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International Journal of Humor Research

Editor-in-Chief: Ford, Thomas E.

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Volume 14, Issue 2


The anatomy of folly in Shakespeare's “Henriad”

Robert H Bell
Published Online: 2008-02-20 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humr.14.2.181


Folly, as Johnson said of comedy, has been “particularly unpropitious to definers,” struggling to conceive a notoriously indeterminate term. “Folly” is usually derogatory, pinned on any disbeliever or adversary, telling us as much about the judge as the judged, or ironically laudatory. While “folly” flaunts its maddening elusiveness, fools will rush in where wise men fear to tread. This essay explores the concept of folly, investigates its pertinence for literary criticism, and tests its usefulness in a consideration of literature's greatest fool, Falstaff.

The fool's cross-eyed vision always threatens to become a revelation; what starts as impish play may end as prophecy. Fools divide and confuse us, so that we either scant or privilege folly by reducing it to diverting babble or magnifying it into encoded prophecy. A great fool has amazing powers of disorientation: he is an avatar of disequilibrium. Disabled yet enabled, invincible yet particularly vulnerable, the fool is always double, both lightning bolt and lightning rod: his bad luck might bring me good luck, so we make room for fools but keep our distance: there with/but for the grace of God go I. The Fool has a strange duality, like the medieval monarch, two separate “bodies,” one enduring, potent, capable of revival, personifying survival and adaptability; the other marginal, susceptible, provisional, easily hurt.

Shakespeare's most majestic fool dramatizes folly's powers, perils, and paradoxes. Foolishly immersed in the “lower bodily element,” Falstaff imagines himself somehow freed from natural law; simultaneously Caliban and Ariel, he is enmired yet aloft, immanent yet transcendent, that quality wonderfully characterized by Bradley as Falstaff 's “inexplicable touch of infinity.” When “Falstaff riseth up” from playing possum, his comic resurrection seems the definitive triumph, “the true and perfect image of life indeed.” This “great fool” not only affirms life but outrageously redeems it with “counterfeit” or bogus scriptural idiom. Falstaff robustly embodies the power of folly and dimly, occasionally perceives its limits. In 2Henry IV, Falstaff, obviously enfeebled, becomes more the object than the source of humor. The banishment of Falstaff is not humorous and it hurts. As a seemingly imperishable fool, exuberantly enacting folly, Falstaff liberates life from fact, in defiance of reason and pursuit of joy. Falstaff's force draws us all into the field of folly, so that the great fool is our double whose loss we deplore.

About the article

Published Online: 2008-02-20

Published in Print: 2001-07-04

Citation Information: Humor – International Journal of Humor Research, Volume 14, Issue 2, Pages 181–201, ISSN (Online) 1613-3722, ISSN (Print) 0933-1719, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humr.14.2.181.

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