This Story Shall The Good Man Teach His Son …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d

— Henry V, IV:iii

Thus did William Shakespeare ensure that the astounding victory by the English forces led by King Henry V over the flower of French knighthood would indeed be remembered even nearly 600 years later.

It was on 25 October 1415 that the renowned battle of Agincourt took place in northern France. The day was the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispianus, the patrons of cobblers and leather workers. (The two saints with almost identical names makes it rather hard to follow some of the lines in Shakespeare’s wonderful play, such as that quoted above.) Some 5,500 English fighters met more than 20,000 French knights and soldiers.

The French, being on familiar home turf, having good lines of supply, and being fresh and well-rested, were supremely confident of victory in light of their overwhelming numbers. The English, sick, exhausted, and vastly outnumbered, knew that they had small hope of surviving the day. Yet they were forced to fight, for the French army had cut the English off from their base in Calais. And fight they did.

Henry V was a surprisingly skilled general. He positioned his soldiers on a narrow field bordered by thick forests, which greatly reduced the advantage of the heavily armored French knights because it provided no room for massed cavalry maneuver. Henry had his men up most of the night cutting stakes which they planted in the ground projecting sharp points to stall a cavalry charge. Shortly before dawn, a brief but intense rain fell, turning the field into a quagmire, further hampering heavy cavalry.

Behind the light and hastily erected palisade, Henry positioned his most powerful weapon: Welsh and English Longbowmen.

As had happened at both Crecy in 1346, and at Poitiers ten years later, the massed fusillades of the “clothyard shafts” of English arrows broke the French cavalry charges. The longbow was a formidable piece of artillery; it could shoot an iron-pointed arrow, accurately, over two hundred yards. The heavy English arrows rained down in incredible mass, killing the French horses and wounding the knights despite their heavy armor. Without their mounts, and weighted down by 40 to 50 pounds of armor, the French knights were almost helpless in the mud.

Once the supply of arrows had been used up, the longbowmen surged forward as foot soldiers. With daggers and axes and other improvised weaponry, they made quick dispatch of the struggling French knights. The result was slaughter, pure and simple.

As Shakespeare tells it, there were “ten thousand French That in the field lie slain.” And he places the English losses at “But five and twenty.” The battle was indeed a masterful and overwhelmingly one-sided victory for the undoubted underdog, but most historians make somewhat more plausible estimates of the actual numbers (there are surprisingly good records from those days.) The Encyclopedia of Military History uses the generally agreed upon figures of some 6,000 French killed versus about 400 English.

The Battle of Agincourt stands to this day as one of the most brilliant of military achievements, and one of the most lopsided victories for an underdog in the long history of human conflict. It is perhaps most well-remembered because of Shakespeare’s matchless, dramatic retelling of the story, especially his rendition of King Henry’s “pep-talk” before the battle, which has been even been broadcast at the start of Super Bowl coverage (in 1996.) But it would remain an important part of any study of battles and tactics even without Shakespeare.

One interesting footnote about this battle is of interest to students of the development of modern English. Henry sent his dispatches home to England to spread the news of his great victory. In a departure from tradition, he sent the dispatches in English rather than in French. This was basically a sensible propaganda decision, but it had a far-reaching impact, at last elevating English into the daily speech of Kings.

It is worth noting, however, that this famous victory would not be much remembered if it had no distinct tactical interest. It was all a waste. For this ferocious devastation had no real strategic importance, and it made relatively insignificant long-term impact upon the histories of France or England. Before a decade had passed, all that Henry had striven for was lost. But for an immortal victory, Henry V left no enduring legacy. A battle won is a battle won, but history is also formed by what takes place after the triumph.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

— Henry V, IV:iii

A Small Theater Burns

It was on this day, 29 June 1613, in Southwark, across London Bridge from the City of London proper, that the original Globe Theater burned to the ground. The destruction was a financial calamity for The King’s Men, the company which owned the facility, but the greater calamity is that the loss of the theater probably occasioned the loss of a great deal of material by and about William Shakespeare. Henry Wotten, who was there that day, wrote:

The King’s Players had a new play called All Is True forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty. [wadding from a stage-prop cannon landed on the thatched roof and ignited a blaze.] Being first thought but an idle smoke, and all eyes attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

The company lost its wardrobes and costumes and many “diverse papers.” Who knows what treasures were destroyed in that conflagration?

The Globe was rebuilt (with a fire-proof tile roof!) and it did a brisk business for another thirty years or so until it was finally closed for good during the puritanical restrictions of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Eventually the land was sold and new structures built on the site until the exact location of the original Globe was forgotten. In the early 1990s, excavation due to construction allowed the location of the original Globe to be determined.

About that time, Sam Wanamaker, an American actor and director, formed an organization to rebuild the Globe on or near its original location. In 1997, a new “Shakespeare’s Globe Theater” opened its doors. The building has been as authentically reconstructed as possible, based upon contemporary descriptions and the sole drawing of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse which survives (hard to imagine that only one drawing survives, but that’s all we have to date) as well as the evidence uncovered during archeological analysis of the site of the original Globe. The structure is genuine half-timber and plaster, and it has the distinction of being the first building to be built with a thatched roof in London since all such rooves were prohibited in the aftermath of the great fire of 1666.

It is worth noting that in Wotten’s account above, he refers to the play underway when the fire began as All Is True, yet most sources today say that the fire started during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The confusion stems from the fact that Shakespeare himself titled the play All Is True. It was the editors of the famous First Folio who entitled it Henry VIII. This was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and was written in collaboration with a lesser playwright, John Fletcher. Shakespeare’s last three plays are now accepted to be collaborations with Fletcher.

In the wake of the loss of the Globe, Shakespeare seems to have retired. Most scholars believe that he sold his share in the King’s Men to retire at last to his beloved Stratford and his wife, Anne Hathaway. He lived less than three years after his return to Stratford and is buried in the 12th century Trinity Church there, in a place of honor at the high altar.

That calamitous fire in 1613 is perhaps as much responsible as any other act or event for our limited information about Shakespeare. But in the past three decades an enormous amount of new documentary information has come to light about the actual person who was William Shakespeare. While we will probably always crave more specific data, it is plain that we have good hope of learning much more as the vast archives of England are explored.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: 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?

— Henry V; Prologue


There are far too many volumes about Shakepeare to even begin to attempt a significant listing, but two
works of the past few years are well worth a look for the interested generalist:

Will In The World Stephen Greenblatt; Norton, 2004: ISBN: 0393050572

This is a wonderfully well-written and enjoyably readable and comprehensive life of Shakespeare based upon all the newly available information as well as long-established scholarship. Greenblatt’s book is as entertaining as the best historical fiction while being informative and thought-provoking. I feel this by far bests Rowse’s 1963 biography which has been a “standard” for 40 years. Greenblatt makes the world of late sixteenth century/early seventeenth century England come alive.

Shakespeare Michael Wood; Basic Books, 2003: ISBN: 0465092640

This is a companion volume to Wood’s outstanding PBS series, In Search Of Shakespeare. In this book, Wood not only advances his case from the television series, but he greatly expands his argument in a far more detailed and convincing manner. Wood incorporates the latest information about Shakespeare into his unexpected conclusions, but he never overstates his argument nor does he make his point feel labored or strained. This is a terrifically entertaining and readable tour through some very complex history, and Wood makes sure it is always exciting. The book is very nicely illustrated as well, and I think that is a great plus.

A Great Reckoning In A Little Room …

It was on the 30th of May in 1593 that one of the most brilliant lights of the starry canopy that was the Elizabethan Literary World was extinguished. The poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in “a tavern in Deptford” allegedly in a fight about who owed how much for a food and drink bill.

In the eight years before he was killed, Marlowe transformed the entirety of the Elizabethan Literary World and the whole of English Theater. Marlowe pioneered blank verse in iambic pentameter (measured syllabic stress) as the correct meter for English dramatic writing. For centuries tortuous efforts to force English into the schemes and structures of classical Latin and Greek poetry had proven unsatisfactory. Marlowe’s genius was to understand that in “Modern” English, the stress rather than the length of a syllable was key.

Marlowe’s impact was so great that one may quite usefully divide English poetry into “Before Marlowe” and “After Marlowe.” And his impact upon the theater is greater still. There basically is no “Before Marlowe” in English drama. His plays, Dido Queene of Carthage, Tamburlaine Part I, Tamburlaine Part II, Massacre at Paris, The Jew of Malta, and above all Doctor Faustus, completely redefined and reset the standards for English drama. They were also terrific box office. The Lord Admiral’s Men made more off of one week of running Tamburlaine I than they had the previous six months. Marlowe was a sensation.

Marlowe was also well-paid for his work: in an age when a Cambridge-educated commoner such as Marlowe might do well to earn 10 pounds a year as a country parson, Marlowe was paid 6 pounds or more per play. But Marlowe was also a spendthrift with a desire for the finer things in life, and he undertook other means to increase his income, including counterfeiting and espionage. And he hung about with a scandalous gang of rakehells, scoundrels, and poets. Marlowe was evidently an epic drinker, an inveterate quarreler, and a libertine who was as unorthodox in his religious opinions as he was in his love affairs. In short, as was said of Byron 200 years later, he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

For several centuries, it was accepted that such a dissipated wastrel must naturally have come to an untimely end in some sort of divine retribution. But recent scholarship has uncovered a treasure trove of historical information from the archives of Queen Elizabeth I’s secret service and espionage operations, and court records have revealed a great deal about the behind-the-scenes goings on of that age.

In 2004, we saw the re-publication of Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe and in early 2006, Stanfurd English professor David Riggs’ biography The World of Christopher Marlowe appeared. Both books address the very distinct possibility that Marlowe was not a victim of chance violence but was the target of a “hit” arranged by the Royal Court to silence a man who had become too great a liability, and too popular to arrest or imprison. (Nicholl’s book reads like a thrilling whodunnit; Riggs’ biography is more academic and thus a bit drier.) Elizabethan politics were ruthless.

Marlowe died at the very height of his fame and popularity. His plays were sell-outs and his poetry was widely read among the genteel set. Only one thing could possibly unseat Marlowe from his foremost place in English literature: a genius even greater than his own. And, unfortunately for Marlowe, such a figure was beginning to write even as Marlowe was at his zenith: William Shakespeare.

At least one famous “Shakespeare” quotation is Marlowe’s:

Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

The line first appear’s in Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander.

Shakespeare uses this line in As You Like it (III:v) but he plainly was not merely plagiarizing, for he makes allusion to Marlowe (as the Dead Shepherd, Marlowe’s single most famous poem being The Passionate Shepherd) in the line immediately before:

Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,
Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

And a more intriguing reference is found earlier in that same play:

When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit
seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man
more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

A reckoning is here both a judgment and another name for a bill. Marlowe’s death was attributed to a dispute over a bill in a tavern in Deptford (which is how it’s reported in the entertaining 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.) But what makes this Shakespearean reference so interesting is this: the Queen’s Coroner’s inquest, with unheard-of speed, took depositions from the three witnesses who were with Marlowe that day, including his killer, Ingram Frizer, on the 2nd of June. These proceedings were not public nor were the records open. In the surviving Coroner’s inquest documents, the Queen’s Coroner concludes that Marlowe was killed in a great dispute about the reckoning in a little room in the house of Dame Bull at Deptford. Case closed. Very closed. No further investigation was conducted.

The odd thing is that this inquest document was sealed and unavailable until 1925. The lines in As You Like It indicate that Shakespeare may have seen the inquest report or talked with parties involved. Some even propose that Marlowe faked his death to escape political pressures and then induced the successful actor William Shakespeare to play the role of celebrity playwright, fronting for Marlowe. That does not seem likely, however. Marlowe’s plays are full of brilliant, immortal poetry, but lack the dramatic deftness and keen characterizations of Shakespeare’s work. But there seem to always be those who look for anyone but Shakespeare to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

What new research has been bringing to light is this: Shakespeare himself may have been involved in anti-government plots and espionage! Or maybe not. Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in The World published in 2004 is worth a look, as is Michael Wood’s four part PBS series, In Search of Shakespeare. Things are not always what they seem, And what we “know” is always subject to change.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love,

— Marlowe