Shakespeare’s Histories

One of my long-term goals is to read through all of Shakespeare’s works. Last year I started on his history plays, which was a larger undertaking than I realized. I only managed to read one–Richard II– during 2014. This year, I’m determined to finish three more by January 1. I thought I’d share the process here from start to finish–including some resources I’m using to help me and a look back at Richard II.

So, a little background: Shakespeare wrote ten English Histories. There are two “outliers:” King John and Henry VIII. The eight remaining plays deal with the Wars of the Roses. They are split into two “tetralogies,” and Shakespeare wrote each set of four in backwards chronological order.

Confused yet? I thought so.

Shakespeare wrote the first tetralogy sometime during or around 1590. This first set is made up of Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III. What’s confusing is that the events he described actually took place after the events of the second tetralogy. He wrote those four plays sometime around 1599, and we call them “the Henriad” because most of the plays are about Prince Hal, or Henry V. Shakespeare wrote the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV 1 and 2, and Henry V) last, and it shows. By Henry IV, Part 1, he’s really getting into the genre of a historical play.

I decided to read the eight middle plays in historical order, not the order of their publication. Below I’ve listed all ten of his English histories in historical order:

  • King John
    If I’d truly done my homework, I would have read this one first. Oops!
  • Richard II
  • Henry IV, Part 1
  • Henry IV, Part 2
  • Henry V
  • Henry VI, Part I
  • Henry VI, Part 2
  • Henry VI, Part 3
  • Richard III
  • Henry VIII

Resources:

It’s hard to understand these historical events with little context, so I’ve been reading chapters from Peter Saccio’s book Shakespeare’s English Kings as I go. I’ve found it’s helpful to have background knowledge, and I’ll post a giant review of the whole book once I’m finished with this ongoing project.

Shakespeare's English Kings

I’m also looking forward to writing about The Hollow Crown mini series from the BBC. I watched Richard II after I read the play last summer, and I really enjoyed it. Rumor has it they’re making the second tetralogy as well, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Richard III. Those are supposedly going to air in 2016. I guess that means I’ll make the second tetralogy part of next year’s 50 book goal!

Keep Reading!

Sarah

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