Shakespeare Histories

Image for Shakespeare History Plays

In this post I present a brief description of 10 William Shakespeare histories. At the end of each description I provide a link to download a free copy of each play discussed.

Pivotal English History

The William Shakespeare history plays are ten works dealing with English history from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries primarily from 1399-1485. Each is named for a particular English king and focuses on the ruling monarch of the period. The plays dramatize the Medieval power struggles surrounding the 100 years war with France and the war of the roses. The primary source for Shakespeare histories is Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicle,” but he routinely borrowed heavily from other earlier writers as well.

Hugely Popular But Historically Inaccurate

Although the Shakespeare histories were always incredibly popular, they were not historically accurate. Despite Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as a deformed monster, for example, little historical evidence exists for such a characterization. Still, the wicked hunchback king created by Shakespeare continues to exist in the popular imagination to this day.

Shakespeare Histories Are Not What Many Think

Ironically, though labeled histories by modern scholars, William Shakespeare’s history plays are not primarily historical or even essentially political. In fact, government and politics play a much smaller role in the Shakespeare histories than they do in his tragedies. Instead, the history plays are largely morality tales and social commentary. Shakespeare’s histories are much less about good government than about good character.

Read The Plays Yourself

In the end, the only way to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s histories is to read them for yourself. Therefore, simply go through the brief summaries I provide. Then, follow the links at the bottom of each description to download a copy of the play itself. Everything is free. Enjoy.

Be Persistent

If you have never attempted to read anything by William Shakespeare before, however, a word of caution is in order. While everything Shakespeare wrote is in English, modern readers often find his plays and poetry difficult to understand at first. Be persistent. People in our present culture have been taught to give up when things become difficult. Don’t quit. Most things of lasting value are rarely easy.

You May Not Understand Everything At First

Shakespeare wrote in a style like that found in the old King James Bible. That’s Okay. You may not understand all the words at first. Don’t worry about it. Just slow down, and keep going. After a few pages, you’ll begin to understand enough to figure out what’s going on.

Try Watching Shakespeare Movies

Also, remember when reading William Shakespeare histories that his plays were meant to be performed rather than merely read. With this in mind, try watching a movie of one or more of his plays. When you see the action matched to the words, the stories become easier to follow. Movies with Kenneth Branaugh are especially good, because he follows the original plays more closely than other productions.

Shakespeare Made Easy

With practice most people do begin to comprehend what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote. Still, for those who simply cannot get past the language issue without a modern “translation” to refer to as they read, a solution is available. That solution is the Shakespeare Made Easy series available through Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and lots of other book sellers.

These special editions of the poet’s works feature Shakespeare’s original lines on the left-hand page, and a modern, easy-to-understand “translation” on the right. Prices per for these editions run from only $5.00-$12.00 each and are well worth it.

See The World In A New Way

Once you begin to let Shakespeare’s stories rattle around in your head, congratulations! You’ll begin to see the world in a whole new way, and many modern stories will begin to seem shallow by comparison. Read and watch enough, and you may even begin to see just how broken our current culture really is.

Please subscribe to be notified of future posts if you like this content, and don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel as well. That said, let’s begin our review of William Shakespeare’s 10 amazing tragedies.

1. Henry IV, Part 1

Image of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars believe Henry IV, Part 1 was written no later than 1597. Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 together form the second of a three part series depicting the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. The play culminates in the battle of Shrewsbury between the king’s forces and rebels seeking the crown. As the conflict grows between the king and Hotspur, the leader of the rebellion, Prince Hal, the King’s heir, carouses in a tavern with a rogue named Sir John Falstaff. When Prince Hal is called to war, he redeems his reputation by saving his father and killing Hotspur. Falstaff, on the other hand, cheats his soldiers and claims credit for Hotspur’s death. Download your free copy of Henry IV, Part 1 here.

2. Henry IV, Part 2

Image for Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry IV, Part 2 was written between 1596 and 1599.The play continues the continues the story of Prince Hal’s journey from wasted youth to maturity and kingship. Falstaff glories in false reputation he has gained by claiming to have killed Hotspur until he is confronted by the more mature Prince Hal. When the rebellion ends, Prince Hal attends his dying father, rejects Sir John Falstaff, and becomes King Henry V. Download your free copy of Henry IV, Part 2 here.

3. Henry V

Image for Shakespeare's Henry V
Shakespeare’s Henry V Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry V was written in 1599. The play focuses on the events immediately before and after the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War. It is the final part of a three part series. In Henry V, the Prince Hal has matured into a young king. He embarks on a war against the French and defeats them in Agincourt despite his army being badly outnumbered. The play’s epilogue, however, predicts that Henry will die young, and England will lose most of its French territories. Download your free copy of Henry V here.

4. Henry VI, Part 1

Image of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1
Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VI, Part 1 was probably written in 1591 in collaboration with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. With the death of Henry V an underage boy becomes king of England. Part 1 depicts the collapse of England’s role in France. As the nobles fight amongst themselves, Joan of Arc empowers the French army. The English hero, Lord Talbot, attacks the French at Orleans but is killed along with his son by the French. Joan of Arc is captured and executed. A rivalry between the English houses of York and Sommerset incites the War of the Roses. Download your free copy of Henry VI, Part 1 here.

5. Henry VI, Part 2

Image of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2
Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VI, Part 2 was written in 1591. The play focuses on the inability of a weak unworldly Henry VI to quell the growing conflict among his nobles. It begins with the arranged marriage of Henry to Margaret Anjou who seeks to rule through her inept husband. Richard, the Duke of York, leads an army against King Henry, who flees back to London. As the play ends, his forces move toward London. Download your free copy of Henry VI, Part 2 here.

6. Henry VI, Part 3

Image of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3
Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VI, Part 3 was likely written in 1591. The three parts of Henry VI together with Richard III cover the entire War of the Roses saga. It features one of the longest soliloquies in all of Shakespeare. It also has more battle scenes (four on stage, one reported) than any other Shakespeare’s play. As the play opens, Richard’s army invades London. Enraged, Henry’s queen, Margaret, raises a French army but is captured, and her son is killed. As the play ends, Richard murders King Henry and begins to plot his path to the crown. Download your free copy of Henry VI, Part 3 here.

7. Henry VIII

Image of Shakespeare's Henry VIII
Shakespeare’s Henry VIII Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry VIII was written in collaboration with John Fletcher. In 1613, a canon shot used as a special effect ignited the original Globe theatre’s thatched roof. The theatre burned to the ground. The play depicts the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry’s quest to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. It ends with the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth. It prophesies her success and that of her unnamed successor, James I. Download your free copy of Henry VIII here.

8. King John

Image for Shakespeare's King John
Shakespeare’s King John Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

King John was written in the mid-1590’s but was not published until 1623 in the First Folio. The play takes place in the 13th century following the death of Richard I. John rules as king but is challenged by his nephew Arthur. War erupts when the French support Arthur’s claim to the throne. John captures Arthur who dies after throwing himself from the prison walls. English forces finally expel the French, but King John is poisoned by a monk and Henry III becomes king. Download your free copy of King John here.

9. Richard II

Image of Shakespeare's Richard II
Shakespeare’s Richard II Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Richard II was written around 1595. In the play, Richard’s arbitrary rule leads to his downfall and a decades long power struggle over the English throne. The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. After stopping a trial by combat he previously ordered, Richard banishes both nobles from the kingdom. When Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gault, dies, Richard seizes his possessions and dispossesses Bolingbroke. Bolinbroke returns to England forcing Richard to abdicate the throne and thus becomes King Henry IV. While in captivity, Richard is murdered by a follower of Henry. Download your free copy of Richard II here.

10. Richard III

Image of Shakespeare's Richard III
Image of Shakespeare’s Richard III Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes listed as a tragedy, Richard III was written between some time between 1592 and 1594. It is the second longest play in the Shakespearean canon. At the start of the play, Richard’s brother, Edward IV, is king while Richard plots to take the throne. As part of that plan, he manipulates Edward into imprisoning their brother, Clarence. He then has Clarence murdered in the tower. When Edward IV dies, Richard is named Lord Protector of his two under-aged heirs. As Protector, Richard usurpers the throne for himself and secretly has the boys murdered. The nobles rebel under Henry Tudor, and Richard is defeated and killed at Bosworth field. Henry Tudor becomes King Henry VII, and the Tudor dynasty, under whom Shakespeare wrote, begins. Download your free copy of Richard III here.

To download all of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry including his comedies, tragedies, histories, sonnets, and longer narrative poems, go to my Shakespeare Plays And Poetry page.

If you like this content, please subscribe to be notified about future posts, and don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel.

To learn more about William Shakespeare’s life, go to my William Shakespeare Biography page.

Thanks for visiting.

Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Shakespeare Tragedies Blog Post Image

In this post I present a brief description of each of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedies. At the end of each description I provide a link to download a free copy of each play discussed.

William Shakespeare’s Most Successful Plays

William Shakespeare is best known for his tragedies. Of the 38 surviving plays we have, 12 were tragedies. What’s more, for many, these plays represent the Bard’s best work. Scholar’s almost universally cite “Hamlet” as potentially the greatest play ever written.

Necessary Features Of Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Despite ongoing modern attempts to redefine the genre, all true tragedies must involve three key elements.

A Great And Noble Hero

All genuine tragedies begin with a great tragic hero. Traditionally, such heroes nearly always came from the nobility or achieved comparable status through divine intervention or great achievement. Shakespeare’s tragedies are no exception here. Since Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in 1949, however, contemporary “tragedies” try to dispense with this requirement. The traditional noble hero of great accomplishment is too elitist.

The Failure Of Modern Tragedy

Instead, the modern “tragic hero” becomes an everyman character of more common gifts and accomplishments. His or her nobility becomes largely symbolic. Unfortunately, people don’t truly empathize with abstract symbols. Audiences need a distinct human personality to identify with. Shakespeare understood this. His tragic characters, while undeniably exceptional, are nevertheless universally and intimately human. As such, the grand fall in each of his tragedies devastates both literally in social scope and emotional impact. Modern alternatives, while perhaps tragic, fail as true tragedies because they lack the scale and depth of Shakespeare’s work.

The Tragic Flaw

Another key feature in all Shakespeare tragedies are the notable tragic flaws present in his great tragic heroes. Like the classical tragedies of ancient Greece, overwhelming outside forces may indeed be the agents of the hero’s fall. However, while classical Greek tragedy presents heroes destroyed by the gods or unavoidable fate, Shakespeare’s heroes clearly doom themselves. From Hamlet’s indecision, to Macbeth’s excessive ambition, or Lear’s blinding vanity, it is the deeply human nature of Shakespeare’s flawed characters that we remember most.

Empathy And Catharsis

By writing characters who are both exceptional and intimately flawed, Shakespeare causes his audience to identify deeply with his heroes. Through this identification the audience shares empathetically in the hero’s suffering and final self-awareness. It is this audience participation in the hero’s struggle that leads to an emotional release and increased understanding for the playgoer known as catharsis.

Read Shakespeare’s Tragedies For Yourself

In the end, the only way to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s tragedies is to read them for yourself. Therefore, simply go through the brief summaries I provide. Then, follow the links at the bottom of each description to download a copy of the play itself. Everything is free. Enjoy.

Be Persistent

If you have never attempted to read anything by William Shakespeare before, however, a word of caution is in order. While everything Shakespeare wrote is in English, modern readers often find his plays and poetry difficult to understand at first. Be persistent. People in our present culture give up too easily when things become difficult. Don’t quit. Most things of lasting value are rarely easy.

You May Not Understand Everything At First

Shakespeare wrote in a style like that found in the old King James Bible. That’s Okay. You may not understand all the words at first. Don’t worry about it. Just slow down, and keep going. After a few pages, you’ll begin to understand enough to figure out what’s going on.

Try Watching Shakespeare Movies

Remember, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed rather than merely read. With this in mind, try watching a movie of one or more of his plays. When you see the action matched to the words, the stories become easier to follow. Movies with Kenneth Branaugh are especially good, because he follows the original plays more closely than other productions.

Shakespeare’s Tragedies Made Easy

With practice most people do begin to comprehend what Shakespeare was saying when he wrote. Still, there is a solution available at reasonable cost for those who cannot get past the language issue without a modern “translation” to refer to as they read. That solution is the Shakespeare Made Easy series available through amazon.com.

These special editions of the poet’s works feature Shakespeare’s original lines on the left-hand page, and a modern, easy-to-understand “translation” on the right. The price per play for these versions runs about $7.99 a piece.

See The World In A New Way

Once you begin to let Shakespeare’s stories rattle around in your head, congratulations! You’ll begin to see the world in a whole new way, and many modern stories will begin to seem shallow by comparison. Read and watch enough, and you may even begin to see just how broken our current culture really is.

Please subscribe to be notified of future posts if you like this content, and don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel as well. That said, let’s begin our review of William Shakespeare’s 16 comedies.

1. Antony And Cleopatra

Image for Antony And Cleopatra
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Antony And Cleopatra” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Antony And Cleopatra was first performed in 1607. The First folio collection of Shakespeare’s works from 1623 includes it as well. The play follows the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony from the time of the Sicilian revolt to Cleopatra’s suicide during the Final War of the Roman Republic. Many consider Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to be one of the most complex and fully developed female characters the playwright ever wrote. Download your free copy of Antony And Cleopatra here.

2. Coriolanus

Image for Coriolanus
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus between 1605 and 1608. The play is based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus. When Volscian invaders attack Roman territories, Marcius helps lead the Roman forces in repelling the invaders. He earns the name Coriolanus for his role in conquering the Volscian city of Corioles. When rejected for Consul and banished from the city, he joins forces with a former enemy to conquer Rome. On the brink of success, his mother persuades him to spare the city. He returns to Corioles where he is assassinated. Coriolanus is one of last tragedies Shakespeare wrote. Download your free copy of Coriolanus here.

3. Cymbeline

Image for Cymbeline
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We do not know when The Tragedy Of Cymbeline was actually written. It was first produced, however, in 1611. Although listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, the play shares many characteristics with Shakespeare’s comedies. Set in ancient Britain, the play depicts a vassal king to ancient Rome named Cymbeline. Hidden identities, extraordinary schemes, and violent acts fill the tale.

Cymbeline has two sons who are abducted as infants. When his daughter Imogen marries without approval, Cymbeline exiles her husband Postumus. Meanwhile, Rome invades, because Cymbeline refuses to pay his tribute to the empire. He defeats the Romans, however he agrees to pay the tribute. He reconciles as well with Imogen and Posthumus. His sons are also restored. Download your free copy of Cymbeline here.

4. Hamlet

Image for Hamlet
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hamlet, The Prince Of Denmark was probably written between 1599 and 1601. Many consider it to be the greatest and most influential works of fiction ever written. When Hamlet’s father, the King of Denmark, suddenly dies, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius becomes king and quickly marries Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. As Hamlet mourns, his father’s ghost appears naming Claudius as his murderer. Hamlet vows revenge but is brought down in the end by his own indecision. Download your free copy of Hamlet here.

5. Julius Caesar

Image for Julius Caesar
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599. Despite its title, Julius Caesar is not primarily about Caesar directly. Instead, the play depicts Brutus’s moral dilemma and eventual downfall when he is persuaded by Cassius to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar. It is in this tragedy that the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech appears. Download your free copy of Julius Caesar here.

6. King Lear

Image for King Lear
Shakespeare’s “King Lear” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest recorded performance of King Lear was in 1606. The play story depicts an aged king of Britain who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. In making his decision, he tests each daughter by asking how much she loves him. The two older daughters, Goneril and Regan flatter the old king, but the youngest, Cordelia, does not. Enraged, Lear banishes Cordelia and divides his kingdom between the older daughters. Once in possession of the kingdom the older two turn on Lear, leaving him to wonder madly in a storm. Cordelia returns with a French army to save her father, but the army is defeated. She and Lear are imprisoned. Cordelia dies tragically in her father’s arms before he too dies as well. Download your free copy of King Lear here.

7. Macbeth

Image for Macbeth
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Macbeth was first performed in 1606. Some believe the play is cursed. As such, they refer to it simply as “The Scottish Play.” In the play, three witches appear to Macbeth and tell him he will become king of Scotland. Filled with ambition and prodded by his wife, he murders King Duncan and takes the throne. Wracked with guilt and paranoia, he becomes a murderous tyrant in an effort to silence other’s suspicions. This causes a civil war, and he is ultimately killed in the end and loses everything. Download your free copy of Macbeth here.

8. Othello

Image for Othello
Shakespeare’s “Othello” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor Of Venice was probably written in 1603. Othello is a Moorish general in the Venetian army. He is married to a beautiful Venetian woman named Desdemona. A jealous and ambitious underling of Othello’s named Iago tricks Othello into believing his wife is unfaithful. In a fit of blind rage, Othello kills Desdemona. When he learns he was tricked, he is filled with remorse. He then kills himself as well. Download your free copy of Othello here.

9. Romeo And Juliet

Image for Romeo And Juliet
Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet Original painting by J. Northcode, R.A., engraved by P. Simon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Romeo And Juliet is a tragedy written early in Shakespeare’s career. It tells the tragic tale of two young star-crossed lovers whose mutual suicide ultimately reconciles two feuding families. Romeo and Juliet was among Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime. It remains popular today and was even the inspiration for the Broadway musical West Side Story. Download your free copy of Romeo And Juliet here.

10. Timon Of Athens

Image for Timon Of Athens
Shakespeare’s Timon Of Athens Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare probably wrote Timon Of Athens in 1606 with Thomas Middleton. It is one of Shakespeare’s least known works. The tragedy depicts a wealthy Athenian named Timon. Despite repeated warnings, he lavishly squanders his fortune on corrupt and parasitic companions and hangers-on. When no one helps after he runs out of money, he rejects mankind and goes to live in a cave. Later, when Athens is attacked, Timon refuses to come to their aid and the city is defeated. Download your free copy of Timon Of Athens here.

11. Titus Andronicus

Image for Titus Andronicus
Scene from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare likely wrote Titus Andronicus between 1588 and 1593 in collaboration with George Peele. Scholars believe it to be the first tragedy Shakespeare ever wrote. Many believe it was his attempt to emulate the popular, violent, and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries. The play tells the fictional story of Titus, a general in the Roman army during the latter days of the Roman Empire. Initially popular, the tragedy’s appeal declined over time due to its prolific graphic violence. Download your free copy of Titus Andronicus here.

12. Troilus And Cressida

Image for Troilus And Cressida
Troilus And Cressida Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Troilus and Cressida was probably written in 1602. The action unfolds during the later years of the Trojan War. It follows the plot line of Homer’s Iliad from Achilles’ refusal to participate in battle, to noble Hector’s death. Additionally, the play recounts the love affair of its title characters inside the besieged city of Troy. The tone of the play swings wildly between bawdy comedy and despair. Its final tone is bleak, ending with the death of Hector and the destruction of the love between Troilus and Cressida. Download your free copy of Troilus And Cressida here.

To download all of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry including his comedies, histories, sonnets, and longer narrative poems, go to my Shakespeare Plays And Poetry page.

If you like this content, please subscribe to be notified about future posts, and don’t forget to check out my YouTube channel as well.

Presenting William Shakespeare

Presenting William Shakespeare Post Image

Welcome to William Shakespeare Off The Shelf, Lessons From the Bard, a voice of clarity for our age of confusion. Here, the Swan of Avon lives on in poetry, art, and study. By learning about Shakespeare, perhaps his insights can help us better understand and navigate our own fractured cultural landscape.

A World In Chaos

Everywhere we look today, the world seems to be coming apart. The very cultural values that define who we are and how we live are under attack. A global disease has many worried about leaving their homes or interacting with others as they used to. Public censorship has ordinary people afraid to ask questions or defend their traditions and beliefs. Increasingly, those who try to speak out are often harassed or even punished. Worse still, our own leaders and institutions lead the charge.

It’s Happened Before

Believe it or not, William Shakespeare lived in a similar age. When the Protestant reformation arrived in England, it made the beliefs and traditions of more than fifty percent of the population illegal over night. Furthermore, it was not a popular revolt but was mandated by a king and his heirs who were more concerned about their own political legitimacy than they were about seeking the truth.

Let Shakespeare Be Your Guide

Such was the world in which William Shakespeare wrote and for that world’s most mistrusted and disreputable platform – the public stage. Today’s equivalent of that public platform is the internet. It therefore seems only fitting to learn what the Bard may have to say about our current cultural upheaval.

William Shakespeare’s Popularity

Although deceased for more than four hundred years, William Shakespeare is more popular today than ever. Countless theatre groups routinely perform his plays around the world. Nearly every traditional English literature course makes his work required reading. Do a simple internet search and you will quickly discover thousands of entries from every conceivable vantage point.

  • For some, William Shakespeare was a wonder, a brilliant playwright, sublime poet, and unassailable master of the English language who, without education, miraculously produced some of the greatest work ever conceived in the English language. Only the Christian Bible compares in scope, influence, and historic significance.
  • Others find a fraud. They see only another dead white male oppressor reflecting the prejudices, superstitions, and elitism of the European colonizers who subjugated, oppressed, and enslaved other races, people of color, religious minorities, and women.
  • Still others see only a phantom. Their Shakespeare could never produce the sophisticated work attributed to him. Someone else must be secretly responsible.
  • Many recast the Bard as an early revolutionary who creatively challenged the social assumptions of his age. How could he object to modern attempts to bend his poetry to contemporary tastes and worthy social justice causes?
  • Finally, some just don’t get it. For them William Shakespeare is only an anachronism. His King James Bible style English is awkward, his rhyme is silly, his wordy dialogue is boring, and his twisted stories are impossible. As I said, they don’t get it.
William Shakespeare Droeshout Portrait
William Shakespeare Portrait Martin Droeshout, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare Without Re-invention

What all these solutions have in common is that they tell us much less about Shakespeare than they do about the biases and objectives of those attempting to use the Bard for their own purposes. Follow me as I re-examine the life and writings of William Shakespeare in light of the culture and controversies surrounding him. Learn what he may still have to teach us about life, civilization, and the human condition.

William Shakespeare Biography

Check out my William Shakespeare Biography page for more about Shakespeare’s remarkable life. Topics include information about his birth, education, and marriage. I also examine the so called “Lost Years,” and explore his success in London. Finally, I discuss his retirement in Stratford, his inevitable death, and his unusual and controversial grave site.

William Shakespeare standing with pen in hand
William Shakespeare with pen in hand

Shakespeare’s Plays And Poetry

For free copies of William Shakespeare’s plays, sonnets, and poetry, go to my Shakespeare Plays And Poetry page. Follow the link in the menu at the top of the page.

My YouTube Channel

If you like this content, my videos are also available on my William Shakespeare Off The Shelf YouTube channel. Have a look and tell me what you think or subscribe to my newsletter to stay informed about future posts.

About Page

Check out my About Me page to learn more about me and why I started this site.

The Real William Shakespeare?

In this post, I present a video with accompanying text asking if Shakespeare really wrote the plays and poetry he is famous for. I also revisit the difficulties frustrating scholar’s attempts to discover who William Shakespeare really was. Finally, I’ll suggest another reason he may have wanted to keep his private life hidden from public view.

YouTube video version of this blog post.

Who Was The Real William Shakespeare?

Much is often made about how little we truly know about William Shakespeare’s life. Scholars lament that we do not know when he was actually born or how he was educated. Neither do we know what his home life was really like. Even more disturbing are the seven missing years before his sudden emergence as an established London playwright and actor in 1592.

Image of Shakespeare with question mark over face
Did Shakespeare Really Write His Plays?

Did The Real William Shakespeare Actually Write Anything?

Scholars cite these information gaps as proof of Shakespeare’s mysterious back story. Some, the anti-Stratfordians, insist the obscure son of a Stratford glover could never have written the 37 plays, 2 narrative poems, and 152 sonnets attributed to him. How, they claim, could such an uneducated commoner from a rural community 100 miles away from London be the real creator of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Other Suggested Authors

Image of Sir Francis Bacon
“Sir Francis Bacon” Drebbel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For these critics only one explanation is possible. The magnificent plays and poetry were not written by William Shakespeare. Someone else must be responsible. The man from Stratford merely agreed to lend his name to another’s work. Proper elitist contenders include Francis Bacon, William De Vere, and even Christopher Marlowe.

Records For The Real William Shakespeare Do Exist

Image of Shakespeare's Baptism Record
Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1558-1776, entry for April 26, 1564 Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK

Still, I would argue Shakespeare’s identity is far more straightforward than it first appears. Given when he lived, the available public records for him and his family are remarkably clear.

It’s true we do not know the specific day he was born. We do, however, have the record of his baptism at the local parish. Public records also exist for his marriage, his children’s baptisms, and key property purchases. Hard information about his parents, siblings, and the life and world in which he lived are also covered.

History’s Best Known Elizabethan Playwright

Image of William Shakespeare book cover by A. L. Rowse
“William Shakespeare” by A. L. Rowse
Available from Amazon Books

Historian, A. L. Rowse, insists we know more about Shakespeare’s early life than we do about any other Elizabethan playwright except, perhaps, for Christopher Marlowe. In contrast, such documentation for Ben Jonson is comparably sparse and largely anecdotal.

Ironically, it’s not Shakespeare’s background information that’s lacking. It’s his time outside the theatre in London. In fact, such speculation tells us more about the intellectual and cultural biases of the researchers than it does about the Bard’s reluctance to reveal his personal story.

Reinventing The Bard

Despite the best efforts of establishment scholars to brand England’s greatest poet as a post-reformation proto-enlightenment visionary or more recent attempts by postmodern social justice scholars to reinvent the Bard as a gay, feminist, anti-colonial, new age, environmentalist hipster, Shakespeare seems resolute in his desire to keep his public and private lives separate.

Image of Shakepeare's Hamlet with knife through the head.
Postmodern “Suicide Hamlet” Image by KlausHaussman from Pixabay

Avoiding Public Scrutiny

Conversely, Ben Jonson’s lifestyle seemed specifically designed for public consumption. Likewise, Christopher Marlowe’s nefarious dealings and unsavory associations led to an early and violent death. By contrast, William Shakespeare avoided public scrutiny of his private life to an extraordinary degree. In fact, we know less about Shakespeare’s life outside the theatre in London than we do about his upbringing in Stratford.

A Catholic Sympathizer In Protestant England

Image of Hadley Meares from Voyagela.com
“Hadley Meares” Image from http://voyagela.com/interview/meet-hadley-meares-hadley-mearess-los-angeles/

Hadley Meares, writing for Biography, suggests that Shakespeare “appears to have kept his professional life in London and his home life as a prosperous landowner in Stratford radically separate.” “This secretive attitude,” she offers, “may have been because much of his family were known Catholic sympathizers and chose to live quietly in Protestant Elizabethan England.”

The Quest For “The Real William Shakespeare”

Shakespeare scholar, Joseph Pierce agrees, claiming:

Much of the mystery surrounding Shakespeare is linked to the age in which he lived. It was an age in which a large and alienated section of the population was considered outlaws by the state. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England it was a criminal offense to practice or propagate the Catholic religion, an offense that, for priests, was punishable by death. It is for this reason that England’s greatest poet remains largely unknown. He is unknown, first of all, because he sought to keep his religious life unknown, as far as possible, from the authorities. He is also unknown because later generations of Englishmen erected a myth in the nation’s likeness, ignoring or smothering the Bard’s “treacherous” popery in the interests of a nationally acceptable patriotic iconography.

Image of Shakespeare biographer Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce Author of The Quest For Shakespeare Image from https://jpearce.co

In other words, suggests Pierce, “[William Shakespeare] became the posthumous victim of “patriotic correctness.”

Shakespeare’s Writing Was “Catholic.”

Certainly not all Shakespeare scholars accept Pearce’s explanation. Still, it does align quite well with my own experience teaching Shakespeare to undergraduates. In lecturing on Hamlet, I discovered numerous Catholic references and symbols that had to be explained to non-Catholic students.

Avoiding Religious Persecution

In the end, we must ask ourselves which explanation makes more sense regarding the missing details of Shakespeare’ s life. Were his plays and poetry really written secretly by another? Perhaps the historical gaps we see are not part of some dark conspiracy after all. Perhaps the Bard intentionally isolated his private life from his professional persona to avoid religious persecution. Given this understanding, William Shakespeare’s life is not that difficult to comprehend.

Hiding In Public View

He avoided public scandal and personal entanglements in order to protect his privacy and that of his family. He left no private correspondence, because such material is dangerous to one who wishes to avoid scrutiny. That he may have taken great pains to remove his personal presence from public view is not remarkable. That he was able to do so as a popular figure living literally in front of an audience certainly is.

Image of Elizabethan actors on sttage before an audience.
Imaginary View of an Elizabethan Stage C. Walter Hodges, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you like this content, check out my YouTube channel or subscribe to my newsletter to stay informed about future posts. For more on Shakespeare’s life, have a look at my William Shakespeare Biography page.

References Cited:

Pearce, J. (2016, August 12). Shakespeare: A Life Clouded in Mystery. The Imaginative Conservative. https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/08/shakespeare-life-clouded-mystery.html
Meares, H. (2021, February 6). Why is William Shakespeare’s Life Considered a Mystery? Biography. https://www.biography.com/news/william-shakespeare-life-mystery
Rowse, A. L. (1994). Shakespeare’s supposed `lost’ years. Contemporary Review, 264(1537), 94. https://ezproxy.sckans.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=9410214103&site=eds-live&scope=site

The Bard Without Revisionism

Video originally posted on my YouTube channel.

In the just over four hundred years since the Bard of Avon’s passing on April 23, 1616, William Shakespeare’s popularity has only continued to grow. With the rise of the Internet, his myth, once confined predominantly to the English-speaking world and those societies most deeply impacted by European culture, now extends to acolytes around the world.

Image of Cook County Jail "Othello" rap performance
“Othello” rap performance at Cook County Jail https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2407032/Hip-hop-adaptation-Shakespeares-Othello-performed-prison.html#v-2637681092001

An interesting example of this is the “Bard Behind Bars” movement. This program, and others like, brings Shakespeare to prison inmates around the world. This image, for example, is from a rap version of Othello performed at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois. Some prisons even mount fully staged productions acted by the prisoners themselves.

Re-imagining The Bard

Ironically…

While a general appreciation of the Bard’s unique talents continues to grow beyond the ivy-covered walls of academia, an ever-widening gap exists between traditional scholars and an increasingly postmodern culture. Despite their enthusiasm, these new fans often myopically pass over Shakespeare’s deeper insights trying to modernize his writing. He is recast as an apologist for ideas that bear little resemblance to his more complex view of human nature.

Image of George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, Nobel laureate in Literature 1925 Nobel Foundation,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Bernard_Shaw_1925.jpg

To remedy this situation, I suggest we, as Shakespeare scholars, step away somewhat from a tendency among some towards what George Bernard once sneeringly called “Bardolatry.” Such uncritical worship and an overly literary approach to Shakespeare’s writing is the problem. Culture and historical context still matter.

The Bard of Avon: A Man Of The Theatre

We must remember when approaching the Bard that William Shakespeare was not a man of letters. He was a man of the theatre with the unique perspective and qualities that art form engenders.

William Shakespeare was a largely self-educated commoner. Though literate, he had only a modest grammar school education through his father’s standing as a local public official. He learned his craft on the public stages of Elizabethan London. In the Hurley-burly atmosphere of that unique community, he undoubtedly copied the better educated writers of his day while honing his observation, mimicry, and oratory skills as an actor.

Image of Shakesperean stage performance
Shakespeare Stage, Image by David Mark from Pixabay

As Philip Howard reminds us in the London Times article, “Antidotes to Bardolatry:”

The Shakespearean repertory system was as frantic as producing a weekly color mag (or a daily TV soap opera).​ They mounted a different play every afternoon, six days a week, staging as many as 30 different plays a year, many of them continuously updated, improved and improvised, and they never repeated even the most popular play more than four or five times in one month.​ The actors (and the playwrights) had far less time for rehearsal, perfectionism, and prima-donnaism than their modern successors.

To fully appreciate what Shakespeare really accomplished, we must always bear in mind:

  • that theatre, at its core, is a collaborative and pragmatic art,
  • that play scripts, whatever their literary value, are primarily vehicles for live collaborative story-telling, and…​
  • that even his sonnets and other poetry, likely written as alternative sources of income during periods when the theaters were closed due to plague or political unrest, derived, at least in part, from lessons learned in writing for the stage.

Poetry For The Stage And Page

This does not in any way minimize the legitimate literary value of Shakespeare’s contemporaries or of the Bard himself. The poetry of the stage serves a quite different purpose than that created primarily for the page.

While literary poetry seeks to build an emotional connection between the poet and the reader directly through the mental imagery painted by the words themselves, poetry for the stage uses the music of dramatic language, rhyme, and meter to enhance the immersive visual imagery playing out live before an audience. It also provided direct mnemonic assistance to the performers themselves in retaining the vast amounts of material they were expected to have committed to memory for recall at any given time.

Image of Native American flute player
Native American Flute Player, Image by cstibi from Pixabay

It is no accident that cultures with a strong oral tradition frequently preserve their history in metered rhyme. It is also likely that the players of Shakespeare’s day embraced the poetic for similar reasons. Shakespeare, likewise, simply learned to master the tools at his disposal to their greatest effect.

In the end, the Bard of Avon is not so fragile that he can never be challenged. Neither does he need excessive modernizing or some witty re-imagining to make him comprehensible or meaningful to modern “woke” audiences. He speaks as he speaks, presenting humanity as he found it in his own day and as it continues to exist today. He truly wrote, as Ben Jonson assures us, “… not for an age, but for all time.”

Bust of William Shakespeare from the Folger Shakespeare library.

Check out my William Shakespeare Biography page for more on his unique life and surroundings.

Reference Used:

Howard, P. (1990). Antidotes to bardolatry. The Times (London, England).

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