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Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Until the middle of the twentieth-century, a majority of commentators on the Henry VI trilogy were principally concerned with whether Shakespeare wrote these plays himself or in collaboration with other dramatists, and in what order the plays were composed. Over the past thirty years, however, most critics have concluded that Shakespeare was the sole author and that the order of composition is of little importance. The notion that Shakespeare's English history plays depict a providential pattern or design that controls the course of historical events was articulated by E. M. W. Tillyard in 1944 and initially gained wide acceptance. More recently, though, scholars writing about 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI have rejected that view, arguing instead that the trilogy upholds the idea that human beings are responsible for the collapse of the state and the fate of kings in these plays. Critical interest currently focuses on the portrayal of political and social disorder, the ravages of civil war, and the progressive decline of moral, religious, and ethical values in the trilogy.

Many recent commentators have asserted that the plays emphasize the way in which Henry VI's inept rule contributes to this decline. Scholars point out that in 1 Henry VI, the king is still a child, easily disconcerted by the quarrels of his elders and manipulated into a disastrous marriage. Moreover, critics such as Michael Hattaway (1990) have noted that the ghost of Henry V—one of England's greatest monarchs—haunts the trilogy and casts his son's ineffectiveness into even deeper shadow. Many commentators have remarked that Henry VF's increasing distaste for political machination in Parts 2 and 3 and his attempts to distance himself from the growing factionalism among his nobles create a power vacuum. Moody E. Prior (1973), for example, has argued that the king's incompetence encourages the Duke of York to press his own claim to the throne. Larry S. Champion (1990) has recently contended that when Henry disinherits his own children and names York and his sons as successors, he abdicates any active role as England's sovereign. There is critical consensus that Henry's pacifism represents a fatal weakness in a monarch. However, some critics have observed that his aversion to war is depicted as an admirable human virtue—even though it is also shown to be a disastrous quality in a king. Edward I. Berry (1975) has maintained that the effect of the molehill-scene (3 Henry VI, II.v) is deeply ironic: Henry's pastoral vision offers a release from the butchery of civil war yet is ultimately irresponsible in that it offers no solution—other than withdrawal—to the conflict raging in his kingdom. Alexander Leggatt (1988) has argued that while Henry's passivity is irritating as well as irresponsible, he represents ethical and spiritual values for which there are no other spokesmen in these plays. Most commentators assert that with regard to competing legalistic claims to the throne, the trilogy demonstrates that the sword overrules genealogical descent. Donald G. Watson (1990) has also noted that although the plays demonstrate that ruthlessness advances the Yorkists' cause, their notion of sovereignty lacks any ethical or ideological component.

In the judgment of most critics, the self-interested ambition of the Yorks is characteristic of nearly all the nobles—and churchmen—in 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, and is largely responsible for the factionalism that leads first to social and political disorder and finally to civil war. Watson has argued that revenge and self-advancement are the bases of political and personal action in these plays. He noted—as did Berry and Leggatt—that family loyalties and other human values are no longer significant, and that the lack of commitment to family ties parallels the disintegration of political and social loyalty. Joseph Candido (1984) has also traced the gradual dissolution of values in the trilogy, demonstrating that Talbot's idealized heroism is supplanted first by Suffolk and Margaret's debased imitation of that idealism, and then by Henry's weakness and the Yorks' barbarism.

Many critics have remarked on the significance of the Cade scenes in 2 Henry VI in terms of the trilogy's depiction of political and social anarchy. Leggatt has viewed the uprising as an ironic gloss on the principal action of the play. He suggested that Cade himself, like the noblemen, is essentially self-interested and that the commoners' insurrection underscores the selfish motives of the rebellious aristocrats. Champion has argued that the Cade scenes paint a grim picture of social and economic oppression and contribute to the depiction of a society in crisis. François Laroque (1991) has regarded the Cade episode as a parodic play-withinthe-play—a reflection of the general lawlessness prevailing in the kingdom. Laroque identified the populist leader as a carnivalesque Lord of Misrule, a clownish yet subversive figure who succeeds, at least temporarily, in turning the world upside down. In addition, Phyllis Rackin (1990) has maintained that the scenes in 2 Henry VI featuring Cade and his followers are linked to episodes in I Henry VI that are dominated by subversive women who threaten the power structure of the male hierarchy and challenge the established order of the state.

The issue of the relationship of the three plays to each other is also of interest to late twentieth-century commentators. A majority of critics who address this subject have asserted that the trilogy is unified through the development of the theme of civil disorder. Another topic that recurs in modern commentary is the relation of the Henry VI trilogy to Richard III Taken together, these dramas comprise a tetralogy and cover the period from 1422 to 1485. Scholars have traced the developing characterization of Richard of Gloucester in 2 and 3 Henry VI and linked it to his depiction in the play that bears his name. Watson observed that Parts 2 and 3 increasingly portray Richard as a clever manipulator and emphasize his lack of personal loyalty to anyone but himself. Leggati has noted the gradual conversion of Richard in these two plays from a recognizably human figure to a mythic embodiment of evil, thus preparing the way for his depiction in Richard III as the incarnation of villainy.

Other issues appearing regularly in recent commentary include the question of Shakespeare's perspective on events depicted in the trilogy. Although it is generally agreed that 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI do not endorse "the Tudor myth," critics are divided on whether these plays conform to the hierarchical, elitist view of social and political order held by Shakespeare's predecessors and most of his contemporaries. Rackin has argued that the trilogy ultimately upholds the aristocratic bias that pervades the chronicle histories that were Shakespeare's sources. In contrast, Hattaway has suggested that in these plays the dramatist was experimenting with a view of history that was essentially populist, portraying events from a perspective that is sceptical of rank and authority. In the past decade, several critics have pointed out that while all of Shakespeare's English history plays are open-ended, each play in this trilogy is remarkably inconclusive, thus underscoring a nondeterministic view of human events. Leggatt has further suggested that Shakespeare intentionally mocked and disappointed the audience's expectation of closure in the Henry VI trilogy by refusing to provide anything resembling a decisive ending.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19797

Moody E. Prior (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Legitimacy and Sovereign Power: 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI" in The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare 's History Plays, Northwestern University Press, 1973, pp. 101-19.

[In this excerpt, Prior discusses the themes of succession, legitimacy and power in the trilogy, focusing on the question of whether Henry VI or York has the stronger claim to England's throne.]

The issue of legitimacy and power is at the center of the Henry VI trilogy. It divides loyalties, arouses passions, and becomes a touchstone that exposes character and temperament, and it unfolds in the course of these plays with a complexity that would have delighted Jarndyce and Jarndyce and kept them in fees for years. But in Henry VI its involvements produce a more than Dickensian plot and lead to all the evils that can beset a commonwealth. Each play of the trilogy has its own particular center of conflict, but the principal one which is introduced in Part 1 and grows in importance until it takes over completely arises from the claims of the Plantagenets to the throne. Who has the right to be king of England—the duke of York and his heirs, or Henry VI and his?

As the play opens, the raising of such a question would have appeared shocking, if not treasonable. A great king has just died. Men who later reveal themselves to be bitter enemies join in common praise of the heroic Henry V whose like had never been seen before and is unlikely to appear again. His father may have technically been a usurper, but no one raises this objection; in the atmosphere of the opening speeches an allusion to a defect in the title of the dead hero would have been near blasphemy. There is no hint of a weak title or of divine disfavor. There is only a chorus of praise mixed with lament:

Bedford. Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.
Gloucester. England ne'er had a king until this time.


Winchester. He was a king blessed of the King of kings.


Though these same men break out into quarreling almost before the laments die on their lips, they unite again in taking steps to crown the infant heir of Henry V as the new king—casually, as though there could be no other step to take, no other succession thinkable. The quarrels which begin the play and grow in intensity and scope have nothing to do with the Tightness of the succession. They are centered rather in a struggle for power behind the throne of the infant king, initially between the Protector, Humphrey duke of Gloucester, and the bishop of Winchester, but eventually involving others who take selfish advantage of the confusion produced by the political disputes at home and the unfinished war abroad. Late in Part 1, Exeter, who several times during these plays exercises a choric function, sums up the dangerous situation:

no simple man that sees
This jarring discord of nobility,
This shouldering of each other in the Court,
This factious bandying of their favorites,
But sees it doth presage some ill event.
'Tis much when scepters are in children's hands;
But more when envy breeds unkind division:
There comes the ruin, there begins confusion.


These quarrels invite unrest and create the environment which the Yorkists take advantage of. The first indication of the great division which will end in civil war is the unhistorical episode in the Temple Garden (2.4) in which the disputants pluck white and red roses from the garden as a sign of their partisanship. The "jarring discord" which Exeter refers to in the speech just quoted is a quarrel between Basset and Vernon, an outgrowth of the Temple Garden episode, "about a certain question in the law" (4.1.95). It is never revealed just what the legal question was which had been argued so loudly in the Temple itself that the disputants saw fit to remove to the garden, but it could not have been York's claim to the throne since at this point such a question would have been treasonous, and the debate in the garden would have taken a different form. The argument is ominous nevertheless because it creates a cleavage that is bitter and irreparable, and the quarrel produces an insult which leads Plantagenet to inquire into his rights and arouses the sense of injustice that eventually prompts him to challenge the king's title. The scene has another interest as well, because as the disputants explain their position on the question at issue, they reveal attitudes which anticipate those that will become decisive when the important dispute over the title to the throne is finally made explicit.

Plantagenet opens the scene: "Great lords and gentlemen, what means this silence? / Dare no man answer in a case of truth?" (2.4.1-2). Suffolk's reply expresses an indifference to "truth" and law:

Faith, I have been a truant in the law
And never yet could frame my will to it,
And therefore frame the law unto my will.


Legalities and claims of truth, that is, are trivial and unimportant; what counts is to bend the law to one's will. Warwick also refuses to become mired in legalities; the future kingmaker's attitude is pragmatic:

Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;
Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth;
Between two blades, which bears the better temper;
Between two horses, which doth bear him best;
Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye—
I have perhaps some shallow spirit of judgment;
But in these nice sharp quillets of the law,
Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw.


Somerset, no less than Plantagenet, claims the truth for his side, but the feelings become so intense as the two sides divide with the plucking of the roses that when Plantagenet demands of Somerset, "where is your argument?" (2.4.59) the latter replies, "Here in my scabbard, meditating that / Shall dye your white rose in a bloody red" (2.4.60-61). The scene is prophetic. In the very sanctuary of the common law, a dispute over an undesignated legal question has generated such fierce controversy that the disputants have had to leave the Temple hall and carry their argument in the garden, and the legal issue ultimately gets lost among differences which are neither legal nor intellectual. What hope, then, that later a legal claim involving the succession and steeped in so much history could get settled on its legal merits alone?

What fixes the direction of this quarrel is a calculated insult by Somerset—"We grace the yeoman by conversing with him" (2.4.81). This is a reference to the loss of the family title and lands through the execution of Plantagenet's father, the earl of Cambridge, for treason against Henry V; it provides the incentive to start the fiery Plantagenet on the road that brings his son to the throne. He begins by visiting his dying uncle, Mortimer, in prison to learn the truth about his father's attainder and execution. Mortimer expounds the anti-Lancastrian version of the title of Henry VI—the deposition of Richard II, the "usurpation" of his throne by Henry IV, and the unjust exclusion of Mortimer's and Plantagenet's rights as descendants of Lionel, the third son of Edward III. To these circumstances he ties Plantagenet's loss of inherited title and lands: Plantagenet's father lost his life because he had levied arms in support of Mortimer's claim against that of Henry V. With his dying voice Mortimer hints darkly at future possibilities: "Thou art my heir, the rest I wish thee gather; / But yet be wary in thy studious care"(2.5.96-97). To Plantagenet the execution of his father by the hero king, whose death is universally lamented at the opening of the play, "was nothing less than bloody tyranny," but Mortimer advises caution:

With silence, nephew, be thou politic:
Strong-fixed is the house of Lancaster,
And like a mountain, not to be removed.


Whatever the legal rights, Henry IV and Henry V have turned a usurper's slippery footing into a strong foundation. With Warwick's assistance, the blot on the family is removed and Plantagenet is "restored to his blood" as duke of York by the king (3.1.149 ff.); but now York has a greater goal to aspire to. Yet in the atmosphere of admiration for Henry V which characterizes the opening scene, the complex legal claims of the Plantagenets would have been neither self-evident nor compelling enough in themselves to force their consideration; it is the occasion which in time gives life and reality to the legal question. And when it does, the decisive arguments are found not in law but, as Somerset says in the Temple Garden scene, in a scabbard.

The matter of legal right is not, of course, without persuasive power. In Part 2 the legality of the Yorkist claim is the argument by means of which York persuades Warwick and Salisbury to support his claims. He reviews for them the complicated lines of inheritance and intermarriage on which his claim rests, and his friends are persuaded.

What plain proceeding is more plain than this?
Henry doth claim the crown from John of Gaunt,
The fourth son; York claims it from the third.
Till Lionel's issue fails, his should not reign:
It fails not yet, but flourishes in thee,
And in thy sons, fair slips of such a stock.


Warwick and Salisbury kneel and acknowledge York their true king. Without the support of the principle of nearest in blood and indefeasible right, they would be nothing but traitors; as it is, they can regard themselves as supporters of law and justice. Nevertheless, what fires York's ambition is not so much his complicated legal rights as his contempt for the gentle Henry in comparison with his own spirit and abilities. This is the theme of his long soliloquy which concludes the first scene of Part 2. York deplores the loss of "his" lands in France, while Henry, "the silly owner of the goods,"

Weeps over them, and wrings his hapless hands,
And shakes his head, and trembling stands aloof,
While all is shared and all is borne away,
Ready to starve, and dare not touch his own.


Henry is the usurper who holds "the scepter in his childish fist" (246), whose "church-like humor fits not for a crown" (248), and whom York is determined to replace: "And force perforce I'll make him yield the crown, / Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down" (1.1.259-60). In the course of the play this conviction becomes a passion. He returns from Ireland with his troops, determined to demand his right:

From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head.
Ring bells, aloud; burn bonfires, clear and bright,
To entertain great England's lawful king.
Ah, sancta majestas, Who would not buy thee dear?
Let them obey that know not how to rule;
This hand was made to handle nought but gold.


The angry discontent of Part 1 has been transformed into a fierce aspiration echoing Tamburlaine; right is won not by birth only but by virtue: "I am far better born than is the King, / More like a king, more kingly in my thoughts" (5.1.28-29). This is spoken in an aside when Buckingham demands to know why he comes to England armed at a time of peace, and for the moment York temporizes, claiming that he came only to remove Somerset's influence over the king; but when Somerset, who is supposed to have been imprisoned, suddenly appears, he speaks his mind in open defiance in the royal presence:

King did I call thee? No, thou art not King,
Not fit to govern and rule multitudes,
Which dar'st not, no, nor canst not rule a traitor.
That head of thine doth not become a crown;
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff,
And not to grace an awful princely scepter.
That gold must round engirt these brows of mine,
Whose smile and frown, like to Achilles' spear,
Is able with the change to kill and cure.
Here is a hand to hold a scepter up,
And with the same to act controlling laws.
Give place: by heaven, thou shalt rule no more
O'er him whom heaven created for thy ruler.


The contrast which York insists on between himself and the king is supported by Henry's conduct and the opinion of others, including his queen. She compares him unfavorably to Suffolk:

I thought King Henry had resembled thee
In courage, courtship, and proportion:
But all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads;
His champions are the prophets and apostles.
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ,
His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints.
I would the College of the Cardinals
Would choose him Pope and carry him to Rome,
And set the triple crown upon his head:
That were a state fit for his Holiness.


Unkind and unwifely this may be, but the queen perceives correctly that in consequence of the king's character they have to endure not only "the haughty Protector," but the dangerous exercise of power by Beaufort, "the imperious churchman," as well as Somerset, Buckingham, and "grumbling York" (1.3.68-70). In the important matter of whether Somerset or York shall be regent of France, Henry is indifferent—"all's one to me" (1.3.102), and the queen has to remind the wrangling nobles where the power lies: "Because the King, forsooth, will have it so" (1.3.115). Even during a hunting party the insolent rivalries for power trouble the occasion and Henry, tormented by the undercurrent of quarreling, has to admonish his attendant nobles and the queen:

I prithee peace,
Good Queen, and whet not on these furious peers,
For blessed are the peacemakers on earth.


They are blessed, but not, as Henry uses his powers, kingly, for it is precisely the decency and pacific gentleness of Henry that nourishes the quarrels in his court which finally undo him.

The inability of Henry to make his sovereignty felt and thus insure justice and harmony for his kingdom finds its most poignant dramatic expression in the indictment and murder of Gloucester. This is a critical episode in Part 2. Gloucester is the only important character in this play whose conduct is not guided by selfish personal interest, and his defeat removes from the scene the only honest and strong person close to the king. In contrast to York, he never dreams of taking advantage of the times to push his own lineal descent from Edward III, and recoils when his wife, foreshadowing Lady Macbeth, urges him to seize the throne: "Put forth thy hand, reach at the glorious gold. / What, is't too short? I'll lengthen it with mine" (1.2.11-12). The queen, however, does not scruple to hint at such possibilities as a way of poisoning Henry's mind against Gloucester:

Small curs are not regarded when they grin,
But great men tremble when the lion roars;
And Humphrey is no little man in England.
First note that he is near you in descent,
And should you fall, he is the next will mount.


York takes no part in the undermining of Gloucester. His strategy is to allow the contending ambitions of Suffolk, Beaufort, Somerset, Buckingham, "and all the crew of them" to destroy Gloucester, and when the wolves have "snared the shepherd of the flock" to move against the king (2.2.69-75). The king's inability to protect Gloucester is therefore more than a humiliating failure to secure justice; it makes him vulnerable to York's plans. And the humanity which distinguishes him from the rest serves only to deepen his suffering at the injustice which is being done, for he is fully persuaded of Gloucester's innocence:

but, shall I speak my conscience,
Our kinsman Gloucester is as innocent
From meaning treason to our royal person
As is the sucking lamb or harmless dove.


All he can offer Gloucester after hearing the formal charges is reassurance:

My lord of Gloucester, 'tis my special hope
That you will clear yourself from all suspense.
My conscience tells me you are innocent.


Neither the despairing speech of Gloucester nor the evidence of implacable malice on the part of those, including the queen, who bring the charges is enough to compel the king's prudent attention to his responsibilities, for when Gloucester is led out, Henry rises to leave also, assigning the exercise of his office to those he mistrusts: "My lords, what to your wisdoms seemeth best, / Do, or undo, as if ourself were here," (3.1.195-96). Even the queen is astonished: "What, will your Highness leave the Parliament?" (197). In reply he reaffirms his belief in Gloucester's integrity and innocence, but all he can do is to pour out his grief and bewail

good Gloucester's case
With sad unhelpful tears and with dimmed eyes
Look after him and cannot do him good,
So mighty are his vowed enemies.


"So mighty"—mightier than the king, the heir of Henry V? The queen's comment to the nobles is contemptuous: "Henry my lord is cold in great affairs, / Too full of foolish pity," (3.1.224-25). Out of their contempt they plot the murder of Gloucester, for they realize that in any lawful trial they have "but trivial argument" (3.1.231-43). Thus, when Henry opens the trial with a show of regal firmness it is an act of futility:

Proceed no straiter 'gainst our uncle Gloucester
Than from true evidence of good esteem
He be approved in practice culpable.


The only purpose of the meeting for the others is to receive the news'of Gloucester's death; yet Henry cannot act on the conviction that the death was not natural:

O thou that judgest all things, stay my thoughts,
My thoughts that labor to persuade my soul
Some violent hands were laid on Humphrey's life.
If my suspect be false, forgive me, God,
For judgment only doth belong to Thee.


But here, on earth, judgment also belong to God's magistrate, and shortly, but too late and only after the commons rise up in revolt at the news of Gloucester's death to demand the death of Suffolk, Henry does act, without recourse to law, on his own prerogative to protect his crown and the country. He exiles Suffolk. Ironically, in this entire episode, Henry has unwittingly been playing a role in York's scenario. Gloucester is dead, Suffolk exiled, the plotters for the moment discomfited, and the rabble-rouser Cade, a product of York's intrigues, is creating a dangerous diversion. It is the moment that York has been planning for.

In the confrontation between the king and York after the latter's return from Ireland, York proclaims himself the rightful king, and the question of his legal claim comes up briefly. Salisbury affirms that his conscience tells him York is "the rightful heir to England's royal seat" (5.1.178). But the complicated claims and counterclaims now have a faintly academic air. There is an amusing scene (4.2.125 ff.) in which Cade justifies his rebellion by a fanciful line of descent beginning with Adam who was a gardener, proceeding through Mortimer's marriage to the duke of Clarence's daughter, by whom he had twins, and thence to the theft of one of these by a beggar woman who brought him up to be a bricklayer—a ludicrous parody of genealogical claims to the throne based on a circuitous pedigree which intervening events have rendered tenuous if not irrelevant. The real issue in this play is the capability of the ruler to maintain whatever claims he does have by the forceful exercise of the powers and responsibilities which belong to the office. It is significant that when Buckingham and Clifford face Cade and his mob they ask for allegiance to the king in the name of "Henry the Fifth, that made all France to quake," and when the mob cries, "We'll follow Cade," it is checked with, "Is Cade the son of Henry the Fifth?" (4.8.17, 33-34). Cade observes ruefully that "the name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs and makes them leave me desolate" (4.7.56-S8).2 The rival legal claims have become meaningless in the face of the steady erosion of the powers of kingship through Henry's failure to exercise them and the disruption of all order which this failure has produced. Nothing can now avert civil war, the first battle of which concludes the second part. Even here Henry proves a frustrating monarch. As his forces flee from the defeat in the first battle of Saint Albans and the queen urges haste, Henry replies, "Can we outrun the heavens? Good Margaret, stay." Margaret is not an appealing character, but sympathy at this moment surely goes to her: "What are you made of? You'll nor fight nor fly" (5.2.73-74).

The primary impression of Part 3 is the dehumanizing effects of the civil war, and against this background the arguments over legitimacy continue, manifesting at once their obstinate futility and their tragic power. The play opens on this theme. York and his sons enter the Parliament House mixing boasts of their exploits at Saint Albans with scoffing references to the "fearful king," the "bashful Henry," "whose cowardice / Hath made us by-words to our enemies" (1.1.25, 41-42). York has already seated himself on the throne before Henry enters, and Henry proves the justice of their epithets by urging patience on his followers. Clifford breaks out in exasperation: "Patience is for poltroons, such as he. / He durst not sit there had your father lived" (1.1.62-63). Once more the point is made in the name of Henry V that kingly bearing and conduct are proof against challenges to royal power. Nevertheless, it is the presumption of legal right that nourished York's aspirations and gave his allies moral courage and justification for armed rebellion. "Will you we show our title to the crown?" asks York. "If not, our swords shall plead it in the field" (1.1.102-3). Henry takes up the challenge:

What title hast thou, traitor, to the crown?
Thy father was, as thou art, Duke of York;
Thy grandsire, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.


Henry conveniently leaves out the question of Lionel's precedence, and supports his title by appealing to his descent from the hero king:

I am the son of Henry the Fifth,
Who made the Dauphin and the French to stoop
And seized upon their towns and provinces.


It is an unfortunate reference, for it merely enables Warwick to make the obvious comparison: "Talk not of France, sith thou hast lost it all" (1.1.110). It is futile for Henry to plead, "when I was crowned I was but nine months old"; he only opens himself to an insult from Richard: "You are old enough now, and yet methinks you lose" (1.1.112-13). The dispute brings Henry to one of his few resolute moments:

Thinkst thou that I will leave my kingly throne,
Wherein my grandsire and my father sat?
No: first shall war unpeople this my realm,
Ay, and their colors, often borne in France,
And now in England to our heart's great sorrow,
Shall be my winding sheet. Why faint you, lords?
My title's good, and better far than his.


The mood does not last. Warwick challenges him—"Prove it Henry, and thou shalt be King" (1.1.135)—and Henry is soon baffled. He begins bravely enough, going back to the beginning—"Henry the Fourth by conquest got the crown"—but this introduces the ancient question of Bolingbroke's moral wrong: "'Twas by rebellion against his king," and Henry confesses to himself, "I know not what to say; my title's weak"(1.1.136-38). But he perseveres: if a king may adopt his heir, as Richard did Bolingbroke, then he is heir by right of descent from Henry IV. But York objects that the resignation was "perforce" and Warwick raises the question whether, even if the resignation were unconstrained, "'twere prejudicial to the crown" (1.1.146-48). The answer comes from Exeter: "No; for he could not so resign his crown / But that the next heir should succeed and reign" (1.1.149-50). This argument rests on the principle of indefeasible right—that neither the continued occupancy of the throne by Henry IV and his heirs nor the great success of Henry V had wiped out the rights of the descendants of Lionel. On these grounds Exeter takes his stand for York: "My conscience tells me he is lawful king" (1.1.154). But Clifford, with the memory of his slain father on his mind, sweeps away all such abstruse technicalities: "King Henry, be thy title right or wrong / Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defence" (1.1.163-64).

The immediate conclusion of this perplexed, finespun argument evades all its serious implication, irrespective of which side one takes. It is a political deal. The king asks for and is granted the right to reign during his lifetime on condition that he disinherit his son "unnaturally" and confirm the succession to York and his heirs, provided that York take an oath to end the civil war. It is an impossible settlement. The prince protests, "Father, you cannot disinherit me: / If you be King, why should not I succeed?" (1.1.233-34). When Henry explains that he was forced, Margaret exclaims, "Enforced thee! Art thou King, and wilt be forced?" (1.1.237). What, indeed, does it mean to be a king if the title is dubious and cannot therefore be passed on by the laws which govern inheritance? And what does it mean to be king when one is intimidated and commanded by the most aggressive of one's subjects? The agreement is equally inconsistent and ineffectual on the other side. If York believes his title to be superior, he cannot in justice agree to defer the taking of it. As his son Richard points out, "Your right depends not on his [Henry's] life or death" (1.2.11). As for the oath York swore to preserve this odd arrangement, his young son knows that such outmoded technicalities can be argued away by sophistries, and that his father will yield to a direct appeal to his fierce aspiration (1.2.28-32). The civil war breaks out anew.

The rival claims are disputed for the last time before King Lewis of France. Margaret has come to plead for aid, and Warwick to propose marriage for the new king, Edward IV, with Lady Bona, Lewis' sister. Margaret argues that Edward is a usurper, since he has seized the throne of a legally crowned king, and therefore a tyrant; but Warwick maintains that Henry is the original usurper (3.3.65-80). Oxford reviews the hereditary basis for Henry's legitimacy:

Then Warwick disannuls great John of Gaunt,
Which did subdue the greatest part of Spain;
And after John of Gaunt, Henry the Fourth,
Whose wisdom was a mirror to the wisest;
And, after that wise prince, Henry the Fifth,
Who by his prowess conquered all France:
From these our Henry lineally descends.


Oxford does trace an unbroken succession, but the emphasis is rather on the wisdom and prowess of the line from John of Gaunt, and nothing is said of the crucial matter of the deposition of Richard II. Significantly, Warwick's rebuttal begins with a reference to the failings of Henry VI in comparison with his forebears:

Oxford, how haps it, in this smooth discourse
You told us not how Henry the Sixth hath lost
All that which Henry the Fifth had gotten.


When he does refer to the question of inheritance, it is not to raise the legal issue of indefeasible right of York and his heirs but the weakness of a dynastic claim based on a brief period of tenure:

But for the rest: you tell a pedigree
Of threescore and two years—a silly time
To make prescription for a kingdom's worth.


Lewis cuts through most of the legalities of the situation. "Is Edward your true king?" he asks Warwick, "is he gracious in the people's eye?" (3.3.114, 117), and he rejects Margaret's plea for assistance chiefly on the basis that Edward's title seems the stronger since he is successful:

But if your title to the crown be weak,
As may appear by Edward's good success,
Then 'tis but reason that I be released
From giving aid which late I promised.


Yet all this is reversed in a moment when news comes that Edward has married Lady Grey and broken off the negotiations for Lady Bona. Warwick, dishonored, asks, "Did I put Henry from his native right? / And am I guerdoned at the last with shame?" (3.3.190-91). Once more political and personal considerations become decisive.

Repeatedly, the question of Henry's right to rule turns on the question of whether he can rule. Edward, in fact, admits that had it not been for Henry's lack of those kingly qualities his father had, his imprudent marriage, and Queen Margaret's aggressive tactics, his family would not have pushed their claim (2.2.150-62). Clifford is a supporter of Henry, and Edward an ambitious enemy, but both agree in their estimate of him. Dying, Clifford judges the man he has supported with his life:

And, Henry, hadst thou swayed as kings should do,
Or as thy father, and his father did,
Giving no ground unto the house of York,
They never then had sprung like summer flies;
I and ten thousand in this luckless realm
Had left no mourning widows for our death;
And thou this day hadst kept thy chair in peace.


The three parts of Henry VI present a comprehensive view in debate and in action of the legal and political aspects of the problem of legitimacy and power. Neither the triumph of Edward nor the death of Henry can be thought of as resolving conclusively the issues around which the long contest has raged. However, one strong inference seems to emerge, that although an undisputed legal succession provides the strongest moral support for the exercise of sovereign power, the right to govern cannot be separated from the ability to govern—from the capacity and talent for the exercise of power in the person of the man who occupies the sovereign office. The name of Henry V runs through all three plays as a universally recognized symbol of kingly greatness. Henry V's father was a usurper with the blood of Richard II on his conscience, yet Henry V had made his authority legitimate and respected because he had exercised power with talent and public approval. In comparison with his father, Henry VI is shown to lack the ability to wield power in such a way as to command authority and inspire confidence and awe. In comparison with York, he is shown to be insecure and to have no taste for the power and glory of his office. Lacking these kingly qualities he is unable to control the disruptive actions of the ambitious men who surround him—in fact, his ineffectuality as a king breeds these ambitions and invites the contempt which inflames the aspirations and the petty greeds that tear his kingdom apart.

Henry is not a despicable figure, however, and in time he comes to arouse sympathy. The first two plays of the trilogy contain characters who stand out for their integrity and honorableness in the midst of the predators who take advantage first of Henry's infancy and then of his weakness. Talbot holds this position in Part 1, and Gloucester in Part 2. In Part 3 only Henry stands out in the midst of the slaughter and outrage as a decent and sympathetic character. In his piety, his distaste for conflict and his hopes for peace, in his longing for a life of simple content, and in his horror at the spectacle of the woes, fierce passions, and cruelty of the civil war, he remains the only one who redeems humanity. Yet he cannot redeem his kingdom. Henry is admittedly an extreme case among all the monarchs represented in the histories, but for that very reason he sets in the sharpest relief the terrible dilemma of power.


2 In the earlier scene in which he claimed the title by descent, Cade proposes a compromise to Stafford in the name of Henry V: "Go to sirrah, tell the King from me that, for his father's sake, Henry the Fifth, in whose time boys went to span-counter for French crowns, I am content he shall reign; but I'll be Protector over him" (4.2.149-52).

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Henry VI" in Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays, Routledge, 1988, pp. 1-31.

[In following essay, Leggatt calls attention to the shifting perspectives the Henry VI plays afford of Richard's progressive development as a mythic figure of unadulterated evil and of Henry as a man who is unqualified to rule yet who espouses the values that everyone else in the trilogy appears to have discarded.]

The first scene of the Henry VI trilogy is a formal ceremony, the funeral of Henry V. Bedford's opening speech dignifies the occasion with a note of cosmic tragedy—'Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!' (I.i.1)—and goes on to rebuke 'the bad revolting stars, / That have consented unto Henry's death' (I.i.4-5). He later imagines Henry, now a star himself, combating 'with adverse planets in the heavens' (I.i.54) to preserve the welfare of England. His life on earth is already acquiring the status of myth. Gloucester declares:

His brandish'd sword did blind men with his beams:
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings:
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech:
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquered.

(I. i. 10-16)

This not only recalls Marlowe's Tamburlaine but anticipates later Shakespearian heroes who transcend the human—Coriolanus, in particular. But, as in Tamburlaine, the price for attributing all this grandeur to one man is that when he dies there is nothing left. Exeter brings us down to flat mortality: 'Henry is dead and never shall revive. / Upon a wooden coffin we attend'(I.i.18-19). As the scene proceeds, with the coffin still onstage,1 messengers bring news of English losses in France. In history nothing happens as fast as that; but the economy of the theatre allows a tight connection between the death of the hero and the collapse of his achievements.

Before the end of the scene we are introduced to a new hero as the hopes of the English turn to Lord Talbot. But Talbot is not a king. In fact the first half of 1 Henry VI, like the Roman plays, is set in a kingless world. The infant Henry VI is unseen and rarely mentioned; the French have only a Dauphin, who behaves as first among equals. With the supernatural (and kingly) hero dead and transformed to myth, Shakespeare turns our attention to a remarkable man: one who can generate legends but is himself nothing more, or less, than a good field commander operating in the normal conditions of war. With Henry V as a giant shadow in the background, Shakespeare gives us a full and realistic appraisal of Talbot, the myth and the reality. The messenger who brings news of the Battle of Patay describes an epic hero operating in a state of military confusion:

No leisure had he to enrank his men;
He wanted pikes to set before his archers;
Instead whereof sharp stakes pluck'd out of hedges
They pitched in the ground confusedly
To keep the horsemen off from breaking in.
More than three hours the fight continued;
Where valiant Talbot, above human thought,
Enacted wonders with his sword and lance:
Hundreds he sent to hell, and none durst stand him.

(I. i. 115-23)

This description of Talbot suggests a need to imagine a hero on the scale of Henry. But he is not, as Henry is, invincible. When the messenger announces a fight between Talbot and the French, Winchester anticipates the outcome—'Wherein Talbot overcame, is't so?'—only to be told, 'O no: wherein Lord Talbot was o'erthrown' (Li. 107-8). The account of Talbot's scrambling desperation evokes the practical realities of war. We hear the same note of desperation when during the English rout at Amiens Talbot cries, 'My thoughts are whirled like a potter's wheel; /I know not where I am, nor what I do' (I. v. 19-20). 2 When he is winning, on the other hand, all a common English soldier has to do is cry 'A Talbot!' and the French run away in comic fear (IL i. 77SD-81).

Talbot shows at times an exalted sense of his own heroic identity: we first see him standing on a turret, exalted above us, describing how he refused to be exchanged with a prisoner of lower rank. But in battle he is usually more practical than this. During the siege of Orleans he is contrasted with Bedford, for whom everything depends on one man. Bedford, at the late king's funeral, declared, 'arms avail not, now that Henry's dead' (I.i.47), 3 and now he wants to fall in line behind the new hero. Talbot has other ideas:

Bed. Ascend, brave Talbot; we will follow thee.
Tal. Not all together; better far, I guess,
That we do make our entrance several ways,
That if it chance the one of us do fall,
The other yet may rise against their force.

(II. i. 28-32)4

Success in battle is the achievement of the group, not the individual; hero-worship must not interfere with tactics. The importance of this idea is emphasized when we first hear of Talbot: though he fought, as we have seen, with supernatural courage, he lost the Battle of Patay because of the desertion of Sir John Falstaff (I. i. 130-5).

Given the strong message that with Henry's death the English are finished, the recapture of Orleans is Talbot's most impressive achievement; he turns what had looked like the inevitable tide of history. In the aftermath of that victory Shakespeare sets forth the nature of Talbot's greatness in one of those stylized set pieces he uses throughout the history plays to bring key ideas into focus. The Countess of Auvergne invites Talbot to her castle. His friends jocularly tell him to prepare for a love encounter (IL ii. 44-58), but the challenge to his manhood takes a different form. The Countess's messenger raises the real question when he asks, 'Which of this princely train / Call ye the warlike Talbot... ?' (II. ii. 34-6). Octavius Caesar will try the same insulting ploy on Cleopatra: 'Which is the Queen of Egypt?' (Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.112). There is nothing in the character's appearance to match his reputation. The Countess herself makes it clear that while her purpose is to capture Talbot she also wants to satisfy her curiosity about him: 'Fain would mine eyes be witness with mine ears / To give their censure of these rare reports' (II. iii. 9-10). She professes herself disappointed:

I thought I should have seen some Hercules,
A second Hector, for his grim aspect
And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.
Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf!
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies.

(II. iii. 18-23)

The question is one of shadow and substance. The physical body of Talbot is a disappointment in view of his great reputation, just as the appearance of the actor himself may not live up to the legend of the character he is portraying; behind the challenge to Talbot, Shakespeare is dealing with one of the fundamental problems of historical drama, characteristically calling attention to the difficulty rather than smoothing it over.5 No actor could look like the Henry V described in the opening scene; the actor playing Talbot does not have to, for his ordinariness is just the point. As the Countess interprets the shadow-substance theme, Talbot's picture embodies his legend, and both are shadows; the real thing is the little man in front of her:

Long time thy shadow hath been thrall to me,
For in my gallery thy picture hangs;
And now thy substance shall endure the like.

(II. iii. 35-7)6

Talbot replies that she has it backwards. The man himself is the shadow; Talbot's substance lies in his army, which he summons by winding his horn:

How say you, madam? Are you now persuaded
That Talbot is but shadow of himself?
These are his substance, sinews, arms, and strength.

(II. iii. 60-2)

In the Roman plays the relations between the hero's shadow and his substance will not be resolved in this way. Talbot's appraisal of his greatness is self-deprecating and realistic; for once we are not challenged to believe that the great legend is literally true. But the final note of the scene is paradoxical: while Talbot asks the Countess to feast his soldiers as well as himself, she persists in honouring the single hero: 'With all my heart, and think me honoured / To feast so great a warrior in my house' (II.iii.80-1). Perhaps she has accepted his argument and the words 'so great a warrior' are meant to include them all; but I rather think she still has eyes for Talbot alone. His demonstration of his power was theatrically exciting: he sounded his horn and the stage filled with soldiers. And the realism of his insistence that his greatness depends on others is itself impressive. He is the sort of great man, like Washington and Wellington, whose legend includes tales of modesty.7

But where Talbot is great he is also vulnerable, as the single hero is not. While Coriolanus alone can take on a city, Talbot needs enough of what Wellington called 'that article', the common soldier, and he is destroyed at Bordeaux when the wrangling York and Somerset deny him men.8 Not only destroyed, but in the bitter words of Lucy, who is trying to shame the quarrelling lords into action, 'bought and sold' (IV. iv. 13), a chivalric hero finally and fatally dependent on the mundane, brought down by politicians whose arguments are arguments for doing nothing. The long rhymed sequence Talbot shares with his son John expresses their values of honour and piety in a manner that is slow and frigid to modern taste. But Nashe testifies to its power for its original audience,9 and it has the effect of stylizing the idealism of the Talbots to sharpen the contrast with the crass and fussy excuses we hear from York and Somerset. Talbot, like Henry, is expanded into a legend as he dies, and in the process we get a double view of him. As he challenges Bordeaux, the French general defending the city greets him:

Lo, there thou stand'st a breathing valiant man
Of an invincible unconquer'd spirit:
This is the latest glory of thy praise,
That I, thy enemy, due thee withal;
For ere the glass, that now begins to run,
Finish the process of his sandy hour,
These eyes, that see thee so well coloured,
Shall see thee wither'd, bloody, pale and dead.
  Drum afar off.

(IV. ii. 31-8)

Shadow and substance again: the reality of the hero dissolves into the picture of his corpse. The power of the speech comes from its quiet, its gentleness, and its eerie certainty of doom, confirmed by the distant drum. There is a more extravagant effect later when Lucy asks for Talbot, taking twelve lines to list all his titles, and Joan replies, 'Him that thou magnifiest with all these titles, / Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet' (IV.vii.60-76).10 But, like the long sequence with John, this at least fixes Talbot for our contemplation, making him a vivid double image of greatness and mortality. What follows is more subtly disturbing. Too late to save their own hero, the English unite to capture and kill Joan; but this achievement is wiped out by the larger movement of history as, before the English can consolidate their victory, a peace is signed that allows the French a useful breathing space. As history goes on, Talbot, whose name was on every tongue while he lived, is forgotten. King Henry's argument for peace—

 I always thought
It was both impious and unnatural
That such immanity and bloody strife
Should reign among professors of one faith

(V. i. 11-14)

—though unimpeachable as a statement of Christian pacifism, sets at nought everything Talbot has stood for. When at the opening of Part 2 Gloucester recapitulates the history of the English effort in France, he makes no mention of Talbot (Pt 2, I.i.77-96). It is as though the great man had never lived.

Talbot is impressive; but he is a hero in a practical world in which he is first destroyed and then forgotten. His arena of action is a war that Shakespeare on the whole conceives quite realistically. Bedford declares, 'An army have I muster'd in my thoughts, / Wherewith already France is overrun' (I.i.101-2), but armies of the imagination are no more use here than they are in Richard II. (In Henry V, . . . the imagination is a more powerful weapon.) The messenger who brings the first news of loss in France fixes the blame on 'want of men and money' (I.i.69) and goes on to a brutally frank description of the dithering at home that is leading to disaster abroad (I.i.70-7). Salisbury, 'mirror of all martial men' (I.iv.73), is killed by a sniper—a painfully unheroic death. The French look even less dignified when at the siege of Orleans they 'leap over the walls in their shirts' (II.i.38SD). The fortunes of war are unpredictable. The dead march that opens the play is contrasted with 'Sound a flourish' (I.ii.SD) for the first French scene, exemplifying what looks like the historical inevitability of English defeat and French victory. But while the tide of history may be flowing in that direction we are mostly aware of cross-currents. The Dauphin's opening words are 'Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens / So in the earth, to this day is not known' (I.ii.1-2), and in fact the first battle we see is an unexpected English victory.

The English indignation at having to cope with a French sorceress—'Heavens, can you suffer hell so to prevail?' (I.V.9)—is paired with the other side's view of Talbot: 'The French exclaim'd the devil was in arms'(I.i. 125). At first the two sides seem equally matched, each with its hero, though the heroes are differently inspired. That is the impression of the battle for Orleans; but in the battle for Rouen there is a more carefully developed contrast between the chivalric English and the pragmatic French. Talbot recalls that in this city 'Great Coeur-de-lion's heart was buried' (HLii.83), and Bedford defends his decision to appear on the battlefield despite his sickness by citing the example of Uther Pendragon (III.ii.94-6). (We have just had our first sight of the new king, Henry VI, and this seems to reawaken the English consciousness of their royal tradition.) Talbot deplores the unsporting attitude of the French, who, having possession of the town, will not come out and fight for it like gentlemen (III.ii.61-70).ll After a setback at Orleans, the French squabbled and bickered; they greet a setback at Rouen more calmly, urging Joan to think of'secret policies' (III.iii.12) to restore their fortunes, and confident of her ability to do so. She fulfils their expectations by winning Burgundy back to the French side. The English think in terms of tradition and principle; the French are more pragmatic and better prepared for the long haul.

Joan la Pucelle might seem an exception to this realism, not just because of the supernatural agencies she uses, but because of the stylized way in which she is caricatured as the converse and parody of the English hero Talbot.12 (Identified in her first scene as prophet and shepherdess, she also sullies two roles that will later be associated with Henry VI.) The gap between legend and reality, subtly treated in the case of Talbot, is cruder in Joan. Having declared, 'I must not yield to any rites of love, / For my profession's sacred from above' (I.ii. 113-14), she sleeps with the Dauphin (II. i. ii). Where Talbot's death scene is a model of courage and piety, Joan twists and lies in a desperate attempt to save her life. She refuses to acknowledge her father, whose response is not exactly sentimental: 'O, burn her, burn her: hanging is too good' (V.iv.33). She claims virginity, then pregnancy, and keeps changing the identity of the father; when all else fails, she curses. The black comedy of the scene is an obvious contrast to the stylized dignity of Talbot's death, yet Joan's brazenness becomes admirable in its own way; she is so refreshingly shameless. So far, she seems a caricature; but her approach to the war is realistic. Supernaturally aided or not, she is no more invincible than Talbot, and seems indignant when the Dauphin expects she should be:

At all times will you have my power alike?
Sleeping or waking, must I still prevail,
Or will you blame and lay the fault on me?
Improvident soldiers! had your watch been good
This sudden mischief never could have fallen.

(II. i. 55-9)

She slangs the other side, as we might expect. But her cynical, levelling voice can also be applied to her own achievements. She chose her sword, she declares, 'Out of a great deal of old iron' (I.ii. 101), and she greets

Burgundy's return to the French cause with a line guaranteed to get a laugh from the English audience: 'Done like a Frenchman! [Aside.]—turn and turn again' (III.iii. 85).

Her practical spirit gives her an affinity with Talbot; as Tillyard points out, 'both have a touch of breeziness, or hearty coarseness with which Shakespeare liked to furnish his most successfully practical characters'.13 Certainly no saint, she seems not so much a witch as a tough, cynical girl whose manner is not as far as we might have expected from that of [Bernard] Shaw's modern heroine. But the realism in Shakespeare's treatment of Joan goes deeper than that. She and Talbot are so carefully established as antagonists that we expect a final showdown between them of the sort that occurs between Hal and Hotspur. Yet Shakespeare avoids it; for once he passes up a chance for artistic shaping and lets us feel the untidiness of history. He also has another kind of point to make, for the exploration of Talbot's heroism leads from an interest in the individual to an interest in the collective, from the greatness of a man to the unity and disunity of a group. The scène à faire of Part 1 pits Talbot not against Joan but against York and Somerset; in its own way it is as stylized and explicit as the Auvergne scene, as Talbot is ringed with French enemies and Lucy trudges back and forth in mounting frustration between York and Somerset. Conversely the English defeat Joan by ganging up on her; their temporary unity produces what the trilogy shows as their last success in France.

The disunity that kills Talbot can be traced back to the opening scene. While the French wars are dramatized in an open, realistic manner, the civil disputes in England have from the beginning a simple, stylized quality. But it is not the stylization that embodies heroism—the reverse, in fact. Over the corpse of Henry V, Gloucester and Winchester bicker like children, and they go on doing so till halfway through the next play, when Gloucester is murdered and Winchester takes to his bed and dies, still haunted by his old enemy. Though Gloucester is generally the more sympathetic figure, both are equally belligerent. There is some principle of self-destruction at work in the state. Talbot, fighting for England, is denied soldiers; York, plotting civil war, is given an army for his Irish expedition and can hardly believe his luck: "Twas men I lack'd, and you will give them me' (Pt 2, III. i. 345). The cast shows a tendency to divide into teams, 'Blue coats to tawny' (Pt 1, I. iii. 47) and red roses to white. This tendency is exemplified in the Temple Garden scene in which, in the ironic setting of a garden near a law school, a group of young nobles, tired of debating a problem, put it to a vote, plucking red and white roses off a bush.14 The fundamental, chilling irony of the scene is that we never know what the quarrel is about—it is the tendency to quarrel and choose sides that matters—yet this seemingly trivial dispute will expand until it sends 'A thousand souls to death and deadly night' (Pt 1, II. iv. 127). The rights and wrongs of the cause are replaced by appeals for allies couched in challenges to pride: 'Let him that is a true-born gentleman ...'; 'Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer...' (II. iv. 27, 31); and the debate, if there ever was one, degenerates into schoolboy taunts:

Plan. Hath not thy rose a canker, Somerset?
Som. Hath not thy rose a thorn, Plantagenet?

(II. iv. 68-9)

As the trilogy develops, the conflict expands in scale but not always in dignity:

Car. Ambitious Warwick, let thy betters speak.
War. The Cardinal's not my better in the field.
Buck. All in this presence are thy betters,
Warwick. War. Warwick may live to be the best of all.

(Pt 2, I. iii. 109-12)

By the opening of Part 3 the crown itself is the subject of this edifying exchange:

K. Hen. .. . I am thy sovereign.
York.  I am thine.

(Pt 3, I. i. 76)

In much of Part 1 there is a close focus on a single character, Talbot. Whatever ironies surround him, there is plenty of room left for concern and admiration. This full view of Talbot, which includes his own self-awareness, is replaced by a thin and reductive depiction of the nobles, whose style, far from balancing the heroic and the practical, seeks 'the fullest self-assertion at every moment' and whose 'modus loquendi' becomes the 'modus agendi of their society.15 With monotonous self-assertion everyone tries to climb to the top of the anthill; and what we see is not a collection of great individuals but a swarm of ants. They are the victims of an increasingly ironic dramaturgy, in which the telling juxtaposition of scenes creates a larger picture than any of the characters is aware of. Just as Talbot's meeting with the Countess is succeeded by the Temple Garden scene, so the scene in which Henry dons a red rose and lifts the conflict to a new level is followed by the sequence of Talbot's entrapment and death. The irony in this case works both against Talbot and for him, revealing the forces that will destroy him and showing them up by comparison with his own selfless dedication. Elsewhere the irony is more one-sided in its effect As Humphrey of Gloucester enjoys his easy and not altogether attractive triumph over the pathetic impostor Simpcox, news is brought that his wife has been arrested for treason, and his own fall begins. Sir John Hume, who has acted as agent provocateur to bring about the Duchess's exposure, congratulates himself on playing a clever double game (Pt 2, I. ii. 87-107) but is arrested and sentenced to death with her other accomplices (II. iii. 8). Gloucester's fall is succeeded almost at once by the deaths of his principal enemies Winchester and Suffolk. This is a play for an ensemble, as though Shakespeare is writing in conscious opposition to Marlovian drama with its star parts for overweening heroes. He lets us feel, in Christopher Morris's phrase, 'the invisible atmospheric cobweb men make between them';16 he also shows that none of them can keep either the political initiative or the theatrical focus for very long.

Our detachment is aided by the economy of the theatre itself, which by speeding and simplifying actions begins to make them look absurd. 'Richard and George whisper' (Pt 3, V. i. 82SD)17 is all the explanation we have for George's return to the Yorkist cause; we may compare the much fuller treatment of Joan's persuasion of Burgundy. Warwick, like Peter Quince handing out parts [in A Midsummer Night's Dream], offers to distribute the power of England: 'Be Duke of Lancaster: let him be King' (Pt 3, I.i.86). Theatrical images contribute to this detachment. The Duchess of Gloucester wants to 'play my part in Fortune's pageant' (Pt 2, I. ii. 67), not remembering how Fortune's pageants usually end. Gloucester sees his own fate as only the first move in a tragedy that will embrace thousands: 'mine is made the prologue to their play' (Pt 2, III. i. 151). Such lines trigger a recognition that all these great events are 'play'd in jest by counterfeiting actors' (Pt 3, II. iii. 28)—both the professionals who are acting Henry VI and the dedicated amateurs in history's pageant they are portraying. The most telling of these moments is King Henry's greeting to Richard of Gloucester, who has come to kill him: 'What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?' (Pt 3, V. vi. 10). The King achieves a wry detachment from his killer, and from his own fate. There is also a note of sour comedy here, a note heard increasingly through Part 3. Henry has just signed away his son's inheritance to the house of York:

Exe. Here comes the Queen, whose looks bewray her anger:
I'll steal away.
K. Hen.  Exeter, so will I.

(Pt 3, I. i. 218-19)

It is comedy based on the predictable behaviour of characters we are by now familiar with. It also distances us from the seriousness of events. The characters themselves start to acquire a similar comic distance; we may instance not only Henry's greeting to Richard but Edward's remark when he hears his brother is off to London to kill the King: 'He's sudden if a thing come in his head' (Pt 3, V.v.84).

Edward's line seems particularly offhand when we consider what a momentous act it is to kill a king, and when we consider further that with this one stroke Richard will effectively end the Wars of the Roses. But it is part of the special ironic dramaturgy of Henry VI that there is no such thing as an effective ending. Part 1 ends, like 1 Tamburlaine and Henry V, with peace and the prospect of marriage. But the peace is an anticlimax for the English—'Is all our travail turn'd to this effect?' (Pt 1, V.iv.102)—and a temporary expedient for the French: Alençon advises the Dauphin, 'take this compact of a truce, / Although you break it when your pleasure serves' (V.iv.163-4). The marriage is the disastrous linking of Henry and Margaret. By the end of the play Henry has not even met her but is simply dazzled by Suffolk's description. Suffolk, acting as go-between, is playing his own game—not to mention interfering with a better marriage arrangement that was part of the peace agreement. Part 2 ends with York asserting his claim and then (in a passage I want to examine later) frittering away his advantage. This time there is not even a truce, but the beginning of an action that is completed only in the next play. Part 3 ends with the Yorkist victory that was held off in Part 2, but Gloucester is already plotting against Clarence, initiating the action of Richard III, and he punctuates Edward's triumph in the final scene with mocking asides. Open-endedness is characteristic of history plays generally, since historical actions are never quite as complete as comic and tragic ones are. But Shakespeare takes unusual care in Henry VI to baffle and mock any expectation of completeness.

The technique of the play reflects its content, for this is a world breaking down. Ambition drives the characters, and early in Part 2 there are some telling images of that ambition. One is the falcons of II.i, whose soaring flight Henry takes as a sign of 'how God in all his creatures works! / Yea, men and birds are fain of climbing high' (II. i. 7-8). In the same scene the impostor Simpcox provides a more comic image of ambition:

Glou. How long hast thou been blind?
Simp. O! born so, master.
Glou. What! and would'st climb a tree?
Simp. But that in all my life, when I was a youth.
Wife. Too true; and bought his climbing very dear.
Glou. 'Mass, thou lov'd'st plums well, that would'st venture so.
Simp. Alas! good master, my wife desir'd some damsons,
And made me climb with danger of my life.

(Pt 2, II. i. 97-103)

Besides the danger of ambition, and its blindness, there is an ironic parallel with the relations of Gloucester and his own troublesome wife.18 We have already heard Eleanor urge her husband to set his sights high, but the language she uses is very odd:

Why are thine eyes fix'd to the sullen earth,
Gazing on that which seems to dim thy sight?
What seest thou there? King Henry's diadem,
Enchas'd with all the honours of the world?
If so, gaze on, and grovel on thy face,
Until thy head be circled with the same.

(Pt 2, I. ii. 5-10)

There is no Marlovian glamour in this ambition; nor is Eleanor even credited with ironic self-awareness. She betrays quite unconsciously the meanness of the force that drives her.

Yet that force, when spread over a variety of characters, is enough to wreck the fabric of society. Law is one of the first victims. In the Temple Garden, Suffolk declares:

Faith, I have been a truant in the law
And never yet could frame my will to it;
And therefore frame the law unto my will.

(Pt 1, II. iv. 7-9)

The first scene with King Henry—who is in theory the final source of law—begins with Winchester snatching and tearing a document Gloucester has prepared; his scorn for 'deep-premeditated lines' (Pt 1, III. i. 1) and his preference for improvised accusation imply a contempt for due process. In Part 2, as his enemies circle him round, Gloucester first declares his faith in the law—'I must offend before I be attainted' (Pt 2, II. iv. 59)—only to realize that England is not like that any more: 'A staff is quickly found to beat a dog!' (Pt 2, III. i. 171). Initially, household loyalties count:

York. This is my servant: hear him, noble Prince.
Som. And this is mine: sweet Henry, favour him.

(Pt 1, IV. i. 80-1)

So, particularly in Part 3, do family loyalties. Oxford supports the Lancastrians because Edward killed his brother (Pt 3, III. iii. 101-3); Warwick, exhausted in battle, is driven to fresh effort by the news of his brother's death (II. iii. 1-32); and in his own death scene his last thoughts are of his brother Montague (V. ii. 33-49). But these family loyalties mean only that the larger conflict breaks down into a series of private revenge actions, the spirit of which is summed up in Clifford's words to the innocent Rutland: 'Thy father slew my father; therefore die' (I. iii. 46). The futility of revenge is exemplified when the Yorkists in their final act against Clifford 'are reduced to taunting a corpse'.19 In the end we come down to the individual will: Winchester, Suffolk, and York, left alone on stage at the ends of scenes, reveal the finally private motives that keep the action going. The technically unusual ending of Part 1, with a single figure on the stage, shows the individual, not the group, as the final determining factor. Talbot's sense of the importance of communal effort is gone. Yet no individual, as we have seen, can keep the initiative for long.

The irony with which Shakespeare views his characters and the ultimate futility he attributes to them can be seen in his dramatization of the Yorkist cause. On the whole the Yorkists take the initiative and the Lancastrians react; but from the beginning the Yorkist cause is shadowed with irony. York's career as pretender begins when Mortimer passes the torch to him. But Mortimer, imprisoned and dying, 'a wither'd vine / That droops his sapless branches to the ground' (Pt 1, II. v. 11-12), is no more auspicious as an image of ambition than the blind and henpecked Simpcox. (A parallel is suggested by the fact that Mortimer too is blind (II. v. 8-9, 34-40).) The cause initially goes underground, 'with advice and silent secrecy' (Pt 2, II. ii. 67), producing suspense and the promise of action to come. Plotting alone, York projects an air of excitement:

Faster than spring-time showers comes thought on thought,
And not a thought but thinks on dignity.
My brain, more busy than the labouring spider,
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.

(Pt 2, III. i. 337-40)

That unexpected 'tedious' skews the effect. And as York waits and plots, the prize shrinks with the loss of French territory. In an image that reduces his dignity, York describes himself as a 'silly owner' (Pt 2, I. i. 226) robbed of his goods and unable to help himself. Yet York's frustration also suggests a contained energy that ought to burst forth excitingly; his soliloquy at the end of the opening scene of Part 2 shows a view of the whole action, present and future, that no other character can match. At first these expectations are fulfilled. His return from Ireland is, for a few lines, tremendous—but for a few lines only:

From Ireland thus comes York to claim his right,
And pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head:
Ring, bells, aloud; burn, bonfires, clear and bright,
To entertain great England's lawful king.
Ah! sancta majestas, who'd not buy thee dear?
Let them obey that knows not how to rule;
This hand was made to handle nought but gold:

I cannot give due action to my words,
Except a sword or sceptre balance it.
A sceptre shall it have, have I a sword,
On which I'll toss the fleur-de-luce of France.


Whom have we here? Buckingham, to disturb me?
The King hath sent him, sure: I must dissemble.

(Pt 2, V. i. 1-13)

The failure to complete the expected rhyme at 1. 4 is one danger signal; the image of an actor who cannot function without his props is another; but the collapse from the heroic to the devious is still surprising, and turns the rest of the speech in retrospect from a great declaration of purpose to a fantasy.

York simultaneously loses the political initiative and the theatrical focus; the one is a signal of the other. 'I must make fair weather yet awhile, / Till Henry be more weak, and I more strong' (Pt 2, V.i.30-1)—the action, which seemed to be moving in one clear direction, starts to twist. York claims that he has returned only to remove Somerset, and when told that Somerset is in the Tower he dismisses his soldiers and offers loyalty to Henry. When Somerset appears free he reasserts his claim. Legally, that claim is strong enough to dismay Henry—'I know not what to say: my title's weak' (Pt 3, I. i. 138)—and to win the acceptance of Exeter, who has supported the Lancastrians. But York shifts the basis of his claim from the legal point, where he is strong, to the more open and debatable grounds of power and style:

That head of thine doth not become a crown;
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff,
And not to grace an awful princely sceptre.
That gold must round engirt these brows of mine,
Whose smile and frown, like to Achilles' spear,
Is able with the change to kill and cure.

(Pt 2, V. i. 96-101)

It was on grounds like these that Tamburlaine built his career, and there is a superficial theatrical appeal in York's contrast of himself and Henry. But York, as we have seen, does not have Tamburlaine's ability to make his boasts good, and in shifting his claim from the legal to what we might call the theatrical—he looks more kingly than Henry—he has actually weakened his position. He loses the strong theatrical focus of his earlier soliloquies as his campaign becomes blurred by side-issues. For most of the last scene of Part 2, the question is not how the Yorkist cause is faring in the battle but what has become of Warwick's father Salisbury ('That winter lion' (V.iii.2)—the phrase brings him vividly before us). Even York talks as though Salisbury's fate is the main question:

This happy day
Is not itself, nor have we won one foot,
If Salisbury be lost.

(Pt 2, V. iii. 5-7)

At the opening of Part 3, having won a decisive battle, filled the parliament house with soldiers, and seated himself on the throne, York settles for a compromise. Whatever sense this may have made in history, the compression and economy of the theatre make it a strange anticlimax, and reveal in York a fatal weakness of grip. This is a case where the theatrical medium—to which York has implicitly appealed—imposes its own judgement.

In Part 3 his son Edward fares little better, politically or theatrically. In II.i, where the Yorkist claim passes to Edward with the death of his father, Richard is at least as prominent in the first part of the scene, and Warwick is the clear centre of attention in the second. Edward's first entrance as king is not spectacular but low-key and domestic: he comes on with his two brothers and Elizabeth Woodville.20 His first act as king is to do precisely what Henry did: make a disastrous marriage, ignoring the politically superior one that is being negotiated for him. The tone of his courtship, reinforced by the mocking asides of his brothers, is light and flippant: 'Brothers, you muse what chat we two have had' (Pt 3, III. ii. 109). If light comedy is inappropriate to the political seriousness of Edward's mistake, that is just the point: he fails to grasp the significance of what he is doing, and as its implications become clear his self-defence seldom rises above petulance: 'They are but Lewis and Warwick: I am Edward, / Your King and Warwick's, and must have my will' (Pt 3, IV.i.15-16). If he seems particularly nettled about Warwick, he has some reason. Warwick shows an increasing tendency to treat the Yorkist cause as simply a way of demonstrating his own power.21 This appears when he first joins it in Part 2:

War. My heart assures me that the Earl of Warwick
Shall one day make the Duke of York a king.
York. And, Nevil, this I do assure myself:
Richard shall live to make the Earl of Warwick
The greatest man in England but the king.

(II. ii. 77-81)

Beneath the exchange of courtesies, York seems properly wary of his new ally. Warwick shows his power particularly after Edward's marriage. 'No more my king, for he dishonours me' (Pt 3, III.iii.184) is a threat he makes good in short order. In the end he suffers defeat and death, and is forced to conclude, 'what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?' (Pt 3, V.ii.27); but for a while he made the Yorkist cause his personal plaything.

What Warwick does is symptomatic of what happens in the trilogy as a whole. As the nobles shout at each other and engage in personal vendettas, we tend to forget—or, rather, we watch them forget—that what is at stake is the crown of England. The concern with legitimacy fades as the real issue becomes a test of power. York's retreat from the legal claim to the theatrical is a symptom of this. But the dramatic interest that a pure power struggle can generate is limited, and through Part 3 in particular 'runs the bleary, enervating sense of déjà vu'.22 Even the concluding couplets begin to sound tired: 'Come on, brave soldiers: doubt not of the day, / And, that once gotten, doubt not of large pay' (IV. vii. 87-8). We may question whether Shakespeare is deliberately showing a tired world, or is simply becoming exhausted as a writer. Probably both; and in either case there is a danger that the audience too will become exhausted. A more controlled effect is the ironic narrowing of the characters' perspective to private will and personal revenge. One would never think that England itself was at stake, or had any existence except as a series of place-names to mark the sites of battles. But England is still there, and there are people in it. The most astonishing demonstration of this comes in the Cade rebellion.

In a number of ways Shakespeare signals his intention of using Cade as an ironic commentary on the main action. His rebellion is placed just before the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, as a grotesque antimasque. Though he takes off on his own, he is initially the agent of York, and there are indications that he represents a dark comic underside of the great man. York's words, 'This devil here shall be my substitute' (Pt 2, HI. i. 371), have a larger range of suggestion than he intends. He admires Cade's capacity for secrecy (III.i.367-70, 376-8), as we have up to this point admired his, and the appearance of Iden with Cade's severed head during the outbreak of York's own rebellion gives the analogy a final sinister, prophetic twist. When Cade himself appears, the range of parodic associations widens. Cade imitates the self-assertiveness of the nobles by knighting himself (IV.ii.113-15); the abandonment of law we see elsewhere finds more direct expression in the cheerful cry, 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers' (IV. ii. 73) and in Cade's declaration, 'my mouth shall be the parliament of England' (IV. vii. 13--4). The shadow of Henry V suddenly returns, and with it echoes of the earlier action:

Cade.... Go to, sirrah, tell the King from me, that for his father's sake, Henry the Fifth, in whose time boys went to span-counter for French crowns, I am content he shall reign; but I'll be Protector over him.

Butcher. And furthermore, we'll have the Lord Say's head for selling the dukedom of Maine.

(IV. ii. 149-54)

Gloucester's role as Protector, and York's indignation over the surrender of Anjou and Maine, find distorted echoes here; York's compromise with Henry is anticipated. It is the ghost of Henry V which undoes Cade. Clifford wins the rabble over by appealing to the glamour of conquest: 'Will he conduct you through the heart of France, / And make the meanest of you earls and dukes?' (IV.viii.36-7). We may be tempted to ask: will you? But Cade's followers are too dazzled by the vision to see how it is being used. The fear of the French bogeyman—who will, Clifford threatens, invade England if it suffers civil war (IV.viii.41-50)—wins them over, and Cade, who had earlier appealed to the same kind of patriotism by ordering Lord Say killed because he could speak French, exclaims in chagrin, 'Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude? The name of Henry the Fifth hales them to an hundred mischiefs, and makes them leave me desolate' (IV. viii. 55-8). Clifford appeals to the patriotism that means not love of one's country but fear and hatred of the foreigner, and he does so for Bolingbroke's reason: busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels. Once the rebellion has been quashed, no more is heard of the reconquest of France. These are the sour dregs of the cause for which Talbot died.

Cade himself is a paradoxical figure. York's description of him stuck full of weapons suggests a grotesque Morris dancer:

I have seen
Him caper upright like a wild Morisco,
Shaking the bloody darts as he his bells.

(III. i. 364-6)

This demented carnival spirit runs through the rebellion: 'There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny; the threehoop'd pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer' (IV.ii.62-5). (When we last see him, Cade is starving to death, and trying to eat grass like Nebuchadnezzar.) A certain manic exuberance even creeps into the stage directions: 'Enter . . . with infinite numbers' (IV. ii. 30SD); 'Alarums. MATTHEW GOFFE is slain, and all the rest" (IV. vii. SD). But, as that last direction indicates, what we see is mostly the anarchy that is the dark side of carnival. The energy becomes threatening, and the first London audiences must have felt the threat more sharply as it crept towards familiar places: 'But first, go and set London bridge afire, and, if you can, burn down the Tower too' (IV. vi. 12-14). Cade, like the titled rebels, is finally out for himself: 'all shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord' (IV. ii. 70-2). Nor is he content with worship: 'The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute; there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead, ere they have it' (IV. vii. 114-17). He goes in one sentence from exploiting the rich to exploiting anyone who has something he wants. He bestows titles on himself, going from Sir John Mortimer to Lord Mortimer; a messenger who fails to use the new title is killed before our eyes (IV. vi. 4-10).

But I think we miss Shakespeare's full purpose in these scenes if we taken them simply as an illustrated lecture on the evils of rebellion. Even before Cade appears, his followers Bevis and Holland have a conversation that makes us sit up and think:

Hol. . . . Well, I say it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up.
Bevis. O miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen.
Hol. The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.
Bevis. Nay, more; the King's Council are no good workmen.

(IV. ii. 7-14)

The naïve levelling may produce smug laughter at first, but the King's Council are indeed no good workmen; we've seen the work they do. Cade has his reasons, too, for wanting to do away with reading and writing: ''I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since' (IV. ii. 78-9). In his attack on Lord Say, we are just starting to enjoy the comedy when we are once again caught by surprise:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caus'd printing to be us'd; and contrary to the King his crown, and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be prov'd to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun, and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. Thou hast appointed justices of the peace, to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer. Moreover, thou hast put them in prison; and because they could not read, thou hast hang'd them; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.

(IV. vii. 30-44)

Cade is attacking culture and civilization; but in the process he reminds us how those things can look to those who are excluded from the circle of privilege they create. Nor, under Elizabethan law, is it just a joke to say that a man could be hanged for not being able to read.

At moments like this Cade is one of the most articulate social critics in Shakespeare; but when he turns from criticism to action we see that his vision, though penetrating, is narrow. He can achieve his social ends only by treating human life as cheap; it is not by accident that one of his most voluble supporters is a butcher. 'Let's kill all the lawyers' is an easy line to laugh at; but it is not so easy to laugh when the Clerk of Chatham is dragged off before our eyes, or when Cade has the severed heads of Lord Say and his son-in-law kiss each other, 'for they loved well when they were alive' (IV. vii. 125). Even in this respect, however, Cade is raising larger questions than who is King of England, or which noble is on top this time. His rebellion widens the play's issues to include society and human relations seen in depth. Coming between the fall of Gloucester and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, the Cade rebellion shows up the relative narrowness of both those actions. It is characteristic that he goads Lord Say into defending not just himself but a whole set of civilized values; characteristic, too, that Say's defence, though it rouses our sympathy (even Cade is moved in spite of himself—IV. vii. 100-2), also leads him to involuntary self-betrayal:

Justice with favour have I always done;
Prayers and tears have mov'd me, gifts could never.
When have I aught exacted at your hands,
But to maintain the King, the realm, and you?
Large gifts have I bestow'd on learned clerks,
Because my book preferr'd me to the King,
And seeing ignorance is the curse of God,
Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven,
Unless you be possess'd with devilish spirits,
You cannot but forbear to murder me:
This tongue hath parley'd unto foreign kings
For your behoof,—
Cade. Tut, when struck'st thou one blow in the field?
Say. Great men have reaching hands: oft have I struck
Those that I never saw, and struck them dead.
Geo. O monstrous coward! What, to come behind folks!

(IV. ii. 64-79)

In Say's career there is both culture and unmanly craft; but he reminds us, as Humphrey of Gloucester has occasionally done, that there should be more to life in the state than a game of power with the crown as football. Shakespeare never managed the fusion of social, political, and cultural issues that Jonson achieved in Sejanus; but here at least we glimpse a wider range of concern than the play normally shows. In an important reservation to a generally unsympathetic reading, M. M. Reese credits Cade with recognizing 'that politics have to do with human happiness'.23

Cade's dying boast, 'Tell Kent from me, she hath lost her best man' (IV. x. 70-1), is not altogether empty: when he dies, something goes out of the play. These scenes contain the sharpest and most expressive writing in the trilogy, and the fullest view of the common people. It is a grim reflection that they get the sustained attention of the great, and of the audience, only when whipped up to a frenzy of destruction. Elsewhere, they are glimpsed going about their business. Sometimes that business has to do with the affairs of history: 'Chief master-gunner am I of this town; / Something I must do to procure me grace' (Pt 1, I. iv. 6-7). Sometimes there are glimpses of another world, as when the Mayor wonders at the behaviour of Gloucester and Winchester: 'Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear! / I myself fight not once in forty year' (Pt 1, I. iii. 89-90). This is the world they return to when their role in the brawls of the mighty is over:

3 Serv. Content; I'll to the surgeon's.
1 Serv. And so will I.
2 Serv. And I will see what physic the tavern affords.

(Pt 1, III. i. 146-8)

A note of complaint creeps in, deepening from the relatively mild—

Thus are poor servitors,
When others sleep upon their quiet beds,
Constrain'd to watch in darkness, rain, and cold.

(Pt 1, II. i. 5-7)

—to the serious charges of exploitation in the petitions intercepted by Suffolk (Pt 2, I. iii. 16-22). In one of these the apprentice Peter accuses his master Horner of treason. Thinking he is simply doing the part of a loyal subject, Peter finds himself embroiled in a trial by combat with a dangerous adversary, and Gloucester, so beloved of the commons, is in this case not much help:

Pet. . . . Lord, have mercy upon me! I shall never
be able to fight a blow. O Lord, my heart!
Glou. Sirrah, or you must fight or else be hang'd.

(Pt 2, I. iii. 215-17)

The impostor Simpcox and his wife provide an amusing interlude; but as they are bustled out Mistress Simpcox cries, 'Alas! sir, we did it for pure need' (II. i. 150). No one seems to notice.

As part of the general narrowing of focus, the commons are much less prominent in Part 3. But there is one notable exception. King Henry has withdrawn from the Battle of Towton to dream of leading the life of a common man:

And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates-
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couched in a curious bed,
When Care, Mistrust, and Treason waits on him.
Alarum. Enter a Son that hath kill 'd his Father, with the body in his arms. 

(Pt 3, II. v. 47-54SD)

He is joined by a Father who has killed his Son. The contrast between Henry's dream and the reality is shocking enough;24 the shorthand image of the horror of civil war is unforgettable. But there is a more insidious horror in the dramatic idiom itself. Horner, Peter, Simpcox, Cade, Bevis, Holland—they had names and lives of their own. These characters have been crushed to single roles: a Son who has killed his Father and a Father who has killed his Son. With a dreadful parody of a love-poetry conceit, Henry shows how the lives of the commons have been branded by the actions of the nobility: 'The red rose and the white are on his face, / The fatal colours of our striving houses' (II. v. 97-8). In a play not generally allegorical, the decision to use allegory makes a point of its own, a point made more naturalistically when the Son declares:

From London by the King was I press'd forth;
My father, being the Earl of Warwick's man,
Came on the part of York, press'd by his master.

(II. v. 64-6)

We may think back to another set piece of fathers and sons, Talbot and John; it would be possible to use the same actors. There, two characters fulfilled a destiny they had chosen for themselves; here, four are crushed by a destiny imposed by others.

The Cade and Towton scenes are radically different in dramatic idiom, but each idiom makes its own statement. The explosive anarchy of Cade, threatening to blow the play apart, actually enlarges its vision so that we are made to think of lives beyond those of the nobles, and of questions that never enter the minds of characters like York and Warwick. The narrowness of the great is shown up by contrast. In the Towton scene the narrowness is just the point: lives that should have been full are reduced to a single note of pain. The formal, stylized manner the early Shakespeare has always at hand is used here to suggest a society reduced to a ritual of blood. Earlier, he had used a formal idiom to show society working properly: in the Auvergne scene, where Talbot's greatness is explained and celebrated; and later in Part 1, when Talbot lays his sword at Henry's feet and Henry creates him Earl of Shrewsbury (III. iv. 1-27). Here, the proper, traditional relations of king and subject are formally set before us.25 The standards of chivalry are confirmed when Talbot removes the Garter from the cowardly Falstaff, and gives a short lecture on the principles of the Order (Pt 1, IV. i. 13-47). But even this sequence is disrupted by the squabbling of Vernon and Basset (Pt 1, III. iv. 28-45, IV. i. 78-80). The trappings of order sit insecurely on a naturally disordered world. And another set piece, the killing of Cade by the comfortable householder Iden, is not so firm an image of good order as it may look. Iden's values—'This small inheritance my father left me / Contenteth me, and worth a monarchy' (Pt 2, IV. x. 18-19)—make him allegorically correct as an opponent for Cade. He is also bigger and stronger: 'Set limb to limb, and thou art far the lesser; / Thy hand is but a finger to my fist' (Pt 2, IV. x. 46-7). If the scene were pure allegory, we might take this as a sign of the superiority of Iden's values; but it has also the effect—not just accidental, I think—of casting Cade as David to Iden's Goliath, and of winning sympathy for the rebel when he puts up a fight.26 Moreover, given Iden's delight in his withdrawn, comfortable life, it is disturbing when he is rewarded not just with a title and money but with a position in the royal household, a dubious honour at best (V. i. 78-80).27 We never see Iden again, and so the disturbance produced by his fate flickers only for a moment; but it is there.

A more conspicuous case of a symbolic moment that goes awry is Henry's gesture of donning a red rose (Pt 1, IV. i. 152-4). He means to show the indifference of the sign; what he actually does is give national scale to what had been a private conflict.28 And it is typical of the trilogy as a whole for the formal, symbolic moments to embody not order but violence and breakdown: the messengers interrupting Henry's funeral; Winchester snatching and tearing Gloucester's bill; the Yorkists filling the parliament house with soldiers as York, not wearing a crown, sits on the throne; and, of course, the Towton scene, whose picture of a fragmented society includes the fact that while Henry addresses the two men they notice neither him nor each other. Early in Part 3 killing becomes a game, like a contest in a folk-tale:

Edw. Lor d Stafford's father, Duke of Buckingham,
Is either slain or wounded dangerous;
I cleft his beaver with a downright blow:
That this is true, father, behold his blood.
Falc. And, brother, here's the Earl of Wiltshire's blood,
Whom I encounter'd as the battles join'd.
Rich. Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did.
[Throwing down the Duke of Somerset's head.]
York. Richard hath best deserv'd all of my sons.

(Pt 3, I. i. 10-17)

The death of York himself is an improvised ritual slaughter in which the paper crown and bloody napkin suggest a parody of the Crucifixion.29 Even scenes of disorder that are not overtly violent tend to be stylized; a notable example is the opening scene of Part 2, in which, as different groups of characters leave the stage and others stay behind to comment, layer beneath layer of conspiracy is uncovered, ending with York alone. The formality of such scenes indicates that, while the order represented by Henry and Talbot is a fragile and temporary achievement, disorder is a fundamental principle. What we see in the trilogy as a whole is a society that has lost the forms and myths of order and is evolving new ones to embody violence. It does this at first unconsciously, though the playwright's formal shaping of his material makes the audience aware of what is happening. But by the opening of Part 3 the killings have become consciously ritualized, York's being the conspicuous example, and this last play of the trilogy is full of set pieces of conflict and defiance. In the process the King, who should be the centre of order, becomes essentially a passive victim; the future belongs to the character who wins the killing game at the opening of Part 3, Richard of Gloucester. Through these opposing figures Shakespeare moves towards a final shaping of his vision of this long period of disorder. Unlike Talbot and Joan, they are brought together for a final confrontation; and there are earlier hints of a relationship between them. Henry imagines the Towton battle as a conflict of elements—cloud and light, wind and tide—and then pictures two figures, 'the shepherd, blowing of his nails' (II. v. 3), and himself, the King, sitting on a molehill. He later wishes that he were the shepherd; but at first the connection between the figures is that they are both observers, tiny isolated figures against a seascape that is also a vast battle picture. Richard also imagines himself as a figure in a seascape, but for him the contrast between the vast setting and the small human figure is a challenge:

Why then I do but dream on sovereignty;
Like one that stands upon a promontory
And spies a far-off shore where he would tread,
Wishing his foot were equal with his eye;
And chides the sea, that sunders him from thence,
Saying he'll lade it dry to have his way.

(Pt 3, III. ii. 134-9)

Later in the same soliloquy the setting closes in on him. He becomes, as his father was at first, frustrated and imprisoned; but his determination is all the stronger:

And I,—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way;
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out—
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.

(Pt 3, III. ii. 174-81)

The thorny wood may suggest the ruin of England, or Richard's frustration at imprisonment in his deformed body, or both; the power of the image is that it cannot be pinned down exactly. It is the occasion for Richard to show himself as determinedly active as Henry is determinedly passive.

In neither case, however, is the character absolutely fixed. As we see forms and myths being constructed in the trilogy as a whole, so we see these characters adopting formal roles, with some effort. At first Henry is an open character, unpredictable in himself and subject to contrary judgements. He wavers between philosophical indifference to political life and pained involvement with it.30 He gets caught briefly in the cycle of violence, goading Clifford on in his course of private revenge (Pt 3, I. i. 54-6) and greeting his vow of service 'be thy title right or wrong' with 'O Clifford, how thy words revive my heart!' (Pt 3, I. i. 163, 167). Banished to Scotland, he returns compulsively to England and is arrested. He tells the keepers who arrest him, 'my crown is call'd content' (Pt 3, III. i. 64), but in the same scene he laments the loss of his titles and honours (15-21) and rebukes the keepers for their disloyalty (74-92). The crown of content sits uneasily; cast by history as the Lancastrian king, Henry can never quite shed the role. But he plays it badly. The authority the office requires is not in his nature as a man, and his passiveness can be not just irritating but culpable. The juxtaposition of his pastoral reverie and the suffering of the Father and Son is damning. The dying Clifford accuses him:

And, Henry, hadst thou sway'd as kings should do, . . .
I, and ten thousand in this luckless realm
Had left no mourning widows for our death.

(Pt 3, II. vi. 14, 18-19)

Failing to save Gloucester though he knows he is wrongly accused, Henry constructs an elaborate allegorical picture of himself as a cow unable to save its calf from the slaughter-house (Pt 2, III. i. 202-20); the speech is not just a way of analysing what is happening but a way of fixing himself in the role of helpless onlooker, as though he had no choice in the matter. It is in a curious way a speech of self-justification, and, in the lines that follow, Gloucester's enemies pick up the method, constructing a series of miniature allegories to justify the killing.

Occasionally Henry does some good by making his subjects feel sorry for him. Gloucester ends one of his quarrels with Winchester by saying, 'Compassion on the King commands me stoop' (Pt 1, III. i. 119). Edward claims that if Henry's followers had not been so troublesome the Yorkists would have let their claim sleep 'in pity of the gentle King' (Pt 3, II. ii. 161). There is enough here to suggest a centre of goodness on which a better society could have drawn. And there are times when Henry shows a kind of wisdom. His first contribution is sixty-four lines of silence as Gloucester and Winchester storm around him (Pt 1, III. i. 1-64). He looks ineffective, to be sure, but as we weary of the noise we may begin to see a value in the silence.31 His contribution to the debate over the regency of France, 'Or Somerset or York, all's one to me' (Pt 2,I, iii. 102), may be irresponsibility or an understandable refusal to be drawn into a fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. For him as for Lear in his prison, winning and losing are things indifferent. He greets the final loss of France in a single line, 'Cold news, Lord Somerset: but God's will be done!' (Pt 2, HI. i. 86), and the casual way in which the news is dramatized seems to support his attitude. He cries out at Towton, 'Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!' (Pt 3, II. v. 101), and the rest of the scene compels us to agree that an end to the carnage—any end—is more important than victory for one side or the other. In Margaret's words, 'What are you made of? You'll nor fight nor fly' (Pt 2, V. ii. 74), there may be wonder as well as irritation. Henry speaks for that part of the audience's response that remains detached from the partisan struggles, seeing only their cruelty and absurdity. Though we see him briefly caught up by Clifford's revenge code, it is more characteristic when he rebukes Clifford, 'didst thou never hear / That things evil got had ever bad success?' (Pt 3, II. ii. 45-6), and knights his son with the words 'learn this lesson: Draw thy sword in right' (Pt 3, II. ii. 62). We had almost forgotten such values existed, and Edward's reply, 'I'll draw it as apparent to the crown' (64), is not encouraging. Just before he is dragged off to his final imprisonment, Henry defends his kingship by defending his relations with the people, evoking the civil life of which the Cade scenes reminded us, the life which has so often disappeared behind the mayhem of battle:

I have not stopp'd mine ears to their demands,
Nor posted off their suits with slow delays;
My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allay'd their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears;
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppress'd them with great subsidies,
Nor forward of revenge, though they much err'd.

(Pt 3, IV. viii. 39-46)

The play has shown little of this, apart from Henry's forgiveness of the Cade rebels (Pt 2, IV. ix. 20-2), but that in itself gives an edge of surprise to the speech, making Henry the spokesman for values that the rest of his world has virtually forgotten.

Placed where it is, the speech gives Henry a certain authority. Other characters in their last moments see in themselves only images of mortality (Warwick is a notable example); Henry, like Talbot, stands for something. He is also on two occasions given the formal role of prophet. For this to work, there has to be a supernatural frame of reference, however loosely defined, that he can appeal to. At first we may wonder. This seems a world where miracles have ceased, to be replaced by mockeries like the impostures of Simpcox and the pregnancy of the holy maid Joan. A trial by combat is supposed to show the judgement of God, but when Peter defeats Horner it is mainly because Horner is drunk. York tells the victor, 'Fellow, thank God, and the good wine in thy master's way' (Pt 2, II. iii. 92-3). Yet there is a supernatural dimension all the same. Joan's devils appear only to display their impotence; but they do appear. The spirit summoned by the conjurer Bolingbroke utters prophecies that depend—trivially, it may seem—on word-play and riddles (Pt 2, I. iv. 23-36); but the prophecies work; and the tradition of equivocation they belong to is an ancient one. It will be used again in Macbeth. Though the war in Part 1 is realistically dramatized on the whole, there is something more than realism when as the French attack Orleans thunder breaks out and the dying Salisbury raises himself and groans. As York dies and the claim passes to his children, three suns appear in the sky. All these details buttress a moment that would have no place in a realistic history play, when the young Earl of Richmond is presented to Henry:

Come hither, England's hope.
Lays his hand on his head.
If secret powers
Suggest but truth to my divining thoughts,
This pretty lad will prove our country's bliss.
His looks are full of peaceful majesty;
His head by nature fram'd to wear a crown,
His hand to wield a sceptre; and himself
Likely in time to bless a regal throne.
Make much of him, my lords, for this is he
Must help you more than you are hurt by me.

(Pt 3, IV. vi. 68-76)

When York rested his claim on strength and style, we felt he was shifting to the wrong ground; but here, just as the dynastic wars are getting tedious, we move to a deeper level, as Henry declares Richmond's claim to be a natural one, part of a national destiny that goes beyond the struggles of York and Lancaster. Richmond's kingly appearance is not, like York's, superficial, for this prophecy will be fulfilled. As the Countess of Auvergne discovers, in the real world appearances do not always count. But in the world of myth they do. It cannot really be shown that the Tudor Myth pervades the cycle as a whole; what Shakespeare does with it is, I think, more interesting and powerful. He allows a tantalizing glimpse of it, as a world of peace and right beyond the normal conditions of history,32 a glimpse that is registered and then withdrawn. Buttressed by the moral authority he shows elsewhere, Henry is the prophet of that vision.

He also acts in his last scene as a prophet for Richard. He does not know as we do that the two characters he treats in this way will eventually come together; to that extent his vision is limited. But, as he takes us briefly out of history in the scene with Richmond, so he lifts Richard to a new level of significance. To see this we have to remember that Richard was not always the splendid, sharply realized monster we are most familiar with. In his early appearances his characterization, like Henry's, wavers and he speaks with different voices. As early as Part 2 we hear the acid tones we will come to know so well: 'Fie! charity for shame! Speak not in spite, / For you shall sup with Jesu Christ to-night' (V. i. 214-15); but we also hear Marlovian lyricism:

father, do but think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.

(Pt 3, I. ii. 28-31)

He can describe the beauty of the morning in a speech that out of context we would never guess was his (Pt 3, II. i. 21-4). His contempt for humanity is something that develops, not something inherent from the beginning. His first substantial speech is a tribute to Warwick, whom he continues to admire (Pt 2, V. i, 151-6); and he says of York, 'Methinks 'tis prize enough to be his son' (Pt 3, II.i.20). The death of York is for him a psychological turning point. 33 While the softer Edward asks to be spared the details, Richard commands, 'Say how he died, for I will hear it all' (Pt 3, II. i. 49). It is the voice of a man who wants to feel the iron entering his soul.

His great soliloquy in Part 3 is an example of what Stephen Greenblatt has called 'self-fashioning'.34 His mission to gain the crown has a psychological basis in a reaction against his deformity:

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown.

(Pt 3, III. ii. 165-8)

But Richard creates a higher view of himself than that. He alternates psychology with allegory:

Why, Love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail Nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits Deformity to mock my body.

(III. ii. 153-8)

Though there are obvious differences between this and the Towton allegory, both involve a radical reduction of humanity. Richard imagines an action that, like many of the stylized actions of the play proper, shows the destruction of normal human order. He is the victim of that action: the role of monster has been stamped on him as the red rose and the white were stamped on the victims of Towton. But for Richard to see himself in this way is also to give himself the scale and dimensions of myth. He operates on that scale when he responds to the conspiracy of Nature and Love by fashioning a role of his own, using familiar figures and promising to outdo them:

I'll drown more sailors than the Mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.

(III. ii. 186-93)

The human character we have glimpsed in earlier scenes is turning himself into a formula. He needs to. Early in the soliloquy he expresses human doubts about himself: 'My eye's too quick, my heart o'erweens too much, / Unless my hand and strength could equal them' (III. ii. 144-5). He must shed these doubts by making himself inhuman. By the end he has talked himself into complete confidence, but some sense of effort lingers. In his attempt to place himself beyond normal humanity there is something artificial, and his awareness that he is finally like the rest of us will return to haunt him at the end of Richard III.

This soliloquy takes Richard part of the way into myth; Henry does the rest. When Richard comes to kill the King, shreds of the old character, the York loyalist, cling to him: 'O, may such purple tears be always shed / From those that wish the downfall of our house!' (V. vi. 64-5). It is Henry who in his tirade against Richard lifts him to a new level:

And thus I prophesy: that many a thousand
Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,
And many an old man's sigh, and many a widow's,
And many an orphan's water-standing eye—
Men for their sons', wives for their husbands',
Orphans for their parents' timeless death—
Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.
The owl shriek'd at thy birth—an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempests shook down trees.

(V. vi. 37-46)

—and so on in the same vein. The myth-making of Richard's soliloquy was private and subjective, and had about it a quality of fantasy. We could see Richard there as a recognizable man coping with feelings of inferiority by constructing grand images of himself, and renouncing love out of a very human frustration at his inability to win it. He had a particular aim—to get the crown—and to do that he would kill the people he needed to kill. Henry's prophecy gives Richard a new, apocalyptic scale. He says nothing of the crown; such things matter little to Henry. Instead of a particular ambition Henry imagines a generalized evil, a pure principle of destruction. Richard, he declares, came not just to gain the crown but 'to bite the world' (54). And, by reporting the omens that surrounded Richard's birth, Henry gives objective confirmation to what might have looked like Richard's private fantasy. The result is a picture of universal carnage, the Towton allegory writ large, that goes beyond the role Richard had imagined for himself.

At the moment when Richard kills Henry there is agreement between them:

Rich. I'll hear no more: die, prophet, in thy speech.  Stabs him.
For this, amongst the rest, was I ordain'd.
K. Hen. Ay, and for much more slaughter after this.
O God, forgive my sins and pardon thee! Dies. 

(V. vi. 57-60)

In his last words Henry dies as a Christian, touching on a vision far deeper than the play's cycle of destruction.35 But in the two central lines killer and victim agree that this one act is part of a larger design. Richard goes on to build on Henry's view of him. He replaces the imagined allegory of the earlier soliloquy with real omens like the ones Henry reported, as though the old King has just reminded him of stories he had forgotten: 'Indeed, 'tis true that Henry told me of (V. vi. 69). He goes beyond the formula comparisons with Sinon and Machiavel to a more radical dehumanizing of himself, caught in language that is suddenly bare of ornament:

The midwife wonder'd, and the women cried
'O Jesu bless us, he is born with teeth!'
And so I was, which plainly signified
That I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shap'd my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word Move', which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am myself alone.

(V. vi. 74-83)36

We have seen self-assertion before in the trilogy, but no one has taken it as far as this. There is sinister excitement in watching Richard go this far, an excitement that will be carried over into the next play. And we note that Richard's appearance—like Richmond's and unlike York's or Talbot's—is a key to his true nature. We are back in the world of myth.

Henry VI begins with a legendary hero lying dead before us. His legend is only talked of, and is rapidly retreating into the past. The play then goes on to show by practical demonstration the place of heroism in a realistically conceived world, its value and its frailty. But gradually, as order breaks down in England, the realistic manner of the French war scenes is replaced by a thinner, more stylized mode, flattening history and drawing patterns out of it as though expressing the imagination's need to understand disorder. The process involves levelling, distorting, and a pervasive irony. But as the lines of history flatten into a few simple patterns of rise and fall a new myth emerges. Ironic understanding is not enough. As the Towton scene reawakens our almost deadened capacity for pity, so Richard reawakens our capacity for excitement. If Henry speaks for that part of us that sees, wearily, the absurdity of the game of power, Richard embodies our recognition of its dangerous attraction. There is something of that attraction in Cade; but while Cade challenges the body politic Richard's challenge goes even deeper; his renunciation of love strikes at the root of all human relations and takes the breakdown that was initially social and political as far as it can go. Other characters see themselves as out on their own, but Richard's sense of his own life as blighted from the womb gives the idea of isolation a new and frightening depth. At first encounter Henry VI looks like a lumbering, shapeless chronicle; but it may begin to make sense if we can see it as framed by the death of a hero and the birth of a monster.


1 The Arden stage direction at 1. 45, 'Exit Funeral', is 1 think, premature: 11. 62-4 suggest that Shakespeare wants the effect of bad news pouring in while Henry's corpse is still onstage.

2 In the 1962 printing (subsequently corrected) Arden reads 'I know not what I am'—an interesting mistake, and I restore the Folio reading with some reluctance.

3 I have restored the Folio punctuation, which affects the meaning.

4 On the staging of the scene and its connection with the Auvergne scene that follows, see Alan C. Dessen, 'The logic of Elizabethan stage violence: some alarums and excursions for modern critics, editors, and directors', Renaissance Drama, 9 (1978), 65-6.

5 Emrys Jones has explored the theatrical implications of the scene in The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 146-7. His reading is valuable, but his emphasis on the importance of the imagination is not, I think, the final emphasis of the scene and would be more appropriate to a reading of Henry V or Antony and Cleopatra.

6 The Countess's picture, which has not prepared her for the reality, evidently shows a physically imposing Talbot, exaggerated to correspond with his legend. Cf. Lucy's words to the French after Talbot's death: 'Were but his picture left amongst you here, / It would amaze the proudest of you all' (IV. vii. 83-4). Shakespeare's interest in the shadow-substance theme at this period can also be seen in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV. ii, iv.

7 On the similarity, see Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Pillar of State (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 415.

8 See A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1967), p. 17.

9 See Preface, p. xi.

10 See J. P. Brockbank, 'The frame of disorder—Henry VT, in John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (eds), Early Shakespeare (London: Arnold, 1961), p. 76. Brockbank points out that the list of titles comes from Talbot's tomb at Rouen—an interesting case of documentary detail contributing to a stylized effect. He also draws the analogy with the effect of a Tudor tomb: 'Beneath the effigy of the complete man in, as it were, painted marble finery, lies the image of the rotten corpse.' Shakespeare returns to this idea in Troilus and Cressida, where Hector kills a man in splendid armour and finds inside a corpse that has already putrefied.

11 David Riggs points out that the French use artillery while 'the English . . . seem scarcely aware that gunpowder has been invented'. See Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 102.

12 See Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare 's Early Histories (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1975), p. 10.

13 E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1944; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 169.

14 On the irony of the rose symbolism, see F. W. Brownlow, Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens (London: Macmillan, 1977), p. 21. On the arbitrariness of the symbols, see Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 92.

15 Burckhardt, op. cit., pp. 54-5. Burckhardt, however, applies this principle more broadly to the trilogy as a whole than I would do.

16 Christopher Morris, Political Thought in England: Tyndale to Hooker (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 103.

17 The Arden stage direction is based on the Quarto, in which Clarence changes his mind onstage after conversing with Richard. The Folio suppresses even this explanation, as Clarence enters with his mind evidently made up, after a change we never see.

18 See Jones, op. cit., p. 175.

19 ibid., p. 189.

20 That is the reduced cast of the Folio version; the Quarto also has Montague and Hastings but gives them no lines.

21 See Raymond V. Utterback, 'Public men, private wills, and kingship in Henry VI, Part III', Renaissance Papers 1978 (Durham, NC: Southern Renaissance Conference, 1979), p. 49.

22 John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare 's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), p. 68. For Blanpied's general discussion of this quality in the play, see pp. 64-70.

23 M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London: Arnold, 1961), p. 126.

24 See John Wilders, The Lost Garden (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 17. The Folio gives two versions of the Father's entrance. In one, he and the Son come on together from different doors; in the other, the Father enters just before he speaks. The second version is also found in the Quarto, and is preferred by the Arden editor; but the first would increase the visual shock following Henry's speech, and is in keeping with the general stylization of the scene. It is more likely to represent Shakespeare's second thoughts about the staging.

25 See Tillyard, op. cit., p. 151.

26 A reviewer of a Victorian production reports: 'He died boldly, like a courageous rebel of the true English type, and won our respect even in his fall': Athenaeum, 30 April 1864; quoted in Gāmini Salgado (ed.), Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975), p. 88.

27 See Wilders, op. cit., p. 16.

28 Edward I. Berry accuses the King of 'sublime ignorance of the psychology of symbolism' (op. cit., p. 25).

29 The analogy is drawn by Holinshed. See Geoffrey Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 3 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), p. 210. On the relations between this scene and the Passion sequences in the mystery plays, see Jones, op. cit., pp. 54-6.

30 See Michael Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973), p. 110.

31 See Michael Manheim, 'Silence in the Henry VI plays', Educational Theatre Journal, 29 (1977), 71.

32 See Philip Edwards, Threshold of a Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 124.

33 See Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 58.

34 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), passim.

35 In the John Barton adaptation The Wars of the Roses (Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963) the dying Henry (David Warner) planted a bloody kiss on the forehead of Richard (Ian Holm). The gesture of forgiveness later became a curse; in Richard III Henry's ghost kissed Richard again, and Richard went into his final battle wearing the mark of Cain.

36 The Quarto text includes (after 1. 79) the words 'I had no father, I am like no father.' In view of Richard's earlier admiration for his father, this makes his rejection of his own humanity even more startling.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15703

Edward I. Berry (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "3 Henry VI: Kinship," in Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories, University Press of Virginia, 1975, pp. 53-74.

[In the essay below, Berry contends that 3 Henry VI offers a deeply ironic view of Henry's kingship, for it depicts him as saintlike and empathetic on the one hand yet irresponsible and self indulgent on the other. The critic also examines the theme of family loyalty in the play, particularly the connection between the corruption of traditional ideals of kinship and the disintegration of political and social order.]

Samuel Johnson probably had 3 Henry VI in mind when he complained that the Henry VI plays "have not sufficient variety of action, for the incidents are too often of the same kind." 1 Of the play's twenty-eight scenes, twelve take place on the battlefield, and the remainder consist for the most part of challenges and counterchallenges, rallying and reassembling of forces—the menacing banalities that serve only to join one bloodbath to the next. A variety of sorts is discernible in all these episodes, even those on the battlefield; there is, after all, more than one way to kill a man—or boy. But the variations are tonal, shades of a dismal gray rather than contrasts of colors. Whether in action or in talk, the mindless violence of civil war pervades the play—a violence stripped bare of chivalric or even rhetorical decorum. It is at the cost of a grisly monotony that the play achieves its distinctive uniformity of tone and its undeniable emotional impact.

The structure of the play is correspondingly indistinct. Unlike Part II, Part III does not move toward a central emotional climax, nor does it embody a unified action. Instead it charts, in a rhythmic series of pulses, the shifting fortunes of Yorkists and Lancastrians from the Battle of Saint Albans to the end of the civil wars. That the vicissitudes of the play's action serve as structural mimicry of the vicissitudes of the wars cataloged by the chroniclers is suggested by Henry's observation on the Battle of Towton:

Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forc'd by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the self-same sea
Forc'd to retire by fury of the wind.
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast;
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered.
So is the equal poise of this fell war.


The allusions to the natural cycle evoke the interminability of the conflict, a ceaseless flux in which victory and defeat eventually lose all meaning. Even with the final defeat of the Lancastrians at Tewkesbury, distinctions between conqueror and conquered are blurred: Edward sits poised on a throne soon to be undermined by his own brother. The play opens with a Yorkist victory that precipitates years of civil war and ends with one that serves as a prologue to tyranny.

As in Part II, the opening scene of 3 Henry VI establishes at once the ineffectuality of Henry's rule. His first defeat, on the battlefield, is merely reported—he escaped capture, according to York, because he "slily stole away and left his men" (I.i.3); but his second, in Parliament, is fully dramatized. Confronted by the victorious Yorkists, whose leader has already assumed the throne, Henry displays at first a momentary show of authority:

Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet;
I am thy sovereign.


But upon York's refusal to budge, the command subsides to a question: "And shall I stand, and thou sit in my throne?" (1. 84); and York remains seated throughout the proceedings. As the scene unfolds, Henry is not merely outfaced but outargued. Having ensnared himself in a specious defense of his title, he confesses in an anxious aside, "I know not what to say: my title's weak" (1. 138). That he succumbs to the pedantic legalism of the Yorkists is typical of Henry's posture throughout the play: if in Part II he is a "providentialist," in Part III he is a weakling and a saint, driven obsessively toward a standard of moral purity at once divine and dangerous to the state. With the sudden appearance of the Yorkist soldiers, Henry simply collapses—outfaced, outargued, outbraved. Grasping at straws, he attempts to salvage his reign by disinheriting his son and relinquishing the crown to York and his heirs. The crisis dissolves finally in the bathos of domestic comedy: confronted with the maternal outrage of his queen, Henry submits passively to her diatribe and acquiesces in her desire for vengeance against the House of York. The unhappy compromise, of course, is promptly and simultaneously broken by both parties.

Abstracted in this manner from the total context of the scene, Henry's ineffectuality seems capable of evoking only bemused contempt from an audience. The actual process of judgment, however, is more complicated. If Henry's weakness is offensive, it is no more so than York's courage. The image of York taunting the severed head of Somerset and then proclaiming, with ominous indifference, "By words or blows here let us win our right" (I.i.37) does much to cushion one's criticism of Henry's unrealistic efforts to wage war by "frowns, words, and threats" (1. 72). If Henry's moral sensibility is so refined as to be debilitating, it is only York's coarseness that blinds him to the fact that he is a rebel, not a rightful king—though one must admit that he is not quite so crude as his sons, who urge him to "tear the crown from the usurper's head" (1. 114). Nor is Henry's moral absolutism more objectionable than the oath with which Clifford offers him solace: "King Henry, be thy title right or wrong, / Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defence . . ." (11. 163-64). And if Henry is unnatural in disinheriting his son, what is one to say of a wife who overturns at will the political acts of her husband and king?

The perspective throughout the scene, in other words, is unremittingly ironic; here and in the play at large the clash of characters represents a clash of moral positions all of which are fragmentary and imperfect. No longer is there a Talbot or a Gloucester to serve as a center of value, or even a Lucy or an Exeter as chorus. Instead the audience is left to sort out from a world without heroes relative degrees of unworthiness. With the onset of political anarchy, there are simply no heroes left to celebrate and no community to nourish them. And the issues themselves, though clear enough, have become unresolvable. The pressures of the past have exploded in the anarchy of the present, and present actions, as we shall see, spin the future ever farther out of human control. The shift from a mode of drama at least partially eulogistic to one wholly ironic thus marks a natural progression within the movement of the tetralogy as a whole.

Although the issue of political legitimacy figures prominently in the opening scene, it is of little real concern to anyone but Henry, whose moral qualms serve only to unnerve him. But the issue is not solely one of brute force; if it were, there would be nothing to prevent York from seizing Henry and the throne without further ado. Instead, the two claimants, who at this point exercise a restraining influence upon their more aggressive supporters, arrive at a compromise, an accord that lies at the emblematic center of the scene:

K. Hen. .....
  [To York] I here entail
The crown to thee and to thine heirs for ever;
Conditionally that here thou take thine oath
To cease this civil war and, whilst I live,
To honour me as thy king and sovereign;
And neither by treason nor hostility
To seek to put me down and reign thyself.
York. This oath I willingly take and will perform.
  [Coming from the throne] 


With a sigh of lament at the unnaturalness of his act, Henry disinherits his son that he himself may rule in peace; York forgoes his claim and his seat on the throne that his sons may rule after him. At the core of the scene, then, is a question concerning the nature of parental and filial obligation—a question put to all parties, here and throughout the play, with corrosive irony.

In the opening scene it is Henry's inadequacies that are probed most searchingly. The bond he breaks with a sigh serves as the sole raison d'être for his family and supporters. More familial than political in their loyalties, they recoil with outrage at his act of disinheritance. To Margaret the act violates the most profound ties of nature:

Ah! wretched man, would I had died a maid,
And never seen thee, never borne thee son,
Seeing thou hast prov'd so unnatural a father.
Hath he deserv'd to lose his birthright thus?

Hadst thou but lov'd him half so well as I,
Or felt that pain which I did for him once,
Or nourish'd him as I did with my blood,
Thou would'st have left thy dearest heartblood there,
Rather than made that savage duke thine heir,
And disinherited thine only son.


Henry has no answer to this, nor to the perceptive query of his son—"If you be king, why should not I succeed?" (1. 234)—but retreats into a timorous acknowledgment that he yielded to the threat of force. Ironically, Henry himself has earlier appealed to the strength of blood-loyalty on two occasions, the first when he rallies his supporters against York:

Earl of Northumberland, he slew thy father,
And thine, Lord Clifford; and you both have vow'd revenge
On him, his sons, his favourites, and his friends.


His second appeal enmeshes him in a genealogical argument he would rather avoid. "Are we not both Plantagenets by birth, / And from two brothers lineally descent?" (11. 125-26), he petitions York, who is only too happy to agree.

Margaret's accusation of unnaturalness acquires a wealth of ironic significance as her role in the play unfolds, but for the moment it is left to Clifford and the other nobles to betray the insecure foundations of their anger at Henry. For Clifford, Northumberland, and Westmoreland, all of whom have had fathers slain at Saint Albans, the moral and political principles involved in York's claim to the throne are irrelevancies; for them loyalty to Henry ends when he can no longer provide an outlet for the bloodlust of revenge. Clifford's vow to fight for Henry "be thy title right or wrong" is prompted by a filial devotion which already hints at the atrocities that will ensue: "May that ground gape and swallow me alive, / Where I shall kneel to him that slew my father!" (I.i.165-66). And his disgust with Henry's capitulation—"What wrong is this unto the Prince your son!" (1. 182)—wells up from a spirit strangled by the bonds of familial love. To compound the ironies of the situation, Henry himself at one point echoes Clifford's values, threatening that regardless of "right and equity" he will "unpeople" the realm rather than "leave my kingly throne, / Wherein my grandsire and my father sat" (11. 127-29). While Clifford and Margaret pursue their objectives with the vehemence of narrow minds, Henry merely ties himself in knots of political and moral perplexity.

From Clifford's perspective, as he later makes explicit, York appears an ideal father. Indeed, the fact that he lets slip his own claim to the throne in favor of his sons suggests a devotion to values more generous than that of personal ambition. This compelling paternal love, coupled with the sense of restraint that sets him off from his less inhibited sons, creates a new dimension to the role that York has played thus far in the sequence; in a shift characteristic of the tetralogy's thematic orientation, the "dogged York, that reaches at the moon" (2 Henry VI III.i.158) has now become paterfamilias. It is to emphasize this new role that the play begins with York's sons, in a travesty of familial affection (or sibling rivalry), presenting him with gifts of blood. "Richard hath best deserv'd of all my sons" (I.i.17), acknowledges the grateful father as Somerset's head rolls to his feet. York's conception of fatherhood finds expression in acts of violent rebellion and perjury, the latter enabling him to reclaim the throne and to unite once again self-love with family pride.

Family loyalties, then, provide the emblematic core of the opening scene. As a mode of action, a center of value, a measuring rod for the depredations of civil war, kinship, in virtually all its permutations and perversions, serves as the thematic center of the play.3 Among the Lancastrians, the theme is expressed primarily in terms of relations between parent and child, as in the case of Margaret, Henry, and the prince, and in Clifford's obsessive devotion to his dead father. In the Yorkist clan (the word is appropriate), paternal and filial bonds are both at issue, as well as brotherly love. Upon the death of York, Warwick becomes a surrogate father: a shoulder to lean upon (II.i.189); a source of authority—"never will I undertake the thing / Wherein thy counsel and consent is wanting," vows Edward ( A host of minor episodes serve as elaborations of these major relationships, variants of the dominant chords. King Lewis responds with exaggerated outrage, for example, at Edward's insult to his daughter; Warwick's daughter seals his compact with Margaret and the prince; the widow Elizabeth captures Edward's hand because she refuses to compromise her honor even for the sake of her children—"thou wrong'st thy children mightily," admonishes Edward, echoing Clifford's appeal to Henry (III.ii.74). Even at the point of Warwick's death his lengthy de casibus lament ultimately gives way to a lyrical invocation of his brother Montague, a character whose reported dying words—"'O farewell, Warwick'" (V.ii.47)—are virtually his first in the play.

As has often been observed, the hint for Shakespeare's exploration of kinship as an index of the horrors of civil war occurs in Hall's account of the Battle of Saxton: "This conflict was in maner unnaturall, for in it the sonne fought against the father, the brother against the brother, the nephew against the uncle, and the tenaunt against his lord... ." 4 The refrain is a familiar one, however, and could just as easily have caught Shakespeare's attention in the final lines of Gorboduc or the 1571 Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion. One reason why the Homily labels rebellion the "sink and puddle of all sins" is that it disrupts the most intimate of family relations, causing "the brother to seek, and often to work the death of his brother; the son of the father, the father, to seek or procure the death of his sons, being at man's age, and by their faults to disherit their innocent children and kinsmen their heirs for ever, for whom they might purchase livings and lands, as natural parents do take care and pains, and be at great costs and charges... ."5 What grips the imagination of the moralist is the unnaturalness of such actions. To set Frenchmen and Englishmen at odds is one thing; to set kin against kin is a dreadful violation of the most elemental of all human ties, that of blood. Although Shakespeare may begin with the commonplaces of his sources, he probes far more deeply and extensively, as we have observed in the opening scene, the tragic ironies they embody. In 3 Henry VI, moreover, the theme of kinship serves not merely to articulate the perversions of civil war but to define a particular stage of historical process. The family is a center of value in the world of 3 Henry VI because the broader structure of community no longer remains; the social framework has been leveled to its foundations.

It is traditional in Western thought to view the family unit as the bedrock of the state. Cicero's De Officiis, a work read by every Elizabethan schoolboy, describes four degrees of social grouping: membership in a common species, a common nation (or language), a common city, a common family. Since the bond of alliance tightens as the social units decrease in size, the family constitutes the most natural and indissoluble of communities, "the original of a citie and as it were the seedplotte of a commonweale."6 Although the strongest and most elemental of bonds, kinship is for Cicero not the most perfect. Above it in his hierarchy of values is true friendship, based on moral and spiritual affinity rather than ties of blood; and higher still is patriotism, a love which spurs Cicero to castigate the "beastly cruelty" of those people who "have rent a sonder their countrey with al maner of mischief. . . ."7 In centering 3 Henry VI on the concept of the family, then, Shakespeare adapts a traditional conception of social structure to the theme of social devolution begun in Part I: chivalric community gives way to the narrower bonds of law, law, to kinship, and kinship, as we shall see, to self-love.

That ties of blood should be less sacred than spiritual affinity is made painfully clear by the depredations of the two chief spokesmen for "natural" affection in Scene i, Clifford and Margaret. Clifford's father-love, which began in Part II as a travesty of the piety of Aeneas, assumes in Part III maniacal proportions. With words that betray his stifled humanity, he cuts off the pleas of the defenseless young Rutland whom he meets at Wakefield: "In vain thou speak'st, poor boy; my father's blood / Hath stopp'd the passage where thy words should enter" (I.iii.21-22). The startling jolt of sympathy in the phrase "poor boy" and the evasion of personal responsibility for his deafness are telling reminders of an idealism permanently crippled on the field at Saint Albans. For Clifford, filial love ultimately reduces all of life to a terrible geometric simplicity. In a phrase and a deed, he crystallizes the revenge-ethic that dominates the play in a variety of guises: "Thy father slew my father; therefore die. [Stabs him]" (1. 46). The "natural" affection that drives Margaret to protect her child's right to the throne finds outlets even more brutal and perverse. Unlike Clifford, who at least hints at suppressed compassion, Margaret inflicts upon her enemy the most insidious of torments:

Look, York: I stain'd this napkin with the blood
That valiant Clifford with his rapier's point
Made issue from the bosom of the boy;
And if thine eyes can water for his death,
I give thee this to dry thy cheeks withal.


In his treatment of Clifford and Margaret and the play's other avengers, Shakespeare depends upon the standard formulas of the revenge play; in placing these conventions within the framework of civil war and the historical process out of which it emerges, however, he shapes them to new and dramatically compelling ends.

Prompted by Holinshed's allusion to the taunting of Christ by the Jews, J. P. Brockbank remarks on the overtones of the Passion in the scene of York's death.8 Although present, such resonances are subdued; more important is the narrower, more intense range of associations evoked by the twin emblems of York's suffering, the paper crown and the bloody napkin. In these two symbols are compressed the dominant motives of his life—political aspiration and paternal love. Although both serve as targets for Margaret's derision, it is York's love of his son that generates the greatest force, transforming his Passion into an unholy martyrdom to the great god of fatherhood. It is the blood of young Rutland, not the paper crown, that drives York to an emotional climax so eloquent that it moves even Northumberland to tears:

That face of his the hungry cannibals
Would not have touch'd, would not have stain'd with blood;
But you are more inhuman, more inexorable—
O, ten times more—than tigers of Hyrcania.
See, ruthless queen, a hapless father's tears.
This cloth thou dipp'd'st in blood of my sweet boy,
And I with tears do wash the blood away.

Keep thou the napkin, and go boast of this;
And if thou tell the heavy story right,
Upon my soul, the hearers will shed tears;
Yea, even my foes will shed fast-falling tears;
And say "Alas! it was a piteous deed."


When one casts a backward glance at the course of York's career, a grim but fitting irony can be seen in the manner of his death, subjected as he is to a humiliating travesty of the very ideals he himself has perverted. Indeed, even his hope for vengeance recoils against him with a prophetic irony of which he is unaware: "My ashes, like the phoenix, may bring forth / A bird that will revenge upon you all. . ." (11. 35-36). Yet the perception of these ironies merely brings home the extent to which Shakespeare subordinates them to the sheer intensity of human grief and thus transcends the narrow moral didacticism of his sources. One is reminded of a later scene in which ironic moral judgments are dissipated by a character's suffering, that of Gloucester's blinding in King Lear.

The atrocities committed by Clifford and Margaret in the name of family loyalty create a new perspective on their ensuing relations with Henry, especially at their next encounter, when Henry's refusal to gloat at the sight of York's head as it sits on the gates of his town prompts a rebuke from Clifford for "too much lenity" and a lecture taken from the book of nature:

Unreasonable creatures feed their young;
And though man's face be fearful to their eyes,
Yet, in protection of their tender ones,
Who hath not seen them, even with those wings
Which sometime they have us'd with fearful flight,
Make war with him that climb'd unto their nest,
Offering their own lives in their young's defence?
For shame, my liege, make them your precedent!


We have already observed where this line of argument leads, what kind of precedents Margaret and Clifford have drawn from the behavior of "unreasonable" creatures. One wonders whether Henry is so "unnatural" a father. In appealing to natural instinct, Clifford activates a concept fraught with serious ambiguities: "between man, and beaste, this chiefly is the difference," writes Cicero in the Offices, "that a beaste, so far as he is moved by sense, bendeth himself to that onely, which is present, and at hand: verie smallie perceiving ought past, or tocome. . . ."9 The very examples Clifford cites elsewhere in his speech, in fact, allude directly to the various outrages committed thus far in the name of natural feeling. As he urges Henry to act the lion (1. 11) or the bear (1. 13) or the serpent (1. 15), one recalls earlier images: of Clifford himself—"So looks the pentup lion o'er the wretch / That trembles under his devouring paws . . ." (I.iii.12-13); of York—"as a bear, encompass'd round with dogs" (II.i.15); of Margaret—"She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France, / Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth!" (I.iv.111-12). York's "O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide!" (I.iv. 137) serves as an emblem for all those characters who, like Clifford, confuse naturalness with bestiality.

As much as one recoils against Clifford's advice in this scene, Henry's rebuttal offers no alternative:

Full well hath Clifford play'd the orator,
Inferring arguments of mighty force.
But, Clifford, tell me, didst thou never hear
That things evil got had ever bad success?
And happy always was it for that son
Whose father for his hoarding went to hell?
I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind;
And would my father had left me no more!


The ironies in the exchange are finely honed, Henry turning with well-placed sarcasm from Clifford's book of nature to his own stock of proverbial lore. "The general and perpetual voice of men," writes Hooker, "is as the sentence of God himself."10 Although a shrewd rejoinder to Clifford's harangue, Henry's response is not, as Ronald S. Berman suggests, an "intensely noble expression."11 The king who directs his kneeling prince to "draw thy sword in right" (1. 62) suffers from a moral paralysis that prevents him from drawing his sword at all. Both characters elevate halftruths to the level of absolutes. Only the young prince's attitude seems appropriate to the situation, combining respect for authority with a firm resolve to retain his rights:

My gracious father, by your kingly leave,
I'll draw it [the sword] as apparent to the crown,
And in that quarrel use it to the death.


Though his role is underplayed, Prince Edward consistently strikes the necessary balance between Henry's "too much lenity"—what Elyot in The Governor calls "vain pity"12—and Clifford's cruelty. The scene's dialectical technique, though not fully realized, clearly foreshadows that of the Henry IV plays. The implications of the prince's response, moreover—that true legitimacy is not inherited but earned—are pursued not only in the figure of Prince Hal but in the Bastard Falconbridge in King John.

The dialogue between Clifford and Henry continues obliquely in a series of scenes juxtaposed with sharply ironic effect. In Act II Scene iv Richard and Clifford, alone in the midst of battle, exchange furious taunts and blows until Warwick enters and Clifford is forced to flee. In Act II Scene v Henry, alone on a molehill, yearns for the pastoral life until his thoughts are interrupted by the entrance of the father who has killed his son and the son who has killed his father; Henry too finally exits fleeing. In Act II Scene vi Clifford, with an arrow in his neck, levies his final judgment on Henry and dies. His corpse is taunted by the encircling Yorkists, who now have a head to take the place of York's on the gates of the city. In the next scene, Act III Scene i, Henry himself is captured by the foresters as he steals home from Scotland, disguised, and with a prayer book in hand.

The vicious exchange between Clifford and Richard sets the stage for the most important scene in the series, that of Henry's pastoral lament (II.v). In its inconsequential relation to the outcome of the plot and its stylized, emblematic manner, the "mole-hill" scene resembles the Countess of Auvergne episode in Part I and the "miracle" of Saint Albans in Part II; more than either of these earlier episodes, it generates a complicated response. The scene begins with Henry, alone, musing upon the vicissitudes of the battle that swirls around him; as he sits upon a molehill, his thoughts turn to the simplicity and order of a shepherd's life:

O God! methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run—
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours brings about the day,
How many days will finish up the year,
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times—
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean;
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!


Remarking upon the manner in which the lines of Henry's "exquisite pastoral seem to re-create the convention out of the kind of human experience which underlies it," J. P. Brockbank calls the soliloquy "the most moving of Shakespeare's comments on the civil wars."13

That Henry's yearning for a pastoral life affords a moment of sanity in welcome contrast to the chaos of civil war is certainly true. Coming as it does immediately after the savage encounter between Clifford and Richard on the battlefield—not to mention the earlier atrocities—Henry's longing to isolate himself from such madness cannot help but touch a responsive chord. Yet the effect of the speech, given the total dramatic context, is double edged. If on the one hand Henry's idyll provides a release from the brutality of the battlefield, on the other it presents no solution to the conflict. The war rages, after all, in part because of the very instincts toward retreat that Henry is at this point once more indulging; the Lancastrians are even now without a leader. Contemplated from this angle, the detached passivity of Henry's pose becomes ironic. The pastoral vision implies a comment on the civil wars, as Brockbank maintains, but it also implies a comment on the nature of Henry's rule.

The pastoral conventions upon which the scene depends, moreover, provide their own implicit commentary. To compare a king's life to that of a shepherd is to invoke automatically one of the political commonplaces of the period. In More's Utopia, for example, Hythlodaeus describes the duties of kingship in terms that were familiar to most educated Elizabethans: "Suppose I should show that they [the people] choose a king for their own sake and not for his—to be plain, that by his labor and effort they may live well and safe from injustice and wrong. For this very reason, it belongs to the king to take more care for the welfare of his people than for his own, just as it is the duty of a shepherd, insofar as he is a shepherd, to feed his sheep rather than himself." 14 The very language of his lament thus suggests the extent to which Henry's desire to become a shepherd represents an evasion of his responsibilities as king. The mood created by the episode as a whole is one of pathos mingled with irony.

The pastoral motif reappears as late as Henry V in a moment of personal crisis, in the king's soliloquy the night before Agincourt, though this time in a version so realistic and so tightly compressed as to be scarcely recognizable. Henry V's envy is directed not at a shepherd but at a peasant, the "wretched slave" who,

  like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year
With profitable labour to his grave. . . .


The classical allusions betray the potentially dangerous idealization of apolitical experience inherent in such sentiments—an idealization that Henry V, unlike his son, is able to overcome.

As Henry VI's idyll yields to the successive lamentations of the father and son, the overtones of tragic responsibility resonate with even greater urgency. An emblem of the war itself interrupts the pastoral dream. "O pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!" pleads Henry as he observes the grief-stricken father:

The red rose and the white are on his face,
The fatal colours of our striving houses:
The one his purple blood right well resembles;
The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth.
Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.


As king and commoners join in choric lament, a new topos emerges to place Henry's grief once more in the widest possible context:

Son. How will my mother for a father's death
Take on with me and ne'er be satisfied!
Fath. How will my wife for slaughter of my son
Shed seas of tears and ne'er be satisfied!
K. Hen. How will the country for these woeful chances
Misthink the King and not be satisfied!
Son. Was ever son so rued a father's death?
Fath. Was ever father so bemoan'd his son?
K. Hen. Was ever king so griev'd for subjects' woe?
Much is your sorrow; mine, ten times so much.


No longer shepherd of his country, Henry is now its father, his sorrow magnified in proportion to his loss. That Henry feels with great intensity the human significance of the civil wars sets him apart from the savagery around him; like his yearning for pastoral tranquility, his generalized grief vents emotions by this time sorely in need of expression. Yet here too the topos turns ironically against him; the father and son are victims of a situation which Henry's ineffectuality has helped bring into being. That York suffered earlier on the same molehill calls attention to the parallel in their fates as fathers; York's ambition results in his own and Rutland's death, Henry's passivity in the suffering of his land. Unlike York's grief, however, which ultimately dissipates all ironies, Henry's lamentations are contained within a firmly ironic perspective. The scene's final image is of Henry fleeing:

Nay, take me with thee, good sweet Exeter:
Not that I fear to stay, but love to go
Whither the Queen intends. Forward; away!


Not until his own death, paradoxically, does Henry face life like a king.

As Henry races offstage, Clifford staggers on, an arrow in his neck. With his dying words he foresees the king's defeat and inveighs against the weakness that has brought tragedy to the realm:

Oh, Lancaster, I fear thy overthrow
More than my body's parting with my soul.
My love and fear glu'd many friends to thee;
And, now I fall, thy tough commixture melts,
Impairing Henry, strengthening misproud York.

And, Henry, hadst thou sway'd as kings should do,
Or as thy father, and his father did,
Giving no ground unto the house of York,
They never then had sprung like summer flies;
I, and ten thousand in this luckless realm
Had left no mourning widows for our death;
And thou this day hadst kept thy chair in peace.
For what doth cherish weeds but gentle air?
And what makes robbers bold but too much lenity?


In its combination of prophetic insight and homiletic urgency the speech recalls the choric commentaries of Lucy and Exeter in Part I. The charge of "too much lenity," indeed, repeats a phrase used earlier by Clifford in his argument with Henry (II.ii.9), while the image of ten thousand mourning widows reflects immediately upon the lamentations of the preceding scene. Unlike Lucy and Exeter, however, Clifford is no faceless authorial spokesman but a fully individualized character—a man who in his final moments of life remains too morally obtuse to comprehend the irony in his accusations. The blend of conventional didactic commentary with a psychological verisimilitude that partially undermines it adds a new dimension to Shakespeare's handling of the soliloquy. A further stage occurs in Richard III, when irony moves into the character's own psyche and commentary becomes self-conscious.

As Clifford himself intimates, his passing prefigures the emergence of a new order; with his death and York's the ideal of family loyalty gradually crumbles. It lingers on in Clarence's spontaneous reunion with his brothers at Coventry and, most powerfully, in Margaret's torment at the murder of the prince, but by then such gestures are no more than the afterglow of values long extinguished. The first hint of the dissolution of the tight-knit Yorkist clan occurs early in the play, in the wondrous vision of the three suns that seem so clearly a symbol of brotherly unity. Richard's description of the merging of the three into one image, however, conveys with prophetic ambiguity a hint of the actual future, in which dissembled affection enables him to absorb his brothers and shine alone:

See, see! they join, embrace, and seem to kiss,
As if they vow'd some league inviolable:
Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun.


After the temporary dislocation of Clarence's defection, this unity is celebrated in the family gathering that closes the play, highlighted by Richard's Judas kiss.

With the ascendancy of Edward, the Yorkist brotherhood proves incapable of surviving the strains of power. The immediate cause of their disaffection, and that of the surrogate father Warwick, is Edward's lust. Unable to bed the Lady Elizabeth on his own terms, Edward lurches into an ignoble and impolitic marriage, and then proceeds to elevate his wife's kinsmen at the expense of his own brothers. Though significantly less idealized than Henry's, Edward's infatuation echoes in its disastrous consequences the passion of the former king for Margaret in Part I. Unmoved by the protests of Clarence and Richard, the new ruler seals in a phrase his devotion to brotherhood, friendship, and the welfare of the realm at large: "I am Edward, / Your King and Warwick's, and must have my will" (IV.i.15-16). So much for the selflessness of family loyalty. One recalls Cade, whose mouth was to become the parliament of England; York's progeny themselves now emerge as parodies of their father. Edward's willfulness proves immediately self-destructive, of course, shattering his relations with his brothers, Warwick, and France, and making possible a new alliance between his enemies and former friends.

Although the defections of Clarence and Warwick create new turmoil among both parties, their self-assertiveness is inconsequential when compared to Richard's. From the moment of his first soliloquy (III.ii), Richard usurps a position of prominence he retains until the aftermath of Bosworth Field. From the perspective of character development, Richard's sudden emergence as a self-conscious violator of all bonds of family affection seems somewhat disconcerting. For the first half of the play, though distinguished from Edward by his fiery nature in war and his sophistry in peace, Richard betrays none of the vicious alienation characteristic of his later self-revelations. Indeed, in keeping with the thematic emphasis on familial devotion, Richard is shown time and again expressing without irony the appropriate emotions, whether at his father's death—"Richard, I bear thy name; I'll venge thy death, / Or die renowned by attempting it" (II.i.87-88); or on the battlefield with Edward and Warwick:

Brother, give me thy hand; and, gentle Warwick,
Let me embrace thee in my weary arms:
I, that did never weep, now melt with woe
That winter should cut off our spring-time so.


A psychological approach to Richard's sudden shift in character, though plausible in some respects, can only yield ambiguous results. M. M. Reese, for example, suggests that in soliloquy Richard "reveals himself as the solitary hunter that at heart he has always been"; Robert Ornstein, on the other hand, finds in the death of York a "spiritual turning point" that leaves Richard "without a single emotional attachment."15 It is futile to choose between such opposed interpretations; like Clifford's, Richard's sudden dominance as a character is motivated by only shadowy outlines of psychological development. The stages of Richard's "development," like those of other characters—Henry's, say, or York's—are defined with less attention to the inner workings of individual psychology than to the general vision of social and historical process that unifies the tetralogy. As loyalty to the family dissolves, a new and ominous individualism emerges to take its place. The suggestion for Richard's sudden dominance seems to have come from a general observation in More's Richard III not from psychological intuition. "No where," laments the dying Edward to his factious kinsmen, "finde we so dedly debate as emongst theim whiche by nature and lawe moste ought to agre together. Suche a serpente is ambicion and desire of vainglory and sovereigntie, which emongest estates when he is once entred he crepith furth so far, till with devision and variaunce he turneth all to mischiefe."16 It is this serpent ambition that triggers Richard's soliloquy:

Ay, Edward will use women honourably.
Would he were wasted, marrow, bones, and all,
That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring,
To cross me from the golden time I look for!

[III.ii. 124-27]

In modulating from family love to self-assertion at midpoint in the play, then, Shakespeare incorporates a traditional conception of family dynamics into the larger process of social disintegration.

Despite Shakespeare's subordination of psychological to thematic development, the lines just quoted are enough to show the acuteness of his psychological insight. Edward's marriage poses a double menace to Richard, expressed with great psychological subtlety in the very terms of his protest; the "loins" of his brother are threatening to Richard not only because he is ambitious but because he is deformed. Shakespeare's exploration of the psychological impact of Richard's deformity, which begins at this point, constitutes his most significant contribution to the character portrayed in the historical sources. For Thomas More, the mere fact of ambition is motive enough; the biblical image of the "serpent," in fact, suggests that psychologizing in such a case would be merely redundant. In More's history Richard's abnormal birth becomes a probable sign "that nature chaunged his course in his beginnynge, whiche in his life many thynges unnaturally committed. . . ."17 Although Shakespeare incorporates this platonic strain into his portrait of Richard—both Henry and, in Richard III, Margaret emblematize the deformity—the soliloquies reflect a more modern, Baconian orientation. "It is good to consider of deformity," writes Bacon, "not as a sign, which is more deceivable; but as a cause, which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath any thing fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn."18 A comparable intuition underlies Richard's "Love forswore me in my mother's womb" (III.ii.153). The modernity of this viewpoint should not be exaggerated, however, for both Shakespeare and Bacon resist the deterministic implications of their thought. When Richard chooses to break out of his "thorny wood" with a "bloody axe" (1. 181), he does so by an act of will; in Bacon's words, "there is in man an election touching the frame of his mind," though there may be "a necessity in the frame of his body."19

Even in Richard's deformity, however, there is more than psychology at work. His description of his birth, while psychologically compelling in its self-abhorrence, has ramifications that extend well beyond the confines of a single mind:

Why, Love forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail Nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits Deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or unliek'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.


The imagery of disordered nature swells Richard's deformity into an emblem of a disordered world, a world unnatural, disproportioned, formless. It is in one sense time itself that has given birth to Richard, the chaos of civil war breeding the "unliek'd bear-whelp" whose only future is savage destruction. With the catalog of villainous devices that concludes the soliloquy, moreover, Richard recapitulates not only the wiles of his father but the accumulated arts of all the "politicians" of Parts I and II:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry "Content!" to that that grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.

[III.ii. 182-85]

Henceforth he will dominate the world as a true distillation of the anarchic tendencies of the society that brought him into being.

When Richard confronts Henry in the Tower, the polarities extend from the demonic to the divine. No longer ensnared in the coils of kingship, Henry's saintliness is redeemed by his irrelevance to earthly affairs. The ironic detachment that surfaced earlier in his thrusts against Clifford has now become sharper and more finely tuned. Unlike Richard II, Henry inflicts no physical pain on his tormentor, but the barbs of his sainted wit cut deep:

K. Hen. .....
But wherefore dost thou come? Is't for my life?
Rich. Think'st thou I am an executioner?
K. Hen. A persecutor I am sure thou art:
If murdering innocents be executing,
Why then thou art an executioner.
Rick Thy son I kill'd for his presumption.
K. Hen. Hadst thou been kill'd when first thou didst presume,
Thou hadst not liv'd to kill a son of mine.


With the prophetic insight displayed earlier in his blessing of the young Richmond, Henry foresees his country's future and seals his own doom:

K. Hen. .... .
Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,
To signify thou cam'st to bite the world;
And if the rest be true which I have heard.
Thou cam'st—
Rich. I'll hear no more: die, prophet, in thy speech. Stabs him.
For this, amongst the rest, was I ordain'd.
K. Hen. Ay, and for much more slaughter after this.
O God, forgive my sins and pardon thee! Dies. 


At the moment of his murder, the saintliness that afflicts Henry throughout the play achieves an apotheosis untainted by irony.

In the act of regicide Richard drives the moral anarchy of his peers and predecessors to overtly demonic extremes. Not only does he murder a defenseless king, but he subjects the prostrate corpse to a gratuitous second thrust: "If any spark of life be yet remaining, / Down, down to hell; and say I sent thee thither—[Stabs him again]" ( Although Richard's brutality transcends even that of Clifford or Margaret, especially in its insinuations of diabolic agency, it adds merely a new variation to a pattern of violence already well established. Not his action but his articulation of motives propels Richard outside the moral framework of the play:

The midwife wonder'd, and the women cried
"O jesu bless us, he is born with teeth!".
And so I was, which plainly signified
That I should snarl, and bite, and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shap'd my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word "love", which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me: I am myself alone.


The stress on love reflects, no doubt, Shakespeare's reading of the sources in preparation for Richard III. In More's history Edward IV invokes the doctrine of charity when he makes the speech of reconciliation that resonates throughout the narrative: "wherefore in these laste woordes that ever I looke to speake to you, I exhorte and require you all, for the love that you have borne too me, and for the love that I have borne to you, and for the love that oure Lorde beareth to us all: From this tyme forward all greves forgotten, eche of you love other. .. ."20 In 3 Henry VI Richard's violation of charity is assimilated into the broader vision of social dissolution characteristic of the tetralogy as a whole. In repudiating family ties Richard casts off selfconsciously the only social ideal remaining in a world shattered by civil war; in repudiating all love, he cuts himself off from the wider network of values symbolized earlier in Talbot's devotion to chivalry or Gloucester's to law. Both visually and verbally Richard cannot help but bring to mind the earlier hero, Talbot. It was Talbot, after all, whom the Countess of Auvergne mocked as a "weak and writhled shrimp" (1 Henry VI II.iii.22), and Talbot too whose nature was defined in terms of an allegiance to a community ordered by bonds of love: "I am but shadow of myself (1. 51). Richard's "I am myself alone" thus captures in an aphorism of self-definition the final result of the social disintegration traced throughout the sequence as a whole.

Part III of Henry VI, then, depicts the gradual dissolution of a society at war with itself, a society in which the single bond of kinship, isolated from the higher values that must sustain it, becomes increasingly corrupted and is finally destroyed. The vision of social anarchy portrayed in the play lingers on in Shakespeare's imagination throughout his career. Ulysses' famous speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida evokes images of a disordered world reminiscent of that depicted in 3 Henry VI:

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.


Within the context of Troilus and Cressida Ulysses' pronouncement is subject to an ironic perspective that mocks its apparent profundity; his rhetoric, like that of others, is hopelessly divorced from effective action. The emphasis on degree, moreover, creates a more limited conceptual framework than that established throughout the Henry VI plays. But the powerful vision of disrupted family bonds, of the mindless lust for power, of moral and social chaos has its origins, it seems, in the world of 3 Henry VI. In retrospect, moreover, the image of the wolf that ultimately devours himself gives added poignance to the play's many allusions to bestiality and to the stress on cannibalism that accentuates the brutality of its final moments.21 While Margaret curses the murderers of her son—"Butchers and villains! bloody cannibals!" (V.v.59)—Richard is on his way to a "bloody supper in the Tower" (1. 83). In Richard III, . . . Richard takes special pleasure in dining after executions and marks the beginning of his downfall by gnawing his lip. The concluding play of the tetralogy thus carries on the process of social dissolution embodied in Ulysses' speech into its final, apocalyptic phase, when Richard III, a universal wolf, devours the world around him and, finally, himself.


1Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, VIII (New Haven, 1968), 612.

2 All citations to 3 Henry VI are from the Arden edition of Andrew S. Cairncross (London, 1964).

3 Various aspects of this theme are discussed in Don M. Ricks, Shakespeare's Emergent Form: A Study of the Structures of the Henry VI Plays, Monograph Series, XV, No. 1 (Logan: Utah State University Press, June 1968), pp. 87-95, and Ronald S. Berman, "Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI Plays," Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), 494-97.

4Hall's Chronicle (London, 1809), p. 256.

5Certain Sermons or Homilies Appointed to Be Read in the Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (Philadelphia, 1844), p. 511.

6Thre Bokes of Duties, tr. N. Grimald (London, 1556), C6.

7Duties, C7.

8 "The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI," in Early Shakespeare (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3), ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York, 1961), p. 95.

9Duties, A5v.

10Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (London, 1907), I, 176.

11 Berman, p. 496.

12 See The Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London, 1962), pp. 115-20.

13 P. 96.

14Utopia, ed. Edward Surtz, S.J. (New Haven, 1964), pp. 45-46. As Surtz observes, the motif "occurs everywhere"; he cites, among others, Ezek. 34:2, Jer. 23:1; Hom. Il 2.243, 4.296; Pl. Rep. 1.345; Arist. Eth. Nic. 8.11.1, 1161a.

15The Cease of Majesty (New York, 1961), p. 204; A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), p. 58.

16Hall's Chronicle, p. 344. I quote from Hall's adaptation of More's Richard III, since Shakespeare apparently had no access to the original.

17 Ibid., p. 343.

18 "Of Deformity," The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, VI (London, 1890), 480.

19 Ibid.

20Hall's Chronicle, p. 345.

21 For a discussion of the imagery of bestiality, see Berman, p. 497.

Larry S. Champion (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Henry VI Plays," in "The Noise of Threatening Drum ": Dramatic Strategy and Political Ideology in Shakespeare and the English Chronicle Plays, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 71-87.

[In this excerpt, Champion explores the widespread implications of the collapse of authority in the Henry VI trilogy and contends that Henry's ineptitude as a rulerrecognized by commoners as well as by the nobilitycontributes fatally to a climate in which factionalism and class struggle lead first to political anarchy and ultimately to civil war.]

While historical perspective reveals that some eras are more profoundly transitional than others, it is not likely that any age—even our own—can match the impact of the revolution that caught up the minds and spirits of sixteenth-century England. The foundations of modern astronomy are built on the heliocentric concept of the universe, which called into question the centrality of the earth as the center of God's creation. Anatomical studies were beginning to undermine Galenic principles of the body humors fundamental to concepts of medicine and the human personality. Geographical discoveries literally opened new worlds to individuals whose existence had previously been contained within the narrow limits of Europe and its immediate environs. Profound changes were occurring, as well, in the way man reasoned, in his perception of history, in the nature of the family unit and the traditional loyalties inherent to it, in the economic foundations of society, and in institutions of both church and state that had previously provided a degree of stability. In a word, a crisis of authority in virtually every facet of life was to leave few values unchallenged.

Especially the middle years of the century, as Robert Weimann writes, seem to have been "an exceptionally momentous historical period, in which essential assumptions and conditions for the theoretical discourse of the Shakespearean era saw the light of day."1 The Reformation itself was basically an "act of State,"2 a crisis of authority creating diverging claims of loyalty or a choice between conflicting authorities—"enough arguments, accusations, scurrility, conviction, abuse and unsettlement to guarantee every possibility of unrest and disturbance in a country always hard to control and impossible to police efficiently."3 If, as J. J. Scarisbrick has observed, it "concentrated allegiance by reducing the number and diversity of what are today called 'foci of authority,"' it also "broke Heaven and Earth apart by ending communication between Church Militant and Church Triumphant."4 Joel Hurstfield has noted that a "child born in 1533, the year when Elizabeth was born, . . . if his family was conformist," would have "subscribed to five different versions of the Christian religion by the time that he was twentysix."5 Of course, the actual Elizabethan continuum runs from the Jesuits and militant Catholics on the far right to various separatists and fringe sects, like the Family of Love, on the far left.6

Meanwhile, a new aristocracy and middle class had emerged, the result of the king's distribution of land and wealth following the dissolution of the monasteries and the vast land enclosures.7 The subsequent decline in the power and prestige of the older aristocracy allowed Cromwell actively to pursue his concept of state as the sovereign imperial authority, thus pushing the nation toward a higher degree of political unity and central administration. "The horizontal expansion of county government," as Peter Clark writes of the Elizabethan regime, came increasingly in collision with that "vertical growth in power" by which the state "sought to intervene increasingly in the running of local communities, wherever possible absorbing functions previously performed on an informal, seigneurial or neighborly level."8

There was a revolution of sorts in communication, as well. With an increased literacy rate and a burgeoning book market, more people were forced to become involved in the discourse of competing religious, political, and intellectual claims. The pamphlet literature of the period indicated a "new sense of citizenship," a "new willingness on the part of the educated, experienced, and potentially articulate citizen to explore the problems of public concern."9 What is particularly striking about this period when England boiled with new ideas, as Lawrence Stone observes, was the "widespread public participation in significant intellectual debate on every front."10 The ability to read, said someone at the time, "enableth us better to judge of the doctrines taught" so that "we are better fitted for the combat."11

One less enviable consequence of these profound social and political changes was a significant increase in poverty. The social structure was under great stress as a result of the doubling of the population, and economic problems were "brought into sharp relief by the rise in prices which increased by fifty percent in the first forty years of the century and more than doubled in the critical decades from 1540 to 1560."12 Greed was the leitmotif of the wealthy as England—with increasing numbers of unemployed drifting toward London and the other cities13—suffered from "famine, discontent, faction and social dislocation."14

The popular theater in Shakespeare's day thrived on this underlying clash of multiple authorities and the general sense of social unrest. "A composite formation in which disparate modes coexisted and intertwined,"15 it employed fictional strategies to negotiate and legitimate a variety of responses from its socially mixed audiences. While such a dramatic method may well have been the result of the playwrights' humanistic training in the writing of controversiae, exercises in which the pupil "would be told to defend each position [in a debate] in turn,"16 this public entertainment became a profound social force because it addressed issues central to a "society in crisis,"17 issues to which the spectators brought their own prejudices and predilections and for which they became the "ultimate source of authority in [their] willingness to credit and approve the representation of rule."18 . . .

Shakespeare builds into his plots pressure points with which many in his audience could readily identify. Whether or not their engagement is a conscious one, they would possess a cultural and ideological framework that would enhance their interest in a narrative that turns on issues of authority. Their response would obviously be determined to a large extent by the personal and political biases they bring to the playhouse—in much the same manner that a contemporary spectator's interest in and response to the Broadway production A Walk in the Woods or movies like Kramer Versus Kramer and Mississippi Burning are conditioned by his or her own political or domestic agenda.

Perhaps nowhere is this concept of cultural memory more crucial than in the history plays, in which issues dealing with authority under siege are given a political context that would render them intellectually and emotionally accessible to the spectator of the late 1580s and the 1590s. In this regard, the trilogy of plays on Henry VI, certainly among the earliest of Shakespeare's works, is above all a discourse on the crisis of political discord. In 1 Henry VI this discord is initiated through an argument that flares between Gloucester and Winchester, is exacerbated by the claims for the crown of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, and is registered most powerfully in the waning of English fortunes in France resulting directly from these internal divisions. Such plays employ what Jacques Derrida calls the "anterior future,"23 representing "events at a definable temporal distance from, but along the same line as, the audience's present."24

In effect, the opening scenes represent a power struggle between church and state. When the bishop of Winchester praises Henry V for having fought the Lord's battles and claims that the "Church's prayers made him so prosperous" (1.1.32),25 Gloucester, lord protector during the minority of Henry VI, retorts:

The Church! where is it? Had not church-men prayed,
His thread of life had not so soon decay'd.
None do you like but an effeminate prince,
Whom, like a schoolboy, you may overawe.


Words later convert into blows, as Gloucester's "blue coats" attack Winchester's "tawney coats" when the Protector is denied access to the Tower. Accused of being a "manifest conspirator" who contrived to murder the previous king, Winchester counters with claims that Gloucester is "a foe to citizens," a warmonger who overtaxes the people and seeks to overthrow religion in order to "crown himself king and suppress the Prince" (1.3.62,68). At the Parliament House in 3.1, each accuses the other of treason against the young king even as their followers, deprived of arms, bloody brains and break windows by throwing rocks at their adversaries. By the final act, Winchester, for a "sum of money [he has] promised .. . to his Holiness" (5.5.52-53), has secured a cardinalate. Having "gathered so much treasure, that no man in maner had monie but he," as Holinshed records,26 he swears that unless Gloucester "stoop[s] and bend[s his] knee" he will "sack this country with a mutiny" (61-62).

If the division between Gloucester and Winchester pivots on the question of how much power the church will exercise in the new reign, the confrontation between Richard Plantagenet and John Beaufort is ultimately far more deadly, interrogating Henry's right to the crown itself. In a scene of his own creation, which Robert Ornstein describes as a "triumph of the dramatic imagination over the inartistic formlessness of Tudor historiography,"27 Shakespeare sows the seeds of the War of the Roses in the Temple garden. At first the spectator is not even aware of the real point at issue, only that there is a relatively mild disagreement over whether Plantagenet or Somerset has "maintain'd the truth" (2.4.5). After Plantagenet plucks a white rose to symbolize his position, and Somerset, a red, they agree that the matter will be settled by whoever receives the commitment of the majority of the lords in the garden. Disagreement soon billows into threat, however, as Somerset vows to "dye [Richard's] rose in a bloody red" (61), Richard observes that "[t]his quarrel will drink blood another day" (134), and Warwick prophesies

  this brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden,
Shall send between the Red Rose and the White,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.


It becomes clear by the end of the scene that Richard, descended through his father's marriage from Lionel, duke of Clarence (third son of Edward III) is claiming royal precedence over Henry VI, descended from John of Gaunt (the fourth son). The question depends on whether Richard stands attainted by virtue of the charges of treason against his father, the earl of Cambridge, and the following scenes clearly draw the issue of legitimacy into focus. In 2.5 the lengthy speech of his dying grandfather, Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, further strengthens Plantagenet's position; old Mortimer describes his own right to the throne following Richard II's death and his imprisonment in the Tower of London ever since Bullingbrook seized power. And in 3.1 the ban of attainder is removed when Henry, at the Parliament House, fully restores Richard "to his blood" as duke of York (158, 171). With lines now drawn between legal right and ensconced power, the contention bursts forth anew in Paris between Vernon and Basset; and, when they go before the king to request trial by combat, the issue is taken up by the principals themselves. Henry's reaction in moderating the dispute is as naïve as his earlier obliviousness to the danger in elevating Richard to a clear title. Here the king describes as "slight and frivolous" (4.1.112) that which will one day cost him his throne and his life. And he chooses to wear a red rose, incredibly exclaiming that it should provoke no one to think he inclines to one side more than another—to Michael Manheim, a mark of his utter failure as a "politician."28 From a mere ripple of discontent that gains force throughout the course of the play, then, Shakespeare depicts an aristocratic society rent at the very center.

A large part of the action establishes the English army against the French, and one would suppose that the vast majority of the Elizabethan audience would unite emotionally against the common enemy. For one thing, the French are arrogant, taunting the English at Orleans as "famish'd . . . ghosts [who] / Faintly besiege us one hour in a month" (1.2.7-8); lacking their "porridge" they look "piteous," "like drowned mice" (9, 12). Talbot, when captured, is displayed in the marketplace as a public spectacle and mocked mercilessly: "Here, said they, is the terror of the French, / The scarecrow that affrights our children so" (1.4.42-43); elsewhere he is ridiculed as "a child, a silly dwarf," a "weak and writhled shrimp" (2.3.22, 23). For another, the French are depicted as faithless. When the duke of Burgundy, in response to Joan of Arc's highly patriotic pleas, agrees to defect to the French and forswear his allegiance to Henry VI, Joan observes wryly in an aside: "Done like a Frenchman—turn and turn again!" (3.3.85). In the English camp his revolt is described as "monstrous treachery" and "false, dissembling guile"(4.1.61, 63); and the disdain assumes a peculiar resonance through juxtaposition with the king's stripping Sir John Falstaff of his knighthood for cowardice in battle and banishing him "on pain of death" (47). As for Joan of Arc, Shakespeare utilizes references to sorcery and a fictionalized confession to relegate her deeds of heroism to the level of devilish machinations.29 Talbot brands her a witch (1.5.21; 3.2.38) and proclaims that God is the fortress against those who "converse with spirits" (2.1.25). When her fortunes wane, he asserts that "her old familiar is asleep" (3.2.122); and she herself is shown offering her body as "blood-sacrifice" to the fiends of hell: "Where I was wont to feed you with my blood, / I'll lop a member off and give it you" (5.3.20, 14-15). Captured by the English, she forswears her father, calling him a "[d]ecrepit miser" and a "base ignoble wretch" while claiming that she "is descended of a gentler blood" (5.4.7, 8) and that she is a virgin, favored by God, to bring glory to France. Her bold rhetoric collapses, however, when, facing death at the stake, she claims to be with child, first by Alençon, then by Reignier, duke of Anjou.

Despite the anti-French sentiment that such material undoubtedly aroused, the irony is that Shakespeare turns this emotion against the devisive factions in England. Ultimately, of course, France during the reign of Henry VI was for the English a dusty road to death and defeat. Holinshed is brutally frank: "And whie? Euen because the deuilish diuision that reigned in England, so incombred the heads of the noble men there, that the honor of the realme was cleerlie forgotten, so that (to conclude) the daie appointed came, but succour looked for came not" (3:228). Similarly, the play—through the voice of a messenger—leaves no doubt where the blame for this destruction lies:30

No treachery, but want of men and money.
Amongst the soldiers this is muttered,
That here you maintain several factions;
And whilst a field should be dispatch'd and fought,
You are disputing of your generals.
One would have ling'ring wars with little cost;
Another would fly swift, but wanteth wings;
A third thinks, without expense at all,
By guileful fair words peace may be obtain'd.


Later, it is specifically the "vulture of sedition / Feed[ing] in the bosom" (4.3.47-48) of York and Somerset that costs England her glory and Talbot his life. York claims that he is unable to send reinforcements to the army because Somerset withholds the squadrons of cavalry (4.3.25), while Somerset maintains that York has "[t]oo rashly" set the army on "this unheedful, desperate, wild adventure" (4.4.3, 7). As Talbot dies with his dead son in his arms, the spectators' anger is focused primarily on the "fraud of England, not the force of France"(36). Even the breach in the uneasy truce with which part 2 concludes is attributed directly to self-serving scheming on the part of the English. Alençon may observe privately that the dauphin will break the compact "when [his] pleasure serves" (5.4.164), but it is the English who do so. The "goodly peace" intended to "stop effusion of our Christian blood / And stablish quietness on every side" (5.1.5, 9-10) is doomed to failure by Suffolk's lust. Whereas the arrangement calls for Henry to take as his queen the daughter of the earl of Armagnac, "near knit" to the French king, to "surer bind this knot of amity" (16), Suffolk schemes to serve his personal ambitions by convincing the young and impressionable English ruler to set that contract aside in favor of Margaret of Anjou. Through such a union Suffolk vows to rule "her, the King, and realm" (5.5.108). Holinshed not only blames the loss of Aquitaine on this foolish marriage and Armagnac's subsequent enmity, but also the ultimate collapse of the Lancastrian rule: "But most of all it should seeme, that God was displeased with this marriage: for after the confirmation thereof, the kings freends fell from him, both in England and in France, the lords of his realm fell at diuision, and the commons rebelled in such sort, that finallie after manie fields foughten, and manie thousands of men slaine, the king at length was deposed, and his sonne killed, and this queene sent home againe, with as much miserie and sorrow as she was receiued with pompe and triumph" (3:208).

Part 1 concludes, then, without resolution of the several power struggles that tear England from within. The playwright, moreover, intensifies the political factionalism by subtly revealing the class division inherent in such a feudal society. And it is hardly likely that commoners in the audience would miss allusions that would sharpen their disdain for an aristocracy not only divided and destructive but also arrogant and supercilious. The pattern is simply too pervasive to be accidental—Gloucester's fury at being challenged at the Tower by "dunghill grooms" (1.3.14); Somerset's branding Plantagenet a "yeoman" (2.4.81), and Warwick's taking exception to one of Plantagenet's birth being called a "crestless yeoman" (85); Talbot's sneer that the French, who refuse to leave the battlements of Rouen and fight in the open field, are like "[b]ase muleters" and "peasant footboys" (3.2.68, 69); Gloucester's charge that Sir John Falstaff s cowardice would disgrace even a "common man" (4.1.31), and Talbot's pledge that Falstaff will be "quite degraded, like a hedge-born swain" (43); Talbot's son's fear that, should he leave the battlefield in order to save himself, he would be compared to "peasant boys" (4.6.48); Suffolk's preposterous remark, while attempting to convince King Henry to disregard his betrothal with the earl of Armagnac's daughter, that only "worthless peasants bargain for their wives" (5.5.53). Obviously the nobles must constantly confirm their assumptions of superiority through expressions of contempt for those beneath them; their deeds, to the contrary, prove that such social status is only the accident of birth, wealth, and the power it confers. Indeed, the most insidious consequence of their animosities is that the livelihood of commoners who want no part in it—English and French alike—have been affected. A French sentinel, ordered to stand night guard at Orleans, remarks: "Thus are poor servitors, / When other sleep upon their quiet beds, / Constrain'd to watch in darkness, rain, and cold" (2.1.5-7). And, concerning the factionalism between Gloucester and Winchester, Holinshed records: "Sure it is that the whole realme was troubled with them and their partakers: so that the citizens of London were faine to keep dailie and nightlie watches, and to shut vp their shops for fear ofthat which was doubted to have issued of their assembling of people about them" (3:146). That the common folk seem to be less contentious by nature than the fractious noblemen is suggested in the wry comment of the mayor of London as he attempts to quell their disturbance: "I myself fight not once in forty year" (1.3.91).

Commoners play a larger and far more complex role in 2 Henry VI. To be sure, they continue to serve as objects of aristocratic insult. They are "base cullions" to Margaret (1.3.40), "rude unpolish'd hinds" to Suffolk (3.2.271); one is a "[b]ase dunghill villain and mechanical" to York (1.3.193); the duchess of Gloucester is contemptuously described as a "base-born callet" (1.3.83), Warwick, as an "untutor'd churl" (3.2.213). Beyond that, however, they provide a clearer reflection of the oppressiveness of a class-based society. A petitioner before the palace in 1.3, for example, claims that Winchester's agent has seized his house, lands, wife, and all; another, that Suffolk has unlawfully enclosed the commons of Melford for his own use (1.3). When Saunder Simpcox is exposed for fraudulently asserting that he has been miraculously cured of his blindness, his wife pleads "we did it for pure need" (2.1.154). At other moments they reveal how dangerous and how destructive such an oppressed class can be when pushed too far. Commoners threaten violence in 3.2 unless Suffolk be immediately executed or banished; and in 4.1, in a scene foregrounding the utter meaningless of title and status when individuals are removed from the social setting that physically enforces them, the citizens make good their threats, beheading him at sea.31 In such a setting Suffolk's "Look on my George, I am a gentleman" (4.1.29) is incredibly pompous, and his branding the commoners "jaded groom" (52), "[b]ase slave" (67), "paltry, servile, abject drudges" (105), "vulgar groom" (128), and "vild besonians" (134) simply assures his death. Suffolk, in a word, is so obsessed with social standing that he is incapable of civil conversation with common citizens. Shakespeare obviously adds this dialogue to emphasize the aristocratic arrogance. Holinshed reports only that "the capteine of that barke with small fight entered into the dukes ship, and perceiuing his person present, brought him to Douer road, and there on the one side of a cocke boat caused his head to be strucken off, and left his bodie with the head lieing there on the sands" (3:220).

Jack Cade's activities grimly reveal a society that has virtually collapsed from within. His macabre execution of a clerk for knowing how to read and write is exceeded only by his desire to kill "[a]ll scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen" (4.4.36) and his beheading of Lord Say for erecting a grammar school and thereby having "most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm" (4.7.32-33). He intends to burn London Bridge, the Tower, and all records of the kingdom. There is no denying that such anarchic horrors reflect the unraveling of the basic foundations of civilized society—"moral and social anarchy" invalidating through travesty the normal ties of kinship32—but it is equally clear that his rebellion is directly prompted by crass irresponsibility on the part of the aristocracy.33 Most significantly, York cunningly manipulates the action to serve his own political ends, encouraging Cade's delusion that he is descended from the Mortimers and thus is the rightful heir to the throne. Whether Cade succeeds or fails is of little concern to him, since he plans with his army to "reap the harvest which that rascal sow'd" (3.1.381).

Moreover, Cade's widespread destruction is possible only because of a total power vacuum in the English government, a moment when the nexus of competing self-interests that normally drive society become mutually destructive.34 The enmity between Gloucester and the cardinal, central to the action of part 1, flares anew; and Somerset, Buckingham, Suffolk, and Queen Margaret also grow envious of the lord protector's power. York stands aside, smugly biding his time as his enemies at court begin to self-destruct.35 When arrested on trumped-up charges of high treason, Humphrey lashes out at those who plot against his life as the "prologue" to their individual devious designs:36

Beaufort's red sprakling eyes blab his heart's malice,
And Suffolk's cloudy brow his stormy hate;
Sharp Buckingham unburthens with his tongue
The envious load that lies upon his heart;
And dogged York, that reaches at the moon,
Whose overweening arm I have pluck'd back,
By false accuse doth level at my life.
And you, my sovereign lady, with the rest,
Causeless have laid disgraces on my head,
And with your best endeavor have stirr'd up
My liefest liege to be mine enemy.


The level of conflict is so intense throughout the play that on two occasions the nobles descend to the most elemental physical level, leaving the stage in high dudgeon to fight it out personally off stage; Gloucester and Beaufort in 2.1, Warwick and Suffolk in 3.2.

York, as it turns out, has read the political situation correctly, and he is the prime benefactor of the events following Gloucester's death. Charged with the murder, Suffolk is banished from the land, and the cardinal, in the throes of a fatal apoplexy, acknowledges his role in the assassination. The queen's aspirations are blunted by separation from her lover and partner in ambition, and Warwick and Salisbury confirm their support for the Yorkist claim. Henry, gravely weakened by the dissension that has gnawed his kingdom from within, is now prey to external forces—the temporarily successful rebellion of Cade and his band of commoners that reaches from Kent into the streets of London, followed by the far more formidable forces of Richard, who soundly defeats the royal army at Saint Albans and, in the final lines of the play, triumphantly speaks of pursuing the king to London to achieve ultimate military victory.

The factionalism in part 1, in effect, has hardened into political anarchy in part 2, and the earlier struggles to maintain English holdings in France are virtually forgotten. Somerset's report to Henry that "all your interest in those territories / Is utterly bereft you: all is lost" (3.1.84-85) evokes hardly a response. The absence of authority at the political center clearly has rendered England her own worst enemy. At the heart of this political impotence is the king himself, respected by neither snarling nobles nor rebellious commoners.37 Those in the court repeatedly observe his deficiencies as a leader. He lacks courage, according to Queen Margaret; his mind is so "bent to holiness" that she would have the pope "carry him to Rome" (1.3.55, 62). And later in the military struggle with Richard, she overtly challenges his "manhood, wisdom, and defense" (5.2.75). Gloucester describes him as a king who stands on legs not firm enough "to bear his body" (3.1.190); and Richard, claiming to be "[m]ore like a king, more kingly in my thoughts" (5.1.29), would have him "obey that knows not how to rule" (6):

  No; thou art not King;
Not fit to govern and rule multitudes,

That head of thine doth not become a crown:
Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff
And not to grace an aweful princely scepter.

And with the same to act controlling laws.

(93-94, 96-98, 103)

Time and again Henry capitulates under duress, whether in allowing Gloucester to be arrested although he knows his uncle to be guiltless, or in agreeing to banish Suffolk in the face of commoners' demands, or in deceitfully attempting to hide Somerset after informing Richard that he is under arrest. His image in the commoners' eyes is hardly better; Cade observes that in Henry's reign their plight is to "live in slavery to the nobility," to break their backs with burdens, to lose the shelter over their heads, and to see their wives and daughters ravished before their eyes (4.8.28-32). Henry's own desire to escape the responsibilities of leadership best describes the political ineptitude that wreaks destruction upon the land: "Was ever king that joy'd an earthly throne / And could command no more content than I? . . . Was never subject long'd to be a king / As I do long and wish to be a subject" (4.9.1-2, 5-6).

In 3 Henry VI, Henry fades into little more than a figurehead, at one point agreeing to disinherit his children, at another abdicating power in favor of a double protectorate. Certainly he continues to draw invective from friend and foe alike. Escaping from York in the opening scene by stealing away from his own forces during battle, he is labeled "fearful" (25), "bashful" (41), "wretched" (216), and "timorous" (231). When he agrees that York shall reign after his death, he is told that he lacks the courage of his father (63) and that he "preferrest [his] life before [his] honor" (246). Later, Clifford charges that, "hadst [he] sway'd as kings should do" (2.6.14), York would never have made headway. Clearly Henry grows to detest the political process, preferring to bequeath the throne to Richard rather than provoke a fight in the Parliament House (1.1.195-200) and thus to leave his own son only his "virtuous deeds" (2.2.49). He later reacts with disgust to the sight of his adversary's head on a pole in York and would willingly exchange his lot for that of a "homely swain" (2.5.22). When restored to the throne, he promptly delegates his power to others (4.6.41); and his comments in the face of death provoke only a prayer of forgiveness for himself and for his murderer (5.6.60).

With the active role of the king for all intents and purposes eliminated in part 3, the crisis of authority reaches its gravest depths as the various factions of the earlier plays coalesce into the internecine struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians and the action of the play degenerates into a continuous series of battles. To achieve this focus on what amounts to nothing less than national political suicide, Shakespeare, more specifically, organizes his material around seven battles, with each claiming a savage toll on aristocracy and commoner alike.38 Of one battle alone, for example, Holinshed reports that "in these two daies were slaine (as they that knew it wrote) on both parts six and thirtie thousand seuen hundred threescore & sixteen persons, all English and of one nation" (3:278). Queen Margaret emerges as the driving force as the Lancastrians successfully attack at Wakefield (1.2) and again at Saint Albans (2.1).39 At Towton fortunes are reversed in a furious struggle (2.3) that culminates in Henry's escape into Scotland and Edward's coronation in London (2.6). The wheel reverses once more when Edward is captured at Warwick (4.3) and Henry receives the crown anew (4.6); but Edward, in turn, seizes Henry in London and is again proclaimed king (4.8). At Barnet (5.2) and at Tewkesbury (5.4), Edward is again victorious, securing for his brief lifetime what he vainly boasts will be York's "lasting joy" (5.7.46).

Shakespeare emphasizes the darker side of civilization not only through the endless series of battles that drone throughout the play but also through the primitive level of ferocity in man's treatment of his fellow man. There is a kind of hideous delight in Clifford's stabbing of young Rutland and of his taunting the father by holding up a handkerchief stained with the lad's blood. Richard himself is forced to sit on a molehill; and when a paper crown is placed upon his head, Margaret mocks him mercilessly: "Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance" (1.4.91). Later, when Clifford is killed by Richard's sons, they become infuriated that his death occurs before he receives the full measure of their mockery. They exercise their full scorn upon Henry's son, Ned, however, as in his mother's sight they taunt the youth and stab him repeatedly. As for Margaret herself, they refuse her the "ease" of death, preferring that she live to experience unceasing horror. When Henry is subsequently stabbed to death in the Tower, Richard, duke of Gloucester, delights in first describing the agonizing death of the young prince, and he cuts the king off midsentence when the distraught father attempts a verbal retort.40 Clearly the murders throughout the play move beyond political execution or battlefield casualty to a level of bestial savagery rendered all the more grotesque by the fact that the human mind, at such a level of brutality, can sense a perverse pleasure in the deed.

This regressive behavior is further intensified by the general lack of fealty in a society stripped of all values save those of power and survival. At the outset, Richard extracts from Henry a pledge that the crown will pass to the Yorks after the king's death. In the context of this political anarchy, however, "an oath is of no moment" (1.2.22), hardly worth the breath required to utter it; both sides immediately lay plans to violate it.41 Later, when King Edward declares "[m]y will shall stand for law" (4.1.50), he has reduced his office, the badge of lawful society, to little more than a caricature of the mob leader, Cade, who in part 2 exclaimed that his mouth would be parliament (4.7.14-15). From his forswearing of his betrothal to Lady Bono in order to satisfy his own lust, to Warwick's renunciation of fidelity to Edward as he joins the Lancastrian faction, the play is shot through with broken vows. King Lewis of France, in pledging that articles of peace shall be drawn between England and France, violates an earlier promise to lend suport to Queen Margaret; within moments, Lewis turns again, vowing to aid Edward's enemies in their struggle to depose him. A similar double violation is seen in Clarence, who at one moment deserts his brother Edward to marry Warwick's daughter and thus align himself with the Lancastrians, then at another proves renegade once more when Edward's political fortunes rise:

proud-hearted Warwick, I defy thee,
And to my brother turn my blushing cheeks.
Pardon me, Edward, I will make amends.


All too obviously, one's word is good in this society only so long as it serves self-interests.

The scene that best captures the price that one must pay for humanity run wild is Shakespeare's own, a highly charged moment in which the crisis of authority that has been at the heart of all three plays reaches a powerful climax. Obviously, in a society that has lost all moorings of both law and loyalty, only the family unit remains as a final bastion of love, support, and mutality; and here even this final value is destroyed as Henry—the living symbol of failed law—must observe a father holding a son he has killed on one side of the stage, and a son, a father he has killed on the other.42 All of the king's references to God's will ring hollow indeed in the face of the son's lament: "Who's this? O God! it is my father's face, / Whom in this conflict I, unawares, have kill'd him" (2.5.61-62). And Henry's allusions to the desirability of the simple shepherd's life seem beyond criminal in their irresponsibility in the face of the father's anguish:

Ah, no, no, no, it is mine only son!

O pity, God, this miserable age!
What strategems! how fell! how butcherly!
Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural,
This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!

(83, 88-91)

It is only fitting that the closure of part 3 is openended. A society so bereft of values is hardly likely to find renewal in a ruler like Edward, whose power rests on brutal suppression, murder, and lust. As the scene concludes, the Machiavellian Richard stands in the wings, biding the opportunity to seize power as he gives a Judas kiss to his brother and cries "All hail!" when he means "all harm!" (5.7.34). If, contrary to Jan Kott's claim, there are gods in Shakespeare,43 they have been appropriated in the Henry VI plays by humans caught up in a society of divided authorities and competing ideologies with whom Shakespeare's auditors would share an uncomfortable affinity.


1 Robert Weimann, "Discourse, Ideology and the Crisis of Authority in Post-Reformation England," The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 5 (1987): 110.

2 J. E. Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (London: Secker and Warburg, 1958), 32; see also Julian Cornwall, Revolt of the Peasantry 1549 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), 3.

3 Geoffrey R. Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 44.

4 J. D. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 170.

5 Joel Hurstfield, "The Elizabethan People in the Age of Shakespeare," Shakespeare's World, ed. James Sutherland and Joel Hurstfield (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964), 39.

6 Richard L. Greaves, Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 10.

7 See W. Gordon Zeevold, Foundations of Tudor Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 192; Stone, Family, Sex and Marriage, 7; Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1965), 164; Geoffrey R. Elton, Reform and Revolution: England, 1509-1558 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 2.

8 Peter Clark, English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution (Hassocks, England: Harvester Press, 1977), 144.

9 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965), 133.

10 Lawrence Stone, "The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640," Past and Present 28 (1964): 80.

11 John Ball, A short treatise contayning all the prinicipall grounds of christian religion, 9th impression (1633), 165, cited in David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 5.

12 Joan Simon, Education and Society in Tudor England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 168. See also Lawrence Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642 (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 110; Geoffrey R. Elton, England Under the Tudors, 2d ed. (London: Methuen, 1974), 224-32; Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Macmillan, 1962).

13 J. E. Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: A Social and Economic History of Britain 1530-1780 (New York: Random House, 1967), 32.

14 Palliser, Age of Elizabeth, 27.

15 Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 180.

16 Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1977), 14.

17 Eagleton, William Shakespeare, 103.

18 David Scott Kastan, "Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule," Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 144.

19 Robert Weimann, "Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theatre," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 403.

20 Mullaney, Place of the Stage, 21, 49.

21 Simon Shepherd, Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), xiv; Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics, 11.

22 Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions, 184.

23 Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 7.

24 Marjorie Garber, "'What's Past Is Prologue': Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays," in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara K. Lewalski (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 306. See also David Scott Kastan, "The Shape of Time: Form and Value in the Shakespearean History Play," Comparative Drama 7 (1973-74): 272.

25 References are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 596-627, 630-65, 671-704. All additional references to act, scene, line are cited parenthetically in the text.

26 Holinshed, 3:156. All additional page references are cited parenthetically in the text.

27 Ornstein, Kingdom for a Stage, 35. The scene reveals "play hardening into reality" (John W. Blanpied, "Art and Baleful Sorcery': The Counterconsciousness of Henry VI, Part 7," Studies in English Literature 15 (1975): 218.

28 Michael Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973), 84. See also A. L. French, "Henry VI and the Ghost of Richard II," English Studies 50, Anglo-American Supplement (1969): xxxvii xliii.

29 David Bevington brands her "claim of pregnancy to avoid execution .. . an outrageous parody of the Virgin birth" ("The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI," Shakespeare Studies 2 [1966]: 52), and David Riggs describes her as a "virtual parody of the Marlovian prototype" (Shakespeare's Heroical Histories, 22, 84). Phyliss Rackin notes that Shakespeare "contrives his action to subvert the subversive female voices and ratify the masculine version of the past" ("Anti-Historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories," Theater Journal 37 [1985]: 330).

30 See especially Prior, Drama of Power; Arthur Sewall, Character and Society in Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951).

31 To Don M. Ricks, Suffolk's captors represent the "most lawless element in society, . . . [a] pirate band made up of military deserters" (Shakespeare's Emergent Form: A Study of the Structures of the "Henry VI" Plays [Logan: Utah State University Press, 1968], 73). To the contrary, Peter Bilton argues that Walter Whitmore serves to vent the audience's disapproval of the villain Suffolk (Commentary and Control in Shakespeare's Plays [New York: Humanities Press, 1974], 28, and Joseph Candido describes Suffolk's "posturing" as "sadly self-deflating" ("Getting Loose in the Henry VI Plays," Shakespeare Quarterly 35 [1984]: 400).

32 Ronald Berman, "Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI Plays," Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 493. To Brents Stirling the scenes represent Shakespeare's reaction to the rioting Brownists and Anabaptists of his own day (The Populace in Shakespeare [New York: Columbia University Press, 1949], 101); see also Richard Wilson, "'A Mingled Yarn': Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers," Literature and History 12 (1986): 164-80.

33 Margaret Webster, Shakespeare Without Tears (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942), 122; Barry Jackson, "On Producing Shakespeare," Shakespeare Survey 6 (1953): 50; Wayne L. Billings, "Ironic Lapses: Plotting in Henry Vi," Studies in the Literary Imagination 5 (1972): 27.

34 The emphasis is upon the infinite varieties of insatiable ambition (John Arthos, Shakespeare: The Early Writings [Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972], 205) that vitiate the very concepts of justice and law (Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1975], 29.

35 On Shakespeare's misleading the audience to make York's success more startling, see Roger Warren, "'Contrarieties Agree': An Aspect of Dramatic Technique in Henry VI" Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 75.

36 A figure who symbolizes the "ultimate in a cultivated man" (Samuel M. Pratt, "Shakespeare and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: A Study of Myth," Shakespeare Quarterly, 16 [1965]: 216), he is what Riggs calls the "type of Renaissance governor whom humanists like Ascham and Elyot saw as supplanting such medieval chevaliers as Talbot" (119).

37 As E. W. Talbert observes, "the attributes of vigor and Christianity are divided between York and Henry, instead of being combined, as was necessary for effective rule" (Problem of Order, 197).

38 From the "balanced pattern of confrontation" in the opening scenes (Robert Y. Turner, Shakespeare 's Apprenticeship [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974], 44), Shakespeare sets forth a "play of battles, each more savage than the last" (Herschel Baker, introduction to Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 592), in which the opposing value judgments of the rival claimants "are subsumed" and "both are valid" (Arthur Percival Rossiter, Angel With Horns and Other Essays, ed, Graham Storey [New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961], 51).

39 Wolfgang Clemen notes that omens and prophecies both increase the excitement of the moment and architectonically heighten the dramatic tension by establishing a pattern of anticipation ("Anticipation and Foreboding in Shakespeare's Early Histories," Shakespeare Survey 6 [1953]: 26).

40 While Hugh M. Richmond's charge that Henry is a "bore" may be extreme (Shakespeare's Political Plays [New York: Random House, 1967], 57), one must agree that Henry has been "too simple for a politician" and "too ready to trust to conciliation to be a soldier" (Una Ellis-Fermor, The Frontiers of Drama [London: Methuen, 1945], 38).

41 See Faye L. Kelly, "Oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays," Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 359, and Raymond V. Utterback, "Public Men, Private Wills, and Kingship in Henry VI, Part III," Renaissance Papers (1978): 54.

42 The vision of Henry "fixed in a pose of sorrow" (Muriel C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry [New York: Oxford University Press, 1952], 127) is "worth a thousand words" from choric figures (Bilton, 30). The ritual setting "focuses attention on the moral perversity rather than the physical horror of the crimes" (Ornstein, Kingdom for a Stage, 55).

43 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964), 19.

Civil Disorder

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14468

Phyllis Rackin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Historical Kings/Theatrical Clowns," in Stages of History: Shakespeare 's English Chronicles, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 201-47.

[In this essay, Rackin contends that whereas the female characters in 1 Henry VI symbolically threaten the patriarchal, elitist social order, the plebian men in 2 Henry VI literalize that threat.]

Captured by her English enemies, Joan is condemned to die at the end of 1 Henry VI, despite her (probably false) claims to be pregnant with an illegitimate child. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which her fictitious bastard progeny survive, reappearing in various forms in Shakespeare's remaining history plays, continuing and developing her antihistorical project. The women in the succeeding Henry VI plays preserve Joan's illicit legacy of witchcraft and adultery, but most of the characters who take up her agenda will be men. Women were not the only persons whose existence was effaced by patriarchal history. Not only a masculine enterprise, Renaissance historiography was also aristocratic. Its heroic subject matter, its genealogical purpose, and its status as written text all served to exclude common men as well as women from the elite province its discourse constructed.

Shakespeare defines the antihistorical forces that Joan represents as much by status and class1 as by gender; her opposition to Talbot pits peasant against aristocrat as well as woman against man, and the two forms of subversion were closely related in Renaissance thought. Their connection is explicit, for instance, in Hall's account of a letter sent from the King of England to the Duke of Burgundy and other princes to justify the English execution of Joan and to refute French claims for her sanctity. Along with charges of blasphemy and disobedience, the letter emphasizes Joan's usurpation of status and gender insignia to which she had no right:

It is commonly renoumed, and in every place published, that the woman, commonly called the Puzell, hath by the space of twoo yeres and more, contrary to Goddes lawe, and the estate of womanhed, been clothed in a mannes appareil, a thyng in the sight of God abhominable. . . . Beside this, she usurped a cote of armes, and displaid a standard, whiche thynges, be apperteinyng only to knightes and esquiers: and of a greate outrage, and more pride and presumpcion, she demaunded to beare the noble and excellent Armes of Fraunce, whiche she in part obteined, the whiche she bare in many skirmishes and assautes, and her brethren also (as men report) that is to say: the feld azure, a swerd, the poynt upward in pale silver, set betwene two flower deluces, firmed with a croune of gold.2

Assuming masculine dress, Joan has violated biblical prohibition and the gender regulations that governed women's "estate" in society. Assuming a coat of arms, she represents a threat to the entire social order.

Conflating the two forms of subversion, Hall's account implies that distinctions that separated aristocrats from peasants and those that divided men from women were homologous. In Shakespeare's history plays, this same homology informs the representations of common men, who occupy a discursive position similar to the one that defines the roles of women. Silenced and marginalized by Shakespeare's historiographic sources, the common men, like the women, speak for the unarticulated residue of experience that eluded expression in the ideologically motivated discourse of historiography. Like the women, they represent a constant challenge to the mystifications of a historiographic tradition that was not only masculine but also elite.

Despite individual variations in characterization, the essential paradigm remains the same. Usually illiterate, these characters always distrust words. Excluded, disempowered, or represented as demonic others by historiographie writing, they derive their subversive authority from the present, material reality of theatrical performance. Joan and Jack Cade have real historical prototypes, and Falstaff, the chief inheritor in the second tetralogy of Joan's antihistorical legacy, is both literate and a knight; but all are inscribed within the same binary opposition that opposes historiographie writing to theatrical speech and present, corporeal life. Falstaff s response of the noble corpse of Sir Walter Blunt at the Battle of Shrewsbury—"I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life" (1 Henry IV: V. III.58-59)—and his demystification of chivalric honor recall Joan's contemptuous description of Talbot's corpse (1 Henry VI: IV. vii.72-76). Both express the same nominalism, the same contempt for empty titles and historical renown, and the same conviction that material, physical life is the ultimate reality and summum bonum. To Falstaff, honor is worthless because it has no physical efficacy: it cannot "set to a leg. .. . Or an arm. .. . Or take away the grief of a wound":

What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will't not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it, honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

(1 Henry IV: V.i.133-41).

Shakespeare's characterization of Falstaff, in fact, repeats many of the features that Renaissance misogyny attributed to women. Not only his lack of military valor but also his lying, his inconstancy, and his outrageous incontinence locate him on the wrong side of the binary opposition that divided man from woman, spirit from matter, aristocrat from commoner. 1 Henry IV ends with Falstaff s mutilation of Hotspur's corpse (V.V.128). Wounding the dead hero's thigh, he reenacts the female threat to manhood and military honor symbolized in the opening scene by the report of the Welshwomen's mutilation of the corpses of English soldiers (I.i.43-46). Neither female nor plebeian, Falstaff is nonetheless the most fully developed embodiment of the disorderly conduct and subversive speech that express the threat both women and commoners represented in Shakespeare's historical world.3

There is, however, at least one crucial difference between the two groups: The women, like Falstaff, symbolize the dangers of disorder. The plebeian men in the first tetralogy literalize them. It is significant, I believe, that there are no women among the "ragged multitude of hinds and peasants" (IV. iv.32-33) that follows Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI even though Cade's rebellious agenda reflects the deeply embedded cultural anxieties that conflated fears of the loss of property and status with fears of unconstrained female sexuality. "All things shall be in common" (IV. vii. 19), not only property and money, but women as well: "wives [shall] be as free as heart can wish or tongue can tell" (IV. vii. 124-25).4 Nonetheless, despite the fact that women played prominent roles in the riots and rebellions that troubled the peace in early modern England, they are as absent from Cade's company of rebels as they were from Shakespeare's company of actors.

The absence points to the essential difference between the subversive roles of women and the equally, but differently, subversive roles of common men in Shakespeare's historiographie representation. Impersonated by male actors, female characters could only appear on Shakespeare's stage as the objects of theatrical representation. Common men, by contrast, could appear in their own persons. The stage directions that mark the first entrance of Cade's followers on Shakespeare's stage are revealing. Act IV, scene ii begins, "Enter Bevis and John Holland," and the speech headings for the first thirty lines use the same two names. Explained by editors as a mistake or a "convenience" on Shakespeare's part,5 the use of the actors' names rather than those of the characters reminds us not only that the names of common men rarely appeared in Renaissance historical writing but also that their bodies constituted a real presence on Shakespeare's stage.

The restrictions that excluded women from the profession of acting collaborated with the exclusions of patriarchal history to marginalize the roles of female characters in Shakespeare's representations of the English past. This doubly determined repression was relieved only by the presence of women in Shakespeare's theater audience and their economic power as paying customers.6 Despite that presence and that power, however, women could never speak for themselves from the public platform of the stage. Represented by male actors, speaking lines written by a male playwright, Shakespeare's female characters are always, in some measure, the instruments of male ventriloquism. In the case of the common men, however, the conditions of theatrical production opposed the repressions of the dominant culture and its authoritative and authorizing historiography. Profound differences, both in status and in gender, separated the actors from every other object of their representation. Only in the case of the common men could they speak from their own social location. Impersonated by actors who occupied the same social location as the characters they portrayed, the common men constituted a material presence within the scene of performance. They spoke with their own voices and appeared in their own bodies. Their lines, moreover, were written by one of their own, a common player who was also the son of a bankrupt glover from Stratford.

Dissolving the barriers of representation and historical distance, the plebeian clowns who joined the audience at the platea of theatrical presence subverted the authority of historical representation and the ideological repressions it required.7 Grounded in the contemporary material reality of the playhouse, they undermined the authority of the imagined historical action, and with it the authority of history.8 The historical characters and plots derived their authority from the ideologically constructed facts of the history they represented and the received truths it revealed, that is, from fidelity to the past. The players derived theirs from the approval and pleasure of the audience in the present scene of performance—the open-roofed playhouse that made the audience as visible as the actors, the thrust stage that brought them together, and the "neutral materiality" of the bare stage, which, as Robert Weimann has argued, tended to authorize the representing actor and undermine the authority of the objects he represented.9 The physical site and material conditions of theatrical production made the playhouse a site of subversion because they opposed theatrical presence to a past that was only represented, the actuality of low social status to the theatrical costumes that symbolized elite privilege, and the real presence of actors and audience to the mediated authority of the written script.

Because that audience was socially heterogeneous and disorderly, any authority they were given constituted a threat to established order. Assembled to hear the public speech of actors who lacked both status and institutional power, the theater audience constituted a cultural and political anomaly, the object of profound anxieties. These anxieties can be seen in the censorship of Sir Thomas More. The playscript opened with a disorderly mob of citizens protesting their grievances, but the Master of the Revels ordered the players to "leave out the insurrection wholy and the Cause ther off and begin with Sir Thomas Moore att the mayors sessions with a reportt afterwards off his good service don being Shrive off London uppon a mutiny Agaynst the Lumbards only by A short reportt and nott otherwise att your own perilles."10 Substituting historical narrative ("A short reportt") for present dramatic enactment, the prescribed censorship interposed the barrier of narrative mediation to contain the rebels within the dramatic fiction and separate them from their dangerous present counterparts in the unruly theater audience.

The eruption of Jack Cade's rebellious followers on Shakespeare's stage constitutes a similar moment of danger. Rupturing the conceptual barriers that insulated the represented world of the play from the actual world of the audience, it opened a breach for the licensed disorder of fictional theatrical representation to invade the actual world of the audience, where it was clearly illicit. Giving public voice to the grievances they shared with actual rebels in Shakespeare's England, the actors threatened to produce in the real time of the audience the same disorder they enacted in the fictive time represented on stage. "Inspir'd with the spirit of putting down kings and princes" (IV.ii.35-36), the rebels who materialize on Shakespeare's stage evoke the anxieties that disorderly women and commoners, actors and audiences in the public theaters could all evoke in Shakespeare's world: the nightmare prospect of a world turned upside down that was the only conceivable alternative (and therefore the justifying antithesis) to the existing social hierarchy. Like actors, the rebels are most "in order when . . . most out of order" (IV.ii.189). Putting on the discarded clothes of aristocrats to impersonate their betters, actors violated the sumptuary laws that stabilized the emblems of status in the real world.11 George Bevis and John Holland propose an even more dangerous inversion when they complain that the nobility "scorn to go in leather aprons" (IV.ii.12-13). Projecting a universal leveling—"it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up"; "let the magistrates be laboring men; and therefore should we be magistrates" (IV.ii.8-9, 17-18)—the rebels' political program addresses the same issues and expresses the same Utopian dreams that animated popular riots and rebellions in early modern England.12 Cade even echoes John Ball's famous and often-repeated slogan from the fourteenth-century Peasants' Revolt: "When Adam delv'd and Eve span;/Who was then a gentleman?" (IV.ii.134).13

In 1 Henry VI, the threat of contemporary domestic disorder is displaced onto historical French women. The plebeian men in 2 Henry VI bring the threat home to sixteenth-century England when they literalize and specify the objects of the anxieties that the women symbolically represent. When Bedford complains that Margaret's marriage to Henry VI will blot noble English "names from books of memory," raze "the characters of [their] renown," and deface the "monuments of conquer'd France" (2 Henry VI: I.i. 100-102), he speaks metaphorically. Cade literalizes the threat when he commands, "Burn all the records of the realm, my mouth shall be the parliament of England" (IV.vii.12-14). Unlike the metaphorical erasure that Bedford describes, Cade's burning is a material act of destruction: if Cade has his way, the historical records will literally burn, and so will London Bridge and the Tower (

Joan's nominalism and her earthy, skeptical speech constituted a discursive antithesis to the patriarchal historographic tradition whose mystifications she threatened to discredit. In the hands of Cade and his followers, Joan's subversive, antihistorical project takes the literal form of a class rebellion. Cade's command to burn the historical records and tear down the historical monuments not only specifies the literal objects he wishes to destroy; it also specifies the present political significance of his antihistorical project and recognizes the function of historical writing in the world of the Tudors as a basis for an oppressive present authority. The collection and systematizing of legal records supplied a crucial instrument for the Tudor effort to construct an absolutist state. Collected, translated into English, and printed, the "Great Boke of Statutes" with its forty-six page "chronological register by chapters of the statutes 1327 to 1523" not only provided a systematic review of parliamentary history; it also produced an authoritative source for legal reference. Royal proclamations, "no longer merely fixed to walls and doors and other public places," were for the first time brought together in "a convenient octavo volume and furnished with a table of contents." Codifying and making systematic previously scattered and contradictory records, sixteenth-century legal history was more than an academic exercise; it constituted a powerful instrument of control.15

The list of Cade's intended victims—"all scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen" (IV.iv.36)—makes explicit the association between learning, law, and privilege. The rebels attack lawyers, the literate, and the elite with equal enthusiasm. The "first thing" they plan to do is "kill all the lawyers" (IV.ii.76-77). Their first victim is the clerk of Chartam, accused of knowing how to "write and read and cast accompt," of having "a book in his pocket," and, worst of all, of possessing the ability to "make obligations, and write court-hand." The clerk confesses only that he knows how to write his own name, but that is enough to condemn him. Inverting the elite privilege of "benefit of clergy" which allowed literate prisoners who could recite a Latin "neck-verse" to escape hanging, Cade orders his followers to hang the clerk "with his pen and inkhorn about his neck" (IV.ii.85-110).16

The fullest expression of the rebels' fury is reserved for Lord Say, the most aristocratic of their victims and also the one most fully identified with language and learning. Initially condemned because he can speak French (IV.ii.166), Lord Say is later charged by Cade with a full spectrum of offenses against illiteracy:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caus'd printing to be us'd, and, contrary to the King, his crown, and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be prov'd to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.


Cade's anachronistic references to the paper-mill and printing identify the historical treasurer of Henry VI with the emergent culture of printing and literacy. The appropriately named Say answers eloquently, but Say's use of a Latin phrase (the mark of his identification with humanist learning) increases Cade's fury, and his citation of Caesar's Commentaries does nothing to allay it. Cade is momentarily stirred by Say's words, but he bridles his own remorse and orders, "He shall die, and it be but for pleading so well for his life" (IV.vii.106-07).

The rebels are finally routed, appropriately, by a word. When Clifford invokes history—the English conquest of France under Henry V—Cade's followers desert him for the king. As Cade says, "The name of Henry the Fift hales them to an hundred mischiefs, and makes them leave me desolate" (IV.viii.56-58). But Cade's own death is complicated by another kind of oral deprivation, the lack of food. A starving fugitive, Cade dies in a final act of transgression when he steals into Alexander Iden's garden to look for food. Caught and killed by the landowner, he declares, "Famine and no other hath slain me" (IV.x.60).

There is no reference to famine in Hall, who describes Iden's exploit as a lesson to rebels and traitors: "One Alexander Iden, esquire of Kent found hym in a garden, and there in his defence, manfully slewe the caitife Cade, & brought his ded body to London, whose hed was set on London bridge. This is the successe of all rebelles, and this fortune chaunceth ever to traytors."17 Shakespeare's expanded representation of the incident exhibits the same moral valences, but with significant complications. Iden enters announcing himself as an emblematic representation of a virtuous country gentleman, content with "this small inheritance my father left me," never seeking "to wax great by others' waning, / Or gather wealth," always ready to send "the poor well pleased from my gate" (IV.x. 18-23). Unaware of Cade's identity, he refuses at first to fight with the poor, starving vagabond he finds in his garden, but when Cade insists, Iden easily kills the belligerent trespasser.

No sooner does Iden learn that the man he has killed is "that monstrous traitor" Cade (IV.x.66), than he reconceives his act in terms consistent with Hall's ideological history, transforming his deed from a defense of private property to a heroic victory in defense of his king and defining it in traditional chivalric terms, the sword that won it as a historical monument and a heraldic emblem of honor:

Sword, I will hallow thee for this thy deed, And hang thee o'er my tomb when I am dead. Ne'er shall this blood be wiped from thy point, But thou shalt wear it as a herald's coat, To emblaze the honor that thy master got.


Cade, by contrast, insists that he has been "vanquish'd by famine, not by valor" (IV.x.75), invoking the present material reality of hunger to demystify the historical account.

The alternative explanations for Iden's victory oppose the material effects of hunger to the emblematic language of heraldry. Iden mystifies his victory as an acquisition of chivalric honor, but Cade dies reaffirming his commoner's faith in the power of things and distrust for the validity of noble words. His last speech is an exhortation to "all the world to be cowards; for I, that never fear'd any, am vanquish'd by famine, not by valor" (IV.x.74-75). This opposition between eating, food, and cowardice on the one hand and the historical record of military valor on the other is deeply embedded in Shakespeare's historiographic discourse. It appears, for instance, in the second scene of 1 Henry VI when Alanson doubts that the English will win at Orleans because "They want their porridge and their fat bull-beeves" (I.ii.9). When the English do win, he invokes the historical record to account for their victory: "Froissard, a countryman of ours, records / England all Olivers and Rolands bred / During the time Edward the Third did reign. / More truly now may this be verified" (I.ii.29-32). Froissart's historical account is verified not simply by the heroism of the English soldiers but by their ability to do without food: "Lean raw-bon'd rascals! who would e'er suppose / They had such courage and audacity?" (I.ii.35-36).

The antithesis that sets aristocratic military valor and historical validity in opposition to plebeian hunger mystifies class conflict even as it points to its material roots.18 It has an ideological basis in the system of analogies that rationalized the social hierarchy. The aristocracy, like the lofty, immaterial soul, has no need for earthly food; the plebeians, like the base, material body, cannot live without it.19 The antithesis also has a material basis in the food riots that repeatedly erupted in early modern England.20 Like the rebellious mob inspired by Jack Cade's promises of "seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny," "three-hoop'd" pots with "ten hoops" (IV.ii.65-67), and "the pissing-conduit run[ning] nothing but claret wine" (, real peasants who rebelled in early modern England were motivated by famine. Cade's ruthless demands for universal leveling expressed the fears of the ruling elite, but his promises of abundant food, low prices, and the abolition of enclosures (IV.ii.68-70) address genuine grievances that created actual hunger among the poor.

Cade's promise of lower prices addresses the horror of inflation in an era of rising population, which produced an oversupply of labor and a scarcity of food. Keith Wrightson points out that the "average prices of foodstuffs in southern England, which had remained fairly stable throughout the later fifteenth century, had trebled by the 1570s, and by the early decades of the seventeenth century they had risen sixfold." This rapid inflation of food prices, most pronounced in the case of the cheaper foods (that is, in the sustenance of the poor), was coupled with a steady decline in real wages, which, by the first quarter of the seventeenth century were half what they had been a hundred years earlier.21 Enclosure of common land, another grievance to the poor, took away traditional grazing and hunting rights and dispossessed tenant farmers in order to provide pastures for wealthy sheepfarmers.22

Despite the present reality of the grievances that Cade's rebellion expresses, Shakespeare's London audience is not very likely to have sympathized with his plans. He threatens to destroy their city's famous monuments: "First go and set London Bridge on fire, and if you can, burn down the Tower too . . . the Savoy .. . the Inns of Court; down with them all" (IV. vi. 14-15; vii. 1-2). When Cade promises that "all the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass" (IV. ii. 68-69), he opposes the process of enclosure that oppressed the rural poor, but he also threatens to transform the chief commercial street of Shakespeare's London audience into a common pasture.23

Cade's rebellion took place in 1450, and Shakespeare's representation of it draws heavily on accounts of the even earlier Peasants' Revolt led by Wat Tyler in 1381. Nonetheless, Shakespeare loads the rebels' speeches with anachronistic references to current grievances and literal places that serve to localize the action in sixteenth-century England; and his representation of the struggle between Cade and Iden focuses on an issue that produced real suffering and real social unrest in his own time: the conflict between the traditional right of the starving poor to be fed and the emergent ethos of private property that gave the rich an absolute right to enclose and defend their own land. As Christopher Hill has shown, a world where "the employment of industrious laborers" was replacing "the maintenance of loyal dependants" as the way to prosperity could no longer sustain the older ideal of hospitality which was increasingly supplanted by poor laws designed as much to discourage idleness and dependency as to succor the needy.24 The old distributive justice, which required that in cases of famine or extreme need the human right to sustain life must take precedence over private property rights, gave way to a new justice of suum cuique, which gave property owners an unconditional right to defend what was theirs, even by force.25

Iden's initial declaration that he "sends the poor well pleased from my gate" associates him with the old, benevolent tradition, but Cade's final statement that he was "vanquish'd by famine, not by valor" associates him with the starving victims of a changing economy and a harsh new ideology of private property (IV.x.23, 75). As Stephen Greenblatt points out, the "aristocrat has given way to the man of property," the contest "between an aristocrat and a churl" to a contest between "a well-fed owner of property and a 'poor famished man.'"26 Nonetheless, Shakespeare contrives his representation of the incident to vindicate Iden's act and obscure the novelty of the ethos it represents.27 Like the English gentleman he repeatedly declares himself to be, Iden refuses at first to fight with the starving vagabond: "Nay, it shall ne'er be said, while England stands, / That Alexander Iden, an esquire of Kent, / Took odds to combat a poor famish'd man" (IV.x.42-44).28 He fights only when Cade insists. Moreover, Iden never describes his act as a defense of his own private property; instead, he defines it in the old feudal terms as service to his king and the killing of a "monstrous traitor."

Shakespeare's representation of Iden's act and his character rationalizes a new source of status, the ownership of private property, in the emblems of an older world: the "inheritance my father left me" (IV.x.18), the hospitality that fed the poor, and the "herald's coat" to which Iden likens the bloody sword with which he killed Cade (IV.x.70).29 Thus, despite the vividness of Cade's characterization and the real social ills his rebellion addresses, Cade is finally reduced to a mechanism for ideological containment. Shakespeare's representation of Cade invokes the stereotypes of murdering thief and comic villain, the first to project and the second to defuse the anxieties of privileged property owners who could find a flattering portrait of themselves in Alexander Iden, the virtuous country gentleman. Like the historical English kings and noblemen of the first tetralogy, and unlike Cade and the other commoners, Shakespeare's Iden is never comic. Among the wellborn characters in the first tetralogy, only the French and the villainous Richard HI are tainted by the comedy that marks the commoners and contains their subversive power.

The ethical distinction between the "noble" and the "ignoble" and the generic distinctions between comedy and tragedy were deeply implicated in the divisions that separated "gentlemen" of high birth and good character from the "clowns" and "villains" who, because they lacked the first, were required by the principles of dramatic decorum to be represented as lacking the second as well. When Sidney objected to the "mongrel tragicomedy" that mingled "kings and clowns," he was objecting at least as much to the social transgression involved in thrusting in a clown "to play a part in majestical matters" as he was to the violation of the divisions that separated dramatic genres. The two, in fact, could hardly be separated.30 From the time of Aristotle, the generic divisions that separated comedy from both tragedy and history were bound up with the social divisions that separated high from low. Like history, tragedy dealt with great deeds and great men. Comedy was the medium for representing the base, in both senses of the word. When Aristotle wrote, "Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life," the terms he used, kheirous ("worse") and beltious ("better") referred as much to differences in social status as they did to differences in ethical character.31 In English no less than in Greek the ethical distinctions between better and worse, the social distinctions between high and low, and the categories of dramatic decorum are all conflated in words like "villain" and "clown."

The same discursive oppositions that separated tragedy from comedy associated it with history. For Aristotle, the tragic protagonist "must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families" (Poetics XIII). He must also be historical: unlike comic poets, who first construct their plots and then insert "characteristic names," "tragedians still keep to real names" (Poetics IX). The same contrast between tragic history and comic fiction appears in Lope de Vega's distinction: "For a subject tragedy has history and comedy has feigning."32 In The Arte of English Poesie (1589) the conflation of social status with ethical value that marks the difference between comedy and tragedy is used to explain the absence of "meane & base personages" from historical writing:

Now because the actions of meane & base personages tend in very few cases to any great good example; for who passeth to follow the steps and maner of life of a craftes man, shepheard, or sailer, though he were his father or dearest frend? yea how almost is it possible that such maner of men should be of any vertue other than their profession requireth? therefore was nothing committed to histories but matters of great and excellent persons & things.33

Shakespeare's representations of plebeian characters in the first tetralogy tend, in the last analysis, to reproduce the aristocratic bias he found in historical source and dramatic convention alike. Plebeian characters constitute a significant presence in 2 Henry VI, but their characterization, their roles, and their interests are finally determined by the requirements of the historical plot and the conventions of dramatic representation, subsumed under hegemonic structures that expressed the interests of the elite. Shakespeare's management of the enclosure issue provides a good illustration of this process. The issue is introduced for the first time in act I, scene iii, when the poor petitioners attempt to protest the enclosure of the Melford commons. Designated only as "1 Petit." and "2 Petit.," the petitioners have no names and only a few lines to speak (I.iii.1-24). The dramatic purpose of the episode is to display the vices and virtues of the elite characters, who are also the leading actors in the dramatic plot; its ideological purpose is to drive home a moral lesson that has nothing to do with the rights and needs of the oppressed villagers. Suffolk, the corrupt and haughty courtier responsible for the enclosure, intercepts their petition. The equally corrupt and haughty queen, Suffolk's adulterous lover, destroys it. The dramatic purpose of the episode is to raise the audience's antipathy toward Suffolk and Margaret. Its ideological purpose is to absolve the older aristocracy, represented by the good Duke of Gloucester (to whom the petition is addressed) of blame for the unpopular enclosures and to fix it on parvenu courtiers like Suffolk.

The last we hear about the issue of enclosure is Cade's preposterous demand that "all the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass" (IV.ii.68-69), a proposal so outrageous as to discredit the real grievances it addressed. Even Cade does not finally or fully speak for himself. As York's pawn and alter ego, he follows a scenario of York's devising, a plot laid out in soliloquy by York before Cade ever reaches the stage (HLi.355-81). As Shakespeare's, he proposes a revolution so radical and so ludicrous that it discredits the just grievances it addresses.

Unlike the rebellion scenes in Sir Thomas More, the ones in 2 Henry VI appear to have escaped censorship.34 Potentially subversive, they seem finally designed to justify oppression. Dissident sentiments are first evoked, then discredited and demonized as sources of anxiety, and finally defused in comic ridicule and brutal comic violence. The first representation of popular protest—the appearance of the humble petitioners in act I, scene iii—is fully sympathetic. In act II, scene i., initial sympathy gives way to comic debasement. Simpcox and his wife, (like Joan before them), enter the stage of history, an assembly of royalty and nobles, claiming to be the recipients of heavenly grace; and even after their hoax is exposed, Simpcox's wife, like the starving Cade, is allowed a moment of self-justification when she explains, "Alas, sir, we did it for pure need" (ILL 153). Nonetheless, it is the just and admirable Duke of Gloucester who exposes the hoax, first by the clever questions that disprove Simpcox's claim to have been born blind, then by the simple expedient of having him whipped until he leaps and runs to disprove his claim to be lame. Apparently designed to dissipate in brutal comedy whatever sympathy Simpcox has managed to elicit, the violence that removes Simpcox from the stage also anticipates Jack Cade's onstage slaughter at the hands of Iden, the only other character in the play as unequivocally virtuous as Gloucester.35

In the first tetralogy, the subversive potential of these characters is finally contained, but it is never fully effaced. The real presence of common men on Shakespeare's stage gave them a uniquely privileged status in dramatic performance. Opposing the transgressions of theatrical practice to the repressions of official discourse, the roles of common men in dramatic production provided the basis for the most radical challenge to those repressions. This challenge is implicit even in the opening lines in the first rebellion scene in 2 Henry VI—"Come and get thee a sword, though made of a lath" (IV.ii. 1-2)—which allude to the strip of lath used by the Vice in the morality plays, thus reducing the sword represented within the frame of dramatic illusion to the stage property that represented it. The sword of lath, like the speech heading that assigned those lines to George Bevis, undermines dramatic illusion and with it historical representation to insist on the material reality of theatrical performance.


1 Although the use of the word "class" in connection with a pre-capitalist society can be challenged, Shakespeare's representations of rebellious commoners seem to me to involve issues of class as well as status. The traditional view that despite its "sharply delineated system of status," pre-industrial England was "a one-class society" is emphatically stated by Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost, 2d ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), pp. 23-54. However, as Jean Howard has recently argued, conceptions of class are also relevant: "Social historians of the period increasingly speak of the clash in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries between emergent capitalistic social relations and older modes of social organization based on status or degree." She also cites the emergence of an entrepreneurial middle class in London and the enclosure movement, the new agricultural practices, and the putting-out system of cloth production that were "creating a rural proleteriat dependent on wage labor for subsistence" as well as the 'vagabonds and masterless men' so feared by the Elizabethan authorities." See her "Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988), 421n. See also the studies to which she refers, especially David Underdown, Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), and Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1982).

2 Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548; rpt. London: J. Johnson et al., 1809), p. 157.

3 On the discursive homologies that associated masterless women with masterless plebeians see Jean Howard, "Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle," 424-27. On Falstaff s female characteristics, see Valerie Traub, "Prince Hal's Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body," Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989), 456-74.

4 Peter Stallybrass, in "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 126-29, draws the connection between transforming private enclosures to common land and having an unchaste wife. Cf. 2 Henry VI (I.iii.16-22) where a poor petitioner brings a complaint "against John Goodman, my Lord Cardinal's man, for keeping my house, and lands, and wife and all, from me" and Suffolk replies, "Thy wife too? that's some wrong indeed." Suffolk's unsympathetic response is in character, since he himself is an adulterer, but it also serves to emphasize the connection between wife and land. On the roles of women in early modern riots and rebellions, see Stallybrass, "'Drunk with the cup of liberty': Robin Hood, the Carnivalesque, and the Rhetoric of Violence in Early Modern England," Semiotica 54 (1985), 122-27.

5 See, e.g., Andrew S. Cairncross, ed., William Shakespeare, The Second Part of King Henry VI, Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 109n.

6 On the implications of that presence and that power, see Howard, "Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England," pp. 439-40.

7 See Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 73-85, 224-26, and "Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theatre," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988), 409-10. Weimann argues that the upstage locus of mimetic illusion, the site of "decorum, aloofness from the audience, and representational closure," privileged the authority of "what and who was represented," while the platea, the forestage where clowns performed their antics and actors addressed their audiences, challenged that authority by calling attention to the immediate theatrical occasion, with all its subversive potential.

8 See my discussion of Pistol in Chapter 3. See also the scene of Falstaff s counterfeit death 1 Henry IV (V.iv) and the discussions of it in Sigurd Burckhardt's Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 146-48; and James Calderwood's "i Henry IV: Art's Gilded Lie," English Literary Renaissance 3 (1973) and Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 68-75. As these critics point out, the entire scene serves to undermine dramatic illusion; and Falstaff s terrified response to the sight of Hotspur's corpse—"How if he should counterfeit too and rise?"—functions in context to remind the audience of the living actor ("counterfeit") who portrayed the dead Percy and thus of the unreality of the theatrical representation.

9 Weimann, "Bifold Authority," p. 409.

10 E. Tyllney, quoted by Janet Clare in "'Greater Themes for Insurrection's Arguing': Political Censorship of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage," Review of English Studies n.s. 38 (1987), 171.

11 "Wilfred Hooper, "The Tudor Sumptuary Laws," English Historical Review 30 (1915), 433-49, points out (p. 436) that "The reign of Elizabeth marks an era of unprecedented activity in the history of restraints on apparel." At the same time, Thomas Platter noted that "the comedians are most expensively and elegantly apparelled, since it is customary in England, when distinguished gentlemen or knights die, for nearly the finest of their clothes to be made over and given to their servants, and as it is not proper for them to wear such clothes but only to imitate them, they give them to the comedians to purchase for a small sum." The passage comes from Platter's description of his travels 1595-1600, the translation by E. K. Chambers in The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 2:365.

12 Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 89-90.

13 Cf. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587; rpt. London: J. Johnson et al., 1808), 2:749.

14 All the objects of Cade's destruction—the ancient monuments and the learned men, no less than the written records—are preservers of the history that Cade sets out to obliterate. Holinshed's complaint about the 1381 rebels makes this connection explicit: "Could they have a more mischeefous meaning, than to burne and destroie all old and ancient monuments, and to murther and dispatch out of the waie all such as were able to commit to memorie, either any new or old records?" (2:746).

15 Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979; paperback reprint, 1982), pp. 104-5. Cf. Jack Goody's argument, in The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 167, that "while customary law is local, written law generalizes." See also Benedict Anderson's analysis, in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), of the role of print culture in the creation of nation-states.

16 Cf. act IV, scene vii, lines 43-46, where Cade charges that the Lord Say has put poor men "in prison, and because they could not read, [has] hang'd them, when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live."

17 Hall, Union, p. 222.

18 Consistently invoked as a proof of aristocratic valor, the ability to do without food also distinguishes noble warriors from cowardly plebeians in Coriolanus, where, as Janet Adelman has pointed out, the issue of food forms the basis of the class conflict, and "nobility consists precisely in not eating." See her "Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 132. See also Maurice Charney, "The Imagery of Food and Eating in Coriolanus," Essays in Literary History, ed. Rudolf Kirk and C. F. Main (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1960), pp. 37-55.

19 As David Kastan reminds me, the plebeians' need for food associates them with the Bakhtinian grotesque body. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp. 278-367. And as Frank Whigham points out: "The gentleman cares more about the reified tangibles of reputation than about material needs. . . . The gentleman is materially ascetic; any such 'pleasures' are merely instrumental to governance. At the same time, he is as ferocious in defense (and pursuit) of reputation as the starveling is in search of food." Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 77.

20 For an account of food riots in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, see Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680, pp. 173-82. Wrightson points out (pp. 173-74) that government records indicate "some forty outbreaks of [food riots] in the period 1585-1660."

21English Society 1580-1680, p. 125.

22 On Shakespeare's own involvement in the enclosure of land near Stratford, see Terence Hawkes, That Shakespeherian Rag: Essays on a Critical Process (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 7-10. On the enclosure riots, see Wrightson, pp. 173-80, and Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion, pp. 107-16.

23 Cf. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 17. Arguing that Shakespeare's representation of Cade's rebellion foregrounds "the anarchy that is the dark side of carnival," Leggatt points out that "the first London audiences must have felt the threat more sharply as it crept toward familiar places."

24 "The Poor and the Parish," in Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 263-65.

25 Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, eds., Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 27-29.

26 "Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion," in Representing the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988; originally published in Representations 1 [1983]), p. 25. See also pp. 23-25 for a provocative reading of the encounter between Iden and Cade as a transformation of status relations into property relations.

27 Iden's self-characterization as a virtuous, hospitable country gentleman, content with his small patrimony and disdainful of worldly ambition, anticipates the construction and ideological functions of the ideal of civic humanism described by J. G. A. Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) and The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957) and celebrated by Alexander Pope in his "Ode on Solitude."

28 The fact that both Cade and Iden are Kentishmen, so designated in the chronicles and so named in Shakespeare's script, provides an especially resonant setting for their contest. "Gavelkind," the Kentish custom of inheritance by equal shares, and the absence of villeinage in Kent both associated it with the new economic order. Even in the fifteenth century, Paul Murray Kendall reports, "Kent was famous for its heavy cloth," and the forests were thinned, their wood providing "fuel for iron and glass works. . . . Beer supposedly came into England with the Reformation, but it was already being brewed in Kent. . . . Situated on the route from London to the Continent, Kentishmen were an efficient and progressive race. . . . [Instead of] the manorial tradition of tilling open fields . . . [Kent had] enclosed holdings . . . the land so tightly hedged and ditched . . . that travellers afoot or on horseback could not cut across fields but had to keep strictly to the highways." The Yorkist Age: Daily Life during the Wars of the Roses (New York: Doubleday, 1962), pp. 2-3.

29 See Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 22-23, where he discusses Coke's project of "making radical political notions respectable by dressing them up in garbled medieval precedents: "Because of [the] crushing burden of belief in the need for social stability, all change had to be interpreted as the maintenance of tradition. In religion the reformation was defended as a return to the early church; in politics, parliamentary sovereignty was defended as the enforcement of fourteenth-century customs; in society the rise of new men was disguised by forged genealogies and the grant of titles of honour."

30Sir Philip Sidney 's Defense of Poesy, ed. Lewis Soens (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 49. Sidney's argument, although expressed in terms of dramatic decorum, is obviously based on the requirements of social decorum: "But besides these gross absurdities, how all their plays be neither right tragedies nor right comedies, mingling kings and clowns, not because the matter so carries it but thrust in the clown by head and shoulders to play a part in majestical matters with neither decency nor discretion." See also Dympna Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of "King Lear, " "Othello, " "The Duchess of Malfi" and "The White Devil" (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989), p. 37: "Tragedy was privileged over comedy by the likes of Sidney and Puttenham precisely because of an identification of genre with class."

31Poetics II.4 in Aristotle 's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, ed. S. H. Butcher, 4th ed. (New York: Dover, 1951), pp. 12-13.

32The New Art of Making Comedies (1609), in Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, ed. Allen H. Gilbert (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962), p. 543.

33The Arte of English Poesie. Contrived into three Bookes: The first of Poets and Poesie, the second of Proportion, the third of Ornament (London: Richard Field, 1589), Book I, chap. 19, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (London: Oxford University Press, 1904), 2:43. Although the text was published anonymously, it is usually attributed to George Puttenham.

34 Clare, p. 173.

35 The same design can be seen in the transformation of Joan's character in 1 Henry VI. Hall had described Joan as a "wytch" who told such "visions, traunses and fables, full of blasphemy, supersticion and hypocrisy, that I marvell much that wise men did beleve her, and learned Clerkes would write suche phantasies" and reported with indignant skepticism, "What should I reherse, how they saie, she knewe and called hym her kyng, whom she never saw before. What should I speake how she had by reuelacion a swerde, to her appoynted in the churche of saincte Katheryn .. . in Torayne where she neuer had been" (Union, p. 148). Shakespeare's initial representation of Joan (I.ii.) subverts the received judgment of English history: he validates the story of the sword by having Joan use it to defeat the Dauphin in single combat to prove her claim to divine inspiration. He also validates the story of Joan's miraculous recognition of the Dauphin, dramatizing it as present action on stage, embellishing it and making Joan's task more difficult by having the Dauphin attempt to conceal his identity. At the end of the play, however, he shows his Joan consorting with evil spirits, attempting to escape death by claiming she is pregnant, and generally vindicating all the worst charges that the English chroniclers and the English characters in the play have brought against her, thus coming to terms with a historiographic tradition that was at once masculine, elite, and English.

François Laroque (lecture date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Jack Cade Scenes Reconsidered: Popular Rebellion, Utopia, or Carnival?", in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, edited by Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle and Stanley Wells, University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 76-89.

[In the following lecture originally delivered at the International Shakespeare Association World Congress in 1991, Laroque discusses the Cade scenes in 2 Henry VI in the context of medieval and Renaissance festivals and revels, emphasizing the linkage of savagery and buffoonery in these scenes, and focusing on Cade as both the voice of Utopian radicalism and a carnivalesque Lord of Misrule.]

Important critical attention has recently been devoted to the scenes depicting the popular uprising under the leadership of Jack Cade, the Kentish clothier, in 2 Henry VI. The rebellion appears in scenes 2 to 10 of act 4 and forms a little play of its own, a miniature inset within the greater pattern of the overall sequence of the Plantagenet tetralogy, which simultaneously encapsulates and parodies the breakup of the kingdom and the intestine wars that are its most evil consequence. The dizzying feeling that accompanies the dismemberment of the body politic and the threat of chaos with its attendant violence also produces a sense of intoxicating energy as the forces of anarchy and festivity become intermingled.

In the light of historical evidence and of parallels established with other spectacular movements of protest like the Peasant Revolt of Wat Tyler in 1381 or Robert Kett's rising in 1549,1 some critics have called attention to the serious political elements below the grotes-querie of Cade's rhetoric and they regard those scenes of popular discontent as the expression of a genuine revolutionary movement with some messianic touches in the construction of a "brave new world" of popular utopia.2 Some see in their sinister clowning the sign that Shakespeare was distancing himself from an unruly, bloodthirsty mob whose megalomaniac ruler is a foreshadowing of Richard III,3 while others, in the wake of C. L. Barber's formula that the sequence expresses "a consistent expression of anarchy by clowning,"4 regard it as a form of bloody carnival where subversion is also a celebration and where violence is framed and ritualized by popular traditions and festive custom.

While I would undeniably take sides with the third group of critics, I am also prepared to agree that the use of folklore elements in a history play, with the London scene and the hubbub of the city and of the public stages close by, is certainly far from innocent. I cannot, however, be persuaded that Shakespeare may be fairly presented as a pre-Marxist playwright or even as a radical upholder of popular sedition. The fascination exerted by these highly intense moments of drama is, it seems to me, mainly due to their bustling life and high theatricality and to the risks that the young playwright was taking, while the actors who were saying their lines on the stage stood quite close to the very same social and age groups (the crafts and apprentices) who had been involved in the 1450 uprising. These scenes can be read as a ritual reenactment of the savage disorder that almost destroyed London; the immediate success that they met with must have been due to the creation of a sense of spatial immediacy with the London scene of the Rose Theatre close to the places where these events took place a century and a half before. The distance in time was probably much reduced by the fresh memory of a number of similar recent riots.

But these scenes are not easily interpreted, and their rich language, fraught with punning, popular phrases, and proverbs, taps on deep layers of plebeian culture whose voice is for once freely heard upon the stage. The rapidity of the action produced by the succession of fairly short scenes with a lot of stage business creates an impression of frenzy, and the squabbling of the crowd is made alive by the brilliant quibbling of Cade and Dick the Butcher. The difficulty also comes from the fact that those scenes cannot be isolated from the general context of the play and of the first tetralogy as a whole since they occupy a position that is roughly at the center of the overall structure.

The popular rebellion is essentially a refraction of the general misrule that prevails in the empire, and the demotic mock-king is presented as a mirror of the weak rule of Henry VI and of aristocratic factionalism in general. It is a symptom of the social pathology created by the dynastic dissensions among the noble families of the realm.

The first scene of the revolt, 4.2, mainly consists in a series of brief exchanges between two rebels, which serves as a prologue to introduce Jack Cade, the leader of the revolt, and his main lieutenants—Best's son, the tanner of Wingham, Dick the Butcher, and Smith the Weaver. The protagonists are neither simple peasants nor base mechanicals, contrary to the Messenger's declaration to the king in 4.4.27-32 ("Jack Cade proclaims himself Lord Mortimer / . . . His army is a ragged multitude / Of hinds and peasants, rude and merciless"), but are handicraftsmen, or skilled workers who are members of a craft. So this is not a case of limited food riot or a simple protest against enclosures by rural rebels (calling Cade's revolt a "jacquerie" is certainly a misrepresentation) but is the expression of political discontent by urban workers with a number of strongly formulated grievances:

Second Rebel. Well, I say it was never merry
world in England since gentlemen came up.

First Rebel. O, miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen.
Second Rebel The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.
First Rebel. Nay more, the King's Council are no good workmen.
Second Rebel. True; and yet it is said 'Labour in thy vocation'; which is as much to say as 'Let the magistrates be labouring men'; and therefore should we be magistrates.


This vision of the social orders amounts to a saturnalian reversal of the roles between handicraftsmen and magistrates that does "untune [the] string of degree." Michael Hattaway is certainly right when he speaks of "a radical thrust" at that stage,5 although these grievances sound more general than radical since they echo proverbial sayings and since the attacks against the nobility are not leveled against any particular persons or families. Similarly, when Cade retorts to Sir Humphrey Stafford, who had reminded him that he is a simple shearman, that "Adam was a gardener" (4.2.133), he alludes to the famous slogan by Parson John Ball, one of the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, which ran "When Adam delv'd, and Eve span / Who was then a gentleman?"6 This phrase, which is found in the contemporary anonymous play Jack Straw as well as in Holinshed's Chronicles, had become proverbial by Shakespeare's time.7

So, at first glance, the division seems to be one between estates opposing the "leather aprons" and the "silkencoated slaves" (4.2.127), as Cade calls the gentry. But there are other more precise attacks, leveled at the lawyers whom Dick the Butcher proposes to kill (4.2.78), a proposal immediately followed by the hanging of the unfortunate Clerk of Chatham. The injustice of lawyers had been a major grievance in Wat Tyler's revolt since they were often accused of abusing their knowledge of the law to rob the ignorant and the poor or to deprive them of their legitimate rights. Conflicts also frequently sprang from accusations against the Norman yoke as the new legal code contradicted or hampered the old Saxon liberties. Legal records came to be regarded as a source of alienation, the wax seal on the bond turning the villain or the apprentice into a slave, as Jack Cade puts it in his own inimitable parlance:

Is not this a lamentable thing that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings, but I say, 'tis the bee's wax. For I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.


But Cade's political platform is expressed in the "reformation" that he vows in front of his companions and that could turn out to be as radical as the religious changes implemented in England in the course of the sixteenth century:

There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer. All the realm shall be in common, and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass. . . . there shall be no money. All shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery that they may agree like brothers....


Behind the demagogy of the tone and of the wild promises made to his supporters, Cade is indicting a number of evils that had often been branded as abuses by previous rebels or protesters, namely inflation and enclosures. According to Holinshed, Wat Tyler had presented King Richard II with the request

. . . that all warrens, parks and woods should be common, so that as well poore as rich might freelie in any place wheresoever practise fishing in ponds, pooles, rivers, or any waters, and might hunt deere in forests and parkes, and the hare in the fields.8

Such grievances are all more or less characteristic of the rebellions of early modern England, still medieval and reformist in note and content, even if Jack Cade also sounds the tune of a more radical popular utopia with the dream of the abolition of money and of the uniformity of dress found in Thomas More's Utopia. Michael Bristol, in his study of the relevance of More's text to the rebellion scenes, defines utopia as "a place in which men and women live together according to new and better principles of social and political justice."9 But Cade, whose words echo the speeches of Wat Tyler, goes further than this. He exhorts his followers to gain their liberty by using violence against the nobility:

And you that love the commons, follow me! Now show yourselves men—'tis for liberty. We will not leave one lord, one gentleman—Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon, For they are thrifty honest men. . . .


This sounds like a pre-Marxist radicalism preaching the violent eradication of privilege and class differences, like "the embryo of a communist programme."10 The slaughter that follows transforms the comic populace into a blood-thirsty mob led by the gruesome figure of Dick the Butcher as the revolutionary slogans are almost instantly translated into action. Loot and destruction by fire will follow (4.6.13-15), as well as cold-blooded execution, when the heads of Lord Saye and Sir James Cromer are struck off, fixed upon poles, and paraded through the streets of London "instead of maces" (4.7.153). In this scene Jack Cade inverts the ritual of the Lord Mayor's pageant and travesties ceremony into a grim theater of cruelty. The kissing game that he orders "at every corner" (4.7.154) turns the popular rebel into a parody of Marlowe's Tamburlaine and makes him appear as a sadistic puppet-master. At another level Cade may also appear as a forerunner of the radical advocates of terror, and his macabre showmanship will later be imitated by the French "Sansculottes" during the darker hours of the French revolution,11 as well as by a number of sinister despots ranging from Uganda's Amin Dada to Pol Pot in Cambodia.

As any populist leader, Cade alternates savagery with some wild promises that seem more in the vein of the medieval dreams of plenty found in ballads or in popular iconography than in a political program:

And, here sitting upon London Stone, I charge and command that, of the city's cost, the Pissing Conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign.


This sounds like a royal largesse on the occasion of coronation and of the festive tradition of the entry of the sovereign into a city. The striking of London Stone, the mythical heart of the city, with a staff looks like a magic gesture reminiscent of Moses smiting the rock in the desert to allow water to spout out of it, while the promise of making the conduit run with claret wine conjures up the dream of abundance found in the medieval topos of the Land of Cockaigne. As in the radical expression and brutal enactment of a communist egalitarianism, the historical realities are ignored in the pursuit of a collective dream.

In fact, the popular revolt is the occasion for putting the world upside down and for indulging in some destructive saturnalia. But the list of traditional grievances and the real motives for anger become blurred by the expression of Utopian fantasies that are less millenary hopes (the revolt is characterized by its absence of religious aspirations) than regressive dreams. Cade fascinates his followers as long as he is able to use the magic language of popular longing for plenty and to present the transgression of law and order as the means to reach some kind of mythical Golden Age. There is no real "anatomy of abuses" on the part of the rebels, and their onslaughts against the world of letters and education, while based on real feelings of injustice, are distorted into a doctrinaire creed of antierudition that will cause the deaths of the clerk of Chatham and of Lord Saye. The ideas of class-consciousness or class struggle thus sound like an anachronistic reinterpretation since the plebeian protest, violent and extensive as it may seem, cannot be seriously presented as a proletarian march on the way to some final emancipation.12

As Hattaway remarks, Cade's claims are marked by elements of conservatism and by what he calls his "carnivalesque radicalism."13 This oxymoronic formula calls attention to the many contradictions in Cade's speeches since his political agenda is at times closer to the world of the Praise of Folly and to the self-conscious histrionics of a lord of misrule than to the aspirations of a revolutionary leader. Paul Slack, among others, confirms what he calls the "conservatism of popular aspirations" and notes that "the connection between rituals of revolt and rituals of 'misrule' has frequently been stressed in recent work."14

Indeed, if Cade challenges and parodies the structure of authority, or what is left of it with the weak, saintly figure of Henry VI, he does not question the idea of kingship since he tries to pass himself off as Lord Mortimer, thus echoing the suggestions of his master York (3.1.358-59). The traditions of the licensed misrule of the festive season in England (Christmas, May Day, and Whitsuntide) resorted to the analogy of the mock king in order to celebrate disorder in a spirit of subversive irreverence. Sandra Billington explains that "the king 'concept' was one which the medieval mind enjoyed playing with" and that "the festive kings were embedded in outlawry and rebellion."15 It is interesting to see that, though the Middle Temple was destroyed by Wat Tyler in 1381, the lawyers of Lincoln's Inn elected a lord of misrule called Jack Straw for their Christmas revels. This shows how thin the line was from seasonal revelry to popular rebellion and how easily people could then pass from one sphere to another.16

The very names of the leaders, Jack Straw and Jack Cade, evoke festive customs (Dick the Butcher punningly refers to his association with a "cade of herrings"), like the straw-clad figures of the Mummers or the "Jack o' Lent," the penitential puppet of Ash Wednesday.17 The link between festival and popular rebellion is further exemplified by the fact that plebeian dissent often used the cloak of carnival to turn the licensed misrule into violence against lawyers or members of the gentry.18 Cade's revolt was no exception since, according to Thomas Pettitt, "Jack Cade may have used the Whitsun festivities of 1450 to cover his enterprise."19 This would explain why, in an earlier passage, York describes him as a "wild Morisco" (3.1.365). Morris dances were indeed quite common features of the Whitsun rejoicings in the villages of England, which were also an occasion for electing a summer king.20 The image of the Morris dancer is at the heart of a dense cluster of imagery, binding together the earlier image of the "sharp-quilled porcupine" (3.1.363), the martial bravery of a soldier fighting with arrows lodged in his thighs, and the strings of bells madly jingling around the dancers' knees and ankles in the summer period. In a play that bristles with all sorts of heraldic emblems (the bear of Warwick, York's boar, and so forth), the "wild Morisco" becomes a popular crest that stands for sport, energy, and rebellion.

Another link with the Morris dance lies in the fact that Cade dubs himself "captain" at the beginning of the revolt ("your captain is brave and vows reformation" 4.2.66)—a title that, according to Philip Stubbes, was given to the Lord of Misrule of the May games:

First, all the wilde-heds of the Parish, conventing togither, chuse them a Graund-Captain . . . whom they innoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule, and him they crowne with great solemnitie, and adopt for their king.21

In the play, the uprising of the Kentish craftsmen under Jack Cade's banner is obviously not a spontaneous affair and its causes are both the result of a linear, historical order, as well as of a more general, cyclical nature. Shakespeare first presents it as a strategic maneuvre on the part of York in his efforts to place on his head the "golden circuit" (3.1.352) of the English crown:

And for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion . . .


The revolt has been politically planned since, after "good" Duke Humphrey's murder, York tries to turn to his own advantage the anger of the commons. But, in the text of the play, its outward manifestations and language also feed on the dynamics and patterns of folkloric traditions. The reawakening of popular energies coincides with the return of the spring—that is, with the start of the carnival season, when hibernating animals such as the porcupine or the bear are supposed to come out into the light from their wintry place of hiding.22 Such correspondences with the symbolism of popular culture are deeply embedded in the imagery of the play, which insists so much on the parallels with the animal world that it is often close to a fable: the nobles are compared to predators (eagles, kites) and the commons to "an angry hive of bees" (3.2.125). This symbolism might be seen to correspond to the various carnival confraternities or "kingdoms" (the Eagle, the Capon, the Partridge), the existence of which the French historian Le Roy Ladurie has emphasized in his study of the links between popular rebellion and carnival institutions in the Dauphiné town of Romans in the early modern period.23 In this particular instance, the bestiary served to designate the various factions with a dividing line between the patricians, who chose winged animals as more appropriate for the upper classes, and the plebeians, who had to fall back upon more humble beasts like the hare, the bear, or the donkey.24

To the motif of animality is associated the theme of the chase and of bloody slaughter. If Jack Cade's followers mostly belong to the various urban crafts, particular emphasis is laid on Dick the Butcher, who is rewarded for his expedient slaughter of the Stafford brothers with special license during Lent:

Cade. They fell before thee like sheep and oxen, and thou behaved'st thyself as if thou hadst been in thine own slaughterhouse. Therefore, thus will I reward thee—the Lent shall be as long again as it is. Thou shalt have licence to kill for a hundred, lacking one.


That a butcher should turn executioner would seem to correspond to the logic of his trade because he is used to spilling blood. But it also refracts the play's ironies, and the plebeians' innate cratylism25 is expressed in the associations they spontaneously establish between name and trade or word and thing. The revolt scenes are fraught with a number of puns on the names: these have a deflationary effect, like the puns that Dick and Smith indulge in when Cade embarks on his geneological claims ("My wife descended of the Lacys—Butcher. [To his fellows.] She was indeed a pedlar's daughter and sold many laces" (4.2.45-47), that constitute a shorthand description of a character's temper or his mode of action. To Holland's announcement of the arrival of Dick the Butcher, the First Rebel retorts: "Then is sin struck down like an ox, and iniquity's throat cut like a calf' (4.2.28-29).

All this sounds like carnival rhetoric or like an improvisation on the part of actors taking their cue from the name into which they are trying to read or predict the essence of the person about to appear on the stage. This type of game is the popular or dramatic counterpart of the emblematic language that characterizes the nobility. In the case of the butcher, it calls attention to the carnivalesque nature of the rebellion since the guild of butchers was highly prominent in carnival periods, just as it serves to unmetaphor the image of butchery in King Henry's sad and powerless commentary after the dismissal of Gloucester:

And as the butcher takes away the calf,
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strains,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse,
Even so remorseless have they borne him hence.


The numerous severed heads (Suffolk's, Lord Saye's and Sir James Cromer's, Jack Cade's) will serve as a number of bloody icons reminiscent of the vicious king game played at all levels of society in the first tetralogy. With their mixture of buffoonery and horror, the demotic scenes repeat the main leitmotiv of division and misrule in the kingdom that produces what the first gentleman calls a "barbarous and bloody spectacle" (4.1.146) when he sees Suffolk's severed head. A few lines before, in a brave posture of defiance to the pirates about to kill him, Suffolk himself had combined the images of death and festivity in the bold wish that he would "let [his] head /. . . sooner dance upon a bloody pole / Than stand uncovered to the vulgar groom" (4.1.126-30). The punning on the names (Walter/water, Pole/poole), which allows Suffolk to confirm the fate predicted by the spirit in the conjuring scene of act 1 ("By water shall he die, and take his end", 1.4.34), followed by a number of insulting synonyms used by the Captain to humiliate his prisoner ("Pole—. . . / Ay, kennel, puddle, sink . . ." 4.1.70-71), also serves as a prelude for the quibbling on the names of Cade, Mortimer, and Lord Saye in the rebellion scenes. The linguistic buffoonery and the idiosyncratic verbal inventions of the artisans are part of their utopia, which, first and foremost, has to be recognized as a wonderful creation of words.

Hence the importance of the letter in those scenes where the stressing of orality at the expense of the written text gives to the spoken utterance the validity and power of law. Indeed, after he has given this order to "burn all the records of the realm," Jack Cade decides that his "mouth shall be the Parliament of England" (4.7.12-14). In the previous scene a messenger, who was unaware of the change, is instantly knocked down dead for calling his leader Jack Cade instead of "Lord Mortimer" (4.6.4-8). As in magical incantations or, one is tempted to add, in the world of the stage, this expresses the impossible dream that language must be followed by immediate action.

Now the use of festive and traditional patterns did not in itself preclude cruelty or sadism because many popular rituals of the day staged symbolic executions or dismemberment. The slaying of the emissary victim was essentially performed by proxy on an animal or on some straw effigy as in the burning or kicking of Jaekof-Lent on Ash Wednesday26 or in the decapitation game of the sword dance in which the dancers' swords were interwoven around the neck of the symbolic victim in a figure called the "rosa quadrata."27 The alliance of buffoonery and horror, often noted in the analyses of the Jack Cade rebellion,28 was itself an ingredient of the popular games of seasonal custom. Quoting the sardonic tone of Holinshed in a marginal gloss to a passage describing the burning of the records of the realm by the unruly commons ("Lawyers, justices, and jurors brought to 'blockam feast' by the rebels"), Michael Hattaway remarks that "this reconstitutes the slaughter into a carnival of violence."29 The frenzy to destroy and burn, even the flare-up of violence and the indulgence of blood-lust, was not an uncommon feature in certain festive occasions of the Tudor period, as when the apprentices happened to sack the brothels and the theaters in Southwark on Shrove Tuesday or during the riots of the Londoners against the foreign merchants on the Ill May Day of 1517, depicted in Sir Thomas More, a play in which Shakespeare is seriously believed to have had a hand.

At the end of the rebellion, when Old Clifford manages to rally the rebels to the king by using the magic name of Henry the Fifth (4.7.189), Cade flies away into the woods to hide himself like a hunted beast. The primitive utopia he had advocated is ironically materialized in this wild space where he is gradually famished and has to eat grass. The frightening figure who had been indirectly presented as an ogre, a wolf with biting teeth, has been reduced by hunger to the humiliating diet of a donkey. He who had inflamed the crowds with his fantastic rhetoric is now reduced to feed on words: "the word 'sallet' must serve me to feed on" (4.9.14-15). When his words are opposed to the sword of Alexander Iden:

As for words, whose greatness answers words,
Let this my sword report what speech forbears.


The words/sword metathesis signals the inversion of the topsy-turveydom embodied by Cade's misrule and the at least temporary return to law and order. Jack Cade's final retort is a last desperate flare-up of energy that completes his identification with the figure of a cannibalistic Wild Man, incidentally a prominent element in the London Midsummer pageants:

Steel, if thou turn the edge or cut not out the burlyboned clown in chines of beef ere thou sleep in thy sheath, I beseech God on my knees thou mayst be turned to hobnails.


Cade's final imprecations assimilate him to a male witch abandoned by his spirits, and here one may certainly think of Joan the Pucelle at the end of 1 Henry VI. This reminds us that York had called him a "devil" in act 3, while the image of the darts in his body also evoked some black art or rite of possession. His behavior during the rebellion looks truly demonic at times, especially against the background of fire and destruction, a feature that would corroborate Philip Stubbes's assimilation of the Lord of Misrule to "a great Lord present among them [the May celebrants], as Superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Sathan, prince of hell."30 When he is dragged by the heels, his "ungracious head" cut from his trunk, which is then left in a dunghill "for crows to feed upon" (4.9.82-84), the dismemberment of his body, like Doctor Faustus's at the end of Marlowe's play, appears as the sign of his damnation.

But Cade is also thereby assimilated to a carnival effigy dumped in a midden after the social group has purged itself of its evils at the end of the misrule period. Jack Cade has turned into Jack o' Lent. The radical utopia he had advocated brings him back to starvation and savagery while his promise of a return to a state of edenic, primitive communism has led him into a deadly trap, namely the enclosed garden of Iden the Kentish gentleman.

The presentation of Cade's head to the king in the next act marks the end of one cycle of violence. But it also foreshadows the death of York in 3 Henry VI after Margaret has humiliated him by putting a paper crown on his head and made him a mock king as well as a pathetic Christ figure.31 Finally, the bloody carnival of Jack Cade looks forward to the dark misrule of Richard III, who will turn the wild lies and dark antics of the popular leader into a method of government.

The Jack Cade scenes in 2 Henry VI provide the audience with neither comic relief nor with a credible alternative to the theme of the disintegration of the kingdom. Instead they present us with a vision of the world upside down, which is also a distorted mirror of authority as the commons blindly reenact the brutalities of the aristocracy. Jack Cade's political platform is a mixture of Utopian radicalism and festive traditions that aims at promoting his own pretensions to the crown as Lord Mortimer. Acting under the supervision of York, he is in fact the first in a line of impostors (he will be imitated some forty years later by Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck,32 who will try to challenge the rule of Henry VII by passing themselves off as Edward VI and Richard IV).33 It is evident to everyone, however, particularly to his own companions, who mock his pretensions in their asides, that he is nothing but the shadow of a mock-king—that is, of the Duke of York his master. But as Henry VI is himself a weak king dominated by Margaret and people like Suffolk, the idea of substantial rule in the play seems nowhere to be found.

More than a proto-insurrectionary model or real utopia, the rebellion scenes seem to me to constitute a bricolage of festive traditions that are used for their subversive and comic impact in the play, so that the savage London insurrection looks like a "spectacle of strangeness" where the plebeians play the parts later assigned to Wild Men or Turks in the Jacobean antimasque. So that the carnivalesque in those scenes ultimately serves the function of calling attention to the world of the stage, to the improvisations of the actors presenting the rebel craftsmen while wielding theatrical properties and destroying the theatrical illusion, as in the initial invitation of the First Rebel to the Second, "Come and get thee a sword, though made of a lath" (4.2.1-2). The rebellion marched through Southwark, across London Bridge, where the heads of the rebels on high spikes were almost within view of the standing audiences of the Rose Theater.34

So when Jack Cade exclaims that "our enemies shall fall before us, inspired with the spirit of putting down kings and princes" (4.2.36-37), this fantastic piece of boasting, based on a pun associating the verb to fail with the Latin cadere and hence with his own name, is less a radical slogan inviting his partisans to do away with English royalty than an oblique reference to the power of the theater and to the pageant of history presented on the public stage by the common players.


1 See the essays from Past and Present, ed. Paul Slack, under the title Rebellion, Popular Protest, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

2 In this connection see Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 240; Michael Bristol, Carnival and the Theatre: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985), 89; Michael Hattaway, "Rebellion, Class Consciousness and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI" Cahiers Elisabéthains 33 (April 1988): 18-20, and in the introduction to his edition of the play for the New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 27, where he insists that "Jack Cade's rebellion in Shakespeare's text is a political act and not a moral aberration"; Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge: B. Blackwell, 1989), 50-51; Pierre Sahel, "Some Versions of Coup d'Etat, Rebellion, and Revolution," Shakespeare Survey 44 (1991): 30, says that "Cade's rising in 2 Henry VI. . . is, above all, a genuine revolutionary attempt, with its popular legitimacy, ideology, and also millenary dreams" (13).

3 For Richard Wilson, "'A Mingled Yarn': Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers," Literature and History 12, no. 2 (1986): 164-80, "Shakespeare's Cade is a projection of the sexual and cannibalistic terrors of the Renaissance rich" (176).

4 C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 13.

5 Michael Hattaway, "Rebellion, Class-Consciousness, and 2 Henry VI," 16.

6The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593/94) 1.1.82-83. Quoted in Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957-75), 3:139.

7 See M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950), A 30.

8 Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2d ed., 6 vols. (1587; reprint, London, 1808), 2:742.

9 Bristol, Carnival and the Theatre, 90.

10 Sahel, "Some Versions of Coup d'Etat," 15.

11 This was noted by Burke in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) while Michelet, if he accepted the idea of a barbarous festival that allied some grand slaughter to popular rejoicings (this is how he described the Roman circus games), refused to link festivity with a "butchery." See Mona Ozouf, La fête révolutionnaire 1789-1799 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 37-39.

12 According to Hattaway, "the rebels seek reformation and liberty, not anarchy . . . they are not simply reacting to violations of a time-hallowed order of landed society .. . and the loss of their "ancient freedom," but are proposing a new egalitarian order" (introduction to New Cambridge edition, p. 28). He sees Cade as hijacking the movement into a pursuit of personal and rather megalomaniac aims. Otherwise the revolt is presented as generating "glimpses of an alternative order of political radicalism" (p. 27). And, in his article on the Jack Cade scenes, he concludes with this sentence: "It seems to me that from that collective life of rebellion a manifesto was emerging, and that the riot over specific grievance generated a brief vision of a brave new world" ("Rebellion, Class-Consciousness, and 2 Henry VI" 20). I have the feeling that, as in The Tempest, where Montaigne's utopia in his essay "O t' Canniballes" is ironically subverted by the tone and context of the play, Jack Cade's brave new world is bitterly debunked by the "braver" show of Saye's head upon the pole and by his mock-heroic end in the private enclosure in the garden of Iden in 4.9.

13 Introduction to the New Cambridge edition of 2 Henry VI, 16.

14 Introduction to Rebellion, Popular Protest, and the Social Order, 6-9. Dominique Goy-Blanquet, in "Pauvres Jacques. Chroniques et spectacles en Angleterre au XVIe siècle," in Figures théâtrales du peuple: Etudes, ed. Elie Königson (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la recherche scientifique, 1985), 73, speaks of a "stopped development" and the "immaturity of the type of protest" depicted by Shakespeare in those scenes.

15 Sandra Billington, Mock Kings in Medieval Society and Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 27.

16 See Richard Wilson, "'A Mingled Yarn,'" 174: "From revelry to rebellion was a short semantic step in Renaissance culture...."

17 See Thomas Pettitt, "'Here Comes I, Jack Straw': English Folk Drama and Social Revolt," Folklore 95, no. 1 (1984): 8-9.

18 See Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans (New York: G. Braziller, 1979).

19 Pettitt, "'Here Comes I, Jack Straw,'" 4.

20 F. Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World: Elizabethan Seasonal Entertainment and the Professional Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 137 and 290-91.

21 Philip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses in England (1583; reprint, London: New Shakespeare Society, 1877), 147.

22 On this, see Laroque, Shakespeare's Festive World, 48 and 96.

23 Ladurie, Carnival in Romans, 177-215.

24 Ibid., 204.

25 The expression, borrowed from Plato's Cratylus, actually refers to Gérard Genette's essay in Mimologiques. Voyages en cratylie (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1976), "L'éponymie du nom," 11-37.

26 See Pettitt, "'Here Comes I, Jack Straw,'" 13.

27 See Cecil J. Sharp, The Sword Dances of Northern England, 3 vols. (London: Novello, 1912-13), 1:29. Commenting on this figure, Sharp concludes that "only one interpretation is possible, namely that it is a mimic decapitation" (28).

28 See Billington, Mock Kings, 143-44; Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 216; Donald G. Watson, Shakespeare's Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stage (London: Macmillan & Co., 1990), whose analysis on p. 77 is worth quoting:

Shakespeare intends that 2 Henry VI makes his audience uncomfortable. Its comedy furthers the darkening of the ruthlessly violent political history, as the macabre stage images of killings and severed heads repeat themselves and stifle laughter with horror. Though to an Elizabethan spectator familiar with the fearsome brutality of public executions and with the carnivalesque atmosphere which often surrounded them, such dramatizations of the grotesque may have been less shocking, their violence seems deliberately intensified by the comic elements which are interspersed with them. The carnivalesque elements involved in the comic sequences suggest considering the play itself as promoting the kind of release Carnival provided.

29 Introduction to the New Cambridge edition of 2 Henry VI, 31-32.

30 Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses in England, 149.

31 1.4.94-109.

32 At the beginning of John Ford's play, Perkin Warbeck (1633), Mermaid Series, ed. Havelock Ellis (London, n.d.), King Henry, referring to Perkin Warbeck's imposture, angrily exclaims:

Still to be haunted, still to be pursued,
Still to be frightened with false apparitions
Of pageant majesty and new-coined greatness,
As if we were a mockery king in state.


33 On this see Billington, Mock Kings, 21, and Yves-Marie Bercé, Le roi caché. Sauveurs et imposteurs: Mythes politiques populaires dans l'Europe moderne (Paris: Fayard, 1990), 359-63.

34 See Wilson, "'A Mingled Yarn,'" 176: "The scenes in which [Cade] figures should be interpreted as a selfinterested intervention by the management of the Rose in London crisis, and a cynical exploitation of atavistic fears."

Structural And Thematic Unity

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11688

Joseph Candido (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Getting Loose in the Henry VI Plays," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 392-406.

[In this essay, Candido examines the relationship between a series of episodes in 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, maintaining that these episodes trace the progressive disintegration of social and political disorder which results in the gradual replacement of Talbot's heroic values by Margaret's and Suffolk's affected notion of idealism, York's barbarism, Henry's dismal end, and the ominous prospects for the reign of Edward IV]

I wonder how the king escap'd our hands.

(3 Henry VI, I.i.1)

Ah, whither shall I fly to scape their hands?

(3 Henry VI, I.iii.1)

I wonder how our princely father scap'd
Or whether he be scap'd away or no . . .

(3 Henry VI, II.i.1-2)1>

That Shakespeare should open three early scenes in 3 Henry VI in such strikingly similar fashion suggests—however belaboredly—the apprentice playwright's conscious efforts toward a coherent dramatic design. Indeed, ever since Hereward T. Price's pioneering essay on Shakespearean construction over thirty years ago, the critical outcry against the so-called disunity of the Henry VI plays has effectively been silenced, only to be replaced by a new critical consensus emphasizing the structural and thematic unity of the sequence.2 So it is that the two most lengthy and detailed explorations of the trilogy can find the plays connected by their sustained concern with, respectively, heroic idealism and "patterns of decay."3 It is not my intent in this essay simply to add another "pattern" to the growing list but rather to suggest—based on the surprisingly large number of captures and attempted escapes in the sequence, either literal or metaphorical—some new structural and thematic connections among apparently quite disparate episodes. If Andrew Cairncross is correct in saying that the trilogy provides abundant evidence of careful planning and controlled design,4 then Shakespeare's echoing trio of dramatic gambits may well indicate a structural track to follow. My pursuit will lead throughout the sequence and embrace four distinct lines of action: the Talbot episodes, the relationship of Suffolk and Margaret, the fortunes of the Duke of York, and the connection between Henry VI and Edward IV.


Few critics these days would accept Tillyard's perfunctory dismissal of the meeting between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne in I Henry VI as a "startling but irrelevant anecdote," 5 yet even fewer have fully appreciated its metaphorical connection to the other Talbot scenes in the play. The episode is, of course, a wistfully emblematic expression of English courtliness and unity triumphing over French guile, but it also functions as part of an elaborately fashioned network of captures and escapes that helps both to unify 1 Henry VI and to provide a structural and thematic touchstone for the trilogy as a whole. The process begins in the opening scene of the play with news that Talbot, "round encompassed" by the French, is eventually taken "prisoner" (I.i.114-45). This event in itself can hardly be regarded as extraordinary in a sprawling chronicle abounding with the furious close of foreign butchery; but notice the unusual emphasis accorded Talbot's eventual release:

Salisbury. Talbot, my life, my joy, again return'd?

How wert thou handled, being prisoner?
Or by what means gots thou to be releas'd?
Discourse, I prithee, on this turret's top.
Talbot. The Earl of Bedford had a prisoner
Call'd the brave Lord Ponton de Santrailles,
For him was I exchang'd and ransomed.
But with a baser man of arms by far
Once in contempt they would have barter'd me;
Which I, disdaining, scorn'd, and craved death
Rather than I would be so pill'd esteem'd:
In fine, redeem'd I was as I desir'd.


Here, we may say, is a more than incidental concern with the social decorousness of escape; and David Riggs is surely correct in pointing out that the scene depicts English adherence to a chivalric code of aristocratic values in contradistinction to French incivility.6 We need only recall the episode at Orleans soon afterwards in which the skittish French "leap o 'er the walls in their shirts" (II.i.38 S.D.) and later "fly, leaving their clothes behind" (II.i.77 S.D.) to find the same contrast grotesquely literalized in stage action. But French impropriety is more than simply a foil for English chivalric ideals; it also excites precisely that greatness of spirit on which such ideals must inevitably be founded. Here is Talbot describing his reaction to the "contumelious taunts" of his captors:

Then broke I from the officers that led me,
And with my nails digg'd stones out of the ground
To hurl at the beholders of my shame.

In iron walls they deem'd me not secure;
So great fear of my name 'mongst them were spread
That they suppos'd I could rend bars of steel,
And spurn in pieces posts of adamant;
Wherefore a guard of chosen shot I had
That walk'd about me every minute while;
And if I did but stir out of my bed,
Ready they were to shoot me to the heart.


Again the motif of escape points to the important distinction between French incivility and English greatness, further embroidered in this case by the idea that the mythic heroism represented in Talbot is rooted unmistakably in fact. Here indeed is a soldier able to confront La Pucelle in the field with a vaunt that fully reflects both chivalric splendor and the substantive energy that gives it life: "My breast I'll burst with straining of my courage, / And from my shoulders crack my arms asunder" (I.v.10-11).

Viewed against the backdrop established by these early references to capture and escape, Talbot's encounter with the Countess of Auvergne clearly emerges as a thematic reprise rather than as simply an isolated setpiece. The episode begins in the same manner as its predecessor, with Talbot taken "prisoner" by a French adversary who demeans him (II.iii.15 ff.), and then proceeds to focus once more upon the connection between ideals and material fact. The Countess, an amateur Neoplatonist, boasts that she has long possessed the "shadow" (i.e., picture) of Talbot in her gallery, and that now the soldier's "substance shall endure the like" (II.iii.38) by being put in chains. But the English hero, more sensitive to the true relationship between ideals and matter than the Countess could possibly imagine, inverts both her metaphor and the notion of truth it implies:

No, no, I am but shadow of myself.
You are deceiv'd, my substance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity.
I tell you, madam, were the whole frame here,
It is of such a spacious lofty pitch,
Your roof were not sufficient to contain't.


When Talbot gives the signal for the English troops to enter, he both effects his latest escape from French duplicity and instructs the literal-minded Countess on how "contrarieties" such as shadow and substance can agree (II.iii.59). His explanation hinges on a communal notion of identity rooted in a quasi-mystical view of the true relationship between the body politic and political man: "Are you now persuaded / That Talbot is but shadow of himself? / These [the soldiers] are his substance, sinews, arms, and strength" (II.iii.61-63). Readers familiar with Shakespeare's histories will notice at once the striking similarity between Talbot's metaphor and the mystical notion of kingship espoused by the deposed Richard II. Ernst H. Kantorowicz has, of course, admirably shown what psychological power the legally authenticated fusion of the body personal and the body politic could exert on the Renaissance imagination;7 and it is interesting to note that something very like it underlies Talbot's assuredness and poise as he confidently eludes the Frenchwoman's trap. Once more Shakespeare invokes the motif of escape, not only to focus attention on the fundamental difference between the French and the English, but also to illustrate how the latter (at their most courtly and unified) achieve a felicitous marriage of chivalric perfection and physical action, ideal "shadow" and earthly "substance."

The same quality of the transcendent emanating from the earthly is apparent in Talbot's heroic death, where again it finds curious expression in the language of escape. The episode is anticipated rhetorically by the remarks of the jailed Mortimer, who, weary with isolation and injustice, welcomes the "sweet enlargement" from suffering promised by his approaching death (II.v.30). For Mortimer this final release brings a longawaited end to misery, but in Talbot's case it occasions a supernal and luminous moment of self-definition fully in keeping with his epic character as depicted throughout the play. And once again, the familiar references to capture and escape offer provocative thematic guideposts. For the scene of the English hero's death culminates a steady stream of such allusions which, when viewed collectively, combine to form a coherent and well-wrought rhetorical prelude.

The first voice is that of the French general at Bordeaux, who taunts Talbot with the news that the Dolphin "Stands with the snares of war to tangle thee / To wall thee from the liberty of flight" (IV.ii.22-24). The Englishman's reply both extends the metaphor and hearkens back to the chivalric heroism with which his earlier escapes had been so closely identified:

How are we park'd and bounded in a pale.
A little herd of England's timorous deer,
Maz'd with a yelping kennel of French curs!
If we be English deer, be then in blood,
Not rascal-like, to fall down with a pinch,
But rather, moody-mad; and, desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel,
And make the cowards stand aloof at bay.
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.


The tendency here to turn an idealized perception into the basis for heroic action is typical enough of Talbot's habit of mind, and it contrasts markedly with Sir William Lucy's somewhat more pragmatic view of the matter as he tries vainly to enlist the aid of the factious dukes of York and Somerset. Lucy's choric lamentations sound the most ominous of thematic notes: Talbot "is girdled with a waist of iron" (IV.iii.20), "hemm'd about with grim destruction" (IV.iii.21), "ring'd about with bold adversity" (IV.iv.14), and hopelessly "entrapp'd" (IV.iv.37). The troubled Lucy can see only the closing of some fatal snare; but Talbot has another perspective entirely. After viewing a mirror image of his own chivalric perfection in his brave but untried son who joins him in resisting "sudden flight" (IV.v.1 1), Talbot fashions for the heroic pair an escape from the mutable world that, like Cleopatra's, shackles accidents and bolts up change. In accents that strangely evoke Donne's in so radically different a work from 1 Henry VI as "Death Be Not Proud," Talbot casts a derisive "smile" on "Death, smear'd with captivity" (IV.vii.3-4):

Thou antic Death, which laugh'st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, winged through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall scape mortality.
O thou whose wounds become hard-favored Death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave [i.e., defy] Death by speaking, whether he will or no;
Imagine him a Frenchman, and thy foe.
Poor boy, he smiles, methinks, as who should say,
Had Death been French, then Death had died to-day.

(IV.vii. 18-28)

Here we have the soldier's heroic transcendence rather than Donne's Christian self-assurance; but if the Talbots' "scape" from mortality lacks the explicitly Christian emphasis of Donne's, it nonetheless possesses an otherworldliness of its own. It is the doomed hero himself who acts as his own blood's mythic chronicler:

Then follow thou thy desp'rate sire of Crete,
Thou Icarus; thy life to me is sweet.


And in that sea of blood my boy did drench
His overmounting spirit; and there died
My Icarus, my blossom, in his pride.


The allusion to the Daedalus-Icarus myth is, of course, something of a commonplace in the dramas of the period, particularly those which, like the Henry VI plays, feature aspiring minds and heroic action. But here the applicability of the story of an imprisoned father and son whose spectacular escape from confinement brings both death and immortal fame is hardly to be missed.8 The spiritual triumph evoked by the two Talbots "wing[ing] through the lither sky" is the English hero's masterpiece of escape, his final and most meaningful "sweet enlargement."


Even those critics who insist most avidly upon the artistic unity of the Henry VI plays under-emphasize the connections between the Talbot episodes and the episodes depicting the relationship of Suffolk and Margaret. Yet these two lines of action, apparently so disparate, reveal some startling affinities when seen as complementary elements in the plays' continuing preoccupation with confinement and escape. Immediately after York captures La Pucelle—"I have you fast: / Unchain your spirits now with spelling charms, / And try if they can gain your liberty" (V.iii.30-32)—Suffolk enters "with Margaret in his hand" (V.iii.44 S.D.). The thematic suggestiveness of these two events is clear enough: one duplicitous Frenchwoman emerges to take the place of another, and this newest female scourge is to be lodged at the head of state.9 But notice also the striking rhetorical connections between this latest capture and the earlier French attempts to imprison Talbot:

Suffolk. Be what thou wilt, thou art my prisoner.

Thou art allotted to be ta'en by me;
So doth the swan her downy cygnets save,
Keeping them prisoner underneath [her] wings.
Yet, if this servile usage once offend,
Go, and be free again, as Suffolk's friend.  She is going.
O stay! [Aside.] I have no power to let her pass,
My hand would free her, but my heart says no.

(V.iii. 45-61)

Margaret. What ransom must I pay before I pass?
For 1 perceive I am thy prisoner.

  What ransom must I pay?
[Aside.] What though I be enthralled, he seems a knight.

[Aside.] Tush, women have been captivate ere now.

(V.iii. 73-107)

The ensuing dialogue is marbled with even more variations on the theme, embellishing further the tired and slightly over-mannered Petrarchanism of the entire episode. Suffolk pursues the object of his desire with an enjoinder to Margaret to "suppose [her] bondage happy" (V.iii. 110-11) and with a promise to her father that the lady's "easy-held imprisonment" will result in "princely liberty" (V.iii. 139-40). When the tractable Reignier acquiesces to the match on the condition that Maine and Anjou remain in his possession, his ready assent serves as Margaret's "ransom" from the artfully contrived "bondage" imposed upon her by Suffolk (V.iii. 157).

Clearly the rhetorical artifice of the scene is intended not only as a disquieting counterpart to the ingenuous utterances of Henry throughout the play but also as a contrast to the earlier "escapes" of Talbot; for in the Suffolk-Margaret episode the familiar note is sounded in another key. In this radically altered dramatic context desire substitutes for decorousness, policy for bravery, and self-interest for chivalric dedication to the national good. It is not surprising, therefore, to find in the episode other richly ironic evocations of the Talbot scenes. The contrast between Talbot's extreme scrupulousness regarding the correct form of "ransom," voiced earlier in the play, and Margaret's amorously urbane use of the term, echoed by Suffolk in his remarks to Reignier (V.iii. 157), is perhaps the most obvious example; but listen also to Suffolk after the match is made:

O, wert thou for myself! but, Suffolk, stay,
Thou mayest not wander in that labyrinth,
There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.


When Suffolk recalls the Daedalus-Icarus myth it is only to fix upon the dangerous monster who blocks his path to safety; when Talbot recalls the same story it is to see his death as the first step on a transcendent journey toward immortality. But perhaps the most pejorative reference to Suffolk's contrived interlude of capture and escape comes at the very beginning of 2 Henry VI. The Duke enters with Henry's bride and proceeds to announce the successful completion of his embassy in words that strangely suggest the pivotal moment of Talbot's encounter with the Countess of Auvergne. Delivering up his "title in the Queen" to Henry, Suffolk addresses him as "the substance I Of that great shadow I did represent" (I.i. 12-14, emphasis added). For Talbot the distinction between shadow and substance carried enormous psychological and political force, founded as it was on a notion of communal identity and on a quasi-mystical relationship between the individual and the state; for Suffolk the distinction, like his Petrarchan posturing, serves as a rhetorical smokescreen for his own ambition.

The same sense of debased idealism is also apparent in Suffolk's parting from Margaret (III.ii), where the lovers' separation devolves into a valediction built upon mourning. Beginning with Margaret's tawdry request for curses, Suffolk's exaggerated stream of invective, and Margaret's ensuing demand for an end to the railing, the episode proceeds to an equally extravagant form of rhetorical posturing. The style, with its tortured Petrarchanism, could easily stand as a rhetorical anti-type to Donne's later parodic strictures. It is Margaret who begins:

  Give me thy hand,
That I may dew it with my mournful tears;
Nor let the rain of heaven wet this place
To wash away my woeful monuments.

O, could this kiss be printed in thy hand,
That thou mightst think upon these by the seal,
Through whom a thousand sighs are breath'd for thee!


What follows is a catalogue of conventional exaggerations on the pain of separation ("ten thousand leaves," "a hundred times to part," "ten times banished, / Once by the King, and three times thrice by thee") which culminates in Suffolk's fevered efforts to find some permanence or meaning in the lovers' sorrow:

If I depart from thee, 1 cannot live,
And in thy sight to die, what were it else
But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?
Here could I breathe my soul into the air,
As mild and gentle as the cradle-babe
Dying with mother's dug between its lips;
Where, from thy sight, I should be raging mad,
And cry out for thee to close up mine eyes,
To have thee with thy lips to stop my mouth;
So shouldst thou either turn my flying soul,
Or I should breathe it so into thy body,
And then it liv'd in sweet Elysium.
To die by thee were but to die in jest,
From thee to die were torture more than death.


The explicit sexuality of these lines, underscored by the familiar punning on "die," further distances Suffolk's earthly leave-taking from Talbot's glorious escape from the hazardous tangles of the sublunary world. Even Suffolk's fervid rhetorical excesses, disturbingly evocative of those of Marlowe's Faustus in the meeting with Helen,10 suggest instead of spiritual triumph a furious straining for an Elysium that is hopelessly rooted in sense. Here the lovers' physical release, despite the emotional glare it produces, brings no triumph over mortality:

Suffolk. Even as a splitted bark, so sunder we;
This way fall I to death.
Queen. This way for me. Exeunt [severally]. 


The actual scene of Suffolk's death supplies the thematic capstone to this process, again in a manner that establishes clear connections with the earlier instances of confinement and release. After Suffolk and his company are captured at sea, the lieutenant of the pirate ship awards each of his chief subordinates a generous share of the spoils—a titled prisoner and the expected ransom that goes with him. Two gentlemen in Suffolk's party settle with their captors for two thousand crowns each, but Suffolk finds harder going of it with Sir Walter Whitmore, whose loss of an eye "in laying the prize aboard" (IV.i.25) impels him to seek revenge rather than mere monetary compensation. The episode depicts Suffolk face to face with death, and in curious ways also sounds many of the same thematic notes heard earlier in the Talbot sequence. Consider, for example, the brief but revealing interchange between Suffolk and Whitmore as they wrangle over the appropriate form of "ransom" (IV.i.28 ff.). The incident not only recalls the similar concerns of Talbot in I Henry VI and even of Suffolk himself in his first meeting with Margaret, but also reveals how debased Suffolk's attempt at escape is in comparison with that of the martial hero. Whereas Talbot scorned to be exchanged for anyone less noble than himself, Suffolk entreats Whitmore to "Rate me at what thou wilt, thou shalt be paid" (IV.i.30). Ironically, it is the captor here who scorns ignoble bargaining, speaking with a concern for reputation and a commitment to ideals worthy of Talbot. The sentiments would have become Suffolk:

Never yet did base dishonor blur our name
But with our sword we wip'd away the blot;
Therefore, when merchant-like I sell revenge,
Broke be my sword, my arms torn and defaced,
And I proclaim'd a coward through the world!


When buying his way out fails, Suffolk turns to insult; but his vituperations only elicit from the lieutenant a devastatingly blunt list of the Duke's political and moral crimes, followed by a last-gasp effort on Suffolk's part to recoup his lost nobility with a show of stoic resistance. But the posturing is sadly self-deflating. From the man who moments earlier had asked his captors to name their terms for ransom, we hear that his "imperial tongue is stern and rough, / Us'd to command, untaught to plead for favor" (IV.i.121-22); indeed that his "True nobility is exempt from fear" (IV.i.129). Even Suffolk's exaggerated (and factually sloppy) equation of his lamentable state with those of Cicero, Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Pompey (IV.i. 135-38) further heightens the contrast between his ignoble ending and the falls of the genuinely great.11 But we need look no further than the scene of Talbot's death in I Henry VI to see the same point made with unmistakable clarity. Talbot died in battle, solaced by courtly ideals and a transcendent vision of immortality; Suffolk "dies by pirates" (IV.i. 138), one of whom reads him a lecture on his own political and moral evils while another outshines him in personal honor and then chops off his head.


Perhaps no single moment in the entire Henry VI sequence reflects most fully the evolving ugliness of the pattern of capture and release than that in which York is equipped with an army and sent to quell the Irish rebellion (2 Henry VI III.i.309 ff.). The ambitious Duke, who lacks only soldiers to breathe life into a rebellion of his own, sees his enemies' impolitic attempt to "send [him] packing" (III.i.342) as a rare opportunity to turn the tables on them: "My brain, more busy than the laboring spider, / Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies" (III.i.339-40). The metaphor is revealing both as an evocation of the now familiar pattern and as a significant variation on it; for throughout the York scenes the attempts at capture and escape take on a grimly elemental quality, often heightened by the association of these actions with competitive animalism. This pejoration suggests the gradual abandonment of civilized ideals (either genuine, as in Talbot's case, or affected, as in Suffolk and Margaret's) for an increasingly atavistic habit of thinking and behaving.

Consider, for instance, the intense process of deceptive trap and counter-trap into which even the pious King is drawn (2 Henry VI, V.i). The process begins with the arrival of York from Ireland "to claim his right" as sovereign (V.i.1), an act clothed under the pretense of dislodging the "seditious" Somerset from royal favor and suppressing the rebellion of Cade (V.i.35-37, 61-63). When York's palpable lie is answered by Lancastrian mendacity (i.e., the false news that Somerset is "prisoner" in the Tower [V.i.42]), York pretends to relent, dismissing his army and falsely pledging "all submission and humility" (V.i.58) to the King. But no sooner is the false vow made than Margaret enters (in defiance of her husband) with Somerset in tow to brave her old enemy. York's reaction to this open insult not only raises the issue of royal mendacity but also links it, both literally and figuratively, to the deceptive process of "imprisonment" and "escape" that has just sprung the Lancastrian trap on him:

How now? is Somerset at liberty?
Then, York, unloose thy long-imprisoned thoughts,
And let thy tongue be equal with thy heart.
Shall I endure the sight of Somerset?
False king, why hast thou broken faith with me,
Knowing how hardly I can brook abuse?


The trap closes completely with word that the Duke is under arrest for capital treason, but even this capture leads to a sudden release when York's sons agree to "be their father's bail" (V.i. 120) despite the angry efforts of the Cliffords to oppose his enlargement. Clearly, the scene's emphasis on unexpected thrust and counter-thrust, sudden and deceptive trapping, and verbal brutality as exemplified in the sustained note of insult, is enough to suggest the elemental barbarism into which the courtly world of Talbot is helplessly devolving. But notice also the language with which the cornered York initiates his immediate release:

Call hither to the stake my two brave bears,
That with the very shaking of their chains
They may astonish these fell-lurking curs.
Bid Salisbury and Warwick come to me.

(V.i. 144-47)

The image is, of course, drawn from the Elizabethan sport of bear-baiting, but it also glances interestingly at Warwick's famous badge of the "rampant bear chain'd to the ragged staff (V.i.203). Surely this mingling of the family crest with elemental savagery is not without thematic point, for the rapidly shifting fortunes of the nobility in the Henry VI plays, reflected unmistakably in the continuous process of capture and release, portrays the flower of English gentility as so many staked bears and lurking curs, endlessly exchanging the animalistic roles of baiter and baited as they surge in and out of each other's deadly grasp. The ensuing dialogue between Clifford and young Richard of York makes the point with clarity:

Clifford. Are these thy bears? We'll bait thy bears to death,
And manacle the bearard in their chains,
If thou dar'st bring them to the baiting-place.
Richard. Oft have I seen a hot o'erweening cur
Run back and bite, because he was withheld,
Who, being suffer'd, with the bear's fell paw
Hath clapp'd his tail between his legs and cried;
And such a piece of service will you do,
If you oppose yourselves to match Lord Warwick.


Increasingly we sense in the Henry VI plays, particularly at those moments when the deadly ring begins to close, the voice of a trapped animal either shouting blood-curdling insults or trying to gnaw his way to safety.

The quintessential moment of this kind is, of course, York's capture and death at the battle of Wakefield (3 Henry VI, I.iv). Furthermore, the ugly qualities of confinement, mockery, and violence that pervade the scene have clear thematic roots in the earlier misadventures of Suffolk, Lord Say, and Sir James Cromer. In each of these instances a nobleman endures sudden capture, derision, and decapitation, with the process reaching its horrid apotheosis in Margaret's choreography of York's ordeal. J. P. Brockbank has pointed out some of the rhetorical affinities between York's socalled "passion" and Christ's, noting how the scene "mutilates the idols of Knighthood, Kingship, Womanhood, and Fatherhood" upon which any reasonable and ordered society is founded.12 Brockbank then goes on to discuss certain stylistic contrasts in the episode:

[Shakespeare] makes the stage-managed historical ceremony into an ordered, antiphonal combat of words, with Northumberland presiding, as it were, in the rhetorical lists. In spite of the controlling formality the language moves on several planes between gnomic generalization,... stylized feeling,... plain personal pathos, . . . and colloquial venom....


Even the rhetoric of the scene, alternating as it does between aphorism and primal shout, suggests the impotence of civilized norms in the face of an ineluctable barbarity. Both hunter and hunted seem grimly aware of their own decline into primitivism, often spouting the familiar metaphors of capture and escape—fused now with references to animalism—in order to convey either their triumphs or their frustrations.

So it is that York can see his fleeing soldiers as "lambs pursu'd by hunger-starved wolves" (I.iv.5), Clifford can brave the captured Duke's scorn by asserting that even "doves do peck the falcon's piercing talons" (I.iv.41), and Northumberland can quell Clifford's desire to throttle York by asking "What valor were it, when a cur doth grin, / For one to thrust his hand between his teeth, / When he might spurn him with his foot away?" (I.iv.56-58). And when Margaret's henchmen finally "lay hands'" on the struggling Duke (I.iv.60 S.D.), it is first Clifford, and then Northumberland, who puts a sort of rhetorical and tonal cap on the episode: "so strives the woodcock with the gin"; "So doth the cony struggle in the net" (I.iv.61-62). In this context York's famous response to Margaret's brandishing of the handkerchief stained with Rutland's blood ("O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide" [I.iv. 137]) seems strangely in tune with the raw brutality of the scene. Moreover, the quite literal association here of the deaths of the father and the son—Clifford kills York with the same blood-stained weapon used on Rutland (I.iii.50-52) and York's own tears join with his son's blood on the handkerchief (I.iv. 158)—recall, albeit distantly and with significant tonal variation, the joined deaths of Talbot and young John in I Henry VI.

That Shakespeare intended the two episodes to reflect each other is suggested further by one rather striking rhetorical parallel. After the deaths of Talbot and his son, Lucy volunteers to remove the bodies:

I'll bear them hence; but from their ashes shall be rear'd
A phoenix that shall make all France afeard.

(1 Henry VI, IV.vii.92-93)

Compare York confronting the inevitability of his own death:

My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth
A bird that will revenge upon you all.


As with the Daedalus-Icarus comparison, the image of the mystical bird that dies and rises again is a Renaissance dramatic commonplace. Yet its curious association with these two spectacular scenes, both treating the deaths of cornered soldiers in battle and both involving their innocent young sons, is none the less provocative on that account. And as in the case of the Daedalus-Icarus comparison, differences are as instructive as similarities. Lucy's boast, despite its hollow ring, at least directs English hostility outward toward France; York's boast, all too accurate in its anticipation of the reign of the despised Richard III, directs English hostility inward upon England itself. And with the Duke's death it is Richard who becomes the chief voice of Yorkist atavism, first recounting his father's exploits in battle in the familiar vein—"as a bear, encompass'd round with dogs, . . . So far'd our father with his enemies" (I.iv. 15-18)—and then echoing the previous allusions to confinement and escape in an idiom gruesomely his own:

And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way,
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out—
Torment myself to catch the English crown;
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.



I should like, in conclusion, to treat two parallel yet contrasting dramatic actions that help bring into clearer focus this gradual process of social and political dissolution: the successive captures of Henry VI and of Edward IV, both of which occur in the final play of the sequence. Henry's pious desire not to "outrun the heavens" (2 Henry VI, V.iii.73) is unexpectedly satisfied when his "pure love" for England impels him to forsake refuge in Scotland and leads him instead into the hands of gamekeepers upon his return to his own land (3 Henry VI, IH.i.13). What is striking about this particular capture, however, is its clear tonal contrast with those involving York which immediately precede it. As the huntsmen lie in wait for game, they speak more prophetically than they realize about their day's exploits, yet in a manner strangely alien to the elemental barbarity of the York episodes. There is a serene inevitability to the whole scene that suggests the fulfillment rather than the violation of natural law:

Under this thick-grown brake we'll shroud ourselves,
For through this laund anon the deer will come,
And in this covert will we make our stand,
Culling the principal of all the deer.
Here stand we both and aim we at the best. 


After spotting Henry—"a deer whose skin's a keeper's fee" (III.i.22)—the huntsmen eschew seizing him at once, preferring instead to "Forbear awhile" and "hear a little more" of the King's lamentations before carrying him away to prison (III.i.27). The capture itself is notably peaceful; the King slides almost willingly into the gamekeepers' hands, wisely (so he insists) embracing "sour adversities" (III.i.24) and insisting upon his own inner peace:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not deck'd with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content,
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.


M. M. Reese sees in Henry's behavior throughout this episode "a new discipline" reflective of "maturity and confidence." The King has "found himself." He is "hallowed by suffering and his calm acceptance of it as his worldly lot," thus insuring him against harm. "Self-knowledge has set him free."13

Reese's final metaphor is a provocative one for our purposes; for in a capture that leads both to literal and to metaphorical resignation, the holy King (like Shakespeare's Wolsey) apparently finds the blessedness of being little. His physical capture seems to produce a psychological release from the burdens of monarchy and, like the so-called "false ending" of King Lear, teases us out of thought with the vision of a joyous captive who can take upon himself the mystery of things and sing like a bird in his cage. It is in fact such a Learian image that Henry uses on the occasion of his release to define the "pleasure" of his imprisonment:

Ay, such a pleasure as incaged birds
Conceive, when, after many moody thoughts,
At last by notes of household harmony
They quite forget their loss of liberty.


But this newest freedom is sadly short-lived, ending in a far more brutal capture at the hands of Edward and his soldiers. And this time it is Richard Crookback who fashions Henry's "release," eliciting from the King in his last moments a sort of thematic abstract of the process of capture and escape as it appears throughout the trilogy. The language is disturbingly familiar:

So flies the reakless shepherd from the wolf;
So first the harmless sheep doth yield his fleece,
And next his throat unto the butcher's knife.

The bird that hath been limed in a bush,
With trembling wings misdoubteth every bush;
And I, the hapless male to one sweet bird,
Have now the fatal object in my eye
Where my poor young was lim'd, was caught, and kill'd.

I, Daedalus; my poor boy, Icarus;
Thy father, Minos, that denied our course;
The sun that sear'd the wings of my sweet boy,
Thy brother Edward; and thyself, the sea
Whose envious gulf did swallow up his life.


In addition to gathering together many of the earlier animalistic echoes of capture and escape into an unhappy close, Henry's statement also reflects dismally on Talbot's Icarian vision of earthly transcendence and immortal fame. Instead of heroes "winging through the lither sky," his words evoke only the denial of passage, the searing of wings, and the swallowing of life. The avid anti-romanticism of these lines is perhaps best rendered by the remarks of Richard that immediately precede them: "Why, what a peevish fool was that of Crete / That taught his son the office of a fowl! / And yet, for all his wings, the fool was drown'd" ( 18-20). Moments later the King is dead.

The same sense of obliterated achievement is also apparent in the capture and escape of Edward IV. When the York claimant is surprised in his tent by Lancastrian loyalists, he is brought out "in his gown" (IV.iii.27 S.D.), stripped of his crown, and led "forcibly" (IV.iii.57 S.D.) into the safekeeping of the Bishop of York. Although Edward is the Bishop's prisoner, he nonetheless enjoys uncommonly "good usage and great liberty" (IV.V.6), a situation which makes his release a relatively simple task. The escape is accomplished easily enough, and in a manner that strongly suggests the tone and even the ambience of Henry's earlier capture by foresters. Gloucester, Hastings, and Stanley gather in the "chiefest thicket of the [Bishop's] park" (IV.V.3) to interrupt Edward and his "weak guard" at hunting (IV.v.7). The "Bishop's deer" (IV.v.17), as Edward wryly calls himself, is deftly conveyed by the Yorkist "huntsmen" (IV.v.15), who have come to rescue him out of the forest and into the world of affairs without the slightest resistance from the guards in charge. Although the scene has tonal affinities with the scene of Henry's first capture, it also differs sharply from the earlier episode in other important respects: Henry's capture by gamekeepers led to his supposed sequestration from political strife; Edward's escape from the Bishop's park leads to an even more furious pursuit of the crown. But as was the case with Henry's desire for a "crown of content," Edward's hope to "repossess" (IV.v.29) the earthly crown brings with it certain hidden yet inescapable hazards. Perhaps the most ominous of these is tantalizingly evoked in language linking it to Richard's earlier metaphorical "escape." As Edward and his troops prepare to do battle with the Lancastrian forces, the King addresses his army:

Brave followers, yonder stands the thorny wood,
Which by the heavens' assistance and your strength,
Must by the roots be hewn up yet ere night.


It may, of course, be only a coincidence of Shakespearean imagination that Edward's mention of "thorny wood" and "hewn" duplicate almost exactly Richard's metaphorical determination to "hew" his way out of the "thorny wood" obstructing his way to the crown, yet the curious concatenation of imagery here does cast a pall over Edward's imminent triumph. There can be little doubt that even this latest Yorkist victory, effected as it is under the rhetorical and substantive shadow of Richard's ambition, can only be seen in the most deeply ironic terms. In this context the dying utterance of Henry VI that his "poor young was lim'd, was caught, and kill'd" takes on an eerie applicability in Edward's case. The new king, like the old, has "the fatal object in [his] eye," and like his unfortunate predecessor is powerless to respond to it. Edward, who believes that his "footstool" is "security" (V.vii.14) and whose own "poor young" are soon to slide helplessly into Richard's snare, never hears nor profits from the plaints of his royal counterpart. For him the rest is ignorant silence; for England it is the anguish produced in Richard III by the closing of his brother's fatal trap.


1 All citations to Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

2 Price, "Construction in Shakespeare," University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, 17 (1951), 1-42. See also Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare 's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 34, n. 6; Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, rev. ed. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), pp. 99-100; and Ernest William Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare 's Early Plays (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1963), pp. 161-224. Talbert explores the structural and rhetorical connections among episodes within the plays and among the plays themselves. Geoffrey Bullough (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, HI [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966], 168) finds the plays united by "parallel situations, movements and reversals"; and Moody E. Prior (The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays [Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973], p. 118) sees them as united in their concern with "the legal and political aspects of the problem of legitimacy and power." Of interest, too, is Charles R. Forker's "Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays as Historical-Pastoral" (Shakespeare Studies, 1 [1965], 85-104), which treats certain "pastoral" elements in all ten dramas on English history. Recent dissent, however, has come from Kristian Smidt (Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays [Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982], pp. 19-52), who insists on structural incongruities among the plays and takes Price and other critics to task.

3 David Riggs, Shakespeare 's Heroical Histories: "Henry VI" and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), and Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1975). See also James L. Calderwood, "Shakespeare's Evolving Imagery in 2 Henry VI, " English Studies, 48 (1967), 481-93; and Carol McGinnis Kay, "Traps, Slaughter, and Chaos: A Study of Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays," Studies in the Literary Imagination, 5, 1 (1972), 1-26, both of whom discuss unifying imagery in the plays.

4 See the introductions to Cairncross' Arden editions of the plays, particularly the introduction to The First Part of King Henry VI (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. lii-liii.

5 Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1948), p. 158.

6 Riggs, p. 103.

7The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 24-41.

8 Riggs goes so far as to see the humanistic reward of earthly fame here "combined, at least implicitly, with the Christian consolation of resurrection after death" (p. 110).

9 David Bevington ("The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI, " Shakespeare Studies, 2 [1966], 56) briefly treats the similarities between Margaret and Joan.

10 See The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Irving Ribner (New York: Odyssey Press, 1963), pp. 405-6.

11 I cannot agree with the admittedly thought-provoking and carefully-argued remarks of Gwyn Williams ("Suffolk and Margaret: A Study of Some Sections of Shakespeare's Henry VI" Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 [1974], 310-22). Williams believes that we should take Suffolk seriously here (p. 313). He finds an element of the "grand" in the "shameless affection between the passionate, ruthless, and physically splendid lovers" (p. 318) and even sees Suffolk raised to "a tragic level" (p. 319). For important dissenting views on the matter see Riggs, pp. 112-19; Berry, pp. 42-43; Ornstein, p. 44; Bevington, p. 57; A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1967), pp. 39-40; and M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), pp. 175-76, 189.

12 "The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI, " Early Shakespeare (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3), eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1961), p. 95. Subsequent references to Brockbank's study will be noted parenthetically in the text.

13 Reese, p. 201.

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: An introduction to The First Part of King Henry VI, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 1-57.

[In this excerpt focusing on 1 Henry VI, Hattaway examines the play's style and structure, calling attention to the presentation of narrative by means of a "montage technique ": a series of pageant-like or processional scenes that sometimes idealize and sometimes demystify characters and events. The critic also suggests that in this play Shakespeare was exploring a secular or pragmatic view of history rather than endorsing the Tudor myth; he argues that 1 Henry VI depicts the course of events as shaped by human beings, not by providential design.]


In the second speech of 1 Henry VI, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, delivers in praise of his dead brother, King Henry V, an oration that constitutes a dramatic prologue to the sequence:

England ne'er had a king until his time:
Virtue he had, deserving to command;
His brandished sword did blind men with his beams,
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than midday sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech:
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquerèd.


Henry V in fact will haunt the ensuing action: like the Ghost in Hamlet, he is a presence whose honour, prowess, and acquisition of empire throw into contrast the attacks of fatalism and debilitating piety suffered by his contemplative son.2 What is remarkable about the speech, however, and indeed about the whole play, is its particular style. Henry V is presented not as a man but as a rhetorical construct fashioned out of hyperbole, as a heroic image or heraldic icon, and the speech takes its place in an extremely formal scene in which the mourners, clad in wailing robes (1.1.86), enter to a dead march and range themselves about a stark theatrical image, the coffin of the late monarch. This stands in the centre of the stage as an emblem of fame and also establishes an image that seems to have been displaced in a discomforting way from the end of a tragedy or tragical history. 'Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.'3

The speech is similar to the Pyrrhus speech in Hamlet (2.2.450 ff.).4 That is obviously epic in mode, perhaps serving to set the dramatic qualities (and thus the political realities) of the surrounding play into relief. But the Pyrrhus speech also feels deliberately archaic, offering glimpses of an antecedent culture in which enterprises of revenge were not overlaid by the scruples of a more sophisticated society.5 Both passages offer a degree of 'defamiliarisation'6 (are written in such a way as to draw attention to their textual strategies) and thereby stand as preliminary measures of the play's other styles—and other realities—rather than as assertions. In the Hamlet passage, Shakespeare, it may be argued, was saying hail and farewell to the manner and achievement of his earlier work. In this, our earlier text, the iconic style serves as a way of evoking a mythic past and thereby measuring the present.

For archaism need not imply primitivism. The play is far more sophisticated than Maurice Morgann's dismissal of it as 'that Drum-and-trumpet Thing'7 would imply. Even at this stage in his career, Shakespeare was working with deliberate artistry and forging a dramatic narrative that accommodated the straggling chronicles of his sources into tough-minded historical, historiographical, and constitutional explorations. It is a young man's play—not because it is crude, but because it is ambitious, not because of the unsatisfactoriness of its form, but because of the diversity of its forms. Although 'history' plays had been written by others before Shakespeare,8 these tended to be developments of Morality plays devoted to mapping the road to salvation for the common weal rather than that for the individual. Shakespeare invented the history play, which may be defined as a dramatisation of historical narrative that seeks to investigate not only the course of past events but the way in which they had been and were now perceived; to investigate by idealisation (sometimes) and demystification (sometimes) the power structures of its chosen period;9 and to draw parallels between, and thereby anatomise, past and present political institutions and social realities.10

The play may have been written shortly after the defeat of the Armada,11 when flush of self-congratulation occasioned by the defeat of the Spanish was to give way to a fin-de-siècle awareness of decay which was fed by uncertainty over the problem of determining a successor to Elizabeth and readily evoked by the spectacle of civil war manifest in the Wars of Religion in France. It was composed not very long after the Babington Plot of 1586 that led to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.12 It was a time when the Virgin Queen was hiding the ravages of age with make-up and concealing her person in costumes that gave her the profile of a funerary statue: Elizabeth had herself become an icon worshipped as a memorial to a dream of romantic feudalism. (The reality was what has been called 'bastard feudalism', a system by which patronage was based on payment rather than personal loyalities.13 and fair Eliza had to cope not only with love lorn 'servants' but with religious opposition, insurrection in Ireland, and rising food prices.) Typological parallels between past and present were constantly alive to the Elizabethans,14 and Shakespeare chose to match—and sometimes subvert15—the symmetries and statu esque ornamentation of the new popular playhouses of Renaissance London (the façades of which so resembled the arches of triumph and fame used in civic pageantry) with an epic narrative inhabited by heroic personages stamped into the collective consciousness of the nation. Personalities are subsumed into themes, characters tend to archetypes, scenes to tableaux, and the verse embroiders around them the great symbols of garden16 and court, innocence and machination.


Shakespeare's archaism is like Spenser's in The Faerie Queene, which was being published in the years of the play's composition. As in the allegory of the poet, the art is one of presentation as well as of representation. Narrative in this play, moreover, tends towards montage, a procession of speaking pictures that defines a bold dramatic rhythm. The liaison des scènes is figurative rather than causal; it is non-Aristotelian in that the action is not end-directed, and the meaning cannot, therefore, be deduced simply from the play's resolution.17 The play examines by implicit comparison, for example, the relationships between the various fathers and sons to be found in it: Henry V and Henry VI, the Earl of Cambridge and the Duke of York, Old Talbot and Young Talbot.18 Other examples of the technique can be seen in the insertion of 1.3 (depicting aristocratic factionalism in England) into the sequences of scenes that depicts the struggles at Orléans between England and France, and in 5.3.30 ff., where York's capture of Joan is immediately followed by Suffolk's capture of Margaret. The effect of this pattern can be stunning—as it was to R. W. Chambers who, after seeing a performance of the first tetralogy at the Pasadena Playhouse, wrote that to see these plays 'was to realize that Shakespeare began his career with a tetralogy based on recent history, grim, archaic, crude, yet nevertheless such as, for scope, power, patriotism, and sense of doom, had probably no parallel since Aeschylus wrote the trilogy of which The Persians is the surviving fragment'.19

The structure of the play, then, is processional as a series of characters, events, and images is presented successively to the audience—rather in the manner in which the pageants of the mystery plays passed in order before the spectators as they stood in the streets or squares of a medieval town. Indeed the opening sequence of Act 2 can be understood only if we recognise its montage technique: the scene opens with the setting of the French watch at Orléans—presumably on the tiring-house balcony. Below the English enter in a procession. They are bearing scaling-ladders and also sounding a dead march on their muffled drums: Salisbury has been killed and they are grimly mustering for revenge. These two images tell us all we need to know about the opposing armies. (In like manner a film director in a western might cut from shots of one camp to another.) We do not read the scene naturalistically, for then we should assume that the French would 'hear' the English drums and be thereby warned before they are eventually attacked.20

I Henry VI was written for and, in my opinion, demands to be acted upon a stage which makes no attempt to create scenic illusion. The play is as much about the present—Shakespeare's present and our own—as it is about the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Scenery depicting any kind of late-medieval 'reality' therefore would be not only inappropriate but would hinder the fluid groupings that the fast pace of the action demands. A historical period might well, however, be defined by costumes and properties—in Shakespeare's time actors would have used Elizabethan and not Plantagenet costumes with possibly a few details of dress or some properties to suggest the period in which the play was set.21 Among Shakespeare's early plays, / Henry VI makes use in a comparatively large number of scenes of the playing space 'aloft'22—an indication of how much the play is concerned with the relative power of its protagonists, power which can be suggested and defined by their theatrical dominance. A director's use, moreover, of the permanent features of an Elizabethan or modern stage—all that is required is an upper playing area and some large doors at the back of the stage to serve as town gates—can help establish a unity for the action by 'quoting' theatrical images, groupings, or players' gestures.23 It might well be felt, for example, that Gloucester's 'siege' of 'The Tower of London' in 1.3 is placed by design immediately before the scene in which the Gunner and his Boy wreak such havoc upon the English who are besieging Orléans by shooting down Salisbury and his fellows as they stand on another set of 'walls'.

The non-representational stage did not, of course, demand consistently non-naturalistic acting. Stately declamation alternates with racy colloquialism, scenic ritual with the possibility of sardonic direct address to the audience. As J. W. Blanpied wrote:

I Henry VI does not in fact rest contentedly with its stiff spectacular dramatic accomplishment, its too-easy manipulation of history, its Senecan postures and Heroick Song. The curious sense of original life beneath all the brassy opacity is the play's disease by which it pre-empts and embodies our live discomfort.24

As a preliminary account of the play's structure we might notice how its theme is brought out by a dramatic pattern defined by a series of death or funeral scenes: 1.1 portrays the funeral of Henry V, 2.2 the funeral of Salisbury, 2.5 the death of Mortimer, 3.2 the death of Bedford, 4.5-6 the death of Talbot—all survivors from a vanishing chivalric world, warriors, and defenders of the integrity of the realm.25 Scenes of pageantry, battle, and movement are juxtaposed with scenes of stasis containing only one or two people—often the manipulating politicians. Dramatic interest is frequently created by reversing the audience's expectations and disrupting the ceremonies in which these images appear.26 Ceremonies thus become a paradoxical demonstration of the stability and instability of rule. In this sequence, too, theatrical images or 'gests'27 are repeated—the pattern of the interrupted funeral of Henry V is quoted when Sir John Fastolf bursts in on the coronation of Henry VI in 4.1 (The action is further punctuated by choric utterances from Exeter and Lucy at 3.1, 4.1, 4.3, and 5.1)

Shakespeare's verse in this period is also marked by symmetries, by a fondness for rhetorical patterns of parallelism, repetition, and antithesis.28 This is apparent not only in formal speeches (like Gloucester's encomium quoted above, in Warwick's early intervention in the quarrel between Plantagenet and Somerset in the rose-plucking scene (2.4.11 ff.), in the formalised wooing of Margaret by Suffolk in 5.3), but in brisklypaced action scenes like the opening of 1.5. We find variations on the same idea—copiousness, as it was called by the rhetoricians—and a large number of maxims and proverbs. Like the scenes, the lines draw attention to their own strategies and thereby to the theatricality of politics. They can also achieve a kind of self-delight in their heraldic stiffness. There is a much higher proportion of end-stopped lines than in the later plays, but, to my ear, the possibility of more enjambment than is signalled by the punctuation of some modern editors. The characteristic manner of this early (and very Marlovian)29 style emerges in the following speech of Joan la Pucelle, where we note a recourse to declamation, to heroic simile and analogy, to a modular use of phrase and clause, and a delight in figures of sound as well as figures of sense:30

Look on thy country, look on fertile France,
And see the cities and the towns defaced
By wasting ruin of the cruel foe
As looks the mother on her lowly babe
When death doth close his tender-dying eyes.
See, see the pining malady of France;
Behold the wounds, the most unnatural wounds
Which thou thyself hast given her woeful breast.
O turn thy edgèd sword another way:
Strike those that hurt and hurt not those that help.
One drop of blood drawn from thy country's bosom
Should grieve thee more than streams offoreign gore.
Return thee therefore with a flood of tears,
And wash away thy country's stainèd spots.

(I Henry VI 3.3.44-57)

The passage is obviously rhetorical—and its function is rhetorical: to persuade Burgundy to turn his allegiance to the side of the French. The audience is invited to see through Joan's strategies, her capacity to be 'copious in exclaims'.31 We can compare that with the more fluid movement and greater metaphorical density of this speech by Burgundy in Henry V:

. . . Why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in it own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unprunèd dies; her hedges even-pleached,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disordered twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank femetary
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery;
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe withal, uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility;
And all our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness.

(Henry V 5.2.34-55)

To use Clemen's terms, there seems to be a move from 'self-description' to 'self-expression'32 as Burgundy in the later speech explores his landscape of the mind, moving amongst its particular details. The imagery of Henry V serves a heuristic function, serves to explore and investigate thought and emotion. In the earlier play, it may be argued, this function is performed by the strong contrasts in style. The switches from blank verse to couplets, from high astounding terms to colloquialism, are signs of the text's capacity to interrogate reality, to create a variety of perspectives upon the representation. This creates the basic problem for a director: to establish the tone of the play. Sometimes there will be a temptation to use the fustian of the selfproclaimed heroes to expose their pretensions; at other times the heroic idiom makes a simple positive assertion.


To return to the play's opening: first we see an anticipatory tiff between Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester33 that interrupts the funeral rites and prefigures the civil broils which, despite Bedford's prayer to the ghost of the departed king (1.1.52 ff), will wrack the realm throughout the trilogy. Later in the play (3.1.72-3, 191 ff., 4.3.47) these broils will be explained through metaphors of disease and predatory animals as society reverts to a more primitive order;34 here, however, there is established a clear demonstration of naked and graceless rivalry between two political worldlings. Next we hear news and watch the reception of it as messengers enter in succession to announce great loss in France, the coronation of the dauphin, and the capture of the English champion Lord Talbot:

GLOUCESTER Is Paris lost? Is Rouen yielded up?
if Henry were recalled to life again
These news would cause him once more yield the ghost.
EXETER How were they lost? What treachery was used?
MESSENGER No treachery, but want of men and money.


Shakespeare's dramatic method may contain archaic elements, but his historiography, as these interruptions reveal, can seem strikingly modern.35 France was lost, it is claimed, not as the result of treachery or moral failing on the English side, but through 'want of men and money' (1.1.69)—a phrase which, in my view, resonates through the whole sequence. The terse words of the Messenger criticise not only the conduct of the nobility, but their self-deluding fustian style. 'Polities', a demystificatory analysis of the forces that shape events, has interrupted 'history'—at least that kind of history that derives from theology and reads human chronicles as chapters in a book of God.36 (The bishops' order of 1599 'That no English histories be printed except they be allowed by some of her majesty's privy council'37 bears witness to the ways contemporaries recognised the potentially subversive nature of history.) This is not to say that we could argue that Shakespeare was wholly sceptical concerning a benign providence. Providence is not denied but hidden, the concentration here is 'humanist', on efficient rather than first or final causes.38

Indeed Shakespeare's attention seems to have been seized by this kind of explanation, for he moved it into prominence at the beginning of the play and then offered it once more as an explanation for Salisbury's failures in the siege of Orléans in the second scene of the play—'Nor men nor money hath he to make war' (1.2.17). (The chroniclers had applied it to another event, the loss of Paris in 1436, some twelve years after the funeral here portrayed39....) The Messenger's charge can be read as a bold and important historical hypothesis: instead of portraying historical events as a Morality drama—as Ralegh, for example, in his The History of the World (1614), was to portray them—Shakespeare here offers for consideration a pragmatic, secular interpretation of this precipitating event. Moreover, power would seem to derive—as Machiavelli had pointed out—not from God, as St Paul had claimed in the Epistle to the Romans (13.1), but from the actions and reactions of particular personalities to particular circumstances.40 The Hundred Years War becomes entangled in the Wars of the Roses as Shakespeare gives the feuding aristocrats a far more prominent role than they have in the chronicles.

A further insistence on this modern 'common sense' view of historical change comes from the tone of the Messenger himself: whereas an orthodox Tudor historian or theological propagandist might scrutinise the run of events for divine displeasure, Shakespeare offers, through the words of the Messenger, a commoner's rebuke for aristocratic factionalism and disregard for the commonweal:

Amongst the soldiers this is mutterèd:
That here you maintain several factions
And, whilst a field should be dispatched and fought,
You are disputing of your generals . . .
Awake, awake, English nobility!
Let not sloth dim your honours, new begot.
Cropped are the flower-de-luces in your arms:
Of England's coat one half is cut away.


The tone and substance of this rebuke anticipate themes in 2 Henry VI.

A previous generation of commentators, following in the footsteps of E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays, 1944, argued that Shakespeare endorsed 'the Tudor myth', a religious scheme of history whereby under the eyes of God disaster unrolled over the kingdom as the consequence of a curse precipitated by the murder of Richard II. 'With Henry VI the curse is realized and in the dreaded form of a child being king—"woe to the nation whose king is a child [see 4.1.192 n.]." Not that disaster comes immediately, but the few years of the new king and later his retiring disposition allow the sin of pride to show itself in various places and ultimately to ruin the kingdom.'42 It is surely significant, however, that the centrally placed speech of Mortimer (2.5.61 ff.) which surveys the course of English history makes no reference to a providential pattern such as we find, it could be argued, in Richard III.43 From time to time we do hear religious terms, in particular references to 'scourges of God', agents of divine retribution for the sins of this world (2.3.14, 4.2.16, 4.7.77). Joan la Pucelle is said to play this role (1.2.129). But as we watch her political astuteness and ruses on the battlefield it is difficult not to believe that she is simply endowed with the faculties for worldly success. Nor is there a pattern here of hubris and nemesis for individual characters. The deaths of Salisbury and Talbot, for example, are in no ways deserved.44

Rather than stressing the theological framework and divinely inspired historiography, therefore, we might argue that Shakespeare was a realist. It was common in the Renaissance to contrast the ideal world of the poet with the realities depicted by the historian. Thus Sidney wrote, 'But the historian, being captivated to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well-doing, and an encouragement to unbridled wickedness.'45 Yet if we feel reluctant to concede that Shakespeare was portraying a wholly secular order, we might at least agree, with Coleridge, that, in this kind of drama, fate (or providence) has been at least displaced from its traditional category:

The transitional link between the Epic and the Drama is the Historic Drama. In the Epic poem a preannounced Fate gradually adjusts and employs the will and the Incidents as instruments . . . while the Drama places Fate & Will in opposition [to each other, and is] then most perfect when the victory of fate is obtained in consequence of imperfections in the opposing Will, so as to leave a final impression that the Fate itself is but a higher and a more intelligent Will.46


Shakespeare's histories were, as we have seen, performed in the popular—in Elizabethan terms, 'public'—playhouses. Although it has been claimed recently that Elizabethan audiences contained a higher proportion of 'privileged' spectators than it used to be thought,47 it may be argued that Shakespeare was exploring a populist kind of history, a notion of history that would appeal to anyone of any rank who was sceptical of authority or the use of determinism to justify political action. 'In order that a drama may be properly historical, it is necessary that it should be the history of the people to whom it is addressed', said Coleridge, and he went on:

In this mode, the unity resulting from succession is destroyed, but is supplied by a unity of a higher order, which connects the events by reference to the workers, gives a reason for them in the motives, and presents men in their causative character.48

Bringing characters from 'history' onto the stage was itself a political act, a report to a wider audience of what had been private to court circles or concealed by the ordering imposed on the chronicles which were his sources. Shakespeare was concerned not to dramatise a transcendent doctrine of order but to portray 'men in their causative character'. His interest was therefore political: his focus was on the nature, origins, and transfer of power as he traced in the play the changing relationships between monarchy, aristocracy, and commoners or the bourgeoisie49—thereby registering a change in the conception of kingship from that of a mystic office, endowed with divine rights, to a more limited power that operated within a corporate community.50 To certain ages and to certain audiences, however, such kinds of drama . . . appeared not only unappealing but dangerous. An introduction from our own period deploys a subtle kind of critical censorship, suppressing the politics by moralising the play:

In its present form the play might well be called the Tragedy of Talbot. His career is the framework of the structure. The scheme is the struggle of Talbot and Joan in which he represents the forces of England and righteousness, she the forces of demonic malice.51

Plays of this kind are, accordingly, unlikely to be built around a hero or avatar: John Dover Wilson's assumption that a play must have a hero and that the hero must be Talbot resulted in a misleading theory not only of the nature and quality of the drama but of its compositional genesis.52 Talbot is rather a victim—of the aspiring and contriving York who is prepared to let Talbot die so that Somerset will take the blame (4.3.31-3). In this play the title role of the king was probably taken by a boy player, an index of the power the noble politicians of the court would have had, and of the way the play is not just concerned with a central personality.

Nor are these plays likely to invoke the sense of an ending that we associate with the history of heroes. That is appropriate to tragedy: 1 Henry VI, like the political play it is, is open-ended, suggesting that although this part of the story is over, the play of politics goes on.

To return to the first scene: the process of demystification is carried further in the epic narrative of Talbot's stand against the French delivered by the Third Messenger (1.1.108 ff). What is notable here is the way in which the heroic style contrasts with unheroic action. Talbot met defeat not in chivalric combat but when 'a base Walloon' (1.1.137) stabbed him in the back Three scenes later Salisbury, a surviving titanic hero from the reign of Henry V, is sniped down by a cannon fired by a boy. Battles are no longer fought with lance and bow, instruments of the gentle arts of hunt and war, but are trials of strength won by guerrilla tactics within towns, fought with weapons of Renaissance technology. This first scene ends with a confirmation for the audience of pervading Realpolitik: Winchester confides to the audience his intent to kidnap the king and thus becomes a stage villain in the play of politics. This is the first of a series of Senecan prophecies that runs through the play,53 but here power lies not with the gods but with the prophets.54 . . .

Talbot And English Nationalism

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3949

... . Talbot is a figure for the nostalgia that suffuses the play, a dream of simple chivalric virtus like that enacted every year at Elizabeth's Accession Day tilts,55 a dream of true empire. He is designed to appeal to a popular audience, and his death scene where he calls for troops who do not appear is yet another demonstration of the destructiveness of aristocratic factionalism, a confirmation of the feelings aroused by the Messenger's rebuke in the first scene of the play, and a prefiguration of the death of good Duke Humphrey in 2 Henry VI, a man similarly destroyed by emulous politicians. J. C. Trewin describes Seale's effective direction of this sequence in 1953:56 'the old lion and those about him remained stock-still in the background while, down on the forestage, Sir William Lucy urges on first York, and then Somerset, to send Talbot immediate aid'.57 Indeed the sheer energy of the popular leaders Joan, Talbot, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, serves to turn the scenes in which they appear into celebrations of a popular order defined against the hypocrisy and canniness of the politicians. The battle scenes in which they appear become 'feasts of death' (see 4.5.7) and constitute an 'uncrowning' of the authority of the politicians who do not themselves appear on the battlefield.58

Talbot too has a role to play in the figurative construction of the play. We might look first at the way he is one of the Titans; another is Mortimer, descendant of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, third son of Edward III and, for that reason, one who claimed the crown from the Lancastrians who derived from John of Gaunt, the old king's fourth son. At his death—placed significantly after the rose-plucking scene—he counsels his headstrong nephew Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of York, to politic silence (2.5.101), to a de facto recognition of the Lancastrian line. But his counsels go unheeded: the rampant ambitions of a new generation of politicians will not be curbed. Talbot and Mortimer are the old lions of the play but are giving way to young foxes like York and Suffolk.59 This motif is distilled into Lucy's choric comment of the battle of Bordeaux:

The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapped the noble-minded Talbot.


When Talbot dies, the same Lucy is given a ritual declamation of all his titles (4.7.60 ff.) to mark the end of that order.

Ritual of another sort is found in the linked series of scenes, 4.5-4.7, that depict the last feats and brave deaths of Talbot and his son John at the battle of Bordeaux. . . . They are distinguished from the rest of the play by being written in rhyming couplets,60 like another father and son scene, 5.3 of Richard II.61 But whereas in that scene we see the 'normal' pattern of the son rejecting the authority of the father as Prince Hal riots and revels in Eastcheap and Aumerle raises arms against the Lancastrian regime, here we see father and son linked in a common cause and vying with each other in martial prowess and the pursuit of honour.62

The sequence stands as a testimony to all that was lost with the death of Henry V: the decay of empire implies the destruction of family. More generally it stands as an emblem of vanity: 'antic Death' (4.7.18) mocks the state of kings and potentates as they strut and fret to their confusion. 'Right without might is helpless, might without right is tyrannical', said Pascal:63 death will confound the conflict of the mighty and the righteous that runs through the play. Again, however, we must not consign the scene to the category of the merely emblematic. The couplets leave it open to the players to suggest that, as in the scene from Richard II, the characters are here indulging in a species of selfdramatisation.


Talbot is set against Joan in an earlier montage sequence, the siege of Orléans, the depiction of which runs from 1.2 to 2.2. 1.4 depicts the shooting of Salisbury, and 1.5 Joan's defeat of Talbot. 1.6 opens with some emblematic lines, central to the imaginative construction of the play:

PUCELLE Advance our waving colours on the walls;
Rescued is Orléans from the English.
Thus Joan la Pucelle hath performed her word.
CHARLES Divinest creature, Astraea's daughter,
How shall I honour thee for this success?
Thy promises are like Adonis' gardens
That one day bloomed and fruitful were the next.


Charles's exultant hyperboles mark the climax of the rising action of the first act, but the two classical references set the moment in an ironic perspective. Adonis's gardens were originally celebrated as a sort of forcingbed for herbs (Plato, Phaedrus 276b), but soon became a symbol of mutability as in Spenser's elaboration of the myth in The Faerie Queene (III, vi, 30 ff.). Like Talbot, Joan will meet death before the end of the play. As for Astraea, she was, as Frances Yates has shown,64 a central symbol in the cult of Elizabethan imperialism. The goddess of justice and a virgin, she had fled the earth in its iron age:

All godliness lies under foot. And Lady Astrey, last
Of heavenly virtues, from this earth (in slaughter drownèd) passed.

(Metamorphoses 1, 169-70)

In one of the most famous lines in classical literature, her return as a sign of a new order, a new golden age, was celebrated by Virgil in his paean of praise to Augustus: 'lam redit et virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna' (Eclogue 4.6). These lines were readily adapted by Christians who identified Astraea as the Virgin. Now Charles's exclamation is extraordinary: the virgin could have no daughter, or else, blasphemously, he salutes her as a female saviour. Joan here has been turned into a myth, but it is a myth of a false Astraea, the antitype of the order represented by Talbot. From this perspective her vision of the Virgin in the fields65 (1.2.74 ff.) marks the beginning of the end of pastoral innocence.

In a symmetry characteristic of the play, Shakespeare chooses another secluded and idealised place, the garden of the Temple, in which to set the beginning of the bloody contention between York and Lancaster (2.4) emblematised by the plucking of red and white roses from the tree. It is a brilliant piece of dramatic shorthand as well as being, perhaps, an oblique compliment to England's Astraea, Queen Elizabeth, whose Tudor Rose badge symbolised the union of red rose and white.66

What, though, of the real political aspects of this scene? It may be argued that, in this London garden, Shakespeare was offering a secularised version of the story of another plucking from a tree, the story of the loss of Eden in Genesis. The origins of the Wars of the Roses—the original sin, as it were—lie here, in the squabbling in the Temple garden, rather than in Bullingbrook's deposition of Richard II a quarter of a century before. It is notable that in this scene brawl grows to faction67—it seems that an unspecified affair of honour turns into the occasion for civil war. Moreover Shakespeare, as I have argued, was no mere Tudor propagandist, no unthinking upholder of the 'rule of order', a man who must therefore show the origins of any insurrection in the most unfavourable light. As the scene proceeds, he dramatises the tough moral decisions, those 'cases of truth', confronting those who, like Hamlet, felt that they were serving an illegitimate regime but who knew that rebellion against that regime was itself a wrongful act. The dilemma is insoluble, as is suggested by the lines of Warwick that frame the contention between Somerset and Richard Plantagenet in the garden:

Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch,
Between two dogs, which hath the deeper mouth,
Between two blades, which bears the better temper,
Between two horses, which doth bear him best,
Between two girls, which hath the merriest eye,
I have perhaps some shallow spirit of judgement;
But in these nice sharp quillets of the law,
Good faith, I am no wiser than a daw.


His jocularity is both a testimony to his equivocation and to embarrassment at the thorniness of the constitutional crisis. Play 'hardens into history', as Blanpied put it.68 As the scene progresses we register a desper ate quality in the protestations of both parties as though the two men are seeking to legitimise actions that are in part dictated by a crude will to power. As well as recognising that it is an allegorical scene, therefore, we are aware of what Shakespeare calls the 'dumb significants' (2.4.26)69 as well as the 'signified': this is a realistic depiction of the triviality of emulous factions.70 The nobles turn questions of right into questions of might and attempt to solve the succession problem by counting the roses plucked from the tree.

Again we note Shakespeare's montage technique. The rose-plucking is sandwiched between two titanic scenes: Talbot's defeat of the wily Countess of Auvergne, and the death of Mortimer who had chosen politic silence rather than insurrection against Lancastrian rule. It serves as prologue too to 3.1 where Winchester, already established as a Machiavel and suspicious to popular audiences as a seditious Catholic, joins quarrel with the emerging authority of 'Good Duke Humphrey' of Gloucester. (Gloucester is no mere 'roaring-boy', as Dover Wilson branded him; he could not concede that Gloucester's character in Part 1 matches that of the 'noble gentleman' we see in Part 2.71 Rather he stands as another popular hero alongside Talbot and Joan, the particular enemy of the contriving cardinal.)

Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth72


proclaims the king, and his observation is immediately proved true by the inrush of servingmen fighting for their respective masters. . . . Henry manages to enjoin peace upon the factions and moves to settle the claim of Richard Plantagenet by restoring him to his title and rights as Duke of York. But just as the audience had been prepared for Winchester's machinations by his aside to the audience at the end of 1.1, so York's threat—to 'make mine ill th'advantage of my good' (2.5.129)—must undermine their confidence in this constitutional settlement. The parliament sequence in 3.1 ends with a flourish: a modern director might well ponder whether to sound a concord or a discord.

The rest of the play works by further ironical understatement. The 'shadow' of the action is what is done on the stage, the winning and losing of battles, although the audience is by now aware that the substance of power is wielded not by the fighters but by the politicians. After the death of Talbot in Act 4 a new order emerges. York, regent of France, had betrayed Talbot in order to destroy the reputation of Somerset (see 4.3.31-3), and it is he who emerges to deliver the coup de grâce to Joan. At the end of the scene he imposes an unhistorical capitulation upon Charles, and the sequence ends as though the narrative of the wars between France and England is complete. This is not, however, the end of the play. It is as though chronicle subverts narrative, history overcomes art, for Suffolk, . . . having captured Margaret on the battlefield at Angiers, has plans for a betrothal between her and the king to further his own ambitions. The play comes to a poise with the arrangements for these nuptials. It had begun with a funeral, the customary end of tragedy: it ends with arrangements for betrothal, the customary end of comedy. But, as we should now expect, the play of politics interrupts both ceremonies, and it is left to the politician Suffolk to speak the play's epilogue and the prologue to 2 Henry VI. The speech ironically invokes the romantic archetypes of antiquity and significantly does not close with rhyme:

Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,
With hope to find the like event in love,
But prosper better than the Trojan did.
Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king:
But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.



1 Judith Hinchcliffe, King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, Garland Shakespeare Bibliographies, 1986, provides an annotated survey of criticism. For a bibliographical essay see Edward Berry, 'Twentieth-century Shakespeare criticism: the histories' in Stanley Wells (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, 1986, pp. 249-56. Elizabethan theories of empire may be pursued in Frances A. Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, 1975.

2 Hall titles his section on Henry VI 'The Troublous Season of King Henry the Sixth' (The Union of the . . . Families of Lancastre and York, 1548, p. 114). This comes after 'The Victorious Acts of King Henry the Fifth' (p. 46).

3 Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo, scene 13, in Plays, 1961, 1, 320.

4 See Michael Hattaway, Hamlet: The Critics Debate, 1987, pp. 88 ff.

5 The speech is very similar to the description of the Black Prince in Peele's The Honour of the Garter, 1593, sig. B3V.

6 See Victor Shklovsky, 'Art as technique', in Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (eds.), Russian Formalist Criticism, 1965, pp. 13 ff. For a general account of the way in which poets of the English Renaissance ceased to 'believe in' their images see Patrick Grant, Images and Ideas in the Literature of the English Renaissance, 1979, p. xi.

7An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777) in D. Nichol Smith (ed.), Eighteenth Century Essays on Shakespeare, 1963, p. 226.

8 Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, rev. edn, 1965; see also Paul Dean, 'Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy and Elizabethan "romance" histories: the origins of a genre', Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982), 34-48. Shakespeare may also have had a hand in the anonymous The Reign of King Edward III which was probably written and performed in 1589.

9 See J. W. Blanpied, ' "Art and baleful sorcery": the counterconsciousness of Henry VI Part 1', SEL 15 (1975), 213-27; Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres, 1986, pp. 6-7; David Scott Kastan, 'Proud majesty made a subject: Shakespeare and the spectacle of rule', Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986), 459-75.

10 Like Sidney and Spenser, Shakespeare espoused the Aristotelian doctrine that the epic or tragic poet need not feel bound to adhere to actual events or the truth of history. The contrary position had been spelt out in Castelvetro's edition of The Poetics (see Geoffrey Shepherd's edition of Sidney's Apology for Poetry, 1973, p. 221).

11 See below, p. 34.

12 The concern of the queen over aristocratic factionalism of the sort we see emerging in this play was registered in 1585 in the 'Act for provision to be made for the surety of the Queen's most royal person' (27 Eliz. I,c.I) which sought to control the 'Bond of Association', an initiative taken two years earlier by Protestant gentry against those who might support Mary Queen of Scots.

13 G. R. Elton, England Under the Tudors, 1974, p. 3; for an examination of the legal and moral bonds between the monarch and the lords in the trilogy see F. L. Kelly, 'Oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI plays', Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973), 357-71.

14 If we postulate a late date of composition the play may have been prompted by the death in 1590 of George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, and descendant of the first earl, one of the play's central heroic figures. Wilson offers a topical parallel with 'the growing sense of exasperation, anger, and even despair which was felt in London at the impending failure of an invasion of France launched in the autumn of 1591 ' (pp. xvi ff.).

15 David Bevington, Action is Eloquence, 1984, notes how Joan's capture of the upper stage area in 1.5-6 (the walls of Orléans) constitutes a 'victory tableau [which] is visually and ironically similar to those actually mounted on city gates in Elizabethan victory celebrations' (p. 102).

16 See James C. Bulman, 'Shakespeare's Georgic histories', Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), 37-47.

17 Compare Clifford Leech, Shakespeare: The Chronicles, 1962, p. 14: '[I Henry VI] is a fairly shapeless piece of writing, beginning with some pomp and indeed impressiveness . . . but soon falling into an anecdotal kind of drama in which incidents are presented in turn for the sake of immediate dramatic effect rather than for their contribution to a total pattern'.

18 See Ronald S. Berman, 'Fathers and sons in the Henry VI plays', Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962), 487-97.

19Man's Unconquerable Mind, 1939, p. 254.

20 Working from this premise Dover Wilson removed the dead march from the stage direction on the assumption that it had been caught from a prompter's note at the opening of 2.2 (Wilson, ed., 1 Henry VI, 1952 [New Shakespeare], p. 138).... [For] an overall account of this technique in the trilogy see B. Hodgdon, 'Shakespeare's directorial eye: a look at the early history plays', in S. Homan (ed.), Shakespeare's 'More than Words can Witness', 1980, pp. 115-29.

21 Hattaway, pp. 86-8.

22 In 1.6, 2.1, 3.2 (on two occasions), 4.2, and 5.3.

23 See Hattaway, chaps. 1-3.

24 Blanpied, 'Counterconsciousness', p. 215.

25 Henry V is presented not only as a titanic figure but as a biblical hero, a latter-day David (see 1.1.31 n.). The coronation pageant of Elizabeth had presented her as a Deborah 'consulting with her estates for the restoration of good government in Israel' (Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime, 1979, p. 365).

26 See Hereward T. Price on the motif of the interrupted ceremony in Construction in Shakespeare, 1951; also Roger Warren, ' "Contrarieties agree": an aspect of dramatic technique in Henry VI', Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984), 75-83.

27 Hattaway, p. 3.

28 For a general analysis of the style of the play see David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI' and its Literary Tradition, 1971; Ronald Watkins, 'The only Shake-scene', Philological Quarterly 54 (1975), 47-67; L. C. Knights, 'Rhetoric and insincerity' and Wolfgang Clemen, 'Some aspects of style in the Henry VI plays', in P. Edwards, I-S. Ewbank, G. K. Hunter (eds.), Shakespeare 's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, 1980, pp. 1-8 and 9-24; James C. Bulman, The Heroic Idiom of Shakespearean Tragedy, 1985, pp. 26-44.

29 Nicholas Brooke, 'Marlowe as provocative agent in Shakespeare's early plays', Shakespeare Survey 14 (1961), 34-44.

30 For these terms see George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, 1589, p. 133.

31Richard III 4.4.135.

32 Clemen, 'Aspects of style', p. 20.

33 The play is of course contemporary with the Marprelate tracts (1588-9) and their denunciation of worldling bishops. The authors of the Epistle to the Geneva Bible (1560) list papists, worldlings, and ambitious prelates as the main enemies to the 'Temple' or new commonwealth.

34 Shakespeare may be said to have tested the dark realism of Richard Hooker whose Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity were to appear in 1593: 'Laws politic, ordained for external order and regiment among men, are never framed as they should be, unless presuming the will of man to be inwardly obstinate, rebellious, and averse from all obedience unto the sacred laws of his nature; in a word, unless presuming man to be in regard to his depraved mind little better than a wild beast' (Book 1, chap, x; Everyman edn, 1907, 1, 188).

35 Compare the anti-historicist statement of Jean Bodin in 1566: 'human history mostly flows from the will of mankind, which ever vacillates and has no objective' (Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, trans. B. Reynolds, 1966, p. 17).

36 For a general survey see Peter Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past, 1969.

37 See E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554-1640, 1875-94, III, 316 ff.

38 In the terms of a modern Marxist, a pragmatic materialist ideology is emerging that will contest not only the residual ideology of feudalism but the dominant ideology that supported the Tudor regime by means of 'the Tudor myth'. See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, 1977, pp. 121-7; Williams's schema is more subtle than the actual account of the plays offered by Paul N. Siegel, Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, 1986.

39 Holinshed Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2nd edn, 1587, reprinted in 6 volumes, 1808, p. 185; Hall, p. 179.

40 See Richard Tuck, 'Power and Authority in seventeenth-century England', The Historical Journal 17 (1974), 43-61.

41 Compare the French Sentinel's rebuke of his superiors at 2.1.5-7.

42 Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 1944, p. 60; Tillyard's line is fairly close to that of M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, 1961. Reese's conviction that the plays depict England under Henry VI lying under a divine curse enabled him to find only 'strident monotony' in the texts (p. 167). H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories, 1970, finally disposed of Tillyard's schematic account of the history plays. His view has been followed by John Wilders, The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays, 1978. For a general questioning of the assumptions of Tillyard and others see Michael McCanles, Dialectical Criticism and Renaissance Literature, 1975.

43 This play probably owes more to the Senecan tradition of revenge than to Christian providentialism.

44 See A. L. French, 'The mills of God and Shakespeare's early history plays', English Studies 55 (1974), 313-24.

45 Sidney, Apology, ed. Shepherd, p. 111. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (1612) serves up the idealist view of the history play (see Allan H. Gilbert, Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, 1962, p. 558). Compare L. C. Knights: 'What Shakespeare gained from the historical writings of his time, though not from these alone, was a conviction that politics and morals cannot be separated without falsification and disaster. That conviction lasted him a lifetime' (Explorations 3, 1976, p. 163).

46 S. T. Coleridge (on Richard II) in Lectures 1808-1819 on Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes, 2 vols., 1987, 1, 283.

47 Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1981; her thesis is disputed by Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, 1987.

48 Coleridge, Lectures and Notes on Shakspere, ed. T. Ashe, 1908, p. 252.

49 Paul N. Siegel points out (p. 77) how Winchester appeals to the Mayor of London and the citizens by evoking their desire for order and relief from high taxes. He names Gloucester as one that 'still motions war and never peace, / O'ercharging your free purses with large fines' (1.3.63-4).

50 See Robert Eccleshall, Order and Reason in Politics: Theories of Absolute and Limited Monarchy in Early Modern England, 1978.

51 George Lyman Kittredge, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1936, p. 665.

52 Wilson, pp. ix-xiii.

53 See W. Clemen, Shakespeare's Dramatic Art, 1972, pp. 18-25.

54 For the popular uses of prophecy in the period see Simon Shepherd, Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre, 1986, pp. 122-31.

55 See Yates, Astraea, pp. 88 ff.56 . . . Terry Hands in 1977 used the same device in his staging of the scene.

57Going to Shakespeare, 1978, pp. 18-19.

58 Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater, 1985, p. 4.

59 This aspect of the play could be read as Shakespeare's analysis of what a modern historian has called the Tudor 'crisis of the aristocracy'; see Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1965.

60 André Gide called such insets 'en abyme '—a term from heraldry; see Keir Elam, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse, 1984, pp. 23 ff.

61 See Hattaway, pp. 82-3. For the roles of fathers in the drama of this period see Shepherd, Marlowe and Politics, pp. 156-69.

62 See Bulman, The Heroic Idiom, pp. 32-3.

63Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, 1966, p. 56.

64 Yates, Astraea, passim.

65 Astraea had appeared as a shepherdess in Peele's pageant, the Descensus Astraeae of 1591.

66 Yates, Astraea, pp. 50 ff.

67 Compare 2.4.124-5. The point was made to me privately by Carol Rutter.

68 Blanpied, 'Counterconsciousness', p. 218.

69 The modern term is 'signifiers'.

70 The play takes its place in a sequence of works by various hands that inveigh against the iniquities of civil war when 'Force mastered right, the strongest governed all' (see Marlowe's Lucan, 177). These include Marlowe's translation of the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia (entered for publication in 1593) and Thomas Lodge's play The Wounds of Civil War (entered 1594). Lodge's play, however, has resort to supernatural intervention for its resolution. Robert Wilson's The Cobbler's Prophecy (1590?) delivers a hard attack on the perils of national disunity.

71 Wilson, p. xii.

72 D. G. Hale, The Body Politic, 1971, notes how imagery of the body permeates Shakespeare's plays while the action questions the applicability of organic analogies to political situations (p. 8); for an exhaustive study of categories of images in the play see C. McG. Kay, 'Traps, slaughter, and chaos: a study of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays', Studies in the Literary Imagination 5 (1972), 1-26.

Further Reading

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Arthos, John. "The Henry VI Plays." In Shakespeare: The Early Writings, pp. 174-230. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1972.

Focuses on characterization in the trilogy. Arthos rejects a providential view of the play, arguing that the characters themselves are shown to be responsible for the outcome of the dramatic action.

Berman, Ronald S. "Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI Plays." Shakespeare Quarterly XII, No. 4 (Autumn 1962): 487-97.

Traces the development of the themes of kinship, loyalty, and honor in these plays. Moral and spiritual degradation in the kingdom, Berman contends, has its roots in the moral and spiritual corruption of the sacred relationship between fathers and sons.

Billings, Wayne L. "Ironic Lapses: Plotting in Henry VI " Studies in the Literary Imagination 5, No. 1 (April 1972): 27-49.

Maintains that the trilogy dramatizes the deterioration of the heroic code and represents every major character as ineffective, foolish, or dishonorable.

Brockbank, J. P. "The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI " In Early Shakespeare, edited by John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, pp. 73-99. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3. London: Edward Arnold, 1961.

Discusses Shakespeare's selective use of historical sources to highlight the viciousness of rebellion.

Bromley, John. "The Bitter Road from Agincourt: 1, 2, 3 Henry VI. " In The Shakespearean Kings, pp. 7-28. Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1971.

Provides an overview of the trilogy, including the issues of structural unity, the characterization of commoners and noblemen, and the depiction of the disastrous effects of usurpation and foreign wars. Bromley asserts that these plays show that men, not providence, are responsible for the course of events.

Cartelli, Thomas. "Jack Cade in the Garden: Class Consciousness and Class Conflict in 2 Henry VI " In Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, edited by Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, pp. 48-67. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Examines the issue of class struggle in early modern England and in 2 Henry VI Cartelli maintains that Cade's encounter with Alexander Iden (IV.x) and the populist uprising underscore the importance of class distinctions in the play.

Cohen, Derek. "Shakespeare's Poor: 2 Henry VI " In The Politics of Shakespeare, pp. 55-72. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.

Regards the depiction of the commoners in this play as a reflection of Elizabethan political and cultural orthodoxy. Cohen argues that poverty in 2 Henry VI is inherently comic—a subject for mockery—and that Cade's followers are presented as fools, easily led by the empty promises of a villainous leader into committing acts of random violence.

Cox, John D. "Inventing Secular History: The Henry VI Plays." In Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power, pp. 82-103. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Contends that the ambiguous characterization in these plays is related to Shakespeare's use of elements typically found in medieval mystery plays. Cox asserts that the dramatist was more interested in portraying the realities of the human condition than in showing the operation of a divine or providential will.

Cutts, John P. "Henry VI." In The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays, pp. 119-28. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968. Discusses the disparities between the shadow and the substance of kingship in 3 Henry VI.

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.

Argues that Shakespeare employed certain techniques of sixteenth-century English "romance" histories—such as supernaturalism, love-triangles, and the use of disguise—to dramatize an ironic view of kingship in the Henry VI plays.

Gerould, Daniel C. "Principles of Dramatic Structure in Henry VI. " Educational Theatre Journal, XX, No. 3 (October 1968): 376-88.

Maintains that the dramatic action in these plays follows a pattern of contrasting and parallel episodes which highlight the trilogy's principal theme: the chaos that flows from discord and division within the kingdom.

Kay, Carol McGinnis. "Traps, Slaughter, and Chaos: A Study of Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays." Studies in the Literary Imagination V, No. 1 (April 1972): 1-26.

Examines patterns of imagery in the trilogy that reinforce the concept of individual human responsibility. Kay downplays the significance of "the Tudor myth" in these plays.

Pierce, Robert B. "The Henry VI Plays." In Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State, pp. 35-88. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.

Views the family in the Henry VI trilogy as both a microcosm of the kingdom and a means of dramatizing the plays' central themes. Pierce also traces the development in the trilogy of such motifs as inheritance, the destruction of the aristocratic ideal, and political/social dissolution.

Prior, Moody E. "Ideas of History: 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, Richard III. " In The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 34-58. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Discusses the way in which the framework of these plays underscores a political rather than a providential view of dramatic events. Prior charts the movement from the loss of heroic ideals to political struggle and personal rivalries, and ultimately to civil war, and argues that this movement is reflected in the various characters who dominate each of the plays.

Riddell, James A. "Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne." Shakespeare Quarterly 28, No. 1 (Winter 1977): 51-7.

Focuses on the scene (II.iii) that features the confrontation between Talbot and the French countess in 1 Henry VI. Riddle argues that Talbot's conduct here enhances his stature as a heroic figure.

Riggs, David. Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971, 194 p.

Contends that the trilogy depicts the decline of heroic idealism during the Hundred Years' War and the reign of Henry VI. Shakespeare's presentation of historical events is essentially humanistic, Riggs asserts, and does not conform to the Tudor view of English history.

Turner, Robert Y. "Characterization in Shakespeare's Early History Plays." ELH 31, No. 3 (September 1964): 241-58.

Asserts that when Shakespeare wrote the Henry VI trilogy, he viewed dramatic characters as embodiments of moral qualities rather than individualized personalities. This static view of characterization, Turner argues, prevailed in the morality plays that were the models Shakespeare relied on in the early stage of his development as a playwright.

Watson, Donald G. "Henry VI, Part Three" In Shakespeare's Early History Plays: Politics at Play on the Elizabethan Stage, pp. 80-99. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Maintains that in 3 Henry VI, political, ethical, and moral ideologies have all been shattered, leaving a world characterized by anarchy, brutality, and nihilism.

Willis, Deborah. "Performing Persecution." In Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England, pp. 159-207. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Discusses the motif of gender transgression as a threat to the state in the Henry VI plays. Willis maintains that male effeminacy is depicted as a subversion of political and military order, and that women who are hybrids of the masculine and feminine spirit—Joan, Margaret, and Eleanor—are portrayed as unnatural.

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Critical Evaluation


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