History Plays Shakespeare's 10 plays dealing with events in English history. In the order in which they were written, the history plays are: (a) the so-called minor Tetralogy—consisting of Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III—written in 1590-1591; (b) King John (1591, possibly 1595); (c) the major tetralogy—Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V—written between 1595 and 1599; and (d) Henry VIII, perhaps written in collaboration with John Fletcher in 1612, one of Shakespeare's last works.
The minor tetralogy deals with the English defeat by France in the last years of the Hundred Years War (enacted in 1 Henry VI), followed by the disputes and battles of an English civil conflict, the Wars of the Roses (in the other three plays). The tetralogy begins with the death of King Henry V in 1422 and ends with the foundation of the Tudor dynasty in 1485. King John presents much earlier events, a series of incidents during the reign of King John (1199-1216). The major tetralogy covers the deposition and murder of King Richard II in 1398 (Richard II), two unsuccessful rebellions against his usurper, King Henry IV, and that ruler's death (1 and 2 Henry IV), and the invasion and defeat of France by Henry's son and successor. King Henry V, closing with the signing of the treaty of Troyes in 1420 (Henry V). Henry VIII consists of a series of tableaux that present various events in the reign of Henry VIII, ending with the christening of Queen Elizabeth in 1533. It is very different from the other histories and is generally regarded as greatly inferior to them.
The two tetralogies are Shakespeare's major achievement in the histories. (King John, although a fine play, is nevertheless an isolated excursion into an earlier, almost mythic, period.) The tetralogies cover English history from 1398 to 1485. Shakespeare plunged into the disorder of a civil war in the first four plays and then, in the second, delved into the history that preceded this cataclysm, examining its causes and painting a portrait of the nation as it changed, traumatically, from medieval to modern.
The central theme of these plays is political—they deal with the gain and loss of power—but Shakespeare transcended this subject. As he wrote his histories, the playwright increasingly pursued the definition of the perfect king. After presenting two distinctly bad rulers, the ineffectual Henry VI and the villainous Richard III, he turned to a consideration of kingly virtues. He began to explore the psychology of political leaders, and these plays are, at their best, as much psychological as historical.
In Richard II a weak king jeopardizes the stability of the realm, but, although we recognize his opponent, Henry Bolingbroke, to be a superior ruler, we nonetheless sympathize with Richard, whose spiritual qualities make him more open and responsive to life. A conflict is established between human vulnerability and cold political calculation, and the question that dominates the next three plays is whether a successful ruler can combine humane sympathy and ruthless efficiency. Such a monarch would be able to hold the country together, as Richard cannot, while staying in touch with his subjects, a connection Bolingbroke never had and does not acquire as Henry IV.
The Henry IV plays focus on the development of the king's son, young Prince Hal. In 1 Henry IV Hal is presented with two alternatives, represented by Hotspur and Falstaff respectively, and he finds his way between them, seeing both their weaknesses and their virtues. However, in 2 Henry IV the Prince is psychologically remote, and, as he inherits the crown from his father, he seems to abandon his friends among the commoners in order to focus on his duty as a ruler. Hal's increasing coldness is evident, but the play's great question—is personal loyalty morally superior to public duty?—is left unanswered by the Prince's final rejection of Falstaff, as is shown by the debate that the episode has engendered ever since.
In Henry V this basic ambivalence towards Hal_now King Henry V—remains the major theme. On the one hand, he is plainly a successful king, uniting all Britain behind him in a conquest of France and displaying the combination of leadership and camaraderie typical of an epic hero. On the other, he seems a cynical manipulator of war and peace, an hypocrite who uses a religious sensibility to mask his political ends. Both points of view are legitimate in the context of the play; Shakespeare's recognition of political complexities compelled him to explore Henry's defects. His discovery of the psychological limitations of his ideal king was to influence the great tragedies in the next phase of his career.
Not content to deal with the nature of kingship solely from the point of view of the rulers, Shakespeare also focuses on the lives of the common people of England, especially in the major tetralogy. Sometimes fictitious minor figures, such as the Gardener in Richard III or Williams in Henry V, fulfill an important function simply by offering their own interpretation of political events and historical personalities and thus influencing our own responses. But many common people are developed as characters in their own right. Indeed, in the Henry IV plays, often considered the greatest of the histories, Falstaff and a number of fully sketched minor characters offer a sort of national group portrait that is contrasted with political history. The juxtaposition generates a richly stimulating set of relationships.
That secular accounts of the past, neither legendary nor religious, were presented on the stage—and were highly popular—reflects the Elizabethan era's intense interest in history. In the late 16th century, when these plays were written, England was undergoing a great crisis. As a leading Protestant state, it found itself at odds with the great Catholic powers of Counter-Reformation Europe, including its traditional enemy, France, and a new foe, Spain. The latter, at the height of its power, was a very dangerous adversary, and England felt seriously imperiled until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This situation sparked a tremendous patriotism among all classes of English society, and with that came an increasing interest in the nation's history, an interest that the theatre was of course delighted to serve.
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Written not long after the peak of nationalistic fervor in 1588, the history plays, which were extremely popular, deal with England: the Wars of the Roses were the great crisis that had formed the nation, as Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew it. Its resolution at Bosworth Field lay in the relatively recent past—closer to the author's own day than the American Civil War or the Crimean War is to ours. Thus Elizabethans were very much aware of the significance of the events depicted in these plays. Moreover, although in hindsight the reign of Queen Elizabeth seems very different from those of the troubled 15th century, this was not so clear at the time. A number of threats to the government arose—including the failed rebellion of the Earl of Essex in 1599, when the rebels used a performance of Richard II as propaganda. The English of the late 16th century felt a strong fear of civil war and anarchy; for both moral and practical reasons they valued an orderly society ruled by a strong monarch. The history plays addressed this attitude by presenting a lesson in the evils of national disunity.
This view of English history was held not only by both the playwright and most of his audience, but also by the historians whose works Shakespeare consulted. When the Tudor dynasty came to power, among the policies adopted by King Henry VII (the Richmond of Richard III) was the use of scholarly propaganda to justify his seizure of the throne. He encouraged and commissioned various works of history and biography to emphasize the faults of earlier rulers and present his own accession as the nation's salvation. Among them was an official history of England by the Italian humanist Polydore Vergil, which was to have a strong influence on subsequent historians, including Raphael Holinshed and Edward Hall, whose chronicles were Shakespeare's chief sources. Holinshed's book, the most up-to-date and authoritative work of its kind in the 1590s, provided much of the historical detail, especially in the minor tetralogy. Hall's history of the Wars of the Roses foreshadowed Shakespeare by stressing the theme that England's happiness under its last great medieval king, Edward III, Richard II's predecessor, had been lost through Richard's weakness, which necessitated Henry IV's profoundly sinful act of deposition. This guilty deed brought down God's wrath on England, plunging the country into generations of civil conflict that was ended only by the triumph of Henry VII and the founding of the Tudor dynasty.
Such writings shaped the understanding of the past that was available to Shakespeare when he wrote the history plays. He saw—and passed on—a story of inevitable progress towards the benevolent reign of the Tudors. Shakespeare's account of historical events varies considerably from that developed by later scholarship, in part because the sources available to him were highly unreliable by modern historical standards. In any case, Shakespeare was not writing history; he was concerned with dramatic values more than with historical accuracy.
The history play, a theatrical work dealing realistically with great events of the past, was a novelty in Shakespeare's day. Shakespeare himself is often credited with inventing the genre, although its origins are somewhat obscure, since the texts of most Elizabethan plays are lost. Dramatic works dealing with historical events had been staged somewhat earlier, but these works had treated their materials allegorically, like the Morality Play from which they derived. Shakespeare was probably the first playwright to depict real events in works expressly intended to illuminate the past, although some lost plays may have anticipated him in some respects.
Other Elizabethan playwrights also wrote histories, whether influenced specifically by Shakespeare or simply by the age. However, most of these works are familiar only to scholars. Shakespeare's work has survived because he was not merely exploiting a current interest; nor was he a mere purveyor of Tudor propaganda. In writing history plays, he pursued his own concerns, exploring political values and social relations. Throughout his career he was preoccupied with the value of order in society; this theme is present in such very early and apparently unlikely works as The Comedy of Errors, and it recurs in most of the plays. But nowhere is it as explicitly dealt with as in the histories.
What, then, do the history plays say about this subject? As we have seen, the ideal king of the history plays, Henry V, is a highly ambiguous figure. While Shakespeare's belief in the need for authority is evident in his work, so also is a distrust of those who hold authority. This paradox reflects a fundamental irony: the only rational form of rule—power that is humane yet absolute—is also impossible to achieve. Thus the history plays point up an underlying characteristic of human societies—political power inspires disturbing fears as well as profound ideals.
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