Over the course of his playwriting career, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 10 of which were history plays. The histories recounted actual events, each documenting the reign of an English king. Compared to some of Shakespeare’s other works, they might not seem as attention grabbing. They’re not nearly as infamous as his tragedies or comedies, but that doesn’t mean you should skip over them.
While the histories may not be produced as often as his other plays, they shouldn’t be lost to – well, history. The histories still contribute quite a lot to literature and our culture. Here’s some reasons to give the histories a chance.
They’re Dramatic and Engaging
Although these plays feature real life historical figures, plays should come with the classic horror movie warning, “inspired by true events”. Shakespeare takes some creative liberties, and besides, whenever you write about events and conversations you weren’t present for, your imagination will influence the writing. What’s more, Shakespeare wrote these plays for the stage – specifically, the Globe Theater – and added his unique dramatic flair.
This isn’t a bad thing. Admittedly, history class isn’t for everyone, but a play dramatizing actual events? Much easier to digest. What’s more, these plays feature entire wars, historical back stabbings, and other real life moments that defined European history. There’s plenty of exciting things to pull any audience in, as long as they can get past the “history” part.
They Defined Our Perceptions of Kings
We can’t know for certain how the kings of old behaved in actuality. We can turn to primary sources, but they don’t necessarily solidify their personalities in our minds. Shakespeare, on the other hand, presents each king with a distinct and recognizable character.
Since these are the most fleshed out representations of the kings we have, Shakespeare helped shape the way we perceive them. For example, the titular Richard III comes off as a cruel, curmudgeonly leader, taking out his fury on humanity. In media, we can identify monarchical figures that follow this model, and when people think of Richard III there’s a good chance this character will pop into their minds, regardless of whether it’s true or not.
The Decadent Language
These are Shakespeare plays, so they’re written in his usual style. At times it’ll come off as confusing, since language doesn’t sound the same over centuries of linguistic evolution. However, the beauty and cleverness of the language remains.
Take the prologue of Henry V for example. The monologue begins, “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / the brightest heaven of invention” (1-2) – an homage to traditional Greek epics that invoked a muse before writing an epic tale. Continuing on, the prologue admits the limitations of the stage, and asks the audience to lend their imaginations to the action onstage to make the magic come to life. Shakespeare writes, “Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confined two mighty monarchies” (19-20). He acknowledges that there’s no way to fit entire armies into the theater, let alone onstage, so the audience will have to envision the armies on their own. It’s a beautifully written prologue that not only establishes the play’s setting, but also appeals to the audience for their patience and understanding.
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.
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