Shakespeare?!The History Plays!?
You can't be serious?!
I am. Write about that which you love, they say. Well, I just love these plays. They were, to the playhouse patrons of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, the HBO and Netflix dramas of their day. They were, first and foremost, commercial works, aimed to generate a profit. They were fictionalised dramas; adopting themes, developing characters, and scripted carefully to entertain, provoke and manipulate their audiences. And, loosely - very loosely - they were based on the origins and consequences of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York.
And so, if we imagine that boxed-sets were available at the 17th Century Globe Theatre, the back wrapper may have read something like this:
King Richard II is an indecisive, self-centred, adult-child, who ascended the throne at the age of ten. Feted by the Court since childhood, Richard has grown to adulthood with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, and no concept of self-discipline. A disappointment to the great promise of his lineage, Richard has surrounded himself by sycophants, and squandered his personal wealth, leading to increased taxes on his subjects. He is resented by the commons, and disrespected by the nobility.
When Richard's powerful and wealthy uncle, John the Duke of Lancaster, (John of Gaunt), dies, Richard seizes Gaunt's immense wealth for himself. Gaunt's eldest son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke, already harbours reason for enmity towards the King. Bolingbroke had been banished from England by the King prior to his father's death. And now, driven by that enmity and a strong sense of injustice, he plans to return to England and claim back his rightful inheritance.
Bolingbroke is everything Richard is not. He is greatly admired by the commons, and deeply respected by the nobility. And Bolingbroke, being also directly descended from Edward III, has a claim to the throne.
Bolingbroke's original intent, to simply claim back his Dukedom, is tested by the despair with which he views Richard's England, and also by Bolingbroke's immense popularity with Richard's subjects. He claims his Dukedom - and then the throne; usurping Richard and ascending as King Henry IV.
Although popularly acclaimed as King, divisions and resentment remain in the Kingdom, and Richard's death has not only stained Henry's reputation, but eroded his own certainty in his divine right as King. Meanwhile, King Henry's eldest son, Prince Hal, has a reputation as a wastrel and an associate of men of disrepute, most particularly the scoundrel, John Falstaff. Upon who does Prince Hal model himself: his father the King, or his de-facto father, Falstaff?
Dissension turns to rebellion in the north, and Henry is challenged by the Duke of Northumberland and his son, Henry Percy (Hotspur). King Henry openly bemoans the cruel fate which sees Northumberland blessed with such a heroic and worthy son as Hotspur, while the King sees "riot and dishonour stain the brow" of his young Harry. Prince Hal and Hotspur meet in battle at Shrewsbury, where Hotspur is slain. King Henry IV retains his kingdom, but loses his health, and goes to his death doubting the capacity of his heir, Prince Hal - now King Henry V. Falstaff, expecting great favour from the new King, is coldly rebuffed by his now regal former associate: "I know thee not, old man ... Presume not that I am the thing I was".
And indeed, he is not. King Henry V is the warrior King, who hammers the French into submission at Hafluer, before leading the exhausted and vastly out-numbered English forces in a famous speech, and to a famous victory, against the French at Agincourt. When he firmly establishes himself as the undisputed monarch of England and France, English supremacy seems assured. Yet King Henry's reign is ended by illness at a young age, and the crown passes to his infant son, King Henry VI.
England, again, experiences a minority monarch, and the nobles jostle for dominance. France seizes the opportunity to reassert its own sovereignty, assisted by the self-proclaimed agent of Heaven, Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc). The loss of territory in France inflames the divisions in the English court, a situation perfectly described by Lord Exeter: "'Tis much when sceptres are in children's hands; But more when envy breeds unkind division; There comes the rain, there begins confusion."
The Duke of Suffolk, having seen the power wielded by the Lord Protector, Gloucester, plans to undo the Protector and seize control of the throne. He does so by wooing Margaret of Anjou to adopt the roles of wife of King Henry, as well as mistress of Suffolk. Thus, in his own words: "Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king; But I will rule both her, the king and realm."
Suffolk's manipulation of the King riles Richard, Duke of York, who openly proclaims his right to the throne; claiming that his direct lineage would be kings, but for the usurpation by King Henry's grandfather. York is supported by the Earl of Warwick, "the Kingmaker", and thus the kingdom, again, falls into dissension and rebellion. The weak King is coerced into formal recognition of Richard of York as his heir, effectively disinheriting the King's own son. Queen Margaret is outraged, and spurs her supporters within the House of Lancaster into open civil war with the Yorkists. When the forces of Queen Margaret cruelly taunt and murder Richard, Duke of York, the Yorkists are provoked to their own righteous outrage, and the die is cast in the fight for supremacy between the houses of Lancaster and York, now led by Richard's eldest son, Edward of York. King Henry is captured and imprisoned in the Tower. Margaret and her son, Prince Edward, flee to France. The Yorkists prevail, and Edward of York succeeds as King Edward IV.
But Edward's hasty and secret marriage to Margaret Woodville causes dissension within his own house, most disastrously with Warwick, who hears of the marriage whilst in France negotiating the marriage of Edward to the sister of the French Queen. So aggrieved is Warwick by this betrayal, that he abandons all allegiance to the House of York and swears to aid Queen Margaret in her quest to have her son recognised as the King of England.
Margaret, Warwick and Edward of Lancaster return to England to garner forces to overthrow King Edward IV. At the Battle of Tewkesbury the future of the House of Lancaster is extinguished when Edward of York and his brothers, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, take their revenge for the murder of their father by slaying Prince Edward of Lancaster before his mother's eyes.
York is victorious. The winter of discontent is made summer.
But the evil and misshapen Richard, Duke of Gloucester, has clearly stated his ambition. "I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown." And so, King Edward IV is undermined by the duplicitous "support" of his younger brother. When King Edward falls ill and dies, his teenage son is briefly proclaimed King Edward V, but before any coronation can be arranged, Gloucester, assisted by his "second self", The Duke of Buckingham, manages to discredit, murder or disappear all claimants between the throne and himself, finally emerging as King Richard III.
Once King Richard has achieved his ambition, his great affection and reliance for Buckingham is replaced by disdain. Buckingham switches allegiance to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, a direct descendent of John of Gaunt and claimant of the throne of England. Meanwhile, Richard, in a bid to reinforce his royal credentials, poisons his wife and sets his sights on his niece, Elizabeth of York, the heir of the former King Edward. But before the betrothal can be realised, rebellion boils over in the form of an invasion by Richmond. They eventually meet in the Battle of Bosworth Field.
The night before the battle, Richard is visited, and clearly distressed, by the ghosts of those who have died in his quest for the crown: "Shadows tonight have struck more terror to the soul of Richard, than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers".
During the battle, King Richard is unhorsed, then slain by Richmond, who is subsequently crowned King Henry VII. The first act of the new king is to proclaim a pardon to the defeated soldiers, declaring, "We will unite the white rose with the red: smile heaven upon this fair conjunction, that hath long frowned upon their enmity".