The evil monarch portrayed in Shakespeare's "Richard III." The rivalry between Prince Hal and Hotspur in "Henry IV." Do the these images reflect historical reality?
And to what degree did the playwright tailor his works to please his patrons, the ruling Tudor family of 16th century England?
A Baltimore teacher will grapple with such questions over the coming year, delving into the historical accuracy of Shakespeare's English history plays, in a project funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"It's a scholar's dream," said Judith M. Pittenger, a high school history and literature teacher at Roland Park Country School in north Baltimore. She is one of 49 educators from around the country selected for the independent study grants.
The NEH/Reader's Digest program is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the New York Community Trust. It provides each scholar a stipend of up to $27,500 for a yearlong independent study.
Pittenger, who has taught at the independent school for seven years, received the full stipend, along with $500 to buy books for the school library.
In the course of her project, Pittenger will focus on the cycle of history plays starting with "Richard II" and ending with "Henry VIII."
Henry VIII, the monarch, was the father of Queen Elizabeth I, one of Shakespeare's royal patrons and a member of the Tudor dynasty.
Pittenger will study the historical sources available to Shakespeare when he wrote the plays, along with revisionist histories of the period.
"What I'm going to do is first look at the plays as literary masterpieces, and then look at them as products of their time," she said.
There is no question that Shakespeare's portrayals were influenced by his close connection to the Tudor court, said Pittenger.
"He's trying to provide a kind of legitimacy to this new dynasty, the Tudor dynasty," said Pittenger. "He also was working for the court, so it was professionally correct for him to support his patrons."
And the result is a less-than-accurate historical portrait, in some cases.
One example: Richard III, the Machiavellian usurper who has become one of English literature's most enduring villains.
"We all think of him as being a hunchback and an evil genius -- but in fact he wasn't," said Pittenger. "There's a lot of things that Shakespeare has attributed to him in the play that historically can't be verified, and that are in fact very questionable."
Another notable example is the bitter rivalry between Prince Hal -- the young King Henry V -- and the young nobleman Hotspur, who is portrayed as his contemporary in "Henry IV."
In fact, the two men were of different generations, said Pittenger, which Shakespeare conveniently ignored in order to fashion a powerful dramatic conflict.
From a literary point of view, such inaccuracies are beside the point, according to Pittenger.
"Shakespeare was not a historian," she said. "He did not feel to need to be historically accurate. His truth is beyond the historical record. You're talking about universal verities."
The irony, she said, is that Shakespeare's histories are all that many contemporary readers will ever know of these English monarchs.
"Here's a man who writes history plays, but he's not a historian," said Pittenger. "For many people, he has become the historian."