Book Review: SHAKESPEARE’S KINGS by John Julius Norwich

Genre: Non-fiction, History
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3 stars
Series: no


In a time of uncertainty and incessant warfare – when the crown was constantly contested, alliances were made and broken, and the people rose up in revolt – this was the raw material that inspired Shakespeare’s dramas. But what really happened between 1337 and 1485? Where did history stop and drama begin?

John Julius Norwich establishes just how real Shakespeare’s characters and events are and what liberties he took with the facts to entertain his audience. An illuminating companion to history and to the richness of Shakespeare’s imagination, with a body of work which still shapes our view of the past today, chronicling the turbulent events that inspired Shakespeare’s history plays, from Edward III to Richard III.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


This book does what it says, which I suppose is all that needs be asked of a non-fiction book. It provides a brief outline of the history of 150 years, from Edward III to Richard III. It’s a primer for the most turbulent time in English history, framed around Shakespeare’s plays to provide a narrative through line.

If I didn’t already know the history and wasn’t reading it alongside another, more detailed account of Richard II-Henry IV, I might have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, I was comparing them, and this one felt rather unrefined in comparison. It was just too brief and somehow still lacking focus despite the plays being a ready made guiding light for structure.

The prose was a little shaky at time, feeling rather dry and clunky. The plays are set in the 100 years wars (when we fought the French) and the Wars of the Roses (the second English civil war), so there are battles to describe. Not to mention the fact that the number of betrayals is so mad you’d never believe it in fiction. And yet the tone is very monotone, failing to bring the drama to life.

The thing that bugged me the most was the doubling up of the narrative. The history would be explain in whistle-stop style, and then the play would be explained, pointing out the faults. It felt like it was covering the same issues twice, so my attention wandered the second time. I think there probably would have been a way to combine them.

This book is quite old (new cover) – published in 1999 and it does show a little. There have been some developments in the scholarship of English history in the last 20 years, like finding Richard III’s grave. John Julius Norwich also doesn’t really deal well with the Queens (and other powerful ladies) who were central to history. He either ignores them (through the lens of “they weren’t in Shakespeare” or “Shakespeare made them a side character”), or paints them as power hungry without the nuance the kings get.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s