The other week my lovely partner and I went to see Verdi’s Falstaff, one of my top three operas. Verdi wrote it right towards the end of his life, full of years and ready perhaps to sign off with a lighthearted survey of the world through the eyes of the largest of Shakespeare’s larger-than-life characters. The whole thing bubbles with laughter, chatter, invention and enough tunes for at least three operas. You’d think the composer was in his twenties, not knocking on 80.
Lighthearted it is; lightweight it is not, for it contains a great truth. Right at the end, after being tricked repeatedly, abused, misused, made to look an utter fool, Falstaff (an irrepressible character if ever there was one) points out what is suddenly obvious: just about every other man in the story has been tricked in one way or another. Tutti gabbati – everyone’s deceived, taken in, swindled, probably a good deal of the time, probably by themselves as much as by anyone else. And then the house lights go up and the focus turns on the audience: which of us has not been deceived, taken in, swindled, probably a good deal of the time, probably by ourselves as much as by anyone else?
I will answer the question in private. You can too – but answer it honestly.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” exclaims the sprite Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, observing the antics of the humans he is manipulating – almost without trying: we are nothing if not easy to manipulate, especially in matters of the heart. Darkening the tone, in the wisdom of his madness King Lear exclaims: “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”. And so it is. Crying comes naturally, and laughter does too: that’s why, in cards welcoming my little grandsons to the world, I have written notes encouraging them never to forget how to laugh – why let crying get the upper hand?
There’s an old story about two Greek philosophers who lived next door to each other. When one of them stepped outside the door, he always burst into tears. When the other did, he burst out laughing. Two ways of seeing the world – both of them profoundly true but I know which one I prefer. I learned this from my dad, who loved to laugh: he treated the world’s foibles, and his own, as sources of endless hilarity. I can hear the glee in his voice when he told me he’d heard that some leading police in Hong Kong’s corruption squad had been run in. For corruption. But he was equally capable of laughing at himself, and that’s why, I think, I find it hard to deal with people who can’t.
In my first two – I confidently expect to have more – retirement speeches, eight years apart, I answered the usual nice remarks by quoting TS Eliot’s nervous intellectual J Alfred Prufrock:
No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous – Almost, at times, the Fool.’
We are all fools: Falstaff declares it, the other characters cannot but agree, the audience chuckle nervously and then the bubbles return and the opera ascends into festivity. They all dance off into the night, reconciled to the thought that, in the end, there’s not much point in taking yourself too seriously.
Why bother? People who do that are the biggest fools of all.