William Shakespeare, the famous English playwright, wrote plays in many different genres. One area of particular use by Shakespeare was the period of English history leading up to his own day, specifically the Plantagenet and Tudor Dynasties. The history plays cover much of the time period between 1199-1547, and include King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Part IandII, Henry V, Henry VI, Part I, II andIII,Richard III, and Henry VIII.
King John deals with the forced abdication and death of the title character. The brother of Richard the Lionhearted, King John is an incredibly unpopular king and is systematically betrayed by most of the characters, eventually losing the throne. It is historically unknown whether John died of starvation in prison or was murdered, but in this version he is poisoned by a monk. This first of the history plays is probably the least performed in modern times, although it was a favorite play of Victorian era England.
One of the bloodiest of succession battles in the Plantagenet dynasty is the subject of Richard II. The previous monarch, Edward III, passed over his younger sons to bring his grandson Richard II to the throne, leaving Richard to a lifetime battle with his uncles and cousins. Richard II was first performed in 1595 and was considered a politically dangerous play at the time. The current monarch of Shakespeare’s day, Elizabeth I, had come to power through a fight for succession and was considered by some unfit to rule.
The Henry Era of the history plays is probably the best known. Henry IV, Part IandII follow the battles of King Henry IV after his supplanting of Richard II on the throne. Young Hal, son of the king and a lazy drunkard at the beginning, finally renounces his former life and becomes King Henry V. Henry V is a chronicle of the Battle of Agincourt, where a small English army overcame tremendous odds against a French force, and Henry’s victory resulted in his marriage and alliance with France. The life of his son, Henry VI, and the beginning of the War of the Roses is covered by Henry VI, Part I, II and III.
Because of the death of the hero, Richard III is considered by some to be a tragedy. Yet unlike with his other tragedies, Shakespeare paints Richard III as an unredeemable character overrun by flaws and ego. Most experts believe this places Richard III firmly in the camp of the history plays. Richard details the end of the Plantagenet reign and the rise of the Tudor Dynasty. Because Shakespeare’s current monarch was a Tudor, the completely corrupt and villainous character of Richard is often considered political pandering on behalf of the playwright.
The last of the history plays was first performed in 1613, and covers part of the reign of Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII. Some scholars speculate that Shakespeare did not attempt to cover this subject until after the death of Elizabeth I, and the succession of a non-Tudor monarch. Henry VIII has never been a popular play, but is notable for a tragic coincidence. At a performance at The Globe Theater in 1613, a cannon misfired, setting the roof of the stage ablaze and destroying the entire theater. Because of this, the play is often considered “cursed” by theater professionals.
Although some of the material of the history plays would have been common knowledge in Shakespeare’s day, he is believed to have taken most of his information from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. The history plays are not considered to be completely historically accurate, as Shakespeare left out or added details, characters and motivations. Nevertheless, in a time of little wide-spread education the history plays gave English citizens access to an action-packed version of their own history that remains popular in modern day.