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NA391912 - TIMSON, D.: Stories From Shakespeare - Plantagenets (The) (Unabridged)

David Timson
Stories From Shakespeare
The Plantagenets


The eight Shakespeare plays that run from Richard II to Richard III tell the story of a family. The Plantagenet family. The name Plantagenet is derived from the plant ‘common broom’, which is known as planta genista in Latin. It was originally spelled Plante Genest or Plantegenest or Plantaginet. It originated with Geoffrey of Anjou, father of King Henry II of England. It is most commonly claimed that the name arose because he wore a sprig of it in his bonnet; or perhaps because he planted broom to improve his hunting covers. It is thought that its wildness and its vivid golden flower is a symbol of the character of the Plantagenets.

Henry II was the first in a long line of fourteen Plantagenet kings, stretching from Henry II’s accession through to Richard III’s death in 1485. Shakespeare only concentrates on the last turbulent hundred years of the family, when they were fighting amongst themselves.

Richard II was the last direct descendant of the Plantagenet Kings, as he was the son of the Black Prince, first-born of Edward III. The later Plantagenets became divided into the House of Lancaster and the House of York, which were descended from different sons of Edward III.
The purpose of Shakespeare’s ‘History’ plays is to show the troubles England went through to arrive at a united kingdom—the kingdom ruled over by Elizabeth I (though of course Scotland and Ireland were not yet considered to be a part of Britain).

Elizabeth I’s ancestors had been very involved in the story Shakespeare was telling. It was her grandfather Henry Tudor who brought the Wars of the Roses to an end by killing Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets, at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry was a Lancastrian, and he married a Yorkist (Edward IV’s daughter) and so united the red rose and the white to create the Tudor rose, and the Tudor dynasty: Henry Tudor became Henry VII; his son was Henry VIII (famous for having lots of wives!) and his children who reigned after him were Edward VI, who died young, Mary and Elizabeth I. So in writing these plays, Shakespeare was really paying a huge compliment to Elizabeth’s family, who had saved the nation from chaos.

It was probably the patriotic feelings that had been stirred up by the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 that led Shakespeare to write about England’s exciting past. The Spanish King Philip II sent a huge navy to invade England and convert it back to the Roman Catholic faith, but a small English navy, led by adventurous men like Sir Francis Drake, successfully fought off the invaders against all odds.

People were in the mood then for swashbuckling stories from history with plots and battles, murders and mayhem—and often Shakespeare got so carried away that he even re-wrote history. It is not a good idea to think that everything that happens in the History plays is true—with Shakespeare a good drama was what mattered. Sometimes characters fight at battles in the play when they weren’t actually there, or even born, and Henry VI, who starts as a baby, seems to grow up very quickly as the story develops!



This play contains one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare—John of Gaunt’s ‘This Royal Throne of Kings’. It describes England, and was regularly broadcast on the radio in World War II to inspire people at a difficult time.

This play nearly got Shakespeare and his fellow actors put into prison. In 1602 Shakespeare’s company was asked to perform it by the Earl of Essex, the day before he led a rebellion that planned to get rid of Queen Elizabeth I, in the same way that Bolingbroke, in the play, gets rid of Richard II. The rebellion failed and Elizabeth was safe, but the actors had a lot of hard talking to do to show they were innocent!

Richard II was popular in the 19th century as it contains lots of opportunities for processions and display of costume. Actor-managers tried hard to copy exactly the clothes and furnishings of Richard II’s time.

Sometimes actresses like to play the male parts in Shakespeare’s plays. Some have played Hamlet, some King Lear, and in 1995, Fiona Shaw played Richard II—probably the first actress to do so. Sir John Gielgud was a famous Richard in the 1930s, and in 2005 the Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey starred in a modern dress production at London’s Old Vic theatre.


This play has been performed regularly since Shakespeare’s day. This is mainly because of the character of Sir John Falstaff, who, despite being a rogue who cheats and lies, is great fun to watch on stage.

Even when Oliver Cromwell closed the theatres down in 1642, Falstaff managed to keep going in a short version of the play called The Bouncing Knight, which was only performed at fairgrounds.

Falstaff is one of the greatest comic parts ever written and every comic actor has wanted to play it. George Robey, a famous music-hall comedian (not an actor), played it on stage in the 1930s, and in Laurence Olivier’s film Henry V.


This play is not performed as often as the first part of Henry IV. Perhaps this is because it does not have much of a plot, though there is a lot of Falstaff. Nevertheless, the coronation of Henry V at the end of the play has meant that it has often been revived at the time of a coronation. Elaborate productions with lots of costumes and processions were put on for the coronation of George III in 1761, and of his son George IV in 1821. The two parts of Henry IV are often played back to back, sometimes on a single day! This gave the great actor Laurence Olivier an opportunity to play two very different parts at the Old Vic theatre in the 1940s: Hotspur in part one, and old Justice Shallow in part two.

In 1964 Orson Welles, the Hollywood director and actor, made a film out of the two parts of Henry IV called Chimes at Midnight, concentrating mainly on the character of Falstaff, which Welles played.


Henry V was probably the first play to be put on in the new Globe Theatre when it opened in 1600. It was a big success, celebrating the battle of Agincourt, when a few English soldiers beat a bigger French force. Nearly three and a half centuries later, in 1944, Laurence Olivier made his famous film version of Henry V at the height of World War II to pay a similar tribute to the few British Airmen who had fought off the larger German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Kenneth Branagh made another film version in 1989, and, in 1984, was the youngest actor to play the part at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was twenty-four—younger even than the real Henry, who was twenty-eight at the time of Agincourt.

HENRY VI Parts One, Two & Three

The three parts of Henry VI are amongst the earliest plays written by Shakespeare. They are dated between 1589, when Shakespeare was twenty-five, and 1593, when he was twenty-nine—still quite a young man. Indeed, Henry VI part three might even be his very first play, but as with so many facts about Shakespeare, no one can be sure.

Shakespeare created the idea of telling the story of the Wars of the Roses in three exciting parts, long before Hollywood thought of it for films like Rambo or Rocky!

The Henry VI plays may not have been written in order. Henry VI part one was probably written after parts two and three. Shakespeare no doubt felt that after the success of Henry VI part three he needed a ‘prequel’ (just like George Lucas did with his Star Wars films!)

Because Shakespeare did not worry too much about being historically accurate, Henry VI part one is full of deliberate mistakes. Shakespeare is very unfair to Joan of Arc, whom he presents as a witch (a popular English opinion at the time). It took another British writer—George Bernard Shaw—to turn her into a saint 400 years later in his play St Joan (1927).

Thomas Nashe, a writer and possibly a friend of Shakespeare’s, wrote that ‘ten thousand spectators at least (at several times)’ had seen this play, which means it was very popular indeed. After its huge popularity in Shakespeare’s day, however, Henry VI part one had hardly any performances until the 20th century, and then only with the other two parts.

Henry VI part two may have been written before part one, as it deals with the conflict in England following the wars in France. Shakespeare may have originally thought he could start his story with the squabble in the English court, but then decided it was important to show how England lost her French possessions.

The Duke of York and Queen Margaret are developed by Shakespeare in this play into strongly dramatic characters; while the rebellion of Jack Cade and his followers is treated comically. As a young and inexperienced playwright, Shakespeare was trying out his ideas in this play. Later he would often include comic and tragic figures side by side.

Henry VI part three telescopes many of the events of the final years of the Wars of the Roses. To increase the drama, Shakespeare has Queen Margaret herself kill York, whereas in reality he died fighting in the Battle of Wakefield. It seems that it was true, however, that Gloucester killed Henry VI in the Tower. Richard of Gloucester, with his bloodthirsty speeches, is the first great character that Shakespeare created.

Often when presented on stage, directors and actors have felt the need to re-write both parts two and three and thereby produce a single play. John Crowne, for instance, did this in 1680 with a play he called The Misery of Civil War. In the 18th century Theophilus Cibber produced a similar adaptation, throwing in some lines from Henry V for good measure.

In 1906 all three Henry VI plays were performed together by Frank Benson’s company at Stratford-upon-Avon, perhaps for the first time since Shakespeare’s day. Since then, the RSC at Stratford have done several sequences under the directors Peter Hall, Adrian Noble, Terry Hands and in 2007–8, Michael Boyd.


The character of Richard III has always been popular, because he makes the audience laugh whilst committing his wicked crimes. Shakespeare went to great lengths to create his villain with a humped back, a withered arm and a lame leg, though there is no strong proof that the real Richard was so physically handicapped. Shakespeare took his facts from a history of Richard III’s reign written in the late 15th century by Sir Thomas More, who was trying to flatter the new king Henry VII, who had beaten Richard at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry was the first of the Tudor family to reign over England, and when Shakespeare was writing his play, it was Henry’s grand-daughter Elizabeth I who was Queen; so naturally Shakespeare wanted to exaggerate Richard’s evil deeds to show her family in a good light.

The part of Richard has attracted the greatest actors of every century. In the 20th century Laurence Olivier gave a chilling performance, which was later captured on film. Ian McKellen also made a successful film in 1996, when he played Richard in modern dress, as a Nazi.

Notes by David Timson

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