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On Parallels between Falstaff and Sokrates: Further Proof Shakespeare knew Plato


Sometime back I suggested that the remarkable parallels between the death of Socrates and the death of Falstaff indicated that Shakespeare, whoever he or she was, had read Plato. (These parallel are most obvious in the Jowett translation but are clear enough in other translations and in the original Greek.  Here’s the link to my web page on this with the Greek text shown .

I took a bit of flak from skeptics with vested interests in Shakespeare as the village idiot who could not have read Plato, let alone patterned his canon on it, as I have proposed he did.  However most of my correspondence on this front has been positive.

Just to review Plato wrote 36 dramatic dialogues.  Since one of them has been lost it leaves 35 works.  Shakespeare’s First Folio contains 36 dramatic works and one of them has been hidden, so the table of plays contains only 35 works, i.e., one has been "lost" or "hidden."   36 = 36 and 35 = 35

In any case I would now direct our attention to a new and hopefully landmark book on Shakespeare’s debt to Plato by Leon H. Craig, *Of Philosophers and Kings.*  It has just been published by the University of Toronto Press and runs to four hundred pages, nearly half of which are notes.

  Craig has independently noticed that Shakespeare is indebted to the death of Sokrates in his treatment of Falstaff’s demise.  Craig cites enough sources to make the case conclusive, so I quote his paragraph and cordially invite you to read his entire book.  Craig writes, on pp 266-7:

“Perhaps even more intriguing is the contention that Shakespeare’s Falstaff is clearly meant to recall Plato’s Sokrates.  There are several recent exponents of this view who point to a number of parallels between the two characters, beginning with the strikingly similar descriptions of their deaths (e.g. with their going cold and number from the feet upwards; Phaedo 117e-118a, Henry V 2.3.20-5), but including most importantly their both being accused of practicing sophistry: Falstaff of “wrenching the true cause of the false way” (2nd Henry IV 2.1.108-9), Sokrates of “making the weaker argument [appear] the stronger (Apology 18b-c, 19 b-c, 23d)” Craig cites Thomas McFarland, _Shakespeare’s Pastoral Comedy_, 179-84.

Craig then continues, “Another scholar, also taking his cue from the similarity of the death scenes, has explored the relationship more fully, and notes that Shakespeare has signaled his intention by the many hints he has dropped _before_ the death of Falstaff, including especially the identical charge against Falstaff (That villainous abominable misleader of youth”; (1st Henry IV 2.4.446-7) as was mortally applied to Sokrates (Apology 24b.)”  For this he cites Michael Platt, “Falstff in the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” in _Interpretation_ vol 8, no. 1) January 1979), 12-13.  In the note Craig continues,

“Platt notes as well that both characters do their military service on foot rather than mounted on horseback (in contrast to their famous companions, Hall and Alkibiades).  Both are notoriously capable of consuming much drink.  Moreover,  “Falstaff asks the Socratic question, what is a thing?  With his question, what is honor?. Falstaff class into question the life of the gentleman…Falstaff says he is witty and the cause of wit in other men (2 Henry IV 1.2.6); the friends of Socrates think that he is wise and the cause of wisdom in themselves…Neither Falstaff nor Socrates is beautiful, yet both exercise an attraction upon other men.” [particularly youths]  Moreover, Platt argues that within the garbled account of Falstaff’s death given by Hostess Quickly, we may discern that Falstaff was attempting to recite the Twenty-third Psalm (8ff), and that this points to the major difference between the two deaths: “the terror of Falstaff and the equanimity of Socrates” 14. 

  [Myself, I would thoroughly disagree here.  Falstaff dies with equal equanimity and hs not, Sokrates like, fearful of the approach of his death.  Another parallel here is that both deaths are in a way handled via accounts and not directly.]

  Craig continues this lengthy proof by citing three marvelous paragraphs from Alan Bloom, which I am not reproducing here, not because they aren’t worth reading, but because I grow tired of quoting. Bloom concludes correctly, “The Hal-Falstaff relationship is not entirely unlike the one between Socrates and Alcibiades."

In the next note Craig returns to McFarland who noted that all of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy is based on the author’s command of Platonism.  A conclusion I wholeheartedly agree with.  I’d go much further Shakespeare’s entire canon is predicated on a thorough understanding of Plato, one which could only have been gained by directly access to Plato’s works. All 35 of them. 

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