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The character of Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays, the two Henry IV plays, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. A vain and obese knight, he provides the kind of comic relief that has become so embedded in today’s theatre and cinema.
He wasn’t, however, always called Falstaff. Originally he went by the name John Oldcastle. The problem was that John Oldcastle really existed and his descendant, Lord Cobham complained, forcing Shakespeare to change the name.
The real Oldcastle was unlike Falstaff. He belonged to the political and religious movement of Lollardism (a cause primarily aimed towards the reformation of Western Christianity) and was executed for his beliefs.
It remains a mystery as to whether Shakespeare wrote the character of Falstaff for the sake of drama, or because he specifically intended to satirize Oldcastle or the Cobhams. In the same way that political figures of today are satirized in programs like The Thick of It, in Elizabethan popular culture, Lord Cobham was often the butt of satirical jokes and appears in many of forms of literature, including Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.
The new name ‘Falstaff’ is most likely in reference to the knight Sir John Falstaff, who fought in the Battle of Patay against Joan of Arc and was also a Lollard. He was one of the few English military leaders to survive the battle without being captured and although there is no evidence to suggest he fled or acted with cowardice, he was temporarily stripped of his knighthood.
The OAE will be performing in Falstaff at Glyndebourne from Sunday 19 May. Click here for more info and to book tickets.