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Best of Shakespeare - Number One Play

Shakespeare's Awesome Historical Saga

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Continued from "Best of Shakespeare" Part Four

1) Shakespeare's "Henry" Cycle

So, if it's not Hamlet and it's not King Lear, you may be wondering which Shakespeare play is dearest to my heart. Here's the answer: The Henriad.

Never heard of it? The Henriad is the name used by some to identify Shakespeare's historical tetralogy. That's right. I cheated. My favorite play by William Shakespeare is actually four plays:

  • Richard II
  • Henry IV Part One
  • Henry IV Part Two
  • Henry V

Experienced in sequence, these four plays combine into a remarkable story of power struggles, self-identity, national pride, father-son conflicts, and redemption. This is Shakespeare at his most epic, and it all begins with an unwise king named Richard.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second:

Richard II thinks he has England under his thumb. He truly believes in his divine right to rule over his kingdom. He goes to war with which ever nation displeases him (watch out, Ireland!), and he exiles whomever causes him strife. However, the king learns a difficult lesson about the consequences of one's actions. When he banishes Henry Bolingbroke (aka the Duke of Hereford) he makes a fatal mistake. The Duke will not stand for permanent exile, and after Richard II tries to swipe away the property of Bolingbroke's deceased father, war ensues and the thirty-three year old king is forced to relinquish his crown.

However, the play doesn't end simply with the coronation of the victorious Henry IV. We witness Richard's tearful farewell to his wife as he is sent to his prison chambers in the distant Pomfret Castle. We hear tales about the crowds pelting the former king with trash and rotten vegetables. And finally, we listen to one of the most reflective and poetic monologues in the play. Here's a small sample:

King Richard:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.

Act V concludes with poor Richard's murder, as well as hints of what is to come in the next play, Henry IV, Part One. In particular, the final act foreshadows the new king's challenges: a rising rebellion and a tumultuous relationship with his roustabout son.

Henry IV, Part One:

After deposing Richard II, our newly crowned King Henry learns just how difficult regal life can be. He suspects the nobles who helped him gain power, and (much like Richard did in his play) he alienates members of his court to the point of open rebellion. In between the political intrigue, however, two very down-to-earth stories are developed. We meet Prince Hal, a young man who knows that he will eventually ascend to the throne and assume a noble demeanor, but for now he simply wants to enjoy his life with his drunken and foolish friends, such as the obese knight: Sir John Falstaff. The audience also encounters Hal's foil: Hotspur, one of the fiercest warriors in the rebellion. Yet, unlike other antagonists in Shakespeare, Hotspur may be hot-blooded but he is not an evil villain. We see his sensitive side during a scene when he bids farewell to his wife. Therefore, when the two young nobles battle one another, the bloody outcome is all the more profound. During that same battle, by the way, Falstaff steals the show with his comical cowardice.

Henry IV, Part Two:

Although not as intense as Part One, the third play in the Henriad further develops the three main characters: the now frail, sickly king who is nearing death, the redemptive son who is prepared to honor his father by rising to his proper station, and the crowd-pleasing Falstaff who wrongly assumes that he will attain an affluent lifestyle once Prince Hal ascends the throne. The most dramatic moment of the play occurs in the final act; Falstaff is coldly rebuked when he tries to fraternize with the newly crowned king. Even though Sir Falstaff is a coward, a swindler, and a fool, it is hard not to become overwhelmed with pity for the poor knight.

Henry V:

The tetralogy climaxes with this patriotic battle-drama which pits King Henry the Fifth's small "band of brothers" against the overwhelmingly huge French army. As with the earlier plays, the storyline interweaves lives of nobility with the everyday folk of Hal's days as a commoner. This final chapter also returns to the moral problems established in Richard II. King Henry believes that his father's sins (the death of King Richard) might damn his reign. He seeks a way to redeem his family, all the while trying to gain back land England long ago lost to the French.

Henry might have fears and self-doubt, but unlike Hamlet, he is not consumed by them. He strives for and ultimately attains greatness, and he delivers one of the most rousing monologues in theatre history: the famed and beloved St. Crispin's Day speech.

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