Shakespeare's "History Plays," even those which deal with the relatively recent past, like Henry VIII, are not accurate history. Although Richard III is often reviled for slandering the real king, the other histories are popularly admired for their pageant quality — our greatest poet spinning the yarn of our national heritage.
Olivier's film make-up for Henry V is deliberately modelled on the famous portrait, and anyone attempting Shakespeare' s Henry VIII is likely to be judged for the accuracy of a Holbein stance and beard than by the more essential qualities of his performance. Any designer who attempts accuracy of historical detail must recreate the minutiae of heraldry if he is not to be tripped up by the inevitable expert more interested in heraldic minutiae than the broad sweep of the drama.
Of course, Shakespeare wrote about real events, and much can be learnt by determining where he altered the facts, thereby judging how much he was a Tudor apologist or an independent political critic. That, though, is a director’s job: an actor's is to judge the play not the history. So in preparing our Richard II, we delved not at all into the real events. That is not to ignore Elizabethan culture — the current ideas of Kingship and Kingdom — which are vitally relevant to understanding those ideas as they are presented in the play. But the play itself at once suggested how much we needed to discover of that background.
Clearly Richard II was not our modern constitutional monarch, limited by the reins of popular franchise; Shakespeare expects of his audience a familiarity with notions of society which are now extinct in Britain and only to be found extant in, say, recent Tibetan history or perhaps the Vatican. Richard II and his court reminded us of the Dalai Lama or a pope than any monarchy still reigning. That notion is contained in “the divine right of kings,” and the play is a mystery until the total tyranny of Richard' s rule is appreciated.
Shakespeare is more concerned with people than with ideas. He is not writing a treatise on nor a criticism of tyranny, though his characters are obsessed so. The effect of all the Histories is a recreation of lovers, friends, enemies, allies, lords, ladies, and their servants, all imprisoned by a fixed society, some trying to escape from it or come to terms with it but, as far as the enduring memory any audience holds of them, not overwhelmed by it.
Despite the carpings and obsessions of our national concern with the dates and lists of our primary school history lessons, Shakespeare’s history plays endure because the characters in them are so real as to outlive their historical origins. Can that be true of Richard II, a mediaeval tyrant, behaving like a divine incarnation: is our concern for him now anything more than an objective peep at an irrelevant predicament? Or a wallow in heraldic prettiness, gages meaninglessly flung, paste crowns, the gold lamé of a pantomime walk-down or a state occasion down the Mal1?
Richard II, King of England , is challenged by the might of his dissatisfied subjects led by his cousin Bolingbroke, who in capturing the crown for himself has the rightful king killed. Thus précised, the story of the play is the story of more recent events.
During our brief tour of Europe, we played Richard II in Bratislava, the Slovak capital of Czechoslovakia and the meeting-place of the Dubchek and the Russian leaders. Before the invasion, the Russians were regarded rather as America is in Britain today — a powerful ally, foreign but related in support and friendship, not a big brother but a trusted cousin, perhaps. Bewilderment was mixed with bitterness. Bolingbroke was Richard’s cousin — no love lost between them — but the stronger man’s plea was much the same as the stronger forces, that he was attacking the weaker to save him from his false friends, to re-establish the right — force for right not an aggressive invader. In detail, too, the parallel has force — so often are coup d'états accomplished whilst the heads of government are away on other business, as Richard is away fighting in Ireland when his cousin returns to overthrow·him.
I don't remember the Czech situation ever being discussed in rehearsal or before, but on reaching Bratislava and in particular when playing the "return from Ireland" scene when the powerless king calls on the land itself to help him against the might of his relative’s superior forces, then Shakespeare the modern historian asserted himself.
At the inevitable civic reception afterwards, I asked our host, only just promoted by the new regime as Cultural Minister for Slovakia, who he thought was the hero of the play —“They are both good, both wrong,” which seems Shakespeare's message, if not the conclusion more popularly held by the rest of that audience. Our visit, arranged before the invasion, was not at all advertised by the new authorities, but we had two packed houses for what was clearly regarded as a political play, not a historical pageant. — Ian McKellen, 1970