Dr Katherine Lewis

Exploring Shakespeare's historical accuracy

Dr Katherine Lewis made her third appearance on the BBC Radio 4 programme 'In Our Time'. The programme, hosted by Melvyn Bragg and entitled 'Is Shakespeare History? The Plantagenets', examined the historical accuracy in the Bard’s plays covering the House of Plantagenet.

THEY are great drama, but do Shakespeare’s history plays provide a reliable history lesson?  Melvyn Bragg investigated the issue for a 20th anniversary edition of his celebrated BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, and he recruited an expert from the University of Huddersfield to help him.

Medieval historian Dr Katherine Lewis told the audience how Shakespeare’s vision of a Fifteenth Century England racked by constant warfare was very different to a more peaceful, prosperous reality for much of the population.  And she also took exception to the playwright’s “monstrous” portrayal of Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s French-born Queen.

“Shakespeare reworked the story of the Plantagenets from the fall and death of Richard II in 1400 to the death of Richard III in 1485.  His interpretation came to dominate perceptions of the last century of Middle Ages,” said Melvyn Bragg, before asking Dr Lewis about the playwright’s sources.

She told him how the Chronicles of Holinshed and Hall – who themselves drew on a wide range of sources – were the most important.

“Shakespeare is not inventing the Fifteenth Century.  But he does elaborate it.  He fills in some of the gaps in the sources in very memorable, compelling ways,” said Dr Lewis, who was joined on the programme by Professor Emma Smith, of the University of Oxford, and Professor Gordon McMullan, Director of the London Shakespeare Centre.

Among the themes discussed by the panel were the reliability of Shakespeare’s portrayal of England during the Wars of the Roses.  Dr Lewis said that one problem is that the plays made it seem that the whole period was one of “bloody cataclysm”.

“Shakespeare’s portrayal is incredibly dramatic and very compelling, but the vast majority of the population wasn’t touched by the wars.  In some parts of the country, you would barely know that they were going on at all unless you were a high-ranking aristocrat or you were in his retinue.  There is a great deal of prosperity, especially among middling status people.”

But in other ways, Shakespeare’s characterisation of the period had a degree of accuracy, added Dr Lewis, citing the depiction of rivalry between high-ranking aristocrats, and the weakness of Henry VI as being central to the country’s problems.

The programme’s panel also discussed issues such as Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry V and Richard III.  Melvyn Bragg then invited Dr Lewis to rail against the Shakespearian image of Margaret of Anjou, who appears in several of the plays.

“We are very used to the idea that we must completely dismantle Shakespeare’s monstrous portrayal of Richard III as the ultimate villain, but his equally monstrous portrayal of Margaret has remained accepted until relatively recently as an accurate depiction of her,” said Dr Lewis.

It was, she added, “an incredibly misogynistic portrait which is all about a woman who has stepped outside her femininity and has acted beyond her station in life.”

This was Dr Katherine Lewis’s third appearance on the programme, which reaches audiences of some two million.  In Our Time has notched up more than 800 episodes.  All are available online, and the programme’s podcasts, which include extended discussions, are also heavily downloaded.