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 name was subsequently changed in order to placate the outraged Elizabethan Lords Cobham, or to appease a disgruntled Protestant audience that hailed Oldcastle as a hero.8) Even after "Oldcastle" was re-dubbed "Falstaff," extensive historical and literary evidence indicates that the public did not quickly forget the character's original and "true" identity. The name "Oldcastle" was retained for private (including court) performances, and many seventeenth-century authors indicate that "Falstaff was widely understood as an alias for the Lollard martyr.9 The oft-quoted Epilogue of 2 Henry IV ("Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man" [11. 31-32]—a protest that conversely indicates audiences did identify Falstaff as Oldcastle)—as well as the prologue to Drayton and Munday's 1600 counterrepresentation in The First Part of the True and Honourable History of the Life of Sir John Oldcastle, the Good Lord Cobham ("It is no pampered glutton we present, / Nor aged counsellor to youthful sin, / But one, whose virtue shone above the rest, / A valiant martyr, and a vertuous peer" [11.6-9]10) indicate that the Oldcastle-Falstaff transformation was considered common knowledge.
Recently, the decision of prominent editors to reinstate Falstaff's original name has resulted in significant editorial debate, leading critics to argue the textual ramifications of this "discovery."11 I must join those who contest this decision, as I do not believe it is the role of the modern editor to "retrospectively save a writer from the censor";12 the censors were there and are as much a part of the text's history and circumstances of production as economic and social factors. If "Oldcastle" were to become the predominant title for this character a hundred years from now, as Gary Taylor desires, the history of repression experienced by the Elizabethan stage (and indeed by the arts in general) could easily be overlooked; calling attention to the name "Oldcastle" while retaining the enforced name-change of "Falstaff," on the other hand, highlights this repressive control.
Such editorial discussions do not satisfactorily address the historical or theoretical implications of Falstaff's Lollard origins. Why, contrary to so many of the contemporary representations, did Shakespeare take the figure of this "noble Christen warryour" and mold him into the Rabelaisian, gluttonous coward of the Henriad? Conversely, why did he deviate so far from the alternative tradition of depicting Oldcastle as a bellicose heretic, a serious martial threat to king and state? Some critics maintain that "Shakespeare simply blundered"13—that he more or less picked a name out of a historical hat, a name that happened to have unfortunate political consequences. Others assert (somewhat more plausibly) that Shakespeare intended to satirize the Elizabethan Lords Cobham, Sir William Brooke or his reputedly less competent son and successor, Henry—descendants by marriage of the original Oldcastle.14 Neither of these answers seems satisfying. The notion of the playwright innocently and ignorantly choosing the name of a figure who had become hotly contested as a cultural icon by competing religious/ political factions does not seem likely. And while Elizabethan and Jacobean gossips seem to have reveled in the Falstaffian portrayal of a Lord Cobham, thus far scholars have established no clear motive for personal parody; rather, there were strong reasons to avoid conflict with William Brooke, then lord chamberlain and in control of the theaters.15
I suggest that we need to broaden the investigation by examining the Henriad in the context of Elizabethan polemical religious discourse. Such an examination reveals that Shakespeare's depiction of the Lollard Oldcastle was not a daring, radical, or innovative departure from the stereotypical image of the puritan, as critics have supposed. Nor is it, as J. Dover Wilson suggested, simply an ingenious modernization of the Vice character from earlier morality plays (although Falstaff's presentation is certainly indebted to this tradition).16 Rather, I believe that this presentation of Oldcastle is perfectly in keeping with the tenor of the antipuritan literature of the late sixteenth century, especially the anti-Marprelate tracts and the burlesque stage performances of the Marprelate controversy (1588-90), which frequently depicted puritans as grotesque individuals living in carnivalesque communities. Indeed, this lively portrayal of the puritan seems to have been much more popular than the lean, mean Malvolio image that post-Restoration readers and audiences (especially post-Hawthorne Americans) would exclusively associate with the term puritan, despite the fact that the official holiday celebrating puritans is one of nationwide gluttony.
In many ways Falstaff epitomizes the image of the grotesque puritan. Shakespeare's representation of a prominent Lollard martyr does not depoliticize Falstaff but transposes him into a register of religious/political language familiar to his Elizabethan audience. Harold Bloom has noted that Falstaff "is given to parodying Puritan preachers."17 Falstaff does indeed parody such preachers, but not just as an overweight, ungodly knight making barroom jokes about them; rather, the person of Falstaff is in and of himself a parody of the sixteenth-century puritan. Shakespeare's audiences would most likely have recognized Falstaff in the literary tradition of grotesque puritans that would continue with Jonson's Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Middleton's Plumporridge. (Falstaff's very name, "False staff," could be read as a parody of such puritan names as More Fruit, Faint Not, Perseverance, Deliverance,18 and Jonson's Win-the-Fight.) In the late sixteenth century, carnival and the grotesque became the terms in which religious tensions between conformist Protestants and nonconformist puritans were constantly played out.