3 Shakespeare and the Wars of the Roses

Shakespeare and the Wars of the Roses

   In the early 1590s, the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare wrote a series of four plays based on the people and events of the WARS OF THE ROSES. Because Shakespeare is today considered one of the greatest writers in the English language, his four plays, although never intended as objective works of history, have heavily influenced modern perceptions of the course, nature, and personalities of the civil wars.
   The plays, HENRY VI, PART 1, HENRY VI, PART 2, HENRY VI, PART 3, and RICHARD III, cover the period from the funeral of Henry V in 1422 to the death of RICHARD III at the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD in 1485. For the events of the period, Shakespeare’s chief sources were the best-known English histories of his day, the 1587 edition of Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the 1550 edition of Edward Hall’s THE UNION OF THE TWO NOBLE AND ILLUSTRIOUS FAMILIES OF LANCASTER AND YORK, and Robert Fabyan’s 1516 edition of The New Chronicles of England and France (see London Chronicles). Shakespeare also consulted the 1587 edition of A Mirror for Magistrates, a sixteenthcentury series of verse biographies of figures from English history; because the Mirror had a moral purpose—warning readers of the evil ends of wicked rulers—it particularly influenced Shakespeare’s depiction of villains, especially his Richard III.
   Because Shakespeare wrote during the reign of HENRY VII’s granddaughter and after a century of rule by the house of TUDOR, the sources he used, while generally accurate as to chronology, were often biased in favor of the ruling dynasty. They portrayed Henry VII’s accession as rescuing England from a long, dark period of political chaos and social disorder, and they depicted Henry’s predecessors from the house of YORK, especially Richard III, as flawed and selfish men whose political ambitions ruined England. Shakespeare reproduces this bias in his plays, and, being interested in good drama rather than accurate history, exaggerates it for effect.
   Throughout the plays, Shakespeare jumbles and compresses the chronology of events, making the conflict appear to be a long, unending series of terrible battles that had a devastating effect on England. This practice basically ignores the long periods of relative peace and stability that marked most of EDWARD IV’s reign, drastically overstates the suffering and disruption cased by the conflict, and heavily overemphasizes the benefits brought by the Tudor victory. Although brief and concentrated in the years 1459–1461, 1469–1471, and 1483–1487, the military campaigns of the Wars of the Roses appear in Shakespeare’s plays to be extremely bloody, highly destructive, and virtually continuous across a thirtyyear period.
   Shakespeare also exaggerates the greed and ambition of leading Yorkists. He portrays Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York (d. 1460), as scheming for years to seize the throne. Although the real York was at the center of the political turmoil of the 1450s, SHAKESPEARE AND THE WARS OF THE ROSES 247 he sought to control the government as HENRY VI’s chief minister. York did not claim the Crown until 1460, when all other political options had been exhausted and taking the throne seemed the only way to save his career and possibly his life. In Shakespeare’s portrayal of York’s son, Richard III, the selfish ambition the playwright imputed to the duke is spectacularly magnified. Richard is one of the great Shakespearean villains. Although Tudor historians readily condemned Richard, especially for the murder of his nephews, EDWARDV and Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York (d. c. 1483), Shakespeare moved well beyond his sources to show Richard plotting to seize the Crown at a time when the real Richard was only a child; Shakespeare also made Richard responsible for the deaths of many other major figures of the Wars of the Roses, including Henry VI and Prince EDWARD of Lancaster, and even for the deaths of his own brother and wife, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence, and Anne NEVILLE.
   Despite a lack of evidence that the historical Richard had anything to do with these latter deaths, Shakespeare makes his Richard III the horrifying culmination of the grand theme that infuses the entire cycle of history plays (i.e., from Richard II through 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V to the four plays of the Wars of the Roses series). That theme, which is broadly based on fifteenth-century English history, is that the deposition of Richard II in 1399 overthrew the divine order and plunged England into decades of war and suffering. The ambition of Henry IV, Richard’s supplanter and first king of the house of LANCASTER, was punished through the weakness and incapacity of his grandson, Henry VI, which in turn encouraged the ambition of York and his heirs and thereby ushered in the devastating Wars of the Roses. The house of Lancaster was overthrown, and the house of York ruled for a time, but it destroyed itself through the villainy of Richard III, whose overthrow by Henry VII allowed for a return to prosperity and order under the divinely sanctioned house of Tudor. To play out this theme, Shakespeare alters and exaggerates the people and events of the Wars of the Roses, doing so in such magnificent fashion that his fictional depictions often became accepted history.
   See also Campaigns, Duration of; The History of King Richard III (More); Richard II, Deposition of
   Further Reading: Norwich, John Julius, Shakespeare’s Kings (New York: Scribner, 1999); Saccio, Peter, Shakespeare’s English Kings, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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