SIR JACK FALSTAFF is the greatest comic character created by William Shakespeare. However, that wasn't going to be his real name. Shakespeare's original intent was to call this 'fat knight,' 'this huge hill of flesh' and 'this sanguine coward,' after the real knight, Sir John Oldcastle, a 15th century martyred knight and Lollard. However, his descendants, the Cobham family, heard of this and protested. Fortunately for them, and perhaps unfortunately for our William, one of the Cobhams was the official censor. This meant that Shakespeare had to change the name of 'this horseback breaker,' 'that villainous abominable misleader of youth' and 'this bed-presser' or have his play banned.
However, Shakespeare had the last word. He inserted a few 'old castle' jokes into his plays, as when Prince Hal (of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V) refers to Falstaff as 'my old man of the castle.'
We first meet Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1, where he is Prince Hal's best buddy. He is depicted as a father-figure to the young prince, a past knight who has gone to seed. He lives by his wits and earning a living is anathema to him. He reappears in Henry IV, Part 2 playing the same role, but by now, the growing prince is trying to distance himself from 'this fool and jester' who requires, 'two and twenty yards of satin' for a suit.
Falstaff in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon. (Author's photo)
Finally, Hal does rid himself of his sack (white wine) swilling crony at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 saying:
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have longed dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane.
Hal has to be cruel here, because he must separate himself from Falstaff and their collective past and show that he is no longer the high-spirited and mischievous youth that he was. Now that his father, King Henry IV, has died, Hal is the country's next king and so he must behave accordingly. Nevertheless, his words do hurt in this tremendously pathetic scene.
But the irrepressible Falstaff doesn't really die. According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth I was was so enamoured of this character that Shakespeare was asked to resurrect him. He did so about eight years later. This old knightly rogue and lecher, 'well nigh worn to pieces with age' reappears taking centre-stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Here, Falstaff is conned by the two wives, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, and ends up getting a terrible beating before being attacked in Windsor Park by a crowd dressed as fairies.
More about Falstaff next time.
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