I feel so weird about shakespeare's histories bc they're so much fun and richard iii is such a great villain but they also come off as such blatant tudor propaganda that i feel weird how much we've bought into them (especially richard iii lol...) as fact. do you have a way that you reconcile it?
There are a few points that spring to mind as a I read this. First, Shakespeare wrote for a company called The Queen’s Men - and later, The King’s Men, so it was in his best interest to keep his royal patrons happy and appeal to their sensibilities. Depicting history as it truly happened would be dumb as hell for his own personal safety as well as from a dramaturgical point of view, since history doesn’t tend to conform neatly to an exciting five act structure without some modification here and there.
The other thing to note is that Shakespeare’s not the only guy who wrote history plays at this time. Different companies would tell the histories in different ways - some specialised in fight scenes, and would stage big, bloody, exciting battles. Others might focus more on courtly love scenes, like King Henry V’s wooing of Catherine. If someone had already written a successful play about Henry IV, then you might try to cash in on that success by writing your own version, which tells it from a new perspective. Shakespeare’s plays are the only ones that are widely remembered today, but he certainly wasn’t the only one writing history like this; he just happened to be the best at it, or so posterity seems to say. It was standard practice.
On the subject of history plays, my students sometimes ask me whether audiences in Shakespeare’s time believed what they saw, or whether they knew they were getting the Tudor/Stuart censored version. Here’s what some contemporaries say:
Heywood’s essay, Apology for Actors, 1612, pleads the case that “Plays have taught the unlearned the knowledge of many famous histories, instructed such as cannot read in the discovery of our English Chronicles: and what man have you now of that weake capacity that being possest of their true use, cannot discourse of any notable thing recorded even from William the Conqueror, until this day?”
Ben Jonson, in his play The Devil is an Ass, has this exchange:
Fitz-Dottrell: I know not that, Sir. But Thomas of Woodstocke,
I’m sure, was Duke, and he was made away,
At Calice; as Duke Humphrey was at Bury:
And Richard the third, you know what end he came too.
Mere-craft: By m’faith you are cunning i’ the Chronicle, Sir.
Fitz-Dottrell: No, I confess I ha’t from the Play-bookes,
And think they’re more authentic.
Obviously this is a joke at the foolish Fitz-Dottrell’s expense. It appears from these sources that the common folk, having no access to history books, generally accepted history plays as true representations of history. Now, using theatre for propagandistic purposes - especially convincing the people to accept a ruler’s sovereignty - is as old as the theatre itself, so it should not surprise us to hear that these doctored versions of history, which showed the Tudors and Stuarts in a good light, were so commonly presented and accepted as fact.
And a further note, it wasn’t just Shakespeare’s history plays that contained propaganda. The story of Macbeth was taken from Holinshed’s Chronicles, which describe Scotland’s history and the enigmatic figure of Macbeth. In this “true” version, you might be surprised to find Banquo is just as evil as Macbeth, and complicit in the king’s murder. Whereas in Shakespeare, Banquo is Macbeth’s opposite - good, faithful, loyal to Duncan. Why this change, I wonder? Could it be because the reigning monarch at the time this play was written was King James, who liked to trace his ancestry back to the historical Banquo? It would certainly explain why the witches make a point to prophesy that Banquo’s descendants will be kings, wouldn’t it?
To sum up, the way I reconcile the falsification of history in the history plays is simply to accept that this was standard practice at the time. Changing history also frees a playwright to write a more compelling five act arc, with more compelling characters and heightened emotional scenes. All I can do is recommend that you read the history plays as separate from history, and enjoy them for the stories they are; or alternatively, you can read them alongside history and try to work out why Shakespeare cut, edited or changed events and characters, whether it was to please the queen or simply to create a tighter story or character arc.
It is a shame that people accept the representations of characters like Richard III as fact (historical Richard really does not deserve that), but honestly it’s no different to people today getting their history of Scotland from Braveheart, their history of Egypt from The Mummy, or their history of Rome from Gladiator. Not everyone is going to read history books and although it can be frustrating to see these films form the basis of most people’s understanding of the past, at the end of the day it’s just entertainment, and if it makes a good story then why not?