Larger than life, a wit and a scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters. But what’s the history behind this character, and does it offer us any clues to explain his enduring popularity?

Henry IV Part 1_ 1976_ Falstaff plays the king_1976_Photo by Reg Wilson _c_ RSC_234704
Falstaff (played by Brewster Mason) pretends to be Prince Hal's father in Henry IV Part 1 at the Aldwych Theatre, 1976.
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images

Having inspired countless incredible performances, plus books, operas, films and new theatrical works, the legacy of Shakespeare's 'Lord of Misrule' is undeniable. ‘Falstaffian’ entered the English language around the 1800s, and is still used to this day to describe a person of robust, bawdy humour, good-natured rascality and brazen braggadocio, but also drunkenness, duplicitous and portly figure.

But where did the character of Sir John Falstaff come from and does is the history of the character offer us any clues to his ongoing popularity?


A fool or a father figure? A coward or man of common sense? A loyal friend or a toxic influence? A glutton or the embodiment of joie de vivre? Sir John Falstaff is a character that divides opinion, within Shakespeare’s plays and without.

Appearing initially in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 as a friend and foil to Prince Hal, and then striking out in his own ‘spin off’ comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff is a rare example of a recurring character in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, he is the only non-historical leading character that appears in more than one play (three times and mentioned in a fourth), and the only one that crosses over genres (from history to comedy).

The character's quick wit, lust for life and complexity has ensured his endurance as a popular figure over the centuries, including apparently at least one monarch. According to the poet and critic John Dennis, writing in 1702, Queen Elizabeth I herself demanded Falstaff to return in another play after Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and that he be shown in love, leading to the writing of The Merry Wives of Windsor. 

_Henry IV_ Part I_ Act V_ Scene 4_ Falstaff and the Dead Body of Hotspur_RSC Theatre Collection_7428
Falstaff and the Dead Body of Hotspur by Robert Smirke (Oil on canvas)
Painting by Robert Smirke © RSC Theatre Collection Browse and license our images

Play video

Antony Sher (who played Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, 2014)

[Falstaff] is completely disreputable. The Lord of Misrule. A knight. A gentleman who has fallen upon hard times. A thief. A highway man. A surrogate father.


Sir John Falstaff first appears in Henry IV Part I, which was written and first performed around 1596-7. The play was entered in the Stationers' Register on 25 February 1598 as The History of Henry the Fourth.

Falstaff also appears in Henry IV Part II (written around 1597-98 and registered for publication in 1600), is mentioned in Henry V and plays a lead role in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is thought to have been written between 1597 and 1601.

To put it in context of all Shakespeare’s theatrical works, which were estimated to have been written between 1592 and 1616, it’s thought that Henry IV Parts I and II were his 15th and 16th plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor was 22nd out of 38, so the character of Falstaff was conceived somewhere in the middle of his writing career.

See the full timeline of Shakespeare’s works.

A most Pleasent and Excellent Conceited Comedy of Sir John Falstaff_ and the Merry Wives of Windsor_William Shakespeare_64295
Title page from the 1619 quarto of The Merry Wives of Windsor
A 1848 playbill for a performance of Sir John Oldcastle, an apocryphal work attributed to Shakespeare to raise money for the purchase and preservation of Shakespeare's House


As with most of his History plays, Shakespeare's principal source of inspiration was Holinshead's Chronicles, with events and characters rearranged for dramatic purposes.

However, the inclusion of Falstaff’s character was also possibly inspired by an earlier anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V. The play shares many superficial similarities with Shakespeare's play, one of them being that it features a similarly reprobate character, Sir John 'Jockey' Oldcastle.

According to early printed editions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare's Falstaff was actually originally called John Oldcastle. There are even some lingering hints in the surviving play text that this was the case, as in Henry IV Part 1 (Act 1, Scene 2), Prince Hal calls Falstaff “my old lad of the castle”.

The real John Oldcastle was a knight who was executed by Henry V in 1417 for heresy by declaring himself Protestant in a then Catholic country. As he was subsequently made a martyr when Henry VIII (Elizabeth I's father) turned to Protestantism, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Oldcastle as a coward, reprobate and an ultimately comic figure was likely seen as a grave insult to the reinstated noble family – a bold move for a lowly playwright.

It is suspected that the character was renamed following protests from descendants of the Oldcastle family, particularly Sir Henry Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham. He was frequently used as the butt of jokes by Shakespeare's contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe.

It is impossible to know how far Shakespeare meant to implicate the real Oldcastle, or whether he was simply reusing a recognisable name from a previous play. But the mirrored plot of a disgraced knight falling out of favour with the King is so central to the two plays that the comparison could hardly have been ignored at the time.

In any case, the name was changed, and as added security, the epilogue to Henry IV Part 2 assures the playgoer that Falstaff is not based on the anti-Catholic rebel Sir John Oldcastle, for "Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man."

Read more about the real Sir John Oldcastle


The name Falstaff probably comes from another real medieval knight, Sir John Fastolf, who was famous for having fought a battle against Joan of Arc in 1429, which the English lost. While he appeared to have been a widely respected soldier up until this point, at the time Shakespeare was writing, he had become a figure of some mockery, with suggestions that he ran from the field of battle, saving his own skin but ensuring the battle was lost. He was subsequently temporarily stripped of his knighthood.

Confusingly, the ‘real’ Sir John Fastolf appears in Shakespeare’s earlier work Henry VI Part I, where he is portrayed as a coward who fled battle and was blamed for the English defeat. In the First Folio, this character’s name is spelled ‘Falstaffe’, which could be where Shakespeare got the name for the fictional character in Henry IV.

Some have noted that Fall Staff is also a play on Shake Spear, with some speculating that the playwright-actor himself could have been the first to play Sir John, citing an old manuscript of Henry IV Part 2 which retains the stage direction 'Enter Will' shortly before Falstaff starts speaking. Equally, this could have referred to the legendary comic actor Will Kemp. He was famous for lavishly improvising around his roles, and also left the company in 1599, suggesting this could also be the reason Falstaff doesn't return in Henry V.


As well as having historical roots, there are elements of Shakespeare's Falstaff that can be tracked to other literary sources.

The theatrical character of Vice comes from medieval Morality plays, in which the Seven Deadly Sins are personified in order to tempt or corrupt the central Everyman figure. Falstaff is a man of many vices - he is a glutton, greedy, lusty and lazy - as well as a heel to the Cardinal virtues; temperance, prudence, justice and fortitude. He drinks to excess, makes poor and dishonest decisions, and he is a coward, and he certainly enjoy leading Prince Hal astray.

In an allegory for redemption, Vice would usually be defeated by some semblance of Virtue. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff's greed and lustiness is duly punished with his total humiliation, while in Henry IV Falstaff is ultimately rejected by the King, who chooses virtue over vice.

However, Falstaff is also presented as more complex than a mere archetype. He is genial, witty, resourceful and an expert in survival, he prizes love and companionship above all, and delights in earthly pleasures in a sympathetic and - arguably - deeply honest way.

_The Merry Wives of Windsor_ Act V_ Scene 5_ Falstaff Disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page_RSC Theatre Collection_7429
'The Merry Wives of Windsor', Act V, Scene 5, Falstaff Disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, by Robert Smirke, 1789 (oil on canvas)
Robert Smirke © RSC Theatre Collection Browse and license our images
Falstaff, Act 1 Scene 2, Henry IV Part II

I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.

Henry IV Part I, Act 2 Scene 4

Hal: “That villainous, abominable misleader of youth – Falstaff.”

Falstaff: “If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: If to be fat be to be hated, then … banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

A picture of Sir John Falstaff arrested at the suit of Mrs Quickly from a sequence of etchings by George Cruikshanks
Etching by George Cruikshanks © RSC Browse and license our images

Falstaff's character is also often included in the line up of Shakespeare's Wise Fools. A Greco-Roman theatrical trope, the paradoxical 'witty fool' has the power to speak the truth to those of higher society where equals could not.

Their lowly status ensures they are non-threatening to those in power, and their command of language is a skill most prized. In theatre, they are often used for dramatic irony, winking to the audience as they state the truth the characters refuse to hear, while those within the story are none the wiser.

Like other Fools, Falstaff speaks in prose, brandishes a sharp wit and takes on a privileged role of speaking uncomfortable truths to the Prince. His words on honour highlight the humanist argument against death in battle, and draw a sharp contrast with the coldness and isolation of kingship.

Falstaff, Act 5 Scene 4, Henry IV Part I

To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit but the true and perfect image of life indeed.

However, Falstaff has more agency than a traditional Fool. He is a knight, has a name and a back story, 'side quests' without the protagonist - he actually speaks more lines than Hal in both Henry IV plays.

The beauty of Falstaff is that he is all these things, and yet a distinct character in his own right, with complexities beyond being simply a cipher for moralising or a tool for creating dramatic irony. When Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, his rejection of Falstaff is the dramatic ending point for the play. It is anything but comic, and it is only our ability to enjoy and empathise with Falstaff makes the moment so poignant and the play so powerful.

A sketch by George Cruikshank, dipicting 'The Last Scene, in the life of Sir John Falstaff'


There have been many legendary names to take on the role of Falstaff over our history, including Simon Callow, Leslie Philips and Desmond Barrit.

The first recorded performance of Falstaff with the Royal Shakespeare Company was by William Creswick in 1883.

The person who we have recorded as play Falstaff the most is George R. Weir, who played the character in 17 different productions of Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor between 1887 and 1908.

In Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2014
Director: Gregory Doran
Falstaff: Antony Sher

Courtyard Theatre, 2007
Director: Michael Boyd
Falstaff: David Warner

Swan Theatre, 2006
Director Barbara Gaines
Falstaff: Greg Vinkler
Also, Hal: Jeffrey Carlson and Hotspur: John Douglas Thompson
Part of the 2006-2007 Complete Works Festival. A production by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Swan Theatre, 2000 
Director: Michael Attenborough
Falstaff: Desmond Barritt

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1991
Director: Adrian Noble
Falstaff: Robert Stephens

Barbican Theatre, London 1982
Director: Trevor Nunn
Falstaff: Joss Ackland
Also, Hotspur: Timothy Dalton and Henry IV: Sir Patrick Stewart

Tour 1980
Falstaff: Alfred Marks

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1975
Director Terry Hands
Falstaff: Brewster Mason

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1966 
Director: Trevor Nunn
Falstaff: Paul Rogers
Also Hal: Ian Holm and Duke of Clarence: Malcolm McDowell

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1964
Director: Peter Hall
Falstaff: Hugh Griffith

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1952
Director: Anthony Quale
Falstaff: Anthony Quale
Also Hal: Richard Burton

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1883-1935
Roy Byford 1928, 1931, 1931, 1932, 1935
Randall Ayrton, 1926
Frank Cellier, 1923
Baliol Holloway 1921
A.E. George, 1915
William Calvert, 1913, 1914 (and Touring)
H.O. Nicholson, 1910
Louis Calvert, 1909
George. R Weir, 1894, 1898, 1901, 1905, 1906
William Creswick, 1883


Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2024
Director: Blanche Ingram
Falstaff: John Hodgkinson

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2012
Director and Composer: Fiona Laird
Falstaff: David Troughton

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2012
Director: Philip Breen
Falstaff: Desmond Barrit

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2006
Director: Gregory Doran
Falstaff: Simon Callow
Also, Frank Ford: Alistair McGowan, Mistress Quickly: Dame Judi Dench
Part of 2006-2007 Complete Works Festival. A production by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2002, 2003 (Tour)
Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Falstaff: Richard Cordery

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1996, 1997 (Barbican)
Director: Ian Judge
Falstaff: Leslie Phillips

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1992
Director: David Thacker
Falstaff: Benjamin Whitrow

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1985, 1986 (Barbican)
Director: Bill Alexander
Falstaff: Peter Jeffrey

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1979, 1980 (Newcastle), 1980 (Aldwych)
Director: Trevor Nunn
Falstaff: John Woodvine
Also, Frank Ford: Sir Ben Kingsley, Peter Simple: Timothy Spall

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1968 (Aldwych and Tour), 1969 (RST), 1970 (Tour), 1975 (RST), 1976 (Aldwych)
Director: Terry Hands
Brewster Mason

Aldwych Theatre London, 1964
Director: John Blatchley 
Falstaff: Clive Swift 

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1887 - 1955
Anthony Quale 1955
Robert Atkins, 1945
Jay Laurier, 1940
Baliol Holloway, 1937, 1943
Roy Byford, 1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1935
Oliver Crombie, 1924
Baliol Holloway, 1921, 1923, 1924
William Calvert, 1919
W.H. Quinton, 1916
A.E. George, 1915
Oscar Asche, 191
Patrick Kirwan 1914
William Calvert, 1913
Edward Warburton, 1913
J. Moffat Johnston, 1913
Henry Herbert, 1912
H.O. Nicholson, 1910, 1911
G.F. Hannam, 1909
George R Weir 1887, 1893, 1897, 1898, 1899, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1907, 1908


  • Opera: Carl Otto Nicolai's opera Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor is based on The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849)
  • Opera: Verdi's opera Falstaff is based on The Merry Wives of Windsor (1893)
  • Artwork: Falstaff am Tisch mit Weinkrug und Zinnbecher, Eduard von Grützner (1910)
  • Opera: Ralph Vaughan Williams' opera Sir John in Love (1924-1928)
  • Symphonic Study: Elgar wrote a 'symphonic study' for orchestra called Falstaff (1913)
  • Film: Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965) compiles the two Henry IV plays into a single, condensed storyline, while adding a few scenes form Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor. It stars Welles as Falstaff, John Gielgud as King Henry and Keith Baxter as Hal.
  • Theatre: Ian McKellen, having resisted offers to play the role for most of his career, plays Falstaff in a new adaptation of the two Henry IVs, Player Kings, directed by Robert Icke (2024)