The great Duke of Marlborough, when asked what was his authority for some historical statement, is said to have answered: ‘Shakespeare, the only history of England that I ever read.’ Shakespeare has cast a long shadow over England’s late medieval history. Even today, when we look for different things to admire in the great men of the past, it is hard to think of Richard II or Henry V except through the interpretations of Shakespeare and the words that he gave them. If Henry IV seems eminently forgettable by comparison, it is largely because Shakespeare was not interested in him. Three of the plays cover the greater part of Henry’s public career. Yet Richard II is dominated by the complex and vulnerable character of Richard himself. Bolingbroke appears in it as a conventional man of action devoid of human interest, the mere instrument by which Richard’s contradictions destroyed him. In the two parts of Henry IV the principal characters are Hotspur and Henry of Monmouth, not the King after whom the plays are named. He has receded into the background, a symbol of careworn kingship with few great lines except in the famous scene when his heir visits him on his deathbed.
The deposition of kings was a sensitive subject in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare’s discretion was no doubt wise. Yet there is some justice in his portrait. Before 1397 (when Richard II opens) Henry Bolingbroke had been one of the most admired men of his day. He was charming and generous,