Whilst other write good words (1)


Holinshed and the Histories

Almost all of Shakespeare’s histories have their origins in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.


What do I mean by almost all? Well. Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, Henry V, Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three*, Richard III and Henry VIII all draw on the work in whole or in part. And so too do Macbeth, King Lear and Cymbeline. Yes you read that right. The reason being that the Chronicles aren’t just the sort of history we would think of nowadays when we use the term, but included such legendary stories as the three witches (Holinshed described them as “creatures of the elderwood” rather than secret, black, or midnight hags) and the much-less-verifiable events of prehistory as well.

The Chronicles

The origin of the project was a plan by Reginald Wolfe, a London printer, to create a “Universal Cosmography of the whole world” – from the Flood** to the present day. Wolfe hired Holinshed, among others, to work on the project, which was still incomplete when Wolfe died in 1573, 25 years after first conceiving the plan. Holinshed took over, revised the scope down to a history just of England, Ireland and Scotland from their first inhabitation to the mid-16th century, and managed to publish within 4 years.

We don’t know very much about Holinshed the man. He is believed to come from Sutton Hall (home to the more infamous Lord Lucan), but we don’t know much about his birth. We know he came to London to work and retired to Warwickshire shortly after the Chronicles were published – what else he might have done apart from this magnum opus is shrouded in mystery.

We know much more of the history of the Chronicles themselves – we know that Shakespeare used the second edition (published in 1587, it expanded on the first one) because we can identify various phrases he lifted from it. Various passages were removed from the second edition by Elizabeth’s Privy Council – they (and the book) had a long enough career to be reproduced in later centuries. Indeed, the Chronicles are still in print now.

The history

It’s also interesting how many other chronicles (and chroniclers) were around. The idea builds on Roman traditions*** and had been around for a while. After all, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th Century, and that proved a solid foundation for Shakespeare (both Lear and Cymbeline, again, contain key elements that come from Monmouth), for Shakespeare’s imitators (Vortigern leans heavily on it) and of course for most modern Arthurian legend.


Thank you Geoffrey…

Europe seems to have been full of vast numbers of keen historians setting out the legendary (and factually accurate) histories of their nations. Hamlet may come indirectly from a similar 13th-century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus which contains a “Life of Amleth”. Written originally in Latin, it was widely available in Shakespeare’s day and had been published in French in 1570 by François de Belleforest, in his Histoires tragiques****. Major plot points include the prince pretending to be mad, his mother hastily marrying the usurper, and two retainers being executed in place of the prince. Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They never have any luck.

And Macbeth may also have been based on Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia, published in Edinburgh in 1582. Buchanan had been James VI’s tutor and set out to purge the earlier histories, particularly that of Boece (which was also a source for Holinshed) of “sum Inglis lyis and Scottis vanite”*****. Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum had been published in 1527 to some acclaim – translated into both French and Scots – although it was already seen as less sceptical and more partisan than some of his contemporaries.

I love this vision I have of a 16th-century Europe awash with scholars writing these chronicles – each with their own idiosyncracies, and their own views on what constitutes history (as opposed to legend). And each one matched by a legion of voracious readers – who presumably were thrilled to see the histories turned into brand new plays…

* These may have a closer source in Edward Hall’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke, knowns as Hall’s Chronicle. But it is clear Shakespeare consulted both that and Holinshed.

** That would be Noah’s Flood, of course…

*** See Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita or Plutarch’s Lives – on both of which more anon – and the Gesta Romanorum, a Latin collection of anecdotes and tales that was probably compiled about the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th. This Deeds of the Romans included a tale involving three caskets and an emperor Theodosius whose experiences bear more than a passing resemblance to Lear’s…

**** Which may also crop up again since his sources influenced a number of other plays…

***** That quote is actually in English – “some English lies and Scottish vanities”! If it looks like Latin, though, that’s not entirely surprising as Buchanan was also a scholar who could write in Latin as if it was his mother tongue and was according to Hugh Trevor-Roper “the greatest Latin writer, whether in prose or in verse, in sixteenth century Europe”.


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