"Henry . . . had that goodly household, valiant, wise, and prudent; father of the young king who jousted with such ardor; father of Richard the cunning, who was so wise and shrewd: father of Geoffrey of Brittany, who likewise was a man of great deeds; and father of John Lackland, because of whom he suffered much strife and warfare" (Ambrose, L'Estoire de le guerre sainte, cited in Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1950], 170).
In James Goldman's play, The Lion in Winter, it is winter, 1183; cold implications of an approaching holiday permeate the air in an arguably uncivilized world. Henry II and his wife, Eleanor, are fighting over which of their three sons should be the next king: Eleanor wants Richard, Henry wants John, and no one wants Geoffrey. All three of Henry's sons either already have or soon will rebel against him. Eleanor has been rebellious too, a crime for which her unforgiving husband keeps her bricked in (that is unless he needs her diplomatic skills), but she is to be liberated for a Christmas celebration in France at the palace of Chinon.
Peter O'Toole called The Lion in Winter "a witty, literate, modern appreciation of the intrigues and bitchery between Henry II, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their three sons" (Nicholas Wapshott, Peter O'Toole [Sevenoaks, Kent: New English Library, 1983], 145), but it is much more. This is a play about power and control, and it is also a play about family. Henry II needed an "heir to all the king's own striving and contriving" (Kelly 171). Children are extensions of their parents, and perhaps this is an assurance of continuation; holding on to the world is in this way possible. Soon, however, growing limbs, growing mentalities--individual ideas and thoughts--extend distinctly gnarled fingers out into society. Henry probably could never have anticipated the contention and strife his sons would eventually initiate; but were they somehow connected to the fact that the boys were his royal-blooded sons?
The Lion in Winter is a play about a royal family tree, its roots in all of England and three quarters of France. Henry's large domains were called the Angevin empire, since the family's original holding was the French province of Anjou. Legend, however, would have us believe that their inheritance amounted to more than property: "The Counts of Anjou were descended from the Devil, which went some way to explain their ferocious behavior" (Alfred Duggan, Devil's Brood [New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1957], ix). Could such a lineage perhaps even condone a somewhat involuntary rapaciousness?
Goldman professed to know the non-fictitious faults of Henry II, Eleanor, and their contumacious sons (of course, he is more than familiar with those charismatic blemishes of character he himself imaginatively appended); but he loves them regardless (The Lion in Winter [New York: Penguin Books, 1983], vii). This apparent passion allows one to sit back, fearing nothing, and become intimately acquainted with the characters, confident in Goldman's astounding loyalty.
How easy would it be to write a play about the real Angevins? Historically, Henry II was "short and sandy-haired . . . notoriously lecherous" (Duggan 37), a man who supposedly once ate his bedding in a fit of temper (Duggan 38-39). Richard the Lion-Heart has been documented as a "brave, cultivated but cruel and tempestuous man, dogged by ill-health" (John Cannon and Ralph Griffiths, The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy [Oxford: Oxford University Press 1988, reprinted with corrections 1997], 159). However, Goldman's Richard seems almost naïve—childlike—in conversation with his mother, and with his (supposed) lover, Philip II of France. (The fictional Richard may be more worthy of sympathy.)
Geoffrey perhaps was neglected, overlooked, underestimated in medieval reality as well as in The Lion in Winter. He was not given the same opportunity as his brothers; made duke of Brittany, he was not even considered for the crown. Nevertheless, he may have been, second only to Eleanor herself, the most insidious and the most intellectual, infecting everyone with his schemes and ideas on the sly. (Though Cicero would assure us that trickery and intelligence are ''entirely different and remote from one another'' (Cicero, Selected Works, translated by Michael Grant [Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books 1960, reprinted with revisions 1967], 185). Still, Goldman shows him to be always thinking, "humming treachery" ( 8), until he seems almost inhuman. "He isn't flesh: he's a device; he's wheels and gears" (Goldman 84). Oddly, however, there is a sensitivity distinguishable in Geoffrey—a sore spot for a lifelong memory of the indifference between his parents.
The youngest, the most susceptible to Geoffrey's machinations, is the romantically infamous Prince John. A villain we love to hate in other stories, in The Lion in Winter, he represents what can only be described as unattractive and thoroughly undesired. A hunched and pitiful jester, as far from courage as he is from comeliness, with a whim, much like the motivation behind a child's tantrum, for his father's acceptance and his crown. These royal brothers may all suffer side effects from a childhood void of all sentiment; though all are of an entirely separate psychological variety. Still they are united in the one desire that most completely divides them—an inherited lust for the crown, which they would peck and claw to obtain. Henry said, "Thus will they pursue me till I die" (Kelly 170). All of these faults, yet still they are thought of fondly?
Also participants in the holiday intrigue are two outside the family: King Philip and his older sister Alais, an adopted pawn taken in by Henry sixteen years earlier. (How was Henry to know she would grow up to be so appealing?) Intended for Richard, promised to John, and loved by her king, Alais is caught in a bizarre triangle of potential husbands, though deriving no pity from an unemotionally involved brother. Among these players, ever shifting islands of alliances form, and, as the tide, loyalties remain elusive. The brilliant wit and biting sarcasm that all the characters possess enhance the twilight trysts and assure the eventual exposure of every secret contrivance.
"What shall we hang? the holly or each other?" Henry asks (15). Mercy could very likely be the answer that this Christmas play gives. Henry can neither keep his sons imprisoned nor have them executed, and they, in turn, cannot kill him. Is it accidental that the candles Henry steals (and the light on this final scene) belong to Jesus—who won't begrudge them? Henry must give up much of what he wants, has to live with disappointment, and, as everyone else in the story must also do, even condone betrayal. It is not the end, however; forgiveness is. Nothing is finally gained or completely lost; within the family, there is always another beginning.