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There is a play called Sir John Oldcastle, published in 1600, with the name of William Shakspeare prefixed to it. The prologue serves to show that a former piece, in which the character of Oldcastle was introduced, had given great offence:–
“The doubtful title (gentlemen) prefixt
Shakspeare's play, according to Malone, seems to have been written in the middle of the year 1599. There were three quarto editions in the Poet's lifetime—1600, 1602, and 1608. In all of them the choruses are omitted, and the play commences with the fourth speech of the second SC6I16.
“King Henry the Fifth is visibly the favorite hero of Shakspeare in English history. He portrays him endowed with every chivalrous and kingly virtue; open, sincere, affable, yet still disposed to innocent raillery, as a sort of reminiscence of his youth, in the intervals between his dangerous and renowned achievements. To bring his life, after his ascent to the crown, on the stage was, however, attended with great difficulty. The conquests in France were the only distinguished events of his reign ; and war is much more an epic than a dramatic object. If we would have dramatic interest, war must only be the means by which something else is accomplished, and not the last aim and substance of the whole.” In King Henry the Fifth, no opportunity was afforded Shakspeare of rendering the issue of the war dramatic ; but he has availed himself of other circfmstances attending it, with peculiar care. “Before the battle of Agincourt, he paints in the most lively colors the light-minded impatience of the French leaders for the moment of battle, which to them seemed infallibly the moment of victory; on the other hand, he paints the uneasiness of the English king and his army, from their desperate situation, coupled with the firm determination, if they are to fall, at least to fall with honor. He applies this as a general contrast between the French and English national characters; a contrast which betrays a partiality for his own nation, certainly excusable in a poet, especially when he is backed with such a glorious document as that of the memorable battle in question. He has surrounded the general events of the war with a fulness of individual characteristic, and even sometimes comic features. A heavy Scotchman, a hot Irishman, a well-meaning, honorable, pedantic Welshman, all speaking in their peculiar dialects. But all this variety still seemed to the Poet insufficient to animate a play of which the object was a conquest, and nothing but a conquest. He has, therefore, tacked a prologue (in the technical language of that day, a chorus) to the beginning of each act. These prologues, which unite epic pomp and solemnity with lyrical sublimity, and among which the description of the two camps before the battle of Agincourt forms a most admirable night-piece, are intended to keep the spectators constantly in mind that, the peculiar grandeur of the actions there described cannot be developed on a narrow stage; and that they must supply the deficiencies of the representation from their own imaginations. Ás the subject was not properly dramatic, in the form, also, Shakspeare chose rather to wander beyond the bounds of the species, and to sing as a poetic herald, what he could not represent to the eye, than to cripple the progress of the action by putting long speeches in the mouths of the persons of the drama. & However much Shakspeare celebrates the French conquest of king Henry, still he has not omitted to hint to us, after his way, the secret springs of this undertaking. Henry was in want of foreign wars to secure himself on the throne; the clergy also wished to keep him employed abroad, and made an offer of rich contributions to prevent the passing of a law which would have deprived them of the half of their revenues. His learned bishops are consequently as ready to prove to him his undisputed right to the crown of France, as he is to allow his conscience to be tranquillized by them. They prove that the Salic law is not, and never was, applicable to France; and the matter is treated in a more succinct and convincing manner than such subjects usually are in manifestoes. After his renowned battles, Henry wished to secure his conquests by marriage with a French princess; all that has reference to this is intended for irony in the play. The fruit of this union, from which two nations promised to themselves such happiness in future, was that very feeble Henry the Sixth, under whom every thing was so miserably lost. It must not, therefore, be imagined that it was without the knowledge and will of the Poet that an heroic drama turns out a comedy in his hands; and ends, in the manner of comedy, with a marriage of convenience.”"
KING HENRY THE FIFTH.
B. #.; } Brothers to the Ring.
Bishop of Ely.
Earl of Cambridge,
LoRD SCRoop, | Conspirators against the King.
SIR THOMAs ERPINGHAM,
Court, }sue. in the same.
NYM, } formerly Servants to Falstaff, now Soldiers
officers in King Henry's
#on, in the same. 3.
Boy, Servant to them.
A Herald. Chorus.
CHARLEs THE SIXTH, King of France.
IsABEL, Queen of France.
Lords, Ladies, Officers, French and English Soldiers, Messengers, and Attendants.
The SCENE, at the beginning of the Play, lies in England; but afterwards wholly in France.
KING HENRY THE FIFTH.
O, FoR a muse of fire, that would ascend
* O, for circle, alluding to the circular form of the theatre. * “Imaginary forces.” Imaginary for imaginative, or your powers of fancy.
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
SCENE I. London." An Antechamber in the - - King's Palace.
Enter the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bishop
1 This first scene was added in the folio, together with the choruses and other amplifications. It appears from Hall and Holinshed, that the events passed at Leicester, where king Henry V. held a parliament in the second year of his reign. But the chorus at the beginning of the second act shows that the Poet intended to make London the place of his first scene.
* “Canterbury and Ely.” Henry Chicheley, a Carthusian monk, recently promoted to the see of Canterbury John Fordham, bishop of Ely consecrated 1388, died 1426.