William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, 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 success 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); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of 52. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

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 paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is highly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 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 2

Henry IV, Part 2 is one of Shakespeare's so-called history plays; it forms the third part of a tetralogy, or four-part series, that deals with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. (It is preceded by Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 and followed by Henry V.) The play was probably written around the year 1598.

The events of Henry IV, Part 2 take place in the early 1400s, about two centuries before Shakespeare's own time. The play mixes history and comedy, moving from "high" scenes of kings and battles to "low" scenes of city taverns and country life. Its major themes include Henry IV's struggle with the heavy burden of royal power and Henry V's transformation from a young hell-raiser into a wise king. Although Shakespeare often alters or invents historical details, the play features well-known historical events and people. A quick review of the historical events covered in the play's "prequels," Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1, might prove helpful in understanding its characters' motivations.

While there are no particularly strong contemporary film versions of either of the Henry IV plays, people who have read the plays might be interested in My Own Private Idaho, a 1992 film by Gus Van Sant that is loosely based on the Henry IV plays.