As Told by the Bard: Part 1 – The Histories

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Since William Shakespeare has brought his dramas to the Elizabethan stage, he’s still one of the most talked about authors of the English language as well as in English Literature. This year, April 23rd marked the 400th anniversary of his death. But at the time I was working on another project. Nevertheless, while many people may know a few Shakespeare’s plays, a lot don’t know what many of them are about. So this is where I come in. Nevertheless, we must know that Shakespeare most of the time didn’t always come up with original plays but he made them his own. And they’ve been subject to innumerable adaptations on stage and screen. He’s also influenced literature and entertainment for over 400 years. We may not know much about Shakespeare but let’s not get into the authorship question because we’re pretty sure he wrote them, maybe not always by himself. This series is about the plays not the man himself. Still, while his plays tend to be seen as high-brow entertainment, this wasn’t the case. In fact, these plays were meant to work on different levels. And Shakespeare is known to have a lot of bawdy humor in them. In these plays I also have listed on who falls in love and who dies. Because we tend to remember stuff like that when it comes to Shakespeare.

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Hotspur and his courtier from Henry IV possibly preoparing for the Battle of Shrewsbury. Hotspur better watch out for Prince Hal because he’s not coming back.

In this post, we’ll look at the histories. Many these usually focus on the Wars of the Roses when Richard II was deposed and the Houses of Lancaster and York spent much of the 15th century in civil war over the English throne. Nevertheless, as a history major, I have to remind you that these should be treated as entertainment pieces not as a history textbooks. Not to mention, with the exception of King John, these were written when at a time when they’d be considered far more recent than they are now. And I’m sure Queen Elizabeth I and James I were very keen on presenting a history of these events that would suit their interests. In other words, expect a lot of propaganda. For instance, Richard III is certainly Tudor propaganda since the real Richard III was almost nothing like the hunchbacked evil creep in the play. Also, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII isn’t the despotic king we know and love. But maybe that was for the best. A couple of these plays come out in installments. Fortunately, these plays focus on drama pertaining to some rich, ingrown, and acrimonious families, so it’s probably The Sopranos we should really be talking about. That or Game of Thrones.

 

  1. Henry IV Part 1
Falstaff: "There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee, nor thou cam'st not of the blood royal, if thou dar'st not stand for ten shillings." - Act I, Scene 2

Falstaff: “There’s neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee, nor thou cam’st not of the blood royal, if thou dar’st not stand for ten shillings.” – Act I, Scene 2

Genre: Historical

Published: 1597 or possibly before then.

Plot: Ever since Henry Bolingboke became Henry IV, all he wants to do is wage a crusade to cleanse himself of the sin of killing Richard II. Unfortunately, he has more pressing matters to attend to at home like some of his allies plotting to overthrow him like the Percy family whose son Harry (“Hotspur”) is one of England’s greatest warriors. Then there’s his son Hal who’s a seemingly good-for-nothing fratboy who surrounds himself with drunkards, rogues, and rejects of royal life as well as prefers to play pranks and chase women. And to make matters worse, his best friend is the old, fat, wily Sir John Falstaff who’s a bombastic drunk providing much of the play’s comedy. As Hal and Falstaff get into a number of situations, Henry IV and the Percys wage a tense political battle. Hal later reveals to the audience that he’s playing the foolish prince so people won’t expect much from him and will look much better in comparison when he finally reveals himself as the great thinker and fighter he really is. Then there’s the climatic battle of Shrewsbury where Hal joins his dad and meets Hotspur in a single combat. Hal kills him though it doesn’t stop the cowardly Falstaff profiting from draft dodgers and trying to convince Hall that he killed him. Sure it might be a happy ending but all isn’t well since the Archbishop of York and the Earl of Northumberland along with other nobles are also plotting against the king, too. Guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.

Plot Origin: For one, history. Source material is derived from the second edition (1587) of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which in turn drew on Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York. Also, Glendower isn’t a warlock but a Christian who was cheated out of his lands and declared traitor by one of Henry IV’s friends. This led him to take up arms for Welsh independence. Not to mention, the confrontation between Hal and Hotspur never happened. Also, Hotspur was actually about 3 years older than Hal’s dad, by the way. Keep in mind that Henry IV was 37 at this time and wasn’t gaunt, geriatric, or ill. So it wouldn’t make for a fair fight. Nor would Henry IV comparing Hal to Hotspur make any sense whatsoever. Henry of Monmouth would make more sense since he was 16 at the time. And his wife’s name was Elizabeth, not Kate. Oh, and Hal wasn’t as much of a scamp as he is in the play. Then there’s Hal taking an arrow that leaves a nasty scar on his face, explaining why his portraits always depict him in profile. Falstaff is a complete fabrication.

Who Falls In Love: Well, Hotspur and Lady Percy seem to be happily married until Hal intervenes. So do the Mortimers despite that the two of them not speaking the same ending.

Who Dies: Unfortunately, it’s not a happy ending for Hotspur since Hal kills him during the Battle of Shrewsbury (in real life it didn’t happen that way and Hal gets a nasty scar on his face). Still, at least Hal gives him a proper funeral eulogy which is touching. Worcester is executed. Mortimer dies shortly afterwards, too.

Reputation: From the start, this has been an extremely popular play among critics and the public. And Falstaff is probably one of the reasons for this since he’s seen as one of Shakespeare’s best characters. Hotspur has a lot of fans, too. Made into several films such as the Chimes of Midnight with Orson Welles, Age of Kings, and the Hollow Crown with Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston (but no Chris Hemsworth as Hotspur, tragically).

 

  1. Henry IV Part 2
Falstaff: "It was always yet the trick of our English nation, if they have a good thing, to make it too common." - Act I, Scene 2

Falstaff: “It was always yet the trick of our English nation, if they have a good thing, to make it too common.” – Act I, Scene 2

Genre: Historical

Published:

Plot: Well, it opens with Falstaff bantering with his page about his pee, announcing he’s going to a whorehouse for some fun, and spending the rest of the play cracking jokes, taking bribes from draft dodgers, and drinking with his buddies. Meanwhile, it seems like victory at Shrewsbury doesn’t seem to quell Henry IV and Hal’s issues with each other as they prepare for another confrontation. Hal still hasn’t earned his dad’s trust since he’s still friends with Falstaff and his ilk. And King Henry’s mistrust deepens when Hal’s brother Prince John defeats the remaining enemies through political know-how and manipulation instead of battle which basically leaves Hal no way to get praise from his dad. Then King Henry falls ill and passes out in bed. Think his dad died, Hal swears on his dad’s “corpse” that he’ll be a great king while he takes the crown from his head. King Henry wakes up to find it stolen, berates his son for theft mostly because he thinks Hal is only waiting for him to die so he could ascend the throne. Hal gives an impassioned speech explaining why and swears he won’t let his old man down. King Henry IV dies happily and Hal becomes Henry V. In the final scene Hal and Falstaff meet again. But Falstaff’s excitement is soon thwarted when Hal rejects him by forbidding him to go anywhere near him under pain of death, proclaiming he can no longer associate with thieves and drunks. Falstaff is devastated.

Plot Origin: For one, history. Source material is derived from the second edition (1587) of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which in turn drew on Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York.

Who Falls In Love: Well, it seems Mrs. Hotspur still loves her late husband since she chews out her father-in-law for sending him off to war and calling him sick.

Who Dies: King Henry IV from natural causes but at least he and Hal reconcile on his deathbed so it’s not tragic and rebel leaders after they’ve surrendered to Prince John who orders their executions.

Reputation: While it does have its moments, it’s not as successful as the first one. Yet, critics do say that Hal’s rejection of Falstaff is quite powerful onstage. But this causes many people to see Hal as a complete and utter prick because while Falstaff isn’t a shining role model, you have to love the guy. Is combined with the other parts in The Hollow Crown and Chimes at Midnight.

 

  1. Henry V
Henry V: "From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be rememberèd;/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile/This day shall gentle his condition:/And gentlemen in England, now a-bed/Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day." - Act IV, Scene 3

Henry V: “From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be rememberèd;/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile/This day shall gentle his condition:/And gentlemen in England, now a-bed/Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” – Act IV, Scene 3

Genre: Historical

Published: 1599

Plot: Prince Hal is now King Henry V who’s shed his frat boy persona and become a mature man who now embarks on a conquest of France. This ends with him winning the Battle of Agincourt and winning the hand of a princess. But unlike in fairy tales, the fallout after the battle isn’t pretty.

Plot Origin: Well, history. And source material is derived from the second edition (1587) of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which in turn drew on Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York.

Who Falls In Love: Well, Henry V and Catherine of Valois despite the fact that he conquered her country. However, in real life Henry V and Catherine of Valois wouldn’t have a language barrier to worry about.

Who Dies: A bunch of soldiers from both sides, as well as Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, and Bardolph all die off stage. Henry V dies in the epilogue.

Reputation: While not as popular as Henry IV Part 1, it’s still seen as one of the better Shakespeare plays since its plot structure has become a template for just about every war movie ever made. Not to mention when the play’s performed, expect varying interpretations since scholars debate on whether this is a pro-war, anti-war, or a character study. Also expect scholars debating on whether Henry V is a heroic boy king or a despicable manipulator who committed what we know today as “war crimes.” But do you think they gave a shit about that in the 1400s? No. Still, this play can be played on many levels. Combined with The Hollow Crown. Has 2 famous film adaptations with a 1944 one by Sir Laurence Olivier and a 1989 one by Kenneth Branagh. Then again, this might be a play that’s better on a movie screen than a stage.

 

  1. Henry VI Part 1
Earl of Warwick: "Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;/Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth;/Between two blades, which bears the better temper;/Between two horses, which doth bear him best;/Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye; —/I have, perhaps, some shallow spirit of judgment;/But in these nice sharp quillets of the law,/Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw." - Act II, Scene 4

Earl of Warwick: “Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;/Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth;/Between two blades, which bears the better temper;/Between two horses, which doth bear him best;/Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye; —/I have, perhaps, some shallow spirit of judgment;/But in these nice sharp quillets of the law,/Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw.” – Act II, Scene 4

Genre: Historical

Published: 1592

Plot: Begins at Henry V’s funeral after he was knocked down in his prime where we already see the English nobles feuding among themselves. Meanwhile in France, a great leader Sir John Talbot is meeting new resistance from some nobody named Joan of Arc who arrives in the Dauphin’s camp and has revitalized his flagging army. Later the young king Henry VI arrives for his coronation in France to reconcile the feuding nobles who’ve now divided themselves into 2 camps symbolized by red and white roses. And he inadvertently makes things worse for seemingly favoring the red rose party and sending the two chief rivals out at the head of his army, culminating a recipe for disaster. The Dukes of York and Somerset simply refuse to come to each other’s aid in battle which results in Sir John Talbot being killed by the French. But York defeats Joan whom he orders her executed. They also a capture the French princess Margaret of Anjou who the Earl of Suffolk plots to marry to the king.

Plot Origin: For one, history. Also, Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York from 1548 and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. Still, this isn’t a historically accurate play since Henry VI was a baby when his dad died and was about 10 when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Also Joan wasn’t captured by the Duke of York but by the Burgundians who had her burned at the stake for the trumped up heresy of wearing pants.

Who Falls In Love: No one yet.

Who Dies: Sir John Talbot is killed in battle along with a lot of other English soldiers, including his own son.

Reputation: This play and its sequels was well received enough to establish Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright. Today it’s seen by some critics as one of the Bard’s weakest works while some disagree. Still, there’s a lot written about it in Wikipedia in regards to the death of chivalry, patriotism, as well as the saintly vs. demonic. It’s also suggested that Shakespeare might’ve collaborated with others in writing this as well. The portrayal of Joan of Arc as a scheming villainess who’s inspired by demonic voices, sleeps around, and distrusted by some of the French might rub people the wrong way because while she may not be as angelic as she depicted, most of us know that she was absolutely not a Satanist whore. Combined with The Hollow Crown. It’s still performed though.

 

  1. Henry VI Part 2
King Henry VI: "Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all./Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close;/And let us all to meditation." - Act III, Scene 3

King Henry VI: “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all./Close up his eyes, and draw the curtain close;/And let us all to meditation.” – Act III, Scene 3

Genre: Historical

Published: 1591-1594

Plot: Begins at Henry VI’s wedding to Margaret of Anjou but the Earl of Suffolk’s plan to dominate the king fails thanks to the Duke of Gloucester who’s popular, honest, and trusted by the king. So in retaliation, Suffolk conspires with other courtiers to disgrace and kill Gloucester only for him to end up exiled and executed for the crime. Meanwhile the Duke of York stakes his claim to the throne since he knows it’s as good as Henry’s with the Dukes of Salisbury and Warwick pledging their support. York gets command of a Royal Army to suppress a rebellion in Ireland but not before setting up a little rebellion against the crown by enlisting Jack Cade. Cade captures London but proves to be a tyrant that Lord Clifford is able to persuade the commoners to fight in King Henry’s favor. York returns with his army and after finding out Clifford’s win in the PR wars, declares he wants to protect the king from Lord Somerset’s treachery. Henry rejects this and York tells him he just wants to take over and, supported by sons Edward and Richard, he fights and wins against Royal forces. Nobles choose sides as King Henry, Margaret, and Young Clifford flee.

Plot Origin: For one, history. Also, Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York from 1548 and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. Nevertheless, since this takes place in the 1450s, there’s no way in hell Richard of York could enlist his sons Edward and Richard to support him because Edward was 13 and Richard was 2 around the Battle of St. Albans. Then again, Edward probably would’ve went along but he wouldn’t be leading any armies. As for Queen Margaret, she’s really not evil and her reason for stepping up had more to do with her husband’s incompetence. Jack Cade wasn’t as much of an idiot but he did take the Mortimer name yet as an expression for solidarity.

Who Falls In Love: Well, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou get married but it’s more of a political alliance (and she has something with Suffolk on the side where they have something mutual. After all, he wooed her for Henry anyway). The Gloucesters also have an interesting relationship.

Who Dies: The Duke of Gloucester is assassinated by the Earl of Suffolk, the Earl of Suffolk is executed, a bunch of rebels and soldiers, Jack Cade is killed, Lord Clifford is killed in battle, and Cardinal Beaufort is found dead in bed.

Reputation: Well, it’s still talked about and is still performed but it’s not as popular or well-loved as some of other Shakespearean plays. Yet, along with the other Henry VI plays, it did help establish the Bard’s reputation as a playwright. Combined with The Hollow Crown.

 

  1. Henry VI Part 3
King Henry VI: "This battle fares like to the morning's war,/When dying clouds contend with growing light;/What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,/Can neither call it perfect day, nor night." - Act II, Scene 5

King Henry VI: “This battle fares like to the morning’s war,/When dying clouds contend with growing light;/What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,/Can neither call it perfect day, nor night.” – Act II, Scene 5

Genre: Historical

Published: 1591-1594

Plot: Begins with a face-off between King Henry and the Duke of York along with their respective supporters. They later make a deal that after King Henry dies, the Duke of York will have the throne. However, Margaret is disgusted by the king’s cowardice that she and her husband’s supporters continue the war on their own, defeating the Yorkists in battle. Young Clifford kills Edmund of Rutland as York is captured, taunted with his son’s death, and executed. The Earl of Warwick continues the fight on behalf of his son Edward who’s joined by both Richard and George at head of reinforcements from France. Between them, they defeat Margaret and the Lancastrians and Edward is proclaimed King Edward IV. He then outrages Warwick by marrying Elizabeth Woodville just as he was going to set him up with a French princess. Warwick and George of Clarence switch sides. And soon Edward is captured while Henry is restored. Yet, he’s soon rescued and kills Warwick in battle. In the final battle, Edward captures and kills Henry’s son and jails Margaret while Richard sneaks away and kills Henry VI to remove any further complications. So by the end, things look rosy for the House of York with Lancastrian cause seeming dead and gone. And there’s a new heir to the throne named young Edward. But Richard of Gloucester doesn’t seem too happy at the moment.

Plot Origin: For one, history. Also, Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York from 1548 and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. Still, historically, Edmund of Rutland wasn’t Duke Richard of York’s youngest son. He was his second and was 9 years older than the future King Richard III who was actually Richard of York’s youngest son anyway. But Rutland did die at 17. Also, in 1460, George was 11 and Richard was 8. So to say that they defeated Margaret in her Lancastrians in the 1460s with their teenage older brother is a stretch. Also, when Edward IV is restored in 1471, Richard is 19 but this doesn’t really matter as much.

Who Falls In Love: Edward IV marries Elizabeth Woodville to Warwick’s outrage (since he was engaged to another woman at the time in real life).

Who Dies: Edmund of Rutland is killed by Young Clifford, Richard of York is executed, Edward IV kills the Earl of Warwick in battle as well as Edward of Westminster, Henry VI is killed by Richard of Gloucester, and a bunch of other soldiers.

Reputation: While the trilogy this play belongs is talked about and performed as well as said to establish Shakespeare’s reputation as a playwright, it’s not as popular as the other plays. In fact, the play that comes after this one is seen to be way more enjoyable than the Henry VI trilogy. It’s called Richard III. Combined with The Hollow Crown.

 

  1. Henry VIII
Queen Katharine of Aragon: "After my death I wish no other herald,/No other speaker of my living actions,/To keep mine honour from corruption,/But such an honest chronicler as Griffith." - Act IV, Scene 2

Queen Katharine of Aragon: “After my death I wish no other herald,/No other speaker of my living actions,/To keep mine honour from corruption,/But such an honest chronicler as Griffith.” – Act IV, Scene 2

Genre: Historical

Published: 1603-1613

Plot: Mostly focuses on the machinations of Cardinal Wolsey surrounding the Duke of Buckingham and the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. It ends with Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the subsequent birth of future Queen Elizabeth I.

Plot Origin: History and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. In real life these events happened over a period of 13 years. Not to mention, Mary Tudor is carefully omitted. Also, Cardinal Wolsey is unfairly maligned while Henry is seen as a poor, misunderstood nice guy. In reality, though corrupt Cardinal Wolsey was a competent and faithful servant to King Henry VIII well into the man’s reign. It’s just that he wasn’t able to get an annulment from Rome because the Pope at the time was being held prisoner by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who just happened to be Katherine of Aragon’s nephew. But Henry couldn’t tolerate Wolsey failing him so he fired him, took over his house, and was going to have him arrested and executed but he died of natural causes. Then there’s the fact that there was no reason to believe Elizabeth I would be queen at the time of her birth. And the fact that Katherine never meets Anne despite her being her lady-in-waiting. Still, around this time, there would’ve still been so much controversy about Henry VIII’s reign among the public that our Bill might’ve made a conscious choice to toe the party line. This also explains why you won’t find Sir Thomas More or his beheading in this either.

Who Falls In Love: Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn. Sure they seem happy at the end, but we all know how that turned out.

Who Dies: The Duke of Buckingham who gets executed and a bunch of other guys who wouldn’t agree with Henry.

Reputation: Well, a cannon during a performance of this play in 1613 caused the Globe Theatre to burn to the ground. And it’s also said that Shakespeare wrote this with a collaborator. Nevertheless, it’s one of the few plays to retain its popularity after the Restoration and into the 18th century. Recent audiences aren’t really big fans of the play since we all know that Henry VIII wasn’t a poor, misunderstood nice guy. If he was, then he wouldn’t have been so harsh about Cardinal Wolsey failing him due to factors that were beyond his control. Hell, he even had Sir Thomas Cromwell beheaded in 1540 by setting him up with Anne of Cleves (whom he later found to be unattractive while meeting her. However, Anne of Cleves wasn’t seen ugly by others. Yet, at least she was smart enough not to contest the annulment and got a generous settlement out of it). Still, if you want to see something on Henry VIII that doesn’t include Anne Boleyn’s beheading, watch A Man for All Seasons instead.

 

8. King John

King John: "There is no sure foundation set on blood;/No certain life achieved by others' death." - Act IV, Scene 2

King John: “There is no sure foundation set on blood;/No certain life achieved by others’ death.” – Act IV, Scene 2

Genre: Historical

Published: 1590s

Plot: King John is the anti-hero in this with the hero being Bastard Philip Falconbridge who’s the son of Richard the Lionheart. Begins with Richard the Lionheart being killed by a man named Austria. Still, John somehow gets himself in a war with Philip II because he refuses to step down in favor of his nephew Arthur whom his mom Constance wants on the throne. After all, he’s the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey (though Richard wanted John to succeed him in his will). Then there’s Hubert of Angiers who also has a claim but Philip suggest England and France unite to fight him off. Then John gets excommunicated because he appointed an archbishop without consulting the pope. Bastard Philip beheads Austria. Angiers and Arthur are captured as John forces the former to kill the latter but he refuses and lets him escape. Cardinal Pandolf manipulates Dauphin Louis into invading England so he could make a play for the English throne with the English lords throwing their support. But after Arthur dies trying to escape, King John becomes deeply remorseful and is accepted back to the Church over this. But he falls ill and becomes unable to rule so Bastard Philip assumes command with him winning over the French and English. But the Lords soon learn that once the Dauphin gets into power, all English noblemen will be beheaded. So unsurprisingly, the lords side with the English once more. Meanwhile, John gets poisoned by a monk as his son Henry watches him die. He takes the crown after Cardinal Pandolf convinces the French to leave English soil.

Plot Origin: History and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. Still, while the play has John getting into a war because he wouldn’t step aside for his nephew, the reason was that Philip II wanted to capture French lands in English possession. Also, although Arthur is depicted as 8 in the play, he was actually 16 during these events. And he was executed almost as soon as John took the throne. John didn’t have any remorse over this. Oh, and Richard the Lionheart was killed by a kid with a crossbow and he was shortly killed after he died (even though Richard forgave him and asked he wouldn’t be harmed). Not to mention, King John died from dysentery, not monk poisoning. Philip Falconbridge should really be Philip of Cognac but he’s so sparsely documented that there’s really not much to go on but he’s said to slaughter Viscount Aimar V of Limoges who was the leader of a rebellion that Richard was fighting. And it was over the death of his dad. But there are no other sources to confirm this and we’re not sure what happened to Cognac after 1201. Then there’s the fact the Magna Carta isn’t even mentioned at all. However, this play does get one thing right which is the fact that Dauphin Louis (future Louis VIII of France) did invade England during King John’s reign and did have considerable English support. But he was never crowned and renounced his claim after being excommunicated and repelled that he’s now considered a Pretender more than anything.

Who Falls In Love: Dauphin Louis and Blanche get married but this is a political arrangement.

Who Dies: Richard I is killed, Eleanor of Aquitaine dies of natural causes, Prince Arthur dies falling off a wall and trying to escape, Austria is beheaded by Bastard Philip, Constance dies of grief, and John dies from monk poisoning.

Reputation: This play is so obscure that it’s not performed a lot and doesn’t seem to have a lot of commentary. Well, it was highly popular in the Victorian era that it was performed quite frequently but that’s about it. For a play on King John, stick to The Lion in Winter instead.

 

9. Richard II

Richard II: "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground,/And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,/Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd;/Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd;/All murder'd — for within the hollow crown." - Act III, Scene 2

Richard II: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,/And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,/Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d;/Some poison’d by their wives, some sleeping kill’d;/All murder’d — for within the hollow crown.” – Act III, Scene 2

Genre: Historical, Tragedy

Published: 1595

Plot: Henry Bolingboke and a rival challenge each other to a duel but Richard II interrupts them before they have a chance to fight and exiles them both. Sometime later John the Gaunt dies, giving Richard the idea to seize his cousin’s lands. Bolingboke decides to return as the Duke of Lancaster and he’s rightfully pissed that Richard has taken his lands and wealth. So he quickly starts a war with him to get his stuff back. But soon he ends up seizing the throne of England and forces Richard to abdicate. Richard is sent to prison angsting about losing his throne before being killed by an ambitious nobleman. Now King Henry IV regrets his death and vows to redeem himself by starting a crusade against Jerusalem. Unfortunately, parenthood, ally betrayal, and civil unrest won’t give him any time for that.

Plot Origin: History and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. While the play paints Richard II as a weak, capricious, and unpopular, that’s not the whole story. Sure was unpopular…among nobles since they had been in control during the early part of Richard’s reign (since he ascended the throne as a child) and he kind of wished to rein them in. Still, he wasn’t executing and exiling nobles until the later years of his reign. And let’s just say him disinheriting and exiling Henry Bolingboke was a huge mistake. Nevertheless, while Richard II’s polices weren’t entirely unrealistic or unprecedented, the way he carried them out was unacceptable to the political which led to his downfall. Still, Henry IV would regret having him killed for the rest of his life.

Who Falls In Love: Well, Richard II really loves his queen. Then again, she’s more of composite character of his 2 wives, one of whom was still a child at the time of his death. So it’s probably for the best.

Who Dies: The Duke of Gloucester is executed, John the Gaunt dies of natural causes, and Richard II is killed by Exton in prison along with a bunch of other soldiers in battle.

Reputation: This play has an unusually detailed performance history and is still performed today. A lot of people draw parallels between Richard II in this play and Elizabeth I in the last years of her reign since it wasn’t clear at the time as to who would succeed her. And it doesn’t help that Richard II and Elizabeth I didn’t have kids. Still, while Richard II may seem like a jerk, you kind of feel bad for him once he’s overthrown. Combined with The Hollow Crown.

 

10. Richard III

King Richard III: "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days." - Act I, Scene 1

King Richard III: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” – Act I, Scene 1

Genre: Historical

Published: 1591

Plot: Edward IV knows he doesn’t have a lot of time left and wants to avoid another generation of dynastic conflict that ended with his second ascension to the throne from starting up again. So he decides to call England’s powerful factions to make them shake hands and promise to be nice to each other and his young son once he croaks. They do and everyone lives happily ever after. Just kidding! It all goes downhill from there. Because Edward’s younger brother Richard of Gloucester has other ideas. With aid from Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham and after a brief detour to woo the widow of a man he killed, he soon has several of the queen’s relatives arrested and executed in the Tower of London. And once, Edward IV croaks, the young princes get sent there, too. However, by this point Lord Hastings is dismayed when Richard plans to have his nephews declared illegitimate and take the throne for himself. So he refuses to go along and gets his head chopped off as a result. From there, Richard decides that the kids will be trouble and he might as well have them whacked, too which even makes Lord Buckingham getting squeamish. So he leads a failed rebellion and gets his head chopped off, too. Richard then proceeds to poison his wife so he could marry his niece. This leads almost every non-villainous character in the play band together under some guy who hasn’t even appeared. But Henry Tudor prevails since he’s assisted by the ghosts of Richard’s victims and successfully kills him in battle.

Plot Origin: For one, history. Also, Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York from 1548 and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1577. Thomas More’s biography of Richard III may be another source. Still, the real Richard III wasn’t a deformed freak (well, he had scoliosis but he didn’t let that slow him down). Nor was he a terrible ruler, took the throne with illegal power (he simply ruled any nephews and nieces above the succession order as illegitimate), or had a lot of people killed. Also, Richard wouldn’t have had a hard time declaring Edward IV’s kids illegitimate because he was engaged to another woman before tying the knot with Elizabeth Woodville and was too much of a horndog for people to be shocked by it. Besides, in England, the nobles and commoners hated the non-noble Woodvilles and feared the princes would be used as Woodville pawns anyway. And they weren’t fine with the idea of child kings. So let’s just say Richard putting the kids in the Tower was an unpopular one and Parliament was happy to give him the throne. And his coronation was one of the best attended in years. We also know that Richard didn’t kill the Duke of Somerset (who died when he was 3) or George of Clarence (whose death was at Edward IV’s orders because he was an opportunistic bastard who switched sides during the Wars of the Roses. But when he murdered a servant girl, Edward just wanted George dead and had no wish to commute his sentence. Not to mention, Richard actually argued against George’s execution despite having feuds with him). Compared to other medieval kings, Richard’s body count was low but he only ruled for 2 years. His relationship and marriage to Anne Neville was a happy one (and he most certainly didn’t bump off her dad or poisoned her. As for her previous husband, he certainly took advantage of his death. But that’s because he really loved Anne and marrying her wasn’t a popular decision at the time). He never accused his mom of being an adulteress (George of Clarence did this). And he had no interest whatsoever to marry Elizabeth of York (because he was arranging marriages for both of them to marry within the Portuguese royal family. He also formally denied any intention amid rumors). Oh, and he died at 32. Edward IV died at 40 and his death came as a shock and Richard wasn’t even at court at the time. As for the princes, it’s most likely that Lord Buckingham had them killed (if not, then the Tudors but they never got their aunt Margaret who was safe in Burgundy). Buckingham’s rebellion was intended to put himself on the throne, not Henry Tudor and he was a long time adherent to the Lancastrian cause. He later transferred support to Henry Tudor when he knew that he wouldn’t get any support from any faction. And Edward IV reigned for 12 years. However, given that it was Tudor times, you can see why Richard III is depicted as evil in this one.

Who Falls In Love: Well, Richard with Lady Anne. (But contrary to the play, Richard and Anne really did love each other and had a kid who died young. And she and their son died of natural causes.)

Who Dies: Edward IV of natural causes, the princes in the tower from murder (of course), several of the Queen’s relatives get executed, George of Clarence is drowned in a massive vat of wine, Lord Hastings and Lord Buckingham get beheaded, Lady Anne gets poisoned, and Richard III goes down fighting at Bosworth Field. A lot of others get killed as well.

Reputation: A Restoration adaptation had been performed throughout the 1700s but the original Shakespearean version in a production in 1845. Though it’s still commonly performed today, it’s rarely unabridged sometimes with certain peripheral characters removed entirely mostly because not people have seen the Henry VI trilogy plays. It’s also a big reason why the Richard III Society also exists since this was one of the reasons why Richard III has had and perhaps still does have a bad historical reputation. Still, even members of the Richard III Society enjoy the play because evil Richard III is so entertaining. Made into several films with the 1955 version starring Sir Laurence Olivier being the most famous.

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