Voltaire, although I'm afraid I don't know the artist

Voltaire and Falstaff

This post was written when my work was orientated towards the influence of French literary criticism on the eighteenth-century appreciation of Shakespeare, and is thus slightly out of sync with the rest of the material presented on this website. More details here.

Eduard von Grützner's 1921 painting of Falstaff
Eduard von Grützner’s 1921 painting of Falstaff
Voltaire, although I’m afraid I don’t know the artist

I admit that Voltaire and Falstaff make for an unlikely pairing: one is best remembered as a wizened philosopher and champion of the persecuted, the other as “plump Jack” and a persecutor of champions. Despite this, I came across a curious couple of passages in Maurice Morgann’s Essay on the Dramatic Character of Falstaff which bring the two into unexpected and fruitful harmony.

As one of the earliest ‘character studies’ of a literary text, Morgann’s 1777 work is full of oddities and unusual reflections, many of which inspired such later writers as Hazlitt in the nineteenth and A.C. Bradley in the twentieth century. His union of Voltaire and Falstaff, however, deserves to be pointed out, since it is a particularly odd mix of the conventional and the unusual.

First, the conventional. Early on, Morgann launches into a critique of Voltaire as part of a general defence of how Shakespeare’s works go against neoclassical doctrine. In a similar vein, Samuel Johnson speaks of how Voltaire’s mocking of Shakespearean irregularity represents the “petty cavils of petty minds”, whilst Elizabeth Montagu simply calls the Frenchman’s claims “misrepresentations”. Morgann’s phrases, although particularly dramatic, are very much part of this Arouet-bashing tradition:

When the hand of time shall have brushed off [Shakespeare’s] present Editors and Commentators, and when the very name of Voltaire, and even the memory of the language in which he has written, shall be no more, the Apalachian mountains, the banks of the Ohio, and the plains of Sciota, shall resound with the accents of this Barbarian.

Now, the unconventional. Having consigned Voltaire and the entire French language to the dustbin of history, Morgann nevertheless reaches for Voltaire’s Candide as a way of explaining something particularly tricky: the question of how we can enjoy and even sympathise with something that we should, if thinking rationally, abhor. This is the case, Morgann claims, with Falstaff, whom, extracted from the theatre and encountered in real life, would be quite horrible. Yet Falstaff, “plump Jack” charms audiences, just as Candide, with its rapes, murders and thefts, should appal us and yet entertains.

Setting Shakespeare’s creation and Voltaire’s alongside each other (and suspending his anti-Gallic leanings) allows Morgann to propose a clever distinction. He argues that we respond to fiction (be it staged or read, but that’s a different debate) both with “understanding” and with “mental impressions”: our understanding would detest Falstaff or the plot of Candide, but our “mental impressions” win us over. From this, the critic’s task is to study those minute details that help to influence our “mental impressions”, whether they be “the gay, easy and light tone” of Voltaire or the “double character” of Falstaff.

So there you have it: Voltaire and Falstaff, an unlikely conjoining that helps lay the foundations for the study of those tiny details that govern “mental impressions”, a labour modern-day undergraduates might call “practical criticism”.


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