The Lion in Winter

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The Lion in Winter




James Goldman's historical play The Lion in Winter depicts the interpersonal relationships among members of the English royal family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of the year 1183. The play is set in the castle of King Henry II of England, located in Chinon, in the English-ruled region of France. Though it was not particularly well received in its debut as a Broadway play in 1966, Goldman's screenplay adaptation of The Lion in Winter, which was released in 1968, won him an Academy Award.

The Lion in Winter concerns the interpersonal dynamics and political wrangling of King Henry; his wife Eleanor, whom he has kept imprisoned in a tower for the past ten years; and their three sons, who are vying for the privilege of being named heir to the English throne. Eleanor, who has been let out of prison to celebrate Christmas with her family, favors Richard as heir, while Henry favors John. To complicate matters, the young King Philip II of France has arrived to remind Henry of a treaty he signed many years earlier, promising to marry his heir to Philip's sister Alais. However, Alais has been Henry's mistress for the past seven years, and Henry is hesitant to marry her off to any of his sons.

The Lion in Winter explores themes of dysfunctional family, political maneuvering, war and peace, as well as aging, death, inheritance, and posterity. As the principle characters plot, scheme, conspire, and counter-plot between each other, the deep-seated emotional ties between them get played out in the political arena, such that sibling rivalry and marital jealousy translate into civil war, treason, and perhaps even murder among the members of a royal nuclear family.


James A. Goldman was born June 30, 1927, in Chicago, Illinois. He attended the University of Chicago, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1947, and went on to complete a master's degree and then a doctorate in 1950. Goldman then moved to New York City to pursue postgraduate studies in music criticism at Columbia University, but was drafted into the United States Army after two years of study. He served in the army from 1952 to 1954, during the Korean War.

After being honorably discharged from the army, Goldman decided to become a playwright instead of pursuing a career as a music critic. His first play, They Might Be Giants, was produced in 1961 at the Royal Theatre in Stratford, England. That same year, Goldman's second play, Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole (1961), co-written with his younger brother William Goldman, was produced on Broadway. Goldman wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book for the musical A Family Affair, a comedy about the families of a bride and groom bickering over their wedding preparations, which was produced on Broadway in 1962. The Lion in Winter, Goldman's fourth play, was first produced on Broadway in 1966. During that same year, he collaborated with celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim on a made-for-television musical called Evening Primrose (1966), about a group of people secretly living in a department store.

Though not particularly successful as a stage play, the film version of The Lion in Winter (1968), with a screenplay by Goldman, was a box-office hit that won Goldman an Academy Award. A motion picture adaptation of They Might Be Giants, for which Goldman also wrote the screenplay, was produced in 1971. That same year, Follies (1971), a musical about a reunion of former chorus-line showgirls, for which Goldman wrote the book, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, was produced on Broadway. A revival production of Follies, completely

revised by Goldman, was produced in 1987. Follies was a popular and critical success, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, as well as the Evening Standard Award and the Laurence Olivier Award for best musical.

With the success of the film adaptation of The Lion in Winter, Goldman earned a reputation as a screenwriter skilled at dramatizing the marital relationships of couples drawn from history and literature, such as Nicholas and Alexandria (1971), about the Russian Czar and Czarina; Robin and Marian (1976), about the legendary Robin Hood and Marian; and White Nights (1985), a spy thriller starring Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Goldman also authored four novels: Waldorf (1965), The Man from Greek and Roman (1973), Myself as Witness (1980), and Fulton County (1989).

Goldman and his first wife, Marie McKeon, had two children. Goldman and McKeon divorced in 1972. In 1975, he married producer Barbara Deren. His last completed play, Tolstoy (1996), concerns the final weeks in the life of celebrated nineteenth-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Goldman died of a heart attack October 28, 1998, in New York City, at the age of seventy-one.


Act 1, Scene 1

Act 1, scene 1 is set in the castle chamber (bedroom) of Alais (pronounced "Alice") Capet, a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman who is the mistress of King Henry. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's wife, has been imprisoned by Henry in a tower for ten years, but is being let out to join the family at court for Christmas. Henry explains that, since his eldest son Henry died the previous summer, he has yet to name a new heir to his throne. He tells Alais that, while he plans to name John as heir, Eleanor wishes to see Richard made heir. Henry, who is fifty years old, points out that his primary goal is to ensure that the lands he has amassed under his rule will remain unified after his death, rather than being broken up by a civil war between his sons.

Act 1, Scene 2

Act 1, scene 2 is set in the reception hall of the castle. Richard, Geoffrey, and John, who are the sons of Henry and Eleanor, have arrived for the Christmas Eve festivities. Richard is twenty-six, Geoffrey is twenty-five, and John is sixteen. Soon Eleanor, who is sixty-one, and then Henry and Alais enter the hall.

Finally, King Philip II of France, a young man of seventeen, arrives to discuss political matters with Henry. Based on a treaty between Henry and King Louis VII of France (Philip's father) made sixteen years earlier, Philip's sister Alais has been promised as the wife of whichever son Henry names as heir to his throne. As part of this treaty, Henry was given the French region of Vexin. Philip informs Henry that he must either marry his heir to Alais immediately, or he must return the Vexin region to French rule.

Henry explains that he has not yet decided which of his three sons to name as heir and so cannot see Alais married until he has decided whom she is to marry. He points out that if he dies without an heir and without leaving all three sons contented with their lot, a civil war will break out over the question of who is to be the next king. Philip, however, maintains his stance that either Alais must be married to an heir immediately or Henry must return the Vexin region to France.

After Philip leaves, Eleanor mentions the fact that she raised Alais, who was brought to Henry's castle as a girl and grew up there. Alais and Eleanor exchange words, clearly regarding each other as rivals for Henry's affections. After Alais leaves the room, Henry assures Eleanor that he will never set her free from imprisonment in the tower because she tried more than once in the past to lead a civil war against him. Eleanor asks Henry why he cannot simply return the Vexin region to Philip, but Henry explains that it is a strategically important territory that he cannot afford to forfeit.

Act 1, Scene 3

Act 1, scene 3 is set in Eleanor's chamber at the castle, where Henry announces that he has decided to name Richard as his heir and that Alais will be married to Richard. After Henry, Alais, and John leave the room, Eleanor points out to Richard and Geoffrey that Henry is only bluffing with this proposal and that he has no intention of naming Richard as his heir, or of marrying Richard to Alais. Eleanor attempts to convince Geoffrey and Richard to scheme with her in order to ensure that Richard marries Alais and is made heir, but both men refuse her offer.

Act 1, Scene 4

Act 1, scene 4 is set in the reception hall, where a Christmas tree has been put up. Geoffrey convinces John to side with him and Philip in starting a war against Henry. After Henry and Alais enter and the others leave the hall, Henry explains to Alais that he has no intention of marrying her to Richard or of naming Richard as heir.

Eleanor enters the hall with an armful of wrapped Christmas presents and begins to arrange them under the tree. Soon, Alais leaves the room, and Eleanor and Henry discuss the various ramifications of Henry's supposed promise to name Richard as heir. Henry tells Eleanor that he wants to take the Aquitaine region from Richard and give it to John, as compensation for not naming John as heir. Eleanor, however, insists that he not give John the Aquitaine. She begs Henry to give the Aquitaine, which was hers before she married him, back to her. It seems that although the Aquitaine is under the rule of Richard, Eleanor has the legal authority to determine whether or not Henry transfers the land to John. Henry, however, proposes that he will set Eleanor free from imprisonment if she allows him to transfer the Aquitaine to John. Eleanor responds that she will only agree to this if Henry arranges for Richard and Alais to be married immediately.

Henry agrees to Eleanor's proposal, immediately calls his sons, as well as Alais and Philip, together and informs a castle priest that he is to marry Richard and Alais that very moment. Alais protests that she does not want to marry Richard, but she is physically dragged by the others to stand with Richard before the priest. Just as the priest is about to begin the marriage rites, Henry mentions that the marriage will go through only on the condition that John is given the Aquitaine. When Richard learns of this, he refuses to go through with the wedding, and it is called off.

John is happy to learn that he is once again Henry's choice for heir. Philip calls Richard a "dunce" for not realizing that Henry never intended him to marry Alais in the first place. Philip then reminds Henry that he has a treaty to honor and that he must either marry Alais to his heir immediately or he must return the Vexin to France. Henry, however, asserts that he refuses to either see Alais married or return the Vexin, regardless of the treaty.

After Philip leaves the room, Richard tells Henry that he is prepared to go to war against his father in order to secure the throne for himself. Henry responds by informing Richard that he will be kept prisoner in the castle until Richard agrees that John will inherit the throne.

Act 1, Scene 5

Act 1, scene 5 is set in Eleanor's chamber at the castle, still on Christmas Eve. Eleanor learns that John had conspired with Philip to go to war against Henry. She explains to Geoffrey and Richard that, once she tells Henry of John's scheme against him (which was made when John believed that Richard was going to be made heir), Henry will disinherit John, and Richard will once again be named heir. She tells Richard to go to Philip and ask for aid from his soldiers to help Richard (who has been imprisoned in the castle by Henry's order) to leave the castle before she tells Henry of John's treachery.

Act 1, Scene 6

Act 1, scene 6 is set in Philip's chamber at the castle. Geoffrey knocks at the door and asks to talk with Philip, who is dressed for bed. Geoffrey informs Philip that once Henry learns that John betrayed him, he (Geoffrey) will become the favored son and be named heir. Geoffrey explains that if he is named heir, John, Richard, and Eleanor will band together to declare war against him. Thus, he asks Philip to promise to provide him with military support in exchange for which Geoffrey will give him all of England's land holdings in France.

Philip agrees to side with Geoffrey, when suddenly John, who has been hiding behind a tapestry, jumps out and accuses Geoffrey of betraying him. Geoffrey tells John that he was only bluffing and that John should have trusted him. John comments that he is not sure anymore who are his friends and who are his enemies.

Just then, Richard knocks on Philip's door. John and Geoffrey hide behind a tapestry before Philip lets Richard in. Richard tells Philip that if he provides military support for Richard to go to war against Henry for the throne, Richard will give Philip the Vexin territory as well as the region of Brittany. Richard and Philip discuss their friendship two years earlier in France, implying that they had been lovers at that time.

Just then, Henry knocks at the door, and Philip directs Richard to hide behind the bed curtains. Henry asks Philip what his strategy is at this point, and Philip states that his strategy is patience—that while he himself is young and has time on his side, Henry is getting old and the rivalry among his sons will eventually weaken him politically.

Philip then informs Henry that he and Richard were lovers when they were together in France. He explains to Henry that he never really loved Richard but that he became Richard's lover so that one day he could destroy Richard politically by informing Henry of his son's homosexuality, which would be considered a scandal. Hearing this, Richard jumps out from behind the bed curtains and insists that Philip is lying and that Philip had truly been in love with him.

Geoffrey then jumps out from behind the tapestry and asks why he has never been considered as a possible heir to the throne, but Henry completely dismisses Geoffrey, saying he never thinks about him at all. Geoffrey then informs Henry that John has schemed against him, but Henry insists that John would never betray him. Geoffrey then pulls aside the tapestry and reveals John hiding behind it.

Realizing that John has indeed betrayed him, Henry asserts that he has no sons, that he has disowned all of his sons, and that he will be recorded in history books as a king who never had sons. Emotionally shaken by his own words, Henry staggers out of the room, crying "I've lost my boys."

Act 2, Scene 1

Act 2, scene 1 is set in Henry's chamber, where Henry and Eleanor discuss their marriage, family, and all the political scheming they have been engaged in. Henry informs Eleanor that he really wants to have their marriage annulled so that he can marry Alais and have a son with her, whom he will name as heir to the throne. He tells Eleanor that he plans on leaving that night to travel to Rome to seek the Pope's permission to have their marriage annulled.

Eleanor is clearly still in love with Henry and is devastated by the thought of him annulling their marriage and marrying someone else. She points out that, as soon as Henry leaves England to go to Rome, she, Richard, Geoffrey, and John will rise up against him and usurp his rule. Henry responds that in that case, he will lock up all three sons in the cellar while he travels to Rome, so that they cannot rise up against him while he is gone.

Act 2, Scene 2

Act 2, scene 2 is set in Alais's chamber. Henry enters and informs Alais that he is taking her to Rome to seek the Pope's permission to marry her. She points out that if they have a son together, Eleanor, Richard, Geoffrey, and John will conspire to murder the boy, so that they will not be disinherited. Alais refuses to marry Henry unless he agrees to imprison his sons for the rest of their lives. Henry responds that, in that case, he will ensure that all three of his sons are locked up forever.

Act 2, Scene 3

Act 2, scene 3 is set in the wine cellar of the castle, that same night, where Richard, Geoffrey, and John have just been locked up. Eleanor enters, carrying a tray of daggers, which she offers to her sons, bidding them to escape. They, however, agree that they do not want simply to escape, but to kill Henry.

Henry then enters the cellar with Alais. He announces that he is prepared to sentence all three sons to death for treason. He raises his sword to kill Richard but fails at the last moment, finding that he cannot bring himself to murder his own children. The three sons then grab their knives and run out of the cellar.

After Alais leaves to go upstairs, Henry and Eleanor are left alone together in the cellar. Husband and wife embrace, having reached a temporary truce. Eleanor mentions that he will be sending her back to prison for now, but Henry assures her that she will be allowed to join the family again for the Easter holiday.


Alais Capet

Alais (pronounced "Alice") Capet is the mistress of King Henry II of England and the sister of King Philip II of France. Alais is a beautiful twenty-three-year-old woman who has been Henry's mistress since she was sixteen years old. In a treaty between France and England that was made when she was a young girl, Alais was promised in marriage to whichever of Henry's sons he names as his successor. But Alais is deeply in love with Henry and does not want to marry any of his sons. However, she has no power whatsoever to determine her own future and is merely subject to the political wrangling of the other characters in the play. She describes herself as a "pawn" in the political maneuvering between Henry, Eleanor, Philip, and the three sons. Alais's only source of power lies in Henry's emotional attachment to her, although he makes it clear that he will not let his attachment interfere with his political decisions. Alais was brought to Henry's castle when she was seven years old and was raised by Eleanor, but now she and Eleanor regard each other as rivals for Henry's affections.

Toward the end of the play, Henry announces that he is going to take Alais with him to Rome to have his marriage with Eleanor annulled, so that he can marry his young mistress and have a son by her, whom he will then name as his heir. Alais, however, points out that, if they have a son, Eleanor will help Richard, Geoffrey, and John kill the boy, so that they will not be disinherited. Alais thus tells Henry that she will only marry him if he promises to keep his other sons imprisoned for the rest of their lives. However, Henry finds that he cannot bring himself to imprison or execute his own sons, and so Alais is left to continue on as his mistress. The issue of which, if any, of Henry's sons she will be forced to marry is left undecided.

Philip Capet

Philip Capet, also known as King Philip II of France, arrives at the English court to negotiate with King Henry a sixteen-year-old treaty between France and England. At seventeen, Philip, who has been the King of France for three years, is described as handsome, impressive, and politically savvy. Philip confronts Henry to remind him of a treaty by which Henry promised to marry Alais to whichever of his sons will be the heir to the throne, in exchange for which France granted England a parcel of land known as the Vexin. Philip informs Henry that he must either marry Alais to his heir immediately, or he must return the Vexin region to France. Henry, however, points out that he has not yet decided which of his sons to name as heir, and so cannot determine which one will marry Alais; yet Henry also refuses to return the Vexin to France. Although Alais is Philip's sister, Philip demonstrates no personal attachment to or interest in her, and completely disregards her personal wishes, considering her only as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with Henry. Philip demonstrates himself to be as astute and wily as the Plantagenets in his efforts to out-scheme and out-maneuver each member of the Plantagenet family, skillfully playing them off against each other. While nothing is resolved by the end of the play—Henry still has not honored the treaty with France—Philip points out that, because he is young and Henry is old, he has the patience to wait out Henry on these disputed matters, and that France will eventually prevail.

Queen Eleanor

See Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine, also known as Queen Eleanor, is the wife of Henry and the mother of Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Eleanor and Henry got married when he was eighteen and she was twenty-eight. They have been married for thirty-two years. Ten years earlier, Eleanor attempted to start a civil war against Henry, for which he imprisoned her in a tower in England, where she has since remained, except on holidays, when she is allowed to join the family. She favors their son Richard as the heir to the throne, and is constantly plotting and scheming for Richard to be made the next king. When, by the end of the play, all of her schemes have once again failed, Eleanor embraces her estranged husband, and they seem to have reached a temporary truce. She knows that she will be sent back to prison, but looks forward to joining the contentious family circle again when she is released for the Easter holiday.

King Henry, II

See Henry Plantagenet

King Philip

See Philip Capet

Geoffrey Plantagenet

Geoffrey Plantagenet is the middle son of King Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and holds the political post of overlord of Brittany. While John is Henry's favorite son and Richard is Eleanor's favorite, Geoffrey is nobody's favorite. Geoffrey, who is twenty-five, is described as "the owner of the best brain of a brainy family." However, although it is understood that he is the smartest of the sons, and he is the second oldest after Richard, he is never even considered as a possible heir to the throne. Geoffrey attempts to scheme with all of the other characters at various points, hoping that if he can eliminate both Richard and John from consideration for the throne, Henry will have no other choice but to choose him as the next king. However, all of Geoffrey's schemes fail, and he is left by the end of the play with the same inconsequential status in the family that he has always had.


  • Goldman wrote the screenplay for a 1968 film adaptation of Lion in Winter, directed by Anthony Harvey. The cast includes Peter O'Toole as King Henry, Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Anthony Hopkins as Richard Plantagenet. Goldman won an Academy Award for best screenplay for Lion in Winter, while Hepburn won the Academy Award for best actress.
  • Goldman's original screenplay adaptation of Lion in Winter was filmed as a made-for-television movie, broadcast on Showtime Network in 2004, starring Glenn Close as Eleanor and Patrick Stewart as Henry.

Henry Plantagenet

Henry Plantagenet, also known as King Henry II of England and Normandy, is a fifty-year-old man. He has spent his life conquering regions of France and the British Isles, and now his life's goal is to ensure that his territory remains unified after he dies. His eldest son, Henry, who had been named as the heir to his throne, died the previous summer, and now he must decide which of his sons to name as his new heir. He has promised the throne to John, the son he most favors, but he knows there is a threat of civil war breaking out over the question of who will be the next king after his death. Henry has kept Eleanor, his wife of thirty-two years, locked up in a tower for the past ten years, because of her efforts to start a civil war against him. He has taken Alais Capet as his mistress for the past seven years.

Toward the end of the play, Henry decides that he really wants to go to Rome and ask the Pope to annul his marriage to Eleanor, so that he can marry Alais and have a legitimate son by her, whom he can then name as his heir to the throne. However, he realizes that Eleanor, Richard, Geoffrey, and John would try to kill this new son, if the child were born male. He is thus faced with the decision of whether or not to lock his sons, as well as his wife, in prison for the rest of their lives, so that he can safely produce an heir with Alais. In the final moments of the play, Henry accuses Richard of treason and raises his sword to kill him, but finds that he does not have the heart to murder his own child. By the end of the play, Henry remains undecided as to whom he will name as his heir.

John Plantagenet

John Plantagenet is the youngest son of King Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine. John, who is sixteen, is described as a charming-looking boy who, despite the adolescent pimples on his face, is "sweet-faced and totally adorable." Although he is neither brave like Richard nor smart like Geoffrey, John is his father's favorite son, and expects to be made heir to the throne when Henry dies. John is the least savvy of all the characters in the play. Because he tends to be a bit dim-witted, he cannot keep pace intellectually with the plotting, scheming, double-crossing, and deceptions by which all of the other characters operate. He is represented as an immature child who has been spoiled by his father, and who has grown up expecting to be made heir to his father's throne, without having to prove himself or accomplish anything in order to achieve this position of power. When John for a time believes that Henry has decided to name Richard as his heir, Geoffrey talks him into scheming against Henry and Richard. Later, Henry once again changes his tactic and re-promises the throne to John. But when Henry decides instead that he wants to produce a new heir with Alais, John is once again disinherited.

Richard Plantagenet

Richard Plantagenet, also known as Richard the Lionheart, is one of the sons of King Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard, who is twenty-six, has been a famous soldier since he was sixteen, and he "looks like his legend." Richard is the bravest and most soldierly of the three sons, and has always been his mother's favorite. Throughout the play, Eleanor maintains that her wish is to see Richard named heir to Henry's throne. Richard is a warrior through and through, and is determined to be the next king of England. Of the three sons, he is the most defiant against his father, insisting that he will one day take the throne by force, if it is not given to him. Nonetheless, at the end of the play, when Henry accuses Richard of treason and sentences him to death, Henry finds that he cannot bring himself to raise his sword against his own son.

Richard the Lionheart

See Richard Plantagenet


Dysfunctional Family

The central thematic focus of The Lion in Winter is on the interpersonal dynamics of members of a dysfunctional family. Goldman's play is essentially a story about dysfunctional family writ large. Although the members of the family are kings, queens, and princes, their complex and troubled emotional attachments to one another are represented as an amplified version of the same kinds of problems people experience in modern families. As is often the case with twenty-first-century families, the Plantagenet family in The Lion in Winter experience such problems as jealousy, sibling rivalry, parental neglect, parental favoritism, marital infidelity, and factionalism among family members. The political implications of the characters' interpersonal dynamics merely demonstrate these basic emotional relationship issues on a grand scale.

Political Maneuvering

While the characters in The Lion in Winter are motivated by deeply personal feelings about each other, they are also engaged in real power struggles with vast political implications. The issue at hand concerns the outcome of three different questions: who will become the next king of England after Henry dies; who will marry Alais, the sister of the French king; and who will control the important French regions of the Vexin and the Aquitaine? The answer to each of these questions implies a reordering of the existing political power dynamics within the royal family and between France and England. All of the principle characters thus plot and counterplot with and against each other in order to determine the outcome of these three questions.

War and Peace

The political negotiations between the characters in The Lion in Winter will determine whether the outcome will be war or peace between the different factions. History tells us that the historically real characters on which this play is based spent much of their lives enmeshed in wars between France and England over the French territories that had come under English rule, as well as in civil wars within the Plantagenet family over who would inherit the English throne.


  • The characters in Goldman's play Lion in Winter are fictional creations based on historically real figures from twelfth-century English and French royal families. Choose one of the following figures and learn more about the factual history of this person's life and role in history and politics: King Henry II of England (Henry Plantagenet), Eleanor of Aquitaine, King Philip II of France (also known as Philip Augustus), King Richard I of England (also known as Richard the Lionheart), or King John of England. This person was a part of which major social, historical, and political events, and what role did he or she play in the outcome of these events?
  • Research and write a report on one of the following areas of the cultural arts in medieval French or/and English society: literature, music, the visual arts, or theater. How would you characterize the aesthetic principles of this area of cultural art during the Middle Ages? Who were some of the major writers/artists/musicians/dramatists in this area and what were some of their major works? Pick one of these works (a poem, song, play, painting, etc.) to describe and discuss in more detail.
  • Lion in Winter is set in a royal castle and concerns the domestic relations of a medieval family. Research and learn more about the daily life of medieval people, such as living conditions, work, school, family life, clothing, food, etc. Then write an essay on "a day in the life" of an average person in the Middle Ages. Be sure to specify if this person is a man, woman, girl, or boy, and if he or she comes from the peasant classes or the landed gentry. Describe the types of work, housing conditions, food, dress, games, family life, and holiday or festival traditions of a medieval person from this social class.
  • Although it involves characters from a historically real royal family, Lion in Winter is essentially a play about the interpersonal dynamics that take place during a holiday celebration. Write your own original short play about the interpersonal dynamics of a family who have come together to celebrate a birthday, holiday, or other special occasion. Be sure to demonstrate through your characters' interactions what each character is hoping to get from the other members of the family—such as love, money, recognition, freedom, or anything else a person might want or expect from his or her family.

Early in the play, Henry comments that he has spent most of his life at war, and that he is sick of it. He explains that, in recent years, during which time there was relative peace between England and France, he has enjoyed the peacetime activity of overseeing the English legal system. History tells us that Henry II in fact did make considerable contributions to systematizing and modernizing English law.

Eleanor later comments that wars are made by the decisions of individuals, not by abstract entities. She tells her sons:

[W]e're the origins of war. Not history's forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes nor religions nor ideas nor kinds of government nor any other thing. We are the killers; we breed war…. Dead bodies rot in streams because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins.

The implication of Eleanor's statement is that wars are not inevitable occurrences, but are the result of human choices, and that, therefore, it is possible to choose peace instead of war.

Aging, Death, Inheritance, and Posterity

The Lion in Winter is also about aging, death, inheritance, and posterity. Today, a person who is fifty years old is considered to be middle-aged, with many years left to live. In medieval times, however, a fifty-year-old man was regarded as being close to the end of his life. Henry, who is fifty, remarks at one point that he is the oldest living man he knows. Yet he is also aware of the fact that he is approaching death, which adds a sense of urgency to his need to decide on an heir.

Early in the play, Alais asks Henry why he cares what happens to his land and kingship after he dies, since he will not be around to see it. Henry responds that he must know before he dies that his kingdom will remain intact, and not be splintered by civil wars. The tensions between the characters throughout the play are thus due largely to the competition between Henry's sons over who will be heir to his kingdom.

Henry's obsession with his own posterity is at heart motivated by the fear of death and the desire for immortality. In the closing lines of the play, Henry says to Eleanor, "You know, I hope we never die," to which Eleanor responds, "I hope so, too." Thus, Henry's inability to accept the inevitability of his own death is the subtext of his failure to choose an heir to his kingdom.


The Historical Play

The Lion in Winter is a historical play in the sense that the characters are drawn from historically real figures in French and English history. The basic outlines of their place in history thus provide a context for the characters and relationships represented in the play. Goldman fills in much of this historical background through dialogue. At various points in the play, Eleanor and Henry explain the history of their lives and relationships to the younger characters. With this device, Goldman provides the reader with necessary historical information in a manner that blends naturally into the dialogue and action of the play.

In reading a historical drama, it is important to remember that the details of the characters' personalities and relationships, though based on real people, are fictional creations of the author, and should not be regarded as necessarily factually accurate. As Goldman indicates in a "Historical Note" that precedes the printed version of the play,

the facts we have, while clear enough as to the outcome of relationships—such things as who kills whom and when—say little if anything about the quality and content of those relationships. The people in this play, their characters and passions, while consistent with the facts we have, are fictions.

Goldman further explains in his "Historical Note" that he combined two historically real events into one fictionalized event. That is, he created an imaginary situation which combined a historically real meeting between Henry and Philip in the year 1183 with a royal court held in 1184 at Henry's Windsor Castle in England into "a Christmas Court that never was." Goldman is thus able to dramatize with more intensity the ways in which the political wrangling within Henry's immediate family affected his political dealings with the French king.


Much of the dialogue in The Lion in Winter is anachronistic (out of its proper historical context), in the sense that, while the play is set in the Middle Ages of the twelfth century, the characters tend to speak in a manner that sounds distinctly modern and twentieth-century. While many critics have criticized Goldman for his anachronistic dialogue, others have pointed out that it was an intentional choice on the part of the author. The modern-sounding way in which the characters express themselves causes them to come across to the modern reader more like everyday people, rather than depicting them as lofty legendary figures, as they are often portrayed in myths, legends, and historical accounts.

Literary References

The characters in The Lion in Winter make a number of references within their dialogue to classic mythology and literature. The reader's appreciation of Goldman's play is thus increased through an understanding of these references. For example, Henry at various points refers to his wife Eleanor as Medusa, Circe, and Medea. Medusa is a figure from Greek mythology whose hair is made of snakes, and who has the power to turn men to stone if they look at her. Circe is a beautiful sorceress from Greek legend who lives on an island and has the power to turn men into animals. In the play Medea, by Euripides (a fifth-century b.c. Greek playwright), Medea is an enchantress married to Jason. After Jason forsakes her for another woman, Medea seeks revenge against him by murdering their two young sons. Henry compares his own wife to Circe, Medusa, and Medea in the sense that all three characters are women who have the power to seduce men and then destroy them.


King Henry II of England

King Henry II of England, also known as Henry Plantagenet, was born in the year 1133 in Normandy, in what is now northern France. Though he became the king of England, he spent most of his life in Normandy, and the spoken language of his royal court was French. Henry was given the title Duke of Normandy in 1150, while he was still a teenager, and he inherited the title Count of Anjou upon the death of his father in 1151.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born about 1122 and lived to become one of the most influential and politically powerful women of her time. When her father died, Eleanor inherited the Aquitaine region, an area in western France that was larger than the domain ruled by the French king. While still a teenager, Eleanor married the heir to the French throne, who became King Louis VII soon afterward. This marriage brought the Aquitaine under French rule and made Eleanor the queen of France.

Eleanor was married to Louis for fifteen years, during which time she gave birth to two daughters, but no sons. She exerted significant political influence over her husband's reign. A daring and adventurous woman, she also traveled with him on the Second Crusade during the late 1140s. However, Louis eventually became jealous of Eleanor's attentions to other men, and their marriage was annulled. With the end of her first marriage, Eleanor was once again the sole ruler of the Aquitaine region.

Eleanor and Henry

In 1152, just a few months after the annulment of her marriage to Louis, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, who was eleven years younger than she. With his marriage to Eleanor, Henry acquired the title Duke of Aquitaine. A year later, Henry invaded England and was granted by treaty the status of heir to the English throne. He was crowned King Henry II of England in 1154, making him the ruler of one of the largest territories in Europe, sometimes referred to as the Angevin empire, encompassing most of the British Isles and about half of France—a region stretching from Scotland in the north to the Pyrenees mountains in the south. Henry's powers eventually extended to Ireland and Wales, as well. Eleanor was instrumental in the political administration of Henry's kingdom, and she was also an important patron of the arts, promoting the development of courtly music and poetry.

Henry and Eleanor together had eight children, some of whom died before reaching adulthood. The surviving daughters were married off to powerful dukes, counts, and princes throughout Europe. Their eldest surviving son, Henry, was named heir to the throne. In the early 1170s, Eleanor, young Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard supported a revolt against Henry and John, on the grounds that Henry was unfairly doling out parcels of land to his sons. Henry was able to put down the rebellion, and he forgave his sons, but he kept Eleanor imprisoned in a castle in England until his death.

In 1181, another rebellion was incited by a quarrel between Richard and his brother, the young Henry, over the rule of the Aquitaine region. This dispute ended, however, when young Henry died in the summer of 1183. The following year, a dispute broke out between Richard, who controlled the Aquitaine, and John, who had been granted permission by his father to take over the Aquitaine.

King Philip II of France

King Philip II of France, also known as Philip Augustus, was born in 1165 in Paris, the son of King Louis VII of France (Eleanor's first husband). Philip became king of France in 1179, at the age of fourteen, inheriting the throne from his father. In 1180, he married Isabella. Throughout the reigns of Henry II and his heirs, Philip fought to regain the French territories that had come under English rule. By the time of his death in 1223, Philip was the wealthiest and most powerful king in Europe.


  • 1180s: King Henry II rules over a vast region, sometimes referred to as the Angevin Empire, that encompasses most of the British Isles, Normandy, and over half of France. King Philip II of France rules over the southern and eastern portions of France not included in Henry's domain. The rulers of England and France engage in continual land disputes over the French regions held sometimes by English kings and sometimes by French kings.
    1960s: England, Scotland, and Wales constitute Great Britain, which, together with Ireland, constitute the United Kingdom. The nation of France includes all of the French regions once held by English kings. France is among the original six nations of the European Economic Community (EEC), a multinational alliance formed in 1957. In 1961, Great Britain bids for membership in the EEC, but France vetoes it. In 1967, the EEC is reorganized into the European Communities (EC).
    Today: The United Kingdom and France are among the many member nations of the European Union, a multinational economic and political alliance that developed out of the EC.
  • 1180s: England is ruled by a feudal kingship, passed down from generation to generation through family inheritance or transferred from one ruler to another through war. King Henry II of England rules over most of the British Isles, and over half of France.
    1960s: The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Parliament consists of the monarch, the elected House of Commons, and the appointed House of Lords. The prime minister, who is the leader of the majority political party in the House of Commons, serves as head of government. The monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, serves as head of state. Citizens of the United Kingdom enjoy universal suffrage for all men and women.
    Today: The United Kingdom remains a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage. Queen Elizabeth II continues to serve as head of state. As of 1999, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have their own national assembly of representatives, chosen by proportional representation, which have taken on some of the powers of the central Parliament of the United Kingdom, while remaining subordinate to it.
  • 1180s: France under King Philip II is ruled by a feudal kingship, passed down from generation to generation through family inheritance.
    1960s: Since the ratification of the 1958 constitution, the French system of government is a parliamentary constitutional democracy known as the Fifth Republic. The French president appoints the prime minister and serves as head of state. The French Parliament, headed by the prime minister, consists of the National Assembly and the Senate. French citizens enjoy universal suffrage for all men and women.
    Today: The French government of the Fifth Republic continues to be organized as a parliamentary constitutional democracy with universal suffrage.

King Richard I of England

Richard Plantagenet was born in 1157. After his brother Henry died, Richard was the eldest surviving son of Henry and Eleanor. As a boy, Richard's parents gave him the title Duke of Aquitaine and of Poitier. A celebrated soldier from an early age, Richard throughout his life incited rebellions against his father in efforts to win the right to inherit Henry's throne as king of England. During the late 1880s, Richard allied with King Philip II of France in a revolt against King Henry and Richard's brother John. In 1889, Henry was defeated by Philip and Richard and was forced by treaty to name Richard as the heir to his throne.

Upon Henry's death a few months later, Richard became the new king and Eleanor was released from prison. After fifteen years of imprisonment, Eleanor once again took up an active and important role in the government of the realm. When Richard left England for three years to go on the Third Crusade, Eleanor ruled in his name. During this period, John attempted a rebellion to usurp the throne from Richard, but Eleanor's forces defeated him. When Richard returned from the Crusades, he forgave John for rebelling and promised to name him as heir to the throne.

Throughout their reigns, Richard and Philip fluctuated between alliances, truces, and battles. While they fought on the same side during Richard's final rebellion against his father, they were more often fighting in opposition to one another over French territories. Richard was killed in 1199, at the age of forty-two, during a local skirmish over a hoard of gold.

King John of England

John Plantagenet, the youngest son of Eleanor and Henry, was born in 1167. After Richard I died without an heir, Eleanor was an important factor in securing the throne for John as his successor. Geoffrey, the middle son of Eleanor and Henry, had died by this time, but his son, Arthur, claimed himself as the rightful heir to the English throne, based on the fact that Geoffrey had been Henry's next eldest son after Richard. Arthur was given support from King Philip of France in fighting his uncle John over the English throne, but Arthur was captured and is believed to have been killed by John.

Soon after ascending the throne, John signed a treaty with Philip, ceding important lands to France. Like Richard and Philip, John and Philip fought many battles over French lands, occasionally ending in treaties, but ultimately resulting in Philip's recapture of most of France from the English crown. John's mother Eleanor died in 1204, at the age of about eighty-two.

John has often been described as the worst king in the history of England. However, because he was so unpopular among the landed gentry, he was eventually forced in 1215 to sign the Magna Carta (Great Charter), a document which curtailed the powers of the monarchy and became the foundation of English government. When John died the following year, his son became King Henry III of England. When Philip died in 1223, he was succeeded on the French throne by King Louis VIII.


The Lion in Winter received mixed reviews of its 1966 Broadway debut production, and was essentially a critical and commercial failure. However, the 1968 film production of The Lion in Winter, based on a screenplay adaptation written by Goldman, was a critical and commercial success, winning Goldman an Academy Award. Since then, The Lion in Winter has been a favorite production for high schools and small community theaters. A Broadway revival of The Lion in Winter, produced in 1999, received mixed reviews.

Critical responses to The Lion in Winter throughout the history of its production on stage and screen have generally addressed similar issues. The play's critical supporters and detractors alike make note of Goldman's anachronistic use of modern American dialogue in the mouths of twelfth-century French and English characters. Many critics fault the play for this quality, asserting that Goldman's dialogue is ridiculously anachronistic, as well as sounding stilted and stagy.

Other critics, however, find that Goldman's ability to portray historical figures in an updated manner is the greatest strength of the play, because of the way in which it demonstrates the timeless quality of family relationships. In a New York Times review of a 1981 production of The Lion in Winter, Joseph Catinella comments that Goldman's play "takes many liberties with history," but notes that it is "the human clashes that give the script its contemporary flair and endow its people with genuine, not waxworks, emotions." Hoyt Hilsman, in a Daily Variety review of a 1994 production of The Lion in Winter, similarly observes: "Set in Chinon, France, in 1183, when 'dysfunctional' royal families not only made each others' lives miserable but sent armies after their relatives' domains, Goldman's story still has a very contemporary spin."

Critics likewise disagree over Goldman's interweaving of humorous dialogue and situations with

elements of drama. Some praise The Lion in Winter as a comic family drama that demonstrates the wit and humor of its characters as well as their deeply human qualities and the poignancy of their genuine need for love. In a New York Times review of a 1988 production, Leah D. Frank asserts, "while The Lion in Winter is, without question, a comedy, what makes it interesting is the underlying seriousness of a disputatious family caught in a historical vise." James Lardner observes, in a Washington Post review of a 1981 production of the play, "Goldman's entertaining notion was to portray this royal tribe as a family of shouting, feuding, pining, pouting, snapping, plotting, everyday folks."

Many reviewers comment that the dramatic core of The Lion in Winter lies in the tension between the estranged husband and wife, Henry and Eleanor, and the effects of that conflict on their children. As Marianne Evett highlights, in a Cleveland Plain Dealer review of a 1993 production, Goldman's play "is full of family scenes—the kind of bruising, manipulative encounters that maybe only husbands, wives and children can deal out to each other and survive."

Evett further comments that the scenes between Eleanor and Henry express

a complex love—of choices made, some of them terribly wrong; of treachery and mutual respect, hurts forgiven and unforgiven, memories of pain and of shattering happiness. In short, a sense of real life, lived and shared by two extraordinary people.

The Lion in Winter has frequently been compared to Edward Albee's celebrated play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), which similarly focuses on the bitter struggles between a husband and wife who simultaneously taunt and impress one another with their barbed wit and capacity to deeply wound each other. As Leonard Hughes notes in a Washington Post review of a 2000 production of The Lion in Winter: "Goldman's disturbing story … is rather like King Lear meets Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Ben Brantley, in a New York Times review of the 1999 Broadway revival of The Lion in Winter, comments that Goldman's play shares with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the quality of "a thoroughly modern examination of a destructive marriage." Brantley continues, "Like Mr. Albee's George and Martha, Goldman's Henry and Eleanor have turned emotional vivisection into a savage parlor game, slashing away in marital disharmony while admiring each other's skills in doing so."


Liz Brent

Brent holds a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan. In this essay, Brent discusses the theme of the dysfunctional family in Goldman's The Lion in Winter.

The central dynamic in the Plantagenet family stems from the relationship between Eleanor and Henry. During the first years of their marriage, they were strongly attracted to each other and deeply in love with one another. However, over time, they became estranged. Eleanor claims that their marriage fell apart sixteen years earlier, after Henry began an extramarital affair with a young woman by the name of Rosamund, whom he brought to live with them in the castle, thus displacing his wife in his affections. Henry, however, claims that their relationship started to fall apart before that. He tells Eleanor that after their son Richard was born she became so attached to her child that Henry felt rejected by her. After Rosamund died, seven years before the play takes place, Henry took Alais as his mistress.

Although she often denies it, Eleanor admits at certain points in the play that she is still in love with Henry, and that all she really wants is for him to take her back. She is deeply bitter about his years-long affair with Rosamund and painfully jealous of his current relationship with Alais. Eleanor is pained by his rejection of her for Rosamund, and now Alais, more than she suffers over her imprisonment. However, Eleanor's love for Henry is tangled with her jealousy, anger, and resentment toward him. All of Eleanor's actions thus stem from this feeling of rejection by her husband. Since she knows he will never take her back, she can only express her strong feelings toward him by seeking revenge against him through political plotting. Because Henry favors John, Eleanor favors Richard, and the two parents act out their resentment toward one another through encouraging Richard and John to regard each other as rivals for the throne.

Henry's feelings for Eleanor are jumbled and not entirely clear. Although he was once deeply in love with her, they became estranged many years ago. Henry has good reason to distrust Eleanor because she incited their sons to military rebellion against him ten years earlier, and came close to killing him in the process. However, Henry clearly admires Eleanor for her feistiness and intellectual power, and enjoys the fact that she is his equal in verbal and political sparring, in contrast to which he occasionally finds Alais's sweetness and good-heartedness somewhat dull and irritating.

Although Henry claims that he no longer cares for Eleanor, he is still capable of jealousy over other men's attentions to his wife in the past. On several occasions, Eleanor taunts Henry with the possibility that she may have had an affair with his father, who has been dead for many years. At one point, Eleanor claims that this was merely a rumor, and is untrue, but she later insists that Henry's father had indeed been her lover from the very beginning of their marriage. Henry is enraged by this, prompting Eleanor to insist that he stills cares about her enough to be upset by the idea of her having had an affair.

The feelings between Eleanor and Alais are equally complicated. Alais was brought to the castle at the age of seven, having been promised in marriage to Henry and Eleanor's eldest son Henry (who has recently died). Alais was thus raised by Eleanor, whom she regarded as a mother. Alais tells Eleanor that, as a girl, she had always worshipped the queen and looked up to her as a role model. Now the two women, one in her sixties and the other in her twenties, regard each other as rivals for Henry's affections. However, the deep mother-daughter sentiment that Eleanor and Alais still feel toward one another is expressed in one tender moment when Alais, overcome by the stress of the family situation, breaks into tears and Eleanor cradles the young woman in her arms to comfort her.

While the Plantagenet sons on one level are vying for the throne, they all at various points express the sentiment that what they really want is for their parents to express genuine love and affection toward them. Thus, the desire to be loved by their parents is acted out through competition over who is to be made heir to the throne.

Geoffrey, the middle child, expresses this sentiment most openly and strongly. On several occasions, he asks his mother and father why they have never paid any attention to him or expressed any love toward him. Throughout the play, Geoffrey points out to both of his parents that they have always expressed complete indifference to him, personally as well as politically—and both Eleanor and Henry openly admit to Geoffrey that they have never given him much thought. When Geoffrey asks his parents why they have always been so indifferent toward him and why they have never even considered him as a possible heir to the throne, they both brush him off without providing any explanation for their indifference. Geoffrey makes clear on several occasions that he does not really care who is made king, but that he wishes his parents would at least give him the consideration he deserves as their son. Geoffrey's bitterness toward his parents for never giving him any love is expressed through his desire to be involved in the political plotting and counter-plotting between them. If he cannot win their love, he seeks revenge by pitting them against each other with complex conspiracies.

Richard, by contrast, while emotionally neglected by his father as a child, was emotionally smothered by his mother. Richard was raised as his mother's favorite, and expresses the sentiment that Eleanor's intense love for him, and her possessiveness over him, was unnatural and selfish. Richard points out to his mother that she never truly loved him, but that she only uses him to try to get back at Henry. On the other hand, Richard complains to Henry that he was never given any fatherly love or attention, and that all he ever wanted was for Henry to love him. Henry explains that Richard was always allied with Eleanor, and so Henry felt he never had a chance to give Richard any attention. Richard insists that all he ever really wanted was his father's love. Henry, however, dismisses this plea, insisting that Richard only wanted his crown, not his love.

John, who has always been his father's favorite, is cold and distrustful toward his mother. However, although Henry repeatedly states that he loves John and John loves him, both express the feeling that the sentiment between them is not genuine love. While Henry maintains that John is the only son he loves, and that John loves him, the other characters point out that John's attachment to his father is really only an expression of his greediness in assuming that he will be made the next king of England. Thus, when John's betrayal of his father is exposed, Henry is devastated by the realization that John does not truly love his father, but only loves the power his father has promised to him. John, likewise, feels that his father does not genuinely love him, but only uses him in opposition to Richard, as a means of getting back at Eleanor.

Thus, while all of the members of the Plantagenet family express the desire to be genuinely loved by the others, they all regard each other's expressions of so-called love as a selfish excuse for acquiring political power and seeking revenge against others. They all feel rejected and unloved by one another, and yet they all perpetuate this dynamic by using each other in elaborate political power games expressive of their deep-seated resentment toward each other for depriving them of real love.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on The Lion in Winter, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Catherine Dybiec Holm

Holm is a genre, literary, and nonfiction author. In this essay, Holm looks at a variety of aspects of this play that make it a compelling classic.

The Lion in Winter is full of the things that make for an excellent story. Its characters are extremely complex and face conflicts that are not easily resolved. It is tightly plotted, and the dialog is intelligent and riveting. The character motivations, dark as they may be, are portrayed convincingly. Throughout the play, commentary on the human condition can be read between the lines. The Lion in Winter is a compelling classic because it demands concentration from its audience but does so in a way that is enjoyable rather than burdensome.

Goldman gets the attention of his audience immediately by making it known that power is a theme that defines this story. Every single character is struggling for power, some quite skillfully. Perhaps the least skillful character is Alais. With an economy of words, Henry's first line to Alais—"You must know that's a futile gesture. Come along."—sets the audience up for power struggles ahead. Alais would like to be Queen and also to be Henry's wife. She's out of her league, however, compared to the incredibly scheming and very human Eleanor. With characteristic economy of language, Goldman's Henry tells Alais that even if she tried to make trouble, it would be fruitless because she "doesn't matter to the others; only me." Truly, Alais lacks the amazing cleverness of Henry, Eleanor, and to an extent, Eleanor and Henry's three sons. This is made clear on the second page of the play and sets the audience up for future danger. Yet, Alais is necessary to the story; she is a foil to Eleanor's age and cleverness; she exposes a tender, loving side of Henry (and of Eleanor); and Henry almost decides to marry her. At one point, Alais reveals honest self-awareness of her powerlessness and the dangerous world around her when she admits that she is the most dangerous of all the characters, since she is a pawn. Much of this story resembles an infinitely clever chess game, where the stakes are power, acquisition, and life or death.

Right away, Goldman makes it known that there is at least one power struggle at stake in this story: the struggle for the crown. The jungle metaphor three lines into the play also foreshadows danger ahead. Henry says "It's going to be a jungle of a day." However, this metaphor is used again at the end of the play, with a greater sense of danger and futility implied: "We're jungle creatures, Henry, and the dark is all around us. See them? In the corners, you can see the eyes." At the end of the story, the jungle metaphor means much more. It not only alludes to the continuous power struggles between these characters but to the dangerous world they have, in part, created through their intricate efforts at scheming.

Bigger than Alais's wish for the crown, however, is the intense power struggle between Henry and Eleanor. Two willful, conniving, and intelligent people, locked in a struggle for power, who also still love each other although their love seems perilously close to hate—what could possibly be more compelling? They have stalemated each other into a corner. Because they cannot possibly give up their struggles for power (whether it involves land acquisition, choosing an heir, or allowing themselves to love each other), Eleanor and Henry are locked in an endless stalemate. They can, and will, connive against each other until they die, but nothing will truly be resolved. Such is the sense of futility that runs through the play, which the characters recognize.

Henry: We're in the cellar and you're going back to prison and my life is wasted and we've lost each other and you're smiling.

Eleanor: It's the way I register despair. There's everything in life but hope.

Henry and Eleanor are back where they started. Neither has managed to get anything they wanted; Henry does not have Aquitaine, and Eleanor is still his prisoner.

There are even times in the story when it seems that Goldman tempts the reader with the suggestion that Henry may actually love Eleanor more than Alais. Henry is every bit as complex as Eleanor; they are well matched and made for each other. When Alais leaves a scene at one point, Henry tells her he loves her "like my life." After Alais is gone, Henry says "I talk like that to keep her spirits up." Not to be outdone, Eleanor's comments to Henry often walk a fine line between sarcasm and true love: "I never could deny you anything." Neither of these willful people can let their guard down for long enough to truly admit their love for each other.

Amidst all the treachery and scheming in this play, Goldman still provides humor, although it is dark and dry, given the context of the story. Many of the lines are wonderful, almost brilliant in how they convey humor and danger at the same time. It is another dichotomy that is represented in this story, just like the dichotomy (or trichotomy) of Eleanor and Henry's love and rage and scheming toward each other. Referring to the scheming that goes on in the royal household, Henry says that his house is full of intellectual activity. Geoffrey "hums treachery"; Richard "growls out for gore"; Eleanor thinks "heavy thoughts like molten lead and marble slabs." Eleanor hopes that the French king is like his father—"simon pure and simon simple." Eleanor proclaims her son "dull as plainsong" and threatens to give him up out of boredom. Truly, as Dany Margolies wrote in Back Stage West, "The impression one retains of these family members is their unabashedly open loathing of one another and their fight-to-the-death backstabbing." This is true, but amazingly, the sarcasm can cross a fine line into the realm of dark humor.

Goldman's economy of language works well in this play. Early on, the reader has been well prepared for Eleanor's entrance, as well as her formidable presence and ability to wield power. In the previous pages, she has been referred to as "the New Medusa," the "great [b——]," and the reader is aware that for some reason, she is locked up in a tower. Obviously, Eleanor has power that must be kept in check. In several concise lines of dialog, the reader is further introduced to Eleanor via her sons. The reader also immediately understands the sons' own power struggles and their ability to scheme and connive, though they never achieve the brilliance of their parents.

In a very few lines, the reader knows that the sons are struggling for the crown, they think little of their mother, John is less mature than the others, and Richard was once a favorite of Eleanor's. The reader can intuit that there is at least a little fear and carefulness regarding Eleanor, although none of the sons will admit it out loud.

Some of the most interesting things about The Lion in Winter are the internal conflicts that Henry and Eleanor struggle with. Although they are locked in a power struggle, they still, underneath all their plotting and scheming, love each other. It seems incredible that these two can so love and hate each other at the same time, yet Goldman makes it believable. These characters are casualties of the futile stalemates they have created for themselves and for each other, and they know it. Complex characters such as these are well-rounded and make for a compelling story and believable character motivations.

Another interesting internal dichotomy of Eleanor's is her genuine love for her husband's mistress.

Eleanor: I don't much like our children. Only you—the child I raised but didn't bear.

Alais: You never cared for me.

Eleanor: I did and I do.

Eleanor's affection for Alais is demonstrated again. While this may seem incredible, Eleanor is created so convincingly that the reader is able to believe that she is actually strong enough, even noble enough, to put her love for the girl that she raised above her disappointment with not being able to claim Henry's affections. Indeed, as scheming and incredibly bright as Eleanor is, she is also necessarily pragmatic. The reader is also given enough hints throughout the play to realize that Henry really does love Eleanor at least as much as Alais, though it is a different, tormented kind of love replete with its own passion and power struggles. These moments are all the more poignant and interesting because of the complexity of the two main characters.

Henry: There are moments when I miss you.

Eleanor: Many?

Henry: Do you doubt it?

Eleanor calls Henry a "marvel of a man." Henry recalls Eleanor's spellbinding beauty when he first met her. These two walk a tightrope of love, rage, and desire for power—the tension that holds this story together.

Eleanor displays the same conflicting feelings for Richard. While there are times in the play that it seems she would not hesitate to disown all her sons ("I don't much like our children"), scene 3 ends with genuine sentiment on her part, regarding Richard.

See? You do remember. I taught you dancing, too, and languages and all the music that I knew and how to love what's beautiful. The sun was warmer then and we were every day together.

Beyond all the scheming that royal life at that time in history necessitated and that these characters have brought upon themselves, they still display genuine human virtues. In the end, neither are able to kill their sons, though their sons' existence will eventually put them in danger. They express regret for what could have been. Eleanor regrets losing Henry, and the fact that she cannot ever have him back. Henry regrets wasting fortunes, squandering lives, and spending "everything." Yet, there is something compelling in their passion for each other even though they cannot and will not allow themselves to fully realize it.

With the subtlety and economy that is typical of Goldman's writing, he manages to make a few important observations about the human condition without hitting his readers over the head. Both of these are integral to the story and propel these characters' motivations, even though the characters realize their utter futility or destructiveness. In a telling bit of dialogue, Eleanor likens her family to the "origins of war…. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten." Eleanor realizes that her and her family's scheming actions propagate more of the same, but she and the others do not stop. Henry finds it incredible that he has "children who would murder children" even though "fish eat their young, and foxes: but not us." Here, Henry is commenting on the animal instincts that lie beneath the surface in the human animal and that rise to the surface in dangerous and violent ways in this story.

This play is rich with aspects that work together well to make it an exceptional story: complex characters with interesting internal and external conflicts, compelling dialog that often does double duty, and a poignant and dangerous look at the human condition and some unresolvable stalemates.

Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on The Lion in Winter, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Sheldon Goldfarb

Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. In the following essay, Goldfarb explores the significance of the family struggles in Goldman's play.

Towards the end of the first act of Lion in Winter, John, the youngest prince, is astonished and horrified when his older brother Richard pulls a knife on him. "A knife," he says, "he's got a knife." To which his mother, Eleanor, responds by saying: "Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we're barbarians."

This is a joke, of course; it is in fact the sort of easy laugh line that some commentators have complained about in Goldman's play, but there are some interesting things going on in this passage nevertheless. The laugh itself derives from a sort of distancing effect reminiscent of the plays of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, with the character in effect stepping back to comment on herself, violating the rules of realism. It is this sudden violation that creates the laugh, but there is more than humor here. First of all, Goldman seems to ask his audience to notice how different these people from the Middle Ages are from modern people. In modern middle-class families, brothers do not normally pull knives on each other.

But, before his modern audience can get too comfortable in feeling they are superior to these character, Goldman suggests that the differences are not really that great after all. Just a few moments after the knife scene, Eleanor realizes that she can use something John has said to get the better of him and to wound his father, her husband, Henry. John has let slip the fact that he has been plotting with Philip, the French king, to attack Henry. Eleanor knows that finding this out would hurt Henry because John is his favorite. "Oh, I've got the old man [Henry] this time," she says. "The damn fool thinks he loves John, he believes it. That's where the knife goes in."

The knife in this case is not a real knife but a metaphorical one. Eleanor is not planning to wound her husband physically, but emotionally, just as a modern person might do. Indeed, all of the wounding in this play is emotional. Real knives are seen on occasion, and there is talk of war and death but all that actually happens is that members of a family argue, plot, and hurl insults at each other. Most of the time, the characters seem more modern than medieval, which has led some commentators to criticize the play for not being historically accurate. "Goldman uses his historical setting merely as a subterfuge for romantic comedy," says Robert Brustein, which does raise the issue of why Goldman chose to set his tale of family conflict eight hundred years in the past.

Perhaps the point is to show that on a figurative level, the struggles that go on in a modern family are just as serious, dangerous, and wounding in their own way as the bloody struggles carried on by the people of 1183. "Knives, knives," says Eleanor just after the knife scene and her comment about wounding Henry. It is not clear whether she is referring to physical knives like the one Richard carries or to emotional knives. Perhaps both. Perhaps the point is that there is little difference: emotional wounds can be as serious as physical ones and medieval struggles to conquer provinces and win thrones are just heightened versions of the struggles that go on in modern families every day.

Goldman's point seems to be that all families, whether modern or medieval, struggle. "What family doesn't have its ups and downs?" says Eleanor in another of the play's laugh lines. Again the message is contradictory. The line is funny because Eleanor's attempt to make her family seem no worse than other families seems absurd at first. She makes the comment just after telling Henry she once slept with his father; whether that statement is true or not (and characters in this play tell lies all the time, so it is hard to tell), this seems far beyond the sort of thing that would be said in most families. And yet, as Eleanor says, what family does not have its ups and downs? What family is free of squabbles and lies and hurtful actions?

What do families squabble over? If Henry is to be believed, it is power. "Power is the only fact,"

he says early in act 1. Indeed, the play on one level is all about the struggle for power: the struggle to decide who will inherit the throne of England and also rule over large areas of France. But, Henry does not seem quite correct. Power in this play is one fact, but not the only one. There is also love and lack of love. Geoffrey, for instance, the middle and always forgotten son, complains that he gets no love; his parents, he says, have never felt anything "warmer than indifference" for him. When he complains about being left out of the discussions of who will inherit the throne, his complaint is less about not having a chance to be a king but about being overlooked. "It isn't power that I feel deprived of," he says; "it's the mention that I miss. There's no affection for me here."

Similarly, Henry himself shows that more than power is at stake at the end when he finds he cannot kill his rebellious sons. Unable to strike them down, he collapses on the floor, saying, "Children … They're all we have." It seems he has real affection for his sons, or at least a sense of parental duty towards them. He even displays real affection for Eleanor despite all their verbal jousting and the fact that he keeps her locked up in a castle. Even their insults seem good-natured most of the time, which can be seen, for example, when they banter over headstones or about whether the sea parted on Eleanor's voyage. At the end, Henry declares their great hope to be that they have each other.

In fact, one of the most interesting points Goldman seems to be making is that the jousting and fighting are all part of the love: one cannot have one without the other. It might be thought that peace and harmony would be preferable to all the maneuverings and deceit, and there is a moment in the play when Eleanor rhapsodizes over the possibility of peace. She calls on her sons to join her in putting an end to all the squabbling. "For the love of God," she says, "can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins."

Eleanor's sudden pacifism, however, seems merely a result of her feeling defeated in the struggle with her husband. She has just finished telling Richard to accept the fact that the two of them have lost to Henry. A moment later, however, when it turns out that all is not lost after all, she forgets her yearning for peace and starts plotting anew, making her comment about sticking the knife in Henry. Tellingly, the stage direction at this moment, as she forgets about peace and returns to the struggle, is: "Alive again." The peace she sought seems to have been connected to death; only when she struggles is she alive. Similarly, when Henry earlier in the play says he has grown tired of war and asks for peace, Eleanor says "How about eternal peace?"—in other words, death. Peace is for the grave, the play seems to be saying; to be alive is to struggle.

This may seem like a gloomy attitude, but the play's tone is far from gloomy or pessimistic. Goldman calls it a comedy, and in addition to the humor in it, the ending seems upbeat in its way. It is not a conventional happy ending. There is no reconciliation; there is not even a resolution of the conflict. Robert Brustein complains that the author never even bothers to resolve the issue of who will inherit the throne. Even Walter Kerr, a critic who praises the play, is troubled by the lack of resolution. There is no moral at the end, he says, no one to cheer for and no goal to look forward to. He does wonder if "the mazelike trickiness" of the play might be part of its meaning, and he is on to something there. Elsewhere he speaks of the play as being "a roundabout game," and if he means that the play is something of a merry-go-round ride, then he is even closer to its essence.

As the play ends, Henry invites Eleanor to return at Easter to "strike me down again." Eleanor says she might just succeed next time. Henry say perhaps she will not. It sounds like an exchange between friendly rivals looking forward to their next competition against each other. It is also somehow reminiscent of "The Myth of Sisyphus," an essay by Albert Camus, the French philosopher associated with the Theater of the Absurd. Although The Lion in Winter is different in many ways from the plays that are associated with the Theater of the Absurd, most notably Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, it does share an underlying attitude with them: the notion that the universe is absurd and meaningless.

The Lion in Winter is much more conventional in style than the dramas of Beckett and others of his school; it does not indulge in nonsensical obscurities and does not abandon plot altogether. But, there is a sense of meaninglessness hanging over it. In the midst of the struggle over who will be the next king, characters ask why it matters. Eleanor notes that she and Henry will not live to see the succession, so why bother to fight over it? The young princess Alais laughs at Henry over the notion that after death he might "look down from the clouds and see who's sitting in [his] place." The play suggests that there is nothing after death. As Eleanor says, "The world stops when I die." There is just life, a life of ceaseless struggle.

This notion, however, is not a gloomy thing. In his essay on Sisyphus, Camus summarizes the story of the character in Greek mythology whom the gods had condemned to a horrible punishment: he was forced to roll a stone up a mountainside, and every time he succeeded in reaching the top, the stone would roll down to the bottom, forcing him to start over again. It is a dreadful punishment, says Camus, to be set to do such "futile and hopeless labour." Sisyphus's "whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing." Yet, says Camus, there is strength and joy in the story: "The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The same can be said of Henry and Eleanor in Goldman's play. They struggle ceaselessly but do not achieve anything. At the end of the play, nothing is resolved, and all they have is a promise to resume the struggle next time, a struggle that hardly matters because they will die without knowing the final result. Yet it is the struggle that brings these two characters to life. The play does have a moral after all: life is nothing without struggle, and love neither.

Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on The Lion in Winter, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Charles Isherwood

In the following review of a revival of The Lion in Winter, Isherwood remarks that the reputation of the play was helped greatly by the 1968 film version and that the play "isn't terrifically distinguished." The 1968 film version of The Lion in Winter is a sword that cuts all sorts of ways for the new Broadway revival of James Goldman's play. If the movie hadn't been such a critical and popular hit, the play easily might have sunk into obscurity—the original 1966 production opened to mixed reviews and flopped quickly. But the picture won a trio of Oscars (one for Goldman included), and its success gave the play a stature that has kept it in the stock and amateur repertory for three decades. Unhappily for the Roundabout Theater Co., this first Broadway revival reveals just how much of the film's acclaim was due to the fervid Panavision posturing of a cast that included Katharine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole and a young, astonishing Anthony Hopkins making his film debut. Without such bravura performances, with each psychological nuance registering in eye-popping widescreen, the material isn't terrifically distinguished. The play is a literary conceit of sorts: The musty historical drama dusted off, dressed up in latter-day neuroses and half-played for laughs. There's a certain rude pleasure in seeing historical figures, normally treated with reverence onstage and in film, taken down a peg or two and exposed in all their squalid naturalness. But Goldman's squalid naturalness is rather artificial: The play's God-you're-a-b—-but-so-am-I-darlingwe're-made-for-each-other attitude is stagy, as is the familiar familial angst that finds all three sons of a royal mother at some point accusing her of not loving them enough in their childhoods. The play's wit is mostly garden-variety sarcasm in chain mail and fancy language, its pretensions to high drama and poetry slightly embarrassing (King Henry to wife-enemy Eleanor: "You fill me full of pity and terror. What a tragedy you are."). Among the extremely variable cast of Michael Mayer's production, only the redoubtable Stockard Channing manages to hold her own against memories of her film rival, the Oscar-winning Hepburn. She plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, estranged wife of Henry II (Laurence Fishburne), who has been released from genteel captivity in her own castle to attend a family gathering, where Henry plans to announce which of his three sons will be heir to the kingdom. Henry's favorite (inexplicably) is the youngest, John, a sniveling bundle of teenage angst played with foot-stamping, nasal snarkiness by Keith Nobbs. Eleanor is allied with Richard, the eldest and strongest, though you'd never guess it from Chuma Hunter-Gault's less-than-lionhearted, ineffective performance. (When he and Channing share a scene together, she's acting in a vacuum; the actor, making his Broadway debut, is simply out of his depth.) Middle child Geoffrey (Neal Huff) is the bitterest of the trio, and tries to improve his position by playing everyone against each other. Everything in the film conspired to elevate the material: the authentic accents from a cast that included Timothy Dalton as the French prince Philip, the atmospheric location filming and John Barry's surging score, the near-hysterical performances that gave a jolt of psychological depth to the backstabbing shenanigans (Even the trendy-feeling homosexual liaison between Richard and Philip rang true, thanks to Hopkins; it's laughable here.). Only Channing's performance turns the same trick in Mayer's production. Her role is by far the strongest (Rosemary Harris won a Tony in the original), and she gives it the full benefit of her considerable technique, turning sometimes thudding bits of business into glittering little shards of wit by a kind of acting alchemy. Eyes aglow with mischievous fire, she alternately teases and torments her family as if plucking harp strings for her own amusement. When the stakes are raised in the late going and she's required to take it all more seriously, Channing duly turns on the dramatics, but everybody has a lot less fun. Fishburne has a regal-sounding voice and a powerful presence, but his Henry is never authoritative enough to counterbalance Channing's charismatic queen; it's hard not to think Eleanor could wipe the floor with him at any moment. Nobbs' bratty John is fun to watch, and Emily Bergl is surprisingly touching as Alais, the king's beloved new consort and a sadly self-aware pawn in this regal tug of war. The rest of the lackluster cast struggles with varying levels of success to stand out against David Gallo's mudcolored set and to retain their dignity in Michael Krass' unimaginative and sometimes unflattering costumes (Poor Roger Howarth as Philip plays his gay love scene in wispy linen shift and beige suede boots, an ensemble you might see pictured in Glamour magazine with the word "DON'T!" in screaming type beneath it.). As comedy gives way to melodrama in the last act, Mayer's production flags noticeably; it's not easy to poke fun at conventional historical drama and then pull it off with the pomp fully intact, which is what Goldman's play attempts. In any case, if you're going to debunk the mythologizing treatment of historical figures, it helps to put forth something authentic in their place. Winter only substitutes more stageworthy myths, and in this production, they're only intermittently entertaining.

Source: Charles Isherwood, "The Lion in Winter," in Daily Variety, March 12, 1999, pp. 1–2.


Brantley, Ben, "A Game of Feudal Feuding," in New York Times, March 12, 1999, p. E1.

Brustein, Robert, "A Question of Identity," in The Third Theatre, Simon and Schuster, 1969, pp. 101–02.

Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sysiphus, and Other Essays, translated by Justin O'Brien, Hamish Hamilton, 1955, pp. 96–99.

Catinella, Joseph, "Lion in Winter at Theater Forum," in New York Times, December 27, 1981, p. K21.

Evett, Marianne, "Putting on Heirs: Henry II Shakes Family Tree in Vivid Play House Drama," in Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), December 2, 1993, p. E7.

Frank, Leah D., "Mid-Life Crisis," in New York Times, October 9, 1988, sec. 12, p. 17.

Goldman, James, Lion in Winter, in Best American Plays, 1963–1967, edited by John Gassner and Clive Barnes, Crown Publishers, 1971, pp. 277–309.

Hilsman, Hoyt, "The Lion in Winter," in Daily Variety, November 15, 1994.

Hughes, Leonard, "A Royal Performance: Lion in Winter Feels Suitably Hotblooded and Cold," in Washington Post, March 15, 2000, p. M29.

Kerr, Walter, "Winking with Words," in Thirty Plays Hath November: Pain and Pleasure in the Contemporary Theater, Simon and Schuster, 1969, pp. 112–13.

Lardner, James, "A Lively New Formula for Lion in Winter," in Washington Post, February 17, 1981, p. B7.

Margolies, Dany, "The Lion in Winter at Theatre 40," in Back Stage West, Vol. 11, Issue 10, p. 19.


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Bradbury offers a biographical history of King Philip II of France, also known as Philip Augustus, who was born in 1165 and reigned from 1180 to 1223. Bradbury focuses on King Philip's relationship with the Catholic Church and on the Battle of Bouvines in 1214.

Church, S. D., ed., King John: New Interpretations, Boydell Press, 1999.

Church provides a collection of essays by various authors presenting current reinterpretations of the controversial life and reign of King John of England. These essays cover such topics as: the early years of John's reign; his relationship to his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his dealings with the Norman aristocracy; his personal relationship with Isabella of Angouleme; his political dealings with Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; his problems with the Roman Catholic Church; his system of justice; and his personal and political relationship with King Philip II of France.

Clopper, Lawrence M., Drama, Play, and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Period, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Clopper explains the social, cultural, and political significance of theater, games, and festivals in England from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries.

Daniell, Christopher, From Norman Conquest to Magna Carta: England, 1066–1215, Routledge, 2003.

Daniell offers a comprehensive history of society, culture, and politics in England from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215. Daniell covers such topics as the Battle of Hastings and its aftermath, social and family life, court life, government and justice systems, religion, the economy, and the arts.

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Gillingham offers biographical and historical information on the life and reign of King Richard I of England (also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lionheart), who was born in 1157 and ruled from 1189 to 1199. Gillingham discusses Richard's role as King of England in the politics of his time, as well as his military engagements and his experiences fighting in the Crusades.

Parsons, John Carmi, ed., Medieval Queenship, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Parsons provides a collection of essays by various authors on the social, cultural, political, and interpersonal roles of queens in England and Europe during the Middle Ages. Essays included in the volume cover such topics as family, sex, and power among medieval queens; mothers and daughters in the Plantagenet royal family; the representation of royal women in England; and the relationship of queens to the Catholic Church.

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Schlight provides a historical and biographical overview of the life and reign of King Henry II of England, who was born in 1133 and reigned from 1154 until his death in 1189.

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Weir provides a historical and biographical overview of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in English history, who was married first to King Louis VII of France and then to King Henry II of England.