Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 39) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 19797 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 15703 words.)

Civil Disorder

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 14468 words.)

Structural And Thematic Unity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 11688 words.)

Talbot And English Nationalism

(Shakespearean Criticism)

... . 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...

(The entire section is 3949 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1108 words.)