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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Shakespeare's Henriad

Nigel Lindsay, David Tennant in Richard II. Photo: Kwame Lestrade
By Christian Barclay

When Shakespeare began to write his second tetralogy of history plays in the late 1590s, Elizabeth I had ruled England for more than 30 years. Her golden age reign transformed the country and established it as the dominant economic and naval power of Europe. Britannia became the symbol of national pride—a personification of the ideals of an ever-expanding empire.

This fervor of nationalism was accompanied by the rise of the chronicle play, also known as a history play. These plays focused on events of the country’s past, often presenting them as allegories of power, rebellion, and atonement. Their authors capitalized on the national consciousness by producing works that imagined the inner lives of England’s storied monarchs.

Shakespeare’s 10 medieval history plays span a period from the late 14th century to the ascension of Henry VIII in 1485. In chronological order, these are King John; Richard II; Henry IV Parts 1 and 2; Henry V; Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3; Richard III; and Henry VIII. The epic cycle dramatizes five generations of dynastic power struggles, focusing largely on the tumultuous events of the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the Royal Shakespeare Company is honoring the event with a landmark cycle of the Henriad plays—Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry Vwhich will be presented at the BAM Harvey from March 24—May 1. “It’s something that Stratford and the RSC have made a specialty of doing,” Gregory Doran, RSC’s Artistic Director, told Plays International, “putting plays together and encouraging a conversation between them.”

The Henriad plays are a contemplation of power and leadership—how they are acquired, maintained, and lost. The sweeping saga takes the audience through the destabilizing effects of Richard II’s overthrow and abdication to the unsteady rise of Henry V. A host of historical and fictional characters—both high- and low-born—revolve around the monarchs in shifting alliances.

The cycle begins with Richard II, a vain and insecure ruler whose steadfast belief in the royal prerogative led to his downfall. Having been crowned at the age of 10, Richard II didn’t have the opportunity to earn the throne, he merely inherited it. His arbitrary aggressions toward the nobility—in particular, Henry Bolinbgroke, who would later become Henry IV—weaken his authority and cast him as an impetuous and irresponsible leader.

Richard II questions the absoluteness of the royal prerogative. Does a king derive his power from God’s grace or his own innate worth? When confronted with news of Bolingbroke’s burgeoning rebellion, Richard is defiant: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king” (Act 3, Scene 2). Richard’s unyielding position blinds him from the realization that there is no power without the people.

Jennifer Kirby, Trevor White in Henry IV Part I. Photo: Kwame Lestrade
Henry IV Part I tackles the ramifications of Richard’s death and the troubled conscience of the new king. How can a leader inspire honor through dishonorable actions? Henry hopes to lead a crusade to the Holy Land to atone for his sins, but must attend to more pressing domestic matters: a growing opposition from the very nobles who helped him to the throne and his rebellious son and heir, Prince Hal.

The concept of honor is a central theme. For Henry, it is essential—a ruler is nothing without the honor and reverence of his people. What he lost during his fight for the crown must be regained if he hopes to hold his position. Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s dissolute partner-in-revelry, holds a more cynical view.

Falstaff’s diatribe against honor, delivered before the climatic battle at Shrewsbury, questions the entire set of moral values that define the monarchy: “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? / What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? / He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. / Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, / to the dead” (Act 5, Scene I).

As Henry’s rule begins to wane, he contemplates past events and wrestles with his desire to shape the future. Henry IV Part 2 is the portrait of a king in his twilight years, contemplating the burden of power, old age, and atonement. As his health declines and the threat of civil war looms over the country, Henry confronts mortality and ponders his legacy.

It isn’t until the final act that Henry reconciles with his son and grants Hal the honor that eluded him—the peaceful bestowal of power. “God knows, my son / By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways / I met this crown; and I myself know well / How troublesome it sat upon my head. / To thee it shall descend with bitter quiet / Better opinion, better confirmation; For all the soil of the achievement goes / With me into the earth” (Act 5, Scene 5). In being a rightful king, Henry hopes that his son will be a better leader.

The final play of the Henriad is Henry V, a stirring tale of the warrior king. Henry’s defiant claim to France is tested on the battlefield, as is his ability to inspire his countrymen. As Prince Hal, Henry struggled with the idea of leadership, its expectations and implications. But as the ascendant Henry V, we see a more defined monarch who views power not as a burden, but as a responsibility.

In his rousing Saint Crispin’s Day speech, delivered before the tide-turning Battle of Agincourt, Henry is the embodiment of a heroic English king. His call to arms is a vision of glory that will unite all men, regardless of birth or rank: “And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by / From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be rememberèd;/ We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (Act 4, Scene 3).

The Henriad is a study of the difficult personal and ethical choices that accompany political life. Though Shakespeare’s history plays rarely receive the same adoration as his comedies and tragedies, they defined a new genre of theater and gave voice to a nation’s worldview. As tales of power gained and power lost, they are rife with lessons that continue to reverberate 400 years later.

Shakespeare's Henriad comes to the Harvey Theater March 24—May 1

Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

Reprinted from February 2016 BAMbill.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. From the late 14th century - King John ruled 1199-1216 - plus, Henry VII ascended in 1485 - Henry VIII wasn't born until 1491.

  3. There is, of course a "missing"play, Shakespeare's Henry VII. This may now be found, 400 years late, and downloaded for free at


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