Culture Trips

The Shakespeare tragedy that truly speaks to us now

As a child, growing up in a home without men, I often wondered where men, in particular, slept. On the seafront, it seemed, when I went looking, clutching a can of lager for warmth and good cheer. Men, as I understood them, were homeless and dispossessed because they had no means of growing up; no reliable forms of work, or social and cultural infrastructure to hold them in place.

In my reading of him, Falstaff is both rejected father figure and rejected child; in his relationship to others, he fluctuates between infant and old man and fails to find a foothold in any era; nor does he find a stable home.

I see Falstaff still living with us today. “Make less thy body hence,” takes on a particular significance in an era of international austerity when chronic lack of food and shelter have become dire emergencies. Take one startling statistic from the UK: last year, during the first six months of the pandemic, leading food aid charity the Trussell Trust reported a 47% increase in the number of emergency food parcels needed, and also found that almost half the families regularly using a foodbank in the initial lockdown period had never used one before. In place of reliable state welfare, we seem to have returned to an era of charitable handouts: a culture of patrons, benefactors and donors, of volunteers. 

Similarly, Falstaff is also reliant on the capricious support of others. Shakespeare never allows us to forget that he is in debt; he has next to no money in his purse. His status and reputation at the local tavern rely entirely on his association with Prince Hal and Hal’s credit: Hal’s purse. By the time we get to part two of Henry IV, the money and any chance of credit has run out. My book follows Falstaff through the back alleys of a forgotten seaside town as he goes looking for places to sleep and take shelter. His only real currency is his capacity for words, for inventive wordplay, and for play of all sorts. But in the end, play is only a way of putting off the inevitable: Falstaff is out on his ear again: homeless, stateless, friendless, asking us to take pity on him. As a teenager, I did. I recognised something in his need that resonated with my own need for unquestioning care. In an age of acute social divisions and increasing deprivation, Falstaff begs the question: how much do we and can we care?

No Boys Play Here: A Story of Shakespeare and My Family’s Missing Men (William Collins) by Sally Bayley is out now

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