This year, the Kansas City Public Library's Winter Reading Program is focused on the works of William Shakespeare, works about the Bard, and works based on Shakespeare. To that end, I'll spend the first three months of 2016 looking at his plays.
As a tetralogy, often called the Henriad, the four plays deal with the rise of Henry Bolingbroke (Richard II), his rocky reign as king (Henry IV, both parts), and the better fortune of his son, Henry V. Just as the first three plays deal with the rise and fall of Henry IV, the last three plays deal with the rise (no fall depicted) of Henry V.
I imagine that, for many readers, the idea of history plays (especially plays about the struggles of British kings of the late Middle Ages) might seem to be tedious stuff. And I have to admit, when the discussion turns on legal matters (e.g. the long discussion of matters of French Salique Law to justify English claims on French lands in the First Act of Henry V), my eyes tend to glaze over as well.
When Laurence Olivier did his beautiful color film of Henry V during World War II, he handled this long discussion of the niceties of law as farce, with one actor using his prop papers as cribs (his lines written out on them). This works fine until he trips and drops papers everywhere, and he has no idea of his lines. That stage solution works, as it turns a tedious bit of exposition into pretty funny farce. Of course, if you're reading the text, you have to slog through.
The fine points of law do not make up a lot of any of these plays, nor do the facts of history get in the way of Shakespeare telling a good story. One doesn't read history plays to learn history, any more than one watches a movie like Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Kate Beckinsale to learn what really happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
In his history plays, Shakespeare compresses time (turning months or years into a matter of weeks or even days), compresses a couple of characters into one composite character, and plays with the age of his characters. In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare makes Prince Hal, whom all think an irresponsible teen, the same age as Harry Percy (AKA Hotspur), the very martial son of Northumberland, leader of the rebels. In reality, Hal was 16 to 17 at the time of the events of the play, while Hotspur was 38-39.
The most memorable character of Henry IV, Parts I and II is that of Sir John Falstaff, a very fat knight, full of sack (wine) and corruption, whom the king fears is leading Prince Hal astray. In reality, there was no Falstaff. The character is loosely based on an actual person, Sir John Oldcastle, but even had Shakespeare kept the name of Oldcastle, the fat reprobate of a knight in the play would still be more fiction than fact.
The plays as a group are a reflection on kingship, and of the relations of fathers and sons. Of the three kings depicted in the four plays, Richard II has the best legal claim to be king, born to it in proper line of succession, but he is the least kingly. Incapable of ruling himself or his kingdom, he needlessly wounds and alienates Sir John of Gaunt and his son, Henry Bolingbroke.
Deposed, he is killed while in prison, and the formerly exiled Bolingbroke rises to rule as Henry IV. Though more capable of discharging the duties of a monarch, Henry's ascension to the throne is plagued by the method of his rise, and the fact that others have as good or even better legal right to the position. Consequently, from the very beginning, Henry finds himself beset by those rebelling against his authority. Desiring more than anything to take up the cross and go on crusade as a means of expiation, Henry must spend his talents putting down rebellion. And his son, who had lived wildly as a youth, proves himself a most able king in his twenties, uniting England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in common purpose against a common enemy, the French.
Even that story has a sad ending, for though the play ends on a high note, the chorus reminds us that the next king, Henry VI, would lose all, something Shakespeare's audience had already seen in Henry VI, Parts I, II and III.
These plays, written in the mid to late 1590s, show Shakespeare at his most poetic, as the following lines of John of Gaunt, in praise of England, and condemnation of Richard's rule, from Richard II, show:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessèd Mary's son.
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
If you haven't read any of these plays, I'd recommend trying at least one. If you're concerned about the difficulty of the language, watch the BBC productions, or check out the earlier BBC production, An Age of Kings, or the later production, The Hollow Crown. They are all excellent.