Re-reading Henry V I found myself enjoying the form of the final chorus in Act V. Whereas the previous choruses at the beginning of each act are written in blank verse, the final chorus is an epilogue in rhyme and is much shorter than the others.
Counting the lines I saw that there were fourteen. Examining the lines I saw they made up a perfect Shakespearean sonnet i.e. ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG.
We hear the unmistakable Shakespeare voice and – guess what? – he’s talking about himself. Shakespeare the poet is talking about Shakespeare the playwright:
“Our bending author hath pursued the story”.
He deploys his typical charming gambit of confident self-deprecation. Who would possibly agree with Shakespeare that his pen is “rough and all-unable”?
The third line is also remarkable for echoing Christopher Marlowe. “Infinite riches in a little room” is from The Jew of Malta. It is well documented that Shakespeare has alluded to that line in As You Like It when he has Touchstone say: “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.” The allusion to the line of Marlowe’s brilliantly doubles up as an allusion to the official account of Marlowe’s death.
Shakespeare’s “In little room confining mighty men” follows the tone of all the choruses in seemingly apologising to the audience for the theatre’s inadequacy; but it is undoubtedly a second variation on the famous line by Marlowe.
However, there is another poet and another variant. John Donne’s beautiful 21 line lyric ‘The Good Morrow’ has the well-known line:
“And makes one little room an everywhere”.
Interestingly, this is regarded as one of the earliest of Donne’s poems and was written while he was studying at Lincolns Inn from 1592. Marlowe’s play was written two or three years earlier. It seems highly likely that Donne would have seen The Jew of Malta and was therefore alluding to the popular Marlowe in his earliest work. It also seems he’d have written his variant before Shakespeare wrote either of his.
All the lines by Marlowe, Donne and Shakespeare compare and contrast “a little room” with something much greater.
“Small time” in Shakespeare’s chorus has a double meaning implying the short duration of a play compared to the longer duration of the subject matter but also the short lifespan of Henry V himself. In a way the poem is like modern cinema in that a true life story is followed by a few sentences explaining what happened to the characters afterwards. The sextet aptly introduces ‘Henry the Sixth’ and how the mismanagement of his infantile reign lost the gains made by his father. Shakespeare reminds his audience in the phrase “Which oft our stage has shown” of his earlier sequence of history plays about Henry VI – which New Oxford Shakespeare claim was co-written with Marlowe.
This is not an emotionally charged sonnet but an occasional sonnet, a discursive exercise and an entertainment. But it is a well-crafted and fast-moving sonnet which might have been addressed to the Globe thousands as well as the court hundreds.
Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d 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 hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.
“Infinite riches in a little room”
“And makes one little room an everywhere”
“a great reckoning in a little room”
“In little room confining mighty men”
One can imagine the London-based culture the poets were immersed in, all probably living in little rooms themselves. The Marlowe line must have made them all feel possessed of infinite riches when working in their Elizabethan garrets. Their aristocratic patrons had townhouses and country castles but were not so well endowed intellectually. This would surely have been a talking point in the taverns.
Finally it’s worth pointing out that that word ‘mighty’ has serious Marlovian connotations. This is because of Ben Jonson’s admiration for what he called “Marlowe’s mighty line”.