This page is divided as follows:

1. Traditional contexts...the Tudor Myth

2. New Historicism--with study questions from the new historicist perspective.

3. Myth vs. Historical Fact

1. Traditional contexts:

There are many good traditional sources for this work. The bibliography in the previous section is useful. Note especially: Peter Saccio: Shakespeare's English Kings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

See also E. W. M. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays. Penguin, 1964.

Shakespeare's most important source for the history plays would of course be Holinshed's Chronicles (click here for the manuscript from University of Pennsylvania) .

For sites on the War of the Roses, and the history plays, click here.

This is an excellent WAR OF THE ROSES site.

What Shakespeare "dramatized" as history would today be termed political propaganda. Shakespeare freely changed the "facts" to suit his purposes which were to glorify the ruling clique--the Tudors. A modern parallel might be what TV writers call "docu-dramas." Historians have called the result the Tudor Myth. Shakespeare wrote a series of history plays based on the great English civil war that had occurred two hundred years before his time, the War of the Roses, fought between the two great branches of the royal family the Lancasterians and the Yorkists. He did not write the plays in the order in which the Kings themselves ruled:

Richard II -- one play
Henry IV -- two plays
Henry V -- one play
Henry VI -- three plays
Richard III --one play

In one of the early history plays, a character offers this view of history which would have been accepted as a "given" by a Renaissance audience:

There is a history in all men's lives
Figuring the nature of the times deceased,
The which observed, a man may prophecy
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured
Such things become the hatch and brood of time

This implies a didactic view of history not shared by moderns. The German philosopher Hegel, for example, noted that the only lesson history teaches is that we do not learn from it.

Renaissance England was governed by the Tudors who believed in "Divine Right" of Kings. They had allied themselves with the Lancasterians who had defeated the Yorkists, and thus Shakespeare's plays portrayed them as usurping murderers. The war which ultimately placed Henry VII on the throne as the first Tudor king began in 1400 when Richard II was killed and Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) took power. The following outlines the details of the "War of the Roses"...

Edward III ruled for 50 years, dying in 1377. His eldest son, Edward, "The Black Prince," died in 1376, so the throne passed to Richard II, son of the Black Prince. John of Gaunt was selected as regent. Gaunt was the eldest surviving son of Edward III. Gaunt left the country to war in Spain, so the control of England passed to Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

Richard II was growing up, and formed a court party of his own friends. Thomas of Woodstock allied himself with Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford. When Richard declared himself of age, Gloucester was forced to resign. Richard, who at first was a good king, was soon given over to reckless financial speculation resulting in heavy taxes.

In 1398, Bolingbroke and his allies quarreled. It is at this point that Shakespeare's Richard II opens. Bolingbroke was banished for six years with the promise that he would receive his father's estate upon the latter's death. His father was John of Gaunt. However, to pay for a war with Ireland, Richard II broke his promise and seized the Lancaster estates. Bolingbroke, aided by the Percies--the greatest and most powerful family of Northumberland--seized the throne when Richard II was in Ireland, and Richard was forced to abdicate. From the ending of Richard II, a character reported that Henry allegedly said, "Have I no friend to rid me of this fear?" [Richard alive.] Thus Richard II is murdered in the hopes of winning favor with the new king, but note his reaction:

Great King, within this coffin I present
Thy buried fear...

Exton I thank thee not, for thou has wrought
A deed of slander with thy fatal hand
Upon my head...

From your own mouth, my Lord, did I this deed.

They love not poison that do poison need.
Nor I do thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
The guilt of conscience take thou for thy labor,
But neither my good word or princely favor...
Lords I protest my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
Come mourn with me for that I do lament,
And put on sullen black on continent.
I'll make a voyage to the Holy Land
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.
March sadly after, grace my mourning here
In weeping after this untimely bier.

Bolingbroke became Henry IV, and plotting against him began almost at once. In 1400, Richard II was murdered, possibly with the consent of Bolingbroke, whose lines quoted above reflect his guilt. Note that what Shakespeare does here is probe the mind in torment, the mind that acknowledges that the pursuit of power is not all it seems to be. Even Richard II knows this:

Not all the water in the rough, rude sea
Can wash the balm off from anointed king.
The breath of worldly men [Bolingbroke] cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord...
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings---
How some have been deposed, some slain in war
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a breath, a little scene...

Compare this speech with what Richard III says about his desire to be king.

In Richard II, Shakespeare has a character speak in prophecy:

In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne.

Marry God forbid...
What subject here can give sentence to his king?
And who sits there that is not Richard's subject?
And shall the figure of God's majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judged by subject and inferior breath...
My lord of Hereford here whom you call king
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford's King [Richard II]
And if you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act,
Peace shall go to sleep with Turks and Infidels...

These might well serve as theme passages for the two tetrologies. The plotting against Bolingbroke is a punishment for the act Carlisle describes. Recall the "macro/micro" analogy that: God : Universe :: King : Kingdom.

The Henry plays cover the next several years. As Richard II left no children, the line passed on to Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Lionel's daughter, Phillipa, married Richard Mortimer, Earl of March. She had three children: Elizabeth married Henry "Hotspur" Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland. Elizabeth is called Lady Percy in the play.

Henry IV, as Saccio notes, did not have an easy reign, (pp. 37-63). In 1403, Owen Glendower, a Welsh chieftain, led a national uprising against the King. Henry attempted to crush it, but he failed. He left command to Hotspur and Edmund Mortimer. Mortimer was captured by Glendower, but they became friends, and Mortimer married Glendower's daughter. Hotspur later defeated a large army of Scots under Douglas. Soon, the Percies quarreled with the king. Members of the Percy family were: Henry, Earl of Northumberland, Henry "Hotspur" his son, Thomas Percy--Earl of Worcester, his son. When the king demanded that the Percies hand over the prisoners and gold captured in the rebellion, the Percies rebelled. The allies against the king were: Mortimer, Glendower, Douglas and his Scots. In 1403, the battle of Shrewsbury was fought. Hotspur was killed, Worcester captured and beheaded, and Douglas ransomed. Northumberland surrendered.

Shakespeare's ideal King who wins great victories for England in France is Henry V, the Prince Hal who cavorts (unhistorically) with Falstaff in the taverns of England thus learning how his subjects really think and feel. This is quite the opposite of how his father governs. Henry's greatest victory occurred at the battle of Agincourt, in which about 7,000 Frenchmen were killed. As a historical footnote, during World War II when the British for a time stood alone against Hitler, Winston Churchill asked Olivier to film Henry V as a rallying point for English national will and courage. King Henry exhorts his troops:

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger...On on you noble English
Whose blood is wet from fathers of war-proof
Fathers that like so many Alexanders
Have in these parts from morn till even fought...
Dishonor not your mothers; now attest
That those to whom you called fathers did beget you!...
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot!
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry "God for Harry! England and St. George!'

Henry's genius won him France, but in later campaigns he succumbed to dysentery and died in 1422.

Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays deal with the son who was unable to match his father in political or moral courage--his ineptitude lead to the loss of French territories, and in III Henry VI, the character of Shakespeare's greatest "villain" king, Richard III is introduced as Gloucester, son of the Duke of York. Those historians who support Richard as a good king see Shakespeare's version as quite unhistorical and there is even a society that exists today to restore Richard's "good" name. However, most people's opinion of Richard is fixed by the play and Olivier's portrait on film.

At the end of III Henry VI, the Yorkists [Richard's side] have won an important battle. King Henry and his queen, Margaret [Shakespeare's first great female villain anticipating Lady Macbeth] flee. The weak and saintly Henry VI bargains with Richard's father for the throne. Margaret who will appear in Richard III is furious:

I shame to hear thee speak...
Thou hast undone thyself, thy son and me...
But thou preferr'st they life before thy honor.

Both Edward [son] and Margaret [mother] want to continue the war, and in the battle of Wakefield, young Clifford butcher's York's young son, Edmund Earl of Rutland [brother of Richard] despite his pleas for mercy. Meanwhile Richard [the future king] urges York, his father to fight:

....Father think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
I cannot rest
Until the White Rose that I wear be dyed
Even in the lukewarm blood of Henry's heart.

Naturally the war continues, and the Yorkist forces are defeated. In an especially vicious episode, the gloating Queen Margaret orders York [Richard's father] crowned with a paper crown and taunts him with a garment stained by his son's blood. Margaret and Clifford stab York to death and he is beheaded. Note her reference to young Richard:

Where are your mess of sons to back you now?
The wanton Edward and the lusty George?
And where's that valiant crookback prodigy,
Dicky your boy, that with his brumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies? Such imagery is a very important motif in Richard III. While awaiting news of their father's fate, Edward and Richard see an amazing astronomical event:

Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?

Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun,
Not separated with the racking clouds,
But severed in a pale clear-shining sky.
See, See They join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vowed some league inviolable.

Taking the suns as a victory symbol, Richard urges Edward to take the throne, and naturally another battle is fought [St. Albans], but the Yorkists are on the defensive. Margaret orders a final battle and uses the familiar language in denouncing Richard:

Be thou art neither like thy sire nor dam
But like a foul misshapen stigmatic
Marked by the destinies to be avoided
As venom toads, or lizards' dreadful stings.

Obviously one more battle--this one fought at Towton on Palm Sunday, March 29, 1461 in a blinding snowstorm. At least 50,000 men participated. Richard attacked Clifford who had killed his father, and during the fighting, Henry VI--who like Duncan in Macbeth--does not participate, states one of the major themes of the history plays:

Woe upon woe! Grief more than common grief
Oh, that my death would stay these rueful deeds!
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.

As the battle continues, Edward makes his Brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and his brother George, Duke of Clarence. Richard kills Clifford in revenge for the latter's killing his brother, and refuses all requests for clemency from Edward who wants peace:

Revoke that doom of mercy, for 'tis Clifford
Who not contented that he lopped the branch
In hewing Rutland when his leaves put forth
But set his murdering knife unto that root
From whence that tender spray did sweetly spring--
I mean our princely father, Duke of York.

Edward's side wins, and Edward is now King, but Margaret continues to fight, but romantic issues complicate politics and war: Warwick [Richard Neville] was trying to arrange a marriage between Edward whom he had supported and a relative of the French king, but when Edward married one Lady Grey, Elizabeth Woodville, the humiliated Warwick changes sides and offers to support Queen Margaret. Richard sums up his feeling about the matter, and we begin to see traces of the Machiavellian villain that will fully emerge in Richard III:

Aye, Edward will use women honorably,
Would he were wasted, marrow, bones and all.
That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring
To cross me from the golden time I look for.
And yet between my soul's desire and me--
Is Clarence, Henry and his son young Edward...
Why then do I but dream on sovereignty?
Like one that stands upon a promontory
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye,
And chides the sea that sunders him from the land...
And so I chide the means that keep me from it.
My eye's too quick, and my heart o'erweens too much
Unless my hand and strength could equal them.
Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard?
What other pleasure can the world afford?
I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And bewitch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns.
Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink my arm up like a withered shrub
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body.
To shape my legs of an unequal size,
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos or an unlicked bear whelp...
And, whiles I live, to account this world but Hell
Until my misshapen trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.
And yet I know not how to get the crown...
Why can I smile and murder whiles I smile,
And cry content to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears...
And frame my face to all occasions.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shape with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown,
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.

This soliloquy is an important clue to Richard's character as it will develop in Richard III.

Clarence, seeing that the fortunes of war may now favor Margaret, changes sides fighting against his own brother, Edward. Resentment of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was strong. Her two sons, Thomas Grey and Lord Richard Grey and her brother, Anthony Woodville, figure in

Edward learns that Warwick, Margaret and the French have formed an alliance against him. He knows also that Clarence has changed sides. Edward himself is captured and submits, and his wife Elizabeth flees. The end of all this is foreshadowed when a young Lord, Henry Earl of Richmond, the future Henry VII [father of Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I], who will defeat Richard III, has it said of him...

This lad will prove our country's bliss
His looks are full of peaceful majesty
His head by nature framed to wear a crown
His hand to wield a scepter, and himself
Likely in time to bless a regal throne.

This is the fulfillment of the _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _. Naturally Edward does not let the situation remain as it is. He strikes back and arrests Worwick. Clarence again changes sides and once again vows to support his brother, Edward. In the final battle (really!)--Tewkesbury--Edward's army wins, and Margaret is captured. In a scene important to Richard III, Prince Edward--son of Margaret and Henry VI--is brutally murdered by Edward IV, Richard and Clarence.

III Henry VI ends with the murder of Henry VI by Richard. His son, the young child Prince Edward of Wales is savagely murdered by Richard after the battle. In the opening of Richard III, Richard will win the heart of Anne, the first wife of Edward, who historically actually was an adult. Thus Shakespeare's events are not historical. Probably Edward IV ordered Henry's death. Margaret is sent back to France; her appearance in Richard III is not historical. Richard III opens with the funeral of Henry VI. The final words by Richard are important:

If any spark of life be yet remaining,
Down, down to Hell and say I sent thee hither.

[Richard stabs King Henry]

I, that neither has pity, love nor fear,
For I have often heard my mother say
I came into the world with my legs forward...
And so I was, which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word "love" which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me. I am myself alone.
Clarence beware, Thou keep'st me from the light.
But I will sort a pitchy day for thee,
For I will buzz abroad such prophecies
That Edward shall be fearful of his life,
And then to purge his fear, I'll be thy death,
King Henry and the Prince his son are gone.
Clarence, thy turn is next, and then the rest,
Counting myself but bad till I be best.
I'll throw thy boys in another room,
And triumph, Henry, in thy day of doom.

Richard III now opens...

2. New Historicism:

The new historicist perspective is outlined in Warren Chernaik: The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare's History Plays. Cambridge University Press, 2007

An online source for new historicism: is Professor Warren Hedges', the New Historicist Premises, notes:

Images and narratives do important cultural work. They function as a kind of workshop (or playroom) where cultural problems, hopes, and obsessions are addressed or avoided. Consequently, New Historicists argue that the best framework for interpreting literature is to place it in its historical context: what contemporaneous issues, anxieties, and struggles does the work of literature reflect, refract, or try to work through?

New Historicist criticism tries to relate interpretive problems (such as why Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius as he prays) to cultural-historical problems (such as contemporaneous debates about purgatory, transubstantiation, and salvation, as well as anxieties about what constituted legitimacy in the church, the monarchy, and succession to the throne).

New Historicists also tend to stress that authors and poets are not secular saints--that even though they may be more circumspect about their societies than the average citizen, they nonetheless participate in it. Consequently, New Historicist critics often point out places in artists' work where their attitudes do not anticipate our own, or may even be distasteful to us.

Henry and new Historicism.

Harold Bloom (Shakespeare the Invention of the Human) argues that the hero of the tetralogy must be Falstaff (See my article on this page). In Henry, was this Shakespeare's intention. Taming of the Shrew, for example, may be explicated as "new wine in old bottles" if we see Kate as an ardent feminist, the falcon and obedience speeches not withstanding. If comedy can be subversive, are the speeches ironic? From a new historicist perspective consider the following by Chernaik, citing Graham Bradshaw, "New Historicists see the history plays as overwhelmingly concerned with power and subject the plays to an ideological critique--as Graham Bradshaw says acerbically, they alternate between presenting 'a repressively authoritarian Shakespeare' and 'a suppressed subversive Shakespeare.' (p. 19)."

Do we thus see a dialectic? Consider what happens in the tragedies.

1- In Hamlet, Claudius murders a king and later cautions that divinity protects monarchs
2- Macbeth, written for a king who believed in divine right, murdered a king
3-earlier in Henry V, the "hero king," the protagonist on the even of battle (in IV,i) walks among his troops in disguise, and an interesting dialectic emerges:

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection. modern parlance, Bates seems to argue, "We were only following orders," while Williams believes the Fuhrerprinzip cannot stand. And still earlier, 1 Henry IV opens with the monarch's pledge to go on a pilgrimage. Why? What happened to his predecessor? Given Shakespeare's catholicism, how did he really feel about the kings he served:

Using the new historicist perspective, consider the following:

1-Why does Henry go on a pilgrimage; why in I,i is he "so shaken"?

2-Why does the Prince carouse with Falstaff?

3- What does Hotspur's refusal to surrender the prisoners suggest?

4-Can Henry Bolingbroke be a canker in I, iii who must be subjected to "gall and pinch"?

5-In II, iv, does the Prince mock his own destiny? [Hotspur]..."kills me some six or seven..."

6-Most importantly in II, iv what is the purpose behind Hal and Falstaff's role playing. Define what banishment means...

7-Is III,i - the rebels in trouble a validation and a warning? Compare with Hal and Henry in III,ii--should the scenes be studied historicist vs. traditional ideology?

8-In Iv, i what does it mean by Hotspur that Hal is "nimble-footed" and madcap"?

9-Perhaps the most important scene in the play for the new historicist is Falstaff's famous catechism at the end of V,i.. Why?



1. Richard II probably died of starvation with the implied consent of Bolingbroke.

2. Henry IV was a competent king.

3. Shakespeare makes Northumberland and Henry IV the same age; the former was really a generation older.

4. Hal and Hotspur are thus the same age in the play, but not historically.

5. Question debated: Was the usurpation by Bolingbroke (Henry IV) necessary for the good of the country or political murder?

6. Prince Hal was a competent military governor in Wales.

7. Shakespeare confuses the legal heir to the throne, Edmund Mortimer-5th Earl of March, with Edmund, who was captured by Owen Glendower, and eventually married his daughter Thus the refusal of Henry to ransom him when a prisoner of Glendower is the dramatic reason for the civil war.

8. Hal probably did not kill Hotspur.

9. Hal was politically ambitious and at one point was dismissed from his father's council, the latter fearing a rebellion, but he was loyal to his father. Hal may have participated in some of the "comedic--quasi-legal events" of the play, but Falstaff is a dramatic invention. He is a synthesis of two earlier historical figures: Sir John Fastolfe, a soldier in the service of Clarence and not a coward, and Sir John Oldcastle, a friend of Hal and likewise not a coward.

10. Henry became Henry V upon his father's death and did not usurp the crown.


1. Richard does not urge his father to take the crown; he was two at the time.

2. The paper crown episode is true, as is the "three-suns" episode, except that Richard is not present

3. Parliament declared Henry VI a usurper, and made Edward king who in turn made George Duke of Clarence at age 11 and Richard Duke of Gloucester at age 8.

4. Clarence constantly changing sides is true.

5. Margaret stays in France and does not direct battles. Her appearance in Richard III is not historical.

6. Battles fought in the plays are not so much outcomes of Divinely ordained plans as much as power struggles between branches of the same family.

7. Richard did not kill Henry VI, Richard in historical fact was too young to play a major role in the final days of Henry (events dramatized in III Henry IV). All the power-mad soliloquies quoted are not historical. He did not likewise kill the Prince of Wales.

8. Richard does not fight until 17 when he supports his brother Edward against Warwick.

9. The child murders of Rutland and Prince Edward are not historical; they die as adults in battle.

10. Richard is not deformed--he was handsome (a bit overweight) and a good king.

11. Queen Margaret is dead by the time Richard is king. Yorkists in Richard III like to recall the slaughter of Rutland by Margaret. The taunting with the bloody cloth of York (Richard's father) is not completely historical.

12. Richard's murder of Henry is false.

13. The Woodville's were resented in England and were opposed by Richard, and Clarence.

14. The funeral scene with Richard wooing Anne is false; they were raised together and were friends. Richard married Anne a year after the death of her first husband, Edward Prince of Wales, whom he did not kill.

15. The real villain is Clarence who was executed for treason on Edward's orders. Richard had tried to defend him. The cask of wine episode is true.

16. Richard acted as regent for the two princes, Edward V and Richard. Richard's arrest of Hastings was justified; he jointed the Woodville's in a conspiracy:

17. The problem is that in the play, Shakespeare has the Queen release York before; not after Hasting's death. Problem: Why would she do this after Hasting's execution? Richard in the play invents the Hasting's plot; historically it was true.

18. The problem of succession: Since Edward IV was not legitimate, his son Edward V could not legally succeed him; however there is suspicion this is false. Another charge was that Edward IV's children, Ed. V and little York were illegitimate. Richard uses these rumors plus fear of a Woodville coup to take power on June 26, 1483 to take power.

19. The most serious charge Shakespeare repeats is that Richard ordered the murders of Edward V and little York. There is not proof either way, but the fact remains that they were not seen after Richard's assumption of power.

20. Richard did not kill his wife Anne, and his wooing of Elizabeth is false. She died of an illness and the rumor was by poison.

21. Richard died in battle against Henry VII forces at Bosworth field in 1485.