William Shakespeare

History

In addition to comedies and tragedies, the third classification for Shakespeare’s plays in the First Folio was history. Unlike the other two genres, history plays were determined by who they were about, not what they were about. All ten history plays are named for and about English monarchs who ruled between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries: Kings John, Edward, Richard II, Richard III, and Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Henry VIII. The roughly four-hundred-year period the plays cover includes the Hundred Years War with France and the Wars of the Roses, both civil wars between families for control of England and France. Shakespeare based his English history plays on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle, which detailed the lives of the monarchs and their roles in history. However, we should remember that Shakespeare’s plays are not unbiased nonfiction accounts. He interpreted events to stay in favor with the ruling power of the day, depicting Queen Elizabeth’s family, which belonged to the house of Tudor, favorably. He also fictionalized historical characters. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as an evil, scheming ruler has become the standard interpretation of the king, but in fact we have little evidence of what Richard was really like.

Shakespeare’s Histories: 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 3 , Richard III , Henry VIII