Warning: Mild spoilers for The King are ahead.
If you made it through high school, you've probably found yourself reading one of William Shakespeare's historical plays, Henry IV Part 1, Part 2, or Henry V. And that may be why Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) seems like he's based on a real person in the new Netflix movie inspired by Henry V: The King. His name certainly sounds like someone you learned about in history class, right?
Wrong. While Henry, or Hal (Timothée Chalamet), is of course the main character in these Shakespeare stories and the film, Sir John Falstaff is another important figure who pops up in all three plays and a fourth, Merry Wives of Windsor. Typically appearing as a comedic sidekick who is a bad influence, Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous and entertaining creations. But since King Henry V was obviously a former ruler of medieval England, you'd be forgiven for wonder if there was a real person who inspired the Shakespeare character. Well, it's complicated.
In Henry IV Part I and Part 2, Falstaff serves as a foil to Hal; he's an old, drunken man who frequents taverns and doesn’t appear to have his life together. Although he is likeable, he certainly isn’t a character people would praise or want to mimic. So, it’s not surprising that Shakespeare loosely formed Falstaff from multiple people to avoid upsetting one particular person. The top theories have narrowed down the similarities to three candidates: Sir John Oldcastle (and the Cobham family), Sir John Fastolf (a little on the nose), and Robert Greene. Don't know those names? Let me enlighten you.
John Oldcastle was an English soldier and leader of a medieval sect. He inspired a few 16th century English characters, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, and one of those is believed to be Shakespeare’s Falstaff. The entry cites The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth as an "anonymous source play for Shakespeare’s Henry IV." The story goes that Shakespeare wanted to use the name Oldcastle for his work, but he changed the name to Falstaff because the high ranking Oldcastle and Cobham families would have objected.
Falstaff wasn’t an ordinary name back in the 16th century. The name Sir John Falstaff closely resembles a real medieval knight with the same first name and last name spelled Fastolf. It seems to be no coincidence that in another Shakespeare play titled Henry VI, Part 1 there is a character named Sir John Fastolf. This Fastolf, however, is a fearful knight. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s timeline of the writer’s plays places Henry VI Part 1 in 1592 and Henry IV Part 2 (in which Falstaff is first mentioned) in 1598. So, it is possible that Shakespeare decided to reuse the name, just with a different spelling.
Rounding out the list of inspirations for Falstaff is Robert Greene. The 16th century writer and critic Greene once accused Shakespeare of plagiarism and this led to a massive feud. In Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, he argues that the playwright’s strained relationship with Greene makes him the likely source of Falstaff’s characteristics.
Of course, between Oldcastle, Fastolf, and Greene, and all the evidence pointing at them all, it’s hard to say who Falstaff truly represents the most. But what is clear is that Shakespeare was quite petty and had beef with quite a few people that he chose to settle through his work.
The writers of the The King took a slightly different approach for this new version of Falstaff. Edgerton’s Falstaff starts off as a lazy thief who spends most of his time gallivanting in pubs, but he then becomes Hal’s close advisor and one of the captains in his army after Hal becomes king. Falstaff serves as one of the only people Hal trusts during England’s war against France. He later sacrifices himself by volunteering to be on the front lines when he knows it will most likely lead to his death.
The King delivers a Falstaff that is simultaneously a combination of Shakespeare’s assumed inspiration and the bumbling, funny friend he most English majors know him known to be. Whoever served as main inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff certainly helped build character that has continued to be a fan-favorite throughout history.