For context, this reading is entirely devoted to pleasure. I am not analyzing (academically) nor performing the plays, and my desire to read the plays derive completely from my profound affection towards William Shakespeare, and the language of the period and the point that I have been known to perform his work also is a source of reason why. I have read almost all of Shakespeare's tragedies, so the archaic language is not a nauseating barrier for me at all.

My question is: should one who wants to read The Tragedy of Richard III, with the landing of Earl of Richmond, and the battle at Bosworth Field, beforehand read King Henry the sixth, part three?

I am already aware of the ending of Henry 6, part 3, with the infamous murder sequence, and, I also have read and know by heart the "I can change colours of the Chameleon" soliloquy delivered by Richard, Duke of Gloucester in the middle of the play (actually Shakespeare's longest soliloquy in the canon, as far as the Folio text is concerned) So by all of this, what I am trying to say is I know the overall essence of Henry 6, part 3, and my overall goal is to read Richard III, and thus, would anyone who has read both plays advise the reading of Henry 6, part 3 to fully understand the context of Richard III, and further understand his character? Or does anyone believe that reading Henry is not that important in understanding Richard III? and if so, what are some things, if anything, I should know from Henry 6, part 3, if I decide to skip it and move on to reading Richard?

Insight would be immensely appreciated.

Images courtesy of the archives of the British Library (Both from Volume 4 of Rowe's 1709, first illustrated edition of the Works of Shake-spear)

1709 Henry 6, part 3--ROWE 1709, Richard III--ROWE


Richard III stands on its own, so it wouldn't be strictly necessary. The histories may not have been written in chronological order (there is circumstantial evidence to place Henry VI, part 1 as the last of the Henry VI plays to be written). I read the whole War of the Roses tetralogy in order when I first read them, and had the good fortune of being able to see staged readings of all of the plays (I also saw the second half of the Henriad—Richard II, the two Henry IV plays and Henry V—as part of the same series).

Bottom line, no, you don't need the earlier plays in the Wars of the Roses tetralogy but you might find it useful/entertaining to have read them and I wouldn't discourage you from reading the Henriad (set earlier but written later) as well.

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I have never come across claims by scholars that you should read specific Shakespeare plays before specific other Shakespeare plays. I am claiming this based on all I have read by or about Shakespeare so far (i.e. based on reading all of his work in individual annotated editions, writing my final thesis at university about Shakespeare and reading a number of volumes of Shakespeare criticism).

When you look at books that introduce Shakespeare to university students, you find the same picture. You will not find advice related to reading order based on plot in books such as the following:

  • Beginning Shakespeare by Lisa Hopkins (Manchester University Press, 2005),
  • Shakespeares Dramen by Ulrich Suerbaum (Francke, 1996), or
  • How to Study a Shakespeare Play by John Peck and Martin Coyle (second edition, Macmillan, 1995).

Interestingly, Peck and Coyle devote a 34-page chapter to "Studying a history play", which opens with the following statement:

Shakespeare's principal English history plays are Richard III, Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V.

The Henry VI plays are omitted, which seems to imply that you can perfectly read Richard III (which is probably listed first due to its popularity) without having read the Henry VI plays.

Of course, it can be convenient to read the plays of the "first tetralogy" in a plot-based order (i.e. Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, Richard III) rather than the order in which those plays were written (i.e. Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, Henry VI Part One, Richard III). However, this is because it is otherwise difficult to follow who is related to whom (by birth or by marriage), who has killed whom and who is in league with whom. But that is an issue with each of these plays, even when you read them in isolation. (This is why some editions include family trees.)

PS: Note also that the plays Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, Henry VI Part One and Richard III are known as the "first tetralogy", whereas the plays *Richard II *, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V, which were written later, are known as the "second tetralogy". The naming of these tetralogies is not based on the chronology of the events that inspired them but on their order of composition. Indirectly, this also suggests that scholars don't care about plot-based reading order.

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  • "I have never come across claims by scholars that you should read specific Shakespeare plays before specific other Shakespeare plays" - not even within the tetralogies, or for Part N plays like the two Henry IVs? – Rand al'Thor Oct 3 at 13:13
  • @Randal'Thor No, not even within the tetralogies. Reading order is a Stack Exchange meme. – Tsundoku Oct 3 at 13:23

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