While Shakespeare is normally thought of for his boundless imagination, a lot of his work is actually pulled straight from other sources. There's a lot of history in Shakespeare and you can even find whole passages cut out of historical texts like Holinshed's Chronicles and Plutarch's Lives—often with word-for-word transplants. He may have been a genius, but a lot of his work was done for him. Seriously—if you think Romeo and Juliet is an epic love story the Bard dreamt up, check out Romeus and Juliet written by Arthur Brooke right before Shakespeare. Or the Italian story written before that.
But when it came to history, Shakespeare didn't always feel the need to stay close to the facts. Shakespeare's plays understandably make for the most entertaining version of history, but that doesn't mean that they're the most accurate. Timelines are shortened, historical figures are ignored or created, and some things are just completely made up. These historical inaccuracies in Shakespeare make the plays a lot more interesting to watch, but be careful before you quote him on your next history exam.
Here are Shakespeare's craziest historical reimaginings, because you can make anything better with a pinch of murder.
Brutus's Betrayal Might Have Been Toned DownPhoto: Mcleclat / Wikimedia Commons
One of the great betrayals in Shakespeare is the stabbing of Caesar. Brutus, a friend of Caesar's, joins in the assassination, leading Caesar to utter the immortal lines "Et tu Brute?" But this is one area of history where Shakespeare may have actually downplayed the drama. In reality, Brutus was the son of Servilia—a former mistress of Caesar's, and gossip of the time claimed Caesar was actually the father of Brutus. Rumor has it Caesar actually said "You too, child?" instead of Shakespeare's words. It's a lot of family drama to rewrite.
Richard III's Spine Was Just Fine, ThanksPhoto: A. Park (publisher) / Wikimedia Commons
As far as historical figures go, Richard III probably paints a distinctive picture in your mind. Shakespeare describes him as "[d]eform’d, unfinish’d" and virtually every portrayal thereafter has picked up on that image. But in reality, he probably had blonde hair and blue eyes, with a straight head and neck. While his spine does show scoliosis, it wasn't anything that couldn't have been covered up by a good tailor. In fact, some historians believe that portraits where he has uneven shoulders were actually been painted over to fit the hunchback image. Talk about creating a monster.
Let's Just Ignore the Child BridePhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons
Richard II features a mirror and cloth obsessed Richard II who doesn't really know how to rule. It also shows his adult wife, Isabel. The thing is, Isabella of Valois was actually a child bride and would have been a whopping 6 years old when married to Richard in 1396. But that doesn't exactly make for a sympathetic protagonist. As well, Richard wasn't murdered, but likely starved to death in captivity.
Richard III Didn't Murder Everyone He Met
One of Richard III's most monstrous qualities is that he's responsible for the deaths of the two young princes being kept in the Tower of London: Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. He's been put in charge of their safety, but they're just two in a long line of murders for which he's responsible—including his wife Anne and King Henry VI, among others.
But historians are quick to point out that there's no proof the princes were murdered at all; there is also no proof that Anne or Henry VI were murdered (Anne likely died of natural causes). Shakespeare just liked making his (not really) hunchbacked king as evil as you can imagine, something at which he certainly succeeds.