Just as Shakespeare’s ‘comedies’ have some dark themes and tragic situations while the ‘tragedies’ have some high comic moments, the Shakespeare’s ‘history’ plays contain comedy, tragedy and everything in between. All Shakespeare’s plays are dramas written for the entertainment of the public and Shakeseare’s intention in writing them was just that – to entertain. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Shakespearian scholars, who categorised his plays into those areas of tragedy, comedy and history – as well as ‘problem‘ and ‘Roman‘. Unfortunately, our appreciation of the plays is often affected by our tendency to look at them in that limited way.
Most of the plays have an historical element – the Roman plays, for example, are historical but scholars don’t refer to those Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus etc.) as history plays. The plays that we normally mean when we refer to the ‘history’ plays are the ten plays that cover English history from the twelfth to the sixteenthcenturies, and the 1399-1485 period in particular. Each play is named after, and focuses on, the reigning monarch of the period.
In chronological order of setting, these are King John, Richard II, Henry IV Parts Iand II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III, Richard III and Henry VIII, although Shakespeare didn’t write them in that order.
The plays dramatise five generations of’ Medieval power struggles. For the most part they depict the Hundred Years War with France, from Henry V to Joan of Arc, and the Wars of the Roses, between York and Lancaster.
We should never forget that they are works of imagination, based very loosely on historical figures. Shakespeare was a keen reader of history and was always looking for the dramatic impact of historical characters and events as he read. Today we tend to think of those historical figures in the way Shakespeare presented them. For example, we think of Richard III as an evil man, a kind of psychopath with a deformed body and a grudge against humanity. Historians can do whatever they like to set the record straight but Shakespeare’s Richard seems stuck in our culture as the real Richard III. Henry V, nee Prince Hal, is, in our minds, the perfect model of kingship after an education gained by indulgence in a misspent youth, and a perfect human being, but that is only because that’s the way Shakespeare chose to present him in the furtherance of the themes he wanted to develop and the dramatic story he wanted to tell. In fact, the popular perception of mediaval history as seen through the rulers of the period is pure Shakespeare. We have given ourselves entirely to Shakespeare’s vision. What would Bolingbroke (Henry IV) mean to us today? We would know nothing of him but because of Shakespeare’s plays he is an important, memorable and significant historical figure.
The history plays are enormously appealing. Not only do they give insight into the political processes of Mediaval and Renaissance politics but they also offer a glimpse of life from the top to the very bottom of society – the royal court, the nobility, tavern life, brothels, beggars, everything. The greatest English actual and fictional hero, Henry V and the most notorious fictional bounder, Falstaff, are seen in several scenes together. Not only that, but those scenes are among the most entertaining, profound and memorable in the whole of English literature. That’s some achievement.
Finally, although adding this at the end of the article and leaving it in the air, several questions are begged: what we see in the plays is not mediaval society at all, but Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Because although Shakespeare was writing ‘history’, using historical figures and events, what he was really doing was writing about the politics, entertainments and social situations of his own time. A major feature of Shakespeare’s appeal to his own generation was recognition, something Shakespeare exploited relentlessly.