I love Shakespeare and I love history, so I naturally glommed on to Shakespeare’s An Age of Kings (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III) after it was released by the BBC in this country. The plays are divided into 15 episodes, a total of 947 minutes. First broadcast in 1960, the plays present a galaxy of British actors and actresses who later went on to build outstanding careers. The two standouts are Sean Connery as Harry Hotspur, and Robert Hardy as Juvenile Delinquent turned Hero King Henry V. It should be remembered however that these were originally broadcast in 1960 and the visual quality is often not of the best. Nonetheless, mediocre black and white visuals detract not a whit from the superb performances. This would be a good set for homeschooling parents who wish to introduce their kids to Shakespeare.
Anyone interested in the actual history would do well to have available a guide to Shakespeare to inform you as to when Drama and History part company. The late science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote a comprehensive Guide to Shakespeare. The sections on the History Plays skillfully, scene by scene, detail the actual history as opposed to the Shakespearean version.
The best criticism of the historical plays I’ve read is contained in the book Shakespeare Our Contemporary by the Polish writer Jan Kott. Written in 1961 while Poland was subject to the Soviet imposed Communist regime, Kott showed the relevance of the History plays for people living under violent totalitarian regimes. Masterfully done.
I find the title of the BBC series Age of Kings to be rather ironic. This period actually demonstrated how weak the English monarchy could be depending upon the personality of the monarch. Richard II, pleasure loving, infatuated with court favorites, roused many enemies among the great aristocratic clans of England, and was abruptly deposed by John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, spent his reign fighting off rebellions, plots and assassination attempts, as powerful members of the nobility attempted to emulate his successful usurpation. Henry V, golden hero king of English history, is the only strong monarch of the bunch. If he had not died at 36 and lived into his sixties as his great-grandfather had done, he might well have established a long-lasting dynasty, and English, and World, history might now look very different. Henry VI, coming to the throne at the age of eight months, was always a pawn and never a monarch, and the Wars of the Roses between aristocratic factions fighting for dominance were the sad result of the inability of this sad king to be anything but a figurehead. Richard III, the devil-figure of English history, by his constant double dealing and treachery, paved the way for the Tudors who ushered in a true Age of Kings and Queens.