From Confusion to Rage

Why Are the History Plays So Hard?!

There is little doubt that the Henriad is much better than the Henry VI plays. There’s little doubt that pretty much all of the history plays are better than the Henry Vi plays. Despite being well-written and largely entertaining, they can still be quite difficult to work through. Why? Well, I have a few theories. First, let’s just admit that they can be a little dry compared to the comedies or tragedies. Second, it is significantly easier to get caught up in the small details. Thirdly, there are so many different names for one person or so many different people with the same name. Finally, reading the history plays as someone who is unfamiliar with the full historical context can be a challenge. Any one of these factors can make studying a history play a challenge. Put them all together and it can almost be prohibitive. It’s helpful to better understand these challenges, so we can combat them for young students.

Let’s be honest…the history plays can be a little dry

Don’t get me wrong, Shakespeare could write a user manual and still make it compelling. However, condensing years of complex events into a single  play necessitates presenting the most crucial facts as quickly as possible. When it comes to history, speeding up the action doesn’t mean it will be action-packed. Explaining the context as fully as possible requires a lot of conversations about what did happen, what is happening, and what is going to happen. Shockingly, those are not always the most interesting conversations. On top of that, characters can change their positions mid-conversation, making their change of hearts seem sudden and even confusing. In order to enjoy the powerful soliloquies and intriguing story arcs, we have to sift through a lot of exposition along the way. Exposition, even Shakespearean exposition, tends to be a little more on the boring side.

Shakespeare himself seemed to acknowledge that the required exposition might make the play a tad dull, so he throws in random characters for the sake of hilarity. These characters may be great (Falstaff) or give us iconic lines (first, let’s kill all the lawyers), but it doesn’t make their presence any less jarring. These inserted characters and scenes are like a fun treat for making it through the boring history stuff. “Congrats, you made it through the battle planning scene. Now check out this crazy servant who just can’t seem to understand English!” It can be distracting in both good and bad ways. On the one hand they are entertaining, but can be distracting to the reader or audience member who is already trying to figure out what is going on. “Oh Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are being arrested for murder now…cool,”

All those little details!

I am a big believer that you don’t need to understand every. single. word. to understand what is happening. Letting the words flow over you is a much more rewarding experience. The beauty of Shakespeare is that he tends to be repetitive, so it’s unlikely that you’ll miss an important plot point. Not only that, but by not focusing on each word, it can be easier to catch the most beautiful parts of Shakespeare’s language. However…the history plays are jam packed with facts and people that those little details can actually really matter. I find myself having to refer to things like SparkNotes or Cliff Notes to fully understand what is being said. For example, the Archbishop of York was listing his grievances and mentioned the death of a brother (but in a really confusing way). That brother was Scroop, one of the “caterpillars” in Richard II. I’m not even 100% sure Scroop actually said anything in Richard II, that’s how forgettable he is. But, if you want to understand why the Archbishop of York is so angry, you need to know that.

People, places, and events are dropped during conversation at a bewildering speed. The fast pace can make it easy to pause and go “wait…what?” Meanwhile, the conversation is still going on and you missed it while trying to figure out what the heck they are talking about. Maybe it’s just the history nerd in me that gets caught up in all the details, wanting to know the full context, but it is so easy to get caught up in all those details. I want to know where they are and where they’re marching and many more specific details. The history plays require a large cast of characters. It’s a lot of names to keep track of and…

Everyone is named the same!

A single person will be identified by multiple names, nicknames, and titles, making it almost inevitable that at least one of those names will match another character’s name. Oh, did you say Henry? Did you mean Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, Duke of Lancaster, also known as Henry IV? Or did you mean Henry (or Harry) Monmouth, Hal, Prince of Wales, and Henry V? Or did you mean Henry Percy/Hotspur? All of them can be referred to as any of those names. Don’t even get me started on Bardolph and Lord Bardolph. Yes, they are two different people.

Now, let’s add an additional layer of complication and start passing down those titles. A specific Duke probably is a different person in every play. They may even different people within the same play. Plus, your name changes with your title. Did you just get promoted? Name change! Did your father die? Name change! Were you stripped of a title? Name change! Sometimes so much time has historically passed in a play that technically that one Duke is two different people. Have fun keeping track. The multiple names for one person or one name for multiple people makes it nearly impossible to do so.

I don’t know what I don’t know!

When Shakespeare wrote the history plays, he expected the audience to have at least a basic understanding of the actual history. After all, it hadn’t really been that long since the Wars of the Roses happened. As a modern reader, particularly one that isn’t English, we may lack even a basic understanding of the historical truth behind the plays. That makes the fast pace, huge cast, and countless details even more challenging to keep track of. Again, it may be that I’m just a history nerd and want to know all the facts, but I can’t help believe that lacking this basic knowledge makes it hard for many. In particular, the plays that focus on large scale events (battles and rebellions) make it easy for readers to get confused. In these plays, the details are important. Whereas in Richard III, the villainy and personal relationships make the details of history less important to the modern audience. Richard III feels more like MacBeth than any of the plays in the Henriad.

So, what is a modern girl to do? First, accept that there are going to be some things you don’t know. Read up on the real monarchs and how they were remembered by Elizabethan audiences. It doesn’t take much research at all to gain the basic knowledge needed. I like to read Shakespeare’s English Kings by Peter Saccio or Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Second, you have to accept that you’re not really going to know who everyone is. The best you can do is keep track of who is related to who and which people are allies and which are enemies. A lot of times the Dramatis Personae at the start of the play will help to clear that up. Finally, if your confused, use resources that help clear up exactly what was said. Now, if you are using one of these resources, just read the translation or summary. Don’t read the analysis. Come to your own conclusions.

That’s my challenges and advice. What are some of your tips and tricks for working through the history plays? Please share them below!


*Edited to fix Prince of Whales typo*

12 thoughts on “From Confusion to Rage

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  1. Hi. Yeah, the history plays can be quite hard to get through. So many characters! Such complex storylines! It’s enough to alienate almost anyone. The big plus, though, is the poetry. The excellent turn of phrase. The immortal words. But, as for how to gain an overview of the action, I totally recommend just watching a version on DVD! There are several filmed versions of these plays available, and if you have trouble getting the story, you can just watch them over and over until you do! Simple, eh? 🙂

    Also, to increase understanding, go deeper than SparkNotes or CliffNotes. Get a proper scholarly edition, like the Arden Edition, which has enormously superior annotation. The Oxford Edition and the New Cambridge Edition will also do in a pinch, though they’re not quite as good as the Arden. That’s how you get serious with the text! Also, it’s helpful to study history, of course. 🙂 And read as much Shakespeare scholarship as you can. Go! 🙂

  2. I can only re-echo to the very thorough comment above, “Watch it on DVD”. These works were written to be heard and seen not simply read. The BBC set of all the Shakespeare plays is hit-and-miss but the “War of the Roses” Henriad + Richard III is a highlight. Directed very much as a stage play and as a single unit these are the most textually complete versions you are likely to see as well as being very well acted.

  3. I checked out the audio version (cd) from my local library. I don’t advise listening that way as I had no indication of who was speaking the lines. Watching a dvd would probably be much more helpful as you would be able to keep track of the characters. The RSC productions might be old but they are quite wonderful.
    Thanks for these helpful links, Ian!

  4. I checked out the audio version (cd) from my local library. I don’t advise listening that way as I had no indication of who was speaking the lines. Watching a dvd would probably be much more helpful as you would be able to keep track of the characters. The RSC productions might be old but they are quite wonderful.
    Thanks for these helpful links, Ian!

    1. I definitely agree that just listening can make it difficult to understand who is speaking. I typically read along while I listen to help me keep all of that straight, while getting the emotion and nuance that actors can provide.

      Performances are oftentimes the best way to go, but they typically cut out parts of the text. The audio versions are unabridged, so I found that most helpful.

      I will have to check out the RSC productions!

  5. I am part of an amateur, non-performance group that does Shakespeare readings online via Zoom. One person “directs” and assigns everyone a part (or several parts) usually a few days ahead of time, then we gather at a designated time and read the play straight thru. Most of us are not thespians or historians; just everyday folks. We have been reading the history plays in order, chronically as they would have taken place in real life, not in the order they were written which i think helps with understanding the events and characters better.

    When I type out the cast list, I try to include all the versions one each person’s name (e.g., Prince Harry, Hal, Henry of Monmouth, Prince of Wales, later King Henry IV) and often include a short description of each character and sometimes categorize them by factions ( e.g. Loyal to Richard II, or Red Rose, White Rose, or French nobility, etc.). We also include a description by each character conveying some idea to their motivations, relationships, and/or personality. One person, usually me, also usually takes the time to read the play ahead of time, figure out which parts people might be confused about and then find and post relevant family trees, maps, timelines, major concepts, and background info for those who want such information, and I usually do a quick 10-20 intro before each play, but by far the best resource has been watching videos of films/stage productions of the play ahead of time.

    Another helpful feature, perhaps unique to the online reading format, is that since we read the play via Zoom, there is almost always a lively conversation going on via text in the chat bar. People can ask/answer questions (e.g., “What is an apple-john?” or “What kind of name is Ancient Pistol? and what is his relationship to Falstaff?” or explain things such as “What is St. Crispin’s Day?.” In addition to the opportunity for real-time annotation to the text, the chat function also helps keep readers engaged during the periods where their characters have no lines. Not only can we cheer on the characters we like, and hiss and boo at the ones we don’t, but we can discuss how a 400-year old play still has relevance to modern day events and experiences. Listening to characters discuss the nature of kingship, of honor, of power, of courage and of corruption, and comparing it to modern politics (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe”) or discussing Shakespeare’s portrayal of grief (He talks to me that never had a son.–Constance, King John), or women ({Thou] She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of
    France,/ Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth”–3Henry Vi) or even clever insults (“[Thou] mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!”– Henry IV: Part 1) all makes a take a closer look at the marvelous language and helps make the play relevant for today’s readers.

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