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The Man Who Wrote History

Since England’s most legendary wordsmith shuffled off this mortal coil four centuries ago, for better or worse, his history plays have influenced the way we’ve viewed our past, writes Pat Reid…
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE He may have re-sculpted English history to suit his plot lines, but there’s no denying that Shakespeare – brought to life here by Artist Geo Tristram – did it with style


£1 The amount the First Folio (see page 56) of the Bard’s complete works originally sold for – that’s around £100 today


John Lydon, vocalist of punk-rock band the Sex Pistols, based his Johnny Rotten stage persona on the titular hunchbacked tyrant from Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III.

THE VILLAIN OF THE PIECE Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the title role of Richard III in the BBC’s series The Hollow Crown

Today, Shakespeare’s global fame largely rests on his tragedies, of which Hamlet is the most popular. But 420 years ago, it was through his trail-blazing plays about English history that the young actor, poet and playwright first made a name for himself in the hurly-burly of the London theatre.

Even among those who are not big aficionados of the Bard, most have probably heard of plays like Henry V and Richard III. For a start, Sir Laurence Olivier made hugely successful films of both of these (and Hamlet as well), which ensured that they would be inflicted on several successive generations of schoolchildren.

But it was an action-packed trilogy of plays inspired by the ill-fated Henry VI that first announced Will as a force to be reckoned with in the early 1590s while, five years later, his Henry IV, Parts 1and 2 showed the capital that this was a genius-level playwright.

LAST WORDS Playwright Robert Greene writes a spite-filled review of young Shakespeare from his deathbed


Shakespeare didn’t write his plays in chronological order, but the ten English histories make for truly satisfying and glorious reading, viewing or listening if approached in this way. Now, for those already confused by all the Henrys and Richards flying around, take heart. Eight of the plays are strongly connected, with just the first and last – King John and Henry VIII respectively – falling outside the overall narrative. Interestingly, these two are often cited as Shakespeare’s least popular (meaning worst) plays. However, both have returned to the British stage in recent years, and have been well received.

Alas, poor Rick

Richard II is thought to be the only Shakespearean play that has never been made into a cinema film

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About History Revealed

The April 2016 issue of History Revealed.