April 13, 2007
Book Review: Shakespeare's Kings
"I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down."
William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part III
Genre: British History, Shakespeare, Medieval History
Pub. Date: March 2001
Format: Paperback, 432pp
Shakespeare and history. Not Shakespeare in history but rather Shakespeare as historian. Is Shakespeare historically accurate? What does the average playgoer know about the historical context of Shakespeare histories? What does he or she need to know? It is these questions that Shakespeare’s Kings seek to answer.
John Julius Norwich has attacked the problem of the historical accuracy of the great histories of Shakespeare’s plays about the Kings of England from 1337-1185. Drawing on contemporary records, that, theoretically, Shakespeare would have had access to, Norwich describes the history of England in summary and fast-paced fashion. He then analytically compares the truth with the accuracy of the stage. He finds that the plays are “…surprisingly accurate as far as it goes - seldom straying fare from the available sources, and then nearly always for perfectly justifiable dramatic reasons.”
If a reader picked up this book expecting to find a literary analysis of Shakespeare, he would find it wholly unsatisfactory. Norwich has actually taken on a much larger challenge. He wishes to set the historical context of the plays by showing them chronologically in history and then comparing the facts of history, one by one, to their treatment in Shakespeare’s dramas. The arguments and comparisons that Norwich presents give a depth and breadth to the plays that the casual observer would have missed.
Norwich prefaces his book with a chapter on Edward III and his son the Black Prince, about whom Shakespeare never wrote a play, and continues the story through the fourteenth century on to Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings. Henry V and Richard III are the most famous of the plays, he also wrote plays centered on Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry VI.
This work will be especially helpful as an overview of the period to the playgoer and the student of history. Succinct and exciting, Norwich weaves the mundane and the royal into a tapestry that is both exciting an informative. Norwich shows through reliable sources how close Shakespeare came in telling the truth in his plays. “His sources may have been few, and not invariably satisfactory; but where they were found wanting he always used his imagination to fill in the gaps.” Something every fan of the St. Crispin’s day speech in Henry V is extremely grateful for.
I highly recommend this book. On a scale of 1 to 5, with five being the highest, this book rates a 5. Written for lay people like you and me, history is made real and exciting.