Shakespeare’s History Plays

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have historical elements, but only certain plays are categorized as true Shakespeare histories. The “history plays” written by Shakespeare are generally thought of as a distinct genre: they differ somewhat in tone, form, and focus from his other plays (the “comedies,” the “tragedies” and the “romances”). Shakespeare’s history play can be divided into two types those dealing with English history and those dealing with Roman history. For the first type, Shakespeare borrowed materials from the English chronicles plays of the period. Marlowe and Peele had written historical plays and chronicle history was popular at that time because it flattered the patriotic spirit of the English. When converted into dramatic form, chronicle history gave opportunities for striking action and enabled the playwrights to freely mingle the comic and the tragic. Shakespeare followed the theatrical fashions of the time.

While many of Shakespeare’s other plays are set in the historical past, and even treat similar themes such as kingship and revolution (for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, or Cymbeline), the eight history plays have several things in common: they form a linked series, they are set in late medieval England, and they deal with the rise and fall of the House of Lancaster-what later historians often referred to as the “War of the Roses.”

Shakespeare’s most important history plays were written in two “series” of four plays. The first series, written near the start of his career (around 1589-1593), consists of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3, and Richard III, and covers the fall of the Lancaster dynasty–that is, events in English history between about 1422 and 1485. The second series, written at the height of Shakespeare’s powers (around 1595-1599), moves back in time to examine the rise of the Lancastrians, covering English history from about 1398 to 1420. This series consists of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V.

Shakespeare drew on several different sources in writing his history plays. His primary source for historical material, however, is generally agreed to be Raphael Holinshed’s massive work, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, published in 1586-7. Holinshed’s account provides the chronology of events that Shakespeare reproduces, alters, compresses, or conveniently avoids-whichever serves his dramatic purposes best. However, Holinshed’s work was only one of an entire genre of historical chronicles that were popular during Shakespeare’s time. He may well have used many other sources as well; for Richard II, for example, more than seven primary sources have been suggested as having contributed to the work.

It is important to remember when reading the history plays, the significance to this genre of what we might call the “shadows of history.” One of the questions which preoccupy the characters in the history plays is whether or not the King of England is divinely appointed by the Lord. If so, then the overthrow or murder of a king is tantamount to blasphemy and may cast a long shadow over the reign of the king who gains the throne through such nefarious means. This shadow, which manifests in the form of literal ghosts in plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Richard III, also looms over Richard II and its sequels.