The histories have traditionally been interpreted against a background of Tudor moral and political philosophy. They have been arranged in chronological order of the reigns of the kings, and by this plan the full significance of the relationship of the plays becomes apparent. Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods. The period up to 1594 is Shakespeare’s first period of writing called his apprenticeship.
Between the ages of 26 and 30 he was learning his craft. He imitated Roman comedy and tragedy and followed the styles of the playwrights who came just before him. In the years from 1594 to 1600 Shakespeare had mastered his art because it is highlighted by ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and ‘Henry IV’. Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important plays concerned with English history and two of his major tragedies. In this period, his style and approach became highly individualized.
The years from 1600 to 1608 is looked upon to be his third period. With ‘Hamlet’, written in about 1601, Shakespeare used this period, lasting about eight years, to probe the problem of evil in the world. At times he reached an almost desperate pessimism for even the comedies of this period are bitter. Finally the period after 1608, his fourth and last period, is the time when Shakespeare used a new form. It was the tragicomedy, or dramatic romance. In his hands the tragicomedy is calm, sober, and quietly lovely.
During the years 1590-1600 the English nation became intensely interested in its past. Playwrights catered to this patriotism by writing chronicles, or history plays, Shakespeare was no different. Shakespeare wrote ten great sprawling dramas telling the stories of England’s kings. The same interest spread to the history of other nations of Europe. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatist were.
It is known that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599, when his company performed “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II” at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare’s company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare’s plays and the lack of conclusive facts about his writings, these dates are approximate and can be used only as a convenient framework in which to discuss his development.
In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists. Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time, and four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590? -1592? ) and Richard III (1593? ), deal with evil resulting from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered for selfish ends.
The four-play cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. The second-period historical plays include Richard II (1595? ), Henry IV Parts I and II (1597? ), and Henry V (1598? ). They encompass the years immediately before those portrayed in the Henry VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt.
The fears he has for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays a responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity subsequently became one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices. Shakespeare’s plays communicate a profound knowledge of the wellsprings of human behavior, revealed through portrayals of a wide variety of characters.
His use of poetic and dramatic means to create a unified aesthetic effect out of a multiplicity of vocal expressions and actions is recognized as a singular achievement. Shakespeare’s use of poetry within his plays to express the deepest levels of human motivation in individual, social, and universal situations is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in literary history. He took the art of dramatic verse and honed it to perfection. His usage of language, both lofty and low, shows a remarkable wit and subtlety.
Shakespeare created the most vivid characters of the Elizabethan, or any other, stage. Most importantly, Shakespeare’s’ themes are so universal that they transcend generations to stir the imaginations of audiences everywhere to this day. The histories that Shakespeare created are his best, portraying the lives of kings and royalty in most human terms. He also begins the interweaving, in these histories of comedy and tragedy. This would become one of his stylistic signatures. Due to this talent one seeing a Shakespearean play got a does of culture, history, and grammar all in one sitting.
Shakespeare knew his history well, but often he changed the simple facts to suit the medium of the play. He condensed time, combined battles, yet he also modified characters and actions. Falstaff was not a historical character and Hotspur was really much older than he is portrayed yet both present themselves in a realistic was in Henry IV. Characters like Richard III and Joan of Arc bear little resemblance to the figures in modern history books but Shakespeare knew what an audience wanted and they could relate to the familiar names given to characters in the plays.