Mangled glory: Fact and (mostly) fiction in Shakespeare’s history plays

Hotspur and Prince Hal fighting
Mr. H. Marston as Hotspur, and Mr. F. Robinson as Prince Henry … King Henry IV, part 1, act 5, sc. 4. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical juggernaut Hamilton became available for streaming in early July, it renewed conversations about the show’s inaccuracies and total inadequacy as a document of the actual historical record. To which the only appropriate academic response is: Well, duh.

Miranda’s in excellent company. William Shakespeare’s History plays have been criticized for centuries over their departures from historical fact. But strict adherence to the facts is not only not a requirement for a dramatic or literary work of art, it’s impossible.

The second an author writes a name on the page in a novel or play, that name becomes a character, a simulacrum of an actual person, even a historically famous one, with its own dramatic needs and narrative imperatives that may or — usually — may not correspond to What Actually Happened. In my scripts I always try to get the facts right when I’m not getting them wrong on purpose, but that needn’t be everyone’s goal. Art has no requirement to be true. Ask Shakespeare’s “gallant Hotspur,” whom Henry IV wishes could have been his son instead of that wastrel Prince Hal — despite the fact that in real life, Hotspur was actually three years older than Henry IV!

Richard III
Richard III / E. Goodwyn Lewis, 1863. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Even if truth in art were desirable, strict adherence to historical fact would have been dangerous for Shakespeare. In the infamous and arguably most popular case of Richard III, Shakespeare based his depiction of Richard as a hunchbacked villain on Sir Thomas More’s History of Richard III. Since both Shakespeare and More wrote under Tudor monarchs (Elizabeth and her father Henry VIII) whose grandfather and father, Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, it was vital they each make their monarch’s ancestor the hero who saved England from the villainous Richard. Shakespeare, in fact, doubled down on Richard’s historical defamation, turning him into a killing machine willing to assassinate anyone blocking his path to power. Despite there being little evidence for it, Shakespeare depicts Richard as responsible for the deaths of his own brother Clarence, his wife Anne, and his two princely nephews in the tower. This makes for fascinating and compelling theatre (and excellent Tudor propaganda), but it has very little merit as history.

And Shakespeare knew it. He understood theatre’s limitations and confessed it several times. In the epilogue of Henry V, the Chorus (who famously begins the play with a prologue outlining the many limitations of his ‘wooden O’) returns to say:

Thus far with rough and all-unable pen
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

Shakespeare didn’t limit these observations to only his plays about England’s past. Cleopatra, in her final moments, reveals her own awareness that she’ll most likely be remembered, not in history, but in art. “Scald rhymers,” she predicts, will “ballad us out o’ tune,” and that she “shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore.” Shakespeare’s wonderfully meta-theatrical moment not only reveals that there’s more to this woman than we know, there’s more to her than we can adequately convey onstage.

Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra: act 5, scene 2 / modelled in basso relievo by the Honble A.S. Damer ; engraved by Thos. Hellyer. London, 1803. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This doesn’t diminish theatre’s power, which Shakespeare also understood. Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream claims that, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” The poet, or in Shakespeare’s case, artists like himself, doesn’t have the responsibility, or possibly even the ability, to stick to the facts. Freed to follow their own sometimes mysterious logic, artists track their own narratives to arrive at a different kind of truth, and these truths can sometimes supplant the facts in the popular imagination. This is also theatre’s wonderful danger, which Shakespeare not only knew well but expressed through the mouth of his most charming villain. As Richard III smiles and flatters one of the doomed young princes, he explains what happens when we lack ‘characters,’ meaning a written record: “without characters fame lives long.” In other words, in the absence of fact, legend grows.

Or, as screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck wrote in their screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Which brings us back to theatre’s limitations as history. The Tempest is regarded as the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, and Prospero’s final speech is popularly believed to be Shakespeare’s own farewell to theatre. He says to the audience:

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

Not to educate; to please. Theatre’s power is to stimulate audiences through emotional engagement with living actors who embody characters and tell stories. If people are so moved by what they see onstage they’re compelled to pick up a book to find out how much of what they saw was true, they come prepared to engage with the material and wrestle passionately with any discrepancies between the facts and their theatrical depiction.

The good news is, there are an infinite number of plays and musicals still to be written about historical figures that will wonderfully correct or deepen our knowledge and understanding. Get to it.


Gratitude goes to dramaturg Kate Pitt for research help with this piece!

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