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The Wars of the Roses Trilogy

06 Dec 2018

The sequence of history plays that we have called collectively THE WARS OF THE ROSES is composed of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III. These are linked chronologically and in theme. But records show that they have not been given on the stage together in our time. 
Our adaptation of the four plays into a trilogy does not mean that each of its three parts cannot be enjoyed separately. But on five separate occasions during the season they will be performed in a single day, with a morning performance of Henry VI preceding a matinee of Edward IV and an evening performance of Richard III.

John Normington and Peter Hall during the rehearsals

The three parts of Henry VI display a unique vision of history. But because they are an early work, Shakespeare's mastery is impaired by inconsistencies and confusions. Also, four sessions of The Wars of the Roses would be in danger of being too long.
We have therefore adapted the three Henry VI's into two plays (calling the second Edward IV) to reduce their length and try and sharpen their meaning. This has led us on the one hand to compressing many incidents and characters, and on the other to providing bridge passages and interpolations, chiefly based upon Shakespeare's own source-books, the chronicles of Holinshed, Hall and Grafton.
This makes us the latest "improvers" of Shakespeare. But we must declare our conviction that mature Shakespeare cannot be monkeyed with-even cutting is perilous. We are sure however that these early plays produced in an unadapted form would not show to a modern audience the force of their political and human meaning. We believe and hope that we have not changed Shakespeare's main intentions-PETER HALL and JOHN BARTON

Prologue: The Dying Speech of King Henry V
(taken from the Tudor chronicler, Edward Hall)

This I say, if you love me, you ought to love my child, not for his desert, but for mine. And since I now shall be taken from you, I charge you all to render your allegiance unto my son, King Henry the Sixth.
And as touching the estate of my realm, I command you to love and join together into one league and one unfeigned amity. I will that my brother Humphrey shall be Protector of England during the minority of my child, and that my brother Bedford with the Duke of Burgundy shall rule and be regent of our realm in France; commanding him with fire and sword to persecute Charles, calling himself Dauphin, to the intent either to bring him into obeisance, or to expel him out of our territories. 
What I have gotten, I charge you to keep it; I command you defend it; and I desire you to nourish it.

Extracts from Peter Hall's essay, Blood Will Have Blood


The tree Henry VI plays and Richard III were probably not planned as a cycle. More likely, the success of the first part compelled sequels, and Shakespeare's view of history clarified as he wrote.
Shakespeare knows that man in action is basically an animal. Before man develops religion or philosophy, he has an instinctive will to dominate. You may excuse this lust as self-defence, but it is as rooted as the desires to eat, to sleep, or to procreate. 
Underneath the highly artificial text of these plays, the characters betray these instinctive lusts. The killing of York by Margaret becomes a pagan ritual.
The tension between man the animal in action, murdering to protect, or lying to save, and the moral men trying to rule by a developped human ethic is what makes history tragic. I believe this is still the dilemma of power. Can a man be "good" and politic? Do you have to be a bad man to be a good king? Our plays look at these questions.

Henry VI should be a good king; he applies a Christian ethic to government. But he is up against men who don't. In comparison, he is weak, inexpert. So here is a central irony; Henry's Christian goodness produces evil.
(To Shakespeare) history may dictate wrong doing to the individual, but the individual will be punished for these sins.
The plays are therefore an intricate pattern of retribution, of paying for sins, misjudgements, misgovernments. Finally, the fact of death is itself a retribution which, as Richard III realises, no man can escape.
It is not necessarily that power corrupts, but the needs of being in power are in themselves corrupting. A man aspires to be a king, and is then destroyed by being a king, whether he be a good or bad king. Therefore, how do we govern? What do we do? Do we long to retire, like Henry VI, to a hermitage?


So, the selfish instincts of men must be checked-by Parliament, democracy, tradition, religion-or else the men of ambition will misgovern the rest. All that Shakespeare finally gives us as a lesson of human experience is that at the end of any life, of any cycle of misery, selfishness and destruction, you can only hope to be left with a regenerative principle. A baby, for example; or Richmond founding a new dynasty; or the hope of young love marrying. The problems are not over, but life as a principle goes on.

from the Mirror For Magistrates, a Tudor collection of historical poems

David Warner

Would God the rueful tomb had been my royal throne.
So should the kingly charge have made me make my moan;
O that my soul had flown to heaven with the joy,
When one sort cried: God save the King, another Vive le Roy.

So had I not been washt in waves of wordly woe,
My mind to keep quiet bent, had not been tossed so;
My friends had been alive, my subjects unoprocessed;
But death or cruel destiny denied me this rest.

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