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.

Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Henry V

When it comes to reading Shakespeare versus viewing Shakespeare, I say do both. I don’t think I’d get half as much out of movie versions or live performances without also reading the script, but each time I’ve seen Shakespeare performed I’ve felt like I got something out of it I wouldn’t have from the script alone. Personally, I like to read the plays first and see them afterwards, which is what I did with Henry V. After finishing my reading of it last week, I watched the 1989 Kenneth Branagh movie.

The whole movie is dark and gritty – not inappropriately so, but more than the play necessarily demands. It adds a long, dialogue-free battle sequence in place of several short scenes, and it cuts humorous moments in favor of emphasizing tragic ones. Any adaptation of Shakespeare has to decide what aspects of the story it’s going to focus on, and this is clearly a gritty historical epic. It’s also taken out of its original medium, making the chorus’ request for the viewers to use their imagination redundant. On stage, it’s impossible to show what a real battle would look like, but movies can come much closer. However, that’s something that couldn’t be avoided except by cutting the chorus altogether, and that would be a shame.

The flashbacks from Henry IV make a world of difference. I don’t regret not reading Henry IV first, but I do think seeing that the little group of unsavory supporting characters are King Henry’s former friends changes the way I see some of his actions. In that light, the play is the story of a young king who chooses his kingdom over his friends, a theme that’s emphasized by contrasting his friendly banter with these men in the flashbacks and his harsh decisions in the present day. This theme is even woven into in the scene in which he unveils three of his nobles’ treason. By addressing so much of his speech just to one of the three, Branagh gives the impression that this man was someone King Henry truly trusted, making the betrayal all the more personal and Henry’s decision to execute the men harsher than it would be otherwise.

I’ve said before that King Henry V – as Shakespeare portrays him – comes across as morally ambiguous, but not pointlessly cruel. Branagh’s portrayal captures this perfectly: the relief on his face when the town of Harfleur surrenders; the single tear when he condemns an old friend to death; the desperate tone of his prayer after visiting the soldiers in disguise; the gentle way he courts Princess Katherine after fighting a war against her people. He’s ambitious, he’s ruthless, but he’s not without a conscience. It would be easy to lean too heavily toward making him a flawless hero, or even toward exaggerating his negative qualities, but the movie kept a good balance.

If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved it.

Classics · Shakespeare

Henry V Acts IV-V

I’m not sure what Henry expected to find when he went walking around the camp disguised as a common soldier. That all his men were totally loyal and believed in his cause as much as he did? Right. The scene was surprisingly realistic, though: his soldiers don’t know or care whether his cause is just, and will fight because their monarch commands them to, but would rather be safe at home.

How much influence does that knowledge have on Henry’s speech before the battle? A lot, I think. When he says, “He which hath no stomach to his fight, let him depart … We would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us”, he’s basically daring anyone who’s afraid or reluctant to leave. And when he speaks of those in England who “shall think themselves accursed they were not here”, he’s giving them a reason to stay and fight: for the honor of being part of the king’s “band of brothers”. He’s an expert at motivating people, and I wonder if – as disappointed as he seemed to be to learn his soldiers weren’t all invested in his cause – he was also looking for what he could say to ensure they’d put everything they had into the battle.

You really have to be able to understand French in order to understand this play. The French characters so often switch between French and English, and even the English characters sometimes speak very broken French. On top of that, and the all-French scene in Act III (where at least nothing important happens), the final scene has King Henry attempting to court the French princess, neither one speaking the other’s language very well. I was able to follow the French dialogue pretty easily, but I was a French major in college. Your average monolingual Anglophone would end up checking the endnotes for a translation every few lines, or just skipping over those parts entirely. Which begs the question: would Shakespeare’s original audience have spoken French? And why include so much of it?

I think he must have been trying to emphasize the language barrier. A big part of the play is the clash of two nations, which shows itself in the contrasting characters, and of course the literal battles, as well as the many scenes when characters struggle to understand each other’s words. In a way, the French and English languages could even be seen as a symbol of the two countries’ differences, and therefore, the final scene as a rocky attempt at peace in which the two royals struggle to understand each other but come to an agreement.

In that scene, King Henry talks about loving Princess Katherine, but how can he? He’s only just met her, and they can barely make themselves understood to each other. Sure, she’s beautiful, and love at first sight is nothing unusual for Shakespeare, but this is hardly Romeo and Juliet. It’s a political marriage. It’s nice that Henry tries to win her heart instead of just demanding she marry him, but still. Their marriage will strengthen Henry’s claim to France. It’s not just a lovestruck whim, and behind this – as with everything else – there’s an expert chess-player thinking several moves ahead.

Classics · Shakespeare

Henry V Act III

“Once more unto the breach …”

Isn’t it amazing when you’re reading along in Shakespeare and all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, words you recognize pop out at you? I once had a professor who would say this before exams, but I had no idea where it came from until now.

On a very different note, the language in this play is sometimes hard to decipher, and I’m not just talking about the scene in French. I speak French. No, I’m talking about Captain MacMorris, whose lines are written in what’s clearly supposed to be an Irish accent. Shakespeare is difficult enough to understand without having to filter through “ish” for “is” and so on. Jamy also speaks in a spelled-out accent, and so does Fluellen, although his is easier to understand. It’s not impossible, but it does add another layer of complication on top of Shakespeare’s ordinary antiquated language.

As for King Henry, I said before that he was a fascinating character, and I still think so. I’m not entirely sure whether he’s harsh and unrelenting or fair and merciful, and I’m not sure he’s sure, either. It seems as if, being new at the whole leadership thing, he’s still figuring that out. When he tells the governor of Harfleur what will happen if they don’t surrender, he comes across as bloodthirsty – and while I don’t think he wanted it to come to that, it would also be foolish of him to make empty threats. Later, he sentences one of his own soldiers to death for looting a French church and makes a speech about how he won’t allow his army to plunder or steal – a strange mix of judgment and mercy in itself, and very different from what he was saying back in Harfleur. It doesn’t seem like he wants to do any more harm than necessary, but he’s willing to adjust his idea of “necessary” by a lot depending on the circumstances.

Classics · Shakespeare

Henry V Act II

I really liked Henry’s interaction with the three treasonous noblemen. After listening to them recommend harsh punishment for someone else, he then reveals that he’s aware of their treachery and tells them not to suddenly change their tune and ask for mercy. It’s like watching a game of chess, where you can only win by thinking several moves ahead – and so far, King Henry is a master at that.

However, it’s hard to understand what’s going on in scenes 1 and 3. I looked up the characters, and they were part of the Henry IV plays, so my feeling of “what on earth is happening now?” is probably because I’m not reading all the histories in order. However, they also seem to be minor characters in this play, so it’s probably not that big a deal. On a different note, the Boar’s Head tavern has to be the inspiration for the Hog’s Head in the Harry Potter series, right?

In the final scene of Act II, we get our first glimpse of France. I get the feeling that the French king is taking Henry’s threat of invasion seriously, while the dauphin just seems eager for war and willing to underestimate the enemy.

Classics

Henry V Act I

I’ve now read three of Shakespeare’s tragedies, three of his comedies, and three of his later plays sometimes described as tragicomedies. It’s about time I try the histories, don’t you think?

I’ve decided on Henry V. Mostly, I just want a first taste of the genre for now, so the long multi-part sagas aren’t really what I’m looking for. Henry V is not the first chronologically, and could be seen as a sequel to Richard II and Henry IV; however, from what I’ve read, it also stands well on its own.

Anyway, I’ve read through the end of Act I, and here are my thoughts so far:

The prologue is beautiful, and speaks to something very real about theater: the way that a simple set and a group of actors can become almost anything, if the acting is good and the audience willing to fill in the blanks with their imagination. However, the long scenes of Act I, with different noblemen and religious authorities debating things, are a bit hard to follow. They’re certainly not as compelling as the straight-into-the-action openings typical of both the tragedies and comedies. Things do start to pick up at the end of Act I, when King Henry has gotten permission from the church to go to war with France. He uses the French ambassador’s patronizing gift – a box of tennis balls – as an excuse, but he’s already made up his mind by that point.

Neither as lighthearted as the comedies, nor as dark and contemplative as the tragedies, Henry V feels political in nature. All the debating over who the new king will support, the church vs. the aristocracy, whether it’s justified to go to war, what country an old rule about women not inheriting might apply to, and then the king using an ambassador’s insult as an excuse for something he’s already determined to do … the play is focused on kingship and the decisions kings have to make, to a much greater extent than, say, King Lear, which touches on similar themes but focuses more on the familial conflict.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll like the history plays as much as the comedies and tragedies. That’s why I’m starting out small, with a single-part play that’s generally seen as one of the best. However, it’s certainly an interesting experience reading something so different from the Shakespeare I’m used to, and I’m trying to go into it with an open mind.