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John Falstaff
Henriad character
Adolf Schrödter Falstaff und sein Page.jpg
Adolf Schrödter: Falstaff and his page
Created by William Shakespeare
Gender Male
Occupation Knight
Religion Christian
Nationality English

Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who is mentioned in four 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.

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 in 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".[1]

Role in the plays[edit]

Mistress Page and Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, staged by Pacific Repertory Theatre at the Golden Bough Playhouse in Carmel, CA, in 1999

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.

Falstaff at Herne's Oak, from "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Act V, Scene v, James Stephanoff, 1832

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, "let but Falstaff come, Hal, Poins, the rest, you scarce shall have a room".[2]

Henry IV, Part 1[edit]

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",[3] 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").[4] 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".[5]

Henry IV, Part 2[edit]

Henry V[edit]

Although Falstaff does not appear on stage in Henry V, his death is the main subject of Act 2, Scene 3, in which Mistress Quickly delivers a memorable eulogy:

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell! He’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. He
made a finer end, and went away an it had been any
christom child. He parted ev’n just between twelve
and one, ev’n at the turning o’ th’ tide; for after I saw
him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers
and smile upon his finger’s end, I knew there was
but one way, for his nose was as sharp as a pen and
he talked of green fields. 'How now, Sir John?'
quoth I. 'What, man, be o’ good cheer!' So he cried
out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to
comfort him, bid him he should not think of God; I
hoped there was no need to trouble himself with
any such thoughts yet. So he bade me lay more
clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and
felt them, and they were as cold as any stone. Then I
felt to his knees, and so upward and upward, and
all was as cold as any stone.

— Mistress Quickly, in William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 2, Scene 3.[6]

The Merry Wives of Windsor[edit]


Eduard von Grützner: Falstaff mit großer Weinkanne und Becher (1896) (Falstaff with big wine jar and cup, 1896)

John Oldcastle[edit]

Shakespeare originally named Falstaff "John Oldcastle". Lord Cobham, a descendant of the historical John Oldcastle, complained, forcing Shakespeare to change the name. 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: "Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man."[7]

The historical Oldcastle was a Lollard who was executed for heresy and rebellion, 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 word more, 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 Katherine of France, where, for
anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless
already he be killed with your hard opinions; for
Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.

— William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, Epilogue.[8]

Sir John Fastolf[edit]

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.

Robert Greene[edit]

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.[9][10] 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.[10]

Falstaff and Mistress Quickly from The Merry Wives of Windsor, Francis Philip Stephanoff, circa 1840

Cultural adaptations and appropriations[edit]

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 wins back Henry's favour by exposing the plot. In the second this story is dropped for a purely farcical storyline.[11]


Stephen Kemble, "the best Sir John Falstaff which the British stage ever saw."[12]


  • 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".[22]
  • Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho is partially a retelling of the Henry IV plays, set in the contemporary US, and with the character of Bob Pigeon (William Richert) representing Falstaff.[23]


  • Alexander Smith (pseud.) "Sir John Falstaff a Notorious Highwayman" in A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies of the most Notorious Highway-Men, Foot-Pads, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes (London: J. Morphew, 1714)[24]
  • 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".[25]
  • The Life of Sir John Falstaff (1858), a novel by Robert Barnabas Brough.[26]
  • Falstaff (1976), a novel by Robert Nye.[27]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

All references to Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, unless otherwise specified, are taken from the Folger Shakespeare Library's Folger Digital Editions texts edited by Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Under their referencing system, 3.1.55 means act 3, scene 1, line 55. Prologues, epilogues, scene directions, and other parts of the play that are not a part of character speech in a scene, are referenced using Folger Through Line Number: a separate line numbering scheme that includes every line of text in the play.

  1. ^ Lyons 1989, p. 4.
  2. ^ Birch 2009, p. 475.
  3. ^ Henry IV, Part 1, 4.2.12–13.
  4. ^ Henry IV, Part 1, 4.2.66–67.
  5. ^ Henry IV, Part 1, 5.4.76–169.
  6. ^ Henry V, 2.3.9–26.
  7. ^ Henry IV, Part 2, ftln 3431.
  8. ^ Henry IV, Part 1, ftln 3425–3431.
  9. ^ Maxwell 1930.
  10. ^ a b Greenblatt 2004, pp. 216–225.
  11. ^ Sutherland 1933.
  12. ^ Edinburgh Literary Journal 1830.
  13. ^ Rice n.d.
  14. ^ Marek 2013, p. 8.
  15. ^ Brown n.d.
  16. ^ Hoenselaars & Calvo 2010.
  17. ^ Parker n.d.
  18. ^ Elgar 1913.
  19. ^ Kennedy n.d.a.
  20. ^ Kennedy n.d.b.
  21. ^ Rosenblum 2013.
  22. ^ Canby 1975.
  23. ^ Lyons 1994, p. 233.
  24. ^ McKenzie 2013.
  25. ^ Craik 1995.
  26. ^ Brough 2013.
  27. ^ Klein 2013.
  28. ^ "Who's who in 'Thor: The Dark World'". 7 November 2013. Retrieved 23 July 2018. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Falstaff at Wikimedia Commons