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  • Print publication year: 2001
  • Online publication date: March 2007

Perfect Answers: Religious Inquisition, Falstaffian Wit


Few would now deny that in Henry IV the character of Falstaff constitutes a deliberate and audacious caricature of a Protestant hero, the fourteenth-century champion of Wycliffe’s doctrines, Sir John Oldcastle, the first Lord Cobham, ‘Lollardus Lollardorum’. Shakespeare’s wicked joke, as Ernst Honigmann has called it, gave offence in his own time not only to Cobham’s distinguished titular descendants but also to earnest Protestants such as John Speed (1611), Richard James (c. 1625), and Thomas Fuller (1655), to the authors of the anti-Catholic response play, The first part of the true and honorable historie, the life of Sir John Old-castle, the Good Lord Cobham (1599), and no doubt to many playgoers of like persuasion. Defying the hagiographic efforts of John Bale and John Foxe, Shakespeare in effect took the Catholic side in a sectarian dispute about the character of the nobleman who was burned as a heretic shortly after his friend, the Prince of Wales, became Henry V; and although in Part 2 he changed his reprobate knight’s name from Sir John Oldcastle to Sir John Falstaff, his contemporaries would still have recognized his original intention and treated the Epilogue’s denial as tongue-in-cheek.

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Shakespeare Survey
  • Online ISBN: 9781139052757
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