Sources for Shakespeare's Work

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court…

Richard II III ii

This speech is one of the most famous in all of Shakespeare’s work. Richard II, grandson of Edward III, has discovered that his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, son of the Duke of Lancaster, has invaded England and intends to depose him. This play, together with the two parts of Henry IV, which chronicle the reign of Bolingbroke, Henry V, the tri-partite Henry VI, and Richard III, tell the story of over eighty years of English history, culminating in the triumph of Henry, Earl of Richmond on the battlefield of Bosworth.

For centuries, Shakespeare’s interpretation of the events of the Wars of the Roses, the motivations of the characters, his dramatic retelling of moments of crisis and raw emotion, have influenced our understanding of the Wars of the Roses.

There is also the little-known Edward III, now included in the New Cambridge editions of Shakespeare, credited to him after hundreds of years of other attribution, King John and Henry VIII, written with John Fletcher, which round out the entire period from the mid-14th to the mid-16th centuries.

But what were Shakespeare’s sources? The events he wrote of had taken place in the period ending around eighty years before his own birth. It is not possible that he could have met anyone who would have had first-hand knowledge even of the final days of Richard III. He was therefore obliged to rely on written sources, many of which still form the core of modern research and analysis of the period, although current historians have access to a vast wealth of documents that Shakespeare could never have been privy to.

Histories written in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period are usually referred to as ‘chronicles’. This is, in part, to differentiate them from the histories written in antiquity by such towering figures as Tacitus or Livy. During the Roman period it was perfectly permissible, indeed almost obligatory, to write speeches to be put into the mouths of the protagonists. This was not intended to be deceptive, but to fulfil the duty of historians (as they saw it) to uplift their readers and show their heroes as, well – heroic. It was also an exercise in the much prized skill of rhetoric. In his own way, Shakespeare was following this time-honoured trend with the speeches he gave his heroes – Henry V before Agincourt being a notable example.

Chroniclers, on the other hand, were merely recording events, with minimal gloss or interpretation. That is not to say, of course, that Chroniclers did not have opinions, or political biases, or even concerns about self-preservation that influenced their recording of events.

The works that Shakespeare is considered by historians to have consulted for his English history plays are, in the order in which they were probably written (although not published):

Froissart’s Chronicles
Froissart, born around 1337 in Valenciennes, joined the service of Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s queen in 1361, acting as her secretary and clerk of her chapel. He spent much of his time accompanying the Queen’s sons, Edward, the Black Prince, and Lionel, Duke of Clarence, on their travels, both in war and peace. He visited the Scottish Borders, Italy, Provence, Gascony, and Holland as well as Paris and London. Based on previous chronicles for earlier times, and his own experiences, he wrote four volumes, covering the period up to about 1400. Froissart’s work informed Edward III and Richard II. Froissart was not a native Englishman, and therefore his treatment of the Hundred Years War seems not to be unduly partisan.

Froissart’s Chronicles were translated from French to English by John Bourchier, Lord Berners. Lord Berners was half-brother to Thomas Howard, 3 rd Duke of Norfolk. He was a well-respected scholar and humanist and undertook the translation in the period 1523-1525.

The History of King Richard III by Thomas More
More was born in around 1478. He was thus too young to have much personal memory of the reign of Richard III. His sources are likely to have been John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose page he was, and who knew Richard well, and perhaps other members of the Tudor court – although More was not intimate with the royal family until the early years of Henry VIII.

More’s 'History', written in 1513, when he was Under-Sheriff of London, was not completed. It was written simultaneously in Latin and English, although the texts are not identical. Whilst parts of the work seem to have been available during the reign of Henry VIII, the whole was unpublished until 1557, when his son-in-law, William Rastell, had it printed.

More’s picture of Richard III has been condemned as utterly partisan propaganda, particularly his reference to Richard being ‘crook-backed’. The recent discovery of Richard’s remains, showing a severe scoliosis, must absolve More of having invented the whole and, if you read the work itself, the picture of Richard is not quite so villainous as has been claimed.

Richard’s courage and liberality are mentioned and the accusation that he engineered Clarence’s death is modified with the words ‘but of all this conjecture, there is no certainty, and whoever designs upon conjectures may as well shoot too far as too short.’ .Nevertheless, Richard is condemned as ‘pitiless and cruel; not for evil will always, but for ambition.’ Ambition was a trait that More, and many others of the time, considered a vice – to seek to rise too far in the world was a challenge to God who had decreed your status.

In the manner of the Roman historians, and completely understood at the time as a literary convention, More creates speeches for the individuals he wrote about. Thus, it is difficult for a modern reader to discern which speeches are intended to be hearsay evidence from his sources, and which are to be understood as rhetoric, such as Edward IV’s declaration ‘Such a pestilent serpent is ambition…’

Shakespeare’s use of More’s work as the basis for the play Richard III cannot reasonably be doubted and, perhaps, his theme of the dangers of ambition, a common idea in all his work, may have been influenced by More’s writings. In particular, it is one of the themes of Henry VIII – the lowly-born Wolsey over-reaches himself.

Anglica Historia by Polydore Vergil
Vergil (c. 1470 – 1555) was an Italian cleric, and extremely long-lived by the standards of the 16th century. He first visited England in 1502, and spent most of the rest of his life there, being given a number of ecclesiastical offices and granted denizenship in 1510. Henry VII commissioned him to write the history, which he began in the early years of the century. It was not completed until after Henry VII’s death, probably being finished around 1513.

In 1515 Vergil lost favour when a letter critical of Henry VIII and Wolsey found its way into the latter’s hands. He was sent to the Tower to consider his rudeness, but eventually released. Despite this, he remained in England until retiring to Urbino in 1550.

His History was first published in 1534 in Basel and covered the period up to 1513, although later additions by the author himself take in events up to 1537. Vergil was a serious historian, and made every attempt to be even-handed in his approach. He is not always complimentary about Henry VII, and was extremely hostile to Wolsey. His questioning of the legend of King Arthur did not make him popular with his English contemporaries.Shakespeare may have known the work directly, or through 'Hall’s Chronicle', which used it as a source.

The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke by Edward Hall, usually abbreviated to Hall’s Chronicle
Edward Hall, born around 1497, was the son of a prosperous London merchant. He began his Chronicle from personal observation in around 1518, having graduated from Cambridge. Like many of the London merchant class, he was pro-reform of the Church, extremely hostile to Wolsey and was a strong supporter of Henry VIII’s break with Rome. Trained at Gray’s Inn, he became a lawyer, an MP, and, like More, Under-Sheriff of London. Hall was present at Bridewell Palace in 1528 when Henry VIII announced that he feared his marriage was illegal and that he sought an annulment. Throughout the work, he is very favourable to Henry – of course, anyone who criticised the King too freely might find himself shorter by a head, but Hall’s stance seems genuine

Hall’s account of the Wars of the Roses was based, in part on Vergil’s history, and also on More. Hall died between 31st March 1547 and 25th May 1548. He left his manuscript to Richard Grafton, who published it in 1548, with a reprint in 1550 and a further edition in 1565. Since the Chronicle opens in 1399, this may be the reason for Shakespeare beginning Richard II at that point.

Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, by Raphael Holinshed
This work was probably the most widely used source of history, not just for Shakespeare, but for other poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan age. Published first in 1577, with a second edition in 1588, it was a multi-authored work, the brain-child of Reyner Wolfe, a printer and bookseller of London, although of Netherlandish birth.

Holinshed was Wolfe’s assistant and took over the project on Wolfe’s death in around 1574. As well as Holinshed himself, the contributors were Richard Stanihurst (1547 – 1681) an Irishman, and friend of Edmund Campion, who was later exiled on account of his Catholic faith, and William Harrison (1535 – 1593), a clergyman in the Puritan wing of the Church of England. The team drew on at least 185 sources, ranging from the Historia Augusta, a history of the Roman Emperors, to Roderigo Jimenez de Rada, the Archbishop of Toledo’s, Rerum in Hispania Gestarum Chronicon Liberi Novem.

The first edition was printed by Henry Bynneman (c. 1542 – 1583). It was expensive at 26 shillings, but was immediately popular – Lord Burghley had a copy as well as Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. A second edition was published in 1587, extended in areas, but with some excisions to satisfy the censors. Both John Leslie’s (Catholic) and George Buchanan’s (Protestant)’s histories of Scottish affairs were used, amongst other works, to update it and this section contained much of the material that Shakespeare used as a source for Macbeth.

Shakespeare would also have drawn heavily on Foxe’s 'Book of Martyrs', although not so much for his history plays, and, of course, the Bible. In 1905, Thomas Carter made an almost line-by-line analysis of any of Shakespeare’s words that could conceivably have been drawn from Biblical texts, and demonstrated (rather convincingly) that Shakespeare relied on the Geneva Bible. This was a more Puritan text than the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, and very different from the Catholic translation of Douai from 1582. If the Geneva version were Shakespeare’s main biblical source, it would suggest that he was not, in fact, a crypto-Catholic. We have no doubt that the opposite case could be made….