There is argument to be made that Shakespeare’s history plays constitute one of his greatest achievements. While no single play in this series equals any of the great tragedies, the Histories constitute a sustained and coherent body of work that addressed a central political issue of Shakespeare’s time.
The issue concerned nature and legitimacy of political power. Even the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth, could not be certain of her hold on the throne. The political and religious wounds that had been opened by her father Henry continued during her reign and that of sister Mary.
The Tudors: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I
The Histories cover the period up to and including the Wars of the Roses. In all there are eight key plays: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Part 1, 2 and 3, Richard III. They cover the period 1380 – 1487 and include the time when the warring families of the Plantagenets waged a bloody war for the English crown.
Richard II and Richard III: bookends for the Histories
By the time Shakespeare began writing the histories, the last of the Tudors, Elizabeth, had been on the throne for 30 years. There has been much written and said about Shakespeare’s motives for writing the Histories but there is little hard evidence to suggest that he was endeavouring to curry favour with Elizabeth by justifying the Tudor dynasty. Indeed, a careful reading of the plays would indicate that they are almost totally free of any value judgements on this internecine conflict.
In Richard II, the exiled Henry Bolingbrook returned to England ostensibly to reclaim his dukedom but in effect to depose Richard. Henry IV, Pts 1 and 2 explores the effects of the deposition of Richard and Henry’s tenuous grip on the crown.
There are two main and related stories in Henry IV, Pts 1 and 2, linked by the common theme of disorder in the body politic.
The first is the story of the young Prince Hal, played, in the outstanding BBC series The Hollow Crown, by Tom Hiddleston. Hal has rejected life in his father’s court in favour of the company at the Boar’s Head Tavern run by Mistress Nell Quickly.
The second story involves Hal’s father Henry played by Jeremy Irons.
Henry is struggling, not only with declining health and the fact that his eldest son is, to all appearances, a useless wastrel, but also with and insurrection of the northern Lords, led by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Percy also known as Hotspur. In a stroke of genius, the BBC has the Percys played by a father and son Alun and Joe Armstrong.
Matters quickly come to a head for the ageing and ailing Henry when Hotspur, who has been victorious in a war against the Scots on Henry’s behalf, refuses to hand over his prisoners for Henry to ransom.
Reprimanded by the King, Northumberland and Harry Percy go North to raise a rebellious army.
The King and Prince Hal meet them in a battle where Hal kills Hotspur.
Much of the two plays is given over to Hal’s time with his companions at the Boars Head. It’s excellent, material dominated by one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, Falstaff who also figures in the wars between Henry and the rebels were his natural cowardice is exposed.
It is Shakespeare at his myth-making best and it is worth remembering that much of what we understand of Henry V today is derived from his portrayal in the history plays.