‘How the fat rogue roared!’: Boris & Falstaff

When Boris Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show in early October, he rubbished rumours that his day-to-day life was affected by the symptoms of what’s come to be known as ‘long Covid’.

Johnson: I think the issue is that when I alas got this wretched thing I was too fat. I was too fat. And if I may say so this is a teachable moment for our great country because we are one of the world’s greatest place on earth, a great place on earth but alas, as a nation –

Marr: We’re too fat.

Johnson: – we are slightly too fat. We are fatter than virtually anybody else in Europe apart from the Maltese for some reason, and we need to think about this.

Following his spell in intensive care, Johnson had insisted repeatedly that he was fit, fitter than ‘a butcher’s dog’ (or several, as he told Marr). Indeed in the course of a Mail on Sunday interview, published on 28th June, he’d made a point of dropping to the floor and performing some press-ups when asked about his health. 

     On the face of it, by rejecting those rumours of long-term fatigue, Boris Johnson was fulfilling the custom of leaders presenting themselves as impervious to debility (several commentators in the press and on social media compared Johnson’s apparently impromptu press-ups with Vladimir Putin’s portfolio of bare-chested photographic portraits: here is the leader, topless, on a horse; carrying a rifle; swimming in a river). But by repeatedly calling attention to his particular brand of bodiliness, Johnson clearly wasn’t seeking to impress the electorate with superheroic qualities of strength: the disclaimer ‘I was too fat’ admitted, frankly, that his is a body capable of fatness. And, whenever celebrating his newly-achieved leanness, his colloquialism of choice — to be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ — notably doesn’t emphasise self-regulation: a butcher’s dog is fit because it is well-fed; its fitness is based on a well-serviced appetite, rather than asceticism. 

      Lamenting (‘alas’) that we are ‘too fat’ is a rather jovial way of putting it: nobody likes hearing the phrase ‘morbidly obese’, do they? Shakespeare’s version of a gregarious, overweight aristocrat, Jack Falstaff, is a dramatic exploration — perhaps the best — of a similar state of comical fatness. Across Henry IV Part One and Two, we’re treated to a plethora of wildly inventive euphemisms for Falstaff’s bulk. And yet (certainly across Part One) it’s the simple word ‘fat’ which is applied most recurrently and emphatically to Falstaff’s body.  This commentary is typical:

Sheriff:      A gross fat man.

Carrier:     As fat as butter.

This is almost the opposite of creative language: Falstaff is as fat as fat itself. And, unlike a phrase like ‘morbid obesity’, which points towards death, perceiving someone as ‘fat as butter’ is to perceive them as simply and only fat: Falstaff’s fatness is, in a key respect, emphatically unfigurative — it is notable, but enjoyably meaningless; it has no consequence.

     It’s unusual for a politician to want to present themselves in the Falstaffian mode, perhaps because, as the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde observed in one piece — explicitly likening Johnson to Falstaff — ‘an alternate timeline’ where ‘Falstaff becomes king instead of Henry — doesn’t really work’. But by occupying a slapstick figure dressed as a Prime Minister, Johnson may have been trying to co-opt the innocent joy projected by a body that can’t apparently be hurt. Discussions of Johnson as a political entity often grapple with the precise nature of what he himself has called his ‘mojo’. To this end, many commentators have already held up for examination the political instincts of the man who described a national lockdown in these terms:

we’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub.

Falstaff, too, is an enthusiastic supporter of going to the pub. Regardless of Johnson’s political designs in saying this, it outlines a particular Falstaffian state of being which — outside a pandemic, at least — he seeks to promise and to inhabit. The statement alludes to the appealing prospect of opting out of a storyline and being unaffected by it — a plan proposed by Simon Pegg’s character in the movie Shaun of the Dead, when confronted with a zombie invasion (‘go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all this to blow over’). Falstaff embodies that option: most brilliantly, perhaps, when, apparently killed in the pell-mell of battle at the end of Henry IV Part One, he reveals himself to have been simply lying down (‘Falstaffe riseth up’, as the folio puts it). 

      Johnson’s very real illness and subsequent spell in intensive care was clearly incompatible with any perception that his was a fleshy but invulnerable form — an effect he had been cultivating throughout a long career as, effectively, a clown (remember him suspended dumpily from a zipwire, waving little union jacks). Yet such a slapstick body generates anxieties anyway— for the inhabitant of it, and for its spectators. Falstaff’s body, through its sheer bodiliness, is conspicuously not under his control — here’s an account of him running:

Prince Hal: Falstaff sweats to death, and lards the lean earth as he walks along. Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him.

Poins: How the fat rogue roared!

Later Hal observes him as he sleeps: ‘Hark how hard he fetches breath!’ Someone sweating, or fetching breath, or being possessed by the appetite of a butcher’s dog, can be funny to an observer: here is a figure not under their own control. But a lack of control isn’t always funny; it can, in itself, be profoundly worrying. 

     Falstaff may give Boris Johnson a useful template for presenting himself to the public, but he also helps us understand the problems with that presentation. Formulated as it is, Johnson’s body is alien even to him: he was ‘too fat’, he tells Marr, ‘when I alas got this wretched thing’. If the ‘alas’ is a grandiloquent affectation, an effort to perform himself and to show himself in charge of that performance, we should note it straining — splitting the infinitive rather than sitting elsewhere, more naturally and mock-pompously, in parenthesis. The blunt ‘got’ is pulled into focus: how did this body before us get this condition upon it? 

     On the one hand, then, Johnson seems to preach self-control: let us all make ourselves less fat, he tells us. But, inspired by Falstaff, Johnson tries to invoke a linguistic magic in repeated reference to a quality of fatness which is comical, where the concerns of fatness appertain to the logistical rather than the consequential — with Johnson conjuring the image of an island-nation where we are all of us ‘too fat’, jostling with and bumping into one another (only Malta, Johnson tells us, is a tighter fit).  Johnson’s performance of bodiliness, like Falstaff’s, shies away from any talk of respiratory conditions, heart problems or diabetes — of specific causalities and outcomes. Nevertheless, common to both performances is the nagging anxiety that the slapstick body — simply by being so much a body — resists the control of its owner. 

this piece first appeared in the 2020 Clare Review

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