William Shakespeare Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism

Kristen Poole, Harvard University

In the early fifteenth century, a pious, innocent man was put to a most gruesome death—that, at least, is the story according to his sixteenth-century chronicler, the Protestant bishop John Bale. A faithful follower of John Wyclif and an avid reader of the Scriptures, this gentleman was a "moste valyaunt warryoure of Iesus Christ" who courageously battled that Whore of Babylon, the Roman Catholic Church:

In all adve[n]terouse actes of wordlye manhode was he ever bolde, stronge, fortunate, doughtye, noble, & Valeau[n]t. But never so worthye a conquerour as in this his present conflyct with the cruell and furyouse frantyck kyngedome of Antichrist. Farre is this Christen knyght more prayse worthye, for that he had so noble a stomake in defence of Christes Verite agaynst those Romyshe supersticyons, than for anye temporali nobylnesse eyther of bloude, byrthe, landes, or of marcyall feates.1

Against an onslaught of hostile questions from an archbishop and his prelates, those "spyghtfull murtherers, ydolaters, and Sodomytes," the Christian knight firmly stood his ground, bravely defending the opinions he had gleaned from the Gospel concerning the material substance of the Eucharist (merely symbolic), the sacrament of confession (invalid), and the efficacy of pilgrimages (pointless). But alas, the "bloud thurstye rauenours" that were his opponents sentenced him to death, and not a pretty one at that. The faithful prisoner, bound "as though he had bene a most heynouse traytour to the crowne," was carted from the Tower to St. Giles Field and a new pair of gallows. There he fell to his knees, praying "God to forgeve his enemyes." Standing, he "behelde the multytude" and exhorted them "to folowe the lawes of God wrytten in the scripturs" and to be wary of teachers that are "contrarye to Christ in theyr conuersacyn and lyvynge." Finally, the unfortunate was hung in "cheanes of yron and so consumed a lyve in the fyre, praysynge the name of God so longe as his lyfe lasted. In the ende he commended his sowle into the handes of God, and so departed hens most Christenlye." Adding insult to injury, his ashes, like those of his predecessor Wyclif, were unceremoniously tossed into the Thames.2

Writing in 1544, Bale intended to reveal the horrors of this particular inquisition; or, as he put it, to show "by this treatyse what beastlye blockeheades these bloudye bellyegoddes were in theyr unsauerye interrogacyo[n]s." As is evident from his conclusion, Bale also wished to establish this man as a Protestant martyr, one who had "a tryumphau[n]t Victorye ouer his enemyes by the Veryte which he defended," and who "dyed at the importune sute of the clergye, for callynge vpon a Christen reformacyon in that Romyshe churche of theyrs, & for manfullye standynge by the faythfull testymonyes of Jesu."3

The subject of Bale's account was the Lollard leader Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, best known to literary scholars as the model for Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff. Oldcastle became a popular figure in Elizabethan England, his trial and death recounted in Foxe's Acts and Monuments, Stowe's Annales, Holinshed's Chronicles, and elsewhere.4 For some, Oldcastle was the valiant, victimized religious martyr we see in Bale's chronicle; for others, he was a devious, schismatic heretic and traitor who betrayed his friend and king, Henry V.5 Elizabethan puritans hailed Oldcastle as a protopuritan; as religious reformers traced the progress of their battle against the Antichrist, they frequently claimed Wyclif and his followers as the origin of their movement.6 Opponents of puritanism also located the source of this evil in the Lollards, using them as an example of puritan subversive heresy and sectarianism.

Shakespeare's audience readily identified Falstaff as a caricature of Oldcastle, and Falstaff appears to have been called "Oldcastle" in early performances of 1 Henry IV7 (The...

(The entire section is 15,345 words.)