The focus this quarter for our Education Newsletter is marginalized audiences and how to bring their voices into a broader, civil discourse. If we are going to call ourselves “Shakespeare’s American Home,” then it is our responsibility to find ways to represent the beautiful tapestry of American experiences, colors, sizes, abilities, desires as fully as we can both on stage and off. I was in this mindset when a coworker pitched an idea for a blog post that sent me into a personal tailspin. The question was this: Can there be a “body positive” Falstaff for the 21st Century?

My gut reaction, forgive the pun, was “Nope. Not even a little bit.” Everyone is so mean to Falstaff about his body, and is that not the very opposite of body positivity? I then spent a significant amount of time unpacking the layers involved in that question in order to write this post, and I realized that my reaction was based solely on my personal experience of bullying and my own views about my body. Luckily, I also have immediate access to not one but two actors with experience playing Falstaff – John Harrell and Rick Blunt: the former plays Falstaff in our current Actors Renaissance Season productions of Henry IV, Part One and The Merry Wives of Windsor; the latter was in the same track for our World’s Mine Oyster Tour of 2013-2014 and now plays Mistress Quickly in our current productions – who generously lent me their perspectives on the issue. Our conversations, though illuminating and generative, only moved the needle of my skepticism from a hard “No” to an ambiguous “Maybe.” And to arrive at that “maybe” a potential production team seeking to portray body positivity through Falstaff would need to consider several intersectional factors in creating a world and/or character that might actually present as such to an audience.

In the spirit of asking “How might we…” I have compiled a short list of those factors for consideration:

First of all, there’s the text.

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What has Shakespeare given us to work with? On one hand, everyone makes fun of Falstaff’s size. Hal’s insults are as creative as they are cruel. Words like “this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,” “fat rogue,” “ye fat guts,” “ye fat-kidneyed rascal” (all taken from 1 Henry IV, though 2 Henry IV and Merry Wives have a similar bent when it comes to other characters’ references to Falstaff’s size) have the potential to wound the recipient. On the other hand, Falstaff doesn’t seem too bothered about his size or what people say about it. Every time Hal makes a comment about his weight, Falstaff claps back with insults of his own: “’Sblood, you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish.” In Rick Blunt’s interpretation, “Falstaff has other priorities; and, besides, trading insults with Hal is how they show affection.” In order for a production to find body positivity in Shakespeare’s words, you would really have to lean into this idea. You would need a Falstaff who either does not react to, or deflects in some other way, the many barbs thrown at him. You would need to emphasize, as Blunt puts it, his “other priorities.” That, or cut the derogatory lines entirely. Doing so would relieve your audience of their complicity in fat shaming, and your play would definitely move along at a quicker pace without all the fat jokes to slow it down, but what is left? Is it even Shakespeare’s play anymore? (That question could be an entirely separate blog post, so in the interest of time I’m leaving it alone for now.)

Complicating the issue of text, of course, is context. (See what I did there?)

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John Harrell notes that “Falstaff’s fatness meant something completely different in Shakespeare’s time when there weren’t enough calories to go around and there’s this one guy eating everything. That’s not the case anymore.” Citizens of early modern England endured actual, widespread famine from time to time, and would have been keenly attuned to anyone amongst them who looked like they were “cheating the system” and filching others’ rations. Elizabethan morality, moreover, held that a person’s outward appearance reflected their inherent virtue (or lack thereof); Falstaff’s body reveals his inner failings, much like Richard III’s crooked, deformed body supposedly reflects his twisted, homicidal inner nature. For early modern audiences, Falstaff is Vice personified: greedy, lazy, lecherous, gluttonous, “smacking of every sin that has a name.” But the United States of 2019 is (thankfully) not under threat of famine; and though the tendency to see a corresponding value between size and virtue still exists in American culture, it’s true we are more lenient on this point than the Elizabethans, particularly for men. A rotund Falstaff on any stage in America today is still an object of audience ridicule, but not necessarily total disdain. We cannot excise ourselves from our cultural moment any more than Shakespeare’s audiences could, and modern audiences will interpret Falstaff’s largesse according to our indoctrinated “norms” despite the best effort of any production to will it otherwise.

Finally, there’s the hot-button issue of casting.

We cannot ignore the ongoing conversations about authentic representation in the entertainment industry at large; though that debate rarely focuses on an actor’s size rather than their race (i.e. the issue of whitewashing ethnic-minority roles) or their gender (like the debate around casting cis-gender actors to play transgender roles), the issues undeniably intersect. In our current production we have to reconcile the fact that a thin actor (Harrell) is wearing two different fat suits (one for Merry Wives and a very different one for 1 Henry IV) to portray Falstaff, an act viewed by many as offensive. When rehearsals began, even Harrell himself expressed concern about the issue. Blunt, however, had another take. “It’s John’s turn,” he said, going on to surmise that our particular company’s casting choice had less to do with body politics than the practicalities of a rotating repertory company cycling through its options of actors to play different parts from season to season. However, future companies seeking to imbue their productions with body positivity would do well to carefully examine the semiotics of a thin-bodied person in a fat suit as opposed to a large-bodied person in the same role. What compounds the casting issue is the flip-side of that coin, which is the tendency of theatres and filmmakers to typecast large-bodied actors as supporting characters, servants, and general punchlines (like Falstaff) but rarely the lead or love interest (like, say, Hamlet). In recognition of that point, Rick Blunt refers to Falstaff as “The fat man’s Hamlet,” implying that it’s the pinnacle role for an actor of size because any actor who is actually fat (unless you’re Simon Russell Beale or Paul Giamatti)will most likely never be cast as the actual Hamlet. In other words, repercussions exist for either casting choice, but it helps to at least be aware of them beforehand. Also be aware that the politics get way more complicated when you layer cross-gendered and/or color-conscious casting on top of an actor’s size. #IntersectionalityIsAThing (Again, fodder for another complete blog post.)

Rick Blunt as Falstaff in Merry Wives, 2013
John Harrell as Falstaff in Merry Wives in 2019

Do you see now why I couldn’t come up with a definitive Yes or No? At the ASC we like to encourage visiting students and our actors to explore an “infinite variety” of readings and staging discoveries. Whether your choices affect an audience the way you want them to is another matter. Ultimately, navigating the nebulous issue of body politics on stage is no different than staging the troublesome misogyny in Taming of the Shrew, the brutal rape in Titus Andronicus (and also the bed-tricks in other works #consent), the outright slavery in Comedy of Errors and The Tempest, or the ugly racism and antisemitism most visible in Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Let’s not sugar coat it: most of Shakespeare’s plays are problematic in some way. Every production team has to decide whether they would rather stage the problem or a solution to it. The former adheres more strictly to the text but stirs up and perpetuates controversial subject matter; the latter involves adapting the text in such a way that what had been difficult is now reframed or cut entirely. Both generate discourse. Can a body positive interpretation of Falstaff exist in a modern production? Try it! See what happens. Start a conversation.