The contention that Shakespeare’s histories are in fact political drama appears to fall uneasily on the ears of modern readers. One reason for this could be the fact that we, as a society, have blurred the connotation of politics to the vaguest of notions – narrow at times, yet far too inclusive. A young reader is likely to view politics as election and debate, a sort of ongoing candidacy. Indeed, this may be a valid modern definition, if somewhat limited. For our purposes, however, this definition is not sufficient to establish a starting point from which to examine Shakespeare’s presentation of political drama.
If we define politics as the acquisition and exercise of the power of the state, we can see that each play in the Great Tetralogy is inherently political. In terms of plot, the action of each play revolves around the concept of succession, the passing of political power from one king to the next. Henry IV wrests the crown from Richard II, then is forced to defend it against enemies who would in turn take it from him. Prince Hal inherits the throne from his father, becoming Henry V, then goes on to seize the throne of France for himself. At the end of Henry V, we are told that yet another Henry will be “in infant bands crowned King” (epilogue 9).
But while the histories’ plots are largely concerned with the acquisition of political power, their themes can be said to focus more on the exercise of such power. At its heart, the Great Tetralogy is a discourse on the qualities of the ideal ruler. A comparison of Richard II and Henry V, and the way each wields political power, will serve to illuminate this point. Ultimately, Henry V is an effective king bec...
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...ion, elaborate speeches with minimal stage direction. One acts; the other is only an actor.
Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 4th ed. New York: Longman-Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.
Hollister, C. Warren. The Making of England. 7th ed. A History of England. Ed. Lacey Baldwin Smith. Vol. 1. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1996.
McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 1999.
Rosenblum, Joseph. A Reader’s Guide to Shakespeare. New York: Salem Press-Barnes & Noble, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. Bevington 763-803.
---. The Life of King Henry the Fifth. Bevington 849-92.
---. The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth. Bevington 804-48.
---. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Bevington 721-62.
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