History and Politics and Shakespeare

Essay by sophia_lispectator March 2006

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History plays play an important role in creating the collective memory of a nation by celebrating the nation's heroes and the important moments in its history. They are instrumental in inciting the nationalist spirit and it is easy to see why in the times as tumultuous as the Elizabethan era one fifth of total plays were histories.

Shakespeare drew on the historical records of the time. However he allowed himself some poetic liberty and rearranged or invented historical events. For example: in the play Henry VI is of marriageable age at the time of his succession to the throne whereas he was only nine months old when this actually happened. Another instance is the famous scene at the Temple Garden where so as to explain why the conflict was named the War of Roses Shakespeare made the opposing sides choose different colored roses as emblems of their opposing opinions on a point of law.

This is all justifiable from the point of view of play-writing.

Shakespeare had no personal philosophy of history. He rather combined the two theories that were predominant at the time. The first theory treated historical events as the consequences of human action, whereas the second one stipulated that history is a system of divine rewards and punishments: according to this view the violence in the 15th century England was a punishment for the illegal dethroning of Richard II.

In some of his history plays Shakespeare called special attention to the dangers of petty court rivalry among the nobles, pointing out that internal discordance can be equally as dangerous as the external enemy.

Shakespeare's history plays treat the period from Richard II to Henry VII in two phases.

The first phase comprises three Henry VI plays (part 1,2,3) and Richard III. This is to say...