February 14th

What could have accounted for the success of 1 Henry IV?  Title pages can be a fruitful place for finding answers to questions such as this one.  The 1599 edition, pictured above, was closely based on the 1598 first quarto of the history play; it advertises “the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North.  With the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaffe.

Falstaff, who brought to the stage a healthy shot of irony and self-deprecating wit, remains one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable characters, and his popularity today is exceeded by the popularity then, which earned the character a spot in three plays—1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor—and honorable mention in a fourth, Henry V, the play of his off-stage demise.  So great was Falstaff’s popularity, in fact, that it would seem to have exceeded that of his maker.  Where the humorous conceits of John Falstaff occupy central place on the play’s frontispiece, the authorship of William Shakespeare remains, at this point in his career, a fact of minor visual importance: “Newly Corrected,” the frontispiece reads only in the smallest of ink, “W. Shake-speare.”

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