Shakespeare Histories

Introducing the Shakespeare Histories

Actor Guy Henry in King John
Actor Guy Henry in King John. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Many of Shakespeare’s plays are historical, but only certain plays are categorized as such. Plays like Macbeth and Hamlet are historical in setting but are more correctly classified as Shakespeare tragedies. The same is true for the Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus) which are all based on based on historical sources.

So which plays are classified as Shakespeare histories and what are their common features?

Common Features of the Shakespeare Histories:

The Shakespeare histories share a number of common features, as outlined below:

  • Set against Medieval English history. The Shakespeare histories dramatize the Hundred Years War with France and therefore comprises the Henry Tetralogy, Richard II, Richard III and King John – many of which feature the same characters at different ages.
     
  • Not historically accurate. In writing the history plays, Shakespeare was not attempting to render a historically accurate picture of the past. Rather, he was writing for the entertainment of his theater audience and therefore molded historical events to suit their prejudices.
     
  • Provides social commentary. Following on from the previous point, the history plays say more about Shakespeare’s 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. His depiction of this character is not necessarily historically accurate.
     
  • Explores the social structure of the time.Shakespeare’s history plays offer a view of society that cuts right across the class system. These plays present us with all kinds of characters from lowly-beggars to the monarchy. In fact, 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 turn up in a number of the history plays.

    All in all, Shakespeare wrote 10 histories. These plays are distinct in subject matter only – not in style. The histories provide an equal measure of tragedy and comedy.

    The 10 plays classified as history are as follows:

    1. Henry IV, Part I
    2. Henry IV, Part II
    3. Henry V
    4. Henry VI, Part I
    5. Henry VI, Part II
    6. Henry VI, Part III
    7. Henry VIII
    8. King John
    9. Richard II
    10. Richard III