Falstaff as “Il Capitano”

Shakespeare developed his plays not only from other literature and his surrounding society, but also from living theater. Particularly, he borrowed ideas from the Venetian commedia dell’arte, or “comedy of professional artists.”

Commedia dell’arte was a form of improvised theater that began in Italy and later spread popularly into other areas of Europe (The MET: commedia dell’arte). It was marked by “stock characters”: characters that recurrently were portrayed with particularly set speech, gestures, props, and costumes(The MET: commedia dell’arte). Examples of these “stock characters” are reflected in many of Shakespeare’s characters, particularly Falstaff.|search|6|All20Collections3A20il20capitano|Filtered20Search|||type3D3626kw3Dil20capitano26geoIds3D26clsIds3D26collTypes3D26id3Dall26bDate3D26eDate3D26dExact3D26prGeoId3D26origKW3D||4|

Il Capitano, or L’Innamorato

Pictured above is an early seventeenth century etching of Il Capitano, or “The Captain,” as depicted by the Frenchman Jacques Callot. One of commedia dell’arte’s typical characters, Il Capitano was visually characterized by his largeness, “whether physically or egotistically,” his wide stance, chest forward and back straight, with “extravagant and sustained” gestures. This depiction of an Il Capitano as a result is irregular in his thinness and narrow stance. However, we can look at a depiction of Falstaff to understand even better just how much Shakespeare borrowed from commedia dell’arte:|search|6|All20Collections3A20falstaff|Filtered20Search|||type3D3626kw3Dfalstaff26geoIds3D26clsIds3D26collTypes3D26id3Dall26bDate3D26eDate3D26dExact3D26prGeoId3D26origKW3D||2|

As good a man as he, sir, whoe’er I am

This American 1936 reproduction of Falstaff by Rockwell Kent is perhaps a better depiction of the typical Il Capitano character with his wide stance, chest thrust out, extravagant pose, and large features. This image demonstrates how the visual depiction of Falstaff is clearly related to the commedia dell’arte character of Il Capitano. As a result, it is easy to extrapolate the similarities in Falstaff’s personal traits to that of Il Capitano as well.|search|6|All20Collections3A20falstaff|Filtered20Search|||type3D3626kw3Dfalstaff26geoIds3D3730303835393126clsIds3D26collTypes3D26id3Dall26bDate3D26eDate3D26dExact3D26prGeoId3D26origKW3D

Falstaff with the body of Hotspur

Il Capitano as a “stock character” is described as a bragging, egocentric man faking machismo: “Behind this thick façade of manliness and courage, he is, in fact, a timid coward afraid of most everything” (Capitano). In this painting (pictured above) from 1786, attributed to Philippe-Jacques de Louther, Falstaff is shown over the body of Hotspur. The image draws attention to Falstaff’s claim of Hal’s accomplishment in defeating and killing Hotspur in battle, demonstrating Falstaff Il Capitano characteristics. Although he attempts to tower over Hotspur and show his military power, the viewer of this image, as well as the audience of Shakespeare’s play, clearly see his cowardice and incompetence.

Despite the apparent physical and characteristic similarities between commedia dell’arte’s Il Capitano and Falstaff, Shakespeare does not portray Falstaff as the simple “stock character” in Henry IV Par 1. Instead, Falstaff is clearly a complex character that differs and builds upon the Il Capitano character. For instance, while a typical ll Capitano character is primarily seen as arrogant, deceitful, and generally unlikeable character, Falstaff is loved by both Shakespearean audiences and modern audiences alike. His comedic nature is larger than life, and the audience can’t help but love him:|search|6|All20Collections3A20falstaff|Filtered20Search|||type3D3626kw3Dfalstaff26geoIds3D26clsIds3D26collTypes3D26id3Dall26bDate3D26eDate3D26dExact3D26prGeoId3D26origKW3D||2|

Benedict De Bar as Falstaf

Why has Falstaff become such an iconic character? That’s answer is for another blog post. However, for further research, the interview with Bud Harte who played Falstaff in 2014 (Bud Harte is the Infamous Falstaff) and the blog post “There’s Something About Falstaff” (There’s Something About Falstaff ) are interesting reads. Also, the opinion article “Loving Falstaff: Shakespeare and the moral vision of comedy” by Benjamin Myers (Loving Falstaff: Shakespeare and the moral vision of comedy) has good commentary on Falstaff as a larger than life character. Lastly, if you want to know more about commedia dell’arte and its influence on Shakespeare, the book The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte has a section on Shakespearean comedy and commedia dell’arte (Google Books: The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte).