BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Histories

I’ll admit – I tried tackling The Complete Works of William Shakespeare once before.  It was sometime while I was in college, between 2003 and 2009, which was foolish in itself – I was an English major.  It’s not like I didn’t have enough to read!

However, during that attempt, I reached the historical plays & stopped.  I found them so boring.  I read one or two, but it got very repetitive– characters with which I’m not familiar & retelling of stories about which I’ve never heard.

Plus, I’ve always found history a bit boring.

This time around, I plowed through & learned what the history plays have in common:

  • Take place in Medieval history, mostly covering the 100 Year War
  • Contain real & fictional persons, including monarchs, lords, & commoners
  • Shows characters of different social classes interacting
  • Promoted an image of England’s superiority
  • Focused on the respective rise & fall of the characters
  • End in peace, or, at least, a “cease-fire”

Ultimately, Shakespeare intended for these plays to be entertainment – sort of like today’s “Based on a True Story” movie claims.  They include real historical figures, & the wars might have ended the way Shakespeare described, but that’s about the limit of the accuracy.

Maybe it was because these plays were “for entertainment purposes only” that Shakespeare could use them to subtly criticize the reigning monarch. 

But, if you wanted a play to be successful in that time, monarch approval was a necessity.  That’s one of the main reasons the history plays have an overriding theme of Tudor legitimacy & English superiority. Some critics even call these plays “propaganda” for their patriotic tones.

Now, regardless of “subtle themes” & “Tudor line succession legitimacy,” I’m sure that Shakespeare’s audiences found the history plays entertaining.  I imagine some of the famous speeches (like “Saint Crispin’s day”), when performed live, by a skilled actor, are gripping. 

Still, even more than ten years after I first tried reading them one after the other, I think they’re boring. 

Y’know what?  The italics aren’t emphasis enough for this statement.  They were boooooooooooooooooooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring.

There.  I feel better.

The only plays I cared for, even a little, were probably:

  • King Henry IV: First Part – Because we get to see the crown prince, Harry, act like a total fool.  He gets drunk, hangs out with lower class people, even steals.  Then, towards the end, he starts to act more “princely.”  He kills the famed & feared Hotspur in battle, but offers to let his drunken knight friend, Falstaff, claim he did it if it helps Falstaff’s image.  Falstaff is a recurring character in the King Henry plays &, judging by the epilogu ein King Henry IV: Second Part, a crowd favorite.
  • King Henry IV: Second Part – We get to see Prince Harry become King Henry V, reconciling with his father on his death bed.  I think Shakespeare used the first play to build up Harry as a scoundrel just to show how great he became later.  Immediately on becoming “King Henry V,” Harry banishes his old friends, including Falstaff, claiming they can’t come back until they’re “better people.”  Coming from the guy who organized the group to rob some wealthy travelers so he could rob Falstaff, it’s a real slap in the face.
  • King Henry V – Just for the “Crispin’s Day” speech.
  • The Life& Death of King Richard III – Shakespeare portrays Richard, Duke of Gloster, as a deformed, murderous usurper who will kill anyone who stands in his way of the crown.  It’s not a boring story.  It was so interesting, in fact, that more people believe it than the real historical facts & view Richard as a monster.  Historians have been working for years to restore Richard III’s posthumous reputation.

Shakespeare covers over 100 years of historical fiction in ten plays:

  • King John
  • The Life and Death of King Richard II
  • King Henry IV: First Part
  • King Henry IV: Second Part
  • King Henry V
  • King Henry VI: First Part
  • King Henry VI: Second Part
  • King Henry VI: Third Part
  • The Life and Death of King Richard III
  • King Henry VIII

PHEW!  The histories are done!  I think they’re a big part of the reason this reading – & possibly this review – took so long to finish.

Next post will be about everybody’s favorite tear-jerkers, Shakespeare’s tragedy plays.

10 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – Histories”

  1. I really like your comment about Richard III’s reality vs Shakespeare’s fiction. I remember how even my history professors would often continue the theories of Richard being an evil tyrant – and when I travelled to London, they definitely portray Richard III as the worst, especially at the Tower. (Or at least they were on the day I was there.) But I think I came across someone who said something different, or maybe it was around when I started watching ‘The White Queen’, and I started questioning if there was a different Richard, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover the answer was yes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I’m so glad you noticed it too.

      I think you’re really going to like the next book I’m reviewing if you enjoy history & Shakespeare. I’m not a huge history fan – as this post may have (not so) subtly indicated – & I really enjoyed the book. I’ll leave you in suspense until then, though!

      An interesting way of looking at it is: A man, 500+ years ago, wrote a play that changed the world’s view of history. Can you imagine if you did something like that? 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s all of history, isn’t it? Isn’t history written by the survivors? Whether or not one wants to argue whether its Shakespeare or not, or whether others wrote his work, that doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter if he believed that about Richard III or not. The truth is, to ensure Henry VII’s reign, he had to discredit Richard III. Henry VIII LOVED playing up the battles, and by then, a large amount of the people in the original War of the Roses battles were dead, and the rest, Henry made sure they were (VIII, not VII). I think Elizabeth I would have pushed that, too, because people didn’t want her on the throne, so Richard III’s “history” was already there. They just needed someone to make it popular.

        I remember this book series my parents used to get for me, and one was ‘I Wish I’d Climbed To Everest With Sir Edmund Hillary’. I loved those “I Wish” books. I loved Sir Edmund Hillary so much, and I wrote my Year 6 report on him. I remember being so excited in the drafting process and saying to my dad “Imagine being the first person to reach Everest!” and my dad said, “Imagine thinking that because your book told you. History is written by the victors. He wasn’t the first person to climb Everest, he’s just the first white man who’s had his journey recorded in history, making it ‘fact’.”

        I think we do it all the time. I think we’re doing it now, and I don’t mean the obvious ones, you know?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I heard something similar to “history is written by the survivors,” only it went “history is written by the victors/winners.” I think I read it in “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” but I can’t honestly remember. Regardless, I really like that line.

        Ah, there are some interesting points on Shakespeare & writing. It was commonplace for writers to collaborate, especially when the theaters needed a new play every couple of weeks. Also, plagiarism wasn’t really a “thing” back then. They copied whole passages & famous authors were even known to write with a classical or popular text open on the desk.

        Not only that, but, once the playwright handed over the script, they lost all ownership over it. The actors tailored it to suit their casts’ strengths, cut portions if they didn’t fit, commissioned other authors to add scenes, & then, usually once it was off the stage, traveling companies would take “the show on the road,” as we now say. In some cases, they’d butcher the h— out of it too.

        The complete works were published after Shakespeare’s death & had loads of changes made by other hands.

        So, some of the people claiming Shakespeare didn’t do all his own writing are correct – but, not in the way they think. No deep-state cabal created the “character” of William Shakespeare & wrote all his plays. At least, that’s my opinion. The documentary evidence still around from that time is scant.

        That’s exactly what Shakespeare did – he legitimized the Tudor line by painting Richard III as the usurper, even though that’s not true. I’m sure that Shakespeare had a lot of that in mind when he wrote his historical plays. Pleasing the monarch was high on the list of priorities when it came to play-writing.

        I think it’s pretty cool that your Dad pointed out to you that the book wasn’t accurate, even if it did really burst your bubble. Showing kids to question what they’re reading is pretty good.

        I agree – we do it all the time. It also depends on what documents you’re reading, what bias the author has, what facts he/she chose to omit or include, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I could not agree more! I always say that I don’t think it matters – and that whatever they want to believe (whether they want to think of Shakespeare as an individual, or not), I’ve always said it wasn’t relevant. I’ve always talked about hoe Romeo and Juliet was a poem from the 13th or 14th century – there’s a reason it’s set in Venice. So I talk about the differences – like you mentioned, how plagarism was ‘different’ – and I often talk about Shakespeare as a symbol, and less “one man”.

        It was! My parents really encouraged critical thinking, and I think it’s really shaped who I am as a person. And they always gave me the freedom to pursue my own beliefs, views and values, and didn’t try to enforce anything on me.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. There’s support for arguments about Shakespeare on pretty much any side you want to approach the subject from. Pretty much the same for arguments about themes & imagery in the works.

        Well, I’m glad that your parents instilled that in you. It has served you very well! I didn’t learn about “Critical thinking” until college. Yay America(?).

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I think that was a lot more my parents than anything – they always wanted to make sure I was informed, not ignorant, and they encouraged asking questions.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. It’s cool that your parents did that! A lot of parents don’t want to do that because it could easily lead to their kids talking back to them.

        But, I’m pretty sure we’ve had this conversation before. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      7. It’s still true. Teaching people to think critically has the potential consequence of diluting, up-ending, or causing friction in a power bias. I’m sure that’s why it’s rarely taught below college level in my state!


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