History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

How Shakespeare rewrote history

Shakespeare's history plays were influenced every bit as much by contemporary events as episodes from the past. Jerry Brotton reveals how eight of Shakespeare's works reflected political crises of the day – much to the ire of Queen Elizabeth's censors...

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Published: April 9, 2016 at 1:44 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Henry VI, Part 1

England bleeds again

The military reversals dramatised in Henry VI, Part 1 would have been all too familiar to Shakespeare’s audience

In the early 1590s an exciting young playwright called William Shakespeare burst onto the Elizabethan theatre scene with three popular plays about the Lancastrian king Henry VI (1421–71) and the civil discord that eventually culminated in the accession of the Yorkist Richard III in 1483. The cycle catalogues the young king’s weakness and how, as Shakespeare wrote later in Henry V, “so many had the managing” of his state that “they lost France and made his England bleed”.

The action in Henry VI, Part 1 is driven by the wars in France and the contrast between the heroic Lord John Talbot (c1387–1453) and the French warrior Jeanne la Pucelle, known in Britain as Joan of Arc (1412–31). They fight over various French cities, including Rouen, which changed hands in 1418–19.

In the play, the English soldiers “sit before the walls of Rouen”. That historical siege displayed direct parallels with events that were taking place as Shakespeare wrote his play. In 1589 Elizabeth sent an army to France to oppose the Catholic League and support the Huguenot king Henry IV. During the winter of 1591–92 the English forces besieged Rouen, but political confusion, military mismanagement and disease led to the abandonment of the siege, with huge loss of English life and disillusionment with the whole campaign. No wonder the three parts of Henry VI were so successful: they were effectively military and political reportage of current events, as well as broader reflections on pre-Tudor English history.

Richard II

Scripting sedition

Was Shakespeare’s Richard II a thinly veiled swipe at the ageing Queen Elizabeth?

In 1595 Shakespeare began work on a second tetralogy of English history plays covering a period even earlier than his previous series. His new cycle began with Richard II (1367–1400), and ended in 1420, five years after Henry V’s triumph at the battle of Agincourt.

Today Richard II is often performed as the tragedy of the downfall of a querulous poet-king who belatedly discovers his humanity after his deposition at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV. But in the mid-1590s it engaged in a politically dangerous debate on the rights and wrongs of overthrowing a legitimate monarch. As Bolingbroke prepares to depose Richard, the bishop of Carlisle asks: “What subject can give sentence on his king?”

When the play was first printed in 1597 the climactic deposition scene was missing, suggesting that Elizabeth’s censors deemed it too provocative. Inviting parallels between the weak Richard and the elderly Elizabeth in the 1590s was certainly dangerous. Others, such as the historian John Hayward, were arrested for comparing Elizabeth’s former favourite Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to Henry IV. On the eve of Essex’s rebellion against the queen, his supporters paid Shakespeare’s company to perform a play about Richard II at the Globe Theatre, to show the righteousness of deposing a monarch like Richard – for example, Elizabeth. Though the performance did not have the desired effect of inciting rebellion, a subsequent anecdote claimed that Elizabeth knew exactly how her enemies saw her, saying: “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

The Merchant of Venice

Jews in the firing line

The Merchant of Venice mirrors the dark fate of Elizabeth’s personal physician

Written around 1596, The Merchant of Venice remains one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. Modern audiences understand it as being about Shylock, a Jewish moneylender living in Venice, though its title actually refers to his Christian adversary, the Venetian merchant Antonio. It is called a comedy but revels in attacking Jews, with Shylock pursuing the murderous settlement of a bond that enables him to take a “pound of flesh” from Antonio’s body.

Shakespeare’s interest in Shylock might seem odd, considering that Jews had been officially expelled from England in 1290 and were only readmitted under Cromwell in 1656.

Yet a small number of Jews did live in Elizabethan London, inspiring several plays that influenced Shakespeare, including Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589–90).

But Shakespeare probably knew more about Jews from England’s trade with Morocco, conducted almost exclusively through Jewish intermediaries. Perhaps the greatest influence on the play was the public execution in 1594 of Elizabeth I’s personal physician, Dr Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese-born Jewish convert to Protestantism, convicted of treason for allegedly trying to poison the queen. Before he was executed, it was reported that he said “he loved the queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ; which coming from a man of the Jewish profession moved no small laughter in the standers-by”.

The cruel but uneasy laughter that accompanied Lopez’s death permeates Shakespeare’s play. Shylock calls his bond with Antonio “a merry sport”, and though his famous speech “Hath not a Jew eyes?” inspires sympathy, its conclusion is somewhat darker:

“If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute.” Perhaps the Christians are more of a problem than the Jews.

Henry V

The disgrace of Essex

Henry V was written at a time when another, less accomplished military leader floundered in Ireland

Shakespeare’s second tetralogy ended with Henry V – and also nearly got him into hot water, again involving the troublesome Earl of Essex. The play dramatises the reign of Henry V (1386–1422), depicting his victories at the siege of Harfleur and battle of Agincourt in 1415, and his famous rallying cry of “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” But at the time it was written, in late 1599, the aged Queen Elizabeth was under pressure to name a successor, and struggling with rebellion in Ireland. In spring 1599 she sent the Earl of Essex to defeat the Irish. The campaign was a disaster, and the disgraced Essex returned to London. Arrested in September 1599, he was executed after a botched uprising in 1601.

In Henry V’s penultimate Chorus speech, probably written as London awaited news of Essex’s Irish campaign, Shakespeare made his only reference to contemporary political events, comparing Henry V to Essex, “the general of our gracious empress”, “from Ireland coming”, and bringing “rebellion broached on his sword”. Was this an endorsement of Essex and a criticism of Elizabeth? We may never know because the rebellion failed. But writing a play about a virile young monarch when Essex was challenging the authority of an elderly queen was certainly a risky move.


Fear of the Moors

Was Othello modelled on a Moroccan ambassador to the English court?

Subtitled ‘The Moor of Venice’, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest high tragedies, written either just before or after Queen Elizabeth’s death and King James VI and I’s accession in 1603. The play contained highly topical resonances for its English audience. ‘Moors’ came from Mauretania (as Iago says), in what’s now Morocco, and inspired both racial and religious anxieties for Elizabethans.

The region was predominantly Muslim, under the control of the Sa’adian dynasty. Elizabeth allied herself with Morocco, establishing the Barbary Company to trade English munitions for sugar (which wreaked such havoc on her teeth). In the summer of 1600 the Moroccan ambassador Muhammad al-Annuri and his retinue arrived in London and stayed for six months, negotiating treaties with Elizabeth. Al-Annuri, rumoured to be a Morisco (a Spanish-born Muslim forced to convert to Christianity, but who in this case then reverted) even had his portrait painted.

Was al-Annuri the model for Othello? Shakespeare’s Othello describes himself in ambiguous terms, speaking “Of being taken by the insolent foe”, which we assume to be the Ottomans, and then of being “sold to slavery”; his “redemption thence” suggests his conversion to Christianity. But by the end of the play, after killing Desdemona, he compares himself to “a malignant and a turbaned Turk”. His identity is clearly far more complex than that of being simply ‘black’, and suggests how conflicted the Elizabethans felt about the Muslim world.


A war on Catholics

Macbeth reflected the paranoia of London in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot

The ‘Scottish play’ is perhaps Shakespeare’s most topical. James VI of Scotland’s accession to the English throne led Shakespeare to consult the historian Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587). He rewrote Holinshed’s story of Macbeth’s murder of Scottish king Duncan and the role of the witches in his downfall, while celebrating the importance of Banquo, from whom it was believed James was descended.

The king had written a book about his belief in witchcraft, called Daemonologie (1597), so he was probably delighted to watch a play showing “weird” witches that “trade and traffic with Macbeth / In riddles and affairs of death”.

But Shakespeare also exploited London’s tense atmosphere following the unsuccessful gunpowder plot of November 1605. One of the executed conspirators was the Jesuit father Henry Garnet, who had written a book on equivocation, directing Catholics to give misleading or ambiguous answers if arrested by the Protestant authorities. Many regarded equivocation as a sign of Catholicism’s duplicity.

It’s an idea that suffuses Shakespeare’s play. Macbeth condemns the witches as spirits who “palter [equivocate] with us in a double sense”. Immediately after Duncan’s murder the porter answers the knocking at the castle’s gates by saying: “Here’s an equivocator,” someone “who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.” This alludes to Garnet’s presumed failure to argue his way into heaven.

The Tempest

Brave new world

The Tempest may have been inspired by English forays to the Americas

Written in late 1610 or 1611, The Tempest is often regarded as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, in which he announces “now my charms are all o’erthrown”. It is a strange, unclassifiable play about Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan (seen as Shakespeare’s self-portrait) who, set adrift on a boat, finds his way to an island where he uses magic to engineer the marriage of his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand, heir to the kingdom of Naples.

The play’s ethereal atmosphere belies its acute political contexts. There is a colonial dimension to Prospero’s relations with the island’s compliant Ariel, who begs for “freedom”, and with the rebellious Caliban, whom Prospero calls “this thing of darkness

I acknowledge mine”. The colonial element seems to have been inspired by pamphlets written in 1610 describing an English fleet shipwrecked in Bermuda – Ariel’s ‘still-vexed Bermudas’ – en route to the fledgling Jamestown colony in Virginia. This suggests that the play is set in what it calls the “brave new world” of the Americas.

In 1613 the play was performed as part of royal celebrations for the eagerly anticipated marriage of King James’s daughter Elizabeth to the Protestant Frederick, the Elector Palatine. The Tempest also contains a masque that Prospero calls a “contract of true love to celebrate” Miranda and Ferdinand’s nuptials.

Though not necessarily written for the marriage, the play seems to reflect the belief that dynastic marriages could establish peace and security within Europe. It was a forlorn hope: in under a decade, Shakespeare was dead and the Palatinate dispute led to the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War.


Death before starvation

Class conflict looms large in the tale of the Roman warrior Coriolanus

The central character of Shakespeare’s last Roman play, usually dated 1608, is the semi-mythic Roman general Caius Martius, who took the name Coriolanus after his siege of the Volscian city of Corioli. Coriolanus is a warrior who tries and fails to forge a political career, and is banished from Rome.

Shakespeare took his story from the Greek historian Plutarch, but deviated from his source to write a play obsessed with food, starvation, blood and bodies. The reasons for this were closer to home than ancient Rome. In spring 1607, with rocketing corn prices, the fear of famine and the escalating enclosure of common land, more than 5,000 protestors rioted across the Midlands, including Shakespeare’s home county, Warwickshire.

King James brutally crushed the rebellion, hanging its ringleaders, but the Midlands Rising – just one of the more significant rural rebellions throughout the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period – exposed a faultline running throughout English society that found its expression in Coriolanus. The first act opens with mutinous armed citizens “resolved rather to die than to famish”. When the patricians enter, the citizens protest they “ne’er cared for us yet; suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain”.

One of the senators tries to calm the citizens with the famous ‘belly fable’, arguing that all parts of the body need to work together. When Coriolanus enters he condemns the rebels as “fragments” of uneaten food.

Such class conflict would only intensify throughout the Jacobean and Caroline period, and came to define the battles between royalists and republicans in the 1640s.


Jerry Brotton is the author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, which is published by Allen Lane in March.


Sponsored content