Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who is mentioned in five plays by William Shakespeare and appears on stage in three of them. His significance as a fully developed character in Shakespeare is primarily formed in the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, where he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A notable eulogy for Falstaff is presented in Act II, Scene III of Henry V, where Falstaff does not appear as a character on stage, as enacted by Mistress Quickly in terms that some scholars have ascribed to Plato's description of the death of Socrates after drinking hemlock. By comparison, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff is presented by Shakespeare as the buffoonish suitor of two married women.
Adolf Schrödter: Falstaff and his page
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Though primarily a comic figure, Falstaff still embodies a kind of depth common to Shakespeare's major characters. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, he spends most of his time drinking at the Boar's Head Inn with petty criminals, living on stolen or borrowed money. Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, and is ultimately repudiated after Hal becomes king. Falstaff has since appeared in other media, notably in operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Otto Nicolai and Orson Welles' 1966 film Chimes at Midnight. The operas focus on his role in The Merry Wives of Windsor, while the film adapts from the Henriad and The Merry Wives. Welles, who played Falstaff in his film, considered the character to be "Shakespeare's greatest creation".
Role in the playsEdit
Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare's plays, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. His death is mentioned in Henry V but he has no lines, nor is it directed that he appear on stage. However, many stage and film adaptations have seen it necessary to include Falstaff for the insight he provides into King Henry V's character. The most notable examples in cinema are Laurence Olivier's 1944 version and Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film, both of which draw additional material from the Henry IV plays.
The character is known to have been very popular with audiences at the time, and for many years afterwards. According to Leonard Digges, writing shortly after Shakespeare's death, while many plays could not get good audiences, "but let Falstaff come, Hal, Poins and the rest, you scarce shall have a room".
Henry IV, Part 1Edit
Adding to King Henry's troubles is the behaviour of his son and heir, the Prince of Wales. Hal (the future Henry V) has forsaken the Royal Court to waste his time in taverns with low companions. This makes him an object of scorn to the nobles and calls into question his royal worthiness. Hal's chief friend and foil in living the low life is Sir John Falstaff. Fat, old, drunk, and corrupt as he is, he has a charisma and a zest for life that captivates the Prince.
The play features three groups of characters that interact slightly at first, and then come together in the Battle of Shrewsbury, where the success of the rebellion will be decided. First there is King Henry himself and his immediate council. He is the engine of the play, but usually in the background. Next there is the group of rebels, energetically embodied in Henry Percy ("Hotspur") and including his father, the Earl of Northumberland and led by his uncle Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester. The Scottish Earl of Douglas, Edmund Mortimer and the Welshman Owen Glendower also join. Finally, at the centre of the play are the young Prince Hal and his companions Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, and Peto. Streetwise and pound-foolish, these rogues manage to paint over this grim history in the colours of comedy.
Meanwhile, Henry's son Hal is joking, drinking, and thieving with Falstaff and his associates. He likes Falstaff but makes no pretense at being like him. He enjoys insulting his dissolute friend and makes sport of him by joining in Poins' plot to disguise themselves and rob and terrify Falstaff and three friends of loot they have stolen in a highway robbery, purely for the fun of watching Falstaff lie about it later, after which Hal returns the stolen money. Rather early in the play, in fact, Hal informs us that his riotous time will soon come to a close, and he will re-assume his rightful high place in affairs by showing himself worthy to his father and others through some (unspecified) noble exploits. Hal believes that this sudden change of manner will amount to a greater reward and acknowledgment of prince-ship, and in turn earn him respect from the members of the court.
On the way to this climax, we are treated to Falstaff, who has "misused the King's press damnably", not only by taking money from able-bodied men who wished to evade service but by keeping the wages of the poor souls he brought instead who were killed in battle ("food for powder, food for powder"). Left on his own during Hal's battle with Hotspur, Falstaff dishonourably counterfeits death to avoid attack by Douglas. After Hal leaves Hotspur's body on the field, Falstaff revives in a mock miracle. Seeing he is alone, he stabs Hotspur's corpse in the thigh and claims credit for the kill. Though Hal knows better, he allows Falstaff his disreputable tricks. Soon after being given grace by Hal, Falstaff states that he wants to amend his life and begin "to live cleanly as a nobleman should do".
Henry IV, Part 2Edit
The Merry Wives of WindsorEdit
Although Falstaff does not appear on the stage in Shakespeare's Henry V, there is a notable eulogy of his death recorded by Mistress Quickly in which she states: "Nay, sure, he's not in hell; he's in Arthur's bosom, if even man went to Arthur's bosom. A' made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child. A' parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o'th' tide. For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play wi'th' flowers, and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a table of green fields. 'How now, Sir John?' quoth I, 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and felt to his knees, and so up'ard and up'ard, and all was as cold as any stone."
It is generally believed that Shakespeare originally named Falstaff "John Oldcastle", and that Lord Cobham, a descendant of the historical John Oldcastle, complained, forcing Shakespeare to change the name. There is both textual and external evidence for this belief. Shakespeare's Henry IV plays and Henry V adapted and developed the material in an earlier play called The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Sir John "Jockey" Oldcastle appears as a dissolute companion of the young Henry. In the published version of Henry IV, Part 1, Falstaff's name is always unmetrical, suggesting a name change after the original composition; Prince Hal refers to Falstaff as "my old lad of the castle" in the first act of the play; the epilogue to Henry IV, Part 2, moreover, explicitly disavows any connection between Falstaff and Oldcastle, a dancer declaring: "where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr and this is not the man".
The historical Oldcastle was unlike Falstaff; in particular, he was a Lollard who was executed for his beliefs, and he was respected by many Protestants as a martyr. In addition to the anonymous The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Oldcastle is Henry V's companion, Oldcastle's history is described in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's usual source for his histories.
It is not clear, however, if Shakespeare characterised Falstaff as he did for dramatic purposes, or because of a specific desire to satirise Oldcastle or the Cobhams. Cobham was a common butt of veiled satire in Elizabethan popular literature; he figures in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour and may have been part of the reason The Isle of Dogs was suppressed. Shakespeare's desire to burlesque a hero of early English Protestantism could indicate Catholic sympathies, but Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham was sufficiently sympathetic to Catholicism that in 1603, he was imprisoned as part of the Main Plot to place Arbella Stuart on the English throne, so if Shakespeare wished to use Oldcastle to embarrass the Cobhams, he seems unlikely to have done so on religious grounds.
The Cobhams appear to have intervened while Shakespeare was in the process of writing either The Merry Wives of Windsor or the second part of Henry IV. The first part of Henry IV was probably written and performed in 1596, and the name Oldcastle had almost certainly been allowed by Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney. William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham may have become aware of the offensive representation after a public performance; he may also have learned of it while it was being prepared for a court performance (Cobham was at that time Lord Chamberlain). As father-in-law to the newly widowed Robert Cecil, Cobham certainly possessed the influence at court to get his complaint heard quickly. Shakespeare may have included a sly retaliation against the complaint in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor (published after the Henry IV series). In the play, the paranoid, jealous Master Ford uses the alias "Brook" to fool Falstaff, perhaps in reference to William Brooke. At any rate, the name is Falstaff in the Henry IV, Part 1 quarto, of 1598, and the epilogue to the second part, published in 1600, contains this clarification:
- "One more word, I beseech you. If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France where, for any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a' be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man."
Sir John FastolfEdit
The new name "Falstaff" probably derived from the medieval knight Sir John Fastolf (who may also have been a Lollard). The historical John Fastolf fought at the Battle of Patay against Joan of Arc, which the English lost. Fastolf's previous actions as a soldier had earned him wide respect, but he seems to have become a scapegoat after the debacle. He was among the few English military leaders to avoid death or capture during the battle, and although there is no evidence that he acted with cowardice, he was temporarily stripped of his knighthood. Fastolf appears in Henry VI, Part 1 in which he is portrayed as an abject coward. In the First Folio his name is spelled "Falstaffe", so Shakespeare may have directly appropriated the spelling of the name he used in the earlier play. In a further comic double meaning, the name implies impotence.
It has been suggested that the dissolute writer Robert Greene may also have been an inspiration for the character of Falstaff. This theory was first proposed in 1930 and has recently been championed by Stephen Greenblatt. Notorious for a life of dissipation and debauchery somewhat similar to Falstaff, he was among the first to mention Shakespeare in his work (in Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit), suggesting to Greenblatt that the older writer may have influenced Shakespeare's characterisation.
In Stratford-upon-Avon, the owners of Shrieves House, the former Three Tunns Tavern and now a museum, claim William Shakespeare based the character Falstaff on William Rogers, one of the Sargeants of the mace and close friend of the Shakespeares. This was suggested in circumstantial research by Petra Rees in her book The Shrieves House.
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There are several works about Falstaff, inspired by Shakespeare's plays:
- Falstaff's Wedding (1766), by William Kenrick was set after the events of Henry IV, Part 2. To restore his financial position after his rejection by Hal, Falstaff is forced to marry Mistress Ursula (a character briefly mentioned by Shakespeare, whom Falstaff has "weekly" promised to marry). The play exists in two very different versions. In the first version Falstaff is drawn into Scroop's plot to murder the king, but win's back Henry's favour by exposing the plot. In the second this story is dropped for a purely farcical storyline.
- Falstaff (1799), Antonio Salieri's opera, with a libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, which is based upon The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- Falstaff (1838), an opera by Michael William Balfe to an Italian libretto by S. Manfredo Maggione that is based upon The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849) by Otto Nicolai, based upon The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- Le songe d'une nuit d'été (1850), an opera by Ambroise Thomas in which Shakespeare and Falstaff meet.
- Falstaff (1893), Giuseppe Verdi's last opera, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito. It is mostly based upon The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- Falstaff (1913), a "symphonic study" by Elgar, which is a sympathetic and programmatic musical portrait.
- At the Boar's Head (1925), a short opera by Gustav Holst based on the Henry IV plays
- Sir John in Love (1929), an opera by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams based upon The Merry Wives of Windsor.
- Plump Jack (1985/2005), an opera with both libretto and music by composer Gordon Getty, adapted from the text of both the Henry IV and Henry V plays.
- Fiddler's Green, the eleventh track on the 1991 album Road Apples by The Tragically Hip, features a reference to Falstaff.
- Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1966) compiles the two Henry IV plays into a single, condensed storyline, while adding a handful of scenes from Richard II and Henry V. The film, also known as Falstaff, features Welles himself in the title role, with film critic Vincent Canby stating in 1975 that it "may be the greatest Shakespearean film ever made, bar none".
- When preparing to shoot Raiders of the Lost Ark, director Steven Spielberg told John Rhys-Davies, who played Indy's friend Sallah, to add a bit of Falstaff into his performance.
- According to director Gus Van Sant, the character of Bob in My Own Private Idaho (1991) was based upon Falstaff, and the character of Scott was based on Prince Hal.
- In director Richard Eyre's adaptation of Henry IV (produced in 2012), Simon Beale stars as Falstaff.
- Alexander Smith (pseud.) 'Sir John Falstaff a Notorious Highwayman' in A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (London: J. Morphew, 1714)
- James White's book Falstaff's Letters (1796) purports to be a collection of letters written by Falstaff, provided by a descendant of Mistress Quickly's sister. She had inherited them from Mistress Quickly herself, who kept them in drawer in the Boar's Head Tavern until her death in "August 1419".
- The Life of Sir John Falstaff (1858), a novel by Robert Barnabas Brough
- In A. M. F. Randolph's fantasy The Trial of Sir John Falstaff (1893), Falstaff is brought to trial, with Justice Shallow presiding.
- Falstaff (1976), a novel by Robert Nye.
- Falstaff is the name of a Shakespeare-inspired robot in Arthur C. Clarke's Rama series; he first appears in the novel Rama II.
- In the alternate history novel Ruled Britannia (2002), Shakespeare ensures the aid of William Kempe by promising more Falstaff (played by Kempe) in future plays.
- Volstagg, a comic book character that appears as a supporting character in Marvel Comics' version of Thor, was created as a Falstaff-type character.
- The character Giles Habibula from Jack Williamson's Legion of Space is usually described as being similar to Falstaff while the team as a whole is compared to The Three Musketeers.
- Lyons, Bridget Gellert (1989). Chimes at Midnight. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-8135-1339-1.
- Birch, Dinah (ed), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2009, p.473.
- Henry IV, Part 1, 4.2.12, in Bevington (1997)
- Henry IV, Part 1, 4.2.64, in Bevington (1997).
- Henry IV, Part 1, 5.4.110ff., in Norton (2008).
- Henry IV, Part 1, 5.4.138ff., in Norton (2008).
- Online text of epilogue "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 November 2011. Retrieved 10 July 2011.
- Baldwin Maxwell in Studies in Phiology 27(2): 230–232 (1930); Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)
- "The Falstaff's Experience".
- "The Falstaff's Experience, Stratford upon Avon | Ghosts". Falstaffexperience.co.uk. Retrieved 21 September 2013.
- "The Edinburgh literary journal : or, Weekly register of criticism and belles lettres. v.3".
- "OPERA NEWS - Plump Jack". www.operanews.com. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
- "Plump Jack - Gordon Getty". gordongetty.com. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
- Canby, Vincent (2 March 1975). "Film View: The Undiminished Chutzpah of Orson Welles". The New York Times. p. 37. Retrieved 7 March 2017.
- Kim, Wook. "Top 10 Literary Sidekicks". Time.
- Fuller, Graham (1993). "Gus Van Sant: Swimming Against the Current". Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and My Own Private Idaho. Faber & Faber. pp. xxv.
- White, James, Falsteff's Letters, London, Robson, 1877.
- Clarke, A. C., & Lee, G. (1989) Rama II. London: Gollancz. ISBN 0-575-04545-0
- "Ruled Britannia - Laughing Meme". laughingmeme.org. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
- Cooke, Jon B. (Editor); Thomas, Roy (Interviewer). "Stan the Man & Roy the Boy: A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas " Archived 14 November 2009 at WebCite, TwoMorrows. reprinted from Comic Book Artist No. 2. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
- Caldwell, Ellen M. ""Banish All the Wor(l)d": Falstaff's Iconoclastic Threat to Kingship in I Henry IV." Renasence 59 (2007).
- Cooper, Stephen. The Real Falstaff (a biography of Sir John Fastolf) (Pen & Sword, 2010)
- Doloff, Steven. "Falstaff's 'Honour': Homeric Burlesque in 1 Henry IV (1597–8)." Notes & Queries 55 (2008).
- Grady, Hugh. "Falstaff: Subjectivity between the Carnival and the Aesthetic." The Modern Language Review 96 (2001).
- Bloom, Harold, editor. Falstaff. New York: Chelsea House, 1992.
- Taylor, Gary. "William Shakespeare, Richard James, and the House of Cobham." Review of English Studies 58 (1987).
- Wilson, John Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943.
- Media related to Falstaff at Wikimedia Commons