Sir John Falstaff: Character Analysis

The Merry Wives of Windsor: "Falstaff in the Washbasket" by Henry Fuseli
Public Domain

Sir John Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays, he functions as Prince Hal’s companion in both Henry IV plays and although he doesn’t appear in Henry V, his death is mentioned. The Merry Wives of Windsor is the vehicle for Falstaff becoming the main character where he is portrayed as an arrogant and clownish man who plans to seduce two married women.

Falstaff: Popular With Audiences

Sir John Falstaff was very popular with Shakespeare’s audiences and his presence in so much of his work confirms this. The Merry Wives allows Falstaff to embody the roguish role more fully and the script gives him the scope and time for the audience to relish all of the qualities they love him for.

Flawed Character

He is a flawed character and this appears to be part of his appeal. The appeal of a character with faults but with some redeeming features or factors that we can sympathize with still remains. Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Michael Scott, Walter White from Breaking Bad – these characters are all pretty deplorable but they also have an appealing quality we can sympathize with.

Perhaps these characters make us feel better about ourselves in that they get themselves in awkward situations as we all do but they deal with them in much worse ways than perhaps we would ourselves. We can laugh at these characters but they are also relatable.

Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Sir John Falstaff gets his comeuppance at the end of, he is humiliated several times over and humbled but the characters are still fond enough of him that he gets invited to join in with the wedding celebrations.

As with many of the much-loved characters that have come after him, Falstaff is never allowed to win, he is a loser in life which is part of his appeal. Part of us wants this underdog to succeed but he remains relatable when he is unable to attain his wild goals.

Falstaff is a vain, boastful and overweight knight who is mainly found drinking in the Boars Head Inn keeping poor company with petty criminals and living on loans from others.

Falstaff in Henry IV

In Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff leads the wayward Prince Hal into trouble and after the Prince becomes King Falstaff is snubbed and ousted from Hal’s company. Falstaff is left with a tainted reputation. When Prince Hal becomes Henry V, Falstaff is killed off by Shakespeare.

Falstaff would understandably undermine Henry V’s gravitas and threaten his authority. Mistress Quickly describes his death with reference to Plato’s description of the death of Socrates. Presumably acknowledging the audiences love for him.

After Shakespeare’s death, Falstaff’s character remained popular and as Leonard Digges gave advice to playwrights soon after Shakespeare’s death he wrote; “but let Falstaff come, Hal, Poins and the rest, you scarce shall have a room”.

The Real Life Falstaff

It has been said that Shakespeare based Falstaff on a real man ‘John Oldcastle’ and that the character was originally named John Oldcastle but that one of John’s descendants ‘Lord Cobham’ complained to Shakespeare and urged him to change it.

As a result, in the Henry IV plays some of the rhythms is interrupted as Falstaff has a different meter to Oldcastle. The real Oldcastle was celebrated as a martyr by the Protestant community, as he was executed for his beliefs.

Cobham was also satirized plays by other playwrights and was himself a Catholic. Oldcastle may have been featured to embarrass Cobham which may demonstrate Shakespeare’s secret sympathies for the Catholic faith. Conham was at the time Lord Chamberlain and was able to get his voice heard very quickly as a result and Shakespeare would have been strongly advised or ordered to change his name.

The new name Falstaff was probably derived from John Fastolf who was a medieval knight who fought against Joan of Arc at the Battle of Patay. The English lost the battle and Fastolf’s reputation was tainted as he became a scapegoat for the disastrous result of the battle.

Fastolf got away from the battle unscathed and was therefore considered a coward. He was stripped of his Knighthood for a time. In Henry IV Part I, Falstaff is considered to be an abject coward, but amongst both the characters and the audience there remains a fondness for this flawed but loveable rogue.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Sir John Falstaff: Character Analysis." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 25). Sir John Falstaff: Character Analysis. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Sir John Falstaff: Character Analysis." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).