Picture it: It’s the 1860s. A bibliophile from way back, you started collecting books and manuscripts when you were a teenager and you co-founded the Shakespeare Society when you were just 20. You’ve had your troubles—a pesky accusation of theft, some difficulties with your father-in-law, a whole heap of financial worries—but you’ve never stopped collecting, and now you’re more into Shakespeare than ever. You crack open a 1567 copy of William Thomas’ Rules of the Italian Grammar, ready to settle in for a long night of…correcting someone’s early modern Italian, presumably…only to find something in the bindings. What could it be? Surely not proof of a heretofore undiscovered quarto of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV….?
And yet, that’s exactly what antiquarian and Shakespeare aficionado James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps once found—a fragment of four leaves from what we now think is the earliest printing of Shakespeare’s popular history. Known as “Q0” to differentiate it from “Q1” published later in the same year (1598), it is the quarto from which all copies of the play are thought to have followed. And boy, were there a lot of them. Written at a time when histories were all the rage, Shakespeare’s The history of Henrie the Fourth ; vvith the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henry Hotspur of the north. VVith the humorous conceits of Sir Iohn Falstalffe was published in nine editions between 1598 and 1640, indicating that it was likely one of the best-selling plays of the early modern period. The fact that two of these editions (Q0 and Q1) were published in the same year is further evidence of its immense popularity.
We know—or can reasonably assume—Q0 pre-dates its slightly younger fraternal twin based on the discrepancies evident in even the small sample that survived. For one thing, the text is more conservatively set in Q1, taking up less space on each page and driving down the overall page count. Since it’s hard to imagine a thrifty printer deciding to use more pages per edition in a second printing, it stands to reason the more expansive Q0 came first. Furthermore, in Q0 the character of Poins revels in remembering “How the fat rogue roared!” whereas in Q1 the word “fat” is omitted. Though possible some print-setter got it into his head to add the word in a second printing, it’s more likely that the word was accidentally left out, making Q0 the earlier version.
It’s fitting that something involving Falstaff (“the fat rogue”) would be one of the clues in puzzling out the date. Larger than life, he’s one of Shakespeare’s most cherished characters—a favorite of literary critic Harold Bloom and Queen Elizabeth I (who, the legend has it, instructed Shakespeare to write Merry Wives of Windsor so she could see him “in love”). This icon of the stage is the foundation of the Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight and has even been used to market vegetables and beer (which you can catch a glimpse of in Jaws).
Moreover, Falstaff has a secret history all his own—a previous name. Before he was “Falstaff” he was “Sir John Oldcastle.”
Why the switch? “John Oldcastle” wasn’t just a charming name Shakespeare conjured from thin air. No, Sir John Oldcastle was a real person, a Lollard knight who really did pal around with Prince Hal before his heretical beliefs—coupled, it should be noted, with an insurrection and a royal kidnapping plan—saw him tried, arrested, and executed in gruesome fashion. This earned him the dubious honor of his own woodcut in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (aka, Book of Martyrs), but it also left him a legacy his ancestors sought to protect.
Reflecting on the matter in 1625, antiquarian Richard James wrote “…in Shakespeares first shew of Harrie the fift, the person with which he undertook to play a buffone was no Falstaffe but Sr. Jhon Oldcastle” and that had caused offence to the “Personages desceneded from his title.” These personages included William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, and his son, Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham, both influential nobles with ties to Queen Elizabeth I. The elder Cobham served for a time as Lord Chamberlain, and it was thought that pressure from one or both barons (William died in 1597) led to the name change, possibly after the play’s first performance but before its first printing.
While the character is now known and celebrated as Falstaff, clearly the efforts to save the family name were not 100% successful (or I couldn’t be telling you about it now). We have tantalizing glimpses of how “Oldcastle” was commonly known to be the original moniker given to the fat knight an uncorrected speech prefix in the quarto of King Henry IV part 2, an irregular line of text crying out for a third syllable (“Away, good Ned. Falstaff sweats to death”), 17th-century accounts confusing the two names when referring to Shakespeare’s play, and an Easter egg still in the play for those in the know (Hal calls Falstaff “my old lad of the castle”). The connection between Oldcastle and Falstaff persisted to the point that Shakespeare thought it best to address it head on in his Epilogue to 2 Henry IV, where he assures his audience “Olde-castle died [a] Martyre, and this is not the man.”
There was also dramatic rebuttal in the form of a play entitled The first part of the true and honorable historie, of the life of Sir Iohn Old-castle, the good Lord Cobham. First published anonymously in 1600, the play was recorded by theater manager Philip Henslowe as the work of Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Robert Wilson, and Richard Hathaway. Its prologue clearly states its purpose:
…It is no pamperd glutton we present,
Nor aged Councellour to youthfull sinne…
Rejecting the presentation of Oldcas—er, sorry, Falstaff, as drunken pick-pocket, Sir John Oldcastle skewed the other way and presented him as loyal to the crown and king, ending the story with his escape. Henslowe recorded payment for a second part, now lost, but based on what we know of Oldcastle’s historical fate (see: Book of Martyrs), we’re guessing it didn’t have a happy ending.
Until we finally invent that time machine, learning about Shakespeare’s plays, their creation, their inspirations, and the historical context surrounding them is a continuing journey of rigorous scholarship paired with accidental discoveries and educated guesses—which is why preserving the materials we have is so important. They are valuable clues and tangible threads leading us back to where it all began, be it an early printing or a scraped character name.