falstaff in his grotesque satirical description of the clown, I explore how this exemplary part can be studied for its encryption of original methods and modes of clowning. Above all, I call attention here to two of the most notable features of early clowns’ performance by attending to how Shakespeare’s writing of this iconic part repeatedly foregrounds and explicates what Hall called “self-resembled show” while it also records and summons the dynamics of orality characteristic of the once improvisational clowning tradition in this era. By contrast, the now still dominant modern tradition of “naturalism” in “method acting” training, with its emphasis on psychological depth of character and feeling, best exemplified in a famous/infamous performance by Anthony Quayle as Falstaff, often flouts the early clown practices inscribed in the part. Quayle’s performance of a desperately insecure and pitiably doddering, verbally halting Falstaff, more than any other, stands for a naturalistic tradition that, being still very much alive, offers a remarkable case study in the ways in which a pervasive mode of modern acting training can work, unwittingly, against the grain of this extraordinary part. That is, Quayle’s Falstaff’s supposed naturalistic details, based as they are in the expectations of literacy and a post-Stanislavskian mode of acting, paradoxically become strikingly unnatural with respect to the differing, opposed codes of the comic, oral culture originally voiced and practiced by Falstaff.   

Given Hall’s description in Virgidemiarum of a clown who “midst the silent rout, / Comes leaping in [as] a self-misformed lout, / And laughs, and grins, and frames his mimic face” (ll. 33-35), the Renaissance English stage clown was evidently a self-authorized and “self-misformed” (thus not fully “verisimilar”) figure who asserted his traditional right to “mis-form” any drama rather than aiming to be an exclusively representational actor. That is, the “self-resembled” comic actor was traditionally licensed, if not to abandon mimetic representation utterly, then, at least, to extend the boundaries of mimesis by self-consciously calling attention to a self beyond/behind the role—his own persona, charisma, and physicality, as well as to his own performing. Originally, in Shakespeare’s day, the clown evidently did so even to the point of inviting laughter with and/or at himself by grinning or laughing at his own “self-misformed” comic playing.

Of course, this practice is one to which the neoclassical Hamlet, like Hall, objects, abhorring clowns as “themselves laugh[ing] to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too” (3.2.38-39). Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, Hamlet has been given the last word in favor of more naturalistic clowning, as if he speaks for Shakespeare’s ideal clowning practice. While certainly echoing Hall’s, Hamlet’s stated aesthetics of the comic are not, however, fully representative of Shakespeare’s, or even the play Hamlet. Hamlet himself often violates some of his own proscriptions, as he frequently resorts to outright clowning when “in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered” (3.2.40-41). Shakespeare further makes space for protracted “self-resembled” clowning during 5.1, the Gravedigger scene, at a very suspenseful moment after the audience has learned of the death of Ophelia and the return of Hamlet. In his persona of neoclassical critic, Hamlet as audience member would hardly have sat still for this comic scene.

Happily, Robert Weimann and Douglas Bruster respond far more appreciatively than did either Hamlet or Hall to the way these charismatic comic performers “displayed the strength and appeal of their presence on stage.” Identifying in particular the professional clown’s “self-resembled,” not quite non-verisimilar “show” as essential to appreciating the dynamics of performance for the popular Renaissance stage clown, Weimann suggests that by indulging in the plataea-like “show of their performative zest,” these performers sustained the “nonrepresentational dimension” of medieval drama, pre-dramatic ritual, and ongoing extra-dramatic misrule.1 The Renaissance English stage clown thus often “embodied varying portions of a traditional performance practice that antedated the formation of character as a self-consistent image of subjectivity”  (77). Just as Andrew Gurr notes that clowning in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (prior to 1588) often “depends largely on the audience knowing [the famous Dick] Tarlton as himself,”2 so did subsequent Renaissance clowns rely upon the dynamics of such “self-resembled show.”

To best appreciate how such powerful performative dynamics might have worked (and might still), I argue, it will be helpful to recognize the extent to which, in his vivid description, Hall clearly had performance of—and by—Falstaff in mind. Many details suggest that the earliest portrayal of Falstaff had provoked Virgidemiarum’s attack on the popular tradition of the clown. Hall’s work appeared in print in 1597 shortly after Sir John made his first scandalous appearance on stage (initially as the proto-Protestant martyr “Oldcastle”), embodying Shakespeare’s most audacious affront to neoclassical sensibilities to date, particularly in the defiantly indecorous mingling of king and clown. This neoclassical critic reacts to more than 1 Henry IV’s conjunction of royalty and low comedy, however. In fact, other details in this satirical sketch specifically recall the old fat knight’s highly unique and particular, odd-couple relationship with the thin and youthful Prince Hal, as in the otherwise nonsensical reference to the prince as a “hungry youth”—i.e., like Hal, a “starveling” (2.4.244)—performing “princely carriage” (ll. 19, 22) alongside a clown “justl[ing] straight into the prince’s place” (l. 36). In 1597, in the wake of the smash-hit Henry IV Part One, Hall’s readers were invited to recall Hal and Falstaff specifically when visualizing a thin prince elbowed by an indecorous, inappropriately familiar, self-aware, charismatic comedian.

Adding a related, non-representational dimension to performance dynamics of this role, Falstaff’s invitation to Hal to perform a “play extempore” in 2.4 provides a cue to one essential ingredient in “self-misformed” playing of the part: the need to capture the feeling of quick-witted improvisation essential to original clowning practice. After all, the role as scripted continually creates moments for a kind of pseudo-improvisation, what Richard Helgerson called in passing an “improvisation effect.”3 But what is it in Falstaff that evokes this effect? To begin with, Shakespeare provides the part with judicious amounts of repetition, a seemingly otherwise clunky element of improvisation that Eric Rasmussen found in the marginal additions that may have been stenographically recorded verbatim by a scribe in the manuscript to The Book of Sir Thomas More (1592). Analyzing revisions to the More MS, Rasmussen focused on the insertions of Hand B, for the Clown, in the margins of three pages of the manuscript. Rasmussen identifies several features of the Clown’s speech that reflect an “improvised rather than … scripted quality”: “Many of the Clown's lines are little more than mere repetition: ‘come come a flawnt a flaunte... a purchase a purchase we haue fownd we ha fownde’” (fol. 7r), and some are “weak gags [that] often appear impromptu.”4

Consistent with the Clown’s use of repetition in Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare carefully adds in Falstaff’s part other elements evocative of improvisation via an emphasis on orality, as through questions, issues of hearing, and intentional mis-hearing in word-play. Questions in particular set up pseudo-improvisational jesting from the outset of Falstaff’s scenes. Falstaff’’s very first line is thus a question (“Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” [1 Henry IV, 1.2.1]), setting off Hal’s comic riff on the irrelevance of time to a perpetually truant, always feasting Falstaff. Likewise, in 2.4 of 1 Henry IV, we hear unmistakable emphasis on listening or aural-ity (e.g., “Dost thou hear me, Hal?” [l.198]), particularly in Falstaff’s marked habit of parroting of just-asked questions (–“What’s the matter?” –“What’s the matter!” [ll.147-48]; –“Where is it, Jack? where is it?” –“Where is it?” [ll.150-51]; –“… all?” –“All? …” [ll.174-75]; –“… thine own knee?” –“My own knee?” [ll.312-13]). Such repeated questions have the effect of putting Falstaff in an extemporal position, since they produce a sense of witnessing him think, nimbly, in the present moment. One result is somewhat akin to what Terence Hawkes has called “the ‘presentist’ energy” that “explodes … into the here-and-now material life of its spectators,”5 that which Weimann characterizes as “the clown’s ‘here and now” (83). Perhaps that is what contemporaries meant by the term extempore (literally “out of or away from time”) to characterize ad-libbed improvisation.

Even Falstaff’s wordy digressions heighten the extemporal effect. Consider the way in which the extended insult contests between Falstaff and Hall, featuring copious lists of supposedly improvised, grotesque synonyms, suggest a kind of superfluous redundancy or, even more so, the opening of 1.2 in 1 Henry IV, which involves the improvising Falstaff jesting digressively in between the repeated beginning and final end of his real preoccupation: “when thou art king …. when thou art king …. shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? … Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief” (ll.15-57). Further repetitive digression is found in Falstaff’s attempt to improvise his palpable lie (2.4) between the repeated phrases and interjections of (seeming) interpolated comedy: “A plague of all cowards…! … Give me a cup of sack …. A plague of all cowards! Give me a cup of sack. … A plague of all cowards, I say still. … Give me a cup of sack. … A plague of all cowards!” (ll.108-61). If such digression and marked repetition might seem, at least from the radically differing perspective of a literate culture, counter-intuitive in comedy involving a legendary quick wit, Shakespeare uses precisely these features in brilliantly capturing the qualities of unscripted improvisation, including apparent orality.

We might fruitfully recall here Walter Ong’s famous distinction between orality and literacy, for what Ong calls “residual orality,” the vestiges of orality in a culture familiar with writing and print is insistently pervasive in the voluble Falstaff.6 As we have seen, in Sir John’s scripted part we consistently find marked redundancy. As Ong explained, “Since redundancy characterizes oral thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than [the] sparse linearity. … structured by the technology of writing” (39-40).  Shakespeare thus wrote the part of Falstaff in a way that evoked key oral dynamics, those most opposite linearity, including the fluency of copious digression that is “more natural” to improvised speech and also the frequent redundant “repetition of the just-said” (39). Many of Falstaff’s signature verbal quirks—posing questions, intentionally mis-hearing, echoing the just-said/just-asked, other repetition, digression, and the like—thereby capture the energy and delight of improvisational orality.  

Because the features of orality Shakespeare foregrounds are the very ones that Ong has identified as “more natural” than the artful/artificial ideals of literacy, it may be useful to distinguish between the kind of “naturalness” applicable to Falstaff’s scripted lines and the often radically different modern logic of theatrical “naturalism.” Doing so will allow us to understand what happens when one ideal of naturalness is imposed on another, quite different one.

The most famous embodiment for the would-be naturalistic approach to the role of Falstaff is certainly Anthony Quayle’s once widely celebrated 1979 interpretation captured in the BBC TV production. Quayle’s approach embodied that peculiarly un-subtle variant of Stanislavskian “method acting” sometimes to be found in the BBC’s neoclassically-infused version of “naturalism.” The result was doubly antithetical to the comic. After all, mining not for comedy but exclusively for depth of feeling and buried motivation in the formerly “self-resembled” part of Falstaff, Quayle even remarked, “I have this very strong feeling … that [Falstaff] was desperately aware of his own failings and shortcomings,” including especially his shortcomings as a comic performer.7 This “very strong feeling” was one hallmark of this Falstaff. “He’s a desperate character,” Quayle elaborated, believing that “somewhere there’s a terrible grief inside him”  (76). He further emphasized a second notable hallmark in his performance frequently remarked by reviews and critics ever since, that is, he added supposedly naturalistic, extra-textual verbal and non-verbal touches heavy-handedly, so that T. F. Wharton described how his performance was actually filled with “snorts, growls, snuffles and hisses of breath” (75). Samuel Crowley was less than amused by such “unnecessary interjections (‘ah … er … oh-ho … harrumph … hmmmm’),” which together had the effect of suggesting that “the quickest mind in the west need[ed] to fumble for words in repartee with his own student” (75). Significantly, Ace Pilkington defended these insistent “extratextual mutterings,” curiously enough, on the grounds that “the snorts and snuffles [we]re an attempt to make Falstaff’s very formal speeches seem more natural and improvisational for the naturalistic television production in which they appear” (78, emphasis added).

Leaving aside the fact that most of Falstaff’s speeches are anything but “very formal,” Pilkington’s very defense clarifies precisely why Quayle’s extreme emphasis on emotional motivation and his foisted ideal of the supposedly “naturalistic” radically undercut Falstaff’s original mastery of comic performance: Pilkington interprets Quayle’s mumbling interjections as “not a sign that Falstaff is unable to think and speak with extreme rapidity but an indication of his nervousness as a performer”—again, a consequence of Quayle’s doggedly naturalistic emphasis on Falstaff feeling “desperately aware of his own failings” (75, emphasis added). In between the lines “What upon compulsion?” (2.4.235) and “By the Lord, I knew ye as well as he that made ye” (2.4.268), Pilkington pointed to what he considered “indications of Falstaff as a performer,” claiming that in these lines “he has found a desperate … means to delay long enough to think,” and then “we see Falstaff thinking desperately ….” (emphases added). In truth, all the erring “errrr-ing” here and throughout had the effect of making this desperate Falstaff an inept improviser, even a doddering one. Like his halting delivery, this Falstaff’s oddly characteristic desperation as a comic performer furthered that effect while making this viewer, for one, painfully aware of the passage of time in extemporal moments. As Wharton  observed, “Always there was a flicker of anxiety between the joke and the laugh,” just as Russell Davies noted, “[This] Falstaff’s insecurity—that moment of facial panic after the uttering of the joke before the reaction set in around him—was perfectly captured” (75). However, nothing kills laughs quite like a comic’s insecurity, so that any laughter Quayle’s Falstaff finally receives does not feel at all warranted—or even, in fact, remotely natural.

In the end, Quayle’s would-be naturalistic touches by turns either ran against the grain of the text or added “more than is set down” in arguably the worst possible way. That is, rather than truly improvising playfully or even recognizing that the feeling of improvisation is already scripted, Quayle’s performance labored “to make Falstaff’s ... speeches seem more natural and improvisational for [a] naturalistic … production.” That is, “the Method” (Stanislavskian-derived acting) clashed against early comic methods. In fact, there was no need “to make” these speeches “more natural and improvisational,” for they already were that, though in a radically different sense than method acting allowed. To appropriate Ong’s characterization of orality’s signature digressiveness and redundancy, Shakespeare’s scripted improvisation effect is already “in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than sparse linearity.” Quayle’s performance thus imposed a different, clashing kind of redundancy and a conflicting sort of naturalness via a halting stammer that grated as it worked against the extraordinary fluidity of Falstaff’s carefully inscribed orality, repetition, digressiveness, and quick wit. As Ong explains, “In oral delivery, … hesitation is always disabling. Hence it is better to repeat something … rather than simply to stop speaking while fishing for the next idea. Oral cultures encourage fluency, fulsomeness, volubility”  (40). Shakespeare, we have seen, scripted all that into the part, so that artificially trying to “make it” natural, through the artifice of added naturalistic details, undercut the original improvisational orality.

At the same time, Quayle’s Stanislavskian insistence on extracting a kind of deep feeling even—or especially—in the most comic moments also worked against the grain of the text’s inscribed performance modes in that it was likewise so very much at odds with the performative dynamics of “self-resembled show” that Hall observed in early performance of Falstaff. Given that (as Weimann and Bruster argue) the stage clown of the era “embodied varying portions of a traditional performance practice that antedated the formation of character as a self-consistent image of subjectivity” (77) and that “Clowning … can best be studied on the enabling grounds of its difference from the [now pervasive] language [and logic] of representation” (112),  the search for deep character and the imposition of naturalistic representation can actually deny these “enabling grounds,” erasing “difference” in ways that can be counter-productive and disabling, certainly, from the perspective of the comic or comedic. Ultimately, then, recognizing in Falstaff the workings of a mode of representation encapsulated in the phrase “self-resembled show,” the dynamics of a scripted improvisation effect, and the related dynamics of residual orality may offer significant cues as to how this iconic part was once played and, perhaps, even how it may successfully be performed today.



  • 1. Robert Weimann and Douglas Bruster, Shakespeare and the Power of Performance: Stage and Page in the Elizabethan Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 9.
  • 2. Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 125.
  • 3. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (1992; rpt: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 224.
  • 4. Eric Rasmussen, “Setting Down What the Clown Spoke: Improvisation, Hand B, and The Book of Sir Thomas More,” The Library (1990), 126-36, 130 and 128.
  • 5. Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare in the Present (New York: Routledge, 2002), 94.
  • 6. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982; rpt. London: Routledge, 2002), 40.
  • 7. This and the following criticims are quoted in Ace G. Pilkington, Screening Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Wilmington: University of Deleware Press, 1991). Quayle’s remark appears on page 74.