Plays

King Henry V (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Henry V is the final play in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Having shaken off his less savoury companions at the end of Henry IV Part 2, Hal takes his place on the throne following his father’s death, proving himself a pious and sensible ruler, much to the court’s surprise. Following enquiries into his genealogical right to rule over France as well as England, and taunts from the French Dauphin about his youth in the form of tennis balls, Henry resolves to invade France. His old carousing companions, after hearing of the death of Sir John Falstaff, join Henry’s army, their quarrels forming the comic underbelly of the play. Following the English victory at the siege of Harfleur, the two armies prepare to confront one another at Agincourt. On the eve of battle, Henry disguises himself and goes into the camp, discussing with his soldiers the responsibilities of a king. The English win a spectacular victory, and the play ends with the promise of Henry’s marriage to the French Princess Katherine of Valois.

Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with the events at fifteenth-century Agincourt, following the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1594/8). At the time of performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V in 1599, the re-telling of the glorious English victory would have been ironically juxtaposed with contemporary attempts by the Earl of Essex to suppress rebellion in Ireland.

The first Quarto (Q1) was not published until 1600. This ‘Cronicle History’ is only half the length of the text printed in the First Folio of 1623 (F); it has been hypothesised that Q1 was the initial write-up of the play, and F the theatrical text pieced together after performance. We cannot be sure where the play was first performed: many have romanticized ‘this wooden O’ as the Globe theatre, newly built in 1599, but it is possible that it was originally performed at the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch, where Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had been performing since 1596.

The critic William Hazlitt commented that the eponymous king is ‘a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant’. These contradictions are characteristic of responses to the play itself: its treatment of warfare has been the topic of debate for almost as long as it has been in performance. Does the play speak of national pride and English glory, or of ironic disenchantment and authoritarian kingship? The divergence of twentieth-century screen versions has visualised this contrary nature: Laurence Olivier’s 1944 wartime film, intended as a morale boost for Allied troops before the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, creates a halcyon backdrop for ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, whereas Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film portrays a starker and less sentimental picture of the potential horrors of war.

King Henry VI Part 1 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The history play King Henry VI, Part 1 can be seen as a mediation on history itself, on the mechanisms of genealogy, combat and heroism. The dominant character of Joan la Pucelle (otherwise Joan of Arc) is a locus of questions about gender and the supernatural.

Questions of authorship, date and place in a ‘historical cycle’ are attendant on the play, which was first printed in the Folio. Some editors claiming single authorship for Shakespeare; for others it is the result of a collaboration, probably including Thomas Nashe. The Arden edition argues that it was written after Parts 2 and 3. It may be the play which records show was performed in 1592 by the Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose theatre.

The young Henry VI is now king. At the funeral of Henry V, news arrives of military difficulties in France: cities have been lost, the Dauphin Charles has been crowned, and the military captain Talbot has been taken prisoner. The English nobles squabble over power. The rivalry between Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) and the Duke of Somerset escalates, and they pluck a white and a red rose respectively to represent the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Henry travels to France to be crowned.

In France, Joan la Pucelle has arrived at the siege of Orléans, promising that heaven-sent powers will help her to lead the French to victory. Put in charge of the army, she fights the English — led first by the Duke of Bedford and then by Talbot – for Orléans and Rouen. Joan also persuades the Duke of Burgundy, Henry’s uncle, to switch to the French side. The feud between Richard and Somerset results in the defeat of the British army at Bordeaux, and the death of Talbot. Joan is captured and condemned to death. The play ends with an uneasy peace, as Henry marries Margaret, the daughter of the Duke of Anjou, instead of the Earl of Armagnac’s daughter.

King Henry VI Part 2 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Discussion of King Henry VI, Part 2 has been dominated by examinations of the providential pattern of God in history and the insurrectional eruption of rebels in society: of the high and the low forces of history. The play has also been viewed from the perspectives of Senecan poetics, feminism, the carnivalesque and burlesque.

This text uses the 1613 Folio as the control text. The play also appeared in a shorter, reconstructed form in three quartos entitled The Contention . . . The play was composed and performed before 1592, an issue that is linked to the dating of Henry VI, Part 1. The question of authorship — whether Shakespeare is the sole author, or collaborated, or revised an earlier play—is unresolved.

The English court is still fractious, and ill at ease with Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, which was arranged by Margaret’s very close confidant Suffolk. The Cardinal (Bishop of Winchester) and Buckingham are suspicious of the King’s Protector and uncle, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, and they conspire with Margaret and Suffolk to disgrace him, tricking his wife Eleanor into meeting a witch. She is banished, and Henry takes away Gloucester’s Protectorate; the conspirators accuse him of treason and losing the remaining territories in France, and secretly plan to kill him.

Meanwhile York has persuaded Salisbury and Warwick of his claim to the throne, and told them he is biding his time. The King sends him to quell the rebellion in Ireland. York explains that he has persuaded a man called Jack Cade to pose as York’s dead ancestor and start a rebellion against Henry’s rule.

Henry discovers Gloucester’s murder and exiles Suffolk. The Cardinal dies raving; Suffolk is killed at sea. Cade’s violent insurrection swells, until the memory of Henry V quiets the rebels. York returns from Ireland with an army and two of his sons Edward and Richard, and fights the Lancastrians at St Albans. The King and Queen flee the battlefield; the Yorkists pursue them.

King Henry VI Part 3 (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

King Henry VI Part 3 is effectively shaped from dense historical narratives, drawing out the complexities of morality and justice in the chaos of the Wars of the Roses. Criticism has examined integrity of characters, on feminist and psychoanalytic perspectives, on the Senecan influence, on the play’s context, on magical thinking, and on the play’s use of the morality play tradition.

The play was known in the theatre by 1592. Like the two other parts of Henry VI, questions surrounding its authorship remain unsolved. The play exists in a 1595 Octavo called The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York…, and in the Folio, on which this text is based.

In parliament, the victorious Yorkists confront Henry VI and the Lancastrians. They agree that on Henry’s death his crown will pass to Richard, Duke of York, passing over Henry’s son Prince Edward. Queen Margaret is furious, and leaves with their son to join the Northern lords and fight against the agreement. Once alone, York’s sons Edward and Richard persuade him to break his oath.

At the Battle of Wakefield between York and Margaret’s forces, Clifford kills York’s youngest son, and then with Margaret torments and kills York himself. His sons, Edward and Richard, hear first of their deaths and then of the defeat of their ally Warwick at the second Battle of St Albans. At the Battle of Towton, the Lancastrians are defeated, Clifford is killed. Margaret and Prince Edward flee to France; Henry is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London; Edward (York’s son) is made King.

Both the Lancastrian Margaret and the Yorkist Warwick entreat the assistance of the French King Lewis. Warwick confirms Edward’s betrothal to Lewis’s sister, but news arrives that King Edward has married Lady Jane Grey instead, and this turns both Warwick and Lewis to the Lancastrian cause. Warwick returns to England with French reinforcements , captures King Edward, and frees King Henry. King Edward escapes to France, and then returns, capturing King Henry.

King Edward defeats Warwick’s forces at the Battle of Barnet, where Warwick is killed. Margaret returns from France for the Battle of Tewkesbury, where Prince Edward is killed by the three brothers King Edward, Clarence and Richard. Richard goes to the Tower and kills King Henry; Margaret is banished.

King Richard II (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

King Richard II is the first play in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, the set of four plays whose events are often regarded as the root of the Wars of the Roses. The play teleologically points to the domestic conflict that haunted the country for generations after Richard’s deposition: ‘The blood of English shall manure the ground … this land be called / The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls’.

The play relates the events surrounding the dethronement of the inept (but divinely appointed) Richard II by his more able (but illegitimate) cousin Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. Following the death of his father, John of Gaunt, during his six-year exile abroad, Bolingbroke returns to England to demand the reinstatement of his estates from Richard. Richard, unpopular due to his court favourites, his arrogant belief in his own pre-ordained right to kingship, and his ever-increasing taxes, is losing supporters. Under duress, he eventually hands over his crown to Bolingbroke. Misinterpreting the words of the new king, one of Bolingbroke’s followers kills Richard in his prison cell. With the murder on his conscience, Henry IV vows to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to clear his troubled soul. Critical discussions of the play often focus on the play’s protagonists and the ambivalence of their characters. Is Richard a tyrant or a martyr? Is Bolingbroke a pious social hero or a self-serving Machiavel?

First performed c. 1595 at the Theatre, the Lord Chamberlain Men’s Shoreditch venue, the play was first titled a ‘tragedie’ in the first quarto of 1597 (Q1), and later a ‘historie’ in the First Folio of 1623 (F). The deposition scene (in this edition, Act 4 Scene 1) was omitted in Q1, not appearing in print until 1608. The final years of the ageing, heirless Elizabeth’s reign were marred by rebellion and uprising. Deposition was a real and present threat: in 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex, a one-time favourite of Elizabeth’s, paid for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to put on the play (by this point, a relatively agèd production) less than a week before their doomed rebellion. Post-Restoration, the political clout of the play was still being acknowledged, with Nahum Tate attempting to suppress performances at Drury Lane in 1680. In the twentieth century, the role became a favourite of John Gielgud, who performed it three times over four decades. The effeminacy that has come to be associated with the role came to a peak with Deborah Warner’s 1997 production, which saw Fiona Shaw play an androgynous Richard.

King Richard III (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Richard III is the final play of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, the culmination of the War of the Roses and the inception of the Tudor dynasty. The play picks up where Henry VI Part 3 left off, with the Lancastrian king dead and the house of York in the ascendant. Richard, the youngest son of York, orders the murder of his middle brother, the Duke of Clarence, and awaits the death of the eldest, King Edward IV; he marries the Lady Anne, the late Prince of Wales’ widow, to seal his power. In his role as Lord Protector to Edward’s young sons, Richard rules as a tyrant and orders the deaths of the two princes as they lie in wait at the Tower of London. Meanwhile, the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, is gaining support in England and France to launch an attack on Richard’s Yorkist army. They come together at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard is killed, and Henry becomes the first Tudor monarch, King Henry II, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster through his marriage to Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Edward IV.

The play first appears in the 1597 first Quarto (Q1) as The Tragedy of King Richard the third. Containing, His treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his iunocent nephews: his tyrannicall vsuration: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death. While he has been regarded as a medieval Vice, or a Machiavellian devil through and through, the characterization of Richard as a ‘lump of foul deformity’ has come under scrutiny in recent years. Shakespeare’s written sources were all sixteenth-century chronicles or ‘histories’; historians have argued that sources such as Thomas More’s History of King Richard III (1513) present a biased account of disjointed Plantagenet rule in order to emphasise the ‘Tudor myth’ of the harmonious, united reign initiated by Henry VII. By the 1623 First Folio (F), the play is catalogued in the Histories section. F is significantly longer than Q1 (the second longest play in the Folio, after Hamlet), with manifold textual differences; this edition incorporates both, generally deferring to F).

From 1700 until the mid-nineteenth century, the play text used in performance was not Shakespeare’s original, but a revised and abridged version by Colley Cibber, The Tragical History of King Richard III. Twentieth-century performances of Richard ranged from the king as monstrous, bestial caricature (Anthony Sher, 1984) to extreme right-wing dictator (Ian McKellen, 1995 – film based on earlier stage performance).

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy fascinated by the world of the court, by art, and most of all by language, knotted together with jokes, symbols, letters, poems, rhetoric and verbal trickery. It has been linked to contemporary humanist culture and to Sir Philip Sidney’s works, and touches on the traditions of Roman New Comedy and commeddia dell’arte. Written around the time of Shakespeare’s other ‘lyrical plays’, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play is generally dated to 1594-5, though evidence is scarce. It follows a vogue for social comedies of humours, epitomised by Ben Jonson by the end of the decade in Every Man in his Humour (1598), and was possibly influenced by the ongoing French Wars of Religion and the recent coronation of Henry of Navarre, King of France. This text is based on the first surviving Quarto, from 1598, from which the Folio text is also taken.

The King of Navarre and three of his lords, Dumaine, Longaville and Berowne, swear to renounce the company of women for three years, and retreat to the forest to study and fast. The Princess of France arrives on an embassy to recover money owed to her father. She is accompanied by a lord, Boyet, and three ladies, Maria, Katherine and Rosaline. The King falls in love with the Princess, Katherine with Dumaine, Maria with Longaville and Berowne with Rosaline. The lords overhear one another reading out their love poems, and excuse themselves from their vows; they dress up as Russians to talk to the ladies, who decisively outwit them. A messenger arrives and tells them of the Princess’s father’s death. Before they leave, the ladies impose year-long tasks on the lords, promising (more or less) after that period to return to marry them.

Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598) lists a supposed sequel to the play, Love’s Labour’s Won. Usually presumed to be a lost play, some scholars have speculated that it may be an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing or The Taming of the Shrew.

video Love's Labour's Lost (Globe on Screen)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

When the King of Navarre and his three courtiers forswear all pleasure - particularly of the female variety - in favour of a life of study, the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies plays havoc with their intentions Stage director: Dominic Dromgoole. Screen director: Ian Russell. Featuring: Philip Cumbus, Seroca Davis, Jack Farthing, Christopher Godwin, Trystan Gravelle, Fergal McElherron, Rhiannon Oliver, Thomasin Rand, Paul Ready, Sian Robins-Grace, Tom Stuart, Michelle Terry, Andrew Vincent.

The Merchant of Venice (Arden Shakespeare Third Series)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Merchant of Venice, technically a comedy, has proven controversial in its portrayal of the complex figure of the money-lender Shylock. Debate continues over the presence of distressing anti-Semitism, and the extent to which Shylock can be considered victimised or villainous. Shylock as a character has in some ways gradually disengaged from the play as a whole, becoming a famous topic of study that stands independent from Shakespeare’s original text.

Like Othello, The Merchant of Venice is a play which has evolved dramatically since its creation due to the changing contexts in which it is now read and performed. Although the texts themselves stay the same, the societal significance of an issue like anti-Semitism, as well as racism more generally, give greater weight to those elements within the play. Therefore, modern productions and interpretations must carefully consider these changes in attitude along with the original contexts of the plays.

Apart from the complicating presence of Shylock and various other anti-Semitic elements, scholars traditionally classify The Merchant of Venice as a comedy because it includes a number of classical comedic conventions, such as a complicated courtship process, mistaken identities, and transvestism. Bassanio needs 3,000 ducats in order to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia. His best friend, the merchant Antonio, is waiting on some ships he has invested in to return to Venice; in the meantime, he arranges a short-term loan with Shylock, a Jewish usurer. Shylock hates Antonio for his past insults, but agrees that the merchant can have 3,000 ducats, but they must be repaid within three months; if not, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships go missing and he defaults on the loan, Shylock demands his flesh. Hearing of her husband’s best friend’s dilemma, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and defends him in court, overturning the bargain with her own logic. Various other love stories and hijinks ensue amongst the supporting characters while the main action takes place, and as in most comedies, the difficulties faced by the main characters (with the exception of Shylock) are resolved by the close of the play.

The Arden Third Series edition of The Merchant of Venice is based on the first quarto text printed in 1600.

video The Merchant of Venice (Globe on Screen 2)

Globe on Screen
Type: Video

In some of his most highly-charged scenes, Shakespeare dramatises the competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society, justice and mercy; while in the character of Shylock he created one of the most memorable outsiders in all theatre.
Double Olivier and Tony award winner Jonathan Pryce plays Shylock in his first appearance at Shakespeare’s Globe.