Shakespeare’s Historical Plays

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      First of all, what is a history play? How is it different from other literary forms? Varied definitions have been offered by the critics. S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834) regarding the history play as “the transitional link between the epic poem and the drama” defines thus:

“In order that a drama may be properly historical, it is necessary that it should be the history of the people to whom it is addressed takes, therefore that part of real history which is least known, and infuses a principle of life and organization into the naked facts and makes them all the framework of a animated whole”.

      Knowing that there is as much history in Macbeth as in Richard II, he clarifies the distinction thus:

“In the purely historical plays, the history forms the plot: In the mixad, it directs it: in the rest, as Macbeth, Hamlet, Cymbeline, Lear, it subserves it”. (ST. Coleridge, Literary Remains, ed. H.W. Coleridge, 1836).

     Professor Schelling in his book The English Chronicle Play, published in 1902, has contributed much to the recognition of the importance of the genre. He acknowledged two groups of history plays: those centering around history and historical personages and those dealing with legendary history. Professor Tucker Brooke in his book, The Tudor Drama (1911) devoted a chapter to the history play. He listed plays of mixed kind, biographical, histories of tragic type, romanticized treatment of history and a most important type which he described as “plays par excellence of national feeling or national philosophy, where the normal interest in dramatis personae is more or less absorbed either in the expression of patriotic sentiment or in the interpretation of problems of government and statecraft. It is this class which gives to the Elizabethan history play its individuality as a dramatic species.”

      According to August Wilhelm Schlegel, Shakespeare’s histories, as a series, furnish examples of the political course of the word, applicable to all times. Professor H.B. Charlton in his lecture, Shakespeare, Politics and Politicians (1929) felt that a better name for the history plays would be political plays, “for they are plays in which the prevailing dramatic interest is in the fate of a nation”. He ‘further comments on Shakespeare: “His tragedies are glimpses of individual man as a nursing of immortality, his vision of the ways of God with man has comedies are his imaginative experience of the same individual in his domestic and social relationship with other members of civilized society. But by pure chance there was in Shakespeare’s day a type of theatrical entertainment which was neither tragedy nor comedy, neither focused mainly on the life eternal, nor on the life private, domestic and social. There was the so-called History or Chronicle Play”. He adds that “the history play is concerned with communities of man and primarily with nations. The real hero of the English play is England.” Another critic J.A.R. Marriott defined the history play as a literary medium for history. Lily B. Campbell finds in the history plays of Shakespeare “the marriage of history and poetry.” (Shakespeare’s Histories, 1947).

      These above-mentioned definitions bring out some of the specific features of the history play as a literary form besides touching on the usual themes dealt in them. Firstly, the historical figures, events and details play an important role in this type of drama. They show how the course of history is shaped by the most important and powerful men, especially the kings. In these dominant historical characters, personal and political motives become inseparable. Their personal defects or merits bring disaster or happiness to their public life. As John Wilders points out “the political disasters of the history plays are made human and vivid because they are shown as personal disasters”. (The Lost Garden, 1978).

      In English history plays the primary concern is England. The series of the history plays produced by Shakespeare tell us how she faced civil dissensions, foreign wars, peace and harmony or confusion and disorder with the reigns of her various kings. These topics held particular interest for the people in Shakespeare’s period. They were aware of the political problems of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) at the time of her accession and later in 1586 when the Babington Plot supporting her rival, Mary Queen of Scots was exposed. The Elizabethans were better informed than one would suppose on the rise and fall of many political adventurers in the past. Moreover, Shakespeare chose for his histories kings who were already familiar to his audience as archetypes to convey certain morals. He does not hesitate to attempt slight alterations in the historical details to make them dramatic.

      These political mirrors of history dealt with two major themes: Crime followed by punishment, war (whether civil or foreign) and peace. These topics form the major patterns in Shakespeare’s ten plays on English history As Lily B. Campbell explains in her Shakespeare’s Histories (1947) these patterns are based on three Biblical texts. The first is: “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, said the Lord”. According to this statement, God or His duly appointed representative alone executes punishment. Vengeance is forbidden to the ordinary man. The second text reads thus: “The Lord is slow to anger, and of great mercy, and forgiving inequity, and sin ... and visiting the wickedness of the fathers upon the children, in the third and fourth generation”. And the third text is taken from Christ’s own words: “It must needs be that offenses shall come, but woe be to that man by whom the offense cometh,” (Quoted in Lily B. Campbell’s Shakespeare’s Histories, (1947 p, 122).

      As the first expounds we are aware the subjects have no right to rebel or punish. It is the king or the King of Kings who can punish sinful men. The second clarifies the fact that crimes would have to be paid for even if they were done by kings. The sin of Henry IV gave him no peace in his reign and was paid for heavily by his grandson, Henry VI. The third text conveys that God may offend and take revenge for the sins. But the man through whom this is done, has to pay for it. For instance, the miseries resulting from Richard M’s inefficient and irresponsible reign were brought to an end by Henry Bolingbroke but Henry himself must suffer for his crimes against the lawful, anointed king.

      Shakespeare’s histories convey almost a moral universe when we apply these lessons to his treatment of historical leaders. Another principle upheld by the Elizabethan is that the crown once possessed, clears and purifies all defaults and imperfections. Therefore the kings or queens, whether faultless or not, deserve implicit obedience from the subjects for the welfare of their country. Once the order and peace is upset, the people should have to confront endless wars and subsequent misery. These history plays indirectly would offer political mirrors of past events. The kings as well as the subjects could take them as a warning and a lesson.

      The tide of patriotism that swept over England in the reign of the Virgin Queen is sometimes held to be responsible for the popularity and practice of this literary form. Lily B. Campbell comments on the profusion of historical writings at that time “...Shakespeare’s interest in history was shared by his age. The number of histories written, translated, and printed under the Tudors is amazing: histories of England and of foreign countries; translations of the works of Greek, Roman, Jewish and continental historians; poetized versions of history. The rise of a drama using the materials and subserving the purposes of history was inevitable, for the stage has never failed to mirror the interests of the world about it.” (Shakespeare’s Histories, 1947).

      Another source of encouragement came from past literature. Edward Hall’s Chronicles available in Shakespeare’s days is a bulky piece and from the 1809 edition, we can gather that Hall had provided all the material for Shakespeare’s most interesting History plays, Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) in a simple style proved extremely useful to his contemporaries. Shakespeare was familiar with these two histories and hence could freely use their matter for his purpose.

      In all these ten Plays on English history, we get six full-length portraits its of English kings Prof Edward Dowden finds in these Plays studies of kingly weakness and kingly strength Under the former he classifies King John King Richard II and King Henry VI and the rest i.e. Henry IV, V and III are grouped under the latter. He explains the grouping thus: “John is the royal criminal weak in his criminality. Henry VI is the royal saint, weak in his saintliness the feebleness of Richard II cannot be characterized in a Word; he is a graceful sentimental, monarch. Richard III in the other group is a royal criminal strong in his crime Henry IV the usurping Bolingbroke is strong by a fine craft in dealing with events, by resolution and Policy because equal caution and daring. The strength of Henry V is that of plain heroic magnitude thoroughly Sound and substantial founded upon the eternal verities. These Plays are as Schlegel has named them a ‘mirror for kings;’ aria the characters of these Plays all lead up to Henry V the man famed for the most noble Joyous mastery of things”. (Edward Dowden Shakespeare, 1875).

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