Shakespeare’s history plays might actually be interesting—if not for all that history. Though no historian himself, William Shakespeare devoted ten of his thirty-seven plays to the history of his native land—sort of. Not counting The Life and Death of King John and The Famous History of the Life of Henry VIII, which differ from other histories chronologically, politically, and dramatically, Shakespeare crafted eight plays tracing England’s history from the 1390s, when Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II, to 1485, when Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field. The earliest plays, before his dramatic gifts had matured, include four histories rambling over the sixty-three years from 1422 to 1485. Among his mature plays are four histories spanning the quarter-century of Henry IV and his son, Henry V.
Ideally, each of the eight plays should constitute a dramatic whole; that is, stand alone as a satisfying work. Three apparently do, as the frequency of their production attests: Richard III, Henry IV Part One, and Henry V. Audiences love the wickedness of the hunchback, the debauchery of Falstaff, and the humanity of the hero-king. On the other hand, we hardly ever see the three parts of Henry VI; occasionally, the sequence will be staged in two parts or even one, as in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2000 production, The War of the Roses. Henry IV Part Two, rarely appears except as a bridge between Henry IV Part One and Henry V in a three-part series. Richard II proves somewhat more popular, but not much.
The problem Shakespeare tackled in the youthful tetralogy was presenting historical events in dialogue. A play beginning with the coronation of six-month-old Henry VI, for example, and ending when he’s sixteen, swoops over the chronology without engaging our interest in the interactions of the characters—which, after all, defines drama. All three parts of Henry VI gallop apace from decade to decade. By the time Shakespeare returned to history in his maturity, he had learned to focus on character and on such themes as succession, nobility of birth vs. nobility of character, and appropriate preparation for and responsibilities of kingship. Is it ever right to dethrone an anointed king? Under what conditions? Does successful usurpation create a new line of succession? Even if the new king is an infant? What makes a good king?
With a bare backdrop of historical fact, Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V focus overwhelmingly on the development of Prince Hal’s character. The facts of Hal’s boyhood and youth are sketchy for both us and Shakespeare. Yet to comprehend his excellence and humanity as King Henry V, we need to see his emergence from juvenile irresponsibility to true heroism and boyish majesty. The Bard, then, develops scenes of contrast between Hal and other heroes, warriors, noblemen, and rascals—some fictitious, some anachronistic—assuring us, meanwhile, that the seeds of royalty are his birthright.
For kings and heroes, the best dramatic means for demonstrating ability to rule is the battlefield, the primary importance of which lies in the contrasting behaviors of the battle-captains. The battle provides the background against which leaders reveal their true spirits by what they do and what they say to and about others, in person or behind their backs. Over the course of the play, Shakespeare will provide enough information for the audience to celebrate the triumph of the better man, often someone deemed unlikely at the beginning.
In Henry IV Part One, the king’s first speech acknowledges an end to the civil wars following his seizure of the throne and the beginning of the pilgrimage he promised on usurping the throne from his cousin Richard II. Westmerland, however, the news-bringer of the play, reveals embroilments in the west and north against, respectively, the Welsh and Scots: Sir Edmund Mortimer, the second son of the King’s cousin Philippa (whom Shakespeare confuses with Philippa’s grandson, Sir Edmund Mortimer, heir presumptive to the throne after the death of his father, Roger Mortimer) is prisoner of “the irregular and wild Glendower” (1.1.40, all references are to The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974]), a Welshman whose daughter Philippa’s son subsequently marries; and “the gallant Hotspur . . . ,/ Young Harry Percy” (1.1.52 53) has captured a number of Scots, whom he vows to withhold from the king.
This recitation of events is not intended to expose our ignorance of British history, although it seems to do just that. In fact, Shakespeare’s “history” exposes even larger inaccuracies. He implies, for example, that Hotspur and Hal are contemporaries—the former a seasoned warrior, the latter a disappointment to his father, the King, who says: “Yea, there thou mak’st me sad, and mak’st me sin / In envy that my Lord Northumberland / Should be the father to so blest a son— / A son who is the theme of honor’s tongue, / Amongst a grove the very straightest plant, / Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride, / Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him / See riot and dishonor stain the brow / Of my young Harry. O that it could be prov’d / That some night-tripping fairy had exchang’d / In cradle-clothes our children where they lay, / And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet! / Then would I have his Harry and he mine” (1.1.78 90).
If only our sons had been switched at birth, he laments; I could feel proud of my son, who is known as Percy. Historically, Hotspur is two years older than the king who speaks these lines. When Hotspur died in 1403 at the age of thirty-nine, during his rebellion against the king (as depicted in the play), young Harry (Prince Hal) was barely sixteen years old, and the king but thirty-seven. Can we wonder that Hotspur’s exploits exceeded those of the prince? That the teenager doesn’t measure up to the warrior in his prime?
Dramatically, however, the king’s impassioned comparison establishes a high standard for Hal, which he reaches—and exceeds. During the play, Shakespeare contrasts Hotspur and Mortimer in their treatment of their wives. He contrasts Hotspur and Owen Glendower in their stubbornness, pride, and choler. We see Falstaffian “honesty” and “valor.” We have Prince Hal’s soliloquies revealing his true character, his promises to his father as he engages in battle, his defeat of Hotspur and subsequent eulogy, and his generosity toward the traitor Douglas, whom he releases. In every instance, the valiant Hotspur declines from his apex of the king’s initial comparison, while ne’er-do-well Prince Hal ascends. The scoundrel Falstaff sinks even further in comparison to Hal, to the sub-humanity of mutilating Hotspur’s body.
For Shakespeare’s audience, the history of the history plays would be about as familiar as our understanding of our own Civil War: We know the names of some of the battles, battlefields and atrocities, and some of the generals, heroes and villains; but unless we’ve dedicated a great deal of study to the overall conflict, with all that implies about prior events, opposing viewpoints, clashing personalities, the westward movement, and politics as usual, our information remains inexact. Yet we enjoy Civil War movies without demanding historical exactitude or prior knowledge of the events depicted; without insisting that dialogue and screenplay be actually, factually true. Can we not similarly enjoy a dramatic depiction of England’s history without torturing ourselves about the history?