Definition of Dramatic History

By Colby Phillips ; Updated September 15, 2017
Portrait of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's War of the Roses cycle is the most famous example in English of dramatic history, the art of presenting historical events through narrative. Dramatic history is based on actual events, uses literary devices to fill in the gaps of what is unknown, adapts historical personages into characters and draws a lesson or conclusion about the meaning of the events it depicts.

Based on Actual Events

Dramatic history is based on actual events. Shakespeare drew his narrative of the War of the Roses from the chronicles of the historian Raphael Holinshed. Terence Malick's 2005 film "A New World" is based in part on writings by Jamestown's Capt. John Smith. The 1934 film "The Scarlet Empress" was inspired by the memoirs of Michael Fonvizin.

Literary Devices

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides is credited with inventing the use of literary devices to fill in gaps in historical knowledge. He moved some significant speeches to settings where they had not taken place to include them in the narrative. He also freely wrote some speeches based on words that people of historical significance might have said on various important occasions. Other historical dramatists, such as Shakespeare, have used similar techniques.

Historical Personages as Characters

Dramatic histories are populated with characters based on historical personages. Mel Gibson's 1995 film "Braveheart" was loosely based on the life of 13th-century Scottish warrior William Wallace. American historical figures from the 19th century, such as Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson, have been the basis for characters in dramatic histories.

Interpreting the Historical Event

Dramatic histories offer some meaning or interpretation of the event in question. Shakespeare's War of the Roses cycle is often interpreted as heralding the rise to greatness of the Tudor dynasty. "The New World" shows the way in which America's founding was fundamentally a clash of cultures. The 1969 film "The Battle of Britain" glorifies the heroism of the Royal Air Force during World War II.

About the Author

Colby Phillips' writing interests include culture and politics. Phillips received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Oregon and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Boston College.