The plays usually considered Shakespeare's
"histories" include only the British histories. The Roman
and other historically based plays, like Julius Caesar and
Macbeth, are generally considered tragedies.
The source of most of the material Shakespeare dramatizes
in the British historical plays is thought to be Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles
of England, Scotland and Ireland, often called just Holinshed's
Chronicles. It was published in 1577 and enlarged in a later second
edition that provided subject matter for Elizabethan dramatists, including
John had become king in 1199. He
had his nephew Arthur killed in 1203, fought with Philip II
of France in 1204-5 over the Aquitaine, quarrelled with
the Church 1206-1213. He died of dysentery in 1216 while fighting
1592 or earlier, according to some scholars
Shakespeare condenses the time period, adds a confusion over
Arthur's death, and conflates the battles with the Church and
John, youngest son of Henry II and known as John
Lackland, is also a villain in the Robin Hood stories as the
usurper of his brother King Richard's throne. All the sons of
Henry II are portrayed as schemers in James Goldman's play (and
film) The Lion in Winter.
is best known for having been forced to sign the Magna Carta
in 1215, transferring some of his power to the barons.
Richard had become king in 1377 at
age 10. He had Gloucester murdered in 1397 and banished Bolingbroke
(future Henry IV) in 1398. John of Gaunt died in 1399. Bolingbroke
deposed Richard in 1399 and Richard died of starvation in 1400.
The first of a tetralogy (four-play cycle) dealing with early
15th-century British history and written in order.
obviously sides with Bolingbroke. Although he makes him responsible
for Richard's death, he also has him repent.
Elizabeth thought she might be identified with Richard and had
the deposition scene struck from the play. When Essex rebelled
against her, he bribed Shakespeare's company to put the scene
Henry IV had become king in 1399. Glendower
started a Welsh rebellion in 1401 and allied with Henry Percy
Hotspur. Hotspur was defeated and slain at Shrewsbury in 1403.
The wildness of Prince Hal's youth is exaggerated and
Shakespeare plays with the time sequence.
the Shrewsbury battle more dramatic by arranging personal confrontations
between the leaders, culminating in Prince Hal killing Hotspur.
Falstaff and company appear to be completely invented
Northumberland (the Percy family) continued
to fight until finally defeated in 1408. Glendower and other
rebels carried on spasmodically to the end of Henry IV's
reign. Henry died in 1413.
Again Shakespeare drastically compresses time.
was likely no sudden change of heart by the prince nor deathbed
acceptance of his son by the king, as the prince had been involved
in fighting rebels on his father's behalf and holding civic
positions since 1402.
Henry V had become king in 1413. He invaded
France in 1415 and won the battle of Agincourt. The peace treaty
was signed and Henry married Katherine in 1420.
The play is relatively faithful to history, although all the
subplots of Henry's eve-of-battle rambles, the glove in the
hat episodes, and the exploits of Falstaff's successors in roguery,
Pistol and Bardolph, are undoubtedly fictional.
Henry V died in 1422 and Henry VI succeeded
at the age of one. Joan of Arc helped capture Orleans in 1429.
She was captured and executed in 1431. Henry was crowned king
of France in 1431 at age 10 and married Margaret of Anjou in
This starts another dealing with British history, written
first but taken from a later historical period. Scholars are
undecided whether Shakespeare wrote only a few scenes in this
play, especially the apocryphal origins of the War of the Roses
in a garden debate, or wrote it all.
Henry VI's age is
increased to make him part of the intrigue. Years, even decades,
between actual events are wiped out.
Joan of Arc is a loose-living
witch in this British play, rather than the heroic, sainted
virgin of French legend.
Gloucester was Protector or Regent off
and on until 1437. His wife was exiled for witchcraft in 1446.
He was charged with treason in 1447 but died of natural causes.
Cardinal Beaufort also died in 1447. John Cade led the London
rebellion in 1450 and died of wounds afterwards. York seized
power as Protector in 1454. He won the first battle of the War
of the Roses at St. Albans in 1455.
Again it is uncertain how much of this play was written by
Shakespeare. In any case, it compresses the timeline,
mixes up historical events, and hypothesizes events with little
evidence, such as the supposed murder of Gloucester.
However these inaccuracies, like many of those in Shakespeare's
plays, may have been based on the chronicles available at the
time, rather than been created by the playwright.
York is killed in battle in 1460. The battle
of Towton was fought in 1461 and led to the royal family fleeing
to Scotland and York's eldest son, Edward, being crowned. Henry
returned to fight in 1464 but was captured. He was restored
to the throne in 1470 but lost it to Edward IV again the next
year at the battle of Tewkesbury. He was murdered in the Tower
(as late as 1599, according to some scholars)
The third Henry VI play is thought more likely to have been
written by Shakespeare. Once more the events are compressed
into a much shorter period, and principals are shown committing
acts personally that would have have been carried out through
intermediaries. But the events do more or less follow historical
Edward IV's brother Clarence was charged
with plotting his death and was killed (rumoured by drowning
in wine) in 1478. When Edward died in 1483 from natural causes,
his son succeeded as king. But Edward's youngest brother Richard
took the throne and imprisoned Edward's two sons who later disappeared.
He put down a rebellion by Buckingham the same year and had
him executed. He was killed in the battle of Bosworth Field
in 1485 by the forces of the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor,
who was crowned as Henry VII and married Edward IV's daughter
to end the War of the Roses.
(1594 or earlier, according to some scholars)
The most controversial of Shakespeare's histories, it follows
the practice of the Tudorsof which Queen Elizabeth I was the
latest representativeof vilifying the Plantagenets. Richard
was depicted as an evil hunchback who pitted his brothers against
each other, seized power illegally and had his nephews murdered.
Historians have argued about how much of that picture
is true. The Plantagenet Society has long argued that Richard
was not the monster depicted in this play.
One point is certain though, Richard was not slain
in battle personally by Richmond (Henry VII).
Henry VIII had succeeded Henry VII in 1509.
After failing to win a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his
elder brother's widow, he married Anne Boleyn in defiance of
the Roman Catholic church in 1533. Cardinal Wolsey was arrested
and died in 1530. Elizabeth (to be Elizabeth II) was born in
1533. Catherine died in 1536. Boleyn was beheaded the same year.
Shakespeare was brought out of retirement to collaborate on
this drama with his successor John Fletcher. Its original title
was All Is True. It isn't. The events did happen,
though not in that order. More importantly, motivations have
been warped to turn the rapacious Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father,
into a conscience-stricken and noble monarch.
been left out! How about the fact that Boleyn was soon executed.
A boring play. A political apology wrapped in spectacle.