William Shakespeare Shakespeare's Representation of History - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Shakespeare's Representation of History

Shakespeare dramatized the national history of England in two tetralogies, which cover English history from 1398 to 1485. The first tetralogy includes Henry VI, Parts One, Two, and Three and Richard III, and the second tetralogy includes Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. While the series from Richard II through Henry V deals with a historical time earlier than the Henry VI plays and Richard III, it is usually referred to as the second tetralogy in reference to the order in which Shakespeare composed the plays. The two other English history plays, King John and Henry VIII, have been viewed as prologue and epilogue to the other eight plays. The sources from which Shakespeare drew to write the history plays include Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) and Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; the second edition, that used by Shakespeare, was published in 1587).

Much modern critical attention has focused on the way Shakespeare utilized his sources in his interpretations of historical events. The characteristics of Renaissance historiography—the narrative presentation of history based on critical evaluations of primary and secondary source materials—is often compared with Shakespeare's own historiographical style. Graham Holderness (1985) stresses that most of Shakespeare's plays, and especially the English history plays, were intended as historiography. Holderness contends that the new, bourgeois historiography employed by Shakespeare grew out of two other historiographical traditions, that of providentialist orthodoxy and humanist historiography. (Providentialism stressed that God's divine will governed the world and ordained the succession of English monarchs; rebellion against God's anoited monarch, it was argued, was punished by political disorder, warfare, and bloodshed. Humanism emphasized the dominance of individual human will and intellect.) Matthew H. Wikander (1986) similarly states that the revolution in Renaissance historiography in which Shakespeare took part grew out of both providential and humanist attitudes. The central issue within this new historiographical attitude, states Wikander, was the problem of how to moralize the past. Tracing the development of Shakespeare's historiography from early histories such as Henry VI, Part One to later histories, including Henry IV, Part One and Henry VIII, Wikander finds that the moral patterns and lessons in the earlier plays are more straightforward than in the later histories. Additionally, Wikander comments that Shakespeare's attitude toward his sources was “cavalier,” but that Shakespeare, as well as the authors of his sources, were all guilty of drawing parallels and analogies, allegorizing historical figures, and telescoping historical time. While Wikander sees these tendencies as “faults,” Don M. Ricks (1968) observes that sixteenth-century historiography was not bound by modern rules of objectivity and historical accuracy. Rather, it was understood that historical data should be presented in a way that made a subjective and moralistic argument. Such biases, including Shakespeare's, Ricks maintains, resulted from the attitude toward history and its purposes, rather than from ignorance. Ricks further argues that although Shakespeare's own political bias was geared toward defending the Tudor status quo, his views regarding the doctrine of providential order were more subtle and complex than many of his contemporaries. Clifford Leech (1962) agrees, maintaining that although Shakespeare does “enshrine” many of the sixteenth-century attitudes regarding history and its values, his purpose transcends that of stressing the danger of civil rebellion and glorifying England.

The relationship between the two tetralogies in general, and the parts of Henry IV in particular, is also an area of tremendous critical interest. Many critics have sought unity in the history plays, while others emphasize the problems with trying to link plays that Shakespeare intended as separate units. Ricks argues that the unity of the two tetralogies stems primarily from the fact that the plays coherently dramatize the consecutive reigns of several kings, but that the eight plays do in fact stand distinctly apart from one another. Paul Yachnin (1991) and Paola Pugliatti (1996) focus their attention on the structural relationship between the two parts of Henry IV. Yachnin argues that the plays should be thought of in terms of sequence rather than structure, and that they should be viewed as performance rather than literary texts. As such, Yachnin maintains, the two plays reveal Shakespeare's critique of Renaissance historiography and demonstrate the “open-ended” character of historical change. Yachnin further states that the first play stands as a complete unit until the second play revises the premises of the first, and that the second play has a darker conception of politics which undercuts the views of the first part of Henry IV. The revisionist relationship between the plays, Yachnin asserts, demonstrates that Shakespeare's view of history was not providentialist. Pugliatti agrees with Yachnin's claims in general, but argues that the second play, rather than contradicting the premises of the first, further develops certain elements, particularly the concept of political, as well as historiographical, instability. The two plays are based on the concept of this instability, Pugliatti argues, and this framework of instability is used by Shakespeare to question the providential view of history.

Clifford Leech (essay date 1962)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “History for the Elizabethans,” in Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 7-12.

[In the essay below, Leech argues that while Shakespeare does honor sixteenth-century attitudes toward the value of history to some degree, the playwright also transcends—both in literary expertise and poetic insight—the chronicles he used as source material.]

Most of us to-day know that history does not repeat itself, that few things are more dangerous than responding to present circumstances as if they duplicated those that a previous generation had to cope with. Of course, some of our public men and some of our military strategists do exactly...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)

Don M. Ricks (essay date 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Shakespearean History Play,” in Shakespeare's Emergent Form: A Study of the Henry VI Plays, Monograph Series, Vol. XV, No. 1, June, 1968, pp. 11-36.

[In the essay below, Ricks examines the relationship between politics and history in Tudor—and in particular, Shakespearean—historiography, maintaining that Shakespeare's historiography was characteristic of his age in its didacticism.]


There has been some question as to whether Shakespeare wrote “history” plays or “political” plays. The truth is, of course, that neither adjective is by itself adequate. Social history, economic history,...

(The entire section is 10568 words.)

Graham Holderness (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introduction 2: History,” in Shakespeare's History, Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1985, pp. 14-39.

[In the essay below, Holderness maintains that many of Shakespeare's plays, especially the English history plays, were intentional acts of historiography. In particular, Holderness analyzes the second tetralogy (Richard II through Henry V) and argues that the historiography offered in these plays was a new, emergent form with a bourgeois viewpoint.]

The argument of this book could, and ideally should, be applied more broadly than the scope of the enterprise allows. Although it is based on an underlying hypothesis that most of Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 9176 words.)

Matthew H. Wikander (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Dramatic Historiography: I Henry IV to Henry VIII,” in The Play of Truth and State: Historical Drama from Shakespeare to Brecht, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 13-49.

[In the following essay, Wikander examines the nature of Shakespeare's historiography in the English history plays, demonstrating the way in which Shakespeare incorporated elements of the medieval, providential view of history and humanist historiography in his approach to English history.]


Right in the middle of I Henry IV a memorable sequence of three scenes—the tavern scene (II.iv), the Welsh scene (III.i), and...

(The entire section is 18905 words.)

G. K. Hunter (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Truth and Art in History Plays,” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 42, 1989, pp. 15-24.

[In the following essay, Hunter studies the way in which Elizabethans viewed the treatment of history in history plays.]

Since the First Folio says that Shakespeare wrote history plays I think there is a great deal to be said for assuming not only that he did so but did so in the plays thus designated and no others; let evidence precede definition. It is true of course that the evidence available is mixed; Elizabethan generic vocabulary is notoriously spongy: contemporary title pages give us such hybrids as The...

(The entire section is 6017 words.)

Paul Yachnin (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “History, Theatricality, and the ‘Structural Problem’ in the Henry IV Plays,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, 1991, pp. 163-79.

[In the essay that follows, Yachnin contends that what is perceived to be a structural problem in Henry IV Parts 1and 2 (that is, the question of whether the plays should be approached as one ten-act play or two separate five-act plays) ceases to be an issue when the plays are understood to be performance texts, rather than literary texts. As such, the critic maintains, the two plays reveal Shakespeare's critique of Renaissance historiography and demonstrate the ‘open-ended’ character of historical change.]...

(The entire section is 6914 words.)

Paola Pugliatti (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time, Space and the Instability of History in the Henry IV Sequence,” in Shakespeare the Historian, Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1996, pp. 102-36.

[In the essay below, Pugliatti responds to several of Paul Yachnin's arguments, maintaining that Henry IV, Part Twostrengthens and clarifies elements of Henry IV, Part One, rather than revising premises of the first play, as Yachnin suggests. Pugliatti also examines the concept of political, as well as historiographical, instability in the plays.]


The issue of the ‘structural problem’ of the Henry...

(The entire section is 14177 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Bergeron, David M. “Shakespeare Makes History: 2 Henry IV.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 231-45.

Argues that 2 Henry IV demonstrates an unusual “self-consciousness” about history, and examines the ways in which the characters in the play are used by Shakespeare to analyze as well as construct history.

Hart, Jonathan. “Temporality: Drama vs. History.” In Theater and World: The Problematics of Shakespeare's History, pp. 97-158. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Studies the relationship between historical time and the dramatic treatment...

(The entire section is 269 words.)