Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 74)
Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3
Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, which make up the first three plays of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, are a series of history plays that chronicle the medieval battle for primacy between England and France. The plays also trace England's domestic struggle between the noble houses of York and Lancaster, a bloody civil war that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. Most scholars agree that Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 are among Shakespeare's earliest works. Because of their frequent artistic lapses and episodic structure, early critics disputed Shakespeare's authorship of the plays; however, there is little doubt among modern critics that Shakespeare wrote all three parts. Critics are interested in the diverse array of issues raised in the plays, particularly the changing attitudes toward the series' central characters as well as the plays' mythical elements. In recent productions of the plays, the three parts are frequently staged together with a view toward demonstrating their relevance to current events.
Several scholars have reviewed the changing attitudes toward the series' central characters. John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (2001) note that there is an ongoing debate among critics regarding whether King Henry is a symbol of saintliness or ineptitude; however, they find that most critics agree that Richard's character is evil. Cox and Rasmussen concur that Henry's positive qualities are ultimately undercut by his weakness in the face of evil, but they are divided on the origin of Richard's character. They contend that either Richard was born wicked, his wickedness is a manifestation of the viciousness of civil unrest, or his treachery stems from an inferiority complex. Randall Martin (2001) investigates the changing critical attitudes toward Margaret, observing that while early productions of the Henry VI plays virtually ignored her, or reduced her to a clichéd example of female shrewishness, recent productions have depicted Margaret as a more complex character, often presenting her as both loyal and tragic. Critics are also interested in the less significant characters of the Henry VI plays. Randall Martin (2000) proposes that the brief entrance of John Somerville in Part 3 reveals familial connections between Shakespeare and the Somerville family. Martin suggests that this connection may also indicate that Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies in spite of his Protestant Queen. Finally, Samuel M. Pratt (1965) asserts that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, achieves the status of myth through Shakespeare's careful depiction of Humphrey's loyalty to his king in Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2.
George F. Butler (2000), also concerned with the mythical elements of the plays, compares a passage of Henry VI, Part 2 with a passage from Virgil's poem, The Aeneid. Butler concludes that Shakespeare consciously patterned his play after Virgil's work, adapting the Roman poet's use of myth and epic to his own account of English history. Lisa Dickson (2000) suggests that the mythic qualities of Henry V elude his son Henry VI completely, and are instead transferred to the shining image of Joan of Arc. David Linton (1996) and Craig A. Bernthal (2002) examine the Cade Rebellion as it is presented in Henry VI, Part 2. Linton contends that underlying Cade's suspicion of people who are literate is Shakespeare's belief that literacy can be abused by the powerful to suppress the poor. Bernthal looks at the legal aspects of Cade's complaint and argues that through Cade's chaotic interpretation of the law, Shakespeare satirized both the Elizabethan legal system and people, like Cade, who misunderstood it. Gregory M. Colon Semenza examines a different theme found in the Henry VI series: the frequent use of sports imagery. Semenza argues that in the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare used sports metaphors to describe the wars conducted by the greedy and selfish nobles—wars waged in order to achieve their corrupt ambitions.
David Barbour (1997) and Barbara Hodgdon (1999) see this emphasis on the corruption and brutality of war echoed in recent productions of the Henry VI series. In his review of director Karin Coonrod's rendition of the series, Barbour sees a close resemblance between what occurred onstage and the bloodshed that has occurred in modern warfare in such places as the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In her review of Katie Mitchell's 1994 feminist staging of Henry VI, Part 3, Hodgdon takes note of how Mitchell shifted the play's focus from its male to its female characters, thus emphasizing the theme of survival rather than nationalism. Finally, both Hodgdon and Barbour interpret the recent resurgence of performances of the Henry VI plays as an acknowledgment of their relevancy to our troubled times.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Rowse, A. L. Introduction to The Contemporary Shakespeare Series. Vol. 7, edited by A. L. Rowse, pp. 13-18. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1987.
[In the following essay, Rowse briefly reviews the social conditions under which Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 were written and discusses how Shakespeare's newness as a playwright is revealed in the series.]
The first thing to be noticed about the trilogy of Henry VI is its sheer spaciousness. Its vast scope and planning—covering that long reign, the wars in France and its loss, the career of Joan of Arc, the Wars of the Roses in England with the malign career of Richard of Gloucester to link up with Richard III—bear out what Robert Greene foresaw and envied in the euphoric confidence of the actor with the provincial accent, who could turn his hand to anything, and was now turning dramatist to compete with the university wits and eventually write them off the page (if not the stage).
The Elizabethans had a great appetite for Chronicles, the heightened self-consciousness of the nation sharpening their interest in its past. Holinshed's and Hall's were the most noteworthy, providing a rich quarry for stories which could be turned to account for the stage, while Hall's provided the unity and direction of theme: the unity achieved by the Tudors in bringing together Lancaster and York, after the disastrous split within the royal family and the conflict for power between parties which it released.
This is foreshadowed in the First Part, though it is mainly concerned with the ups and downs of the war in France. Thus this rather sprawling first play is given a certain centricity by the kind of duel waged between the English hero, Talbot, and Joan of Arc, the French heroine as to whose unique personality both English and French were unjust. To the medieval English she was a witch; nor could the French understand her. The Elizabethans could not be expected to get her right; Shakespeare is ambivalent about her, scathing at one moment (as with Shylock) and then his essential humanity breaks through (as it did with the Jew). In the end he concedes her sainthood:
No, misconceived! Joan of Arc has been A virgin from her tender infancy, Chaste and immaculate in very thought, Whose maiden blood, thus rigorously effused, Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.
St Joan has indeed had her revenge.
Talbot had his apotheosis with the patriotic Elizabethans. The relation with his son, the contest between the two as to which should escape from overwhelming forces when neither would fly and both were killed, provided a couple of the best scenes in the play and appealed greatly at the time. Thomas Nash testifies, ‘how it would have joyed brave Talbot—the terror of the French—to think that he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least at several times, who imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.’ It was precisely this success that inspired Robert Greene's envy to an attack on the actor newly turned dramatist, with a parody of a line from him. Some years later, in the very personal Epilogue to Henry V, he himself testified to the popularity this early trilogy won him: of Henry VI,
Whose state so many had the managing—
polite and prudent as ever, for actually it was that king's imbecility and incapacity that lost him the throne—
That they lost France and made his England bleed: Which oft our stage has shown.
It is easy to criticise the tyro's first experiment in historical drama. Dr Johnson does so fairly, while showing how silly critics' suppositions were that it was not Shakespeare's work. He pointed out that ‘the...
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Criticism: Character Studies
Robert Y. Turner (essay date September 1964)
SOURCE: Turner, Robert Y. “Characterization in Shakespeare's Early History Plays.” ELH 31, no. 3 (September 1964): 241-58.
[In the following essay, Turner argues that because of his relative inexperience as a playwright, Shakespeare created characters in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 that are “flat” depictions of morality figures who show no remorse for their actions.]
The major figures in the Henry VI plays undergo no moral change of character. Even at the moment of death when they face an eternity of punishment, they feel no regrets and make no judgment on a life of misdeeds as, for example, Richard II does before he is murdered. In carrying out...
(The entire section is 6867 words.)
Samuel M. Pratt (essay date spring 1965)
SOURCE: Pratt, Samuel M. “Shakespeare and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: A Study in Myth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 2 (spring 1965): 201-16.
[In the following essay, Pratt asserts that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, achieves the status of myth through Shakespeare's careful depiction of Humphrey's loyalty to his king in Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2.]
Running through much of Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2, is the story of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, the uncle of Henry VI and the Protector of the realm during the King's minority. To the ordinary reader (or playgoer) Humphrey's story will probably not appear more dramatic or more incredible than other...
(The entire section is 8132 words.)
Randall Martin (essay date autumn 2000)
SOURCE: Martin, Randall. “Rehabilitating John Somerville in 3 Henry VI.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 332-40.
[In the following essay, Martin proposes that the brief entrance of John Somerville in Henry VI, Part 3, reveals familial connections between Shakespeare and the Somerville family. Martin suggests that this connection may also indicate that Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies in spite of his Protestant Queen.]
Speculation about Shakespeare's Catholicism has always been bound up with questions of his plays' references to traditional doctrine, their portrayal of clergy and religious offices, and topical allusions to polemical...
(The entire section is 3668 words.)
Randall Martin (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Martin, Randall. Introduction to Henry VI, Part Three, by William Shakespeare, edited by Randall Martin, pp. 1-132. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, Martin investigates the changing critical attitudes toward Margaret, observing that while early productions of the Henry VI plays virtually ignored her, or reduced her to a clichéd example of female shrewishness, recent productions have depicted Margaret as a more complex character.]
MARGARET'S STORY: A‘NEW’ PLAY
In a discussion of The Plantagenets, director Adrian Noble described the role of Queen Margaret as ‘A King Lear for...
(The entire section is 4900 words.)
John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Cox, John D., and Eric Rasmussen. Introduction to King Henry VI Part 3, by William Shakespeare, edited by John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, pp. 1-176. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.
[In the following excerpt, Cox and Rasmussen review the characters of Henry and Richard. They note that there is an ongoing debate among critics regarding whether King Henry is a symbol of saintliness or ineptitude; however, they find that most critics agree that Richard's character is evil.]
Of the two characters who have been most discussed in 3 Henry VI, Henry has been regarded least consistently. To some interpreters, he has appeared to be a...
(The entire section is 4265 words.)
Criticism: Production Reviews
David Barbour (review date February 1997)
SOURCE: Barbour, David. Review of Henry VI. TCI: The Business of Entertainment Technology and Design 31 (February 1997): 6-7.
[In the following review, Barbour observes that the scenery and direction of Karin Coonrod's production of the Henry VI series reflects the bloodshed that has occurred in modern warfare in such places as Yugoslavia and Rwanda.]
Each age gets the Shakespeare it deserves. For centuries, the most prized of the Bard's works have been the straightforward comedies, tragedies, and histories. More recently, modern audiences have embraced the so-called “problem plays,” works like Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, and The...
(The entire section is 974 words.)
Barbara Hodgdon (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Hodgdon, Barbara. “Making it New: Katie Mitchell Refashions Shakespeare-History.” In Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, pp. 13-33. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Hodgdon demonstrates how Katie Mitchell's 1994 production of Henry VI, Part 3 shifted the play's focus from its male to its female characters, thus emphasizing the theme of survival rather than nationalism.]
I begin with a familiar text, Thomas Heywood's rave review of “our domesticke hystories”:
What English blood, seeing the person of any...
(The entire section is 7422 words.)
Russell Jackson (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “‘This England’: Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, Winter 2000-2001.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (2001): 383-92.
[In the following essay, Jackson reviews Michael Boyd's December 2000-January 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III. The critic contends that the production's greatest achievement “lay in its evocation of a world turned to chaos.”]
The three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, staged in the Swan Theatre during December 2000 and January 2001, were directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, with lighting by Heather Carson and...
(The entire section is 5096 words.)
Paul Dean (essay date spring 1982)
SOURCE: Dean, Paul. “Shakespeare's Henry VI Trilogy and Elizabethan ‘Romance’ Histories: The Origins of a Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 1 (spring 1982): 34-48.
[In the following essay, Dean suggests that Shakespeare used “romance” or partly fictional history as a source for Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]
An earlier age was of the opinion that Shakespeare's inspiration needed no prompting from sources. Our own is, it sometimes seems, intent on denying him any originality in its quest for his literary debts—and this from the very beginning of his career. The earliest comedy, The Comedy of Errors, and the earliest tragedy,...
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David Linton (essay date June 1996)
SOURCE: Linton, David. “Shakespeare as Media Critic: Communication Theory and Historiography.” Mosaic 29, no. 2 (June 1996): 1-21.
[In the following essay, Linton examines the Jack Cade Rebellion in Henry VI, Part 2, and contends that underlying Cade's suspicion of people who are literate is Shakespeare's belief that literacy can be abused by the powerful to suppress the poor.]
The current tendency to explain everything from election results to the breakdown of the family in terms of media influence attests to the belief that the communicating practices of a culture play decisive roles in the outcomes of human endeavors. In analyzing the nature of these...
(The entire section is 8817 words.)
Lisa Dickson (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Dickson, Lisa. “No Rainbow without the Sun: Visibility and Embodiment in 1 Henry VI.” Modern Language Studies 30, no. 1 (spring 2000): 137-56.
[In the following essay, Dickson contends that the world of Henry VI, Part 1 is one of chaos and upturned hierarchies, where the dead Henry V's role as prophet and sun king is ceded not to his own son, Henry VI, but to the French maiden Joan of Arc.]
O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!
(1 Henry VI, 4.7.79-80)
The opening scene of 1 Henry VI rehearses for us a...
(The entire section is 9594 words.)
George F. Butler (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Butler, George F. “Frozen with Fear: Virgil's Aeneid and Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI.” Philological Quarterly 79, no. 2 (spring 2000): 145-52.
[In the following essay, Butler asserts that Shakespeare relied on Virgil's Aeneid and its depiction of the dying Turnus in his portrayal of Suffolk's death in Henry VI, Part 2.]
In Act 4 of Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI, the Duke of Suffolk is captured after a battle at sea. The Captain of the ship plans to execute him. As Suffolk prepares to die, he says to Walter Whitmore, “Pene gelidus timor occupat artus: / 'Tis thee I...
(The entire section is 2648 words.)
David Thatcher (essay date winter 2000-2001)
SOURCE: Thatcher, David. “Cover-up: The Murder of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI.” The Shakespeare Newsletter 50, no. 4 (winter 2000-2001): 105, 114, 116, 118.
[In the following essay, Thatcher lists the five different ways in which murders and the cover-ups that follow them are committed in Shakespeare's plays, and shows how Humphrey of Gloucester's murder in Henry VI, Part 2 is an example of a murder made to look as though it were a death by natural causes.]
In Holinshed's version of the Macbeth story, the deceitful Macbeth figure, Donwald, instructs four servants to cut the king's throat while he is sleeping. To prevent the body from betraying him...
(The entire section is 4463 words.)
Gregory M. Colon Semenza (essay date winter 2001)
SOURCE: Semenza, Gregory M. Colon. “Sport, War, and Contest in Shakespeare's Henry VI.” Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 4 (winter 2001): 1251-72.
[In the following essay, Semenza explores the ways in which Shakespeare used sports metaphors to describe the selfish wars conducted by the greedy nobles in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]
When, in 1 Henry VI, a Messenger of the Countess of Auvergne requests that Talbot visit his lady's castle, Burgundy derisively remarks:
I see our wars Will turn unto a peaceful comic sport, When ladies crave to be encountered with.
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Craig A. Bernthal (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Bernthal, Craig A. “Jack Cade's Legal Carnival.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (2002): 259-74.
[In the following essay, Bernthal analyzes the ways in which Shakespeare used carnival imagery in Henry VI, Part 2, both to defend and condemn Jack Cade's rebellion.]
C. L. Barber was one of the first critics to recognize that Shakespeare portrays the Cade Rebellion of Henry VI Part II as carnival: “an astonishingly consistent expression of anarchy by clowning: the popular rising is presented throughout as a saturnalia, ignorantly undertaken in earnest; Cade's motto is ‘then are we in order when we are most out of...
(The entire section is 6247 words.)
Caldwell, Ellen C. “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.” Studies in Philology 92, no. 1 (winter 1995): 18-79.
Examines the historical documents concerning the Jack Cade rebellion, and argues that in Henry VI, Part 2, Shakespeare indicated his ambivalence toward the uprising.
Dutton, Richard. “Shakespeare and Lancaster.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 1 (spring 1998): 1-21.
Explores the idea that the history plays, including Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, demonstrate that Shakespeare was a “Catholic recusant,” or someone unwilling to attend Church of England...
(The entire section is 218 words.)