Traditionally, the plays
of William Shakespeare
have been grouped into three categories: tragedies
, and histories
. Some critics have argued for a fourth category, the romance
. Histories are normally described as those based on the lives of English kings
. The plays that depict older historical figures such as Pericles, Prince of Tyre
, Julius Caesar
, and the legendary King Lear
are not usually included in the classification. Macbeth
, which is based on a Scottish
king, is also normally regarded as a tragedy, not a history.
The source for most of these plays is the well known Raphael Holinshed
of English history. Shakespeare's plays focus on only a small part of the characters' lives and frequently omit significant events for dramatic purposes.
Shakespeare was living under the reign of Elizabeth I
, the last monarch of the house of Tudor
, and his history plays are often regarded as Tudor propaganda
because they show the dangers of civil war
and celebrate the founders of the Tudor dynasty. In particular, Richard III
depicts the last member of the rival house of York
as an evil monster ("that bottled spider, that foul bunchback'd toad"), a depiction disputed by many modern historians, while portraying his usurper, Henry VII
in glowing terms. Political bias is also clear in Henry VIII
, which ends with an effusive celebration of the birth of Elizabeth. However, Shakespeare's celebration of Tudor order is less important in these plays than the spectacular decline of the medieval world. Moreover, some of Shakespeare's histories -- and notably Richard III - point out that this medieval world came to its end when opportunism and machiavelism infiltrated its politics. By nostalgically evoking the late Middle Ages, these plays described the political and social evolution that had led to the actual methods of Tudor rule, so that it is possible to consider history plays as a biased criticism of their own society.
List of Shakespeare's histories
The "Wars of the Roses" cycle
"The War(s) of the Roses
" is a phrase used to describe the civil wars in England between the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties. Some of the events of these wars were dramatized by Shakespeare in the history plays Richard II
; Henry IV, Part 1
; Henry IV, Part 2
; Henry V
; Henry VI, Part 1
; Henry VI, Part 2
; Henry VI, Part 3
; and Richard III
There is no evidence that the plays were imagined as a play cycle in Shakespeare's day. However in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries there have been numerous stage performances of:
- The first tetralogy (Henry VI parts 1 to 3 and Richard III) as a cycle;
- The second tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V) as a cycle (which has also been referred to as the Henriad); and
- The entire eight plays in historical order (the second tetralogy followed by the first tetralogy) as a cycle. Where this full cycle is performed, as by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964, the name The War[s] of the Roses has often been used for the cycle as a whole.
The cycle has been filmed three times:
- for the 1960 UK miniseries "An Age of Kings" directed by Michael Hayes
- for the 1965 UK miniseries "The Wars of the Roses", based on the RSC's 1964 staging, directed by John Barton and Peter Hall; and
- for a straight-to-video filming, directly from the stage, of the English Shakespeare Company's "The Wars of the Roses" directed by Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington.
The second tetralogy is also the basis for the film Chimes at Midnight (also known as Falstaff) directed by and starring Orson Welles.
In The West Wing episode "Posse Comitatus," President Josiah Bartlet attends a play entiled "The War of the Roses", including scenes from Henry VI, parts 1 and 3.