In this series of plays Shakespeare reaches his apogee in the historical drama form. They are superior to his earlier efforts primarily for two reasons. The language is richer and more unified, progress that results from the second and more important cause: the subtlety and complexity of many of the characters. Here they are more than just political schemers or irresolute victims. Their moments of triumph and defeat intermingle, and what we may judge to be their personal strengths and weaknesses overlap. In sum, these characters are more fully developed and more human than the comparatively one-dimensional figures of the first tetralogy.
The issues of the plays, however, are familiar, because here is the story that precedes that of Henry VI and Richard II. Once again we are concerned with the responsibilities of kingship and the destruction wrought when a king is overthrown. But since the characters are more compelling, we are more involved in the resolution of the crises. In addition, Shakespeare offers a gallery of nonroyals who provide brilliant counterpoint to the intense political struggle. Thus this tetralogy offers a greater sense of society as a whole than does the first.
These works are polished, the products of a mature dramatist in command of his skills. And even though Shakespeare is again encapsulating years into weeks, even though he is creating enormous pageantry that tests the limits of any stage, the playwright's mastery is such that we never feel that he is out of control. He offers brilliant comedy, great battlefield action, sharply drawn political intrigue, and human conflict that approaches the realm of the tragic. These works are superbly crafted. From structure to character to language to theme they represent the myriad aspects of Shakespeare the dramatist.