February 15th

The culmination of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy made its way into print in 1600, thanks to the printer Thomas Creede. What records we have indicate that this was not so long after the first performance of the play, around 1598 or 1599, a date that would have roughly coincided with the opening of a new playhouse, the Globe Theater. Attending and performing for this venue would have been an exciting prospect for playgoers and actors alike, and in the prologue and choral interludes of Henry V, that excitement makes itself most visible:

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 is remarkable for such between-the-act moments, when audiences are asked to compensate for the physical deficiencies of the theater by imagining the greatness of Henry, his army, and his unlikely victory against the French. And yet, for all that, the 1600 first edition of the play did not include these interludes, and it was not until the 1623 First Folio that they would be printed. Thomas Creede was hardly departing from standard practice when he made this omission, however. Here is the first page of the 1600 quarto, which opens with the play’s action rather than its coral fanfare:

And here is the end, which chronicles the union of Henry and Kate, but has been stripped of the epilogue–praising Henry as the “star of England” and foretelling the country’s demise under Henry VI–we have come to associate with the play:

Prologues—sometimes written by the play’s author, sometimes not—frequently served to introduce and conclude Elizabethan plays, acting as a throat-clearing gesture to help quell the unruly audiences at the beginning of the play; epilogues, meanwhile, offered the players and writers a moment to test out how the play was received by the audiences who just watched it (Think, for instance, of Rosalind’s epilogue at the end of As You Like It). As such, they were frequently used for the first performances of a play, but after that they were frequently discarded. The relatively ancillary status of epilogues and prologues alike meant that they made their way into print only occasionally. In this light, the 1623 Folio version of Henry V starts to look like one curious exception to standard printing practices, implicitly claiming the chorus to be—if only because it was Shakespeare who wrote it—an integral part of the history play it introduces, interrupts, and concludes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s