When the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works was compiled by John Heminges and Henry Condell in 1623, the plays were divided into three categories: comedies, tragedies, and histories. Now there are 10 histories total (some say 11 with Edward III, but that’s discussion for another day) and not too many of them are given much exposure.
People are more familiar with the Comedies and Tragedies. Some of them at least. But when was the last time you saw a production of King John? Richard II? Henry VI part 1, 2, or 3? Schools will talk about Hamlet a billion times before thinking of mentioning Henry IV. The only one of these plays that seems to get more exposure is Richard III, and I can see why.
The histories aren’t seen as much – especially outside of the UK – because, well… they take extra effort. The US isn’t familiar with these kings, it’s taught to most students. Some people seem to think that the Histories are more boring than the other plays. I was one of these ignorant people a long time ago, before I read any of the histories — except Richard III. Hm.
I understand the reluctance that people have to touching this category of Shakespeare’s works, but I think we’re missing a huge opportunity for some great language and great action. When I first picked up Richard II I was astounded with how amazing some of the verse was. The characters had plenty I really could sink my teeth into. Shakespeare wasn’t writing a history lesson for his viewers. It was real drama.
I found myself a little lost when I picked up the Histories to read. I didn’t know much about who these kings were, and I had some problems keeping track of everyone and their relations. I didn’t let this stop me and it shouldn’t stop you. A little research on the characters then finding a family tree of English Royalty will be a lifesaver for you and lead to your enjoyment. Once you know who these people are and a couple things about what they did, the language and drama is much more accessible and enjoyable.
If When you read these plays, try to read em in chronoligical order. Be careful. A lot of books and editions will list histories in order of when they were written which is NOT the same as the order in which the historical events occurred. Just to help you along, here are the kings with plays named after them in Historical order starting with the earliest:
- *Edward III
- Richard II
- Henry IV
- Henry V
- Henry VI
- Richard III
- Henry VIII
*Edward III isn’t in most Complete Works, not everyone believes Shakespeare wrote it.
If I count Edward III then it comes out to 11 History plays. But wait! There are only 8 names up there! That’s because of the lovely storytelling device I like to call THE SEQUEL! Some of these stories are big. So big that they take up multiple plays. Henry IV has a part 1 and 2. Lucky for him. But even luckier was Henry the VI. His story gets 3 parts! There’s another reason not to produce that story… it’s long.
Do yourself a favor, read the histories if you haven’t already. Do the little bit of research required and enjoy. You’ll be glad you did. It also might come up on Jeopardy one day, so be prepared!