Shakespeare takes the information in Holinshed and, never one to let accuracy get in the way of a good story, compresses the bloody history of the fifteenth century into wonderful and totally gripping theatre. An example of this is in Henry IV Part 2. In Holinshed there is a fairly short account of how Henry IV, only 46 but sinking into his final illness, falls asleep and is found by Prince Harry, who, thinking his father already dead, takes the crown and leaves. The king wakes and, finding the crown gone, calls for Harry and admonishes his son. Shakespeare creates around this story what I think is one of his greatest scenes, as father and son are finally reconciled after a very stormy relationship.
I hope the following gives a flavour of the transformation. Holinshed describes Harry’s apology to his father and his father’s reply thus:
Sir, to mine and all mens iudgements you seemed dead in this world, wherefore I as your next heire apparant tooke that as mine owne, and not as yours.
Well faire sonne (said the king with a great sigh) what right I had to it, God knoweth.
Shakespeare rather lengthens the king’s reply!
God knows, my son,
By what bypaths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with better quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth. It seemed in me
But as an honour snatch’d with boist’rous hand;
And I had many living to upbraid
My gain of it by their assistances,
Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed,
Wounding supposed peace. All these bold fears
Thou seest with peril I have answered;
For all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument. And now my death
Changes the mood, for what in me was purchased,
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort.
In the RSC’s most recent cycle of the history plays in 2006-2008 (mesmerizing and unforgettable), Clive Wood and Geoffrey Streatfeild as the king and prince reduced me to tears in this scene.
I suppose as someone with a history background I should deplore Shakespeare’s inaccuracies – for example, in Henry IV Part 1, for dramatic purpose he makes Hotspur the contemporary of Prince Harry when in reality he was the same age as Henry – but the history plays just bowl me over!
I can’t bring myself to forgive him for what he did to Richard III though! But that’s another story.