Shakespeare's Kings

  • by John Julius Norwich
  • Narrated by John Curran
  • 13 hrs and 25 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

William Shakespeare may have been the greatest playwright in the English language, but how does he measure up as a historian? In this brilliant comparison between the events and characters in Shakespeare's history plays and the actual events that inspired them, acclaimed historian John Julius Norwich examines the nine works that together amount to an epic masterpiece on England's most fascinating period.
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.
No one but John Julius Norwich, praised for his three-part history of Byanztium, could weave drama and history together into such a lucid and absorbing account of a distant yet vitally important era. Illuminating and accessible, Shakespeare's Kings is an indispensable companion to Shakespeare's rich imagination -- an imagination that continues to inform the way we view the past today.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Tangled but useful

This is an excellent guide to the historical background of (most of) Shakespeare's history plays. It covers the two "tetralogies" - one covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V; the other, the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III. Whether they were in fact designed as tetralogies is still being debated. They were certainly not written in the order of the events they describe.

The author, John Julius Norwich, has taken advantage of recent interest in the play Edward III - Shakespeare may have written a couple of scenes in this collaborative play - to round out his account. This is useful because all of the major participants in the plays were descendants of Edward. In essence, the plays comprise a history of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses.

It's a lot of ground to cover. Norwich is a capable writer of narrative, and his accounts of the various reigns are full of useful and interesting detail. He follows the story of each reign with a discussion of the corresponding play, with an emphasis on how closely or not-so-closely Shakespeare follows the history. This sounds straightforward, but it isn't. First there's what happened; then there's what we know about what happened; then there's what was known during Shakespeare's lifetime, often based on inadequate and contradictory sources; and then, finally, there are the changes he made for dramatic purposes.

I've read several books attempting to bring all these things together, and they all suffer from the same occasional lapses into incoherence or repetition. Norwich has the advantage of a lively style and a broad and humane interest in the events being described. He does a better job than most juggling the various components.

Shakespeare is a tough customer when it comes to history. He plays fast and loose with the facts. Two handy examples are Hotspur and Joan of Arc. Hotspur, the impulsive rebel of the first Henry IV play, was old enough to be Prince Hal's father; but Shakespeare, for purposes of dramatic comparison, makes them roughly the same age. Joan of Arc, who ranges through the first Henry VI play with great energy and malice, died not long after Charles VII was crowned in Rheims; but Shakespeare has her outlasting both the Earl of Bedford (who died 4 years after Joan) and John Talbot, the English general, who outlived her by over 20 years. How else could he have her exult over them as they died, with such malevolent (and magnificent) rhetoric?

There is also a great deal of telescoping of events - two visits to London combined into one, for example. A scene might begin, historically, in one year and end with events that occurred five years later. And sometimes, especially in the earlier plays, Shakespeare just makes stuff up: having the English lose and then recapture a city that played no role in the war at all. Trying to relate these skips and jumps to the actual historical record can frustrate the most ardent commentator.

Yet Norwich pulls it off, creating a work that is an interesting historical narrative in its own right, and also provides an illuminating survey of the plays.

A word about the narrator. John Curran is for the most part effective; I was able to listen to the audiobook for an hour or two at a time without flagging. But he has an odd reading tic. He inserts pauses that can make one sentence sound like several. This is NOT an actual quote, but it gives a sense of the style: a sentence like, "He was not the most competent of kings, but he had a wealth of tradition at his command," comes out sounding like this: "He was not. The most competent of kings. But he had. A wealth of tradition. At his command."

Staccato as the narration may be, and challenging as Shakespeare's tangled chronology is, I really enjoyed the book and hope to listen to it again - after re-reading the history plays themselves.
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- Tad Davis

shakeseare's delusions better

The British bard had a lot of good reasons for the mistakes in the history plays. One was that he lived and worked in Tudor times--I don't understand how any so called historian could make the claims of this book in this day and time. There is no need to enumerate them all here, one should suffice--the statement goes something like this, "at the advent of the Tudor dynasty, England had its first century of peace an prosperity." What about Henry the Eighth? Bloody Mary? Oh dear, and the worst thing is this book says it will set the record straight---wow, I'd rather listen to the play.
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- Mary Elizabeth Reynolds "author of Lowcountry Legend's series"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-11-2014
  • Publisher: Audible Studios