Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The History Plays - Shakespeare

Now that I'm done with all of Shakespeare's History plays, I wanted to sum them up with a post.  I won't try and rank them, like I did with the Comedies.  The history plays are too connected for that type of approach.  They have different aims than the stand alone stories of the comedies and tragedies.  (Besides, I have no idea if I prefer Henry IV part one or two better.  Maybe someone does, but I don't.)
There are ten plays in all and they come in two sets of four and two stand alone stories.  I read the 'Henriad' quartet first and I think that was lucky.  It let me read of a fairly straightforward history from the deposing of Richard II by Henry IV, to his son's journey from young Hal to the heroic Henry V.  I was able to read of the comparatively weak Henry VI and the passing of the throne back and forth with Edward IV and the final climb to the throne of Richard III.  (With a brief glimpse of poor Edward V.)  I can honestly say that I have a much, much firmer grasp on that time period of England than I did six months ago.
There are some very compelling stories throughout the group.  I doubt that I'll ever forget either of the Richards.  Richard II has been raised as a king and can hardly believe that his will isn't absolute.  When his crown is taken from him, it is as if a fundamental law of nature has been violated.  The sheer act causes his world to come apart.
Richard III has no such hang up over the sacred nature of the crown.  To him it is a goal that must be attained even at a heavy cost.  He will be king and he doesn't care who he upsets to do so.  Of course, the people of England decided he was a monster, so this was ultimately his downfall.
If there is a theme throughout the history plays, it is probably the questioning of who should enjoy power.  Who deserves it?  What is the natural line for power to follow?  Is the rule of the king absolute?  What do the people do if someone manifestly unworthy becomes king?  We don't think of modern power in terms of kings and crowns, but the questions of leadership and power are still very familiar.

The stand alones are comparative orphans.  King John was a somewhat weak king who lost the faith of his nobles.  He ended up being poisoned by a monk.  Henry VIII, though prettied up, was a man who reveled in the trappings of the throne but was ruthless towards those who got in his way.  He cruelly cast aside his first wife and was lucky to end up with the jewel that was Elizabeth I. 
Neither play is produced much anymore and it's hard to blame anyone for this.  If I was going to rank them, they would be ninth and tenth in some order.  They don't build to a greater story.  Both of them are fine reading, but I'd be surprised if any but completests read them nowadays.

I love the idea of the history plays.  I'd love to see a similar attempt made with American presidents.  They would have to dodge a minefield of propaganda that Shakespeare wasn't able to dodge, but so be it.  It would be worth it.

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