William Shakespeare as Historian

Shakespeare’s history plays are for many people the defining versions of England’s medieval monarchs, but can Shakespeare really be trusted? Is Richard III the greatest villain in history or Henry V the embodiment of the perfect, virtuous king? To find out, we are taking a closer look at Shakespeare’s sources, why he was writing history plays in the first place and check three of his most famous plays to see if they are more historical fact or historical fiction.

Backgroundy Stuff

William Shakespeare was born in 1568 and came to prominence as a major playwright in the 1590s and by the time he died in 1616, he had written (or, in some cases, co-written) about 38 plays, of which 11 relate to English history. Shakespeare was not the only playwright to look to history for inspiration and in fact history plays were extremely popular  across Elizabethan theatre. However, the Elizabethans had a different view of how to “use” history – rather than learning about facts and dates in a purely academic sense, history was used as a mirror to the present as a means of amending behaviour and anticipating future events. As such, the historical characters in Shakespeare’s plays often have a very strong sense of their place in history. The history plays, therefore, are not intended as a realistic representation of the medieval age but a combination of a nostalgic view of times past intermingled with contemporary concerns.

However, a long-lasting career could not be built purely on simplistic, throw-away yarns with some last nods to contemporary issues. This was possibly the best informed theatrical audience in history, with around 15,000 people from a population in London of around 200,000 going to the theatre each week and about a third of the city’s population going each month. A company would not, like today, perform the same play for months on end, but would instead change performance on a daily basis, introducing some new works and reviving old favourites. There was an almost constant pressure for new and more challenging material. Shakespeare was part of a generation of playwrights pushing each other on to write bigger and better things, with the more sophisticated and complex tragedy Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe an early historical blockbuster of the time.

Christopher Marlowe was the first great playwright of the Elizabeth age and a major influence on Shakespeare

Shakespeare, then, was by no means writing in isolation with his history plays but what marks him out as a great playwright is not the choice of stories but the way that he tells them. His lead characters are not simply two-dimensional stereotypes used as props for exciting battles and swooning romances; they are conflicted, they ask themselves questions, they grapple with questions of morality and philosophy. There is something of the biographer in Shakespeare’s treatment of the kings that goes beyond a soulless chronicle of events. It would be hard for any historian to better encapsulate the difficulties of Henry IV than the lamentation granted him by Shakespeare that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.

Shakespeare’s Footnotes

The first test for Shakespeare and the quality of his history is whether or not he has done his research, and on this front Shakespeare does surprisingly well. On one level, Shakespeare is actually rather unoriginal when it comes to his stories as they are almost always based (in some way) on earlier texts. He did not invent the witches in Macbeth (these first appeared as “weird sisters” in a history by Andrew of Wyntoun) nor did he originate the story of Romeo and Juliet (originally a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke in 1562). Indeed, he was not even the first to write a popular play about Henry V.

Shakespeare may have done it better, but he was not the first to write about Romeo and Juliet

The good news for Shakespeare when it comes to his history plays is that he drew extensively from chronicles and histories. Primary among his sources was Raphael Holinshead’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (the second edition, published in 1587), which told the complete story of the three kingdoms from their origins to the present day. This was actually the work of multiple authors but it was an important and extremely popular work because such a comprehensive history had not been published before for the British Isles.

The witches of Macbeth, depicted in the Holinshed Chronicles with which Shakespeare was familiar

As well as Holinshead, Shakespeare also made use of other histories available at the time such as Polydore Vergil (author of an English history commissioned by Henry VII) and Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke, covering from 1399 and the death of Henry VIII in 1547. These histories were far from perfect in terms of accuracy, but they were the best sources available and Shakespeare did as much as was possible in the 1590s to research the real history.

Contemporary Bias

Perhaps the more serious charge against the reliability of Shakespeare’s history is that his work reflects a great deal of Tudor bias. He was not just writing for the crowds but also for those at court, including Elizabeth I and, after 1603, James I (VI of Scotland). The history plays are full of references to people and events at court as well as reflecting a very particular interpretation of recent history that would not pass muster with modern historians.

One example is the celebrated comic character of Sir John Falstaff, a portly buffoon who enjoys drinking with Prince Hal (later Henry V) in the Henry IV plays. Originally, he was called Sir John Oldcastle, a real-life and rather more serious man who had been friendly with a young Henry V but was a religious radical ultimately executed for treason.  He was also the ancestor of William Brooke, the current Lord Chamberlain, who objected to his celebrated ancestor being portrayed as a comic buffoon. Shakespeare clearly wanted a familiar name and the link to the young Henry but had no interest in accurately depicting the real man. Indeed, although Shakespeare did change the name from Oldcastle to Falstaff, he also wrote another play for Falstaff called The Merry Wives of Windsor in which there is a jealous husband who calls himself Brooke, so it seems likely that Shakespeare was very deliberately poking fun at the Lord Chamberlain!

Sir John Falstaff – not quite the image the Lord Chamberlain had in mind for his revered ancestor

More serious is the accusation that he is effectively producing Tudor propaganda. The Tudors were keen to promote the idea that from the deposition of Richard II to the defeat of Richard III, England was a country mostly in chaos and civil war (known as the Wars of the Roses) due to the evils of rebellion and usurpation against a rightfully anointed king. It was, according to the Tudor view, only with Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth that peace was restored. As an example of how Shakespeare helped create a false national remembrance of this period, the phrase “Wars of the Roses” is actually a nineteenth century term based on a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part 1) where the opposing sides pick which rose to wear as emblems. In reality, the Lancastrians did not wear a red rose during the conflict but rather Henry VII used it for symbolic purposes to create the Tudor rose (both white and red) to symbolise national unity.

The choosing of the roses has no basis in historical fact but is based on Shakespeare’s dramatic license

However, is this actually what Shakespeare was doing? If we are to read each play as being part of a whole then the message becomes somewhat inconsistent. Henry VI is at times portrayed as a rather saintly character (which some would contend is due to his status as a Lancastrian monarch and Tudor ally) and yet in Henry VI Part 2 he is seen as unfit to rule and the Yorkists come out rather more favourably. H. A. Kelly has argued that Shakespeare is consistent within the context of each individual play but not necessarily between different plays (evidenced by the fact that he wrote them out of chronological order). The history plays are not intended as a serial drama in the modern sense and Shakespeare is more interested in the troubles and motivations of the characters in each drama than he is in painting a one-sided narrative of the whole period.

Case Studies

On a broader level, then, the accuracy of Shakespeare’s history plays is something of a mixed bag: well-researched and providing a deep, almost biographical insight into his characters; yet full of contemporary references and biases that are fundamentally ahistorical. To get a better and more detailed assessment, it is best to look at specific plays to see how well Shakespeare’s works stand up against real history.

Richard III – Tudor Propaganda?

For modern audiences, Richard III (1592) is the most controversial of Shakespeare’s history plays when it comes to historical accuracy. Indeed, its perceived bias inspired the formation of the Richard III Society, who seek to rehabilitate Richard’s reputation which they feel has been unfairly maligned by Shakespeare. So are they right? Is Shakespeare guilty of a terrible historical injustice for the reputation of Richard III, or should the society leave him alone?

In the play (the second longest in Shakespeare’s canon), Richard is described as a “rudely stamped…deformed, unfinished” hunchback and declares that he is “determined to prove a villain”. In the earlier play Henry VI (Part 3) Richard killed the saintly Henry VI and his son. In his own play, he schemes to engineer the execution of his brother (Clarence), usurps and murders his nephews (the Princes in the Tower) and poisons his own wife before justice is finally done when he is defeated and killed by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth.

While the broad sweep of events is largely accurate, there is a lot about Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III that is at best dubious. Prior to his accession, Richard was seen as a loyal and well-respected noble and in his short time as king he did enact laws to the benefit of the common people. His oldest brother, Edward IV, is considered responsible for ordering the execution of Henry VI and Clarence (who was, in fairness, not above a spot of treason). Richard had known his wife since childhood and genuinely grieved her death, which was due to tuberculosis rather than poison. Perhaps the most galling inaccuracy concerns Richard’s death. In the play, Richard is thrown from his horse and wails “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” before being killed. In reality, Richard lost his horse whilst charging bravely at Henry Tudor himself, but he refused the offer of a horse that would have let him ride to safety. Even some of his most ardent critics among the Tudor historians admitted that he fought bravely, so this one is all on Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare’s defence, however, many of these inaccuracies are not specifically Shakespearean inventions. There were contemporary rumours about Richard poisoning his wife and the jury is still out on the fate of the Princes in the Tower. Shakespeare did not invent the idea of Richard as a murderous, conniving hunchback but was following earlier Tudor writers such as Sir Thomas More. The discovery of Richard’s skeleton in 2012 revealed that, although he definitely was not a hunchback, he did suffer from scoliosis which is a curvature of the spine, so it is easy to see how when Richard’s body was stripped of its clothes his enemies could make the leap to calling him a hunchback. Indeed, Tudor accounts of Richard III should not be completely dismissed. Holinshead stated that after his death, Richard’s naked body was paraded around Leicester before being interred at Greyfriars Church. For centuries, his body was considered lost until it was discovered under a Leicester car park where once had stood the church!

Henry V – At War with France and Ireland

If Richard III is the ultimate villain of Shakespeare’s history plays, then Henry V is the ultimate hero, and surely too perfect to be a realistic portrayal? This was the last (published) of his main history plays, written in 1599. Again, Shakespeare leaned heavily on Holinshead and other Tudor chroniclers but also other plays about Henry V (particularly one called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, concerning the transformation from dissolute youth to warrior king).

Henry V is often seen as a tubthumping, nationalistic play, with Henry inspiring his men with great oratory at the siege of Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead”) and the Battle of Agincourt (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”). However, the events of the play are actually surprisingly accurate. The implication that Henry went to war because the French teased him with tennis balls is, of course, a fanciful invention and he omits the presence of a French cavalry charge at Agincourt (due the limitations of portraying this on stage), but the events in the play did occur largely as described by Shakespeare (albeit over a longer period of time in reality). Although Henry’s speeches are invented by Shakespeare, Henry is thought to have had a certain strength in his speeches that his captains lacked.

Indeed, it is unfair to characterise the play as pro-war. Shakespeare’s presentation of war is much more ambiguous than some of the film adaptations have implied (most famously Laurence Olivier’s wartime version in 1944). This is in large part because of the context in which the play was written, with England preparing for a war against Ireland led by the Earl of Essex for which there was limited enthusiasm. The night before Agincourt, a disguised Henry is forced to confront the sufferings of his ordinary soldiers and their fears, with the soldier Michael Williams telling him, “I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle”. Shakespeare also includes the real-life murder of French prisoners at Agincourt by Henry when it appeared the French were regrouping. This juxtaposition of heroism and the bleak realities of war reveals a more nuanced play than is sometimes perceived and one which reflected the uncertain sentiments of the audience in 1599 – as James Shapiro has stated, it was neither a pro-war nor anti-war play, but rather a “going-to-war play”.

Richard II – The Dangerous Subversive?

If Richard III was an obvious villain and Henry V and obvious hero, Richard II’s character is a much more complex proposition. The play (written in 1595) would prove troublesome because of its contemporary resonance and, although Shakespeare would put much less of Elizabethan England into the play than with Henry V, Richard II would prove to be Shakespeare’s most controversial play.

King Richard II

The 1590s was a period of dynastic uncertainty, with Elizabeth I childless (like Richard II) and facing war in Ireland (like Richard II) and plots from unruly nobles (like Richard II). In 1601, allies of the Earl of Essex paid for Shakespeare’s company to perform Richard II two days before his attempted coup – the actors protested it was “so old and so long out of use” that it would not be worth doing until they were offered a goodly sum to change their minds. Although Shakespeare does not seem to have suffered from this association, it is notable that the deposition scene was never printed during Elizabeth’s lifetime. Indeed, when going through documents relating to Richard Elizabeth allegedly observed, “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” in reference to Shakespeare’s play.

The dashing and dangerous Earl of Essex

Ironically, Richard II is perhaps the most accurate of these plays. Although (like the others) the events are somewhat quickened, they are essentially correct. The early scene where Richard interrupts a trial by combat between Bolingbroke and Mowbray makes for great drama but it was also true – the combat was about to take place when, at the last moment, Richard intervened and exiled the pair. Even Richard’s moving soliloquy on the “death of kings” is close to an eyewitness account of a rather maudlin speech he made during his imprisonment (Shakespeare moves it before his imprisonment).

Less accurately, Richard’s wife (the “Queen”) is presented as an adult whereas in reality Isabella of Valois (his second wife) was just a child, his first wife having died. Shakespeare often merged historical figures occupying the same position (e.g. a father and son in the nobility) into one character to simplify the narrative. The most significant change, however, was the invention of the character Exton for the murder of Richard II – it is generally thought that Richard was left to starve to death, almost certainly on the orders of Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV).

Although the events are mostly accurate, Shakespeare has been criticised for being too kind to Richard II. This is his only play written entirely in verse, making it a much more lyrical affair than some of his other works, thus imbuing Richard with a certain dignity that many feel he does not deserve. However, Richard is by no means given a glowing portrayal – Shakespeare (correctly) emphasises Richard’s belief in the Divine Right of Kings, which makes him out of touch and tyrannical as king. Further, Gaunt’s famous, patriotic speech lauding “this sceptred isle…this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” is actually a tirade against Richard, who has made England “bound in with shame” due to his misgovernance of the kingdom.

Throughout, Richard is afforded great eloquence as he struggles to come to terms with what it means for him to lose the crown and he is forced to come to terms with the harsh realities of not being a divinely ordained king but a usurped man. He mocks his previous sense of divine regality, deriding “the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king” and observing, “I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, how can you say to me, I am a king?” The tragedy of Richard is that he realises his flaws all too late. Whether or not he really asked himself such soul-searching questions, of course, is a matter for speculation, but such speculation is par for the course for any writer and Shakespeare’s interpretation has a ring of truth to it.

Conclusion – Fact or Fiction?

Like anyone dramatising historical events, Shakespeare was not shy in changing things to suit dramatic purpose. The dialogue was elevated far above what would have been spoken at the time, events were quickened to tell a better story and characters were sometimes merged to make things simpler. Shakespeare was also guilty at times of putting the Elizabethan world (or at least it’s constructed perception of the medieval world) into the history plays, as well as an interpretation of history that at times can come across as Tudor propaganda. However, the broad sweep of the events in Shakespeare’s history plays are usually pretty accurate and he had at least done his research with the best works of English history available at the time. Shakespeare’s Richard III is the worst offender when it comes to accuracy, with an almost pantomime villain who is twisted into caricature rather than a real insight into the real king. Yet, both Henry V and Richard II show a surprising amount of accuracy and nuance, showing a depth of analysis into the realities of those characters going through those events. It is not Shakespeare’s fault that his works became so definitive that for many people his plays are the real history, nor that it is difficult to replace his version of Richard III or Henry V with one informed by more thoroughly researched modern biographies. Shakespeare read the chronicles and captured the history as best he could but he was no historian – rather, he used history to find the human stories that made for great drama.

Further Reading

To find out more about Shakespeare in the context of the Elizabethan age, it’s well worth reading James Shapiro’s two books on a year in the life of Shakespeare – one for 1599 (particularly good for Henry V) and the other on 1606 (covering plays like King Lear and Macbeth).

4 thoughts on “William Shakespeare as Historian

  1. I’ve had many interesting conversations with my own students about these questions, especially when studying Henry IV part 1 and Richard III.

    Love your work, guys.
    Keep it coming.

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