Shakespeare's History Plays

William Shakespeare (1564 to 1616), the acclaimed English playwright, wrote 38 plays in different genres – tragedy, history and comedy. His works covering historical themes are a key part of the western European literary canon. Shakespeare's history plays contain both tragic and comic elements, although as the narrative often ends with the main character's death, these plays are often considered to be tragedies.

Shakespeare's history plays commonly refers to the 10 works which deal with events in English history cover the period from 1199 until 1547, following episodes in the lives of medieval English monarchs. The history plays were written in the following sequence:

King Henry VI Part 1 (1592);

King Henry VI Part 2 (1592 to 1593);

King Henry VI Part 3 (1592 to 1593);

King John (1596 to 1597);

King Henry IV Part 1 (written between 1597 and 1598);

King Henry IV Part 2 (1597 to 1598);

King Henry V (1598 to 1599);

Richard III (1600-01).

Richard II (1601);

King Henry VIII (1612 to 1613);

Shakespeare lived in an age of discovery, some continuing religious turbulence, and rapidly growing wealth in England under Queen Elizabeth I, who had begun her reign six years before the Bard's birth. She died in 1603. Thus, due to political sensitives at the English court, Shakespeare's last history play Henry VIII may have been impossible to have been written during the reign of the Queen. King John was the earliest king among those depicted in Shakespeare's histories; both Henry VIII and King John are among the least often performed of Shakespeare's works.

The major events depicted in Shakespeare's history plays were the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the royal houses of Lancaster and York, dramatized in Richard II, Henry IV, Henry VI and Richard III.

Shakespeare's plays enjoyed overwhelming success with the audience as on the one hand they deal with political processes and on the other hand they presented the life of aristocrats as well as ordinary people, portraying the lives of kings and royalty in almost human terms. Although the plays are set in the Middle Ages, Shakespeare discussed issues topical for his time. Researchers insist that he depicted Elizabethan and Jacobean society. The deep psychological dimension of the characters also appealed to his audiences.

Although based on historical figures, the plays were still literary works based largely on the playwright's imagination and interpretation. However, the characters built by Shakespeare have remained part of popular history and have played a key role in shaping the general public's knowledge and perception of medieval history. Hence, Richard III remains popularly understood to be a hunch-backed psychopath and misanthrope, as portrayed in Shakespeare, yet there is little historical evidence to support this portrayal. Meanwhile, Henry V, the hero of Agincourt, remains the Shakespeare-influenced image of a perfect king.

In terms of historical facts and events, Shakespeare relied on the Chronicle of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587) by Raphael Holinshed. Shakespeare also drew on other sources, for example the anonymous history play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1598) and Hall's The Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (1542). However, the history plays are not considered to be historically accurate, as Shakespeare left out or added details, characters and motivations.

In general, Shakespeare's history plays are quoted as examples of nationalism under Queen Elizabeth I. Sometimes he is criticized for being politically biased and promoting a positive image of the Tudor dynasty. Part of this propaganda is the depiction of Richard III, who belonged to the house of York, as a villain, while his usurper Henry VII, the grandfather of Elizabeth, was portrayed as a good ruler.

Many of Shakespeare's history plays were first published in 1623, after the playwright's death, when the editors of the first collection of Shakespearian works, John Heminges and Henry Condell, grouped together several of his plays in a section entitled Histories.

In to the 21st century, and several of Shakespeare's history plays remain popular parts of the repertoire of modern theater, Henry V and Richard III in particular being often performed by school drama classes, amateur and professional troupes, as well as used as the basis for feature films. But others, such as the three Henry VI plays, Richard II and King John, are rarely performed.

Shakespeare's History Plays: Selected full-text books and articles

Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre By John W. Velz Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996
Harrying: Skills of Offense in Shakespeare's Henriad By Harry Berger Jr Fordham University Press, 2015
Lectures on Four of Shakespeare's History Plays By Lewis J. Owen; Astere E. Claeyssens; William M. Schutte; William F. Keirce Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1953
The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare By Irving Ribner Princeton University Press, 1957
Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances By Victor L. Cahn Praeger, 1996
Librarian's tip: "The Histories" begins on p. 283
English Drama 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare By G. K. Hunter Clarendon Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Early History Plays" and Chap. 6 "Later History Plays"
Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries By Charles R. Forker Southern Illinois University Press, 1990
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays as Historical-Pastoral" and Chap. 9 "The Idea of Time in Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy"
Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare By Linda Bamber Stanford University Press, 1982
Librarian's tip: Chap. Six "Henry VI to Henry V: Toward Tragedy"
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