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 deepseated 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.