When Charles Mathews the Elder first appeared as Falstaff at the Theatre Royal, Hay market, in 1814, a critic remarked: ‘What was wanting to make it a perfect representation was the round volume of voice commensurate with the hollow of the frame from which it came.’ As far as I know, no critic or scholar has considered this requirement unreasonable; yet it contradicts what the texts say about Falstaff’s voice. From both parts of Henry IV it seems clear that Falstaff was meant to speak not in deep, sonorous tones, but in a voice grown high and thin with advanced years - like the voice of Silence in the recent BBC television production, or the falsetto of William Hutt’s Shallow at Stratford, Ontario, in 1965.
Though the texts make Shakespeare’s conception clear beyond reasonable doubt, it is easy to see why it has been ignored. Our reading has been guided by our experience of stage Falstaffs, and audiences have expected a great voice answerable to the great body. At Drury Lane ‘Harper’s fat figure, full voice, round face, and honest laugh... fixed him at last in the jolly knight’s easy chair’; and Quin had a ‘happy swell of voice’.
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