Page images
PDF
EPUB
[graphic][merged small]
[graphic]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

AZT was in the spring of 1599 that

Shakespeare, in the thirty-fifth year of his age and at the midmost point of time in his working

life, penned this martial drama. I

No sooner was it completed than it was produced at the Globe Theatre — “this wooden 0” of its opening chorus — by the Lord Chamberlain's company of actors in which the dramatist had already held for many years the

foremost rank. The Globe playhouse had just been built on a site some hundred yards west of the Surrey end of London Bridge, on the Bankside, in Southwark. “Henry V.” gave it auspicious baptism ; thenceforth it was the scene of the greatest triumphs of Shakespeare's career; within its walls the tragedies of his coming years — “Hamlet,”

" King Lear,” “ Macbeth,” “ Othello,” - first saw the light of the stage."

The play of “Henry V.” is the author's confession of faith in what he deems to be the best and most distinctive type of English character. With that type he avows the fullest sympathy. At the same time his sympathy is not unalloyed by criticism. Foreign observers more than once in the play ridicule the coldness of blood, the frosty temperament which the foggy, raw, and dull climate of England seems to their unfriendly eyes to engender in the majority of its inhabitants. They laugh uproariously over the Englishman's “great meals of beef,” and speak with scorn of his deficiency in “intellectual armour.” And the pointed phrases imply that in Shakespeare's view there was some warrant for such gibes ; that, in fact, Englishmen were not in all respects so good that in some they might not be better. None the less the dramatist brings even embittered foreign critics willingly to the admission that “ English mastiffs are of unmatchable courage,” and that there is perfect affinity between these

Henry V.” was first printed in 1600 in a most incomplete and hardly coherent shape. Neither the author nor the playhouse manager was in any way responsible for the perversion of the text, which obviously followed the notes of a piratical and incompetent shorthand reporter and was the unauthorized speculation of a publishing adventurer. The title ran : The Chronicle | History of Henry the fift, / with his battell fought at Agin Court in | France. Togither with Auntient | Pistoll. | As it hath bene sundry times playd by the Right honorable | the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants. | London. Printed by Thomas Creede, for Tho. Milling-ton and lohn Busby. And are to be sold at his house in Carter Lane, next | the Powle head, 1600.” Reissues of the imperfect transcript were twice issued later, in 1602 and 1608, before the complete play was first printed from an authentic copy in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's works of 1623. The piratical quartos gave only 1,623 lines, the authentic folio as many as 3,400.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

mastiffs and their masters. But this is in itself no complete statement of the writer's point of view. / The main purport of his argument is that the truly typical Englishman, however “robustious and rough” he may often be in manner, not merely holds with a passionate tenacity to what he judges to be his right, but that he faces danger cheerfully and without flinching. Furthermore, while placing implicit trust in God and suffering resignedly

even phlegmatically — the slings and arrows of fortune, he is eager in pursuit of all such joys and recreations as a human being may justly and honourably desire. Finally the dramatist confidently and hopefully adjures his countrymen and countrywomen to show themselves for all time worthy of their breeding — true to the most inspiriting types and traditions of their race. It is Shakespeare's high hope that the “noble lustre” of his nation's past will never cease to be reflected in his fellow-countrymen's eyes.

The central topic of “ Henry V.” is the great historic battle of Agincourt, in which on St. Crispin's Day (October 25, 1415), a small and ill-equipped army of England signally defeated a large and well-equipped army of France.

Although the victory bore no permanent fruit, it was won at such heavy odds as to take at once a permanent and prominent place among the English nation's golden exploits. Creçy, a great battle of like calibre, won by Henry V.'s grand-uncle, the Black Prince, receives much honourable mention in Shakespeare's play, but Creçy was a vague memory with the mass of Elizabethans, while Agincourt enjoyed amongst them a popular prestige akin to that which is

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »