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Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare | Biography


Little is known about the early life of William Shakespeare. His baptismal record is dated April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, suggesting a birth date of April 23, 1564. He was one of six children born to John Shakespeare, a merchant, and his wife Mary. John was a maker of gloves for the wealthy and the nobility; Will would have also learned this craft. John later became a bailiff, a position that made it possible for him to grant permission to itinerant play actors to perform in town when Will was a boy. The character of Falstaff is commonly believed to have been based on Shakespeare's father, who often got into trouble with the law. Shakespeare's mother's family had strong ties with the Catholic Church, while John was casually Protestant. One of Shakespeare's cousins got into trouble through his association with radical Catholics. Queen Elizabeth was ruthless against perceived plots against her rule based on religion, though she was determined to allow both Catholics and Protestants more or less to worship freely. Both John and Mary were likely illiterate; they sent young Will to the Stratford Grammar School, where boys (not girls) of even modest means engaged in a severe education in Latin as per Queen Elizabeth's effort to educate the population of her kingdom. This effort contributed to significant progress in the development of the middle class in England.

According to church records, at age 18 William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. Their first child, a daughter named Susanna, was born six months after the wedding and was christened on May 26, 1583. Two years later, twins were born to the couple: a daughter, Judith, and a son, Hamnet. Hamnet died at age 11.

Again, there is a gap in Shakespeare's life, but in 1592 references to Shakespeare's career as an actor and playwright in London begin to appear. In one text another London playwright, Robert Greene, calls Shakespeare an "upstart Crow." Documentation of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later The King's Men), a company of actors, notes Shakespeare was a managing partner. Around 1593–94, there are records of Shakespeare's publications of a long poem and some of his early plays. There were several periods in which theaters were closed due to plague and religious fighting between Catholics and Protestants. In those times Shakespeare turned to writing sonnets, some of which are embedded with mystic allusions and allegories, to gain favor and patronage from nobility. In 1599 the Globe Theater was built, south of the Thames from London proper, and Shakespeare became a shareholder. It was at this time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, and as a shareholder and partner in the theater, it was in his best interest to please the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth, who ruled from 1558–1603. It is no accident that this play paints Henry V in a fairly complimentary light and focuses on the actions that supported the nobility of the Lancaster line, one of the royal lines from which the Tudors are descended. Nonetheless, Shakespeare's view of kingship is complex, and Henry V is portrayed as a man with both strengths and weaknesses.

Shakespeare used two main sources for Henry V. For the main historical events, he relied on Raphael Holinshed's 1587 history, The Third Volume of Chronicles. For some scenes and details, he drew from the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. This play was published in 1598 but performed earlier. It included the detail of the Dauphin's insulting gift of tennis balls, although this is considered to have been a fictional event.

In 1599 Shakespeare's company, then known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, began to perform in the newly built Globe Theater. Having a permanent physical theater in which to perform significantly altered the progress of English literature. The theater gave Shakespeare a base for writing that came to influence English vocabulary and the structure and content of English verse and poetry. Nonetheless, the company continued to perform in the nearby Curtain Theater. It is likely, then, that the first performances of Henry V took place in both locations.

Shakespeare then went on to produce some of his most famous plays, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. He is believed to have died on April 23, 1616, and he was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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