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.