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.

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.

My Poetry · Shakespeare

Fall of a Tyrant

A poem about Shakespeare’s Richard III


Scheming, plotting, taking that
Which is not yours to take
Stealing, lying, trusting none
With smiles and friendship fake

Killing, lying, courting one
Who mourns the men you slew
Trapping in a web of lies
All those of use to you

Planning to usurp the throne
Upon a cunning lie
Locked inside the fearsome tower
Youthful heirs must die

Cheering subjects make you king
But enemies grow strong
Cursing you with hate and grief
For all your sin and wrong

Dripping down the castle walls
The blood of those you’ve killed
Brothers, nephews, allies, wife
The blood your hands have spilled

Haunting you with every step
Ghosts on the battlefield
“Despair and die!” their voices scream
By them your fate is sealed

Rising o’er the battlefield
A song of triumph soars
Rebuild the world, unite the signs
Of Lancaster and York

Nevermore from this day on
Shall brothers’ blood be spilled
But rival houses side-by-side
A kinder future build

Rest in peace, you restless ghosts
The battle has been won
The bloodstains fade from castle walls
Your business here is done

Shakespeare

Texas Shakespeare Festival: Richard III

Shakespeare Festival - Richard IIII went into the theater last night feeling excited, but a bit apprehensive. I’d only finished reading Richard III a few days before, and while I was looking forward to seeing it play out on stage, it was one of the bloodiest and most disturbing Shakespeare plays I’d ever encountered. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be entranced by the gruesome events unfolding or simply disgusted. I left the theater a few hours later, literally speechless and breathless. It was like a horrible train wreck that you just can’t look away from, and I mean that in the best way possible. I loved it!

This was my second night at the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and seeing Richard III was a very different experience from Much Ado About Nothing, which is a light, humorous romantic comedy. Richard III had me gasping in horror, biting back screams, and waiting on the edge of my seat as the doomed members of the House of York plotted against each other. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but I’d imagine it’s much the same effect: what’s happening in front of you is just so horrible it leaves you gasping for breath as if you’d just come close to drowning.

Only Richard III isn’t a horror movie. It’s Shakespeare, and it’s – at least in part – history. Elizabethan propaganda, historically inaccurate, yes, but still. The sides may not have been as black-and-white as Shakespeare would have us believe, but the War of the Roses was still an incredibly bloody and violent time, and history is filled with dictators and tyrants as horrible as Shakespeare’s villain.

Shakespeare’s work often speaks to universal themes. Romeo and Juliet is about love and hatred – irrational hatred and irrational love. Hamlet is about the inevitability of death. Othello is about jealousy and distrust. King Lear is about false flattery and backstabbing and the unfortunate fact that the honest often suffer while the dishonest profit. Many of the comedies deal with some of the same themes, coming to happier resolutions. Richard III, likewise, paints a blunt and unvarnished picture of the evil in the world and the ways in which ordinary people allow it: by trying to profit from it, underestimating the dangers, or simply being too afraid to speak up. There’s something about the play, as is the case with so many of Shakespeare’s works, which transcends time and continues to feel relevant today.