The design that you see here was produced by Tibor Reich for the Birthplace Trust in 1964. Reich depicts the kingship, battle and heraldry that resonate throughout Shakespeare’s history plays.
There are ten English history plays published in the First Folio, not counting the anonymous Edward III. Shakespeare wrote about English kings from the incompetent King John all the way through to the majestic Henry VIII. In all of these plays, Shakespeare is fascinated by kingship and the way in which leaders are torn between duty and conscience. In King John, the king has to decide between pleasing the Pope of Rome or claiming his lands in France. In Richard II, the rebel Bolingbroke has to decide whether it is better to live in banishment and injustice or to rise up against his own cousin the king to take the crown. Such decisions are momentous, and Shakespeare allows his audiences to explore the humanity of these great historical figures.
This is an extract from Henry IV, Part II. Henry is plagued by his conscience after having deposed his cousin, Richard II. In this moving and desperate speech, Henry feels envious of his subjects who are able to escape from their troubles through sleep, whilst he suffers with insomnia. His guilt and melancholy lead him to make one of the most quoted observations about kingship in Shakespeare’s plays, ‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’:
KING HENRY IV
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (Henry IV, Part II, Act 3, Scene 1)
Reich’s design emphasises the grand display of monarchy. They have striking crowns, shields and flags, all of which would have been recognisable symbols of particular kings and queens. Shakespeare loved to write about battles in his history plays. He takes a look at the honour and pride felt by kings in fighting for their country.
The following extract is the most quoted, recognisable and even iconic battle cries from Shakespeare’s canon. It comes from Henry V, when Henry and his army are about to siege Harfleur. Henry calls on his men to ‘stiffen the sinews’ and to overcome any anxiety and fear with courage and fortitude. He speaks directly to the noblemen, and then addresses the ordinary men or ‘yeomen’ whom he claims have every right to fight for and be proud of their cause. This speech represents great courage in the face of war, and it shows how a great king can become one with his subjects:
KING HENRY V
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ (Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1)