“RICHARD II”, “HENRY IV, PARTS 1 and 2”, and “HENRY V” were wildly popular during Shakespeare’s time! That audience knew which Henry was which, which Richard was which, and many of the incidents that surrounded these plays, much as the modern American audience knows George Washington from Benjamin Franklin from Thomas Jefferson from John Adams.
To us, the experience of any one of these plays may be akin to watching “Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back”. In and of itself, it cannot possibly be satisfying to its audience. However, if we have already seen “Star Wars” (Episode IV - A New Hope) we get the context that we need to appreciate the action that this particular movie presents. We don’t get the big bang finale that the first movie gave us, but can anticipate the satisfaction of the resolution yet to come in “Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi”.
But what if we charted out the passage from “Richard II” to “Henry IV” to “Henry V” so that the arc of the action would be apparent. What if we saw in one swell foop, the fall of Richard give way to the rise of Henry IV and the triumph of Henry V? What if we absorbed as much information as we need to know in order to see the essential action of the play without diverting into the tributaries of thought along the way?
I take, as my premise, that Shakespeare was writing a series of plays about the struggle of succession. A good, clean, undisputed succession leads to happiness and prosperity. An uncertain, contentious succession leads to dispute, dissension and rebellion. It leads to war and death. Horrible war and agonizing death. Death to masses of people, such that “your tawny ground [doth] with your blood discolor.” Given that Shakespeare’s current ruler, Queen Elizabeth I, was in her sixties, an ancient age in these days, Shakespeare was essentially telling horror stories to the public about the dangers a disputed succession would bring to England of the 17th century.
For better or for worse, I have tightened the screws on these plays, sculpting each “episode” down to less than an hour (when performed without pauses of overlong indulgence). Theoretically, if a theatre were to produce them all in a single evening, they would take less time than the BBC Richard III, which all by itself takes three hours and fifty-nine minutes.
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