What Makes a Shakespeare History Play

Shakespeare's histories weren't always accurate, and it wasn't by mistake

Guy Henry in King John
Actor Guy Henry in King John.

Corbis  / Getty Images

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have historical elements, but only certain plays are categorized as true Shakespeare histories. Works like "Macbeth" and "Hamlet," for example, are historical in setting but are more correctly classified as Shakespearean tragedies. The same is true for the Roman plays ("Julius Caesar," "Antony and Cleopatra," and "Coriolanus"), which all recall historical sources but are not technically history plays.

So, if many plays seem historical but only a few truly are, what makes a Shakespeare history?

Sources of Shakespeare's History Plays

Shakespeare pulled inspiration for his plays from a number of sources, but most of the English history plays are based on Raphael Holinshed's "Chronicles." Shakespeare was known for borrowing heavily from earlier writers, and he was not alone in this. Holinshed's works, published in 1577 and 1587, were key references for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, including Christopher Marlowe.

Were Shakespeare's Histories Accurate?

Not exactly. Even though they were a great inspiration for Shakespeare, Holinshed's works were not particularly historically accurate; instead, they are considered mostly fictional works of entertainment. However, this is only part of the reason why you shouldn't use "Henry VIII" to study for your history test. In writing the history plays, Shakespeare was not attempting to render an accurate picture of the past. Rather, he was writing for the entertainment of his theater audience and therefore molded historical events to suit their interests.

If produced in the modern-day, Shakespeare's (and Holinshed's) writings would probably be described as "based on historical events" with a disclaimer that they were edited for dramatic purposes.

Common Features of the Shakespeare Histories

The Shakespeare histories share a number of things in common. First, most are set in times of medieval English history. The Shakespeare histories dramatize the Hundred Years War with France, giving us the Henry Tetralogy, "Richard II," "Richard III," and "King John"—many of which feature the same characters at different ages.

Second, in all his histories, Shakespeare provides social commentary through his characters and plots. Really, the history plays say more about Shakespeare’s own time than the medieval society in which they are set.

For example, Shakespeare cast King Henry V as an everyman hero to exploit the growing sense of patriotism in England. Yet, his depiction of this character is not necessarily historically accurate. There's not much evidence that Henry V had the rebellious youth that Shakespeare depicts, but the Bard wrote him that way to make his desired commentary.

Social Class in Shakespeare's Histories

Despite seeming to focus on the nobility, Shakespeare's history plays often offer a view of society that cuts right across the class system. They present us with all kinds of characters, from lowly beggars to members of the monarchy, and it is not uncommon for characters from both ends of the social strata to play scenes together. Most memorable is Henry V and Falstaff, who turns up in a number of the history plays.

What Are Shakespeare's History Plays?

Shakespeare wrote 10 histories. While these plays are distinct in subject matter, they are not in style. Unlike other plays than can be categorized into genres, the histories all provide an equal measure of tragedy and comedy.

The 10 plays classified as histories are as follows:

  • "Henry IV, Part I"
  • "Henry IV, Part II"
  • "Henry V"
  • "Henry VI, Part I"
  • "Henry VI, Part II"
  • "Henry VI, Part III"
  • "Henry VIII"
  • "King John"
  • "Richard II"
  • "Richard III"