I finished reading Shakespeare’s “histories” earlier this year and ended up with questions about the history portrayed in them. Shakespeare is known for having altered events and characters, and for having created both saints and villains by the flick of his pen. Shakespeare’s Kings seemed like a good place to find out more about differences between the historical figures and their fictional counterparts in the plays.
As the author explains in the preface, the title of the book is a little misleading. The book does not tell of all of the kings in Shakespeare’s works, but is only about some of them: Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward V, and Richard III.
The author provides short biographies for each of these kings together with additional historical context that relates to the events that are featured in Shakespeare’s plays, then spends a little time highlighting aspects that had been changed in the plays. In most cases, the book focuses on the history with little discussion given to the dramatisation of events, and to me this made some of the book a bit of a chore to read. I love a good non-fiction book about history, but enjoy these more if they are looking to provide a contextual discussion of issues rather than merely present a chronology of events. In Shakespeare’s Kings, I felt the author was focused on providing a chronology of events most of all. Perhaps this was motivated by the intent to show how the actual history was altered and in many cases condensed in the plays, perhaps this was the most logical way to tackle this project. Whatever the reason, some of the history really bored me. I was clearly looking for the parts of the book that drew comparisons between the facts and the fiction, and for the most part what was offered here by way of comparison left me dissatisfied.
There are exceptions to this: The chapters on Richard II, Henry V and Richard III were very detailed. In particular, the chapters on Richard III were marvellous. The author deliberately stayed away from a discussion of whether the Ricardians or the anti-Ricardians are right, but ended up listing events and facts (employed on both sides of the argument) that could not have happened or are questionable by showing the actual historical timeline of events. So, yes, while the timeline and minutiae of events bored me with respect to most of the kings, in these last chapters they were used to provide context to analyse specific claims made in Shakespeare’s play and within the sources that informed Shakespeare’s play.
“Shakespeare, as we know, always had a cavalier approach to chronology; and there can be no more revealing illustration of it than in the opening of King Richard III. In Act I scene i, the famous soliloquy (‘Now is the winter of our discontent’) leads directly to the arrest of Clarence and his committal to the Tower; this places the action firmly in the early summer of 1477. The next scene, however – Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne – is set against the funeral of Henry VI, six years before, and here too the timing is distinctly awry. Henry died on 21 May 1471; his funeral can have been held only a day or two later. Yet in line 245 Richard specifically refers to his own stabbing of the Prince of Wales, which must have occurred immediately after Tewkesbury, as being ‘some three months since’ – which would make the date of this scene some time around the beginning of August. It is of course far from certain that Richard was involved in the Prince’s death; and it is perhaps worth repeating, too, that while Anne had been betrothed to the young man in 1470, he was never her husband.
Where Clarence is concerned, Richard proudly – though, in the eyes of history, quite unjustifiably – claims responsibility for his brother’s downfall. We cannot doubt that he would have been capable of such villainy had the need arisen; but Clarence saved him the trouble. He had always been his own worst enemy and, as we have seen, brought his destruction very largely on himself. There had indeed been a prophecy, much talked about at the time, that King Edward’s heirs would be disinherited by a man whose name began with the letter G – the Duke’s Christian name was George – but there were far stronger reasons than this for the King to move against him. Another inaccuracy – though perhaps a relatively unimportant one – is Shakespeare’s introduction here (and again in scene iv) of Sir Robert Brackenbury. Brackenbury was appointed Lieutenant of the Tower only in 1483; he was never responsible for Clarence, and was to play no part in his death.
The dating of scene iii poses a major problem; indeed, it is only if we accept the appearance of old Queen Margaret of Anjou as a historical fact that we can date it at all, and even then our conclusion can never be more than approximate. Margaret was taken prisoner after Tewkesbury and spent the next four years in semi-captivity, until her ransom by Louis XI in 1475; this is therefore the latest date at which she could, even theoretically, have shown herself at the English court. But would she ever have been permitted to do so? It seems unlikely. The mystery deepens in lines 167–9, when Richard asks her
Were you not banished on pain of death?
to which she answers
I was, but I do find more pain in banishment
Than death can yield me here by my abode.
Margaret, as we know (and as Shakespeare himself surely knew) was never banished. The fact that he brings her back again in IV.iv, after the death of the Princes and therefore also after her own – for she died in 1482 – makes it virtually certain that he is using her presence in both scenes purely for dramatic effect and with no thought for historic truth.”Norwich, John Julius. Shakespeare’s Kings . Faber & Faber. Kindle Edition.
In summary, while I’m not the right reader for this book, I found it informative, interesting, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a resource about the historical background to Shakespeare’s “histories”.
3* (out of 5*)