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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 12:11 GMT
How well did Shakespeare know history?
Richard Burton as Henry V
Famous actors have played Henry V
As Shakespeare's history plays are performed in their entirety by the RSC, Shakespeare aficionado Steve Tomkins offers his own assessment of their meaning and significance.

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories of all, its popularity enhanced by modern revivals on film and stage.

Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello are among Shakespeare's other high-profile works, fixtures on school reading lists and often being reinvented.

But his history plays are less well known, although a unique staging of them by the Royal Shakespeare Company hopes to address that.

Over four days, they are being performed in their entirety, in the order they were written, first in Stratford-upon-Avon and then in London.

They offer an Elizabethan perspective on the Middle Ages, but is it an accurate one?

Which plays belong to Shakespeare's history cycle?

The cycle starts with Richard II, followed by Henry IV parts 1 and 2. Next we have Henry V and then - not unpredictably - Henry VI which comes in no fewer than three parts. It ends with Richard III. Bloody sequels eh?

Are these all the history plays Shakespeare wrote?

Not quite. We have King John from before this lot and Henry VIII from afterwards. But these eight form a continuous narrative, from 1398 to 1484.

What story do they tell?

It's quite long. But to give you the headlines:

Henry V
1377: Richard II
1399: Henry IV (two part-play)
1413: Henry V (pictured)
1422: Henry VI (three parts)
1461: Edward IV (no play)
1483: Edward V (no play)
1483-1485: Richard III
Richard II is a terrible king, unjust, foolish, grasping. But not hunchbacked - that's Richard III. Richards are bad, Henrys are good. Richard exiles his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, then seizes all his lands etc when his father dies. So Henry comes home, seizes them back and while he's at it deposes Richard and becomes Henry IV.

Which brings us on to Henry IV parts 1 and 2.

OK, Henry IV's reign suffers from rebellions. It's a kind of curse because he rebelled against Richard. Also his son Hal rebels by falling in with the debauched robber Falstaff. But Hal proves himself in the fighting, turns his back on Falstaff and becomes Henry V.

Which brings us to Henry V the play.

Henry V is the one about the battle of Agincourt. Henry claims the throne of France, is insulted by a gift of tennis balls and invades. After mercilessly suppressing a conspiracy, and a rousing speech or two, he leads the English to victory, marries the princess and leaves his son Henry VI king of England and France. Ah, those were the days.

Then we have Henry VI parts 1 to 3.

Henry VI is about the Wars of the Roses. The French, led by Joan of Arc, start reclaiming the land that Henry V took and the English counter-attack is hampered when the nobility is split by a quarrel between York and Lancaster. York rebels against the king and after countless battles and lots of chopping and changing, Edward IV of York becomes king. His brother Richard kills the imprisoned Henry VI.

And finally Richard III.

In his own play, Richard declares himself to be a very bad sort. His has his older brother killed for starters. When Edward IV dies, he is named Protector of young Edward V, but Richard has him imprisoned, gets himself crowned, then disposes of the lad. Henry Tudor (Lancs) invades, and kills Richard after he finds himself in a tight spot for a horse. Henry marries Elizabeth of York and the Tudor peace reigns.

If that's the plot, what's the subplot?

Falstaff and Prince Hal
Falstaff, rejected when his friend becomes king
Richard II dramatises the dilemma of what to do with a bad king. Monarchy is hereditary and ordained by God, rebellion overturns the natural order. But isn't it justified when Richard is simply intolerable? The answer is: It's a tricky one.

There's more realpolitik in Henry IV. Hal's friendship with Falstaff is at the heart of both plays, but when he becomes king he has to coldheartedly dump him. What makes a good man makes a bad king.

What about Henry V? A trumpet blast of jingoism?

It is one to be wheeled out in time of war, yes. And the second tetralogy (Henry VI parts 1-3 and Richard III were in fact written first) is famously a pretty good bit of PR for the Tudor dynasty. It shows not only how it brought peace after decades of civil war, but also that the king it overthrew was an evil, ugly, child-murdering hunchback. Rather than God's anointed sovereign.

It doesn't sound completely free of spin. Just how historical are the histories?

I'm getting a bit out of my depth here. But Professor McLuskie of the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham University tells me they're "as true as they could be at the time". The plays are all based on the Tudor chronicler Holinshed, but there was an alternative tradition, especially about Richard III, that Shakespeare ignored. "Holinshed's version was already controversial, and Shakespeare took clear line on that controversy."

Any dinner party trivia to add?

Richard III is very long, Shakespeare's longest after Hamlet. Richard II is Shakespeare at his most poetic, full of symbolism and almost entirely in verse.

Want famous quotations? "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" is from Henry IV Part 2. "The winter of our discontent" and "A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!" are, as you know, the words of Richard III. And Shakespeare's most patriotic moment, John of Gaunt's "This sceptred isle" speech from Richard II, is, if you keep listening to the end, a complaint about bad government.

A final thought?

This cultural bonanza truly is an ever-relevant study of power, politics and human life, is it not?


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