When Shakespeare’s plays were collected and published in 1623, the volume included eight plays that together dramatize the “Wars of the Roses.” This name has been given to a period in English history that arguably stems from the death of Edward the Black Prince in 1376 and ends when Henry Tudor is proclaimed King Henry VII in 1485. Edward, the oldest son of King Edward III, was a valiant warrior and skilled diplomat who held out the promise of continuing his father’s rule over England and much of France. When, however, the Black Prince predeceased his father, his infant son Richard became heir to the throne, and, on Edward III’s death, was proclaimed King Richard II. His royal uncles began to compete for power, and in 1399 Richard was deposed by his cousin Henry, son of the Duke of Lancaster. In the following years, the descendants of Edward III divided themselves into two factions—those who sympathized with the deposed and murdered Richard II and his Yorkist supporters, and those who followed the Lancastrians. The factions battled each other for the nation’s throne with increasing ferocity, with first one faction then the other in the ascendancy. In 1485, Richard III, the last of the Yorkist kings, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. His opponent, Henry Tudor, a descendant of the Lancastrians, married Elizabeth York and thereby brought together the two battling family lines and brought an end to the Wars of the Roses.
The four plays that dramatize the period between 1422 (the death of Henry V) and 1485 (the death of Richard III and the proclamation of Henry VII as king) were written in the late 1580s or early 1590s. Three of them cover the tumultuous reign of Henry VI, who, like Richard II, was named king when yet a child. During the years covered by the three Henry VI plays, England was caught up not only in the struggles between the Yorks and the Lancasters but also in an ongoing war to hold on to, or to regain, lands in France. The fourth of these plays, Richard III, shows Richard’s violent climb to the throne and his equally violent ejection and death. All four plays were published as Shakespeare’s in the First Folio, though there is ongoing debate about how much of Henry VI, Part 1 was actually written by Shakespeare, and though there are many scholars who argue for other authorial hands in Parts 2 and 3 as well.
The four plays that dramatize the earlier period in this saga, which begins in 1398 near the end of Richard II’s reign and ends in 1421 with Henry V in triumph, were written in the late 1590s, and three of them—Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2—were printed numerous times in individual quarto editions beginning in 1597, 1598, and 1600. (Henry V did not receive a full printing until it appeared in the First Folio.) These four plays are generally accepted as not only written by Shakespeare but as being the very best of his history plays. They have a complex and confusing relationship to the plays written earlier, to which they provide a prequel, as is acknowledged in the Chorus that closes Henry V:
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the world’s best garden he achieved
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King
Of France and England, did this king succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed,
Which oft our stage hath shown.
Part of the complexity of the relationship between the two tetralogies arises from differences in the ways the two sets of plays present certain moments in history. Mortimer, for example, in Henry VI, Part 1 2.5, tells Richard Plantagenet that “the Percies of the north” went to war with Henry IV in order to place Mortimer on the throne, that they lost their lives on his behalf, and that the Lancasters continued to imprison Mortimer because he threatened their hold on the kingship. This version of the story is markedly different from the version presented in Henry IV, Part 1, where Mortimer is, indeed, a theme of contention between Henry IV and Hotspur, but where placing him on the throne is merely one of Hotspur’s wilder threats (Henry IV, Part 1 1.3.138–40), and where the last we hear of Mortimer is that he failed to show up to support Hotspur and the other rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury (4.4.23). His name is never mentioned in Henry IV, Part 2 or in Henry V, nor is there any mention in this tetralogy of his being imprisoned or considered a threat.
An added complication is that because the plays covering the later part of the period were written first, editors from the mid–twentieth century onward began calling them “The First Tetralogy” (i.e., the first-written tetralogy). These editors place the First Tetralogy in collected editions before the four plays that depict the earlier years, rather than putting all eight plays in the order in which their historical figures lived, as did the First Folio of 1623. Thus “The Second Tetralogy” refers to the set of plays that depict action that precedes the story told in what we now know as “The First Tetralogy.” As a consequence, few readers today, trained to read the plays in the order in which they were written, would ever encounter the eight plays by beginning with Richard II and reading through to the end of the saga with Richard III’s death and the proclamation of the reign of Henry VII. Thus the full story of this turbulent period of English history as depicted in these eight plays—the fall of Richard II, the rise of Henry IV, and the subsequent violence between Edward III’s royal descendants—is rarely experienced with its full narrative force.