Just as Shakespeare’s ‘comedies’ have some dark themes and tragic situations while the ‘tragedies’ have some high comic moments, the Shakespeare ‘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 the areas of tragedy, comedy and history (as well as ‘problem‘ and ‘Roman‘ and several more). Unfortunately, our appreciation of the plays is often affected by our tendency to look at them in that limited way.
Shakespeare history plays in order
The plays normally referred to as Shakespeare history plays are the ten plays that cover English history from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and the 1399-1485 period in particular. Each historical play is named after, and focuses on, the reigning monarch of the period. In chronological order of setting, Shakespeare’s historical plays are:
- King John
- Richard II
- Henry IV Part 1
- Henry IV Part 2
- Henry V
- Henry VI Part 1
- Henry VI Part 2
- Henry VI Part III
- Richard III
- Henry VIII
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 medieval 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 Medieval 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 medieval 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.