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Histories

Not many playwritesbesides Shakespeare wrote histories, so the fact that our selection is comprised entirely of works by the Bard reflects his monopoly rather than our selective abilities. Histories should not be confused with "problem plays," though they often are by those who think "tragedy" and "comedy" are the only viable dramatic forms.

A problem play refers to those works by Shakespeare that fall into none of the three established genres of tragedy, comedy and history. A history, on the other hand, is simply a play that revolves around historical figures. This doesn't mean a history play is the result of research, or that any of its content is accurate or reflects real events. It simply means that the main character is someone like King Richard III of England, or Julius Caesar, or Antony and Cleopatra. Whether the characters in the play resemble the real people on which they're based is immaterial.

If you think this demonstrates a careless disregard for truth, or a groundless postmodern relativism, consider this—if Shakespeare wanted to communicate the actual nature of historical figures and events, why did he choose fictional plays as his medium instead of history books? History as a formal independent study already existed in his day, so it's not viable to suggest drama was the only genre available to him.

Good playwrites aren't concerned with "what really happened" but with "what really is." Their subject is human beings. How humans behave and what motivates them doesn't substantially change from age to age, and so Shakespeare could write about fictional Italian princes, witches and brigands, or Henry VIII as he chose with equal perception and accuracy. He wasn't writing about Agincourt in Henry V, he was showing how men behave under duress, both brave men and cowards, the faithful and the traitors.

Don't read Macbeth hoping for an accurate portrait of the Scottish warlord; read it to better understand how and why men covet power, and what they'll do to gain it. Julius Caesar is about friendship and ideals in conflict, not the greatest general of the Roman Empire. Whether Richard III was really an evil killer of children doesn't really matter; for Shakespeare's purposes, he was.

Misunderstanding the relative roles of literature and historical enquiry has led many to reject fiction altogether. But a good play isn't merely presentational, it's a commentary on human nature. Good history is, too, but its chief material is actual events, whereas a play's chief material is the human heart. These histories are some of the most perceptive investigations of humanity ever undertaken, and reflect the observations and thoughts of a shadowy man many claim was the greatest writer the world has ever known.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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26 Items found Print
Antony and Cleopatra
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
Historical Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$3.50
Antony and Cleopatra
Oxford School Shakespeare
by William Shakespeare
from Oxford University
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$9.95 $7.00 (1 in stock)
Antony and Cleopatra
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Simon and Schuster
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99 $3.00 (3 in stock)
Henry IV, Part 1
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$2.50
Henry IV, Part I
by William Shakespeare
from Bantam Books
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$3.00 (1 in stock)
Henry IV, Part One
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99 $3.00 (1 in stock)
Henry V
Oxford School Shakespeare
by William Shakespeare & Roma Gill, editor
from Oxford University
Historical Drama for 7th-10th grade
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$9.95
Henry V
Folger Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
Historical Drama for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99
Henry V
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
Historical Drama for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$3.00
Julius Caesar
Dover Thrift Editions
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
Historical Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$2.50 $1.50 (1 in stock)
Julius Caesar
Literary Classics
by William Shakespeare
from A Beka Books
Historical Tragedy for 10th grade
in A Beka Literature (Location: B18-01D)
$5.50 (9 in stock)
Julius Caesar
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Simon and Schuster
for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99
Julius Caesar
Oxford School Shakespeare
by William Shakespeare & Roma Gill, editor
from Oxford University
Historical Tragedy for 7th-10th grade
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$9.95 $7.00 (1 in stock)
Julius Caesar
Barron's Shakespeare Made Easy
by William Shakespeare
1st U.S. from Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Historical Tragedy for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$6.99
Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
from Cambridge University
for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$3.50 (1 in stock)
Julius Caesar With Reader's Guide - Set
by William Shakespeare, Helene Cunningham
from Amsco School Publications
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$10.00 (1 in stock)
King John and Henry VIII
by William Shakespeare
from Bantam Books
Historical Drama for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99 $3.00 (1 in stock)
King Lear
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99 $3.00 (1 in stock)
King Richard III
Cambridge School Shakespeare Series
by William Shakespeare
from Cambridge University
Historical Drama for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$13.00 $8.00 (2 in stock)
King Richard III
Cambridge School Shakespeare Series
by William Shakespeare
from Dover Publications
Historical Drama for 9th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$3.00
Man for All Seasons
by Robert Bolt
1st Vintage Intl Ed April 1990 from Vintage Classics
for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
$10.95 $6.50 (1 in stock)
Miracle Worker
by William Gibson
from Pocket Books
Drama for 7th-10th grade
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
$4.50 (1 in stock)
No Fear Shakespeare Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Study Guide ed. from Sparknotes
for 9th-12th grade
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$3.00 (1 in stock)
Richard II
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99
Richard III
Folger Shakespeare Library
by William Shakespeare
from Washington Square Press
for 10th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
$5.99
Thelma English Shakespeare Book List
by William Shakespeare
for 10th-Adult
in Shakespeare Materials (Location: A06-00E)
$30.54