Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. In the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, he's a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, he's the buffoonish suitor of two married women.
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.
He appears in the following plays:
His death is mentioned in Henry V but he has no lines, nor is it directed that he appear on stage. Notwithstanding a large number of 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 quite popular with audiences at the time, and for a large number of years afterwards. According to Leonard Digges, writing shortly after Shakespeare's death, while a large number of plays couldn't get good audiences, "but let Falstaff come, Hal, Poins and the rest, you scarce shall have a room".
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 connexion 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 isn't 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 a large number of 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 isn't 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 might 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, eleventh 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, tenth Baron Cobham might have become aware of the offensive representation after a public performance; he might additionally 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 might 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 isn't the man."
Sir John Fastolf
The new name "Falstaff" probably derived from the mediaeval knight Sir John Fastolf (who might additionally 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 throughout the battle, and although there's no evidence that he acted with cowardice, he was temporarily stripped of his knighthood. Fastolf appears in Henry VI, Part 1 in which he's portrayed as an abject coward. In the First Folio his name is spelled "Falstaffe", so Shakespeare might have directly appropriated the spelling of the name he used in the earlier play.
It has been suggested that the dissolute writer Robert Greene might additionally 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 might have influenced Shakespeare's characterization.
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.
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. In order 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 quite 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 storey 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's 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.
- 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 movie, additionally known as Falstaff, features Welles himself in the title role.
- 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.
- 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 portrayed in Arthur C. Clarke's Rama series, as a robot; he first appears in the novel Rama II.
- 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.