Holinshed and Hall
It has been said, half in jest and half in truth, that the English are notorious for learning their history from Shakespeare. The question then is, ‘Where did Shakespeare learn his history from?’ The answer is largely ‘from Holinshed and Hall’. Raphael Holinshed first published his tomes on the history of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1577. It soon became the most consulted history textbook of the age and the one Shakespeare would have used at school and later on as the main source for his English history plays and some of his greatest tragedies, Macbeth and Lear. The plot of a late Roman play, Cymbeline also comes from Holinshed.
Holinshed’s project was ambitious to say the least. The two volumes of The Chronicles traced the history of the British islands and Ireland from prehistorical and mythical times to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. Holinshed himself drew on a number of sources, not always completely reliable or historical. His eclectic approach was to compile what others had recorded first regardless of the credibility of the facts reported. Moreover, when sources conflicted, he provided the diverging information and interpretations side by side, letting his readers make the judgement on their reliability and accuracy.
Shakespeare adopted an equally flexible approach to Holinshed. His concern when writing plays based on English history was not that of a historian but of an entertainer who had no qualms with using history in the service of storytelling and drama. This resulted in anachronisms, historical and geographical inaccuracies, character confliction, fictional additions, factual omissions, and even large deviations from Holinshed’s text. A famous example is the end of Lear. In Holinshed, Cordelia’s army is victorious and she proceeds to rule Britain for many years whereas in Shakespeare she dies in Lear’s arms creating one of the most harrowing scenes in the canon of English drama.
Edward Hall’s Chronicles were also a widely known and circulated history text in Renaissance England. Hall’s was much less ambitious than Holinshed’s in terms of the scope of his text. Hall limits his narrative to the period in the English history known as the War of Roses. The War of Roses starts with the reign of Richard II (1377-99) and ends with the defeat of Richard III by Richmond (1485), later King Henry VII and thus the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Although scholars tend to agree that Hall’s influence on Shakespeare is less prominent than that of Holinshed, some passages on the English history tetralogies are drawn from Hall’s accounts, this is especially notable in the composition of Richard III.
Shakespeare wrote two series of history plays in groups of four. Henry V is the last play in the second group (the other three plays are Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II). The first tetralogy consists of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III.