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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who Was Shakespeare's Falstaff?


On 23 July 1596, Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, died.




Was he the man who inspired Shakespeare's character Falstaff?


Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff in the Hollow Crown series

Carey was one of the most influential courtiers at the time, and very close to his cousin, Queen Elizabeth -- his mother Mary was Anne Boleyn's sister.

He was very busy in his lifetime serving Elizabeth in many offices, and even on the battlefied, helping to defeat the Northern Rebellion.

From 1585 he served Elizabeth as the Lord Chamberlain. It was in this capacity that he became Shakespeare's royal patron in 1594, when the company known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men was created.

The actors in this new company were men like Richard Burbage and Will Kemp. Burbage would go on to create the roles of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Henry V, and so on. Kemp would create the role of Falstaff, and other very comedic roles.

This company was so popular that by the time Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor, King James of Scotland chose to make this company his official royal court players, and re-christened them the King's Men.

In 1596, around the time when Carey died, Shakespeare wrote and his players performed Henry IV, Part 1. He introduced the world to a new character that would live on as one of his most beloved, Sir John Falstaff.


Roger Allam at Shakespeare's Globe, 2010


It is uncertain if Shakespeare wrote the play before, during or after Carey's death, but it seems likely to have been after Carey's death because very soon after, Shakespeare would write another chapter in the Falstaff story, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

So, it is possible that Shakespeare wanted to include a character in Henry IV, Part 1 that honored and celebrated the memory of his dearly departed patron, Henry Carey.

The only character that would seem to fit is Falstaff.

Why?

By 1594, when the Lord Chamberlain's Men was created, Shakespeare was the single greatest playwright in London. Christopher Marlowe had died the year before, and Thomas Kyd was about to die, in August 1594, from the torture he received from the investigation into Marlowe's activities. 

 Shakespeare also gained royal patronage from both Earls of Essex and Southampton, who were two of the most influential and popular courtiers. Queen Elizabeth considered Essex her "favourite."


Essex


Essex would later allow his ambition to get the better of him, and he would lead a failed rebellion (with Southampton) against Queen Elizabeth, in 1601. 

Essex was handsome, brave, foolish, and obviously hot-tempered. Southampton was also known for getting into trouble, such as his scandalous affair with Queen Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Vernon. 

In the plays Shakespeare wrote from 1594 onward, there are some characters who resemble Essex and Southampton: Romeo and Mercutio, Demetrius and Lysander, Bassanio and Lorenzo, Benedick and Don Pedro, Hamlet and Horatio, etc. They are all young men who get in over their heads.


Southampton


I have already written on this blog how Southampton's affair inspired Romeo and Juliet, and I have written about how the Henry V play was written as propaganda on behalf and in support of Essex.

Since Shakespeare wrote the character of Henry V for Essex, in 1599, then going backwards, it is very clear that young Prince Hal and his trouble-making friend Poins are pictures of Essex and Southampton once again.

If Essex and Southampton are Prince Hal and Poins, then who is Falstaff?

Just as Falstaff is a dear friend to Prince Hal and Poins, it would suggest that the real Falstaff was a dear friend to Essex and Southampton.

I suggest that Henry Carey was this dear friend.

Much has been written about another man as Falstaff, William Brooke, Lord Cobham. I don't argue with this suggestion and evidence. I agree that there is some reason why Shakespeare drew a connection between Falstaff and Cobham.

But I don't think it is the whole story.

Cobham was not friends with Essex and Southampton. At Queen Elizabeth's court, he was not on their side, he was not in their faction.

It is doubtful that Shakespeare would pour so much love and attention into Falstaff just to insult and mock Cobham.

There is a story that Queen Elizabeth loved the Falstaff character so much that she ordered Shakespeare to write a new play -- Falstaff in love.

That play would become Merry Wives of Windsor.

It is believed that this play was performed for the first time on 23 April 1597 (coincidentally Shakespeare's birthday) for Carey's son George, who was invested as a Knight of the Garter, and inherited his father's position as Lord Chamberlain, on that day.


George Carey


So, if Queen Elizabeth loved Falstaff so much, was it because the character made so much fun of Cobham? Or was it because it was a loving caricature of Carey?

Also, if the "Falstaff in love" story is true -- did Queen Elizabeth order Shakespeare to write Merry Wives because she wanted yet another play to mock Cobham? Or was it because she wanted to be reminded of her dearly departed friend Carey once more?

Why would Merry Wives be performed to commemorate George Carey's investiture and inheritance of the position of Lord Chamberlain if it was just a way to make fun of Cobham? It must have been performed as a commemoration to George Carey and a remembrance of his father.

Henry Carey is one of those figures about whom much is known but nothing is understood, especially as far as it concerns Shakespeare.

Who was he to Shakespeare? Just a distant uninvolved patron, or a dear friend -- a father figure perhaps?

What was Carey's relationship with Essex and Southampton? Was it close or not? Was he a father figure to them perhaps?

I wouldn't be surprised if Queen Elizabeth asked Carey to look after Essex and Southampton, to keep them out of trouble, and teach them how to behave like proper courtiers.

If that is the case, then Carey's death in 1596 was sadly much too soon, for he never got a chance to steer them away from their reckless behaviour, and keep them from hatching a plot against Elizabeth.

It might just be possible to find out who Carey was by looking at Falstaff.  We might just be able to discern what he meant to Shakespeare, to Essex, Southampton and Queen Elizabeth.




As you can see, I don't have any answers, but I think you will agree that these are interesting questions worth considering.

Cheers,




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