Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama by Peter Saccio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I once had a high school English teacher describe Shakespeare's histories as "boring". Part of the reason for that is that it is easy to get lost in the murk of history. The events happened around 600 years ago, and seem like something out of a Renaissance Fair. This is what Dr Saccio's book works to explain. He very succinctly goes through the over 100 years of history discussed in the history plays, Henry IV parts 1&2, Henry V, Richard III, Henry VI parts 1-3. Richard II, King John, and Henry VIII. At times, it's hard to imagine how England could have survived. There were always questions over who was the legitimate heir to the throne, always battles over land, wars with France, arranged marriages, and bills of attainder prosecuting certain people for treason, many times on trumped-up charges. (This last part explains why the drafters of the US Constitution inserted a specific clause prohibiting bills of attainder.) Henry VIII also deals a bit with the Church of England's break with Rome. This is great material for any kind of dramatic play. Dr Saccio shows the differences between the actual history (as far as we know) and Shakespeare's version. Shakespeare occasionally telescopes events, has people present at certain locations who weren't actually there, and ages younger characters to be present for dramatic effect. In this, Shakespeare is no different than modern screenwriters, who will telescope events and composite characters to keep the movie under 2 hours. In Shakespeare's case, he was trying to show general themes--betrayal, murder, greed, incompetence--to show how the history evolved. The original book was written in 1977. Dr Saccio adds an Afterword, written in 2000, to explain the evolution of scholarship on Shakespeare since 1977.
Of the history plays, 3 seem to be the most widely performed today--1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III. These are performed, not because of any history involved, but because of the characters. In 1 Henry IV, modern performers focus on the character of Falstaff, who, as Dr Saccio points out, is a Shakespearean invention. He is the "fat knight", and in many cases is portrayed as a buffoon. His famous line, "Discretion is the better part of valor," which he uses to explain his hiding out in the bar instead of taking part in the battle. (Supposedly, Queen Elizabeth I was so enthralled with Falstaff that she asked Shakespeare to write another play featuring him. The result was Merry Wives of Windsor.) Shakespeare's Henry V is almost the ideal king. I believe Shakespeare had the same view. I've seen modern business books cit Shakespeare's Henry V as a model of organizational leadership. One scene that isn't addressed in the book is the famous scene where King Henry disguises himself as a commoner and mingles among his troops the night before the battle at Agincourt. Was this a Shakespearean invention, or was there some historical basis for this? The book doesn't answer this question. I suspect that his "band of brothers" speech was all Shakespeare. The original motivational speech, predating "Win one for the Gipper" by 300 years. (As a Notre Dame graduate, I love that speech. GO IRISH!) Shakespeare's Richard III, by contrast, is the antithesis of what a king should be. He is the living embodiment of Machiavelli's Prince, always conniving and scheming to get the throne, until he falls at the battle of Bosworth. His famous line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" is Shakespeare's invention. So is the humpback and the crooked nose often used by those who portray Richard. As Dr Saccio points out, the real Richard wasn't all that bad, but wasn't all good either. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Henry VIII is a historical footnote. At the premiere of Henry VIII at the Globe Theater, one of the stagehands apparently got drunk and fired off a cannon, which burned the Globe Theater to the ground.
If you look at the current situation with England and France today, it's almost hard to believe things were any different. Today, the Chunnel connects England and France by rail under the English Channel. The 2014 Tour de France spent the first 3 days in England before moving to France. It received a royal opening by Prince William, Duchess Kate, and Prince Harry. Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne for 62 years as of 2014 (1952-present), surpassed only by Queen Victoria's 64 years (1837-1901). In 2011, Parliament passed legislation removing the preference for boys to rule, and removing the prohibition on the King or Queen marrying a Catholic. You wonder if all of drama described in Dr Saccio's book was necessary. All in all, this is an excellent book for those who want to know more about Shakespeare's kings.
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