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Lloyd Sealy Library
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

English Literature: Shakespeare and Poetry: Histories

Guide for Library Research on the works of William Shakespeare and Poetry

Pericles

Pericles

“Few love to hear the sins they love to act.”
Act I Scene I

Scholars debate whether this play should be included in the Shakespearean canon and most agree that at least half the play was written by Shakespeare. The story of Pericles is one of a man who trapped by a no win situation, flees and journeys around the Mediterranean where he lives, loves, loses, and eventually regains what he has lost.

King John

King John

"Here I and sorrows sit;
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it."
Act III Scene I

The history play of King John is a dramatization of the reign of the actual King John who ruled in medieval times and was the son of Henry II as well as the father of Henry III. In a way you could say it is a side story to the entire Henriad that Shakespeare spent years writing.

What are Histories?

What are Histories?

When Shakespeare's plays were finally published after his death, they were split into three groups - comedies, tragedies, and histories. The history plays deal specifically with English history and in particular the period known as the "War of the Roses". In the early 1590s Shakespeare wrote Henry VI Parts One to Three and Richard III. In the late 1590s he wrote what could be termed "prequels" including Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V. All of these plays are tied together by the figure of Prince Hal who eventually becomes Henry V. 

There are two other history plays - King John and Henry VIII - but they are not related directly to the events of the War of the Roses or of the play Henry V.

The Henriad

The Henriad

“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Act IV Scene III

Shakespeare wrote a series of plays dealing with the various Kings Henry and the period of conflict they lived in known as the "War of the Roses". All together these plays have been called a "Henriad", a play on the word Iliad, implying that these stories together form a mighty epic circling around the character of Henry V.

The later plays in the cycle were written first; in the early 1590s he wrote Henry VI Parts One to Three and Richard III.The earlier plays were written afterwards; in the late 1590s he wrote what could be termed "prequels" including Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V.

 

Richard

Richard

The skull of King Richard III at the Grey Friars Church excavation site in Leicester

"A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
Act V Scene IV

Like many of his other plays dealing with English history, Richard II and Richard III are part of his Henriad, telling a story that eventually leads to the rise of a King named Henry. (Richard II ends with Henry IV coming to power; Richard III ends with Henry VII coming to power.) Of the two plays, Richard III is the most famous, depicting the rise and fall of Richard III, the scheming hunchbacked murderer.

Richard III is usually performed abridged and sometimes has material added to it so that modern audiences will understand how characters are related to each other. Shakespeare did not have to include this material because he could assume that his audiences would be familiar with his other historical plays as well as the historical events depicted in them.