The Glass of History

In the New York Times a few weeks ago, there was an article about historical accuracy in Oscar-nominated films. The Academy loves accuracy, according to the article, which goes so far as to suggest that having the accuracy of the events it depicts questioned can even lose films Oscars they seemed poised to win.

Unsurprisingly, this made me think about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s histories are… not known for their complete accuracy, to say the least. The compression of time, conflation of events, and addition and subtraction of characters can make trying to pick the ‘truth’ out of most of the plays, frankly, pointless. Not that this stops people from trying, and you can easily find books and articles enumerating all the things Shakespeare got wrong.

Sometimes, knowing that Shakespeare changed a detail can illuminate something very interesting about his apparent intentions in structuring the drama. Knowing, for example, that the historical Queen Margaret was dead in France well before the events of Richard III, and the famous confrontation scenes between Richard and the female characters have almost no precedent in contemporary sources suggests that Shakespeare was much more interested in the female characters than many contemporary productions seem to be.

But very often, as with the linked article’s suggestion that inaccuracy loses Oscars, the claim of historical inaccuracy seems intended to double as a value judgment. Or, on the opposite scale, “revealing” that many of his details really are accurate after all seems meant to serve as a vindication.

It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t care. None of the Elizabethan or Jacobean history plays have the kind of scrupulous accuracy that today’s audiences seem to demand.

In 1765, Samuel Johnson published his Preface to Shakespeare, which included an entire section enumerating Shakespeare’s faults and flaws. He alludes to inaccuracy, sort of, but specifically refers only to Shakespeare’s tendency towards anachronism, which I would argue is not quite the same as nitpicking all the ways in which he changed around timelines or conflated characters. If there’s anyone you’d expect to be a stickler for facts, it’s a neoclassicist like Johnson– but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.

Writing in 1817, Romantic critic William Hazlitt does briefly note the relative historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s plays, but proclaims them uniformly correct: ‘his plays are in this respect the glass of history’. And, he notes, the places where Shakespeare has had to fictionalize are as good as, if not better than, real history.

In 1837, a printer named Charles Knight embarked on a project to produce an illustrated edition of Shakespeare. He was far from the first to do this, but he intended to distinguish his version in one important way: rather than stage-inspired illustrations, he wanted engravings of the actual settings, the real historical personages, and historically accurate clothing and architecture. In this aim, his Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespere was, intentionally or otherwise, keeping step with emerging theatrical trends.

Around the 1830s, British actors began returning to what they saw as Shakespeare’s roots. Restoration adaptations which had superseded Shakespeare’s texts in some cases began to be restored (others would last even into the 20th century), and there was a new interest in creating productions with historically accurate, highly detailed sets and costumes. It seems only logical that, with a surging interest in representing the historical periods of Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare’s own inconsistent depiction of that history would become newly noticeable– and perhaps newly irritating.

These days, of course, directors are much more likely to say to hell with history and set the plays in any time or place they wish. Our obsession with historical accuracy has drifted away from Shakespeare to more naturalistic forms of media, where we seem to expect that, because the action looks realistic, it ought to fact-check against reality, too.

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