Why read Shakespeare's history plays

2021-01-12 @Literature

I’ll share some less than obvious thoughts on the history plays. Had I earlier realized all this, I would far sooner have overcome my stubbornness in reading these quiet sensational products of dramatic art.

First, they indeed present a way to acquaint yourself with the major events of British history. Although plays, the First Folio categorizes them as historical for due reason.

Compared to many of the non-historical dramas (comedies and tragedies) of Shakespeare, which nevertheless incorporate significant historical groundwork, the history works more faithfully adhere to the documented accounts. (Shakespeare based most on Holinshed’s chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.)

Now for someone like myself, adverse to the reading of dry historical materials (or even Wikipedia pages): plays, historical fiction and historical-philosophical writings are plentifully redeeming in their mixture of the entertaining with the academic.

Of the Shakespeare’s historical dramas, I’ve read Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. And while the primary action spans roughly the period of the late 1390’s into the 1420’s, the narrative alludes to earlier times as far back as the reign of Edward III.

But Shakespeare provides endlessly engaging narratives. All the colorful rhetorical elements present in the non-history plays, you’ll also find here.

Beyond Richard II (written exclusively in verse: an enthralling combination of both rhymed and blank), the remainder employs a mixture of verse and prose dialogue.

As with most of the bard’s works, the presence of verse generally signals an air of formality, often in line with the respective social class. Prosaic passages, in turn, might indicate a lower social echelon, or otherwise an interaction of notable degree of intimacy among even the nobles.

This verse/prose juxtaposition, though plentiful throughout most plays, nowhere did it strike me to such extent as the tavern scene of Henry IV Part I:

The vast majority of the long, 500+ line scene unwinds in prose, as the mischievous Hal (future Henry V) interacts with his band of scoundrels. A sudden approaching of the Law then compels Hal to conceal his companions and assume his (Princely) influence.

The drastic shift of tone, the transition to verse after nearly 500 preceding lines of informal banter, struck me as something profoundly cosmic!

The social versatility of Henry V renders him one of the more intriguing characters throughout those plays, able to adapt great authority, and yet seamlessly capable of street chatter with whatever ruffian society happens to bestow.

We observe a similarly amazing prowess once Henry assumes an intimate tone in his pursuit to woo Katherine, daughter to the French King Charles; this after a notably formal air of nobility preceding.

In the battle scenes of Henry V, Henry proceeds to wonder the camp solo, incognito. Interacting with the lower-ranked soldiers and officers in their own colloquial tongue, he gathers ‘street intel’ with respect to the overall display of battle spirit.

This constant tension between not only the formal and the intimate, but the harrow and the humorous, makes these history plays quadruple worth the effort.

Despite the gravity of the appertaining events, despite the battles, the intrigue, the treachery, the deaths, despite all that, humorous sequences pervade the entire narrative, in moments least expected.

The infamous, ridiculous comic relief of an ‘anti-hero’ Falstaff is just one case, though he dominates the Henry IV plays in terms of the sheer amount of dialogue. Exclusively in prose, the entirety of it constitutes some combination of slyness, perversion, drunkenness, the derogatory or the cunning.

Falstaff even manages to carry the charade upon the battlefield. It’s of priceless value, even if you fail to comprehend 70% of his subtle innuendos and allusions, as I in all likelihood.

The comic is too much to mention: the soldier banters throughout the famous Henry V Battle of Agincourt, the ‘glove’ ploy connived by the very Henry V, the farce behind the army recruitments, the English/French exchanges, the aloof justices Shallow and Silence, the drunkenness, the whoring, the Welsh accentuated dialogue, the sharp satire.

Anyway. Hopefully this not too revealing introspection shall encourage you to read these plays in the near future. Perhaps one of these days I’ll also undertake all three parts to Henry VI. Three parts … Mr. Shakespeare, what were you thinking?

Questions, comments? Connect.