It is rare that William Shakespeare’s history plays, or more specifically, the cycle of plays beginning with Richard II and ending with Richard III, are looked at in their entirety. This is true in both a theatrical sense, for it is a daunting challenge to take them all on all eight plays at once, as well as in an academic sense. Many scholars and academics argue that Shakespeare intended for each of the plays to be individual, to tell either five or eight separate stories, depending on how the academic in question wishes to divide them. I am, personally, very much against this argument. If Shakespeare intended the plays to be individual, why is the internal chronology so tight? Why does one play immediately precede the events of the other with almost no breaks between? Why is it that in order to fully appreciate and understand Richard III, you must first look to Henry VI? Why do the plays fit together so well?
There is an easy answer to dismiss those questions. The plays precede each other because, firstly, Shakespeare never failed to compress the events of a reign for reasons of practicality, and secondly, because that is the way history works. You would expect eight plays that take place within the same century to precede each other in some way. It can be argued that the same is true for why Richard III relies so heavily on Henry VI, because that is how history works. These are fair enough dismissals, but I would argue that, as a whole, the history plays are far too tight knit to have been intended individually. The internal chronology and continuity are too well woven together. The continuity, within the plays, is almost (but not entirely) flawless. You could just say that’s Shakespeare, he was just that good. But then, if the plays were meant to be separate, to be individual, how do you explain the chiasmic structure? How do you explain that, when put together, Shakespeare’s eight main history plays form a ring cycle?
Chiasms aren’t taught much in schools these days and they aren’t much used either but they are a literary technique that is practically as old as literature itself- Homer was using them when he wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey and Shakespeare would have definitely known about them. At a base level, a chiasm can be no more than a sentence and there are numerous examples scattered throughout the complete works- ‘Better a foolish wit than a witty fool,’ from Twelfth Night. Even what is Shakespeare’s most famous line, ‘to be or not to be’ is a chiasm.
This base level best illustrates what a chiasm is- It is a circle in textual form. And just like a circle it is symmetrical, it can be evenly split down the middle- The second half of the text is a mirror image of the first. So, to use the above examples, foolish wit is the mirror of witty fool, and to be is the mirror of not to be. At this level a sentence chiasm is a really simple thing to construct. Anybody can do it.
Where it gets more complicated is when a chiasm is applied to a whole text, like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Here it is no longer just a chiasm but what is known as a ring composition. Instead of being verbal, as with a sentence, the chiasm is now in the subtext, between the lines. It is embedded in the structure, exemplified in the themes and the characters and some of the plot points and main ideas of the text. The second half of the text will have directly opposing themes and plot points to the first. It will, effectively, be a reverse. These themes will usually follow a set pattern and from the mid-point the opposing themes and points will appear in the reverse order to that of the first half.
To use the example that is oft quoted, a ring composition whose first half contains the points A-B-C will have a second half that contains the points C-B-A. The pattern of ABC-CBA forms a circle, or ring. Paradise Lost by John Milton is a particularly good case in point, as a certain online encyclopaedia demonstrates. A concerns sin, in the first half from Satan and in the second from humanity. B concerns Paradise, or Heaven- the entry into and loss of- whilst C is a directly contrasting vision of destruction and creation, centred around the mid-point.
Successfully creating a chiasm of this form takes a fair deal of skill but what takes even more skill is the next level of chiastic structure, the ring cycle. As you might guess, the chiasm is no longer limited to a single text or piece but to a series, to a number of different texts with each of the texts and their contents representing A, B or C. Again, A B and C will repeat in reverse after the mid-point. The themes and ideas and points inherent in texts A will compliment/be the reverse of each other. Examples include Wagner’s Ring cycle (which gets double points for being a ring cycle about a ring) and more recently, Harry Potter (which is an incredibly loose example at best) and the original six Star Wars films by George Lucas- There is, in fact, a website by a man named Mike Klimo (which I’ll link at the bottom) which is well worth reading and goes into incredible detail about how Star Wars fits the patterns of a ring cycle. He also explains chiasms a lot better than I do. Shakespeare also created a ring cycle through his eight history plays, and like George Lucas he did it in two halves, with the second half coming first. It is definitely fair to say that Shakespeare did a much better job of not fouling up the first half, however.
We can initially see this in the names and characters of the five kings Shakespeare chose to title his plays- Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III- Three Henrys bracketed by two Richards. They form a sort of chiasm of their own. Even the numbers of the three Henrys sort of do this (IV-V-VI). Notice that Shakespeare does not include Edward IV and V in his titles, though both are almost certainly featured. The death of Edward V (though Shakespeare never labels him as such or even calls him king) in Richard III is still one of the major sources of fuel for ‘Princes in the Tower’ conspiracy theories. By neglecting to include these two as titles, Shakespeare is actually telling us to concentrate on the five individuals named and these five not only form a chiasm in name, but in their characters as well.
The two Richards are both bad kings, but in ways that are the mirror of the other. Whilst Richard II is outwardly regal and kingly, the personification of royalty right down to the iambic manner of his speech, he makes rash and bad decisions, no thanks to his advisors so the play would have us believe. He doesn’t care for the feelings of those around him, he thinks himself above them, he is haughty and egotistical. Yet, for all his arrogance and his inborn ability to alienate almost everyone around him, he is not evil or wicked in himself. He is not morally corrupt, just generally bad at ruling. It is also worth noting that he was born to be king. There is no denying his position. The throne of England is his by right, being as he is the grandson of Edward III and the son of Edward, the black prince, Edward III’s eldest son.
His fellow King Richard, Richard III, is the complete opposite of regal and kingly. Throughout the three plays he features in Shakespeare goes to great lengths to stress that he is malformed. The internal loathing caused by his deformity is one of his primary motivations, and he says as much in Part 3 of Henry VI (Act 3 scene II.) He also mentions that he’s so ugly dogs can’t help but bark at him when he goes by (Richard III- Act 1 scene I.) Characters frequently use his deformity as an insult, like the Prince Of Wales in Henry VI who calls him ‘mis-shapen Dick’ (Act 5 scene V of Part 3.) This has a double meaning for not only is Richard physically malformed, he is malformed in his character as well. He is malevolent and murderous. Though he only personally gets his hands dirty three times during the plays (beheading the Duke of Somerset and stabbing Henry VI and Edward, Prince of Wales, as a response to that mis-shapen Dick jibe) his machinations and schemes are responsible for the deaths of many, many more. He quite literally murders his way to the throne and continues to stain his hands until he dies at the hands of Richmond, Henry Tudor. He is a physical and figurative monster, one who was never meant to be king and who only gains the crown after a long campaign of lies, deception and death.
We can also compare them in the way in which they lose their crowns. Richard II loses so much popularity and loses so many of closest advisors that he feels he has no choice but to reluctantly resign his crown to Bolingbroke. Although it pains him to do so, he hands over his kingdom (Act 4 Scene I.) In contrast, Richard III attempts to cling onto his throne for as long as possible. He refuses to relinquish his grimy, crookbacked grip and that, ultimately, brings about his downfall. Even at the very last moment, when he is surrounded by his enemies and absolutely desperate to survive at all costs, he does not even think of giving up the crown. When he utters those immortal final words- A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse (Act 5 scene IV-) he isn’t trying to get away from the battlefield as his stooge Catesby wants him to, he wants a horse so he can ride around at full pelt and slaughter Richmond.
On the same hand, Henry VI and Henry IV are also opposites in their characters. The consequences of their actions, however, yield very similar results. Henry IV is ruthless. He is iron willed and will cast down everybody who doesn’t do what they’re supposed to or who doesn’t toe the line. The case in point is his son, Prince Harry, who drives him to despair by cavorting with the likes of Falstaff. (Part 1- Act 3 scene II.) He even wishes that Hal were not his son and that he’d been switched at birth with Henry Percy (Part 1- Act 1 scene I.) His strong leadership is what sets him at odds with the Percys, they perceiving his ‘toe the line or else’ style of rule as ungratefulness for their help (read: manipulation) in gaining the crown from Richard II. The consequences of their anger towards him, the resentment his style of rule brings about, lasts almost to the end of his reign.
Henry’s character is further complicated by his belief that he doesn’t really deserve the crown, that he stole it from off Richard’s head. He has trouble sleeping at night and the burdens it brings lead him to proclaim that ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’ (Part 2- Act 3 scene I.)He is paranoid that somebody is going to come and take the crown away from him, a situation not helped by the likes of the Owain ‘the earth did shake at my birth’ Glyndwr- Shakespeare anglicises his name to Owen Glendwoer- the Percys and even his own son taking the crown from his pillow when he believes him dead. Harry wanders off with the crown, instead of going to tell someone that the king is dead, and Henry wakes up and begins to panic (Part 2- Act 4 scene V.) It is these troubles which drive the king to an increasingly severe illness throughout Part three and what eventually leads to his death.
Henry VI also has troubles with the crown, but his do not stem from a belief that he doesn’t deserve it. In fact, he believes exactly the opposite. When Richard Plantagenet sits on the throne and proclaims himself king in Act 1 scene I of Part three, Henry goes into something of a strop and proclaims his lineage as a countermand to Richard’s claim, an attempt to prove how much more worthy of the crown he is. His main trouble, as he also points out in this scene and at numerous other times during part three, is that he’s been king all his life. He’s never known anything else. By part three he is so tired of all the bickering and squabbling and fighting that, in the middle of the battle of Towton, he sits down on a molehill and begins to contemplate a normal life. (Act 2 scene V.) In the end, as a result of all the fighting, he does lose his crown and his kingdom and he does, seemingly, look as though he might get a to live out the rest of his days in pious contemplation, though unfortunately Richard, Duke of Gloucester has other plans for him (Act 5 scene VI.)
Henry VI is so feeble in his character, so lacking in the control possessed by all of his predecessors that, like happened by his grandfather’s ruthlessness, the nobility are allowed to factionalise and war and rebellion are brought to the kingdom. Even Richard II had more control and influence than Henry does. Time and again he fails to overrule his nobles, to get them to bend to his will. Though he argues his case, he can do nothing to prevent the downfall of Duke Humphrey in part two. When he (Humphrey) is accused of treason (through the scheming of Cardinal Beaufort and others who want his place) Henry confesses that he hopes he is presumed innocent and once Humphrey is taken away he gives a long speech about how aggrieved he is. In Part three, outside York (Act 2 scene II) both Queen Margaret and Clifford tell him to be quiet. The worst part is that he rolls over and says nothing for the rest of the scene. When confronting York, who is sitting on the throne, the only thing he can think to do to get him off it and stop the fighting is to capitulate and say that he can be Henry’s heir and have the crown after him, in place of Henry’s son Edward. This feeble capitulation is what sets in motion the whole, virulently bloody chaos that is part three for it is a move that does not go down well with the Lancastrian faction. In short, it is Henry’s lack of leadership, instead of ruthlessness, that leads to division and in his case to his own downfall.
Sitting alone, at the mid-point of our character chiasm, is Henry V. He has no equal and no mirror. Shakespeare uses Henry and his unequalled position to exemplify the ideal of kingship. He is strong willed, swift of justice in dealing with Cambridge’s rebellion in Act 2 scene II and with Bardolph’s thievery in Act 3 scene VI. This is despite Bardolph being a previous acquaintance of his. It shows that the king knows how to keep order and tells his subjects not to mess with him because he will swiftly deal with any and all insubordination, no matter who it is. Yet, as shown by the likes of Act 4 scene I where he walks about the camp and debates with some of the men (in disguise) he does not think himself as being too far above the ordinary rabble. The only difference between him and them is that he wears a crown upon his head. Henry V is also a fantastic warrior, the most skilled combatant in all the history plays (with Talbot from Henry VI part one coming in a close second.) He is, Shakespeare argues, the perfect ruler and his death at the start of Henry VI is remarked upon as being a terrible tragedy and one that has dire consequences.
But it is not just in the major characters of the history plays that the chiasm is formed, it is also formed in the central plot points and themes of the plays themselves. Unlike with character, where Henry V forms a singular peak, each of the plays has an opposite number and the middle occurs between Henry V and Henry VI part one.
Both of these plays concern war with France and the English claim over the French throne. In the first, the English under Henry V take the war to France, they are the instigators of the central conflict, whereas in the second the French (under Charles the Dauphin, with the help of Joan Pucelle, she of Arc,) fight back against the English. In Henry V the English are strong and brave and noble, they are united under their great warrior king. The French, meanwhile, are cowards and the Dauphin and his cronies flee Agincourt with their tails between their legs. The end of the play, when we reach the apex of the chiasm, features the stirring band of brothers speech (Act 4 scene III) and a huge ‘against the odds’ battle at Agincourt. Victory belongs to the English.
In the opposing play, all is lost. France falls. All the gains of Henry V are laid waste by an English army who have no great leader to unify them and who are plagued by a squabbling nobility. Because York and Somerset can’t get along and refuse to assist each other, Talbot is left to defend Bordeaux by himself and the battle is lost, resulting in the death of his son and subsequently his own demise from a broken heart (Act 4 scene VI-VII.) Under the influence of Pucelle, she of Arc, the French have discovered a new found bravery. They are no longer the cowards who fled the field of Agincourt. Instead, we are told in the first scene of act one, it is the English who have fled the battlefield.
Both plays end with the betrothal of the king to a French princess, Katherine for Henry V and Margaret for Henry VI. The former is universally praised. They are presented as a good match, a love match, and the marriage brings with it the piece-de-resistance on top of Henry’s victory, the prospect of gaining the French crown and all the lands that come with it upon the death of the French king. It is a match that only serves for the greater good, at least so long as Henry V is alive.
The latter is quite the reverse. Margaret and Henry are opposing characters, radically different from each other, and their marriage only comes about so that Suffolk can gain influence over the king. The marriage rattles the other nobles, especially Duke Humphrey, as Henry had previously been betrothed to the daughter of the Count of Armagnac. This marriage will supposedly bring with it a lot of benefits, including a large dowry, but marriage to Margaret brings nothing with it. There is no dowry, no land, and to make things worse all the benefits that Henry V’s marriage brought have now been lost.
The comparisons continue into the next set of plays, Henry IV part two and Henry VI part two. These plays are both primarily about two things, rebellion and the downfall of a father figure. In each the rebellion plays second fiddle to the downfall, although it is fair to say that Henry VI does a much better job of portraying it. It gives it a lot more stage time, the whole of act four in fact. This, Jack Cade’s rebellion, though instigated by the Duke of York, is a rebellion of the lower classes, as exemplified by the fact that Cade goes after everyone who can read, and lawyers in particular. It is also incredibly violent and bloody and includes several on stage deaths. Iden’s killing of Cade in scene X, the end of the rebellion, is also a violent act.
The rebellion in Henry IV, Scroop’s Rebellion, is far more an affair of the nobility than of the lower classes. It is started by Percy, the Duke of Northumberland (in response to the failure of his uprising in the previous play) and, like the Duke of York with Cade’s rebellion, he plays almost no further part in the proceedings. The rebellion plays out mostly off stage until the end when John of Lancaster (son to the King) brings it to a peaceful conclusion in act four scene II, before promptly having the ring leaders taken away for execution.
It is interesting to note that, following the conclusion of this rebellion, Shakespeare introduces a major player in the form of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and his death occurs just before the start of Cade’s rebellion in Henry VI part two. His most important role in the plays is to act as Lord Protector, advisor and substitute father to King Henry following the death of Henry V, though it is a role that makes him an enemy of most of the nobility and of Queen Margaret. Part two sees his downfall, first through humiliation by way of his wife, Eleanor, being accused of witchcraft (to be fair she did do it, though she was being played the whole time) and sentenced to imprisonment on the Isle of Man. Second is by accusations of treason from the rest of the nobility. Amongst his treasons, it is to be noted, are the loss of France which it is fair to say was not so much his fault as the incompetence and bickering of the other nobles instead. Much to the king’s dismay he is arrested and then various nobles, many of whom stand either side of increasingly factionalised lines, plot to have him murdered. The king does not want any of this, he trusts and loves Gloucester and depends on him for advice and counsel. If it were up to the king, Gloucester would still have a long and happy and prosperous career ahead of him. Gloucester is the closest thing Henry has to a father and to lose him is devastating for Henry.
The father figure of Henry IV part two is Falstaff and this time he is not a father figure to the king but instead to the prince, to Harry, the future Henry V. However, where Humphrey is a fundamentally good man with honest intentions who falls at the hands of others, Falstaff is naught but a rogue and his downfall is of his own making. The only person humiliating Falstaff is Falstaff. In the previous play he has committed highway robbery and here that comes back to haunt him in the form of a justice of the peace looking for answers and his arrest. He manages to upset almost everyone he comes across, either through his bombast or his cowardice. He loiters when he is ordered to go to Yorkshire and help stop the rebellion and only arrives when it’s all over. He insults Prince Harry when he is hiding right behind him and he seems to think that once Harry is king he’ll be showered with titles and get to hang around at court. His presumption marks his end for at Harry’s coronation he makes himself known, pushes his way through the crowd, and Harry, now Henry V, willingly and unflinchingly banishes him. He knows what Falstaff is, a coward and a villain, and though he and Falstaff might have been close companions up till now, laughing and joking with each other, he knows damn well that he isn’t the sort of person who can be seen hanging around with a king for he would bring damnation and disgrace upon the royal court. Henry, probably without remorse at this stage, lets his substitute father figure and mentor go. From now on he will be his own man. Falstaff sickens after this, according to the denizens of the Boar’s Head because of the banishment, and dies off stage at the start of the next play. Like much of the first half, it is a significantly less violent and less bloody event than its counterpart.
Henry IV part one and Henry VI part three both concern war in England, and war over the right to hold the throne, no less. Though he plays little part in the action, the intent in Henry IV is to place Edmund Mortimer, a great grandson of Edward III through the daughter of his third son, Lionel of Antwerp, on the throne. Henry, meanwhile, is a direct male descendent through Edward’s fourth son, John of Gaunt. As I mentioned above, this all comes about because the Percys, the Duke of Northumberland and his son Henry (also called Hotspur) see his ruthlessness and firm leadership as ungratefulness and so they side with Mortimer and Welsh rebel Owain ‘the earth did shake at my birth’ Glyndwr against the king. It is a war about disaffected nobility, about people who think there should be someone else upon the throne.
It is, however, a minor war when all things are considered. There is but one battle in the play, the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Henry Percy is killed during a one on one duel with Prince Harry, which effectively ends the war before it has even begun. Percy is also the only person to die on stage in this play, which is in itself something of a rarity throughout the first half. All except two or three of the major deaths from Richard II to Henry V take place off stage.
Henry VI part three, however, sees a major war and one that is altogether more violent and many of the deaths, and there are many, also take place on stage. Characters are routinely executed, stabbed and murdered with gay abandon, up to and including the king himself. Richard, Duke of York, the initial head of the Yorkist faction, is captured and tormented by Queen Margaret and Clifford in a scene that today might be considered a war crime (Act 1 scene IV.) They put a paper crown on his head and then dangle a handkerchief covered with his infant son’s blood (Clifford killed him) in front of his face before trying to get him to dry his tears with it. It is a brutal scene which highlights the barbarity of the play. There is no time here for any of the light, joviality of Eastcheap which features alongside the war in Henry IV part one.
Again, the two factions vying for the crown, the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, are headed by descendants of Edward III by Lionel of Antwerp and John of Gaunt respectively. Richard Duke of York has a double point, for he is also descended (this time on a direct male line) from Edward III through his fifth son, Edmund of Langley. Arguably, despite Henry VI’s protestations, the Yorkists have a far more superior claim to the throne. The ultimate victor this time, instead of being John of Gaunt’s descendants like it was in Henry IV, is the house of York and the descendants of Lionel of Antwerp.
Both plays also heavily feature the Prince of Wales and, yet again, they are portrayed in opposite ways. Harry in Henry IV is perceived by many to be a wastrel, a good for nothing who hangs around seedy taverns with the likes of Falstaff. He will never amount to anything, contrasting with his father who is stern and noble and supposedly full of the stuff that kings are supposedly made of. Only at the end, at Shrewsbury, do we begin to see that this is not the case and that Harry is more than worthy of being Henry’s son.
Prince Edward, meanwhile, is made of the right stuff from the start. He is brave and strong, so fearless that he even has the tenacity to insult Richard of Gloucester to his face. He is more than worthy of becoming king and it is his weak willed father who is not worthy of him, especially not after he disinherits him at the end of act one scene I.
Here, in a more or less equal position on the chiasmic circle, we have the murder of two deposed kings. One murder occurs at the end of the penultimate play and one at the end of the first, either side of the divide between the initial and final plays. The murder of Henry VI takes place in the Tower of London and it is a death which he does not fight against. He accepts it and he even forgives his murderer, Richard of Gloucester. He does not put up any kind of a struggle and seems, from Shakespeare’s text, resigned to his fate (Act 5 scene VI.) Richard II, meanwhile, who dies in the dungeon of Pomfret castle, does put up a struggle. His is not a quiet death. Before he goes down he manages to kill one of Exton’s servants and instead of forgiving his assassin he lays a prophecy of doom upon him, pledging that with his death England shall be drenched in blood. (Act 5 scene V.) What we have here is an interesting inversion to the portrayals of violence which Shakespeare has so far set up, in that it is the murder in the first half which is the more violent and bloody rather than the second. It should also be noted that these murders take place during the penultimate scenes of their respective plays.
Finally, the two Richard plays deal with the taking of the throne, one by relatively peaceful means (barring a few executions) and the other by violence and murder. In Richard II overthrow is not the intention, for Shakespeare tells us that ‘not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king (Act 3 scene II.) (He goes on to prove, throughout the cycle of history plays (and especially during the second half) that this is indeed the case for whilst an anointed king lives he shall foster support and may yet reclaim his throne.) Bolingbroke, for his part, only returned from exile to claim back the lands and estates Richard took upon his father’s death. It is only when Richard sees his position as futile that he resigns his position.
As you might expect, the taking of the throne in Richard III is a violent one, the result of scheming, murder and machination. The intent here is always to take the throne, and in this case it is the king of the title who does the taking. His path to victory forms the basis for much of the play and it is only when we reach act four that he achieves it by the imprisonment and murder of his nephews. Of course, he very quickly loses it again when Richmond arrives just in time to restore peace, order and sanity to the kingdom.
The theme of motherhood and mothers protecting their sons appears in both plays as well. In Richard II, it being a largely non-violent play, it is minor and limited to the Duchess of York pleading for the life of her son, Aumerle, who has tried to put Richard II back on the throne in place of Bolingbroke. In Richard III Queen Elizabeth attempts to protect her two sons, Edward and Richard, Richard especially so, but flounders against the scheming of Gloucester. Edward and Richard are barbarically killed off stage. Within the context of the play can very much compare her to old Queen Margaret, who is out for revenge after the death of her son in the previous play. The old Duchess of York is in a similar place after the deaths of Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, leaving her with only Richard, whom she mourns is a mis-shapen monster. Whilst the Duchess of York in Richard II successfully protects her son, the mothers in Richard III fail to do so and their grief, as they team up to curse the newly crowned Richard III for it, is evident.
This might be pushing it, I fear, but it could also be said that the whole thing begins and ends with the Duke of Gloucester. It is his death that starts the whole train rolling before Richard II has even begun and it is the death of the former Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, that finally ends all the bloodshed and madness eight plays later, forming a tight circle at the beginning and end.
What is abundantly clear is that there are significant parallels and inversions throughout the eight history plays. These alone do not make a ring cycle, but the fact that they occur in a recognisable sequence, one play after the other and in equivalent places either side of the mid-pont, does signify that the formation of a ring cycle was Shakespeare’s intent. Whether he planned this from the start, when he wrote the three Henry VI plays, it is impossible to say, but whenever he came up with the idea the result is plain for all to see. There are definite chiasms at work in all eight of the main history plays, chiasms in both character and plot.
Pulling off a ring cycle of this magnitude is an astonishing feat and only the most skilled of writers can manage it successfully. Shakespeare almost certainly did manage it successfully. Granted, he may have been helped by the history itself, by the way events had naturally occurred, and certainly the plays are riddled with inaccuracies and other faults, but the fact remains that by creating this eight play ring cycle Shakespeare pulled off what is arguably the most remarkable feat in all of English literature. In terms of scope, in terms of scale, in terms of accomplishment, there is almost nothing else I can name which matches it.
The Star Wars thing can be found at http://www.starwarsringtheory.com/