Introduction to Historiography
1 Henry IV
2 Henry IV
History is written by the victors.
Henry V was a strong, victorious king. His son, Henry VI was a weak king who lost the lands his father won in France. Joan of Arc was a witch. Richard III was an evil king.
Actually, Henry V's military skills and his victories are over exaggerated. Henry VI was a mentally ill king. Joan of Arc is considered a saint and Richard III was not evil, or even a bad king. But the above contradictions illustrate why the study of historiography is important. Historiography is the methodology used by authors in rewriting and portraying historical events. In the words of Napoleon (ironically a Frenchman), "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." Historians can change, alter, and highlight certain events depending upon the time they lived. In 1589 Shakespeare was amongst the playwrights who provided "history plays". These plays were supposed to teach Elizabethan England about their past and consequently the people believed what they saw in the play. Shakespeare, in having the power to rewrite history, also had the ability to manipulate the future. Shakespeare used the theatre as a medium in portraying his political beliefs to the public. Through his plays he was able to control how people thought about their past. Our site is devoted to sifting through the history plays, character by character, to discover the exact changes Shakespeare made in all of his plays. This in-depth information is available under the play's name on our main timeline.
In this paper, however,
we hope to offer up a possible motive for Shakespeare's rewriting of historical
events. We feel Shakespeare may have altered and compressed events to help create
a national identity for England. England had just experienced the end of a turbulent
period. The Spanish Armada had finally ended and Protestantism was decidedly
the official English religion. England, in 1589, was able to turn to their domestic
concerns. One main question permeating England throughout this time was: what
does it mean to be English? England was searching for her identity. Therefore,
we feel that the events, (historical, altered, and even fictional) all helped
Shakespeare use history to solidify England's evolving identity. The paper is
divided by the following plays:
1 Henry IV
2 Henry IV
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II. Historiography Essay
King John is one of the most inaccurate history plays, compressing 17 years of history into five acts. Shakespeare deviated from the true history much more in King John than he did in writing the others in the canon, not even including quite possibly the most significant event from King John's reign-his signing of the Magna Charta.
The play instead focuses on two common themes found through out the history canon: the importance of the legitimacy of the ruler and what characteristics make a good ruler. Thus to emphasize the evil in King John's usurpation, Arthur's death becomes a climatic event in the play when in all actuality it occurred very early in King John's reign and it is unclear from recorded history if King John had anything at all to do with it.
The nobles did revolt against King John, but ten years after the death of Arthur, thus history is compressed to portray King John as a malicious character. By having the nobles revolt earlier and a monk poison King John, (which never happened) illustrated then is a major theme found in this play-King John's moral breakdown resulting from his corruption.
Historically, there are parallels between the King John that Shakespeare presents and his ruling monarch, Queen Elizabeth. She, like King John, was not considered legitimate by the Catholic Church since she was conceived outside of marriage. Like John, she was excommunicated by the Church but contrarily was never re-recognized by the papal authority like John was in the play.
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1 Henry IV
Like most of the history plays, many years are compressed into a short sequence of events. The rebellions that are portrayed in this play actually had years between them and were not as much of a threat to the throne as portrayed. But by making the atmosphere seem more tumultuous adds suspense to the major pressing question of whether or not Hal is prepared to become a strong monarch.
Hal is presented as an irresponsible young knave, which is historically accurate, even though Hal was only a little boy during the time Shakespeare set the play. His father's concern over Hal's ability to rule effectively is both a central theme in the play and historically accurate as the two had a rocky relationship.
King Henry IV is introduced in the play as a man who is tired and has a heavy conscience as a result of his previous actions of deposing Richard II. To ease his mind he is planning a crusade. Historically, though, Henry did not plan to crusade until much later in his reign, but here the historical fact, though misplaced serves to strengthen Shakespeare's characterization of him.
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2 Henry IV
2 Henry IV was probably written between 1597-98, with at least some of Shakespeare's intent grounded in relaying a favorable opinion of the ascending King Henry V of the15th Century's House of Lancaster, a ruler who served England considerably better than some of the other members of the House of Lancaster. Still, Shakespeare is not entirely supportive of this royal House, for many reasons. One reason for Shakespeare's lack of support is Henry IV's usurpation of the Crown. Additional reasons for Shakespeare's lack of support for the House of Lancaster are the many wars, into which Henry V went on to lead England and also the mere fact that the House of Lancaster differed from the Tudor House (the House of Elizabeth I), under which Shakespeare lived much of his life.
In composing this play Shakespeare probably utilized many historical sources, some of which include Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles and Thomas Elyot's The Boke Called the Governor. These sources assisted Shakespeare in conforming to historical accuracy, though in this play Shakespeare often deviates from such accuracy.
Some examples of Shakespeare's
deviation from historical accuracy include the feigned existence of the character
Falstaff (supposedly one of Hal's former friends) and the exaggerated turmoil
that faces the nobility and that exists within the nobility. These fictions
were probably included by Shakespeare to elucidate the inadequacies of a Royal
House that differed from his beloved Tudor House, the House that unified England
and the House that still reigns today.
Henry V is based mostly on Holinshed's Chronicles, although Shakespeare condensed time. In fact, the "Dauphin" of France in this play, was actually Louis, then John, and then Charles. The Battles are closer together in time. For example, the Battle of Agincourt is the central battle in the play, which ultimately leads to the surrender of France. Historically, this battle was actually fought in 1415 and France did not surrender until five years later!
In addition Shakespeare never mentions that the English naval warfare and their alliance with Burgundy also greatly contributed to the English's success. The conflict between the church and state arose during the sixteenth century. Fundamental questions arose: Should a Christian state wage war? Should it wage war against another Christian state? Who has the right to start a war? Henry V addresses some of these questions when he requests that the Archbishop justify their going to war. The Archbishop replies that under, "Salic law" Henry has the right to the French throne. Shakespeare, through Henry, sets a precedent in Elizabethan times of asking the Archbishop for moral justification for going to war. He is furthering the "religious identity" of England by indicating that England and the Church were united in their decision-making. England did not, and will not, go to war without moral and legal justifications.
Shakespeare's Henry V further transforms the evolving English identity through the play's central character: Henry. Shakespeare alters events and compresses time, ultimately to make Henry V look the victor. Shakespeare wants to portray King Henry as the ultimate hero: noble, humble, and strong. Thus the reasoning behind many of the scenes in which Henry is disguised. Henry talks amongst his soldiers to try and understand their positions. He ultimately concludes, "Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own". Henry is voicing two fundamental concepts in these lines. First, that England respects a citizens' individual freedom, and furthermore, religious individuality. Second, that the English king understands the people's position and, although the king demands service, he does not demand or expect, the person's entire being and will with that service.
The story of Henry V epitomizes England's idea of a good and fair king. Henry even calls his fellow soldiers his "brothers" to further emphasize the importance of a fair and humble king. Shakespeare's portrayal of King Henry V may not have always been historically accurate. Henry did not solely instigate and win the war and he was not really an extremely religious man. Yet, by compressing events and overexaggerating parts, Shakespeare has portrayed Henry as the archetype for future English kings and the values they should hold. Henry V sets the precedent for the need for moral values and justifications during war, the importance of the individual soldier, and the presence of a strong, humble English king. Shakespeare "rewrote" history to mold the future.
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1 Henry VI
1Henry VI was the first history play that Shakespeare penned. Shakespeare, in writing this play did not just compress history but also jumbled many separate events around in time in creating the cohesive sequence. For example, the quarrel between York and Somerset, a main event in this play actually took place in the 1440's but Talbot's death, which Shakespeare portrays as a direct result of this disagreement did not occur until 1453. Joan was burned even earlier, in 1431, though in the play, she is executed after Talbot's death. Yet with Joan's death at the end of the play, the introduction of Margaret is illuminated. Her presence is like Joan's-a strong war-like female leader who is a very important player in the course of the tetralogy.
Winchester, as a character is changed also. He is presented as a villain, whose ambition leads him to constantly fight with the Duke of Gloucester. Historically, though, Winchester led a peaceful faction against the war-hungry Gloucester. Yet this change in his person works to show how self-ambition would corrupt the English ruling class throughout the War of the Roses, spreading down from the nobility into civil strife amongst the commoners.
However, Shakespeare's portrayal of Gloucester I Henry VI seems to be more accurate. He was ambitious and known to place his personal interest over the interests of the state. In fact another historical event, though it occurred in 1425 before the play was set, is Gloucester's coup attempt, which is echoed in the scene portraying the dispute between Gloucester and Winchester over control in the Tower of London.
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Shakespeare's Henry VI, tells the story of the demise of a weak king. In addition, this play warns that a weak king can lead to more internal domestic problems than expected. The nobles begin to fight amongst each other (Gloucester and Beafort), the wives begin to fight (the Duchess and Maragaret) and even the people rebel (Cade's Rebellion). Through this play, Shakespeare illustrates the repercussions a weak king can have on a nation. Shakespeare perhaps wrote this play to act as a warning for future nobility. Furthermore, this play helped to legitimize York's usurpation of the throne (which occurs in 3Henry VI).
The people, regardless if they are living the in the Middle Ages or the Elizabethan Era, strongly believed in divine providence. It was extremely important for Shakespeare to portray the various usurpations of the throne as being completely legitimate and fair so as to illustrate that the current house in power (the Tudors) had earned their right to rule.
Shakespeare dramatically changes parts of this play. The most notable is that Henry VI was not necessarily a weak king, but he was a sick king. We do not know how much Henry is to blame for the wartime policies of the 1440s, for the unrest the next decade, or for the civil war that did ensue. During the 1450s, it is known that Henry was incompetent for a time because he had a mental illness that made him speechless and almost immobile. The play entirely ignores this period, a period in which York did reign and the kingdom was stable. Shakespeare may have opted to leave this out since it provides a probable cause for Henry's lack of power.
In addition, Shakespeare probably did not want to involve York in England's decision-making since he too could be held accountable for the poor choices and outcomes. If York was already in power, and the kingdom was not well, then, logically, an audience would question why he became King.
Other major changes made by Shakespeare in this play center a lot around Margaret. Margaret did not have an affair with Suffolk, as depicted in the play, but she did with Somerset. In addition, Margaret never hit or caused the fall of the Duchess. The Duchess was exiled four years before Margaret arrived! Margaret most likely did not have anything to do with the death of Gloucester.
Finally, Margaret did not have the strong political hold on Henry as written by Shakespeare. She was only 14 years old when she married him. However, Margaret did try to rule once Henry was declared mentally insane and her request was denied since she was French. York then took over. These blatant changes in history made by Shakespeare result in a portrayal of Margaret as inherently powerful, yet naturally manipulative and evil. In creating her character as such (and in turn, changing history) Shakespeare is now creating another national identity to further England's evolving identity. Shakespeare was perhaps using Margaret as a representation of the French. The Spanish Armada had just ended and England, under Elizabeth, became Protestant. The French were Catholic. Perhaps Shakespeare used Margaret, and altered her character, to illustrate the evil in French Catholics and thus further justify English Protestantism.
Through this play, Shakespeare is able to omit parts of history which could de-legitimize York's claim to the throne. Furthermore, he is able to essentially change who Margaret of Anjou was by blaming her for actions she never even could have committed since she had yet to arrive in England. In changing these parts of history, Shakespeare continues to legitimize the means to which the Tudors eventually take over and to justify Elizabeth's Protestant reforms.
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3 Henry VI
This play was probably written no earlier than 1590, as Shakespeare's primary source for it was probably Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, published in 1589. The first publishing of 3 Henry VI was in 1623, which leads many scholars to suspect that Shakespeare wrote the Henry VI series out of its progressive order.
As with all of Shakespeare's History Plays, in 3 Henry VI there exists deviation from the events that actually occurred in English history. In this play Shakespeare omits and masks many details about Henry VI. Certainly Henry couldn't have been as weak as Shakespeare portrays him, mainly because he was the King. Anyone thought to have opposed a King in 15th Century England could have been easily convicted of Treason and executed. Additionally, Shakespeare omits the disease that plagued Henry VI, a disease that surely affected his rule.
Furthermore, Margaret is effectively made evil by Shakespeare, probably in his attempt to show disagreement with the entire English dynasty of the 15th century. Margaret is given a pivotal role in the downfall of Gloucester, Henry's most trustworthy advisor, discrediting her and making Henry seem ignorant of the obvious deviance that plagues his nobility.
Shakespeare also depicts an inner-family turmoil with Henry VI's disownment of his own son, the Prince, and with the feigning of a relationship between Henry's wife Margaret and Suffolk.
Still, Shakespeare misrepresents
even the House of Lancaster's enemies, making them villainous also. Shakespeare
makes Richard more evil than he was historically, emphasizing his grotesque
deformities and his role in the demise of Henry VI as a way of showing disapproval
of the War of the Roses, the dispute that occurred between the Houses of Lancaster
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In Richard II, Shakespeare juxtaposes two Kings to illustrate the qualities in a strong king. Furthermore, Shakespeare legitimizes Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne. The English, both in the Middle Age and in the Elizabethan Era, very much believed in divine providence. They felt that the kings and queens were chosen to rule by God, and therefore, no one should be able to usurp the throne. The importance of legitimizing an usurpation becomes apparent. Perhaps then, Shakespeare over exaggerates Richard's incompetence to provide some rationale for Bolingbroke's taking over the throne.
Richard is portrayed as a selfish, egotistical, and aloof king. He over-taxes the people, frivolously spends his money, and selfishly takes over John Guant's property. His selfishness is what eventually instigates Bolingbroke's anger. Yet it is questionable just how poor of a king Richard was. Shakespeare only focuses on one year of his 22 year reign. In the other 21 years, Richard accomplished great things like ending the Hundred Year's War. Shakespeare focuses and overemphasizes
Richard's negative characteristics to juxtapose him to the honorable Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke becomes a model for future kings and the qualities they should bear. Bolingbroke is humble, in fact, he does not even want the crown, just his land back. Once he is king, Bolinbroke is fair and just - or at least portrayed so by Shakespeare. For example, the Duchess had absolutely nothing to do with Aumerle's pardon. She was dead four years before he was even pardoned! Yet this event, creates a compassionate side to Bolingbroke since he is moved by the Duchess' pleas for her sons life and he pardons him.
Richard's death scene is also fictitious. He is said to have died of starvation. Yet Shakespeare probably made this scene up to fully emphasize how just and fair Bolinbroke was. Bolingbroke is upset that Richard has been murdered and he reprimands Exton. This action is illustrating two things to Shakespeare's audience. First, Bolingbroke did not hate Richard. This is important in exhibiting that Bolingbroke did not necessarily want the throne or want to take it away from Richard. Instead, Shakespeare makes it look like the usurpation happened more by chance, thus this would further the idea that God chooses the course of events and who should be king. Second, this scene epitomizes Bolingbroke's moral sense of right and wrong. Bolingbroke is a fair king and he will not make decisions out of anger or vengeance.
Shakespeare's Richard II, was extremely important to Elizabethan society since it legitimized the path to Queen Elizabeth. Elizabethans believed, very strongly, that the crown belongs by someone appointed by God. Therefore, Shakespeare wrote a play that made Bolingbroke's usurpation look like a natural course of events: God choose to move the crown from a selfish, poor king to a more fair and just king (or at least portrayed so by Shakespeare).
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Shakespeare writes about a Richard who he believes to be an impossibly evil villain. Richard kills his family and uses others with seemingly no remorse. He goes so far as to take pride in the horrible acts that he commits. Throughout and before the play he kills Henry VI, Henry's son Edward, his own brother Clarence, his nephews Edward and Richard, his wife Anne, and many other political figures. Shakespeare seems to attribute Richard's malformed nature to his very genes. Explanations of his deformed body are often a precursor to the horrible things he does. In the play Shakespeare illustrates Richard as a hunchback with a withered arm and a "halting" limp. He rationalizes his evil nature by announcing that someone with a body like his will only have the opportunity to create chaos and evil. He has been this way since he was born with teeth in his head and will therefore spend his life affected by his deformities. A true case of Nature defeating Nurture.
Richard was the son of Richard, Duke of York. He began his reign in 1483 and was the last ruler of the Plantagenet line. In reality, King Richard III was not physically deformed and most accounts do not relate a mental gruesomeness either. Shakespeare borrowed these negative details from other sources such as Thomas More and enemies of Richard who dishonestly wrote the majority of his history. Polydore Vergil wrote Historia Anglica for Henry VII in 1534. Of course Henry expected an account of a heinous villain whom he conquered. From the sources he had available Shakespeare probably believed his version of the wicked King Richard III to be truthful.
Shakespeare also uses other characters in unhistorical situations. Lady Anne never attended the funeral of Henry VI although Shakespeare uses this contrived situation to bring Anne and Richard together for the grotesque and infamous wooing scene. Shakespeare may use this wooing scene with Anne to counter the wooing scene with Elizabeth after Anne's fictional murder. Historically Anne married Richard in 1474 for seemingly legitimate, although probably political reasons and lived together in peace until she died of disease, possibly tuberculosis. There is no evidence to support Richard's instigation of her death.
Despite her important and persuasive role in Richard III, Margaret was not alive during the conflict about Richard's Kingship. Shakespeare uses her character to maintain the progression of the Henry trilogy and continue the recurrent theme of curses.
Overall, Richard is not the evil villain from Shakespeare's Richard III. He doesn't murder most of the people with whom Shakespeare credits him and even protests their deaths occasionally. Shakespeare writes that with full trust Clarence believes that Richard will save him from imprisonment. Once in the tower, Richard sends murderers to kill Clarence who drowns in a butt of malmsey wine. On the contrary, in 1470-1471, Clarence took up arms against his brother Edward IV and challenged his legitimacy. Historically, King Edward IV killed Clarence for treason and Richard vehemently protested his execution.
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HenryVIII is quite different
from Shakespeare's other history plays. This play includes two disclaimers in
the form of the fictional characters Prologue and Epilogue, characters that
obviously did not really exist. These characters outline the differences that
set this play apart from Shakespeare's other history plays. Prologue informs
the audience that this play will differ from the history plays with which the
audience is probably familiar; he says Henry VIII will be devoid of the extraneous
battles and mischief of which the plays have been characteristic. Additionally,
Epilogue makes sure the audience has enjoyed the play they have just seen and
assures them that there will be more plays to come.
In Henry VIII Shakespeare
is less condescending of the monarchy and he depicts much less inner turmoil
than he has in his previous history plays. In this play Shakespeare lessens
the actual detriment to England that the Historical Henry VIII, a man known
for his trivial wastes of money, served. Shakespeare does so as not to offend
Elizabeth, Shakespeare's monarch and friend.
greatly exaggerates the seriousness of those who try to rebel against Henry.
For example, Wosley was probably not as vehemently opposed to Henry as Shakespeare
indicates but in creating such a serious threat and by depicting Henry overcoming
this threat, Shakespeare not only complements Henry, he also complements Henry's
daughter Elizabeth I and the entire monarchical regime.
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