Uneasy Made Easy: A Historical Prequel to Shakespeare’s HENRY IV

Matthew S. Sciarappa

Matthew deep in study

by Matthew S. Sciarappa

It’s no wonder why we hear King Henry conclude, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” in Act III, scene 1 of Henry IV part 2. Handling the monumental pressures of both running a nation and ensuring a lineage doesn’t exactly sound like pie. In Smith Street Stage’s upcoming production of Henry IV we will see King Henry grappling with his uneasiness and sporting that very heavy crown.

However, he was not the first man taxed with such a tremendous task. England has a rich and intricate history leading up to Henry IV that (let’s face it) can make us feel “uneasy” ourselves in figuring it out.

But let’s say that you’re auditioning for Henry IV sometime soon; or you’re at an intellectual cocktail party with friends; or you’re an impressive Shakespeare buff, but you don’t quite know what happens before the time of this play, when suddenly you’re asked, “How did Henry IV get to be Henry IV?”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, to help you answer this question I’ve compiled a brief history highlighting the key players and events that you should know.


  • Edward II

Edward II began his rule in 1308. No one in England at the time really seemed to like him, as he played favorites with particular nobles in court and continuously failed in war against Scotland.

Eventually, Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, teamed up with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and launched a revolt against her husband. In said revolt, Edward II’s own forces abandoned him. Really, he was not a popular guy.

Edward II relinquished his crown to his fourteen-year-old son, Edward III, in 1327 and later was probably murdered—we don’t know that for a fact, but the dude rather quickly wound up dead.

  • Edward III

Edward III was only a bit more popular than his dad, but he was pretty stoked to be the new king. So much so, that at age seventeen he decided to throw a coup against Roger Mortimer (previously mentioned) who was ruling de facto at the time.

Edward III continued the fight against Scotland, which was a major struggle, but he managed to gain a decent victory in the Battle of Halidon Hill.

Edward III soon had the brilliant idea that since his mommy Isabella was French, he could be the king of both France and England. France obviously said “heck no” (I may be paraphrasing) and this whole ordeal led to a little quarrel between the nations known as The Hundred Years’ War…smooth move Eddie…

Edward III had four sons, and we only really care about three of them because the last one was eventually beheaded for treason. The three sons we care about are as follows: Edward the Black Prince, Lionel Duke of Clarence, and John of Gaunt the Duke of Lancaster.

FUN FACT: the middle son, Lionel, will eventually produce a lineage leading to Richard III, but that’s a whole other story/Shakespeare play we can save for another time. We’re going to ignore Lionel right now. Nothing personal.

  • Edward the Black Prince

Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, did not get to be king. After living a life of impressive military success, he took ill. His stubborn father, our Edward III, outlived him. When Edward III eventually died (illness as well in 1377) the crown was passed to his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II. Remember Richard II. We’ll come back to him in a moment.

  • John of Gaunt

Edward III’s other son, John of Gaunt, had some unpopularity problems just like his dad (are we noticing a theme here?). John of Gaunt’s unpopularity stemmed from his lack of familial grounding. England wasn’t sold on his parentage; there were rumors at the time that he was a mere butcher’s son. This was in part because Edward III was not actually present for his birth.

However, John of Gaunt was a decently successful military commander, and for a while was essentially running England’s government. This was due to Edward III’s/Edward the Black Prince’s illnesses and deaths. John of Gaunt travelled to different countries, crusaded against enemies, and even buddied up with famous writer Geoffrey Chaucer.

John of Gaunt had two wives in his lifetime, Blanche of Lancaster and Catherine Swynford.

FUN FACT: Catherine Swynford came later, and also had something to do with the lineage leading up to Richard III, but we’ll again forgo traveling down that path.

  • Blanche of Lancaster

There isn’t much recorded history about Blanche of Lancaster, but she and John of Gaunt seemed to have gotten along rather well. By all accounts, she was attractive, wealthy, and faithful to her husband. She and John of Gaunt had seven children, three of which survived infancy, and one of which was Henry of Bollingbroke (I repeat, HENRY of Bollingbroke… SPOILERS: He becomes our King HENRY IV).

OKAY! Let’s Check in

So here’s where we are now: it’s 1378, all the previously mentioned Edwards are dead, John of Gaunt is still alive/running England, ten-year-old Richard II (remember him?) is presently king, and ten-year-old Henry of Bollingbroke is his cousin.


  • Richard II

Richard II, though starting out at age ten, didn’t do half bad as a king. He successfully suppressed the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 with help from advisors, and in 1389 he claimed full control of his position as king, leading to a relatively peaceful eight years in England.

  • Thomas de Mowbray

One day in 1398, some gossipy duke we don’t like named Thomas de Mowbray decided that Richard II’s cousin, Henry of Bollingbroke, said something treasonous against the kingdom. Henry of Bollingbroke denied this, and suddenly their dispute became a big deal.

Neither Thomas de Mowbray nor Henry of Bollingbroke would surrender in their battle of hearsay, so Richard II decided that the two dukes should duke it out in a duel. On the day of said duel, Richard II was feeling temperamental, and instead of letting one of these men kill the other, he chose to banish Henry of Bollingbroke for a time, and exile Thomas de Mowbray for life.

  • Henry of Bollingbroke

Henry of Bollingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, passed away one year after the banishment. Richard II got a little greedy and decided that since Henry of Bollingbroke was presently banished, he was not entitled to his inheritance.

Henry of Bollingbroke was not very happy about this, so in 1399, while Richard II was away in Ireland, he chose to invade England to reclaim his inheritance. He had such a large following, however, that it soon became clear: Henry of Bollingbroke could overthrow Richard II and become king of England. So obviously he did, and in the same year he crowned himself our very own King Henry IV.

And thus, ladies and gentlemen, we begin at Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind history lesson!

Matthew S. Sciarappa

Sometimes all this history can be overwhelming.

–Matthew Sciarappa, SSS Assistant


“What’s Past Is Prologue”: The historical context of ‘Julius Caesar’ [Part 1]

Friends and Followers,

Opening weekend has come and gone, and if you haven’t come out to see us yet, you have 8 MORE CHANCES (including tonight at 7pm! Come on out!)!

It is my pleasure to introduce a guest blogger! Jim Harvey has been reading the blog this summer, and reached out to share his expertise as what he describes as an “amateur Roman historian”, having studied across the pond in England “Britain’s interest in all things Roman”. His relationship with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar began as a young boy when he was introduced to the film version starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, John Gielgud as Cassius, and James Mason as Brutus.

“It’s against that backdrop that I’m getting excited about the upcoming Smith Street Stage production of “Julius Caesar” in Carroll Park,” Jim wrote, “This got me re-reading some Roman history…to see how close Shakespeare got to these historic events. The answer is pretty close. He condensed the time and took some liberties, but a lot of what he has in the play came from original sources. What’s not entirely clear in the play and probably not to modern audiences is the context of the times and how Caesar courted his fate by treading on Roman traditions.”

So without further ado, some historical background on Julius Caesar brought to you by Jim Harvey:

Setting the Stage

“When Roman citizens evicted the corrupt and brutal Tarquinian kings from the city around 500 BC, they established a republic that existed into Caesar’s time. It was an autocracy, but it provided for rule of law and some limited representative government. The Senate was the most prestigious body in Rome. Administratively, two consuls elected annually by the Senate sat atop a complex order of offices…Tribunes represented the people to the Senate and brought the Senate’s decrees to the popular assemblies. When a crisis threatened Rome, the two consuls were expected to agree on how to proceed. If they did not, the Senate could appoint a dictator to address the specific crisis, within a specific time frame (usually six months, rarely more than a year). By tradition, Roman armies under arms never entered the city itself.

This system opposed the idea of royalty. It was committed to shared governance, short term limits, a primitive system of checks and balances, and tightly controlled conditions under which dictators could be appointed to handle emergencies. And the famed legions and their generals were seen as servants of the Senate.

All of that began to fall apart about 100 B.C…

Roman politics became increasingly brutal and bloody.

Cicero denounces Cataline's attempted conspiracy so well that the rest of the senators literally shun him. Ouch.

Cicero denounces Cataline’s attempted conspiracy so well that the rest of the senators literally shun him. Ouch.

Roman politics became increasingly brutal and bloody. Sulla (c. 78 BC) threatened Rome with his army, and insisted on dictatorial powers with which to restore the republic…Cataline (63 BC) hatched an unsuccessful conspiracy to overthrow the republic, a conspiracy denounced so forcefully by Cicero that other senators physically recoiled from Cataline.

In successive outbursts of violence, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar menaced the Senate, brought legions under arms into Rome, and encouraged mob violence to get their way.

Around 50 B.C., Caesar, having just conquered Gaul (modern France) came back to Italy. In returning he created two metaphors that still stand today. Camped north of the Rubicon, everyone understood that if he brought the legions across the stream, civil war with Pompey was inevitable. He dithered for a day or two and then “crossed the Rubicon,” while muttering “the die is cast.” In a series of brilliant maneuvers, Caesar drove Pompey out of Italy, pursued him to Greece, and pushed him on to Egypt. As Caesar’s ship landed in Alexandria, the Egyptians, recognizing a winner when they saw one, presented him with the head of the decapitated Pompey. By 45 B.C., Rome’s constitutional crisis is acute. Every significant figure in the Shakespearean drama was involved in the civil war with Pompey. Caesar is now unquestionably the most powerful man in the world. Yet within a year, he was dead.”

If you come to see our production of Julius Caesar, you’ll recognize the civil strife that Jim describes. This is, historically, about the moment that our play begins, with Caesar returning in Triumph over Pompey. In our next post, Jim will give us a few historical tidbits about Caesar and the other conspirators who became characters in Shakespeare’s play!

See you in the Park!


“What’s In A Name?”

Hello Friends and Followers!

This summer, my mind is going to be completely consumed with Caesar! Having gone through the casting process and getting ready to begin rehearsals, I am rereading and reexamining Shakespeare’s play, and learning more about the Roman empire than I ever thought I would after I finished the Rome unit in my 6th grade World Civilizations class. Suddenly, Caesar is EVERYWHERE!

Caesar Salad

Yumm! I bet Calpurnia made this classic Caesar Salad for Julius after a hard day running the world’s biggest empire.

1. Caesar Salad: Not, in fact, named for Julius Caesar, but named after restauranteur Caesar Cardini who is said to have invented the salad in the 1920s. There is a story that says that Cardini invented the salad during a Fourth of July rush when he ran out of everything else in the kitchen and had to improvise! So while this salad may not be directly related to our play, it does have a certain amount of mystery and controversy surrounding it, just like the historical facts of Julius’ life and death!

I’m just a poor orphan girl…OR AM I?!

2. Anastasia: The best non-Disney animated movie from the 90’s. What’s not to love about this one? Great music! Meg Ryan’s voice! Fantastical retelling of an historical legend! Speaking of which…Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a retelling of a historical moment that had been retold and re-interpreted by many writers before him. Shakespeare’s version is true to certain source material, but he also wrote rich and complex characters and rewrote certain aspects of the story. Also, Anastasia’s father was the “Tsar” of Russia, a political title that comes from the name “Caesar” (as does the “Kaiser” in German). Now, seriously, go watch this movie again. You probably haven’t watched it since 2001, unless you’re like me, in which case you watched it in the past 4 months (and should still treat yo self to another viewing).

3. Macbeth: You have gotten so overwhelmed with all these Julius Caesar updates, that you want to go back and read another one of Shakespeare’s fantastic tragedies for a little variety! When you get to act 5, MacDuff will reveal that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” right before he cuts off Macbeth’s head! Suddenly, you’ll realize he’s talking about being born by Caesarian section! You’re responses will probably be, in this order 1. C’MON MACDUFF! TMI! and 2. OH NO! YOU CAN’T SEEM TO ESCAPE CAESAR NO MATTER HOW HARD YOU TRY!

See what I mean? Guess the next best thing would be to order a Caesar salad to be delivered to your apartment, get Gladiator on Netflix, and count down to opening night of Julius Caesar in Carroll Park!

Adieu for now,