|Falstaff Reviewing Recruits by Francis Hayman - a scene from 2 Henry IV|
"I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men". [Sir John Falstaff, 2 Henry IV]
Was the fat knight the Shakespeare's supreme creation? For sure he was a hit with the playgoers at the time, and we can imagine their disappointment when he failed to appear is Henry V, despite being trailed to do so by the Epilogue in the second part of Henry IV:
"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 Katharine of France; where, for all I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat...."
What was the reason for this change of mind by Shakespeare? Certainly the actor that some believe was the first to interpret the role, Will Kemp, is known to have left the company around this time, in order to dance his way from London to Norwich. Was this the reason? Or did Shakespeare want to concentrate on the new king without the distraction of his larger than life knight? Whatever the reason, Falstaff does not appear, though does have an off-stage presence and does indeed 'die of a sweat'. As Hostess Quickly puts it in one of her charming quicklyisms: "He's in Arthur's bosom".
Falstaff was also popular with Queen Elizabeth, or at least such was the claim of one John Dennis, critic, playwright and unsuccessful adaptor of Shakespeare. In 1702 he recorded a tradition that The Merry Wives of Windsor, which features Sir John, was personally commissioned by the Queen. The story was enhanced in 1709 by Nicholas Rowe, the most successful playwright of his age and the first editor of Shakespeare, who added that Queen Elizabeth particularly wanted to see Falstaff in love. Whether or not this piece of hearsay has any truth to it we can, for certain, never know, though it does allude to the ceremonies of the Order of the Garter, to which Shakespeare's patron Lord Hundson, the Lord Chamberlain, was admitted at Windsor in 1597. The ceremonies were followed by a Garter Feast on St. George's Day, 23 April (Shakespeare's thirty-third birthday), which the Queen attended, so it is story in which there could indeed be a kernel of truth.
The fat knight first appeared in 1 Henry IV when he called Sir John Oldcastle. The historical Oldcastle (c. 1378-1417) was known as Lord Cobham and was executed for treason and heresy, though he was venerated as a Protestant martyr during Shakespeare's lifetime. The descendants of Oldcastle, the Cobhams, objected to seeing their ancestor portrayed on stage as a drunk, a liar, a braggard, a thief, a debaucher, a swindler, etc., etc., and the ever-obliging and diplomatic Shakespeare changed the name to Falstaff, a name based on that of the cowardly Sir John Fastolf of 1 Henry VI.
With his merry humour, his grandiloquence, and his insistence on living life according to his own vision of it, the fat knight continues to delight audiences, and the more disgraceful he appears on stage, the more it seems we like him.