Sir John Falstaff



  • The corpulent self-indulgent knight, full of wit and exaggeration,who encourages Prince Hal to lead a dissolute life in Shakespeare'sHenry IV, Parts I and II (1596 - 98). His deathis movingly described in Henry V while he also appears in diminishedform in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The character was distantlybased upon Sir John Oldcastle (d. 1417), a friend of Henry V, whowas eventually executed for involvement in a Lollard plot againstthe king. Objections from the Oldcastle family apparently led Shakespeareto change the character's name; the new name was derived from thatof Sir John Fastolf (1378 - 1459), a knight who was once unjustlysuspected of cowardice and became a benefactor of Oxford and Cambridge.Shakespeare made clear the difference between his Falstaff and SirJohn Oldcastle in the epilogue to Henry IV, Part II: "Oldcastledied a martyr and this is not the man."

    Other traits of Falstaff may have been taken from Adrian Gilbert,the younger brother of the navigator Sir Humphrey Gilbert and halfbrother of Sir Walter Raleigh. He seems to have been similar in physiqueto Falstaff - "a gorbellied rascal" - andgiven to practical joking. John Aubrey called him "the greatestBuffoon of the Nation". Remains of Sir John Fastolf's housein London were unearthed in an archaeological dig in the 1980s.

    Dryden called Falstaff "the best of comicalcharacters...not properly one humour, but a miscellany of humoursor images".