Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. Round and glorious, tradition holds that Shakespeare wrote the part for his second comedian, a fat man, John Heminge, who played a bold, bawdy humor of a John Candy sort. An alternative theory is that Falstaff was written for Will Kemp, the clown of Shakespeare's company. The original actor was later succeeded by John Lowin , another portly comic actor. Flush with flatulent humor, Falstaff still managed to embody 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 bar-lady Mistress Quickly , who describes his body in terms that echo the death of Socrates.
He appears in the following plays:
He is mentioned in Henry V but 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 movie and Kenneth Branagh's 1989 movie, both of which draw additional material from the Henry IV plays.
Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1965) compiles the two Henry IV plays into a single, condensed storyline, while adding a handful of scenes from Henry V. The movie, also known as Falstaff, features Welles himself in the title role.
There is abundant evidence that Falstaff was originally named 'Oldcastle' in the first performances of the play, although the name does not survive in any printed texts. The character was apparently based on Sir John Oldcastle, historically known to be Prince Hal's companion. However, Oldcastle was unlike Falstaff in many ways; in particular, he was a Lollard who was executed for his opinions, and was revered by many Protestants as a martyr. During the first performances of 1 Henry IV, protests from Oldcastle's descendants — the influential Cobham family — forced Shakespeare to change the name. The new name 'Falstaff' is derived from Shakespeare's earlier play, Henry VI, part 1, in which there is 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. Worried, perhaps, that this change would not placate his detractors, Shakespeare made a direct comment on the situation, in the concluding lines of 2 Henry IV:
- 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
- any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
- unless already a' be killed with your hard
- opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
- not the man.
The character and deeds of Falstaff have very few similarities with those of his real-life eponyms. Shakespeare's apparent desire to burlesque such heroes of early English Protestantism is one reason why some scholars believe he may have been a closet Catholic.
- Falstaff is also the name of a British rocket. See Falstaff (rocket).
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