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 during 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 V

Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s so-called history plays. It forms the fourth part of a tetralogy (a four-part series) dealing with the historical rise of the English royal House of Lancaster. (The three plays that come before it are Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2.) Henry V, probably written in 1599, is one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s history plays. It contains a host of entertaining characters who speak in many accents and languages. The play is full of noble speeches, heroic battles, and valiant English underdogs who fight their way to victory against all odds. Additionally, King Henry seems to be a perfect leader—brave, modest, and fiercely focused, but with a sense of humor to match.

The play’s treatment of King Henry V, however, is more problematic than it seems at first glance. Henry is a model of traditional heroism, but his value system is confusing. After all, his sense of honor leads him to invade a nonaggressive country and to slaughter thousands of people. He sentences to death former friends and prisoners of war while claiming to value mercy, and he never acknowledges that he bears any responsibility for the bloodshed he has initiated. It is useful to read the play with an eye toward these discrepancies, which Shakespeare examines in a complicated exploration of the nature of kingship. Whether or not he appears to be an admirable man, Henry is presented as a nearly ideal king, with a laser focus, an intractable resolve, and the willpower to subordinate his own personal feelings to the needs of his nation and his throne. The brilliance of Henry’s speeches and his careful cultivation of his image make him an effective and inspiring leader. Whether he emerges from the play as a heroic figure or merely a coldblooded politician depends largely on each individual reader’s interpretation.