Thursday, August 01, 2013

Worse than the Wars of the Roses

While my petite amie Susan and I were in London last month, the top three news stories were 1) the heat wave gripping England (anything over 30C qualifies as extreme heat), 2) the imminent birth of the Dutchess of Cornwall's baby, and 3) the Globe Theater's staging of Henry VI, Shakespeare's three-part play about the Wars of the Roses, at the sites of four of those wars' principal battles.

The Wars of the Roses proved more important, I think, as a romantic literary reference point than an actual historical event. Though the civil war lasted, off and on, for nearly thirty years, it chiefly took the form of a series of grudge matches between various nobles and their armed retainers; the combatants generally avoided ravaging the countryside, whose resources they hoped to win in the war. The most enduring political result of the wars was the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, whose founder, Henry Tudor (subsequently Henry VII), was the last man standing after all the Plantagenet claimants to the throne were killed. It was to curry favor with Henry's grand-daughter, Elizabeth I, that William Shakespeare memorialized the Wars of the Roses in two plays. One of these, Henry VI, was the Bard's first and, arguably, worst play, a point memorably made by Christopher Marlowe in Neil Gaiman's story "Men of Good Fortune" (Sandman, No. 13):

Marlowe: At least it scans. But "bad, revolting stars"?
Shakespeare: It's my first play.
Marlowe: And it should be your last.

Bearing this in mind, I do not regret missing the chance to sit through an outdoor performance of the play, even if it is on Tewkesbury battlefield. The other Shakespeare play on the Wars of the Roses, Richard III, was far better; it helped establish Richard's reputation (perhaps undeserved) as a Machiavellian villain, and became the basis for an excellent 1995 film version starring Ian McKellan in the title role – a version populated with 1930s technology, in which Richard emerged from the civil war as a fascist dictator.

Shakespeare probably helped English schoolteachers decide that the wars were, as a whole, a worthy subject of study, and thereby to plague several generations of students with their vagaries. George Orwell recounted in "Such, Such Were the Joys" that he had to memorize the principal battles in school, and did so with the aid of the mnemonic "A black Negress was my aunt; there's her house behind the barn." C.S. Lewis apparently had to learn about the wars in the same way, and his character Lucy would later characterize part of Telmarine history (in Prince Caspian) as “worse than the Wars of the Roses.” Favorable modern references to the conflict come mostly from those who approach the war as an abstraction, like designers of Kingmaker, a 1974 boardgame in which the players assemble armies of nobles, tromp around England collecting heirs to the throne, and then crown or behead the heirs as strategy dictates. More recently, George R.R. Martin allegedly modeled his Song of Ice and Fire series on the Wars of the Roses, but it was apparently rather a loose adaptation, involving mass killings of peasants, quasi-Viking raiders, weird religious cults, and the occasional zombie. None of which found their way into the historical chronicles or Shakespeare's plays, and more's the pity.

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