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John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in several of William Shakespeare’s plays. He is originally introduced in two history plays as a drinking companion and mentor to Hal, the son of King Henry VI. The character also crosses over into comedy as the hero of one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest comedy. From the 16th century until modern day, he remains one of the most memorable characters in all of Shakespeare’s work.
Experts suggest that Falstaff was not the original name for the character. There is evidence that asserts Shakespeare intended to name him “John Oldcastle,” but was forced to change it after the protests by a descendent of a real man of that name. Textual support shows that the name “John Falstaff” is consistently out of poetic meter in Henry IV, Part I, suggesting the name was changed after the play was completed. Additionally, the epilogue to Henry IV, Part II explicitly denies any connection between the character and the historical Oldcastle, implying that a connection might be drawn. Their does not appear to be any similarity between Shakespeare’s character and the historic figure, and experts are unsure why the author chose to use Oldcastle’s name at all.
In Henry IV, Parts I and II, Falstaff is a fat, jolly and corrupted knight in the constant company of Prince Hal. He is a great storyteller and braggart, forever telling tall tales of his own bravery. In truth, he is cowardly, not above playing dead on a battlefield to avoid fighting, or taking credit for another man’s kills. While Hal is initially his devoted companion, he eventually tires of the deceptions and double-talk. Upon becoming King Henry V, Hal renounces Falstaff and publicly ends their friendship.
Falstaff’s death is announced in Henry V, but Shakespeare quickly resurrected the character for use in The Merry Wives of Windsor. His appearance in the comedy is somewhat perplexing, as the Henry plays are set in 15th century England, while The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place during the late 16th or early 17th century. A popular theory suggests that Shakespeare acted on the whim of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who wished to see a play where the character fell in love. This theory is highly questioned by experts, as it did not appear for more than a century after the play was first performed.
In the comedy, the character continues his life of bawdiness and debauchery, lusting after two married women and their fortunes. When Falstaff fires his two pages for refusing to aid his schemes, the servants tell the women and their husbands of his plan. The remainder of the play consists of the wives conspiring to make the old knight look foolish, leading to him being beaten, thrown in a river, and eventually convinced that fairies are attacking him while he is dressed like a deer. In true character, Falstaff enjoys a hearty laugh when his plans go awry, realizing he has gotten what he deserved.
Experts are divided on the importance of Falstaff, particularly in the Henry plays. He is considered essential to the character of Hal, as he represents the prince’s wastrel youth that must be left behind before Hal can become king. Others suggest that the character is an embodiment of the common man and humanity, and that Hal’s rejection of him is a negative symptom of the detachment between monarch and subjects. The controversies over his meaning and importance may never be settled by experts, but the arguments do not diminish the popularity of this character believed by some to be Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation.