Unit Four. The Histories.

Bevington, Welsh and Greenwald. SHAKESPEARE: Script, Stage,
Screen. (pp. 323-325)
Chronicle plays popular in London
after 1588 (Defeat of Spanish Armada)
When Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1568, England was in the
midst of a religious civil war
By the 1590s, England viewed herself as a great nation
1. Military might
2. Expansion into the Americas and elsewhere
England still was dealing with “Catholic” problem and an aging
Queen with no successor
Many immigrants began to build the nation towards a new
age of greatness
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada
Shakespeare’s histories
1. Created the language to examine KINGSHIP
2. Asked questions about nationhood, personal and
political morality
3. Dramatized a period of transition from a dynamic
kingdom to a modern nation
Shakespeare examines
the dynastic struggles
that began after the
death of Edward III
(1327-1377), of the
house of Plantaganent
The War of the Roses
The combatants were…
The families of Lancaster
and their allies the Tudors and Beauforts
The House of York
and its allies, the Mortimers and Nevills
Lineage of House of Lancaster
The House of York
Shakespeare helped to establish the
genre of the chronicle play
He wrote 10 English history plays in all if we
count the incomplete EDWARD III which is
included in many modern anthologies
He did not write these plays in historical
The first FOUR plays were the HENRY VI plays
culminating in Richard III
Henry VI and Richard III
It is believed he wrote these four plays from 1591-1594
Second cycle
 Richard II (1595-6)
Henry IV (1596-8)
Henry V (1599) 
He borrowed from many sources, but
primarily upon two histories
AND YORK (1530)
1. Not only the source for his histories but for four of his
tragedies including KING LEAR and MACBETH
2. Holinshed and Hall were considered to be the architects
of the “Tudor Myth” in which the bloody events of the
War of the Roses were all interpreted as moving forward,
through divine guidance, to the foundations of the Tudor
3. In that view the English nation had to be punished for the
murder of Richard II, thus Richard III becomes the
scourge of God
Henry V and Richard III
In Shakespeare’s time, the short-lived victory of HENRY V
(Lancaster) over the French was seen as a forecast of the
civil virtue and the strength of England under the Tudors
In this light, the plays can be read as examples of
“Shakespeare apprehended that civil and cosmic order
depend not just upon concepts of heirarchy and class, as
set forth in the much-touted Great Chain of Being or
Elizabethan World Picture, but also upon the kind of
personal relationships that a villain such as Richard III is
incapable of sustaining.”
Other popular histories
Thomas Heywood wrote for the Admiral’s
Men. His works included histories of Edward
IV and Queen Elizabeth.
Sir John Oldcastle
by Michael Drayton
was written about
the same time as
Henry IV
The works draw on common sources, borrow and plagiarize
one another, or simply incorporate their predecessors’
accounts in their own…
“The miracle is that Shakespeare was able to stick as closely
to the truth as he did, weaving together all the various
strands to create a single epic masterpiece which, for all its
minor inaccuracies, is almost always right when it really
matters.” (John J. Norwich, SHAKESPEARE’S KINGS, 2000)
Did he intend a series?
 Probably not. In fact, it was not until the 19th century
when a producer in Weimar, Germany staged them in a
sequence that they were even considered as a series
 In 2000, London’s YOUNG VIC staged a critically
acclaimed Henry VI, part I. It was informed by the
company’s research into Philip Henslowe’s records that
20,000 people saw the play in 1592.
 Yet the histories were unappreciated and
underperformed in their original forms from the 17th to the
20th centuries
Recent performances
 Gilmore Brown at the Pasadena Playhouse did all 10
plays in historical sequence in 1935
 Early in the 1950s, England’s Birmingham Rep presented
the three Henry VI plays over several seasons
 The Old Vic did Henry VI plays in 1953
 John Barton’s famed WAR OF THE ROSES premiered at
Stratford in 1963. He added 100 lines of his own and a
new trilogy emerged—Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III
Recent performances
Michael Bogdanov’s English Shakespeare Company did
their own WAR OF THE ROSES IN 1988
The Plantaganents, RSC (1989)
This production was adapted
from the Three HENRY VI plays and
1990 – The History Plays at the Guthrie
Theatre in Minneapolis
Garland [Wright] prided himself in being able to anticipate and know
everything, but this was a time when I saw him most surprised, and
genuinely surprised, by something that happened in the theater. The
first time we did the three plays together, in previews, it was a noon
curtain for Richard II, 4:00 for Henry IV, and 9:00 for Henry V. At the
opening for Henry V -- "O, for a muse of fire." -- the entire company of
actors would all come out, fill the stage and just take different parts of
the speech and share it around the stage. Well, they all came out and
the lights came up and just before they were ready to begin, the
audience began to applaud. And then the audience began to stand
up and there was a standing ovation at the beginning of the play. It
was a completely spontaneous moment, a complete celebration of
the theatrical event between audience and actors. It was completely
extraordinary. It was true theater.
~ Charles Newell, co-director with Garland Wright of The History Plays, as told
in The Guthrie Theater: Images, History and Inside Stories, by Peg Guilfoyle,
executive editor Sheila Livingston
Guthrie Theatre, Richard II (1990)
Guthrie Theatre, Henry IV (1990)
Guthrie Theatre, Henry IV (1990)
Guthrie Theatre, Henry V (1990)
Guthrie Theatre, Henry V (1990)
Guthrie Theatre, Henry V (1990)
2000-1, RSC produced a history
marathon…all eight plays over a
weekend in historical sequence
2000-1, RSC produced a history
marathon…all eight plays over a
weekend in historical sequence
This modern dress production was part of the RSC's This England: Histories
Cycle sequence, in which all of Shakespeare's plays dealing with the reigns of
Richard II to Richard III were presented. As King Henry, William Houston built on
his performance as Hal in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. His Henry was a cold man of
iron-willed self control until his experiences on the eve of Agincourt disclosed
a degree of human vulnerability. Modern battle fatigues were worn by the
cast throughout and the design centered around a mobile mine-wheel
which, at one point, advanced downstage to become terrifying battle
During the siege of Harfleur, the English soldiers invaded the auditorium,
carrying their weapons and ladders into the stalls and the circle. Scenes of
battle were stylized: punch-bags rather than human bodies were assaulted.
The speeches of the Chorus were shared between the acting company, while
the invading English were given rousing songs newly written by the left-wing
activist, Billy Bragg.
2000-1, RSC produced a history
marathon…all eight plays over a
weekend in historical sequence
The Histories of Shakespeare
King John
Henry VI, Part 1
Edward III
Henry VI, Part 2
Richard II
Henry VI, Part 3
Henry IV, Part 1
Richard III
Henry IV, Part 2
Henry VIII
Henry V

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