Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens by Henry Albert Payne based on a scene in Shakespeare's "Henry VI"
William Shakespeare catered to a playgoing public obsessed with history plays. He wrote ten works dealing with the history of England from the 12th to 16th centuries, and during his lifetime, they were among his most popular works. Until recently, though, only a few of these plays were widely performed, while the others were produced only rarely.
Recent productions such as the BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” have introduced modern audiences to the full grandeur of the two tetralogies that cover the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster, but modern audiences still need help in appreciating the sprawling cast of characters and their complex interrelationships.
Historian Jennifer Paxton examines the history behind the history plays and explores the fascinating ways in which Shakespeare did—and did not—depart from what his contemporaries knew about their own past both to entertain his audience and to comment on the politics of his own day.
9:30–10:45 a.m. Sad Stories of the Death of Kings: Richard II and Henry IV, Parts I and II
The deposition of Richard II in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke might have seemed a blip in English history, if only the Lancastrian family that replaced him had been more successful on the throne. Learn how Shakespeare foreshadows the conflicts that would dominate the later 15th century by focusing on the origin of the dynastic feud that led to the Wars of the Roses, and how he depicts two protagonists—Richard II and Prince Hal—who are complex enough to win both the admiration and the disapproval of Yorkists and Lancastrians alike.
11 a.m.–12:15 a.m. We Happy Few: Henry V
In Henry V Shakespeare engages in some artful spin to minimize the scope of the dynastic discontent that persisted after Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne and maximize the military success of his son in the Hundred Years War with France. Paxton examines how the play’s ambiguous approach to the war might have appealed to Shakespeare’s audience, which confronted another deadly foreign conflict with Spain.
12:15–1:15 p.m. Break
1:15–2:30 p.m. The First Thing We Do: Henry VI, Part I, II, and III
The Henry VI plays are the least performed and the hardest for a modern audience to understand, since they cover the broadest span of time and include a dizzying array of characters, but they provide the vital prelude to one of Shakespeare’s first masterpieces, Richard III. They also offer some priceless scenes, such as the English take on Joan of Arc and the revolt that prompts the call to “kill all the lawyers!” In these three plays, the military successes of Henry V’s reign unravel and the dynastic warfare that had been papered over during his time on the throne break out once more.
2:45–4 p.m. I Am Determined to Prove a Villain: Richard III
Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most famous villains, but many people today think Richard has been unfairly maligned. It’s true that Shakespeare drew heavily on pro-Tudor propaganda, and by ending the play with Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth he deliberately draws the curtain on the period of instability that opened with the deposition of Richard II. In reality it was not so simple: Dynastic uncertainty persisted down to Shakespeare’s day, and it is possible to see Richard III as his effort both to obscure that fact and to call attention to it.
Paxton is clinical associate professor in the department of history and director of the university honors program at Catholic University of America.
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