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Shakespeare's 'Prince Hal' Plays as Keys to the Authorship Question
By Ramon Jimenez
Between February of 1598 and August of 1600, the following four plays were published in London:
The Famous Victories of Henry the fifth: Containing the Honourable Battell of Agin-court. 1598
The History of Henrie the fourth; With the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North. With the humorous conceits of Sir Iohn Falstalffe. 1598
The Second part of Henrie the fourth, continuing to his death and coronation of Henrie the fift. With the humours of sir Iohn Falstaffe, and swaggering Pistoll. 1600
The Cronicle History of Henry the fift, With his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auncient Pistoll. 1600
Despite their titles, the central figure in each was Henry, Prince of Wales, also known as Prince Hal, who succeeded to England's throne as Henry V in 1413, and died only nine years later. As one of the country's most heroic kings, he had been the subject of numerous biographies, ballads, and histories by the late sixteenth century, but so far as we know, these four plays, in which six different publishers and printers participated, were the first printed dramatic works about him.
Three of the four were initially anonymous; the third - The Second part of Henrie the fourth - bore the words "Written by William Shakespeare" on the title page. The second (1599) through the sixth (1622) Quartos of the initial Henry IV play bore the words "Newly corrected by W. Shake-spear," but The Cronicle History of Henry the fift remained anonymous through three Quartos until its publication in the First Folio in 1623.1 The authorship of the earliest, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, has never been established.
In the pages that follow, I will summarize certain earlier research, and offer several new interpretations of evidence to demonstrate that these four plays about Prince Hal were written by the same man - Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford; that he wrote them in the order shown above; that he wrote the first, The Famous Victories, at a very early age, possibly in his teens; that in his last Prince Hal play, Henry V, he responded extensively, with both humor and sarcasm, to criticism of the first three by a fellow courtier-poet; and that he did all this by the spring of 1584, before he reached the age of thirty-four.
No scholar made a serious attempt to identify the author of The Famous Victories and to assess its relationship to the Shakespearean trilogy until 1928, when the Oxfordian B. M. Ward asserted that it was written by Edward de Vere, and that it was Shakespeare's principal source for his Henry IV and Henry V trilogy (270-73, 287). Although he was careful not to claim that Oxford was Shakespeare, Ward was received like many another bearer of an unorthodox message. First he was ridiculed; then he was ignored.
Many critics have wondered about the earliest products of Shakespeare's pen. Although the progression of plays reveals an increasing fluency of language and mastery of dramatic technique, even the earliest display a high level of sophistication in these areas. Where, then, are the playwright's earliest writings? And where are his first attempts to put a dramatic story on paper?
The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth has such striking similarities in terms of plot, characters, language, and historical background to Shakespeare's Henry IV and V trilogy that it is reasonable to inquire if it were his first attempt to dramatize the life of England's favorite king. The answers to three questions will supply the needed information: Did the author of the Shakespeare canon write it? Did Edward de Vere write it? When was it written?
The play was registered by Thomas Creede on May 14, 1594, but he did not publish it until 1598 (2). The single extant copy of this quarto comprises about sixteen hundred lines of prose printed as verse that later editors have divided into twenty scenes that alternate roughly between historical exposition and comic relief. It takes place during the same time period, and includes many of the same incidents and characters, as the Shakespearean trilogy.
The play has a poor reputation among literary scholars. It has been described as "crude," "primitive," "almost imbecilic," a "decrepit pot-boiler," and as "a medley of nonsense and ribaldry" (Pitcher 5). One of the most succinct judgments is by J. A. Symonds, who called it "a piece of uncouth, but honest old English upholstery" (378).
Regardless of its quality, however, the close relationship between The Famous Victories and the Shakespearean trilogy has been observed and debated for more than two hundred years. There are roughly three opinions:
The first is that The Famous Victories was itself derived from Shakespeare's trilogy-either by memorial reconstruction, or by deliberate abridgement or "dumbing down" for the public theater, or for a provincial production.
The second is that it was by another playwright, and was a source for Shakespeare's Henry trilogy.
The third is that Shakespeare wrote it himself, and later expanded it into his trilogy.
The first claim - that it was derived from Shakespeare's trilogy ("a piracy of the loose type" is the phrase used)(3) -- is certainly a minority view, and seems to violate common sense. It is accepted that the Henry IV and V plays are three of the finest history plays ever written. They were popular with the public, and contain a wealth of inspirational and patriotic speeches, such as that by Henry V that begins "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more," and many memorable comic lines, such as Falstaff's "The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life." Neither of these gems appears in The Famous Victories, and it defies understanding why any playwright or editor would discard them.
Why would any playwright discard Sir John Falstaff, the most famous comic character in the canon, and diffuse him into two or three unmemorable comics in The Famous Victories? It is hardly credible that a memorial reconstruction or a playhouse piracy of any of the Henry plays, or even of a more complete Famous Victories, would fail to include Falstaff or the pedantic Welshman Fluellen.
Most orthodox scholars agree that The Famous Victories was by another playwright, and was a source for Shakespeare's Henry trilogy, but they differ widely about how much he used it. Some say his use was minor, and that his principal source was Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1577 and reissued in an expanded version in 1587 (Chambers 1:383, 395; Norwich 139). Others, such as Geoffrey Bullough, say his debt was substantial (4: 167-68), and J. Dover Wilson wrote that "a very intimate connection of some kind exists between Shakespeare's plays and this old text" (Origins 3). Let us look at the nature of that connection.
Striking Similarities between The Famous Victories and the Henry Plays:
The events depicted in The Famous Victories neatly bracket those of Shakespeare's Henry trilogy. The first scene of The Famous Victories matches the second scene of Henry IV, Part 1, and the last scene of The Famous Victories, in which King Henry woos the French Princess Katherine, matches the last scene in Henry V, in which he does the same thing. The fifty-seven scenes in the Henry plays are a logical expansion of the twenty scenes in The Famous Victories. Thus the anonymous play might be seen as a rudimentary skeleton within the full body of the trilogy.
In 1954 C. A. Greer published a short essay in which he detailed Shakespeare's debt to The Famous Victories (238-41).
He cited fifteen plot elements that occur in both the anonymous play and in the Henry trilogy. Here are some examples: the robbery of the King's receivers; the meeting of the robbers in an Eastcheap Tavern; the reconciliation of the newly-crowned King Henry V with the Chief Justice; the new King's rejection of his comic friends; the gift of tennis balls from the Dolphin; Pistol's encounter with a French soldier (Derick's in The Famous Victories). Not only are all fifteen plot elements common to The Famous Victories and the Henry plays, they all occur in the same order.
Greer also listed forty-two specific details of action and characterization that occur in both The Famous Victories and in Shakespeare's trilogy. For example: the total of ten comic characters in each -- six who are partially duplicated and four who are exactly duplicated; Gad's Hill as the name of both a robber and the place of robbery; the reference to Prince Hal boxing the ear of the Chief Justice (dramatized in The Famous Victories and referred to in Henry IV, Part 1); Prince Hal's theft of the crown at his father's deathbed; the arrogance of the French in saying that Englishmen cannot fight without beef.
Again, not only are all forty-two specific details common to both, they occur in the same order. In fact, there is not a single scene in The Famous Victories that is not repeated in the Shakespeare plays.
In addition to the above similarities, there are several incidents and passages of dialogue attributed to historical characters in Shakespeare's Henry trilogy for which there is little or no evidence in the more than twenty historical chronicles available in the middle years of Elizabeth's reign (Taylor 28). However, many of them appear in The Famous Victories - the most notable being the scene in which Henry woos the French princess Katherine at the end of Henry V.
Lastly, it was the author of The Famous Victories who introduced the dramatic device of alternating comic scenes with those depicting characters from English history, a technique duplicated in the Shakespeare trilogy (Ribner 70-1). This is not indebtedness. This is ownership.
The third opinion about the relationship between The Famous Victories and the trilogy is that Shakespeare wrote the anonymous play first, and then expanded it into his Henry IV and Henry V plays.
In 1961 the orthodox scholar Seymour Pitcher published an entire book to support the claim that in writing his Henry trilogy Shakespeare used The Famous Victories "ingeniously" and "instinctively." "He knew it by heart, by total assimilation" -- because he wrote it himself (6, 182-3).
To Greer's catalogue of similarities, Pitcher added his own list of elements of plot, characterization, and language in The Famous Victories that recur in other Shakespearean plays. The character of the stubborn porter, for instance, appears again in Comedy of Errors, Timon of Athens, and Macbeth. The idea of the dagger as a proof of remorse shows up again in Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, and Richard III. Prince Hal's condescending banter with the coy Princess Katherine, whom he calls Kate, is repeated by several Shakespearean characters, notably Hotspur, Petruchio, and Dumaine in Love's Labour's Lost.
The exchange of identities by which Derick and John Cobbler pretend to be Prince Hal and the Chief Justice in The Famous Victories is another Shakespearean trademark - the play within the play. This particular scene is duplicated in Act II of Henry IV, Part 1. There are numerous other examples (Pitcher 94-103).
In an article published even before Ward's study, James Monaghan found the origins of Falstaff in two characters in The Famous Victories- Sir John Oldcastle and Derick the Clown, especially the latter (354-5). He concluded: "A superficial examination of the two plays [The Famous Victories and Henry IV, Part I] will show that in each we have a swaggering soldier, in service against his will, aggressive when his enemies are unarmed, and running away when they are armed; in each he is a coward, braggart, glutton, thief, rogue, clown and parasite; in each he has the same monumental unblushing effrontery and loves a jest even at his own expense" (358). He might have added that in each play the swaggering soldier is a companion of Prince Hal, and tends to lead him into mischief.
Any objective and unbiased scholar reviewing these facts would have to agree that there is overwhelming internal evidence that the author of the Shakespeare canon wrote The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. But other than Pitcher, and the freethinking critic Eric Sams, no orthodox Shakespearean scholars accept this attribution. In The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, Irving Ribner wrote that "the suggestion . . . that the play represents an early work by William Shakespeare need scarcely be taken seriously" (68). Samuel Schoenbaum called it "a preposterous thesis" (167).
The circumstances of the play's printing are little help in determining who wrote it. Although Thomas Creede printed The Famous Victories in 1598 without an author's name, and in the same year put Shakespeare's name on a Richard III quarto, his reliability for correctly assigning authorship is poor. In the decade after 1594 he printed several Shakespeare plays anonymously, including Romeo and Juliet, and in 1605 he attached Shakespeare's name to The London Prodigal (Campbell 155). By 1598 half a dozen Shakespeare plays had been printed anonymously, including The History of Henrie the fourth, and it was not until that same year that any play appeared with Shakespeare's name on it.
In 1920 H. D. Sykes suggested that Samuel Rowley, a dramatist who emerged only in the late 1590s, had written The Famous Victories (16). Sykes based his case largely on stylistic grounds, and on the coincidence that a play about Henry VIII with a clown in it was published in 1605 with Rowley's name as author. There is no other evidence to connect The Famous Victories with Rowley, who was apparently born about 1574.
Alice-Lyle Scoufos, in her valuable study, Shakespeare's Typological Satire, suggested that the author of The Famous Victories was Henry Evans, a Welshman who was intermittently a manager of boys' playing companies between 1583 and 1608-including the one patronized by the Earl of Oxford (179). But there is nothing to connect Evans with the play, and no evidence that he ever wrote anything.
Evidence of de Vere's Authorship
The second question is: Did Edward de Vere write The Famous Victories?
Since the appearance of B. M. Ward's article in 1928, most Oxfordians have asserted that de Vere wrote the anonymous play, and later expanded it into the Henry trilogy. Ward offered the following evidence:
The playing company named on the title page of The Famous Victories, the Queens Men, had a connection with the Earl of Oxford. When the company was assembled in 1583, leading players were taken from three or four existing companies that had all recently appeared at Court, including one sponsored by the Earl of Oxford (Chambers 1:28).
The notorious prank robbery at Gad's Hill is the first comic incident in both The Famous Victories, and Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I. The difference is that in the former play Prince Hal has just participated in the robbery, but in the Shakespeare play he only robs the robbers, and then promises to pay back the money.
The incident is ultimately based on a passage in The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth, an anonymous biography written in 1513. According to the account in this manuscript, Prince Hal and his "younge Lords and gentlemen would await in disguised aray for his own receiuers, and distres them of theire money," which he later restored to them (Kingsford, First English Life 17).
The playwright of The Famous Victories crystallized this vague reference into a single robbery at a particular place-Gad's Hill in Kent-and on a particular date-"the 20th day of May last past, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord King Henry the Fourth" (Pitcher 24), that is, in 1413. As Ward first pointed out, the date is spurious, Henry IV having died in March of 1413.
But if the date is spurious, the incident itself has a striking Elizabethan counterpart. Among the letters surviving in the Elizabethan State Papers is one dated May, 1573 from two servants of Elizabeth's Treasurer, Lord Burghley, complaining to him that they have been ambushed and shot at by three men in the employ of the Earl of Oxford (Ward 285-6).
Thus the incident is strongly associated with the Earl, and it is reasonable to suggest that he actually took the idea for the robbery from his reading of the anonymous manuscript, which was also used by de Vere's contemporaries, John Stow and Rafael Holinshed (Kingsford Early Biographies 73-4).
The most telling piece of evidence supporting Oxford's authorship, however, is the treatment of the obscure Richard de Vere, eleventh Earl of Oxford, who died in 1417 at the age of thirty-one, and has never even merited an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Nor do the English chroniclers of the reigns of Henry IV and V mention the eleventh Earl, except to say that he was present with Henry V at Agincourt in 1415.
But in The Famous Victories the eleventh Earl of Oxford is everywhere. He is one of the main characters in the play, and speaks eighteen times in seven scenes, more than any other historical character except the Lord Chief Justice and the two Henrys. He is the first historical character to speak, except for Prince Hal, and he speaks only to Henry IV or to Prince Hal, who is crowned King between the eighth and ninth scenes.
More than that, in the anonymous play Richard de Vere has been elevated to the place of Henry IV's principal counselor, even though the chronicles record that the King's counselors were the Earls of Exeter and Westmoreland, and the Duke of York.
Without any basis in the historical sources, the playwright of The Famous Victories portrays the eleventh Earl of Oxford in five separate incidents as generous, wise, informative, and brave. In the ninth scene Richard de Vere urges the new King Henry V to ignore the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury to attack Scotland, and instead invade France. This was in fact the course that Henry took, but in the chronicle sources it comes from the Earl of Exeter.
On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Oxford asks the King for command of the vanguard, but it has been promised to the Duke of York.
On the morning of the battle, Oxford brings information to the King about the number of French facing him, and a few moments later volunteers to take charge of the archers whom the King has ordered to plant sharpened stakes in the ground to break the French cavalry charge. (The English were badly outnumbered, and military historians agree that this strategem was the key to their victory.) To this request, Henry V replies, "With all my heart, my good Lord of Oxford. And go and provide quickly." Whoever wrote the play was a good friend of the House of de Vere.
There is no surviving documentation for these incidents, but it is conceivable that Edward de Vere relied on family records or recollections about the eleventh Earl. Or he may have made them up.
Even though all these references to the Earl of Oxford are absent from the Shakespearean trilogy, Daniel Wright has shown that several de Veres have prominent and flattering roles in other Shakespearean histories, some of them also undeserved, or at least unhistorical (1). And it is logical that such a tendency on the part of de Vere would be strongest in his earliest play.
We know that he wrote plays, and good ones. In 1598 Francis Meres asserted that Oxford was among the best comic playwrights (Chambers 2:194-95).
This evidence connects Edward de Vere more closely to The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth than to any other dramatic work.
The Date of The Famous Victories
The third question to be considered is the play's composition date.
That the play was at least ten years old when it was published is attested by clear documentary evidence that the comic actor Richard Tarlton, who died in September, 1588, played the role of the Clown (4). His fellow actor, William Knell, who played Prince Hal in the same production, died in June, 1587 (Palmer 140). This makes it certain that the play was written no later than the previous year-1586.
Evidence supporting an even earlier date is the fact that the commonly accepted sources of the play-Holinshed's Chronicles, in either edition, 1577 or 1587, and John Stow's Chronicles of England (1580)-are entirely unnecessary as sources for the historical events depicted. All the historical incidents in The Famous Victories, and even their particular details, can be found in Edward Hall's The Union Of The Two Noble And Illustre Famelies Of Lancastre And Yorke, published in 1548, or in earlier chronicles (Ward 280-81, 287). And in many cases they are closer to Hall than to Holinshed. Evidence that both Hall's work and another early chronicle, Robert Fabyan's New Chronicles of England and France, printed in 1516, were probably available to Oxford in the library of his boyhood tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, in the years before 1562 has been provided by Stephanie Hopkins Hughes (5).
Thus, it is a reasonable inference that the play was written before the first edition of Holinshed's Chronicles in 1577.
A final bit of evidence suggests that the play was written even earlier. The most recent analysis of the subject conclusively demonstrates that the writer of the Shakespeare canon must have had some kind of extended legal training (Alexander 110-11). The plays are shot through with legal terminology and legal concepts that are used with an aptness and accuracy that can no longer be questioned. A survey of legal terms and phrases appearing in Shakespeare's plays shows that they are most abundant in his history plays; they are used an average of forty-two times in each (Sokol 320-29). But in The Famous Victories they are absent, except for a few common words, such as "judge," "justice," and "heir"- words that might be used by any layman without legal training.
This suggests that Oxford wrote The Famous Victories as a teen-ager, even before he began his legal studies in 1567 at Gray's Inn. This is borne out by the plain prose, flat characters, and clumsy action of the play-all reflecting the first efforts at playwriting by a very young nobleman who in the mid-1560s had only Latin classics and a few crude models in English to guide him.
On the basis of this evidence-nearly all in print forty to eighty years ago-it is clear that The Famous Victories of Henry V is not an adaptation; it is not a memorial reconstruction, and it is not a playhouse piracy. The extant text is very likely close to de Vere's own copy. It is one of the earliest English history plays, and the first play by the man who eventually produced its finest examples.
New Evidence of an Early Date for Henry V
It is not clear when Oxford reworked his early version of the Prince Hal story into the fully-realized trilogy. It seems likely that he began by expanding the first half of The Famous Victories into the two Henry IV plays, and then transformed the last twelve scenes of it into Henry V. When might he have done this?
For more than a hundred years, one of the anchor bolts of Stratfordian scholarship has been the conviction that the composition date of Henry V can be fixed precisely in the spring of 1599. This is the moment, as it were, that orthodox critics claim that Shakespeare must have written the Chorus to Act V, in which this passage appears:
Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword . . .
It is regularly asserted that this passage refers to Robert Devereaux, second Earl of Essex, who departed London in March of 1599 to put down a serious Irish rebellion. However, a reinvestigation of the meaning and background of the passage reveals that it does not refer to Essex at all, and was not written in 1599, but at least fifteen years earlier, when Henry V was first seen by an Elizabethan audience.
Henry V was first mentioned in the Stationers Register on August 4, 1600, and the first Quarto was printed by Thomas Creede later in the month. Quartos Two and Three appeared in 1602 and 1619, and the play next appeared in the First Folio in 1623.
The Quarto versions are nearly identical to each other, but are only about half as long as the Folio text. The Quartos eliminate or transpose several entire scenes; they cut or shorten all the longer speeches; and they cut the Epilogue and all five distinctive speeches by the Chorus that introduce and explain each act before the characters take the stage. According to its most recent editor, no company has acted the Quarto version in the last three hundred and fifty years (Gurr 4).
There is still some dispute about which was written first, the Quarto or the Folio version, but a consensus has emerged that the text printed in the First Folio was the author's original composition, and that the Quarto version was extracted from his copy, and then printed in 1600 (Gurr 9). How, why, and by whom the Quarto version was derived from the original remain in dispute. The usual theories abound: playhouse piracy, memorial reconstruction, abridgement for playing on tour, etc. But for the present issue it does not matter. The best evidence is that the play was written, then cut, then played, and then printed in that order. The question is: When was all this done?
The orthodox dating of the composition of Henry V to the spring of 1599 is based upon a passage spoken by the Chorus prior to Act V, in which he describes the journey of Henry V from Agincourt, where he had just defeated the French, to Calais, to the English coast, and finally to London. The Chorus compares the crowds that poured out to meet him in London to those who swarmed after Julius Caesar when he returned victorious from Spain to Rome in 45 B.C. E.:
But now behold,
In the quick forge and working-house of thought,
How London doth pour out her citizens.
The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of th'antique Rome
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in;
The Chorus then introduces another comparison, one that might be similar, but that has not yet taken place:
As, by a lower but as loving likelihood,
Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him!
As T. W. Craik writes in the latest Arden edition of the play, "Nearly everyone agrees that in these lines 'the General' is Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, a popular figure because of his successful assault on Cadiz in 1596" (1-2). Another commentator states, "The likening of Essex to Henry V by Shakespeare himself in the chorus of the Folio version is indisputable" (Albright 729). Even the maverick scholar Eric Sams agrees that the passage refers to Essex, and adds that he was "the only living person to whom Shakespeare ever alluded anywhere in his work" (112). He seems to have overlooked the woman in the same line-Queen Elizabeth.
However, the claim that the passage refers to Essex is very likely wrong. There are at least five pieces of evidence to support this conclusion.
Evidence Against Essex as 'the General'
It is true that in early 1599 Elizabeth was facing the most serious Irish rebellion of her reign. It had been building for seven years under the leadership of the perennial rebel, Hugh O'Neill, second Earl of Tyrone, who had captured an English fort in August of 1598 and overrun the province of Munster in October.
It is true that early the next year, after much dithering, and in response to his own intense lobbying, Elizabeth placed Robert Devereaux in charge of a large army and dispatched him to Ireland to finally put an end to the rebellion. In his usual flamboyant style, Essex left London late in March of 1599 with great fanfare and a huge retinue.
But Essex not only did not bring back rebellion on his sword, he failed of his mission entirely. After landing at Dublin in mid-April, he embarked on a stumbling and lackluster campaign in the southern counties, and returned to Dublin early in July with a sick and depleted army. A frustrated Elizabeth ordered him to march to the north and attack Tyrone, but when the Earl set out a month later, he had trouble finding him, and when he did, he was reluctant to attack because Tyrone's army was twice the size of his.
Finally, in early September, Tyrone proposed a truce and Essex agreed to it -- an act that Elizabeth angrily repudiated. Essex hurried back to England, sneaked into London with a small party, and then burst unannounced into Elizabeth's bedroom to explain himself. She apparently received him amicably, but by midnight he was under house arrest, and he never saw her again. A few months later he was imprisoned, and then put on trial for his actions in Ireland, including bargaining with a traitor (Guy 447).
Obviously this was not the episode the playwright had in mind when he suggested that the "General of our gracious Empress" may soon be coming from Ireland "Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword." No one could have known what would happen in Ireland, but because of this embarrassing outcome, the period during which this passage would have to have been written was only about three months-from late March, when Essex departed for Ireland, to late June, when word began to reach London that his campaign was headed for disaster.
It strains credulity that a reference of this kind to a general who had set out with such fanfare, and then almost immediately come to grief-then scurried back to England and been arrested for his conduct, not to mention his attempted coup d'etat the next year, followed by his execution-could have remained in the text, and allowed into print by the editors of the First Folio.
The second reason why it is most improbable that the passage was written in 1599 and refers to Essex is the printing history of Henry V. The first Quarto appeared in August of 1600, just about sixteen months after the alleged composition date. As already mentioned, the entire Chorus part and half the remaining dialogue in the Folio version were absent from the Quarto, making it, in effect, a two-hour version of a three-hour play.
According to Andrew Gurr, the Quarto gives every appearance of a play that has been deliberately cut for performance by its owners, and its immediate printing is a mark of its authority as an official version (ix, 1). Thus, the Stratfordian theory requires the unlikely scenario of Shakespeare writing a three-hour play that is cut almost immediately for performance in two hours by his Lord Chamberlain's Men, and the cut version then printed. Surely the correct history of the composition, the staging, and the printing of Shakespeare's Henry V cannot be found in this sixteen-month period.
What is much more likely is that the longer Folio version was written, and probably performed, at some earlier date, perhaps for a private audience. When that version proved to be too long for popular consumption-and to have too many characters for the ordinary playing company-it was cut by a third for performance in the late 1590s, and then printed. The earlier and longer version survived in the author's cupboard, and then in the library of the Grand Possessors. As with many of Shakespeare's manuscripts, it only reached print in the First Folio, where it was attributed to him for the first time.
The third reason why the passage does not refer to Essex in 1599 has to do with Queen Elizabeth's own feelings about the Earl. For all her attraction to him, the Queen's fifteen-year relationship with Essex was as stormy as her own temperament, and as erratic as his, and she was always suspicious of his potential claim to the throne. An example of this is what happened to the historian John Hayward, who published a prose history of Henry IV early in 1599, to which he attached a fawning dedication in Latin to the Earl of Essex.
The Queen took the words of the dedication to suggest that if Henry IV had had as strong a hereditary claim to the throne as Robert Devereaux had now, he would have been more readily accepted as King after the death of Richard II. This, she said, was treason, and called for Hayward to be "racked" (Strachey 125). Her counselor, Francis Bacon, talked her out of it; but an order was issued that the dedication be cut from the book. John Hayward was put under surveillance and the next year thrown in the Tower. Even though his history was a best-seller, or perhaps because it was, he was still there when Elizabeth died three years later. Thus the political climate in the spring of 1599 was such that a playwright would take his life in his hands if he so much as mentioned the Earl of Essex in the same breath as Henry IV or Henry V (6).
The fourth reason why it is improbable that the passage, or any of the Chorus part, was written in 1599 is that its principal message was totally inappropriate to a Shakespearean history play at that time. Beginning with his very first line, and again before each act, and finally in the Epilogue, the Chorus continually apologizes for the limitations of his stage, his players, and his theater. By the orthodox reckoning, this was the ninth or tenth Shakespearean history play to reach the stage-a vast panorama of the English past, filled with marches, voyages, desperate battles, and scenes in foreign countries-all reduced to the same modest stage, the same limited company, and the same compressed time period.
As J. Dover Wilson wrote, ". . . why should the dramatist suddenly in 1599 begin apologizing for the incapacity of himself and his theatre to cope with a historical theme and battle-scenes, when such things had been one of their chief stocks-in-trade for the past half-dozen years?" (Wilson King Henry xiv). Why indeed? Wilson's only answer to his question is the unpersuasive argument that in Henry V Shakespeare had "no ordinary theme." A better answer will become apparent when the circumstances of the play's composition are considered below.
But the most convincing reason why it is unlikely that this passage was written in 1599 about the Earl of Essex has to do with its author.
Anyone who believes that Edward de Vere wrote what we call Shakespeare's Henry V may confidently rule out Robert Devereaux as the subject of this passage. The long-standing enmity between Essex and the Cecils is a matter of record, and even if Oxford was not always happy with the Cecils, it is clear that by the mid 1590s he wanted nothing to do with Essex. In his October, 1595 letter to Robert Cecil, Oxford rejected a suggestion that he approach the Earl of Essex for a favor, saying that it was "a thing I cannot do in honour, sith I have already received diverse injuries and wrongs from him, which bar me from all such base courses" (Chiljan 53). This makes it most improbable that less than four years later Oxford would refer to the "loving likelihood" that Robert Devereaux "the General of our gracious Empress" may in good time be coming from Ireland "Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword."
Sir Thomas Butler as "the General of our gracious Empress"
But if it was not Essex in 1599, who was it, and when was it? The answer to that will lead us to the composition date of Henry V, and perhaps of the Henry IV plays.
Although orthodox scholars are unanimous in their dating of Henry V to 1599, non-Stratfordians have not agreed on a particular date. There are several allusions in the pamphlets of Thomas Nashe, and in Henslowe's Diary, during the early 1590s, to plays, and passages in plays, that may have been the Shakespearean Henry IV and Henry V plays. These allusions have been endlessly debated by Stratfordian and Oxfordian scholars, who have reached the usual impasse.
As long ago as 1931 Eva Turner Clark suggested that Henry V was written in 1586, and that if "Holland" were substituted for "Ireland," then "the General" would refer to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom the Queen had dispatched to the Low Countries with an army late in 1585 to counter incursions by the Spanish (664). The history of antipathy between Oxford and Leicester rules out this possibility. But some delving into the history of Irish rebellion during Elizabeth's reign produces a much more likely scenario.
Before the protracted revolt of the 1590s, there were two serious uprisings in Ireland- known as the First and the Second Desmond Rebellions. The first took place in the 1560s, and the second developed in the late 1570s under the brothers James, John, and Gerald Fitzgerald, the leaders of the House of Desmond, an ancient Irish earldom in the southern province of Munster.
The Second Desmond Rebellion, also called the Munster rebellion, was a major conflict that threatened the Crown's authority and possessions in Ireland, and required a substantial mobilization of England's military apparatus. It attracted foreign intervention in the summer of 1579, and again a year later, when small armies of continental troops, described as primarily "Italian swordsmen," landed on the southwestern Irish coast, having been dispatched by Pope Gregory XIII (Lennon 222-24).
In November, 1579, after several years of protracted fighting and unsuccessful attempts at negotiation, the English administrators of colonial Ireland finally lost patience with the leader of the rebellion, the forty-six-year-old Gerald Fitzgerald, fourteenth Earl of Desmond, and declared him a traitor (Bagwell 3:30-1).
In her attempts to settle her Irish wars with as little expense as possible, Queen Elizabeth routinely offered pardons to even the most persistent rebels if they would lay down their arms and pledge their loyalty. But the Earl of Desmond had deceived and betrayed her too often. (She had pardoned him once before, and he had been in the Tower twice.) Finally conceding that he was an unreclaimable rebel, she declared him ineligible for a pardon, and offered "head money," a thousand pounds for his head.
Over the next few years, several different English commanders led armies into Munster with varying degrees of success, gradually killing or capturing hundreds of the Desmond rebels.
In the summer of 1580, James Fitzgerald was captured, hanged, and drawn and quartered (Bagwell 3:55).
By May, 1581, the English army in Ireland numbered more than sixty-four hundred men, and in early January of 1582, the youngest brother, Sir John of Desmond, was ambushed and killed. His turquoise and gold ring was sent to Elizabeth, and his head to the Governor of Ireland, Lord Grey of Wilton, as "a New Year's gift." Grey displayed it on a pole on a wall of Dublin castle (Bagwell 3:94).
In the summer of 1582, Lady Eleanor, the Countess of Desmond, traveled to Dublin and surrendered to Grey, but the Queen ordered that she be sent back to her husband, "unless she could induce him to surrender unconditionally" (Bagwell 3:96).
Nevertheless, the rebellion dragged on, and in December of 1582, on the advice of Sir Walter Raleigh, Elizabeth appointed Thomas Butler, tenth Earl of Ormond, as Governor of Munster, and her commanding general in Ireland.
Known as "Black Tom" because of his dark hair and complexion, Thomas Butler was the scion of one of the oldest and most prominent families in Ireland, and a major figure in Anglo-Irish relations throughout Elizabeth's reign. The Butlers had been in Ireland since the end of the twelfth century when Henry II had made grants of land to Theobald Fitzwalter, and given him the hereditary title of "Le Botiler," the king's chief butler in Ireland-from which the family then took its name (Grehan 20). Thomas Butler and Elizabeth Tudor were distant cousins, and were brought up together in the court of Henry VIII, Butler being six years older.
Young Tom was a boyhood companion of Edward VI, and at age fifteen was knighted by Edward on his accession to the throne in 1547. As a staunch supporter of the English colonial presence in Ireland, Butler carried out a variety of diplomatic and military missions there for Queen Elizabeth during the 1560s and 1570s. According to Sidney Lee, she was so fond of him during the 1560s that "the attentions she paid him . . . gave rise to no little scandal, and induced him to linger at court for the next five years" (DNB 80). He was active in court politics, being favored by the Cecils and aligned with the Sussex faction against the Earl of Leicester, whom he despised. In this context, he would have become acquainted with young Edward de Vere, who came to court in 1562.
"Rebellion broachèd on his sword"
When Thomas Butler arrived in Ireland in January 1583 to deal with the Desmond Rebellion, the situation in Munster had deteriorated badly. With two thousand men and two hundred horse, the Earl of Desmond was stronger than ever-threatening loyalist towns and ravaging the countryside (Falls 149). But a vigorous campaign by Butler during the spring and summer forced most of the individual rebel leaders to surrender, and reduced the rebellion to a small band of men loyal to Desmond.
By November Desmond had retreated into the area of Tralee in County Kerry, in the southwest corner of Ireland. Desperate for food and horses, twenty of his men raided the farm of the O'Moriarty family and stole some horses, household goods, and forty cows. The next evening two of the O'Moriarty brothers organized a posse of two dozen men and picked up the trail of the stolen cattle in pursuit of the rebels. The following details are from a deposition taken a few days after this incident (O'Moriarty 97-102).
After following the trail by moonlight into the woods of Glenageenty, some six miles inland from Tralee, the pursuers spotted smoke coming from a cabin at the bottom of the glen. They waited until dawn and then crept down and burst into the cabin. All the men but one rushed away, and one of the pursuers struck him with his sword, wounding him severely.
"I am the Earl of Desmond," he cried. "Save my life."
"Thou hast killed thyself long ago," said Owen O'Moriarty. "And now thou shalt be prisoner to the Queen's Majesty and the Earl of Ormond, Lord General of Munster" (Sheehan 107). They dragged him outside, but had to carry him because he was unable to walk. Afraid of being captured because Desmond's men were nearby, they beheaded the Earl and made their escape.
Desmond's head was taken to Thomas Cheston, constable of Castlemaine, "who brought it on his sword point to Thomas Butler in Cork" (Sheehan 108). In his letter to Lord Burghley recounting the death, the Earl wrote "So now is this traytor come to the ende I have longe looked for, apointed by God to dye by the sword to ende his rebellion . . . " (GB. PRO 478). The summary of Ormond's subsequent letter to Burghley contains the brief sentence: "Sends Desmond's head by the bearer" (GB. PRO 480).
According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth "would not believe the news of the earl's death until she saw his head, and when it was brought to her, she stared at it for hours" (Sheehan 108). In mid-December of 1583 she had it mounted on a pole and placed on London Bridge (Stow 1176).
As we know, the heads of criminals on London Bridge were nothing unusual, but this rebel's head was sent from Ireland to London by a general who had been dispatched there to put down a rebellion. What more striking metaphor could Oxford have used for this grisly incident than "Rebellion broachèd on his sword"? (The Oxford English Dictionary cites the use of the verb "broach" in this specific passage to support the definition "To stick (something) on a spit or pointed weapon").
Thus, all the elements in the famous passage are identified and associated with actual events and people: "the General of our gracious Empress" being Thomas Butler, tenth Earl of Ormond, a favorite of the Queen, who appointed him Lord General of her forces in Ireland; "As in good time he may, from Ireland coming," referring to his mission in Ireland, and suggesting that he may yet come to London in triumph, as did Henry V. When he had not come by the end of January, Queen Elizabeth wrote him in her own hand on the 31st congratulating him on his success, and asking that he come to England to receive her thanks. For political reasons his return was delayed, but he finally returned to London about the middle of May, 1584 (Carte 1: cv-cvi).
Orthodox scholars point to "the playwright's preoccupation with Irish affairs" (Taylor 8) as additional evidence for a dating to the spring of 1599, when Essex was sent against the rebellion. There is no doubt that Ireland is mentioned several times in the text; an Irish character makes his first appearance in a Shakespeare play; and Pistol's doggerel at IV, iv, 12 includes a refrain from a popular Irish ballad.
But these facts apply equally to the early 1580s when Elizabeth and her Privy Council were struggling with the Second Desmond Rebellion and the suffering of the Irish people was causing much comment by English observers. Indeed, the last example is much more supportive of the earlier date than the later. The garbled Irish phrase "Calin o custure me" that Pistol shouts at the terrified Frenchman is a corruption of the title and refrain of an Irish ballad "Cailín óg a stór" (meaning "Young girl, O treasure") that was registered for publication in March, 1582 (Arber 2:407). It was issued on a broadside between that date and 1584, when it was included in the ballad collection A Handful of Pleasant Delights (Rollins viii), so a reference to it was clearly more topical in the early 1580s than in 1599.
Two other candidates for "the General" have been proposed - Sir John Norris and Charles Blount, eighth Lord Mountjoy. In 1595 the Queen put Sir John Norris in command of a small army and dispatched him to Ireland against the rebel Hugh O'Neill. But over the next two years Norris' campaign floundered, and in May, 1597 he was superseded by another commander. Norris died a few months later (DNB 130-2), and O'Neill was still at large in 1599 when Essex was sent against him. There was nothing in Norris' campaign that would have suggested to the playwright that he would return to London bringing "rebellion broachèd on his sword."
The theory that Lord Mountjoy was "the General" was advanced by W. D. Smith in 1954. He also proposed that the Choruses were not Shakespeare's work (38-57). Both these notions were refuted by Robert A. Law two years later (11-21), and today they have little or no support among critics or editors. It is true that Mountjoy succeeded Essex, and traveled to Ireland in February, 1600 to take command of the English army pursuing O'Neill. But it was not until March, 1603, after Elizabeth's death, that O'Neill finally submitted, and the settlement allowed him generous concessions and a royal pardon (Guy 367). Again, there was nothing about this campaign or its result that would give rise to Oxford's trenchant metaphor.
If this analysis is correct, it places the composition of the Chorus's lines prior to Act V, and of the remainder of the Chorus role in Henry V, and very probably of the play itself, not in 1599, but in the six month period between mid-November, 1583 and mid-May, 1584, just a few months after the thirty-three-year-old Edward de Vere had regained the favor of the Queen, and returned to his place at court. A patriotic play about an English king's victory in France would have pleased her greatly-and a reference to the recent conclusion of a lengthy rebellion in Ireland by one of her favorite generals would have been doubly satisfying.
This dating of Henry V to 1583/84 strongly supports the cumulative evidence adduced above for Edward de Vere's authorship of the Prince Hal plays. In combination, this evidence virtually eliminates the authorship theory based upon William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, who was nineteen years old at this time, and living in his home town with his wife and infant daughter, probably with his parents. Their twins would be born in February, 1585.
Further evidence of the date and authorship of Oxford's four Prince Hal plays comes from a previously unnoticed connection between them and Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry.
The Prince Hal Plays and Sir Philip Sidney
The relationship between Sidney and Shakespeare has long been a subject of literary interest. Although neither Sidney nor Edward de Vere referred to the other in his letters, their contemporaries record that between 1569, when the fifteen-year-old Sidney was briefly a rival of de Vere's for the hand of Anne Cecil, and Sidney's death in 1586, they came into contact on several occasions. In their notorious "tennis court quarrel" in 1579, Oxford was said to have called Sidney a "puppy," but a clear picture of their relationship before that incident, or during Sidney's last years, has not emerged.
Their literary connections are more apparent, and scholars have found numerous passages in Sidney's writings that they think are echoed, imitated, or reworded in the Shakespeare canon. Beginning with John T. Looney in 1920, several Oxfordian scholars have seen satirizations of Sidney in Love's Labour's Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Twelfth Night. Now, there is convincing evidence of a startling and historic exchange between Elizabeth's two most brilliant courtier-poets.
Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry is a discourse on the nature and purpose of poetry that remains a seminal work of Elizabethan criticism. Although it was not published until 1595, Sidney's biographers uniformly assign it to the years 1581-83, most agreeing on 1582 (Duncan-Jones Courtier Poet 230; Robinson xvi). Near the end of An Apology, Sidney digresses from his main subject and inserts a fourteen-hundred-word commentary that is highly critical of the English drama. In it are what appear to be at least three references to Oxford's Prince Hal plays, and it is in the fourth of these, Henry V, that we find his reaction to Sidney's comments about his dramatic techniques in the first three.
In the middle of his digression Sidney criticizes his country's playwrights because "all their plays be neither right tragedies, nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns not because the matter so carrieth it, but thrust in clowns by head and shoulders, to play a part in majestical matters, with neither decency nor discretion, so as neither the admiration and commiseration, nor the right sportfulness, is by their mongrel tragi-comedy obtained" (Duncan-Jones Critical Edition 244).
At the time Sidney wrote, the English stage had seen less than half-a-dozen plays now extant that included in their casts a king and a clown, that is, a comic character. Two of these were Robert Preston's Cambyses and Richard Edwards' Damon and Pythias. However, in neither of these did a clown and a king appear in the same scene.
But in The Famous Victories, most likely written in the 1570s, three comic figures, including Sir John Oldcastle, the progenitor of Falstaff, appear with Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, in the very first scene. There are five comics surrounding Prince Hal in scene four, when he gives the Chief Justice a box on the ear, and in scene five Prince Hal cuts up with Ned, Tom, and Oldcastle until King Henry IV enters, accompanied by the Lord of Exeter. In scene nine, the new King Henry V chastizes Ned, Tom, and Oldcastle, and orders them to keep ten miles from him on pain of death, just as he does in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part Two. Five of the next eleven scenes contain only clowns. A play ostensibly about England's renowned warrior-king, The Famous Victories is so riddled with clowns that it might rightly be called a comedy punctuated by historical relief.
A few years later, In his two Henry IV plays, Oxford brought the technique of mingling clowns and kings to its finest moment with his most memorable comic character, Sir John Falstaff, sharing the stage, the action, the language, and the affection of the audience with two kings of England.
According to Irving Ribner, the well-known historian of Elizabethan drama, it was the author of The Famous Victories who introduced the dramatic device of alternating comic scenes with those depicting English history, a technique duplicated in the Shakespearean trilogy (70-1). Thus, when Philip Sidney objected in 1582 to the "mingling" of kings and clowns, it is highly probable that he had in mind the man who first brought English kings and clowns together on the stage - Edward de Vere.
In another passage in the same digression, Sidney protested that "our comedians think there is no delight without laughter," and explained that "Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling." Furthermore, English playwrights "stir laughter in sinful things, which are rather execrable than ridiculous: or in miserable, which are rather to be pitied than scorned. For what is it to make folks gape at a wretched beggar or a beggarly clown; or against law of hospitality, to jest at strangers because they speak not English so well as we do?" (Duncan-Jones Critical Edition 245).
A survey of Elizabethan drama reveals that "strangers," or foreigners, speak broken English in only two surviving plays that were staged before Sidney wrote An Apology for Poetry (7). The anonymous Morality, Wealth and Health was staged fifteen years before Sidney wrote, and The Rare Triumphs of Love And Fortune, also anonymous, was staged at the end of 1582, possibly after he wrote. Sidney may have been referring to these two, or others that have been lost, but another play he might have seen was The Famous Victories, in which scene thirteen consists entirely of a comical conversation among three French soldiers, a drummer, and a Captain. Although the Captain speaks perfect English, the others misuse "me" for "I," "sh" for "ch," and "t" for "th."
Sidney's An Apology for Poetry was not published until 1595, nine years after his death, but it is well known that manuscripts of his works circulated among the literati years before they appeared in print (Woudhuysen Sir Philip Sidney 234; Duncan-Jones Critical Edition 397, n. 7). Thus there is a strong likelihood that Edward de Vere had access to a copy shortly after it was written in 1582, and the evidence for this is found in Henry V, composed the next year, where he reacts to Sidney's complaints by expanding and elaborating one of the offending dramatic devices, and then mocking and retorting sarcastically to another.I suggest that in response to Sidney's criticism of the use of strangers and their broken English in The Famous Victories Oxford turned it up a notch in Henry V. Here he not only retained the French soldier scene, but added scenes between Princess Katherine and her maid in Act III (scene 4), and between Katherine and Henry V in Act V (scene 2), in which he exploited Katherine's ignorance of English for comic purposes. The former scene then drifts into sexual innuendo of a kind that embarrasses even modern Shakespearean scholars (8). Although Shakespeare's plays are full of sexual puns and bawdy reparteé, this was perhaps an extra dose intended to twit the priggish Sidney, who was a well-known advocate of propriety and decorum in poetry.
Furthermore, in Henry V Oxford introduced three additional characters, each of whom contributes his own regional dialect and stereotypical behavior. In the second scene of Act III, sometimes called the "international scene," Fluellen, a Welshman, Macmorris, an Irishman, and Jamy, a Scotchman, join the Englishman Gower in a conversation about the tactics of siege warfare that becomes a celebration of the comic mispronunciation of English.
If Sidney found foreigners speaking broken English unfunny on the stage, he must have hated Henry V.
Some years later, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, a play closely related to the Henry IV and V plays, Oxford assigned to Dr. Caius the identical mistakes made by the Frenchmen in The Famous Victories - another indication that the play was written by the author of the Shakespeare canon.
There is even stronger evidence of this historic exchange between these two giants of Elizabethan literature. In the same section on drama in An Apology for Poetry, Sidney complains that English playwrights abuse the Aristotelian principle of unity of place, and make outrageous demands upon their audiences' imagination:
"Now ye shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of shipwreck in the same place, and then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave. While in the meantime two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field?" (Duncan-Jones Critical Edition 243).
At the time Sidney wrote, few pitched battles, as distinguished from two-man duels, had been presented on the English stage (Edelman 13, 52), and it is highly probable that any he had seen would have been in Oxford's history plays. There is at least one battle scene in each of the Henry VI plays, one in Richard II, and several in Edward III, all these written and staged, according to orthodox scholarship, before Henry V, and thus before Sidney wrote. His complaint about "two armies" flying in, "represented with four swords and bucklers," may well have been directed at The Famous Victories because that is exactly what takes place at the opening of scene fifteen, when the stage direction "The Battle" signals a depiction of the Battle of Agincourt. The evidence for this conclusion is the lengthy satirical response to Sidney's complaints that Oxford made in the next play he wrote, culminating in an extraordinary retort by the playwright when he again presented the Battle of Agincourt on stage.
In Henry V, where the second half of The Famous Victories is more fully dramatized, Oxford used the device of a Chorus to respond to Sidney's criticism. The Choruses preceding each of the five acts in Henry V are monologues by an actor who sets the scene, explains the action, and urges the audience to suspend disbelief and imagine the physical place suggested by the dialogue. The first Chorus, or Prologue, is devoted entirely to answering Sidney's complaint that the audience must imagine too much:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven on invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
. . .
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
. . .
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder;
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs I' th' receiving earth.
The speaker ends this lengthy rather tongue-in-cheek appeal with a last request:
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who, prologue-like, your humble patience pray
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Less than four hundred lines later, at the beginning of Act II, the Chorus is again asking the audience to bear with him:
The King is set from London; and the scene
Is now transported, gentles, to Southampton.
There is the playhouse now, there must you sit;
And thence to France shall we convey you safe,
And bring you back, charming the narrow seas
To give you gentle pass; or, if we may
We'll not offend one stomach with our play.
Before Act III a similar exhortation by the Chorus ends with the line:
Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind.
The Choruses to Acts IV and V, each about fifty lines long (9), are similar adjurations to suspend disbelief, and it is in the Chorus to Act IV that we find what must be a personal retort to Sidney by Oxford about his method of portraying battles in the playhouse. The speaker sets the scene-and one can easily imagine Edward de Vere himself on the stage10 - by describing the fear and tension in the French and English camps on the night before Agincourt. But in the last six lines he speaks about the battle itself:
And so our scene must to the battle fly,
Where-O for pity!-we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.
"O for pity!", Oxford writes, that "we shall much disgrace" the name of Agincourt by portraying it with just four or five fellows armed only with light and blunted weapons used in fencing. This is clearly a reference to Sidney's "two armies . . . represented with four swords and bucklers," and many editors have pointed to the similarity of the two phrases. But most of them merely quote the passage in Sidney or direct the reader to it. In the latest Arden edition, T.W. Craik comments that "Shakespeare echoes Sidney's criticism of stage conventions " (256).
But with the exclamation "O for pity!" Oxford is not "echoing" Sidney-- he is deriding him. The phrase is facetious, even sarcastic. In fact, the entire device of apologetic Choruses before each act in Henry V is best read as a witty rebuff of Sidney's complaint that English dramatists strain their audiences' imagination with the exotic settings of their plays (11).
Samuel Johnson was the first critic to remark on the incongruity of the Chorus's apologies. " . . . nor can it be easily discovered," he wrote, "why the intelligence given by the Chorus is more necessary in this play than in many others where it is omitted" (Woudhuysen Samuel Johnson 211).
Today, we are entitled to ask why, other than facetiously, would the playwright in the six Chorus speeches in Henry V refer to the limitations of his stage, and ask the forbearance of his audience more than thirty times? As noted above, such a welter of apologies would have been totally inappropriate in his ninth or tenth history play. My answer is that he did so to rebuke the fatuous Sidney whom, a few years before, on the tennis court, he had called "a puppy."
Although many critics have noticed the connection between Sidney's complaints and the Henry V Choruses, only one that I know of has taken the next step and suggested a motivation. In a 1987 article, Sharon Tyler wrote: "It is tantalizing but pure speculation to see Shakespeare deliberately taking up the artistic gauntlet flung by Sidney" (76). It is more than tantalizing, it is irresistible. Oxford takes Sidney's contemptuous phrase about "four swords and bucklers," turns it into poetry, and flings it back in Sidney's face:
four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous
But then, instead of attempting any serious depiction of a battle, as he did in the Henry VI plays, he inserts only two words in the stage directions - "Alarm" and "Excursions." He then trots out Pistol and his Frenchman, and the Boy, who engage in another comic dialogue in French and English that takes its humor from Pistol's bluster and fractured French. We may have, in the Choruses of Henry V, Shakespeare's first response to a bad review.
If these Choruses are actually the retort to Sidney that they appear to be, they supply further evidence that the same man wrote The Famous Victories and the Shakespearean trilogy.
Secondly, this clear connection between Henry V and Sidney's An Apology for Poetry strongly suggests that the two were written close in time to each other, in the early 1580s. Oxford's response to Sidney must have been written before Sidney's death in 1586. As we know, Sir Philip died of wounds sustained in a cavalry charge on the battlefield, and was given a hero's funeral of a type usually reserved for great noblemen. He was an extremely popular supporter and patron of literature, and the recipient of more than forty literary dedications. On his death almost every English poet composed verses in his praise. It is unlikely that after this hero's death Oxford would have openly mocked his opinions about the English drama.
There is further evidence that Sidney was criticizing Oxford An Apology for Poetry. Following his complaints about dramatists, he takes aim at "prose-printers": "Now for similitudes, in certain printed discourses, I think all herbarists, all stories of beasts, fowls, and fishes are rifled up, that they come in multitudes to wait upon any of our conceits; which certainly is as absurd a surfeit to the ears as possible . . . a most tedious prattling" (Duncan-Jones Critical Edition 247, 389).
Critics have identified this passage as a reference to Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580), both by Oxford's protégé John Lyly, who dedicated the latter to him (Shepherd Apology 230; Duncan-Jones Courtier 237). In her biography of Sidney, Katherine Duncan-Jones suggests that in another passage, where he complains about "derivative and unconvincing love poets," he is referring to Thomas Watson and his collection of one hundred poems about love-Hekatompathia - which Watson dedicated to Oxford in the spring of 1582 (Courtier Poet 237; Heninger xiv-xvi).
The fact that neither Oxford's plays nor Sidney's Apology reached print until many years after they were written reflects their authors' indifference to publication, indeed, their distaste for poets whom Sidney described as those "who think it enough if they can be rewarded" by the printer (Duncan-Jones Critical Edition 241).
The fixing of the composition date of Henry V in 1583/84 marks an important milestone in establishing the chronology of Shakespeare's history plays. It makes it most likely that the Henry IV plays were written in the immediately preceding years. The last six lines of the precise fourteen-line Shakespearean sonnet that is the Epilogue to Henry V tell us that the Henry VI trilogy was already a staple of the stage:
Henry the Sixth in infant bands crowned King
Of France and England, did this king succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed,
Which oft our stage has shown; and for their sake
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.
As there are no other extant Elizabethan plays about Henry VI, virtually all modern scholars agree that Shakespeare completed the Henry VI-Richard III tetralogy before his Prince Hal series, and most of them think that the Henry VI trilogy, to the extent that he wrote it, was his first attempt to dramatize English history. This rough sequence accords with the evidence presented above, but only in terms of sequence. With the exception of Henry VIII, Shakespeare's history plays must be dated to the decade before 1584, and The Famous Victories earlier still. The traditional dating of c1588-1599 can no longer be sustained.
1. The wording of the title pages of the acknowledged Shakespearean plays is most accessible in Bartlett (25-29) or in Chambers (1:375-78; 388-89), and that of The Famous Victories in Pitcher (167).
2. Chambers (1:383-4) speculated that a quarto, now lost, had been issued in 1594.
3. Cairncross 144. For the view that the published text was a "memorial reconstruction" of two other plays about Henry IV and V, see Wilson Origins 9-10.
4. The evidence consists of a passage from Tarlton's Jests (1611), describing his role as the Clown. Quoted by Pitcher 180-1.
5. Private communication from Hughes. Both books appear on an inventory of the library of Sir Thomas Smith, with whom Edward de Vere lived from 1556 to 1562.
6. Another indication of the political climate is a June, 1599 letter to Venice from George Fenner, a London businessman, who wrote: "It is forbidden, on pain of death, to write or speak of Irish affairs; what is brought by post is known only to the Council; but it is very sure that Tyrone's party has prevailed most" (Altman 12).
7. Clough 268, Table 1. Clough also lists Hymenaeus (1579), but its text is in Latin, and Fredericus, the "foreigner" employs a medley of Latin, Dutch, and German.
8. Norwich 212. The device of the French lesson in Henry V is unprecedented in English drama, and is repeated in the Latin lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor (IV. I). However, it was common in French farces of the time, which typically employed the sexual innuendo present in both Shakespeare plays (Radoff 427-8, 435).
9. In the First Folio there is no Chorus preceding Act IV, which is actually marked "Actus Tertius." The second half of the original Chorus to Act III (marked Actus Secundus" in the Folio) was transferred to its current place preceding Act IV by later editors.
10. "I am inclined to believe . . . that . . . the part of the Chorus . . . had been originally played by an actor called William Shakespeare." Wilson King Henry V p. xiii.
11. Thaler makes the same observation on pp. 19-20. Robert Ornstein writes, "the apology is as sly as it is gratuitous" (176). A similar viewpoint is expressed by Erickson (9-10).
Albright, Evelyn M. "The Folio Version of Henry V in Relation to Shakespeare's Times." Publications of the Modern Language Association. 43 (1928): 722-56.
Alexander, Mark Andre. "Shakespeare's Knowledge of Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument." The Oxfordian. 4 (2001): 51-120
Altman, Joel B. "Vile Participation: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V." Shakespeare Quarterly. 42 (1991): 1-32.
Arber Edward ed. A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1554-1640 A.D. 5 vols. 1875-94. Reprint, New York: Peter Smith, 1950.
Bagwell, Richard. Ireland Under the Tudors. 3 v. London: Longmans Green & Co., 1909-16.
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