Friday, 24 April 2015

If I should tell my history....

In honour of Shakespeare, this blog is about his sensational History plays. They feel more relevant than ever because of the popularity of Game of Thrones and George RR Martin’s acknowledgement of the influence of Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses sequence.

Shakespeare wrote eleven plays dealing with English History (King John, most of Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III and most of Henry VIII.) Shakespeare also wrote three historical tragedies set in Ancient Rome (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.)
Some of the other tragedies contain historical aspects: Titus Andronicus, for example, with the wars between the Romans and Goths or Othello with the Venetian/Turkish tensions. King Lear, Macbeth and Cymbeline (a comedy?!) might fall under the banner of Shakespearean history because they are based on legendary, pseudo-historical figures; and they were included in one of Shakespeare’s key source books, Holinshed’s Chronicles, a history of Britain, although even contemporary commentators thought Holinshed was inventing much of his “history.”
Tragedies as Histories?
But how far did Shakespeare’s exploration of history colour subsequent interpretation? Richard III and Cleopatra in popular culture certainly derive from Shakespearian characterisation. There are wild inaccuracies and anachronisms in the history plays. These howlers occur either for dramatic effect or as a result of Shakespeare’s patronage and the need to stay in favour with the aristocratic sponsors of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. But no theatre fan has ever claimed the History plays are documentaries. Modern TV and film dramas play equally fast and loose with police work, courtroom proceedings and medical treatments.

I am frequently astonished when I contemplate the scale of the sequence of history plays. The scholarly best-guess is that the first to be written was “The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Jack Cade: and the Duke of Yorke's first claim unto the crowne” – a snappy title if ever there was one.  This roaring success was followed by the sequel with another memorable title: “The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses, Lancaster and Yorke.” A collaboration with another writer then rushed in to produce the PREQUEL to this pair of plays in order to cash in on the popularity of the first two. The First Part Of Henry the Sixth appeared and the earlier-written plays were then re-titled Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three.  This sequence of three plays can be seen as the first entertainment franchise, topped off with a quadrilogy when Richard III roared onto the stage. Richard III was Shakespeare’s breakthrough work, immediately popular and increasingly  popular all the way through to the present time.
Henry VI Parts One and Two (Joan of Arc and the death of the Duke of York)

Four plays, twelve hours of stage entertainment recreating the Wars of the Roses in a series of blistering set-pieces, comic interludes, heartbreaking anti-war speeches alongside patriotic calls to arms.  It shows a whole nation.  It presents Joan of Arc, Jack Cade, Talbot, Margaret of Anjou, Richard Duke of York, Richard Duke of Gloucester, Warwick the Kingmaker, Suffolk, the saintly Henry VI, the charismatic Edward IV, the pitiful Edward V…. characters that come to vivid life whenever the plays are staged.
Richard III in the forms of Ian McKellen, Antony Sher, Simon Russell Beale and Jonjo O'Neill

Not content with a quadrilogy, Shakespeare then went on to write four even more successful plays that, in historical terms, led up to the events of the Wars of the Roses. The second set of four plays portray the lyrical Richard II, the sweep and grandeur of Henry IV Parts One and Two and the play that Churchill and Olivier purloined for the British efforts in the Second World War, Henry V. Characters have teemed from these plays into the national subconscious, whether we know it or not: Northumberland, Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt, Hal, Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, Poins, Bardolph, Hotspur, Glendower, Lady Percy, Pistol, Silence, Shallow, Fluellen, the Dauphin and Katherine – not to mention the three very different titular kings.
Scenes from "The Henriad" - Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V

At the end of Richard III, Queen Elizabeth I’s grandfather is crowned saviour of the realm (a propagandist portrayal to flatter the queen and slander the Yorkist line.) Through the eight plays we see the rise and fall of great figures in history, both men and women; we see the disorder and chaos of a country in the throes of a civil war; we see the lurch from medieval to modern times; we see what it means to be a strong leader and a weak leader; we see murders, plots, secrets, betrayals, invasions, sieges, riots, miracles, political scheming, religious hypocrisy, family loyalty and family tragedy, the burden of power, the abuse of power; we see virtues and vices, reasons to be patriotic and reasons to attack your government.

The Wars of the Roses, the underlying political tension in eight of Shakespeare’s English history plays, was as far removed from the English citizens during Shakespeare’s time as the Boer War is from us. Richard III died in 1485 and the plays were written between 1590 and 1601. The way we perceive the late Victorian and Edwardian period is how the original audiences would have felt about the events that were being portrayed at the outdoor playhouses.

With the printing press still a relatively new invention, world events might well be forgotten—unless they had been turned into legends, handed down through oral tradition. For the majority of the illiterate English populace, plays provided a vivid introduction to the history of their grandparents, piecing together the oral anecdotes that had been passed down.

The original audiences flocked to the early performances of these plays; Henslowe’s diary includes fantastic box office receipts for Shakespeare’s histories.  

But the plays also served another purpose. Even an invigorated England could not quell the growing fear and uncertainty surrounding the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The question on people’s minds was: what would happen to England when their queen died? A series of plots to assassinate Elizabeth, combined with the knowledge that there was no obvious heir to the throne, sent nervous tremors throughout the country. Would the power struggle reignite a civil strife between a new set of contenders like Richard III and Henry VI, or would the country unite as it did behind Henry V and Henry VII?
Turbulent times for Elizabeth I

Using history as a foundation, Shakespeare built characters and events that explored the rich complexity of human nature.  His ability to craft stories of human emotion, motivation, bravery and vulnerability is a legacy that is astonishing in its richness and variety.  Thanks, fellah!  And happy birthday for April 23rd.