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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
William Shakespeare was born into a tradesman's family in Stratford-upon-Avon in late April, 1564. When he was eighteen, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, ten years older than he. The young couple had a baby girl named Susanna six months later on May 26, 1583. In 1585 the birth of fraternal twins, Hamnet and Judith, completed the new family. But shortly afterward, Shakespeare left Stratford and moved to London, leaving his family behind.
No one knows what Shakespeare did for a living before he arrived in London. We do know that Shakespeare established himself in the London theater by 1592. He had become both an actor and a playwright with London's most prestigious theatrical troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, headquartered in the first professional theater building built since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was called, simply, The Theater.
Open to the sky, The Theater had a large platform stage bounded on three sides by the audience. The stage was large (over thirty feet across), and was divided into upper and lower acting levels. Entrances and exits were made through two or three doors at the rear of the platform, into the "tiring house" where costumes were changed and speeches rehearsed. Scenery was kept at a bare minimum- a table and two benches might suggest a scene indoors or a tree represent a whole forest. The actors wore splendid costumes, however, and the acting style would have been broad and lively. Teenage boys played the women's parts. A gallery of musicians accompanied the actors, and the sound of battle was reproduced with effects backstage.
The audience would have been a cross-section of Londoners. Unruly apprentices stood on the ground around the stage, while merchants, fashionable women, and courtiers sat in three tiers of seats.
In the palaces along the River Thames Queen Elizabeth I ruled England amid a magnificent court. In an age when monarchs held absolute power, England was lucky to have such a queen. Elizabeth was a brilliant, outspoken, strong-willed woman, and a crafty politician who loved her country. Elizabeth I's reign was long (1558-1603) and dynamic, if not always peaceful. England had recently- under the reign of her sister, Queen Mary ("Bloody Mary")- been a Catholic country. Now it was Protestant and Puritan. But Elizabeth still had many Catholic enemies, such as northern England's powerful lords, and her cousin Queen Mary of Scotland. In 1569 the northern lords had rebelled against Elizabeth. They were defeated, but in the following year the Duke of Norfolk unsuccessfully attempted a coup to depose Elizabeth and place her Catholic cousin on the throne.
Although these rebellions failed, they worried Elizabeth; thereafter her subjects were required to listen to sermons on civil disobedience three times a year. The sermons followed a strict doctrine that the monarch was God's deputy on earth, and no subject had a right to oppose her. Rebellion against the monarch was rebellion against God, a terribly grave sin, to be punished by chaos on earth and eternal damnation for the rebels.
In 1588, King Philip II of Spain had sent the Armada, a huge flotilla of warships, to invade England. Elizabeth sent her navy to attack Philip's fleet, and after a week of merciless fighting the Armada was roundly defeated. Elizabeth's subjects rejoiced, and celebrated their country's greatness with an unprecedented patriotic fervor. One product of this burst of nationalist pride was the history play, which celebrated England's past and, like the sermons, instructed audiences in good civil behavior. Henry IV, Part 1 is one of ten plays Shakespeare wrote to celebrate England's history.
Shakespeare died in Stratford on April 23, 1616. He left no male heirs to continue his name. His only son, Hamnet, had died at age eleven. Susanna and Judith both married, but Susanna's only child Elizabeth was Shakespeare's last direct descendant. She died childless in 1670.
But Shakespeare left another kind of heir- thirty-seven plays and three major poems. In 1623, seven years after his death, two of Shakespeare's former colleagues in the theater published thirty-six of his plays, eighteen of them for the first time. We refer to this as the "First Folio." In a prefatory poem, Ben Jonson praised his old friend and rival playwright as "the wonder of our stage." That verdict has stood through the centuries.
[Henry IV, Part 1 Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]