Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s History Plays: Which One Should I Read First?

I recently finished reading all three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Having now read all 8 sequential history plays, albeit out-of-order, I’d like to talk a little bit about what order is best to read them in.

Option 1: start with either Henry V or Richard III, then go back and fill in the blanks.

Pros:

  • These are one-part as opposed to multi-part plays. Shakespeare is not light reading, and the history plays take some getting used to even if you know and like Shakespeare. It can be a lot less daunting to commit to reading a single play than a series of two or three plays.
  • Each of them contains a compelling and self-contained story which does not necessarily depend on you having read the other plays to understand and appreciate it.
  • These are the simplest and easiest to follow of the history plays. The Henry VI plays especially require you to keep track of countless noblemen, nearly all named either Edward, Richard, or Henry, who keep dying and inheriting each other’s titles, as well as constantly changing sides in the War of the Roses.
  • These are the most enjoyable of the history plays. This is more a matter of opinion, and I realize some people may disagree, but the Henry VI plays are some of Shakespeare’s earliest work and aren’t necessarily as well-organized or well-plotted as those that came later. Richard II is well-written but has a very different tone from the other history plays, and Henry IV part 1 is excellent and enjoyable, but part 2 is longer than it needs to be and doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

Cons:

  • If you start with Henry V, you don’t get young Prince Hal’s coming of age story. You don’t recognize Falstaff or Henry’s other youthful companions, so the harsh decisions he makes in putting his kingly duties above his old friends do not seem as important as they are. You are left without any context for why everyone thought he was unlikely to be a good king and without the contrast between who he was as a young prince versus who he has become. I started with Henry V and enjoyed it, but I appreciate it more now that I have the full story.
  • If you start with Richard III, you miss out on even more context. This is actually the final play in the sequence, and everything – starting with Richard II – leads up to Richard III’s ascent to power.

Option 2: Read in the order they were written (Henry VI, Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V)

Pros:

  • This is the order that Shakespeare’s original audience would have seen the plays in.
  • You get the full context of each play.
  • Henry V provides an uplifting conclusion to a violent and chaotic storyline, even if the viewer knows what comes after.
  • Richard II might function better as a prequel than as the first in a series. It doesn’t have to hook you at that point, it just has to fill in the gaps and give the origin story, which it does exceedingly well.

Cons:

  • Henry VI seems like possibly the worst place to start. Not only are there three interconnected plays, but each of them is incredibly complex and difficult to follow, with – as I mentioned above – many characters sharing the same three names and constantly changing titles and loyalties. They are also some of Shakespeare’s earliest writing and lack the polish that his later work does. I found them enjoyable to read, but I can’t imagine starting with them.

Option 3: Read in chronological order (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III)

Pros:

  • The first play in the sequence is a self-contained, one-part play. As I mentioned above, Richard II has a different tone to it than the other history plays, being slower-paced and thoughtful rather than quick-moving and action-oriented. However, it’s undoubtedly a better place to start than the three Henry VI plays. Almost anything would be.
  • Everything happens in chronological order, meaning that you have the full context for everything. You know who the characters are and what their motives are, and you are never left wondering if this thing that doesn’t make sense is explained in a previous play.
  • Reading them in this order means that you get to follow the full story of the War of the Roses: the events leading up to it in Richard II and the early Henry plays, the war itself during Henry VI, and its ending with Richard III.

Cons:

  • I really do believe that Richard II works better as a prequel than the “hook” at the start of a series. While it’s an elegant and well-crafted play and a haunting tragedy, it is not as fast-paced or action-oriented as the plays that follow. It may not be to everyone’s taste and might turn people off of the histories who would enjoy something like Henry V or Richard III much more.

If I had it to do over again, I’d either do it the way that I did (Henry V, Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry VI), or I’d do it in chronological order. I’d say that if you know you’re going to read all the history plays, chronological order might be the way to go, but if – like me when I first began – you’re uncertain and just want to test the waters, you might be better off starting with either Henry V or Richard III. They can be understood and appreciated on their own, and you can always go back and revisit them later if you go on to read the others.

Shakespeare

Henry IV

The Henriad is a collection of four Shakespearean history plays spanning the reigns of three different kings: Richard II, Henry IV (parts I & II), and Henry V. While they can be read and performed individually, each play is connected to those that come before and after it. Having read them out-of-order, I didn’t realize just how connected they were until I went back and read the Henry IV plays, which make up the middle part of the tetralogy.

Henry IV Part I is so filled with references to Richard II that I imagine it would have been very difficult to appreciate without already being familiar with Richard’s story. The whole conflict of the book is centered around the people who helped put Henry on the throne in the first place changing their minds and deciding, too late, they’d rather have Richard after all. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is the way the events of Richard II color the relationship between Henry IV and his rebellious son, Prince Hal.

Richard II was, among other things, a horrible king who had no idea he was a bad king, or that there could possibly be any such thing as a bad king. It’s not so much that he was intentionally cruel to anyone as that he was utterly self-centered, believing 100% in his divine right to rule, and to make whatever decisions he wanted. However, his incompetency and selfish nature are not the only reasons he was overthrown. The nobility seemed more concerned with the fact that he spent so much time with commoners, putting his “favorites” in positions of power and ignoring the nobles who would traditionally have been his closest advisors. Is it any wonder, then, that Henry IV is concerned to see his son and heir spend most of his time in a tavern with a bunch of drunken commoners?

Henry IV even explains this himself in Part I, when he scolds the prince for his behavior:

For all the world
As thou art to this hour was Richard then
When I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh;
And even as I was then is Percy now.

Henry IV sees in his heir the same tendencies that he opposed in Richard II, and he sees in Henry Percy’s rebellion the potential for the same kind of rebellion he himself led when he deposed Richard. It’s not just that he disapproves of the prince’s friends or is disappointed to see him wasting his time in a tavern and neglecting his princely duties. Rather, he seems to be deeply worried to see his own son behaving in a way that reminds him of the king he overthrew. He knows all too well how fragile a king’s grip on power can be.

Of course, having read Henry V, I know that isn’t the direction this story is taking. By the time Prince Hal takes the throne as Henry V, he’s ready to leave behind his rebellious ways and accept a king’s responsibility. His old friends appear in that play, but he pays them little attention, and by the end, most of them have died. I mentioned when I watched the 1989 movie version of Henry V that the short flashbacks to Henry IV made it easier to understand the moments in which Henry rejects or punishes an old friend; now, having read the entire Henriad, I think it would be interesting to go back to Henry V and see if I interpret anything differently.

One common thread, I think, is that Henry V is deeply aware of how the people perceive him, a quality that sets him apart from both his father and Richard II. While Richard seemed to enjoy putting on a performance of being king, also he seemed to assume that he was universally loved. Henry IV, on the other hand, believed in setting himself apart from his people and encourages his son to do the same. Henry V disguises himself to eavesdrop on his soldiers and makes eloquent speeches to inspire them before battle. Although his father does not realize it, he gives careful consideration to how his association with Falstaff and the others makes him look, and he deliberately plans out his own coming-of-age story to cast himself in the best light possible. He works carefully to craft a positive image for himself, one that contrasts with both his father, Richard II, and even his younger self.

The biggest complaint I have with Henry IV is that it could have been one play. The vast majority of the action and character development take place in Part I, with only a very few important developments in Part II:

  • The rebellion is anticlimactically stopped
  • King Henry IV dies
  • King Henry V becomes king and rejects his old friends

The play is not so much its own story as a bridge between the ending of Part I and the beginning of Henry V.  There is very little to Acts I-III, which really just set the stage for the events mentioned above near the end of the play. It was already implied that the rebellion would be stopped at the end of Part I, and the rest is evident in the opening scenes of Henry V. King Henry IV’s death scene (Act IV Scene V) and King Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff (Act V Scene V) are both powerful and moving scenes, but with those two exceptions, the play itself ends up feeling superfluous.

Shakespeare

Shakespearean Anachronism

Today I went to see a college production of Romeo and Juliet, and it was very, very different from anything I’ve seen before. Instead of being purely modernized or purely historical, it was an odd mix of old and new, with swords and daggers used in all the major fight scenes while at the same time using modern dress: suits, sneakers, and women in pants. Women in pants fighting with swords, even, because several supporting roles went to women that were originally written as men. While Romeo and Juliet is typically a story in which the men fight and the women stay on the fringes or get caught in the crossfire, in this version women were active participants in the feud and actively involved in trying to end it as well. I’m not sure what kind of statement, if any, they were trying to make here, but the result was a play that felt both more balanced and modern and, at times, even more disturbing. Juliet being forced to marry Count Paris is one thing. Juliet being forced to marry Count Paris while a female Benvolio is out there swordfighting and sneaking into parties with her cousin feels shockingly unfair, highlighting just how little control Juliet has over her own future.

The anachronistic interpretation took a little getting used to. But on the other hand, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anachronisms. They were often performed in the clothing of the time despite taking place in the past, and the texts themselves often impose elements of contemporary culture onto historical societies. For instance, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the choice to marry Demetrius or become a nun – in Ancient Greece! The stories in Shakespeare have more to do with Elizabethan England than with the places they are supposedly set, and continue to be relevant today despite being over 400 years old. In a way, the stories could be said to take place outside the typical boundaries of time and place. They could take place at any time, in almost any location. The production that I saw made the story feel both timeless and immediate, not so much like a period piece but like something from hundreds of years ago happening right now – which is probably just as Shakespeare intended it.

Shakespeare

Spring Break Reading: Richard II

Richard II is the third one of Shakespeare’s history plays that I’ve read, and it’s nothing like either of the others. I’m not entirely sure if I like it or not – but then, that’s how I felt when I first read Henry V, and now it’s one of my very favorites. While Henry V is a patriotic, celebratory play and Richard III a gruesome horror story, Richard II is far less straightforward.

On the one hand, King Richard II is a terrible king. Worse than that, he doesn’t seem to have any idea he’s a bad king, or any understanding of a king’s responsibilities – which makes a certain amount of sense, since the real Richard II took the throne at ten years old. He’s indecisive and prone to favoritism, as the opening scenes show: when two noblemen each accuse each other of treason, he first agrees to let them fight to the death, before changing his mind and banishing them both – one for ten years (later reduced to six because he wants to make the man’s father happy) and the other for life. Not that I think fights to the death are the best way to settle a dispute, but frequently and easily changing one’s mind is not a great leadership quality, either. And yet, the play spends a great deal of time talking about the divine right of kings, and many characters assume that Richard is God’s choice to rule and therefore any attempt to remove him from power is wrong.

On the other hand, Henry of Bolingbroke is Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor, and all of the history plays are at least partially Elizabethan propaganda, so we’re probably meant to be rooting for him. He certainly seems to be a more capable ruler than Richard, and he has no problem winning the nobles’ support, although not the support of the play’s religious figures. That’s where the whole divine right thing comes into play most.

Neither Henry nor Richard seems like a particularly bad person – as in, neither of them is a cartoonish villain in the vein of Richard III – but neither of them seems particularly good, either. They both make questionable decisions, and they both have faults. Richard’s main ones are immaturity and an utter lack of leadership skills. But he has a strange sort of dignity even in defeat, and he becomes increasingly thoughtful and introspective. It’s hard not to pity him, especially near the end. Like Hamlet, he might have led a happier life if he weren’t royalty. Henry, on the other hand, is incredibly arrogant in believing he can just march right back into a country he was exiled from to demand his inheritance and, by the way, the throne as well. But on the other hand, he’s also smart, capable, and probably right in thinking he’d be a better king than Richard – except, this is a history play, and the real Henry IV’s reign was short and turbulent.

All-in-all, they both come across as remarkably human for two monarchs in a historical drama. Unlike with Henry V and Richard III, who are clearly defined as hero and villain, in Richard II Shakespeare seems to present two fully human, deeply flawed contenders for the throne and lets the audience – or the actors and director – draw their own conclusion. That’s not what I was expecting, but then again, character development is one of Shakespeare’s strengths. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised it would be apparent here as well.

Shakespeare

Spring Break Reading: Julius Caesar

I just finished reading Julius Caesar, the second Shakespeare play I’ve read this week. Wow! There’s definitely a lot going on in this one, and it’s not hard to see why it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s highlights.

One of the things that stands out most to me is that the play doesn’t really have a clear-cut hero or villain. On the one hand, Brutus is more well-intentioned than Cassius and probably thinks he’s doing the right thing – but what he’s doing is helping to assassinate one of his closest friends, so maybe he’s not as honorable as he would have you think. And even the less-noble Cassius is more of a catalyst for violence than a full-blown, bloodthirsty maniac along the lines of Shakespeare’s more famous villains. In other words, he’s more like Tybalt than Iago or Edmund.

On the other hand, there’s Mark Antony, who seems like a relatively good person and doesn’t get drawn into the conspiracy – but at the same time, he’s superbly skilled at deceit and manipulation and has no problem whatsoever with inciting an angry mob. Julius Caesar himself feels like almost a side character, given that he dies early on in the play. He’s certainly not a bloodthirsty villain in the vein of Richard III. He sometimes seems too proud or too happy to accept power, but he also shows courage and decency. Even the conspirators don’t seem to think he’s a bad person; they seem to have more of a problem with the idea of having a king than with Caesar himself.

Everyone is to some degree sympathetic, and everyone’s intentions are to some degree understandable – but they’re also wrong. Caesar’s death does not prevent the Roman Republic from becoming the Roman Empire, Brutus sacrifices his honor by involving himself with the assassination, Mark Antony has his own tragedy awaiting, and – this being Shakespeare – half the cast is dead by the end. The story is made up primarily of people doing what they think is for the best and a steadily increasing death toll. The road to Hell is paved with … well, you know. And that, I think, is the true tragedy of the play.

Shakespeare

Spring Break Reading: Coriolanus

This spring break, I’ve decided to read yet more Shakespeare. While I’ve now read 16 Shakespeare plays, ranging from the ultra-famous Romeo and Juliet to far lesser-known plays like Troilus and Cressida, I had not, until this week, read any of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.

Over the course of his career, Shakespeare wrote four plays set in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus. Despite three of the four being (loosely) based on historical events, they are usually considered tragedies, not history plays. (Shakespeare’s history plays focused mostly on English history). However, they are often grouped together as the Roman Plays, a category defined by their setting as well as by being historical tragedies.

If you can even call Coriolanus a tragedy, that is. The title character definitely fits the tragic hero mold, as a powerful man whose “tragic flaw” – in this case his pride – leads to his downfall. But at the same time, compared with other Shakespearean tragedies, this one seems almost tame. Only one named character dies, and beyond his own death there is no lasting harm done.

Granted, not every Shakespearean tragedy has to be a bloodbath. Both Othello and Romeo and Juliet have relatively low death counts, too. But the difference is that those deaths pack a huge emotional punch, while Coriolanus’ just … doesn’t. What feels more tragic: a double teenage suicide leaving behind two grieving families, or an arrogant soldier betraying both sides of a war and then dying for it? Isn’t the point of tragedy that you’re supposed to feel sad about it? But I didn’t. My reaction at the end was more like, “That’s it? That’s the entire scope of the tragedy – the death of the least likable guy in the play?”

That’s not to say I didn’t like the play, just that it doesn’t equal Hamlet or Othello for emotional impact. I found myself enjoying it for very different reasons. It wasn’t particularly tragic for a tragedy, and it certainly wasn’t a lighthearted comedy, but it still had a lot to say.

Coriolanus may be the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, at least those that I have read so far. Yes, the English history plays were political propaganda, but Coriolanus is definitely a critique, and one that is as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare’s England or ancient Rome. With its overly ambitious and deceitful politicians and its volatile mob of commoners whose minds are swayed at the slightest argument, I can’t help feeling it paints an unfairly harsh picture of democracy. And yet, the questions it asks about how and why we choose our leaders are valid ones, and the juxtaposition of the haughty Coriolanus, who openly sneers at the common people and admits he doesn’t care for them, with the underhanded plotting and false flattery of the tribunes, does a good job of portraying the worst extremes politicians can go to. The play doesn’t seem to advocate for dictatorship, but it’s not shy about pointing out the flaws in the Republic it portrays.

The events in the play leave the reader with a lot to think about. How can people be more discerning in who to follow or listen to or vote for? How can politicians balance honesty with tact and pride with compassion? To what extent must elected officials represent the wishes of their constituents? These questions are still important today, but they are also easily overlooked by those of us who have lived our whole lives in a modern-day democratic country.

While the idea that the common people should have a voice in their government was not new in Shakespeare’s time, it was not widespread or well-established. England’s parliament was the exception rather than the rule; most other European countries were absolute monarchies. Perhaps they were more aware of representative democracy not just as a fact of life but as something that must be given thought and attention. In the case of Coriolanus, the play does not blindly celebrate the Roman Republic, but it doesn’t entirely condemn it, either. What it does is pose important questions that, by extension, can be applied not just to Rome but to Shakespeare’s world and to our own.

From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

Richard III, with lions?

I’ve often heard The Lion King described as “Hamlet with lions”, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s more like “Richard III with lions”.

Richard III and Hamlet both feature villains who murder their brothers in order to become king, and both of them go on to murder their nephews in order to try to keep their positions of power. However, the difference is that nobody in Hamlet suspects King Claudius of any kind of treachery – nobody except Hamlet himself. Furthermore, while the Pridelands suffer greatly under Scar’s leadership and are immediately restored after his death, the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” goes far beyond Claudius’ own evil and is not so easily resolved. Scar’s openly despicable persona and single-handed destruction of a once-great land feels much more like Richard III’s reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play.

Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scar is pretty transparently evil. His song with the hyenas has all the hallmarks of a rising dictator. He has convinced them that the lions (except Scar himself) are their enemies, that it’s in their best interest to help him kill Simba and Mufasa, and that their lives will be infinitely better with him as king – yet when he does become king, it becomes obvious he doesn’t really care about helping the hyenas at all. Richard III likewise uses people as disposable pawns and convinces them to ignore his obvious deficiencies. He, like Scar, is charming in a sinister way and can win over even those who know for a fact what a horrible person he is. Claudius, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an ordinary king, taking the throne after the tragic death of his brother. He doesn’t have to charm or manipulate others into supporting him, because everyone just assumes they should. Even Hamlet requires greater proof than his father’s ghost to be convinced of his uncle’s treachery. While Richard III and Scar are obviously evil, hidden by a thin veneer of charisma and empty promises, Claudius is subtle and secretive about his crimes and very nearly gets away with them.

But, of course, Hamlet focuses the majority of its attention on Hamlet himself, Claudius’ nephew who learns what happened and reluctantly sets out to avenge his father. Like Simba, he initially runs away before returning to challenge his uncle. Both princes also encounter the ghost or spirit of their father, who pushes them to act when they are hesitant to do so. However, Hamlet’s story is all about his philosophical contemplation of death and slow descent into madness. Being a children’s movie, there’s nothing like that in The Lion King. Simba’s journey is toward courage and heroism while Hamlet’s leads to death – his own, and almost every other character’s.

On the other hand, Richard III ends with a bit more hope. Its villain protagonist is vanquished and killed, and Henry Tudor takes his place as the new king, marrying Elizabeth of York and ending the War of the Roses. While the princes in the tower are the more direct equivalents to Simba, being Richard III’s nephews who he has murdered, the triumphant ending scenes of The Lion King are highly reminiscent of Richard III: Simba defeats Scar, replaces him as king, and reunites with Nala, a flash-forward showing them with a cub and implying the beginning of a strong and benevolent dynasty to replace Scar’s violent one – exactly the sort of promises made by the ending to Richard III, which is hopeful despite the play’s overall gruesomeness.

Conflict over the throne is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and many of his villains are willing to kill for power. The brother vs. brother plotline also appears in King Lear, as in well as comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It (although, admittedly, only Hamlet and Richard III also involve an uncle trying to murder his nephew). Nor are these themes and motifs unique to Shakespeare. However, of the two Shakespeare plays it most resembles, Lion King has more in common with Richard III than with Hamlet.