Learning from Shakespeare’s Histories

Falstaff and his Page by Adolf Schrödte

In preparation for writing a historical play (not based on real history, but a play with banners and kings and armies) I’ve been reading a few of Shakespeare’s histories—namely, Richard IIHenry IV part 1Henry IV part 2Henry V, and Julius Caesar.

Now, I’m not taking any classes on Shakespeare, nor have I ever taken any classes exclusively focused on Shakespeare. This post doesn’t come from a well-informed scholarly background, or from someone intimately familiar with the discourse surrounding Shakespeare. I’m just some guy who likes reading and writing and watching plays. With that said, this is what I’ve learned.

It’s Better to Know the History

These plays were written for an audience who was familiar with the characters, and the general landscape of English history. They knew how the plays were going to end, in the same way modern audiences know the general life story of the subject of a biopic, and still enjoy seeing it. This is not something unique to Shakespeare’s histories, as many of his other plays pulled from older works of fiction or archetypal tales, but it was especially clear to me with these, and with reading Julius Caesar. I had only the vaguest of understandings of the War of the Roses before reading the plays, but I did know a fair bit about Julius Caesar, and I was watching the HBO series Rome at the time. So reading the play, I found myself eager to see how Shakespeare handled different parts of the story—the assassination scene, Mark Antony’s betrayal of Brutus, the battle of Philippi. Knowing the history didn’t spoil anything, it added to it. While Julius Caesar wasn’t my favorite of the bunch, I engaged with it in a way that I didn’t really with any of the others, because I knew what was going to happen, and I knew the backstories of many of the characters.

This point was driven home for me when I read Stuff Happens by David Hare, a history play about the lead-up to the Iraq War.


All of these plays follow a similar structure of plot. In the beginning, the main character (usually the title character, Julius Caesar is an exception) will do something which is intended to be either an isolated event, or the end of something. In Richard II, King Ricky exiles Henry Bolingbroke. In Julius Caesar, Brutus organizes the assassination of Caesar. In Henry IV, King Hank refuses to pay ransom for Hotspur’s brother-in-law. And of course, none of these actions are the end of things, and they all contribute to, or initiate, the mounting tension of the play.

It’s interesting, because in Shakespeare’s other plays, the beginning is the opposite. Iago or Hamlet or Oberon will set out some kind of plan, which they will attempt to execute for the duration of the play. But in these histories, the protagonist is usually just trying to coast. They just want to manage their kingdom (or their republic) and not have things blow up, and when they start off the events of the play, they don’t realize that they’re doing it. They think they’re in a one act, but they’ve got four acts left (or nine acts, for Henry IV) before the consequences of their actions will have fully played out.

Now this isn’t an absolute rule, of course, because Richard III is 100% a guy executing a plan, but this is just what I’ve noticed a lot in these plays, more so than in Shakespeare’s other works.

So that’s how it begins. In the middle, the tension mounts. An antagonist force rises to oppose the main character—usually it’s rebels, it could be the French. The two sides of the conflict do not meet during this time, and the meat of these acts and scenes is interactions within the two parties, or the attempts of one party to gain the loyalty of a powerful lord. If there is any scheming in the play, this is where it will happen, as each side tries to get a read on the strength and motivations of the other side, and how they should approach them.

This is great theatre, because it plays off the fact that the audience is only seeing what’s on stage. The audience can’t see the entirety of the antagonist’s army, just as King Henry, sitting in his palace, doesn’t have solid information on the rebel forces. The developing tension is palpable, to the point where, in Richard II, you understand why the king abdicates in the face of Bolingbroke’s army—it’s terrifying! Throughout the play, we’ve heard of Bolingbroke’s army growing larger and larger, and seen lords defecting to join him, so there’s a true sense of how utterly overwhelmed Richard II is at the end.

Which is the final point of the structure, the end. There’s either a battle, or there isn’t. In all cases, the two forces meet, but they don’t always fight it out. It seems a bit anticlimactic when there isn’t a battle, but Shakespeare can’t just change history for the sake of an exciting finale (at least not that much), and in any case, the anticlimax leaves the final scenes feeling very drab and stripped down, especially in Richard II. The absence of any big, glorious, violent climax puts a damper on all the fanfare, and the focus turns to these characters as mortal, weak people. Speaking of big and glorious,

Scope Matters

Henry V. Before Harfleur by Thomas Robinson. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

My favorite of the plays I read was Henry IV part 1. It’s the play that has the greatest sense of scope, which is terrific for histories. For comedies scope isn’t important, and for tragedies an epic scope can be interesting, but it’s best to be really focused on the tragic hero, their psychology and their flaws. But history is about seeing all these larger than life characters portrayed on stage. It’s about seeing grand historical moments, which will resonate for centuries, brought to life. Henry IV part 1 spends a good amount of time with both sides of the conflict, developing several memorable characters among the rebels and King Henry’s court. It also spends time with the commoners, and there are several memorable characters there. This is typical of Shakespeare, though not always the case with his histories, and here the three groups are intertwined perfectly, which leads to the second place where the play does scope right—the final battle.

Of course, a lot of making a battle feel epic lies with the director, and it can be hard to get that sense from just the words on the page. However, the battle at the end of Henry IV 1 could be done with the most minimal set and effects, and still feel big. In this battle, we see all the characters from all these groups coming together. We see Hotspur fighting Prince Hal. We see Douglas killing imposter kings, until he finally comes across the real king, and Prince Hal fights him off. We see Falstaff, the boastful old drunkard knight and friend of Hal, taking up Hotspur’s corpse so he can claim that he slew him. Everyone has a part to play in the battle, which helps the audience appreciate what a huge and far-reaching conflict this was.

Nothing is Unstageable

As I said, that final battle could be staged without a huge ensemble fighting in the background, without sounds of battle playing, without any grand, beautiful backdrop, without costumes even, and the emotion would still hit home. This isn’t some brilliant revelation, but I think no works better communicate this idea than histories. It is impossible to truly stage, with literal representations of every character and place and event, a history, but theatre isn’t about the literal. Any work, no matter how epic, can be brought to life on the barest budget, or on no budget at all.

In fact, Shakespeare even begins Henry V with an admission of the limitations of theatre, as well as its powers of illusion:

“… can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
… Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings …”

Henry V I.Prologue.12-29


So, there you have it. Of course Shakespeare’s works are incredibly rich, so there’s more that I learned than just this, and there’s more to be learned, and there’s more that has been learnt by more learned people than I. But this is what stuck out to me most, across all the histories, what I took away from reading them, and what I will hopefully manage to repeat in my own writing.

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