Week Three: The English Histories

The main reason that the Shakespeare canon includes so many histories is that Thomas North was an historian and believed that histories constituted the most vital component of an enlightened education. His work on Plutarch’s Lives in the 1570’s especially taught him something new and important about the character of leaders and its relationship to the destinies of nations. Commonwealths fall because of the flaws in their Kings and Queens –because of their ambitions, cruelties, or weaknesses. Before North, many Tudor historians focused on the role of fortune as the prime shaper of events—on the capriciousness and unpredictability of fate as it hoisted some and destroyed others. Not so with the biographies of North’s Plutarch’s Lives, which preach that character is destiny. North then based his plays on this Plutarchan design, even placing this tenet in the mouth of Cassius: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves” (1.2.140-41). Our failures are not, as the earlier chroniclers would have it, the result of some cosmic design but are due to our own defects.

While this line appears in Julius Caesar,a play taken from the pages of Plutarch’s Lives, it also explains the theme of the English histories and the tragedies. The weaknesses and vices of the nobility would always lead to their ruin—as well as the ruin of those that surround them. Sometimes, they would even bring about the collapse of the entire family reign and the destruction of a nation. For Shakespeare’s plays, some refer to this as the “tragic flaw.” Lear’s vanity, Othello’s jealousy, Romeo’s melodramatic passion, Macbeth’s ambition, Antony’s enervating love of Cleopatra are just a few of the notorious deficiencies that led to spectacular downfalls.

North first wrote a relevant prologue on the importance of history to introduce his Plutarch’s Lives:

Whereas [hi]stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books as it is better to see learning in noble men’s lives than to read it in philosophers’ writings.

Plutarch’s Lives, North’s Preface

That is the secret: study character and the effects of moral instruction in past princes—search for the “learning in noble men’s lives”—in order to understand worldly events. North would again take up this theme a few pages later in his translation of Jacques Amyot’s preface, noting that each man’s life provides a history that, when observed correctly, will teach you what to expect in the future:

History is the very treasury of man’s life … It is a certain rule and instruction, which by examples past teacheth us to judge of things present and to foresee things to come.

PLUTARCH’S LIVES, Preface

In 2 Henry IV, we discover Warwick expressing precisely the same idea in the same language:

There is a history in all men’s lives,

Figuring the nature of the times deceased,

The which observed, a man may prophesy,

With a near aim, of the main chance of things

As yet not come to life …

(2 Henry IV, 3.1.80-84)

The verbal echoes include history-men’s lives, times, things-come, but it is the identity of thought that elevates the correspondence. This is not just another example of Shakespearean appropriation but an expression of the thematic purpose of the histories and tragedies and perhaps even an admission of their origin.

North then sums it all up. Plutarch’s purpose, North writes, was to “setteth before our eyes the things worthy of remembrance that have been done in old time by mighty Nations, Noble Kings and Princes, wise Governors, valiant Captains, and persons renowned for some notable qualities …” He wanted to highlight the benefits of virtue and the perils of vice in the lives of the world’s most compelling personages, exposing them “when they were come to the highest, or thrown down to the lowest degree of state.” North then follows this template for his English histories and tragedies. Like Plutarch’s magnum opus, North’s plays would now tell history not through incidents but through lives. They would focus not on dates and battles but on character, teaching about vice, virtue, and the climactic events of history by exposing the strengths and failings of rulers and noblemen. This is the credo as taught by Plutarch and re-expressed by North. This is, indeed, what much of the North-Shakespeare canon really is: it is North taking up where Plutarch left off, exposing the tragic flaws in medieval nobility and drawing historical comparisons just as Plutarch had done for the ancient Greeks and Romans. In brief, North’s dramatic histories and tragedies comprise the second volume to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, perhaps best subtitled North’s Lives of the Medieval Europeans.

20. North’s Marginal Notes and “Richard II”

The Rise of One Requires the Fall of Another, Like Buckets in a Well or Sun Melting Snow On March 29, 1591, Thomas North purchased a used, 1582-edition of his Dial of Princes for 5 shillings, signing the back and dating the purchase—a copy now kept at the Cambridge University Library.[1] Then he began rereadingContinue reading “20. North’s Marginal Notes and “Richard II””

19. Griefs of the Inward Soul, Seeing Things Thru Water, & Dissolving the Bands of Life

North began translating both the colossal Plutarch’s Lives (1579/80) and Nepos’ Lives (1602) many years before he would eventually sell them to printers. In the interim, North often used the stories and ideas he found in these unpublished translations as source-material for his plays. For example, in the mid-1590s, North decided to use Richard IIContinue reading “19. Griefs of the Inward Soul, Seeing Things Thru Water, & Dissolving the Bands of Life”

18. The Boy’s Comical Derision of the Cowardice of Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym

In North’s Dial of Princes, the long-term mistress of Marcus Aurelius, Boemia, writes an angry letter to the famous emperor-philosopher, who has just returned from battle. She is furious with him for refusing to see her, so Boemia begins the letter by launching into a hilarious series of insults, deriding him as a braggart coward,Continue reading “18. The Boy’s Comical Derision of the Cowardice of Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym”

17. Richard III Can Change Colors Like the Chameleon And Imitate Homer’s Greeks

In “The Life of Alcibiades” in Plutarch’s Lives, North writes that the subject of the chapter could frame himself after the fashions and manners of anyone at all—from any country. He could, as North wrote, put on more colors than the chameleon—and even be taken for an Achilles while in Sparta. This chameleon-like ability toContinue reading “17. Richard III Can Change Colors Like the Chameleon And Imitate Homer’s Greeks”

16. Henry IV Worries that Prince Hal Has Vices Like the “Fattest Soil” Has Weeds

In the prior post on English histories, we noted that the gardener’s comparison of commonwealth to gardens in Richard II derives from two passages of two different works of North: Plutarch’s Lives and The Dial of Princes: Notice that in the above exchange, North’s fatness … of the soil refers to its fertility—and, as withContinue reading “16. Henry IV Worries that Prince Hal Has Vices Like the “Fattest Soil” Has Weeds”

15. Nations Are Like Gardens with Noisome Weeds & Wholesome Herbs — & Children, Fruit Trees with Superfluous Branches

Dozens of botanical analogies throughout the Shakespeare canon all have a Northern origin (i.e., come from the works of Thomas North). This includes what is likely the most famous and extended botanical metaphor in the canon: the garden-scene in Richard II (3.4.29-66). In the relevant exchange, a gardener and a servant have a political discussionContinue reading “15. Nations Are Like Gardens with Noisome Weeds & Wholesome Herbs — & Children, Fruit Trees with Superfluous Branches”

Leave a Reply