Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Winter approaches: the worlds of Henry VI and Richard III

  As we wave goodbye to Summer, we reflect on the two plays soon to open our winter season (2019/2020)

4 minute read

Winter is… okay, I won’t say it. But as the Winter Season approaches, the Globe Ensemble has been doing double duty, performing the Henry IVs and Henry V outside in the Globe while simultaneously rehearsing the two shows we will be taking indoors, Henry VI and Richard III. Chronologically, these plays are sequels to the Summer shows, though they were written nearly ten years earlier. (And yes, they did heavily influence Game of Thrones.)

The original Globe, of course, wasn’t built yet when these plays were first written, so we don’t know where they were performed – we aren’t even sure which company Shakespeare was writing for at this point. But they were definitely outdoor plays in origin, as their sprawling, battle-packed plots and massive casts suggest. Our ten actors are playing over a hundred characters to tell the story of the fate of England after King Henry V’s early death, the deadly rivalry for the crown that springs up between the great houses of York and Lancaster, and the sudden rise of King Richard III.

The inside of a indoor playhouse, with dark wooden panelling and a golden glow from lit candles.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photographer: Johan Persson.

That said, the dark, close space of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has proved surprisingly fitting for the mood of these plays. We don’t have the space to range about in massive battle choreography – did you know you’re not allowed to swing broadswords in the Playhouse? – or to pack a cast of dozens onto the little stage. But the world of England is shrinking, too. The summer histories featured a fantastic range of places, of people, even of languages. This world is smaller: two families (who are really one family) packed together, fighting for England town by town. The walls are closing in. It is almost as if we have been invited inside the minds of two of Shakespeare’s most troubled kings.

‘The world of England is shrinking, it’s smaller: two families packed together, fighting for England town by town. The walls are closing in.’

Photo of Richard III poster 2019

Sophie Russell as Richard III. Photographer: Johan Persson.

Since you’re reading our blog, you’re probably at least passingly familiar with Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Accused by posterity of a variety of crimes he probably didn’t actually commit, including killing most of his family members, Richard takes the audience as his confidante, inviting us to walk alongside him on his bloody path to the English throne. The play has long been used as a vehicle for asking how a tyrant or dictator rises to power. Who is complicit, and who resists? And how can such a person be stopped?

Henry VI doesn’t exert the same influence over the three plays that bear his name (which we’ve compressed into one—but more on that in a future post). In fact, his powerful, ambitious wife Margaret probably leaves the most indelible mark of any of the plays’ characters. They make a fascinating double act at the heart of the story: Henry, whose mild and conciliatory nature could make him a benevolent king, but one ill-suited for the violent, fractious age he lives in; and Margaret, whose courage and brutal determination make her the kind of leader the times demand, but who is never permitted to forget that, as a woman, it is monstrous to even try to rule.

Photo of Henry VI with hand in air

Jonathan Broadbent as Henry VI. Photographer: Johan Persson.

We associate the nooks, crannies, and candles of the Playhouse with Shakespeare’s dreamy late plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Placing some of his earliest works into this setting reveals a humanity and interiority that are not commonly associated with these histories, which we’re excited to spend the next few months digging into.