William Shakespeare Sir John Oldcastle and the Construction of Shakespeare's Authorship

William Shakespeare book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download William Shakespeare Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Sir John Oldcastle and the Construction of Shakespeare's Authorship

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Douglas A. Brooks, Texas A&M University

Let vs returne vnto the Bench againe,
And there examine further of this fray.

—Sir John Oldcastle, I.i. 124-5

A decade ago the editors of the Oxford William Shakespeare: The Complete Works replaced the name of the character called Falstaff in Henry IV Part I with a hypothetically earlier version of the character's name, Sir John Oldcastle. The restoration of Oldcastle to the Oxford edition makes it the first authoritative text to undo an alteration which, as scholars have long suspected, Shakespeare himself must have made sometime between a non-extant 1596 performance text and the 1598 quarto of the play. The resulting scholarly debate over this editorial decision has touched on a number of significant issues linked to the authority and authenticity of "Shakespearean" texts, and it has raised important questions about how these texts were shaped by the material, religious, and political conditions in which they were produced.1 In the case of Henry IV Part I, critics have struggled to reconstruct how an early version of the text with Oldcastle as the protagonist of the unworthy knight plot might have placed the play and its author in a complicated position between an individual's reputation and a nation's. Indeed, it is likely that a play featuring a fat rogue named Oldcastle would have insulted William Brooke, a titular descendent of the knight's Cobham Lordship who served briefly as Lord Chamberlain at about the time Henry TV Part I was first performed. Moreover, such a play certainly would have slurred the character's namesake, the Lord Cobham, a Lollard who was executed for treason and subsequently transformed by William Tyndale, John Bale, and John Foxe into one of England's greatest Protestant martyrs. Consequently, scholars have used the publication of the Oxford edition to speculate on Shakespeare's authorial intentions.

In this essay, I want to shift the discussion away from what Shakespeare might have intended by focusing instead on a significant aspect of the dramatist's authorship that has been under-examined in the recent debate over the Oxford Henry IV Part I. I argue that the initial deletion of Oldcastle from an early text of Henry IV Part I and its subsequent restoration to the Oxford edition constitute two important textual points in the history of Shakespeare's authorship; and I attempt to trace this history from the authorial attribution on the quarto title page of Henry IV Part II (1600) to the present moment in literary studies when Shakespeare's position as a canonical author faces reevaluation. Concomitantly, I try to account for the importance of Oldcastle's name to Shakespeare's authorial status by suggesting that the posthumous construction of Oldcastle's martyrdom has certain elements in common with the posthumous construction of Shakespeare's authorship.

I'd like to begin three years after Oldcastle became Falstaff. The title page of the 1600 edition of Sir John Oldcastle Part I indicates that the play was "Printed by V. S. for Thomas Pavier."2 V. S. is one Valentine Simmes, a printer of some reputation who printed several Shakespeare quartos as well as plays staged by the Admiral's Men. As with many such quarto editions of plays, no author is mentioned, but we know from Philip Henslowe's diary that ten pounds were allotted "to pay mr monday mr drayton & mr wilsson & haythway for the first pte of the lyfe of Sr Jhon Ouldcastell . . ."3 By the time of the 1619 reprint, however, "William Shakespeare" appears on the title page, and it is Pavier's turn to be abbreviated to "for T.P." The newfound importance bestowed on Shakespeare's authorial status underscores Pavier's efforts at that point to publish a collection of Shakespeare's plays three years after Ben Jonson's folio WORKES and four years before the First Folio appeared in print. Nevertheless, in the case of the Sir John Oldcastle reprint the author's name appears, oddly enough, on a title page that is falsely dated "1600" so Pavier can...

(The entire section is 12,604 words.)