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.