A Real Sir John?

Today, William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous figure in world literature. But in his own day, he was one of many English playwrights doing their best to churn out hit plays in a competitive, highly political environment. In fact, were it not for political pressure in Elizabethan London, the Met might be presenting a Verdi opera called Oldcastle.

In early drafts of the first Henry IV plays, the character of the fat, cowardly mentor to young Prince Hal was called Sir John Oldcastle. But there really had been a Sir John Oldcastle at the time of Kings Henry IV and V, and his descendants still wielded considerable influence at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. When these descendants’ displeasure with Shakespeare’s depiction of their ancestor’s namesake was made known, the playwright plucked the name of a different cowardly Sir John from an earlier play, Henry IV, Part 1. With a twist in spelling, the minor character Sir John Fastolfe (or Fastolf) became the timeless rogue Sir John Falstaff, and the Merry Wives went on. Shakespeare knew that the new play focusing on the character would be popular with his audiences and the queen, and he added an audience address in the epilogue of Henry IV, Part 2: An actor steps forth and promises a new play featuring Sir John in which, “for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless he already be killed with your hard opinions.” Then, as if to erase any doubts lingering after two plays featuring a Falstaff, the actor adds, “for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.”