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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.