Here I and my sorrows sit;
Here is my throne, bid kings come to it.
(Constance, King John, Act 1, Scene 3)
I have been re-reading some of William Shakespeare’s history plays plus Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. The “biopics” and “All the President’s Men” of their day!
There are many by Shakespeare. In chronological order – the order in which the fictionalised events happened – they comprise: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra; Macbeth (it has some relationship with Scottish history); King John, Edward III (perhaps a part), Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III (perhaps Shakespeare was a contributor to Part I), Richard III, Thomas More (perhaps Shakespeare contributed a small part), and finally Henry VIII (together with John Fletcher).
So, the history plays form a large part of his output.
The plays are about politics and display examples of good and bad leadership. Who (if anyone) is best? Who is the legitimate ruler? How is legitimacy determined?
If you had happened to live in Ancient Rome (for example), would you have preferred Julius Caesar or Antony or Brutus or Cassius or Octavian (Augustus)? (Apply this to medieval history and modern history too.) Some have leadership qualities but all are flawed. The second lesson is that human nature has not changed at heart, and we all have emotional drives – will, power, lust, love – which can take over our lives and which can ruin those of others.
It is interesting (at least to me) to compare recorded history (told by chroniclers) with dramatisations (eg those by Shakespeare and his contemporaries). Good critical studies and well written academic editions of the works give the reader an insight into the variations. (Retain some scepticism, as (surely?) there is no such thing as absolute historical truth.) But at least we can say (can’t we?) that an effective drama has psychological and sociological truth – which takes us back to political battles and human desires.
For some readers, doubtless, and viewers of dramas, it is preferable to enjoy a play without engaging, actively or passively, in literary criticism. The latter forms another world, a different world. I like it.
This year already I have worked my way through a version of Richard III based on the First Quarto (1597), with minimal editing and notes. (John Drakakis, ‘Shakespeare Originals’, 1996.) (I note that, in history, Edward IV is deemed to be responsible for the death of George Duke of Clarence, but in the play the blame is shared between Edward and Richard.)
This year too I got hold of the new ‘Arden 3’ (Lander & Tobin, Bloomsbury, 2018) edition of King John, as I admire this play. I looked for new insights. However, I was somewhat disappointed by the depth of the editors’ background writing. On looking again into the 1974 Penguin, edited by R L Smallwood, I find that he is strong on all the essentials:
- the historical background
- Shakespeare’s use of sources (see in particular the anonymous Troublesome Reign of King John)
- his selection and telescoping of historical events
- textual issues, too.
I went back to my own copy of The Troublesome Reign, edited by Charles R Forker (‘Revels Plays’, Manchester, 2011). (The Reign is anonymous, but Forker attributes it to George Peele.) This edition succeeds in throwing light on the historical background of both the Reign and Shakespeare’s John, and the influence of the former on the latter; so it fills a gap arguably left by the Arden 3 book.
I was tempted to seek out versions of other plays, edited by Forker, and bought both his Edward II (Revels, 1994) and his (Richard II) (Arden 3, 2002). I found them illuminating – for example, about the influence of Marlowe’s play on Richard II.
Kings die in these plays (some of them after being deposed) – that is their tragedy. But, if their country does not unite behind the successor, all are affected and many suffer.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
[Richard himself, Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2]