The Hollow Crown

Many of William Shakespeare’s plays feature historical events and characters. But his so-called ‘history plays’ only encompass those named after English kings, such as Richard II. Together, these ten dramas tell the sweeping story of power struggles in medieval England across five generations of rulers. They are only loosely based on fact: Shakespeare sought to turn history into captivating theatre, and use it to shed light on the society he lived in. As a result, they offer an invaluable insight into Elizabethan society — and some rip-roaring good drama.


Power, its uses and misuses, and the things people will do to get it, are perennial themes in Shakespeare – perhaps nowhere more so than in the history plays, which feature a colourful cast of kind and crooked kings, and which are set during the great wars of medieval Europe. What are the great power struggles of today?


When writing history, scholars often limit themselves to the ruling classes. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays is that they take in the whole of English society, from kings to knights to beggars – sometimes in a single scene. Of course, class is an ongoing obsession in England, as these stories show…


Though inspired by real events, the plays are mostly fiction. Nevertheless, many of the characters – such as the bitter, hunchbacked Richard III – have defined the way in which we think of their real-life counterparts today. This is unfair, say some. Does art have a duty to portray facts accurately?


Some scholars argue that the history plays serve as propaganda for the Tudor dynasty, which ruled England in Shakespeare’s time in the form of Elizabeth I. The Tudors come off well, while their enemies in the House of York are generally portrayed as baddies. What form does propaganda take in the modern age?

Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, during which the history plays are set, was a fascinating time in English and European history, ripe with war, plague and revolution. No wonder Shakespeare was drawn to it. How is the period seen today? Does it hold any lessons for us?