Henry VI, Part 1 Essay - Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 56)

William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 56)


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Numbered among Shakespeare's earliest works, the chronicle history plays 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI have generally suffered from a lack of critical esteem in large part due to acknowledged lapses in artistic technique, thematic cohesiveness, characterization, and style. Indeed, because of such flaws many early commentators proposed that Shakespeare may have made only minor contributions to the texts or acted as a reviser of the plays. Contemporary scholars, however, have largely put aside considerations of Shakespeare's authorship in order to focus on the texts themselves and the qualities of 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI in performance. Principal among the interests of modern critics has been an inquiry into Shakespeare's use and interpretation of history in the plays. In staging the gradual deterioration of the English royal line during the mid- to late-fifteenth century, the disastrous political and civil crisis known as the War of the Roses, and an associated class rebellion, Shakespeare frequently found it necessary to invert historical order, transfer events and characters, and compress and expand his source material for dramatic purposes. Thus, critics have observed that 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI depict numerous alterations of character, among them the defamation of Joan of Arc's reputation and the elaboration of sinister elements in the figures of York and Richard of Gloucester. Scholars have also identified scenes, particularly in 1 Henry VI, that have no historical basis and which, they have argued, Shakespeare must have invented. In addition to highlighting the subject of historical representation many recent commentators have focused on the formal elements of 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, including the structure of these works, issues of dramaturgy, and the artistic and thematic unity of the plays as a whole.

As historical dramas, 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI have elicited considerable discussion on the nature of Shakespeare's interpretation of history. F. W. Brownlow (1977), in examining the first work in the series, emphasizes Shakespeare's manipulation of the so-called Tudor myth, which identified Henry IV's usurpation of the crown as the source of the English civil wars during the reign of his grandson Henry VI. According to Brownlow, 1 Henry VI, despite certain aesthetic limitations, expresses the flaws inherent in the Tudor myth and denotes a shift of the dramatist's focus toward the individual characters and human actions that contributed to this story. In surveying the plays, Robert C. Jones (1991) elaborates on the theme of revenge in 2 and 3 Henry VI, a force that, Jones argues, both displaces the heroic ideals expressed in the first play and demonstrates a concern with the “fictive reconstruction of history” later performed by Jack Cade and Richard of Gloucester. Heroic idealism is the subject of David Riggs's (1971) reading of Henry VI. For Riggs, the trilogy traces the steady degeneration of heroic aspirations and power in fifteenth-century England. John W. Blanpied (1978) also perceives in the overall design of Henry VI the theme of historical disintegration by examining how each play reflects upon the previous drama and its representation of the past. A number of commentators have endeavored to reconstruct Shakespeare's personal view of history in the Henry VI plays, with particular emphasis on 2 Henry VI and its representation of an uprising led by Jack Cade, a commoner with utopian aspirations of a classless society. In his treatment of this subject, Michael Hattaway (1988) contends that Shakespeare's dramatization of the rebellion tends to favor the underclass at the expense of the aristocracy. Paola Pugliatti (1992) also explores Shakespeare's handling of the class uprising in the second play of the series, and finds that this drama presents a “multivalent” view of history that can be interpreted as simultaneously radical and conservative. Ronald Knowles (1991) claims that Shakespeare's complex reshaping of historical material into the comic and ironic elements of 2 Henry VI calls into question the very notion of historical integrity in the drama.

The power of the Henry VI plays in performance has proved to be another favorite topic for modern commentators, who find in the works a wealth of material related to stagecraft. Randall Martin (1990) studies the iconography of Elizabethan civic pageantry in the plays by placing Shakespeare's emblematic communication to the audiences of his day within its historical contexts. Wolfgang Clemen (1980) assesses Shakespeare's use of rhetorically heightened speeches in Henry VI to both objectify and comment ironically on the historical figures in the plays. Alan C. Dessen (1993) responds to several prior estimations of Henry VI as fragmented and aesthetically flawed by investigating many of the ways in which the thematic unity of the plays may be expressed through theatrical performance. Other recent critics have singled out particular dramatic elements of Henry VI and the lesser motifs they represent. Margaret E. Owens (1996) concentrates on the imagery of severed heads as stage spectacle and symbols of political power frequently invoked by Shakespeare in 2 Henry VI to emphasize the drama's thematic descent into monstrosity. Finally, E. Pearlman (1999) examines the carnivalesque interlude between Duke Humphrey and Saunder Simpcox in the second play of the series, commenting on the subject of false miracles designed to sway the faith of the masses.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Clifford Leech (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “The Three Parts of Henry VI,” in Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Longmans, Green & Co., 1962, pp. 12-22.

[In the essay below, Leech surveys the structure of the three parts of Henry VI and discusses the critical debate over Shakespeare's part in the authorship of these works.]

It is impossible to discuss the Henry VI plays without referring first to the problems of authorship and chronology. They were published together in the Folio of 1623, but, although this is the first occasion of the printing of Part I, the other two Parts had appeared long before in corrupt versions. In 1594 there was published a quarto volume with the title...

(The entire section is 3554 words.)

F. W. Brownlow (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The First Part of King Henry the Sixth,” in Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977, pp. 15-25.

[In the essay below, Brownlow examines 1 Henry VI, considering both its flaws and its theatrical power.]

The series of histories comprising the three parts of Henry VI and The Life and Death of Richard III begins with the death of Henry V and deals with the loss of his French conquests and the coming of civil war during his son Henry VI's reign; it ends with Henry Tudor's invasion, his defeat of Richard III, and the inauguration of a new order under the...

(The entire section is 4687 words.)

Robert C. Jones (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “I Henry VI” and “2 & 3 Henry VI,” in These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 1-30.

[In the essays below, Jones presents an overview of the three parts of Henry VI, particularly emphasizing Shakespeare's use of history in the plays.]

The first play of the first tetralogy begins with the most plaintive and extended lament for a lost leader that we will encounter through the entire series of English history plays. Bedford's opening lines intensify the solemnity of Henry V's funeral procession by sounding the enormity of both the loss and its consequences:


(The entire section is 9108 words.)

Criticism: Historical Representation

David Riggs (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Hero in History: A Reading of Henry VI,” in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 100-139.

[In the excerpt below, Riggs traces Shakespeare's general theme of the deterioration of heroic idealism that took place between the Hundred Years' War and the Yorkist accession in Henry VI.]


The first part of Henry VI recasts the latter part of the Hundred Years' War as an exercise in “parallel lives.” The opening funeral oration indicates that the emphasis will be upon an ideal of heroic conduct, and the ensuing sequence of two...

(The entire section is 14612 words.)

John W. Blanpied (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Henry VI Plays: In Pursuit of the Ground,” in Susquehanna University Studies, Vol. 10, 1978, pp. 197-209.

[In the essay below, Blanpied considers Shakespeare's dramatization of history in Henry VI, perceiving in the work's three parts a series of disintegrations that shape each subsequent play and ultimately culminate in the parodic figure of Richard.]

We see the ground whereon these woes do lie,
But the true ground of all these piteous woes
We cannot without circumstance descry.

Romeo and Juliet (V. 3. 180-2)

“In the beginning,” D. H. Lawrence begins a cosmogony myth, then pauses: “—there...

(The entire section is 6017 words.)

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Rebellion, Class Consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI,” in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 33, April, 1988, pp. 13-22.

[In the essay below, Hattaway claims that the text of 2 Henry VI favors class rebellion rather than the order of the establishment.]



As we all know, history is made by the questions we ask—or more by those we don’t ask. Our conclusions derive as much from the ideological assumptions that we bring to a problem as from the ‘facts of the case’. This is demonstrated by examining a little noticed line in a well known play, Hamlet. When the prince is...

(The entire section is 4451 words.)

Ronald Knowles (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Farce of History: Miracle, Combat, and Rebellion in 2 Henry VI,” in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 21, 1991, pp. 168-86.

[In the essay below, Knowles reexamines the historical sources of Henry VI, contending that Shakespeare's reshaping of historical materials in the three plays demonstrates his departure from the form of chronicle history to the celebrated dramatic mode of Henry IV.]

It has long been a critical commonplace that the low-life scenes of the two parts of Henry IV have a dramatic complexity which shows a distinct maturity in Shakespeare's early dramatic art.1 Perhaps A. P. Rossiter's is the best known...

(The entire section is 9110 words.)

Paola Pugliatti (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “‘More Than History Can Pattern’: The Jack Cade Rebellion in Shakespeare's Henry VI, 2,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 451-78.

[In the essay below, Pugliatti maintains that Shakespeare's representation of the Cade rebellion in Henry VI “manifests a double perspective”—at once radical and conservative—which demonstrates the dramatist's multivalent vision of history.]


Until recently, the way in which Shakespeare represented Jack Cade's rebellion in act 4 of Henry VI, 2 has been taken as unmistakable evidence of the dramatist's...

(The entire section is 11470 words.)

Christopher Pye (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Theater, the Market, and the Subject of History,” in ELH, Vol. 61, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 501-22.

[In the essay below, Pye focuses on Act I, scene 4 of 1 Henry VI in order to study the economic and historical dimensions of subjectivity presented in the play.]

Nothing has so consistently underwritten recent efforts to historicize the study of Renaissance drama as a perceived correspondence between economic commodification and representation. In Worlds Apart, Jean-Christophe Agnew suggests how implicated the worlds of the theater and the market were during the early modern period. With the advent of exchange-value as a property independent...

(The entire section is 9091 words.)

Criticism: Stagecraft And Spectacle

Wolfgang Clemen (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Some Aspects of Style in the Henry VI Plays,” in Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 9-24.

[In the essay below, Clemen analyzes the language and dramatic effect of several key speeches in Henry VI,contrasting their “extraordinary clarity of utterance” with the “somewhat two-dimensional world” of the play.]

Duchess. Ah, Gloucester, teach
me to forget myself!
For whilst I think I am thy married wife
And thou a prince, Protector of this land,
Methinks I should not thus be led along,
Mailed up in shame, with papers on my back,
And followed with a rabble that rejoice
To see my tears...

(The entire section is 6690 words.)

Randall Martin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Elizabethan Civic Pageantry in Henry VI,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 244-64.

[In the essay below, Martin surveys Shakespeare's use of the emblems of Elizabethan civic pageantry to create his “reinterpretive presentation of history” in Henry VI.]

At the point in Henry VI Part One where the private quarrel between Somerset and York is about to turn into open conflict marking the start of the Wars of the Roses, their respective supporters Vernon and Basset ask the king to arbitrate between wearing either red or white roses as badges of dynastic superiority. Henry spurns their dispute as frivolous,...

(The entire section is 8992 words.)

Alan C. Dessen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Stagecraft and Imagery in Shakespeare's Henry VI,” in Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 65-79.

[In the essay below, Dessen argues for the integrity of the Henry VI plays based upon the possibilities offered by theatrical interpretation.]

When dealing with Shakespeare's Henry VI on the page or on the stage, a critic, an editor, or a director immediately confronts the question of the integrity of the three plays as they have survived in the two quartos (among the earliest of Shakespeare's works to appear in print) and the First Folio (where Part One first appears). Since the eighteenth century, scholars and theatrical...

(The entire section is 7926 words.)

E. Pearlman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Duke and the Beggar in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI,” in Criticism, Vol. 41, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 309-21.

[In the essay below, Pearlman interprets the dramatic and theological significance of the encounter between Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and the beggar Saunder Simpcox in 2 Henry VI.]

In the midst of the factious wrangling that comprises so much of the matter of Shakespeare's The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, there occurs an innovative scene in which the young playwright takes some creative liberties with the new genre of the history play.

The situation is this: the fierce rivalry between Winchester, the proud...

(The entire section is 6056 words.)

Further Reading


Caldwell, Ellen C. “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.” Studies in Philology 92, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 18-79.

Compares Shakespeare's representation of the Jack Cade rebellion of 1450 to an array of historical evidence regarding the uprising. Caldwell concludes that the rebellion scenes in Henry VIshould not simply be interpreted as indicative of Shakespeare's anti-populist beliefs.

Fiennes, Ralph. “Henry VI.” In Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearian Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 99-113. Cambridge:...

(The entire section is 517 words.)