If you live in the U.K. I bet you are well aware that the award winning series “The Hollow Crown” part 2 The War of the Roses” is being telecast right about now. If you are not aware this may help explain why all of the young girls are giggling and staying home; Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Ricard III.
This production is a series of some of Shakespeare’s English history plays. In chronological order of setting, these are: Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II and III, Richard III. But if we look at the order of when they were written we see that Shakespeare may not have had a series in mind.
Henry VI part II 1590
Henry VI part III 1590
Henry VI part I 1591
Richard III 1592
Richard II 1595
Henry IV part I 1597
Henry IV part II 1597
Henry V 1598
Looking at the order above, we may wonder just what it was Shakespeare had in mind. But if we keep in mind that his primary focus was the stage, not history, we can guess that for Shakespeare the story was thing. Knowing that Henry VI part II was written first it seems to me (and this is just an educated guess) that Shakespeare wrote the plays in response to current events or in order that he found the subject matter fascinating, maybe a little of both.
Thankfully for modern audiences the plays are presented in chronological order. I say thankfully because at times they can be hard to follow, especially the Henry VI plays. I cannot imagine trying to piece the narrative together if I had to watch them in order that they were written. But to be completely honest for many Americans Shakespeare’s history plays are hard to follow no matter the order. Here’s the rub; as much as we may adore Shakespeare’s work, his history is not our history. We don’t study English history unless we seek it out in college or become armchair historians. Many of the characters and events depicted in the history plays are all we have to go on. For many these plays represent our first window view into medieval England. But the window is cloudy and at times we are unsure of what we are seeing.
I was an armchair historian before I went back to school. I fell in love with the medieval Europe and as an undergrad studied the period in which the Catholic Church became the center of politics. Even so, I had questions the first time I saw Richard II. Why was he so hated? Why was it so easy for Henry Bolingbroke to take the crown? Who were all the players in the Henry VI series and more importantly, was Shakespeare true to history?
Now with renewed interest in the Hollow Crown series, I decided it was time to do some reading.
I’ve had John Julius Norwich’s book “Shakespeare’s Kings” on my bookshelf for about a year. I picked it up last week in the hopes that it would answer some of my questions and further my education on medieval kings. I wish I had read it earlier.
Norwich’s book could easily be a guide to the Hollow Crown series. Norwich begins his book not with Richard II but with Edward III, a play that some earlier scholars argued that Shakespeare helped write. Today’s scholars are slowly coming to the same conclusion, though I remain unconvinced. The prose seems sloppy and lacking in depth. Yet the inclusion of Edward assists Norwich as he attempts to paint on a broad canvass. Edward is the jumping off point to Richard’s reign as King and helps explain why it is Richard was such a disappointment.
Norwich is a fine narrator. His retelling of history is engaging and informative. As a historian he does not fall into the easy trap of extrapolating facts to fit his idea of history or seeks to understand it in modern context. I was sucked into the each King’s story and never once questioned Norwich’s conclusions (he has none) or questioned his motive. This is a clean narrative and a history book that is exactly what it claims to be; a historical look at some of Shakespeare’s kings. It is rare to find such a book now days.
Norwich lays out the historical events that shape each play, one by one. Each King is then subjected to Norwich’s summary of the play in question. He breaks them down act-by-act, pointing out inaccuracies and complete fabrication. Like he does with his narrative, Norwich does not judge Shakespeare or act as his chief apologist. Instead, Norwich reminds us that Shakespeare’s focus was on story telling, not lecturing his audience on historical facts. Along the way Norwich explains what source material Shakespeare probably used (I say probably because there was so little to choose from) and how the material shaped his view of Henry V and Richard III.
Reading Norwich’s account of Henry VI’s reign and how it led to the war of the Roses I began to understand why Shakespeare decided to pen three plays on this hapless King. But even so, I was a little disappointed on the liberties Shakespeare takes with historical fact. But then again, I had to remind myself that the more educated of his audience would have had a good understanding of history and would forgive him in order to be entertained. The less educated probably wouldn’t have cared.
Norwich begins with Edward III and ends with Richard III, which encompasses the years 1337 to 1485. This is a lot to take in, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that the book requires a second reading or acts as a reference guide to specific plays. It certainly will remain in arms reach for me as I eagerly await the American premier of The War of the Roses.