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Falstaff's Debt to Socrates' Death

    The debate over whether or not Shakespeare knew and read Greek is an old one. There is considerable evidence in favor of the view, which is roundly disputed by Stratfordians who are forced to believe the lowly actor did not know and could not, thus, read classical Greek texts.

    Henry IV assures us, however, that Falstaff, whom Bloom correctly calls "an Elizabethan Socrates," does read Greek. Indeed he is found in Act One , Scene two, line 133, to be reading Galen, when he notes, "I have read the cause of his effects in Galen. It is a kind of deafness."

This would be Galen’s book, On the Natural Faculties.

Indeed later the Author will prove to us all that he’d read this in the Greek, when he has the Hostess quote from it...concerning Falstaff’s condition, namely cirrhosis of the liver. He seems to have been the first English translator to have gotten the precise color correctly and essays have been written about this long ago, but are universally ignored by the Stratfordians. I have cited them in other postings, such as Ruth Anderson *Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare’s Plays," and Roderick Eagle’s "The Death of Falstaff," NQ, 1957, 240, which suggests Hippocrates’ Prognostica, which had been translated in 1597, but this strikes only to the Hostess’ suggestion as to the color of "pale green". See Fogel’s "A Table of Green Fields..." SQ, 1958, 485-92. Fogel correctly cites the translation of Prognostica, but makes no mention of the parallels between the death of Falstaff and Socrates, which I believe I’m the first to notice.

In any case it turns out that the Author contrives to make his knowledge of Greek even clearer in the report by the Hostess of Falstaff’s death.  See Henry V, Act Two, Scene iii, lines 6-28.

It turns out to be lifted straight out of the Phaedo, Plato’s dialogue dealing with the death of Socrates.

See for yourself!

Falstaff's Death

Socrates' Death

Reported by the Hostess

Reported by Phaedo

"I saw him fumble with the sheets."

"Socrates uncovered his head---he had covered it—and said..."

Falstaff’s death begins with his feet

Socrates' death begins with his feet

"So ‘a bade me lay more clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone." "the man who had given [Socrates] the poison tested his feet and legs, pressed hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this, and Socrates said no."

Falstaff's death proceeds upwards from his feet

Socrates' death proceeds upwards from his feet

"Then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upwards, and all was as cold as any stone."

 "Then he pressed his calves, and made his way up the body and showed us it was cold and stiff."

Falstaff's limbs become cold and stiff

Socrates' limbs become cold and stiff

Falstaff's death proceeds "upwards and upwards" as reported by the Hostess

Socrates's death as translated by Jowett proceeds "upwards and upwards"

Shakespeare writes: "Then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upwards, and all was as cold as any stone."

Jowett translates, "and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was stiff and cold."

The Hostess telling us, "He’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child."

 Crito’s reports that Socrates made his death exceedingly well and had gone to live with the gods



Falstaff's death wasn't from the Plague or a Fever

Socrates died from drinking hemlock

Falstaff's death was devised to parallel Socrates'

Translations by G.M.A. Grube and Jowett

I reproduce the original Greek below. It is from a scan of C. L. Kitchel’s edition of the Phaedo, which was included in his, Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Crito and a part of the Phaedo, printed in 1898. The marks in English are my own emendations used in translating this material.

We can see the Greek text gives the same account of events as do Jowett, Grube, and other translators, including the Author of Henry V.  The poison begins it work on the extremities of Socrates and Falstaff.

It is traced "upwards and upwards" by the man who administered the poison and the prognosis is shown, to those who watch, including Crito. They see Socrates’ legs from the feet upwards grow "cold" and "stiff."

Or as the Hostess would put it "as cold as any stone." A good translation of these medical conditions, particularly for Elizabethans not having our modern fetish of trying to wring out a precise word for word translation.

Now this is NOT the normal prognosis of cirrhosis of the liver. Or for chronic alcoholism.   It is even less the prognosis for Plague, which no one, let alone the Hostess, would have sat beside Falstaff 's bed while they calmly checked his feet, the symptoms of plague being universally known, not to effect the feet, but the face and lymph nodes.  

However it is the prognosis for a man who takes hemlock and in the case of Falstaff, its a allusion to Socrates' rejection and death.  Falstaff was a man, more a teacher, rejected by the King who was once Prince Hal, his own student, and if we take Falstaff at his word, his illicit son, according to Hal’s mother’s testimony and Falstaff's assessment of Hal's facial features.  (Myself I've always marveled at how King James I produced any heirs at all...perhaps we need look no further than Falstaff as Prince Henry's father de facto?)

A Brief Discussion about the Greek

For those who read Greek one of the key words is "tn" or "tau eta" a word which means "one way" and is used here with "[pi]pos" "towards" or "onwards," but which Jowett and Shakespeare have correctly translated as "upwards and upwards," since the direction of travel is always towards the head on a prostrate body.

Grube uses the phrase, "made his way up his [i.e., Socrates’] body." Which is not as good, in my opinion, as either the Author’s translation or Jowett’s.

Indeed Grube uses the word "body" twice, which does not appear in the Greek at all, to cite one small problem here. Socrates himself uses the word for "body" when he admonishes Crito with the line, "you are burying my body only.." meaning Crito will not be dealing with Socrates' soul and indeed no living person was, for Socrates, a body only. Grube uses "belly" for "kap&ov" or "stomach,"[&=delta] a small indiscretion but important in a clinical and technical discussions.

I have no idea where Grude gets "after awhile he tested his feet and legs." Tested! "After awhile!" In this Greek! Both Jowett and Grude read "e[pi]e&elkvvto" as "pressed hard" which it is what it means, just as "e[pi]eloav" meant "press," which both render correctly.

So let us not forget that all these characters, seemingly simple men, were armed to the teeth with Greek and Roman learning...not to mention French, Italian and Spanish.

Do visit my web site...and learn more about Marlowe who wrote these works and who first read Plato’s Greek in the library of his Headmaster John Gresshop.  


Knowing the Author drew his figure of Falstaff from the model of  Socrates, enriches our understanding of both the Author and Falstaff.  It tells us why Falstaff was what Harold Bloom calls a "transcendent" character.  And helps explain how the Author "invented" him.

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