In Which David Ruminates On Fastolfe versus Falstaff

In the Folio text of 1 Henry VI, the coward who Talbot holds responsible for the English losing French territories is called Sir Iohn Falstaffe, even though most modern editors call him Sir John Fastolfe.  What causes the problem is that editors want to distinguish between the cowardly knight in 1 Henry VI (written at the very start of his playwriting career) and the cowardly knight who appears in the two parts of Henry IV (written mid/late-1590s), gets his own spin-off play in The Merry Wives of Windsor (probably written around 1597), and then dies offstage in Henry V (1599), despite Shakespeare’s earlier promises at the end of 2 Henry IV that next time we’ll get to see Falstaff “make merry” with the Princess of France.  Editors rightly feel that a distinction ought to be made, since the Sir John Falstaff of the later plays was originally called Sir John Oldcastle until the real Oldcastle’s family objected and Shakespeare subsequently changed the character’s name (Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor’s text for the Oxford Complete Works ignores fear of retribution from Oldcastle’s descendents and changes the name from Falstaff back to Oldcastle!).

I believe that Shakespeare didn’t choose the new name at random.  I think, in rechristening Oldcastle as Falstaff as he was at the end of writing his cycle of history plays, Shakespeare saw the chance to link his original quartet of history plays (the three Henry VI plays and Richard III were written at the start of the 1590s) and the new quartet which would conclude with Henry V, the play that falls in the direct centre of the cycle, even though it was the last one to be written.  In the same way that in making the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas is able to suddenly give huge back-stories to characters like Yoda or Palpatine who are otherwise at the end of their character ‘arcs’ when we see them in the original films, I think Shakespeare’s plan was to give a minor character in 1 Henry VI, who we hear of thrice and see but once when Talbot tears off his Order of the Garter in Act IV, much more significance by making him the same Garter Knight who drinks with Prince Hal in the Eastcheap Tavern in the Henry IV plays and is then rejected when Hal is crowned as Henry V.  Thus, in considering the plays as an epic soap opera or drama, we see Falstaff at his drunken, comedic peak in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and by 1 Henry VI his cowardice and financial desperation sees him reduced to treachery and betraying the country he’s meant to be serving.

What screws it all up, of course, is that Will Kempe, the company clown, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when the company shifted to the Globe in 1599.  We don’t know if he quit or was fired, but I like to think Hamlet’s comments on clowns in his advice to the Players are actually the company’s ‘disclaimer’ to their loyal audience about why the popular clown had to go.  And rather than upset his audience by asking them to accept a new actor playing such an iconic role (it’s not quite the same as Michael Gambon replacing the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, more like the outrage that says James Bond can’t be blonde), Shakespeare decided it was easier to kill off Falstaff at the start of Henry V and reassign what would have been his scenes in France to Pistol (the Fluellen/Pistol scenes in Henry V make a lot more sense if you buy that they’re meant to be scenes between Fluellen and Falstaff). 

So that’s why, in our production of 1 Henry VI, he’ll be called Falstaff!  Now we just need to find someone to play him …

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