Audiences and Contexts: "The Wars of the Roses" etc.


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.

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