I have a colleague and friend in Zagreb who only ever reads factual books. He says that as a successful historian he doesn’t have time to read fiction. To be fair, he is a much more successful historian in Croatia than I am, so maybe he has a point, but for me fiction is a brilliant way of enriching the historical story. For others, history is first accessed through fictionalised and dramatic accounts – some of which are most famously written by William Shakespeare.
In the month that marks 400 years since the death of Shakespeare, I’m taking a look at the connection between literature and history and how Shakespeare’s works tell us as much about how history was perceived and used at the time as they do about historical events.
The life and legacy
While his works are world-renowned, relatively little is actually known about the scriptwriter himself. We can surmise that he was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, around April 1564, and married the English poet, playwright and actor, Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children.
He later travelled to London to seek fame fortune and it is there that he wrote 37 plays. Unable to resist the charms of his home town, he left the bustling London life and retired back to Stratford in 1613.
Although there is some debate and speculation among literature experts over whether this British great actually put pen (or quill) to paper to write his works, it is undisputable that the plays and fictionalised accounts have helped to tell a number of historical events and left a lasting legacy.
‘Band of brothers’
Last year marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and I was involved with some of the key activities around Agincourt 600, working with some of the leading historians of the medieval period. Yet, if you say Agincourt to most people they will not quote an historian, instead they will quote a line from Shakespeare’s play Henry V.
For me, and I imagine any visitor to the battlefield of Agincourt, the famous soliloquy on his ‘band of brothers’ is bouncing around my head, as are the words of the historian analysing the impact of the long bow on the battle.
Swap a kingdom for a horse
Before King Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets whose bones were recently found under a Leicester car park, most people only knew about him because of his desire to ‘swap a kingdom for a horse’ or because he may have killed his nephews in the Tower of London.
Richard was both famous and notorious because of Shakespeare’s portrayal of him. Whether the portrayal is accurate is open to question, but it is certainly the ‘Shakespeare view’ of him that is known more than any other.
Keeping history alive
For me, Shakespeare is the leader in helping to keep the medieval and early Tudor period alive – his versions of history help to keep the debate of truth and representation in history present in our minds.
Even in his comedies and tragedies he is revealing attitudes and ideas of the period in which he lived, helping us to understand the past. His words and characters have introduced generations to the lives and thoughts of people from the past. The history plays tell us as much about how history was perceived and used at the time as they do about historical events.
So on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, as actors and playwrights remember him, I think us historians should raise a glass as well. If only so that we can then dispute his historical accuracy with the next person who wants to quote ‘Once more into the breach’ at Agincourt when that line refers to the Siege of Harfleur!