Shakespeare's Major Tetralogy:
Richard II Henry IV, pt. 1
Henry IV, pt. 2 Henry V
(R2) Once upon a time, there was a king of England, Edward III, who had seven (7) sons. His eldest, the Black Prince of Wales, died and left the throne to his ten-year-old son Richard. The young king's uncles, the Duke of York and John of Gaunt, dominated him as a boy, but when he grew up to manhood, Richard II took revenge by confiscating Gaunt's estates and exiling his son Henry Bolingbroke. Returning to England, Bolingbroke overthrew Richard and caused his murder and had himself crowned as King Henry IV.
(1) King Henry's eldest son, Prince Hal, led a riotous life with his best friend Sir John Falstaff, while Henry's former allies, Northumberland and Worcester, challenged the King's right to the throne. Northumberland's son, Harry Percy, called Hotspur, led a rebellion against King Henry and, at the Battle of Shrewsbury, Hal killed Hotspur in single combat.
(2) In the second part of Henry's troubled reign, another uprising was put down by his youngest son, Prince John of Lancaster. At last the king had died, leaving his crown to Prince Hal, who became King Henry V.
(H5) As King, Henry V united his warring nobles with a successful invasion of France. He wed Princess Katharine, the daughter of the King of France, and they produced a son, the future King Henry VI.
Shakespeare's Minor Tetralogy:
Henry VI, pt.1 Henry VI, pt.2
Henry VI, pt.3 Richard III
(1)The death of King Henry V leaves the inexperienced, young King Henry VI to cope with the ambitious and divided nobility at home and a difficult war in France. The English forces ultimately defeat the French, led by Joan La Pucelle (Joan of Arc), but two English rivals set their sights upon the throne-- the Earl of Somerset, whose followers wear the red rose of Lancaster, and the Duke of York, whose symbol is the white rose of York.
(2)King Henry marries Margaret of Anjou, who is secretly in league with the Earl of Suffolk. Queen Margaret and Suffolk destroy the King's only loyal minister, the Duke of Gloucester. The Duke of York raises a rebellion against the crown and defeats King Henry's forces at the Battle of St. Albans.
(3)In a desperate attempt to save his crown, Henry VI disinherits his own son in favor of York. Queen Margaret raises an army and kills York, but his three sons strike back and place the eldest son on the throne as King Edward IV. Henry VI is murdered in the Tower of London by Edward's brother Richard of Gloucester, who secretly covets the throne for himself.
(R3)After King Edward's coronation, Richard begins his bloody progress toward the crown by instigating the murder of his own brother the Duke of Clarence. When the ailing King Edward dies, Richard imprisons the King's two sons, one of whom is briefly named King Edward V, and kills them at the earliest opportunity. Then, crowned as King Richard III, he executes murderous revenge upon his enemies. In battle, Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, kills Richard, and, as King Henry VII, reunites the warring factions of the white rose and the red.
Background (from a Preface by James G. McManaway)
The first presentations of the Historical Chronicles caused terrific excitement, and the first audiences learned much of their English history from them. Many of the thoughts were presented at the peak of English patriotism, due to the recent (1588) defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Shakespeare's representation of historical events made an indelible impression upon Elizabethan minds and those of the succeeding generation. What the history plays meant to the Elizabethan audience is parallel to the significance they still hold today. These histories, as watched in the theatre, displayed how good and evil men managed the affairs of state, being forever transformed--for better or worse--by the quest or the use of power.
Civil war is a difficult ideal to portray accurately, and its affect upon the populace, from nobility to commoners, is a difficult subject to give full meaning. The Houses of York and Lancaster were only providentially united by the marriage of Henry Richmond, or Henry VII, and Elizabeth of York. The strife between the households and all the land began with the deposition of Richard II and concluded with the death of Richard III.
These rebellions led to homilies that expounded upon the doctrines of the divine right of kings, nonresistance, passive obedience and the wickedness of rebellion. Nine times every year, Shakespeare and every regular church attendant in England would hear a portion of the homily on Obedience, or of the special homily on Disobedience and Willful Rebellion.
These homilies represented the belief in the divine right of kings, in which the universe is the handiwork of an omniscient and omnipotent creator; and below him is the angelic hierarchy; then next comes man, who by exorcise of reason has dominion over the earth. Against this background of religion and philosophy, Shakespeare tells the story of England's kings, and in the process he foreshadows the titanic struggles in which Othello and Macbeth and Lear are to go to their deaths. In holding a mirror up to nature, the Histories reflect the panorama of English life.
The variety of characters in parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV and in Henry V is almost incredible, and so is the characters vitality. Hotspur, Glendower, Lady Percy, Hostess Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, even Pistol, Bardolph, Justice Shallow and Fluellen are a marvel to witness when concerned with the differences balanced in each play; however, they seem colorless in comparison to Sir John Falstaff, who dominates two plays with his zest for life and his ready wit. Falstaff is the last of the Shkespeare characters to break the mold in which he should have been cast. He captures Shakespeare's imagination so completely that his partisans cannot to this day forgive Prince Hal, by whom Sir John's heart was "fracted and corroborate."
"Today, as in the age of Shakespeare, when Right and Wrong seem to have almost lost their names and naked power threatens to become a universal wolf and eat up mankind, thoughtful people turn naturally to biography and history, seeking historians and the poets of a truer insight into human nature and a clearer hope of triumph of the human spirit." Much of this is found in the Historical Chronicles, as a seemingly rootless generation was seeking to re-establish its roots.