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Shakespeare's Histories

The Bard's epic survey of medieval England

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Although there has been disagreement about the precise definition of a Shakespeare 'history play' (Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were undoubtedly real historical figures, yet the plays bearing their names are not generally included in the canon), the term is usually applied to the ten plays that cover English history from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and the 1399-1485 period in particular, each named after and focusing on the reigning monarch at the time.

In chronological order of setting, these are King John, Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III, Richard III and Henry VIII. An additional history play, Edward III, though increasingly accepted as being Shakespeare's work, has not yet been filmed, though the others each boast at least two screen adaptations, with Richard III's approaching double figures.

It is easy to see the appeal. The plays, singly or grouped, offer a panoramic survey of a notably turbulent period of English history - and not just the expected battles and behind-the-scenes political machinations: Shakespeare depicts life from top to bottom, from the King's court to Eastcheap taverns and bawdy-houses. The history plays feature arguably the noblest hero (Henry V), the most gleefully twisted villain (Richard III) and the best-loved comic character (Sir John Falstaff) in Shakespeare's entire output, alongside some of his most memorable set-pieces and soliloquies.

However, their thematic, narrative and linguistic opulence has posed numerous challenges for those adapting them for the cinema or television. This is true of Shakespeare's work in general, but the history plays pose particular difficulties given both their assumptions about the audience's familiarity with what to an Elizabethan audience would have been relatively recent history (very recent in the case of Henry VIII), and the fact that most of the individual plays are part of a much longer sequence.

For instance, Henry V and Richard III, the two most popular (and most-filmed) history plays, are each the culmination of a four-part history cycle, whose characters and events the text often alludes to. This can be solved by editing and reshaping, but at the risk of oversimplifying the material - Laurence Olivier's Henry V is a far less complex character than Shakespeare's original, partly through cuts to the text of Henry V itself in order to beef up the patriotism for wartime propaganda purposes, but mostly through the elimination of his coming of age, a key narrative strand of the preceding Henry IV plays. Similarly, the politics of Richard III are almost incomprehensible without the scene-setting of the three Henry VI plays, and most one-off adaptations tone these down considerably in favour of focusing on the title character: only the BBC Television Shakespeare production comes anywhere close to presenting the full text.

But it's these challenges that have resulted in such a wide range to choose from, starting with the world's first Shakespeare film, the 1899 King John. If you want a chronological survey, the BBC's An Age of Kings (1960) adapts the 1399-1485 plays into a stylistically coherent fifteen-part series. If you want conservative treatments of more or less the full text, the BBC Television Shakespeare (1978-1985) should more than suffice - though the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy was one of the cycle's more imaginative and adventurous achievements.

If you want barnstorming lead performances, you can't go far wrong with Olivier (Henry V, 1944; Richard III, 1955), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, 1989) or Ian McKellen (Richard III, 1995), while the last of these shows how historically-specific material thrives in a completely different setting (an imaginary 1930s Fascist London). Finally, John Caird's reinvention of the Henry IV plays (BBC, 1995) offer one of the most convincing examples to date of how they can be turned into television drama as gripping as any contemporary thriller.

Michael Brooke

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