What happens? The War of the Roses Synopsis

We’re about to embark on the most epic Shakespearean undertaking in Cal Shakes history, including presenting the Henry VI trilogy for the first time ever! Many of us are familiar with the title character of Richard III (even if just from the headlines a few years ago after his body was finally found under a carpark), but seeing the Henry VI trilogy leading up to Richard’s terrible reign gives us a unique opportunity to watch the making of a monster as well as his downfall.

What combination of infighting and political turmoil brought us here?

Henry VI

Part one: Affairs Abroad

Temple Garden—in the power vacuum created by the death of King Henry V and the imminent crowning of his infant son, the ruling Plantagenet family is torn in two. Half support the Lancaster faction (the red rose); the others support the York faction (the white rose).

Meanwhile, in France, the French forces led by Joan of Arc have risen up in rebellion against the English armies.

The baby Henry is crowned King Henry VI. Time passes.

In the midst of growing conflict within England, Henry—now a young man—seeks peace and amity. He restores Richard Plantagenet to the title of Duke of York.

Meanwhile, Margaret of Anjou is captured in France by Suffolk, who intends to present her to his king as a royal bride. King Henry accepts Margaret as his Queen. Many (including Henry’s uncle Gloucester, Lord Protector of the young king) are unhappy with the match.

The fractious Lancasters maneuver to strip Gloucester of his position, accusing his wife of witchcraft and himself of treason. While awaiting trial, Gloucester is murdered. Henry, heart-broken, moves to exile Suffolk, whom he believes to be responsible for Gloucester’s death. Queen Margaret convinces Henry to relent. York uses this moment of regal instability to declare his claim to the crown.

Across the channel in France, Joan of Arc is executed by fire. As civil war breaks out in England, Margaret gives birth to Ned, Prince of Wales.

Part two: The Battle Between

After the first battle of St Albans, the Yorks are now in control of England. The Duke of York threatens to take the throne. Henry cuts a deal to keep the crown, agreeing to relinquish it to the Yorks upon his death. Margaret—appalled that their son has been thus disinherited—leads the Lancaster forces against the unsuspecting Yorks and wins. In the ensuing battle, Rutland, youngest son of York, is killed. Margaret taunts the captured Duke of York, placing a paper crown upon his head and ordering his execution.

The remaining sons of York—Edward, Richard, and George—retaliate. During the battle, King Henry watches from a place of exile in a field and wonders what and who he is without his crown. He observes a father who has unknowingly killed his son, and a son who has unknowingly killed his father. As the tide turns for the Yorks, Suffolk is killed, Margaret flees to France with her son, and Edward, oldest son of York, is crowned King Edward IV.

Warwick, the Kingmaker, goes to France to secure the hand of King Louis XVI’s sister for King Edward. Meanwhile, back home, King Edward chooses to marry an English widow, Lady Elizabeth Grey. Furious at this betrayal and humiliation, Warwick switches sides, declaring his support for Queen Margaret and Prince Ned. Henry is captured and taken to the Tower. Richard Gloucester begins to plot.

Warwick and Queen Margaret lead the French forces to England where they confront King Edward’s armies and are ultimately defeated. Warwick is killed. Prince Ned is killed. Queen Margaret is exiled. Richard travels to the Tower and there assassinates King Henry.

Richard III

Part three: The War Within

Richard Gloucester begins his bloody journey to the throne of England. Those ahead of Richard in the line of succession include his brothers George, Duke of Clarence and King Edward; and Edward’s young sons, Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Queen Margaret appears, now aged, cursing all who have had a hand in her family’s demise. Meanwhile, Richard has arranged for his brother Clarence to be killed in prison. King Edward, ill after years of sexual indulgence, mourns Clarence’s death.

Although he has killed both King Henry and his son Ned, Richard manages to seduce Lady Anne, Ned’s young widow.

King Edward IV dies. Richard is made Lord Protector and guardian to Edward’s two sons. He sends the princes to the tower, supposedly to keep them safe until prince Edward can be crowned. Richard promises Buckingham rewards in exchange for his aid in seizing the crown. The two maneuver to eliminate all opposition.

Part Four: Ghosts

Richard is crowned King Richard III.

King Richard orders Buckingham to kill the princes in the tower, but Buckingham falters. Richard then turns to Tyrell to murder them instead.

To further secure his crown, Richard decides to kill his wife Anne and to quickly marry his niece Elizabeth, the dead King Edward’s daughter, before the arrival of Richmond, who is rumored to be coming from Wales (“the Western coast”) to marry young Elizabeth himself and claim the crown.

As King Richard ventures forth to confront Richmond’s and Buckingham’s forces, he is confronted by Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, his mother—who have been taught by the Old Queen Margaret how to replace their laments with curses that they lay on Richard.

Richard attempts to convince Queen Elizabeth to secure her daughter’s hand in marriage.

Richard’s paranoia grows as the ghosts of those whom he has killed come to haunt him. Richard goes to battle—first with himself in the middle of the night (“Is there a murderer here?”)—and the following day with Richmond.

On the field of battle, Richmond fulfills an earlier prophecy, killing Richard and taking the crown. The newly crowned Henry begins the Tudor line which continued through Shakespeare’s time, ending with the death of Elizabeth I.


The War of the Roses plays from August 23 through September 15. Get tickets here!
Click here to read more blog posts about our production of The War of the Roses.



4 thoughts on “What happens? The War of the Roses Synopsis

  1. Not to post, breaking the rules here – i have a question and this is not the proper place to ask it, but I didn’t know there was this place to post comments or questions post-performance until now. Concerning the last play: because the actors did not know which role they were performing until the start of play, there was no way for me to match up which actor played each role. Usually I go home and read the bio of each performer and try to connect them to their performance. Everyone in the company is so talented, but I like to know who played what and the program notes could not of course adjust for that. Perhaps, a board outside could have posted post-performance list of that day’s match-up of actor’s name and role performed.

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