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< Back to question Which are best: Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, or histories? Show more Show less

Shakespeare's plays are the most famous in the western canon, and are regularly performed both by theatre companies and amateurs. His plays are typically split into three genres: comedies, histories, and tragedies. For many modern audiences, the comedies are the most enduring and enjoyable, but tragedies are widely studied academically, and Hamlet, generally seen as Shakespeare's greatest work, is a tragedy. Histories, dealing often with the lives of kings, are less popular with the public but provide a hugely important historical and historiographical resource, and can often contain both tragic and comedic elements. So, which are the best?

The histories are the best Show more Show less

Shakespeare's histories are dramatized biographies of British medieval kings. They offer insight into Medieval and Renaissance politics and the lives of people at all levels of Medieval, Elizabethan, and Jacobean society.
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Shakespeare's histories serve as important examples of English national myth-making

Shakespeare's history plays focus predominantly on the history of medieval England and its kings, with particular emphasis on the Wars of the Roses. Although not completely historically accurate, they have been very important in forming English identity and a national understanding of history.
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Context

Tudor dynasty: the English royal house which ruled the country from 1485 to 1603, with Henry VII as the first monarch and Elizabeth I as the final monarch Wars of the Roses: an extensive series of overlapping English civil wars between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, two opposing noble families fighting for control of the throne. The Tudors belonged to the winning side, which is how they established their royal power. Hundred Years' War: a war between France and England in the medieval period, lasting over one hundred years

The Argument

Shakespeare's history plays deal with the lives of the English kings, mostly those of the medieval period, although there is also a lesser-known play on Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth I who was queen when Shakespeare was writing. The Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War were particularly important to Shakespeare and his writing.[1] The Wars of the Roses culminated in the rule of the Tudor dynasty, who belonged to the Lancastrian side, of which Elizabeth I was the last monarch, and as a public writer it was important for Shakespeare to impress her with his work.[2] As a result, his plays about the Wars of the Roses present the Lancastrian fighters as heroic and the Yorkists, particularly Richard III (the final king before the Tudors) as evil and sinister. Although this was not necessarily historically accurate, it became a significant part of how the English perceived their history and still has implications today. Likewise, Shakespeare presented England and English kings as heroic in the Hundred Years' Wars, especially Henry V, meanwhile the French were evil antagonists, which has again informed English popular history and portrayals in politics and fiction alike of those considered foreign enemies. Therefore, although the history plays are not necessarily historically accurate, they are important for tracking the development of English history and looking at why Shakespeare made the dramatic and character choices that he did.[3]

Counter arguments

Although Shakespeare's histories have been extremely significant for the development of English history, this is not necessarily a positive thing. His portrayal of Richard III as evil and manipulative, for example, has seriously affected popular perceptions of the Plantagenet king and led to a warped version of history being taught as the truth in English schools for generations. Additionally, Shakespeare's glorification of medieval England can be said to contribute to some of England's political problems now, especially regarding perceptions of British identity as very distinct from mainland Europe. However, these problems are hardly just Shakespeare's fault and the fact that the plays manipulate history is not a reason not to study or enjoy them - they demonstrate interesting truths about historiography, if not history itself, and are still entertaining as pieces of theatre.

Premises

1. Shakespeare’s history plays mostly focus on English medieval history, which he angled to flatter Elizabeth I. 2. Although the plays are not hugely accurate, they provide an interesting perspective on the development of English history.

Rejecting the premises

1. The effect Shakespeare’s histories have had on perceptions of English history is not necessarily positive. 2. He is arguably partly responsible for problematic perceptions of British identity today. 3. However, we cannot judge the plays for that and must remember that they are also intended as entertainment.

References

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/sep/12/shakespeare-the-wars-of-the-roses-elizabethan-game-of-thrones
  2. https://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/patronelizabeth.html
  3. https://rexfactor.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/william-shakespeare-as-historian/

This page was last edited on Thursday, 17 Sep 2020 at 12:46 UTC

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