William Shakespeare would have felt right at home with Chicago politics. What followed the funeral of the late Mayor Washington, for instance, was a typically Shakespearean scenario, complete with crowd scenes, rival factions, and speeches of impassioned concern for the public welfare, resulting, finally, in a back-room deal made while most of the populace slept. Some of them might be surprised to know it, but local aldermen have consistently performed like Shakespearean characters.
Shakespeare would have understood a professional actor as president. His history plays dramatize the intimate link between politics and showmanship, demonstrating that political power, like theater, depends on a willing suspension of disbelief.
As centerpiece of the second International Theatre Festival, the English Shakespeare Company is bringing Shakespeare’s history cycle on the Wars of the Roses to the Auditorium Theatre May 3 to 28. The cycle consists of Richard II; Henry IV, parts one and two; Henry V; Henry VI, parts two and three; and Richard III. According to festival promoters, this will be the first time the entire sequence has been staged for an American audience. The resulting marathon promises an impact not unlike that of the ancient Dionysian theater festivals that ran from dawn to dusk for days on end.
Historically, the Wars of the Roses were a fitful series of brief, bloody battles for the English crown from 1455 to 1485, with long stretches of murderous factional strife and undiluted anarchy. The reigning house of Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose) had begun its dynasty with the 1399 deposition of the callow but legitimate Plantagenet monarch, Richard II. The rash young despot became a royal martyr a year later when he was assassinated in prison, leaving unresolved the question of how subjects can be loyal to the crown when it isn’t clear who the king should be.
The first two Lancaster monarchs were Henry IV, who clamped a lid on simmering rebellion, and his son Henry V, who deflected public passions with successful military adventures in France. However, the third Lancaster ruler, Henry VI, who inherited the crown as a child, could not cope with the harsh realities of court. His reign was dominated by self-serving dukes and a ruthless queen. Now the duke of York claimed his right to the throne. on the basis of a prior right of succession that had been suppressed by Henry IV. But the real advantages enjoyed by the York challenge (represented by the white rose) were the weakness of character of Henry VI and the superior strength of the Yorkists among the powerful barons.
Shakespeare portrayed the twilight of the medieval world and the dawn of a more familiar epoch of intrigue, hypocrisy, and power politics. Richard II presents an arrogant and immature king who refuses to grow up until after he has been deposed. The upheavals that follow him demonstrate the horrors of which humanity is capable when deprived of a myth to live by. The secondhand crown of Henry IV is subtly transformed from a symbol of de jure sovereignty to a token of the moment’s balance of power.
In parts one and two of Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff as the Rabelaisian progenitor of the “where’s mine?” school of political thought represents perhaps the sanest response to a world that isn’t ready for reform. However, when Prince Hal graduates from being Falstaff’s drinking companion to being king, the old reprobate winds up back on the streets. Henry V centers on a charismatic Kennedy-like figure, handsome and heroic but marked for a premature doom that leaves the commonwealth in more confusion than before.
Full of exuberant battle scenes and vivid histrionics, the Henry VI plays were evidently written early in Shakespeare’s career and did much to establish the young playwright’s reputation. They dramatized historical material still very much alive in the memory and imagination of the Elizabethan audience, and they are essential to an appreciation of the diabolically brilliant protagonist of Richard III, the infamous hunchback king (probably much maligned by Tudor historians who needed to justify his overthrow).
This king’s ultimate defeat leaves an audience not merely with a lesson in our capacity for evil but with, perhaps, a larger one in the fragility of goodness, and in the need to take responsibility for the consequences of political decisions.
Shakespeare reveals the hidden laws that govern all manifestations of social chaos, from street gangs to civil war. While it has often been noted that Shakespeare molded history to his own dramatic purposes, nevertheless it’s remarkable how much the action sticks to the facts as recorded in Shakespeare’s chief source, Holinshed’s Chronicles of 1587.
The plays in the festival may be viewed individually over a period of weeks or seen together the weekend of May 13-15. For curtain times and other details see the Guide to Theater in section two. There will be postperformance discussions with the cast and scholars, and a “survivors party” after the May 15 performances. Director Michael Bogdanov is emphasizing the suprahistorical aspect of Shakespeare’s extended study of power by using a mix of contemporary and traditional costumes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laurence Burns.