Almost in every kingdom the most ancient families have been at first princes’ bastards; their worthiest captains, best wits, greatest scholars, bravest spirits in all our annals, have been base born… Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy. Part ii. Sect. 2, Memb. 2.


Shakespeare’s kings : the great plays and the history of England in the Middle Ages, 1337-1485  John Julius Norwich  New York : Scribner, 2000.  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 401 p. : col. ill., maps ; 25 cm.  Includes bibliographical references (p. 379-382) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

William Shakespeare may have been the greatest playwright in the English language, but how does he measure up as a historian? In this comparison between the events and characters in Shakespeare’s history plays and the actual events that inspired them, historian John Julius Norwich examines the nine works that together amount to an epic masterpiece on England in the middle ages.

Beginning with the newly authenticated Edward III, and proceeding through Richard II; Henry IV Parts I and II; and Henry V; Henry VI Parts I, II, and III; and finally Richard III, Norwich holds the plays up to the light of history, answering questions such as: Who was the real Falstaff? How realistic is Shakespeare’s depiction of Joan of Arc?

At the same time, he provides a vibrant narrative of medieval life from 1337 to 1485, the era of the 100 Years War and the Wars of the Roses. It was a time of uncertainty and incessant warfare, a time during which the crown was constantly contested, alliances were made and broken, peasants and townsmen alike arose in revolt. Here was the raw material that Shakespeare used to explore the role of the monarch and the meaning of statehood.

But where does history stop and drama begin? Norwich concludes that Shakespeare was a reliable enough historian. He was, however, always willing to take liberties with the facts for the sake of his drama. As Norwich explains,”In the vast majority of instances when Shakespeare departed from the historic truth he did so for the best of all reasons: to make a better play.” Beyond assessing Shakespeare’s accuracy, Norwich provides the crucial knowledge that will enhance everyone’s appreciation and understanding of these glorious plays.

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