Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

THE HISTORIES

In this series of plays, Shakespeare recreates some of the most stirring events from various periods of English history. He also offers a gallery of fascinating characters: some heroic, some villainous, some comic, and some a mixture of these qualities. The intricacies and effects of the confrontations between these characters, as well as their individual actions, language, and values, reflect to a great extent Shakespeare's vision of historical and political conflict.

This vision raises a variety of issues explored throughout the plays. What is the nature of kingly obligation? What values are essential in a ruler? What is the relationship between power and morality? To what extent are all who wield power susceptible to abuse of that power? What price may public figures be forced to pay in dealing with their families and other aspects of their private lives? How is the nature of the ruler reflected in the life of the populace?

As Shakespeare created these works, he was influenced by several forces. One was the explication of events provided by the leading historians of his era, Raphael Holinshed and Edward Hall. Holinshed, in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in a full edition in 1587, provided the playwright with details of history and genealogy. Hall The Union of the two noble and illustrious families York and Lancaster, published in several editions in the 1540s and 50s, offered not only historical facts but an interpretation that underlies eight of Shakespeare's ten history plays. Hall's thesis concerned the War of the Roses, the civil strife between the Lancasters and the Yorks, two eminent houses whose rivalry created discord throughout England. Hall argued that the conflict followed directly from the deposition of Richard II in 1399 and ended only in 1485 with the marriage of the Lancastrian heir Henry VII to the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth. Shakespeare accepted this interpretation of his nation's past, and his plays may be regarded to an extent as a warning about the importance of political responsibility and the consequences of misrule.

Other forces contributed to the portrait of history that emerges from these plays. One was the political climate of Shakespeare's day. The long reign of Queen Elizabeth was obviously nearing an end, but she had not designated a

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