“Histories” was one of three designations (along with “Comedies” and “Tragedies”) used to categorize the plays of William Shakespeare in the highly influential “First Folio” collection of his plays published in 1623, about seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616. The three designations have held up remarkably well in the 500 years since they were made, especially for the ten plays that were categorized as histories.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays that are set in the historical past are not categorized as “histories”—even those such as Julius Caesar and Hamlet that treat similar themes as bona fide histories including kingship, revolt, and royal intrigues. The ten “histories” are all fictionalized accounts of an English monarch who would have been reasonably well known to Shakespeare and his audience. Eight of these ten plays form a series that is linked through a continuous string of kings’ reigns in late medieval English history, although they were not written in the same order as the reigns they cover. One of the histories that falls outside of this group, King John, takes place about 175 years before the main eight history plays began, while the other, Henry VIII, takes place about 50 years after it ended.
The focus of the main eight Shakespeare history plays is a roughly 85-year period of conflict ending in 1455 that historians later named “The Wars of the Roses.” This series of English civil wars pitted members of two families that had both descended from King Edward III, who died in 1377, against each other. Roses are referenced because the York family used a white rose to symbolize their house, while the Lancaster family used a red one. This turbulent period was marked by multiple instances of a claimant from one house taking the throne, only to have a cousin from the other house (or sometimes from the same house) assume the crown.
A theme that unites most of the “histories”—as well as some of Shakespeare’s plays focused on monarchs that do not fall into the “histories” designation, such as Julius Caesar and Hamlet—is the question of divine authority in the appointment of kings. These plays also explore the consequences (which often include being haunted by ghosts) for those who depose or murder kings who have been divinely appointed.
Shakespeare wrote his eight main history plays in two tetralogies, or sequences of four plays, apiece. The first series, written near the start of his career (roughly 1589–1593), consists of Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; and Richard III, and covers events in English history between about 1422 and 1485. The second tetralogy, written at the height of Shakespeare’s career (roughly 1595–1599), covers the preceding period English history, from around 1398 to 1420. This series consists of Richard II as well as probably the three most famous celebrated of his history plays, Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V.
Although the events he writes about occurred some two centuries before his own time, Shakespeare expected his audience to be familiar with the characters and events he was describing. The battles among houses and the rise and fall of kings were woven into the cultural fabric of England and formed an integral part of the country’s patriotic legends and national mythology. In some ways, this knowledge is like the American public’s general awareness of the events and figures surrounding the American Revolution, which occurred more than two centuries ago. As it did for the English people of Shakespeare’s era, the passage of time has obscured many of the specific details of important historical events for the American people, so that the figures and battles of the American Revolution are, to some degree, clouded in myth. Shakespearean history is similarly often inaccurate in its details, although it reflects popular conceptions of history.
Shakespeare drew on several sources in writing his history plays, as he did in nearly all his work. His primary source for historical material is generally agreed to be the second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s massive work The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1587. This account provides the fundamental chronology of events that Shakespeare follows, alters, or conveniently ignores to suit his dramatic purposes. Shakespeare may well have used any number of other sources. For example, scholars have suggested at least seven possible primary sources for Richard II.