The Lion in Winter
is a 1966 play by American playwright and screenwriter James Goldman. Based on the life of King Henry II, who ruled over England and Ireland during the twelfth century, it concerns a number of fictional events that take place during a Christmas feast Henry II throws for the new King of France. The feast is attended by Henry’s three sons, each of whom schemes to usurp the throne. Their plots are complicated by those of additional characters, including Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, an insidious woman temporarily freed from house arrest for trying to supplant Henry with her own private army. The family, ironically, tries to hide their dysfunction from the King of France as Henry and Eleanor pit their sons against each other in a complex political battle. The play was acclaimed for departing from the seriousness of typical works about Henry’s reign, instead, comprising a comedic drama about the universality of family dysfunction.
The play is set during Christmas of 1183, in Chinon, France, where King Henry II has a palace. Henry convenes with his secret lover, Alais, to talk about the party that will happen later that day. Henry expresses anxiety that his wife is being released from prison for the event. They also discuss Henry’s wishes for the future of his sons. The king reveals that he hopes for his youngest, John, to succeed him as King. Eleanor, in contrast, wants Richard to take the throne. Henry also relates that he made a promise to Philip, the Prince of France, that Richard will marry his sister, Alais. He assures her that they can still see each other nonetheless.
The scene shifts to a different room in the castle. Henry’s three sons squabble over who will take the throne, and their mother soon joins the fray, followed by Alais and Henry. Henry complains that they are distracting themselves from enjoying the festivities. Richard demands that he be the next king because he is the eldest and most experienced. John, however, is confident that he will be king because Henry favors him. Geoffrey grows sad, feeling unacknowledged. The three boys leave along with Alais, while Henry and his wife remain in the room. They continue to argue, and later in the evening, the husband and wife deploy their respective plans to strip each other of authority and end up with the crown. Henry facetiously tries to earn the respect of all three of his sons by implying that each one might be king, while Eleanor implements the same strategy. Their convoluted plans make it difficult to establish the truth about anyone’s intentions.
The three sons mirror the actions of their parents, forming and breaking ties throughout the play to maximize their momentary advantage. Geoffrey and John agree to start a war with King Philip by their side to wrest power from Eleanor and Richard and siphon Henry’s power. In a later scene, Henry commands Eleanor to sign a decree that transfers ownership of a part of France called the Aquitaine to John. In doing so, he hopes to make John’s political ascension inevitable. Eleanor declines, putting husband and wife in a deadlock. Geoffrey reaches out to Philip trying to forge an alliance and steal the throne.
After everyone’s plans flop, one by one, Henry unleashes a final ploy. He imprisons all three sons in the castle’s wine cellar and sends Eleanor back to house arrest. He plans to depart for Rome to convince the pope to declare their wedding invalid before remarrying Alais. After marrying her, he hopes to conceive more sons and make one of them the king. To this statement, Alais replies that she will not marry him if his sons remain alive, since they will try to kill her and her children. Henry finds himself unable to kill his sons. Eleanor catches word of Alais’s plan and gives weapons to her sons in the wine cellar, telling them to escape and to kill Henry. They find themselves mutually unable to commit the act.
The play comedically ends with the same kind of political gridlock it started with. Eleanor returns to house arrest, and the three sons of the king continue their feud about who will take the throne. Alais remains alienated from Henry, whom she loves, and Henry looks into the future with uncertainty. In this way, The Lion in Winter
is an ironic
commentary on the futility of the family feud, suggesting that the essential identities and power relationships of a family are impossible to truly recast.