Sir John Oldcastle

Sir John Oldcastle

"Sir John Oldcastle" is an Elizabethan play about John Oldcastle, a controversial 14th-15th century rebel and Lollard who was seen by some of Shakespeare's contemporaries as a proto-Protestant martyr.

The play was originally published anonymously in 1600 (Q1), printed by Valentine Simmes for the bookseller Thomas Pavier. In 1619, a new edition (Q2) carried an attribution to William Shakespeare. [The 1619 edition of the play was part of William Jaggard's so-called False Folio.] The Diary of Philip Henslowe records that the play was written by Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Richard Hathwaye and Robert Wilson. (An entry in Henslowe's Diary records a later payment to Drayton for a second part to the play,which has not survived; because of this fact, the extant play has sometimes been called "Sir John Oldcastle, Part I" or "1 Sir John Oldcastle.")

In 1664, the play was one of the seven dramas added to the second impression of the Shakespeare Third Folio by publisher Philip Chetwinde.

Like other subjects of Elizabethan history plays, Sir John Oldcastle was an actual person, a soldier and Lollard dissenter who was hanged and burned for heresy and treason in 1417—thus earning himself a place in the seminal text of the Protestant Reformation in Tudor England, the "Actes and Monuments" of John Foxe, better known as the "Book of Martyrs." (See Foxe's Book of Martyrs.) Oldcastle was also a minor character in the early Elizabethan history play "The Famous Victories of Henry V" (c. 1586?), which is generally thought to have been one of Shakespeare's sources for his plays on Henry IV and Henry V.

The genesis of "Sir John Oldcastle" is crucially linked to the fact that when Shakespeare's "Henry IV" plays premiered on stage in 1597–8, the character Sir John Falstaff was called Sir John Oldcastle. This is indicated by abundant external and internal evidence. The change of names, from "Oldcastle" to "Falstaff," is mentioned in seventeenth-century works by Richard James ("Epistle to Sir Harry Bourchier," c. 1625) and Thomas Fuller ("Worthies of England," 1662). It is also indicated in details in the early texts of Shakespeare's plays. In the quarto text of "Henry IV, Part 2" (1600), one of Falstaff's speech prefixes in Act I, Scene ii is mistakenly left uncorrected, "Old." instead of "Falst." In III,ii,25-6 of the same play, Falstaff is said to have been a "page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk"—which was true of the historical Oldcastle. In "Henry IV, Part 1", I,ii,42, Prince Hal calls Falstaff "my old lad of the castle." Iambic pentameter verse lines in both parts are irregular when using the name "Falstaff," but correct with "Oldcastle." Finally, there is the blatant disclaimer at the close of "Henry IV, Part 2" that disassociates the two figures: "for Oldcastle died [a] martyr, and this is not the man" (Epilogue, 29-32).

(There is even a hint that Falstaff was originally Oldcastle in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" too. When the First Folio and quarto texts of that play are compared, it appears that the joke in V,v,85-90 is that Oldcastle/Falstaff incriminates himself by calling out the first letter of his name, "O, O, O!," when his fingertips are singed with candles—which of course works for "Oldcastle" but not "Falstaff." There is also the "castle" reference in IV,v,6 of the same play. [Scoufos, "Shakespeare's Typological Satire," p. 191.] (Falstaff, or Sir John Fastolf, was also a historical person—allegedly a greedy and grasping individual but a brave soldier, whose reputation for cowardice at the Battle of Patay was undeserved. Fastolf, however, died without descendants, making him safe for a playwright's use.)

The name change and the Epilogue disclaimer were required, it is generally thought, because of political pressure: the historical Oldcastle was not only a Protestant martyr, but a nobleman with powerful living descendents in Elizabethan England. These were the Lords Cobham: William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham (died March 6, 1597), was Warden of the Cinque Ports (1558–97), Knight of the Order of the Garter (1584), and member of the Privy Council (1586–97); his son Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham, was granted the paternal post of Warden of the Cinque Ports upon his father's death, and made a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1599. Even more so, Frances Brooke, the 10th Baron's wife and 11th Baron's mother, was a close personal favorite of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I (an Elizabethan could not have been more or better connected than the Cobhams).

The elder Lord Cobham even had a strong negative impact upon the lives of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the theater. The company of actors formed by Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Will Kempe and the others in 1594 enjoyed the patronage of Henry Carey, first Lord Hunsdon, then serving as Lord Chamberlain; they were, famously, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. When Carey died on July 22, 1596, the post of Lord Chamberlain was given to William Brooke, Lord Cobham, who definitely was not a friend to the players, and who withdrew what official protection they had enjoyed. The players were left to the mercies of the local officials of the City of London, who had long wanted to drive the companies of actors out of the City. Thomas Nashe, in a contemporary letter, complained that the actors were "piteously persecuted by the Lord Mayor and the aldermen" during this period. Fortunately, for the players and for English literature, this interval did not last; when Cobham died less than a year later, the post of Lord Chamberlain went to Henry Carey's son George, second Lord Hunsdon, and the actors regained their previous patronage. [Halliday, "Shakespeare Companion," p. 107; Scoufos, p.99.]

Soon after the premier of Shakespeare's Oldcastle/Falstaff in 1597–8, literary and dramatic works began to appear that defended the reputation of the historical Oldcastle; scholars argue that the muse that inspired these works was Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham. In 1601 a narrative poem, "The Mirror of Martyrs," by one John Weever, was published; it praises Oldcastle has a "valiant captain and most godly martyr." And two years earlier, in 1599, the play "Sir John Oldcastle" was performed by the Admiral's Men, the main theatrical rivals of Shakespeare's company. Curiously, this effort to redeem the Oldcastle name was at best only partially successful; allusions to the Falstaff character under the name of Oldcastle continued to appear in succeeding years—in Nathan Field's play "Amends for Ladies" (1618) and in the anonymous pamphlets "The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary" (1604) and "The Wandering Jew" (c. 1628), among other works. [Scoufos, pp. 36-40.]

"Sir John Oldcastle" treats its subject matter in ways acceptable to the values and biases of its audience, and the interests of Elzabethan officialdom (inevitably; if it did anything else it would never have escaped censorship). Oldcastle is a religious but not a political dissenter; his quarrel is with the Roman Catholic Church, and he remains loyal to the Crown and to Henry V personally (II,iii). The villain of the piece is the Bishop of Rochester, aided by his summoner Clun. The same cast of rebels and conspirators is active in this play (II,ii, III,ii, etc.) as in "Henry V," but Oldcastle keeps scrupulously separate from them. The play offers a comic character, Sir John of Wrotham, a pale imitation of Falstaff, who interacts with a disguised Henry V (III,iv) much as in Shakespeare's plays. The later scenes are devoted to Rochester's pursuit of Oldcastle and his wife, and their escapes; the play ends on a temporary positive note, with the Oldcastles evading imprisonment. (Presumably, the lost second half of the play would have had the inevitable grimmer ending of Oldcastle's grisly death.)

For a defense of the Shakespearean attribution, see: Mark Dominik, "A Shakespearean Anomaly."



* Dominik, Mark. "A Shakespearean Anomaly: Shakespeare's Hand in "Sir John Oldcastle." Beaverton, OR, Alioth Press, 1991.
* Halliday, F. E. "A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964." Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
* Scoufos, Alice-Lyle. "Shakespeare's Typological Satire: A Study of the Falstaff/Oldcastle Problem." Athens, OH, Ohio University Press, 1979.

External links

* [ "Sir John Oldcastle" eText] at Project Gutenberg

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Sir John Oldcastle — John Oldcastle Sir John Oldcastle (v. 1378 – 14 décembre 1417), fut un leader Lollard anglais. Il fut jugé pour hérésie contre l Église, mais parvint à s échapper de la Tour de Londres. Capturé à nouveau, il fut exécuté, et devint un martyr. Il… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Sir John Oldcastle — Falstaff Falstaff prop. n. Sir John Falstaff, a celebrated character in Shakespeare s historical play Henry IV. (1st and 2d parts), and also in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He is a very fat, sensual, and witty old knight; a swindler, drunkard, and …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • John Oldcastle — Sir John Oldcastle (d. December 14, 1417), English Lollard leader, was son of Sir Richard Oldcastle of Almeley in northwest Herefordshire and grandson of another Sir John Oldcastle. He was prosecuted for heresy against the Church, and escaped… …   Wikipedia

  • John Oldcastle — (* 1378; † 14. Dezember 1417) war ein Anführer der englischen Lollarden. Oldcastle war ein Sohn von Richard Oldcastle. Unter Heinrich IV. nahm er ab 1400 an Feldzügen nach Schottland und Wales teil, während deren er sich die Freundschaft des… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • John Oldcastle — Sir John Oldcastle (v. 1378 – 14 décembre 1417), fut un leader Lollard anglais. Il fut jugé pour hérésie contre l Église, mais parvint à s échapper de la Tour de Londres. Capturé à nouveau, il fut exécuté, et devint un martyr. Il est… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Oldcastle, Sir John — (c. 1378–1417)    Rebel.    Oldcastle was born in Herefordshire and he later became Lord Cobham. He was known to be a follower of John wycliffe and in 1413 he was accused of heresy. He escaped from imprisonment in the Tower of London and he led a …   Who’s Who in Christianity

  • Oldcastle, Sir John — ▪ English soldier born c. 1378, , Herefordshire, Eng. died Dec. 14, 1417, London       distinguished soldier and martyred leader of the Lollards (Lollard), a late medieval English sect derived from the teachings of John Wycliffe. He was an… …   Universalium

  • Oldcastle,Sir John — Old·cas·tle (ōldʹkăs əl, kä səl), Sir John. Lord Cobham. 1377? 1417. English Lollard conspirator who was burned alive for heresy. * * * …   Universalium

  • Falstaff, Sir John — ▪ fictional character       one of the most famous comic characters in all English literature, who appears in four of Shakespeare s plays. Entirely the creation of Shakespeare, Falstaff is said to have been partly modeled on Sir John Oldcastle… …   Universalium

  • FASTOLF, SIR JOHN —    a distinguished soldier of Henry V. s reign, who with Sir John Oldcastle shares the doubtful honour of being the prototype of Shakespeare s Falstaff, but unlike the dramatist s creation was a courageous soldier, and won distinction at… …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

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