The Tudor era
After Henry’s victory at Bosworth, he tasked his chroniclers to record his reign in a flattering light. Richard, revealed to have a slightly curved spine, while not a true hunchback, was depicted as evil and the Battle of Bosworth Field as a triumph of good over evil and the final clash of the civil wars. Henry presented his reign as a new beginning and the birth of modernity; the past era a dark place filled with chaos. Tudor historians would shape how the time before Henry VII was told and remembered.
During his lifetime, Richard III was presented favourably by the historian John Rous, but upon Henry’s succession he quickly reversed, turning Richard into a monster, claiming he had been born with teeth and hair and was born after two years in his mother’s womb. All of this would be used by Shakespeare. He also made the claim that it was Richard who killed Henry VI and poisoned his own wife.
When Shakespeare began to write his history plays about the Plantagenets around the time of 1591, there was a wealth of resources for him to draw upon, most written by Tudor historians or revisionists. Like Henry VII’s defeat of Richard III, the deposition of Richard II by Bolingbroke is portrayed as the beginning of a modern era. While Shakespeare might have been making commentaries on his own time through the safe distance of history, by the same turn these plays are also viewed by some as Tudor propaganda; perhaps, they’re both.
Notably, the victorious Edward IV from Henry VI Part 3 is barely given but a passing moment in Richard III as he soon dies from ill health; his death hastened by the news given to him by Richard that his brother George, Duke of Clarence is dead. This is perhaps to avoid the focus of Edward’s reign and quicken the pace to watch Richard’s downfall and defeat by Henry, although one can imagine how the dramatization of Edward’s reign after quashing the Lancastrian opposition might have affected Henry’s motivation in the play.
Interestingly, Shakespeare would write a play about Elizabeth I’s infamous father, Henry VIII – although the play itself is problematic – but not about the Tudor victor, Henry VII. Why is this? As Henry VII’s reign was marked by relative peace and harmony, perhaps there was little to write about in terms of the drama department or perhaps Henry had served his purpose as the victor in Richard III. That being said, after Henry’s victory at Bosworth there were subsequent rebellions, although maybe Shakespeare didn’t find any of this as Henry made sure his chroniclers portrayed his reign favourably and downplayed the rebellions.
Around the period of 1603, Shakespeare wrote the Scottish play aka Macbeth, upon King James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England – whose parents both were descended from Henry VII – as Elizabeth I’s successor, as she died without an heir. Another portrayal of a king that, once again, like Richard, was not accurate but has endured through the centuries. (For those interested in Shakespeare’s treatment versus the real Macbeth, I recommend Magnus Magnusson’s Scotland, to whom he devotes a chapter.)
Shakespeare: Tudor propagandist or a commentator of his own times through the use of history as allegory? One cannot give a sufficient answer without going into historical context. Richard II is the most obvious candidate as commentary, with Queen Elizabeth comparing herself to Richard while the Henry VI plays presented a topical concern in the form of Henry losing England’s French territories, in light of England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and as the rising conflicts of Spain and Ireland continued, there was social and political unrest as the public began to not view their queen as favourably as before. This is only but the tip of the iceberg.
Thus, Shakespeare was a playwright who made astute observations of his own time and communicated them through his history plays. They provided entertainment value, and also conveyed informed opinions with the information that was available then. In some cases he took liberal artistic license, such as making Prince Hal and Hotspur contemporaries or shifting historical events so that key characters could participate in them when in reality they were too young to have or weren’t even born yet. Would Shakespeare’s audiences have known enough of the real history to know when he was being historically accurate and when he was deviating from historical fact or would they only be familiar with it through his dramatizations? This is hard to determine.
As Tudor propaganda, it is possible that it was not regarded or considered as such during Shakespeare’s lifetime but that it came to be viewed that way over the centuries as Shakespeare’s reputation grew to the point of reverence and by the seventeenth century he was established as a national poet.
In conclusion, the disparity in portrayal of the Plantagenet kings was possibly due more to the sources available for Shakespeare when he wrote these history plans than the intention of blatant propaganda. Yet his resonance on our perception of history, the confusion of real kings with that of their dramatic portrayals, is still felt. Shakespeare’s history plays should not be taken as gospel or studied as history, but as great drama and perhaps as bridges to better understanding that time in history depicted and, further, to understand the sociopolitical landscape of Elizabethan England and context that Shakespeare wrote these plays.