What are the elements of Shakespeare's historical plays?
Shakespeare's plays are traditionally broken down into three categories: comedies, tragedies and history plays. Interestingly, plays such as Julius Ceasar and Corialanus are not designated as being part of the latter category, even though they are clearly historical in treatment. Rather, what distinguishes the history plays from others of their ilk is their treatment of the English monarchy and in particular the various kings that have held the position of monarch and how they have gained that title.
This seems to be the defining nature of the history plays, as each in some way takes a position about kingship and under what grounds it is justifiable to oppose it or to seize power. Henry IV Part I, for example, opens with King Henry expressing the massive guilt and doubt he feels having seized power from his predecessor:
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
This history play questions the morality of seizing power from a (rightful?) monarch, and in particular explores this dimension of English history by examining the response of Henry to what he fought so much to attain. In other plays, Richard III for example, the crime of regicide is seen as being monstrous that only a monster like Richard himself could commit. What seems to be unique about the history plays as distinct from Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies is thus the thematic focus that is given to questions surrounding the monarchy, its legitimacy and under what conditions the monarch can be opposed and even overthrown. It is also important to recognise that Shakespeare allowed the politics of his day to influence his presentation of English history, with Henry VIII ending with the birth of Elizabeth I, which is described in glowing terms. Shakespeare's history plays must therefore be read in the light of the contemporary context in which he wrote. Even playwrights, after all, had to eat.
English historical plays had a parallel development with the Senecan tragedy that marked its advent with Gorboduc. While Senecan plays were European , the historical plays were English. Basically, the historical plays of Shakespeare were based on Holinshed's Chronicle.But there are also the Chronicles of Fabyan and Stowe from which Shakespeare borrowed his material. However, in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare was indebted to Plutarch's Lives in North's translation for introducing the readers to Roman history. The histories were those plays based on the lives of the English kings. The plays that portray older historical figures such as Pericles, Julius Ceasar and the legendary King Lear were not included in the classification. Macbeth which is based on a Scottish king was also classed as a tragedy not a history.
The War of the Roses has often been used for the cycle which includes eight plays Richard II and Henry IV two parts and Henry V. Richard III depicts the last member of the rival house of york as an evil monster.Machiavellism coloured Shakespearean vision in this play and he is highly critical of it. Political bias is there in Henry VII & VIII. Shakespeare has celebrated the Tudor order in these plays.
In all these plays Shakespeare has not taken great care of individualising characters as he has done in Macbeth or King Lear. Secondly, these historical plays have a good number of scenes which have affected the unity of action , time and place in the plays. Senecan revenge is the motif in some of these plays as Richard II . Shakespeare's concept of villain-hero emerges from these historical plays. Characters like Falstaff are however a marvellous celebration of comic vision of the dramatist in the historical play.
Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee