(Wills’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/23.)
Shakespeare’s troupe, like theatrical companies everywhere, returned to what worked at the box office. That often meant mounting sequels to known “hits,” as Hollywood does now. In the patriotic 1590s, a tried and true subject was any story about England’s own history—especially about its fifteenth-century war-hero kings Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and Henry V. That is why Shakespeare spent so much of his career’s first decade writing so-called “history plays.”
Some of these nine works—Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, and Henry V—stayed in the repertory for performance as single plays. Every now and then the plays are performed as a sequence—or at least four of them are: Richard II, Henry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. These have just been offered, one per night, by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. More rarely, an earlier set of four plays has been mounted: Henry VI, Parts One, Two, Three, and Richard III. These, though written earlier, treat later events than the popular four.