Histories As Fiction

I never really got into the histories, during high school Shakespeare.  We read a selection of histories – I remember Richard II, and at least some of the Henry’s.  I don’t remember much about Falstaff.  I remember Richard II being a big deal because of the poetry. You know what I think the problem was?  Maybe it’s a high school curriculum thing, but we were taught the *history* first.  Like, “Here’s what was going on that Shakespeare was trying to write about … and here’s what Shakespeare wrote.” Snore. I know what I love about this stuff, and it’s the exact opposite of that.  Give me Prospero over Henry IV (that is, an entirely fictional construct over a historical one) any day.  I love talking about whether Gertrude had a thing going with Claudius before the play, and what Hamlet’s relationship was to his dad, and any other number of questions that Shakespeare never answered but yet go toward the bigger purpose of making the characters real.  Ironic, then, that I could care less if you start the lesson by saying, “Ok, this character here was actually a real person.” I will take the opportunity to note that “Julius Caesar” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” had a special place for me, because I was also a Latin geek.  I was all about the ancient history.  It was the history of England that I hated.   Anyway, here’s my big idea.  What if you took all that “here’s how the stories map to real history” stuff and just chucked it out the window?  Treat the histories like they’re entirely fiction, stuff that Shakespeare just made up out of his brilliant head.  A very large epic, like a Robert Jordan Wheel of Time sort of thing.  Just play after play that all sort of ties together, with a couple of overlapping characters. I know that there are history buffs that would *hate* that.  They’re the ones that are the exact opposite of me, they want to know every last detail about the political landscape when Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, where he snuck in the satirical bits and what he was trying to say.  That’s huge to them.  Heck, there’s an entire society out in the world dedicated to shedding the image of Richard III as a bad guy. But that’s not me.  I prefer fiction.  Let me read the story front to back, get into it, appreciate the characters for who they are, and *then* tell me, “This is based on true stories.”  Then you’ll have my attention.  But to do it the other way, and give me the boring *real* people first?  And then the Shakespeare creations?  Mistake.

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7 thoughts on “Histories As Fiction

  1. I see perhaps 1 major flaw in your plan: All of Shakespeare's plays are based off of something, be it The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, or Livy. Hamlet itself is just as much 'A True Story' as Richard II.

    But I agree. There is a common fiction that only the Histories need their source matter discussed.

    I personally find the ways in which Shakespeare uses his source material to be some of the most interesting things about his work. So, I would suggest that instead of saying lets think about Shakespeare's Histories as fiction, say: "Let's not think about the any of Shakespeare's source material if we aren't going to look at it all."

  2. Duane, I did not mean to suggest that we should try to think about why Shakespeare altered the source material the way he did but rather that interesting questions arise from looking at it. Rather than thinking we should ask, "Why did he conflate the characters of Richard II's first and second wife into one character?" asking "What does it mean that Narrator's speeches in Henry V are not completely consistent with Henry's actions?"

    The first question is unanswerable because after all, The Author is Dead. The second leads to very interesting interpretations as to the character of Henry V.

    And even in plays where the plot is not taken directly from another source, characters and themes most definitely are. "What then is accomplished by taking Archetypal characters from the Commedia dell'arte into such a strict form as one of Shakespeare's plays?"

    A character which is usually portrayed in the freedom of an improve form is now forced not only into a play with a definite script but also given speeches in verse.

    Shakespeare's audience, parts of it at least, would be able to see that when Hamlet says that his mother followed his father's body like Niobe (a character from Ovid's Metamorphoses) but has now remarried, it does not just mean that she got over his death quickly, but that when she mourned his death, it seemed like her grief would last forever and that the tears would never again run dry. This allows us to feel the betrayal more quickly.

    While this is not necessary to appreciating a play, in order to study it and these are the types of materials which need to be delved into to understand the nuance of Shakespeare's work.

  3. I think it's an "almost all", Monica. I was under the impression that Midsummer and Tempest were original creations (somebody tell me if I'm wrong — and a story about a shipwreck in general does not count as source material for a story about wizards, faeries and sea monsters :)).

    Do we ever really know to what extent Shakespeare was copying from source materials? If somebody these days writes a story about coming from a hard life and having a happy ending, people call it a Cinderella story — but I wouldn't necessarily make the same source material argument.

    I tried to make the point about the difference between studying the end result of Shakespeare's work, and studying how Shakespeare worked, if that makes sense. I ask, "What did Hamlet think?" rather than "Why did Shakespeare have Hamlet say that?" They are both interesting, but if I had to pick one I much prefer the former.

    Maybe my approach wouldn't work for everybody. I see a tremendous difference between "Look what Shakespeare made…and by the way this was a real person" and "Ok, so, there was this real person, and here's what Shakespeare had to say about him." We can, as you say, always acknowledge a token "Yes the story was out there for Shakespeare to build upon" without cracking open our history books and saying "In Denmark in the year 1213 there was this king who was killed by his brother, stealing the throne from the son who was the rightful heir … "

  4. Interesting, the relationship between 'history' and the 'Shakespeare Industry' you mentioned in the previous post. Academia has made an 'industry' of their version of what history is important and how it's been taught when it comes to Shakespeare. Only they have been allowed to make the rules. As a result, very little interest is generated. Although I believe history to be vitally important if we're to learn from both example and our mistakes, I'm forced to think from experience that the approach is everything.

    Certainly there has to be some sort of 'prep' when it comes to the material.
    Even in fiction there is history–literary and actual. I find it a tad more difficult to work with students who know nothing at all about AMND, when that play and its characters are the particular tool I happen to be using in my instruction on 'Shakespeare'.To get the full measure of the comedy, even 1st-6th graders will have to know who Pyramus and Thisbe are, and that Shakespeare was relating to his own work in R&J in the parody. And they DO get it–if it's presented and explained within the context of the work itself. And it's a whole lot more more fun that way. It's MY job to get it across, no matter the circumstances. The onus on learning becomes first an onus on teaching it so that it may be learned.

    Again, as I've said many times before, approach, approach, approach. It's in the Doing. It shouldn't be dumped on them as a bunch of dates and geography in high school. It should be interwoven into the instruction bit by bit–and much much earlier on. But that can only happen in a theatre-based (not strictly academic) approach.

  5. I think there's a difference between understanding history for reference purposes – like the Pyramus/Thisbe thine, or the Niobe thing – and "Shakespeare is telling us his version of this other, true, story."
    How many times in daily life will you see a movie, or even be in conversation, and somebody makes a reference to another story that you're unfamiliar with? It's not the end of the world. The easy example that keeps coming to mind is that song from a couple years back that included the line "Shake it like a Polaroid picture." Plenty of kids are going to have no idea what that means. But I'm willing to bet that nowhere in the liner notes does it say "See, kids, before digital cameras there was this company that specialized in a photo that developed itself while you waited, only the thing is you had to shake it. Get it?"

    Likewise, the ending of Midsummer is still hysterical without knowing who Pyramus and Thisbe really are. Trust me, my 5yr old has no idea, and she laughed. Did she get the full measure of it? Of course not. But couldn't I equally say that you don't get the full measure of Macbeth unless you know that King James believed in ghosts? And wouldn't that mean that the vast majority of audience goers aren't getting it?

    When it comes to education I've always favored an approach that allows students to dig where they want to dig, because everybody will dig differently. That was something of my original premise – some kids, like me, will be fascinated with the story alone and could care less about the context. Others will feel the exact opposite. So, and I think this is what JM means by approach, you have to find what works for your audience. I was just leaning more heavily on the idea that my "let it be a story first" approach is not typically what you'd see, and maybe we should.

  6. A few days before Christmas, I did a full day Shakespeare presentation at an elementary school for grades 3-5. As part of the format my assistant and I did an excerpt from R&J as Romeo & Juliet, something along the lines of how it might have been done in all seriousness. (Although they were supposed to have been made aware of the basic "story" of Midsummer before that day, the huge blizzard we had disallowed the possibility.) Then the relationship between R&J/Pyramus & Thisbe, and "bad acting" techniques of the Mechanicals was able to be brought out into full view, with the emphasis on the importance of words, how Shakespeare used them, and how we can use them.
    Duane, I'm not saying that the story can't be appreciated otherwise. But sooner or later, there will be a demand for them to dwell on the particulars. If they're already familiar with some of them, the experience might not be such an immediate turn-off, having experienced them in another, more "user-friendly" context. Instead of being threatening, it can become a hook for further interest. Ultimately, I agree; let the performance (if IT has been informed) stand on its own. But I don't think it's possible to let students delve where they will–they won't. Some impetus has to be provided. If no one knows what the heck a "Muse" might be, "O for a Muse of Fire", means nothing, when in the context of the Prologue, it means everything. But again, I agree that too much has been made of the "specialities" of individual academics. It's the reason, I believe, for your complaint, and it's well-taken.

    My Maxim:"Keep it 'more simple than that', but not 'stupid-simple'–stupid." 🙂

  7. If you only treat the histories as fiction, I'm afraid it's difficult to follow their basic story line (and who's a Lancastrian, who's a Yorkist etc).

    The histories really came alive for me only after reading Saccio's Shakespeare's English Kings, which by the way is such a fun book to read in itself.

    I WISH that my high school teachers had bothered to present Plantagenet history, but I suppose they were somewhat understandably intimidated…

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