Where did Shakespeare obtain material for his English history plays? The obvious answer would be to say that he drew on the second edition of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587), a massive work numbering no fewer than 3,500,000 words that gave rise to more Renaissance plays than any other book, ancient or modern.
However, there are two problems with this answer. First, Shakespeare, a keen and voracious reader, always supplemented what he found in Holinshed with tidbits from other sources, among them poems, ballads, plays, popular pamphlets, and so on. Secondly, the Chronicles were themselves a mélange of earlier writings compiled at various times and by various hands, and as such very different from what we imagine a history book to be. Whereas we expect a reliable, coherent, and unbiased account of the past, the Chronicles were anything but. They told stories of giants and mythic rulers of Britain descended from ancient Trojans. Divided by religion and nationality, their authors included Protestants (both radical and conformist) and Catholics (both overt and covert); Englishmen, Scots and Irishmen. These men’s competing agendas reflected in a multiplicity of voices, styles, and viewpoints inevitably gave rise to tensions and contradictions. Think of the hysterically anti-Catholic passage describing in gory detail the execution of the so-called Babington plotters condemned in 1586 for conspiring to topple Queen Elizabeth in favour of the Catholic Mary Stuart. This passage was in fact censored by the government for fear it might alienate public opinion, something worth bearing mind when considering how Shakespeare’s King John treats the eponymous king’s conflict with the pope and his poisoning by a Catholic monk – events recounted with less anti-Catholic animus elsewhere in the Chronicles.
Moreover, conventions of history writing in Shakespeare’s time not only permitted but positively dictated that chroniclers invent speeches for major historical figures. Thus in the Chronicles we find Henry V’s rousing oration to his troops before the battle of Agincourt – “I would not wish a man more here than I have …” – which Shakespeare adapted in his Henry V. Nor was there anything odd about chronicles recycling other texts. For instance, the longest section of the Chronicles devoted to Elizabeth’s reign reprinted in full the text of an old pamphlet describing the queen’s procession through London on the eve of her coronation in January 1559, when she had been regaled with several colourful pageants or shows specially devised for the occasion. “Garnished with red roses and white,” the first pageant represented “The uniting of the two houses of Lancaster and York” in the persons of Elizabeth’s grandparents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, as well as portraying her parents Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and the queen herself. Clearly, Elizabeth was being urged to marry and secure the succession.
Shakespeare’s 1-3 Henry VI dramatized the Wars of the Roses, and his Richard III culminated with their auspicious resolution: “We will unite the white rose and the red, / Smile heaven upon this faire conjunction.” Leafing through the Chronicles in search of suitable material, therefore, Shakespeare would have come across not just the blow-by-blow narrative of fifteenth-century civil strife terminated by the union of Lancaster and York but also the description of the early Elizabethan pageant, so hopeful that the English royal line would endure. After the victory at Bosworth, Shakespeare’s Richmond (the future Henry VII) prays for his line’s continuance:
O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By Gods fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs (God if thy will be so)
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace…
To Richard III’s original audience these lines would have rung distinctly hollow, for Elizabeth had never married and the Tudor line was set to die with her. Then again, at least some spectators might have taken comfort in the fact that there was a direct descendant of “Richmond and Elizabeth,” their great-great grandson James VI of Scotland. However, Shakespeare was careful merely to hint at the sensitive issue of the succession without openly declaring his hand.
It was once assumed that Shakespeare improved on his shoddy, inchoate, and stylistically inferior chronicle sources or that he was a better historian than contemporary historians. We now know this is not quite true. Holinshed’s Chronicles were complex, multi-layered, and highly rhetorical. Besides, in acknowledging the diversity, uncertainty, and conflicting nature of the records on which they themselves drew, they compelled the reader to exercise critical judgment and remain on the alert to possible ulterior motives behind the conduct of monarchs, magnates, clerics, and parliaments.
Students of Shakespeare typically encounter only desiccated chunks of the Chronicles reproduced in modern editions of his plays. But why not see for yourself? The full text of Holinshed’s Chronicles can be accessed on the Holinshed Project website. At the click of the mouse, this electronic edition enables you to encounter first-hand the key source behind not just Shakespeare’s history plays but also two of his major tragedies, Macbeth and Lear, as well as the romantic Cymbeline. Sampling the richness and variety of Holinshed, you can begin to imagine how Shakespeare might have felt when he read it.
Featured image credit: Page banner illustration from page 3 of The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Holinshed, 1587, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons