The most influential writer in all of English literature, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 to a successful middle-class glove maker in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582 he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical acclaim quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part-owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603) and James I (ruled 1603–1625), and he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare’s company the greatest possible compliment by bestowing upon its members the title of King’s Men. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare’s death, literary luminaries such as Ben Jonson hailed his works as timeless.
Shakespeare’s works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, but the dearth of biographical information has left many details of Shake-speare’s personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact and from Shakespeare’s modest education that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the support for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of credible evidence to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Henry IV, Part 1, more commonly referred to as 1 Henry IV, is one of Shakespeare’s history plays. It forms the second part of a tetralogy, or four-part series, that deals with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. (The tetralogy proceeds in the following order: Richard II,1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV—that is, Henry IV, Part 2—and Henry V.) 1 Henry IV was probably composed in the years 1596–1597.
Set in the years 1402–1403, the action of 1 Henry IV takes place nearly two centuries before Shakespeare’s own time. In general, it follows real events and uses historical figures, although Shakespeare significantly alters or invents history where it suits him. For instance, the historical Hotspur was not the same age as Prince Harry, and Shakespeare’s Mortimer is a conflation of two separate individuals. The play refers back to the history covered in Richard II (which can be considered its prequel), and a familiarity with the events of Richard II is helpful for understanding the motivations of various characters in 1 Henry IV.
Among Shakespeare’s most famous creations is Falstaff, Prince Harry’s fat, aged, and criminally degenerate mentor and friend. -Falstaff’s irreverent wit is legendary. He has many historical precedents: he owes much to archetypes like the figure of Vice from medieval morality plays and Gluttony from medieval pageants about the seven deadly sins. His character also draws on both the miles gloriosus figure, an arrogant soldier from classical Greek and Roman comedy, and the Lord of Misrule, the title given an -individual appointed to reign over folk festivities in medieval England. Ultimately, however, Falstaff is a Shakespearean creation, second among Shakespearean characters only to Hamlet as a subject of -critical interest.
The play mixes history and comedy innovatively, moving from lofty scenes involving kings and battles to base scenes involving ruffians drinking and engaging in robberies. Its great strengths include a remarkable richness and variety of texture, a fascinatingly ambiguous take on history and on political motivations, and a new kind of characterization, as found in the inimitable Falstaff.
Shakespeare’s History Plays: Sources and Contexts
Shakespeare’s so-called history plays are generally thought to constitute a distinct genre. They differ somewhat in tone, form, and focus from Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies, and romances. Many of Shakespeare’s other plays are set in the historical past and even treat similar themes, such as kingship and revolution—Julius Caesar and Hamlet, for instance. However, the eight works known as the history plays have several additional things in common: they form a linked series, they are set in late medieval England, and they deal with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster (a period that later historians often referred to as the Wars of the Roses).
Shakespeare wrote his most important history plays in two tetralogies, or sequences of four plays apiece. The first series, written near the start of his career (roughly 1589–1593), consists of 1 Henry VI,2 Henry VI,3 Henry VI, and Richard III, and covers the fall of the Lancaster dynasty—that is, events in English history between about 1422 and 1485. The second series, written at the height of Shakespeare’s career (roughly 1595–1599), covers English history from around 1398 to 1420. This series consists of Richard II and the most famous history plays of all, 1 Henry IV,2 Henry IV, and Henry V. There are two other, less-celebrated history plays: King John, whose title figure ruled from 1199 to 1216, and All Is Well, which takes the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) as its subject.
Although the events he writes about occurred some two centuries before his own time, Shakespeare expected his audience to be familiar with the characters and events he was describing. The battles among houses and the rise and fall of kings were woven into the cultural fabric of England and formed an integral part of the country’s patriotic legends and national mythology. One might compare this knowledge to the American public’s general awareness of the events and figures surrounding the American Revolution, which occurred more than two centuries ago. As it did for the English commoners of Shakespeare’s era, the passage of time has obscured for us many of the specific details of important historical events, and thus the heroes and battles of an event like the American Revolution are, to some degree, cloaked in myth. Shakespearean history is similarly often inaccurate in its details, although it reflects popular conceptions of history. (A famous example is Shakespeare’s portrayal of the defeated Richard III in the play of that name as an evil, malformed hunchback. Popular mythology of the time conceived of Richard as a hunchback, but little historical evidence supports the legend, and portraits from Richard’s own era do not depict him as such).
Shakespeare drew on a number of sources in writing his history plays, as he did in nearly all his work. His primary source for historical material, however, is generally agreed to be the second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s massive work The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1587. Holinshed’s account provides the fundamental chronology of events that Shakespeare follows, alters, or conveniently ignores to suit his dramatic purposes. Holinshed’s work was only one of an entire genre of historical chronicles, which were popular at the time. Shakespeare may well have used any number of other sources; for Richard II, for example, scholars have suggested at least seven possible primary sources.
An important question that preoccupies the characters in the history plays and that links these plays is whether the king of England is divinely appointed—that is, whether he is God’s “deputy anointed in his sight,” as John of Gaunt says in Richard II (I.ii.38). If such is the case, then the overthrow, deposition, or, worst of all, murder of a king is akin to blasphemy. In Shakespeare’s works, as in the classical Greek tragedies (such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia), such an act may cast a long shadow over the reign of the king who deposes or murders his predecessor, and even over his descendants. This shadow, which manifests itself in the form of literal ghosts in plays such as Hamlet,Macbeth,Julius Caesar, and Richard III, also looms over Richard II and its sequels. In the play that bears his name, -Richard II is haunted by a politically motivated murder—not that of an actual king but that of his uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. After his eventual overthrow, the new king, Henry IV, is, in turn, haunted by his own responsibility for Richard’s overthrow and eventual murder. This shadow hangs over both the plays that bear Henry IV’s name. Only after Henry IV’s death does his own son, Henry V, symbolically prove himself worthy to wear the crown and rule as king of England.
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