Shakespeare’s Historical Fiction

Can you think of a story written about 400 years ago that has remained popular throughout the centuries? How about the works of William Shakespeare? (Check my postscript for a quotation about reading Shakespeare during the Civil War Era!) Did you know many of his plays are actually historical fiction?

1623 William Shakespear Plays

“So what is Historical Fiction?” Good question – and many people are going to give you many different answers. (Ah, human nature…) Well, here on Gazette665, I like to define historical fiction as a story in a historical setting with characters behaving in accordance with their cultural norms in order to give readers a glimpse of life in the past through an interesting tale. (Note: characters could be entirely fictional, or they could be real historical figures).

“Okay – so why Shakespeare?” I think Shakespeare was one of – if not the first – historical fiction writers. He wrote masterpieces which are still read and performed about 400 years later. This month we’re going to take a closer look at the history behind William Shakespeare’s plays. I hope the topic will be fun and enlightening for the writers and history buffs alike! But let’s start with a lighter introduction this week:

5 Things To Notice In William Shakespeare’s Historical Fiction

1. Highly Motivated Characters Shakespeare’s character are dynamic. They fight battles, plot traps, determine never to fall in love, try to escape guilty consciences, and mock the frailty of human nature (just to name a few). The plots of the stories vary, but the main characters have a great obstacle to overcome.

2. Dramatized Historical Events  Historically, King Henry V made a speech before the Battle of Agincourt, but it probably wasn’t the stylized “we few, we happy few” address that Shakespeare wrote. This is one of the keys to Shakespeare’s historical fiction. He studied past events, gleaned enough history to keep it real and somewhat factual, then masterfully added the gloss of fiction to add glory (or tragedy) to a historical event.

3. Intensified Emotions (And Speeches) Think of any Shakespearean play and you’ll recall deep thoughts and feelings expressed in flowing words. Yes, it’s un-realistic. People simply don’t wander through their house saying long soliloquys. Soldiers don’t have time to make glorious speeches as they charge into battle. But that’s not the point. The important thing is the deep emotion Shakespeare wrote into his plots. As readers we can feel the pain, the joy, the triumph, the hope.

4. Understood Human Nature Shakespeare understood human nature. He used it as he wrote (and fictionalized) historic events. A Scottish king really was murdered (more about this history in an upcoming post). Shakespeare takes the few known facts about the incident, crafts a story of rebellious desire and a hideous action, and then shows us the outcome of the character’s descent to madness because of the torment of his conscience. Suddenly, historical facts become understandably real – there is human motivation and reaction in these plays…pride, rebellion, love, hope, escape, justice.

5. Writing With A Message As the master playwright constructed his plays, he added “effects” that would prompt thought in his audience. One story might dramatize a national victory, another highlight the tragic chaos in Italian cities, while another shows the importance of friendship. There’s a purpose to the story…an inspiration…something the audience (or reader) can learn. Best of all, the messages Shakespeare worked into his plays are timeless – we can appreciate them today.

What is your favorite Shakespearean play? Why? Please share your thoughts in a comment. Next week we’ll start looking as the history behind the dramatic masterpieces!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. I’m off to a Civil War Re-enactment today, so that historical era is forefront in my mind, and I couldn’t help adding this connection. The works of William Shakespeare were popular reading material for young people during the Civil War era.

Twenty-two year old Sandie Pendleton (Confederate officer) wrote to his mother from a military camp, detailing some his friends activities: “We have been reading Shakespeare at nights, McGuire reading excellently & Crutchfield being more conversant with it than anyone I ever saw and reciting by heart every passage that can be called for, while I, at first a mere listener, now put in comments upon ancient tragedy and can…make apt quotations and cite parallelisms in quite a learned way…” (November 15, 1862) [Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, by W.G. Bean, page 84]

There’s your Civil War era cultural history for the day! See you next week with photos from the re-enactment.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in European History, Reading Adventures and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Shakespeare’s Historical Fiction

  1. Pingback: Photos From Moorpark Civil War Re-enactment 2014 (Part 2) | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Henry V: The Fictionalized King | Gazette665

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