Shakespeare's Staging
The Wars of the Roses
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:19


The Wars of the Roses: Henry VI, Part 1, V.iii: The capture of Joan la Pucelle. Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963.


This series of plays (comprising the two tetralogies of English history plays) was unique in presenting them as a coherent whole, aided by heavy editing and rewriting by Peter Hall and John Barton at the RSC, to celebrate the tercentenary Shakespeare's birth. This concept reflected the view of E. M. W. Tillyard that the sequence represented a kind of epic vision of English history and character, his interest no doubt fostered by an intense sense of Englishness in the face of German challenge in World War II. In practice, the RSC vision was more dark and critical than adulatory to its subject, showing an England run by sinister and often incompetent egotists (6.1.22, 6.1.23). Nevertheless, the cumulative effect was to establish the series as one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements, after neglect of many of them individually. The character of Queen Margaret, played by Peggy Ashcroft, emerged as one of Shakespeare's most complex and sustained characterizations (1.4.9). The English Shakespeare Company also staged a similar cycle (see Fuller below, and 6.1.23 and 6.2.18). Both were recorded and are available for purchase. © HMR


Ashcroft, Peggy. "Margaret of Anjou." Shakespeare Jahrbuch (West) 109 (1973): 7-9.

Barton, John, and Peter Hall. The Wars of the Roses. London: BBC, 1970.

Clapp, Susannah. "Plots Thinned and Accents Thickened." Review of Wars of the Roses, Northern Broadsides, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. Observer, April 8, 2006.

Crane, Mary Thomas. "The Shakespearean Tetralogy." Shakespeare Quarterly 36, no. 3 (1985): 282-99.

Dockray, Keith. William Shakespeare, "The Wars of the Roses," and the Historians. Stroud, England: Tempus, 2002.

Fuller, David. "The Bogdanov Version: The English Shakespeare Company Wars of the Roses." Literature/Film Quarterly 33, no. 2 (2005): 118-41.

Gillingham, John. The Wars of the Roses. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Greenwald, Michael L. "Feats of Broils and Arms: The Wars of the Roses (1963) and The Henriad (1964)." In Directions by Indirections, 39-62. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Hodgdon, Barbara. "The Wars of the Roses: Scholarship on the Stage." Shakespeare Jahrbuch (East), CVIII, 1972.

Kamaralli, Anna. Review of The War of the Roses, Part 1 & Part 2, Sidney Theatre Company, Australia. Shakespeare Bulletin 27, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 662-8.

Maclennan, Ian. "Materialist Shakespeare and Ideological Performance: Michael Bogdanov and Shakespeare in Production." In Shakespeare Matters: History, Teaching, Performance, edited by Lloyd Davis, 294-301. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2003.

Myers, Norman J. "Finding 'a Heap of Jewels' in 'Lesser' Shakespeare: The Wars of the Roses and Richard Duke of York." New England Theatre Journal 7 (1996): 95-107.

Parker, Elspeth. "The Wars of the Roses: Space, Shape, and Flow." Shakespeare Bulletin 13, no. 2 (1995): 40-41.

Pearson, Richard. A Band of Arrogant and United Heroes: The Story of the Royal Shakespeare Company Production of "The Wars of the Roses." London: Adelphi Press, 1990.

Potter, Lois. "Recycling the Early Histories: The Wars of the Roses and The Plantagenets." Shakespeare Survey 43 (1991): 171-81.

Potter, Robert. "The Rediscovery of Queen Margaret: The Wars of the Roses, 1963." New Theatre Quarterly 4, no. 14 (1988): 105-19.

Reese, M. M. The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.

Richmond, Hugh M. Shakespeare's Political Plays. New York: Random House, 1967.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays. London: Chatto and Windus, 1944.


This heading bears primarily on any performance sequence of scripts based on Shakespeare's two tetralogies of English history plays covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, perhaps plausibly including separate performance of either set of four plays as a coherent whole. The outstanding example of such continuity is the series compressed to seven plays created by Peter Hall and John Barton at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963-64, but discussion might include the relevant plays in the BBC television series. Neither the occasional consecutive performance of the three parts of Henry VI in modern times nor the frequent staging of the two parts of Henry IV together quite qualify for the cumulative historical effect of pursuing consistent characters through distinct eras. Rather surprisingly such accumulated experience approximates to the likely effect on more alert audiences in Elizabethan times who would be able readily to recall episodes in performances of earlier plays in a tetralogy even if its complete staging was spread over several years, as was certainly the case. Interestingly enough, even the late Shakespeare play Henry VIII seems designed to invite recall of the author's early history play about Richard III, by its careful continuity of family names in explicitly duplicated events which echo incidents in the earlier play. Henry VIII is thus clearly intended to sustain a more hopeful conclusion to the earlier series of eight plays than that briefly provided by the victory of Henry VII at the conclusion of Richard III. It is inescapable that Shakespeare consciously intended such retrospective awareness in his audiences and that each play, while obviously capable of standing self-sufficiently on its own, is part of a cumulative exploration of English history brought down to Shakespeare's own lifetime, with implications for the future of England which regrettably failed to avert further civil war.

Nevertheless, the audience effect of such sustained presentations in the theatre is immense. The disturbed condition of England under Henry IV is much more meaningful if we are acutely conscious of the dubious route of that king to power made explicit in Richard II, a source of guilt which Henry IV, Part 2 reinforces, and which remains a factor in Henry V's remorse in the fourth play, just before Agincourt. This issue of the questionable accession of the Lancastrians had already been the ultimate but mostly latent source of the civil wars between them and the Yorkists shown in Shakespeare's earlier sequence, the antecedents of which Shakespeare obviously seems to feel merit further clarification to explain the origins of the mutual destruction of these two branches of the Plantagenet family. Only after seeing the RSC sequence did I fully understand the richness of these chronicle plays, which led ultimately to the composition of my book on Shakespeare's Political Plays and a commitment to a lifetime of study of Shakespeare and the staging of many of his plays on our campus. The scholarly debate about whether Shakespeare intended such consolidation of his work seems redundant since it is self-evident that he was sustaining an exploration of English political history through the carry-over of many personalities' issues, and events from script to script, as confirmed by the chronological sequence of the contents which determine the order in which the plays are printed in the First Folio. The recurrence of characters such as Falstaff (introduced into five plays) and Queen Margaret of Anjou (in four plays) confirms that Shakespeare was consciously pursuing themes beyond a single script.

That Shakespeare was acutely aware of the significance for audiences of the continuities between plays throughout his total oeuvre is confirmed by numerous examples of such series beyond the nine English history plays discussed here. There is a similar sequence covering the career of Octavius Caesar in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline, which determines the limits of the first Roman emperor's ethos at the time of the coming of Christianity. Similarly The Two Noble Kinsmen continues the trajectory of amatory tragicomedy concerning Theseus begun in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The last plays of each sequence match the definitive perspective over the contents of their predecessors which I have detected in Henry VIII.

The argument about the mutual illumination of chronology and historical continuity of the whole of Shakespeare's oeuvre can be demonstrated by the following table which demonstrates his remarkable coverage of world history as seen from a European perspective in the sixteenth century: only East Asia is missing. The interrelation of these diverse cultures is illuminating in terms of Shakespeare's progression from focus on primitive family relationships in the most ancient legendary material (Lear and Theseus), to handling more complex social relationships in early Greece (Pericles and Timon). In dealing with classical Rome Shakespeare progresses to political problems concerning tensions between republicans and more authoritarian figures. In the Dark Ages he evaluates the moral aspects of individual leadership (Hamlet, Macbeth, John), but by the Middle Ages this concern has broadened into a display of the balance of forces within complex societies, including international relations. However, in dealing with the more or less contemporary issues of Renaissance societies, Shakespeare diplomatically avoids acute political concerns and addresses the evolution of modern manners and behavior in the moral, psychological, and domestic spheres, no doubt to avoid the challenges evoked by his treatment of even so distant an event as the dethroning of King Richard II almost two hundred years earlier. Overall, he seems to have comprehensively explored the roots of Western civilization, and its British outcomes in particular:


Venus and Adonis   Prehistoric Mythology  
Midsummer Night's Dream   Legendary Greece  
Two Noble Kinsmen   Legendary Greece  
Troilus and Cressida     Troy
King Lear Legendary Ancient Britain    
Timon of Athens   Classical Athens  
Comedy of Errors     Pre-Xian Levant
Pericles, Prince of Tyre     Pre-Xian Levant
Winter's Tale   Magna Graecia: Sicily, Bohemia  
Rape of Lucrece   Pre-Republican Rome  
Coriolanus   Early Republican Rome  
Julius Caesar   Late Republican Rome  
Antony and Cleopatra   Early Roman Empire Africa, Asia Minor
Cymbeline Ancient  Britain Imperial Rome  
Titus Andronicus   Late Imperial Rome/Goths/Moors  


Hamlet Danish conquests Amleth saga: 6th-c. Scandinavia  
King Lear (Edgar/Edmund) 9th-c. Saxon    
Macbeth 12th-c. Scotland    
King John 13th-c. England 13th-c. France  
Richard II 14th-c. England    
Henry IV 15th-c. England    
Henry V 15th-c. England 15th-c. France  
Henry VI 15th-c. England 15th-c. France  
Richard III 15th-c. England    


Merry Wives of Windsor 15th/16th-c. England    
Hamlet   16th-c. Reformation Wittenburg  
Sir Thomas More 16th-c. England    
Henry VIII 16th-c. England    
Romeo and Juliet   14th/15th-c. Verona  
All's Well That Ends Well   15th/16th-c. France: Midi  
As You Like It   15th/16th-c. France: Ardennes  
Two Gentlemen of Verona   15th/16th-c. Verona  
Taming of the Shrew   16th-c. Padua  
Merchant of Venice   16th-c. Venice  
Othello   16th-c. Venice, Cyprus Africa
Much Ado About Nothing   16th-c. Sicily: Messina  
Twelfth Night   16th-c. Balkans: Illyria  
Measure For Measure   16th-c. Reformation Vienna  
Cardenio   16th-c. Spain  
Love's Labour's Lost   Late-16th-c. France: Navarre  
Tempest   17th-c. Mediterranean Atlantic

In conclusion, one must recognize that the cross-referencing of related issues in Shakespeare's plays is illuminating, not only in the two historical tetralogies but throughout his exploration of European cultural history. Audiences cannot but gain the more richly they perceive the context of any given script in the overall pattern of Shakespeare's awareness. The confining of audience attention exclusively to the immediate content of one play inversely affects their understanding it—and their consequent enjoyment. However helpful the revival of Medieval Grammar in modern close-reading, the New Critics were ill-advised in their denial of the relevance of contextual information external to a text, as corroborated by the elaborate program notes now provided before most Shakespeare performances. © HMR

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