The War of the Roses… What in the World?

by Philippa Kelly

Where do leaders come from? Are they measured by a moral compass, or are they, as Richard III suggests, bred from a psychopathology where crooked backs make crooked minds? Or do we judge them by what they accomplish?

If the third premise were true, the bloody and tempestuous period of the War of the Roses would slide and disappear into the Lancaster defeat of the Yorkists that closed out the decades-long brutality between two feuding families, merging into the relative harmony and prosperity of Tudor England. But the sum of human lives is measured by more than lands conquered and victories achieved: it’s known by the bitter loss of sons; by the thwarted ambitions of mothers; by the passion and lust that can drive human beings together in the most perilous of circumstances. Such passions, ambitions, and rancors mark the War of the Roses as depicted by Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays.

While the War of the Roses had ended in 1487, a century before Shakespeare began writing, audiences still thirsted for the revenge that had since been prohibited by Church and State. The bloodied knives piercing iron mail; the heads sliced from offending shoulders; the treachery, duplicity, ambition and regret: these characterize Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays, all of them performed during the very early 1590s before the playwright turned 30.

Shakespeare clearly wrote the three Henry VI plays, together with Richard III, as a tetralogy, to be performed consecutively (although Henry VI Part I was probably written after Parts II and III). Certain characters in the Henry plays close out one play and open another, while the close of Henry VI Part III clearly beckons Richard III.  Furthermore, in an electric exchange in Richard III, two grieving mothers look back bitterly at the Henry VI sequence in which they’ve witnessed the destruction of each others’ sons (and psyches) by opposing families. Richard III is often performed alone: but it is a special thrill to place it in concert with the three abridged plays that Shakespeare so clearly wrote to precede it.

In Shakespeare’s tetralogy we get a world where, in an absence of ideology, human beings strive to convince us of the merits of their own choices and motivations. We get a world where “fake news” is not a modern phenomenon, but an age-old method by which characters exploit each others’ ignorance. And it’s a world where the French threat is represented by two of the strongest women in all of Shakespeare—the driving honesty of Joan la Purcell (better known as Joan of Arc) and the subtle manipulations of Margaret of Anjou, a passionate lover, and then a passionate mother, acting always at the expense of the husband to whom she was sold at the age of 15. And the War of the Roses perhaps suggests to us that even in a godless universe, human beings still seek gods; and we still seek to know ourselves amidst an array of pretenses.

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