Introducing the history plays.
We shine a light on Richard II and its place in the history cycle as we begin our year-long exploration of ‘our scepter’d isle’.
A common question when faced with a history play, by Shakespeare or Marlowe or anyone else is: what do I need to know to before I see it? What background do I need to make it make sense?
The assumption seems to be that these plays are impenetrable without a solid background in English monarchical history—that the original audiences must have had this knowledge. And it’s true that some Renaissance audience members may have come armed with information gleaned from the chronicle histories of Rafael Holinshed or Edward Hall, who compiled massive, sprawling narratives of England’s past, and which writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe drew upon when writing their plays.
But many others wouldn’t have. Such books were extremely expensive, and that’s assuming you knew how to read. But that doesn’t mean that only the wealthy and literate knew anything about the past. Just like many of us today will get a vague sense of periods we’ve never studied from films or books, in Shakespeare’s time, plays and ballads served to fill in many people’s understanding of England’s history.
So if you were an ordinary English person who’d never read a chronicle history, what might you have already known going in to see Shakespeare’s Richard II for the first time?
If you were a theatre fan, you might have been familiar with the story of King Richard II from the play now generally called Thomas of Woodstock. It now only survives in an incomplete manuscript, but may predate Shakespeare’s play—and fittingly, depicts events that take place slightly earlier in Richard’s reign.
In this play, you would have seen Richard’s neglect of his new bride, Anne of Bohemia, and his sorrow at her sudden death. You would have met his favourites, Green, Bushy, Bagot, and Scroop, all elevated to important political positions that they then abuse for personal gain, unconcerned that they are impoverishing the citizens of England in the process. Ghosts appeared to remind you of Richard’s regal lineage: his father, the war hero called the Black Prince and his grandfather, King Edward III. And you would have met Richard’s uncles, John of Gaunt; Edmund of Langley, the Duke of York; and the titular Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the humblest and gentlest of them all, who Richard’s favourites persuade him to have murdered. Richard is quickly seized by remorse… but not quickly enough to save Woodstock’s life.
But sometimes connections were less direct. Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II were likely written around the same time, and they are plainly plays in close conversation with one another. Aside from their central scenarios of irresponsible kings surrounded by favourites, even lines and images seem to echo from one play to the other. Edward II was written before Richard II,and these echoes may have sounded for original audience members, shaping their expectations of Richard based on what they’d seen in Edward.
Thomas of Woodstock isn’t a direct prequel to Richard II, and of course neither is Edward II (though Edward was Richard’s great-grandfather). All three plays offer their own interpretations of their parallel characters or scenarios. But the plays’ similarities and vague familiarities are what many original audience members would have brought with them into a new history play—not a list of facts about the reign of King Richard II. In a time before national history was taught in school, and before the majority of the population was literate, plays were as good a source as any for learning about the past… or at least a version of it.
Writers played fast and loose with historical fact—and often the chronicles themselves were contradictory or incorrect—and the facts (or ‘facts’) that an audience member had learned from one source may have been flatly contradicted by another. Even if you came into a history play with some knowledge of its subject, that knowledge might turn out not to apply.
This pick-and-mix approach to history was all that most audience members would have brought along with them into a new play. The upcoming season offers the exciting opportunity for us to have a similar viewing experience, accumulating knowledge from play to play, and letting playwrights teach us their own version of history. ♦