Apart from the tragedies and the comedies, Shakespeare wrote ten historical plays. Eight of these were about the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War that raged on and off for a century, until 1485, when the question of kingship was finally settled with the defeat of Richard III by Henry Tudor. Richard was a Plantaganet, the line that had come in through the husband of Matilda, daughter of Henry I. He was thus directly descended from William the Conqueror, whereas Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, had only a tenuous claim through blood to the throne. His main claim to fame was that he was the grandson of the wife of Henry V, who had married a Welsh adventurer after the death of her husband.
The naming of the Civil War arose from the different coloured roses chosen as their emblems by the Houses of Lancaster and of York, named after the two sons of Edward III whose descendants were the chief protagonists in the protracted war. The struggle had begun when Henry Bolingbroke, son of the Duke of Lancaster, got rid of his cousin, Richard II, the son of Edward III’s eldest son. Bolingbroke became Henry IV, and was succeeded by his son, Prince Hal, who became Henry V.
But he died young and his son, Henry VI, was after a long struggle overthrown by the Yorks, who claimed seniority, albeit only through their mother’s line. Edward IV however also died comparatively young, and was succeeded, not by one of his sons, but by his brother Richard. Henry Tudor took advantage of the disaffection that developed, and defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, but took care to legitimize his claim by marrying the daughter of Edward IV. Her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, were by now dead. Though history as written by Henry VII’s Court claimed that their wicked uncle had done away with them, there is also an argument that it was Henry who had done it.
So much for history. Shakespeare tackled the subject both early and late in his career, the last four plays chronologically being written earlier, and being considered inferior in quality. These are the three parts of Henry VI, along with Richard III, and they are more concerned with historical narrative than the plays that were written later. Indeed the second and third parts of Henry VI read sometimes like a string of battles, with noblemen changing sides for what seem the slightest of reasons, until Henry VI – who actually reigned for a very long time – finally lost out.
He is a passive figure, supposedly of great sanctity, and is best remembered for having founded two still great educational institutions, Eton College and King’s College Cambridge. But he never really emerges as a character, and is dwarfed by his powerful wife Margaret. But even she can do little to render the plays interesting as drama.
More powerful are Henry VI Part I, which is essentially about Joan of Arc, and Richard III with its powerful anti-hero. Richard is presented as a hunchback, though again there is argument about whether this is based on fact or the skilful demonizing propaganda of the Tudors. The character resonates powerfully however, from his first stirring lines, which lay out crudely but powerfully the intense ambition with which Shakespeare endows him:
“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths….
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
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.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:”
And even if he is not quite as gripping in his decline as Macbeth, his recognition of where his ambition has led him is striking:
“Give me another horse: bind up my wounds.
Have mercy, Jesu!–Soft! I did but dream.
O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!
The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder’d
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.”
He is a superb foil to Richard II, the weak king with whom the historical cycle began. Richard, inheriting the throne when he was very young, after the premature death of his father, the Black Prince, Edward III’s heroic son, was dominated by nobles who made him disliked. Then, choosing his own favourites, he became more unpopular. Though he sacrificed one, and then another, in the end the ambitious Henry (Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV) was able to enforce his abdication.
Richard, who had seemed a rather silly young man previously, becomes heroic after he has lost authority. He laments evocatively after he has been forced to abdicate the vanity of kingship:
“…of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”
But even this is not enough for Henry, who believes a living Richard could become a centre of disaffection. He has him killed, an act that will continue to haunt him in the next two plays in the cycle:
“How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?…
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
The strength of these four later, chronologically earlier, plays lies then in their psychological expositions, their analyses of what power means, its acquisition and its loss, its impact on those around one, whose objectivity must ever be in doubt.
Not least is this played out in the relations between Henry IV and his son, the boisterous Price Hal, who then turns into the adored and effective Henry V. The scene in which he takes his father’s crown leads to some of Shakespeare’s most poignant lines :
I never thought to hear you speak again.
KING HENRY IV
Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought:
I stay too long by thee, I weary thee.
Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.
Stay but a little; for my cloud of dignity
Is held from falling with so weak a wind
That it will quickly drop: my day is dim.
Thou hast stolen that which after some few hours
Were thine without offence; and at my death
Thou hast seal’d up my expectation:
Thy life did manifest thou lovedst me not,
And thou wilt have me die assured of it.
Thou hidest a thousand daggers in thy thoughts,
Which thou hast whetted on thy stony heart,
To stab at half an hour of my life.
What! canst thou not forbear me half an hour?”
Though the Prince does satisfy his father about his intentions, this prompts what is in effect the King’s valedictory speech, in which Shakespeare shows how deeply he feels he has suffered from the manner in which he came to the throne:
“Come hither, Harry, sit thou by my bed;
And hear, I think, the very latest counsel
That ever I shall breathe. God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with bitter quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth. It seem’d in me
But as an honour snatch’d with boisterous hand”
But in addition to this playing out of a sense of guilt, there is another aspect too to the two parts of Henry IV, namely the depictions of low life centring on the character of Sir John Falstaff. I don’t think I quite subscribe to Bloom’s view, that this is Shakespeare’s finest creation, but I do acknowledge that to deal with him in passing would not do him justice, so I will leave him for another essay.