The seventeenth century
Henry IV Part I along with Richard III was the most published of Shakespeare’s plays in the seventeenth century, and although Othello appears to have been the most popular play, references to Falstaff throughout the century were so numerous as to be unrivalled in Shakespeare’s, or any other dramatist’s characters. Though Shakespeare’s reputation grew in the last two decades of the seventeenth century evidence indicates that, overall, Ben Jonson’s reputation was higher and that his Catiline (1614) was the most famous play of the century. But, nevertheless, Falstaff as a character reigned supreme. Occasional reference to Falstaff, Pistol, Doll, Shallow and Silence in Part II are found but the overwhelming majority of references are to Falstaff in Henry IV Part I. Falstaff was remembered for his girth, drinking, wit and buffoonery — particularly in relation to the Gadshill exploit. Several references defend the reputation of Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard martyr whom Falstaff was originally named after. It is believed that the portrayal gave offence to Oldcastle’s influential descendants and Shakespeare prudently altered the name. The dominance of Henry IV Part I and consequent underestimation of Henry IV part II can be seen most strikingly in what is known as the Dering Manuscript.
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