978-0-670-86319-8 / 9780670863198

Shakespeare's Kings





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About the book:

If Shakespeare's complicated portrayal of the teeming womb of royal kings (Richard II) of England in his history plays has always confused you, then John Julius Norwich's Shakespeare's Kings is one solution to your problems. Recalling watching Henry IV as a young boy, Norwich remembers asking, where did history stop and drama begin? It is this question that Shakespeare's Kings seeks to answer, as it chronicles the historical events of the reigns of the monarchs of England dramatised in Shakespeare's plays. Beginning with Edward III, Norwich details the turbulent reign of Richard II, the rise of Henry IV and the triumphs of Henry V, the disastrous reign of Henry VI, the Wars of the Roses, the evil of Richard III and the painful birth of the Tudor monarchy.

Norwich sheds interesting light on what Shakespeare did with his sources (particularly Holinshed), as he provides chapters that detail the history of a particular monarch, which is then tested against Shakespeare's play of that particular king. This throws up some interesting points, such as the fact that the great nationalist John of Gaunt in Richard II was actually a deeply unpopular, patrician figure. The book also contains some wonderful illustrations and excellent tables of family trees, maps and an appendix that offers the entirety of Edward III, only recently (and still controversially) accepted into the canon by Shakespeare scholars.

However, the general reader should also treat Norwich's claim to historical objectivity with some caution. Shakespeare's Kings is almost completely ignorant of recent critical and historical studies of either Shakespeare or historical studies of the monarchs under consideration. Norwich claims that Shakespeare would never have claimed historical accuracy--and to establish just how close to it he came has been one of the principal purposes of this book--but then he was not an historian; he was a dramatist. But this obscures the extent to which history and fiction are invariably entwined and nowhere more so than in Shakespeare. But there's the rub. --Jerry Brotton

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