Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England - Vol. 25

By S. P. Cerasano; Mary Bly et al. | Go to book overview

Shakespeare and the Cobham Controversy:
the Oldcastle/Falstaff and
Brooke/Broome Revisions

James M. Gibson


The Way Forward

FEW questions about Shakespeare have evoked as much speculation with as little regard for the historical, textual, and bibliographical evidence as the relationship between the revisions and allusions in 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and The Merry Wives of Windsor and William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham and Henry Brooke, 11th Lord Cobham.1 That Falstaff was originally named Sir John Oldcastle and that Shakespeare changed the name of Oldcastle to Falstaff in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV and the name of Brooke to Broome in The Merry Wives of Windsor, leaving behind a trail of ruined puns, fractured metre, and missed speech prefixes, has been well and ably documented.2 There is little disagreement here. However, the questions of precisely why Shakespeare used the original names, who objected to their use, when the changes occurred, and who required Shakespeare to make them have provided fertile ground for speculation. The numerous conflicting theories proposed to answer these questions, often dealing with only part or even none of the evidence, have resulted in a critical maze of blind alleys and erroneous routes, leaving one recent scholar to lament, after surveying the seventeenthcentury references and allusions to the controversy, “Seldom can a dramatist’s indiscretion have provoked such long-lived concern. It is tantalizing to hear these reverberations but to know so little of what really happened, and who made the noise, and when, and what exactly Shakespeare did, and why the flurry lasted so long in memory.”3 Any explanation even remotely close to what actually happened must be able to account for all the known evidence with simplicity, with a clear regard for the political realities of the Elizabethan court in the late 1590s, and with as little reliance as possible on speculation or coincidence. Although parts of the road have been cleared of obstructive scholarly traditions and although accurate signposts have been erected in other parts, no one roadmap has yet charted the most direct way

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