Context and Background - Richard III
History Plays became a device to bring the cultural and national inheritance to the common illiterate masses. Through entertainment, it helped the common people appreciate the famous victories and noble heroes of a great nation. None was more admired than Henry V.
The War of the Roses began as the result of a family dispute between rival cousins, grandsons of Edward III, for the crown of England. Shakespeare wrote a tetralogy (series of 4 plays), covering this era in British History: Richard II, Henry IV, Pt 1 & 2, and Richard III.
Since 1066, England and France were locked together under the combined Monarchy of French Plantagenet Kings, who appointed favourites to administer affairs in England. Edward I, circa 1272 – 1307 was the first to assert independence by appointing his eldest son, Prince of Wales. It was Edward III, The perfect King, 1327 – 1377 who began the Hundreds Years War, humiliating the French by seizing much of their lands. Edward was widely respected as benevolent, merciful and magnificent. His heir, The Black Prince died in France a year before Edward died in 1377. The heavy crown passed to his grandson Richard II, who was 10 years old, so a regent ruled for twelve years.
Richard II (1367 – 1400) was a weak, ineffective but extravagant ruler with no heirs. Unfortunately the Black Death killed off half the population, followed by the Peasant’s Revolt which fomented social unrest. Richard became very unpopular. When his throne was usurped by Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, the legitimacy of future Monarchs was in dispute with rebellions by the Welsh, the Irish and the Percy family in England’s north. As well there was continued war with France and Spain during this period known as the 100 years war.
“Richard II, loses his wealth, his kingdom and his role, his usurper and successor, Henry IV, rules a wounded kingdom in a continual state of emergency and unrest. This disturbance is manifest in damaged relations between fathers and sons. The sons, Hal and Hotspur, are cast as rival twins driven to dark, glorious dreams of redemption. Hal’s killing of Hotspur, his reconciliation with his dying father, and his betrayal of his friend Falstaff allow him to redeem his lost honour. As Henry V, he unifies his torn nation by leading it to acts of slaughter in France. His son is crowned Henry VI while still an infant. Under his reign, the kingdom descends into factional politics and brutal civil war. History becomes a bloody nightmare. During these wars, we witness the rise of the future king, Richard Ill, an exquisite monster whose rule will be a reign of death. His kingdom is a shadow land peopled by the dead.” Huw Griffiths Sydney November 2008
At the opening of the play the Plantagenet dynasty has expired with the murder of Richard II, with a short reign of the House of Lancaster defeated by the House of York at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471.
While the period of the War of the Roses was brutal and bloody, it was mild compared to that of the English Civil War from 1640 – 1660 where thousands of citizens died in a struggle between a monarch and his people over the divine right of kings.
Blood and violence is the brutal story of our past and the watershed of today’s illusory freedoms.
Richard III is a product of his environment and his naked aggression must be understood in the context of his forbears who each grabbed power (the crown) by violent and questionable means and in turn had it violently torn from their heads.
While most of the previous strife had been between cousins, this play is a contest within the York family’s brothers over who should wear the heavy crown..
We close with Richmond’s assessment at the end of the Play:
We will unite the white rose and the red:
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown’d upon their enmity!
What traitor hears me, and says not amen?
England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,
The father rashly slaughter’d his own son,
The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire:
All this divided York and Lancaster,
Divided in their dire division,
O, now, let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!
And let their heirs, God, if thy will be so.
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
The favourable light cast on the Tudor lineage compared to the blackening of the House of York may indicate the ulterior purposes of this Play; to curry favour with Queen Elizabeth.
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