Who Decides History?

Shakespeare is remembered as a great playwright. But he was more than just that. We must remember that Shakespeare didn’t just write about English history, he helped create the history of England for the people of the Elizabethan era and beyond. We often believe history to be fact, but in fact history is really just what information was written down or stored at a certain time and passed down to today. Because of their popularity and endurance, Shakespeare’s plays therefore play a huge role in shaping our perception of English history. Shakespeare crafted his plays about Henry IV to make political points about 16th century Elizabethan England, and these plays became a primary source of history to his audiences. We must therefore keep his biases in mind when reading the plays as “history.”Kingly succession was a relevant and relatable theme to Elizabethan England. When Shakespeare wrote the play Henry IV Part I, Queen Elizabeth I was in her 60’s and there was still no heir apparent who would inherit the throne. Not only was the issue of an heir looming large, but Elizabeth’s own legitimacy had always been challenged by the Spanish and the Catholic church. As a result, Elizabeth was particularly sensitive to challenges to the throne, past and present. Shakespeare was well aware of this when he wrote, and it impacted his themes and the ways in which his characters were developed especially where the death of Richard II was concerned.

Shakespeare wasn’t just trying to make Elizabeth happy, his own welfare and that of the theatrical community depended upon the way the plays were received. The actors and theatricals of Elizabethan England were dependent on the support of noble patrons. Actors at the time were not wealthy and popular stars, they were, in the eyes of many, men lacking a more legitimate trade, just one step above a vagrant. Without noble patronage, the actors were not only at risk of poverty but also of arrest for vagrancy. Since the actors and playwrights were supported by the nobles, they were careful not to offend the nobles in power at the time, or their ancestors. This impacted the way history was told.

For Shakespeare, and many at the time, history was seen as a continuum; the present was merely a continuation of the past and history was constantly unfolding. What happened in the past and what happened today were especially related in the realm of family dynasties. To insult the history of a great family was to insult that family today. Most scholars agree that Shakespeare relied on factual historical accounts to begin his plays, but he took great liberties and embellished the facts. So while Shakespeare’s plays about Henry IV were based on actual history, it must be remembered that his history was written to appease the people in power, and to address issues of the succession which dominated his political landscape. What gives a monarch divine authority? What happens when a monarch is overthrown? What qualities make a good king? These were not just questions of history; they were the questions of the day.

We don’t know what actually happened when Henry IV and the Percy’s were battling one another, we only know the story that was written down, passed down, and finally told to us. This was especially true in Elizabethan England when so few people were literate and therefore received their historical education from plays like Henry IV, not textbooks. Whoever is in charge when history is written therefore has an editorial role in what gets remembered.