Mythaxis Magazine is out today and my story Alight is in it! This was one of my submission stories for Viable Paradise, but I’d despaired of it ever finding a home. I’m still astounded that it has. And all the other stories in the issue are so damn good. And the story art by Andrew Leon Hudson captures the exact abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter vibe I was going for.
Friends! I have a story coming out in Mythaxis Magazine. I’m beyond thrilled to have my weird little nightclub fire tale in this delightful publication. Coming soon!
We don’t know for sure if William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a bubonic plague lockdown, but we may be closer to his state of mind than ever, still being deep in the plagues that hang in this pendulous air today. I hope you and your loved ones are well and safe, with all the TP and sourdough starter and job security one needs to get a decent night’s sleep.
This month, to celebrate Shakespeare’s 456th birthday, let’s examine the terrible life choices and morally reprehensible leadership strategies of Henry VIII.
If you go in king order, Henry VIII is the last of Shakespeare’s history plays. They’re all about the family that brought us Queen Elizabeth I, who was the Queen of England during Shakespeare’s life. Henry VIII was her father. Oddly, Henry VIII the play isn’t about Henry VIII the man quite so much as it is about the ghouls behind the throne and their devious power grabs.
Even though the baby future queen actually makes an appearance in the play, rumor has it a prince would have been more welcome. The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Henry wants a son and will stop at nothing to get one. MORAL: Divorce is a pain in the neck.”
What happens in Henry VIII
(King of England from 1509-1547)
We’re in the London of King Henry VIII. The Duke of Buckingham has the gall to question Cardinal Wolsey’s seemingly unlimited political power. Buckingham gets mysteriously arrested and locked up for treason, which basically proves his point.
At court, Queen Katherine speaks out for Buckingham. Henry, who is scared of Wolsey, doesn’t like his wife defending Buckingham and orders Buckingham’s trial to start.
Wolsey throws a party. Among the guests is the maximally alluring Lady Anne Boleyn. Henry and his friends arrive disguised as shepherds, but not very well, because Wolsey recognizes the king when he dances with Anne.
Back in London, witnesses lie about Buckingham during his trial. He makes a stirring speech about how the court he was loyal to betrayed him (true). He gets executed.
The court gossip says Wolsey is driving a wedge between Henry and Katherine (true). Henry and Wolsey look for excuses for Henry to divorce Katherine. Divorce is completely unheard of, especially when you’re the king of England.
Anne hears the rumors and feels sorry for Katherine. Henry gives Anne a title to hush her up.
The divorce trial starts. Katherine accuses Wolsey of pushing Henry to divorce her (true). Then she leaves the trial, which effectively brings the proceedings to an end.
Wolsey visits her and tries to convince her to go along with the divorce. She refuses. The divorce is finalized anyway. Katherine might be the queen, but she’s got zero power.
The court gossip turns to Henry’s secret marriage to Anne (true).
Henry discovers that Wolsey has been secretly writing to the Pope to oppose the divorce until Henry’s affair with Anne dies down. Henry confronts Wolsey. Wolsey promptly quits his job and leaves town.
Anne is crowned as queen. The court gossip machine has nothing plot-based to offer this time, but does make it clear how staggeringly fancy the coronation is.
Katherine (she’s still among us, poor dear) hears that Wolsey has died of natural causes.
The court gossip is now all about the new archbishop. There are some political machinations which lead to him briefly getting arrested, held in the Tower of London, and then pardoned.
Henry makes the archbishop the godfather of his and Anne’s new baby, Princess Elizabeth. The archbishop baptizes the lil queen-to-be and predicts great things for her future (true).
Gentle reader, if you’ve read this far, a pack of blessings light upon thy back. Henry VIII was the last of the history plays, and I did the histories last. So this is the end of my What Happens in Shakespeare posts. I may one day tackle Venus and Adonis or the Rape of Lucrece, but we’ve come to the end of the plays.
No way could I ever list all the things reading and summarizing every play taught me about writing. Plotting. Stealing plots from other stories. Making up words. The sheer numinosity of words. Morally ambiguous characters. Misplaced infatuation. Convenient pirates. Regret. Revenge. Grief. The timeless irresistibility of girls dressed as boys. It would be foolish even to begin.
So, goodnight unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends.
Friends, in the time of coronavirus, I trust you’re safe and well, or if by some feared but daily increasing chance you’re not, I trust “what is infirm from your sound parts shall fly, health shall live free, and sickness freely die.” *
In the meantime, once you have enough toilet paper stocked to satisfy the most anxious in your household, the next thing you need is a good story. Richard III is a very good story.
Richard III might be the best (worst) Shakespeare villain. I know I said that about Iago. I know the Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth combo is hard to beat. Titus Andronicus killed and ate so many people I wouldn’t even try to tot up the body count. But Richard III blithely killing his brother, his nephews, and finally his wife, before trying to marry his niece? Profound mental illness all sealed up behind that unforced charm? Richard III is terrifying. Maybe I’ve known too many criminals, but there’s something unsettlingly believable about him.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “The end justifies the means. Horses are very valuable, worth kingdoms.”
What happens in Richard III
(King of England from 1483-1485)
Richard III of the House of York, the brother of King Edward IV, wants to be the King of England.
The last time we saw Richard, he was murdering King Henry VI. Now we’re at Henry VI’s funeral. Richard pitches woo at Lady Anne, the widow of Henry VI’s son. Against her patently better judgment, it sticks and they get married.
Richard schemes to get his older brother Clarence locked up in the Tower of London. Then he hires assassins to kill him. They drown Clarence in “a butt of Malmsey,” or a barrel of wine, which seems like a waste of wine, but everybody in the cast of Richard III has a budget in excess of requirements.
King Edward IV is ill. He appoints Richard to govern in his place. Richard gets a taste of what it’s like to sit on the throne. There’s no turning back now.
Next up on the path to kingship: eliminate the competition. Richard locks up his two young nephews, King Edward IV’s children, in the Tower of London. You remember what happened to the last relative he sent to the Tower of London.
The Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s ally, drums up support for Richard’s claim to the throne.
Edward IV dies of his illness. Richard becomes King Richard III.
The first thing Richard does is execute a key adviser, the Lord Chamberlain, for trying to undermine him.
Richard’s nephews are in line for the throne, so he sends an assassin to the Tower of London to smother them.
Buckingham suspects Richard had the two boy princes killed. So then Richard denies Buckingham a promotion to earl. So then Buckingham tries to raise an army to fight Richard. Murdering little kids is one thing, but don’t even think about coming between the nobility and their pursuit of property. Richard captures and executes Buckingham.
Not satisfied even though he has killed off all the surviving heirs to the throne and at least two of his naysayers, Richard now wants to marry Elizabeth, Edward IV’s daughter, to cement his position as king.
Let us pause and reflect. Edward IV was Richard’s brother. Richard wants to marry his own niece.
Richard is, inconveniently, still married to poor Lady Anne, whom he seduced in such bad taste in Act 1. He has her murdered.
Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and the heir to the Lancaster family’s claim to the throne, hears the news in France about Richard’s murder spree. He raises an army.
The two armies meet at Bosworth in England.
There are some supernatural shenanigans, unusual for such a realistic play, where the ghosts of Richard’s victims haunt him the night before the battle.
During the battle, Richard’s horse dies and he says “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Then he goes around on foot and kills a lot of people anyway.
Henry Tudor kills Richard and becomes King Henry VII of England.
He ends the Wars of the Roses by planning to marry Elizabeth of York (Richard’s niece), uniting the York and Lancaster houses.
Richard III is a hard play to do live, because you pretty much need Ian McKellen, and how often can you have him? But the 1995 film with Ian McKellen is terrific. Even though they made assorted American actors be in the movie with the top alumns of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which hardly seems like apples to apples.
*From All’s Well That Ends Well. Whenever they talk about health in Richard III, it’s a thinly veiled threat about assassination. Such a quote wouldn’t be very friendly.
I’m going to be at FogCon!
I’m excited about my first trip to this con, and double goodness, I can actually be there for the opening ceremonies to hear both Honored Guests, Nisi Shawl and Mary Anne Mohanraj. I’ve gotten a lot from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s wisdom on Writing Excuses. And I was lucky enough to attend the Viable Paradise writing workshop last fall, where Nisi Shawl was an instructor and gave an unforgettable lecture on dialect and dialog; their novel Everfair is one of those luminous reads that will stay and stay with you.
I’ll be on the LGBTQ+ Turning Points panel on Friday at 3:00, moderated by Endria Richardson, with Crystal M. Huff, Steven Schwartz, and Pam Watts.
From the program:
“LGBTQ+ characters face a number of potential turning points — both self-realizations and coming out to and/or confronting various people and institutions in their lives. As more of these stories are told, what are some examples that ring true, and what are some that flopped? How do these stories translate into the speculative field, for instance, with a wider range of alien sexual options? Finally, LGBTQ+ characters — like the real-life people they’re based on — have all the same other turning points that everyone else has, so when do we get to see more of those in fiction? What are some examples of that done well? What cautionary tales are out there?”
FogCon is March 6-8, 2020, in Walnut Creek, CA. Hope to see you there.
It’s time for Henry VI this month on What Happens in Shakespeare. At long last, patient Free Folk of Westeros, we kick off the Wars of the Roses.
This Henry somehow merited three plays – Henry IV Parts 1, 2, and 3. We literally go from Henry’s cradle to his grave. But we get Joan of Arc. Witchcraft. Rebel alliances. Dolphins. And a band of oh-so-convenient Shakespeare pirates.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted:
HENRY VI, 1
Henry V-play AND king-is tough act to follow. Not even a genius can hit it out the park every time.
HENRY VI, 2
Like a cricket match and Celine Dion’s love, these Henry VI plays will go on.
HENRY VI, 3
The play so nice he wrote it thrice!
What happens in Henry VI
(King of England from 1422-1461 and again from 1470-1471. King of France from 1422 -1453)
King Henry V has died unexpectedly in his prime, leaving his young son to become King Henry VI. Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, will sit on the iron throne until Henry is older.
There is unrest in Orléans, France (England is occupying France). Charles, the French King (technically he is still just the heir and therefore holds the all-Shakespeare champion job title: the Dolphin) hears about a feisty Orléans shepherd girl who is having visions from God about how to defeat the English.
Enter – you guessed it – Joan of Arc. Charles challenges her to a duel. She wins. He puts her in charge of the army.
There is battling. The English representative in France, named Talbot, gets captured, then released, then does sneaky maneuvers to win the battle for Orléans.
Back in England, a petty argument between two nobles, Richard Plantagenet and the Duke of Somerset, has expanded to involve the whole court. Richard and Somerset ask their peers to pick sides and wear a red or white rose as proof of loyalty. Red = Somerset, white = Plantagenet. And that, my lovelies, is the origin of the Wars of the Roses.
Richard visits his uncle, Edmund Mortimer, who is in prison. Mortimer tells Richard the history of their family’s conflict with the king’s family. They had been allies, but the king’s family overlooked them, and then Henry V had Richard’s father executed and his family stripped of all its property. Mortimer believes he is the rightful heir to the throne based on some genuinely plausible family-tree evidence. When he dies, according to his logic, Richard will be the true heir.
Are you hearing the Game of Thrones electronic cello?
Mortimer dies. Richard petitions the by-now-crowned King Henry VI to reinstate the Plantagenet family title. Henry does. Thanks to the arcane English system where everybody who owns land has a kajillion names, Richard is now the Duke of York. We will call him York for the rest of his life, which will not be very long, or didn’t you watch Game of Thrones?
In France, the English win the city of Rouen. The Dolphin is distressed, but Joan of Arc has a plan. She convinces the powerful Duke of Burgundy, who had been fighting for the English, to switch sides and join the French.
Henry goes to France with an entourage that includes York and Somerset. He tells Talbot to handle the Burgundy problem. He tries to get York and Somerset to put aside their conflict, but without realizing what he’s doing, he chooses a red rose (Team Somerset). He leaves each of the bickering lords in charge of their own branch of the English military in France and goes back to England.
The French army traps Talbot. He calls on York and Somerset for backup, but they second-guess each another, don’t send help, and then blame each other. The French destroy the English. Talbot and his son are both killed.
York captures Joan of Arc and burns her at the stake. She is an enjoyable potty-mouth to the end and leaves the world much too soon.
Henry negotiates a not-too-stable peace treaty with France. His advisers think it would be stronger if Henry married a French woman.
The Earl of Suffolk produces just the candidate, Princess Margaret of Anjou. Suffolk lusts Margaret and hatches a plan to marry her up to Henry, keep her as his mistress, and control Henry through her. He and Margaret travel back to England.
King Henry and Margaret get married. Suffolk and Margaret are having an affair and making disloyal plans. Gloucester (Henry’s uncle, who is still powerful even though Henry is the king now) stands in their way because Henry trusts him. As do the common people of England, but literally nobody cares about them.
Gloucester’s wife has designs on the throne. She uses necromancy to predict the future, but she gets caught and banished.
Suffolk conspires with Somerset (remember him from the dispute with York?) to bring about Gloucester’s ruin. Suffolk accuses Gloucester of treason and has him thrown in jail, then has him assassinated before his trial.
Meanwhile, York reveals his top-secret claim to the throne to the Earl of Warwick and other allies. They pledge to support him.
Suffolk is banished for his role in Gloucester’s death. He gets killed by some convenient pirates. (These are not the only spontaneously occurring pirates to dispatch an inconvenient character in Shakespeare; visit Good Tickle Brain for a whole list of pirates ex machina.) Suffolk’s head gets sent back to his horrified lover, Queen Margaret.
York wants to take the public’s temperature and see if they would support him as king. He enlists a former officer, Jack Cade, to stage a rebellion as a test. Cade gains ground at first, but one of Henry’s supporters persuades the common people who make up Cade’s army to abandon the revolt. York is back to zero.
There is a bit of subplot having to do with allies on both sides. Then York announces his claim to the throne.
The English nobility take sides. Fun fact: Henry’s side was also known as the House of Lancaster. Making the Stark-Lannister fight oh so reminiscent of the York-Lancaster fight.
There is a battle at St Albans (I don’t know why I keep the place names in and snip so much else out, but I do like place names. They’re a kind of flash card system for remembering history. The Alamo. Wounded Knee. Stonewall). The York side wins.
Margaret persuades the beaten Henry to retreat to London. The York party chases them.
King Henry and York meet in the throne room. Henry has admitted defeat and agrees for York to be his heir. That means Henry’s son will not become king.
Queen Margaret, angry about her son losing his chance to sit on the iron throne, leads a military attack on York with the help of some allies. They capture and kill him.
York’s sons, Edward and Richard (we’re going to call him Richard III here to distinguish him from his father, plus, he’s about to turn into one of the most villainous villains in all of Shakespeare next month when he gets his own play), renew their pledge against Henry. They welcome their ally, Warwick.
There is battling.
Henry loses spectacularly and retreats to Scotland. Edward is now the Duke of York. We won’t bother calling him York for short because he immediately claims the English throne. Now-King Edward sends Warwick to arrange a marriage for him with the French king’s sister, but then he falls in love with an English noble, Lady Grey.
Henry comes back to England in disguise, but gets captured and imprisoned.
Richard III announces that he wants to be king.
Margaret and the prince go to France for help, where Warwick’s efforts to arrange a marriage between Edward and the French royal sister have gone down the drain because Edward has now married Lady Grey. Warwick is insulted. He joins forces with Margaret, arranges for his own daughter to marry the prince, and gets Henry out of prison.
George (brother of Edward and Richard III) does not approve of the marriage and switches sides to join Warwick’s forces. They capture Edward and imprison him.
Richard III helps Edward escape. He recaptures Henry.
There is a battle. Warwick dies.
George switches sides again and rejoins Edward’s forces. They kill the prince (Henry and Margaret’s son).
Margaret pleads for death but gets exiled to France instead.
Richard III sneaks around villainously and kills Henry.
Edward and Lady Grey settle in as King and Queen, not having a clue about Richard III and his two-facedness.
Fun as it would be to litter the Globe Theatre with Game of Thrones characters (Mrs. Gloucester = the Red Woman!), George R.R. Martin only drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, he didn’t retell them scene for scene. This story on screenprism sheds light on what’s history and what’s not, but it came out before the TV series ended, so it reaches some conclusions that may give you a drop of nostalgia for your lost innocence as a fan.
This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, it’s Henry V. It’s gruesome. It won’t make you like Prince Hal any better. In a mock trial in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether Henry V was justified in his slaughter of French prisoners of war. So you know going into it that the sort-of happy ending comes with a serious body count.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “A king’s gotta do what a king’s gotta do. MORAL: England good, France bad.”
What happens in Henry V
(King of England from 1413-1422)
Prince Hal (you remember him from Henry IV) is now King Henry V.
The Dolphin (you remember him from King John; actually now it’s 200 years later, so this is a different Dolphin, but he’s still the heir to the French throne) gives Henry a chest full of tennis balls. Henry is insulted because the Dolphin clearly thinks he is still the game-playing young idiot he was when he was Prince Hal. He decides to invade France. Yes, tennis is that old.
We learn that Falstaff has died, apparently of a broken heart after Henry rejected him. This is the very last nail in the coffin of the young idiot Prince Hal we knew in Henry IV. It’s all serious King Henry V stuff from now on.
Henry invades France. In the town of Harfleur he gives his troops the famous pep talk every shift manager has given before the Black Friday sales, “Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more.” The English occupy the town. Henry demands the local government surrender, making a less famous speech where he warns the French in excruciating detail exactly how the English forces will rape the women and murder the children.
At the French court, French people make fun of English people, but the audience is in on the joke because these French are so very weak and effeminate. Princess Catherine of France has an English lesson so she’s ready in case the English win the war. It’s funny but creepy. Shakespeare makes Catherine unknowingly say a lot of dirty words, which gets a cheap laugh. But on another level, Catherine (symbolizing France) is being set up as an active participant in her own conquest (sexual and political). You could see that as not creepy, considering the historical Catherine and Henry had actually been engaged all their lives, and she was a princess and therefore bound to marry somebody or other for political reasons. But the English occupation of France has been described in the language of rape for pages now. Gets uglier the more you think about it.
There is a diverting little subplot with a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman, but as much fun as it would be to walk into a bar, where we could drown the taste of that horrifying 2nd Harfleur speech, we don’t have time for subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR.
There is a big battle at Agincourt. This time in Henry’s pep talk to the troops he famously says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
The English win.
Henry and Catherine seal the new peace accord by getting married.
The Chorus informs us that Henry and Catherine will have a son, who will grow up to be the Henry VI we’ll meet next.
I love the 1989 movie version of Henry V for Ian Holm’s portrayal of Fluellen, the Welsh soldier. He shows you how a great actor can bring dimension to a small role that looks pretty fluffy (sorry) on the page.
Henry IV was published as 2 plays, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. But we’ll do them both together in one post. Life is short. Shakespeare is long.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted:
HENRY IV, 1: Same as The Lion King: Princes have to grow up. Also, hakuna matata.
HENRY IV, 2: Prince Hal’s movin’ on up. MORAL: Don’t forget the little people who got you where you are.
What happens in Henry IV
(King of England from 1399-1413)
As you might recall from Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke is now King Henry IV of an unstable England full of civil unrest, sheep, and short people whose life expectancy is 48. Some of the civil unrest involves Hotspur, a hot-to-spur-his-horse-into-battle nobleman who is none too impressed with King Henry and eventually leads a revolt against him.
King Henry’s oldest son, Henry (nickname Hal) spends most of his time in the taverns of London with his disreputable friends, including Falstaff (you remember him from The Merry Wives of Windsor). There is a subplot where Falstaff is cheap and has a drinking problem, and it is foreshadowed that Hal will be a complete chode in Part 2.
King Henry calls Hal back to court now that civil war is underway for real. Hal and Falstaff roleplay the conversation between frat-boyish Hal and his stodgy father. Hal’s snarky comments about his own friends give Falstaff food for thought.
Hostpur makes an alliance with King Henry’s other enemies (I haven’t used the word “enemy” this much since the Great Friendship Pin Unrest of 3rd Grade. It’s oddly satisfying).
Hal returns to his father, who sends him off at the head of an army to meet Hotspur. On the way, Hal encounters Falstaff leading a few disorganized “soldiers” he took bribes from.
The King offers to pardon Hotspur if he will back down, but one of Hotspur’s allies keeps the message from him.
There is a battle between the Henry side and the Hotspur side.
Falstaff is afraid to die in battle and wonders why all the fuss about honor. “Can Honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is Honour? A word. What is that word, Honour? Air.”
Hal fights well, saves his father’s life, and kills Hotspur.
Falstaff fakes his own death on the battlefield and then claims he was the one who killed Hotspur.
King Henry’s side wins the battle. On to Part 2.
Hotspur’s father mistakenly hears that Hotspur actually won the battle. He organizes the rebels to oppose King Henry’s forces (officially led by Prince John, the King’s second son, Prince Hal being not terrible on the battlefield but in general a disappointing frat boy with no sense of responsibility). But when the news about Hotspur’s death finally arrives, Hotspur’s mother and his widow persuade his father to give up what is clearly a lost cause.
Falstaff returns to London and collects praise after taking credit for killing Hotspur. He promptly gets arrested for his debts to the Boar’s Head Tavern and gets into a fight with the police. He convinces the tavern owner, Mistress Quickly, to give him a loan (we don’t normally do subplots or side characters on the Shakespeare TLDR, but Mistress Quickly). During the celebratory drinking (with his girlfriend, Doll Tearsheet, and you know that name means something NSFW), Falstaff speaks ill of his old friend Prince Hal, who is there in disguise. They get into an argument.
Falstaff gets summoned back to the war, where he acts morally questionable and tries to spend other people’s money.
Prince John engages in some political shadiness to get the rebels arrested. That’s the end of the English civil war.
Back in London, King Henry is very ill. Prince Hal arrives at his sleeping father’s side, thinks he (Henry) is dead, assumes he (Hal) is the king now, and leaves the room with the crown. The king wakes up and gets angry, but they make up.
The king dies. Prince Hal is now King Henry V.
Falstaff goes to London, expecting to get a cushy appointment now that Hal is in charge. But Henry makes a cold public speech where he denies knowing Falstaff. His good friend. Just denies knowing him. Total about-face. He banishes Falstaff and the other lowlifes from coming within ten miles of his court. He says, “Presume not that I am the thing I was, for God doth know—so shall the world perceive—that I have turned away my former self.” Thusly have rich boys turned their backs on their embarrassing college years and congealed into pillars of society since time began.
There is talk about a coming war with France, which sets us up for what happens in Henry V.
Richard II is up next on What Happens in Shakespeare, which means we’re almost, almost to the Wars of the Roses, so hold your Dothraki horses. Richard II seems cruel and wackadoodle enough to qualify as the inspiration for an early Targaryen king, but that’s only because you haven’t met Richard III yet.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Absolute power corrupts two in the bush.”
What happens in Richard II
(King of England from 1377–1399)
King Richard II is arbitrating a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (the future King Henry IV). Richard has accused Mowbray of squandering money meant for the king’s soldiers and murdering Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, believes Richard himself was responsible for the murder. Richard orders a trial by battle between Bolingbroke and Mowbray to sort things out.
The tournament gets underway, but Richard interrupts it, changing his mind and banishing Bolingbroke and Mowbray from England. He sentences Bolingbroke to be banished for ten years, but reduces it to six years when he sees John of Gaunt grieving for his son. Mowbray he banishes permanently.
Creepily, Richard never does anything to really dispel the suspicion that he murdered the Duke of Gloucester.
Mowbray predicts that sooner or later Richard will fall at the hands of Bolingbroke (it’s sooner).
John of Gaunt, who is just about the only nice person we’re going to meet, dies. Richard seizes his property. The nobles get angry and accuse Richard of fining them for crimes their ancestors committed, taxing the commoners (and how noble of the 1% to care), and using Gaunt’s money (which should go to his son, Bolingbroke) to fund the war in Ireland. They help Bolingbroke (remember he was exiled) secretly return to England with a plan to overthrow Richard.
Richard goes to Ireland to supervise the war and probably conduct a little old-fashioned peasant slaughter in person. He leaves the Duke of York in charge.
Bolingbroke seizes the opportunity to assemble an army and invade England. He executes some of Richard’s allies and wins York over to his side.
As soon as Richard returns to England, Bolingbroke lays claim to the throne and crowns himself King Henry IV. He has Richard taken prisoner.
Richard’s allies plan a rebellion against Henry, but York finds them out. They get executed.
An ambitious nobleman who is loyal to Henry murders Richard in prison.
Henry announces his plans to cleanse his soul of any association with murder by going on a crusade to Jerusalem. Apparently it wasn’t realistic for him to give up sex by moving into a brothel. The original, long-lost final line of the play is “hypocrisy and empire go together like peanut butter and chocolate.”
For more on this barely-known play, there’s an illuminating breakdown of recent performance history in The Guardian’s writeup, “Richard II: a play for today.”
I’m doing King John this month because it was time to kick off the histories and I needed an organizing system. “The histories,” as no normal person knows, are Shakespeare’s plays about the English monarchy. Don’t get muddled; Antony, Cleopatra, Troilus, Cressida, Caesar, and a man who powerfully resembled Falstaff might have really lived and gotten Shakespeare plays written about them, but only the English histories are “histories.” I decided to go in king order. John was the earliest king who got a play. It would make more sense, maybe, to go in order of publication date, but I didn’t do that with the other plays. Sorting Shakespeare by date written is a game for actual scholars, and the histories were threaded in among the “tragedies” and “comedies” (the tragedies are pretty tragic as a rule, but they usually have jesters or joke-telling nurses. The comedies are not always funny, but they are often deeply disturbing and occasionally tragic) from the very beginning.
On to King John. No one’s ever seen it. There are no popular movies of it. Theater companies can barely sell tickets to it. The two things you might know about the real King John are 1) he signed the Magna Carta and 2) he was the King John in Robin Hood. Neither thing shows up in the play. It’s a dry-ish text and it’s all in verse. No clowns making NSFW jokes in paragraph form here. But the plot is rock-solid, and as everybody who’s ever written a personal essay or a breakup letter knows, telling a true story well is incredibly hard.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When writing a play about somebody, don’t leave out the most interesting things (Magna Carta) they did.”
What happens in King John
(King of England from 1199-1216)
King John’s nephew Arthur is plotting with the King of France to overthrow the English throne.
The King of France (his name is Philip, but we’re going to refer to him as “the King of France” here because more than one character is named Philip) demands John’s surrender. John responds by invading France.
There is a subplot involving an English Philip, nicknamed “the Bastard” to distinguish him from the other Philip. He’s a wonderful character. But we can’t slow down for subplots on the Shakespeare TLDR, not even subplots from real history.
The English and French armies fight, but neither side is the clear winner. John makes a peace settlement by arranging a marriage between his niece and the heir to the French throne, known hereafter as “the Dolphin.” (If you’re the heir to the French throne in the 1200s, in most histories your title is the super-fancy “Dauphin.” But some Shakespeare editions use “Dolphin” for the purpose of delighting your inner 6-year-old girl.)
John, in the meantime, disobeys the Pope and gets excommunicated. The church is a massive political power in 1200s Europe. Not being on its good side is dangerous.
The Pope’s representative, Pandulph, threatens to excommunicate the French king for making an alliance with England. Pandulph supports the Dolphin and convinces him to break the truce with England. The fighting starts again.
During a battle in France, John captures Arthur (the backstabbing nephew). John orders Arthur to be executed. John’s representative disobeys and hides the boy instead.
John goes back to England and celebrates by throwing himself a second coronation, a confident act of leadership that definitely proves no one is doubting you at all, certainly not the Pope, the Dolphin, or anybody named Philip.
Arthur tries to escape and falls to his death. The English nobles think John murdered him. They defect to the French side.
John, who is now outnumbered and looks like a prat, has no choice but to negotiate with Pandulph. John agrees to reconcile with the Church. Pandulph agrees to convince the Dolphin not to invade England again.
The Dolphin, beefed up by his new English nobles and their troops, totally invades England again.
The nobles hear a rumor that the French king is going to have them all killed when the war is over. They return to John.
Having lost his allies, the French king gets Pandulph to negotiate peace with England. But it’s too late for John, who had gotten sick and gone to an abbey to rest (remember his new bestie, the Pope?), only to have a monk kill him with poison.
John’s son, Prince Henry, succeeds him as King Henry III. Apparently this Henry did not lead the kind of flashy life that merited a Shakespeare play, but assorted later Henries did.
To find out more about the real King John and how he got his embarrassing nickname, read Marc Morris’ post Why Was King John Known as Softsword?