Monday Muse: Shakespeare’s (Problematic) Histories

Heyo! Welcome to what is not only today’s Monday Muse but also, by virtue of it being August 1st, Day One of Nerd Cactus’ Second Annual Shakespeare-a-Palooza, aka We’re Going to Stratford At the End of the Month and Want to Talk to Y’all About Shakespeare! I think you’re in for a treat because we’re at our best when we’re focused, and we’re totally focused for the next month.

Now, A probably gets the more exciting plays to work with, but I chose to work with the histories because, well… historian. Yeah. So, I’ll be covering Richard II/Henry IV pt 1 and Henry IV pt 2/Henry V and A gets Macbeth and As You Like It. I promise not to take it personally if you skip my weeks and wait for hers…


I promise.

Anyway, let’s get going.

A lot of people don’t really think of history when they think Shakespeare. They assume that all of his plays fall into either tragedy or comedy, i.e “everyone dies” or “everyone gets married”. And, yeah… insofar as Bill’s most famous plays are concerned, that is kinda what happens. Aside from “friends, Romans, countrymen,” I think most people would forget the histories entirely if Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch hadn’t played Prince Hal/Henry V and Richard III recently. But, for me, Shakespeare’s histories are some of the most fascinating plays to study, and not just because I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses.

The reason they’re so fascinating to me is because, given how I feel about the duty of storytellers to history, I really shouldn’t like them.

I’m one of those writers who believes that, when using history in a story, it is the duty of the writer to change their story to fit what we know about history. If we know Mehmet II’s forces defeated Vlad Tepes’, don’t have Dracula kill Mehmet at the end of your movie for a heroic ending. (Apparently, that’s how Dracula Untold ends. I have never seen it. A actually told me not to see it because, frankly, shit like that makes me genuinely angry.) Don’t characterize William Wallace as some woad-wearing, tartan-sporting Highland lord when EVERYTHING WE KNOW ABOUT THAT PERIOD SAYS THAT SHIT IS WRONG!!! (Also, and probably more importantly, don’t make Isabella of France, who was three at the time of the… wait. No. I’m getting side-tracked by anger parentheticals…)

Shakespeare’s histories are the kind of thing where the actual history is less important than the story being told. So why don’t his plays drive me into apoplectic fits of rage? Even Richard III, though that’s the one that causes my eye to twitch because, for God’s sake Bill, he wasn’t evil fucking Quasimodo! But why, then, do I tend to give William Shakespeare a pass?

Because he lived in a time where saying the wrong thing about the wrong person could get you killed.

For Shakespeare, then, history served as a distancing tool, a framing device a la Hamlet’s play-within-a-play scene. It allowed him to tell a more pertinent, topical story, a more political story, within the guise of people long dead. Richard III needed to be evil because Queen Elizabeth was Henry VII’s (Richmond in the play) granddaughter, and a man had to be an idiot not to make Richard a villain. There’s some thought, as I discussed back in April, that Richard III might have even been a character stand-in for Robert Cecil, and the story itself an allegory about the succession from a Catholic-sympathizing Shakespeare. Here’s the post if you’re interested. Henry V, with all its bombastic, pro-England speeches and victories, is like the Patton of its day. You could almost see Henry standing in front of the St. George Cross delivering speeches to the troops about St. Crispin’s Day and Agincourt. It was a piece of pro-English propaganda (though also remarkably nuanced in its depiction of war, particularly Henry’s violence in Harfleur, but I’ll get into that next time). So, then, especially with Shakespeare’s English histories, it is the conceit of keeping his head that causes Shakespeare to manipulate history to tell a larger truth. (It must also be noted that Antony and Cleopatra was not performed until after Elizabeth I had died, as writing about the fall of a great Queen might not have been particularly politic during her life.)

It also helps that Henry V gives us some great speeches, Richard II gives us John of Gaunt’s “this scepter’d isle”, and Richard III (though… terribly problematic… stupid withered arm and killing Somerset when he was two…) gives us a great (if, again, problematic) villain. Of course, it also pleases me that even Shakespeare, so determined to keep his head Shakespeare (which, of course, I support him in that because who wouldn’t?), couldn’t rob Richard III of his bravery in battle. The “my horse, my horse” line, so often misused out of context to demonstrate Richard’s cowardice, is actually Richard looking for a horse so he can charge back into battle against Richmond’s army. I’ve got a soft spot for Richard. He killed a lot of my family (and was family), but I kinda like him. Despite Shakespeare.

(That crazy lady who found his bones though? Calm down, lady. He wasn’t a saint just because Shakespeare turned him into an unduly villainous caricature.)

Anyway. That’s it for me today. Sorry I rambled. I’ll be back on Friday for this month’s inaugural Boozy Plays, where I’ll be pairing Richard II and Henry IV pt One. See you then!



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