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Theatre / The Lion in Winter

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"What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
Eleanor, vastly understating matters

A 1966 play written by James Goldman about the troubles in the family of Henry II of England and Eleanor Of Aquitaine. Henry's three sons, John, Geoffrey and Richard, all aspire to be king. (A fourth son, Henry the Young King, is recently deceased.) Both he and his wife favour a different son; since she has instigated rebellion against him before, Henry had her locked up for ten years, but this experience hasn't dampened her spirit. The power play begins in earnest in 1183, when this lovely family goes to celebrate Christmas in their palace at Chinon with Philip Capet, King of France, whose older sister Alais is Henry's mistress.

The play was made into a film released in 1968, starring Peter O'Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor; James Goldman wrote the adapted screenplay. It was also the film debut of Timothy Dalton (as Philip of France) and Anthony Hopkins (as Richard). In 2003, it was adapted again for TV, with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. It was actually O'Toole's second appearance as Henry — he also played the king in Becket, released four years earlier.


The Lion in Winter provides examples of:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: In front of her sons, Eleanor confesses that she loved — and still loves — their father.
  • Arranged Marriage: Princess Alais and Richard, to fulfill an old bargain between Henry and Philip's father. Richard refuses to go through with it if it means giving up the Aquitaine.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The narrative itself condenses years of bloody conflict into an interpersonal struggle over a day or two.
    • Christmas trees first appeared in Germany in the 1500s.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: An astounding amount between Henry and Eleanor.
  • Betrayal by Offspring: Richard, Geoffrey, and John against Henry.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Only one character is actually killed on screen in the 1968 film: the guard outside the cellar where Henry's sons are locked in. Despite the lack of blood, the scene is brutal and disturbing.
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  • Butt-Monkey: John. Historical in that as the youngest son, he'd traditionally inherit the least (hence the real-life nickname of "Lackland"). Made painful in this telling because Henry's attempts to favor him over Richard and Geoff have turned John into a clueless spoiled brat.
    John: Who says poor John? Don't everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!
    Richard: Let's strike a flint and see!
  • Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them: Henry and Eleanor in spades.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Eleanor grins throughout every scene, no matter how barbed her words.
  • Chess Motifs:
    Alais: Kings, queens, knights everywhere and I'm the only pawn.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Geoffrey, even more than the others. He promises to hitch his cart to whomever looks like winning at that particular moment.
  • Cue the Flying Pigs: When Eleanor warns Henry that his sons will rise against him if he goes to Rome, he says it will happen "the day that pigs get wings." "There'll be pork in the treetops come morning," Eleanor says.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Lampshaded by Philip when he hides multiple people behind multiple hangings.
  • Deadly Decadent Court
  • Deadpan Snarker: Henry, Eleanor, and Geoffrey have honed their sarcasm into fine-cutting weapons. Philip and Richard aren't as clever with words but can give as well as they can take. If you're John and Alais, you can't keep up.
  • Defiant to the End:
    • "When the fall is all there is, it matters."
    • Richard refusing to flinch when Henry raises his sword to execute him for Richard's rebellion.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Richard and Philip and maybe Geoffrey as well. Not that the heterosexual characters are any more virtuous...
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: There are presents (never opened), holly hanging and a tree, but little time for rejoicing.
    Eleanor: No one else is caroling tonight. It might as well be Lent.
  • Dysfunctional Family: You think?
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Eleanor balks when Geoffrey and Richard suggest secretly killing Henry.
  • Evil Matriarch: Eleanor, at least as Richard sees her.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Subverted: Philip made more and more people hide behind a curtain and then exposed things with every newcomer, while also showing the latest curtain-inhabitant that he was overheard himself. (Good job if you understood that sentence after reading it only once!)
  • Family Disunion
  • Gambit Pileup: Pretty much every character is running one, and it's complicated by the fact that Henry, Eleanor, Geoffrey and Philip are particularly capable of Xanatos Speed Chess.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: When it's Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Real-Life Chessmaster and trouble-maker...
  • Good Feels Good: Henry claims that, since he hasn't been to war in years, he's learned "how good it is to write a law, or make a tax more fair."
  • Grey and Gray Morality: None of the characters are particularly decent people, especially towards each other. And their plotting can actually get other people killed.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: When Henry and Eleanor put away the Snark Daggers and break out the Ham Cannons, there may as well be no-one else in the room.
  • Heroic BSoD: Henry flips his lid when Philip reveals that all of his sons have betrayed him. After huddling under a rampart, he wakes up everyone in the castle by kicking and screaming at them.
  • Hero of Another Story: William Marshal is a real person who acts as the understated Number Two for Henry and later Eleanor. What else did he do? Well, he was eulogized as "the greatest knight who ever lived" for a start. He would ultimately serve five kings (Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard I, John, and Henry III), culminating in him becoming Regent for Henry III.
  • Heir Club for Men: Mentioned when Eleanor talks about her previous marriage to Louis VII, which produced only daughters, but not a significant part of the plot. Henry seems to take it as read that he and Alais will have a son, though.
  • He's Got a Weapon!: Complete with the classic response.
    John: A knife! He's got a knife!
    Eleanor: Of course he has a knife! He always has a knife! We all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians!
  • The High Queen: Henry describes Eleanor as such, when they first met:
    Henry: He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen.
  • Historical-Domain Character: The main characters, including Richard The Lion Heart.
    • Katherine Hepburn is a descendant of Eleanor Of Aquitaine — not only through Eleanor's marriage to Henry II, but also Eleanor's earlier marriage to the French King Louis VII.
  • Hot-Blooded: Henry and Richard, which, based on most historical accounts, is definitely Truth in Television.
  • I Have No Son!: Henry tells his sons he is disowning them all upon learning they were plotting against him.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Eleanor does this to Henry, to his displeasure.
  • I Know You Know I Know "I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family." Just so you know.
  • Improvised Weapon: John tries to kill Geoffrey with a candlestick.
  • In the Back: Or perhaps, better said, 'in the front', since everybody is quite honest about wanting to deceive each other.
  • Intimate Hair Brushing: Mentioned when Queen Eleanor and Princess Alys speak privately. Alys has been fostered at Henry and Eleanor's court for years, the intent having been for her to marry one of their sons (they couldn't agree on which), and Eleanor fondly recalls raising the girl: "I remember how I used to brush and braid this hair."
  • Jacob and Esau: Henry is trying to get John on the throne and Eleanor wants Richard to have it. (What about Geoffery, you may ask. What about him?)
  • The Lancer: William Marshal, who did serve Eleanor and then the Plantagenets for most of his life.
  • Like an Old Married Couple: They are, but despite the constant bickering, it's clear Henry and Eleanor still have feelings for each other.
  • The Lost Lenore: Rosamund de Clifford, who has been dead for seven years but is still remembered for being more beautiful and more loved by Henry than Eleanor. Eleanor likes to pile abuse on her for being Welsh, though.
  • Man Behind the Man: Geoffery wants to be the chancellor (since nobody's considering him in the tussle over the actual throne). Though it would be easier to be the true power with John as a king, he still wants the position if Richard wins out.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Henry, Philip, Geoffery, and Eleanor are the most flagrantly manipulative. As Henry says, it's the only way to be alive, fifty, and a king all at once. As for Eleanor...
    Richard: You're so deceitful you can't ask for water when you're thirsty.
  • Medieval Morons: Utterly averted.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Geoffrey is a painfully pure example of this trope.
    Geoffrey: It's not the power I feel deprived of... it's the mention I miss. There's no affection for me here: You wouldn't think I'd want that, would you?
  • Might Makes Right:
    Henry: The Vexin's mine.
    Philip: By what authority?
    Henry: It's got my troops all over it: that makes it mine.
  • Momma's Boy: Richard as a child. Not any more now that he's grown up, though.
  • Mood Whiplash: Like crazy. Generally from laugh-out-loud funny to crushing tragedy in the course of just a few lines.
  • My Beloved Smother: Richard thinks of Eleanor this way. He's her favorite child, and she's trying to get at least the Aquitaine for him.
  • Offing the Offspring: Subverted. Henry sentences his sons to be executed for treason, but finds he can't do it.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Used liberally at the beginning of the film. It reappears at the climax when Henry sentences his sons to death.
  • One-Liner: Many, so many.
  • Only Sane Man: William Marshal, Henry's right-hand man. Despite his small role, he manages to convince Richard to come along quietly.
  • Parental Favoritism: They're very blatant about it and a major driving force in the plot.
  • Passive Aggressive Combat: Henry, Eleanor, Philip, and Geoffrey are masters of it.
  • The Pawn: Alais, as she says so herself. She claims that because of this, she has nothing to lose.
  • Psychotic Smirk: Geoffrey has a rather good one.
  • Purple Eyes: According to Eleanor, Rosamund de Clifford had violet eyes.
  • Queer Romance: Philip and Richard.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: Largely averted. Henry, despite being the King of England, always wears rather simple, unadorned clothing, with fingerless gloves and a rather unkempt appearance. When he goes out to greet the King of France (who is dressed well in royal blues), an extra coat and a simple crown is all he dons.
  • Revenge: Philip went through a lot of trouble to screw Henry over... just because Henry constantly picked on Philip's daddy years prior. Could also be a very subtle case of Feuding Families.
  • Revenge by Proxy: Philip using Richard to get to Henry.
  • Royal Brat: John is portrayed as a spoiled, block-headed teenager who's a constant, unwitting pawn in his elder brothers' schemes.
  • Royally Screwed Up
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Henry starts with a Slow Clap as Eleanor claims to concede and says he can have it all, increasing in speed and volume as she grows more despairing.
  • Seen It All:
    • Henry II is so old he's got ten years on the Pope, and uses those years of experience in dealing with Philip.
    • Eleanor has some interesting history herself. Her backstory involving the Crusades would count as a Noodle Incident if she hadn't given the audience Too Much Information...
    Eleanor: Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn. (smiles) But the troops were dazzled...
  • Sibling Rivalry: played at the level of a contact sport, if not outright war.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Becket, where Peter O'Toole played Henry II as a young man.
  • Straight Gay: Richard, arguably.
  • Succession Crisis: Primogeniture was not the law in 1183, and Henry is worried that his sons might fight a civil war after he dies. It doesn't help that the parents can't agree about which son should inherit: Henry prefers John while Eleanor prefers Richard. Making it worse is Henry's idea of having more children with Alais. Even worse, Aquitaine has different rules than England. The muddled mess will result in the Hundred Years War and the War of the Barons when John remains in charge.
  • Sword over Head: Henry, having passed judgment on his three sons for treason, raises his sword to strike Richard down...
  • Troll: Henry, Eleanor, Geoffrey, and Philip.
  • Tsundere: Eleanor is a mixture of Harsh and Sweet. She seems to have been mostly the Sweet type in her younger days, but has moved more toward the Harsh type in her later years.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Princes John (for Geoffrey) and Richard (for Philip).
  • Warrior Prince: Richard. He's first seen victorious in a tournament, prepared to strike his opponent dead.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: All of Henry's sons secretly want his approval.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: For all the sound and fury of the story, absolutely nothing actually changes... except for the poor nameless guard who gets killed when Eleanor goes to free the princes.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: King Philip of France is only seventeen, but one of the more able plotters.
  • Woman Scorned: One of the reasons Eleanor is pissed. Richard calls her "Medea to the teeth."
  • The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Eleanor shows signs of it, though she's reluctant to admit it.
  • World of Ham: But it works.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Henry plans to marry again and have another son. Eleanor states that he's too old and won't be around to protect him.
    Eleanor: And when you die, which is regrettable but necessary, what will happen to frail Alais and her pruny prince? You can't think Richard's going to wait for your grotesque to grow.
    Henry II: You wouldn't let him do a thing like that.
    Eleanor: Let him? I'd push him through the nursery door.
  • Younger Than They Look: Philip. It's even lampshaded by Eleanor.
    Eleanor: I was told you were impressive for a boy of seventeen.

Alternative Title(s): The Lion In Winter


Example of: