In several of his plays, from the very early ones, Wm Shakespeare addresses issues of power and politics – politics often carried out through war. See, for example, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, from the history of Ancient Rome. See too the tetralogy Henry VI Parts 1-3 plus King Richard III, and King John, set in the Middle Ages of England and Wales, which were composed in the early 1590s.
The Henry VI plays paint a bleak picture of a country at war with itself, while also losing territory in France, at the hands of the resurgent French. The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence. The continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather repetitive for the reader (or the viewer). After many battles and murders, Edward Duke of York becomes King Edward IV, displacing Henry VI. His brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself. And in the sequel, Richard III, Richard stays his coup d’état and becomes king himself, till supplanted in turn by Richmond (Henry VII).
Richard III has a long history of success in performance. Shakespeare’s Richard fascinates because of his ambition and single-mindedness and his ability to deceive and to manipulate. (“Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/Devised at first to keep the strong in awe” [Act 5 Scene 3].) Some of his wickedness rubs off on his co-conspirators (some discarded by Richard when they oppose him) but they do not match him in intellect and drive, with the possible exception of King Henry VI’s widow, Margaret.
Richard III then gives us a story in black and white colours. Richard himself – the main character – is a “baddie”. He gets, though, his “come-uppance”.
Shakespeare lays more murders at Richard’s door than can be fairly blamed on him: the play is not an accurate reflection of history, but it is fun – a guilty pleasure, perhaps.
Like the Henry VI plays, King John is not a popular play – it is seldom performed. In my opinion, this is a pity, as I see great merit in it.
In King John, there are (I would argue) many important characters, apart from the King himself. King John is no match for Richard III, in interest. He is devious and self-serving; he plots against his nephew, Arthur (a rival claimant to the throne); but he ends up being ineffectual and a follower of his counsellors rather than a leader. As King John declines, in health and in power, the reins of leadership are taken up by others, including a cardinal, who comes close to matching Richard III for deviousness and specious arguments. The play could be said to end on an anti-climax, in contrast with the climax of Richard III.
The wider distribution of power and influence, among the characters in King John, is, for me a strength rather than a weakness. Richard III implies that, with the dethronement of one man, all is well that ends well, whereas John ends on a note of ambiguity (albeit coupled with some hope placed in the young King Henry III).
Shakespeare’s early history plays reflect aristocratic societies, where warrior lords are continually engaged in combat – in civil wars in England or in battles in France. The loyalty of powerful lords has to be won by a king or claimant to the throne and cannot be taken for granted. Rhetoric is a powerful tool to persuade people to co-operate or even to compel them.
These societies are patriarchal. Certain female characters in Henry VI assert themselves, particularly, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI) and Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester; but Joan is executed and Margaret and Eleanor are exiled. In King John, Blanche is married to the Dauphin, in order to seal an alliance between England and France – apparently with her consent. But more typically, the ladies use their allotted speeches to express deep grief at their loss of loved ones. In King John, Constance laments the capture of her son Arthur by King John’s forces, foreseeing his gruesome end; in Richard III, the Duchess of Gloucester (Richard’s mother), Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV) and Queen Anne (Richard’s wife) mourn the grim fate of Edward IV’s young sons (the ‘Princes in the Tower’).
In both King John and in Richard III, there is a dramatic episode where a major character deploys rhetoric to defend his life (or his eyesight) – George Duke of Clarence in Richard III, Prince Arthur in King John. The Clarence episode (Act 1 Scene 4) is a bravura piece of writing: its length may not be strictly justifiable, in dramatic terms; and Clarence’s dialogue with his murderers is often cut in performance (as the play as a whole is one of Shakespeare’s longest).
To conclude: Richard III is entertaining, because of the brilliance of the title character and because of the “happy ending”. The merits of the King Henry VI plays and King John lie in their analysis of the exercise of power and the conduct of politics – in the case of John, a particularly cool and ironical examination.