Shakespeare's History

This page offers a look at the Henriad, or Shakespeare’s history cycle. The cycle is covered by nine plays, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and Richard III. (Shakespeare did write two other histories, King John and Henry VIII, but neither are tied into the cycle). The plays focus on two major medieval wars in England’s history, the Hundred Years war between England and France, and the War of the Roses, an English civil war. Shakespeare generally follows the historical accounts of his time, but does make some changes to satisfy the needs of the story. The plays are considered to be largely propagandist, specifically the second half which paints the Tudor dynasty as the god sent end to the many wars of succession (remembering that Elizabeth I was a Tudor herself). One of the more interesting aspects of these plays is that they were written out of order. The generally accepted order is Edward III, Henry VI Part 2, Henry IV Part 3, Henry VI Part 1 (That is not a typo, the first part was written after the second and third, we think), Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.

While this dramaturgical site is concerned only with the events in Richard III, the play is the end of the cycle, and as such the events that come before are important to the play itself, even the events in the plays Shakespeare wrote after Richard III but that are set before Richard III. This article will go play by play to mention the important events that shape the cycle overall. For each play the years listed after the title are the dates that king reigned (in the case of plays with multiple kings I will list all the relevant dates to the action in the play).

Edward III (r. 1327-1377)

First, we need to take a moment to deal with canonicity of this play. All of the other plays we will be looking at are part of the accepted Shakespeare canon as they all appear, in one form or another, in the First Folio, the first complete works of Shakespeare to be printed in 1623. A number of these plays appeared only in the First Folio. Edward III is not in the First Folio, but a number of scholars believe a part of the play, at least, was penned by Shakespeare. I have read it, and I generally agree that there is a scene that reads much like Shakespeare. Due to this a number of publishers have accepted Edward III as canonical, including the Riverside and the Oxford.

The play itself deals with two events in Edward III’s life. The first is Edward III’s attempt to bed the wife of another noble. The woman rejects him and teaches him his place. The second part of the play deals with the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Edward, whose mother was a French Princess (If you have seen Braveheart, the princes Isabella that Wallace beds toward the end is Edward III’s mother. The heir, who is portrayed as gay, is his father as there is no historical evidence to suggest Edward II is not Edward III’s father. Though Edward II may have been what we now call gay. For an interesting look at Edward II, Isabella, and Edward III check out Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II) believes he should be king of France due to the fact that according to English law he is the rightful heir. The French, using a long forgotten law called Salic law, think otherwise, so Edward III leads his army to go take France.

The main focus of the action are the battles of Crécy and Poitiers. With Crécy the French learned, not for the last time, the power of the English long-bow. Despite smaller numbers the English were victorious. With Poitiers, Edward III’s son, Edward the Black Prince attacks Gascony (a French province) with a small force. In the narrative of the play at first it looks like the Black Prince will be overwhelmed. Edward III gets news of the impending battle and rides to save his son, getting news along the way of his son’s defeat. He then meets up with his son and learns that the English won a great victory. The play ends with peace between England and France.

The Hundred Years War will show up again in several plays, and has some baring on Richard III, as we shall see.

Richard II (r. 1377-1399)

Richard II is the son of Edward the Black Prince. The Black Prince dies a few months before his father, Edward III, making Richard the heir. The play follows the story of Richard II’s actions against his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Who is also the Duke of Lancaster), is also a son of Edward III. John of Gaunt is also the richest noble in the land, even richer than the king. So for some offence Richard II banishes Bolingbroke from England for five years. A few years in John of Gaunt dies and Richard II takes his land instead of letting it pass, as it legally should, to Henry. Henry returns with an army to get his land back, but eventually deposes Richard II and has him killed becoming Henry IV. This is the beginning of the civil wars for the throne. Technically, these wars are not part of the Wars of the Roses, but as you will see this move by Bolingbroke is what causes the War in a few generations.

Henry IV Part 1 (r. 1399-1413)

Henry IV is not the star of this play, his son Prince Hal and the braggart Falstaff are. Prince Hal hands out in Eastcheap with Falstaff and a collection of thieves, and the country knows this. They worry about Hal becoming king, though Hal tells the audience he is doing it to affect a transformation when he becomes king.

Politically the main issue is Edmund Mortimer the Earl of March. Edmund is the great grandson of Edward III, and he is set up as the heir to Richard II’s crown in opposition to Henry IV. As the Play opens the powerful Percy family (From Northumberland) want the king to ransom Edmund who is prisoner of Glendower, the rebel Welshman. The King could care less because it keeps Mortimer out of the way. The Percys chose to rebel and flock to Wales where the join up with Mortimer and Glendower and attack. The result is a loss for the Percys, though the war still rages on due to their allies as the play comes to a close. Mortimer is important, he will appear again and help to spark the Wars of the Roses.

Henry IV part 2 (r. 1399-1413)

This play focuses much more on Hal and Falstaff. By the end of the play Hal has become king and has turned Falstaff away (that moment is one of Shakespeare’s most heart wrenching). Politically the issue is the rebellion in the north lead by the Percys and the Archbishop of York. While some of the Percys died in the first lay, not all of them are dead, and Mortimer is still alive as well. The war does come to a close with the Percys and Mortimer being defeated leaving Henry IV solidly in the throne, though he dies shortly after passing the crown onto his son, Henry V.

Henry V (r. 1413-1422)

Spurred on by advice from his father, Henry V picks a fight with France. The idea is that fighting a foreign power will keep rebellion down. Henry V claims, as his great grandfather Edward III did, that he is the rightful king to France. The French taunt him and deny the claim. Henry V gathers up an army and marches into France. He wins at Harfluer, and a great victory (in which the English lose about 40 men and the French several thousand). This prompts the French king to give his daughter to Henry V in marriage, and sign a treaty that states Henry V’s children will be kings in France.

Henry VI part 1 (r. 1422-1461)

Now we are getting into the Wars of the Roses proper, and the plays that have direct bearing on Richard III. Henry V dies young leaving his son, Henry VI, to be crowned king at less than a year old. His uncles rule the country as he grows up. Their main issue is to keep France as the French constantly rebel against the English rule. In fact a new leader emerges in France, Joan of arc. Shakespeare’s depiction of Joan is not favorable. She becomes a demon consorting loose woman. She does, however, help the French to fight back the English.

On the home front Richard Plantagenet, who is Edmund Mortimer’s nephew, pleads with Henry VI to regain his lands, as they became property of the crown as he was an orphan. Shortly after he receives his father’s lands, he also received the Earl of March as Mortimer dies, leaving him the heir. This also makes Richard a claimant to the throne.

A petty quarrel between the newly minted Richard of York and the Duke of Somerset blossoms to engulf the whole court. Shakespeare invents a scene where the pair, surrounded by other nobles sit in the garden arguing. To try and solve the quarrel Richard suggests all that follow him pluck a white rose. Somerset asks his followers to pick a red one. They end in a draw, but the court has now all picked sides.

Later, in attempting to adjudicate this quarrel the King picks a red rose, not realizing that it means he takes sides. In order to try and force the pair to work together the King gives the command of the infantry to Richard and the cavalry to Somerset. This in fact causes the English to lose the hundred Years War as the pair bicker over who should sent reinforcements to assist the great English war hero Talbot. Talbot is killed. Joan is captured and burned and the English must sue for peace. As this draws to a close Suffolk, one of Somerset’s allies, captures Margaret of Anjou. The pair are smitten, and Suffolk decides to wed Margaret to the King allowing him some control over the king through Margaret. The king at first says no, but relents at the end of the play. Henry’s uncle, and the Protector of the Realm (basically the king until Henry is of age) Gloucester worries about the ramifications of this marriage, as it is not a good one for the king.
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Henry VI part 2 (r. 1422-1461)

The fighting will start in this play. This is also the first play where our Richard first appears. Before the fighting, however, there is some political maneuvering. The play opens wqith Henry VI and Margaret being married. Suffolk thinks he will now be able to rule the country through the king. The Protector of the Realm, Gloucester (Also called Humphrey, he is Henry V’s brother), is in his way however. Through some political maneuvering he gets Gloucester’s wife banished. He then works with Cardinal Beaufort and Duke Somerset (remember he is the one Richard of York hates) to get Gloucester imprisoned on charges of treason, then sends assassins to kill Gloucester. While this is happening Richard of York tells Salisbury and Warwick about his claim to the crown; they vow to help him get it (this is important for some later events that will impact Richard III).

Suffolk is banished for his part in Gloucester’s death. Margaret, the Queen, vows to get him back (it is implied in the play that they are lovers). Suffolk, however, is killed by pirates who send his head back to the court leading to one of the more strange scenes in Shakespeare when Margaret carries around Suffolk’s head talking to it in court.

Richard of York is given command of a large army and sent off to quell an uprising in Ireland. While he is gone he hiers Jack Cade to start a rebellion in England to gage the people’s willingness to rise to his cause. The rebellion is initially successful, but Lord Clifford persuades the people to stop the rebellion. Cade is killed a few days later.

York returns with his army and marches on London declaring his intent to protect the king from Somerset, who he claims is leading the king astray. Buckingham tells York Somerset is already imprisoned in the tower, but when York sees Somerset walking in the palace “at liberty” he holds Buckingham’s oath broken. They then declares his claim on the crown publically supported by two of his sons, Edward and Richard. The nobility take sides, either with York and the white rose, or with Lancaster and the red. They fight in the battle of St. Albans. Richard (York’s son) kills Somerset, and York kills Clifford. The Lancasters lose the battle and Margaret convinces the king to flee. She has young Clifford with her, vowing revenge for his father’s death. Salisbury and Warwick go with York to pursue the king.

Henry VI part 3 (Edward IV reigns 1461-1470, Henry VI then reigns 1470-1471. He dies in 1471.)

This play contains a number of events that shape the characters in Richard III including Richard himself.

The play begins where Henry VI part 2 left off. The Yorks have won an important battle and are pursuing the Lancasters. York beats them to London where he promptly takes a seat of the throne, prompting a conflict between his supporters and Henry’s. Warwick (who is often called the kingmaker) had brought part of his army, making it dangerous for the Lancasters. Henry strikes a deal with York that allows Henry to stay king, but makes York his heir. Margaret, pissed off that this would disinhearit her son Edward, abandons the king along with his supporters to keep fighting.

Margaret (who is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters, and the only character to appear in four Shakespeare plays) attacks York’s castle and wins. Durring this attack young Clifford kills York’s youngest son, Rutland. Margaret and Clifford then capture York and taunt him. The force him to stand on a molehill, give him a kerchief stained with Rutland’s blood, place a paper crown on his head and then stab him to death.

Richard and Edward lament their father’s death. Warwick finds them and tells of losing his own army at the second Battle of St. Albans. The King has taken his throne back and revoked the agreement with York. The good news is that George, Richard and Edward’s brother, has agreed to fight for the York faction, as has Warwick’s younger brother.

The Yorks regroup and attack. At the Battle of Towton they are victorious, Edward is named king and he bestows the dukedom of Clarence on George, and Gloucester on Richard. Richard dissents as he claims the dukedom of Gloucester is ominous (see Henry VI part 2 for the reasons why). The King and George leave and Richard remains. He then speaks to the audience for the first time, telling them about his ambition to become king, though he does not know how to get the crown.

Warwick goes to France to secure a marriage with the sister-in-law of the king of France to Edward IV in order to cement his claim on the throne. He finds Margaret there who has come to secure the King of France’s assistance in the war. Just as it seems the King of France is going to side with Margaret, Warwick intervenes and secures the French King’s support for Edward IV.

In England the Lady Elizabeth Grey, a widow with several adult sons, had some to petition the king to regain her late husband’s lands. The King, captivated by her beauty, marries her against the protestations of George and Richard. When Warwick hears of this in France he feels the Yorks hae made him look like a fool, and he then sides with Margaret, promising to marry his daughter Anne to the young prince Edward (Henry VI’s son, not Edward IV). Edward IV’s brother George also defects to side with Margaret because he is married to one of Warwick’s daughters (this is an important event, it makes the death of Clarence in Richard III make more sense).

Warwick attacks with the help of French troops Edward IV is taken prisoner and Henry restored to the throne. He makes Warwick and George the Lord Protectors of the realm. Richard soon rescues his brother along with Hastings and Stanley. When news of Edward’s escape reaches Henry the young Earl of Richmond, a potential Lancaster heir to the throne, is sent into exile in France. At the battle of Barnet Edward and Warwick meet in battle. George betrays Warwick and sides with his brothers again. This is enough to allow the Yorks to win the battle. Durring the battle Warwick is killed by Richard. Somerset now assumes command of the Lancaster forces who join up with another force from France lead by Margaret and her son Edward.

Henry VI is captured by the Yorks and sent to the Tower. Edward marches to meet the new Lancaster force at the battle of Tewksbury. The Yorkists rout the Lancasters capturing Margaret, prince Edward, Somerset and the other Lancaster leaders. Somerset is executed, Margaret banished, and prince Edward stabbed to death by the three York brothers when he refuses to recognize the Yorks as the royal family. At this point, fed up with the back and forth of the war, Richard goes to the Tower, and after a long conversation, kills Henry VI. Henry VI prophesies Richard’s villainy with his last breath. Richard then has his longest speech to the audience where he outlines his plans for the throne. Meanwhile Edward IV orders celebrations for the York victory.

Richard III (Edward IV reigns1471-1483. Edward V reigns April to June of 1483. Richard III reigns 1483-1485)

The final play in the cycle picks up with the festivities. Richard of Gloucester tells the audience he plans to get the crown at any cost. He manipulated Edward into thinking George of Clarence want the throne with the result that Clarence is sent to the Tower. He then woos and marries Lady Ann, Warwick’s daughter, and the widow of Prince Edward (Both of whom Richard killed). Gloucester sends murderers to ensure Clarence’s death. Upon hearing the news the aging Edward IV dies of shock. Richard then has Queen Elizabeth’s sons by Lord Grey taken to the Tower and executed in order to secure Hastings’ support. He already has Buckingham, Ratciff, Catseby and Lovel’s support. Hastings supports Richard as the Lord Protector, but not as the king, so Gloucester has his head cut off. He is then named King after he and his supporters dupe the Mayor of London. Richard III has Edward (Who was in fact crowned as Edward V, but then stripped with Richard is made king) and Richard of York (Edward IV’s sons) imprisoned in the Tower. When Buckingham refuses to kill them, he hires a commoner named Tyrel to do the deed. With this act Richard’s power begins to crumble. Buckingham flees, but is recaptured and killed. Stanley considers leaving, but Richard holds his son hostage. In order to attempt to consolidate his power Richard makes an attempt to woo the young Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, through her mother Queen Elizabeth. He fails, and she has her daughter, the only York heir, married to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond the only surviving Lancaster heir. Richmond then leads his army against Richard’s at the battle of Bosworth Field. Stanly fights for Richmond despite the threat to his son. Richard III is killed by Richmond who becomes Henry VII. Henry VII claims to unite the houses of York and Lancaster in the new House of Tudor, thus ending the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII is Elizabeth I’s grandfather, and as such he is portrayed as a noble and pious man.

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