Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
William Shakespeare is usually considered the greatest dramatist and finest poet the world has ever known. No other writer's plays and poetry have been produced so many times or in so many countries or translated into so many languages. One of the major reasons for Shakespeare's popularity is the variety of rich characters that he successfully creates, from drunkards and paid murderers to princes and kings and from inane fools and court jesters to wise and noble generals. Each character springs vividly to life upon the stage and, as they speak their beautiful verse or prose, the characters remind the viewers of their own personalities, traits, and flaws. Shakespeare also made his characters very realistic. The dramatist had an amazing knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and his well-developed characters reflect this knowledge, whether it be about military science, the graces of royalty, seamanship, history, the Bible, music, or sports.
In Shakespeare's time, few biographies were written, and none of the literary men of the Elizabethan Age was considered important enough to merit a book about his life. The first portfolio of his works, collected as a memorial to Shakespeare by members of his own acting company, was not published until 1623, seven years after his death. His first biography was written one hundred years later. As a result, many of the facts of Shakespeare's life are unknown. It is known that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England, sometime in early 1564, for his Baptism is recorded on April 26 of that year. His mother Mary had eight children, with William being the third. His father, John Shakespeare, was a fairly prosperous glovemaker and trader who owned several houses in Stratford and became the town's mayor when Shakespeare was a boy. The young Shakespeare probably studied in the local grammar school and hunted and played sports in the open fields behind his home.
The next definite information about William Shakespeare is that the young man, at age 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, on November 28, 1582. In 1583, it is recorded that Anne gave birth to their oldest child, Susanna, and that twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born to the couple in 1585. By 1592, the family was living in London, where Shakespeare was busy acting in plays and writing his own dramas. From 1592 to 1594, the plague kept most London theaters closed, so the dramatist turned to writing poetry during this period, and his poems, which were actually published unlike his plays, became popular with the masses and contributed to his good reputation as a writer. From 1594 to the end of his career, Shakespeare belonged to the same theatrical company, known first as Lord Chamberlain's Men and then as the King's Company. It is also known that he was both a leader and stockholder in this acting organization, which became the most prosperous group in London, and that he was meeting with both financial success and critical acclaim.
In 1954, Shakespeare was popular enough as an actor to perform before Queen Elizabeth. By 1596, he owned considerable property in London and bought one of the finest houses in Stratford, known as New Place, in 1597. A year later, in 1598, he bought ten percent of the stock in the Globe Theatre, where his plays were produced. In 1608, he and his colleagues also purchased The Blackfriars Theatre, where they began to hold productions during the winter, returning to the Globe during the summer months. Throughout the rest of his life, Shakespeare continued to purchase land, homes, and businesses. He obviously was a busy man between handling his business ventures, performing on the stage, and writing or collaborating on the thirty-seven plays that are credited to him.
Shakespeare's most productive years were from 1594 to 1608, the period in which he wrote all of his great tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. During these fourteen years, he furnished his acting company with approximately two plays annually. After 1608, it appears he went into semi-retirement, spending more time in Stratford and creating only five plays before his death on April 23, 1616. He was buried before the altar in the Stratford Church, where his body still lies today. Many literary students and visitors make a pilgrimage to this shrine each year in order to honor William Shakespeare, still recognized after 400 years as the world's greatest poet and dramatist.
The main authority for the history of Henry V was the second edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1587. Shakespeare also makes use of the play of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth by an anonymous writer. The Dauphin's present of tennis balls is no doubt to be found in Holinshed while the episode of Pistol and the French soldier and the wooing scene in the last act come from the Famous Victories. The well-known simile of the "honey-bees" in Act I, Scene 2, is based on a passage in Lyly's Euphues. For the main incidents of the drama, Shakespeare follows the authority of Holinshed.
Yet in Henry V, Shakespeare has not simply put life into the dead bones of history, but has enlivened the action of the play by introducing comic characters (Bardolph, Nym, Pistol), by painting common soldiers (Bates, Court, Williams), and by delineating national characteristics-Irish, Scots, and Welsh (Macmorris, Captain Jamy and Fluellen), particularly the idiosyncrasies of Fluellen.
Of Shakespeare's innovations and inventions the audience may note six points. First comes the unmasking of the conspirators: Cambridge, Scroop and Gray. It is managed with exquisite dramatic art and a subtle sense of the effect of irony.
Secondly, the Alice-Katharine scene, apart from being a comic interlude, prepares for the final appearance of Katharine in Act V. It is a prelude to the wooing scene and also hints at the French defeat.
Thirdly, the scene (Act IV, Scene 1) in which the King goes around the English camp, reveals the King's bonhomie. It also reveals what the common soldiers think of their King and his responsibility.
Fourth, in Act IV, Scene 5, Shakespeare has no account from Holinshed about bringing the Dauphin into the battle of Agincourt. The dramatic effect of contrast between Henry and the Dauphin is enhanced by this means.
Fifth, pathetic touches are added to the account of the death of the Duke of Suffolk in Act IV, Scene 5. It brings out the actuality of the battle of Agincourt home to the minds of the audience.
Finally the court scene is differently conceived. Sentiment and passion do not seem to be part of Henry's equipment. Instead, his courtship of Katharine seems to be directed by policy.