The Shakespearean Past

When it comes to Shakespeare’s history plays the one that people always mention is Richard III and often how wrong it is, how badly it is written. They’ll say that Richard wasn’t the deformed hunchback that Shakespeare makes him out to be. Fair enough, in all likelihood he wasn’t a murdering psychopath. However, analysis of his bones has revealed that Richard did have Scoliosis (a deformation of the spine) so Shakespeare wasn’t entirely wrong, he was merely exaggerating on a grand scale. In Henry VI (part 2) he has Richard, who is just some stripling at this point, give a super long soliloquy (the longest in all of the complete works) that boils down to ‘look at me I’m a monster… Nobody loves me so I’m going to kill everyone!’ Definitely exaggerated. Essentially, Richard comes on stage, cackles like a maniac and proves to the audience that he’s the big bad of the main cycle- The eight plays that start with Richard II and run right through to Richard III.

People tend to fixate on Richard III and leave out the rest of the cycle. They don’t mention what Shakespeare got right and got wrong about the other characters, the other kings, about the other events and battles depicted. They don’t mention it because they don’t know and they don’t know because nobody ever mentions it. Also, primarily because of Richard III, historians will tend to dismiss the history plays in their entirety, not recognizing them as anything credible. I would disagree. I think that the history plays are indeed credible, but more in a historiographical sense than an historical one. They show us not only how the past was viewed and used in Shakespeare’s day but also the way in which it was presented to the general public, how people learned about their history.

The history present in all of the plays is of the traditional kind. It is a top down view of the past. It is all about the nobility and kings and princes, about what is going on at the very top of society. This really, reflecting on the time period, is to be expected. The history of the lower classes, of the poor and common people, societal history, did not exist in late Tudor England. That whole idea, that school, if you will, did not come about until modern times. Indeed, no other kind of historical perspective, at all, came about until recently. It was an impossibility that Shakespeare could have presented his history in any other way.

Saying this, Shakespeare does frequently include characters of a common persuasion in significant roles so it is not entirely top down. However, he more often than not only uses lower class characters as tools for emphasising or as a contrast to the characterisations and actions of the nobility. The most prominent example is with Prince Hal/Henry V. Shakespeare uses Hal’s interactions with the denizens of the Boars Head- Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and the others, to show how Hal does not think himself above them. He freely drinks with them, plays their games and is happy to go along with their mischief. The setup is extraordinarily egalitarian for the time the plays were written. By doing this Shakespeare sets Hal apart from the other nobles. His attitude contrasts him against the likes of Hotspur and his father, Henry IV, but it also puts him in a position where, as King, he is able to use this attitude to his advantage and win over his men. It gives him a commonality that the other main characters lack and this, Shakespeare hints, is part of what makes him a good king.

In Henry IV part 2 The Earl of Warwick claims that Hal is only studying the common people, that he doesn’t much give a fig for the poor, that he is only learning about them and even Hal himself says that the person he is with the people of Eastcheap isn’t who he really is. It’s clear that he has an underlying motive for spending time with the likes of Falstaff, he is studying them as Warwick suggests, but there is still another side to the matter. As we see in Henry V, he really does not think of these people as being beneath him. Although he is a king and must act as such, banishing Falstaff as he promised to do right at the start of Henry IV part 1 and at one point ordering the execution of old friend Bardolph, he still sees himself as one of them. For a chunky proportion of Henry V, the night before Agincourt, he walks amongst the English soldiers, spends time with them so as to gauge their mood. As he’s king he has to disguise himself but the fact that he does it shows that he doesn’t look down on people because of who they are. He isn’t so high and mighty that he can’t sit down and chat to a common soldier. You can also see this in his most famous lines- At the siege of Harfleur: ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more or close the walls up with our English dead.’ Just before Agincourt: ‘We few, We happy few, We band of brothers. For he that sheds his blood with me this day shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile.’ Notice it is all about us and we, not I. He calls his men friends and brothers. He is saying, throughout the play, ‘I am one of you. Although I am king we’re not so different.’ It’s a subtle (and for the time, radical,) undermining of the English class system, Shakespeare (who was himself, a commoner,) saying that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a king or some peasant from the back streets of Eastcheap- We’re all the same underneath.

If you look at it in context and in comparison with the whole cycle, Shakespeare uses this ‘one and the same’ characterisation to say that Henry is the ideal leader. He’s not a haughty flip-flopper like Richard II. He’s not murdering demon like Richard III. He’s not weak and given to the influence of others like his son Henry VI- He’s fair and just, he’s courageous and he has a bond with his subjects. He uses the likes of Falstaff and the Eastcheap gang, with all their faults and foibles, to show this. He uses these characters to demonstrate why Hal/Henry is such a good person, why he is such a good leader, why he is so much better than the other kings in the cycle. It is something that goes beyond the realms of traditional history, touching a little upon Marxist history perhaps, and in that way the plays are surprisingly modern in their attitude.

Despite this, overall, the history plays are still traditionalist, still top down. They show us a type of history that isn’t held in much regard today. Likewise, the way it is threaded together is also seen as being old fashioned. Shakespeare shows us a grand narrative vista- Each play links into the next and everything that happens has a consequence. Richard II’s banishment of Bolingbroke and seizing of his lands leads to his own downfall and murder. That murder destabilizes the country and leads to insurrection and rebellion, plaguing Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) until his death and the ascension of his son, Henry V, who by his charismatic and bold leadership, restores England’s glory and heralds a new era of peace and prosperity. Then comes the twist- Henry V dies and leaves an infant on the throne. All his achievements are laid waste. A bloody war with France ensues, a war that is eventually lost. The House of York then rear their head, believing themselves to be the true heirs of Richard II and not Henry VI. England, in Shakespeare’s own words, bleeds. Civil war ensues and amidst the chaos the biggest baddie of them all comes to fruition- Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of Gloucester and later still Richard III. He rises to the top of the pile by murdering everyone that he can (including Henry VI, his wife’s father, his nephews and his own brother) only for the Lancastrians to strike back (under Henry Tudor) and dethrone him in order to finally restore balance to the force kingdom. It’s all one long (very long) tale of cause and effect, of the rise and fall of kings and dynasties. If it can all be summed up in one line, Shakespeare himself does it best: Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

This interlinking narrative idea does have its issues. Although the plays are often performed in isolation they sometimes don’t quite work that way, especially towards the end of the cycle. If you don’t know who people are it can sometimes be difficult to get your head around what is going on. Henry V features the off screen death of Falstaff and without the two Henry IV plays his relevance is virtually invisible, as is the role of the Eastcheap gang and what happens to them. Richard III relies heavily on the Henry VI plays as everything that happens is as a direct consequence. Why Richard is the way he is is explained by the previous three plays. You might wonder who the hell Queen Margaret is, why she has it in for everybody and why she’s completely unhinged. You could end up wondering why Richard hates Queen Elizabeth so much and you might well ask yourself who that Henry Tudor bloke who turns up towards the end is. Where did he come from? And then practically everything relies on the events of Richard II, with his deposition and murder having some kind of a bearing upon almost all of the following eight plays. The plays are all so interwoven that in order to fully appreciate them you need to see the whole lot, end to end.

It is also in contrast to the way historians treat the past in the modern day. The whole idea of a grand narrative of history, where each event has a consequence, is one that is readily dismissed. Today the major events in history are treated in isolation from other major events. Nothing is viewed as a part of one long narrative thread such as that shown in Shakespeare’s history plays. Events from a hundred years previously, for example are of no consequence to what is happening. To a historian looking at our own times, for example, the first and second world wars are of no consequence. For the time period of Shakespeare’s plays, historians argue that the deposition of Richard II had no influence upon the Wars of The Roses. They do not even regard it as a contributing factor in the conflict. The two are mutually exclusive of one another.

This, in my view, is rather narrow minded. It ignores much of the influence which the past, especially the recent past, can have upon the present and it ignores the bigger picture, focusing instead on the small scale. It is clear, just from merely looking at the modern world, that the first and second world wars had an impact. The First World War resulted in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the western interference that followed fractured and divided the whole region. Many of the sectarian conflicts in the region today, Israel-Palestine for example, stem from that division. The war also contributed to the rise of fascism and with the recent re-rise it is foolish to say that this hasn’t contributed to the modern world. The same is true of Richard II, not that his deposition has had a strong influence on the modern world but that it was a contributing factor in the Wars of the Roses. It is fairly obvious in my opinion. The whole war was a dynastic squabble, at the heart of which was who was the rightful heir to the kingdom. Admittedly there was more to it than that but without the deposition it would probably never have happened.

Shakespeare knows there was more to it. He knows that besides being a dynastic squabble the war was also about the loss of French territory, the weakness of Henry VI, antipathy towards his councillors and wife and disagreements about who had the right to rule. We know that he knows this because he successfully weaves it all into his narrative- Henry VI part 1 is all about the loss of France whilst part 2 is the build up and beginning of the war and part 3 deals with all the bloodiest bits. His is not just a grand narrative, it is a complicated grand narrative where each character has ideas and motivations of their own, their own reasons for doing what they do. Sometimes these motivations are radically opposed to one another within the same play. This means that what is shown on stage is an incredibly rounded version of history that takes multiple perspectives into account, something which few modern historians are able to successfully accomplish themselves. In that way Shakespeare is better than most modern professionals.

Shakespeare did however, unfortunately, get some of his history wrong and his is not a totally unbiased view of the past. Some of this is due to the time he was living in, the late Tudor era, and anything that would have made the Tudor monarchy look bad or was anti the political dogma of the day would have landed him in prison. He had to be careful about what he was writing. This is one of the reasons why his portrayal of Richard III is so unflattering. Shakespeare literally couldn’t have presented him in a good light even if he had wanted to. The Tudors had taken the throne from Richard and so anything that was good about him, anything supportive towards him or his character would have looked like an attempt to undermine the Tudor regime. Insurrection was firmly stamped upon at the time and even punishable by death. By giving us the monster that was his Richard III Shakespeare was sticking to the Tudor line, whether consciously or because he actually believed the propaganda it is impossible to say. Certainly his sources (Thomas Moore and Raphael Holinshead for instance) said much the same (and they were written as propaganda.)

There are places where we can see that Shakespeare did consciously avoid trouble. For the time they were written in the plays are almost completely uncontroversial. They steer clear of practically anything that might have caused trouble or got Shakespeare into bother, the matter of religion for instance. The plays are almost devoid of any of the religious issues that dogged the period in which the plays are set. Former (and later) Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, who was a part of Bolingbroke’s insurrection, does not appear at all in any of the three plays where he was living. After he reinstated himself as archbishop (yes, you really did read that right, he reinstated himself,) he began a massive crackdown on religious dissent and Lollardy in particular. This, a prominent event in Henry IV’s reign, is nowhere even hinted at by Shakespeare. The reason is likely because it was a crackdown by the Catholic Church, by a Catholic archbishop and the Lollards were a kind of Protestant. At a time when the country was still divided on the issue of religion (and would be for another one hundred and fifty years, at least) and when Catholic Europe was a massive threat to the reign of Elizabeth I Shakespeare could not have comfortably depicted such a crackdown without being branded a Catholic sympathiser.

The closest Shakespeare comes to dealing with religion is in the figure of Joan of Arc during Henry VI part 1. She’s depicted as having visions, or demons, and is reckoned by the French to be some kind of saint. Joan herself, shortly before being roasted alive, reckons to have been chosen by God. In contrast the English believe her to be some kind of witch. Shakespeare may not have intended her to be taken seriously, may have meant her to be a comic character and at times in the past she has been played as such (the 1980’s BBC version, where she literally talks to thin air.) He is, in other words, poking fun at certain aspects of Catholicism; the creation of saints and the credibility of divine visions. Light mockery is about as far as he goes, however.

Other examples of religion in the history plays include the piety of Henry VI and the presence of numerous archbishops and what not but it is to be noted that otherwise religion plays no role in the history plays. They are almost entirely secular, dealing with politics and rebellions and war. This secularity stands apart from earlier periods which were quite the opposite. Entertainment, in the medieval and early Tudor period, was inextricably linked with religion. The central core of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is religious, it’s a group of people going on a pilgrimage, and plays and theatre were mostly limited to mystery plays- Plays based around stories from the bible. The history plays of Shakespeare, therefore, mark a point where entertainment and religion had begun to divide and we can see this in their secular subject matter. Shakespeare no doubt was trying to avoid any religious controversy to some degree and this suggests to me that the divide, the almost total secularisation of entertainment that we can still see today, began as a result of the break with Rome and the events that followed.

Of course, other errors in the plays that cannot be explained away by the time period in which they were written. Westmorland, who is the starting gun for the whole band of brothers speech, wasn’t even there in real life. He was one of those people tucked up in bed and who forever after held his manhood cheap. Young Henry/Hal is absent from Richard II- He was with Richard in Ireland and afterwards when his father was usurping the crown. Meanwhile John of Gaunt, short of extoling the virtues of merry England, had no inclination that he would never see his son again when he was exiled.

These are just a few examples of general ball drops but there are other errors that Shakespeare put in on purpose, for dramatic and entertainment reasons or as an allegory. One scene that is meant to be allegorical, not meant to be based in fact, is the scene in Henry VI part 1 where Somerset and Richard Plantagenet (Sr) quarrel and pick the emblems of the red and white rose and have everybody else do the same. This is to emphasize the idea that there are two factions, that there is division within the kingdom. The two different coloured roses representative of the two sides, a physical depiction of the division. They make it clear who is supporting who and Shakespeare is able to use that idea, later on, to show the further fragmentation by having King Henry pick the white rose of Lancashire during another argument. Another allegorical scene is Richard III’s nightmare before Bosworth, where all his past victims come back to haunt him. This is symbolic of the guilt he is suffering, of his past coming back to haunt him and of impending retribution. Scenes such as this are not meant to be taken literally. They are meant as allegory, as a way of portraying character, not an actual depiction of the past as it happened. There are an awful lot more scenes that you can argue are allegorical as well, plenty in every play. You can argue that a massive proportion was meant to be allegorical if you wished.

Then we have the mistakes that are made for entertainment reasons. The compression of time, for instance. Most of Henry IV’s thirteen year reign takes place entirely within Henry IV part 2- Everything from Shrewsbury (1403) onwards. TEN YEARS. Shakespeare had to compress in order to create a play that was even half watchable. It’s the same reason modern biopic and film writers compress events- You just can’t depict history on stage or screen without some kind of compression and omission. Equally, the death of Richard II is changed for entertainment purposes.  Not only is the way Shakespeare does it more dramatic (stabbed to death!) watching his real death, of starvation, would be really god-damn boring. There is a lot, like the above examples, that can be explained away for entertainment reasons.

But let us not forget that these plays weren’t just entertainments. They had an educational value as well. Most people in Tudor England could not read. The population was largely illiterate, especially the poor and the lower classes, so the way in which they learned of their history was mostly oral and plays such as Shakespeare’s would have been a major part of that. People would have gone to the theatre not just to be entertained but to learn about the past, to learn about Henry V and IV and Richard II. In the absence of schools and literacy these plays were one of the best ways of educating the public. It is different from modern period dramas (like the currently running Close To The Enemy or Poldark) which are watched solely for entertainment purposes. Nobody watches Poldark to learn about the ins and outs of Cornish copper mining. Whilst people would have been mainly drawn for the entertainment value, they would have been well aware that they were also going to the theatre to be educated.

Nobody was treated as being ignorant either and we can see that in the way the plays are written. People were expected to know who certain people were, where they had come from. Richard II begins right in the middle of the action with an argument between Henry Bolingbroke and the Earl of Mowbray, each accusing the other of treason for events that we just haven’t seen on stage. A Tudor audience would have been expected to have some knowledge of these events and most, probably through oral history and perhaps other plays which have been lost to us, would have had it. They would have had an idea of who people were, why they were important and probably which scenes were meant to be allegorical. If this is the case then it is probable that the illiterate Tudor poor knew more about their history than most people in Britain today. If Shakespeare wrote Richard II today there would be complaints from a lot of people who had no clue as to what was going on and why.

Whilst there are certainly better sources for studying the 1400’s than Shakespeare’s history plays, they do still show us the way in which the past was perceived at the end of the sixteenth century. They give us a traditional view of history that is now considered old fashioned, a grand narrative of cause and effect. They give us clear evidence, particularly in the case of Richard III, of how politics and propaganda were used to create a certain opinion amongst the populace, to keep people on the right side and prevent subversion. They are also a fine example of one of the ways people learned about the past in Tudor times, through secular entertainment. They might not always be good history, but they are good historiography.


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