In Shakespeare’s Kings, historian John Julius Norwich has provided us not only with a superb history of the Plantagenet dynasty, but with a fascinating look at the playwright’s sources and the imposing task of editing and telescoping the historical record in order to create plays that preserved a reasonable fidelity to the actual events described, while capturing and maintaining the interest of his audiences.
The period covered was a momentous one for England, featuring an on-again, off-again war with France, rebellions at home, and constant scheming among the heirs of Edward III to secure the throne (incidentally, one of the interesting discoveries for me, in reading this book, is the fact that many scholars now include the play, Edward III, in the Shakespearean canon, although it was, like certain other of Shakespeare’s plays, a collaborative effort). The Plantagenet line included a mixture of weaklings and warriors, from Richard II, a learned and cultured monarch who proved, in the end, to be incompetent at government, to Henry V, perhaps the greatest (or maybe just the luckiest) warrior to ever sit on the English throne. And as with all good historians, Norwich gives us not just the circumstances surrounding famous battles, dynastic marriages and royal births, but the small, occasional detail that is not the less interesting for it being incidental to the main story line (for example, Richard II is credited with having invented the handkerchief).
Yet it is the big, and largely bloody, events that perhaps best capture the imagination, and Norwich describes Pluys, Crécy and Agincourt in all their gory drama. The French, stubbornly bound to their traditional notions of knightly chivalry, were continually mowed down by the English longbow, and didn’t make any strategic or tactical adjustments for nearly a hundred years; and no sooner had the war with France died down than England experienced the civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, with Lancastrians and Yorkists locked in an internecine struggle that featured almost every kind of crime imaginable, including regicide.
In alternating chapters, Norwich gives us the historical record, and Shakespeare’s literary synthesis of events. His conclusion?
[Shakespeare’s] sources may have been few, and not invariably satisfactory; but where they were found wanting he always had his imagination to fill the gaps. He would never have claimed historical accuracy…but then he was not a historian; he was a dramatist. The play was the thing; and if he could amuse, inspire and perhaps very modestly educate his audiences, that was enough. He did so, and he has continued to do so for four hundred years. He rests his case.”And, as you would expect in a work such as this, there is a generous sampling of those marvelous lines that have come down to us from the Histories - for example, Prince Hal’s eloquent eulogy upon the death of the rebellious, but glorious, Harry Hotspur (Sir Henry Percy):
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough. This earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman
Both as a work of history, and of historico-literary exegesis, this is a highly instructive and enjoyable book, that will soon have me burrowing back into the plays, armed with a far greater understanding of the historical context than when I read them the first time.