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Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

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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...

(The entire section contains 67890 words.)

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Critical Evaluation


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