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The doubtful Title (Gentlemen) prefixt
Your fauours merite. Let fair Truth be grac'te,
"Pamperd glutton" and "aged Councellor" do not describe the Sir John Oldcastle of The Famous Victories. But if evidence is needed to show that the Life of Sir John Oldcastle was written as an answer to Shakespeare's Henry IV. we may quote two passages from the third act and fourth scene, in which Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff is referred to, and by name, in contemptuous terms. In III. iv. Henry V. says: "Where the diuel are all my old theeues, that were wont to keepe this walke? Falstaffe, the villaine, is so fat, he cannot get on's horse, but me thinkes Poines and Peto should be stirring here abouts." And later in the same scene Sir John of Wrotham says of the King: "he once robde me before I fell to the trade my selfe; when that foul villainous guts, that led him to all that rogery, was in's company there, that Falstaffe."
If, as Shakespeare assures us (2 Henry IV., Epilogue), Falstaff is not Sir John Oldcastle, the martyr, is it possible to identify him with the valiant knight, Sir John Fastolfe, whose name he bears? Sir John Fastolfe is an historical character, but Shakespeare borrowed the name from the stage and not from history. In the First Part of Henry VI. Fastolfe is represented as a coward who fled from battle in shameful fashion (III. ii. 104-109); after being disgraced by Talbot, who plucked off his garter of knighthood, he was banished by the king (IV. i. 12-47). The difference between "Fastolfe" and "Falstaff" is merely orthographical: in the First Part of Henry VI. the Folios read "Falstaffe" or "Falstaff"; and in the Quartos of the First Part of Henry IV. "Falstaff" is spelt "Falstaffe" or "Falstalffe".
In choosing the name Falstaff, Shakespeare was doubtless influenced by considerations of historical reality. All the characters who are engaged in the main action of Henry IV. are well-known historical persons, and therefore the fat knight, inasmuch as he is introduced into historical events, required to have a known historical name. The name Falstaff was familiar to playgoers as that of a real knight without honour or reputation.
But Shakespeare was as unfortunate in his second as he had been in his first choice of a name. For as Fuller in his Worthies of England, Norfolk (1662, p. 253), writes: "John Fastolfe Knight, was a native of this County. . . He was a
Ward (and that the last) to John Duke of Bedford. . . . To avouch him by many arguments valiant, is to maintain that the sun is bright, though since the Stage hath been over bold with his memory, making him a Thrasonical Puff, and emblem of Mock-valour.
"True it is Sir John Oldcastle did first bear the brunt of the one, being made the make-sport in all plays for a coward. Now as I am glad that Sir John Oldcastle is put out, so I am sorry that Sir John Fastolfe is put in, to relieve his memory in this base service, to be the anvil for every dull wit to strike upon. Nor is our Comedian excusable, by some alteration of his name, writing him Sir John Falstafe, (and making him the property of pleasure, for King Henry the fifth, to abuse), seeing the vicinity of sounds intrench on the memory of that worthy Knight, and few do heed the inconsiderable difference in spelling of their name."
And indeed Sir John Fastolfe was no more a coward than Sir John Oldcastle was a profligate. Holinshed in fact records that Fastolfe was eventually cleared of the charges that had been made against him. But Shakespeare was indifferent to historical niceties of this kind. He was content to borrow from stage tradition his conception of familiar historical characters. And it is remarkable that it is the very passage cited by some to prove that Sir John Oldcastle was definitely Shakespeare's original in Henry IV. (viz. 2 Henry IV. III. ii. 28, 29, where Falstaff is said to have been Mowbray's page), that is adduced in evidence by those who would identify Falstaff with the historical Fastolfe. For it is said, on the
authority of F. Blomefield, the historian of Norfolk, that Sir John Fastolf was bred in Sir Thomas Mowbray's household. But if there is little foundation for the statement with regard to Sir John Oldcastle, there is even less, as Dr. Aldis Wright has shown, in the case of Sir John Fastolfe.
1. The King-We have seen in Richard II. how Shakespeare leads Bolingbroke through the vicissitudes of revolt against tyranny and of exile. There also we have witnessed his triumphant return as king of England. The present play portrays the man in his maturity and at the zenith of his power. He has surmounted the early troubles of his reign; but fresh troubles are brewing in the north and once again he must harness himself to arms and battle. And he has other than political anxieties. Shakespeare shows us the deeper workings of Henry's soul, where rankles a certain remorse for his wrongs to the dead King whom he has supplanted. He sees in the wildness of his son a rod to punish his own mistreadings. His political conduct is not affected by any qualms of conscience, yet his mind is not at peace nor his heart free from self-reproach.
Henry does not wholly win our esteem. He is essentially the politician. Crooked were the ways by which he climbed the throne, and in his dealings with his unruly but powerful nobles there is revealed guile as well as strength. Henry, though a man of great force of character, is a type of the ambitious man who achieves his ends by policy. He represents the politician as conceived by Bacon-strong, virtuous, even scrupulous, so far as convention demands, but not without a taint of machiavellianism; he is essentially a man of the world. He is no sentimentalist, but a practical man of affairs, who recognises that if he would wage the battle of life successfully he must needs adapt himself to the ways of the world.
As we have said, he does not wholly win our esteem, but he does, perhaps, win our sympathy. Henry IV. is a sad figure. He has plucked the turn to dust in his mouth.
fruit of his ambition to find it Our pity is deeply stirred by
his pathetic disappointment in his heir.1 Prince Henry, on whom all his hopes are centred, is, he thinks, a profligate, trifling away his youth in haunts of riot and dishonour with idle, base companions. Not the least pathetic lines in Shakespeare are those in which the King envies the rebel Northumberland his son.2 There is unconscious and dramatic irony
in his bitter cry :—
O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.
He thinks or affects to think his son guilty of disloyalty; he is his "near'st and dearest enemy". Failing to recognise the essential truth and loyalty of the Prince, he considers him capable of cowardice and treachery, even of fighting against him under Percy's pay, "to show how much he is degenerate". The King, indeed, may not mean all he says, for, when the Prince protests his loyalty, he tells him that he shall "have charge and sovereign trust"; but his grief and disappointment are unmistakable.
2. Prince Henry.-It has been said that in the character of Henry V. Shakespeare has embodied the fullest expression of his ideal of manhood. Certainly he has lavished upon the character the most loving care, tracing its development with sympathetic insight and subtle art from irresponsible youth to triumphant kingship.
It may seem at first sight difficult to reconcile the Prince Henry of tavern fame with the noble warrior of Agincourt, so difficult that one may be tempted to think that Shakespeare had not yet designed Henry V. when he was writing the earlier plays. On careful examination, however, it is evident that, although Shakespeare tells us much that might make us consider the Prince light and wayward, the general impression of his character, considered as a whole, is pleasing and calculated to win our esteem.
3 III. ii. 122 ff.
11. i. 78-91, and . ii.; also 2 Henry IV. iv. v. 60-80 and 93-138.
In Henry V. Shakespeare displays consummate skill in showing the growth of the nobler elements in a character which at first appears shallow, not to say worthless. The first mention of the Prince (Richard II. V. iii. 1-22) tells us of his ill repute, and the first reference to him in this play (I. i. 78-91) presents him in an unfavourable light. Yet as soon as we meet him in I. ii. we cannot fail to be won over to sympathy. Were this not so we should reject as mere hypocrisy the apologia that comes at the end of that scene. It may be urged that this apologia is scarcely necessary, that it is even obtrusive; hypocritical it certainly is not. Even in the rollicking scene
on Gadshill and in the scene of Olympian laughter in the tavern (II. iv.), we love Harry for his honest humour and lighthearted fooling. His conduct may be very undignified, very unseemly in a prince and an heir to the crown of England, but is to be young and merry a sin? It may be said that the Prince was guilty of worse offences than we are actually shown on the stage, even though we see him committing highway robbery, albeit in sport. Yet the stern accusations of the king 1 are at once explained away as the tattle of "smiling pick-thanks and base newsmongers"; and, as we have already said, it is certain that the King in the heat of his correction went beyond even his own unfavourable opinion of his son's character. It is noticeable that in the next tavern scene (III. iii.) the Prince plays a less prominent part. Whilst Falstaff is repenting his ways or quarrelling with the Hostess, Prince Henry comes into the Boar's Head with instructions for the campaign. The Prince has not lost his relish for fun and frolic. He enters into the humours of the tavern as heartily as ever; but soon he turns to more serious matters. The time for action is at hand: Bardolph is despatched with a letter to Lord John of Lancaster; Peto is ordered to horse, "for thou and I have thirty miles to ride yet ere dinner time"; and Falstaff, for whom a charge of foot has been procured, is left in the tavern to make his peace with the hostess.
When next the Prince meets his old friend it is on the road to Shrewsbury (IV. ii.). He still has a jest for old "blown Jack"; but he has few words to waste. In v. i. the Prince