Falstaff, Tarlton and “The Famous Victories”
Copyright 1955 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Spring 1955.
In his article on The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, published in the issue of the News-Letter for September 1954, Mr. J. Shera Atkinson supports B. M. Ward in assigning Famous Victories to the Earl of Oxford and dating it 1574, on internal evidence. He would, I think, freely admit that there is no external evidence for the performance of any play dealing with Henry V, either as King or Prince, at so early a date.
The internal evidence consists of the resemblance of the Gadshill episode to an incident which took place in the same neighbourhood (the road from Gravesend to Rochester) in May 1573, in which the servants of the Earl of Oxford, and possibly the Earl himself, were concerned. But the Gadshill escapade was, as Hal himself says—”a good jest for ever”, and there is no need to assume that the reference was topical. The author of 1 Henry IV or Famous Victories, may simply have recalled a similar incident from his own youth when he wanted to portray the mad-cap prince who, as he read in Stow’s Chronicles (1580):
Whilst his father lived, beyng accompanyed wt some of his yong Lords and gentlemen, he wold waite in disguised araye for his owne receyvers, and distresse them of theyr money: and sometimes at such enterprices both he and his company were surely beaten: and when his receivers made to him their complaints, how they were robbed in their comming unto him, he would give them discharge of so much money as they had lost, and besides that, they should not depart from him without great rewards for their trouble and vexation, especially they should be rewarded that best hadde receyved the greatest and most strokes”.
If the Earl of Oxford was indeed the author of Famous Victories, I can well understand the desire to place it as early in his career as possible, for it does him no great credit, but the question is which came first, the Famous Victories or the Shakespearean trilogy, 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V? If the latter, the case for Oxford as Shakespeare is immeasurably stronger, for then there would be no literary or dramatic source for the scene at Gadshill.
According to Dr. Cairncross [in The Problem of Hamlet (1936)], Famous Victories is an inferior sort of piracy from the Shakespearean plays. We have no clue to the date except that it was entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1594 and published in 1598, and that Richard Tarlton, who died in 1588 is supposed to have played in it. The only evidence for this, however, is an anecdote in Tarlton’s Jests, a book of reminiscences published after his death:
“At the Bull in Bishopsgate was a play of Henry the fift, wherein the judge was to take a box on the eare; and because he was absent that should take the blow, Tarlton himselfe, ever forward to please, tooke upon him to play the same judge, besides his own part of the clowne: and Knel then playing Henry the fift, hit Tarlton a sounde boxe indeed, which made the people laugh the more because it was he, but anon the judge goes in, and Tarlton in his clownes cloathes comes out, and askes, the actors what newes: O saith one hadst thou been here, thou shouldst have seen Prince Henry bit the judge a terrible box on the eare: What man, said Tarlton, strike a judge? It is true yfaith said the other. No other like, said Tarlton, and it could not be but terrible to the judge, when the report so terrifies me, that methinks the blow remains still on my cheeke that it burnes againe”.
As Dr. Cairncross points out, “all that need be understood here is ‘a play dealing with Henry V’, which would truly describe 1 or 2 Henry IV“.
Now, as it happens there is no such ear-boxing incident presented on the stage in either part of Henry IV, but there are allusions to it, and it probably once formed a part of 1 Henry IV, Act II, sc. iv.
Famous Victories is assigned on its title-page to the Queen’s men, to which company both Tarlton and Knell belonged, but—again according to Cairncross— “this means no more than that the plays pirated were acted by that company. It is unlikely, indeed impossible, that the Queen’s, the dominant company in 1587-8, should ever have acted a play of the quality of The Famous Victories“. It is, perhaps, even more unlikely that Dick Tarlton would ever have acted a part of the quality of Derrick, the clown in that play. And who, but Falstaff is the clown in Henry IV? Cairncross does not make this point in. so many words, but it is incredible that he should have failed to see the implications of his own argument. “Falstaff’s sauciness”, says Dover Wilson, “is that of ‘an allowed fool’; and if … he was first played by Will Kempe, the comic man of Shakespeare’s company, he would have been accepted as the ‘clown’ of the play directly he appeared upon the stage”.
And now let us look at the question from another point of view. In an article entitled Shakespeare’s Falstaff and the Mantle of Dick Tarlton (Studies in Philology LI: 2, April 1954), Joseph Allen Bryant Jr. writes:
“Falstaff, whether by accident or design . . . assimilated and perpetuated the living memory of the greatest clown of them all, Dick Tarlton . . . In proportion as he challenges the prerogative of clowning, Falstaff is an immortalized Tarlton—a Tarlton brought back from the dead to hold in perpetuo the field be dominated during his lifetime”.
It is a strange idea that Shakespeare should create for Will Kempe, or any one else, a character modelled upon the dead Tarlton, but Mr. Bryant is blinkered by a false chronology:
“Shakespeare in working from the anonymous Famous Victories, transferred much of the business belonging to the clown Derrick, a character once played by Tarlton, to the Oldcastle of Henry IV“.
Is it not much more likely that Derrick and the Oldcastle of Famous Victories both stem from the Oldcastle of Henry IV, later to be called Falstaff, and that this was the part played by Tarlton? Incidentally, Tarlton was a tavern-keeper, and one of his taverns was the Castle in Paternoster Row.
Bryant sums up the resemblance between Falstaff and Tarlton as follows:
“We have on the one hand a popular clown noted for his extemporal wit; on the other, a popular character in a play, who behaves like a clown even though he is not actually supposed to be one. Both are given to poking fun at religious extremists. Both carouse in taverns, with the hostess as well as with the jades from the street, and both pay with reluctance if at all. Furthermore, they are both associated with particular taverns, each managed by a hostess who is capable of tolerating a witty rogue in spite of his empty purse. Neither man is one to seek a quarrel, though both occasionally become involved in them; and both are capable of using a sword when forced to do so. Finally, they meet their ends in the same way and in similar surroundings”.
It has often been asked why Shakespeare did not fulfil his promise, made in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV, “to continue the story with Sir John in it”. Well, perhaps he did, but if so, the man whom all London knew and loved as Falstaff must have died while the new play was in production, or just before it was put on. Tarlton was irreplaceable, so Falstaff had to die. Mistress Quickly gives us the simple truth, and the only acceptable excuse for his non-appearance.
They buried him at St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, close to Henry VIII’s jester, Will Somers, who died twenty-eight years before him, when Edward de Vere was ten years old. But that is another story.