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How Historically Accurate Was Shakespeare?

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I have worked in education and entertainment and am also an historian and businessman and currently studying at the Open University.

"...Et tu Brute?"

"...Et tu Brute?"

Julius Caesar

Apart from the other guy with the same initials, Julius Caesar is probably the most famous person from ancient times. Though he was never an emperor of Rome, most people presume he was, and if you ask most people to name a Roman emperor, it is highly likely it will be Caesar they choose. Not only was the month of July named after him after his death, but during his life, he established the Julian calendar, which was the official calendar of the year right up to 1582 in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It remained for another 300 years in most of the rest of the world before the Gregorian calendar was adopted. Indeed, the 20th century began with a Tsar of Russia and a Kaiser of Germany, both titles that come directly from Caesar.

Caesar's life was that of grand opera long before he crossed the Rubicon. There are far too many events and details to discuss here. His affair with Cleopatra alone is an entire play by George Bernard Shaw. After the death of Crassus, the "richest man in Rome" and a third of the first triumvirate, Caesar fell out with his other former ally and son-in-law, Gnaeus Pompey the Great, and marched on Rome, starting a 20-year civil war and proclaiming himself dictator. It must be remembered that the word "dictator" did not carry the same negative connotations that it does today. However, that much power in the hands of one man made the Senate uneasy, and on the 15th of March, 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated by up to 60 senators in the Theatre of Pompey.

So was Caesar really warned of the ides of March? Shakespeare's scene in which Caesar stops to face the soothsayer who had previously warned him of the ides of March on the way to the Theatre of Pompey to say "The ides of March are come", to be told "Aye Caesar, but not gone", was documented by Roman historians Plutarch and Seutonius. Both of these writers were born over a century after Caesar's assassination, and therefore their accounts cannot be considered accurate. What is certain is that one of Caesar's most famous lines, "Et tu Brute" was, in fact, a Shakespearean invention. There is no official record of what Caesar actually did say, if anything at all.

Now is the winter of our discontent...

Now is the winter of our discontent...

Richard III

Though rather a pantomime villain by today's standards, Laurence Olivier's most famous Shakespearean portrayal has influenced performers as diverse as Peter Sellers and Johnny Rotten. But was Richard the hunchbacked psychopath of legend?

Richard actually suffered from slight scoliosis as opposed to the hunchback that Shakespeare gave him. A Tudor propagandist, Shakespeare had no option than to portray Richard, the last of the Plantagenets and House of York as well as sworn enemies of the Tudors, in a negative light. It is highly unlikely that he murdered Edward IV, who was known to gorge himself to excess. It is also unlikely that he had his other brother George, the Duke of Clarence, "drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine, which was believed to have been a joke by Edward IV who was commenting on his brother's fondness for it.

For such a well-known king, Richard's reign was one of the shortest in English history, for only two years between 1483 and 1485. Upon the death of Edward IV, Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, was made regent to Edward's children, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. Richard had the children declared illegitimate, thus barring them from succession to the throne. Over the years, historians have attempted to vindicate Richard from the alleged murder of "the princes in the Tower", but as the one person with the means and motive, the most likely explanation is that both children were murdered on Richard's orders, thus removing any obstacles to the throne.

Richard faced two rebellions from disaffected nobles, the first failed coup led by the Duke Of Buckingham (hence Shakespeare's much-quoted "Off with his head!" line) and the successful overthrow by Henry Tudor, who would become Henry VII. In the final battle of the War of The Roses, the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard became the last English king to die in battle and indeed did find himself unhorsed before being killed by Tudor's troops. It is doubtful that he did offer his kingdom for another one though.

Richard's body was buried without ceremony at Greyfriars Church in Leicester until 2012, when a team of archeologists found the remains of the church beneath a car park and discovered the skeleton of Richard III, which was formally identified in 2013 and re-interred at Leicester Cathedral.

Macbeth was probably more sober than Peter O' Toole

Macbeth was probably more sober than Peter O' Toole

Macbeth

One of Shakespeare's most historically inaccurate plays, the tragedy of Macbeth is also one of his most well-known ones.

The Weird Sisters who predict Macbeth's rise to the throne are pretty unlikely, and King Duncan was not an aged man but a youthful warrior who was killed in battle against Macbeth's troops rather than being murdered as Macbeth's guest. His sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, do go into exile but hide out in the Highlands rather than in England. However, the real Macbeth was indeed killed during an invasion by the English under Edward the Confessor and the Scottish crown was taken by Malcolm (III). The reign of Macbeth was said to have been peaceful and there is no contemporary record of the tyranny that Shakespeare depicts. James I of England (VI of Scotland) had by now ascended to the throne, and Shakespeare is said to have created Macbeth as a monster because James was descended from Malcolm III as well as Banquo, the appearance of whose ghost is not historically recorded.

Shakespeare is believed to have based his version of Macbeth upon the "Holinshed Chronicles", a contemporary history of Britain which also inspired Shakespeare's King Lear, Cymbeline and Marlowe's Edward II.

Macbeth is famous for its alleged curse, which apparently began upon its first performance in front of James I when Hal Berridge, the boy playing Lady Macbeth fell ill and had to be replaced by Shakespeare himself. The amount of blood, offal and gore used in the performance nauseated the king so much that it is believed he banned further performances of it.

Once more unto the breach...

Once more unto the breach...

Henry V

Due to Shakespeare's depiction of him, Henry V has gone down as one of England's greatest kings, though by modern standards his reputation may not stand up to the same scrutiny. Olivier's famous portrayal was made as a propaganda film during the Second World War and won an Academy Honorary Award.

As young Prince Hal in Henry IV, he is portrayed as a wild and rebellious youth and his close friendship with drunken knight Sir John Falstaff may well be invention, as was the scene at the beginning of Henry V in which the Dauphin of France sends him tennis balls as a taunt that he was a kid who ought to stick to playing games.

Henry's involvement in politics and war belie Shakespeare's wayward portrayal of his youth, though the scene in Henry IV when his father awakes to catch him trying on the crown actually did happen, and he really did have that ridiculous pudding-bowl haircut.

As Prince Hal, he saw action in the Battle of Shrewsbury, where he was hit in the face by an arrow which scarred him for life. As king, he ordered the burning of the Lollards, a group of religious reformers (as did his father) and the siege of Harfleur was not the heroic scene of Shakespearean legend but a long protracted process in which the citizens were condemned to death by starvation (and many of his troops died of dysentery, which must have been particularly unpleasant in a suit of armour). The scene in which he disguised himself and went among his troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt to check the morale and loyalty of his troops is also believed to have really taken place.

Henry was a superb diplomat, courting both the rival factions of the Armagnacs and the Burgundians and after Agincourt, he negotiated with the Holy Roman Emperor an alliance between all of England and France. However, Henry died of dysentery before this could be formalised, the throne passing to his incapable and mentally ill son who became Henry VI, the only English king to have been crowned king of both England and France. Agincourt has gone down in history as one of England's greatest victories and although most English people have heard of it, most English people have no idea about the eventual outcome of the Hundred Year War. It is considered unimportant as we didn't win (the cannon being the decisive weapon) and instead turned into the dynastic struggle known as the War of the Roses.

Not as glamorous Richard and Liz..

Not as glamorous Richard and Liz..

Anthony and Cleopatra

Unfortunately for her reputation, Cleopatra was on the losing side and therefore the victim of Augustus's propaganda. Her character has been rewritten so often we can only speculate as to who the true woman really was. She has been portrayed as a ruthless and skillful politician. She has been a vamp who knew how to use her charm; which she did on Julius Caesar with whom she had a son. She has been the downfall of Marc Anthony, a killer, a torturer and a femme fatale. Cleopatra is probably the most famous Egyptian in history. Not bad for someone who wasn't Egyptian in the slightest.

The last of the Pharaohs, Cleopatra VII was also the last of the Ptolomeic dynasty, descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. In fact, she was Macedonian in origin and if her coins and statues are anything to go by, she was not the legendary beauty that Enobarbus describes in his famous speech to Anthony in which he extolls her physical attributes. However it is this which has gone down in popular culture from Elizabeth Taylor to the Asterix books and whatever she looked like, it is that which she is famous for. It is believed Shakespeare was influenced hugely by the epic poem "The Aenead" by Virgil as well as translations of Plutarch by Sir Thomas North in his characterisations of Anthony and Cleopatra.

Anthony was married to Octavia for several years and had two children which isn't mentioned in the play, though Octavia does feature in it, and it is unlikely that she and Cleopatra ever met or that she begged her to surrender as she does so in Shakespeare's story. Though Anthony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavius Caesar at the Battle of Actium in 31BC, it was some time later that Anthony was finally defeated, and he did not die in Cleopatra's arms as he does in the play. The famous manner of Cleopatra's death at the fangs of an asp is also disputed by historians and debate continues as to whether she actually poisoned herself instead. Upon the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra, Egypt was subsumed into the Roman empire under Octavius, who changed his name and his image to become the first Roman emperor Augustus, meaning "the revered".

Bibliography

  • The Secret Shakespeare-Alfred Dodd
  • Caesar-Adrian Goldsworthy
  • SPQR-Mary Beard
  • Rome in the Late Republic-Beard/Crawford
  • The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation-Hornblower/Spawforth (Eds)
  • Exploring History 1400-1900-Gibbons (Ed)
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-Edward Gibbon
  • Cleopatra-Lucy Hughes Hallett
  • The Oxford Companion to British History-online (JSTOR)
  • The Holinshed Chronicles-online (Via Open University Library)

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on February 12, 2020:

I guess we'll have to allow Shakespeare a little poetic licence. This is an interesting article, as I had wondered about the historical accuracy of some of his plays. I remember chunks of Anthony and Cleopatra from my O'level studies. That dates me!

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