John Webb's Guide to the Work of Shakespeare

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John Webb's Guide to the Work of Shakespeare

This page gives a simple introduction to each of Shakespeare's plays, and points out a few of the ideas in each of them. All the plays are presented here, in approximate chronological order [the dates of the plays used on this page are from Bloom's Invention of the Human].

Shakespeare's first 4 plays (Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III) tell the story of a troubled chapter of English history, around 150 years before Shakespreare's own time, known as The War of The Roses. One the most important figures in the action was the Earl of Warwick, whose home, Warwick Castle, is very near Stratford. The complicated historical background to these plays, and Shakespeare's other historical plays, is described on my page Historical Background.

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3

1589-91

In Part 1, Henry VI becomes sovereign while still a child. His title is not secure because his grandfather had stolen the crown from Richard II.

Part 2 shows the growing struggle and contention for the crown amongst Henry's nobles.

Part 3 tells the story of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker (shown right) who, first supporting the House of York opposed to Henry, deposes Henry. Richard Neville then changes sides, and briefly resores the crown to Henry, before Henry's murder in the Tower of London.

Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade

To shepherds looking on their sheep

Than doth a rich embroidered canopy

To kings that fear their subject's treachery

Henry VI was a pious and studious man. He can be described as a contemplative philosopher-king. The plays contrast his spiritual philosophy, with the worldly, materialistic and ambitious nobles beneath him.

The contempative philosopher-king reappears in Shakespeare's subsequent plays - as the exiled Dukes in As You Like It and Measure for Measure, as Timon of Athens, and as Prospero.

Shakespeare subsequently wrote several further history plays, in all telling the whole story of English history for the 250 years up to his own time.

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