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Shakespearean history: Wikis


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In the First Folio, the plays of William Shakespeare were grouped into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. This categorisation has become established, although some critics have argued for a fourth category, the romance. The histories were those plays based on the lives of English kings. The plays that depict older historical figures such as Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Julius Caesar, and the legendary King Lear were not included in that classification. Macbeth, which is based on a Scottish king, was also classed as a tragedy, not a history.



The source for most of the history plays is the well known Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle of English history. Shakespeare's history plays focus on only a small part of the characters' lives and frequently omit significant events for dramatic purposes.


Shakespeare was living under the reign of Elizabeth I, the last monarch of the house of Tudor, and his history plays are often regarded as Tudor propaganda because they show the dangers of civil war and celebrate the founders of the Tudor dynasty. In particular, Richard III depicts the last member of the rival house of York as an evil monster ("that bottled spider, that foul bunchback'd toad"), a depiction disputed by many modern historians, while portraying his usurper, Henry VII in glowing terms. Political bias is also clear in Henry VIII, which ends with an effusive celebration of the birth of Elizabeth. However, Shakespeare's celebration of Tudor order is less important in these plays than the spectacular decline of the medieval world. Moreover, some of Shakespeare's histories—and notably Richard III—point out that this medieval world came to its end when opportunism and machiavelism infiltrated its politics. By nostalgically evoking the late Middle Ages, these plays described the political and social evolution that had led to the actual methods of Tudor rule, so that it is possible to consider history plays as a biased criticism of their own country.

List of Shakespeare's histories

The "Wars of the Roses" cycle

Henry VI (Jeffrey T. Heyer) and a young Richmond (Ashley Rose Miller) in the West Coast premiere of The Plantaganents: The Rise of Edward IV, staged by Pacific Repertory Theatre in 1993.

"The War(s) of the Roses" is a phrase used to describe the civil wars in England between the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties. Some of the events of these wars were dramatized by Shakespeare in the history plays Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry V; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; and Richard III.

There is evidence that the plays were imagined as in Shakespeare's day. However in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries there have been numerous stage performances including:

  1. The first tetralogy (Henry VI parts 1 to 3 and Richard III) as a cycle;
  2. The second tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V) as a cycle (which has also been referred to as the Henriad); and
  3. The entire eight plays in historical order (the second tetralogy followed by the first tetralogy) as a cycle. Where this full cycle is performed, as by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964, the name The War[s] of the Roses has often been used for the cycle as a whole.
  4. A 10-play history cycle, which began with the newly attributed Edward III, the anonymous Thomas of Woodstock, and then the eight plays from Richard II to Richard III, was performed by Pacific Repertory Theatre under the title Royal Blood, a phrase used throughout the works. The entire series, staged over four consecutive seasons from 2001 to 2004, was directed by PacRep founder and Artistic Director Stephen Moorer.

The cycle has been filmed four times:

  1. for the 1960 UK miniseries "An Age of Kings" directed by Michael Hayes
  2. for the 1965 UK miniseries "The Wars of the Roses", based on the RSC's 1964 staging, directed by John Barton and Peter Hall; and
  3. for a straight-to-video filming, directly from the stage, of the English Shakespeare Company's "The Wars of the Roses" directed by Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington.
  4. for the BBC Television Shakespeare in 1983 directed by Jane Howell

The second tetralogy is also the basis for the film Chimes at Midnight (also known as Falstaff) directed by and starring Orson Welles.

In The West Wing episode "Posse Comitatus," President Josiah Bartlet attends a play entiled "The Wars of the Roses", including scenes from Henry VI, parts 1 and 3. "Posse Comitatus" West Wing, Season 3.

See also



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