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Which are best: Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, or histories?
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Shakespeare's histories provide a hugely important resource for historical research

Shakespeare's extensive writing on medieval England provides an important resource both for learning about the period and for understanding how Elizabethans thought of it, even though his depictions are not always accurate.
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According to Shakespearean experts, "the plays normally referred to as Shakespeare history plays are the ten plays that cover English history from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and the 1399-1485 period in particular", which also blend elements of comedy and tragedy.[1] However, Shakespeare has also written historical plays about Ancient Rome, 'Coriolanus', 'Julius Caesar' and 'Antony and Cleopatra', though these are classed as tragedies in the first folio. Shakespeare was following a popular trend for dramatizing English history for popular audiences; in 1592 Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe wrote a play about the life of King Edward II, and history plays became increasingly common.

The Argument

Shakespeare's history plays have contributed hugely to our modern perception of history and historical figures, and as such serve as a hugely important resource both for understanding history and tracing where historiographic perceptions come from. For example, Richard III, king of England before the rule of the Tudor dynasty, has long been seen as cruel, selfish and incompetent, largely due to Shakespeare's perception of him as a bullying hunchback in his play Richard III. This was not based on historical fact - research in 2013, when Richard III's lost body was discovered, concluded that he was actually a fairly successful king - but due to the popularity of Shakespeare's play, and its importance in the national consciousness and myth-making which writers who dramatize national history undertake. Shakespeare's negative portrayal of Richard III came from his wish to please Elizabeth I, the reigning queen when he was writing, because Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, had established the Tudor dynasty by killing Richard in battle in 1485, so although the play is not necessarily accurate, it is still a valuable resource for tracking the development of English history. Comedies and tragedies, despite their literary and entertainment value, do not have this historical value factor.

Counter arguments

All of Shakespeare's work is historically significant, and the comedies and tragedies arguably tell us just as much about the world Shakespeare lived in and its perceptions of the past as the histories do, given their extensive use of current events and important political figures. The histories, by contrast, often foster significant misconceptions surrounding the periods they present, because Shakespeare was still intending to write an entertaining play when using history for inspiration, and his research was often limited, especially for his classical plays as he could not read Greek. Given Shakespeare's prevalence on school curricula around the world, historical inaccuracies in his plays can lead to widespread misunderstandings of historical facts (for example, Shakespeare's negative portrayal of King Richard III led to research and written history being biased against him for generations). Indeed, Shakespeare's histories are so fictionalised in some areas that there is often debate surrounding plays such as Antony and Cleopatra as to whether they are even histories, or tragedies instead.


Shakespeare’s history plays were popular at the time for their blending of comedy and tragedy, evidenced by other similar plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The history plays have contributed significantly to Britain’s national understanding of history, such as in the case of King Richard III. Even when the plays are historically inaccurate, they are important for judging attitudes to history of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Rejecting the premises

All of Shakespeare’s work is historically significant, not just the histories. The histories can often foster misconceptions about historical events, because Shakespeare often fictionalised the stories he used as inspiration. Some plays are so fictionalised that there is debate about whether they really constitute histories at all.


This page was last edited on Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020 at 13:21 UTC

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