The original title of this delightful comedy was Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor. This is hugely significant because the play is largely a vehicle or an excuse for the lampooning of the character of Falstaff, who had made his first appearance in Henry IV, Part 1. In that play, Falstaff’s character had originally been named Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had been one of the leaders of the Lollards, a proto-Protestant sect instituted by John Wyclif.
Sir John Oldcastle led a failed rebellion in 1417 to overthrow the king and was subsequently hanged. He was later immortalized as a Protestant martyr in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published in 1563. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a disreputable drunk and coward should outrage the Protestants of his time. Bowing to pressure, the character’s name was changed to Sir John Falstaff, although Shakespeare has Prince Hal refer to him as “my old lad of the castle,” keeping the provocative connection alive, albeit only allusively.
In Henry IV, Part 2, Prince Hal’s conversion and rite of passage from dissolute youth to the fullness of responsible kingship, following his accession to the throne as Henry V, is made manifest in his professed rejection of Falstaff and his degenerate lifestyle. “I know thee not old man,” he tells him. “Fall to thy prayers.”