Author: Unknown
Translator: Hussain Haddawy
Publisher: W. W. Norton Company (2008 Edition)
Bought from: Borders Singapore


The Arabian Nights (also known as One Thousand and One Nights) is a collection of stories from the Middle East and India. It is likely that these stories had oral origins. It is also not known where or when the first written copies were first made. There are several surviving extant manuscripts. Scholars divide these manuscripts into the Syrian branch (older, shorter) and the Egyptian branch (longer, emended).

There is no definitive set of stories. Indeed, the stories most modern readers have come to associate with The Arabian Nights, namely the Ali Baba and Aladdin stories, appear to be have been concocted by the first European translators.

What is the story about?

The first three stories in this collection, The Story of Sindbad the Sailor, The Story of ’Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, and The Story of ’Ala al-Din and the Magic Lamp, should be familiar to modern readers from various small and big screen adaptations. But it is interesting to note that there are two different genies and no magic carpet in the original version of the Aladdin story!

The fourth story, The Story of Qamar al-Zaman is one of the nucleus of stories found in all extant manuscripts of The Arabian Nights (although only a few pages of this story are extant in any Syrian manuscript). It is a multi-generation story of bravery and triumph over adversity. It is similar in tone to the other core stories of The Arabian Nights. There is also a story within the story itself.

What about the book?

This is the companion piece to Hussain Haddawy’s translation of a 14th century Syrian manuscript titled The Arabian Nights (1990).

Finally …

Easy reading.



Author: William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)
Editors: Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Publisher: Modern Library (2008 Edition)
Bought from: Book Depository


This is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular comedies. It mixes Greek mythology and English country folklore. It is possibly the easiest of all of Shakespeare’s plays to introduce to a young audience – if the story and language are taken at face value.

The play was probably written between 1595 – 96.

What is it about?

The play begins in Athens where Theseus is preparing for his wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Four young Athenians, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena, are caught up in a love ‘square’. The play is the source for the phrase “The course of true love never did run smooth” (1.1.136).

How could it when the four lovers are caught in the middle of a spat between Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of Fairies. Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck), a hobgoblin in Oberon’s service, contributes to the chaos when he mistakes Lysander for Demetrius.

The last set of characters are the “rude mechanicals” or uneducated manual workers who are putting together a play for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. They provide most of the laughs, especially Bottom, the biggest role of the play. Quince, playwright, supporting actor and nominal leader of the amateur actors, delivers an unintentionally hilarious prologue to their play (5.1.112-121).


Shakespeare made A Midsummer Night’s Dream one of his most meta-theatrical plays using the play-within-a-play device. He used a similar device in Hamlet and The Tempest. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play-within-a-play takes place in the very last scene, ie. Act 5, after the major events have played out in the previous scene. Shakespeare has Theseus make the following observation about Shakespeare’s profession:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s own
Turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

The play performed by Bottom and his fellow actors in Act 5 is somewhat incongruently named A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth. The tragic tale of these two young lovers is told by Ovid in Metamorphoses. There is nothing mirthful in the tale which may have also influenced Romeo and Juliet, written by Shakespeare at about the same time.

What about the book?

Each of the books in the RSC Shakespeare series published by The Modern Library comes with very informative footnotes, helpful scene-by-scene analysis and, best of all, commentary on past and current productions that comes with interviews with leading directors and actors. The books are also very reasonably priced. Best of all, the introductions are not overly long and focus on a few talking points for each play. The paper quality is not particularly good though. Also, the covers are not very attractive.

Finally …

This is my favourite Shakespeare comedy. Bottom and the rest of the amateur drama group are a riot.


Author:  Shi Nai’an (c 13th – 14th century) and Luo Guanzhong (c 14th – 15th century)
Translator: Sidney Shapiro
Publisher: Foreign Language Press (1995 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository


Outlaws of the Marsh, together with Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and Dreams of the Red Chamber, are considered the four great novels of classical Chinese literature.

Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as Water Margin or All Men are Brothers, is a collection of folk stories originally about a band of real outlaws from the Song Dynasty (960 – 1127) with new characters and new adventures added over the years. It is not clear when it was first compiled in book form and by whom. There are 16th century records which say that Outlaws was written by Shi Nai’an and arranged by Luo Guanzhong (the author of Three Kingdoms). Some scholars believe Shi wrote the first 70 chapters while Luo or another writer wrote the last 30 chapters.

Scholars believe the novel was written in the period which witnessed the transition between the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The oldest surviving and complete copies of the novel were printed during the Ming Dynasty. There are many versions of the novel, with different numbers of chapters.

What is the story about?

The title characters come from a wide range of backgrounds. Many are forced by circumstances (corrupt government officials, rapacious nobles, conniving relatives, etc) to abandon their families and way of life and become outlaws.

The novel starts with origin stories of the main characters as their paths crisscrossed each other. The nucleus of the outlaws begins to form when Chao Gai and the Righteous Seven arrive at and take over Liangshan Marsh in Jizhou Prefecture, Shangdong Province (Chapters 19 – 20). The next phase see the outlaws storm Jiangzhou and rescues Song Jiang from the execution ground following which Song Jiang joins the outlaws (Chapter 40). The outlaws then embark on a series of battles with their enemies.

They attack the Zhu Family Village to “restore their prestige”, “pay those pipsqueaks for their insults” and “get a lot of grain for the use of our fortress” (Chapters 47–50). Then they attack Gaotang to rescue Chai Jin (Chapters 53–55).

The imperial forces launch their first assault on Liangshan but are repelled (Chapter 55–57). The Liangshan outlaws then combine with the Two Dragon Mountain outlaws (led by Yang Zhi, Sagacious Lu and Wu Song) and the Peach Blossom Mountain outlaws to attack Qingzhou to “kill the prefect, capture Huyan Zhuo, and divide the money and grain in the storehouses for the use of the use of our various bands” (Chapters 57–59).

The outlaws are threatened and insulted by the powerful Zeng family. Chao Gai ignores an evil omen and leads an attack on the Zeng Family Village (Zengtou). The outlaws are defeated and Chao Gai is killed by an arrow to the face. Song Jian reluctantly takes over as leader of the outlaws (Chapter 60). The outlaws then attack Daming the Northern Capital to rescue Lu Junyi and Shi Xiu but is forced to retreat (Chapter 63). The imperial forces launch their second assault on Liangshan and are again repelled (Chapter 64). The outlaws assault Daming again and this time manage to free their comrades and crush their enemies (Chapter 66). The imperial forces launch their third assault on Liangshan but are again repelled (Chapter 67). Song Jiang turns his attention back to Zengtou and leads the outlaws to annihilate the Zeng family, thereby avenging Chao Gai (Chapter 68). The 108 outlaws of Liangshan Marsh are named and organised about three quarters of the way into the novel (Chapter 71).

The Emperor offers the outlaws an amnesty (Chapter 74) but the outlaws reject it, taking offence at the terms of the amnesty and the behaviour of the emissaries (Chapter 75). The imperial forces under Chancellor of Military Affairs Tong Guan launch another assault on Liangshan but are again repelled (Chapter 76 – 77). The imperial forces try again under Marshall Gao Qiu but he is defeated two times (Chapter 78 – 79). Having tasted defeat on the battle field, Gao tries trickery – he presents the Emperor’s second offer of amnesty after distorting the terms to exclude Song Jiang. The outlaws reject the offer and defeat Gao (Chapter 80).

Song Jiang sends Yan Qing to secure amnesty from the Emperor and he, with the help of a sympathetic Marshall Su Yuanjing, persuades the Emperor to issue another amnesty delivered by Marshall Su himself (Chapter 81). The outlaws accept the amnesty this time (Chapter 82).

They are then deployed by the Emperor to pacify the Tartar Liao clan in the north (Chapters 83–89) and the rebel Fang La in the south (Chapters 93–99). All 108 outlaws survive the first campaign but the Southern campaign take a heavy toll: only 36 out the original 108 are left at the end.

Main characters

There are 108 outlaws in all so it’s going to be difficult to keep track of all of them. They appear, then disappear for long stretches before reappearing. The main characters are:

Song Jiang – He is based on a historical outlaw leader. In the novel, he kills his wife when she threatens to expose his links to the outlaws. He eventually becomes the leader of the Liangshan outlaws. He survives the Southern campaign but is poisoned by his implacable enemies in the imperial court led by Gao Qiu.

His main characteristic is his generosity (hence his nickname of Timely Rain). Like Liu Bei from The Three Kingdoms, he may not be a gallant warrior himself but his reputation draws friends and foes alike to his band. But he is not above resorting to appalling cruelty to recruit reluctant allies. He orders his men to kill many people in Qingzhou and implicate general Qin Ming so that he has no choice but to join the outlaws (Chapter 34). He orders the killing of the 4 year old boy in Zhu Tong’s care to force Zhu Tong to join the outlaws (Chapter 51).

Song Jiang is also characterised by an unwavering loyalty to the Song Emperor, who he sees as being misguided by corrupt and slanderous ministers. All the time he is an outlaw, he never gives up hope that the Emperor will pardon him and his men.

Lu Da – He kills a bully and becomes a monk, with the name Lu Zhishen or Sagacious Lu, to escape the authorities. But he does not behave at all like a monk. He drinks wine, eats meat (even dog meat) and does not shy from altercations. He wields a weapon known as a monk’s spade. In a famous episode, he pulls a willow tree from the ground, roots and all, with his bare hands, demonstrating his strength (Chapter 7). He is blood brother with Lin Chong. For most of the story, he and his gang are based in Mount Twin Dragons and they become part of the Liangshan outlaws after the battle of Qingzhou (Chapter 59). He survives the Southern campaign and dies peacefully:

He went into the interior of the temple and wrote an ode on a slip of paper. In the meditation hall, he pulled a cassock to the center, lit some fragrant in a burner, and placed the slip of paper on a meditation couch. Then he seated himself cross-legged on the hassock, with his left foot resting on his right and, quite naturally, transcended into space.
(Chapter 99)

Lin Zhong – The foster son of Grand Marshall Gao Qiu lusts after Lin Zhong’s wife and frames him. He escapes his captivity and joins the Liangshan outlaws, then led by the insecure Wang Lun. Lin Zhong, nicknamed Panther Head, plays a pivotal role in killing Wang Lun (Chapter 19) and paving the way for Chao Gai to become leader of the outlaws (Chapter 20). Lin Zhong survives the Southern campaign but is stricken by paralysis just as the outlaws are returning to the capital so he is left in Hangzhou where he is to die half a year later (Chap 99). During Lin Zhong’s last days, he was under the care of Wu Song.

Wu Song – This is perhaps the most famous of all the outlaws, featuring in many folk tales. He is acclaimed for killing a tiger with his bare hands (Chapter 23). When the corrupt magistrate refuses to investigate his brother’s murder by his adulterous sister in law, Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus), Wu Song takes matter into his own hands and slaughters Golden Lotus, her lover Ximen Qing and the procurer (Chapters 24 – 26).

Wu Song loses his left arm during the Southern campaign but survives. He lives a quiet life, practising Buddhism, after the campaign ends.

Trivia: Ximen Qing is the lead character and Golden Lotus one of his wives in The Plum in the Golden Vase or Jin Ping Mei, considered by some as the fifth great novel of Chinese classical literature.

Li Kui – He leaves his home town after a pretty crime to join the Liangshan outlaws. He is extremely loyal to Song Jiang and even kills a 4 year old boy at Song Jiang’s order. Li Kui survives the Southern campaign. When Song Jiang learns that he is dying, he is afraid Li Kui will avenge his death and blacken the names of the now-rehabilitated outlaws. So he poisons Li Kui, who happily accepts his fate and asks to be buried with Song Jiang (Chapter 100).

Li Kui has brute strength and a hot temper to go with it. He is a fearless and ruthless warrior, rushing headlong against the enemies stark naked and wielding twin battle axes. He tears to shreds the scroll containing the Emperor’s first pardon (Chapter 75). Yet he is also the center of much of the novel’s comedic moments (eg. Chapter 74).

What about the book?

The four volumes come in a simple and not especially sturdy box. The publishers could have done with better proof-readers or even a spell check utility. The presence of spelling errors is annoying but does not detract too much from the overall reading pleasure. The paper quality is extremely poor, so thin you could see the words from the other side of a page. There are a number of illustrations (not very good quality, no description).

Finally …

This is a truly good read, with something for everyone – from stories of personal tragedies to narration of epic battles, from depictions of loving family ties to accounts of court intrigue.


Author: Unknown
Translator: Keith Harrison
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2008 resissue)
Bought from: Book Depository


Chivalric romance, which was extremely popular amongst the European aristocracy from the 12th to the 16th century, celebrated the adventures of knights and their code of loyalty, honour and courtly behavior. The genre flourished in France (in the Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes in late 12th century), England (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by an unknown author from late 14th century and Thomas Malory′s Le Morte Darthur published in 1485) and Italy (Ludovico Ariosto′s Orlando Furioso published 1516 – 1532).

Stories about the mythical English king Arthur and his knights is one of the main strands of the Romances. Gawain, the eponymous protagonist in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is one of the central characters in the Arthurian legendarium, appearing also in the earlier works of Chrétien de Troyes and the later Le Morte Darthur.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in Middle English alliterative verse. The author is unknown. Scholars believe the poet hailed from the West Midlands and the poem was composed in the late 14th century. This would make the poet a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland. It is worth noting that 14th century England saw the start of the Hundred Years War with France (1337), the Black Death (1348 — 9) and the overthrow of Richard II by Henry IV (1399).

Like the older Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in only one manuscript which is also kept in the British Museum.

What is the story about?

On New Year′s Eve, a stranger (entirely green in appearance and riding a green horse) gatecrashed King Arthur′s feast. The Green Knight challenged the knights to a contest of “one stroke for another”. He would take the first blow and return the strike in one year and a day. Gawain accepted the offer and beheaded the Green Knight. However, the headless Green Knight merely picked up his severed head and rode off. The rest of the poem describes Gawain’s trials on his way to fulfilling his end of the deal.

The story is short but but what makes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight worth reading is the rich symbolism which opens up numerous possible interpretations. According to scholars, it is possible to find symbolism in just about every major object and event in the poem.

What about the book?

This is a verse translation by Keith Harrison in the Oxford World Classics series. One of the main features of the original work in Middle English is the use of alliterative verse. Much of this is necessarily lost in a moden English translation. It is a shame. Take the following passage in the original Middle English, then Keith Harrison′s translation and finally another translation by J.R.R. Tolkien.

With a runisch rout þe raynez he tornez
Halled out at þe hal dor, his hed in his hande
Þat þe fyr of þe flynt flaȝe fro fole houes.
(Editors: J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon,”>

With a quick twist he tugs at the rein
And, still holding his head, rides through the hall doorway
His horses hooves kick fire from the flint stone.
(Keith Harrison I.457-459)

With a rude roar and rush his reins he turned then
and hastened out through the hall-door with his head in this hand
and fire of the flint flew from the feet of his charger.
(Translator: J.R.R. Tolkien, Del Rey Books 1980)

The Tolkien translation seems to retain more of the alliterative verse — in the Introduction that translation, Christopher Tolkien wrote that a primary object of the translation was the close preservation of the metres of the original. But that volume lacks the useful notes found in Keith Harrison′s translation.

The Notes, as well as the Introduction, for Keith Harrison′s translation were prepared by Helen Cooper, Professor of medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge (a post originally created for C.S. Lewis).

Finally …

Read the story and then the introduction.


Author: Sophocles (c 496-406 BC)
General Editors: Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2010)
Bought from: Book Depository


Sophocles is one of three classical Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. He wrote 123 plays but only seven survive intact. He is said to have won between 20-25 dramatic competitions in Athens. In comparison, Aeschylus won 14-15 competitions (sometimes placing second to Sophocles) while Euripides won only 4 or 5.

His most famous plays are are the Theban or Oedipus trilogy, made up of  Antigone (c 442 BC), Oedipus the King (c 429 BC) and Oedipus at Colonus (c 405 BC).

This volume collects his other 4 surviving plays.

What is the story about?

Aias, the title character of the first play (c 445 – 440 BC) is usually referred to by his Latinised name Ajax. He is one of the main Greek heroes during the siege of Troy. In The Iliad, Homer refers to him as Telamonian Ajax or Ajax the Greater to distinguish him from another Ajax. Following Achilles’ death, Aias and Odysseus fight over the honour of inheriting Achilles’ armour, which was forged by Hephaestus. Odysseus, a man of words, prevails over Aias, a man of action. Dishonoured, Aias kills himself. Homer refers to the events depicted in this play in The Odyssey when Odysseus is given the cold shoulder by Aias’ shade in the underworld (Book 11).

The second play in the volume, Women of Trachis (date of completion unknown), tells the familiar story of the death of Herakles (Hercules), unwittingly poisoned by his jealous wife Deianeira.

The next play, Electra (c 415 BC), takes place after Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra upon his return from the Trojan War. Their daughter Electra and their son Orestes avenge Agamemnon’s death by slaying Clytemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus. This play has the same plot as Euripides’ play of the same name and Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers (part of the Oresteia trilogy).

The title character of the last play in the volume, Philoctetes (c 409 BC), plays a small but pivotal role in the Trojan War. His back story is hinted at in The Illiad (Book 2). He is left behind on an island by the Greek forces on their way to Troy. Soon after, however, the Greeks learn that they need Philoctetes with them if they are to defeat the Trojans. Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, must find a way to persuade Philoctetes to follow then back to the war.

How is the book?

This is a volume in the Greek Tragedy in New Translation series published by OUP. Each play is translated in verse by a port and a scholar. There are individualised introductions and notes – both are extremely helpful.


Good introductions and commentaries make this series a good buy.


Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Written: c 1599
Editor: Gary Taylor
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2008 Reissue)
Bought from: noQ Store


Shakespeare wrote his most important English history plays in two tetralogies, or sequences of four plays apiece. The first series, written near the start of his career (roughly 1589–1593), consists of 1 Henry VI2 Henry VI3 Henry VI and Richard III, and covers the period between about 1422 and 1485. The second series, written at the height of Shakespeare’s career (roughly 1595–1599), covers the period from around 1398 to 1420 and consists of Richard II1 Henry IV2 Henry IV and Henry V.

The eight works form a linked series and deal with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster, established by Henry IV in 1399. They chronicle the War of the Roses (1455 – 1485) between the Lancaster (whose heraldic symbol was a red rose) and the York, a rival branch of the Plantagenet family (whose symbol was a white rose).

There are two other, less-celebrated history plays: King John, whose title figure ruled from 1199 to 1216, and All Is Well, about the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) as its subject.

What is the story about?

The play picks up where 2 Henry IV left off. Harry, now Henry V, claims French lands on the basis of an obscure inheritance law and embarks on an invasion, thereby relaunching the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The play depicts Henry V’s major victories at Harfleur (historically 22/09/1415) and Agincourt (25/10/1415).

Historically, Henry V went on to continue his campaign in France until the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 declared that he and his heird would be king of France upon the death of the then French king. However, as the Epilogue to the play makes clear, Henry V’s reign was a very short one (1413–1422) and his heir, the infant Henry VI, would not only lose France but see the House of Lancaster overthrown by the House of York (as told by Shakespeare in the three Henry VI and Richard plays).


The play revolves around war and the editor of this volume regards Henry V as Shakespeare’s only play that “wholly dedicates itself to dramatising this brutal, exhilarating, and depressingly persistent human activity”.

The two most famous passages from the play are the king’s cries to war.

In the siege of Harfleur, Harry exhorts his troops:

Once more unto the beach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger,
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage.

During the Battle of Agincourt, where the English are out-numbered five to one according to Shakespeare (4.3.4), Harry inspires his troop with what has become known as the St. Crispin Day Speech:

This day is called the Feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this dayand live t’old age
Will yearly on the vigilfeast his neighbours
And say, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Crispian’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars
And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
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 remembered.
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 remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

Band of Brothers, the title of the best-seller by American historian Stephen E. Ambrose and the HBO mini-series based on the book and produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, is taken from the passage above.

Another passage that can be read as glamourising war is the Duke of Exeter’s touching account of the death of the Earl of Suffolk and the Duke of York (4.6.7-27). It reminds me of the story of Nisus and Euryalus in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Shakespeare strikes a balance by also depicting the horrors of war perpetrated by both sides. The French massacres, off-stage, the boys guarding the English army’s baggage-train (4.7). Henry IV orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners (4.6.37) – this, the editor to this volume notes, is the cue for the English soldiers to cut their prisoners’ throats on-stage in front of the audience. And in a chilling passage, Henry V warns the people of Harfleur of the atrocities his soldiers will commit if they do not surrender:

If I begin the batt’ry once again
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lies buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart.
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flowr’ing infants.
What is then to me if impious war
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends
Do with his smirched complexion of all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is’t me, when you yourselves are cause
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violations?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon th’ enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
If heady murder, spoil and villainy.
If not – why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
While the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wife of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

This passage echoes the terrible vengeance extracted by the Achaeans described in Euripides’ The Trojan Women and anticipates actual atrocities committed ever since and until this very day (Nanking, Vietnam, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq just to name a few).

How is the book?

This is a volume in The Oxford Shakespeare line of the larger Oxford World’s Classics series. Each book in this series comes with a detailed introduction and on-page commentary and notes. The appendices include extracts from Shakespeare’s sources. I feel the introduction is too long and some of the footnotes too detailed for the general reader. The paper quality is good.

Finally …

Is Henry hero or villain? Does the play legitimise war or is it anti-war? It is hard to say.


Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Written: c 1596-1597
Editor: René Weis
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2008 Reissue)
Bought from: noQ Store


Shakespeare wrote his most important English history plays in two tetralogies, or sequences of four plays apiece. The first series, written near the start of his career (roughly 1589–1593), consists of 1 Henry VI2 Henry VI3 Henry VI and Richard III, and covers the period between about 1422 and 1485. The second series, written at the height of Shakespeare’s career (roughly 1595–1599), covers the period from around 1398 to 1420 and consists of Richard II1 Henry IV2 Henry IV and Henry V.

The eight works form a linked series and deal with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster, established by Henry IV in 1399. They chronicle the War of the Roses (455 – 1485) between the Lancaster (whose heraldic symbol was a red rose) and the York, a rival branch of the Plantagenet family (whose symbol was a white rose).

There are two other, less-celebrated history plays: King John, whose title figure ruled from 1199 to 1216, and All Is Well, about the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547) as its subject.

What is the story about?

The play is a sequel to 1 Henry IV and telescopes the period between the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) to the coronation of Henry V (1413).

There are two parallel storylines in the play, one on ‘high’ matters of state set in the royal courts and battlefields and the other on the ‘low’ antics of Falstaff in taverns (Eastcheap) and the country side (Gloucestershire).

The first storyline begins with news that Hotspur is dead and the rebel army in disarray. The aging and insomniac Henry IV falls ill, wracked by guilt over his deposition of Richard II and doubt over the ability of his heir Hal. He says: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (3.1.31). The rest of this storyline charts Hal’s coming of age which he (sort of) started in 1 Henry IV, climaxing in his acceptance by the dying Henry IV.

Meanwhile, away from the royal courts, Hal’s old mentor Falstaff has picked up where he left off in the earlier play – whoring and thieving. When he hears about Hal’s ascension to the throne, he heads for London.

The storylines converge in the last scene. Hal, now King Henry V, turns his back on his old friend. Hal’s brutal rejection of Falstaff marks the completion of his metamorphosis from hellraiser to king:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace.
Less gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wide than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I was the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou does hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feed of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.

How is the book?

This is a volume in The Oxford Shakespeare line of the larger Oxford World’s Classics series. Each book in this series comes with a detailed introduction and on-page commentary and notes. I feel the introduction is too detailed – the debate over when the play was written runs for about 8 pages – and some of the footnotes too detailed for the general reader. Unlike 1 Henry IV, there is no appendix which compares certain passages in the play against Shakespeare’s sources. I found that quite informative.

Finally …
This short play feels like a filler.