Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare as a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A fat, vainglorious, and cowardly knight, Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, but he is ultimately repudiated after Hal becomes king.
Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone claimed, on uncertain authority, that John Heminges was the actor Shakespeare had in mind to portray Falstaff; an alternative is that Falstaff was written for Will Kempe, the clown of Shakespeare's company. The original actor was later succeeded by John Lowin, another comic actor.
Though primarily a comic figure, Falstaff still embodies a kind of depth common to Shakespeare's tricky comedy. In Act II, Scene III of Henry V, his death is described by the character "Hostess", possibly the Mistress Quickly of Henry IV, who describes his body in terms that echo the death of Socrates.
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. 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 1946 version and Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film, both of which draw additional material from the Henry IV plays.
There are several works about Falstaff, inspired by Shakespeare's plays:
Falstaff is a central element in the two parts of Henry IV, a natural portion of their structure. Yet he does at times seem to be mainly a fun-maker, a character whom we both laugh with and laugh at, and almost in the same breath. Nothing has helped more to give this impression than the fat knight’s account of the double robbery at Gadshill. Even his name invites humor, as it is a sort of pun on impotence, brought on by the character's excessive consumption of alcohol.
Falstaff's character is necessary to Hal's character development just as Hotspur's temperament is necessary to his. Falstaff's wit, humor and amusing antics are needed to develop Hal. He helps us relate to Hal and his decision. We know people of all types of character and personality in our lives. They influence our thinking and decisions. So it is also necessary for Hal. Whether Falstaff is only a coward and glutton, or a person who has an "amusing" way of expressing his deeply felt personal and political beliefs is a matter of individual interpretation.
Combining the lines that Falstaff speaks in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Falstaff's role consists of more than 1,200 lines, making it the second largest role in all of Shakespeare, behind that of Hamlet. Falstaff's lines in The Merry Wives of Windsor are usually not included because the Falstaff of that play is generally viewed by scholars as a different depiction of the character.
It is now commonly accepted 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. In Henry IV, Part One, 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 II, moreover, explicitly disavows any connection between Falstaff and Oldcastle.
External evidence is provided by Richard James, librarian to Robert Cotton, who mentions (in the preface to a manuscript of Thomas Hoccleve's work on Oldcastle) the conflict between the Lord Chamberlain's Men and Oldcastle's descendants. Extant evidence does not conclusively settle other important questions, such as Shakespeare's motivation for using Oldcastle's name or the precise nature of Cobham's intervention.
The historical Oldcastle was unlike Falstaff in many ways; in particular, he was a Lollard who was executed for his beliefs, and he was respected by many Protestants as a martyr. Shakespeare knew an anonymous play of the 1580s, The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Oldcastle is Henry V's companion, and Oldcastle's history is described in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, Shakespeare's usual source for his histories.
It is not clear, however, if Shakespeare characterized Falstaff as he did for dramatic purposes, or because of a specific desire to satirize 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. The name is Falstaff in the first quarto, of 1598, and the epilogue to the second part, published in 1600, contains this clarification:
The new name "Falstaff" derives from a character in Shakespeare's earlier play, Henry VI, part 1, a cowardly character based on the medieval knight Sir John Fastolf (who was also a Lollard). Changing a few letters gave Shakespeare the name by which his invention is known today. There was a historical Sir John Fastolf who 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's role in Henry VI, Part I loosely follows these events.
Stephen Greenblatt has suggested that writer Robert Greene may also have been an inspiration for the character of Falstaff. 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 characterization.
For over 300 years there has been a pub on Gad's Hill opposite Charles Dickens former home called the Sir John Falstaff, where it is known that Dickens himself used regularly. A tunnel leading from the grounds of Gad's Hill to the cellar of the pub can still be seen today.