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Which are best: Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, or histories?
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Shakespeare's histories are important examples of English 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.


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 Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War were particularly important to Shakespeare's writing.[1]

The Argument

The Wars of the Roses culminated in the rule of the Tudor dynasty (the Lancastrian side) of which Elizabeth I was the last monarch. As a public writer, it was important for Shakespeare to impress her with his work.[2] Subsequently, his plays present Lancastrians as heroic and Yorkists as evil and sinister, particularly Richard III (the final king before the Tudors). Although this depiction was not historically accurate, it became a significant part of how English people perceive history and still has implications today.[3] Likewise, Shakespeare presented English kings as heroic in the Hundred Years' Wars, especially Henry V, while he presented the French side as evil antagonists. Again, this has influenced English popular history and portrayals of 'foreign enemies' in politics and fiction alike. Therefore, although the history plays are not historically accurate, they are important for tracking the development of English history and understanding England's perceptions of its past.[4]

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. 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.



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

Rejecting the premises

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


This page was last edited on Tuesday, 6 Oct 2020 at 16:17 UTC

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