William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

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 Shakespeare’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 highly 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.

Background on Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1 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; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V. Henry IV, Part 1 was probably composed in the years 1596–1597.

Set in the years 1402–1403, the action of Henry IV, Part 1 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 Henry IV, Part 1.

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.

The play mixes history and comedy innovatively, moving from lofty scenes involving kings and battles to sordid 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.