The Many Lives of Falstaff:
Interpreting a Character Through the Ages
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What bothered them? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs and Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Falstaff experts.
As your students will by now understand, Falstaff is a character created in a specific dramatic context, who was transferred by his creator, Shakespeare, into another context, then reinterpreted in a different art form by Verdi and Boito. They may enjoy thinking of other characters whose “lives” have moved beyond their original contexts. Such movement can include:
- Further adventures, in which a known character meets new adversaries and challenges within fundamentally the same settings. Examples may include James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, or Lara Croft.
- New placements, in which a character finds himself in an entirely different setting, among people and places different from those in which he was introduced. Examples students might be familiar with include the novel and film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or the film The Avengers (in which a World War II-era superhero finds himself in 21st-century New York).
- Placement at an earlier or later stage of life. Examples familiar to
students may include the character of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and
The Lord of the Rings.
From a creator’s point of view, this kind of re-placement begs an intriguing question: What keeps a character who has been transferred into a new context the same character? What, beyond a name, makes a character consistent? Consistencies students might identify include:
- the way he or she looks, talks, or thinks,
- the way he or she approaches challenges,
- the way he or she behaves toward others.
In working with characters already well established, Shakespeare, Verdi, and Boito needed to balance such consistency with enough novelty to keep the character believable and engaging. A fun way to explore the challenge these artists undertook is to go ahead and try it for yourself. Each student can:
- pick a favorite character from literature, film, or television
- develop a list of characteristics that distinguish the character
- specify incidents in the story where the character first appeared that reveal or exemplify these characteristics
- brainstorm a list of new incidents and situations that might call upon these traits
- outline a story or screenplay in which this character finds him- or herself in new circumstances and navigates a new adventure in ways entirely consistent with his or her behavior in more familiar settings.
In readings, performance, or screenings, students will enjoy sharing their creations with one another and, of course, discussing each others’ success in bringing new life to an existing character.