Clifford Leech (essay date 1962)

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SOURCE: “The Three Parts of Henry VI,” in Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Longmans, Green & Co., 1962, pp. 12-22.

[In the essay below, Leech surveys the structure of the three parts of Henry VI and discusses the critical debate over Shakespeare's part in the authorship of these works.]

It is impossible to discuss the Henry VI plays without referring first to the problems of authorship and chronology. They were published together in the Folio of 1623, but, although this is the first occasion of the printing of Part I, the other two Parts had appeared long before in corrupt versions. In 1594 there was published a quarto volume with the title The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, and in 1595 an octavo with the title The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke. These two texts were published together as The Whole Contention betweene the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke in 1619. There is thus a strong bibliographical link between Parts II and III. There is a link, too, in subject-matter. These two Parts present a continuous narrative from the King's marriage with the French princess Margaret to the murder of Henry VI and the establishment on the throne of the Yorkist Edward IV. Part I, on the other hand, is principally concerned with the wars in France at the beginning of Henry VI's reign, although it also includes the beginning of the York-Lancaster opposition, the planning of Henry's marriage to Margaret, and a number of incidents that historically were later than some that occur in Part II.

There is a good case for assuming that Part I was a play acted by Strange's Men, for Henslowe's Diary records their performance of ‘Harey the vj’ as a new play in March 1592, and in the same year Thomas Nashe in Pierce Pennilesse refers to the current acting of a play in which Talbot's military triumphs were displayed: as I Henry VI has Talbot's campaigns as one of its chief concerns, we can reasonably identify the play in the 1623 Folio with the play referred to by Henslowe and Nashe. Yet Part III must have been written by September 1592, for Robert Greene parodies a line from it in his death-bed tract Greenes Groats-worth of Witte. And Part III (doubtless with Part II, for the two can hardly be separated) was, according to the title-page of the 1595 edition, acted by Pembroke's Men.

There has been much discussion of the extent of Shakespeare's contribution to the three Parts. Edmund Malone believed that the publications of 1594 and 1595 were source-plays re-written by Shakespeare as 2 and 3 Henry VI, and that this had occasioned the attack on Shakespeare in Greenes Groats-worth of Witte, where he is described as ‘an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’. Now, however, Professor Alexander has won almost universal support for his view that The First part of the Contention and The true Tragedie are ‘bad quartos’, i.e. texts derivative from the plays now known as 2 and 3 Henry VI but contaminated through memorial transmission. There is still disagreement concerning the extent to which we can find Shakespeare's hand in the three Parts and concerning the order in which they were written. There will probably always be speculation on these matters, but the present weight of opinion is on the side of recognising a much larger Shakespearian element in the ‘trilogy’ than was formerly the case. Although no certainty is possible, it seems likely that Shakespeare wrote a two-part play on the...

(This entire section contains 3554 words.)

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Wars of the Roses for Pembroke's Men, and that the play recorded by Henslowe asHarey the vj was adapted by him when, in 1594, he joined the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain's Men along with some of the actors who had belonged to Strange's. In this way a trilogy was put together out of an original two-part Shakespearian play and a play (originally non-Shakespearian) that concentrated on the earliest events of Henry VI's reign. It may well be that Part I was written later than Parts II and III, but was made into a forepiece for the other two plays when Shakespeare revised it.

If this line of speculation is followed, we must regard Part I as only partially Shakespeare's and Parts II and III as mainly, if not wholly, his. And that will fit our response to the plays as dramatic achievements. Those who saw the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's performances of the three Parts in 1951-53 are likely to hold a more favourable view of their quality than was formerly common. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that a higher level is reached in Parts II and III than in Part I.

In view of the theory of composition and authorship here suggested, we need not linger for more than a moment with Part I. It is a fairly shapeless piece of writing, beginning with some pomp and indeed impressiveness with the funeral of Henry V, where the Lancastrian nobles are quickly at odds, 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. An extreme example of this is the introduction of a French Countess who plans to murder Talbot by inviting him to her castle. Talbot shows his shrewdness by accepting the invitation but ensuring that his troops are in reach when the Countess shows her hand. The incident has no effect on later action: it is a mere anecdote of the war. Nevertheless, there is vigorous drama in the opposition between the Lord Protector, Humphrey of Gloucester, and the Bishop of Winchester, in the display of Talbot's prowess and his bravery in death, in the crude but lively portrayal of Joan of Arc, and in the first indications of Richard Plantagenet's rise to a position of importance in the kingdom. Concerning this last strand in the play, there is common consent that Shakespeare wrote the Temple Garden scene, where Plantagenet and the Earl of Somerset, having quarrelled in the Temple hall about a point of law (we are never told what it is), pluck respectively a white and a red rose and invite those who support them to do likewise. This scene, for which the sixteenth-century chronicles provide no source, most dramatically presages the state of open conflict between York and Lancaster.

The French wars of Henry VI's reign were hardly to be seen as a reason for national pride, but the author of I Henry VI did what he could to make them palatable. He put considerable stress on the achievements of Talbot, he presented Joan as a witch and a wanton, and he ended the play, quite unhistorically, with peace terms that declare the French King to be a viceroy under Henry VI, paying tribute to England: Professor Dover Wilson has pointed out that these terms are derived from those offered to, and rejected by, the French in 1435.

Parts II and III tell a continuous and wide-ranging story. For spectators it cannot be easy to grasp the exact relationships between the main characters and the genealogical details that made it possible for Richard Plantagenet, now Duke of York, to lay claim to the throne. For that reason, in Act II scene ii of Part II, the author inserted a scene in which York, addressing the Earl of Salisbury and his son the Earl of Warwick, gives a full account of the ancestry of both himself and Henry VI. The scene is not great drama, but it was necessary if the audience were to see the grounds for the dynastic quarrel. For modern readers a further aid is desirable, and Professor Dover Wilson has presented a most useful genealogical tree in his New Cambridge edition of 2 Henry VI. The action of the two plays is widely spread through England, with a short excursion into France in Part III, and the dramatist has clearly wanted to bring home to his audience the sense of a civil war ranging destructively over the country. For non-English readers, in particular, the many references to place-names may be confusing and will certainly not have the impact that was intended in the writing. Mr. Andrew S. Cairncross, in the New Arden edition of 2 Henry VI, has provided a map indicating the places scattered through the country that are prominently mentioned in the text, used as a frontispiece to this essay.

Part II differs from Part III in material and consequently in structure. Open war between York and Lancaster does not begin until Part II is almost over, and the greater part of the play is concerned with the gradual development of York's plans, with his waiting until Humphrey Duke of Gloucester is dead (helping modestly in his downfall), and with the enmities stirred up by Henry's Queen Margaret. Departing from his sources, for in fact Margaret did not come to England until after the Duchess of Gloucester's disgrace, the author has made dramatic capital out of a rivalry between the Queen and the wife of the Lord Protector. In addition, he gives the audience a thrill of horror in showing the Duchess of Gloucester using witchcraft in order to pry into the future, where she sees herself as England's Queen, and another thrill when Cardinal Beaufort dies in terror for his guilt in the killing of Gloucester. We have, too, a host of small incidents which, like the story of the Countess in Part I, can be regarded as dramatic anecdotes. There is the pretence of Simpcox that he has been miraculously cured of blindness—a ‘miracle’ quickly exposed by Humphrey of Gloucester. There is the grim comedy of Horner, an armourer, and his man Peter. The man accuses his master of speaking in favour of York's title to the crown. The issue is put to trial by combat between these two men who are quite unfitted to the test. Peter is terrified, but the armourer comes drunk to the contest and is killed. There is the execution of the Earl of Suffolk, who is captured by pirates when he has been banished from England: they refuse to accept ransom for him because of his opposition to Gloucester and to York and his consorting with Margaret. Yet, unlike the Countess story in Part I, these incidents all play their parts in the economy of the play. The exposure of the Simpcox ‘miracle’ exhibits the shrewdness and commonsense of Gloucester, so badly needed in the England of Henry VI. The affair of Horner and Peter displays the common people taking part in the nobles' quarrel about the royal title, as does the killing of Suffolk by men who are pirates but claim to be concerned for England's welfare. Moreover, the formal combat between the armourer and his man is a parody of chivalric encounter: in a way remarkably sophisticated for this early drama, it implies a critical attitude towards the warring nobles whose quarrels are grotesquely mirrored in this fight between two simple men, one terrified, one drunk.

This use of a mirror-image appears more fully in the scenes towards the end of Part II showing Jack Cade's rebellion. In Act III York is made regent of Ireland. This, he tells us in soliloquy, will give him his opportunity, for he will have an army at his disposal in Ireland. He is encouraging the ‘headstrong Kentishman’ Jack Cade to rebel, under the pretence that he is descended from the Mortimers from whom York himself derives his claim to the throne. From Cade's degree of success York will be able to see how the country is affected to the Yorkist claim. Whatever happens, York can come from Ireland with his army and reap the harvest that Cade's rebellion has prepared for him. The greater part of Act IV is taken up with Cade's rebellion. It is a revolt of common men against nobility, of ignorance against learning, of nonsense against sense: it presents a vision of anarchy in which a man can be put to death for being able to read, in which savagery is unchecked by any accepted code of manners, in which the rebels foolishly dream that by a mere proclamation they can refashion the country according to their hearts' desire. It is not a pleasant picture of a mob at work that Shakespeare gives us here, but we should note that some of Cade's followers can, in their asides, make fun of him, and that York's speech in Act III makes it clear that the Kentishman has been deluded by an ambitious noble. Moreover, the anarchy into which London is plunged when Cade is briefly lord of the city is an anticipation of the state of the whole country when the nobles' quarrel comes fully into the open and a whole series of battles is fought between York and Lancaster. The armourer Horner spoke treason on York's behalf and was killed for it. Cade sets himself up as a Mortimer, and having killed London citizens and a noble or two, is deserted by his followers and is himself killed as a fugitive. He provides the occasion for York to bring his army from Ireland, under the pretence that he has come to put down Cade (now defeated). The small revolt of ignorant men is a prelude and a mirror for the larger and much crueller contest between their superiors in the realm. With this in mind, we shall not see Shakespeare here as primarily concerned with the mob's folly and barbarity: rather, he recognises the nature of an armed mob, but sees in it an image of what civilised men can be when their weapons too are out.

This Second Part gains in strength as it proceeds. When battle has been joined in Act V, the Lancastrian Old Clifford is killed by York and the dead body is found by his son, Young Clifford. The character of this son is to be important in Part III, representing an extreme of Lancastrian ruthlessness. Here he addresses his father in words that usher in the grim slaughter of the Third Part:

                                                            O, let the vile world end
And the premised flames of the last day
Knit earth and heaven together!
Now let the general trumpet blow his blast,
Particularities and petty sounds
To cease! Wast thou ordain’d, dear father,
To lose thy youth in peace and to achieve
The silver livery of advised age,
And in thy reverence and thy chair-days thus
To die in ruffian battle? Even at this sight
My heart is turn’d to stone; and while ’tis mine
It shall be stony. York not our old men spares;
No more will I their babes. Tears virginal
Shall be to me even as the dew to fire;
And beauty, that the tyrant oft reclaims,
Shall to my flaming wrath be oil and flax.
Henceforth I will not have to do with pity. 


The balancing of the grand generalities of the Last Judgement in the first six lines with the intimate picture of Old Clifford, murdered in ‘ruffian battle’ at a time poignantly described as his ‘chair-days’, and then the severity of the resolution that follows, reaching its climax in the terrible bareness of the last line—these things belong to a mature Shakespeare, and it has been thought that the passage was inserted some considerable time after the first acting of the play. That guess may be correct, yet the authority of the speech is something we shall meet again in Part III.

This last Part has a concentrated power that can make it highly impressive in the theatre. It is a play of battles, yet with manifest skill the dramatist avoids a sense of repetition. The first, at Wakefield, is a Lancastrian victory: first we see Young Clifford's murder of the boy Rutland, the young son of York, and then the formal mockery and elaborate killing of York himself. Queen Margaret and Clifford will not at once dispatch their great enemy. They make him stand on a molehill, in mockery of the height he aspired to; they put a paper crown upon his head; and Margaret shows him a napkin stained with Rutland's blood. York is allowed a long speech of reply, in which he rebukes Margaret for her cruelty and weeps for Rutland. Then Clifford and Margaret stab him in turn. This is followed by a Lancastrian defeat at Towton. Here we see the battle through the King's eyes. First, having been chidden from the field by the Queen, he takes his stand on a molehill (as York was forced to do after Wakefield) and shows his envy of the simple countryman's life, patterned according to the seasons, yielding peacefully to the years as they go, solaced with plain comforts beyond a king's reach:

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, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave. 


But in a moment there enters a son that has killed his father because they have been fighting on opposite sides in the battle, and then a father that has killed his son. The three characters do not speak to each other: they engage in a shared ritual utterance which voices lamentation for the war's destruction. This passage has the formal nature of drama around 1590—profoundly animated, however, by a sympathy with human loss. It shows, moreover, that Henry's envy for the simple countryman has no basis in fact: the war has brought chaos into every man's family. Then our attention is turned to the fighting itself, with the Yorkists triumphant. Clifford is mortally wounded. The three sons of York find him at the point of death: he dies as they begin to mock him, and their frustrated desire for verbal revenge, and for the blow that severs life, stands in antithesis to the achieved mockery and killing of York at Wakefield. And we see the war growing more savage. The sons of York hurling their taunts at a dead body reveal a special barbarity as well as grim comedy.

In the third and fourth acts of the play there is no open battle, but in turn the two sides win tactical advantages through each other's mistakes. The King is captured by the Yorkists; Edward, his father's successor as Duke of York, falls into political error in marrying Lady Grey, an obscure but attractive widow, instead of the French King's sister to whom he had sent the powerful Earl of Warwick as an ambassador of love; Margaret through this wins help from France and from the indignant Warwick; Edward is captured by the Lancastrians, but quickly escapes; he rallies the Yorkist armies, captures Henry again. Then in the last act the formal battles are resumed, and again there is skilful variation in the ways they are presented. At Barnet, Warwick is killed in a Yorkist victory, and his body is quietly borne off by his supporters. At Tewkesbury, Margaret and her son Prince Edward are captured: Edward of York with his brothers Clarence and Gloucester stab the boy to death when he displays courage. The incident, recalling the boy Rutland's death at Wakefield, is no mere repetition of that. Rutland's death was certain as the revengeful Clifford faced him: the boy begged for mercy. Prince Edward's death is unexpected, brutally casual: he has for his killers words of confident rebuke. The play ends with Gloucester's murder of Henry VI in the Tower and then with Edward of York, now Edward IV, rejoicing in his possession of the crown:

Sound drums and trumpets. Farewell, sour annoy!
For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy. 


But the audience knew that the reign of Richard of Gloucester, as Richard III, was not far away; and before long Shakespeare was to use that reign for one of the most assured plays of his earlier career. We have seen that 2 and 3 Henry VI are at their most interesting when irony is most evident. Here at the end the irony is prominent, dependent not merely on the audience's knowledge of the ensuing history but on the feebleness of ‘I hope’ in Edward's proclamation of felicity.

Shakespeare was to penetrate, in his later years, far deeper into human suffering, affection, aspiration, and far deeper also into the mystery of things. But the writer of 2 and 3 Henry VI was already a dramatist of major stature in England. Only Christopher Marlowe could compare with him.

David Riggs (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: “The Hero in History: A Reading of Henry VI,” in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition, Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 100-139.

[In the excerpt below, Riggs traces Shakespeare's general theme of the deterioration of heroic idealism that took place between the Hundred Years' War and the Yorkist accession in Henry VI.]


The first part of Henry VI recasts the latter part of the Hundred Years' War as an exercise in “parallel lives.” The opening funeral oration indicates that the emphasis will be upon an ideal of heroic conduct, and the ensuing sequence of two council scenes (one English, the other French), three battle scenes, a “triumph,” and a second funeral confirms this impression while introducing us to the two principal antagonists, Talbot and Joan la Pucelle. It is clear from Edward III and The Wounds of Civil War that Shakespeare would have regarded an extended rhetorical comparatio between two such figures as a legitimate dramatic form, but in this case the terms of comparison are rather difficult to isolate, and criticism has been inclined to write the play off as an uncontrolled exercise in rhetorical imitation. Malone could see nothing but pedantry in Shakespeare's attempts to define character through simile and allusion, and his judgments have generally been accepted:

It is very observable that in The First Part of King Henry VI. there are more allusions to mythology, to classical authors, and to ancient and modern history, than, I believe, can be found in any one piece of our author's written on an English story; and that these allusions are introduced very much in the same manner as they are introduced in the plays of Greene, Peele, Lodge, and other dramatists who preceded Shakespeare; that is, they do not naturally arise out of the subject, but seem to be inserted merely to shew the writer's learning.1

It must be granted at the outset that the poetic texture of 1 Henry VI does not encourage one to expect anything very subtle or even clearly defined in the way of characterization, and my own efforts to show Talbot and Joan as two sides of a complex statement about aristocratic values will rely more on an analysis of the rhetorical structure of the play. But even in the transparently bookish similes cited by Malone there may be some basis for a comparison between the two characters in ethical terms. When Shakespeare compares Talbot to Hercules, Hector, and the “desperate sire of Crete” who sought his fame in “the lither sky” (; IV.vii.21), on the one hand, and Joan to Hannibal, the greatest of military strategists, and Mahomet, a “pagan” hero who is recalled as a magician and a religious charlatan (I.ii.140), on the other, it need not be supposed that the allusions are inserted “merely to shew the writer's learning.” In order to appreciate their specific meanings, however, they must be seen within a narrow range of conventions and a special system of values—one that is perhaps most easily introduced by some further reference to the profession of arms as it is practiced in 1 Henry VI.

The historical basis for all of the distinctions that I wish to emphasize is treated in such works as Sidney Painter's French Chivalry and Arthur Ferguson's The Indian Summer of English Chivalry,2 but the contrasts within 1 Henry VI will be clear enough without any special commentary. A few specific details, taken from the battle scenes, will serve to indicate where Shakespeare's interests lie. While the English, on the one hand, seem scarcely aware that gunpowder has been invented, the French do use artillery, and with devastating effectiveness, on the only occasions when they kill English peers. The master-gunner's boy ambushes Salisbury in the first act, and in his final battle at Bordeaux Talbot finds that “Ten thousand French have ta’en the sacrament / To rive their dangerous artillery / Upon no Christian soul but English Talbot” (IV.ii.28-30). By contrast, the English limit themselves to feats of sheer personal strength. It is reported in the first act, for example, that Talbot has “Enacted wonders with his sword and lance” (I.i.122), and that his French captors held him with a “guard of chosen shot” because they surmised that he could “rend bars of steel / And spurn in pieces posts of adamant” (I.iv.50-53) with his arms, not to mention his “bare fists' (I.iv.35) and “horses' heels” (107).

With regard to military strategy, the French generally seek the security of siege walls, and in two different scenes (III.ii; IV.ii) they taunt the English from the upper gallery of the stage. The English never adopt this posture, and Talbot is quite explicit in his opinion of it: “Dare ye come forth and meet us in the field?” he asks; “Will ye, like soldiers, come and fight it out?” (III.ii.61;66).

                                                            Base muleteers of France!
Like peasant foot-boys do they keep the walls,
And dare not take up arms like gentlemen.


The “muleteers” refuse to behave like chevaliers, however, and they never do “take up arms like gentlemen.” Talbot's capture, as reported in the opening scene, occurs when “A base Walloon, to win the Dauphin's grace, / Thrust Talbot with a spear into the back” (I.i.137-138), while the “treacherous manner” of Salisbury's death has already been noted. Thereafter the Dauphin relies on Joan's “stratagems” and “policy,” a mixture of deception and diplomacy by which he “wrongs his fame” (II.i.16)—but gets results.

By contrast, the English are so much concerned with fighting by the book as to appear, at times, almost oblivious to any ulterior objectives. When Talbot first speaks, he is complaining that the French had offered to exchange him for a “baser man of arms” than “the brave Lord Ponton de Santrailles” (I.iv.29; 27). Not only was this offer refused, but Talbot “craved death” in preference to being “so vile esteem’d” (31-32). Whenever the British do battle, it is specifically in revenge for some breach of martial decorum: the “torments” Talbot endured as a French prisoner, the treacherous ambush of Salisbury and Gargrave, the “hellish mischief” used to capture Rouen, and the “false dissembling guile” of Burgundy. For them, every battle represents the fulfilment of a vow to right some violation of chivalric ideals. Their ostensible cause for fighting, Henry's “right,” is mentioned only once in all of those battle scenes, and then in a decidedly offhand manner (“Now, Salisbury, for thee and for the right / Of English Henry” [II.i.35-36]).

These specific contrasts between two different ways of making war form one basis for Shakespeare's general effort to reformulate Marlowe's heroic ideal in a framework of aristocratic values. In the sixteenth century, as in the fifteenth, the right to bear arms was still an operative definition of a gentleman. And the source of that right continued of course to be gentle birth (technically speaking, armigerous parents). Accordingly, the play includes a parallel set of contrasts juxtaposing characters of base and gentle birth, and these comprise the other important factor in the ideal of aristocratic conduct that emerges. A brief exchange between Talbot and his son, who is being urged to flee from the fatal battle of Bordeaux, will help to illustrate how the Talbots unite both requisites:

Tal. Thou never hadst renown,
nor canst not lose it.
John. Yes, your renowned name: shall
flight abuse it?


Talbot's “renown,” or fame, is the permanent record of his honorable deeds, and it is symbolized by his “name,” which recalls those deeds. The soldier who finds that “The cry of ‘Talbot’ serves me as a sword” (II.ii.79) is simply putting this premise to practical use. The basis of Talbot's readiness to face death and his circumspect valor is the understanding that his “name” is a timeless family possession, to be transmitted to his son, who will in turn be incited to meet that standard. The Talbots construe this doctrine so literally that valor becomes, in effect, a test of legitimacy: “Surely, by all the glory you have won, / And if I fly, I am not Talbot's son” (, argues Young Talbot. By the same token, the stain of illegitimacy is presumptive evidence of someone's unworthiness to bear arms, as Talbot reminds the Bastard of Orleans:

                                                                                                    I quickly shed
Some of his bastard blood, and in disgrace
Bespoke him thus: ‘Contaminated, base,
And misbegotten blood I spill of thine,
Mean and right poor, for that pure blood of mine
Which thou didst force from Talbot, my brave boy.’


If the “Bastard” is a special case here, Joan's career embodies an extended parody of this ideal, in which her unorthodox tactics on the battlefield only serve to expose the baseness of her origins. When she is introduced to the Dauphin's court (appropriately, by the Bastard of Orleans), the French peers are told that she is a “shepherd's daughter” who has been inspired to forsake her “base vocation” and “be the English scourge” (I.ii.72, 80, 129). She seeks to establish her claims to nobility by “high terms” and “single combat”; but both her sex and her parentage would disqualify her from bearing arms at all. If her martial career amounts to a shameful assortment of policies and stratagems, her death scene, which can be taken as an ironic counterstatement to those of the Talbots, only brings to light the fact that she lacks any family name to augment and transmit. In a desperate effort to escape death she denies her father (an inoffensive old rustic who materializes to make the fact of her base origins perfectly clear) and claims to be issued from the “progeny of kings” (V.iv.38). As this transparent hoax fails to win any mercy from her captors, she claims to be with child herself; but the English will “have no bastards live” (70) and duly proceed to burn her as a witch.

The larger network of comparisons of course extends beyond the special case of Talbot and Joan. If she epitomizes the external forces that threaten the aristocratic ideal of military service and gentle blood, there are signs of internal erosion as well. The most ominous of these come from the professional civil servant Winchester, who is a “bastard” by birth (III.i.42), and from the contentious, quarrelsome gentlemen of the Inns of Court, one of whom, York, also bears a dishonored family name. “Stand’st thou not attained, / Corrupted, and exempt from ancient gentry?” (II.iv.92-93).

The literary expression of these social distinctions is still largely contained within the idiom of Tamburlaine, and focused in the portrayal of Talbot and Joan. The Talbots stand as a refutation of Tamburlaine's dictum “That vertue solely is the sum of glorie / And fashions men with true nobility” (1 Tamb., III.ii.115), because they insist that heroic virtue be distinguished from mere virtù, and construed rather as a set of ethical imperatives, nurtured and transmitted by a select group of “peers”; at the same time, virtù, sheer “capability,” is redefined by its limiting concern with tangible victories, its consequent reliance on base policy and stratagems, and its sham nobility. On this level, Joan becomes the vehicle for a broad parody of Marlowe's heroic prototype, and, more specifically, for a parody of the recognition scenes from 1 Tamburlaine. The outlines of the parody are clear enough from the first scene in the French camp. The offspring of an ungentle shepherd finds herself “assign’d” to leave her “base vocation” so that she may become a famous warrior and the scourge of God. She proceeds to declare her personal superiority through Marlowe's familiar gestures of challenge and vaunt, and she elicits the usual response:

[Joan.] My courage try by
combat, if thou dar’st,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this; thou shalt be fortunate
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.
Char. Thou hast astonish’d me with thy high terms.
Was Mahomet inspired with a dove?
Thou with an eagle art inspired then.
Helen, the mother of great Constantine,
Nor yet Saint Philip's daughters, were like thee.
Bright star of Venus, fall’n down on the earth,
How may I reverent worship thee enough?

(I.ii.89-93; 140-145)

Shakespeare has here collapsed the germinal clichés of 1 Tamburlaine into a space of about one hundred lines, and has encased them in miniature set speeches of description, vaunt, and praise. Like the second scene of 1 Tamburlaine, this is a miniature drama of social recognition, one in which the topoi of aristocratic status are used to move and persuade a prince of the blood royal. It is converted to comedy by using this very rhetorical apparatus to expose the comic underside of Joan's character: her base origins. The strain of bawdy double entendre is inaugurated by Reignier's admiring “She takes upon her bravely at first dash” (71). It is formulated more explicitly when Joan tells Charles that if he tries her in “combat” he will find that she exceeds her sex (89-90; see also 92, 95, 103); and it is even given a touch of sublimity in Charles' “Bright star of Venus fall’n down on the earth” (144). The effect of this bawdy punning is to reverse completely the ostensible show of physical energy elevated to moral purity. At best this squeaking boy actor is a figure from a comedy, or perhaps a comic subplot, pretending to belong in an heroic play. A later parody of Marlovian “magnificence,” delivered by Charles after Joan has led the French to victory at Rouen, preserves this emphasis while extending the range of implied judgments:

… all the priests and friars in my realm
Shall in procession sing her endless praise.
A statelier pyramis to her I’ll rear
Than Rhodope's of Memphis ever was;
In memory of her, when she is dead,
Her ashes, in an urn more precious
Than the rich jewel-coffer of Darius,
Transported shall be at high festivals
Before the kings and queens of France.
No longer on Saint Denis will we cry,
But Joan de Pucelle shall be France's saint.


Here Marlovian paganism becomes confused with Romish Catholicism in a speech calculated to remind the Elizabethan audience that heroism without ethical sanctions merely becomes another corrupt secular religion. As the representative of that religion, Joan herself would suggest not only divine Zenocrate, but also the charlatans and impostors who peddled “masses and marries” in the popular interludes.3

Beneath these postures, Joan is generically an impostor, created only to exhibit the ornate theatrical façade, as well as the policy and “stratagems,” by which aspirant baseness masquerades as nobility. Hence the scenes in which she is exposed and burnt as a witch, like the stripping of Duessa in The Faerie Queene, serve a formal expository purpose that supersedes any need for a controlled, sequacious plot. A consort of “familiar spirits” (V.iii.10) arrives to make unmistakably plain the truth that lies behind her claim to be the chosen agent of God. These are followed by the shepherd who underscores the real baseness of her origins with his unvarnished testimony that “She was the first fruit of my bachelorship” (V.iv.13). Finally, the reiterated innuendo of sexual misconduct is made utterly explicit in her confession that Charles (or Alençon or Reignier) has left her with the child whom the English will not allow to be born.

Where the rhetoric surrounding Joan uses the conventions of praise to project an image of spurious glamor, the deeds of Talbot and his son, and of Salisbury, Bedford, and their great predecessor Henry V, are for the most part treated through forms of the funeral oration. More than a third of Talbot's three hundred lines would fall into this oratorical genre, and most of what remains either grows directly out of it (as the vow to revenge is a kind of hortatio) or is distinctly elegiac in tone (for example, the speech in rebuke of Falstaffe at IV.i.33-44 beginning “When first this Order was ordain’d, my lords, / Knights of the Garter were of noble birth”). Indeed, Talbot's main function in this play is to solemnize the fall of the great English peers, of whom he is the last representative. While his antagonist defines what is ephemeral and merely glamorous about heroic “bravery,” Talbot finds a context in which to define true heroic virtue and the permanent compensation that it offers in the face of death: the immortality conferred by earthly fame. Fame is introduced as the set topic of consolatio in the extended funeral oration for Henry V that opens the play.

[Bed.] A far more glorious
star thy soul will make
Than Julius Caesar or bright—
Enter a Messenger.


Introduced, but never formulated: the elegy is broken off by the messenger's “sad tidings” from France. The unresolved problem of fame and the consolation that it provides remains, however, the signal problem posed by the life of Talbot. Does an “honorable” death justify a life that has proved futile in the unforeseeable calculus of human history? Or does the final word remain with Joan as she insults over Talbot's body: “Him that thou magnifiest with all these titles, / Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet” (IV.vii.75-76)?

Surveying Talbot's own reflections on this question, as they are formulated in his orations on the deaths of Salisbury, Bedford, Young Talbot, and himself, one finds that there are significant variations in the answers that he provides. The death of Salisbury is first lamented as a “tragedy” that might have been inspired by A Mirror for Magistrates:

Accursed tower! accursed fatal hand
That hath contriv’d this woeful tragedy!
In thirteen battles Salisbury o’ercame;
Henry the Fifth he first train’d to the wars;
Whilst any trump did sound, or drum struck up,
His sword did ne’er leave striking in the field.


But subsequently Talbot placates the shade of Salisbury by conquering Orleans, and he commemorates this achievement in a formal elegy over the tomb erected there:

Now have I paid my vow unto his soul;
For every drop of blood was drawn from him
There hath at least five Frenchmen died to-night.
And that hereafter ages may behold
What ruin happen’d in revenge of him,
Within their chiefest temple I’ll erect
A tomb, wherein his corpse shall be interr’d;
Upon the which, that every one may read,
Shall be engrav’d the sack of Orleans,
The treacherous manner of his mournful death,
And what a terror he had been to France.


By introducing topics that lie outside the Mirror tradition, with its essentially medieval insistence on the futility of earthly aspiration, Talbot is able to offer Salisbury's death as an argument for the imperishable value of the heroic life. Every drop of his blood was worth the lives of five treacherous Frenchmen, and his tomb will remain in the “middle center” of Orleans as a permanent testimonial to that “worth.” His epitaph for Bedford (III.ii.131-137) is less assertive (“But kings and mightiest potentates must die, / For that’s the end of human misery”), but its very tranquillity depends upon a parallel situation. Bedford's own faith in English valor has been justified by a visible English victory at the very moment of death; and his exequies can be “fulfill’d in Rouen” (III.ii.133; my italics) with due gravity.

At Talbot's last battle, however, the problem of consolation arises in quite a different context. Talbot and his son must die, and Bordeaux will never be retaken. For Shakespeare, this is to be the last battle of the Hundred Years' War and the last stand of English chivalry. Whatever “victory” Talbot and his son might achieve there will not be commemorated in the actualities of human history. Talbot unwittingly formulates their problem when he commands his son, “Fly, to revenge my death if I be slain” (IV.v.18-21). Young Talbot's answer—“He that flies so will ne’er return again” (19)—serves to expose the insolubility of their dilemma. If Young Talbot flees this battle, he will, as it were, cease to be Talbot's son:

Is my name Talbot? and am I your son?
And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother,
Dishonour not her honourable name,
To make a bastard and a slave of me!


But if he remains, as the father reminds the son, their “name” will be extinct in another sense: “In thee thy mother dies, our household's name, / My death's revenge, thy youth, and England's fame” ( Like Antony and Coriolanus, the Talbots discover that the ideal figured by their heroic “name” is too pure for sublunary existence. It can be ratified only in the very act of death. Talbot's final words, spoken over the body of his dead son, accept and transcend this dilemma by returning to the classical consolation of fame and formulating it in an enlarged context:

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.


Here the humanistic reward of earthly fame (suggested by Icarus and Daedalus) is combined, at least implicitly, with the Christian consolation of resurrection after death. Their “name,” and the aspirant quest for fame that motivates the noble life, is not cut off by death, but translated into the permanence of rhetorical exemplum. From this last oration Talbot moves surely to the clear-eyed acceptance of his fate that concludes the speech, even as it foreshadows the final lucidity of Shakespeare's later tragic heroes.

Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot's grave.


The funeral oration that began the play and was interrupted by the “sad tidings” from France here finds its consolatio: the “bright star” of Henry's fame has been set within a larger constellation.

The subplot involving Somerset, York, and the quarrel of the roses provides a third set of contrasts: the fields of France shrink to the Inns of Court, the epic warrior gives way to the fashionable courtier, the incentives of ancestral fame are replaced by a contentious aristocratic disdain, and the rites of war are but faintly recalled by adversaries who are careful, as Touchstone would say, to “quarrel in print, by the book, as you have books for good manners” (As You Like It, V.iv.94-95). Unlike Joan, the young men who quarrel in the Temple Garden have every reason to behave like aristocrats. They stand as Shakespeare's example of natural nobility diverted to trivial ends. If their modish and courtly wit is something of an anachronism in Talbot's world, the anachronism nevertheless helps us to see just where that world was heading.

The ironic relevance of their quarrel to Talbot's heroic ideals becomes most apparent in their appeals to family honor. York entreats “him that is a true-born gentleman / And stands upon the honour of his birth” (II.iv.27-28) to pluck the white rose, while Somerset taunts the “yeoman” Plantagenet for being “attainted” by his father's ill fame:

Was not thy father, Richard Earl of Cambridge,
For treason headed in our late king's days?
And by his treason stand’st thou not attainted,
Corrupted, and exempt from ancient gentry?
His trespass yet lives guilty in thy blood;
And, till thou be restor’d, thou art a yeoman.


The faint parallel to the Talbots' ancestral values is intended, of course, to point up the larger contrasts. Where Talbot's “name” is fully identified with the cause for which he fights, Somerset and York are divided by “nice sharp quillets of the law” (17) too slight even to be mentioned, and immediately forgotten by both sides. The crowning irony of I Henry VI is that this essentially trivial sense of honor should prove a greater threat to Talbot's ideals, and indeed to his very existence, than all the base stratagems devised by the French. In the climactic scenes of act four, while Talbot is “ring’d about with bold adversity” (IV.iv.14), York and Somerset are characteristically quarreling about which of them is to be held responsible for his plight. “York lies,” Somerset insists,

                              he might have sent and had the horse:
I owe him little duty, and less love,
And take foul scorn to fawn on him by sending.


Talbot is thus sacrificed to a point of courtly etiquette. When this happens, Somerset and York stand judged as “seditious” peers, and in a context that would have seemed especially appropriate to the Elizabethan audience. The courtier has failed to accept his real responsibilities as a social and military leader; and this decay of the aristocracy, which is assailed from without by “upstarts” of ungentle birth like Winchester and Joan, portends a more general decline in national greatness.

Hence the final act can be taken as further commentary on the failure of a courtly aristocracy to provide an adequate image of feudal service and chivalry. Criticism of 1 Henry VI has understandably tended to treat Margaret and Suffolk as an end-link to the next play in the trilogy, but they also serve to bring the general declension from heroic action to courtly posturing to its appropriate conclusion: the pseudo-Petrarchan lover. Suffolk appears as a mannered Elizabethan amorist from his earliest exchanges with Margaret:

Be not offended, nature's miracle,
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.


What is at stake here is the power of these romantic clichés to corrupt still further the integrity of the English court. Suffolk's success in installing his “friend” as the English queen effectively violates Henry's contract with the Earl of Armagnac's daughter, which was to have been the basis for an honorable peace. And the reason for that success is fully apparent in Henry's transparent intoxication with such Petrarchan rhetoric as this:

Your wondrous rare description, noble Earl,
Of beauteous Margaret hath astonish’d me:
Her virtues graced with external gifts
Do breed love's settled passions in my heart:
And like as rigour of tempestuous gusts
Provokes the mightiest hulk against the tide,
So am I driven by breath of her renown
Either to suffer shipwreck, or arrive
Where I may have fruition of her love.


Still later, as if the very triteness of these clichés were not sufficient to make the point, Suffolk concludes the play by acknowledging his own cynical motives, and foreshadowing, in a final portentous allusion to the Trojan débacle, the havoc of 2 Henry VI:

Thus Suffolk hath prevail’d; 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.


Here the tradition of fame serves as an ironic backdrop, a final testimony to the ethical and political confusions of the present. What began as a viable aristocratic ideal of conduct, rooted in social customs and familial bonds, has become a mere precedent for aristocratic misadventure. The Talbots' fame, as it was earned at Bordeaux, embodies the high ethical ideals of the play; and their death effectively removes those ideals from the world of the play. From the moment of their apotheosis in the “lither sky” their name forfeits its slender hold on the actualities of history and achieves the perfection of heroic exemplum—a tale to be told in an increasingly harsh world.


The opening acts of 2 Henry VI transport a reader of the trilogy from the siege walls and battlefields of France to the public halls and inmost recesses of the English court. For a popular history belonging to the early 1590's, the setting is still relatively novel, especially when it is recalled that this play probably preceded Woodstock and Edward II.4 The stage directions that the New Arden editor supplies for its first eleven scenes will immediately suggest how foreign its dramatic environment is to the tradition of Tamburlaine: London, the palace, the Duke of Gloucester's house, Gloucester's garden, Saint Alban's, the Duke of York's garden, a hall of justice, the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, a room of state, a bedchamber. By introducing a set of Elizabethan courtiers into 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare had begun to engage the political crises of sixteenth-century England within the conventions of popular heroic drama. In 2 Henry VI the nobility become recognizable as precisely what they were for Shakespeare's audience: “brave halfe paces between a throne and a people,”5 in Fulke Greville's phrase, centered at the court in London. Scenes such as the one where Suffolk discovers some villagers with a petition “Against the Duke of Suffolk, for enclosing the commons of Long Melford” (I.iii.20-22) dramatize the social status of that nobility in terms that could hardly be more explicit. Nor is this episode at all unusual. Comparable transactions bring the court aristocracy into conjunction with a disloyal household servant (I.ii), a pair of coney-catching vagabonds (II.i), a treasonous armorer and his loyal apprentice (II.iii), an outraged House of Commons (III.ii), a crew of discontented seaman (IV.i), the rebellious tradesmen of Kent (IV.ii-x), and a representative of the squirearchy named Alexander Iden (V.i). As if to emphasize and complicate the social and political implications of these encounters, Shakespeare makes Henry's court into what is virtually a cross section of sixteenth-century aristocracy: there is the judicious administrator and friend of the commons, “Good Duke Humphrey” of Gloucester; the proud, ambitious, and unscrupulous prelate Winchester; the loyal members of the country aristocracy, Salisbury and his son Warwick, who is commended for his “plainness” and “housekeeping” (I.i.190); the courtier Suffolk, an “Image of Pride” (I.iii.176) who has exchanged “two dukedoms for a duke's fair daughter” (I.i.220) in France; and the glamorous conqueror-intriguer York, who is already maneuvering for the “golden mark” of Henry's crown.

Those who agree with Johnson that the principal defect of the early histories “is that they have not sufficient variety of action, for the incidents are too often of the same kind” will welcome this elaboration of social details, and concur in his judgment that the second is the best play of the trilogy.6 Certainly all that is known of the Elizabethan repertory between 1587 and 1595 indicates that 2 Henry VI occupies a crucial place in the development of historical drama. Its portrayal of a weak king, flanked by a loyal counselor and a set of courtly “caterpillars,” and confronted with open revolt from his discontented barons, marks the line of development that leads from, say, Tamburlaine and Selimus on the one side, to Woodstock, Edward II, and Richard II on the other. From a loose rendition of heroic aspiration in an exotic setting, the emphasis has shifted towards a drama of ambition and disruption that anatomizes the ambivalent status of the Elizabethan peerage. In Lawrence Stone's analysis, a complex series of events was, by the 1590's, leading to a general failure of nerve among the aristocracy.7 Two familiar symptoms of that failure emerge directly from the social drama of 2 Henry VI: Suffolk's fierce, reflexive pride in his noble blood and connections at court, and York's desperate impulse to restore his family's lost eminence by reckless military adventures. Just as these are indices of a more general failure to govern, the one tragic figure in the plan is a governor, Good Duke Humphrey. He can fill the administrative vacuum that results from the defection of Suffolk and York, but he is powerless to resist their determination to destroy and replace him.

In terms of the continuities that I have set out to trace, the consequences of this changed setting—at least for the first three acts—are clear enough. The two characters who might have presented the strongest appeal to the heroic mood, Suffolk and York, are drastically reduced in stature, while Duke Humphrey suggests a new type of ideal ruler, the Ciceronian governor. Thus, if they are read as exempla, the social incidents that have just been listed serve to discount the value of ancestral name and martial fortitude, while laying stress on the importance of prudence, “a vertue that is occupied evermore, in searchyng out the truthe” and justice, “a vertue, gathered by long space, gevyng every one his awne, mindyng in all thynges, the common profite of our countrey.”8 The controlling image of Gloucester's judicial rectitude and expertise is established in a series of trial scenes, in which he pronounces variously upon the dispute between Peter and Horner (I.iii), the qualifications of York and Somerset for the French regency (I.iii), the fraudulent “miracle” invented by Saunder Simcox and his wife (II.i), the misdemeanors of Dame Eleanor (II.i), and, finally, the accusations that are brought against him at Bury St. Edmunds (III.i). By contrast, throughout the first four acts York's projected rise to eminence is less a matter of his own special abilities than of his systematic effort to subvert the principles thus established. His principal strategies, the alliance with the Nevilles and the manipulation of Jack Cade, exhibit a valor that has ceased to find expression in the open trial of warfare, while it seeks out the privacy of schemes and soliloquies. Similarly, Suffolk's pride in rank and title is exemplifed not in the martial deeds that would add to his family name, but rather in his illicit courtship of Queen Margaret, and his contemptuous exchanges with such “base” types as the humble petitioners (“Sir knave” and his “fellow”) who mistakenly approach him in act one (I.iii.1-41), the angry Commons (“rude, unpolished hinds,” “a sort of tinkers”) who assail him after the murder of Gloucester (III.ii.270-276), and the pirates (“paltry, servile, abject drudges”) who execute him shortly thereafter (IV.i.29-138). In so far as these contexts tend to deny the would-be hero his normal theater of operations—the battlefield and the tournament—the play as a whole may be said to embody “historical assessment” with a vengeance and, indeed, to mark a radical departure from the literary antecedents with which this study has been so much concerned. But there is a marked shift in emphasis within the play itself, one which serves to reopen the entire question of Suffolk's and York's value in a more hospitable setting.

The murder of Gloucester, which comes midway through the play, represents the most severe possible judgment on the ambitious nobles, and particularly Suffolk. At the same time, however, this event removes from the scene the one figure who embodies a thoroughgoing criticism of their personal aspirations. Instead of proceeding directly to their appointed miserable ends, therefore, both York and Suffolk enjoy a renewed vitality in the latter half of the play, as the social commentary, without Gloucester to interpret it, recedes into the background, and impinges less directly on the values of the two aristocrats. In effect, Shakespeare provides each of them with a new idiom and a new vision of nobility. The courtier, at his final parting with Margaret (III.ii), suddenly becomes an idealized and gracious amorist who measures the necessity of death against the permanence of love. York, the scheming Machiavel of the first three acts, reappears in the fifth as a visible embodiment of heroic authority, urging his claim to the throne on that basis. The impact of these scenes depends, of course, on the fact that they are set in an ambience so utterly different from that of 1 Henry VI. They take place not on a battlefield but in the court, where Suffolk and York already stand judged as instances of “foul ambition.” As a result, both characters now appear from a double perspective. The social stereotypes (corrupt courtier, rebellious baron) have been assimilated to more sympathetic theatrical roles, and, as the rhetorical elaboration unfolds, those roles enlarge the stereotypes into examples of personal ambition that cannot be adequately judged within a social order that is itself deeply compromised. Neither of these characters, in the hierarchical metaphor, “knows his place,” and as a result each becomes a far more interesting and problematic case than such professional caterpillars as Winchester and Buckingham. So Clifford's first response to York in act five is one of puzzled amazement: “To Bedlam with him! Is the man grown mad!” (V.i.131). The dramatist has discovered, however distantly, a radical form of tragic irony: when heroic and aristocratic values are transferred from the purely martial world of Talbot and Joan into a court where the nobility are “brave halfe paces between a throne and a people,” they may appear as inherently anarchic even though they are still admirable in themselves. It is Shakespeare's tentative acknowledgment of this predicament with respect to Suffolk and, more especially, York that makes them truly represent the crisis of the aristocracy in 2 Henry VI.

This transition from a drama of mordant social commentary to a more idealized and sympathetic portrayal of heroic aspiration poses some large problems of interpretation. The easiest way of dealing with them is to postulate that Shakespeare began by experimenting with a form like Rossiter's “morality of state,” but found that it involved rejecting an old ideal without adequately providing for a new one, and so returned to the conventional formulas of heroical-historical drama in the closing acts. I do not offer this hypothesis because I think that the transition is clumsy or fortuitous. Quite the contrary: in using an analysis of courtly intrigues and political failures to define the conditions that permit—perhaps even necessitate—the rise of a new “Prince,” Shakespeare was only discovering for himself the underlying configurations of Il Principe. But it should be quite clear that the critique of Suffolk and York that is sustained by Gloucester never begins to generate a vision of the aristocratic life which convincingly supplants their own. Hence, after Gloucester's death, the reassertion of order and stability, such as it is, can only be accomplished by one of them. That is the crucial difference between 2 Henry VI and Richard II, a play which it closely resembles in many respects. In 2 Henry VI, the analysis of decay in the state is still predicated on the conception of the body politic and the ideal ruler that is common to all heroical-historical drama: the warrior prince leading his feudal ranks in wars of conquest. Richard II also shows what happens when aristocratic caterpillars corrupt the royal court and threaten the anointed body of the king; but in the later play the caterpillars are seen within the whole “garden” of the state, a type of Eden that evolves according to its own higher moral laws, while the “body” of the king, like the body of Christ, figures the health of the entire commonweal. As long as it remained uninformed by such a sacramental conception of politics and kingship, the social ethos of 2 Henry VI was bound finally to accommodate the same contentious aristocrats whom it set out to criticize. The only real gain (if one can call it that) lay in the dramatist's perception, which was to carry over into 3 Henry VI and Richard III, that the whole humanistic ideal of the hero king necessarily contained the seeds of its own deterioration.

This interdependence between the play's ethical criticism and its heroic themes is firmly established in the opening scene, which seems to me one of the finest in the play. It begins with the ceremonial addresses of Suffolk and Margaret, which usher in the style of courtly posturing and decadent “magnificence” that was adumbrated at the close of 1 Henry VI:

Queen. Great King of England,
and my gracious lord,
The mutual conference that my mind hath had
By day, by night, waking, and in my dreams,
In courtly company, or at my beads,
With you mine alderliefest sovereign,
Makes me the bolder to salute my king
With ruder terms, such as my wit affords,
And over joy of heart doth minister.


As soon as the royal couple and their favorite depart, Gloucester duly measures the ugly substance that this Petrarchan shadow conceals against the great achievements of the era that has just passed:

Brave peers of England, pillars of the state,
To you Duke Humphrey must unload his grief—
Your grief, the common grief of all the land.
What! did my brother Henry spend his youth,
His valour, coin, and people, in the wars?
Did he so often lodge in open field,
In winter's cold, and summer's parching heat,
To conquer France, his true inheritance?
And did my brother Bedford toil his wits,
To keep by policy what Henry got?
Or hath mine uncle Beaufort and myself,
With all the learned Council of the realm,
Studied so long, sat in the Council House
Early and late, debating to and fro
How France and Frenchmen might be kept in awe?
O peers of England! shameful is this league,
Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame,
Blotting your names from books of memory,
Razing the characters of your renown,
Defacing monuments of conquer’d France,
Undoing all, as all had never been!

(I.i.74-83; 87-91; 97-102)

Gloucester is a type of the Renaissance governor whom humanists like Ascham and Eloyt saw as supplanting such medieval chevaliers as Talbot, and his tone here is hardly bellicose. It would be impossible to find, among the earlier histories, a more balanced portrayal of the ideal ruler through humanistic topics. The emphasis falls on fortitude (“Did he so often lodge in open field / In winter's cold and summer's parching heat”) and prudence (“And did my brother Bedford toil his wits, / To keep by policy what Henry got”). Both these virtues are put in the service of Henry's patrimony, “his true inheritance.” By exemplifying them, Henry's peers all achieved an honored place in the registers of fame. Gloucester is ideally suited to witness the decay of this high tradition in the ambience of Henry's court, but, as the survivor, along with Salisbury and Beaufort, of a departed order, he is powerless to do anything about it. In this scene, as elsewhere, he shows his frustration and impotence by abrupt fits of choler and sadness, which are relieved only by unexplained silences and departures.

Hence it is York who, at the conclusion of the scene, ventures to translate Gloucester's themes into action, although he does so in a radically new context.

Anjou and Maine are given to the French;
Paris is lost; the state of Normandy
Stands on a tickle point now they are gone;
Suffolk concluded on the articles,
The peers agreed, and Henry was well pleas’d
To change two dukedoms for a duke's fair daughter.
I cannot blame them all: what is’t to them?
’Tis thine they give away, and not their own.
A day will come when York shall claim his own;
And therefore I will take the Nevils' parts
And make a show of love to proud Duke Humphrey,
And when I spy advantage, claim the crown,
For that’s the golden mark I seek to hit.
Nor shall proud Lancaster usurp my right,
Nor hold the sceptre in his childish fist,
Nor wear the diadem upon his head,
Whose church-like humour fits not for a crown.
Then, York, be still awhile, till time do serve:
Watch thou, and wake when others be asleep,
To pry into the secrets of the state;
Till Henry surfeit in the joys of love,
With his new bride and England's dear-bought queen,
And Humphrey with the peers be fall’n at jars:
Then will I raise aloft the milk-white rose,
With whose sweet smell the air shall be perfum’d,
And in my standard bear the arms of York,
To grapple with the house of Lancaster;
And force perforce I’ll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.

(I.i.215-222; 240-260)

The tone and imagery of this passage, which recall Marlowe's Machiavellian Duke of Guise, could hardly be farther from Gloucester's. This flippant, mercantile appraisal of “his own” inheritance makes it clear that York is alive to the ancestral values of 1 Henry VI only in a very limited way. Nevertheless, it should already be apparent that York is not, finally, going to be the mere villain of the piece, for he is only measuring himself against the humanistic standards that Gloucester has just invoked. Like the Henry of noble memory, York is ready to “grapple” in the field while others surfeit in the joys of love; like Bedford, York will use his wits “To pry into the secrets of the state,” and like all the learned Council of the realm he will watch and wake “when others be asleep.” If their aim was to secure Henry's true inheritance, York would only “claim his own”; if they erected characters of renown, York will “raise aloft the milk-white rose.”

This transition from Gloucester's high-minded critique of Henry's court to York's half ironic reassertion of the topoi on which he bases that critique foreshadows the basic design of the entire play. As the portrayal of social corruption broadens and unfolds, Margaret, Suffolk, and their new allies continue to beguile Henry with games of courtly makebelieve, and Gloucester continues to expose their foul practices wherever he can. His effectiveness, however, is always limited by his reliance on purely judicial procedures (he assures his wife that he “must offend” before he can “be attainted” [II.iv.59]), and he is finally sacrificed to his own faith in legal rectitude.

By the beginning of the fourth act the homiletic moral, “Virtue is chok’d with foul Ambition” (III.i.143), has virtually been played out: it is concluded by the expulsion of Suffolk and the eschatological horrors of Winchester's demise. It is just at this point that York, who has been mostly in the wings up to now, determines to raise aloft the milk-white rose and purge Henry's court of its corrupted elements. For York alone, of all the decadent aristocrats, has still managed to preserve some semblance of the antique pattern of heroical worth that was established by Henry V. Hence he alone can raise himself from the status of a symptom of courtly viciousness in the earlier acts to that of a judgment on it in the later ones.

York's reappearance in the fifth act occasions Shakespeare's second experiment in reformulating the idiom and topics of Tamburlaine. At first sight, the result may appear to be rather less controlled and successful than the portrayal of Joan in 1 Henry VI.

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.
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 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.
Here is a hand to hold a sceptre 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.

(V.i.5-9; 93-105)

In the pure Marlovian version the heroic exemplar urges his right to rule, as here, without reference to parentage or ancestry; and it is no accident that York does not once mention his hereditary claims in this final act. It is rather the controlling image of the awful “brows” dispensing life and death that figures, as it does in 1 Tamburlaine, the transmutation of virtù into a natural right to rule.9

[Mena.] Pale of complexion,
wrought in him with passion,
Thirsting with sovereignty, with love of arms,
His lofty brows in folds do figure death,
And in their smoothness amity and life.

(1 Tamb., II.i.19-22)

Insofar as Shakespeare has ventured to reproduce the effect of Marlowe's verse here, he comes out a clear second best. The aptness of the formulas, in the later play, lies rather in the implied suggestion that York himself does not measure up to the original ideal. A phrase such as “who’d not buy thee dear,” which recalls the commercial imagery of York's first soliloquy, reminds us that his sense of his own worth is limited by his preoccupation with material rewards, and that he cannot imagine what the real cost of his actions will be. The charge that Henry “dar’st not, no, nor canst not rule a traitor,” with its heavy unconscious irony, only serves to focus the confusions that arise when what is almost entirely a literary conception of sovereignty is invoked within an established political system. Such confusions can be clarified but they can hardly be resolved here: so long as traitors even less admirable than York are free to wreak havoc on Henry's kingdom, he is free to argue that his apparent lawlessness amounts to a superior definition of nobility.

York's ambivalent status as both remedy and cause of the decay in Henry's court is epitomized by the connection between his lofty aspirations and the peasants' revolt engineered during his absence in act four. While he is in Ireland, Jack Cade and his followers also weigh the claims of noblesse de robe and noblesse d’épée, and reach similar conclusions:

Bev. O miserable age! Virtue
is not regarded in handicraftsmen.
Hol. The nobility think scorn to
go in leather aprons.
Bev. Nay, more; the King's Council
are no good workmen.
Hol. 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.
Bev. Thou hast hit it; for there’s
no better sign of a brave mind than a hard hand.


The relevance of this burlesque to the main plot is assured by its place within York's own strategy. York is Jack Cade's silent partner, and he begins his own campaign only after Cade's revolt is under way. Cade himself ensures that the connection is not forgotten by imitating his patron's claims to royal ancestry (IV.ii.37-50), his intention to purge Henry's court of “false caterpillars” (IV.iv.36; see also IV.ii.61-67; IV.vii.28-30), his detestation of all things French (IV.ii.159-165), his admiring recollection of Henry V (IV.ii.149-152), his distaste for “bookish rule” (IV.ii.81-104), his insistence on martial eminence as requisite for aristocratic station (IV.vii.76), and his easy association of martial bravery and material prosperity (IV.ii.61-72). These details are set, moreover, within a continuous parody of the conventional formulas for heroic self-assertion. As in the comedy of 1 Henry VI, the favorite joke consists in puncturing the would-be hero's set speeches by irreverent asides that specify social realities:

Cade. My father was a Mortimer,—
But. [Aside.] He was an honest man, and a good bricklayer.
Cade. My mother a Plantagenet,—
But. [Aside.] I knew her well; she was a midwife.
Cade. My wife descended of the Lacies,—
But. [Aside.] She was, indeed, a pedlar's daughter, and sold many laces.


by outlandish attempts at magnificence:

[Cade.] Wither, garden; and
be henceforth a burying-place to all that do dwell in this house, because
the unconquer’d soul of Cade is fled.


and by reductive detail:

Cade. Iden, farewell; and
be proud of thy victory. Tell Kent from me, she hath lost her best man, and
exhort all the world to be cowards … 


The vitality of these scenes, as with any exercise in mock-heroic, stems from their bringing widely disparate elements into a momentary comic equilibrium; and it is to Shakespeare's purpose that two of those elements—Richard Plantagenet, lineal heir to the House of York, and Jack Cade, clotheir of Kent—are set in the most improbable proximity to one another. When Stafford's brother exclaims “Jack Cade, the Duke of York hath taught you this” (IV.ii.147), one may take his words in the broadest sense. York sets Cade an example, or, in theatrical terms, teaches him a part; and Cade plays it to the hilt, not wisely but too well. Measuring Cade's performance in act four against his patron's in act five, one learns to judge York's ideals by their consequences within the social order. The point is not simply that the audience now sees the meaning of the accusation that York is “treasonable”; it has also been made clear that in a body politic where the specialty of rule is constantly violated, York's claims to sovereignty assume a special validity. When he exclaims

King did I call thee? No, thou art not king;
Nor fit to govern and rule multitudes,
Which dar’st not, no, nor canst not rule a traitor.


he stands exposed as both the cause and the remedy of the condition he describes. If the paradox is not a facile one, that is in part because it is rooted in the whole series of ironic parallels and contrasts between York and Cade: York is disruptive and ambitious—but by Cade's standards he is not anarchic; his hereditary claim to the throne is so distant as to make his motives suspect, but it is hardly an outright fraud; he acquiesces in the murder of Humphrey and demands the imprisonment of Margaret's new favorite, Somerset, but he does not advocate the wholesale execution of “scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen,” and other “false caterpillars” (IV.iv.35-36). In effect he epitomizes the ambiguous place of heroic virtue in a court that is weak and corrupt, has forfeited its claims to authority, but still believes in order.

Shakespeare's success with Jack Cade, Suffolk, and York indicates that he continued to rely on the popular historical drama for his significant character roles. If York represents another imitation of Tamburlaine, his protégé descends from “such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,” the would-be soldiers of the subplot such as Hempstring and Halterstick in Horestes, or Strumbo and Trompart in Locrine. The parting of Margaret and Suffolk quickly develops its own special idiom, but it is controlled by the conventional formulas of curse, lament, and complaint to fortune appropriate to a Mirror-like tragedy of thwarted ambition. All of these rhetorical materials are, of course, refashioned to suit Shakespeare's picture of Henry's court; but they were nevertheless ready at hand to illustrate why the fragmentation of that court was a more complicated event than the ethical categories of the opening scenes would suggest. Such a tradition can also be limiting; in this case it was perhaps less helpful with Gloucester than with the other principals. He stands for political rectitude, but he cannot compete imaginatively with Suffolk and York. When he next appears, it will be as a prophet, John of Gaunt, who stands outside the arena of political life.

In the last play of the trilogy, the heroic example shifts violently towards the anarchic. Two of its principal spokesmen, Young Clifford and York's son Richard, are in fact already audible by the close of 2 Henry VI. Here is Young Clifford speaking over the body of his father:

Henceforth I will not have to do with pity:
Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtus did:
In cruelty will I seek out my fame.


Henceforth the emphasis will fall upon the destructiveness of uncontrolled heroic wrath, and Seneca will join Marlowe as a presiding inspiration.


Civil war was not a popular theme in the Elizabethan playhouse. Despite the timeliness of the subject and the playwrights' eagerness to advertise their moral utility, the conjunction of a God-ordained English magistrate, a treasonable usurper, and a populace in arms carried political overtones that were altogether too uncomfortable for the popular companies to manage. The legal difficulties of the Lord Chamberlain's Men over the despotism scenes in Richard II are too well known to rehearse here; and Queen Elizabeth's celebrated remark on that occasion can be taken as a firm royal endorsement to the hundred and sixty-odd “Documents of Control” reprinted by E. K. Chambers.10 Small wonder that most playwrights elected to circumvent by as wide a margin as possible the nightmares of deposition and murder that comprised so much of English history in the fifteenth century. Entries in the Annals of English Drama for the years 1580-1590 show about fifteen histories set in classical times or exotic locales; of these, twelve depict wars of conquest, two deal with civil wars, but in a setting (Republican Rome) where no sanctity was attached to hereditary succession, and one, The Battle of Alcazar, can only be described as an uncontrolled melange of Senecan tragedy, Marlovian ambition, and warmed-over moral commonplaces. Along with these titles there are two English histories, The Famous Victories of Henry V and Edward III, which treat wars of conquest, and one two-part play of uncertain date, The Troublesome Reign of King John, which does not treat a domestic rebellion.11

This rough tabulation will serve to recall that Shakespeare's decision to dramatize the latter part of Henry's reign, a decision which he probably reached sometime in or before 1590, must have led him to take a fresh look at the theater of the 1580's. Any recension of the events that followed the battle of St. Albans would presumably have had to include the outright murder not only of King Henry VI, but also of his son Prince Edward, the “legitimate” pretender York, and his youngest son, the Earl of Rutland. Such materials plainly demanded a less equivocal attitude towards heroic violence than the playwright had hitherto displayed: for it would have been utterly unthinkable to endow the “agents” that stood behind these legendary atrocities with orthodox humanistic ideals. In 1 Henry VI Shakespeare had contrasted a civilized and purified picture of martial fortitude to its base counterpart, the fake unnatural valor of Joan La Pucelle. 2 Henry VI takes a more ambivalent view of the aspiring mind; but in so far as York's ambitions are supported by his royal ancestry and martial pre-eminence, and by the manifest weaknesses of Henry's court, his role can still be formulated in terms of humanistic values common to the popular drama and Elizabethan politics.12 Moreover, once civil war erupts on the battlefield itself, Shakespeare is careful to scale down the proportions of York's aggression. His climactic encounter is not with the king, but with the king's champion Clifford, and both of these parties respectfully place their dispute within the decorum of a chivalric trial by combat:

Clif. What seest thou in me,
York? Why dost thou pause?
York. With thy brave bearing should
I be in love,
But that thou art so fast mine enemy.
Clif. Nor should thy prowess want
praise and esteem,
But that ’tis shown ignobly and in treason.
York. So let it help me now against
thy sword
As I in justice and true right express it.
Clif. My soul and body on the action
York. A dreadful lay! Address thee
Clif. La fin couronne les oeuvres.
                    [They fight, and Clifford
falls and dies.]
York. Thus war hath given thee peace,
for thou art still.
Peace with his soul, heaven, if it be thy will!

(2 Henry VI, V.ii.19-30)

The very different image of heroic character that is to predominate in 3 Henry VI is already apparent in the first few lines of the play, which, like the second scene of Macbeth, probe the uncertain boundaries that divide acts of war from crimes of blood. York's stirring account of his army's victory over Clifford, Stafford, and the “great Lord of Northumberland, / Whose war-like ears could never brook retreat” (I.i.4-5) finds its gruesome sequel in the reports of his assembled family. Edward announces that “Lord Stafford's father, Duke of Buckingham, / Is either slain or wounded dangerous” and invites his father to “behold his blood” (10-11; 13). His brother Falconbridge adds to this “the Earl of Wiltshire's blood” (14). Richard rounds off the demonstration by throwing down the Duke of Somerset's head, and concluding “Thus do I hope to shake King Henry's head” (20). Such relish of violence and bloodshed places York's struggle to attain his “right” in rather a new perspective. His wish to “raise aloft the milk-white rose” (2 Henry VI, I.ii.255) now appears as an unrelenting compulsion to slaughter all the House of Lancaster. Hence, one is not surprised to discover later in this scene that the Lancastrians themselves now act from motives of revenge rather than the feudal loyalties displayed in the last act of 2 Henry VI. There is to be no more talk of “praise and esteem,” or of “justice and true right.” When Young Clifford meets York, and is himself challenged to personal combat, Northumberland advises him that “It is war's prize to take all vantages; / And ten to one is no impeach of valor” (I.iv.59-60). Not surprisingly, the play's chief oratorical forms are the vituperatio and the lament. Within these set speech types the formulaic virtues of a noble ancestry, strength and beauty, courage and wisdom are continually “reversed,” in keeping with the regular procedures of rhetorical invective, into their opposites: congenital viciousness, deformity and ugliness, brutality and cunning.

If the play as a whole is to be seen as anything more than a nihilistic bloodbath of tragedy and revenge, it is necessary to keep in mind the vision of aristocratic ideals and public order that makes the implicit contrast to these “reversals.” For the transition from 2 Henry VI to 3 Henry VI marks the dramatist's continuing discovery of an historical process that followed naturally from the extension of heroic ideals into Tudor politics. An analysis of aristocratic corruption portends the rise of a new “prince,” one who still identifies himself with the traditional values of hereditary nobility, strength, and courage, although he presses his claims with an unexampled show of ruthlessness and cunning. He offers the hope of a return to a nobler age; but the very act of violence that brings about his accession foreshadows the utter dissolution of all aristocratic values and social obligations until, finally, the torrent of revenge and civil war gives rise to a new Machiavel, and a last parody of heroic virtù. In Richard II and Julius Caesar the entire conception receives its mature expression. There the workings of retribution and expiation finally permit one to infer some principle of order beyond the mere anarchy of civil war. But the characters of 3 Henry VI inhabit a less hopeful world. Except for the momentary flicker of King Henry's prophecy over young Harry Richmond, there is only the ceaseless deterioration of aristocratic idealism into uncontrolled violence and brutality. Although its end cannot be foreseen, its source can be discovered in that original encounter between York and Old Clifford.

When Warwick, early in the first scene, remarks to Northumberland, Westmoreland, and Young Clifford, “You forget / That we are those which chas’d you from the field / And slew your fathers” (I.i.89-91), it is clear from the preceding dialogue that he merely intends to remind them that they are no longer in any position to enforce Henry's title to the crown. Their reply, however, puts a radically different construction on his allusion:

Nor. Yes, Warwick, I remember
it to my grief;
And, by his soul, thou and thy house shall rue it.
West. Plantagenet, of thee and these
thy sons,
Thy kinsmen and thy friends, I’ll have more lives
Than drops of blood were in my father's veins.
Clif. Urge it no more; lest that,
instead of words,
I send thee, Warwick, such a messenger
As shall revenge his death before I stir.


With these words, the battle of St. Albans is transformed, ex post facto, from the open, chivalric test enacted by York and Old Clifford into a personal tragedy involving the violation of family pieties. Indeed, the political origins of this conflict—the deposition and murder of Richard II, the weakness of the Lancastrian title, the attainder of York's father for treason—are scarcely mentioned after the brief debate in the opening scene that is defiantly sidetracked by the three aggrieved sons. Even the gentle king passes quickly over the public allegiance that is properly due to him, and seeks to arouse more visceral sentiments:

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.


When Henry does allow himself to be persuaded, for moral as well as practical reasons, to reach a compromise, he is at once deserted not only by his followers, but also by his queen, who seeks nothing less than “utter ruin of the House of York” (I.i.261). The subsequent murder of York at the hands of Clifford and Margaret duly ensures that his three sons also will act in a spirit of filial revenge. The aggrieved children, like Pyrrhus in Seneca's Troades and in Ovid,13 find that the death of their heroic fathers demands to be remembered as a crime of violence; and in keeping with the time-honored logic of revenge, their filial passions enjoin them to seek retribution in kind. The premise at work here is succinctly formulated by Young Clifford at the close of 2 Henry VI: “York not our old men spares, / No more will I their babes” (V.ii.51-52); similarly, to pursue the classical instance, the son of Achilles determines to become the murderer of Astyanax.

The playwright's mastery of these unfamiliar materials is apparent from the consistency with which he places the breakdown of personal ideals in their apposite historical contexts. If 3 Henry VI does not degenerate into a pseudopolitical revenge tragedy like The Battle of Alcazar, it is because all of its important characters have, in effect, a double role. Each is conceived both as a member of an aggrieved family and as a participant in a complex political struggle. York is a legitimate claimant to the throne, but he is also the father of young Rutland; Clifford is champion of the royalist cause but also, like Northumberland, Oxford (see III.iii.101-107), and Westmoreland, he is son to a slain father; Warwick is a “Proud setter up and puller down of kings” (III.iii.157), but he is also son to the “stabb’d” Old Salisbury ( and brother to younger Salisbury,14 who dies in battle crying “Warwick, revenge! Brother, revenge my death!” (II.iii.19); Margaret is the Yorkist queen, but she is also mother of the disinherited Prince Henry, and the outraged wife of his “unnatural” father King Henry (I.i.225); finally, the three sons of York achieve sovereignty and impose order at the end, but the deeds by which they acquire and maintain the crown are those of avenging sons and unnatural brothers. As in 2 Henry VI, only on a universal scale, the public status and obligations of these characters are measured against the increasingly dubious claims of their personal ideals. Familial honor, hitherto a counterweight to uncontrolled ambition and reckless personal ideals, now becomes the source of new atrocities. The sundering of honor and politics is nowhere more apparent than in this play, where every attempt to invoke a political compromise is frustrated by the demand for personal revenge, until one finally arrives at the hollow pretense of “country's peace and brothers' loves” (V.vii.36) that concludes the action even as it foreshadows the frauds and fratricides of Richard III.

It is the repentant “Son that hath kill’d his father” (II.v.54 S.D.) and “Father that hath kill’d his son” (II.v.78 S.D.) who epitomize the chaos that results when personal revenges are projected into the arena of history. Here the public role of each figure (the Son was “press’d forth” by the king, the Father fights on the Yorkist side) fades into utter insignificance before the magnitude of the family tragedy. And, at the same time, the futility of seeking retribution for the “crimes” of war is implicit in the very situation: these bereaved mothers will “ne’er be satisfied” (II.v.106). For the participants, deeds of violence committed in battle are finally anonymous—indeed, they are the more tragic for being so. Both parties “knew not what they did.” The ultimate result of such “Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural” quarrels (90) is not the satisfaction of accomplished revenge, but the discovery of utter bereavement. “I’ll bear thee hence,” says the lamenting Son, “where I may weep my fill” (113); and the Father adds,

                                                             … let them fight that will,
For I have murder’d where I should not kill.


The tragic perception of the Son and Father depends, of course, upon the unique irony of their situation. Had father met father, the episode might have become a simple restatement of the main plot, in which the sons find their revenges by destroying one another. Hence, the spirit of lucidity in which they can acknowledge that a father and a son have been “murder’d” (not simply “kill’d”), and still forswear war for lamentation, necessarily is unavailable to the principal antagonists in this conflict. For Clifford and Margaret, Richard and his brothers, a public act of violence against any member of the family can only be construed as a personal crime, to be revenged by what Othello would call an “honorable murder.” Richard speaks for all of them when he urges his brothers to forgo the “passion” of lament for the consolatio of revenge (II.i.79-88).

To arrive at a more detailed estimate of the play's politics, one must again turn to its dramatic format and rhetorical designs. As an historical revenge play, 3 Henry VI finds its operative conceptions of human character in the set topics of rhetorical invective. York's great vituperatio of Margaret (I.iv.111-168), the Lancastrian queen who has learned to play the Amazon, enumerates the significant “topics” of revenge drama by reversing all the set commonplaces of demonstrative oratory. The despised “She-wolf of France” whose father is “not so wealthy as an English yeoman” (I.iv.111, 123), has exchanged her feminine bona animi, modesty and “government” (132), for the impudent ferocity of an “Amazonian trull” (114). Her grotesque display of “courage” can only be understood as an inexplicable deviation from nature, a relinquishment of human identity for the unchanging “vizard” (116) of the actor.

’Tis beauty that doth oft make women proud;
But God he knows thy share thereof is small.
’Tis virtue that does make them most admir’d;
The contrary doth make thee wonder’d at.
’Tis government that makes them seem divine;
The want thereof makes thee abominable.
Thou art as opposite to every good
As the Antipodes are unto us,
Or as the south to the Septentrion.


The descriptive figures amplify this reversal of the civilized into the barbarous through stock epithets like the “outdoing” comparison to “tigers of Hyrcania” (155), and the celebrated “tiger's heart wrapp’d in a woman's hide” (137). Elsewhere in the play, these formulas for an unnatural revenge are reproduced in a wide variety of situations, usually in tiny pieces of invective interspersed throughout the dialogue, and occasionally in longer set speeches, but almost always with reference to Clifford or Richard. Local instances would include epithets like “cruel child-killer,” “crook-back,” and “foul misshapen stigmatic” (II.ii.112, 96, 136), as well as more extended figures such as Rutland's comparison of Clifford to a “pent-up lion” (I.iii.12-15) or Henry's picture of Richard as an “indigest, deformed lump” (, and lengthy pieces of invective such as Margaret's portrayal of Richard and his brothers as “bloody cannibals,” “butchers,” and “deathsmen” (V.v.59, 61, 65). All these examples (and more could be cited) point back to the elementary definitions of humanity invoked in York's address to Margaret. Together they present a composite image of the revenging son who determines to reproduce the original “crime” by destroying still another family: the playwright has come full circle from the idealistic wish of Old York and Young Talbot simply to “die in pride.” His leading characters have become, in effect, the base, unnatural monsters that the Herculean hero originally set out to destroy.

The conception is not entirely original with 3 Henry VI. The overarching transition from lofty epic deeds to downright savagery and murder is adumbrated in the Induction scene of The Spanish Tragedy, where the fallen courtier Don Andrea is transported away from the field of battle, past the Elysian abode of “wounded Hector” and “Achilles' Myrmidons,” via Hades to the earthly theater of Revenge.15 And the same contrast is treated more extensively, if less coherently, in Peele's Battle of Alcazar. Within this broad framework Clifford and Queen Margaret would resemble the paragons of Senecan cruelty, Atreus and Medea, each of whom satisfies a passion for revenge by tormenting an afflicted father with the death of his only child. The Senecan analogy is made explicit when Clifford vows to emulate “wild Medea” at the close of 2 Henry VI (V.ii.59). Other allusions, of a fairly specific nature, can occasionally be heard as well. The napkin dipped in Rutland's blood, which Margaret uses to torment York in Liv, was perhaps inspired by The Spanish Tragedy, while several lines in that scene suggest the influence of Kyd's Soliman and Perseda.16 Like all these plays, 3 Henry VI uses the materials of Senecan revenge tragedy to create an ambience in which the heroic pursuit of honor is released from the pieties that ordinarily regulate even bloodshed and violence. In so far as the play that results is one where dukes, princes, and kings are slaughtered without regard to their high political status, it is apparent that the logic of the revenge play is being used as a kind of general metaphor for civil war, and the individual miscreants are, accordingly, judged with far greater severity in this play than in the more psychological dramas of Seneca and Kyd.

The revenge-play format, however, is only a part of the total design of 3 Henry VI, which, like The Jew of Malta, moves through its isolated revenges to wholesale aggressions on the very fabric of society. Emerging from an environment in which the lex talionis enjoins men to violate all moral and political obligations, the youngest son of York determines to disregard the very fraternal ties that hold together his own house. His decision to act as “myself alone” is paralleled partly by Edward's self-regarding exercise of his royal prerogatives and partly by Clarence's temporary abjuration of his two brothers. But it was inevitable, given the Tudor myth about Richard, that he should exemplify the final declension from revenger to Machiavel. The two types were commonly associated by such moralists as Gentillet, who portrays the legendary Italian “delectation, pleasure, and contentment” in revenge that is exacted “after some strange and barbarous fashion.”17 For a dramatist writing in 1590, the Machiavel and revenger of the popular stage would already have intersected in The Jew of Malta. So far as one can judge from the corrupt text in which that play survives, Marlowe's hero represents a transmutation of Kyd's impassioned revengers along lines that suggest, in some respects, Shakespeare's subsequent treatment of Richard III.18 For both Barabas and Richard are, at bottom, social and moral outcasts whose malice towards the individuals who have injured them evolves into an anarchic revolt against all those who are of “better person” than themselves. The crucial point of resemblance is evident in Barabas' soliloquy after his brethren have left him to meditate upon his afflictions.

[2nd Jew.] Farewell, Barabas.
Bar. Ay, fare you well,
See the simplicity of these base slaves,
Who—for the villains have no wit themselves—
Think me to be a senseless lump of clay
That will with every water wash to dirt.
No, Barabas is born to better chance
And framed of finer mold than common men
That measure nought but by the present time.
A reaching thought will search his deepest wits
And cast with cunning for the time to come.

(Jew, I.ii.214-223)

The Shakespearian sequel to this comes in the third act of 3 Henry VI, as Richard's brothers bid him farewell:

[King Ed.] Lords, use her
                    Exeunt all but Richard.
Rich. Ay, Edward will use women honourably.
Would he were wasted, marrow, bones, and all. … 


For the next seventy lines this “valiant crook-back prodigy” (I.iv.75) unfolds his elaborate meditation on the ambitions of nature's outcast. Like Barabas, he owes his aggressiveness in part to an inbred “deformity” that excludes him from any conventional place in human society, coupled with his unique talents for succeeding on his own terms. For Marlowe's hero, this role proves something of a dead end. After completing his devilish revenges on Ferneze's son Lodowick, Barabas simply continues to devise schemes to outwit and exploit his Christian antagonists. Almost apologetically, Barabas soliloquizes, “I must confess we come not to be kings” (I.i.127), as if he were explaining why his Machiavellian talents must be confined to the limited possibilities offered by the corrupt citizenry of Malta. Richard, however, emerges from a world of heroic ambition, and he can see beyond the possibilities of ceaseless revenge to the “golden time” (III.ii.127) of personal sovereignty, when the “misshap’d trunk that bears this head” will “Be round impaled with a glorious crown” (III.ii.170-171). Accordingly, his soliloquy concludes with a final allusion to Marlowe's hyperbole, refashioned to suit the worthy examples set for himself by this heroic Machiavel:

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 slily 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.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut! were it further off, I’ll pluck it down.


The rhetorical frame is still that of Tamburlaine. Richard will “outdo” the beauty of the Mermaid, the eloquence of Nestor, the prudence of Ulysses, and the deadly might of the basilisk. If the joke is obvious enough, it should also be clear that Shakespeare's mock-heroics have come of age. This is neither a country girl dabbling in witchcraft and sham heroics nor a clothier of Kent leading a peasants' revolt. Richard speaks as a Renaissance prince, and he chooses his examples with a due sense of decorum: Proteus was a god of epic tradition; Nestor, Ulysses, and Sinon decided the most important battle of legendary history; and Machiavelli had undertaken to explain the revolutions of fortune, in antiquity and in the present, through a dispassionate analysis of power politics. Richard's aspiration to outdo the celebrated Greeks and their modern apologist gives a final, ironic turn of the screw to the humanistic pursuit of fame and honor. Perhaps the emulation of Hector and Hercules, Aeneas and Achilles, which has by now made anarchy out of the social and political order, was ill conceived from the start. For if one judges by the criterion of practical efficacy, such fame as these worthies achieved may amount to no more than a mere escutcheon, a dubious memorial to their grinning honor. Hence Richard can turn the very formulas of rhetorical invective to his own advantage, arguing that it is precisely those qualities which make a man despicable in the world of copybook humanism that best qualify him for an earthly crown. Beneath the parody, there are only two features of Marlowe's original conception that remain intact: the drive towards absolute preeminence, and the ability to kill without remorse.

Even Sir Walter Raleigh, whose History of the World (1612) is a monument to the enduring hold of providential configurations on the Elizabethan imagination, would, one supposes, have had difficulty discerning the hand of the Almighty in this terrifying exposure of secular values. 3 Henry VI pictures human history as the visible effect of uncontrolled revenge and cynical Machiavellian ambition, a final anarchic distortion of heroic ideals. And alongside that picture, as if in some final effort to counter the moral bankruptcy of these “honorable murders” by invoking Elizabethan convictions about the sacramental nature of kingship and the role of Providence in human affairs, Shakespeare intermittently draws our attention to the choric figure of the “gentle king.” I have left Henry to the end, because he poses a melancholy counterstatement to the themes I have been pursuing. His character is a projection of orthodox pieties about politics and history as they appear when divorced from any power to put them into effect. And he discovers, beneath the erratic reversals of 3 Henry VI, an invitation to meditate on the fragility of his ideals before the repeated incursions of “sour Adversity” (III.i.24). When the exiled king re-enters “disguised with a prayer book” (III.i.12 S.D.) after the Battle of Towton, it is only to learn that the sacred oath of allegiance rendered unto a king is without meaning for the “simple men” (82) who take it. Later, before the battle of Coventry, Henry is further instructed in the relation between moral virtue and political power:

Exe. The doubt is that he
will seduce the rest.
K. Hen. That’s not my fear;
my meed hath got me fame:
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.
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace;
And, when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.
                    Shout within, “A York!
A York!”


In the face of these grim realities Henry is intermittently drawn towards a retreat from the history that circumscribes his existence. The tragedy of the nameless Father and Son is counterpointed by his picture of a timeless pastoral idyll in which he would “be no better than a homely swain” (II.v.22). Later he resolves that he will “conquer Fortune's spite / By living low where Fortune cannot hurt me” and urges the Protectorship on Warwick, who is “fortunate” in all his deeds (, 25). As even Warwick falls before the rising Yorkists, Henry can only retreat further from his own history, first into “patience,” finally into the receding vistas of prophecy. In a gracious gesture towards the Tudor myth, Shakespeare has him bless young Henry Richmond ( But Henry's last glimpse into the future takes place under less promising auspices:

[Hen.] 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.


This final, symbolic encounter surely intimates that Henry's benign vision of Richmond's “peaceful majesty” must be deferred to a world radically different from that of Henry VI.


  1. The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. Edmond Malone (London, 1970), VI, 383 (“A. Dissertation on the Three Parts of King Henry VI”)—hereafter cited as “Malone.” Among the criticism on 1 Henry VI, I have also made use of David Bevington's introduction to the text edited by himself for the Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1966). Lawrence Ryan's edition for the Signet Shakespeare (New York, 1967) appeared after this study was well underway, but I was pleased to find that our interpretations of 1 Henry VI are alike on many points.

  2. Baltimore, 1940; Durham, N.C., 1960. Also see Curtis Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton, 1960).

  3. The association of the Vice, glamorous “new customs,” and Roman Catholic ritual and ornament is a common theme in moral interludes through the 1550's and 1560's; among extant texts it occurs as late as Ulpian Fulwell's Like Will to Like (1568), which was reissued in 1587.

  4. See Rossiter's persuasive arguments in his introduction to Woodstock, pp. 47-72. There are scenes at court in The Famous Victories of Henry V and A Looking Glass for London and England, but these are not on the scale of those in 2 Henry VI.

  5. A. B. Grosart, ed., The Works of Fulke Greville (Blackburn, Lancashire, 1870), IV, 189 (“The Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney”).

  6. Arthur Sherbo, ed., Johnson on Shakespeare, in the Yale edition of the Works, VIII (1968), 612.

  7. See The Crisis of the Aristocracy, especially pp. 21-64, 164-188, 199-272, 385-504.

  8. Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, ed. Robert Bowers (Gainesville, Fla., 1962), p. 46.

  9. Compare 1 Tamburlaine, II.v.60-64, III.ii.71-75.

  10. The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), IV, 259-345 (Appendix D).

  11. E. A. J. Honigman would move the date of Shakespeare's King John back to 1590-91. See the introduction to his edition of King John (London, 1954), pp. xliii-lix.

  12. Throughout the sixteenth century, as Stone makes clear, “The object of rebellion was to free the king from evil advisers” (p. 267), not “usurpation” per se. York observes this convention when he demands the removal of Somerset; then he violates it in the assertion of his “right” to the crown.

  13. Shakespeare's familiarity with the lament of Hecuba in book XIII of the Metamorphoses is well known. See Baldwin, Small Latine, II, 193-194. It is less certain that he knew the Troades, but see John W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy (London, 1893), p. 79, and K. Koeppel, “Shakespeares Richard III und Senecas Troades,Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, XLVII (1911), 188-190.

  14. Cairncross' note at II.iii.15 explains that this anonymous “brother” must be Young Salisbury.

  15. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards (Cambridge, Mass., 1959), I.i.48-49.

  16. See Cairncross' introduction, pp. xvi-xvii, and his notes at I.iv.84, 152; and The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards, II.v. 51-52 and note.

  17. A Discourse upon the Meanes of Wel Governing, trans. Simon Patericke (London, 1602), STC 11743, sig. Q5r.

  18. The title page of the Quarto states that The True Tragedy “was sundrie times acted by the Right Honourable the Earle of Pembroke his servants.” If, as Chambers suggests (William Shakespeare [Oxford, 1930], I, 49-50), Pembroke's company was an offshoot of an “amalgamation” of Strange's Men and the Admiral's Men, Shakespeare would probably have had a working acquaintance with the mutations of revenge tragedy discussed below in connection with 3 Henry VI: The Spanish Tragedy and The Jew of Malta were both in Strange's repertory by 1592, at the latest. If he indeed acted in those plays, and others which are “recalled” in Henry VI, there would appear to be a fairly obvious explanation for the profusion of verbal parallels that has prompted so much speculation about the authorship of the trilogy. Here, as elsewhere, hard evidence is lacking.


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Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Numbered among Shakespeare's earliest works, the chronicle history plays 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI have generally suffered from a lack of critical esteem in large part due to acknowledged lapses in artistic technique, thematic cohesiveness, characterization, and style. Indeed, because of such flaws many early commentators proposed that Shakespeare may have made only minor contributions to the texts or acted as a reviser of the plays. Contemporary scholars, however, have largely put aside considerations of Shakespeare's authorship in order to focus on the texts themselves and the qualities of 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI in performance. Principal among the interests of modern critics has been an inquiry into Shakespeare's use and interpretation of history in the plays. In staging the gradual deterioration of the English royal line during the mid- to late-fifteenth century, the disastrous political and civil crisis known as the War of the Roses, and an associated class rebellion, Shakespeare frequently found it necessary to invert historical order, transfer events and characters, and compress and expand his source material for dramatic purposes. Thus, critics have observed that 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI depict numerous alterations of character, among them the defamation of Joan of Arc's reputation and the elaboration of sinister elements in the figures of York and Richard of Gloucester. Scholars have also identified scenes, particularly in 1 Henry VI, that have no historical basis and which, they have argued, Shakespeare must have invented. In addition to highlighting the subject of historical representation many recent commentators have focused on the formal elements of 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, including the structure of these works, issues of dramaturgy, and the artistic and thematic unity of the plays as a whole.

As historical dramas, 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI have elicited considerable discussion on the nature of Shakespeare's interpretation of history. F. W. Brownlow (1977), in examining the first work in the series, emphasizes Shakespeare's manipulation of the so-called Tudor myth, which identified Henry IV's usurpation of the crown as the source of the English civil wars during the reign of his grandson Henry VI. According to Brownlow, 1 Henry VI, despite certain aesthetic limitations, expresses the flaws inherent in the Tudor myth and denotes a shift of the dramatist's focus toward the individual characters and human actions that contributed to this story. In surveying the plays, Robert C. Jones (1991) elaborates on the theme of revenge in 2 and 3 Henry VI, a force that, Jones argues, both displaces the heroic ideals expressed in the first play and demonstrates a concern with the “fictive reconstruction of history” later performed by Jack Cade and Richard of Gloucester. Heroic idealism is the subject of David Riggs's (1971) reading of Henry VI. For Riggs, the trilogy traces the steady degeneration of heroic aspirations and power in fifteenth-century England. John W. Blanpied (1978) also perceives in the overall design of Henry VI the theme of historical disintegration by examining how each play reflects upon the previous drama and its representation of the past. A number of commentators have endeavored to reconstruct Shakespeare's personal view of history in the Henry VI plays, with particular emphasis on 2 Henry VI and its representation of an uprising led by Jack Cade, a commoner with utopian aspirations of a classless society. In his treatment of this subject, Michael Hattaway (1988) contends that Shakespeare's dramatization of the rebellion tends to favor the underclass at the expense of the aristocracy. Paola Pugliatti (1992) also explores Shakespeare's handling of the class uprising in the second play of the series, and finds that this drama presents a “multivalent” view of history that can be interpreted as simultaneously radical and conservative. Ronald Knowles (1991) claims that Shakespeare's complex reshaping of historical material into the comic and ironic elements of 2 Henry VI calls into question the very notion of historical integrity in the drama.

The power of the Henry VI plays in performance has proved to be another favorite topic for modern commentators, who find in the works a wealth of material related to stagecraft. Randall Martin (1990) studies the iconography of Elizabethan civic pageantry in the plays by placing Shakespeare's emblematic communication to the audiences of his day within its historical contexts. Wolfgang Clemen (1980) assesses Shakespeare's use of rhetorically heightened speeches in Henry VI to both objectify and comment ironically on the historical figures in the plays. Alan C. Dessen (1993) responds to several prior estimations of Henry VI as fragmented and aesthetically flawed by investigating many of the ways in which the thematic unity of the plays may be expressed through theatrical performance. Other recent critics have singled out particular dramatic elements of Henry VI and the lesser motifs they represent. Margaret E. Owens (1996) concentrates on the imagery of severed heads as stage spectacle and symbols of political power frequently invoked by Shakespeare in 2 Henry VI to emphasize the drama's thematic descent into monstrosity. Finally, E. Pearlman (1999) examines the carnivalesque interlude between Duke Humphrey and Saunder Simpcox in the second play of the series, commenting on the subject of false miracles designed to sway the faith of the masses.

Wolfgang Clemen (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Some Aspects of Style in the Henry VI Plays,” in Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 9-24.

[In the essay below, Clemen analyzes the language and dramatic effect of several key speeches in Henry VI,contrasting their “extraordinary clarity of utterance” with the “somewhat two-dimensional world” of the play.]

Duchess. Ah, Gloucester, teach
me to forget myself!
For whilst I think I am thy married wife
And thou a prince, Protector of this land,
Methinks I should not thus be led along,
Mailed up in shame, with papers on my back,
And followed with a rabble that rejoice
To see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans.
The ruthless flint doth cut my tender feet,
And when I start, the envious people laugh
And bid me be advisèd how I tread.
Ah, Humphrey, can I bear this shameful yoke?
Trowest thou that e’er I’ll look upon the world
Or count them happy that enjoy the sun?
No; dark shall be my light and night my day;
To think upon my pomp shall be my hell.
Sometime I’ll say I am Duke Humphrey's wife,
And he a prince, and ruler of the land;
Yet so he ruled, and such a prince he was,
As he stood by whils I, his forlorn duchess,
Was made a wonder and a pointing-stock
To every idle rascal follower.
But be thou mild, and blush not at my shame,
Nor stir at nothing till the axe of death
Hang over thee, as sure it shortly will.
For Suffolk—he that can do all in all
With her that hateth thee and hates us all—
And York, and impious Beaufort, that false priest,
Have all limed bushes to betray thy wings,
And, fly thou how thou canst, they’ll tangle thee.
But fear not thou until thy foot be snared,
Nor never seek prevention of thy foes.

(2 Henry VI, II,iv,27-57)

Led along in shame as a prisoner, barefoot ‘in a white sheet, and a taper burning in her hand’ (as the stage-direction indicates), the Duchess of Gloucester breaks out into this speech while Gloucester and his men, having waited for her arrival in the street, stand by. The scene terminates the personal tragedy of the Duchess, who has been convicted of treason, thereby accelerating Duke Humphrey's fall. The speech has been described as one of the many set speeches in the Henry VI plays which carry on the tradition of Senecan declamation, and it has been classified as a ‘lamentation’.1 But is it a typical lamentation, is it a set speech proper? Perusing these plays we notice that there is no dividing line between ‘set speeches’ and those lengthy speeches which arise out of various occasions but do not conform to type. Our text is an example of the way in which Shakespeare the dramatist, while carrying on the Senecan tradition of long speeches, links them up with the action, with stage-business and setting. Instead of giving us the conventional appurtenances of the lament which had been established as a well-defined genre in pre-Shakespearian tragedy,2 Shakespeare ‘concretises’ and localises the lament. Rather than expressing her grief by means of abstract formulae, apostrophes, hyperboles and rhetorical questions, the Duchess conveys to us her woeful state by describing the scene: her own physical appearance, the painful walking with bare feet over ‘the ruthless flint’, the humiliation of being stared at and ridiculed by ‘a rabble that rejoice to see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans’. This evocation of the outward scene imparts to reader or audience a more poignant impression of suffering than the mere rhetorical lament could have done, although the Duchess, to be sure, does not reveal what is going on within her, but looks upon this scene, in which she figures as chief protagonist, from outside. Shakespeare uses the speech to dramatise the whole scene, for the mocking remarks made by the rabble suggest something like a dialogue. The balanced metrical structure adds to the impression of objectivity (rather than subjective expression of an inner state of mind) conveyed by the first part of the speech.

We should also note that Shakespeare makes this speech grow out of the dramatic action preceding it. The scene described by the Duchess is twice prepared for, significant details being suggested by the same words (‘the flinty streets’, l. 8; ‘flint’, l. 34; ‘the abject people gazing on thy face’, ll. 11, 20). The first line of the speech still carries on the dialogue with Gloucester, taking up in scorn his phrase ‘forget this grief’.

It is only after this ‘spectacle’ has been established in our minds—an early example of Shakespeare's ‘word-scenery’3—that Shakespeare has the Duchess express her grief in a more abstract manner. And it is in this second part of the speech that the only rhetorical formulate (double paradox enforced by alliteration and rhyme) are to be found: ‘No, dark shall be my light, and night my day.’ The comparison between what has been and what is now, between the respect due to the Duchess on account of her position and the humiliating role which she now must play may also be traced back to one of the conventions of lament. It occurs at the beginning of the speech and is taken up with amplification and variation in line 42; it is again closely related to the outward scene which brings home to us, better than words can do, this contrast between past and present.4 However, this contrast is seen by the Duchess primarily as a reversal of her social role, as a denial of her legitimate claim to quite a different treatment. It is this reversed social position rather than her suffering as a human individual which to her appears to be the greater cause for complaint.

The way in which the Duchess here points at herself, holding up her ‘case’ as an example of undeserved misery, is typical of the illustrative method of presentation which Shakespeare employs in these plays (the phrase ‘pointing-stock’ is revealing in this context). The transition to this renewed self-comparison is made by two questions (ll. 37f.). Questions also count among the obligatory accessories of set speeches. In Senecan drama they were mostly ‘rhetorical questions’5 addressed to a partner not present. Shakespeare, however, here as elsewhere, uses questions as a means to relate the speech more closely to the listener, the same effect being achieved by the repeated address to Gloucester (ll. 27, 37) and the frequent occurrence of ‘thou’, ‘thee’ and ‘thy’. The isolation of the set speech, a characteristic feature of Senecan tragedy, by which the speech becomes a self-contained declamation, is rarely to be found in Shakespeare. Here the person to whom the speech is addressed is ever present.

The third part of the speech (ll. 48-57) has little to do with lamentation: in an ironical way the Duchess enjoins her husband (l. 48), expressing one of those many forebodings (ll. 49-50) which are scattered throughout these plays and which are characteristic of their mode of presentation.6 Her warning is at once given its foundation in fact: the three chief figures of whose enmity Gloucester is as yet unaware—Suffolk, York, Beaufort—are mentioned and briefly characterised. Shakespeare thus achieves a ‘survey of the situation’ found in many of the long speeches, which also serves to pass information on to the audience. The metaphors (‘limed bushes’, ‘tangle thee’, ‘snared’) belong to the powerful animal imagery, running through all three parts of Henry VI, suggesting brutal force, trapping of unsuspecting victims, etc.; it occurs not only in obvious similes and comparisons, but also in ‘figures and images, often merely implicit and hardly recognised’.7

Is this speech typical of the play's style and language? The answer is: ‘only partly’. For those features which are to be found in many other passages as well can rapidly be enumerated: syntactical and metrical units are usually coextensive. Run-on lines are rare. Reiteration of the same idea occurs frequently and along with this a certain copiousness of expression. All statements are rounded off, definite and clear; the whole speech can be subdivided into smaller sections, one theme being dealt with after another. But other stylistic features, even more characteristic of the Henry VI plays, are lacking. Shakespeare did not use a uniform language for all his long speeches in the Histories, but varied his style a good deal,8 adapting it to the occasion and to the subject to a greater degree than can be said of the long speeches in Senecan drama and pre-Shakespearian tragedy.

As an example of another long speech in an entirely different style let us look at a speech of persuasion, a suasoria, in the second scene of Act II in 3 Henry VI, of which I quote the first 24 lines:

Clifford. My gracious liege,
this too much lenity
And harmful pity must be laid aside.
To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
Whose hand is that the forest bear doth lick?
Not his that spoils her young before her face.
Who scapes the lurking serpent's mortal sting?
Not he that sets his foot upon her back.
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.
Ambitious York did level at thy crown,
Thou smiling while he knit his angry brows.
He, but a Duke, would have his son a king.
And raise his issue like a loving sire:
Thou, being a king, blest with a goodly son,
Didst yield consent to disinherit him,
Which argued thee a most unloving father.
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 used, with fearful flight—
Make war with him that climbed unto their nest,
Offering their own lives in their young's defence?

(3 Henry VI, II,ii,9-32)

Clifford tries to change King Henry's mind, urging him not to forfeit the young Prince's right to succession. To emphasise his point he makes no fewer than four comparisons with the animal world, the first three symmetrically arranged in equal pairs of two lines (a question each time followed by an answer) followed by a sententia and a proverb illustrating and, as it were, objectifying the same idea.9 The fourth comparison from the animal world, inserted after the reiterated statement of the main argument (expressed by antithesis and demonstration), covers no fewer than seven lines, being a stylistic amplification of what has gone before. Rhetoric here appears in its original function, as ‘the art of deliberative and persuasive public speaking’,10 and the extravagant display of rhetorical devices is therefore appropriate in this context. But Shakespeare makes us aware of this by an explicit justification of this ‘oratory style’. King Henry's reaction to this speech:

Full well hath Clifford played the orator, 

(3 Henry VI, II,ii,43)

places it in its proper perspective. Scattered throughout the early Histories we find quite a few such critical comments on rhetorically heightened speeches, beginning with the Pucelle's scoffing at Sir William Lucy's enumeration of great names in 1 Henry VI, ‘Here's a silly-stately style indeed!’ (1 Henry VI, IV,vii,72), continuing with angry comments such as the Cardinal's lines addressed to Gloucester:

Nephew, what means this passionate discourse,
This peroration with such circumstance? 

(2 Henry VI, I,i,99-100)

and with other references, indirect or direct, to the art of oratory.11 Such passages betray Shakespeare's ‘consciousness of language’ and show us ‘Shakespeare not only playing in language the same games as other men of his age but also watching the game’, as Gladys Willcock put it more than forty years ago.12 An examination of the Jack Cade scenes and the scene with Horner the Armourer supports the assumption that Shakespeare, while using heightened rhetorical language for his nobles, also at times held it up for critical comment and even parodied it.13 The insertion of the prose-scenes with Cade and his ‘rabblement’ in 2 Henry VI makes us conscious of the fact that the ‘stately speeches and well sounding phrases clyming to the height of Seneca his style’ (Sidney) by no means represent the only language spoken in the world.

Long speeches hold up the action and tend to develop into self-contained declamations, moving away from the scene and its characters. Such speeches pose a problem for the producer, who wonders what to do with all those characters standing and waiting (sometimes for a considerable length of time) while the speaker is delivering his oration. Shakespeare the dramatist must have felt this from the very beginning, for we can observe, throughout the historical plays, the development of several means of integrating these speeches into the dramatic action. One way was to turn them into theatrical performances in their own right, to make them create accompanying action. The speech of the Duchess, as we saw, evokes not only the lively scene in the street, but also the reactions of ‘the rabble’, although primarily addressed to Gloucester. Clifford, at the end of his speech (‘Were it not pity that this goodly boy …’, l. 34; ‘look on the boy’, l. 39) points to the young Prince standing by and puts words into his mouth which this youth might utter at some future time. Thus the eyes of the audience are directed not only to the character addressed but also to a third person. In many speeches of some length, a character is not only addressed, questioned, implored, attacked or taunted, but also asked to ‘observe’, ‘look’, ‘see’, ‘gaze’,14 so that with him (or her) the audience are made to look around or to imagine in their ‘mind's eye’ the physical appearance of characters who are absent. Frequent allusions to the physiognomy, the appearance, the bearing of the characters suggest that Shakespeare is progressing towards a concept of his figures which does not allow them to remain static even when they deliver long speeches. Many speeches moreover reflect the reaction of the listener, his shock, his startled gesture, his hesitation, his assent,15 and by means of indirect stage-directions a great many accompanying gestures are indicated, such as kneeling, shaking hands, taking leave, embracing or raising an arm, drawing a sword and the like. The use of direct reported speech, inserted into some of the long speeches (as into Clifford's suasoria) is another means of enlivening formality,16 as is the transition from highly pitched rhetoric to a more straightforward language.17 Some speeches, too, are interrupted by characters standing by,18 while in others it is the speakers who interrupt themselves, thus for a short moment giving the impression of spontaneous utterance in the midst of an otherwise ‘prefabricated’ speech.19 In some speeches the first line takes up the cue from the last speaker by repeating a phrase in a contrasting mood.20 Moreover, most of the speeches, usually at the end or the beginning, link up with the political circumstances, the actual situation, thus carrying on the ‘business of the play’ and adding to the information passed on to the audience.

The most notable example of a long speech combined with dramatic action is the scene in which Margaret, after having dragged York onto a molehill, puts a paper crown on his head, taunting and mocking him in violent terms (3 Henry VI, I,iv).21 York's reaction, his defenceless and mute standing in front of Margaret is—paradoxically enough—conveyed through the language of this vituperative speech. The rhetorical figures become a tool of ruthless attack, declamatory language being transformed into harsh provocation. Sensing the utter brutality of the spectacle we are apt to forget the rhetorical artistry. In this speech, too, we have an example of heightened declamation, which, however, at its climax overturns itself to become an idiom of colloquial coarseness:

And where’s that valiant crook-back prodigy,
Dicky your boy, that with his grumbling voice
Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?

(3 Henry VI, I,iv,75-7)

Perusing the early Histories we find every now and then phrases and sometimes whole lines which by their very simplicity and terseness anticipate this element of Shakespeare's dramatic language in his later plays and counterbalance the artifice of rhetoric. F. P. Wilson's contention that ‘even in Shakespeare's earliest manner the natural is ever present with the artificial’22 holds true of the Henry VI plays, too. In putting blunt phrases of this kind into the mouth of Richard Gloucester, Shakespeare for the first time catches the individual accent of a character,23 whereas in the rest of the trilogy we seek in vain for the complete individualisation of character through language which will be such a notable feature in the later plays.24 Apart from this instance the style in the early Histories is determined by the occasion and the theme rather than by the character of the speaker.

The foregoing remarks suggest that at many points style and language merge into other elements of dramatic art. Style in the plays does not exist ‘in itself’, but as part of character and of the dramatic whole. Moreover, style being a highly complex phenomenon, many aspects would have to be taken into consideration if a balanced assessment of language and style in these plays were to be attempted. For this would have to include not only the figures of rhetoric but also grammar and syntax, vocabulary and sound, forms of address, tempo and versification. We would also have to consider to what extent versification and syntax are adapted to ‘the speaking voice’, a development to be noticed as early as in the Henry VI plays.25

However, bearing in mind the warning pronounced by Brian Vickers that ‘it would take many years to study Shakespeare's stylistic development with the attention it deserves’,26 a short essay like this must be restricted to some fragmentary observations and cannot hope to do justice to the complex phenomenon of style in the early Histories. The commonplace that Shakespeare had many styles27 also holds true of the Henry VI plays, in which we find straightforward language side by side with richly adorned speech, or brisk dialogue followed by formal and slowly moving declamation, and in the Second Part some notable prose-scenes, again not uniform in style, counterpoising the artificial rhetoric of many verse passages. Moreover, we are faced, in these plays, with considerable differences of quality in style, which some scholars attributed to multiple authorship or to later insertions of some passages by Shakespeare himself—a much disputed problem. The well-known speech of Young Clifford when discovering his dead father (2 Henry VI, V,ii,31)28 shows a mastery of language and vision much surpassing the uninspired, flat passages in the adjoining scenes.

How could we—in view of this great diversity—describe the style of these plays in a way that would set it apart from that of later Histories? One first step would be to single out those features of style which do not occur again, or occur much less frequently, in later plays.

One might begin with the passages with an excessive and obtrusive use of rhetorical devices, the ‘patterned speeches’, the many parallelisms, repetitions and the piling up of similes and sententiae, the accumulation of questions and exclamations, the frequent instances of self-address and the many classical allusions of incidental rather than functional character, and the symmetrically structured exchanges of vituperative attack and counterattack. As has often been observed, this ‘exploitation of all the devices for heightening, amplifying, and varying expression’29 is a characteristic of Shakespeare's early style, and, one would have to add, this exploitation is particularly obvious and sometimes even obtrusive in the Henry VI plays. However, this must not mislead us into believing that Shakespeare used fewer rhetorical figures in his later work, for in fact, according to Sister Miriam Joseph's findings, he used more. Kenneth Muir, taking the matter up from this point, has well described the essential ‘difference of emphasis’: ‘He came to use more metaphors and fewer similes, and he abandoned some of the more obtrusive figures. There is less obvious alliteration. He no longer begins successive lines with the same word. He compromises more with colloquial speech. But to say he abandoned rhetoric is a misuse of terms.’30 In a previous article Muir had summarised the stages of development in Shakespeare's use of rhetoric, and because of its relevance to the subject treated in this volume this passage ought to be quoted here, too: ‘Shakespeare began by using the arts of rhetoric formally and deliberately and … as he matured he came to use them with greater freedom and individuality, until at last he seemed to use them instinctively.’31

However, when the language in the Henry VI plays is being discussed, rhetoric, though only one aspect of Shakespeare's style, usually receives most attention. But there are quite a few other features which we ought to look at, trying to coordinate them with observations already made. Therefore I should like to offer, as a conclusion to this essay, a few tentative suggestions as to how to relate certain striking features of style to attitudes and principles underlying the dramatic intention of these plays.32

A desire for clarification appears to be at the root of many stylistic phenomena. It accounts for the twofold and threefold expression of an idea, and this cannot be attributed merely to Shakespeare's indulgence in rhetorical devices or to his ‘immaturity’, for it suits the underlying intention of these plays and finds an equivalent in the formalised action which tends to double incidents and roles. The reiterated expression of an idea is related to the unambiguous formulation of all subject matter. For we seldom come across passages which leave us wondering. ‘What is meant here?’ Shakespeare's later manner of making his characters express themselves by innuendo, by subtle hints, so that we have to look below the surface in interpreting their utterances, is not yet evident in these early plays.

Much of the clarification which we can trace on several levels of expression may be related to the didactic purpose of these Histories, which are designed to teach a political lesson and point a moral in a manner intelligible to everybody. The need for clarification also accounts for those numerous passages which—always with a wealth of names (and often too many names!)—recapitulate the preceding events, review the situation, inform us about the claims, the intentions, the plans of all the quarrelling parties and their representatives. Clarification is particularly important in view of the ‘intractable mass of events’33 which the chronicles presented to Shakespeare, for ‘chronicle history is the most recalcitrant to free artistic fashioning … The reign of Henry VI, in any case, was too long, its events too rambling and fortuitous to be easily digested into drama.’34 Hence the need for repeated information and hence, too, the preference for the reiterative mode of presentation.35

The wish to illustrate, to demonstrate, to exemplify (rather than to create characters or events) is also a major incentive in the shaping of scenes as well as language. The characters view their own doings and the events of the drama from a distance, from outside, stepping aside, as it were, and thus becoming their own spectators, acting as their own chorus. They use similes, comparisons and maxims in order to point out the meaning and the moral of what is happening to them and around them. We are continually aware of their ‘pointing forefinger’, the dramatist's forefinger in fact, that is to bring home to us the truths which are at stake. The frequent insertion of sententiae and proverbs serves as a means of objectifying and, as it were, depersonalising such utterances.

When, for instance, King Henry mourns over Gloucester's arrest which has just taken place, he first draws a comparison from the slaughterhouse (‘And as a butcher takes away the calf …’) and utilises it for what he wants to demonstrate:

Even so, remorseless, have they borne him hence;

but then adds another simile (‘And as the dam …’) to illustrate his own predicament:36

Even so myself bewails good Gloucester's case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimmed eyes.

(2 Henry VI, III,i,217-18)

Even in moments of extreme agony, facing his own murderer, a character may step aside to describe this situation from the outside, ritualising, as it were, his imminent murder. Thus Young Rutland face-to-face with Clifford, who is going to kill him in a few minutes, finds images for this terrible confrontation:

So looks the pent-up lion o’er the wretch
That trembles under his devouring paws;
And so he walks, insulting o’er his prey.
And so he comes, to rend his limbs asunder.

(3 Henry VI, I,iii,12-15)

The most famous example of this ‘demonstrating mode’ is the scene with King Henry sitting on the molehill (3 Henry VI, II,v), commenting on his own role and on the ‘piteous spectacle’ (l. 73) of ‘the son that has killed his father’ and ‘the father that has killed his son’. But this ‘piece of stylised ritual writing’ (Tillyard) has been commented on so much that a mere mention must be sufficient in this context.

Illustration is very often linked with inculcation. The emphasis and the zeal with which this is done may partly account for the doubling and tripling of pertinent nouns and epithets, for the reinforcement of crucial pronouncements through rhyme, assonance, anaphora, and various other repetitive and tautological devices. When, for instance, ‘tyranny’ is referred to, three epithets are needed to characterise it:

And lofty proud encroaching tyranny … 

(2 Henry VI, IV,i,96)

A few lines later, when Suffolk contemptuously speaks about the commons, he also strings together three epithets to characterise them:

these paltry, servile, abject drudges! 

(l. 105)

When King Henry, dismissing Gloucester, puts himself under God's protection, this is expressed in four terms:

                    and God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide, and lantern to my feet.

(2 Henry VI, II,ii,24-5)

When Queen Margaret describes King Henry's ruin to the new King Edward she does it in this manner:

                    his state usurped,
His realm a slaughter-house, his subjects slain,
His statutes cancelled, and his treasure spent.

(3 Henry VI, V,iv,77-9)

When Warwick in the last act of 3 Henry VI concludes his ‘dying-speech’, he epitomises his conventional final meditation in two chiming lines of rhetorical artifice:

Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And live we how we can, yet die we must. 

(3 Henry VI, V,ii,27-8)

And when Salisbury, towards the end of the Second Part, wants to demonstrate the invalidity of a ‘sinful oath’, he adduces no less than five examples, formulated as a question:

Who can be bound by any solemn vow
To do a murderous deed, to rob a man,
To force a spotless virgin's chastity,
To reave the orphan of his patrimony,
To wring the widow from her customed right?

(2 Henry VI, V,i,184-8)

These examples are different in kind, and repetition, parallelism, and accumulation may serve various ends in these plays. But one function surely is to hammer certain truths into our heads, to make things which are obvious even more obvious. Fullness and circumstantiality, especially in the elaboration of long-drawn-out similes as, for instance, in Queen Margaret's famous adhortatio on the field of Tewkesbury (3 Henry VI, I,iv), are part of this striving for explicit clarity. On the other hand, the definiteness of expression finds its metrical equivalent in the balanced end-stopped line.37

Explicitness rather than implicitness is a pervading mark of style. Everything is said, nothing is held back, except in some cases of quite overt hypocrisy; there is no room for ambiguities, for subtle hints, for wordless moments in which the limits of expression through language might be reached. But again we must ask ourselves whether Shakespeare really wished his characters to give utterance to their inner conflicts, to ‘express’ themselves.

Self-description rather than self-expression is the basis of speech in these plays, and even this description, though sometimes related to strong emotions externalising them, as it were, rarely allows us to look into the minds of the characters, but mostly serves to sketch out future actions. Even in the moment of dying the characters describe in orderly speech and unconcerned manner their physical conditions, their situation as to friends and enemies, their past doings and their intentions.38 At other times they may give descriptions of their own qualities39 or an account of their present plight.40

Language in those early Histories is a kind of prop on which these two-dimensional characters lean in order to assert their title, their claim, their power or their hatred, and all this is voiced forte or fortissimo, low-pitched or quiet scenes being rare. This constant pursuit of corroboration and affirmation on the part of the characters has been well described as ‘the seeking of maximal self-assertion at every moment’ which is ‘impatient of indirection’.41 Language thus may be transformed into outward gesture. The numerous asseverations and protestations, outnumbering by far those in the later Histories, are an appropriate manifestation of this constant self-assertion. But the language spoken by these figures does not allow us to catch a glimpse of their inner lives, does not betray their motivations; in short, with very few exceptions it tells us very little of their character. From the complex nature of man Shakespeare has selected only a small sector, so that these strutting figures are, after all, not real persons but embodiments of limited functions for which they are the mouthpiece. And we should hesitate to attribute this to a lack of ability only, and should consider the question of whether this limited range was not designed to fit the conception of these morality plays. That the dramatis personae so often speak ‘out of character’ would then be the natural outcome of the plays' intention and design. The many passages written in a ceremonious, formal, sometimes almost ‘heraldic’ manner, and contributing to the impression of an impersonal, not yet individualised style, should perhaps also be seen in this light. Pope's complaint that Shakespeare ‘generally used to stiffen his style with high words and metaphors for the speeches of his Kings and great men: he mistook it for a mark of greatness’42 may be partly justified if we limit it to the early Histories. But it loses some of its force when we see this feature together with the frequency of choric utterance as being in keeping with the didactic mode of these plays, which have aptly been called ‘a prolonged morality with England as its central character’.43 Much of what is said thus resembles the caption to be found under a painting or the legend under an emblem.

The lack of human relationships in the encounters between the characters may well account for such features of style as are especially notable in the many scenes of confrontation, in which the dialogue is built on an exchange of reciprocal vituperation, of violent accusation and angry retort, the general pattern being ‘one of give and take’.44 The characters do not speak with each other so much as at each other, they have no intention of sounding the thoughts of their partners, or of understanding them. Dialogue as a means of bringing people more closely together or of replying to a point which has been made by the other party is as yet unknown, the encounter of Suffolk and the Queen (2 Henry VI, III,ii) being a rare exception. Unrelated and in irreconcilable opposition to one another the nobles confront each other, power pitted against power. The sharply alternating challenges and retorts, which are embodied in symmetrically structured lines, employ the figures of speech, especially the echoes and correspondences, in a reverse sense: to express hostility and separation, but not interrelationship.45 This technique of dialogue (‘a repetitive push and pull, back and forth, over and over again’)46 reminds us of the battle of words, the combat of wit in the Comedies, but takes on a more sinister aspect, as the clash of words prepares for the clash of swords. In a full-length study the examination of the vituperative language in these plays could make up a whole chapter, for one could point out several techniques of using demeaning and insulting terms,47 of which we find in these plays far more than, for instance, in Richard III or Henry IV.

If the clash of power is the mainspring of some elements of the language, the expression of will is another. On almost every page we find vows and oaths, promises and threats, and we find, too, many forms of ‘will’, ‘shall’, etc. Here the method applied by D. M. Burton in Shakespeare's Grammatical Style48 would be helpful. For even a rapid perusal of the text reveals a great number of conditional clauses expressing affirmation and protestation. Not to the same degree as with Marlowe but still in a great measure, the lords of these plays express with their fierce and pompous language more of what they would like to do, of what they aim at, than of what they are actually achieving. Language constantly makes gestures towards the future with promises and keen intent, and this attitude may to some degree be a heritage from Marlowe.

But what is the effect of the language of the Henry VI plays on us, on the audience, on the reader? To put this question implies a change of approach, for it has less to do with stylistic analysis than with the assessment of the reaction of audience or reader. Although any answer given to this question is bound to be subjective, it may be worth while to attempt one. For when we read or watch these plays it appears that we begin to doubt whether we can accept, and believe in, this deliberately moulded convincingness and distinctness. What in the speeches of the characters began as a skilful use of time-honoured classical devices of rhetoric, apparently promoting clarity, in fact turns into something different when we question our over-all impression. For as we look more closely, the extraordinary clarity of utterance and character in this somewhat two-dimensional world serves in the end only to accentuate the nightmare absurdity of it all. This intolerable sequence of a century of senseless war in which the successive characters comment in an apparently convincing manner makes us all the more aware of the ultimate futility of it all. The magnification, the sharp light in which these stalking, depersonalised figures appear before our eyes make even more acute the final blurring of moral values. In the end, the issue is not clarified but confused. We do not know which side is right, for they are all wrong. Shakespeare, having built up this monumental array of seemingly uncontroversial figures, endowing them with a maximum of eloquence, self-assurance and distinctness, seems to have ended his work with a question mark.


  1. Hardin Craig, ‘Shakespeare and the History Play’, in John Quincy Adams Memorial Studies (Washington, 1948). For a detailed examination of the set speeches in the Histories I am indebted to Bernhard Schmid, ‘Form und Gehalt der grossen Rede in Shakespeares Historien’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Munich, 1955). For the set speeches in general see M. B. Kennedy, The Oration in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill, 1942). For their treatment of Shakespeare's early Histories I am indebted to the following books: M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London, 1961); David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (Cambridge, Mass., 1971); Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass., 1972); but most of all to Robert Y. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship (Chicago, 1974).

  2. See Part Three of my English Tragedy before Shakespeare (London, 1961).

  3. Rudolf Stamm, Shakespeare's Word-Scenery (Zürich, 1954).

  4. See J. P. Brockbank's remarks on this scene in ‘The Frame of Disorder’, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3: Early Shakespeare (London, 1961).

  5. See H. V. Canter, Rhetorical Elements in the Tragedies of Seneca (Urbana, 1925), pp. 140ff.

  6. See the Introduction to 3 Henry VI, New Arden edition (London, 1964), by A. S. Cairncross, p. lv.

  7. The phrase is Cairncross's. These aspects of the imagery in Henry VI were underrated in my early book. See Cairncross's justified criticism in his Introduction to 2 Henry VI, New Arden edition (London, 1957), p. liii.

  8. See, besides Craig and Schmid, Horst Oppel, ‘Die erste Meisterszene: Der Tod Beauforts’, in Shakespeare. Studien zum Werk und zur Welt des Dichters (Heidelberg, 1963).

  9. See F. P. Wilson, The Proverbial Wisdom of Shakespeare (Modern Humanities Research Association, 1961); Horst Weinstock, Die Funktion elisabethanischer Sprichwörter und Pseudosprichwörter bei Shakespeare (Heidelberg, 1966).

  10. Gladys D. Willcock, Language and Poetry in Shakespeare's Early Plays (Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy, 1954).

  11. ‘The King / Prettily, methought, did play the orator’ (1 Henry VI, IV,i,175); ‘For Warwick is a subtle orator’ (3 Henry VI, III,i,33); ‘But you, my lord, were glad to be employed, / To show how quaint an orator you are’ (2 Henry VI, III,ii,273); Richard Gloucester: ‘I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor’ (3 Henry VI, III,ii,188). See, too, 2 Henry VI, I,i,155; III,i,79; 1 Henry VI, III,iii,40,78.

  12. G. D. Willcock, Shakespeare as a Critic of Language (Shakespeare Association, London, 1934).

  13. See C. Leech, Shakespeare, The Chronicles (British Council Series, London, 1962), p. 17. See the illuminating remarks on the language of Jack Cade by Jürgen Schäfer, Shakespeares Stil. Germanisches und romanisches Vokabular (Frankfurt, 1973), p. 78. See also Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, p. 140.

  14. See, for instance, the speech of the Duchess at the beginning of 2 Henry VI, I,ii; the Queen's speech in 2 Henry VI, III,i,4ff.; III,ii,50,74,159; III,iii,24.

  15. As, e.g., in 2 Henry VI, III,ii,50,73.

  16. As in 2 Henry VI, III,i,222; III,ii,85; 3 Henry VI, II,ii,37; V,vi,75.

  17. As in 2 Henry VI, III,ii,119.

  18. As in 1 Henry VI, III,i,41; 2 Henry VI, IV,vii,74.

  19. As in 2 Henry VI, III,i,52,352.

  20. As in 2 Henry VI, III,ii,72; 3 Henry VI, I,i,230.

  21. See the comment on this scene by Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, pp. 53f.

  22. Shakespeare and the Diction of Common Life (Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy, London, 1941).

  23. See especially 3 Henry VI, III,ii, and Act V.

  24. See Charlotte Ehrl, Sprachstil und Charakter bei Shakespeare (Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, Heidelberg, 1957).

  25. Introduction by John Dover Wilson to 3 Henry VI in the New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1952).

  26. ‘Shakespeare's Use of Rhetoric’, in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Kenneth Muir and S. Schoenbaum (Cambridge, 1971).

  27. ‘Shakespeare has not one style, but many’; Oliver Elton, Style in Shakespeare (Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy, London, 1936).

  28. Some critics believe it to be a later insertion; see Kenneth Muir, ‘Image and Symbol in Shakespeare's Histories’, Shakespeare the Professional (London, 1973), p. 74.

  29. Willcock, Language and Poetry in Shakespeare's Early Plays.

  30. Muir, ‘Shakespeare the Dramatist’, Filološki Pregled (Beograd, 1964).

  31. ‘Shakespeare and Rhetoric’, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, 90 (1952).

  32. For valuable suggestions on how to relate stylistic features to recurring attitudes I am much indebted to Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, and to Sigurd Burckhardt, ‘I am but Shadow of Myself. Ceremony and Design in I Henry VI, Modern Language Quarterly, XXVIII (1967).

  33. B. Ifor Evans, The Language of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1952), p. 31.

  34. Cairncross, Introduction to 2 Henry VI, New Arden edition, p. l.

  35. Cairncross: Shakespeare ‘knew the value and effect of the schoolmaster's damnable iteration as a means of inculcating a fact or projecting a character’ (Introduction to 3 Henry VI, New Arden edition).

  36. See Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship, p. 112.

  37. Burckhardt: ‘The lines of verse behave like the characters, each striving to stand in self-sufficient and self-assertive orotundity’, in ‘I am but Shadow of Myself’, p. 142.

  38. See the dying speeches by Mortimer (1 Henry VI, II,v,3-16), Clifford (3 Henry VI, II,vi,1-30), and Warwick (3 Henry VI, V,ii,5-28).

  39. See King Henry in 3 Henry VI, IV,viii,38-46.

  40. See Warwick in 3 Henry VI, II,iii,1; King Henry in 3 Henry VI, III,i,12ff.

  41. Burckhardt, ‘I am but Shadow of Myself’.

  42. Quoted by Joseph Spence, in Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, ed. S. W. Singer (1820). See James Sutherland, ‘How the Characters Talk’, in Shakespeare's World, ed. J. Sutherland (London, 1964).

  43. Reese, The Cease of Majesty.

  44. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship.

  45. See R. Y. Turner, ‘Characterisation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays’, English Literary History, 3 (1964).

  46. Madeleine Doran, Shakespeare's Dramatic Language (Madison, 1976).

  47. See H. O. Thieme, ‘Studien zur Zornesszene in Shakespeares Historien’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Marburg, 1972).

  48. Dolores M. Burton, Shakespeare's Grammatical Style (London, 1973).

F. W. Brownlow (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: “The First Part of King Henry the Sixth,” in Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977, pp. 15-25.

[In the essay below, Brownlow examines 1 Henry VI, considering both its flaws and its theatrical power.]

The series of histories comprising the three parts of Henry VI and The Life and Death of Richard III begins with the death of Henry V and deals with the loss of his French conquests and the coming of civil war during his son Henry VI's reign; it ends with Henry Tudor's invasion, his defeat of Richard III, and the inauguration of a new order under the family of Tudor. The plays cover sixty-three complicated years from 1422 to 1485, and the general theory under which the dramatist arranged his materials was familiar because it provided a well-publicised case for the Tudors' legitimacy. Edward Hall, whose The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York was in itself and through Holinshed's Chronicles Shakespeare's chief source, announces the theory in his opening sentences:

What mischief hath insurged in realms by intestine division, what depopulation hath ensued in countries by civil dissension, what detestable murder hath been committed in cities by separate factions … this noble realm of England can apparently declare and make demonstration.

… But the old divided controversy between the fore-named families of Lancaster and York, by the union of matrimony celebrate and consummate between the high and mighty prince King Henry the Seventh and the Lady Elizabeth his most worthy queen, the one being indubitate heir of the house of Lancaster, and the other of York, was suspended and appalled in the person of their most noble, puissant and mighty heir King Henry the Eight.1

Hall's narrative unfolds the causes of dissension and the whole unhappy sequel of war and usurpation as a prelude to the Tudors' glory. He was their advocate, a humanist believing in the moral value of history, in the persuasive power of language (as his rumbling Latinisms, his elaborate, sometimes sprawling periods show), and a Protestant. He writes with a believer's enthusiasm. He took his facts and his interpretations of them from a variety of sources, but he brought the whole to a high finish, with a beginning, a middle and a splendid ending.

Richard II, so the story goes, for despotic rule, wilfulness and extravagance was deposed by his cousin Henry of Lancaster; and this usurpation, however justifiable politically, entailed an aftermath of ramifying disorders upon the usurper, his successors and subjects. These disorders appear immediately in the rebellions of Henry IV's reign, and though there seems to be a relief in the reign of his son Henry V, the strife resumes upon his early death and the succession of his infant son. Henry VI's infancy and, later on, his incapacity leave the kingdom with no effective defence against ambitious noblemen. France is lost. In exchange England receives in Margaret of Anjou termagant disorder personified. Civil war follows, with every kind of allegiance broken in a rampage of murder and feud. York, as Edward IV, usurps Lancaster. Then York, as Richard of Gloucester, usurps York. Richard III is the anti-King, deformed, a multiple homicide, fratricide and infanticide, a rough boar (his heraldic crest) rooting up the state. Finally, even as evil is revealed as absolute, a thing in itself, Providence sends Henry Tudor to defeat the tyrant and inaugurate the Tudors' peace.

This exciting plot is a variant of the grand Christian melodrama that Shakespeare drew on, consciously or unconsciously, for the plots of most of his tragedies and tragi-comedies. The story begins with an offence against sacred obligation; its middle deals with its unhappy consequences, and the end either brings about or anticipates a restoration of happiness. The tale's original is the Christian story of the world's progress from creation to apocalypse; or perhaps one should say that the Christian story is the authoritative version in our culture of a tale which, in some versions, precedes it. The difference between the Christian version and others, whether foreshadowings, analogues or derivatives, is that the former (to those who believe it) is fact, the latter are fictions. Whatever may be the attitude of the ignorant or superstitious towards fictions, they are not matters of belief, but means of expression, ways of putting experience into a narrative form.

The purpose of the Christian narrative is action, not expression; its plot is meant to glorify God and save souls. Its events happen in the real world, its personæ are persons, its hero is simultaneously God and man. One of its characters, however, never appears in proper person; this is the antagonist. He is a fallen angel, a demon, a kind of infectious moral disease, and his prophesied incarnation as the Antichrist is one of the cloudier doctrines of Christian eschatology. The unreality of the antagonist is also a feature of the story's imitations, where he is usually a symbol of something dreadful or unpopular over which the hero can triumph. The imitations have their own special problems too, especially with the hero and the people he delivers. Who is to be cast in the redeemer's role, and how is he to act? There is an obvious difference between the pre-Christian hero, a beefy strong man who kills dragons and drives off marauders, and the post-Christian hero who leads his people through a last, apocalyptic battle to a new paradise. Probably neither the hero nor the people will be able to bear the weight of glory imputed to them. Christ's purpose is the saving of individual souls, not of empires, nations, professions, trades or any other kind of social organisation. The only society he recognises is the Church. Treating a nation or a race as types of the Church Militant, like treating its enemies as Antichrist, is a dangerous superstition, a form of idolatry. (One can monitor the idolising of the secular state and its doings in the imagery of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English poetry.)

The Tudors' application of the Christian theme to recent English history is the first major case, in England, of political propaganda, requiring at some point in its invention and transmission a conspiracy to lie (unless of course Henry VII really thought he was a man sent from God which, from what we know of his character, is very unlikely). Modern historians are right to call the Tudors' version of the events that brought them the crown the ‘Tudor myth’, a myth being by definition a lie. Such a propagandist tale was bound to cause difficulties for a dramatist aiming at neither melodrama nor propaganda, but at the imitation of life and character. On the one hand the myth is a ready-made way of organising a confused mass of material; on the other hand it falsifies the material by treating people as walking allegories and events as types of the absolute.

We find it hard to read the history plays with this sense of a difference between the human material and the organising myth. This is because the ‘Tudor myth’ has had a remarkable hold on the English imagination, outlasting many other historical traditions. Some school textbooks still date the beginning of modern England by the ‘watershed’ of 1485, and almost all Shakespeare's readers assume that he and his readers agreed with government propaganda. But this is unlikely on general grounds. Even if people's knowledge of written history derived from officially sanctioned chronicles, there were some less orthodox views in circulation, and there was always the tendency of men everywhere to think for themselves, even if only to themselves. In this connection the appearance is very interesting, in James I's reign, of two works rehabilitating Richard III. The Encomium of Richard III, ‘an oppressed and defamed king’, by Sir William Cornwallis, a member of Prince Henry's household, was addressed to John Donne. The History of the Life and Reign of Richard III was by Sir George Buc, a Master of the Revels, a man who, as censor of plays, had more incentive than most for brooding on the difference between truth and fiction. He is also a good example of the persistence of loyalty across generations; for his great-grandfather, Sir John Buc, was Comptroller of the Household to King Richard III. Sir John fought at Bosworth and was beheaded at Leicester after the battle. His wife was Margaret, daughter of Henry Saville. Saville and Buc were Yorkshire families, although Buc went south under the Howards' protection after the Yorkist débâcle.2

The use of national history to express national pride, whatever the political myth of the moment, is a very different thing from its use as propaganda for the régime, and as a matter of fact Shakespeare's histories though enthusiastically English are remarkably diffident on the subject of the Tudors. For one thing he kept off the subject, ending his histories in 1485; like Sir William Cornwallis and Sir George Buc he kept dangerous matter such as the subject of his Henry VIII until the reign of James I. For another, he kept his counsel. In the opening of Edward Hall's work the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York prompts a cascade of analogues of which the first is ‘the union of the Godhead to the manhood’.3 Parody could do no better. Shakespeare nowhere approaches that sort of thing; he pays the dynasty's founders no lavish compliments, and whenever his history plays were given a topical interpretation it seems to have been a subversive one.4

There is one example in Henry VI of a gratuitous compliment to Henry VII:

K. Hen. VI. Come hither, England's
hope. 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.

(III. Hen. VI, IV. vi. 68-74)

Henry VI's prophecy about young Henry Richmond is in Hall, but in the play it comes strangely at a time when Henry VI and his own son are enjoying a spell of prosperity. The lines are poor, even silly, and Dr Johnson, always sensitive to a false note, has a dry comment on the passage:

He was afterwards Henry VII. A man who put an end to the civil war of the two houses, but not otherwise remarkable for virtue. Shakespeare knew his trade. Henry VII was grandfather to Queen Elizabeth. …5

If the lines are Shakespeare's, they are evidence that thoughts of Henry VII did not heat his imagination. The histories, especially the earlier ones, have a number of such dead patches. Sometimes Shakespeare enlivened a dull part of his subject by ‘sending it up’, treating it in a burlesque manner; but sometimes, comic treatment being out of the question, he negligently cobbled together the necessary lines and left it at that.6

As soon as Shakespeare began to turn the Tudor story into drama, acting it out as a sequence of causes and effects embodied in characters and their motives, the shortcomings of the myth began to appear. Because the history, story or myth of English affairs from 1400 to 1485 was a ready-made fiction with heroes, villains, debates and dialectical battles, it must have translated quite easily into theatrical form; after all, allegorical moralities and typological mysteries had been the most popular theatrical genres until well into Shakespeare's lifetime. But as Thomas Nash's famous description of I Henry VI in performance tells us, the audience was more interested in character and life than in the mythical framework supporting them.7 The experience of the long series of plays, for author and audience, was bound to be a kind of enacted criticism of a style of drama as well as of the story it told.


Whoever plotted the three parts of Henry VI, whether Shakespeare or a committee, the series was conceived as a whole. The idea probable grew out of a practical wish on the actors' parts to develop their repertory in a way to keep an audience's interest. The epilogue to Henry V, written some ten years after Henry VI, implies that the later set of histories was an addition to a cycle still in the repertory. C. B. Young's statement that with Benson's production at Stratford in 1906, ‘the whole Henry VI trilogy was acted together for the first time in recorded history’,8 may be literally true, but is probably untrue in the only sense that matters; for the epilogue to Henry V proves that the whole eight-play set was performed in Shakespeare's time, whether the fact was recorded or not. The planning of the first trilogy, therefore, arose out of the audience's habit of theatre-going, which encouraged the dramatist to look for a large theme, one ready to hand and capable of animating a series of plays. The original idea in fact was probably to mount a secular, up-to-date version of the mystery cycles.

The overall theme of Henry VI is the weakening of government and the rising tide of civil disorder. The first, visible cause of this large event is the youth, then the incapacity, of Henry VI, but it makes its effects through a group of subsidiary causes that recur as motifs of all three plays: dissension among quarrelling noblemen; the ambition of Richard, Duke of York, which continues in his sons; breaches of loyalty between kindred; and (not much noticed hitherto) the disorderly rule of women. These motifs are all worked into I Henry VI, sometimes quite awkwardly.

The centre of interest in that play is dissension at home and the loss of France. It opens with Henry V's funeral procession, its stately ritual interrupted by a quarrel between Gloucester and Beaufort, by messengers telling of battles lost in France through misrule at home and cowardice in the field. During the Gloucester-Beaufort quarrel, the cardinal tells the duke, ‘Thy wife is proud; she holdeth thee in awe’ (I. i. 39). Since this is the only mention of the duchess in the play it looks like an irrelevant detail; but since the duchess's attempt to domineer over her husband and the kingdom are an important theme of II Henry VI, the two lines might be an example of authorial foresight. Once one is aware of the theme of female domination one sees that, like the quarrelling kinsmen and nobles, the mention of Eleanor starts a theme; and the single element that holds these separate themes in a unity, as a cantus firmus holds the voices in vocal polyphony, is the stage presence of the dead hero-king, Henry V.

Whatever the inadequacies of I Henry VI as a finished work of art, it shows from the first scene onwards a grasp of dramatic form. An example of this, more confidently treated than other parts of the play, is the episode in the Temple garden. Although bad feeling between Somerset (a Beaufort and Lancastrian) and York causes Talbot's defeat and death in Act IV, dynastic faction is not the plays' main theme until Gloucester's death in II Henry VI. Nonetheless the civil wars are the main subject of the trilogy; faction and the loss of France are the prelude to them, and the repeated symbol of the wars, from beginning to end, is the contrast of the red rose to the white. So Shakespeare invents a trivial quarrel upon an undisclosed point of law between young noblemen in a rose garden where, at Richard Plantagenet's invitation, they take sides by choosing roses, deciding the quarrel by numbers, not by right:

Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak,
In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts. 

(II. iv. 25-6)

For the rest of the scene, Shakespeare plays upon the portentous significance of these ‘dumb significants’, the white rose meaning among other things anger, death and fear, the red rose standing for confidence, wounds and modesty. Some of the lines have a strong, prophetic irony, like Vernon's:

Stay, lords and gentlemen, and pluck no more
Till you conclude that he upon whose side
The fewest roses are cropp’d from the tree
Shall yield the other in the right opinion. 

(ll. 39-42)

Should we realise that in a sense lives are being plucked, the young Shakespeare, as usual, does not leave us to form our own conclusion:

                                                                                This brawl today,
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. 

(ll. 124-7)

Rather poor lines, much too theatrically doom-laden in the close; but they touch on a paradoxical suggestion running all through the plays. By using the word ‘brawl’ for a quarrel which, as we have seen it, has had so much fire and grace in it, Warwick arouses in us a foreboding pity that so much spirit, passion and valour should go to destruction. The rose-symbolism contributes to this feeling because it usually suggests memories of girls and love-gardens, not a prospect of war. It is as if Chaucer's squire had suddenly turned into a hoodlum.

This scene and its successor in which the dying Mortimer bequeaths his right in the crown to Richard Plantagenet, soon to be Duke of York, proves that Henry VI was planned from the start as a tragic whole. As the roses have turned into symbols of violence, so royalty has become a curse. Being heir to the throne has ruined Mortimer, keeping him, ‘all [his] flow’ring youth’ (II. v. 56) in ‘a loathsome dungeon’. Mortimer's appeal to York's ambition, his injunction to him to be wary and politic, his own self-pity (however justified), all lay the ground for III Henry VI, introducing the ‘sense of injur’d merit’ which underlies the Yorkist cause. Young York is a flower, too, a rose, ‘sweet stem from York's great stock’ (l. 41). Mortimer's ‘fainting kiss’ (l. 40) is a quick visual emblem of the transmission of the blight from one generation to the next. This theme of some disease ruining all the accumulated wealth and promise of life brings out the true Shakespearean elegiac tone:

In prison hast thou spent a pilgrimage
And like a hermit overpass’d thy days. 

(ll. 116-17)

The theme and the imagery are Shakespeare's, and they are a sign of a shift away from conventional views of the story; it is being treated as a tragedy, not as a prelude to glory.

In general the formal design-work in I Henry VI is by no means so subtle; although theatrically effective, it does not have the imaginative warmth of the York-Mortimer scenes. For instance, the first two parts of the trilogy are somewhat arbitrarily linked. I Henry VI really ends with Talbot's death, the trial and condemnation of Joan of Arc, and the subsequent peace proposals, but Shakespeare prepares for II Henry VI by including Suffolk's guilty wooing of Margaret of Anjou in Act V. Another kind of schematic planning explains otherwise puzzling scenes. After the recapture of Orleans (II. ii), a messenger invites Talbot to visit the Countess of Auvergne. He goes, but the Countess has prepared a trap for him. Talbot however is ready for her. He blows his horn, his men make a rescue and the Countess apologises:

For I am sorry that with reverence
I did not entertain thee as thou art. 

(II. iii. 71-2)

Because of its lack of connection with anything else and its near buffoonery, this scene is a puzzle. If however one recognises the baleful influence of women as a running motif in Henry VI, then the scene makes sense; it is important that old Talbot, loyal to the King, to his companions and his soldiers, should be shown rising superior to the dangers signified by the Countess's invitation. Charles the Dauphin and the Earl of Suffolk both fail this test.

Although this is the meaning of the scene, it is not explicit. There is no chorus or ‘presenter’ to interpret it. We are left to reach our own conclusions from such things as the Countess's confession of irreverence or Talbot's explanation of his true identity (II. iii. 50-6, 63-6); and when we realise that the scene is an exemplum of manly valour controlling female temptations, we do so because the Joan of Arc episodes have shown that this is one of the play's themes, and also because we are so familiar with the idea that we need only a hint to recognise it. Such allegorical use of dramatic action was familiar to Shakespeare from the religious and moral drama of his youth. It is used so constantly in Henry VI, where it is the source of both plays' weaknesses and strengths, that it is probably the schematic principle according to which Shakespeare first designed the plot of the whole series.

This probably explains the slowness of post-Elizabethan readers to see any form or art at all in the plays' construction. The average reader takes up a history play as he would a history book or an historical novel, assuming that the principle of construction is the sequence of events and that the events chosen are, quite simply, the ones that are most important or provide most entertainment.

Read in expectation of character, incident and poetry, Henry VI can be a disappointment, and many a reader has turned to another play having come to the conclusion that these early histories are just ‘one thing after another’. This makes it all the more interesting that when scholars began to explain the dramatist's art its method became so obvious, once the chief principles had been grasped, as to be crude. Evidently the wrong thing had been looked for, as if people had gone to Byrd's Masses looking for good tunes. But what reading concealed, performance revealed. When Gloucester and Beaufort quarrel before the Tower and an affray breaks out between their servants, ‘blue coats’ and ‘tawny coats’, who can miss the simple visual symbolism of faction? In Act III, scene i, the servants' quarrel erupts into the parliament; and when in answer to the King's pleadings Gloucester and Beaufort agree to a peace, we are told that the truce is hypocritical. Exeter, ending the scene as chorus, is explicit:

This late dissension grown betwixt the peers
Burns under feigned ashes of forg’d love,
And will at last break out into a flame. 

(III. i. 189-91)

In the next scene Joan takes Rouen by stratagem, and her signal is thus described in the stage direction: ‘Enter La Pucelle on the top, thrusting out a torch burning.’ To the modern reader, disappointed that these events are mainly narrated, not explained, it comes as a happy discovery that Joan's torch is a version of the same destructive fire of misrule and disorder named by Exeter.9 With her diabolic agents and unchastity, Joan embodies ruinous, burning lust and rebellion, and in the theatre these correspondences are revealed in one swift, visually significant action.

The play's action unfolds in a sequence of such ‘shows’ of which the significance is continually being pointed out. This is why these plays, even the first of them, are so effective on the stage. The dramatist brings his action to the audience with every spectacular technique of staging available to him. The symbolic ‘show and tell’ method depends, however, upon the audience's recognition of the themes, and it is surprising how much, especially in I Henry VI, is taken for granted. Motives remain a mystery, and so do the actual issues of the debates and battles. Gloucester, Beaufort and the factions in the rose garden are mindless, quarrelling automata; and where it is necessary that a motive be explained, as in Burgundy's desertion of England, the effect is unsubtle.

Yet even this incident is a striking example of the dramatist's confidence in his ability to use the stage. Burgundy has only nine lines in which to explain his conversion to the French cause; and since there is nothing in Joan's arguments that could come as a surprise to him, one concludes that he has either been an ass all along or has suddenly become one. Perhaps the scene drew groans and catcalls from its first audiences; Burgundy's first two lines, spoken aside, are certainly an invitation to some kind of derisive comment:

Either she hath bewitch’d me with her words,
Or nature makes me suddenly relent. 

(III. iii. 58-9)

His second speech is also partly spoken aside, and the language is so absurd (‘… these haughty words of hers / Have batter’d me like roaring cannon-shot’) that we can be sure the audience is expected to laugh. Joan's comment on Burgundy's change of mind is ambiguous as well as spoken aside: ‘Done like a Frenchman!’ For a moment one wonders which is more French, his patriotism or his imbecility, but Joan clears the doubt in another aside: ‘Turn, and turn again.’ One can hear in the mind's ear the roar that greeted that remark.

Shakespeare is so confident of the audience's grasp of Joan's character and of the role of the French that he can take Joan right out of character in order to use her for a larger effect. He has diverted our attention from the ‘problem’ of Burgundy's motive, which may have been also a problem of his own technique, by making us laugh at the problem by means of the technique. He has used his very formal, stiff ‘show and tell’ methods for a burlesque caricature of his own limitations.

I Henry VI could be Shakespeare's first play, and in it Shakespeare's mastery of the medium and the audience, his superb confidence, are revealed simply, even barbarically, in sheer theatrical power. Because the meaning of the action, the significance of the shows and symbols, and the qualities of the characters are taken for granted, the play approaches demagoguery, being filled with common prejudices and heartlessnesses, and making its effect through continual playing on attitudes the spectators have brought into the theatre with them. The language hardly ever rises above the decorative and the rhetorical. But when it does, the tone is unmistakable, as in the Mortimer scene, or as in Talbot's

How are we park’d and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England's timorous deer. 

(IV. ii. 45-6)

The Burgundy scene shows another, equally Shakespearean quality; it is a foretaste of the virtuoso effects possible for a dramatist who is ready to expose his technique to an audience's lively sense of reality.


  1. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London and New York, 1960) III, pp. 16-17.

  2. C. J. Sisson (ed.), Thomas Lodge and Other Elizabethans (Cambridge, Mass., 1933) p. 415. Through his connection with Thomas Digges, Shakespeare could have known a distinguished Saville of his own time, the scholar and antiquary Thomas (Leslie Hotson, I, William Shakespeare [London, 1937] p. 123).

  3. Bullough, op. cit., III, p. 17.

  4. For King John, see below, pp. 93-4. Queen Elizabeth thought Richard II was a personal attack on her. Falstaff was interpreted as an anti-Protestant caricature (Ure, Richard II, p. lix; Thomas Fuller, Worthies [3 vols, London, 1840] II, p. 455; Church History [3 vols, London, 1837] I, p. 489).

  5. Arthur Sherbo (ed.), Johnson on Shakespeare (New Haven and London, 1968) p. 607.

  6. For an example of the comic style of treatment, see Richard II, v. iii; for an example of negligence, see Richard II, v. vi.

  7. Thomas Nashe, Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow (Oxford, 1958) I, p. 212: ‘How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.’

  8. J. Dover Wilson (ed.), III Henry VI (Cambridge, 1952) p. xliv.

  9. The basic account of the form of Henry VI is Hereward T. Price, Construction in Shakespeare (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1951). A. S. Cairncross (ed.), The First Part of King Henry VI (London, 1962) pp. xli et seq. gives an excellent analysis of the first part.

John W. Blanpied (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “The Henry VI Plays: In Pursuit of the Ground,” in Susquehanna University Studies, Vol. 10, 1978, pp. 197-209.

[In the essay below, Blanpied considers Shakespeare's dramatization of history in Henry VI, perceiving in the work's three parts a series of disintegrations that shape each subsequent play and ultimately culminate in the parodic figure of Richard.]

We see the ground whereon these woes do lie,
But the true ground of all these piteous woes
We cannot without circumstance descry.

Romeo and Juliet (V. 3. 180-2)

“In the beginning,” D. H. Lawrence begins a cosmogony myth, then pauses: “—there never was any beginning, but let it pass. We’ve got to make a start somehow.”1 Where we have got to start from is the ground, which we invent, or posit, and hope to make good on, as Shakespearean characters say, “in th’event.” Whether acknowledged or not, every reading of a text assumes a ground in one or another myth of composition. I want to make mine explicit from the start.

I think of Prospero shaking Miranda awake to go “visit Caliban, my slave, who never / Yields us kind answer,” then conjuring him forth from his hard rock and bidding him “Speak!” by a variety of abusive names: slave, tortoise, hag-seed, earth. Caliban enters, grumbling no kind answers indeed, and proceeds to prove himself still the “abhorred slave,” vile and unnurturable, who had exiled himself from Prospero's kindness by trying to rape Miranda, and so even now must be “prevented.” Thus, brought forth as the ground against which the circle of human kindredness can be closed, Caliban is dismissed to his hard rock outside Prospero's cell. Now Miranda is ready for her encounter with Ferdinand, to recognize his meaning as her future, her kind.

Prospero doesn’t invent Caliban, but he invents the relationship. Caliban is the necessary ground for Ariel's performances, which is to say for Prospero's wonderful and terrible fabrications. But in the end, once all his other shows are played out, this base fabrication must also be dissolved and acknowledged “mine.” For the language by which Caliban declares himself slave is Prospero's, and there finally are no answers which are not kind. Endowed with speech, Caliban has been forever transposed from brutishness—has been, as it were, dramatiized as ground. And once the ground has been incorporated in the drama, the drama cannot rest upon it. In the end, dismissing Caliban to “my cell,” Prospero leaves to us the vexing question as to what, if even Caliban is “mine,” could be not-mine, or other.

Clearly something must be. The fabricator could not possibly proceed without distinguishing what is his art from what is not. But in the act of discrimination he also makes what “is not,” and that act, separating form from formlessness, lays a kind of claim on him. Of course he may not acknowledge it; but Prospero, rather than denying formlessness outright, maintains it just outside, both as vexing threat to the “vanity of mine art,” and as a source of prodigious energy. In itself the ground remains inert; dramatized, it exerts a powerful disintegrative force, and will “people … This isle with Calibans” if not continuously prevented.

So much for my composition myth, my own grounds for proceeding with this essay, although I have no hopes of performing wonders. In fact I am keenly aware that like other critics I will be deploying at best a half-truth. When it comes to the history plays I know well enough that they are many things, and can be usefully approached in many ways. I am not out to dispute others' half-truths but to put forth one that interests me and that I think bears putting. Now, I believe it is clear that Shakespeare was serious about history in two ways. He was serious about the material, the subject, the themes of English history; this has been amply and persuasively demonstrated.2 But Shakespeare was also serious about the epistemology of history, about the idea of the “past,” whether it can be recovered and known except as a fabrication of the knower, and whether in drama, in particular, it might somehow be imaged truly, or only as an elegant illusion of the ever-dreaming present. Can the past, like Caliban, be visited, met, and known as sufficient grounds for authentic re-creation, credible fabrications, in the present? This second way of being serious about history is not really separable from the first, but it hasn’t been much dealt with.

Maybe for good reason. Because to pursue it requires me to invoke my composition myth and imagine Shakespeare in an active and evolving relationship with the materials of his own drama. I must picture him working and reworking that material through a unique and uniquely coherent sequence of nine English history plays, in pursuit of that elusive objective, the idea of the past as truly other, not-mine: the authentic ground from which true re-creation might go forward. Of course, not being God, Shakespeare will never find the “real” ground, and his plays will remain merely plays; but since he must make a start somehow, he posits origins. The sequence of plays forms a kind of history, or life-in-time, of its own; it represents a series of heuristic encounters between “history” and “play”—or rather versions of both. In the course of this sequence the dramatist lets his plays “sink” through one false ground after another. One play under-stands the last; the “nature” or ground assumed in one is disclosed by the next as the base fabrication. In this way the idea of the past is repeatedly re-imagined through evermore comprehensive and self-knowing forms of drama.


Left to themselves, things fall apart.

—Murphy's Fifth Law of Perversion

The sinking process can be observed most clearly in the Henry VI sequence, where the theme is disintegration; what makes these plays interesting to me is Shakespeare's willingness to let that material sound out the capacities of his art to deal with it truly. I see Part I as the enabling play, the Caliban of the histories, the necessary ground from which the “future” of the succeeding plays can be launched. I would go so far as to call it the anti-history, not because I suppose Shakespeare conceived it that way (probably quite the contrary) but because, given the imperatives of his pursuit of the ground, such a beginning turns out to have been necessary.

Let me lay down some bedrock of my own. In IV. 7, just after Talbot's death, the English messenger, Sir William Lucy, inquires into the hero's whereabouts by naming, in a speech of twelve lines, all sixteen of his titles. To which Joan de Pucelle retorts:

Here's a silly stately style indeed!
The Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this.
Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles,
Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet. 


Recently Edward Berry has argued that, despite modern proclivities, there is really no place here (or throughout the play generally) for “realistic” responses, the scene and the play being too rigidly governed by its “emblematic” mode.3 Joan, he argues, misses the mark in trying to identify Talbot with his corpse, just as the Countess of Auvergne did in seeking to trap the legendary “Talbot” in the mere “writhled shrimp” of a man. The name Talbot, and the ceremonial extensions of that name which Lucy lists, refer to a reality, or “substance,” that

                    were the whole frame here,
It is of such a spacious lofty pitch
Your roof were not sufficient to contain’t.

(II. 3. 54-6)

It is clear that “Talbot” is too big for the stage as well as for the Countess' room, and represented in both only faute de mieux by a rather wooden figure (or “silly dwarf”) not meant in itself to be very convincing—somewhat like the mighty events the Chorus of Henry V tells us can only be very poorly represented by a few “flat unraised spirits” on this wooden O. The difference is that the Chorus there asks us to make the spirits real in our imaginations, whereas the “emblematic” mode is defiantly non-illusionist. The reality lies elsewhere; the play can only celebrate it. Lucy celebrates Talbot, magically invoking his offstage reality be chanting his names. In a way, Talbot is best represented by his absence.

But I doubt if the play ever dispenses with naturalism absolutely, or that Shakespeare, even in this earliest of plays, confines himself so rigidly to a single set of conventions. If Joan were not at least partly right there would be no play at all, but only ritual re-enactment. In a small way, what Joan's jeer does, it seems to me, is to “force a play”: rather than asserting a claim of “realism,” it detaches Lucy's speech from its anchorage in an extra-dramatic reality. If only for a moment, if only by feeding our furtive desire for a “natural” response, she allows us to hear Lucy's celebration as an effort at celebration, his speech as a “style”: a bare list of titles momentarily referring to … perhaps nothing, and certainly nothing so dramatically present as the corpse itself. Really, though, it is not Talbot but Talbot's celebrant who is trapped here; for a moment the choric Lucy is revealed as a particular character, retorting to Joan in a shrill “could curses kill” mode:

O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!
O that I could but call these dead to life! 

(IV. 7. 79-81)

Rather than the celebrant's magical evocation by naming, this is the language of wishful magic that betrays its own impotence, and thus its user.

1 Henry VI presents us with a highly ritualized idea of the past—by which I mean that its images are deployed in what Gombrich calls a “context of action,”4 in this case a ceremonial or celebratory context. The play could almost be mistaken for a ritual, a patriotic pageant; it looks as if Thomas Nashe saw it like that.5 The broad frieze-like Morality-type characters, the declamatory style, the discrete unshaded scenes, the minimal narrative linkage, all convey a stiff non-naturalistic, non-representational idea: a monumental past, a reality elsewhere, magically evoked on this wooden O by ritual re-enactment of isolated and uniquely significant events from a kind of illo tempore: the first naming of roses, the death of Talbot, the coming of Margaret, and so on. The credibility of the drama lies in the firmness of its anchorage in that world elsewhere, outside: in the ground of the stable, original past.

Shakespeare like Prospero seems to go out of his way to establish this ground. As H. T. Price and, since then, others have made clear,6 the effect of primitive stiffness is the result of highly aggressive dramatic decisions: Shakespeare beats and bullies his Hall and Holinshed into these seemingly stony, opaque formations. It is as if he is determined, like Prospero, to make sure of his ground before trusting it as a spring-board into the “future” plays. Seeking re-creation, he must assume origins. But he will also be watching what happens to his “ground” as he subjects it to the pressure of his dramatizing imagination.

What happens to the monumental past as it is dramatized is articulated perfectly in the beginning of the next play. Gloucester is lamenting Henry's marriage to Margaret, but the note of bitter baffled grief is appropriate generally to Part I:

O peers of England, shameful is this league.
Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame,
Blotting your names from books of memory.
Rasing the characters of your renown,
Defacing monuments of conquered France,
Undoing all as all had never been! 

(2H6. I. 1. 96-101)

Timeless characters being unwritten, solid monuments dissolving, the whole heroic past decomposing at this very moment—and Gloucester, its celebrant, unable to do more than evoke it in its passing. As he speaks, the whole past of Part I melts into a kind of dream of the waking present. But in Part I as well, that queasy sense of instability, of dissolution of seemingly timeless forms, mocks and undermines the monumental postures from the start. Survivors helplessly invoke the vanished Henry V. Stability is always in the past, the present is always a waking up to find oneself falling through space. Messengers flood in with news of Talbot's capture, territories lost; the old men vow bloody retaliation, but the monument, “Henry V,” is gone, and all is being “undone” inexorably.

Talbot is the mainstay, not only of English fortunes in France, but of the monumental mode of the play, so if we would find the source of the general decomposition we should look to his undoing. But the fact is, Talbot is undone from the moment of his conception, the moment he is materialized from his sacramental “world elsewhere” and made to “speak” in the drama. What he bespeaks is a myth of timeless stability, an external order in which certain absolutes have been secured, not in history, but in “nature”: the rights of class, rank, and lineage; the sanctity and efficiency of oaths; the name, fame, and ideality of England. But such a myth is conceivable in drama only as the past, and knowable only in its passing; for drama itself is by its nature fluid, temporal, metamorphic, and unstable, and transpires in the present; it is always “already” in motion, consuming its grounds, unwriting its monumental characters. So no cause for dissolution is offered in the play; rather, the play itself is the cause: the generic act of dramatization, the ab-original separation of form from formlessness. Joan indeed misses the mark in calling the rotting corpse “Talbot,” but not because he is secure in a firmer reality, inaccessible to her, but because he is a ghost, a dramatic ghost. He exists in his passing; his function is to achieve apotheosis outside the play, storied in “the lither sky” (IV. 7. 21) and in the tombstone inscriptions Lucy has recited. His function is to be squandered, and the real “fraud of England” (IV. 4. 36) is the play's too-easy posture of moral indignation, its pretense of making Lucy its true spokesman. But I think it’s fair to say that Shakespeare seems more interested in the squandering than in the character himself, for once resolved into his elements of stone and air Talbot is never mentioned again.

To say that Shakespeare is interested in the squandering of Talbot simply means he is interested in the encounter between his play and its materials. In this encounter York acquires a faint but distinctive charisma which serves the same “detaching” function, vis-á-vis the play's monumental postures, as Joan's jeer. Endowed by Mortimer with a separate reality—a secret role in a private plot to reshape the future—York becomes the first character in the histories to have an interior life: a life, that is, separable not only from the public view of him, but from the prevailing rhetorical texture of the play's nearly uniform surface. Others' energies are declamatory; his are, potentially, those of secrecy, indirection, timing, and disguise, precisely the dramatic energies that mock heroic assertion.7 He is the double man, for now biding the hapless drift of public events, but meanwhile saying just enough to maintain his credibility as an actor: one who looks at experience as the materials of a drama, separate from himself, hence subject to his manipulation. From this special location near the center of dramatic realities York quickens our interest in the play itself, promising (it seems) to deliver over its secret, real operations. He is Talbot's true opposite, pointing forward from this fast-fading present toward a new “reality elsewhere” in the future: a future made credible, furthermore, because York begins to seem capable of transposing it from its wishful status in his head into the actual design of the forthcoming play.

Like Joan's jeer, the glimpses of York's separate reality give us a locus for those responses which the monumental style requires us to suppress; they bring the operations of the play a little closer to us, so we may see how much distance it “properly” demands for its heroic effects. There are other forms of erosion in the play, some clearly calculated, some probably inadvertent, but the general effect is of detachment from a ritualized “context of action.” Deprived of its presumed extra-dramatic grounding, the play is thrown into crisis, into what Bassanio (in another play and situation) calls a “wild of nothing”: the moment when there is no reality other than the play itself, no real past and no future other than what it can persuasively generate by speaking for itself.

Part I is the sacrificial drama; it plays through the myth of a sacramental reality “out there.” Does Shakespeare, like Gloucester, resent awaking from the dream of a heroic past, knowing the futility of trying to re-create it in the “vanity of mine art”? Such a doubt of art's power certainly sounds throughout the whole career of plays, and most eloquently in The Tempest. But Shakespeare at the beginning of his career must also have embraced with delight the opportunity to let his plays speak for themselves. Liberation from the context of action allows the playwright to address his next play much more directly to the imagination of his audience. And certainly, one of the first things to note about Part II is the far greater freedom, fluidity, and vitality of the dramatic process itself.


Whereas in Part I the past was conceived as existing somewhere “out there,” beyond the drama—in “France”—here the past is sought in the drama, right at home, and conceived as continuous with our experience via the medium of the play itself. The experience of historical disintegration is not separate from the experience of dramatic decomposition, rather the decomposition is incorporated as design. This designed “undoing,” furthermore, derives not from abstract forces outside the play, but from the confluence of human agencies within. Or so it appears at first.

This crucial difference between Parts I and II can be illustrated in the treatment of Henry VI himself. In Part I his role is largely negative, first his youth and later his insipidity amounting to the absence of a cohering center of power after the mysterious death of Henry V. In Part II Henry VI is present from the beginning, yet he characteristically speaks and acts as if he were, or wished he were, absent. In the opening scene his ceremonial praise of Margaret is foolishly inflated, and soon he hastily leaves the stage, as if embarrassed by the vacuity of his own public presence. In other words, what in Part I is a mute structural assumption, underlying the design, in Part II is incorporated into the play's design, so that decomposition is analyzed in terms of character. This is most vividly evident in III. 1, when Henry walks out of the parliament, leaving Gloucester to his “vowèd enemies.”

My lords, what to your wisdoms seemeth best
Do or undo, as if ourself were here.

Even Margaret is astonished:

What, will your highness leave the parliament?
Ay, Margaret. My heart is drowned with grief. … 

(III. 1. 195-8)

Up to this point Henry might be dismissed as the merely weak, self-pitying, but essentially innocent figure he appears to be in, say, the “bad quarto” of the play, The Contention. There he simply leaves the scene, as he says he will. But here he cannot resist a lingering portrayal of his impotence in an elaborate and grotesquely inappropriate conceit of the cow helpless to save her butcher-bound calf (210ff). The effect of course is to call our attention to the lengths to which he will go to evade direct action, to the depth of his will to passivity—a will so strong as to suggest tacit complicity in the conspiracy. For surely his performance here signals Margaret that she has leave to dispose of Gloucester, so long as it does not threaten the credibility of his own helplessness. But obviously, to dramatize one's own innocence is to acknowledge, at some level, that it has already been lost. One can only speculate as to the source and meaning of Henry's need for innocence. The point to emphasize here is that Shakespeare has made a weak character psychologically interesting, and through him has incorporated the decompositional processes of drama into the play's design. For Shakespeare makes it clear that Henry's failure to protect his Protector, and hence prevent the tide of violence unloosed by the murder, is not a matter of stars or witchcraft, but of human character.

Against the self-absenting Henry Shakespeare poses a self-inflating York, whose capabilities in Part I are here developed into a powerful shaping force. The sense of a graceful and unforced harmony of historical material and dramatic control is strongly suggested by the elegant structure of the opening scene. The flow of energy from Henry's broad public ceremony toward York's vulcanic monologue is schooled by a progressive narrowing of focus, as a succession of stage-exits by plotting and counterplotting nobles at last discloses York alone, at the center of things, free to flesh his private voice in his private plot. That plot is to play a role in others' intermediate intrigues, until in the end, the playing exhausted and Gloucester removed, York can openly claim Henry's place at the center of political power. What gives York his credibility is partly that he inherits a structure, the flow of disintegrative energy toward the center of dramatic vitality, that he can then appear to be controlling; partly it is the sheer authority of his voice, its mixture of biting self-consciousness and lurid self-inflation, its peculiar physicality, its muffled rage. In other words, York's credibility as a controlling force in the play derives from a dramatic charisma, or presence, that in turn depends upon his own sharp sense of separation from what he construes as his “real” or destined identity.

To this polarity of the pursuer and the pursued we should add Gloucester, the middle man, who through the sheer strength of his personal credibility maintains the communal values that eventually collapse in the contention of opposites. In rough outline this gives us what I would call the play's humanistic design: an attempt to contain the cultural disintegration and understand that theme as a product of fathomable human rivalries, accountable motivations, and an intelligible if fateful distribution of personal attributes.

But though it is an attractive design, I think it clearly fails to encompass a crucial dimension of the play's experience. This dimension is elusive, often written off as “texture” or “color,” and is certainly hard to describe briefly without growing aphoristic and dogmatic. I am thinking of the gathering momentum of violent energy that seems to rise almost autonomously off the body of the play's design: the obsessive self-destructiveness of Gloucester's enemies, York's maddened rage for destruction, Henry's elaborate strategies of disappearance; then the perverse rhetorical excesses of Margaret and Suffolk in Acts III and IV, followed by the explosive semi-comic fury of the Cade riot scenes. Perhaps the quality of the play's “undoing” is captured in the image of a grieving Margaret hugging Suffolk's severed head, while Henry distractedly hears news of Cade's advances (IV. 4). Cade, by the logic of the design, is York's surrogate and front-runner. But when York at last steps forth from behind his screen in Act V, to declare his “real” identity and seize his destiny—“Give place. By heaven, thou shalt rule no more / O’er him whom heaven created for thy ruler”—it is clear that he lays claim to a dramatic authority he no longer has. The play's disintegrative energies have swollen far beyond the “control” imagined in the opening scene and projected through the play's humanistic design.

The moment York ceases his “playing” and goes public he becomes uninteresting; he loses the advantage of his separate reality, and hardens into the mere postures of his bravura role. But by this time what we are seeing is no gratifying contention of opposites (as in Richard II) embracing between them the implications and meaning of a massive cultural breakdown. The contention that climaxes the design gives off none of that large intelligibility. Instead, we become aware that the main characters have dwindled to puppetry, playing out automatic and conventional roles in a little play which itself inhabits a large and ghostly drama only now beginning to suggest itself. The vaunt and swagger of York, Warwick, Somerset, and others reminds me a little of Antonio and Sebastian in The Tempest, plotting murder and unsurpation, while Prospero's large gaze reduces these hard-headed realists to puppets grasping at air. What comprehends the contention in 2 Henry VI, of course, is nothing so clear as Prospero. Rather, it is our own quickened perceptions of the greater drama that agitates but still eludes the lesser. We may say that “history” remains in abstract force, driving and controlling the characters, but still strangely shrouded, undisclosed and unincorporated by the play.

Against the emerging presence of this larger undelivered drama the humanized design of the inner play fades into a wishful dream of artistic control. Shakespeare's genius here is to allow the dream to dissolve rather than seeking ways to enhance its credibility. One can virtually feel that credibility draining toward a future authority as the sharp dramatic cunning of York, the careful weightiness of Gloucester, the absorbing issues of the play, grow strangely and swiftly distant, and now irrelevant. Shakespeare relinquishes the spurious ground of control in the play, allows it to disintegrate too; for no sooner does York make his challenge to Henry than the future is precipitated into a clarified and more naked confrontation among the new generation, Young Clifford with his programmatic passion (V.2. 50-60), Richard with his aphoristic efficiency: “Priests pray for enemies, but princes kill” (V.2. 71). What is sinister about the future here anticipated is not just the promise of new styles of savagery, but the coldness, the willingness of these agents to walk, eyes opened, into roles seemingly laid out for them by a fated future. The “historical” action thus sinks away from us into the remote fixity of chronicled events, unknown characters with no interior life, depicted in tableaus that seem to need no comment. Shakespeare, as if with a sigh, lets it go—relinquishes his artist's role of making chaos humanly intelligible, and follows it into the sodden depths of Part III.


The issue between artists and material has not yet been truly joined. The ground—that idea of the past as other than the artist's wishful fabrication—eludes him still, and bedevils his best efforts to disclose it through the natural processes of drama. So now, in his third attempt to truly imagine the sources of historical disintegration, he foregoes the myth of drama as a “naturally” intelligible form of human experience. In order to see how inchoate experience grows into what looks, retrospectively, fated—that “fixed future” into which the characters at the end of Part II lapse so easily—Shakespeare allows his drama to “sink” through the spurious ground of its own coherence, to fall back into its elements. In Part II coherence among character, speech, scenic structure, and unfolding design was maintained by an implicit faith in the distinctive meanings of experience: Gloucester's murder would reap clear and “natural” consequences. Now it is as if that faith had been withdrawn, the drama allowed to lapse onto the hopelessly passive “structure” of its chronicle sources. What becomes clear is the essentially shapeless character of that material: as if Caliban were allowed to roam at will, no longer visited, summoned, provoked into speech. So “history” in Part III becomes a mute, inert, abandoned landscape.

Of course the “molehill” episode (II. 5)—divided between Henry's pastoral monologue and the stylized “death masque” of the fathers and sons—seems to afford a privileged view of the play from the vantage of an external ground; if Shakespeare thus makes a choral commentary on his chaotic material, how can I claim he has allowed it to sink toward the critical “wild of nothing” where it must contrive to speak for itself? I haven’t space here to do much more than contend that in fact the molehill episode projects the play's helplessness as an extreme form of its passive disintegration: Henry's wishful innocence mirroring (to borrow Ulysses's phrase) the “mere oppugnancy” of the warring sides, the static monologue mirroring the static masque, the glazed immobility of the scene as a whole answered by the equally helpless frenzy of the retreat (125ff). It is a complex scene, and not unmoving, but it conspicuously fails to achieve what it offers, a transfiguring vision, and instead manages to generate only images of its own futility.

The play falls asunder, broadly speaking, into two parts. On one hand we have the “historical” landscape—detritus of endless battles, broken oaths and reconfigured alliances, a confusion of scenes and events repeated from this or the earlier plays, but now carried out as if by a weary, perfunctory, obligation. Though there is great vehemence, it freezes us out. The opening scene gives us the gangster humor of people reduced to heads and blood, not blood as pedigree, that stubborn fiction, but lifeblood: the synecdoche collapsed to the literal: Here are my gracious lords of Wiltshire and Somerset. The bloody napkin and paper crown with which York is later taunted undergo this reduction, too, both simultaneously symbols and naked props, equally significant or insignificant. Chivalric manners are stripped from this brute war to reveal a brute play, with little energy to maintain the pretenses that our credulity or even our interest requires. The greater the fury of activity, the din of threat, defiance, appeal, the more helplessly imitative it all seems; the freedom to break and reknit oaths and loyalties becomes mere puppetry (as the scene of Warwick's French embassy illustrates). Rather than semi-autonomous mediators between us and that “past” they inhabit, the characters have become outcroppings of their context, powerless to know, let alone transfigure it. Detached, we witness with growing coldness the play's passive matter receding in ever-diminishing circles.

That is a rough caricature of half the play. On the other hand we have, of course, Richard, or more precisely the emergence of the “new” Richard, as, with his exultant cry of self-recognition, he bursts fully malformed into life (III.2). How we understand the play may depend on how we understand this emergence. Is it to be explained naturalistically, thematically, or as a revival of Shakespeare's waning interest in his material? In my view the perfunctoriness of the first half of the play is volitional; from its own “thorny woods” the play calls forth a shaping consciousness as acute and radical as the “history” has grown passive, flaccid, shapeless. That is, Richard as shaper is tempted into being, into embodiment in the play.

What he promises is nothing less than the ability to shape “history” to his own liking, in his own image: he promises, that is, what the molehill vision so signally fails to do, to completely transfigure the inert landscape of history. Richard's appearance is such a relief we are not likely, for the moment, to challenge him. Out of silence and distance he steps forward to command a corrupt and exhausted language, and to renew the credibility and vitality of drama, the potency of its emptied conventions of pretense, disguise, indirection. He can promise us this renewal because his claim is so radical: he will “make” his heaven (148, 168) rather than walk into it as York hoped to do. And unlike his father, his appetite for playmaking is unsullied by rationalizations of his motives: the prerogatives of birth, concern for England's welfare, the self-evident necessity of mythic fulfillment, insofar as they color his will at all, are more-or-less efficacious conventions, to be seized upon and used. He claims his destiny not as deserving hero, but as fabricating freak (153ff). Seeming to have created his “new” self, he will also create the future by an act of radical definition:

And this word ‘love’ which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me. I am myself alone. 

(V. 6. 81-3)

In the course of the plays all “divine” or privileged meanings have been exhausted; willingly, willfully, Richard embodies their exhaustion. Nothing stands exempt from his creative powers. He looks upon the entire world as his stage, his woods, the materials of his drama. Opposing Self to World, he makes all that is not “myself” his ground. We may say that he makes the world of the Henry VI plays “mine.”

This is an outrageously hyperbolical parody of the artist, of course, claiming the power to re-create the known world of the past in his drama. But the energetic force of his posture within the play carries over to us outside the play in such a way as to credit, temporarily, the hyperbole. He rescues the play by breaking out of its diminishing circles of repetitions, redelivering it to us as a promise of a future, a promise not abstract, but anchored now, in the present moment of the play.

I’m passing over the obvious—Richard's diabolical dimension. But he gives us the enormous relief of seeming at long last to confront in bodily form the bedevilling ghost of the plays' dissociations. He for whom there is no distinction between dramatic and historical power promises to eat his “bloody supper” (V. 5. 85) wide awake, to run this nightmare comedy to its real conclusions. In the next play, then, Shakespeare can test out the terrific temptations of such a promise. For now it is enough that there will be a next play. He has not encountered the ground of his material; instead he has flushed out a deeply parodic image of himself, who has yet to be exorcised. But at least he has been located, and bodied forth.


Prospero didn’t father Caliban, just their relationship. Shakespeare didn’t invent the past, but he discovers that it “exists” only in terms of relationships. A lesser dramatist might have written three plays about the reign of Henry VI just because “that’s the way it happened,” one part following another because there’s more to be said. But Shakespeare's plays are above all a sequence of relationships, and each new play is a distinctive attempt to comprehend the ground of the last. Part I grounds its faith in an extra-dramatic “past,” Part II seeks grounds in the nature of “play,” and Part III, relinquishing both kinds of faith, discloses a nightmare version of the playwright himself. Once that parody is played out, the decompositional phase of the overall sequence will give way to the generative, but the principle of relationship remains constant. To be meaningful, for its internal life to be credible, a play requires closure; but to be intelligible it must open outward to its audience. I see Shakespeare's histories as a series of closed forms spiralling outward toward the future, which inevitably is us, now: Prospero's heirs.


  1. Fantasia of the Unconscious (New York, 1960), p. 63.

  2. For instance, Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), especially the first chapter (“The Artist as Historian”), generally, p. 22 specifically.

  3. Patterns of Decay (Charlottesville, 1975), pp. 17-20.

  4. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study of the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York, 1960), pp. 110-11, 206; cf. p. 141.

  5. In Pierce Penniless Thomas Nashe celebrated the spectacle of “brave Talbot … after he had lyne two hundred years in his Tombe … fresh bleeding” on the stage. The play as ritual re-enactment.

  6. H. T. Price, Construction in Shakespeare (Ann Arbor, 1951); “others” would prominently include J. P. Brockbank's widely reprinted essay, “The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI,Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 3: Early Shakespeare, eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1961).

  7. This comes close to Sigurd Burckhardt's central point in “‘I Am But the Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI,Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968).

    I have used The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage.

Randall Martin (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Elizabethan Civic Pageantry in Henry VI,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 2, Winter, 1990, pp. 244-64.

[In the essay below, Martin surveys Shakespeare's use of the emblems of Elizabethan civic pageantry to create his “reinterpretive presentation of history” in Henry VI.]

At the point in Henry VI Part One where the private quarrel between Somerset and York is about to turn into open conflict marking the start of the Wars of the Roses, their respective supporters Vernon and Basset ask the king to arbitrate between wearing either red or white roses as badges of dynastic superiority. Henry spurns their dispute as frivolous, however, and demonstrates his point by casually plucking the closest rose to hand:

I see no reason if I wear this rose, [Putting on a red rose.]
That any one should therefore be suspicious
I more incline to Somerset than York:
Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both … 
But your discretions better can persuade
Than I am able to instruct or teach. … 

(1 Henry VI, IV.i.152-9)1

He calls upon the rival factions instead to unite against the French and then departs with his counsellors, leaving Warwick to soothe York by explaining that Henry was trying to be conciliatory and really intended no show of partiality by his choice. York cuts short an angry outburst and exits with everybody except Exeter, who remains on stage to interpret as any ‘simple man’ would the dangers implied by Henry's performance and York's reaction:

’Tis much when sceptres are in children's hands;
But more when envy breeds unkind division:
There comes the ruin, there begins confusion. 


The interplay among characters at this crucial moment in Shakespeare's historical trilogy—Vernon and Basset presenting rival political claims under apparently trivial guises, Henry replying unwittingly in a symbolic act, Warwick and York watching and judging both performances, and Exeter commenting on all—recalls the typical dramatic relationship among stage-performers, actor-watchers, and general spectators of Elizabethan civic pageantry. Shakespeare's audience, familiar with the conventions of contemporary figures performing in city pageants as part of their general political consciousness, would have recognized Henry's mistake in abdicating the leading role that Vernon, Basset, and the others expect of him. His ignorance of the power of political gesture and naïve attitude towards audience interpretation stand in contrast to Elizabeth's calculated and well-publicized reactions to civic pageants. As an actor-watcher progressing through the city, she would encounter various shows and respond to them in ways that left no doubt among spectators about either the single-mindedness of her policies or her willingness to assert them. During the 1559 coronation procession, for example, Elizabeth encountered five scaffold-stations on her way to Westminster. At the third of these, after watching a pageant depicting two commonwealths, one flourishing, another decayed, Elizabeth was presented with an English Bible by a figure representing Truth. Reception of it was clearly intended to signal her attitude towards reformed religion and thus indicate which commonwealth her policies would promote: ‘as soone as she had receiued the booke, [she] kyssed it, and with both her handes held vp the same, and so laid it vpon her brest, with great thankes to the cities therefor.’2 Here, as at all other stations, Elizabeth signified her agreement with the pageant's message by her conspicuous gestures and extemporaneous responses, as noted with approval by the recorder of the day's events and, apparently, the street audience.

This is one of several places where Shakespeare draws on civic pageantry's characteristic style of scenic choreography, and in this paper I wish to study his use of it in the three parts of Henry VI. At some points Shakespeare's borrowings represent straightforward approaches to staging historically recurrent public rituals. As such these scenes gratify an audience's familiar association of certain symbolic roles and gestures with conventional political and social meanings. But at other times Shakespeare dislocates this association by using pageant forms to enact historical events which are neither predetermined nor predictable. The resulting clash between apparently assured form and spontaneous action challenges the idea of inherent meaning in the forms themselves, and perhaps an audience's received understanding of the event as well. Moreover, Shakespeare found in pageantry's representational language, officially designed to impose a single authoritative meaning on a political or social subject, an underlying capacity for multiple signification and generative conflict which he exploited when dramatizing Tudor chronicle history to lay open its single-perspective thematic and ideological presentation to plural interpretation.3 And from a wider perspective pageant modes contribute significantly to the entire mosaic of verbal styles and theatrical genres Shakespeare manipulates in Henry VI to create the ‘multi-voiced dramatic spectrum’ characteristic of his whole artistic practice.4 Although Part One may have been written later than Parts Two and Three, it seems to contain the clearest examples of Shakespeare (or him and others) drawing directly on pageant devices and imitating their emblematic manner of representation.5 This is not to say, however, that Henry VI's theatrical sequence parallels pageantry's historical development from static tableaux with set speeches to quasi-dramatic exchanges of dialogue and action.6 In fact Shakespeare uses both rigid and freer pageant forms in all three plays. Nonetheless, Parts Two and Three take these forms further away from models of thematically linked episodes and typological characterization towards a complex dramatic narrative constituting a reinterpretive presentation of history.

It is not my intention to be exhaustive; rather I shall concentrate on the relationship between Henry VI and two aspects of Elizabethan pageantry: the dynamic generated by a scene's performance, actor-watcher and larger audience, either in stationary or processional form; and the pageant triumph.

It is not surprising that many of the basic stage structures—castles, forts, mountains, ships—used (and reused) to mount royal-entry or mayors' pageants in London and the provinces suggest stability and even impregnability. For in terms of how pageants use visual and aural languages to address their audiences, they can be seen as a series of interlocking and defensive layers of signification. Elizabethan shows were mechanically ingenious and profusely ornate, yet their intended messages were rarely ambiguous.7 Whether concerned with lauding the Queen or an incoming lord mayor for promoting peace, order, or unity, or instructing them on appropriate policies to maintain these, praise, advice and/or warnings were presented through explicit historical, mythological, and allegorical representation. Allegory in particular demanded explicitness because of its potential for generating variant interpretations among independent watchers and listeners, and in reading the comparatively few written accounts of Elizabethan pageants one senses in these shows a virtual obsession with clarity. To try to restrict diversity of public response, pageants treated signification quantifiably, equating authority of expression with duplication of representation. Tableaux were framed with copious verbal and written explanations to repeat the signification of visual display and thus fix as far as possible a single political or social lesson. On the coronation procession's ‘seate of worthie gouernance’ pageant, for example, each personage depicting a vice or virtue had

not onlie their names in plaine and perfit writing set vpon their breastes easelie to be read of all, but also euery [sic] of them was aptelie and properlie apparelled, so that his apparell and name did agree to express the same person, that in title he represented. Euery voide place was furnished with proper sentences commending the seate supported by vertues, and defacing the vices. (The Quenes Maiesties Passage, Biiiv-Biiiir)

Some of these ‘annotations’ were recited by participating figures, others left to convey their messages silently. Besides these aural and inscribed languages of the show itself, a presenter in the stage's forefront introduced the pageant as Elizabeth approached, interspersed verbal commentary, summed up its moral message, and underlined its thematic contribution to the day's events as a whole.8

This consciously didactic design, intended to focus and contain public interpretation, is complemented by the stage relationship between tableaux being performed and their several audiences. By her physical placement between the show and the street observers as both its thematic focus and a participant through her verbal and physical responses, Elizabeth became a crucial mediator and thus an active contributor to a pageant's total generation of meaning. She served to clarify political ideology as the chief authority empowering its common currency, and provided an orthodox interpretation of its representation for a mass audience. Her courtiers could also play actor-watcher roles and exercise a similar authoritative function. For two days at Bristol in 1574 a pageant representing ‘ciuill broyle’ staged mock battles with forces of War (spurred by Dissension) attacking a fort called Feeble Policy. On the third day, some of Elizabeth's courtiers, bringing her relief of ‘mutual loue and agreement,’ joined in the defence and converted the fort into a bastion of Peace.9

Both these characteristic elements of presentation evidently provided Shakespeare with ideas when he came to stage either historical events for which no dramatic situation was given or suggested in the chronicles, or invented scenes which imaginatively flesh out received historical records. He clearly has in mind a presenter's role, for example, when he has Exeter deliver part-choric, part-didactic speeches directly to the audience at the end of III.i and IV.i. York appears in the same light when pronouncing an embittered eulogy for the deceased Mortimer (II. V), while Lucy moralizes openly at the end of IV.iii after failing to persuade York to co-operate with Somerset by sending aid to Talbot:

Thus, while the vulture of sedition
Feeds on the bosom of such great commanders,
Sleeping neglection doth betray to loss
The conquest of our scarce-cold conqueror,
That ever-living man of memory,
Henry the Fifth. Whiles they each other cross,
Lives, honours, lands, and all, hurry to loss. 


These characters remain individualized in so far as their observations arise from the preceding action, but in their identical placement at the end of each scene and drawing out of moral implications they sustain the effect of a universalizing gloss, subordinating the impact of individual events to a controlling theme announced in the play's first scene: internal dissension at home leading to national shame and lost conquests abroad.

Yet Shakespearian characters performing such roles operate in a different context from their pageant counterparts, and thus create different theatrical effects. The heavy-handedness one senses about Exeter or Lucy's commentary in Part One would be mitigated by certain practical concerns in the performance of civic shows. First, the vast street-crowds made pageants noisy affairs, causing Elizabeth difficulty in hearing performers speak. By giving her the gist of a show's meaning, a presenter allowed Elizabeth to respond appropriately for the instruction of her wider audience. Second, allegorical tableaux of royal-entry pageants portrayed figures from many different sources, again creating a potential for confused or variant interpretation among ‘simple’ spectators. As early as Henry VI's return to London from Paris in 1432, royal entries combined elements from biblical, legendary, political, and local trade-guild history.10 Classical elements were added later and became especially prominent in lord mayors' shows towards the end of the sixteenth century. To unify these around a single political theme, presents were as useful as the usual written explanations. Such a context does not obtain for Shakespeare's plays, however, where the chronicle material is not dominantly allegorical. As a result, 1 Henry VI's use of quasi-presenting characters becomes obtrusive and tends to isolate scenes into episodes. By thus impeding transitions in a narrative sequence, it limits an audience's freedom to interpret historical moments variously or dialectically. In the Second and Third Parts, on the other hand, while characters continue to appear at the close of scenes addressing comments to the audience, they appear less often and in changed roles. The First Gentleman's exclamation after witnessing the execution of Suffolk (‘O barbarous and bloody spectacle!’ [2 Henry VI, IV.i.144]) prefaces his plans for carrying Suffolk's body back to Henry and Margaret but does not grow into a homily. So too in 3 Henry VI, III.iii.256ff, Warwick vents his fury after being duped by Edward's surprise marriage and reaffirms his intention to back the Lancastrians' return to power. In both instances the speeches impel an audience into new considerations and look forward to coming action, whereas the equivalent ones in Part One reiterate obvious implications and retard the dramatic sequence. The later speeches also mark a change in the nature of the subject being presented. As in the pageants, the presenting style of speech focuses audience interest on the utterance itself as a subject rather than the (usually emblematized) figure speaking, whereas those in Parts Two and Three throw attention on the character as a subject in his own right, possessing an independent personal consciousness which may conflict with public statements he or she makes elsewhere.11 In other places Shakespeare's transformation of such pageant roles goes further. When in Part Two York lingers at the end of I.i and III.i to announce his political goals, his tone is confidential rather than declamatory. More than anybody else to this point in the trilogy, he expresses his emotions and ambitions in what is now recognizably a soliloquy, through which we can gauge his superior acumen in comparison to political rivals. Nonetheless York's speeches, as in comparable passages by vice figures in morality plays (to which Part Two is partly indebted), remain colloquies with an abstract presence in the theatre; we are eavesdroppers on his plans, not accomplices. It is not until Richard of Gloucester's soliloquies in Part Three (III.ii and that an audience is actualized as participants when Richard cajoles our complicity by providing us with his own psychological case history. And Shakespeare goes beyond the first two plays' quasi-presenting roles (and York's morality antecedents) to develop an ironic twist: Richard's impudent defiance towards the ethically bound audience his direct appeals have realized in the theatre.

Similar changes occur between Part One and Parts Two and Three as Shakespeare arranges physical stage movements in imitation of the multiple performer-watcher relationships of civic pageantry. In one instance—Eleanor Cobham's public penance in 2 Henry VI—the chronicles themselves suggest some kind of pageant staging. Stow records that Eleanor walked in a four-day procession through London, ‘at all which times the Maior, Sherifes, and Craftes of London, receyued and accompanyed hir.’12 Before it comes into view in II.iv, Gloucester introduces the approaching spectacle and directs his servants to give their attention. Eleanor then enters as a ‘wonder and a pointing-stock’ walking barefoot in a white shift and carrying a taper before the ‘giddy multitudes’ who offer their mock solicitude. (Neither the Quarto nor the Folio directions make provision for spectators, despite Eleanor's explicit references; the BBC production, however, had them fleering from galleries.) Earlier she had vowed to win a part in ‘Fortune's pageant,’ discontented with social definition in terms of her husband's ‘base and humble mind’ (I.ii.61-7). Rather than the sovereign role she expects, however, Hume's betrayal merely redefines the nature of her subjection, and by drawing attention to her humiliation she in effect acts as presenter of her own show, rather like her appearance in another Fortune's pageant, The Mirror for Magistrates.13 Moreover, with papers of accusation pinned to her back, she becomes one of the play's several stage motifs of ‘betraying parchment’ as well as a public warning for Gloucester, now watching and responding as an on-stage audience.14

Shakespeare makes different use of this kind of framed scene for the two Keepers' seizure of King Henry in Part Three. As they lie waiting in a covert, Henry passes by in disguise from his captivity in Scotland. The Keepers overhear him describing Margaret and Warwick pleading before King Lewis in terms which sound very much like the performance of a dumb-show:

… Margaret may win him,
For she’s a woman to be pitied much:
Her sighs will make a battery in his breast;
Her tears will pierce into a marble heart;
The tiger will be mild whiles she doth mourn;
And Nero will be tainted with remorse,
To hear and see her plaints, her brinish tears.
Ay, but she’s come to beg, Warwick to give;
She on his left side craving aid for Henry:
He on his right, asking a wife for Edward.
She weeps, and says her Henry is depos’d:
He smiles, and says his Edward is install’d;
That she, poor wretch, for grief can speak no more;
Whiles Warwick tells his title, smooths the wrong,
Infereth arguments of mighty strength,
And in conclusion wins the King from her. … 


Henry's tableau, with its emotionally exaggerated gestures, recalls the one staged earlier on the evils of civil war (II.v) where a Son who has killed his Father laments on one side of Henry, while a Father who has killed his Son does so on the other, the king acting as the focus of their performances and moralizing them for the audience. Commentators often remark upon this scene's connections with morality-play themes and language, yet its stylized presentation also shares affinities with pageant staging. The neat symmetrical action used to sharpen moral states is reminiscent of the coronation pageant's polarized representations of Mary Tudor's reign and Elizabeth's:

And in the same pageaunt was aduaunced two hylles or mountaynes of conuenient heyghte. The one of them beyng on the North syde … was made cragged, barreyn, and stonye, in the whiche was erected one tree, artificiallye made, all withered and deadde, with braunches accordinglye. And vnder the same tree at the foote thereof, sate one in homely and rude apparell crokedlye, and in mournyng maner, hauynge ouer hys headde in a table, written in Laten and Englyshe, hys name, whiche was Ruinosa Respublica, a decayed common weale. … The other hylle on the South syde was made fayre, freshe, grene, and beawtifull, the grounde thereof full of flowres and beawtie, and on the same was erected also one tree very freshe and fayre, vnder the whiche, stoode vprighte one freshe personage well apparylled and appoynted, whose name also was written bothe in Englyshe and Laten, whiche was, Respublica bene instituta. A Florishyng commonweale. (The Quenes Maiesties Passage, Ciiiv-Ciiiir)

Despite the similar dramatic conception of II.v and III.i, however, Henry's imagined tableau represents a historical event, not a symbolic one. So when Shakespeare stages the episode of Margaret, Warwick, and Lewis in III.iii, it is at odds with the scenic blueprint Henry has apparently carried over from his participation in II.v. Neither Margaret nor Warwick speaks in the stilted manner Henry imagines, nor do their actions simply mimic one another. Although Warwick initially wins Lewis's support on behalf of Edward, he immediately reverses himself after receiving news of the king's marriage to Lady Grey. This scene pointedly discredits Henry's reductive presentation—and conventionalized grasp—of political events, and therefore the stabilizing and idealizing premises underlying it. Instead Shakespeare turns history away from premeditated (and pre-ideologized) stage metaphors towards a dramatic narrative where mutating sequences of scenic forms signify resistance to determinacy and imply a view of the past that merges inherited facts and interpretation with destabilizing particularity, without resort to subduing the latter under a controlling theme or myth.

Shakespeare takes this development further by using the same scenic unit again in IV.v. This time Richard, Hastings, and Stanley lie waiting for Edward to pass by hunting in the Archbishop of York's park, where Warwick has confined him. Although the opening visual arrangement is identical to III.i, and thus leads an audience to anticipate its action working in the same way, the scene fails to develop simply as another ambush because, as Richard explains, Edward knows beforehand of their coming; he merely walks up to his friends on cue.15 Shakespeare reveals his original form, initially useful for giving dramatic shape to bare chronicle detail, to be obsolete as he foregrounds its staginess and allows it to be overtaken by an event which is historically accurate but dramatically banal. His use of scenic repetition in III.i and IV.v observes pageantry's typical strategy of accumulating meaning across visually congruent shows to outline an overriding theme (cf The Quenes Maiesties Passage, Div). But where this pageant structure is intended to close audience interpretation, the way Shakespeare reveals his scenic forms to have changeable validity opens possibilities for diverse readings of events and creates overall a metacritical perspective on his presentation of history. This last scene's instability also contributes to what Philip Brockbank calls the feeling of ‘pantomime’ throughout acts III and IV as kings are swapped back and forth.16 Through patently mechanical stage action Shakespeare represents the devaluation of sovereignty as a suprapolitical quality.

Besides the instances of comparatively fixed stage placement I have been considering so far, Henry VI also incorporates certain processional pageant forms. Again it is Part One, when approaching the problem of bodying forth static chronicle events, that borrows such structures most directly. One instance is Hall's account of Burgundy's defection from the English. He records that after Henry had laid claim to all France and Bedford had become suspicious of his loyalties, Burgundy switched allegiances to Charles VIII after concluding that the English would no longer ensure him independent authority in his own regions.17 Shakespeare's staging suggests Burgundy's mixed motivations by using Joan, in a processional scenic unit, as their catalyst. After being repulsed from Rouen, the French approach Burgundy for help by following Joan's scenario (III.iii.17-20). Two processions cross the stage, first the English led by Talbot, then a ‘French March’ with Burgundy. As the latter passes, Joan calls for a parley and asks him to work his imagination from a fresh perspective to visualize the surrounding devastation:

Look on thy country, look on fertile France,
And see the cities and the towns defac’d
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 edged sword another way;
Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those that help! 


Though she ultimately wins over Burgundy, her victory is ironic since it remains unclear whether he is responding more to what he calls Joan's ‘bewitching’ manner—her emotional and sexual suggestiveness in this fictitious encounter—or her words' rational appeal to ‘natural’ loyalties and self-interest—the chronicles' explanation for Burgundy's reversal. Like the encounter between Margaret and Suffolk in Part One, the one corresponds with Shakespeare's sense of the event's underdeterminacy in the face of scant received facts, the other with his sense of its conventional interpretation. Both significations jostle in an uneasy balance, resisting interpretive certainty.

Shakespeare repeats this type of interrupted processional movement in Part Three, V.i, when Oxford, Montague, and Somerset march by the Yorkists with their colours to join Warwick within the walls of Coventry. Clarence follows them across the stage and is plucked aside by Edward and Richard, who remind him of his wonted family allegiance. In keeping with the increasingly arbitrary reversals throughout this play's third and fourth acts, Clarence switches sides almost instantly and histrionically flings his red rose at Warwick, having succumbed to Richard's old Vice-trick of charming his ear with secret whispers. Shakespeare mediates the rationalized content of this scene through a hybrid stage form—part pageant, part morality—associated with ostensible surprises in action yet stability of moral meaning.

These encounters between moving watchers and entreating bystanders are basic to all royal pageants: Elizabeth proceeds en route until an actor-presenter attracts her attention and draws her aside to consider a new show: ‘ye Queenes maiestie … marched towarde Tēple barre. But at S. Dunstones where the childrē of thospitall wer appointed to stāde with their gouernours, her grace perceiuīg a childe offred to make an oracion vnto her, staied her chariot’ (The Quenes Maiesties Passage, Diiiir-v). On this occasion the hospital children presented Elizabeth with petitions for charity towards the poor, as people in the streets had done earlier in the day; both times Richard Mulcaster reports that Elizabeth paused, listened attentively, and made sympathetic replies, thereby suggesting several interpretations for onlookers. Her street chat and acceptance of petitions emblematize the oft-invoked social contract between ruler and subject, while her sympathetic responses serve to sustain the political fiction that direct contact between Elizabeth and her people always results in a natural concord, with the queen acting to redress grievances over the heads of her mulish counsellors. At the end of his written account, Mulcaster specially praises Elizabeth's reactions in this regard (as well as her calculated reception of the English Bible), explaining that they display the most ancient of princely virtues.

Shakespeare uses this kind of encounter in Part Two to introduce Peter and Horner the Armourer, who will later take part in the (historical) combat at II.iii over allegations of York's treason. At the beginning of I.iii they and other Petitioners line the street to solicit the Duke of Gloucester's support for their grievances. ‘Good Duke Humphrey’ is associated with legal redress and written bills throughout Parts One and Two, as when in the former play Winchester tears up his petitions to King Henry (III.i). Part Two's scene stages this action in procession. Unfortunately, instead of Gloucester, Suffolk and Margaret walk by, with the Petitioners recognizing their mistake too late. Suffolk (perhaps Margaret too—the directions are ambiguous) tears up their requests and belittles their attempt to seek justice publicly (I.iii.6-40). By failing to follow through with the conventional scenario, Suffolk and Margaret send out the opposite signals from a performance like Elizabeth's and redirect orthodox political assumptions by seizing control of their normal public-display patterns. By Part Two, thwarting the expected outcome of conventional stage forms becomes characteristic of the way Shakespeare uses dramatic metaphors to re-enact historical and political change in Henry VI, allowing him to win independence over the thematic hegemony of contemporary chronicles. Henry's inability to invent or direct theatrical scenarios to assert political authority thus stands in negative relation to the playwright's facility and is compounded by his increasing diffidence towards managing any kind of symbolic display, either as the show itself or as its thematic focus. Ultimately he resigns the representation of royal power to Warwick and Clarence as joint Protectors. His last public gesture (3 Henry VI, is a prophecy over young Richmond, suggesting that at this point all he can do is try to project a moral determinacy on to future events, being unable to master human conflict in the present.

Shakespeare underlines the credibility of Margaret's participation in an otherwise exclusively male contest for power through demonstrations of her dramatic inventiveness and stamina: even at the end of the trilogy she is able to conjure up an elaborate verbal tableau of a storm-tossed ship to allegorize the state of Lancastrian fortunes and rouse her troops a final time before Tewkesbury (V.iv.3ff). In her opening ‘quid for quo’ encounter with Suffolk, on the other hand, when he temporarily ignores her by speaking to the audience as a kind of presenter, Margaret challenges his privileged claim on the audience's attention by addressing it directly herself, turning Suffolk into an alternative show which she presents (‘Perhaps I shall by rescu’d by the French; / And then I need not crave his courtesy’). Her assertion of political dominance through audience mastery occurs most notably in the climactic baiting of York in Part Three, I.iv. Here political rivalry is objectified by competing stage scenarios. After setting York bound on a molehill, Margaret vilifies him as a political scapegoat, his fury acting as self-evident confirmation of guilt. But York rejects this role, presenting himself as a man of sorrows and ritualizing his victimization through gestures and instruments suggestive of the Passion (as hinted by Holinshed's description of the scene). He thus forges an associative link with Clifford's slaughter of the innocent Rutland (I.iii) and rebounds cumulative responsibility on his tormentors. As the scene's competing presenter, Margaret fails to mediate York's performance to elicit a uniform reaction from either the on-stage audience (Northumberland weeps in sympathy for York) or the theatrical one (judging from the comments of most critics). Her final resort to violence with Clifford becomes an implicit acknowledgment of York's theatrical victory and, despite his death, his faction's political ascendancy.

Besides this encounter, York's manipulation of pageant-related scenic forms as a validating expression of power is as telling as Margaret's. A straightforward instance occurs in the Temple Garden scene of Part One, where the connection between its stylized quarrel using red and white roses and pageant decoration has long been noted.18 But while this performance in ‘dumb dignificants’ respresents a dynastic contest, reversing for historical purposes the Elizabethan association of roses with unity, there is nothing in the emblems themselves to challenge the conventional basis of lineal descent and social hierarchy on which Somerset and York dispute their claims. There is only Vernon's remark that the limited available number of roses is incompatible with their use in freely representing notional values.

One can then compare this scene's presentation with that at the beginning of Part Three to see how Shakespeare redeploys stage emblems to signal a changed basis for reckoning authority. In the opening scene the Yorkists enter from the battle of St Alban's wearing white roses in their hats and start to vie for the duke's praise by describing their success in battle. Edward boasts of Buckingham's destruction, ‘I cleft his beaver with a downright blow: / That this is true, father, behold his blood’ (12-13), while Falconbridge shows his zeal by showing off the Earl of Wiltshire's blood. Never to be outdone in such business, Richard coolly steps up and tosses down Somerset's head—‘Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did’—to take first prize in this little contest: ‘Richard hath best deserv’d of all my sons.’ From this point on the ground of Part Three is continually drinking in blood, which becomes the play's dominant visual and verbal image.19 And in dramatic terms Shakespeare seems to validate the subversive implication of Vernon's earlier comment: the basis for asserting political authority and family heritage now becomes quantifiable as blood spilt, reducing the notional value of blood descent and its conventional stage symbols to mere cyphers.

York's political ‘seduction’ of Jack Cade and Cade's subsequent uprising are framed by Part Two's context of court intrigue to appear like a popular interlude. It is well known that Shakespeare's conception of these scenes draws by analogy on Holinshed's accounts of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 as well as the anonymous Life and Death of Jack Strawe, printed in 1593/4. Straw also appears as a figure in the Lord Mayor's pageant installing John Allot in 1590, since Allot's guild association as a fishmonger connected him to William Walworth, the lord mayor who originally slew Straw. Bullough includes Thomas Nelson's device of the pageant in his collection of sources for the play, describing it as a ‘very remote analogue.’20 A closer and more topical one for the opening Cade scene, however, may exist in a rising which took place during the summer of 1591, the same time Shakespeare is believed to have written Part Two. It concerns what contemporary reporters describe as the ‘pageant’ or ‘tragedy’ of William Hacket, a former manservant who advertised himself as an apocalyptic prophet and reformer, eventually claiming to be the messiah and king of all Europe. On the morning of 16 July 1591, Edmund Coppinger and Henry Arthington, having previously helped Hacket prepare anti-Catholic and anti-government pamphlets, were charged by him to go out in the streets and proclaim his allegedly divine mission. In the respective roles of Mercy and Judgment they proceeded from Broken Wharf collecting a huge crowd, so that ‘being quickely blowen through the citie, all was in a buzze.’21 Coppinger and Arthington mounted a cart at the cross in Cheapside to preach Hacket's creed of religious extremism and benevolent despotism. Later in the day two counsellors dispatched by the Queen from Greenwich arrived with the mayor and his officials to arrest Coppinger and Arthington, and afterwards did the same for Hacket. Hacket was tried and went to the gallows on 28 July before a mass crowd, furiously denouncing his opponents. Coppinger starved to death in jail soon after, while Arthington saved his life by writing an abject confession of his ‘seduction.’22

Hacket's spectacular conspiracy was the most notable public event in London that summer, so it is tempting to see it as a general analogue for the Cade scenes.23 There may also be specific connections with several non-historical details Shakespeare attributes to Cade. Like Hacket, Cade rests his extraordinary claims and descent partly on his ability to endure extremities of physical pain,24 and vows reformation of the commonwealth by advocating a republican utopia without titles or degrees where all commodities are held in common.25 A contemporary report ridicules Hacket's social background just as Dick the Butcher mocks Cade's, and also states that Coppinger and Arthington attracted a greater ‘concourse of the common multitude’ than had ever been seen in London streets.26 This is suggestive of the Folio stage direction, considered to be Shakespearian, calling for ‘infinite numbers’ to accompany Cade. Moreover, when Iden confronts and kills him in IV.x, Cade like Hacket is defiantly unrepentent, conceding that he has been defeated only by going hungry.27 Shakespeare may have transferred this detail to Cade from Coppinger, who died in Bridewell prison after allegedly ‘wilfully’ abstaining ‘from meate (as is said) seuen or eight daies together.’ If Hacket's rising is seen as a topical analogy for Cade's, it reveals Shakespeare drawing directly on spontaneous contemporary street shows for his scenic ideas as well as official public spectacles.

The last pageant form I wish to consider is the triumph, which during the 1580s and 1590s influenced the conception of literary and public spectacle considerably.28 We can again start with a contemporary illustration of the general form: the Queen's visit to Lady Russell at Bisham in 1592. Upon approaching the house, Elizabeth was greeted by a pageant of Pan wooing two virgin shepherdesses on a hill. The latter reject Pan's blandishments, instead directing his attention to a worthier subject:

This way commeth the Queene of this Islande, the wonder of the world, and natures glory, leading affections in fetters, Virginities slaues: embracing mildnes with Iustice, Maiesties twinns. … One hande she stretcheth to Fraunce, to weaken Rebels; the other to Flaunders, to strengthen Religion; her heart to both Countries, her vertues to all. This is shee at whom Enuie hath shott all her arrowes, and now for anger broke her bow. …29

The shepherdess portrays Elizabeth's arrival as the triumphal entry of Chastity, gesturing to allegorized representations of her virtues and achievements. Characteristically, this description combines the familiar classical grouping of a conqueror leading enthralled prisoners and battle trophies with personified virtues and vices substituted for historical figures. The Renaissance origins of this hybrid form lie in Petrarch's collection of verse portraits, Trionfi, which celebrate spiritual love in a procession of allegorical figures: Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Divinity. All appear in chariots drawn by beasts, successively subduing the preceding figure and her throngs. Although Petrarch's poem was widely translated, the triumph motif spread in European literature and art chiefly through visual reproductions, gradually losing direct contact with Petrarch's poem. All six triumphs are portrayed at Hampton Court in a series of tapestries, for instance, while Fame appears in two pageants already cited, the first day at Bristol in 1574 and the 1590 Lord Mayor's show.30 Other figures were added to Petrarch's originals according to local artistic interests. In England, Fortune and its related de casibus theme, which came under the aegis of Death, became very popular triumph devices,31 while Death itself took on elements from the medieval danse macabre to influence funeral pageantry.32 By the end of the 1580s The Arte of English Poesie was able to define the ‘triumphall’ as both a literary and pageant genre celebrating three kinds of events: national peace, victories over foreign enemies, and ‘solemne feasts and pompes’ such as coronations, instalments to civic honours, marriages, and births.33 Shakespeare has in mind the second type of event when staging Edward's return from Barnet in Part Three: ‘Flourish. Enter King Edward in triumph, with Richard, George and the rest. Thus far our fortune keeps an upward course, / And we are grac’d with wreaths of victory’ (V.ii.1-2). He also perhaps alludes to the conventional sequence of Death, Fortune, and Fame by placing Warwick's death, with its contemptus mundi overtones, immediately before this scene while following it with Margaret's argument to her forces that their glory will be that much greater, they having managed to fight beyond present misfortunes. In Part Two, York's return from Ireland to claim the throne falls under The Arte's third category when he imagines himself the centrepiece of a royal-entry triumph, with appropriate public festivities and symbolic instruments of sovereignty:

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. 


Likewise, Edward proposes celebrating the defeat of his enemies at the end of Part Three with ‘stately triumphs, mirthful comic shows’ (V.vii.43). But here his suggestion is heavily ironic, since Richard has fixed the theme of the coming mise en scène with the Judas kiss he gives the infant prince.

In these instances Shakespeare uses the triumph as a practical device for staging action implied by historical events themselves. But in other places he encourages us to see such events as moments when historical characters merge with emblematic figures regularly represented in Elizabethan pageant triumphs, sometimes resulting in ironic theatrical effects. Joan La Pucelle's appearance in the first act of Part One, for example, deliberately recalls the frequent public celebrations of Elizabeth as virgin queen and national deliverer. Initially Joan is introduced as the shepherd's daughter of legendary history, transfigured by the Virgin's call to lead the French out of captivity. She foils Charles's ruse of disguising his identity and subdues him in single combat, whereupon he likens her to an Amazon and another Deborah. The former figure appeared often in Elizabethan pageantry personifying Chastity or acting as one of her lieutenants. Moreover, Joan's overthrow of Charles can be compared directly with a pageant presented to Elizabeth at Norwich in 1578 which staged a dialogue and combat between Cupid and Chastity. Cupid presented himself to Elizabeth, explaining how he and Venus had been exiled from Heaven, when suddenly Dame Chastity appeared with her four martial maids, Modesty, Temperance, Good Exercise, and Shamefastness. They ejected him from his chariot, declaring their weapons to be the spiritual armour of virtue, and Chastity then presented Cupid's bow to the Queen.34 The action of this quasi-dramatic piece corresponds exactly with I.ii, although Shakespeare reveals Charles's figurative quality as Joan's adversary only after he is overthrown: ‘Impatiently I burn with thy desire; / My heart and hands thou hast at once subdu’d’ (108-9). Joan defends herself with lines that could have been written for Chastity at Norwich: ‘I must not yield to any rites of love, / For my profession's sacred from above’ (112-13). Shakespeare's audience could also have made a connection between Elizabeth and Joan through the figure of Deborah, another of the Queen's typological personas: Elizabeth was represented as ‘Debora the iudge and restorer of the house of Israel’ on the final scaffold of the coronation procession and in the second pageant at Norwich.35 Joan continues her Amazonian role by easily holding Talbot at bay in I.iv (though in typically English fashion he demonizes her as a witch) and in leading the successful French relief of Orleans, where she enters in triumph as ‘Astraea's daughter’ with explicit references to popular pageant festivities: ‘Why ring not bells aloud throughout the town? / Dauphin, command the citizens make bonfires / And feast and banquet in the open streets / To celebrate the joy that God has given us’ ( As Frances Yates has shown, Astraea was Elizabeth's imperial persona signifying the joint virtues of Chastity and Justice; as such she appeared in George Peele's Descensus Astraeae, written for the installation of William Webbe as lord mayor in 1592.37

Yet Part One's inconsistent characterization of Joan very soon displaces any single allegorical interpretation. In particular, her portrayal in the last act as a necromancing whore shatters the composite Elizabethan image and so discredits its pageant-typological mode of signification, since it is unable to assimilate historical traits to a thematically mediated personality. In other words, it cannot accommodate the contradictions Shakespeare found in the chronicle accounts and continue credibly to essentialize Joan's character; instead it adds alien voices to create the kind of pluralist presentation Shakespeare recognized as genuinely historical.

Part One's major pageant motif, however, is the triumph of Death, although like the presentation of Joan its thematic dominance eventually fragments into the various emblematic perspectives of Parts Two and Three. Shakespeare alludes to Death's power or realizes it in the form of funeral rites more often than any other emblem in the trilogy, and until the end of act IV it consistently accents the play's helter-skelter events in a way that parallels the moralizing observations of quasi-presenters such as Exeter and Lucy. In the opening scene the triumph-of-death motif mocks the English effort to glorify Henry's memory by conserving his heroic achievements:

Upon a wooden coffen we attend;
And Death's dishonourable victory
We with our stately presence glorify,
Like captives bound to a triumphant car. 


Here, despite a crowded stage of mourners and a dizzying flow of bad news from France, the funeral bier acts as a visual loadstone, its heraldic instruments set off by black drapery hung around the stage in imitation of contemporary funeral practice.38 Yet for the participants its totemic power apparently diminishes through successive bickerings and exits, so that by the end of the scene it is borne out virtually forgotten.39 Bedford's and others' attempts to assign transcendent value to Henry V's exploits is therefore shattered not only by the Death emblem Exeter sees reflected in the funeral cortège but also by the lords' bustling assertion of private political agendas. While like any Elizabethan funeral the implied purpose of this moment is to affirm lineal and political succession as part of an eternal natural order, its symbolic shading and dislocated ritual exposes such a connection as purely contingent. Moreover, it is this redefined value rather than any compelling heroical inheritance that Shakespeare then projects into the play as ritual displays of dead and dying men recur. When Bedford opens the funeral of Salisbury with words echoing those proclaimed over Henry V, he reverses the priority of light and dark:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!


The day begins to break, and night is fled,
Whose pitchy mantle over-veil’d the earth.


But the coffin on stage acts as a visual reminder of Exeter's earlier triumph-of-death conjuration, as do the scene's formal movements: Salisbury's coffin is carried in, his reputation eulogized, and like Henry V the coffin is borne out unremarked upon after the Countess of Auvergne's invitation to Talbot has diverted attention from the ceremony.40 Three scenes later the dying Mortimer is brought forth in a sick-chair to rehearse his pedigree and sanction Richard Plantagenet's claim to Richard II's inheritance. The moment's solemnity is heightened by contrast with the factious energy of those before and after—in the Temple Garden and continuing jars between Winchester and Gloucester—but also again dislocated by Richard's sardonic eulogy which co-opts Mortimer's dynastic and moral energy towards redress of his own wounded pride. The dying Bedford is also carried sick in a chair before the walls of Rouen in III.ii to rouse the English troops, a situation repeating Mortimer's desire to infuse heroic energy into his battle-heirs. But this hope is also cut down, this time by Joan's redefinition of the moment, both vigorously allegorical and flatly realistic: ‘What will you do, good grey-beard? Break a lance / And run a tilt at Death within a chair?” (III.ii.50-1). And in what is now a familiar sequence of movements, Bedford dies and is carried out after witnessing the French defeat, is promised a worthy funeral and then eulogized. Beyond this point and towards the climactic battle near Bordeaux, Shakespeare intensifies Death's emblematic presence with verbal texturing so that by IV.vii ‘Triumphant Death, smear’d with captivity’ almost becomes a tangible entity:

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-favour’d Death,
Speak to thy father ere thou yield thy breath!
Brave 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. 


As Talbot ‘enhearses’ his son's body in his arms, he strikes a final pose in Death's gallery, inscribed by Lucy's memorializing (and marmorealizing) epitaph (60-71). This moment also marks the climactic confrontation between Part One's two opposing scenic impulses: iconic historical representation, and documentary history re-presented in mutable stage forms generating counter-interpretive perspectives: ‘Here is a silly-stately style indeed! … Him that thou magnifiest with all these titles, / Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet’ (72-6). With the introduction of new business concerning Somerset and Margaret in preparation for Parts Two and Three, Shakespeare switches triumph devices from Death to Fortune, yet now only as a periodic leitmotif and not the powerful and linear emblematic force of Part One.41


  1. Shakespeare, 1 Henry VI, ed Andrew S. Cairncross (London: Methuen 1962). All quotations are taken from this edition, as well as Cairncross's Part Two (1957) and Part Three (1964).

  2. [Richard Mulcaster], The Quenes Maiesties Passage through the Citie of London to Westminster the Day before her Coronacion, facsimile edition, ed James M. Osborn (1558; New Haven: Yale University Press 1960), Ciiiiv-Dir. This pageant ‘epitomizes the chief characteristics to be found in all royal entries and represents a high achievement of this dramatic form’ (David M. Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 [Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1971], 12).

  3. Besides Bergeron, previous studies I have found useful include Sidney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969); Gordon Kipling, ‘Triumphal Drama: Form in English Civic Pageantry,’ Renaissance Drama, 8 (1977), 37-56; Michael Neill, ‘“Exeunt with a Dead March:” Funeral Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage,’ Stephen Orgel, ‘Making Greatness Familiar,’ and Bruce R. Smith, ‘Pageants into Play: Shakespeare's Three Perspectives on Idea and Image,’ all in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, ed David M. Bergeron (Athens: University of Georgia Press 1985); John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 4 vols (1823; New York: Kraus Reprint Company [n.d.]); Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London: Thames and Hudson 1977); Robert Withington, English Pageantry: An Historical Outline, 2 vols (1918-20; New York: B. Blom 1963); Alice S. Venezky, Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage (New York: Twayne 1951).

  4. Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1977), 15. See also Jones's four chapters on Henry VI.

  5. The older view that Part One is a collaboration has been revived by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1987), 217-19. They suggest that Parts Two and Three may also be collaborative, 175-8, 197-9.

  6. Bergeron, 4-5.

  7. Bergeron observes that the show presented to Elizabeth at Bristol in 1573 costing around £1,000 was typical of contemporary expenditure on royal pageants, while that for lord mayors rose from £151 in 1561 to £747 by 1602 (English Civic Pageantry, 26-7, 126-37). Mechanical sophistication is evident from the earliest pageants; e.g. Charles V's visit to London in 1522, when a tableau representing England contained moving animals and fishes (Withington, I, 177). For a general discussion of stage structures and properties see Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 3 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1959-81, vol 1 rev 1980), II, pt 1, 209-25.

  8. Smith discusses the presenter's role in ‘Pageants into Play,’ 225-6.

  9. Thomas Churchyard, The First Parte of Churchyardes Chippes (London, 1575), fol 100v-101r. Also Nichols, I, 396-407.

  10. Withington, I, 141-7.

  11. Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London and New York: Methuen 1985), 42-54.

  12. John Stow, The Chronicles of England (London, 1580), 646.

  13. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed Lily B. Campbell (1938; New York: Barnes and Noble 1960), 432-44.

  14. Although this detail, referred to at line 31 and by the Quarto stage direction, does not derive from Shakespeare's identified chronicle sources, it was a common part of the public humiliation of criminals. Stow's Annales of England (London, 1592) records the case of Thomas Lovelace, who was indicted in 1586 for forging letters implicating his cousins in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth by which he hoped to inherit their lands. As punishment Lovelace was carried on horseback with ‘a paper on his backe, wherein to be written: For counterfeiting of false and trecherous letters against his own kindred containing most trayterous matter against his maiesties person’ to the pillory at Westminster where his ear was cut off. His ‘progress’ continued to pillories in Cheapside, Kent, Rochester, and Canterbury, ‘and at euery the foresaid places, the order taken touching his offence, to be openly read’ (1218).

  15. The BBC production conveyed this effectively by having Richard, Hastings, and Stanley begin downstage in the same corridor frame where the Keepers overheard Henry in III.ix.

  16. J. P. Brockbank, ‘The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI’ Early Shakespeare, ed John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (1961; New York: St Martin's Press 1966), 93.

  17. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (London, 1548), cviv, 147.

  18. The first show of the 1559 coronation pageant consisted of a genealogical tree intertwined with red and white roses depicting the ‘vniting of the two houses of Lancastre and Yorke,’ mounted on a castle with child actors in its niches playing the principal figures of each House (The Quenes Maiesties Passage, Aiiiiv-Biiir). The same emblematic red and white roses were used at Norwich in 1578. See Thomas Churchyard, The Ioyfull Receyuing of the Queenes most excellent Maiestie into hir Highness Citie of Norwich (London, 1578), 380. Also Venezky, 110-11.

  19. The word ‘blood’ or related forms occurs fifty-three times in Part Three; compare Macbeth's thirty-seven times.

  20. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 6 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1960), III, 91.

  21. Richard Cosin, Conspiracie, for Pretended Reformation: viz. Presbyteriall Discipline (London, 1592), 59. Also Stow, Annales, 1289.

  22. The Sedvction of Arthington by Hacket especiallie … Written by the said Henrie Arthington, the third person, in that woful Tragedy (London, 1592).

  23. Brents Stirling proposed a connection between Hacket and Cade in The Populace in Shakespeare (1949; New York: Columbia University Press 1965), 105-19, but dwelt solely on the Puritan-Anabaptist motivations he claimed Cade's rebellion was alluding to. Part Two, however, makes little or no suggestion of religion as a motivating factor; if any analogy exists between Hacket's conspiracy and the play it lies in the scenic dynamic of a popular uprising. Jane Howells's 1981 BBC television production was especially suggestive in this regard, having Cade perform a demagogue's role from an elevated platform.

  24. III.i.376-9, IV.ii.53-6; Cosin, 24-5, Arthington, 12-13.

  25. IV.ii.61-6; Cosin, 34.

  26. IV.ii.31-50; Cosin, 2-6, 56.

  27. For further discussion of the play's open-ended view of Cade's rebellion, see Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater (New York and London: Methuen 1985), 89-90.

  28. Lord Morley's Tryumphes of Fraunces Petrarcke, ed D. D. Carnicelli (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 1971). My historical information is indebted to Carnicelli's introduction, especially pp 54ff, and Venezky, 188-205.

  29. Speeches Delivered to Her Maiestie this Last Progresse, at the Right Honorable the Lady Rvssells, at Bissam … (Oxford, 1592), Aiiiv. Also Nichols, III, 134.

  30. Three of the Hampton tapestries are reproduced in plates 7-9 of Carnicelli's edition.

  31. Venezky, 124.

  32. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death (New York: Knopf 1981), 118-19, and Neill, ‘“Exeunt with a Dead March,”’ 162-5.

  33. The Arte of English Poesie, ed G. D. Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1936), ch xxiii, ‘The forme of Poeticall reioysings,’ 45-6.

  34. Thomas Churchyard, A Discovrse of the Queenes Maiesties Entertainement in Suffolk and Norffolk (London, 1578), Div-Diiv; Nichols, II, 188-98. See also the entertainment at Sudeley in 1592 depicting a conflict between Daphne and Apollo, where Daphne flees to Elizabeth, ‘for whither should Chastety fly for succour, but to the Queene of Chastety’ (Nichols, III, 139).

  35. The Quenes Maiesties Passage, Diiir-v; Churchyard, The Ioyfull Receyuing, 383; Anglo, Spectacle, 354; Strong, 134.

  36. ‘In his speech praising Pucelle, the Dauphin incorporates such elements of the street shows as Astraea, the garden, the pyramid, and the assurance of everlasting fame for the one honored. In addition, further well-known features of the civic celebrations are ordered—bonfires, pealing of bells, and feasting in the streets’ (Venezky, 124).

  37. The Life and Minor Works of George Peele, ed David P. Horne (New Haven: Yale University Press 1952), 214-19; Frances Yates, Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century (1975; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1977), 66.

  38. As Michael Neill observes (‘“Exeunt with a Dead March,”’ 162), while the explicit connection between Elizabethan funeral pageantry and stage representation is not always determinable, records such as Shakespeare's company's place in the funeral procession of their patron Lord Hunsdon in 1596 make it likely.

  39. Cairncross inserts a direction for the coffin's removal at line 45 which does not exist in the authoritative Folio text and is inconsistent with lines 62-4; ‘Before dead Henry's corse / Speak softly, or the loss of those great towns / Will make him burst his lead and rise from death.’

  40. Again the Folio requires the coffin to remain on stage throughout the scene.

  41. This paper was presented at a seminar on Henry VI during the 1989 meeting of Shakespeare Association of America and has benefited from comments by Phyllis Rackin, Linda Micheli, and Michael Bristol.

Alan C. Dessen (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Stagecraft and Imagery in Shakespeare's Henry VI,” in Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 65-79.

[In the essay below, Dessen argues for the integrity of the Henry VI plays based upon the possibilities offered by theatrical interpretation.]

When dealing with Shakespeare's Henry VI on the page or on the stage, a critic, an editor, or a director immediately confronts the question of the integrity of the three plays as they have survived in the two quartos (among the earliest of Shakespeare's works to appear in print) and the First Folio (where Part One first appears). Since the eighteenth century, scholars and theatrical professionals have shown little confidence in or enthusiasm for these histories as intact entities, worthy of analysis as discrete units, but rather have either lumped them together as one item that can be dealt with summarily or raided them so as to appropriate detachable elements that suit the interpreter's agendas. For example, directors often graft Richard of Gloucester's speeches from Part Three on to Richard III (the Olivier movie is the best known but by no means the only instance); several recent scholars have written tellingly about Joan de Pucelle;1 and other distinctive parts have been singled out for attention or analysis, with one line (‘The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers’, 2 Henry VI, IV. 2. 70)2 achieving a cult status. Admittedly, starting in the 1960s and 1970s a few academic critics have argued forcefully on behalf of thematic or imagist integrity;3 at least two directors (Terry Hands, Jane Howell) have treated the scripts with respect. But for the most part both scholars and theatrical professionals (weaned on standards and assumptions derived from subsequent plays in the canon) have only intermittent interest in this trilogy other than as context for Richard III.

The reasons for such neglect or atomization are no secret. For the academic critic, the interpretative tools that for generations have worked well for later Shakespeare plays, whether for analysis of ‘character’, imagery, or structure, do not provide satisfying results when applied to Henry VI. As to the latter, the Elizabethan fondness for episodic structure or multiple unity here collides with a post-Elizabethan prizing of concentration and subordination of elements (as seen also in comparable discomfort among critics with the rebel scenes in 2 Henry IV or the Aumerle rebellion in Richard II). Despite a long series of apologias (starting in the early 1950s with H. T. Price),4 interpreters have therefore sensed formlessness rather than coherence in this trilogy (a problem only ‘solved’ with the emergence of Richard of Gloucester as a focal figure).

Such an introduction, as a reader of scholarly essays will recognize, is a prelude to The Answer, a formulation that will set the record straight now and forever so that The Problem will no longer bother future readers. Sadly (for I would be delighted to set things aright), such is not the case, for I lack the insights that would enable me to descend from Mount Sinai to deliver the reader of these plays to the promised land. Rather, I offer a paradox linked to a closed loop, a version of the infamous hermeneutic circle. Thus, perhaps more than with any other group of Shakespeare plays, the key to each of the three parts of Henry VI as a discrete unit, a play with its own distinctive shape and rationale (regardless of the interpretation eventually to be drawn from that shape and rationale), lies in the play as an onstage event, the play as seen-heard rather than the play-as-read (and few will quarrel with the limitations of this trilogy as plays-to-be-read). Such a claim, in turn, usually leads to a paeon on behalf of performance-oriented interpretation. That approach, however (although now much in fashion), is keyed to often unexamined assumptions drawn from twentieth-century theatre, whereas the rationale behind Elizabethan staging (especially in the early 1590s when that rationale was still taking shape) can be different, in ways both subtle and obvious, from what we take for granted today. In my terms, Shakespeare, his fellow players, and his playgoers shared a theatrical vocabulary accessible, even obvious, then but easily blurred or eclipsed today.

Paradoxically, one consequence of this situation is that the staging of these three plays in our theatres rather than helping to bridge this gap in our understanding can instead widen it (so as to become part of the problem rather than part of the solution). When treating these plays as playscripts to be enacted by modern actors before today's audiences, theatrical professionals inevitably make many adjustments that in turn eliminate or blur elements important for the original strategy. My point is not to fault actors and directors (who to survive must take into account the theatrical vocabulary they share with their paying customers and whose negative attitude towards these plays has been heavily conditioned by critics, scholars, and editors) but rather to lament that what can be a valuable tool for investigating other scripts (seeing the play-on-the-page come to life on the stage) is often denied the would-be interpreter of Henry VI.

Two recent and highly visible productions can serve as instructive paradigms. Both Michael Bogdanov (English Shakespeare Company 1987-88) and Adrian Noble (Royal Shakespeare Company 1988-89) elected to present the first tetralogy to their audiences by condensing four plays into three, with Richard III standing alone and the three parts of Henry VI compressed into two plays (the ESC's plays were entitled The House of Lancaster and The House of York, the RSC's Henry VI and The Rise of Edward IV). The choices necessitated when setting up such compressed versions of event-filled history plays can then be instructive (e.g., what is deemed essential versus what is treated as disposable), especially in the context of the commercial and artistic success of the RSC's 1977-78 Terry Hands Henry VI trilogy (played ‘warts and all’ with few cuts) and the significant achievement of Jane Howell's first tetralogy for the BBC's ‘The Shakespeare Plays’ (one of the strongest items in that series). The plays are do-able, as demonstrated by Hands (along with Alan Howard, Helen Mirren, Emrys James, Peter McEnery, Julian Glover, and others),5 Howell, and Pat Patton (whose Part Three in 1977 was one of the strongest shows I have seen in fifteen years of playgoing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

As experienced directors, both Bogdanov and Noble were much concerned with the commercial as well as the artistic advantages of presenting three rather than four plays, so the choice to streamline the received script came easily. Some of Noble's rationale is set forth in the preface to the printed edition of his script where he describes himself as continuing a process started by Shakespeare. For example, Shakespeare saw ‘the dramatic advantages of shape and focus achieved by running several events into one’, a process, Noble observes, ‘which we have taken further’. In his conclusion, moreover, he notes: ‘We all had to learn to value narrative over “character moments” and to value storytelling over psychology.’6 Clearly, a different rationale is at work behind these plays, one that demands some adjustments from both the modern theatrical professional and the playgoer. Moreover, any compression of three event-filled plays into two is going to necessitate major omissions and adjustments (‘running several events into one’).

Both adaptations of the Henry VI material, in turn, followed the same general pattern. The material from Part One was allotted roughly ninety minutes so as to be completed by the first interval; the second half of the first play then contained the first three acts of Part Two; the last two acts of Part Two and the first two acts of Part Three (with much restitching of elements) occupied the pre-interval section of play number two; the remaining three acts of Part Three then finished the job.

Given such a master plan, certain problems emerge, problems that, in turn, can provide some insights into distinctive features of the three plays. First, the structural integrity of Shakespeare's Part Two was undermined. For example, the prophecies of Act I Scene 4 were not fulfilled. Both directors cut the references to Walter-water; indeed, Noble cut the entire scene (IV. 1), so that even though Suffolk's head did appear in Margaret's hands, the playgoer has no clue as to how he died (the plot summary in the programme informed the reader that Suffolk ‘is murdered aboard ship as he leaves England’). Somerset, moreover, died in the next play (with no reference to castles or ale-house signs). The kind of implicit structure provided by the working out of prophecies or riddles (best seen in Macbeth) was therefore gone.

The same was true for the genesis of the Cade rebellion. Noble provided a powerful image to open Edward IV, with the Cade supporters rising from grated traps and filling the stage, but this subterranean emergence meant something very different at the outset of a new play as opposed to being experienced in Act IV Scene 2 of a continuum. Similarly, Bogdanov began his second play with a train station scene to show York's return from Ireland (V. 1), then switched to a Cade meeting hall rally (IV. 2). Gone therefore from both productions was any link between this new force unleashed upon England and the deaths of Gloucester, the Cardinal, and Suffolk or the earlier machinations of York; gone as well was any analogy to Julius Caesar where again a major political murder at the centre of the play comparable to the assassination of Gloucester opens the way to violence and war. To look closely at such compressions is therefore to bring into focus Shakespeare's sense of structure or cause and effect.

Both the RSC and ESC versions economized upon battle scenes in the second play so as to combine the first battle of St Albans (that ends Shakespeare's Part Two) with the battles that begin Part Three (and this alteration necessitated a host of other significant changes).7 The most telling consequence of this compression was that a high percentage of the violence in Shakespeare's Parts Two and Three was now concentrated in the ninety-minute segment that begins the second play, for this stretch contained all the violence of Part Two (e.g., the Cade scenes, done by Noble with many onstage decapitations and a host of severed heads on poles, York versus Clifford, Richard versus Somerset) and then most of the violence in Part Three (the battles of Acts I and II, the murders of Rutland and York, the death of young Clifford). At the interval of Noble's production, one observer (who did not know Shakespeare's script) asked me: ‘What are we watching—a Renaissance Full Metal Jacket?’ Controlled use of onstage violence in the original scripts has (in this segment) yielded to theatrical overkill.

Of the many changes and elisions I shall consider several small choices that had a disproportionately large impact. Thus, Bogdanov pared down considerably the ‘common man’ scenes from the first two acts of Part Two (although, unlike Noble, he did retain the Simpcox episode), so that Peter and his master Horner disappeared from view. No charge of treason was therefore brought against York by means of Horner's reported comments, so that, in turn, no particular reason remained for choosing Somerset over York as Regent of France (Gloucester recommends to the king that Somerset get the regency ‘because in York this breeds suspicion’ (I. 3. 203-04)). Bogdanov's King Henry, moreover, not Gloucester, provided ‘this doom’ (l. 202). Although on the surface only an innocuous series of cuts and changes, such giving of the decision to Henry had a significant effect upon the portrayal of three major figures. First, Henry appears much more decisive as a politician than is the case anywhere else, a shift that sets up a very different progression to his one strong moment when, after recovering from his swoon at the news of Gloucester's death, he banishes Suffolk in Act III Scene 2. Secondly, Gloucester loses one of his two highly visible judgements (the other coming with Simpcox) and hence some of his special stature, a diminution that contributed to one of the weak spots in this production. Thirdly, an insight into the danger posed by York is eliminated, as was also true in some other cuts made by Bogdanov (most notably the elimination of York's speech that ends Act I Scene 1 and the paring down of Gloucester's final speech in Act III Scene 1, including his reference to ‘dogged York, that reaches at the moon, b Whose overweening arm I have plucked back’ (ll. 158-59)). Having Henry deliver the ‘doom’ therefore has a significant impact upon three of the key figures in this play and upon the dynamics of Part Two as a whole.

Comparable small but telling changes can be noted in Noble's production. In both Shakespeare's Part Three (IV. 8. 38-50) and Noble's adaptation, Henry VI has a speech in which he naïvely concludes that, because he has been mild and merciful, the people will support him rather than Edward in the coming conflict. In Noble's version, Henry exits after this speech (so some playgoers were surprised to see him turn up in prison a few scenes later); in Shakespeare's scene, however, he is immediately confronted and arrested by the Yorkists (whom the people have supported) so that the speech serves as the first half of a one-two punch, with the second element, the deflation, gone from Noble's version. Similarly, in Shakespeare's Part Three, a Henry VI anxious to relinquish kingly power gives over his political authority to both Warwick and Clarence (IV. 6), but in Noble's version only Warwick is so designated. Shortly thereafter (V. 1) Clarence arrives at Coventry (where his brothers are besieging Warwick) and decides to change sides, forsaking Warwick in favour of the Yorkist cause. Does it not make a difference to our understanding why Clarence makes this switch whether he is or is not a sharer in kingly power? At the least, a figure who has left his brothers in order to gain half a kingdom (however provisionally) is not faced with the same choice as a figure who has played second fiddle to an older brother and now is to be second again to Warwick (as in Noble's stripped down version).

Such choices and resulting problems are (perhaps) inevitable given the squeezing of three plays into two, but that three-into-two choice is itself a product of a series of assumptions (both aesthetic and commercial) about the dramaturgy and coherence of these early Shakespeare plays. What if, in contrast, these histories do have a distinctive theatrical shape or logic (as suggested above in my account of the prophecies and the role of Gloucester's assassination in Part Two), albeit one not as accessible today as that found in later comparable plays?

To pursue such a defence of the integrity of these plays I will focus upon a few distinctive and revealing configurations. My emphasis will be upon scenes and images that, although easily blurred for a reader today, would be hard for a playgoer in the 1590s to miss; that depend more upon visual-theatrical than upon poetic-verbal effects (or are underdeveloped in poetic-verbal terms); and that were omitted or blurred significantly in the RSC and ESC productions (and, in a few instances, were realized meaningfully in other productions).

Let me start with one of the least discussed moments in the most maligned of the three plays, 1 Henry VI. At the nadir of her fortunes, just before her capture by York, Joan de Pucelle appeals for help to a group of onstage ‘Fiends’ (V. 3. 7. s.d.), but in response these fiends, according to the Folio stage directions, ‘walk, and speak not’, ‘hang their heads’, ‘shake their heads’, and finally ‘depart’ (s.ds at ll. 12, 17, 19, 23). This exchange has not fared well on the page or on the stage, for to deal with this script is inevitably to run foul of this scene and this appeal-rejection that in several ways tests the reflexes of today's interpreters. The Folio's call for fiends and for specific reactions is unusually clear (and presumably would have posed few problems in the 1590s for playgoers attuned to Doctor Faustus), but Elizabethan onstage presentation of the supernatural repeatedly strains ‘our’ paradigms of credibility (and canons of taste), with this moment a particular challenge.

Directors have therefore tinkered with the Folio signals. In Howell's rendition for television, Joan speaks her lines while staring at the camera so that no supernatural entities are in sight to walk, refuse to speak, hang their heads, and eventually depart. In Noble's rendition, various onstage corpses from the previous battle rose as if animated to provide an onstage audience but without the reactions to Joan's pleas specified in the Folio. In the Hands production, amid the onstage cannons that dominated the battlefield set, Joan offered herself to the fiends who appeared suddenly ‘looking like gas-masked soldiers from the French trenches of the First World War’.8 Bogdanov cut the fiends and altered the text, so that, alone on stage and looking at the audience, his Joan directed her appeal not to any diabolic entities but rather to the Virgin Mary, a change that eliminated any infernal climax for this sequence.9 In contrast, in his 1975 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, Will Huddleston introduced his fiends earlier (thinly disguised as Joan's followers, later her torturers) and then did stage the rejection; at the close of the play, moreover, the fiends make a final appearance above (with midnight tolling in the background) to snarl at the playgoers.

Even to a casual reader the interaction between Joan and the fiends leaps off the page in vivid (and, to many, offensive) fashion: a good example of what I term theatrical italics. To explore the potential in this moment, consider Joan and her devils not as a one-shot effect but as the climactic example of a larger progression of images and moments that starts in Act II From her first appearance Joan has claimed supernatural powers (see I. 2. 72-92), a claim tested in the first meeting between Joan and Talbot that results in a stand-off; still, Joan scorns his strength (I. 5. 15) and leads her troops to victory at Orleans. Moments later, Talbot, aided by Bedford and Burgundy, scales the walls and regains the town, so that a united English force wins back what had just been lost. The three leaders working together therefore accomplish what Talbot, facing Joan alone, could not.

Shakespeare then provides a gloss on both this victory and the larger problem of unity-disunity by means of Talbot's interview with the Countess of Auvergne. Her trap for Talbot fails, as he points out, because she has only caught ‘Talbot's shadow’, not his substance. The set of terms is repeated throughout the remainder of the scene (e.g., ‘No, no, I am but shadow of myself. b You are deceived, my substance is not here’) and is explained by the appearance of his soldiers, at which point he observes:

Are you now persuaded
That Talbot is but a shadow of himself?
These are his substance, sinews, arms, and strength,
With which he yoketh your rebellious necks. 

(II. 3. 45)

The individual standing alone, no matter how heroic (one thinks of Coriolanus), is but a shadow without the substance of his supporters, his army, his country.10

This play, however (as two generations of critics have reminded us), is about division, not unity, a division that has already been displayed in the split between Winchester and Gloucester and that widens in the Temple Garden scene (immediately following Talbot's lecture to the countess), with its symbolic plucking of red and white roses. The figures who had joined Talbot in the victory at Orleans, moreover, soon disappear (Bedford dies, Burgundy changes sides). Factionalism thrives, to the extent that the division between York and Somerset (unhistorically) undoes Talbot himself who, in the terms of Act II Scene 3, is denied his substance and must face death (along with his son) as a shadow of his heroic self. Sir William Lucy's listing of Talbot's titles (IV. 7. 60-71) can then be mocked by Joan as ‘a silly stately style indeed’, for ‘him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles, b Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet’ (ll. 72, 75-76).

Joan's scene with her devils follows less than a hundred lines after her exchange with Lucy. With the French forces fleeing the conquering York, all Joan can do is call upon her ‘speedy helpers’ or ‘familiar spirits’ to help with their ‘accustomed diligence’, but neither the offer of her blood, with which she has fed them in the past, a member lopped off, her body, or even her soul will gain the needed support. She therefore concludes:

My ancient incantations are too weak,
And hell too strong for me to buckle with.
Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust. 

(V. 3. 1)

No one makes grandiose claims for the imagery of this sprawling play. But a verbal patterning involving shadow and substance is clearly set forth in Act II and echoed thereafter (see Alencon's speech, V. 4. 133-37); moreover, Talbot eventually falls (and France ultimately is lost to England) because of divisions whereby ‘substance’ is denied and the hero must stand alone as shadow of himself. In her scene with the fiends, Joan too is deserted, denied by those who formerly supported her. Like Talbot, her heroic status cannot exist alone, so she becomes a mere shepherd's daughter, not the figure who raised the siege at Orleans and was a match for Talbot in battle. The denial by the fiends is here equivalent to the squabble between York and Somerset that undoes Talbot, a link that can be reinforced through the staging. For example, what if the fiends' scripted reactions to Joan's offer echo similar walking apart, hanging and shaking of heads, and departures by York and Somerset in Act IV Scene 3 and Act IV Scene 4 in response to Lucy's pleas on behalf of Talbot? If so, the playgoer would see two or three parallel failures by first Lucy and then Joan, rejections that visibly set up the deaths of the two previously unbeatable or ‘heroic’ figures. Just as Lucy fails to get the necessary support, a failure that means Talbot must give way to the new factions, so Joan fails to get the support that she too desperately needs and must give way to the third Frenchwoman, Margaret (who appears immediately upon Joan's exit with York). However interpreted in theological or political terms, these highly visible fiends can function as part of an ongoing pattern of images or configurations linked to the central themes of the play.

Of the three plays, Part One has been the most disparaged, but in both the Bogdanov and Noble three-into-two adjustments Part Two suffered the greatest damage because its elements were split into two separate plays. As noted earlier, such a split calls attention to the different kinds of through-lines or pay-offs set up in earlier scenes and realized later (as is most obvious with the prophecies). Other cuts and changes made by the two directors call attention to comparable links and images. For example, Noble manufactured a fresh image in Act IV Scene 2, for his Cade not only knighted himself (ll. 107-08) but also knighted Dick the Butcher, underscoring even further the indictment of titles and hierarchy. As part of his streamlining of Act V of Part Two, however, Noble cut Henry VI's knighting of Alexander Iden (V. 1. 78); in the first play he had also cut Henry's grant of a dukedom to a kneeling Suffolk as a reward for bringing Margaret as bride (Part Two, I. 1. 61-63). Shakespeare's own sequence of giving new titles to kneeling figures was therefore gone, with two instances of number two in the series but no number one and no number three.

All three plays but particularly Part Two gain much of their distinctive shape from such visible repetitions, but with many of these elements eliminated, transposed, or located in two different plays (and hence two different evenings) much of that rationale was gone. For example, Gloucester tells his wife that ‘I must offend before I be attainted’, for his foes, no matter how powerful, ‘could not procure me any scathe b So long as I am loyal, true, and crimeless’ (II. 4. 59, 62-63). Two acts later, Lord Say tells the king and Buckingham: ‘The trust I have is in mine innocence, b And therefore am I bold and resolute’ (IV. 4. 59-60). At their next appearances, however, both figures are accused and swiftly convicted by their enemies and are murdered shortly thereafter (with Gloucester's body and Say's head subsequently brought onstage). If such elements, however, are pared down or cut completely and placed in two separate plays, no such analogy or structural link is available (whatever interpretative spin one chooses to place upon it).

Part Three suffered the least from adaptation and compression, for several clearly linked moments were retained and were in the same play. Thus, in Shakespeare's Act I the Lancastrians led by young Clifford kill a Yorkist child (Rutland) and the symbol of the Yorkist cause (Richard); in Act V, the Lancastrians do the same: the three brothers kill Prince Edward, and in the following scene Richard of Gloucester murders Henry VI in the Tower. In Patton's Oregon production a highly visible detail added to this patterning, for Margaret's taunting of York with the napkin bearing Rutland's blood left blood on Richard's face. Such a bloody face was then seen again on the father contemplating the son he has killed (II. 5) and most tellingly on Margaret herself after she had kissed her murdered son Edward (V. 5).

The streamlining occasioned by making three plays into two, however, did take its toll. Indeed, what may seem to the adapter redundancies and hence cuttable episodes looked at another way can add up to a distinctive feature of this play. For example, in his speech to his captors in Act III Scene I (pared down in both versions) Henry VI first raises questions about oaths and obedience but then laments the frailty of human nature:

Look, as I blow this feather from my face
And as the air blows it to me again,
Obeying with my wind when I do blow
And yielding to another when it blows,
Commanded always by the greater gust—
Such is the lightness of you common men.
But do not break your oaths

(III. 1. 84)

Many disparate episodes in the next two acts provide demonstrations of this thesis: that, regardless of their pretensions about oaths and principles, feather-like men and women are ‘commanded always by the greater gust’. In the next scene (III. 2) that greater gust is King Edward's lust for the beautiful widow that takes precedence over political allegiances, most notably his bond with Warwick; that turnabout is quickly paralleled in Warwick's rapid switch in reaction to this disgrace in which he tells his hated enemy Queen Margaret ‘let former grudges pass, b And henceforth I am thy true servitor’ and she responds: ‘Warwick, these words have turned my hate to love, b And I forgive and quite forget old faults' (III. 3. 195-201). The most obvious example comes when Clarence, who marches in ready to fight against his own brothers on behalf of Warwick, with little ado throws his red rose at his former ally and rejoins the Yorkists (eliciting Richard's delicious line: ‘Welcome, good Clarence. This is brotherlike’ (V. 1. 105)).

Easily lost in this sequence of events, however, is Act IV Scene 7, a scene omitted from the two streamlined versions (and also from Patton's Oregon production) but one of the gems of Howell's rendition. Here Edward gains access to the city of York by vowing that he has come as duke, not as a would-be king (‘I challenge nothing but my dukedom, b As being well content with that alone’ (ll. 23-24)), but the arrival and threatened departure of Sir John Montgomery (‘Then fare you well, for I will hence again. b I came to serve a king and not a duke’ (ll. 48-49)) puts Edward on the spot (in a manner that closely parallels the dilemma faced by Edward's father in Act I Scene 2: whether to keep his bargain with Henry VI or seek the crown now). In the spirit of ‘like father, like son’ Edward quickly caves in to the urgings of Richard and Hastings, so that, in Howell's rendition, with drums sounding in the background, the Mayor (rather than a soldier) shakily reads the proclamation of Edward's kingship and Montgomery, visibly itching for action, stands by impatiently, snatches away the paper, and offers his open challenge to single combat. The rapidity of Edward's switch in his professed intentions yields both dark comedy and a telling insight into the value of oaths and protestations in this political jungle.

In the spirit of Henry's speech on ‘the greater gust’, the sequence of turnabouts by key figures such as Edward, Warwick, and Clarence heightens the uncertainties and lack of any firm principles or beliefs in this Darwinian society and, if played in full, helps to explain the rise of Gloucester and the genesis of Richard III and Richard III (the first, longest, and most famous of Gloucester's speeches is positioned just after Edward's decision to marry his widow in Act III Scene 2). The streamlined versions tell the same story (often with considerable panache), but the repeated betrayals or apostasies (like the recapitulation in Act V of the brutal killings of Act I) are the bones and sinews from which this play takes its distinctive shape. To cut the Countess of Auvergne, Peter-Horner, and Sir John Montgomery is to economize on time and personnel so as to enhance the narrative pace, but the price-tag involves the elimination of paradigms that, if attended to, can call attention to central themes and images. Whether with shadow-substance in Part One, the many analogous situations in Part Two, or the action following Henry's feather speech in Part Three, the repetitions, even apparent redundancies (according to today's sensibilities), are the essence of the plays.11

In calling attention to such losses, my goal is to bring into focus a broader and deeper interpretative problem. The stage directions for the fiends' reactions to Joan's pleas are unusually explicit, but the absence of any comparable signals for the reactions of York and Somerset to Lucy's pleas for help makes any claims about linkage between the two moments conjectural. Such lack of specific signals, however, is the norm in the extant playscripts, for in most cases clear indications of stage business or properties have not survived. Such gaps in our knowledge of what may have been obvious in the 1590s are compounded by the changes in theatrical vocabulary between then and now, for inevitably our inferences about how an Elizabethan company would have staged X are heavily conditioned by how we would stage X.

As a particularly useful example, consider the moment in Part Three when Edward IV, having been surprised and captured by Warwick and Clarence, is carried onstage ‘in his gown, sitting in a chair’ (IV. 3. 27. s. d.). In the Howell television rendition, Edward is bound to his chair so that the image for the spectator is that of a prisoner (comparable to Gloucester in the blinding scene of King Lear). Howell's choice makes immediate sense to a viewer today, but it may also blur a distinctive effect keyed to the original stage conventions.

For what we today do not recognize is that, in the age of Shakespeare, bringing a figure onstage in a chair was the primary way of signalling ‘enter sick’ or ‘as if sick’. To cite only a few of the many examples, in Westward Ho Mistress Tenterhood, pretending to be sick, calls for ‘a chaire, a chaire’; a companion says ‘shees sicke and taken with an Agony’. In Othello, after ‘finding’ the wounded Cassio, Iago cries ‘O for a chair b To bear him easily hence’ (V. 1. 82-83) and mentions the chair twice more (ll. 96, 98); when the chair arrives, he adds: ‘Some good man bear him carefully from hence. b I’ll fetch the general's surgeon’ (ll. 99-100) and ‘O, bear him out o’th’ air’ (l. 104); the 1622 Quarto (but not the Folio) then directs Cassio in the next scene to be brought in ‘in a Chaire’ (N1r). Elsewhere in Shakespeare's plays, chairs are specified for sick and dying figures in 1 Henry VI (II. 5. o. s. d., III. 2. 40. s. d.), 2 Henry VI (II. 1. 66. s. d.), and King Lear (IV. 7. 20. s. d., TLN 2771). Examples are also plentiful in the plays of Fletcher and Brome and can be found as well in Peele, Chapman, Dekker, Heywood, Marston, Massinger, Markham, Haughton, and Ford and in many anonymous plays.12

To return to the scene in Part Three, when Edward is carried onstage ‘in his gown, sitting in a chair’, the initial signal for the original spectator would have been that this figure is entering ‘sick’ or ‘as sick’. In this instance, however, the signals would be misleading, for Edward is embarrassed and vulnerable but not sick. But keep in mind that this play starts and ends with throne scenes, with that royal seat a symbol of the disorder in a kingdom in which three different figures are seen sitting upon the English throne. Indeed, in the opening scene the titular king, Henry VI, comes onstage to discover Richard of York seated upon his throne, an initial usurpation that typifies what is to follow. The presence of a king (or pseudo-king) brought onstage in what appears initially to be a sick-chair is therefore more than a momentary trick played upon the spectator. Rather, that initial confusion of throne-chair and sick-chair calls attention to an important set of associations that links disease to kings and power-brokers, associations reinforced by the unkinging, rekinging, and unkinging of Henry VI in the last three acts. Memories of both the opening confusion about the throne and the momentary sick-chair image of Act IV Scene 3 should then inform the final moments, where the surface order assumed by Edward (‘Now am I seated as my soul delights, b Having my country's peace and brothers' loves' (V 7. 35-36)) is undercut by a continuing sense of the kingdom's diseases, as typified in Richard's asides (e.g., ‘I’ll blast his harvest’ (l. 21)). The momentary effect with Edward in his chair therefore reinforces a potentially meaningful iterative pattern that links disease imagery to the throne and to the larger political concerns of the play.

Nor is this sick chair-royal chair image limited to Part Three. Squabbles in the presence of Henry and his throne are a major symptom of what is wrong in Part One, so that in Howell's production Exeter delivers his choric speech on ‘this base and envious discord’ (and recalls the prophecy ‘that Henry born at Monmouth should win all b And Henry born at Windsor should lose all’) while pointing to the empty throne (III. 1. 186-200). The scenes that precede and follow this chaotic activity around the boy-king seated on his throne are instructive. First, Shakespeare presents the plucking of red and white roses by Suffolk and York in the Temple Garden scene (II. 4), a symbolic beginning to the divisions to come. Moments later, Mortimer, who is ‘brought in a chair’ by his jailers (II. 5. o. s. d.), provides a long disquisition to Richard about the Yorkist claim to the throne. This claim, passed from this dying figure to the up-and-coming Richard, is linked visually to a figure in a sick-chair. Mortimer's ominous laying on of hands (see lines 37-38) is immediately followed by our first view of the young Henry VI, presumably on his throne, who is unable to control the squabble between Gloucester and Winchester or the fight, offstage and then onstage, between their servingmen. The one action this vulnerable king does take, however, is to restore Richard to his dukedom, so that the figure bequeathed a claim to the throne in the previous scene by a figure in a sick-chair is now given status and power by a demonstrably weak occupant of the royal seat. This sequence is then extended in the next scene where, during the loss and recapture of Rouen, the dying Bedford is ‘brought in sick in a chair’ (III. 2. 40. s. d.) to witness Falstaff's cowardice and then the English victory. At the climax of this action, ‘Bedford dies and is carried in by two in his chair’ (l. 114. s. d.).

Throughout the play, Henry's ‘throne scenes’ act out his inability to control internal divisions and, hence, England's diseases, but his first appearance in Act III Scene 1, sandwiched between scenes displaying figures dying in their sick-chairs, neatly sums up the problems linked both to the Yorkists' claim to the throne (symbolized by Mortimer) and the dying off of that loyal older generation devoted to the good of the country rather than factional interests (symbolized by Bedford). As with Joan's fiends and Talbot's shadow versus substance, much of the theatrical coherence of this episodic play arises from such linked images and configurations. If the final scene also has an onstage throne (as in Part Three), Suffolk's convincing the king to take Margaret as his bride (made ominous by Suffolk's closing reference to Paris and the implicit analogy between Margaret-Helen and England-Troy) enacts a climactic link between the royal chair and potential diseases to come. Again, even in this early play, a set of associations made accessible by conventional theatrical practice (enter sick) can be used to italicize important meanings and effects.

In Part Two, such chair-throne patterning is present but less emphatic, for Shakespeare uses violent deaths and the Cade rebellion to highlight the kingdom's diseases. The dead or dying Gloucester and Winchester are displayed onstage but (apparently) in sick-beds rather than sick-chairs. The impostor Simpcox, however, enters ‘between two in a chair’ (II. 1. 66. s. d.) in front of a weak king who, early in the same scene, is unable to control the quarrel between Gloucester and Winchester. Humphrey's uncovering of Simpcox's fraud acts out his important role in keeping some semblance of order in England, but, owing to Elinor's disgrace and his own naïvete, Humphrey's position is soon undermined. Simpcox in his chair therefore prepares us for a hapless Henry on his throne who is unable to protect Humphrey or Lord Say (the latter linked to the palsy and ‘full of sickness and diseases’ (IV. 7. 81, 85)); this king is therefore vulnerable to an obvious fraud (Cade) in Act IV and defenceless against a formidable opponent (York) in Act V (so, as a result, Henry finds York seated on his throne in the first scene of Part Three). When the inevitable confrontation does come, York's critique pinpoints the vulnerability of Henry as possessor of the royal seat, for he begins ‘No! thou art not king’, then cites the attributes of kingship (‘That head of thine doth not become a crown; b Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff b And not to grace an awful princely sceptre’), and concludes: ‘Give place. By heaven, thou shalt rule no more b O’er him whom heaven created for thy ruler’ (V. 1. 93, 96-98, 104-05). As in the other two plays, such powerful accusations are enhanced by a subliminal memory of the purportedly lame Simpcox exposed as a fraud and forced to ‘give place’ from his chair (and leap over a stool) by the beadle. The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but first an interpreter must have all the parts and some sense of how they might work.

The productions cited in this essay provided a great deal of narrative excitement so as to engage and entertain playgoers (and television viewers) unfamiliar with the scripts. The many cuts and transpositions (along with the telescoping of disparate figures into one to economize on personnel) could be seen as the price-tag for mounting Henry VI at all (although the 1977-78 Hands trilogy provides testimony that three-into-two is not the only available route). In singling out some representative choices, my purpose therefore has not been to mount an indictment of the director-as-vandal. Rather, I have sought to bring into focus both the assets and liabilities of such modern onstage interpretations as a tool for understanding the original dramaturgy, theatrical vocabulary, and potential meanings. For the theatrical historicist, the changes made by Bogdanov and Noble can be especially revealing when the original onstage logic (whether linked to analogical thinking, distinctive images, or signifiers in a lost vocabulary) is no longer seen or appreciated, so that directoral adjustments serve as signposts that point to differing notions of how a play works or how that play is (or should be) put together. Such signposts can be particularly revealing in productions of Henry VI where the overall shape (or sense of organization) may be more in tune with Spenser's The Faerie Queene or Sidney's Arcadia than with Henry V or Hamlet.

The changes made by Bogdanov and Noble can therefore serve as a useful window into an Elizabethan theatrical logic (linked to a 1590s sense of analogy, imagery, and onstage story-telling) that is difficult (at times impossible) to recapture today. Some directoral decisions or adjustments can produce considerable theatrical excitement (and in this area I have not done justice to any of the productions). Other changes, however, fail to achieve the intended goal (a graceful elision of three long, ungainly plays) but rather constitute radical surgery or, for a different metaphor, provide not an adaptation but a translation into a new and different theatrical language. Both Talbot's lecture on shadow versus substance and Henry VI's lament about the feather commanded by the greater gust should serve as chastening thoughts for interpreters of this trilogy on the stage or on the page.


  1. See Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 51-96; Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, ‘Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc’, English Literary Renaissance, 18 (1988), 40-65; Nancy A. Gutierrez, ‘Gender and Value in 1 Henry VI: The Role of Joan de Pucelle’, Theatre Journal, 42 (1990), 183-93. For a recent provocative interpretation of one episode in 2 Henry VI, see Craig A. Bernthal, ‘Treason in the Family: The Trial of Thumpe V. Horner’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 42 (1991), 44-54.

  2. Citations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, general ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  3. See in particular J. P. Brockbank, ‘The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI’, in Early Shakespeare, ed. by J. R. Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3 (1961), 72-99; David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: ‘Henry VI’ and its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Edward Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975).

  4. Hereward T. Price, ‘Construction in Shakespeare’, University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, 17 (1951), 1-42 (pp. 24-37).

  5. For accounts of this production see Homer D. Swander, ‘The Rediscovery of Henry VI’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 146-63; David Daniell, ‘Opening up the text: Shakespeare's Henry VI plays in performance’, Themes in Drama, 1 (1979), 247-77; G. K. Hunter, ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company Plays Henry VI’, Renaissance Drama, 9 (1978), 91-108.

  6. The Plantagenets (London and Boston: Faber, 1989), pp. vii, xiv.

  7. For example, owing to the transposition of elements young Clifford presented his angry speeches from the beginning of Part Three (e.g., I. 1. 159-60) before the death of his father at the end of Part Two, the event that occasioned his pronouncement that ‘my heart is turned to stone’ (V. 2. 50). Some of the elements from Part Two, V. 1 were retained, but moving and reshaping them eliminated the climactic position of the first confrontation between the parties of York and Lancaster (and one potentially telling element, the choice by Salisbury not to kneel to Henry VI, was gone). To the degree that the sequence of elements is an integral part of theatrical ‘meaning’ and effect, the treatment of the end of Part Two and the beginning of Part Three by both Bogdanov and Noble was a translation rather than an interpretation.

  8. Daniell, ‘Opening up the text’, p. 257.

  9. Bogdanov did some radical surgery here by transposing the beginning of Act V> Scene 3 to Act V Scene 4 so that one sustained sequence involving Joan followed the Suffolk-Margaret part of Act V Scene 3. The juxtaposition of the two French women remained, but the value of that link was changed (e.g., Joan's capture by York was not immediately followed by Suffolk's capture of Margaret). Bogdanov also cut Joan's shepherd father. His Joan, moreover, had her own distinctive music, but without the Folio fiends as a final comment this production offered no clear signal as to whether that music (and the auspices for her final moments) was holy or witchly. Here, as elsewhere, Bogdanov provided an engaging story, but the original punchline as set up in the Folio had been drastically changed.

  10. For treatments of Act II Scene 3, see especially Daniel C. Gerould, ‘Principles of Dramatic Structure in Henry VI’, Educational Theatre Journal, 20 (1968), 376-88 (pp. 379-80); Berry, Patterns of Decay, pp. 1-28; James A. Riddell, ‘Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977), 51-57; Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 1-8.

  11. As shrewd, experienced directors, both Bogdanov and Noble were well aware of the opportunities for strong visual links between episodes. For example, Noble had Margery Jourdain's death at the stake (in his first play) repeat the fate of Joan (events divided between Shakespeare's Parts One and Two); also in his first play, the first meeting of Margaret and Suffolk (just before the interval) was echoed in the plays final moments when Margaret cradled Suffolk's severed head. Twice, moreover, Noble found strong images (albeit in two different plays) to convey the price-tag for the power associated with the throne. First, the dead Mortimer (at the end of Shakespeare's Part One, II. 5) descended in his cage-prison, an object then replaced with Henry VI's golden throne (a disturbing and effective juxtaposition). Then, at the end of the second play the body of the murdered Henry VI descended in a similar fashion, to be replaced by a throne inhabited by Edward. In both instances, the image of a body under the throne was strong and meaningful.

  12. Thomas Dekker, Westward Ho, V.1. 196-201 in The Dramatic Works, ed. by Fredson Bowers, 4 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953-61), II, 379 (for another example from the Dekker canon, see 1, 374). For examples roughly contemporary with Henry VI, see George Peele, The Battle of Alcazar, ed. by W. E. Greg, Malone Society (Oxford, 1906), l. 1302; Peele, Edward I, ed. by W. W. Greg, Malone Society (Oxford, 1911), ll. 48-49 and Locrine, ed. by Ronald B. McKerrow, Malone Society (Oxford, 1908), l. 33. For a further sampling of the evidence, see The Works of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, ed. by Arnold Glover and A. R. Waller, 10 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905-12), 1, 374, 378; IV, 76; VI, 254; IX, 375; Richard Brome, The Dramatic Works, 3 vols (London: Pearson, 1873), 1, 218, 257; II, 127 (The Queen and Concubine); III, 180, 263, 546; George Chapman, The Gentleman Usher, ed. by John Hazel Smith (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), IV, 3. o. s. d., V. 4. 39. s. d,; Thomas Heywood, The Dramatic Works, 6 vols (London: Pearson, 1874), 1, 155; Philip Massinger, The Plays and Poems, ed. by Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson, 5 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), III, 461; Gervaise Markham and William Sampson, Herod and Antipater (1622), H3r, 12v; William Haughton, Englishmen for My Money, ed. by W. W. Greg, Malone Society (Oxford, 1913), l. 2434; A Yorkshire Tragedy, ed. by Sylvia D. Feldman, Malone Society (Oxford, 1973), l. 720. Sick-chairs are also to be found in plays as diverse as Marston's Sophonisba, Middleton's Hengist King of Kent, Jonson's The Magnetic Lady, Ford's The Broken Heart, May's The Old Couple, Drue's The Duchess of Suffolk, A Warning For Fair Women, The Second Maiden's Tragedy, The Soddered Citizen, and The Telltale.

Robert C. Jones (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “I Henry VI” and “2 & 3 Henry VI,” in These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 1-30.

[In the essays below, Jones presents an overview of the three parts of Henry VI, particularly emphasizing Shakespeare's use of history in the plays.]

The first play of the first tetralogy begins with the most plaintive and extended lament for a lost leader that we will encounter through the entire series of English history plays. Bedford's opening lines intensify the solemnity of Henry V's funeral procession by sounding the enormity of both the loss and its consequences:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death—
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.

For fifty-six lines, ruffled only by a brief but ominous flurry between Winchester and Gloucester, the bereaved lords dwell on the virtues of the deceased (“his deeds exceed all speech”), the grim finality of his passing (“Henry is dead and never shall revive”), and England's abject helplessness without him (“arms avail not, now that Henry's dead”).

The bleak negatives that cloud the prospect of an England without Henry are, for all their funeral-baked hyperboles, perfectly valid.1 There will be a “change of times and states” undoing all that Henry had so gloriously accomplished. And, in dramatic rather than historical terms, this play will dwindle to a pathetically ironic and inconclusive ending (suited to the emasculated England Bedford foresees in lines 48-51) that subverts the heroic tragedy of Talbot's death, just as Bedford's soaring eulogy to Henry V's ghost is abruptly undercut in this opening scene by messengers coming in with the first waves of the bad news that will flood the entire tetralogy. “Lost” is the appropriate keynote for the leaderless world that Henry's death leaves to its factious devices here.

But the devastation of England without its hero king is tempered, particularly in this first play, by the positive potential for sustaining and reviving his grand heritage that is kept in view. Even in the sequels, as the nation's self-inflicted wounds fester under the malignant shadow of Richard Gloucester, the dramatized rupture between the grim present and its better past is never so radically unsettling as it will prove to be in Richard II. And Part One illustrates more positively than any other play until Henry V's own (and more simply than that later play) how the leader of the past can survive as a vital presence in those who properly emulate (and thus renew) him in the present. Such a possibility directly counters and complicates what would otherwise stand simply as the most tautological platitude uttered at Henry's funeral: “Henry is dead and never shall revive” (18).2

The idea that England's heroic historical heritage can live anew in the present is first voiced early in the play by the awed enemy. The French, having just boasted fatuously of their newfound ascendancy over the “famished English,” are comically reduced by the ensuing rout and, as Alençon's haughty ridicule converts to wondering admiration, he evokes for the first time the storied epoch of Edward III that will serve so often through both tetralogies as an emblem of England's past glory:

Froissart, a countryman of ours, records
England all Olivers and Rowlands bred
During the time Edward the Third did reign.
More truly now may this be verified,
For none but Samsons and Goliases
It sendeth forth to skirmish.

(I, ii, 29-34)

This identification of past and present English prowess in such mythical terms is, as I will argue later, noteworthy in itself. But it is not for a facile Frenchman to uphold alone the tradition of English valor at its proper worth. That, of course, is first and foremost the role of Talbot, who keeps the heroic spirit of Henry V alive in this play. Were others to share that enterprise with him, as the entire play makes clear, the great leader would not be “lost” at all but would “revive” indeed. Fittingly, the opening scene divides its focus between the dead and living heroes, turning from the lament for Henry to news of Talbot's (for once unfortunate) exploits in France. As a loyal soldier and servant of the crown, Talbot cannot of course replace the king himself, but he can and does maintain the heroic heritage of that king, and his current deeds (“where valiant Talbot above human thought / Enacted wonders with his sword and lance”) are accorded from the beginning something akin to the superhuman stature Henry's mourners recall in the victor of Agnicourt:

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.

(I, i, 121-122, 10-14)

In his first actual appearance, Talbot virtually enacts the process of renewing in his own person the valiant dead who precede him. While he is surveying the besieged Orléans from a turret with the earl of Salisbury, the latter is shot, and Talbot effectively assumes the spirit of the dying hero as he eulogizes him:

Speak, Salisbury; at least if thou canst speak.
How far’st thou, mirror of all martial men?
In thirteen battles Salisbury o’ercame;
Henry the Fifth he first trained to the wars.
Whilst any trump did sound or drum struck up
His sword did ne’er leave striking in the field.
Yet liv’st thou, Salisbury?
He beckons with his hand and smiles on me,
As who should say, “When I am dead and gone,
Remember to avenge me on the French.”
Plantagenet, I will, and like thee,
Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn.
Wretched shall France be only in my name.
Frenchmen, I’ll be a Salisbury to you.

(I, iv, 73-106)

The exemplary “mirror of all martial men” who first tutored Henry V himself in the art of war will continue, now that he and Henry are both dead, to inspire others as he is reflected in Talbot. Retaining his own potent heroic identity (“Wretched shall France be only in my name”), Talbot will also keep Salisbury's alive by emulating him (“Frenchmen, I’ll be a Salisbury to you”). Thus, Salisbury's affectionate greeting as they first entered—“Talbot, my life, my joy, again returned?”—will prove true in this extended sense. In the ensuing scenes, after a temporary setback at the bewitched hands of Joan de Pucelle, Talbot carries out his vow to the letter. His “name only” does send the French scurrying (II, i, 77), and as he enters the reconquered Orléans, he ensures that Salisbury will continue to live (along with Talbot himself) as a “mirror of all martial men” for future ages:

Bring forth the body of old Salisbury
And here advance it in the market place,
The middle center of this cursèd town.
Now have I paid my vow unto his soul:
For every drop of blood was drawn from him
There hath at least five Frenchmen died to-night.
And that hereafter ages may behold
What ruin happened in revenge of him,
Within their chiefest temple I’ll erect
A tomb, wherein his corpse shall be interred;
Upon the which, that every one may read,
Shall be engraved the sack of Orleans,
The treacherous manner of his mournful death,
And what a terror he had been to France.

(II, ii, 4-17)

Through such means history's valiant dead are not lost, but live in memory for the present and for “hereafter ages.”

I may seem to juggle terms and blur distinctions here, since “old Salisbury” is not strictly a “historical” figure for Talbot in the same sense that Edward III was or that both Salisbury and Talbot himself are for Shakespeare's audience. He is, rather, an older colleague whom Talbot succeeds, much as one generation succeeds another. For Talbot, however, and for the use of the historic past that he illustrates here, that is a distinction without a difference. Salisbury, like Talbot himself, serves as an inspirational mirror in life and, remembered as Talbot remembers him (“Now, Salisbury, for thee …” [II, i, 35]), continues as such to his immediate successors and “hereafter ages” alike. Thus Talbot, assaulting Rouen, calls on the recently dead Henry V and the long dead Richard I as equally living presences along with the young king he now serves:

And I, as sure as English Henry lives
And as his father here was conqueror,
As sure as in this late betrayèd town
Great Coeur-de-lion's heart was burièd,
So sure I swear to get the town or die.

(III, ii, 80-84)

And the ailing Bedford, in the same scene, looks farther back in British lore for a precedent that will sustain his gallant refusal to leave the field, just as his living example will “revive” the hearts of the soldiers who have ever taken him as their “mirror”:

Burgundy: Courageous Bedford,
let us now persuade you.
Bedford: Not to be gone from hence;
for once I read
That stout Pendragon in his litter sick
Came to the field and vanquishèd his foes.
Methinks I should revive the soldiers' hearts,
Because I ever found them as myself.


The gallant old man dies but his spirit remains “undaunted” (99), and Talbot characteristically insists that he be remembered:

But yet, before we go, let’s not forget
The noble Duke of Bedford, late deceased,
But see his exequies fulfilled in Roan.
A braver soldier never couchèd lance,
A gentler heart did never sway in court.


“Let’s not forget.” That is the impulse through which the heroic past lives on in the present. And though both Bedford and Talbot sound muted de casibus notes here (“What is the trust or strength of foolish man?”; “But kings and mightiest potentates must die, / For that’s the end of human misery” [112, 136-137]), and thereby slightly modify the primary strain of “noble deeds as valor's monuments” (120), it is the latter that rings out here for us above all.

In the scenes given to Talbot's heroic death, in fact, renewal through generational succession and through the longer reach of historic fame are brought into conflict, and the latter supersedes the former at the insistence of young John Talbot, whose gallant refusal to abandon his father we are asked to applaud. Looking toward his own regeneration in the future exploits of his son, Talbot realizes that the boy's intended initiation to arms outside the walls of Bordeaux will in fact be a hopeless catastrophe:

O young John Talbot, I did send for thee
To tutor thee in stratagems of war,
That Talbot's name might be in thee revived
When sapless age and weak unable limbs
Should bring thy father to his drooping chair.
But O malignant and ill-boding stars!
Now thou art come unto a feast of death,
A terrible and unavoided danger.
Therefore, dear boy, mount on my swiftest horse,
And I’ll direct thee how thou shalt escape
By sudden flight. Come, dally not, be gone.

(IV, v, 1-11; emphasis added)

But the boy, against all the urgings of his father in a debate that stretches through two scenes, opts for “mortality / Rather than life preserved with infamy” (IV, v, 32-33). In the brief time of the battle itself, young John's heroics do reinvigorate his father:

When from the Dauphin's crest thy sword struck fire,
It warmed thy father's heart with proud desire
Of bold-faced victory. Then leaden age,
Quickened with youthful spleen and warlike rage,
Beat down Alençon, Orleans, Burgundy,
And from the pride of Gallia rescued thee.

(IV, vi, 10-15)

But in the longer reach of history, by dying so gloriously, young John surmounts death and gains, with his father, the immortality of “bright fame”:

Thou antic Death, which laugh’st us here to scorn,
Anon, from thy insulting tyranny,
Coupled in bonds of perpetuity,
Two Talbots, wingèd through the lither sky,
In thy despite shall scape mortality.

(IV, vii, 18-22)

With the counterpoint that is already his hallmark, Shakespeare allows Joan a nasty deflation of the grand list of names Lucy then rehearses over the fallen hero and his son:

Here’s a silly stately style indeed!
Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles,
Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet.

(IV, vii, 72-76)

Lucy, however, has the last (and, for our topic, most significant) word on the subject: “I’ll bear them hence; but from their ashes shall be reared / A phoenix that shall make all France afeard” (92-93). More important than the fact that this prophecy is not fulfilled in this play or its sequels (though, in violation of historical chronology, Henry V provides its ultimate dramatic fulfillment), or that it may still be left open-ended for the Elizabethan audience, is the play's confident affirmation of this potential for renewal. Whoever he may be and whenever he appears, the “future” English hero will be the reincarnation of these fifteenth-century heirs to “the time Edward the Third did reign” and so on back to “stout Pendragon.” Whatever “change of times and states” may transpire, the play, like Talbot himself, affirms this fundamental continuity between past and present which can be realized in the person of any hero who revives the spirit of his predecessors and thereby identifies himself with them.3

If Talbot is by all odds the play's most positive force, he is, however, by no means the dominant force in the play. He may triumph over death, but his death is caused by those Englishmen who are opposed to him in every essential respect and who, as the Salisburys and Bedfords and Talbots die out, gain ever more perilous ascendancy. From the first scene on, this play is built simply and solidly on the absolute contrast between Talbot and the host of wrangling lords who bring on England's woes (the Woes of the Roses). It would distort the play in behalf of my subject to argue that the very heart of this contrast lay in the opposed parties' respective attitudes toward the past. More fundamental to it, as any audience must realize, is the factionalism based on willful self-interest that is the very opposite of Talbot's single-minded service to his king and his country. It takes no greater personage than the first messenger in the first scene to point directly at the root of all this play's evil in an English court that should know and do better:

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.


And Exeter, evidently having nothing else to do in the play, steps forth periodically as chorus to drive home the already obvious point about such “factious bandying” (IV, i, 190) and the ashes in which it smolders, so very different from those that will spawn Talbot's phoenix:

This late dissension grown betwixt the peers
Burns under feignèd ashes of forged love
And will at last break out into a flame.
As fest’red members rot but by degree
Till bones and flesh and sinews fall away,
So will this base and envious discord breed.

(III, i, 188-193)

The fundamental cause of this dissension is the primacy of self-centered “will” above all else, not a misguided attitude toward (or use of) the past, and all those who are guided by this basic motive see (as Richard Plantagenet does) “growing time” ripening according to their will (II, iv, 99), whereas we see plainly, with Exeter, that the times are festering (rather than ripening) from the disease of dissension.

Nonetheless, in the stark opposition between Talbot's better way and the factionalists' worse, as we move back and forth between his exploits in France and their turmoil in England, the radically different uses of memory and history are a prominent and symptomatic feature of the contrast. When the two major parties-to-be first square off in the Temple Garden and choose those “dumb significants” of their antagonism, the essentially meaningless white and red roses, the priority of will over any legal basis in historical fact is openly asserted by the lords on both sides, who show an arrogant and aristocratic disdain for such inkhorn scholarship:

Suffolk: 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.
Somerset: Judge you, my Lord of Warwick,
then between us.
Warwick: 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.

(II, iv, 7-18)

But once they have already lined up against one another on the basis of conflicting and unspecified “truths” that each side claims to be self-evident (20-24), these same lords use historical “facts” readily enough as weapons to hurl at one another rather than as a means to resolve the rights or wrongs of the case:

Warwick: Now, by God's
will, thou wrong’st him, Somerset.
His grandfather was Lionel Duke of Clarence,
Third son to the third Edward, King of England.
Spring crestless yeoman from so deep a root?
Richard: He bears him on the place's
Or durst not for his craven heart say thus.
Somerset: By him that made me, I’ll
maintain my words
On any plot of ground in Christendom.
Was not thy father, Richard Earl of Cambridge,
For treason executed in our late king's days?
And by his treason stand’st not thou attainted,
Corrupted, and exempt from ancient gentry?
His trespass yet lives guilty in thy blood,
And till thou be restored thou art a yeoman.
Richard: My father was attachèd,
not attained,
Condemned to die for treason, but no traitor;
And that I’ll prove on better men than Somerset,
Were growing time once ripened to my will.
For your partaker Pole, and you yourself,
I’ll note you in my book of memory
To scourge you for this apprehension.
Look to it well and say you are well warned.


The threatening context in which he uses the term here suggests what function Richard's “book of memory” serves first and foremost.

Note that the “third Edward, King of England” becomes, in such a dispute, no more than the deep root of a genealogical tree rather than the famous ruler of that time when “England all Olivers and Rowlands bred,” as he is remembered in France, where Talbot wages the good fight, or of that time “when first this order [of the Garter] was ordained” and “knights of the Garter were of noble birth, / Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,” as Talbot himself will recall it (IV, i, 33-35). The issue here, as the play emphasizes it, is not so much which faction may be right in its historical arguments, and certainly not that genealogy and legal history are pernicious studies in and of themselves. The clear point, rather (and it scarcely simplifies this play, as it would most of Shakespeare's, to speak of its “point” in this regard), is that the factionalists use their history and their memories willfully, destructively, and hence wrongly, whereas Talbot uses his historical precedents positively as models for heroic action.

As is this play's way, the point is amplified through successive scenes. Richard visits his dying uncle Mortimer to complain, in a pun that is glaringly obvious to everyone in the theater except himself, of his “dis-ease” (II, v, 44). Mortimer is a ruined relic of the past that Richard probes here, and the young aspirant's faith that “growing time” will ripen to his will might be daunted by the gloomy spectacle of his uncle's “decaying age” (1). Instead, of course, he eagerly seizes the heritage Mortimer proffers him as a prop and stimulant for his ever-dominant will:

And therefore haste I to the parliament,
Either to be restorèd to my blood
Or make my will th’advantage of my good.


Mortimer is the first actual “historian” in the histories, and his anti-Lancastrian review of the succession from Edward III through Henry VI, correct enough in its essential facts despite its clear bias (and Shakespeare's relatively inconsequential confusion of Mortimers), is allowed to stand uncontested by any Lancastrian counterpart or rebuttal in the play. But that does not mean we line up here with Richard, even though he shares his private thoughts with us more consistently than does any other character. Those private thoughts, like Winchester's at the end of the first scene, expose Richard's selfish and dangerous ambition to us rather than engage us in his point of view.4 The play is simply less interested in the constitutional issues of the Yorkist-Lancastrian conflict than it is in the motives, attitudes, and actions of the contestants on either side. To be on a “side” first and foremost, and thereby to foment factional strife, is the great wrong here, by contrast with Talbot's simple loyalty to king, country, and the heroic heritage he upholds. The significant contrast between Talbot's remembrance of the past and Mortimer's (or Richard's via Mortimer) is the use each makes of his greater and lesser forebears. Edward III and Henry V, whose times and deeds shine with heroic precedents for Talbot, shrink in Mortimer's account to the same stature as their disappointing successors, Richard II and Henry VI. Their accomplishments mean nothing. They “count” only insofar as their standing on the genealogical chart proves the speaker's claim to the throne.

The foreseeable consequences of rampant self-interest that may use history for its own purposes (but is scarcely inspired by it) are “so plain” that the choral Exeter wishes himself dead before they can come to pass (III, i, 199-200). The immediate result is the downfall of Talbot, and, with no survivors to remember and replace him as he “renewed” Salisbury, the ruin of the realm follows. As Talbot falls, so does the remembrance of the valiant dead that he embodied. Lucy, frustrated by those “great commanders” York and Somerset, whose mutual antagonism betrays Talbot “to loss,” sums up the whole sorry story and its larger implications:

Thus, while the vulture of sedition
Feeds in the bosom of such great commanders,
Sleeping neglection doth betray to loss
The conquest of our scarce-cold conqueror,
That ever-living man of memory,
Henry the Fifth. Whiles they each other cross,
Lives, honors, lands, and all hurry to loss.

(IV, iii, 47-53)

The play's priorities—its sense of the truly crucial rights and wrongs—are perfectly clear here as elsewhere. Whatever the constitutional legitimacy of the Lancastrian rulership, Henry V's heroic heritage is above all to be remembered, preserved, and renewed, not neglected “to loss.” Only thus can the historical hero be “that ever-living man of memory,” or be so to any good purpose. Likewise, in his own degree, with Talbot. But “sleeping neglection” not only causes his downfall; it quashes out any recollection of him thereafter. The play, of course, memorializes and thus renews him in his own spirit, as Nashe testifies:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones newe embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.5

In this way, in representational art if not in historical deed, Shakespeare's “tragedian” becomes the phoenix Lucy foresaw. But in the play, after Lucy's eulogy, Talbot is totally forgotten. Though we should be reminded of him by such dramatic devices as the sharp contrast between Joan's death and his (she denies her father and dies wretchedly; he embraces his son and dies heroically), no one onstage remembers him or utters his name. In such “sleeping neglection” of the heritage that might redeem its England, the play “ends” (rather than concludes) with a pointed anticipation of even worse troubles to come.6

This dismal prospect, however, still remains unclouded by factors that will complicate the represented “change of times and states” in later histories. If all the play's plain signs (buttressed by our historical foreknowledge) validate the various prophecies of disaster beyond any shadow of doubt, there is nothing in the nature of things as we see it here suggesting that it had to be so, that it could not have been otherwise. Nothing more substantial, that is, than Joan's theory, summoned in support of her own cause, that “glory is like a circle in the water, / Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself / Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught. / With Henry's death the English circle ends” (I, ii, 133-136). From the opening scene on, everything in the presentation indicates that the contentious lords who burst the circle of England's glory both can and should know and do otherwise, and that no fundamental evolution from a better heroic past to a lesser pedestrian present need take place. Both Talbot and his erring opposites are presented in exemplary colors that imply the full potential in them (as in the audience that watches and should learn from them) for realizing the better way and its happier consequences. In this way, 1 Henry VI not only shows us (in Talbot) the proper way of using history but is inspirational history, awakening remembrance of the valiant dead with the clear-eyed confidence of Talbot himself.7

Nor is the presentation of this inspirational model colored with any suggestion of fictionalization or idealization that would either distance the hero from the actual world of the audience or question the authenticity of his historical image as we see it here. Lucy's speech looks out from the play to the world of the audience with the full implication that the “phoenix” who will revive Talbot may (and can) appear there, suggesting perfect continuity between the dramatized past and the spectators' present. And however good Talbot is, there is no hint in the play that he is too good to be true. Quite the opposite. The countess of Auvergne does think, on first view, that the “real” Talbot she sees scarcely matches the storied hero of whom she has heard:

                                        Is this the scourge of France?
Is this the Talbot, so much feared abroad
That with his name the mothers still their babes?
I see report is fabulous and false.
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, 16-24)

But, as she realizes when Talbot adroitly supplements his “shadow” with the “substance” of his soldiers and thereby foils her hope to become a second Tomyris by trapping him, the countess is sorely mistaken:

Victorious Talbot, pardon my abuse.
I find thou art no less than fame hath bruited,
And more than may be gathered by thy shape.


If any disparity exists between the Talbot we see onstage and the “real” Talbot, the last line here suggests that it must be in the latter's favor. But such questions are scarcely essential. This first in Shakespeare's series of histories renews Talbot's fame with every implication that its hero, if “lost” to those factionalists who neglected him and his better way to their country's detriment, now lives anew both in the play and (potentially) in any auditor who will properly emulate him.8


The lament opening 1 Henry VI was for the lost leader and the foreseen “change of times and states” in an England bereft of him. But there had been no thought then that all that Henry had been and done might itself vanish. Rather, he would shine as “a far more glorious star … / Than Julius Caesar” (55-56). As we have seen, however, Lucy later deplores the “sleeping neglection” that threatens to cancel out the conquests of this “ever-living man of memory” (IV, iii, 49-51). And as Part Two opens with a nuptial scene that is at least as ominous as the funeral with which Part One began, Gloucester warns his fellow (but scarcely collegial) peers that the past itself and not just its hero king is in danger of dying:

What? Did my brother Henry spend his youth,
His valor, coin, and people in the wars?
Did he so often lodge in open field,
In winter's cold and summer's parching heat,
To conquer France, his true inheritance?
And shall these labors and these honors die?
Shall Henry's conquest, Bedford's vigilance,
Your deeds of war, and all our counsel die?
O peers of England, shameful is this league.
Fatal this marriage, cancelling your fame,
Blotting your names from books of memory.
Rasing the characters of your renown,
Defacing monuments of conquered France,
Undoing all as all had never been!


The eradicating process Gloucester envisions as the result of Henry's foolish marriage to the dowerless Margaret is, of course, the exact inverse of Talbot's efforts at heroic renewal. Against such blotting, rasing, and defacing, Talbot's erection of a monument to Salisbury in the marketplace of Orléans, where he had revived Salisbury's spirit through his own conquest, stands as a positive (and literal) model.

Gloucester's “passionate discourse” is, given his honest but splenetic temper, characteristically hyperbolic. The very existence of the play in which he voices them proves that his fears of being blotted, along with the other sharers in Henry V's glory, “from books of memory” will not ultimately be realized. And we will see more clearly the limited significance given here to such “undoing” of the past when we explore the dramatization of that process in Richard II. Nonetheless, Gloucester's outburst offers an appropriate keynote for the second and third parts of Henry VI, where not only are recent English accomplishments undone but virtually no positive memory of the English past survives. These are history plays about a nation that has little sense (and makes no good use) of its own history.

Like Gloucester, I am indulging in hyperbole for the sake of emphasis here. It should be recalled, in behalf of responsible accuracy, that York enlists the support of the Nevils (Warwick and Salisbury) by rehearsing his historical claim in such intricate detail that few modern audiences are likely to exclaim, with Warwick, “What plain proceedings is more plain than this?” (II, ii, 10-58). I can reiterate the point already made about the Yorkist recourse to genealogy in Part One—that it reduces heroes and goats alike to flat factors in the reckoning (“Edward the Black Prince died before his father / And left behind him Richard, his only son”). The difference is that this is the only sort of recollection of England's famous fourteenth-century victors in this play and its sequel. Neither the Black Prince nor his “mountain sire” (nor such an earlier figure as Richard Cordelion) is evoked to celebrate his heritage or inspire emulation. With minimal exceptions (to be noted shortly) in the case of Henry V, no such use of England's past glory is made whatsoever through these two long plays.

Moreover, even more pointedly than in Part One, the recourse to legal history itself proves superficial rather than fundamental, a matter of political tactics that shows no true regard for the constitutional past. York makes less and less of it, even as a selling point, as he pursues his claim, relying more both privately and publicly on the Tamburlainian ground of his merit and Henry's weakness:

Nor shall proud Lancaster usurp my right,
Nor hold the sceptre in his childish fist,
Nor wear the diadem upon his head,
Whose churchlike humors fits not for a crown.

(2, I, i, 242-245)

                                                            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 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.
Here is a hand to hold a sceptre 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.

(2, V, i, 93-105)

It had been clear, of course, from York's first utterance of his aspirations in Part One that personal will surmounted whatever historical “right” might be used to support it. And his priorities in this regard are shared by all alike in Parts Two and Three. Young Clifford's disregard for constitutional issues is exceptional only for its outright candor: “King Henry, be thy title right or wrong, / Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defense” (3, I, i, 159-160). Oxford, who offers the only substantial historical justification of the Lancastrian claim in the entire trilogy (3, III, iii, 81-87), steps out from behind it when pressed and reveals the true basis of his partisanship:

Call him [Edward] my king by whose injurious doom
My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere,
Was done to death? and more than so, my father,
Even in the downfall of his mellowed years,
When nature brought him to the door of death?
No, Warwick, no! While life upholds this arm,
This arm upholds the house of Lancaster.


And Warwick, whose allegiance to York may appear more a matter of constitutional principle than is that of any other major figure on either side (see 2, II, ii, 53-62), subordinates that principle to his personal honor (or pride) as soon as he feels the latter to be injured by his presumably rightful monarch:

Had he [Edward] none else to make a stale but me?
Then none but I shall turn his jest to sorrow.
I was the chief that raised him to the crown
And I’ll be chief to bring him down again;
Not that I pity Henry's misery,
But seek revenge on Edward's mockery.

(3, III, iii, 260-265)

His last line here expresses what has become the dominant motive on both sides—revenge. To the extent that historical right to the throne is debated at all in the “Bloody Parliament” scene which opens Part Three, the nod surely is given to York, both by Henry's concession (“I know not what to say; my title's weak” [134]) and by the apparently just-minded Exeter's defection (“His [York's] is the right, and therefore pardon me” [148]). But Exeter, an anomaly of impartiality in this sharply divided world, points out why neither constitutionality nor any gesture of compromise can possibly sway the hard-core Lancastrians: “They seek revenge and therefore will not yield” (190).

Revenge, of course, implies the implacable memory that fuels it, and to a large extent it would be fair to say that revenge replaces heroic renewal here as the primary use of the past to “inspire” present action. As early as the second act of Part One, Richard Plantagenet had given notice of the prominence that this intensely personalized “book of memory” (as distinct from the public and celebrative “books of memory” Gloucester sees being erased) assumes in the world he helps to shake apart:

For your partaker Pole, and you [Somerset] yourself,
I’ll note you in my book of memory
To scourge you for this apprehension.
Look to it well and say you are well warned.

(II, iv, 100-103)

And “Bloody Clifford” becomes the embodiment of this common motive, dedicating himself over his fallen father to the single-minded cause of vengeance:

                                                            Even at this sight
My heart is turned to stone; and while ’tis mine,
It shall be stony. York not our old men spares;
No more will I their babes. Tears virginal
Shall be to me even as the dew to fire;
And beauty, that the tyrant oft reclaims,
Shall to my flaming wrath be oil and flax.
Henceforth I will not have to do with pity.
Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtus did.
In cruelty will I seek out my fame.

(2, V, ii, 49-60)

As “good” as his word, he slaughters the pathetic young Rutland in pursuit of the only cause he cares for:

Clifford: Thy father slew
my father. Therefore die.
Rutland: Di faciant laudis summa
sit ista tuae!

(3, I, iii, 47-48)

Both as he makes his vow and as he fulfills it, Clifford stands as an antitype—or at the very best as a savage degeneration—of the ideal Talbot had upheld in his remembrance of the fallen Salisbury. Heroic renewal is degraded into destructive vengeance, and Rutland's Ovidian prayer, echoing Clifford's own relegation of his “fame” to such heartless “cruelty,” may call to mind the different intention realized in Talbot's monument to Salisbury.9 Likewise, the prophecy York hurls at his captors, even as it echoes Lucy's prophecy over the dead Talbots, emphasizes the turn from heroic renewal to personal revenge: “My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth / A bird that will revenge upon you all” (3, I, iv, 35-36).

But to say that revenge replaces renewal as memory's motive (or as the focus of memory) is still to miss an important part of the distinction between Talbot's heroic ideal and the presented behavior of those who succeed and forget him. Despite revenge's ubiquity in Parts Two and Three, remembrance plays a relatively minor role in its execution. True, Clifford's memory of his father's blood stops the passage where Rutland's pleading words should enter (3, I, iii, 21-22). But here, and even more exclusively in most instances, the revenger's focus is forward, on the object of his hatred, not backward, memorializing its cause. As York and his ashy phoenix imply, revenge's cycle does foster a destructive kind of continuity (York kills Clifford; Clifford's son kills York and York's son; York's other sons kill young Clifford). But its thrust, as we see it here, is ever onward. When the ominous bird of York's prophecy takes its final flight in Richard III, the primary pattern of retribution will be highlighted through recollections of the dreadful past—the awful history that takes its inexorable toll on that play's present. In these two plays, however, where that “history” is itself taking place, vengeance scarcely keeps the past alive even in the minds of those who pursue it. Here, rather than serving as a vehicle to carry the remembered past into the present, personal revenge tends to stifle whatever recourse to history might otherwise make its claim on these contentious lords' allegiance. Warwick's reversal at the French court is symptomatic in this respect.

Though the memory of such a recent hero as Talbot and all recollections of earlier English valor are blotted, rased, and defaced from the vengeful and ambitious minds that dominate here, Henry V's heritage cannot be totally ignored by those who squabble over his leavings. Still, it is surprising how little positive use even the Lancastrians make of “that ever-living man of memory.” True, Henry is repeatedly recalled by way of blaming his singularly unambitious and charitable son for not being like him. But the focus here is always reproach for what has been lost, never encouragement to emulation, as we see when the dying Clifford switches the blame from father to son in the application of his sunny simile:

O Phoebus, hadst thou never given consent
That Phaeton should check thy fiery steeds,
Thy burning car never had scorched the earth!
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.

(3, II, vi, 11-17)

Even when Clifford does exhort his reluctant leader to be made of sterner stuff and cites Henry IV and Henry V in the process, he cites them only as the winners of all that Henry VI is giving away, not as role models. Rather, in keeping with his own ferocious spirit, Clifford holds up the lion, the forest bear, the lurking serpent, and all such “unreasonable creatures” for poor Henry to imitate in defense of his son's birthright: “Make them your precedent” (3, II, ii, 9-42). Henry is provoked into responding with the tetralogy's most radical statement on the whole question of heritage: “I’ll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind, / And would my father had left me no more” (49-50). But the potentially positive alternative to inherited martial heroics that glimmers briefly in these lines is subverted, as in Henry's other saintly moments, by clear indications that he is shrinking (half-petulantly here) from his proper responsibility:

For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousandfold more care to keep
Than in possession any jot of pleasure.


Only twice in the long course of these two plays is Henry V recalled in something like the terms of renewal and inspiration that informed Talbot's heroic ideal, and in both instances irony crowds in from the prevailing context. Toward the end of Part Three, Oxford sees the lineaments of the hero king reborn in his grandson, the Lancastrian Prince Edward:

O brave young prince, thy famous grandfather
Doth live again in thee. Long mayst thou live
To bear his image and renew his glories.

(V, iv, 52-54)

But Oxford's bright hope only sets up the cruel reversal of the very next scene in which Edward of York, finding the captured young prince's likeness in his railing mother rather than his famous grandfather, leads his eager brothers' murderous assault on the boy. And toward the end of Part Two, Clifford Senior had used the name of “Henry Fifth that made all France to quake” to rally Cade's mob back into obedience to the hero's hapless heir. It takes no keener observer than Cade himself, however, to estimate accurately the inspirational force at work here: “Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?” (IV, viii, 15-54).

Even Cade shows some deference to “Henry the Fifth (in whose time boys went to span-counter for French crowns)” (IV, ii, 145-146). But far from showing what would be, in these plays, a rare susceptibility to the call of heroic history, the mob in general and Cade in particular parody the disregard for history's authority that pervades the nobility, just as they parody other failings in their “betters.” Their larger hostility to learning of any kind, which prompts them to execute everyone who can read and write, caricatures the aristocratic disdain for “nice sharp quillets of the law” that surfaced in Part One's seminal Temple Garden scene. And they threaten to carry out literally the “undoing” of all “books of memory” that Gloucester had so dreaded: “Away, burn all the records of the realm! My mouth shall be the parliament of England” (IV, vii, 11-13). Cade's proclamation is only a blunt extension of York's assertion of will over law or Clifford's avowed disregard for the “right or wrong” of the Lancastrian title he supports. Though Cade does not quite achieve his ultimate solution, he and his “men of Kent” manage to “undo” history in their execution of the learned Lord Say, who appeals to them through the hopeful authority of recorded history:

Hear me but speak, and bear me where’er you will.
Kent, in the Commentaries Caesar writ,
Is termed the civil’st place of all this isle.
Sweet is the country, because full of riches;
The people liberal, valiant, active, wealthy,
Which makes me hope you are not void of pity.

(IV, vii, 53-58)

Cade blots out such hope and effectually contradicts the history on which it is based by beheading Lord Say “an it be but for pleading so well for his life” (98-99).

Given the current state of the government against which they rebel, the mob's grievances are not without their telling points. But whatever truth leaks through their complaint that “the king's council are no good workmen” (IV, ii, 12-13) scarcely sustains their “larger” vision of England's past, present, and future. Concerns that will be given serious consideration in later history plays are reduced here to comic absurdity as Cade and his followers voice them. One such concern is the nostalgic sense of a better past, of a world transformed from what it once was and still ought to be, that will figure so prominently in Richard II. The mob's appeal to “ancient freedom,” to a “merry world” before “gentlemen came up” (IV, viii, 25; ii, 7-8), has nothing of history or memory about it, of course. It flows, rather, with the same impulse that would obliterate all actual history and any record thereof in quest of an Edenic Utopia wherein “all the realm shall be in common” (IV, ii, 62). But if this impulse to cancel “all as all had never been” reflects grotesquely the “sleeping neglection” that blots all recollection of England's heroic heritage among the factious nobles, the mob's sense of a world (or an England) transformed for the worse finds no echo in any higher consciousness in these two plays. Everyone can see that Henry VI falls woefully short of his father, and we watch a process of obvious deterioration as even the familial ties that bound “bloody Clifford” to his father break down and Richard of Gloucester slouches closer to the controlling center of the stage. But, in the general paucity of retrospect, no one seriously recalls a better English past now lost. The only loss widely lamented is that of the lands Henry V had won in France.10

The other major concern of the second tetralogy that is comically adumbrated through Cade here is the fictive reconstruction of history. When William Stafford accuses Cade of learning from the duke of York the genealogy by which he dubs himself Lord Mortimer, Cade sardonically remarks aside, “He lies, for I invented it myself” (IV, ii, 142-143). But if this cynicism comically reflects the superficiality of York's own recourse to his historical “right,” or the callous lies with which his foes recast honest Gloucester's career as they accuse him before the king (III, i), it does not play into any larger consideration of the fictive reconstruction of history. Rather, the very transparency of Cade's lies or the retrospective falsehood of those who attack Gloucester sets off the implied truth of the few other historical accounts here (e.g., York's recital of his birthright, or even the pirate lieutenant's accusatory review of Suffolk's destructive career in 2, IV, i) which may be openly partisan but are not called into question factually as revisionism will be in later plays.

Again, the more significant fact about historical retrospect in these plays, rather than any particular cast given its few occurrences, is its relative absence. Prophecy and anticipation abound, as in the “hardly attained and hardly understood” oracles conjured up by the hapless duchess of Gloucester (2, I, iv), or Gloucester's more lucid forevision of England's troubles at his downfall (2, III, i), or Elizabeth's false hopes for “Edward's offspring in … [her] womb” (3, IV, iv, 18), or Henry's canny truths foretold about those future mighty opposites, Henry Richmond (3, IV, vi) and Richard Gloucester (3, V, vi), or Richard's own villainous plans (3, III, ii; V, vi). Such forevision, true and false, is a more telling presence here than remembrance of things past. Gloucester's image of a nation “undoing all as all had never been” is only an exaggeration of the essential truth about his England's neglect of its history. In the context of Part One, where Talbot had given such prominence to the idea of heroic renewal, its absence here seems a severe loss. In their own right, however, Parts Two and Three do not call pointed attention to the loss of the past. They simply show us an England with little or no sense of its own heritage. One curious symptom of this national oblivion is the persistent recourse to classical and mythical models. With no evident consciousness of the Black Prince or Cordelion, no Arthur or “stout Pendragon” to inspire them, these embattled Englishmen call on the whole lexicon of the ancients to characterize themselves. Margaret styles herself a Dido to Suffolk's bewitching Ascanius (2, III, ii, 114-118), and Suffolk places his death in line with Tully's, Caesar's, and Pompey's (2, IV, i, 136-139). Young Clifford will unite in himself that incongruous pair, Medea and Aeneas (2, V, ii, 58-65). Examples are ubiquitous, and none more wonderful, surely, than that of Henry sending Warwick off as his “Hector and … [his] Troy's true hope” while he remains in London with his “loving citizens” like “modest Dian circled with her nymphs” (3, IV, viii, 19-25). Such allusive fertility makes the lack of reference to English prototypes all the more remarkable.

Loss or simple lack, the neglect of their past is surely one among the failings of these nobles, who are “no good workmen” indeed. In a rare retrospect, Edward signals the end of Part Three by reviewing his bloody path to “England's royal throne,” falsely interpreting this extirpation of Lancastrians as his “footstool of security” (3, V, vii, 1-14) and smugly oblivious of the deadly intentions Richard mutters aside to us. Even less than his ambitious father does Richard care for history and its claims, which oppress him as a “thorny wood” through which he will “hew … [his] way out with a bloody axe” (3, III, ii, 174-181). In his stance toward history and its authority, as in so many other respects, Richard is the nadir toward which this self-destructive English polity has been plummeting.


  1. On the heroic style of this speech and the Henry VI trilogy, see James C. Bulman, The Heroic Idiom of Shakespearean Tragedy (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Press, 1985), 26-50.

  2. Any argument about this play and the Henry VI trilogy (or first tetralogy) must have constant reference to two fine studies: Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), and David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: “Henry VI” and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971). My major disagreement with both, implicit in this last paragraph, may not be susceptible to absolute demonstration one way or the other. Both of them (Riggs with reference to the humanistic tradition of heroic achievement he traces through Tamburlaine to these plays) see the deterioration of England's polity through the trilogy as a matter of historical process that seems, as they describe it, to have a momentum carrying the characters along with it. Without denying the clear sense of progressive decay and its momentum, my argument posits the continued possibility of better or worse choices, particularly with respect to emulation of historic models and a positive regard for the past's relationship to the present. About the portrayed results, of course, there can be no disagreement, however the causes are interpreted and weighted.

  3. David Kastan sees Talbot's death as signalling the failure of heroic exemplary history: Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1982), 18-21. I accept Lucy's insistence on the failure of those who should support Talbot and live up to the ideal, rather than the failure of the ideal itself, as the play's primary emphasis here (IV, iii, 47-52).

  4. For a more extended argument about the varying effects of soliloquies on an audience's point of view, see my Engagement with Knavery: Point of View in “Richard III,” “The Jew of Malta,” “Volpone,” and “The Revenger's Tragedy” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), 10-11.

  5. Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Divell, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. McKerrow, 1: 212.

  6. On the characteristic inconclusiveness of the histories, see David Scott Kastan, “The Shapes of Time: Form and Value in the Shakespearean History Play,” CompD 7 (1973-74): 259-277, and Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time. Among the histories, however, 1 Henry VI's inconclusive ending is especially notable.

  7. Here my view is clearly at odds with Berry's “inexorable law” of disintegration (Patterns of Decay, 52) and Riggs on “the dramatist's continuing discovery of an historical process that followed naturally from the extension of heroic ideals into Tudor politics” (Shakespeare's Heroical Histories, 129), although these particular phrases are applied to Parts 2 and 3. And my understanding of Talbot is much more in the spirit of Nashe than of John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983). Blanpied has Talbot metatheatrically exposed through the very flatness of his characterization as “the kind of hero you can only celebrate in memoriam” and “something of an embarrassment” onstage (29).

  8. My phrasing here leaves out of account the degree to which lineage, or parentage, figured in the traditional idea of heroic renewal on which Shakespeare drew. See Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories, 24, 27, 62-92. Sigurd Burckhardt argues that Talbot and Shakespeare reach beyond the play's customary ceremonial style in the scene with the countess toward a more viable kind of style and action: “‘I Am But Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI,MLQ 28 (1967): 139-158. James A. Ridell, in “Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne,” SQ 28 (1977): 51-57, “corrects” Burckhardt, but in a way that ignores the more interesting reach of Burckhardt's argument.

  9. Though I feel compelled here to register my personal reservations about the distinction in kind between Clifford's bloody revenge and Talbot's “bloody massacre” (1HVI, II, ii, 18), the plays surely intend the distinction between such personal revenge and battle against the national enemy to be clear and certain, even when Talbot speaks of “revenge” in the latter case (11). Berry notes Clifford's echoes and violations of Talbot's model as signals of the “new world” emerging at the end of 2 Henry VI (Patterns of Decay, 50-51). I would reserve the term new world, suggesting a fundamental change in the condition of things, for Richard II, where it is used in the play (IV, i, 78), and would speak here rather of deterioration which is not ultimately incurable or irreversible.

  10. Margaret's lament for “former golden days” now lost refers to the sorry turn in her personal fortunes, not to a past when things were generally better, as Gaunt's and York's laments in Richard II will do.

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Rebellion, Class Consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI,” in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 33, April, 1988, pp. 13-22.

[In the essay below, Hattaway claims that the text of 2 Henry VI favors class rebellion rather than the order of the establishment.]



As we all know, history is made by the questions we ask—or more by those we don’t ask. Our conclusions derive as much from the ideological assumptions that we bring to a problem as from the ‘facts of the case’. This is demonstrated by examining a little noticed line in a well known play, Hamlet. When the prince is handling the first skull thrown up from Ophelia's grave he comments: This might be my Lord Such-a-one … now my Lady Worm's, chopless, and knocked about with a sexton's spade. Here's fine revolution, and we had the trick to see’t (V.1.70-6). Ideology, it emerges, informs even the most ‘neutral’ of scholarly activities, the editor's investigation of lexical history. The most recent editor, Philip Edwards,1 does not gloss ‘revolution’; Harold Jenkins offers “as of the wheel of Fortune or the whirligig of time”.2 Now it is true that the word ‘revolution’ derives from the observation of celestial rotation, but its immediate and particular context, embedded in imagery that reminds us that man himself as well as death can be a great leveller, makes us aware that the modern meaning, the overthrow of an order or régime by those previously subject to it (OED, 7), may be appropriate here. (Significantly, perhaps, the first recorded use in OED of the word with this meaning dates from 1600, about a year before Hamlet was written.)

That is one point of reference. Ideology affects theatre too. In the 1982 BBC television version of 2 Henry VI, Dick the Butcher who demolishes the pretensions to authority of Jack Cade, was placed immediately before the camera, his opinions thereby foregrounded and valorised. Jack Cade became thereby a comic figure. It will be the point of this paper that what Cade proclaims constitutes a cause, and a cause that emerges from class oppression.



I would like to move from this to what I take to be a notable if crude contradiction. It is—or it was until recently—orthodoxy among English scholars to claim that English Renaissance drama was supportive of order. Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it was held, endorsed ‘the Elizabethan world picture’, and in particular, Shakespeare's history plays endorsed the Tudor myth which presented a scheme fundamentally religious, by which events evolve under a law of justice and under the ruling of God's providence, and of which Elizabeth's England was the acknowledged outcome.3 There are obvious objections to this claim: first, it suppresses the debates that surged through the kingdom as consequences of both Renaissance and Reformation—theatres were used for propaganda purposes by those exercising authority and those opposed to that authority alike.4 We have simply to remind ourselves that a performance of Richard II was arranged by supporters of the Earl of Essex the day before his rebellion. That was because Richard II demonstrates that a king might be removed from the throne without incurring immediate divine wrath. Second, it ignores the fact, long known to theatre historians, that the theatres were associated with frays and seditious riots. The status of theatre was ambiguous: it attracted the patronage of courtiers but was a plague to the city, marginal to formally constituted social orders.5

If, in order to explain a political play, we invoke a metaphysical ‘order’, we have to be careful, as we translate it to the social sphere, to ask ourselves ‘Whose order?’ If we go to moralists contemporary with the dramatists, should we look to theologians like Richard Hooker, committed to looking for correspondence between the heavenly order and terrestrial practice, or to historians like William Harrison who interrupted his survey of the laws of England with a sceptical observation that might have astounded a previous generation of critics: For what hath the meditation of the law of God to do with any precise knowledge of the law of man, sith they are several trades and incident to divers persons?6 And inevitably we wonder what kinds of audience attended those plays, particularly those political plays with which I am here concerned. Was popular theatre in the time of Shakespeare a national theatre, appealing to all ranks of society, or was it, as has been recently argued, a theatre for the privileged?7 Even if we could be certain of the social composition of one theatre, can we assume a correlation between rank and sophistication or even rank and political allegiance? (The Queen herself was delighted to be entertained by Tarlton, one of the greatest proletarian artists of his age.8) And finally belief, assent, depend upon the mode of representation. Theatre was associated with holiday, drama is imprinted with the patterns of carnival: the assertions of carnival may correlate only partly with an audience's sense of the order by which it desires to live.



Frankly I do not think we shall ever be in a position to answer the general question of whether the English drama of the sixteenth century served the cause of the monarchy and traditional social structures, or whether it served as an organ for raising consciousness and raising fundamental and radical questions about social and political structure and the relationship between power and authority, law and justice. Even if we can offer a coherent reading of the dramatic texts, vital theatrical evidence is missing: I don’t think we shall ever be in a position to recover the exact tone or theatrical style of any Renaissance production.

There is, of course, no problem in extracting from dramatic texts a catalogue of topics that were anatomized by the drama of the day. These include the nature of justice, crystallized in the question that lies at the heart of revenge plays: how is justice to be found if the fountainhead of justice, the court, is itself polluted. Is a good king necessarily a good man? Is witchcraft a symptom of the devil's work or of stresses in the social fabric? What are the consequences for a marriage from which love has fled?9 In previous decades we attempted to relate these questions to biography. Christopher Marlowe seemed to be the prototype of the angry young man. Did his plays simply express his personality? We must ask now ourselves what was the nature of the institution, the theatre, in which these questions were posed. Since the appearance in 1958 of C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, English scholars have been accustomed to relate drama to occasion, in particular to patterns of holiday and recreation. Barber's book now seems to be a-political, in fact to be written according to a Freudian paradigm, in that his key formulation is that the comic experience may be defined as a process of release leading to clarification and social harmony.

Now, of course, we have to accommodate a similar but political model, that offered by Mikhail Bakhtin, who would argue that in comedy we encounter the elements of carnival, demotic, satirical, deflationary, extra-institutional, devoted to the celebration of community and local solidarity at the expense of national interest or hierarchical order or “the specialized appreciation of durable literary values”.10 What, though, is the function of this carnival? Is it a proto-insurrectionary phenomenon as noted in Romans,11 or is it merely a safety valve,12 a licensed occasion, a ritual that marks a collusion between governed and governors?13 Or is it a moment when society ritually purges itself of what are commonly taken to be its undesirable elements, as when, on Shrove Tuesday, the apprentices in ritual disorder sacked brothels and theatres.14

In theatre, are endings necessarily conclusions? We shall be looking at a populist uprising that is defeated—should we resist the temptation that besets all adherents of historicism to empathize with the victors.15 Are the questions posed in the course of the play more important than the historical and dramatic answers it offers?



I want to claim that at the beginning of his career Shakespeare was not a pillar of the establishment—as our contemporary radical dramatist Edward Bond would have it16—but himself a radical. ‘History’ plays are better considered as political plays: concerned with the analysis of the nature, origins, and transfer of power. Shakespeare offered, in fact, “a negative critique that demystifies or ‘uncrowns’ power”.17 A previous generation of critics amused themselves with Shakespeare's ‘mistakes’:18 now we want to attend to his constructional patterns, the nature of the institutions he anatomized.

What may be one of his earliest plays begins with great men of court clustered around the coffin of Henry V and wondering how the British Empire in France had been lost:

Exeter: How was it lost, what treachery
was used?
Messenger: No treachery but want of men and

(1 Henry VI, I.1.68-9)

To me these lines make Shakespeare truly a buccinator novi temporis. St Paul had written there is no power but of God and the powers that be are ordained of God (1. Rom. XIII.1, Genevan version), and here, in this early play, we have a radical and demystificatory if not a materialist challenge to the Pauline assumption that power derives from divinely sanctioned authority. In Shakespeare's later sequence Richard II begs to be read alongside works of Machiavelli as a demonstration of how power is lost as authority is lost: as with Machiavelli, Shakespeare's great theme was how to play the king. Henry IV indicates that England may in fact be ungovernable: how is the authority of the centre to extend to the verges of a kingdom dominated by rumour, how might one banish plump Jack Falstaff without banishing all the world? Henry V demonstrates how to restore stability at home by finding a casus belli, the tennis balls of the Dauphin, and waging a war abroad—busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels (cf. 2 Henry IV, IV.5.213-4).



I acknowledge that from theatre history alone we cannot recreate a model that would enable us to measure the radical thrust offered by the political drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. But it is possible to offer a coherent reading of some of the drama that would question the conclusion the editors of a recent and most distinguished collection of essays in social history would offer to us. Working from an analysis of cultural models, patterns of behaviour and local community, Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson conclude that “a class society had not in our period yet arrived”.19

I cannot dispute their conclusion if I work from the same material and the same premises. But it seems that yet again literary critics have something to offer the cultural historians. Jonson may have been working from a background in medieval social theory, but Volpone and The Alchemist offer a thorough indictment of contemporary entrepreneurial rapacity—it was a French film, that of Louis Jouvet, that made this most explicit for us. More clearly the Henry VI plays offer a searing indictment of aristocratic factionalism and the haughtiness of prelates.20 The nobility in this set of plays does constitute a class—or, if we prefer, an élite—defined by the conflict between individual aspirations of its members and everything that constitutes the culture or cultures of the plebeians.21 The troublesome reign of Henry VI takes its nature not from the visitation of divine vengeance for an original sin committed two generations before but from the aspirations of a particular estate. It would seem to me that their political and material ambitions do define them as a social class. Even Edward Hall, one of Shakespeare's principal sources for the sequence, sardonically offers a secular alternative to the orthodox view of providentially ordered history:

For many of the nobility, and more of the mean estate, wisely pondering the estate and condition of the realm, perceiving more loss than increase, more ruin than advancement, daily to ensue; remembering also that France was conquered, and Normandy was gained by the French people in short space, thought with themselves and imagined that the fault of all these miserable chances happened either because the king was not the true inheritor to the crown, or that he or his council were not able of wit, policy, and circumspection to rule and govern so noble a realm, or so famous a region.22

We shall see an even more striking example of this technique of offering a alternative populist explanation elsewhere.

1 Henry VI shows how squabbling among his peers cost England her French empire and her hope and champion, Lord Talbot, his life. It is to 2 Henry VI that I want now to turn, for it is that play which contains the nearest thing we have to the portrayal by Shakespeare of insurrection that is more than a local riot.



Traditionally the rebels have been branded as a rabble—indeed it is still a commonplace to claim that Shakespeare, like Horace, hated the profane mob.23 The followers of Cade are described as a rabblement in the opening stage direction to IV.8, but it is important to note that, in the period, the word could be used without contempt (OED, ‘rabble’, 2). If critics do generate some sympathy in themselves for the plebeian cause, they tend to water it down by pointing out that Cade's economic reforms seem to derive from the land of Cockaygne.

Cade may well, on the contrary, be offering an oblique comment on the massive price rises of Shakespeare's period:24There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny. The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer (IV.2.70-2). What is important to notice, however, is that the collective has been hijacked by the Duke of York.

In soliloquy, York reveals that he has stirred up the rebellion of Jack Cade whose wild martial strength and politic skills he had observed in Ireland. The imagery of the lines taps into the vein of witchcraft and conjuring that runs through the play, but we are aware of the realities of power at York's disposal. The wind that York blew through the kingdom, as Hall aptly puts it, provides one impulse towards popular insurrection. The second, the efficient cause, is the furious rage of the outrageous [i.e. outraged] people against those responsible for the loss of Anjou and the murder of good Duke Humphrey—notably the flagitious Suffolk, the abhorred toad and common nuisance of the realm of England.25 Their anger is further fuelled by hatred of enclosures (see IV.2.75). The two kinds of division described by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie,26 horizontal between social groups and vertical between political factions, intersect therefore at this historical moment.

It is impossible, therefore, to argue, as Tillyard does, that the Cade scenes simply offer the “impious spectacle of the proper order reversed”,27 producing a homiletic demonstration of the evils of rebellion—the play would scarcely have been a success in the popular playhouses if they had. This is no mere riot, but an occasion when aristocratic rebellion is the catalyst for popular revolt28—a distinction that is blurred by Hall who refers to Cade and his followers simply as proud rebells.29

Duke Humphrey had foreseen the mischief that is brewing:

But [my death] is made the prologue to
their play:
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy. 


The uprising of the commons becomes a shadow play of the substantial quarrel between the aristocrats—the first lines of the first commoners we meet (Bevis: Come, and get thee a sword, though made of a lath: they have been up these two days [IV.2.1ff] suggest that they are wielding weapons that are obviously theatrical properties, the traditional mock weapons borne by fools and soldier clowns in Tudor interludes). York's description of Cade as a ‘Morisco’ (III.1.365), a morris dancer,30 also places him in this tradition of revelry—I cannot agree, however, that the episode is thereby depoliticized.31 For Cade's genealogy is a parody (IV.2.36ff.) of the genealogy of York: like his master he uses de iure arguments to mask his tyrannical ambitions. We might also, concerning another sequence, argue that the travesty of the trial by combat where Horner the armourer and Peter his apprentice are liquored out of their minds is a demonstration of the emptiness of an aristocratic form of justice, the trial by combat.

The rebellion, however, does not stand simply as a mirror of the intestine broils among the élite. Although Dick the Butcher, in IV.2, witheringly exposes in his asides the contradictions of Cade's claims (ll. 31ff.), and Holland, in IV.7, mock's Cade's justice, the audience is simultaneously made aware that matters of real moment for the people are being raised. Shakespeare seems to have wanted to set his spectators laughing and then demonstrate that this combination of noble provocation and popular combustion is no laughing matter. It is certainly not just an occasion for ‘mechanicals’ to be forced into their customary role of clowns, for the disorder includes not only the marginal and dispossessed. For, as in so many of the uprisings of the early modern period, we find no ‘peasants’ revolt’, but a group dominated by artisans or ‘handicraftsmen’ (IV.2.9),32 including a tanner, a butcher, and a weaver.

The disorder of the revolt, in fact, generates glimpses of an alternative order, of political radicalism: we are in order when we are most out of order (IV.2.182-3)—Bullough ignores the paradox and, following the chroniclers, unwarrantably uses this line to claim that Shakespeare thus brands the rebels as a “rabble”.33 Nor is it true to claim in respect of this sequence that: “Knowing his countrymen, Shakespeare does not suggest that men chose sides in the Wars of the Roses according to their beliefs in de facto authority or legitimacy. They took sides because of their feudal attachments, because of the appeal of family honour and pride, or as they were prompted by ambition, greed, patriotism, or revenge.”34 It seems to me that the essential characteristic of a populist movement, a coherent ideology, is here, at least in emergent form.

We can demonstrate this by Shakespeare's deployment of source material. Hall wrote little about the emerging ‘manifesto’ of the revels, noting only that the kentishmen be impatient in wrongs, disdaining of too much oppression, and ever desirous of new change, and new-fangleness.35 Accordingly Shakespeare turned from Hall to Holinshed's or Grafton's account of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, regarded as representative of popular revolts, and led by another Kentishman, John Ball.36

Act IV Scene 2 opens with a conversation (ll.1-28) between two artisans of unspecified vocations, Bevis and Holland, which reveals a thoroughgoing radicalism, a desire to put down gentlemen and magistrates and install a new order of workers. Their aspirations derive from the kind of egalitarianism that inspired John Ball, whose catchphrase question When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?37 was well known. Dick the Butcher, a member of a trade prominent in the Kett rebellion of 1549,38 would seem to share their apocalyptic vision. It may be wrong, of course, to see here the antecedents of later working class radicalism: as Raphael Samuel wrote in a review of a recent anthology edited by Tony Benn, “The social doctrines of the Levellers and Diggers are probably better understood in relation to medieval categories and thought—or to what Tawney called the “doctrineless communism of the open field”—than as the testament of the original ancestors of labour”.39

Unfortunately for these three, however, York's creature Cade hijacks the leadership of the revolt. Now Cade's brand of radicalism, like most of the aspirations that emerged during the course of the rebellions of the Tudor period, is informed by conservatism—there will be no egalitarianism in Cade's commonweath or communism. For although all the realm shall be in common (IV.2.76), Cade will be king, and riches will be distributed as an act of largesse to enhance Cade's rule. (Hall does note that the Kentish men were partly roused by fair promises of liberty.40)

As in the case of Ball's revolt, the grievances of the insurgents result in a ritual act of supplication to the king against the nobles. Just as the rebellion had been instigated by a creature of the nobility, so it is quashed by politic dealing on the part of the aristocracy, going to the rebels over the head of their leader.

But it is the mode of the representation that is of interest. I want to point how it may well have been seen from a double perspective, with a degree of horror but also with a degree of glee as the privileged get their comeuppance. My evidence comes from the source.

Cade employs a species of populist justice in his campaign against the lawyers and the lettered. Shakespeare again turned from his principal source, Hall, but this time to Holinshed. The unruly commons, wrote the latter, put precept into practice:

beheading all such men of law, justices, and jurors as they might catch, and lay hands upon, without respect of pity, or remorse of conscience, alleging that the land could never enjoy her native and true liberty till all those sorts of people were dispatched out of the way.

This talk liked well the ears of the common uplandish people, and by the less conveying the more, they purposed to burn and destroy all records, evidences, court-rolls, and other muniments, that the remembrance of ancient matters being removed out of mind, their landlords might not have whereby to challenge any right at their hands41

This is written from the point of view of orthodox morality, the morality of the homilies, but it would seem that Shakespeare may have caught the tone of these sequences not from the text but from the marginal glosses which stand as a dialectic with the text, a splendid example of Bakhtin has taught us to call “dialogism”.42 For against the first of those two paragraphs we read Lawyers, justices, and jurors brought to “blockam feast” by the rebels. In our play, as in The Life and Death of Jack Straw, law is perceived as instrument of oppression to the ancient freedom (IV.8.270) of the people:

Dick: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Cade: Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?


This ‘blockam feast’ reconstitutes the slaughter into a carnival of violence, enacted in the grisly display whereby the heads of the executed Lords Say, two figures of justice, are made to kiss at the end of their pikes (IV.7.133).

Against the second paragraph, the one that is the source for the scene in which the Clerk of Chartham is executed for being able to read, we find “The next way to extinguish right”43 This deftly inverts the argument of the text, for whereas Holinshed intended his reader to understand the way in which the nobles were deprived of their rights, the gloss offers the example as a means for so doing.

Perhaps we are meant simply to register the fickleness of the mob, “a real characteristic of a pre-industrial city crowd, united only temporarily to riot over a specific grievance”.44 Yet might not that city crowd have been provided by the audience rather than the broils ridiculous shown on the stage? For 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.


  1. Philip Edwards ed., Hamlet, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1985).

  2. Harold Jenkins ed., Hamlet, The New Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).

  3. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944).

  4. See M. Heinemann, Puritanism and Theatre (Cambridge, 1980).

  5. F. J. Furnivall ed., Elizabethan England, (London, n.d.), p. 51.

  6. E. K. Chambers, Appendix D: ‘Documents of Control’, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford, 1923), vol. 4, pp. 259-345.

  7. A. J. Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576-1642 (Princeton, N.J., 1981); Cook's arguments are challenged by Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, 1987).

  8. Michael Hattaway, Elizabethan Popular Theatre (London, 1982), pp. 88-90; David Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge, 1987).

  9. C. Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy (London, 1985).

  10. Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater (London, 1985), p. 4.

  11. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Le Carnaval de Romans (Paris, 1979).

  12. For a critique of this model see Bristol, p. 27.

  13. Compare Martin Ingram, “Ridings, Rough Music and the ‘Reform of Popular Culture’ in Early Modern England”, Past and Present, No. 105 (1984), pp. 79-113.

  14. Hattaway, p. 49.

  15. Walter Benjamin, quoted by Bristol, p. 7.

  16. Edward Bond, Bingo (London, 1974).

  17. Bristol, p. 2.

  18. G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1975), vol. 3, p. 90.

  19. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevension, Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, (Cambridge, 1985), p. 4.

  20. John Foxe, quoted by Bullough, p. 127.

  21. See E. P. Thompson, “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture”, Journal of Social History, vol. 7 (1974), pp. 382-405.

  22. E. Hall, Chronicle (London, 1809), p. 219.

  23. See D. Goy-Blanquet, “Pauvres Jacques: Chroniques et spectacles en Angleterre au xvie siècle”, in Elie Konigson ed., Figures théâtrales du peuple (Paris, 1986), pp. 49-74.

  24. Compare E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the Crowd”, Past and Present, No. 51 (1971).

  25. Hall, p. 219.

  26. Le Carnaval de Romans, ch. xi.

  27. Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 183.

  28. Penry Williams, The Tudor Régime (Oxford, 1979), p. 313.

  29. Hall, p. 220.

  30. Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978), p. 117.

  31. François Laroque, “Shakespeare et la fête populaire: le carnaval sanglant de Jack Cade”, Réforme, Humanisme, et Renaissance Vol. 11 (1979), pp. 126-30. Laroque argues that Cade's ‘jacquerie’ turns to carnival, an inversion of the normal order.

  32. See Paul Slack ed., Rebellion, Popular Protest and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1984), p. 9.

  33. Bullough, p. 96.

  34. Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), p. 26.

  35. Hall, p. 219.

  36. Bullough, pp. 96, 128-33.

  37. Holinshed, quoted Bullough, p. 133. Ball speaks thus in the anonymous play The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593-4; Bullough, p. 139, ll. 82-3); see also Charles Hobday, “Clouted Shoon and Leather Aprons: Shakespeare and the Egalitarian Tradition”, Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. 23 (1979), pp. 69-78.

  38. Slack, p. 52.

  39. The Guardian, 4 October, 1984, p. 16.

  40. Hall, p. 220.

  41. Quoted by Bullough, p. 131.

  42. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, tr. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin Texas, 1981).

  43. Bullough, p. 131.

  44. Margot Heinemann, “How Brecht Read Shakespeare”, in J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield eds., Political Shakespeare (Manchester, 1985), p. 226; Eric Hobsbawn, Primitive Rebels (Manchester, 1971), p. 44.

A version in French of this paper was delivered at the conference of the Société Française des Seizièmistes in Paris in December, 1986.

Ronald Knowles (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Farce of History: Miracle, Combat, and Rebellion in 2 Henry VI,” in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 21, 1991, pp. 168-86.

[In the essay below, Knowles reexamines the historical sources of Henry VI, contending that Shakespeare's reshaping of historical materials in the three plays demonstrates his departure from the form of chronicle history to the celebrated dramatic mode of Henry IV.]

It has long been a critical commonplace that the low-life scenes of the two parts of Henry IV have a dramatic complexity which shows a distinct maturity in Shakespeare's early dramatic art.1 Perhaps A. P. Rossiter's is the best known point of view. Rejecting the simple view of Falstaff as a morality figure he found greater ‘complexities … which often result from the use of comic parallelism of phrase or incident. That is, of parody, critically used, or of travesty-by-parallel’. This resulted, he said, from a bi-focal view of persons and history, and the ironic mode of drama generated an ‘essential ambivalence’.2 It will be argued here that this celebrated mode of the Henry IV plays is anticipated, more than is usually recognized, in the experimentation of 2 Henry VI, in the miracle, combat, and rebellion scenes.

Such anticipation of the technique of the Henry IV plays has been hinted at before, but not fully realized. Rossiter himself (p. 58) noted in passing ‘the grotesque, Hieronymus-Bosch-like sarcastically-comic scenes of Cade's rebellion’, in which Shakespeare ‘achieved something remarkable’. Also, in one of the major studies of all the English Histories since Rossiter's time, Moody E. Prior gave voice to a gradually revised general view in his consideration that ‘the three parts of Henry VI are the rich ore out of which the later plays are refined’.3 The present essay will show by means of cultural and historical placement that the technique is already essentially in place, and that it already represents a dynamic reconsideration of the main historical materials out of which the play is made.

The most important case is that of the Cade rebellion. It is, however, foreshadowed by the miracle of St Albans and by the trial by combat between Horner and Peter. In the long first scene of the second act of 2 Henry VI, the miracle episode is flanked by the hawking and the arrest of the Duchess of Gloucester. It has not been difficult to assign dramatic function to the scene itself. Hereward T. Price, for example, sees in it a dramatic ‘touchstone’ for the chief characters: ‘We see Henry's simple faith based on an unquestioning mind, Gloucester's scepticism and quiet penetration, the Queen's cruel laughter at the horrible punishments afflicted’. To Price ‘Shakespeare steps outside his plot in order to show the deeper undercurrents in the society he is depicting’.4 If, however, we also bear in mind Rossiter's ‘comic parallelism of phrase or incident’ the ‘miracle’ can be seen to have a level of ironic integration within the main action of the Henry VI plays.

In order to gain, Saunder Simpcox and his wife claim that his sight is restored by the divine miracle of St Alban. Gloucester exposes the deceit by getting Simpcox to identify some colours. The parallel can hardly be accidental with the linked sequence of events in 1 Henry VI, IV. i, where the king is blind to the consequences of choosing the colour red, and most characters act out the pretence of what is later called ‘Deceit bred by Necessity’ (3 Henry VI, III. iii. 68).5 In the Paris coronation scene of 1 Henry VI we can see a potentially tragic imbalance between loyalty and allegiance, betrayal and faction, as the action unfolds. Talbot's heroism is offset by Falstaff's cowardice and Burgundy's defection, and Gloucester's authority is overwhelmed by the factionalism of the Yorkist Vernon and the Lancastrian Basset, backed by their noble patrons. Yet King Henry foolishly chooses the colour red:

I see no reason if I wear this rose,
That anyone should therefore be suspicious
I more incline to Somerset than York.

(l. 152)

The business of colours is entirely Shakespeare's invention, with no hints in the sources.

This scene, showing Henry's political blindness, comes after the Temple Garden scene, also Shakespeare's invention, in which it is asserted by both sides that even the blind or near-blind can ‘see’ the truth of argument and thus choose the white or red rose. For Richard Plantagenet ‘truth’ is so ‘naked … That any purblind eye may find it out’ (II. iv. 21), while for Somerset truth is ‘so evident, b That it will glimmer through a blind man's eye’ (II. iv. 24-25). The central symbolic action of the scene then follows in the choice of red and white roses.

To a certain extent a metaphorical reading of the miracle scene of 2 Henry VI is encouraged by the way Shakespeare opens and closes it: the characters themselves allegorize the hawking at the beginning, and then, towards the end, use the ‘miracle’ to get at each other:

cardinal Duke Humphrey has
done a miracle today.
suffolk True; made the lame to
leap and fly away.
gloucester But you have done more
miracles than I;
You made in my day, my lord, whole towns to fly.

(l. 153)

This technique of deriving ironical metaphors from actual circumstances occurs later also when the accused Gloucester, about to be led off as a prisoner, warns the king ‘Ah! then King Henry throws away his crutch b Before his legs be firm to bear his body’ (III. i. 190). Seeing the ‘Honour, Truth and Loyalty’ (III. i. 203) of Gloucester, the king is nevertheless blinded by his tears and sees only ‘with dimm’d eyes’ (III. i. 218). Shakespeare added Simpcox's lameness to the historical sources, and presumably a crutch was carried on stage, since he is said to be ‘not able to stand’ (II. i. 146). Simpcox's wife's parting words are ‘Alas! sir, we did it for pure need’ (II. i. 150), the plangency of which is somewhat modulated by the comic flight of Simpcox and the ironic echo of his earlier answer to the Queen's question as to whether he came ‘here by chance,b Or of devotion, to this holy shrine?’. ‘God knows’, he says, ‘of pure devotion’ (II. i. 87-89). His ‘pure devotion’ is somewhat impure, his blindness and lameness are fake, and the miracle bogus. In contrast, the unremitting, single-minded purity of Henry's devotion has rendered him politically blind and lame, as Gloucester's image makes plain, and only a miracle can save him amidst ‘Deceit bred by Necessity’. No miracle is forthcoming.

Shakespeare was under no necessity to use the St Albans material for his story. In choosing to do so he gave the scene ironic point in the literal and metaphorical significance of devotion, colours, and blindness in 1 and 2 Henry IV. Something similar is seen in his inclusion of the combat scene of Horner and Peter. Here Shakespeare also employed the mode of travesty, but with greater comedy and more concentration and force.

The trial by combat in Act II scene iii has of course attracted some attention. Many years ago Clifford Leech saw something like ironic point, considering that ‘the formal combat between the armourer and his man is a parody of chivalric encounter: in a way remarkably sophisticated for this early drama, it implies a critical attitude towards the warring nobles whose quarrels are grotesquely mirrored in this fight between two simple men, one terrified, one drunk’.6 More recently Ralph Berry has discussed the trial as a unifying image for the whole play: the play's ‘essential form’, he says, ‘is that of the Trial. The processes of a Trial—charges, investigation, arraignment, defence, verdict, sentence, and execution—compose the pattern that orders 2 Henry VI’.7 Of the combat won by the apprentice, and celebrated by the king for the revelation of ‘God in justice’ (l. 106), Berry concludes ‘I put it that the play does not invite us to share the view of Divine Providence advanced by Peter and King Henry’ (p. 6). That might be easily granted. However, I believe that a sharper perspective can be gained by focusing on details such as double ale and the weapons used, and identifying their specific social contexts, for the incident needs interpreting both with regard to historicity and to current social attitude. The chronicles themselves provided very little detail of the circumstances of the combat, but, to judge from his manner of introducing the action—‘the appellant and defendant … to enter the lists’ (ll. 49-50)—it is evident that Shakespeare knew that the combat was under the auspices of the courts of chivalry. Recognition of this helps us to gauge more precisely the burlesque nature of the scene.

Incurring the criticism of Parliament, which feared encroachment on the courts of common law, Richard II had fostered the power and scope of the civil court of chivalry to the extent that the articles of deposition against him included specific details of this abuse. It eventually became possible for any treason appeal to come before this court, although there were conditions which had to be fulfilled. In cases of treason trial by combat was used when there were no witnesses and no evidence, so that one man's word simply stood against another's, provided that both parties were of good repute and not felons.8 The practice reached its height under Henry VI. Thus Cater and Davy, the originals of Shakespeare's Horner and Peter, appeared in historical fact in the chivalric setting of the lists at Smithfield.

They may seem an odd pair to have done so, but there were other cases concerning parties of less than knightly standing. A few years earlier, in 1441, for example, two thieves fought in combat ‘at Totehill’ according to Stow,9 on what appeal he does not say, and in 1426 ‘a gentleman, Henry Knokkis' defended himself against an appeal of treason made by ‘a certain plebian tailor’ beneath the walls of Edinburgh castle.10 Even more strangely, an elderly friar was ordered under Henry IV to fight a woman, who had accused him of treason, with one arm tied behind his back. (The charge was then withdrawn.) The Brut chronicle, also, records a fight to the death between a ‘Welsh clerk’ and a knight.11

By the Tudor period, such combat was considered against the law of arms. Spenser makes this clear by showing Calidore at first dismayed to see Tristram, who is ‘no knight’, slay a knight, ‘which armes inpugneth plaine’.12 In Shakespeare's day, in a work which the playwright may have consulted for the combat scene of Richard II, Sir William Segar spelled out ‘What sorts of men ought not bee admitted to triall of Armes’.13 Generally, ‘the triall of Armes apperteineth onelie to Gentlemen, and that Gentilitie is a degree honorable, it were not fit that anie persons of meaner condition, should thereunto be admitted’ (pp. 30-31). In this judgement, amongst the ineligible, beside ‘Theeves, Beggers, Bawdes, Victuallers, persons excommunicate, Usurers, persons banished the Armie’, is ranked ‘everie other man exercising an occupation or trade, unfit and unworthie a Gentleman or Soldier’. To sum up, then, Richard II had promoted a situation in which history itself would furnish burlesques of chivalric practice, whilst Tudor aristocratic exclusivity had heightened awareness of decorum. Thus when Horner and Peter appeared on stage in the 1590s, one drunk, the other terrified, and both carrying less than knightly weapons, the resulting burlesque confirmed the comic tenor of Peter's petition:

peter Against my master,
Thomas Horner, for saying that the Duke of York was rightful heir to the crown.
queen What say’st thou? Did
the Duke of York say he was rightful heir to the Crown?
peter That my master was? No, forsooth:
my master said that he was, and that the king was an usurer.

(I. iii. 25-30)

Yet that exaggeration of the comic will prove to have its serious point.

Details of the combat deserve investigation. It is removed from the traditional Smithfield venue to a ‘Hall of Justice’. Gregory's Chronicle mentions that Cater (like Davy, it is assumed) was in ‘harnys’ (harness) that is, a suit of armour.14 Shakespeare mentions a curious weapon, a ‘staff with a sand-bag fastened to it’, but no armour. The treason-duel of chivalry, usually on horseback, was never fought without a sword and spear. Shakespeare's weapon, in fact, is closer to the weapon of the duel-of-law, the baton.15 Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, the Victorian antiquarian, was somewhat baffled by the weapons of Horner and Peter: ‘Shakespeare arms his combatants with batons and sand-bags at the end of them, yet this is the only authority I have met with for the use of this latter appendage’. He then proceeded to speculate that ‘probably such were the weapons of the lower class of people, and were therefore considered by him as appropriate to the parties’.16 He quotes Samuel Butler's Hudibras in support—‘Engaged with money-bags, as bold b As men with sand-bags did of old’—and suggests a comparison with the fool's baton and bladder. As early as Warburton's edition of the play, in fact, Butler had been used as a gloss, as H. C. Hart recounts in his edition of 1909, where, however, he shows no certainty as to what the weapon actually was.17 The weapons are in fact combat flails, as distinct from the metal military flail or the agricultural wooden variety. Reference to them seems to be rare, but an excellent illustration survives in one of the most detailed examples of a Renaissance festival book, The Triumph of Maximilian (1526), with woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair and others. [It] shows ‘Five men with (leather) flails’ preceding similar numbers of men with quarterstaves, lances, halberds, battleaxes, and various swords and shields, all collectively representing gefecht, explained by the editor as ‘combats on foot, considered beneath the notice of nobility or royalty until they were fostered by Maximilian, who took part in them himself’.18

By choosing flails with sand-filled leather bags Shakespeare placed a weapon associated with the lower orders in the high-born milieu of chivalric combat, bringing on his combatants without the expected arms and armour. He also made other significant alterations to the chronicle material. As has always been recognized, Shakespeare links the armourer's treason with York, although it was not so linked in the chronicles. In the sources the armourer is the innocent party and his servant the guilty. Holinshed, for example, following Fabyan, found Davy a ‘false servant’ and Cater ‘without guilt’, while Grafton, following Hall, saw Davy as ‘a coward and a wretche’.19 That wretchedness could follow from the cowardice, or it might be that Davy is called wretch for falsely accusing his master—presumably the latter, since the chroniclers see ultimate justice in his execution at Tyburn.

In assessing these alterations, we should not miss the question of drink. All sources except Gregory record the drunkenness of the Armourer, but Shakespeare makes a significant change in the liquors consumed. Grafton, following Hall again, records ‘Malmsey and Aqua vite’; Holinshed ‘wine and strong drinke’; Fabyan ‘wyne and good ale’, whilst Shakespeare has ‘sack’, ‘charneco’ and ‘good double beer’ (ll. 60-64). The last item is the telling detail. By the sixteenth century there had developed an association between festive wassail, that is to say, extra-strong ale (‘double beer’ or ‘double ale’), and riot and sedition. In John Bale's King John (1584), for example, Sedition enters, crying

No noise among ye? where is the merry cheer
That was wont to be, with quaffing of double beer?
The world is not yet as some men would it have.(20)

Charles Hobday has noted the subversive meanings of ‘merry’ as egalitarian freedom in the sixteenth century generally and in Shakespeare in particular, quoting the declaration of one of Cade's followers that ‘it was never merry world in England since Gentlemen came up’ (IV. ii. 9).21 Again, in The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593) Tom Miller, the comic rebel-clown, says of the notorious John Ball ‘You … b Find him in a pulpit but twice in the year, b And I’ll find him forty times in the ale-house tasting strong beer’, and in a ludicrous self-indictment he promotes himself as ‘a customer to help away … strong ale’.22 From this we can understand the import of Cade's ‘reformation’ when he ‘will make it a felony to drink small beer’ (IV. ii. 64-65). Double beer only for the rebels! In other words, the Armourer's ‘treason’ is further damned by association with drunken insurrectionaries.

Hall introduced the notion of Horner's height and strength: ‘he beying a tall and a hardye personage’. Shakespeare changes this subtly to Horner's superior technique: Peter knows that ‘I am never able to deal with my master, he hath learnt so much fence already’ (ll. 75-76). Advantage is all on the side of the master, except for his over-confidence encouraged by drink. It could therefore seem that when the Armourer is struck and confesses treason before dying, Peter has ‘prevail’d in right’ (II. iv. 95-96); right seems to have defeated might, so that the combat could be seen as divinely ordered. As Segar puts it:

all Nations … have (among many other trials) permitted that such questions as could not be civilie prooved by confession, witnesse, or other circumstances, should receive judgement by fight and combat, supposing that GOD (who onelie knoweth the secret thoughts of all men) would give victorie to him that justlie adventured his life, for truth, Honor, and Justice.

Hence the king's pious response to what has taken place: ‘And God in justice hath reveal’d to us b The truth and innocence of this poor fellow’ (II. iv. 98-99). The king may see it simply; the audience is more likely to see an irony: it sees the ‘right’ result produced by oddly circumstantial means, by Horner's incapacity through drink. If this is Providence, it is of a kind difficult to credit, except in the simple mind of this king.

The effects produced in this episode show the kinds of complexity so often celebrated in the Henry IV plays. In reshaping this historical material, Shakespeare created comic matter in a burlesquing of the chivalric code, in such a way as to create an ironic inversion of the main lines of action in the play, perhaps of the action of all three Henry VI plays. The combat scene lies in the middle of these plays, in which an overall pattern can be discerned of a falling into a world of brute force, in the demise of chivalry in Talbot's death, in the ineffectuality of Christian piety in Henry VI, and the rise of Machiavellian virtù in Richard of Gloucester. Everywhere Might seems to be overcoming Right, both in the small instance:

plantagenet Now Somerset,
where is your argument?
somerset Here in my scabbard, meditating
Shall dye your white rose in a bloody red

(1 Henry VI, II. iv. 59-62)

and in the large confrontation:

warwick Do right unto this
princely Duke of York,
                                                                                          Or I will fill the house with armed men … 
                    He stamps with his foot,
and the soldiers show themselves

(3 Henry VI, I.i. 172-73)

Momentarily the comic outcome of the combat scene seems to militate against this general tendency, and to affirm that Right might conquer Might. But such is the travesty of the combat as combat that we seem to have instead an ironic pointing up of the issues, a reminder of what ideally might be rather than an affirmation of Right. To have turned the chronicles around in such a way seems to have been to invoke and then to call in question any sense of divine ordinance in human affairs, and to direct us further towards the conduct of weak men.

The most developed instance of this technique is, however, in the rebellion of Jack Cade in Act IV, for which the comic scenes of the St Albans miracle and the treason combat seem a kind of preparation. Jack Cade is arguably the most complex figure of the Henry VI plays. The complexity of his case derives from three compounded categories, the historiographical, the cultural, and the artistic. Shakespeare follows his contemporaries' propagandistic conflation of Cade's 1450 rebellion with that of Jack Straw and Wat Tyler of 1381. From a cultural point of view Cade's presentation has an affinity with the topsy-turveydom of the Lord of Misrule and the World Upside Down, while in artistic terms it is related to the Vice and the clown. Yet, ultimately, Cade is an inverted image of authority, both its distorted representative and its grotesque critic.

The historical Jack Cade was rather different from the rebels of 1381. Though Brents Stirling points out Cade's execution of Say and Cromer and the freeing of prisoners, he concludes that ‘most of the violence and outrage in Shakespeare's version of the Cade uprising came from the chronicle story of the earlier Peasants Revolt’, from which was taken the anti-literacy of the rebels, the wish to kill all lawyers, the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, the destruction of state documents, and the ascription to Cade of Wat Tyler's belief that ‘all the laws of England should come forth of his mouth’.23 Cade, on the contrary, was impressively personable and articulate, in the words of Holinshed ‘a young man of goodly stature and right pregnant wit’, ‘sober in talk, wise in reasoning, arrogant in heart, and stiff in opinion’ (p. 220). Hall considered that Cade, far from being illiterate, was ‘not only suborned by techers, but also enforced by pryvye scholemasters’ (p. 220). Initially Cade's forces were in fact relatively disciplined, and on behalf of his supporters he presented the fully documented ‘Complaints of the Commons of Kent’.

The earlier, mid-Tudor depiction of Cade in The Mirror for Magistrates (1559) is moral and theological. He is heard insisting on the principle of non-resistance to divinely appointed rulers and the individual's responsibility to ‘follow reason’ and ‘subdue their wylles’ and ‘lust’, rather than allow the vagaries of Fortune to rule over them. In the prose discussion following Cade's speech his insurrection is seen as an example of God using rebels to chastise irresponsible rulers and overmighty subjects.24

By the 1590s Cade's rebellion was generally seen more in political than theological terms. Brents Stirling has shown how a conflation of the rebellions of 1381 and 1450 was further linked by conservative propagandists to English nonconformity and to the German Peasant War, by way of the Anabaptists and John of Leiden. John of Leiden was decried for the lowness of his trade, tailoring, and Jack Cade was turned by Shakespeare, without any indication in the sources, into a ‘clothier’ and a ‘shearman’ (IV. ii. 4, 127), that is, one who sheared the nap in the finishing stages of cloth production. Both declared themselves kings, both were opposed to learning, both proclaimed that all would be held in common and that money was to be banned. Given these parallels, it is unlikely that Shakespeare's presentation of Cade as a clothier could be made without some of the audience seeing such parallels implied in a richly compounded stage figure. Shakespeare pointedly concentrates on the anti-literacy of the 1381 rebels and adds a theme of his own, the critique of dress. In doing so he focuses on the authoritarian gradation of society manifested by the sumptuary laws and benefit of clergy.

We hear from Medvedev and Bakhtin that ‘ideological reality’, that is, the ‘philosophical views, beliefs or even shifting ideological moods’, are ‘realized in words, actions, clothing, manners, and organizations of people and things’ [my italics].25 Consider, for example, the sack of the Savoy, John of Gaunt's house, in 1381: the rebels ‘seized one of his most precious vestments, which we call a ‘jakke’, and placed it as a lance to be used for their arrows. And since they were unable to damage it sufficiently with their arrows, they took it down and tore it apart with their axes and swords’.26 It has been suggested, somewhat fancifully, by Thomas Pettit that this represents ‘an effigy for ritual slaying, sparagmos, the tearing apart of the sacrificial victims in many ancient renewal ceremonies’. More soberly Pettit draws a parallel with the rough treatment of the festival dummy figure of Jack o’Lent. However, if we note Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick's observations (p. 68) on the ‘Jakke’—it was a strengthened tunic used as armour yet lined with silk—we can see the symbolic provocation of such a thing. The Latin of Walingham's chronicle, vestimentum preciosissimus ipsius, indicates that such a garment was uniquely noble, combining the martial and the gentle. This the rebels singled out amidst the general havoc. John Ball spoke for them: the nobles, he said, ‘are clothed in velvet and soft leather furred with ermine, while we wear coarse cloth’.27 In fact, Shakespeare did not need to be prompted by a specific incident, for such occurrences derived from the system of visual class distinction being legally enforced in his own day.

Although they seem often to have been more honoured in the breach than the observance, sumptuary laws persisted with various amendments in statutes and proclamations from the reign of Edward III until their final repeal by James I in 1604, even appearing in hortatory form as an Elizabethan homily.28 They attempted to impose the quality, colour, kind, cost, and length of material worn by everybody, from monarch to serf, in order to distinguish their degree.29 Summarizing the period 1400-1600, Harte found that ‘the sixteenth-century Acts contained a vision of society that was more complex and hierarchical’ than in some earlier periods (p. 136). Elizabeth punctiliously followed the strictures of the statute of 1533, which had reversed the relative liberality of former law. The 1533 statute contained ‘exceptionally minute provisions limiting the use of silk and silk-wrought materials, according to the rank or income of wearer, between those kinds that could be used in different garments of external wear’ (Hooper, p. 435). All materials, in varying combinations, were graded according to social standing. At the top end, ‘none … except earls and all superior degrees, and viscounts and barons in their doublets and sleeveless coats … shall wear … cloth of gold, silver, or tinsel; satin, silk, or cloth mixed with gold or silver, nor any sables’. At the lower end, ‘no servingman in husbandry or journeyman in handicrafts taking wages shall wear in his doublet any other thing than fustian, canvas, leather, or wool cloth’.30

Prompted by Elizabeth in 1559, the Privy Council inaugurated a system of surveillance by suggesting to the city corporation ‘that two watches should be appointed for every parish, armed with a schedule of all persons assessed to the late subsidy … in order to see that the prohibition against silk trimmings was being obeyed’ (Hooper, p. 437). The dividing line between gentleman and plebeian was that between him whose annual income, after all taxes, was five pounds and him whose income was ‘forty shillings’. The sartorial manifestation of this in the gentleman was ‘silk in his doublet or jackets’, whereas the man below gentry rank could not wear silk at all, not even as decoration on ‘any shirt, or shirtband, under or upper cap, bonnet, or hat’.31 Class consciousness would have been most acute at this dividing line, and at least a century of discrimination, which all of the audience would have recognized, informs Jack Cade's contemptuous remark, ‘As for these silken-coated slaves, I pass not’ (IV. ii. 122).

Bevis's play on words at the opening of the Cade scenes—‘I tell thee, Jack Cade the clothier means to dress the commonwealth, and turn it, and set a new nap upon it … for ’tis threadbare’ (IV. ii. 4-6)32—alludes to Cade's particular occupation, but in this topsyturvy world he would indeed act the king and he has his own sumptuary proclamation: ‘I will apparel them all in one livery’ (IV. ii. 71). According to Stubbes in the Anatomy of Abuses (1583), the Lord of Misrule invests ‘everie one of these his men … with his liveries, of green, yellow or some light wanton colour’,33 and it has been conjectured that ‘Jack Cade may have used the Whitsun festivities of 1450 to forward or cover his enterprise’.34 Cade's ‘livery’ as part of his visionary utterances recalls ‘the simple gray cloth in which all Utopians dress’.35 On the other hand, Pettit records of the 1381 revolt that ‘according to the presentiments of the York jurors, the leaders of the disturbances there “gave caps and other liveries of one colour to various members of their confederacy”’ (p. 10). (Ironically, for all the messianic fervour of the German Peasant Revolt, ‘one of the demands of the insurgents was that they should be allowed to wear red clothes like their betters’.)36 Cade's ‘livery’, like his ‘regality’ and the Lord of Misrule burlesque, apes that of the great households with their liveried retainers,37 like those overlooked in earlier sumptuary laws and granted special dispensation by Elizabeth in 1588: ‘the servants of noblemen and gentlemen may wear such livery coats as their masters shall allow them, with their badges or other ornaments of any velvet or silk to be laid or added to their said livery coats.’38

At one point Shakespeare may have had a sumptuary proclamation in mind. The word ‘sumptuous’, found only four times in his plays and only in the histories, is used in Lord Say's protest of probity, innocence, and moderation: ‘Is my apparel sumptuous to behold?’ (IV. vii. 95). This may be an ironic echo of the proclamation in which Elizabeth authorized temporary detention to prove the correctness of dress and degree, ‘because there are many persons that percase shall be found in outward appearance more sumptuous in their apparel than by common intendment’.39

However that may be, it is certain that Cade plays sharply with words when first confronting Lord Say: ‘Ah, thou say, thou serge, nay, thou buckram lord!’ (l. 25). Punning on the name, Cade sees Say's reduced circumstances in terms of a coarsening, from ‘say’ (silk) to ‘serge’ (wool) to ‘buckram’ (a rough linen). Materials correspond to their reversed positions, but beyond the cruelty of the wit there may be a finer dramatic point. Cade's first line had been, ‘Well, he shall be beheaded for it ten times’ (l. 22). As this sentence sinks in, he seems to be prompted by the change visible in Lord Say's face to add the ‘buckram Lord!’ In the sixteenth century ‘buckram’ had, beyond the literal meaning of the ‘kind of coarse linen or cloth stiffened with gum or paste’ (OED, 2), a figurative meaning of ‘stiff’, ‘starched’, ‘stuck-up’; or ‘that has false appearance of stress’ (OED, 4b). Not wishing to provoke the rebels, perhaps, Lord Say had appeared modestly dressed before them, without the distinction of his degree. Here ‘buckram’ may also capture Cade's perception of Say's sudden realization of vulnerability, a superiority of bearing stiffening in shock before the judgement of Cade. And the latter does not let class-based invective drop, as is seen in the following charge of printing books and prompting literacy, and in his rounding on the modest lord, ‘Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?’ (ll. 44-45), pointing to the undeniable luxury of trappings which give his remarks justification: ‘Marry, thou ought’st not to let thy horse wear a cloak, when honester men than thou go in their hose and doublets’ (V. vii. 47-49).

Symbolic of the ‘honester men’ are the ‘leather apron’ (IV. ii. 12) and ‘clouted shoon’ (IV. ii. 178). Drawing on the work of Keith Thomas and including the example from this play—‘Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon’—Charles Hobday notes of the clouted shoe, the peasant's hobnailed boot, that ‘“clubs and clouted shoon” was a proverbial phrase for a peasant revolt which crops up in Norfolk in 1537, and again in 1549 in connection with Kett's rebellion, and in Leicester in a recusant prophecy of 1586’.40 Class contempt is echoed in Bevis's ‘The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons’ (IV. ii. 12). Unlike aristocratic dress, peasant wear changed relatively little during the Middle Ages. The one common innovation, particularly for smiths and tanners, was the leather apron. This remained an emblem of the lower orders right into this century,41 a sign of difference as clear as that of spoken language.

From symbolism of clothing we may move to the crucial question of literacy. ‘We are all branded on the tongue’, said Dr Johnson, but in the earlier period the crucial difference was between those who were branded on the thumb and those who were executed instead, according to their inability to read. At the heart of Cade's assault on literacy is his accusation addressed to Lord Say: ‘Thou hast appointed justices of 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’ (IV. vii. 39-43). As in the matter of treason combat, history itself furnished grotesque materials, seeming travesties, in the matter of the law of benefit of clergy. In the Middle Ages benefit of clergy was the privilege, available to ordained clerks, monks, and nuns accused of felony, of being tried and punished by an ecclesiastical court. As a consequence of the statute of Pro Clero (1350), which extended the privilege to secular clerks who helped the clergy in church services, it was later extended to all who could demonstrate the ability to read in Latin their ‘neck verse’, Psalm 51.1. By the sixteenth century royal courts had taken control, as benefit of clergy had become an involved law which could exempt those found guilty of certain felonies from the severity of the heavily used death penalty.42 But what of those unable to read, who confronted the death penalty? Consider the case of one John Trotter, who claimed benefit of clergy when accused of murder during the reign of Edward III. Though illiterate he seemed able to ‘read’ the Psalter. He could still ‘read’ the verse even when a suspicious judge turned the book upside down. It transpired that a kind-hearted gaoler had allowed two boys to coach him. He was found guilty as a laymen, but if the boys had succeeded in teaching him to read more convincingly, his claim to clergy would have been upheld, though the gaoler would have been punished.43 Such was the travesty of law in history.

Cade's charge to Lord Say applies a logic of inversion and reversal. Instead of being sentenced to death in effect for not being able to speak Latin, Lord Say is condemned for his words on Kent, ‘bona terra, mala gens’. ‘Away with him! Away with him! He speaks Latin’ (ll. 54-55). Because of Cade's logic, in reciprocating authoritarian self-justification in kind, it is impossible to reject his judgement without recognizing the preposterousness of such law in the actual world: this manifest injustice in the play serves to reveal the injustice of all justice based on class.

By adding the Clerk of Chartham episode to the historical confrontation with Lord Say, Shakespeare furthered Cade's comprehensive rejection of authority and law made manifest in writing. The precedents for anti-literacy in the 1381 revolt had nothing as systematic as the allusions in Act IV, which include materials, ‘parchment’, ‘wax … seal’, ‘pen and ink-horn’; production, ‘paper-mill’, ‘printing’; education, ‘grammar-school’, ‘noun’, ‘verb’; and law, ‘justices of the peace’, ‘clerk’, ‘courthand’, ‘obligations’, ‘letters’.

However, as in the previous episodes discussed, it is impossible to rest securely in the sense of simple affirmation of value. As if to surrender subversion to inconsistency, to surrender the social critic to anarchic clown, Shakespeare also shows Cade as feudal monarch manqué: ‘there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead, ere they have it. Men shall hold me in capite’ (ll. 5-8). Rather than ‘reformation’ here, Jack will insist on his proprietory right, his droit du seigneur.

In these scenes of the play everything is qualified and compromised by the comic mode of the presentation of Cade, particularly when we consider that if the play was acted by Lord Strange's men it is highly likely that the part went to the principal comedian, Will Kemp. It is considered that the Pembroke company, referred to on the bad quarto title-pages of 2 and 3 Henry VI, grew out of Lord Strange's Men, for whom all three parts of Henry VI were written.44 Two of Strange's men, Holland and Sinklo (or Sincler) are named respectively in 2 and 3 Henry VI.45

The leading comic performer in Strange's company was Kemp. It would therefore appear likely that Shakespeare knew that he could act Jack Cade. Considering Kemp's later Shakespearian roles as Peter in Romeo and Juliet and as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Hattaway feels that ‘it is safe to conjecture that such players were type-cast and that playwrights wrote parts with their particular skills in mind’.46

Internal allusions indicate this to have been the case with Kemp and Cade. In Act III, scene i the Duke of York in soliloquy recounts his suborning of Cade and recalls his fighting prowess in Ireland: ‘And fought so long, till that his thighs with darts b Were almost like a sharp-quill’d porpentine’ (l. 362). He then elaborates with a further simile: ‘And, in the end being rescu’d, I have seen b Him caper upright like a wild Morisco, b Shaking the bloody darts as he his bells. (l. 364) In that allusion to the Morris dance C. L. Barber saw an apt image: ‘Such an upstarting, indomitable gesture is perfect for a leader of a rising which is presented as a sort of saturnalia’.47

The claim for saturnalia may be overstated, but there is a point here, for how appropriate it would be if the actor playing Cade was the most celebrated Morris dancer of his day, an obvious draw for a popular and impatient audience. (If so, this was in fact to be his first extensive acting role.)48 The character York refers to Cade, but the actor of York may be ushering the famous dancer on to the stage.

Again, just before his demise, Cade remonstrates with his sword: ‘Steel, if thou turn the edge, or cut not out the burly-bon’d clown in chines of beef ere thou sleep in thy sheaf’ (IV. x. 55-57). David Wiles has shown that ‘in Shakespeare … the word “clown” is never found outside stage directions unless used of or (for ironic effect) by the character who is designated as the clown of the play’.49 Kemp's famously athletic capers meant that he was well-built, thus, ironically, he is ‘the burly-boned clown’ about to be chined by Iden. What is more, if Sinklo, a notoriously thin actor,50 was cast as Iden, his invitation to compare physiques—‘Set limb to limb, and thou art far the lesser’ (l. 45)—has a farcical point reminiscent of the burlesque of the earlier Cade scenes.

There are some comparable cases. As we have seen, Tom Miller the clown appeared with the rebels in The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593), and in the play Sir Thomas More (1593), to which Shakespeare contributed, Will Kemp acted the clown amidst the rebels, as Wiles shows (pp. 80-81). Such figures could also symbolize the collective nature of an insurrectionary mob, ‘the unruly sort of clowns’, as Sidney has it, reminding us that the rustic buffoon provided the early model for the stage clown.51 Shakespeare's portrayal of Cade incorporated both cultural and theatrical traditions.

Enid Welsford points out the process whereby the court fool and the public fool ‘came to be reunited in the person of “the Lord of Misrule”, “the Abbot of Unreason”, “the Prince of Fools” who is none other than the traditional mock-king and clown, who has adopted the appearance and behaviour of the court-jester’.52 Furthermore, Morris dancing was associated with the Lord of Misrule and his train. With the decline of folk custom and ceremony the spirit of misrule survived in ‘the “immoderate and inordinate jove” of the Elizabethan clown, jig dancer, and “jeaster”, who was accustomed, as Thomas Lodge wrote “to coin bitter jests, or to show antique motions, or to sing baudie sonnets and ballads”, and who indulged in “all the feats of misrule in the countrie”’.53 The ‘jig’, the celebrated specialism of Kemp, as C. R. Baskerville has shown, included ‘legal parody’, ‘satire on the ills of society’, and allusion to the Utopian Land of Cockaygne—all features of the Cade's scenes. In the theatrical tradition the clown as comic actor aped his betters yet scoffed at ranks or classes, made mock prophecies, indulged in chop logic not without some pointed wisdom, yet scorned learning.54 Again, all are palpably there in the Cade scenes but in a compounded form incomparably more dynamic than theatrical predecessors, especially when it is recalled that Kemp is not performing as a clown accompanying Cade, but is both impersonating Cade acting clownishly, and derisively evaluating such action as from without, for Kemp as clown ridicules Cade the historical personage. If this surmise about Kemp acting Cade is right, Shakespeare's major innovation in the early history of the clown was to have him act a historical figure of some moment in the chronicles. The dialectic between the ideology of propagandist history and the conventions of art as modified by carnival inversion give the Cade scenes their uniquely ambivalent power.

There are other signs of strange conflations and inversions. At the beginning of Act IV, scene ii, a carefully placed qualification triggers a particular expectation. ‘Come get thee a sword’, says Bevis, ‘though made of lath’. Editors point out that this was the weapon carried by the Vice in the old morality plays. (Feste's song in Twelfth Night, IV. ii. 127-30, puts it plainly enough: ‘like to the old Vice … Who, with dagger of lath, in his rage and his wrath, b ‘Cries “Ah, ha!” to the devil.’) But no sooner has the audience been invited to measure the historical Cade against a Vice figure such as Sedition, than it finds Bevis and Holland invoking the World Upside Down. Deriving from classical adunata (or impossibilia) and the medieval drolerie, the pictorial tradition of the World Upside Down found on sixteenth-century broadsheets depicted a range of social and natural inversion. The social aspect concerns us here—such images as the peasant rides, the king walks; the servant arrests his master; ‘the peasant judges the judge and teaches or refuses the advice of the learned’ and ‘the thief (or poor man) takes the judge or policeman to jail’.55 Following Holland's observation on the nobility's scorn for leather aprons, Bevis adds: ‘Nay, more; the king's Council are no good workmen’ (IV. ii. 13-14). On which Holland muses: ‘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' (IV. ii. 15-17). Holland specifically travesties ‘An Homily Against Idleness’, restricting the meaning of ‘labour’ to what the homily distinguishes as ‘handy labour’, while elaborating on ‘divers sorts of labours, some of the mind, and some of the body’ including the ‘vocation’ of ‘governing the commonweal publicly’, and so on.56 The world is turned upside down first by turning language upside down: the King's magistrates are considered poor ‘workmen’ who should therefore carry out manual labour in a revised vocation, thereby taking the place of the regular workmen, like Bevis and Holland, who would assume their office. The judges will be judged, and the judged will become judges, as we see in the following scenes with the Clerk of Chartham and Lord Say.

A larger dimension of burlesque can be seen in the way that Shakespeare carefully made Cade not merely claim the throne but also echo York himself. More than any other critic, David Riggs assembles a persuasive catalogue, saying that Cade imitates his patron York's ‘claims to royal ancestry (IV. ii. 37-50), his intention to purge Henry's court of “false caterpillars” (IV. iv. 36; see also IV. ii. 61-67, IV. vii. 28-30), his detestation of all things French (IV. ii. 159-65), his admiring recollection of Henry V (IV. ii. 149-52), his distaste for “bookish rule” (IV. ii. 81-104), his insistence on martial eminence as requisite for aristocratic station (IV. ii. 76), and his easy association of martial bravery and material prosperity (IV. ii. 61-72)’.57 Furthermore, as has always been recognized, Cade parodies aristocratic genealogy (IV. ii. 37-47), reflecting on a major concern through the Henry VI plays in general, and referring to York's claims in particular.58 It has also been claimed, more provocatively, that ‘Cade's ramshackle army is the antimasque to York's rebellion’.59

To all this may be added a further suggestion that Shakespeare created ‘travesty-by-parallel’ with history itself, by having Cade burlesque the royal entry of the king. The real King Henry VI, returning to London from his coronation in Paris, first assembled his entourage on Blackheath before the entry, during which, as Fabyan records (p. 605), the conduits of Cheapside ran with wine, a festive tradition. In the play Cade and the rebels assemble on Blackheath, then, after his violent entry and his declaring himself ‘Lord of this city’, he gives orders that ‘the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine the first year of my reign’ (IV. v. 1-4), ‘King’ Jack even has his royal rhetoric, not echoing King Henry, but echoed by King Henry. His followers deserting him, ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as the multitude’ (IV. viii. 54), asks Cade; his subjects deserting him, ‘Look, as I blow this feather from my face … such is the lightness of you common men’ (3 Henry VI, III. i. 83, 88), observes Henry, the failed King echoing the mock king.

Shakespeare repeats this technique in the action, with execution by decapitation. The chronicles express uniform horror at the execution of Lord Say and Sir James Cromer, Cade having their heads hoist aloft ‘and at every corner have them kiss’ (IV. vii. 130). In fact the historical Cade's action, repeated by Shakespeare, duplicated at least one earlier atrocity. In 1381 Suffolk rebels bore the heads of Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Cavendish, and the prior of Edmondsberie, ‘making them sometimes as it were to kisse’.60 Cade's protracted, cruelly delayed sentence and execution of Lord Say stresses a barbarity which in more summary execution elsewhere in the plays, though less apparent, is no less real. The depiction of Cade here is not simply the expression of anti-egalitarianism, the anarchic many-headed monster run wild, rather the recognition that such rebellions become a grotesque mimicry of the barbarism of feudal hierarchy. In 3 Henry VI Shakespeare has Warwick order that York's head be replaced by Clifford's on York gate (I. iv. 180; II. vi. 85), a duplication reflecting the Cade scene and which is not in the sources.

The miracle, combat, and rebellion scenes each comment on the main action by developing a comedy that is never free from irony. Even moments of high comedy are darkened by the larger context, creating a particular dialectic between kinds of relief, between relief as release and relief as projection, as in the plastic arts, making distinct by contrast of plane, colour, or line. Here that making distinct by contrast is done in terms of image, allusion, and action. The audience's affective response is checked by this intellectual recognition and compromised by a cumulative irony which, in turn, encourages through anticipation the relief of laughter. Where at one moment we respond to inversion, distortion, and burlesque, at another we find they have become a version, reflection, and duplication. The seriocomic dialectic moves from the stage and becomes not a movement from plot to subplot, but a dialectic between art and life, the play and history.

The ideological certainties of chronicle history have gone. History is dynamically reconstituted by the relativistic freedom of art. We confront not the farce of subplot but the possible farce of history in which self-interest, dishonour, and barbarism invert, distort, and burlesque fealty, honour, and love, while protesting their integrity. But this sense of travesty is critical, not dogmatic, and we are made both participants in, and spectators of, the historical process, by the transformation of foreshortened dramatic time. This is the essentially critical function that these scenes promote, from the tentative beginning at St Albans to the confident staging of Jack Cade, in which Shakespeare drew most fully on the resources of history, culture, and art.


  1. At the outset of this study Sydney Anglo provided several valuable antiquarian references, while Andrew Gurr kept me abreast of current criticism. I am indebted to Cedric Brown for suggestions during composition.

  2. Angels with Horns (London, 1961), pp. 46, 51.

  3. The Drama of Power (Evanston, Illinois, 1973), p. 9.

  4. ‘Mirror Scenes in Shakespeare’, in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, edited by James G. McManaway (Washington, 1948), p. 104.

  5. References are to the Arden editions by Andrew S. Cairncross: 1 Henry VI (London, 1962); 2 Henry VI (London, 1957); 3 Henry VI (London, 1964).

  6. Shakespeare: The Chronicles, Writers and their Work, 146 (London, 1962), p. 17.

  7. Shakespearian Structures (London, 1981), p. 2.

  8. Anthony Tuck, Richard II and the English Nobility (London, 1973), pp. 124, 198; J. G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), p. 143. G. D. Squibb, The High Court of Chivalry (Oxford, 1959), is the authoritative study.

  9. The Annales (London, 1615), p. 381.

  10. G. Neilson, Trial by Combat (Glasgow, 1890), p. 275.

  11. Bellamy, pp. 145-46.

  12. The Faerie Queene, VI. ii. 7. I am indebted to Anthea Hume for this reference.

  13. The Book of Honor and Arms (1590) and Honor Military and Civil (1602), Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints (New York, 1975), p. 30. See the introduction by Diane Bornstein for discussion of Richard II.

  14. The Historical Collections of A Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, Camden Society New Series XVII, edited by James Gardner (London, 1876), p. 187. John Nichol's Illustrations of the Manners and Expenses of Ancient Times in England (1797), AMS Press Facsimile (1973), pp. 217, 220, prints the writ for the combat and the costs for disposal and execution.

  15. See Neilson, pp. 188-89, for a detailed comparison.

  16. A Critical Inquiry into Antient Armour, 3 vols (London, 1842), II, 125.

  17. The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth (London, 1909), p. 66.

  18. The Triumph of Maximilian I, with a translation of descriptive text, introduction and notes by Stanley Applebaum (New York, 1964), p. 7.

  19. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicle (1577), 6 vols (London, 1807-08), III, 210; Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France (1516), edited by H. Ellis (London, 1811), p. 168; Grafton's Chronicle, 2 vols (1569; London, 1809), I, 628; Hall's Chronicle (1542; London, 1809), pp. 207-08.

  20. Elizabethan History Plays, edited by William A. Armstrong (London, 1965), p. 80.

  21. ‘Clouted Shoon and Leather Aprons: Shakespeare and the Egalitarian Tradition’, Renaissance and Modern Studies, 23 (1979), 68.

  22. W. Carew Hazlitt, A Select Collection of Old English Plays, 15 vols (London, 1874), V, 381, 483.

  23. The Populace in Shakespeare (New York, 1949), pp. 22-23.

  24. William Baldwin, The Mirror for Magistrates, edited by Lily B. Campbell (Cambridge, 1938), pp. 170-80.

  25. P. N. Medvedev and M. M. Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (Johns Hopkins, 1978), p. 7, cited by Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theatre (New York and London, 1985), p. 20.

  26. Thomas Pettit, ‘“Here comes I, Jack Straw”: English Folk Drama and Social Revolt’, Folklore, 95, no. 1 (1984), 12.

  27. A Radical Reader, edited by Christopher Hampton (London, 1984), p. 51.

  28. See, particularly, 1 Henry VIII c 14, 6 Henry VIII c 1, 24 Henry VIII c 13, The Statues of the Realm (London, 1817), III, pp. 8, 122, 432; 1 and 2 Philip and Mary c 2, ibid, IV, 239; Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, The Tudor Proclamations, 3 vols (New Haven and London, 1969), particularly II, nos 464, 542, 601, 646, and III, no. 697; ‘An Homily Against Excess of Apparel’, in Certain Sermons or Homilies (Oxford, 1894), pp. 274-83.

  29. See E. Baldwin, Sumptuarie Legislation and Personal Regulation in England (Baltimore, 1926); Wilfrid Hooper, ‘The Tudor Sumptuarie Laws’, English Historical Review, 30 (1915), 433-49; N. B. Harte, ‘State Control of Dress and Social Change in Pre-Industrial England’, in Trade, Government and Economy in Pre-Industrial England, edited by D. C. Coleman and A. H. John (London, 1976), pp. 132-65. I am indebted to Anne Curry for these references.

  30. The Tudor Proclamations, no. 542, p. 280.

  31. The Tudor Proclamations, no. 697 (1588), pp. 5-6.

  32. For a topical interpretation of this in terms of a 1590s industrial dispute between capitalist free marketeers and the guilds, between those who wished to export unfinished cloth and those in London's finishing crafts, see Richard Wilson ‘“A Mingled Yarn”: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers’, Literature and History, 12 (1986), 171-72. In the Utopian context of IV. ii. 62-72 Bristol (p. 89) sees topical economical reference to inflationary prices.

  33. Cited by Pettit, p. 10.

  34. H. M. Lyle, The Rebellion of Jack Cade, Historical Association Pamphlet G16 (London, 1950), p. 9; cited Pettit, p. 4.

  35. Utopia, Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St Thomas More, Volume IV, Utopia, edited by J. H. Hexter (New Haven, Connecticut, 1965), Introduction, p. xli; cited Bristol, p. 91.

  36. James Laver, A Concise History of Costume (London, 1972), p. 86.

  37. As a corrective to the one-sided view of peasant revolt in Norman Cohn's influential study The Pursuit of the Millennium (London, 1957), see F. Gaus, ‘Social Utopias in the Middle Ages’, Past and Present, 38 (1967), pp. 16-17, and Rosamond Faith, ‘The “Great Rumour” of 1377 and Peasant Ideology’, in R. H. Hilton and T. H. Aston, The English Rising of 1381 (Cambridge, 1984), p. 73. Both studies indicate how certain conservative beliefs could have radical political implications.

  38. The Tudor Proclamations, no. 697 (1588), p. 7.

  39. Ibid., no. 646 (1580), p. 457. The phrase ‘sumptuous apparel’ occurs three times in the homily ‘Against Excess of Apparel’.

  40. ‘Clouted Shoon and Leather Aprons’, p. 69.

  41. C. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington, A Handbook of Medieval Costume (London, 1973), pp. 178-79. Phillis Cunnington and Catherine Lucas, Occupational Costume in England from the Eleventh Century to 1914 (London, 1967), passim.

  42. W. S. Holdsworth, A History of English Law, 17 vols (London, 1903), III, 294-302.

  43. Leona C. Gabel, Benefit of Clergy in England in the Later Middle Ages, Smith College Studies in History, 14, nos 1-4 (October 1928-July 1929, Northampton, Massachusetts), p. 73.

  44. Hanspeter Born, ‘The Date of 2, 3 Henry VI’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 323-34.

  45. Ibid., p. 333. See Part Three, ed. Cairncross, p. 66.

  46. Elizabethan Popular Theatre (London, 1982), p. 90.

  47. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton, New Jersey, 1959), p. 29.

  48. See one of Tarlton's Jest Book anecdotes: ‘It chanced that in the midst of a Play, after long expectation for Tarlton, being much desired of the people, at length he came forth.’ Quoted by A. J. Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 125-26.

  49. Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 68-69.

  50. E. W. Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays (1963; reprinted New York, 1973), p. 13.

  51. Cited by Christopher Hill, ‘The Many Headed Monster in Late Tudor and Early Stuart Political Thinking’, in From the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, edited by Charles H. Cater (London, 1966), p. 298. See Wiles, pp. 61-72, for an extended discussion of the word ‘clown’.

  52. The Fool (London, 1968), pp. 197-98.

  53. Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre (Baltimore and London, 1978), pp. 23-24.

  54. Talbert, Chapter 2, ‘Aspects of the Comic’, pp. 7-60, especially pp. 56-60 on the Cade scenes.

  55. David Kunzle, ‘World Upside Down: The Iconography of a European Broadsheet’, in The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, edited by Barbara Babcock (Ithaca and London, 1978), p. 51.

  56. Certain Sermons or Homilies (Oxford, 1894), p. 460.

  57. Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971), p. 124.

  58. For example, see Prior, pp. 112-13.

  59. Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972), p. 51.

  60. Holinshed, II, 744.

E. Pearlman (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “The Duke and the Beggar in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI,” in Criticism, Vol. 41, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 309-21.

[In the essay below, Pearlman interprets the dramatic and theological significance of the encounter between Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and the beggar Saunder Simpcox in 2 Henry VI.]

In the midst of the factious wrangling that comprises so much of the matter of Shakespeare's The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, there occurs an innovative scene in which the young playwright takes some creative liberties with the new genre of the history play.

The situation is this: the fierce rivalry between Winchester, the proud cardinal, and his half-nephew the “good Duke” Humphrey of Gloucester—a younger brother of Henry V—has led Winchester to throw down his gage most unclerically: “if thou dar’st, this Euening / On the East side of the Groue” (2.1.41-42; TLN 762-63).1 Humphrey is enraged: “Now by Gods Mother, Priest / Ill haue2 your Crowne for this” (51; TLN 774-75). Standing by, wringing his hands, is the pious king: “How irkesome is this Music to my heart? / When such Strings iarre, what hope of Harmony? / I pray my Lords let me compound this strife” (55-56; TLN 781-83). Up to this point the representation is very much in keeping with the play's regular diet of beard-to-beard challenges and hapless gestures at peacemaking. But just at this juncture comes a surprise—the novelty of which modern audiences and readers may easily overlook There is a curious stage direction—“Enter one crying a Miracle”—and a report that at Saint Alban's shrine a beggar who has been blind since birth has suddenly acquired sight. Then follows a hubbub and a mildly carnivalesque procession: Enter the Maior of Saint Albones, and his Brethren, bearing the man betweene two in a Chayre (66 s.d.; 795-96). The erst-while blind man, who gives his name as “Saunder Simpcoxe,” is cross-examined by Duke Humphrey; it is not very long before Simpcox's “miracle” is declared a fake. The duke tricks the beggar into describing a cloak as “Red Master, Red as Blood” and a gown as “Black forsooth, Coale-Black, as Iet” (111; TLN 855). Alas for poor Simpcox, Humphrey turns out to be something of a philosopher of language:

Then Saunder, sit there,
The lying’st Knaue in Christendome. … 
Sight may distinguish of Colours:
But suddenly to nominate them all,
It is impossible. 

(124-25, 127-29; TLN 871-72, 875-77)

Having detected the one hoax, Humphrey then goes on to prove that Simpcox, who has also pretended to be lame, enjoys full use of his legs. The Duke sends for the beadle and for a stool, and he instructs the beadle to whip Simpcox until he “leaps ouer that same Stoole” (140; TLN 896-97). There is a second descriptive stage direction: After the Beadle hath hit him once, he leapes ouer the Stoole, and runnes away: and they follow, and cry, A Miracle (147 s.d.; TLN 902-4). Humphrey then orders the beggar and his wife to be “whipt through euery Market Towne / Till they come to Barwick, from whence they came” (153-55; TLN 909-10). Even though the threatened duel between the aristocratic cousins never comes to pass, the business of the play picks up exactly where it had left off. A partisan of the Winchester faction accuses “the Lady Elianor, the Protectors [i.e. Gloucester's] Wife” of “[d]ealing with Witches and with Coniurers” (166; TLN 924)—a charge that soon leads to her disgrace and banishment, contributes as well to Duke Humphrey's fall from power, and eventually becomes a justification for the duke's murder. And so the intrafamilial squabbling continues on its steady course.

Disconnected as it is from the jousting for political power, the interlude of duke and beggar has not made much of an impression on criticism. It is probably best known for contributing (or repeating) a tag line famous on the Elizabethan stage, for it is in this scene that Gloucester utters the phrase “things called whips” (134; TLN 884). If it be permissible to draw a large inference from a particle of evidence, then, strange as it may seem, this corner of the play, however slight and enigmatic to us, may very well have loomed large to early audiences.3

The interlude constitutes a brief (if welcome) respite from the pressure of plot. But although Simpcox and the knot of actors who accompany him fill the stage with color and bustle and humor (cruel humor, to be sure), their actions at first glance seem to be devoid of consequences. Simpcox, and Simpcox's wife—who speaks very few lines, but who nevertheless plays a part of genuine poignancy—along with the mayor and the beadle and the fickle supernumeraries who had cried the miracle (first enthusiastically but later derisively), all exit never even to be mentioned again. They perform the task the apprentice playwright allotted to them and then they vanish, leaving behind not only a less colorful stage but also a loose end that calls for some sort of explanation.

Is it mere accident that the Simpcox affair, sealed off as it is from the major tendencies of the plot, is also atypical in genesis? The story on which Shakespeare based the interlude is anomalous in that it does not appear either in Edward Hall's Union or in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle—standard historical volumes that, with the exception of this single episode, constitute the repository for everything in 2 Henry VI for which there is a known precedent. The anecdote of the beggar and the duke does not derive from the chronicles, but instead from that most capacious book of Protestant martyrology and propaganda, John Foxe's Actes and Monuments—a circumstance that seems to hint at an association between the sham miracle and the century's bitter religious quarrels.

And there is an additional anomaly: in writing the Simpcox interlude, Shakespeare did not make use of Actes and Monuments in precisely the same way he employed the chronicles. Instead of following what seems to have been his customary practice of composition, which was to read and ponder and then to close the book, Shakespeare appears to have written this section of the play with Actes and Monuments open upon his table—the correspondences between Foxe's language and Shakespeare's are too exact to admit otherwise. Here, for example, is a part of Foxe's version of the event:

then [Humphrey of Gloucester] looked aduisedly upon his [i.e. the beggar's] eyen againe, and sayd: I beleue you very well, for me thinketh ye cannot see well yet. Yes syr, quod he, I thanke God and hys holy martyr, I can see now as well as any man. Yea can, (quod the Duke) what colour is my gowne? Then anon the beggar tolde him. What colour (quoth he) is this mans gowne? He told him also, and so forth without any sticking, he told him the names of all the colours that could be shewed him.4

Shakespeare faithfully reproduces both format and vocabulary:

Glost. A subtill Knaue, but
yet it shall not serue: Let me see thine
Eyes; winck now, now open them: In my opinion, yet thou seest not well.
Simpc. Yes Master, cleare as day,
I thanke God and Saint Albones.
Glost. Say’st thou me so: what
Colour is this Cloake of?
Simpc. Red Master, Red as Blood.
Glost. Why that’s well said:
What Colour is my Gowne of?
Simpc. Black forsooth, Coale-Black,
as Iet.

(TLN 844-55; 2.1.104-11)

Why did Shakespeare abandon his habitual procedure in order to imitate so closely a story that is oblique to the main action of his play? To this question the easy and plausible response is that he just happened to be leafing through a copy of Foxe and, stumbling upon the juicy tale of the fraudulent miracle, could not resist interpolating it into his play—but in this case the easiest answer may not be the best answer.

There are therefore a number of little puzzles generated by this scene. How should they be approached? One possibility is to think in terms of the interlude's dramaturgy. While the sham miracle stands apart from the action, it comments on the place of the supernatural in daily life and raises issues not only of perception but also of social class. Viewed from such a perspective, the Saunder-Gloucester encounter may be understood as a vaunt-courier of a more ambitious drama still several years in Shakespeare's future. It is, for example, transparent that the playwright's first history plays draw almost all of their major characters from the knightly classes. Yet it would not be more than a few years later, when Shakespeare came to write the second sequence of histories, that he had discovered how to present a more comprehensive picture of society. The pair of tramping beggars who try vainly to enforce their charity nod toward those who will populate the taverns, townships, and trenches of the later plays. Similarly, Saunder himself may be viewed as a flat precursor of the more rounded characters who will later themselves be exposed and expelled: Bardolph, for example, hanged for stealing a pyx (or pax) before Agincourt, or Pistol, unmasked as a coward and forced to turn bawd in order to eat.

While Shakespeare dispensed with the begging couple after he sent them back to Berwick (in contrast to the interest he sustained in Bardolph and Pistol), he did not entirely give over the effort to portray English society in fuller dimension. In 2 Henry VI, the playwright experimented with a series of conflicts between rich and poor in order to create a not-entirely-realized but nevertheless ambitious movement contrapuntal to the main action of the plot. He therefore contrived to bring onto the stage, at various times, a group of petitioners who try to register a complaint about the enclosure of commonland (1.3.1-24; TLN 383-421), an apprentice who impeaches and subsequently defeats in single combat his treasonous master (1.3.180-217; 2.3.47-100; TLN 571-617; 1115-68), and a ship captain who, mocked by the insufferably arrogant Duke of Suffolk as an “obscure and lowsie Swaine” (3.3.50; TLN 2218) becomes the very person who orders Suffolk's head to be struck off. This chain of related events comes to a climax in the serio-comic depiction of the Jack Cade rebellion. While, in isolation, the Simpcox story illustrates, among other things, the need to maintain vigilance against fraud, in the larger context it joins others to create a backdrop of social discontent that elucidates if it does not justify the popular uprising that will rattle the kingdom. Although the back-of-the-hand dismissal of Simpcox and his wife surely encouraged the larger part of the theatrical audience to hoot at landless impudence, it also asked more alert souls to acknowledge that there might be risks to the summary treatment of the disenfranchised.

A second major effort of the episode was to clarify the character of Humphrey of Gloucester. Shakespeare must certainly have noticed the moral that Foxe himself drew from the story: “By this may it be seene howe Duke Humfrey had not onely an head to disserne and disseuer trueth from forged and fayned hipocrisie, but study also and dillegence lykewise was in him, to reforme that which was amisse” (704d). Shakespeare attached great weight to the words “disserne and disseuer.” In his version of events, Gloucester logically and systematically disentangles Simpcox's chain of pretences. It is first established that the beggar claims to be crippled as a result of a fall from a tree. Then the duke's examination proceeds (now in dialogue that is entirely Shakespeare's invention):

Glost. How long hast thou
been blinde?
Simpc. O borne so, Master.
Glost. What, and would’st climbe
a Tree?
Simpc. But that in all my life when
I was a youth.
Wife. Too true, and bought his climbing
very deare.
Glost. ‘Masse, thou lou’dst
Plummes well, that would’st venture so.
Simpc. Alas, good Master, my Wife
desired some Damsons, and made me climbe, with danger of my Life.

(2.1.98-103; TLN 835-44)

It is easy to imagine Gloucester stroking his beard and saying “Hum” as he step-by-step dissevers truth from feigning. An insightful and a clever man, audiences would surely conclude—and a just man as well, for while the whipping that Gloucester administers might seem harsh to us, it would reassure earlier audiences that the duke was not given to that harmful lenity in magistrates that so alarmed Elizabethan orthodoxy.

The Gloucester-Simpcox interlude adds variety to the action, reinforces some notable themes, and deepens the character of the duke. Can there be more? Foxe praises Gloucester not only for his perspicuity but also for trying “to reforme that which was amisse.” “Reforme” is no neutral word in Actes and Monuments; it is a clue that at the heart of the episode is an implicit conflict between the old and the reformed religion. The earliest Protestants, it must be recalled, were far more fierce about what they detested (pilgrimages, saints, relics, shrines, and suchlike) than they were exalted by the new theology they professed; and the miracle, after all, was a distinctive inheritance of medieval Catholicism. The Calvinist reformer William Perkins drew a bottom-line distinction between the Roman and Genevan creeds when he asserted that “miracles are not done, or to be done for them that beleeue, but for infidels that beleeue not.” Although centuries ago, Perkins argues, the deity might have personally interceded in order to dazzle recalcitrant pagans, in these modern times such an intervention would be supererogatory and consequently fraudulent. His authoritative opinion: “miracles & reuelations had an end … about three hundred yeares after Christ.”5 Or as Shakespeare puts it elsewhere, with perhaps a touch of longing for older ways, “[t]hey say miracles are past, and we haue our Philosophical persons, to make moderne and familiar[,] things supernaturall and causelesse.”6 Simpcox's claim to the spontaneous acquisition of sight would have been understood by reformed audiences to hark back to a superseded system of belief.

Although all miracles smack of pre-Reformation ignorance, this particular miracle would have been all the more suspect not only because of the pretended intercession of the saint (Simpcox claims that “a hundred times … In my sleepe … good Saint Albon / … said; Symon, come” (2.1.89-90; TLN 824-25), but also because the marvel occurred at Saint Alban's shrine—a renowned piece of popery that had been extirpated in 1538 by the energetic deputies of Thomas Cromwell. Only the very oldest members of Shakespeare's audience would have gazed with their own eyes upon the spectacular monument (after Canterbury and Walsingham perhaps the most frequented in all England), but many others would have heard of it by word of mouth: over eight feet, constructed of Purbeck marble and painted clunch, decorated with quatrefoils, censing angels, statuettes of kings and prelates and with scenes of Saint Alban's stoning, blazoned with golden lions, fleur-de-lys, and stars, and set in a canopied niche illuminated with tapers, a bejeweled reliquary containing bones purported to be those of the semi-mythical saint's.7 Foxe the martyrologist (born in 1516) and others of his generation would have known the shrine in all its superstitious glory. The observation that Gloucester had a head “to reforme that which was amisse” intimates that Foxe conceived of the miracle as an imposition of the old belief and of the good duke as a reformer before the fact.

In the light of this information, it becomes clear that the implicit opposition of traditional and reformed must inevitably color Shakespeare's enactment of the miracle. The overweening Cardinal Winchester is a prominent member of the priestly hierarchy, while Gloucester, his secular opponent who so easily smells out the fraud, is a friend of the populace and an enemy of the clergy. (It is a nice irony that the Humphrey of history was in fact not only a great hunter of Lollards but in fact a patron of Saint Alban's, where a “fair vault” was made ready for him even during his lifetime.)8 Even without Foxe's guidance, the interlude might easily (although far too simply) be read as Protestant debunking of Catholic magic.

It is in regard to the miracle and its interpretation that an atmosphere of controversy surrounding the encounter between duke and beggar becomes pertinent. Shakespeare, it would seem, found the anecdote in Foxe's Actes and Monuments, but although the playwright is more often thought of as a browser than as a systematic researcher, there is no compulsion to think that he simply stumbled onto its discovery. Holinshed, whom Shakespeare had obviously read very carefully, brought his evaluation of Humphrey of Gloucester to a close with generous praise for the duke's “feats of chiualrie … valiant and fortunate, his grauitie in counsell, and soundnesse of policie profound and singular.” But the chronicler did not stop there; for those who would like to learn more about Humphrey, Holinshed “refer[red] the readers unto maister Foxe's book of Acts and Monuments.”9 Knowing that Humphrey would play a prominent part in his play, Shakespeare would very probably have followed such excellent advice. Nor could Actes and Monuments have been a difficult book to locate. It is true that Gloucester's exposure of the fraudulent miracle was not to be found in the less enormous 1563 edition of the work, but it was present in its 1570, 1576, and 1583 manifestations—any one of which Shakespeare might easily have consulted.

Having hefted Foxe from shelf to desk, Shakespeare would have immediately grasped the obvious theatrical opportunities the tale offered. But that is not the whole of the matter. Where did John Foxe, himself a gatherer rather than a maker, come upon the story? Inasmuch as Foxe did not report it until his 1570 compilation, the best guess is that he did not become aware of the matter until it appeared in Richard Grafton's Chronicle at Large—a book which first saw the light in March of 1562.10 It is curious that although Foxe was quite faithful to the anecdote itself, he slightly changed Grafton's account of its provenance. Grafton had been forthright about his own sources: the story, he says, was “written and set forth by Sir Thomas Moore knight, in a booke of hys, entituled, a Dialogue concerning heresies and matters of religion, and in the xiiii chapter of the same booke.”11 Foxe was more circumspect than Grafton. Although he mentioned More, Foxe did not choose to reveal the exact title of More's dialogue—no doubt because it sounded too partisan. It must have been difficult enough for Foxe to admit that he had reproduced a story drawn from the work of the great Catholic controversialist; it was far too awkward to confess that he drew specifically from an attack on the same Reformation heresies that had by now become the staple of his own belief. Even further to dilute the anecdote's Roman auspices, Foxe added a crucial piece of information that Grafton either did not know or did not choose to report. Here is the important sentence, in full, in which Foxe introduces the story that would eventually become the Saunder Simpcox interlude. Shakespeare certainly read it. How could it not have thoroughly transfixed him?

Furthermore, as the learning of this Prince [i.e. Humphrey of Gloucester] was rare and memorable, so was the discreete wisedom and singular prudence in him no less to be considered; as, for the more manifest proofe thereof, I thought it here good, amongst many other of his goodly doings, to recite one example, reported as well by the penne of sir Thomas More, as also by M. William Tindal, the true Apostle of these our later dayes, to the intent to see and note, not only the craftye working of false miracles in the clergye, but also that the prudent discretion of this high and mighty prince, the fore said duke Humfrey, may give us the better to understand what man he was.12

In these words Shakespeare would have found the prejudicial but nevertheless important inference that in Foxe's opinion the story of duke and beggar demonstrated “the craftye working of false miracles in the clergye”—surely an interpretation opposite to what common sense might dictate. Knowing now that the anecdote could be interpreted to carry an anti-Catholic message, Shakespeare had to decide how to deal with its bias. Were that not enough of a challenge, Shakespeare would also have taken note of Foxe's mention of “William Tindal, the true Apostle of these our later dayes.” There they are—More and Tyndale—the great warfaring polemicists of the first decade of the English Reformation, linked in a discussion of an apparently innocuous story of duke and beggar. Surely the playwright would have immediately understood that to deal with an event disputed by such mighty opposites as More and Tyndale would require a deal of tact. There was indeed the opportunity to shadow the iconoclastic fury, the martyrdoms, and the explosive upheavals of the earlier part of the century in its representation; there was also the opportunity to engage exceedingly ticklish issues and possibly to get himself into a good deal of trouble with the authorities. Shakespeare must have known that whatever he put on stage would be understood by some part of his audience as more than merely clownish by play. And yet—even though the event allows a greater variety of interpretations than modern audiences might think—it seems that Shakespeare characteristically chose not to exploit the potential for controversy—possibly out of concern for censorship but just as possibly because he was inherently wary of religious fervor. Nevertheless, it may be asserted with confidence that for Elizabethans there would have been far more at stake in this anecdote than first meets the modern eye.

It is impossible to say whether Shakespeare might have been inquisitive enough—and if inquisitive, able (More's Dialogue of Heresies had not been published separately since 1530 or in a collected edition since 1557)—to follow Foxe to More as he had followed Holinshed to Foxe. Would he not have been curious to uncover the nature of the dispute between More and Tyndale? And what would he have found if he had taken that next step?

In his Dialogue, More vigorously defends the traditional practices of the old religion against the new doctrine that the Roman party would dismiss as sola scriptura. In order to mount a defense, More had perforce to confront the question of miracles, and it is in this surprising context that the story of the blind beggar first found its way into print. More begins in this way: “As I remember me that I haue herde my father tell of a beggar that in kynge Henry his dayes the syxte came wyth his wyfe to saynt Albonys.” (How factual is More's story? Inasmuch as Humphrey of Gloucester died in 1447 and Sir John More was born about 1453,13 the tale must have been carried in the oral tradition for quite some while before reaching print. But historical truth is not at issue here.) At first blush, it is surprising that More, the great defender of long-established practices, would put on record the exposure of a fraudulent miracle. But Sir Thomas is a wily advocate. While he concedes that there are instances in which people try to fake miracles, he is confident that such impositions may easily be exposed, for “the goodnes of god bryngeth shortely the trouthe of such falshed [i.e. falsehood] to lyght” (85). Look how simple it was, argues More, for “noble Duke Humfrey” to expose the “falshed” of the “blyson [i.e. bisson =s blind] beggar” (88). More's conclusion: “no such faynyd wonders sholde enfame goddys very [i.e. true] myracles” (88). It is a witty and paradoxical argument: the easy repudiation of sham miracles is evidence that miracles not so easy to expose must be genuine. For students of Shakespeare, the question is not so much whether More's argument is persuasive, but whether the scene, far from indicating merely that the poor will resort to subterfuge in order to win a penny, exposes false miracles but at the same time offers the subliminal subtext that true miracles must exist. While moderns would probably not draw such an inference, it is difficult to deny that some members of the Elizabethan audience—especially those who were older and more traditional in their habits of belief—might have seen things exactly in More's terms and therefore just as likely be confirmed as challenged in their Catholic sympathies. Theology may very well be in the eye of the beholder.

More draws a second conclusion from his tale. He contends that if, in fact, there is blame to be assigned, it is not so much to the beggar as to the susceptible populace: “people myght resonably gather so moche suspycyn / that yf they had made therupon suffycyent inquysycyon and serche / they could neuer haue bene so far abusyd” (88). Certainly it is possible (once again following More's train of thought), that although members of the audience might have frowned upon Simpcox and his wife, they may also have decided that the true villains of the piece were the thoughtless noisy ones who temporarily fell under the beggars' sway. To judge from the headstrong entrance and rowdy departure, such an interpretation is certainly possible. And so the interpretive range of the interlude continues to expand.

Had Shakespeare continued his investigation and traced the controversy to More's great antagonist, he would have had confirmed what he must have already suspected—that the interlude of duke and beggar was also capable of a radical exegesis. Where More is subtle, Tyndale is blunt (and yet his point of view equally difficult to anticipate). Tyndale knows only that the beggar's claim to a miracle is no more than still another imposition on the part of the “spirituality” (a term which Tyndale uses to mock the entire church establishment from pope down to the lowliest parish priest). In Tyndale's scheme of English history, there are two parties inexorably in conflict: on the one side, “the people,” and on the other, their enemy, the “spirituality.” Gloucester is one of “the people” and consequently the perpetual target of the religious establishment. The point of the episode is therefore far more conspiratorial and devious than moderns might otherwise have imagined. According to Tyndale, the “Proctoure of Purgatorye” (by whom he means More himself) “sayeth in his Dialoge quod I and quod he and quod youre frende / how that [Gloucester] was a nobleman and a greate clercke and so wise that he coude spye false miracles and disclose them.” Gloucester's ability to see through such shams, Tyndale insists, constituted a threat to both More and the clergy. It was a talent that must necessarily be “a hatefull science unto our spiritualtye and moare abhorred then necromancye or witchcrafte.” For “if a man be so clear eyed that he can spye false myracles / howe can iugulers (i.e. jugglers—the clergy) gette their lyuynge.” If someone should have a head to discern and dissever, it is “a thinge wherefore a man by their lawe I dare well saye / is worthye to dye / and that secretlye if it be possible.”14 Tyndale therefore offers still another possible meaning for the scene—that when Gloucester unravelled Simpcox's pretense, he so alarmed Winchester and his allies that the spiteful “spiritualtye,” fearful for their prerogatives, decided to have Gloucester murdered. This is an interpretation that is not supported by Shakespeare's text, where Gloucester's exposure of the miracle and his subsequent assassination do not seem to be causally connected. Although Winchester conspires against Gloucester, he does so in order to secure power for himself and to eliminate a rival. But is it not possible that religious radicals (if by some mischance they had ventured into the synagogue of Satan and stayed to watch a performance of 2 Henry VI) would have understood the play in Tyndale's more or less paranoid terms? Of course much would have to do with the way the scene was played. There are opportunities to make Simpcox's miracle very Roman in presentation. Both More and Foxe, for example, report that when the beggar suddenly gained his sight, “a miracle [was] solemnly ronge, and TE DEUM songe.” At the moment when Simpcox is triumphantly carried onto the stage, The First Part of the Contention (the quarto version of 2 Henry VI)—thought by many to reflect theatrical practice—records that the procession was accompanied “with Musicke” (sig. C2r). What sort of music? A noise of pipes and tabors is one possibility, but monkish chanting another. If the pseudo-miracle was cloaked in the trappings of the old religion, and if, when Gloucester penetrated the mystery, Winchester and his allies, decked in scarlet or crimson, glared and whispered, then Tyndale's understanding might have found support in performance. Such an interpretation might seem farfetched today, but would it have been so in an era before superstition and enthusiasm had yielded to our serene rationality?

Shakespeare may or may not have traced the tale all the way back to Tyndale and More. It would be nice to know, but it is not absolutely material. Willy-nilly, he would have been reminded that even an apparently trivial event such as the encounter of duke and beggar might yield disparate and opposed interpretations. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the episode could be read so variously that inspired Shakespeare to subtend to the exchange between duke and beggar a brief series of choral comments:

King. O God, seest thou this,
and bearest so long?
Queene. It made me laugh, to see
the Villaine runne. … 
Wife. Alas Sir, we did it for pure

(2.1.149-50, 152; TLN 905-6, 908)

The coda transforms anecdote into exemplum. The quietist King, elsewhere scorned as content “to number Aue-Maries on his Beades” (1.3.54; TLN 442) is, as usual, pious and passive. Heartless Queen Margaret allies herself to those members of the audience who had guffawed at the begging couple. The cry of Simpcox's wife (“Alas, Sir we did it for pure need”) is truly disturbing. The sentence is unemphatic but not without eloquence. “Alas” signals genuine despair; “Sir” is deferential enough to reassure the audience that the beggars are not seditious; “we” indicates that the wife will not abandon her husband; “pure need” reveals that the fraud was motivated by necessity. “Alas, sir …” therefore glances at a spectrum of contemporary inequities ranging from the lopsided distribution of wealth and the frequent dearths to the brutalities of the Poor Laws. Yet each of these moralistic comments leads the audience away from religion and toward matters of society and politics. Clearly, Shakespeare was not prepared to rush into the dangerous arena of religious recrimination.

If Shakespeare was so chary of the theological fray, why choose to dramatize the anecdote in the first place? It is a good guess that he was attracted to More's tale for other reasons than its doctrinal content. What else could it possibly have offered him? In addition to matters already discussed, the story of duke and beggar credibly represents an encounter between the classes. In Shakespeare's earliest plays such interchanges are often horribly stylized, after the model of master and servant in The Comedy of Errors or Valentine and Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare needed better models to point him toward Hamlet and the gravedigger, Lear and the fool, Coriolanus and Aufidius's doorkeeper. In addition, it is a fact that Shakespeare was attracted by More's mastery of colloquial dialogue. Had the playwright already read ahead in the chronicles to the story of Richard III and discovered that More wrote dialogue that was good enough to be captured whole and translated into the plays (a practice Shakespeare regularly followed with no other writer except Plutarch)? And knowing that More had something to offer him, did he then track down the anecdote while on the hunt for such models? Shakespeare would copy More frequently. Some instances: in a passage that Shakespeare used in The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, Lady Elizabeth Grey rebuked the lascivious advances of King Edward by declaring that “as she wist her self to[o] simple to be his wife, so thought she her self to[o] good to be his concubine.”15 Shakespeare polished the sentiment into a passable couplet: “I know, I am too meane to be your Queene, / And yet too good to be your Concubine” (3.2.97-98; TLN 1611-12). In Richard III, when Buckingham argued that the young princes (the sons of the former King Edward) might not legally seek sanctuary, he says that “I haue often heard of saintuarye menne. But I neuer heard erste of saintuarye chyldren” (33). Shakespeare reproduced this almost exactly: “oft haue I heard of Sanctuarie men, / But Sanctuarie children, ne’er till now” (3.1.55-56; TLN 1634-35). Another in More's recounting of the dubious anecdote. Richard had said to the Bishop of Ely, “my lord, you haue very good strawberies at your gardayne in Holberne, I require you let vs haue a messe of them” (47). Shakespeare tinkered a bit with the emphasis but followed More closely: “My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborne / I saw good Strawberries in your Garden there; / I doe beseech you, send for some of them” (3.4.31-33; TLN 1999-2001). Nor could Shakespeare resist a substantial exchange that would have appeared thus had it been printed in dramatic format:

Richard. What were they worthy
to haue, that compasse & ymagine the distruccion of me, being so nere
of blood vnto the king and protectour of his riall person & his realme.
Hastings. Certainly my lorde if they
haue so heinously done, thei be worthy heinouse punishment.
Richard. What. Thou seruest me I
wene with iffes & with andes. I tel the thei haue so done, & that
I will make good on thy body traitour. For by saynt Poule I wil not to dinner
til I se thy hed of.


Shakespeare allowed Richard to mock-demonize his opponents (their plot becomes “devilish”) but otherwise was content to do little more than edit:

Richard. I pray you all, tell
me what they deserue That doe conspire my death with deuillish Plots Of damned
Witchcraft … 
Hastings. If they haue done this
deed, my Noble Lord.
Richard. If? thou Protector of this
damned Strumpet, Talk’st thou to me of Ifs: thou art a Traytor, Off
with his Head; now by Saint Paul I sweare,
I will not dine, vntill I see the same.

(3.4.59-62, 72-77; TLN 2031-33; 2044-48).

More might just be the writer of the wittiest dialogue in English before Shakespeare. There is therefore the strong possibility that the playwright appropriated the story of duke and beggar for sheer delight in its craft. And if so colorful a conversation happened to carry doctrinal implications that raised hackles on both sides of the aisle, why then, so much the better.


  1. Quotations from Shakespeare's plays, except where noted, are drawn from the fascimile of The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: Norton, 1968) and are identified by Hinman's through line numbering (TLN) as well as by the lineation in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969). The F and Q versions of this episode are substantially different. Citations to Q are drawn from Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto, ed. Kenneth Muir and Michael J. B. Allen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

  2. Usually emended to “shave.”

  3. Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. P. Edwards (London: Methuen, 1959): “Well, heaven is heaven still, / And there is Nemesis and Furies, / And things call’d whips” (Third Addition, 11. 40-43; see Edwards's note for other uses of the phrase.

  4. John Foxe, Actes and Monuments … (London: J. Daye, 1583 [STC 11225]), 704a.

  5. [William Perkins], A Reformed Catholike: or, A Declaration … (Cambridge, 1600 [STC 19646]), 986.

  6. This is Lafew in All's Well That Ends Well (2.3.1-3; TLN 893-95).

  7. J. Charles Wall, Shrines of British Saints (London: Methuen, 1905), 35ff.

  8. DNB, “Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester,” X, 238-45.

  9. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Wales (London, 1577), 627b.

  10. G. Marc’hardour reviews Foxe's borrowing in “Une dette de Shakespeare envers le père de Thomas More,” Moreana 4 (1967): 76-87. It is possible that Foxe gathered the story from Grafton but verified the text against a copy of More's Dialogue.

  11. Richard Grafton, Chronicle at Large (London, 1562 [STC 12147]), 597.

  12. Foxe, Actes and Monuments, 705a.

  13. DNB, “Sir John More.”

  14. William Tyndale, The Practyse of Prelates (Marbroch, 1530 [STC 24465]) sig. f4v-fSr.

  15. More's History of King Richard the Third in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, vol. 2, ed. Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 61.

Paola Pugliatti (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “‘More Than History Can Pattern’: The Jack Cade Rebellion in Shakespeare's Henry VI, 2,” in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 451-78.

[In the essay below, Pugliatti maintains that Shakespeare's representation of the Cade rebellion in Henry VI “manifests a double perspective”—at once radical and conservative—which demonstrates the dramatist's multivalent vision of history.]


Until recently, the way in which Shakespeare represented Jack Cade's rebellion in act 4 of Henry VI, 2 has been taken as unmistakable evidence of the dramatist's loathing for the “populace,” even of his sharing the obsession of the Elizabethan ruling class with all kinds of disorder and dissension. Indeed, it is precisely the Cade episode that seems to have contributed arguments to the tradition of Shakespeare as “an enemy of the people.”

A few recent critical writings have resumed the issue, reaching diverse conclusions, and thereby suggesting that the representation of the uprising of 1450 is not as univocal as it might seem to be.

Stephen Greenblatt is interested in the ways in which different genres, responding to different historical pressures, represent the victory of the high over the low. The problem being, in these cases, to shield the victor's dignity from the danger of being tainted by the enemy's base condition, Greenblatt focuses on the killing of Cade by a small property owner, Alexander Iden (an event which, incidentally, is historical) and concludes that with Shakespeare's solution (which he terms “simple, effective and, in its way, elegant”), “the aristocrat has given way to the man of property, and heroic commemoration has been absorbed into a new genre, the history play.”1 In other words, while he does not question the low status of the rebel, Greenblatt concludes that the “new genre” implies an abasement in the victor's social status.

Phyllis Rackin examines a series of characters in the first tetralogy whom she sees as “subverters of history.” Mainly women or lower-class persons, Joan of Arc, Queen Margaret, Jack Cade, Eleanor Cobham and her associates, Simpcox and his wife, and even the duke of York, “all share the Machiavellian attributes of treachery and selfish, amoral ambition that define them as demonic Others.”2 Rackin argues that, unlike the invented commoners in the second tetralogy, who are allowed to step out of their boundaries, these never “transcend the conventions of comic representation that … mark their separation from the serious historical world of their betters.”3 She also remarks that although the theatrical energy of these characters is dangerous, it is finally contained and neutralized. Rackin's conclusion on the Cade scenes, therefore, is that however “potentially subversive, they seem finally designed to justify oppression.”4

Michael Hattaway argues that “in this play, unlike Part 1, the commons do come to stand for values that are worth taking seriously.” In particular, “the Cade rebellion … stands not as ‘comic relief’ but as a vision both of the limits of government and of the consequences of aristocratic factionalism.”5

A different view is expressed by Annabel Patterson, who deals explicitly with the issue of the author's political stance. In her book Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, she questions the common opinion that Shakespeare's attitude to the ordinary working people “ranged from tolerant amusement to contempt,”6 and deploys arguments to redeem the dramatist from the old charge of antipopulism. Examining the Cade episode—apparently one of the most convincing arguments for that charge—Patterson argues for the existence, in Shakespeare's time, of a cultural tradition of popular protest and for Shakespeare's consciousness of that tradition, and concludes that Cade is far from being part of it. Cade, she affirms, is “an impostor aristocrat, a traitor to his class.” Therefore, she adds, “little is proved … by demonstrating how inconsistent is Cade in his recapitulation of the ancient tropes of levelling.”7

The revival of interest in the Cade scenes8 and the divergent reactions that it has produced raise two questions: Why has it been assumed to be a crucial test case? And how can the same piece of dramatic representation be taken to support almost opposed theses?

Certainly, the importance that we attribute to the Cade episode comes from the fact that in it, perhaps more than in any other locus of the canon, Shakespeare seems to take sides on a political issue of enormous relevance, namely, that real nightmare of the Tudor political establishment that was rebellion. The episode, therefore, seems to offer elements for our reconstruction of some kind of extratextual “reality.” Whether we call this reality “Shakespeare” or whether we stress “the political context,” the Cade scenes seem able to provide answers to a legitimate interest in Shakespeare's way of thinking on matters of vital importance.9

However, the fact that the episode has lent arguments to the conservative and the radical perspectives alike, and that it has been used to show in its author both a populist and an antipopulist attitude, may either mean that we tend to use the episode in order to support some kind of preconceived picture rather than to interpret it, or that—more or less objectively—it manifests a double perspective.10 This last is the point that I should like to make.

The issue of multiperspectivism can be generalized to what seems to me to be the constant attitude in Shakespeare's enactment of history.11 It is my opinion, in fact, that Shakespeare's main interest is to raise historical and political problems and to provide instruments for their interpretation rather than impose a one-sided evaluation of them. The dramatist's tools are used to enact broad historical constructions, the exposition of possible causes, the clash of diverse viewpoints, and a variety of evaluations which are characteristically critical (as opposed to ideological) in that they provide instruments for a multipilicity of interpretations. By affirming this, I am not saying that the histories reveal an ambiguous attitude; rather, I argue for ambivalence, or better still, polyvalence in the way problems are dealt with. Often, in fact, the “truths” or the opinions that these texts seem to present are doubted, questioned, or challenged by the appearance of a different and sometimes contrary “truth” or opinion. The apparent uncertainty in perspective allows our apprehension of the irreducible complexity and many-sidedness of things historical and of the political issues that they raise. Therefore, our grasp on the extratextual “reality” of the author's political opinions that the Cade scenes seem to promise is illusory; and here as elsewhere in the canon—but more significantly in the English history plays—our questions about Shakespeare's political stance are either doomed to remain unanswered or likely to produce ideological replies. Indeed, the disappointment that we experience in our search for “the author” or for a univocal and clear political perspective illustrates, in the last analysis, Shakespeare's main contribution to the progress of contemporary historical exegesis. For by perceiving that in relating the facts of history it is possible to make a multiplicity of choices as well as to amend those that have been made, Shakespeare was deeply changing the kind of relationship to tradition entertained by contemporary chroniclers; by viewing history as, to some extent, a set of retrospective possibilities, he was inaugurating a perspective proper to a more mature form of historiography, one conscious that the past, apparently crystallized in unchanging documents and monuments, may prove unstable and multiform.

A second point is that Shakespeare's critical and historiographical attitude is mainly revealed by the way in which he modifies his source material. In other words, as Gary Taylor has observed, “Resemblances to the chronicles establish Shakespeare's use of them; but, as always, his departures from his sources most illuminate his intentions.”12


The title of this article refers to my view that every alteration of historical sources, whether in content, emphasis, or mode of presentation, constitutes a “more,” an added significance that provides a critical perspective on the historical events.13 In other words, whenever the dramatist decides to free himself from the constraints of his historical sources, either adding or subtracting or in any way modifying the chronicle tradition, he attempts to interpret the facts of history independently from that tradition. All modifications, in short, constitute glosses on the margins of previous readings of historical facts and are therefore to be read as a critical commentary that often implies political evaluations.

In many instances, the critical comment is used to foreground contradictions and discrepancies or to highlight a conflict of interests. The gardeners in Richard II, the soldiers in Henry V, or the gentlemen in Henry VIII, for instance, are elements whose appearance produces a clash of diverse perspectives. Challenging the official truth, they introduce conflicting viewpoints that come from the margins of untold history.

These are unhistorical elements, or elements that belong to invisible history: invented characters who may have existed but whose existence and opinions no history book has recorded. Generally speaking, they introduce their group's problems and viewpoint, somehow disturbing the prevailing perspective of visible history. What they stage, however, are non-events, in that they are not attributed the dignity of historical events in any history book.14

By the term “counterevent,” one may instead refer to a historical event that appears conspicuously altered in its dramatic rendering although it is still attributed the dignity and weight of history. The Cade episode belongs to this category. Shakespeare's account of the Kentish rebellion of 1450, in fact, resulted from the conflation of two different historical rebellions and perhaps also from suggestions coming from later or even contemporary events.15

My aim in this article is to read the alterations of historical sources that Shakespeare carried out in the Cade episode in the light of the way in which the source material is treated, and modified, in the whole play.

Shakespeare's manipulation of the sources, as far as the Cade episode is concerned, seems to speak loudly against the rebels, their attitude, and the motivations of their revolt, and strongly for its repression and for the restoration of the king's order. Indeed, the Cade scenes are a stumbling block to the critic who would argue for the dramatist's sympathy, or even neutral attitude, for the poor and the oppressed. And the episode has almost invariably been read as a specimen of the dramatist's sharing the nobility's preoccupations with the upsetting of social order, especially because it has been isolated and therefore decontextualized by wiping out the events that precede and follow it.

I believe that not only should we read the Cade episode as coming after the events that lead up to it and as preceding those that follow (admittedly, causality in a play is expressed mainly through sequentiality), but also that we should consider the way in which the source material is altered in the whole play, bearing in mind the light that the text casts on all of the historical events narrated and on the political problems that those events illustrate. Let us see, therefore, what the main modifications are and to what end they seem to have been designed.

Henry VI, 2, although nearer to the sources than Henry VI, 1, presents alterations that, however slight, are remarkably coherent and significant, since they all seem to point to the same general effect: the abasement, degradation, and “disfiguring” of political issues and of the spheres, both high and low, where these are treated.16 It seems to me that the play suggests a levelling to the lowest plane of those who intrigue at court for their own advancement and profit and of those who rebel out of material need and hunger. Seen in this light, the “disfiguring” of the rebels is a consequence of the monstrosity of the power that rules them and that—as the play, much more strongly than the sources, suggests—has seduced them into rebelling.

In the play, the duke of York is depicted as much more Machiavellian than the sources suggest. He is presented as plotting the ruin of “good Duke Humphrey” of Gloucester, and as finally agreeing to his murder. Queen Margaret's ambition to rule her husband and to govern the country is seasoned with the unhistorical charge of her being an adulteress; equally unhistorical is Cardinal Beaufort's complicity in Gloucester's murder; his “blaspheming God and cursing man on earth” (3.3.371) on his deathbed, too, is the playwright's invention. Suffolk is accused of more and harsher acts of “devilish policy” in the words of the lieutenant who arrests him (4.1.70-102) than he is in the chronicle. Moreover, in act 5 the play gives prominence to the role of crookback Richard, thus hinting at the fact that the sequel to the story is even grimmer and darker. It should also be noted that in the play Cade's rebellion is much more York's responsibility than it is in the sources, where it is said to have been inspired by York's friends and supporters. In Shakespeare, therefore, Cade is much more an instrument of the duke's ambition (York in fact calls Cade “a minister of my intent”; 3.1.355). This obviously makes the Kentish rebellion much less a popular revolt and more an instrument of the power that it apparently contrasts. Finally, the initial episode of the play reveals a world where the experience of political rout (illustrated in the loss of Maine and Anjou) is dominant; accordingly, the final episode confirms a model of discomfiture and political disorder by presenting the victory of the rebel York, and therefore the triumph of disloyalty and treason.

As far as the people in power are concerned, then, the play presents an image of mock-kingship ruled by an ambitious, ruthless, and adulterous woman; it presents a villain who wants to be king and who, to further his ambitions to the throne, seduces the commoners to provoke a “popular” rising and finally inflicts upon the nation the wounds of civil war; it brings to the foreground an ignorant noblewoman who wants to be queen and who pursues her aim with the help of black magic; it assigns a prominent role to corrupt priests who are in league with sorcerers and charlatans; it presents a contentious and ruthless clergyman who plots for power, does not hesitate to instigate murder, and is finally unable to repent even on his deathbed.

These alterations of the historical sources do not appear to be due to mere dramatic exigencies; on the contrary, they seem to be designed in order to construct the image of an inept kingship that has yielded up its rule to an utterly corrupt, treacherous, and seditious nobility, entirely forgetful of the public weal of the nation.

What I should like to argue is that it was the abasement and disfiguring of the high sphere that determined a parallel and reflected process of degradation in the low sphere.17 Let us see in some detail how a “more” is added to the historical sources in order to construct the general frame that has been described.


Generally speaking, Hall's account of the events represented in Henry VI, 2 is hardly traced back to what English Renaissance historiographers termed “second causes,” causes that would explain, if not the historical reasons, at least the personal motivations for action. The mechanism that sets human activities in motion and determines human destinies is often described by the chronicler as an impersonal and incontrollable force very similar to destiny or chance, if not to divine providence.18 However, lack of wisdom and foresight together with thirst for power and the machinations of one's enemies also play a part in Hall's account of the tragic destiny of such persons as Suffolk and Gloucester. Suffolk is described as “beyng in high favor with the kyng, and in no lesse grace with quene Margaret” and as expecting a concrete furtherance because he was “somewhat infected with the sede of vainglory” for arranging the marriage between Henry and Margaret.19 He is also reported to have lawfully contrived to get what he thought was his due for his efforts in France by pronouncing a speech in the House of Commons and to have received, as a result of this speech and supported by the Commons, what is presented as his right recompense, namely, the title of duke.

After this dispassionate account of facts, we read one of the sentences that may have suggested to the dramatist Suffolk's adulterous relationship with the queen and his many treacherous plots. In the same sentence, Hall blames Suffolk's thirst for power, but solely because it procured his ruin: “This Marques thus gotten up, into fortunes trone, not content with his degree, by the meanes of the Quene, was shortely erected to the estate and degree of a Duke, and ruled the Kyng at his pleasure.” Therefore, what Suffolk's exemplum teaches is merely “what securities is in worldly glory,” for the duke “within foure yeres after, was in the same place [i.e., in Parliament], by the commons of the realm, accused of many treasons, mispricions and offences … and in conclusion, beyng exiled the realme, he was taken upon the sea, and made shorter by the hedde.”20

After this, Hall dispenses to the readers his somewhat amoral moral of the story. Suffolk would have had a better chance if he had remembered the advice of the popyngay, namely: “When thou thynkest thy self in courte moste surest, then is it high time to get thee home to rest.” Later on, Suffolk is said to have been believed by the Commons to be the chief procurer of Duke Humphrey's death, “the most swallower up and consumer of the kynges treasure”—although his having procured Gloucester's death is related as a simple suspicion.21 However, much unlike Shakespeare, the author of the chronicle neither commits himself with a guilty verdict nor shows a judging attitude toward the duke.

What Shakespeare sees in Margaret as destructive ambition is described by Hall as courage and as political virtue. Here is how the chronicler describes Henry's newly wedded queen on her first apparition: “This woman excelled all other, as well in beautie and favor, as in wit and pollicie, and was of stomack and corage, more like to a man, then a woman.”22 Margaret's “manly” character (obviously high praise, coming from a man) is emphasized in more than one passage. Her qualities, as described by Hall, are tainted only by fickleness, while the fact that she dispossessed her husband is presented as more or less necessitated by Henry's incapacity:

The Quene his wife, was a woman of greate witte, and yet of no greater witte, then of haute stomacke, desirous of glory, and covetous of honour, and of reason, pollycie, counsaill, and other giftes and talentes of nature belongyng to a man, full and flowyng: of witte and wilinesse she lacked nothyng, nor of diligence, studie, and businesse, she was not unexperte: but yet she had one poynt of a very woman: for often tyme, when she was vehement and fully bente in a matter, she was sodainly like a wethercocke mutable and turnyng. … This manly woman, this coragious quene, ceased not to prosecute furthwith, her invented imaginacion and prepensed purpose. … And although she joyned her husbande with her in name, for a countenance, yet she did all, she saied all, and she bare the whole swynge, as the strong oxe doth when he is yoked in the plough with a pore silly asse.23

Shakespeare unhistorically abases the queen's motives to a mean (one might think, “womanly”) desire to humiliate Eleanor Cobham (see 1.3.138-40), whereas Margaret and Eleanor Cobham probably never met. Even worse, Shakespeare makes the queen the instigator of Gloucester's murder. Margaret is the first to suggest that the duke should be suppressed:

Believe me, lords, were none more wise than I,
And yet herein I judge mine own wit good,
This Gloucester should be quickly rid the world,
To rid us from the fear we have of him.


On this point, Hall simply suggests that the queen contrived to deprive the duke of his protectorship and that she did not stop his enemies when they devised the forging of false accusations to ruin him:

She excluded the duke of Gloucester, from all rule and governaunce, not prohibityng suche as she knewe to be his mortal enemies, to invent and imagyne, causes and griefes against hym, of the whiche, diverse writers affirme, the Marques of Suffolke, and the duke of Buckyngham to be the chiefe, not unprocured by the Cardinal of Winchester, and the Archbishop of Yorke.24

As for Margaret's adulterous relationship with Suffolk, there is no hint of it in Hall. All we know from the chronicle is that Suffolk was “in high favor with the kyng, and in no lesse grace with quene Margaret,” that he, “not content with his degree, by the meanes of the Quene, was shortely erected to the estate and degree of a Duke,” and that he was “the Quenes dearlynge” and her “chefe frende & counsailer.”25

Cardinal Beaufort is described by Hall neither as a holy man nor as exempt from ambition. Moreover, unlike Holinshed's portrait of Wolsey, Hall's portrait of Winchester shows a man unlearned and of a mean nature, “more noble of bloodd, then notable in learning, haut in stomacke, and hygh in countenaunce, ryche above measure of all men, & to fewe liberal, disdaynfull to his kynne and dreadfull to his lovers, preferrynge money before friendshippe, many thinges beginning, and nothing perfourmyng. His covetous insaciable, and hope of long lyfe, made hym bothe to forget God, hys Prince and hym selfe, in his latter daies.”26 Nevertheless, however negatively the man is judged by Hall, he is never connected with the plotting of Gloucester's death that Shakespeare unequivocally attributes to him. In the play, Winchester dies in despair because of his sin instead of repenting of it, and shows no sign of redemption. Warwick's comment after his death seals his many wrongs: “So bad a death argues a monstrous life” (3.3.30).

York's character and his actions are notably altered by Shakespeare. In the first place, the duke's aspirations to the throne are somewhat ennobled in the source by what is presented as not entirely personal motivations: “Rychard duke of Yorke …, perceivyng the Kyng to be a ruler not Ruling, & the whole burden of the Realme, to depend in the ordinaunces of the Quene and the duke of Suffolke, began secretly to allure to his frendes of the nobilitie, and privatly declared to them, hys title and right to the Crowne.” Hall describes York as a man of “gentle behaviour” and mentions the popular favor that the duke acquired for subduing the “rude and savage” Irish nation. Moreover—and what is more interesting for our present purpose—Hall ascribes the actions to further his claims to the throne and to stir Cade's rebellion more to his friends and followers than to him.27

That Shakespeare's York is the perfect Machiavellian villain and the worthy father of crookback Richard is obvious throughout the whole play. Not unlike his son Richard in Richard III, York is allowed a privileged channel of communication with the audience. In two lengthy monologues and two asides (1.1.215-60, 3.1.331-83, 3.1.87-92, 5.1.23-31), he is allowed to speak his mind freely and to uncover his machinations. Consequently, from the start no noble motive can be ascribed to him. Moreover, Shakespeare grants him the final victory, cutting the action abruptly after the battle of St. Albans, thus constructing a political model where the forces of evil eventually triumph.

Dame Eleanor Cobham, too, is given a chance to speak her ambitious mind “privately,” after having openly, and unsuccessfully, tempted her honest, unwavering husband with the lure of the crown. Shakespeare gives prominence to her character, thus strengthening the paradigm of ambition that pervades the play. He makes her a miniature Lady Macbeth, although less resolute and “manly” than her more famous sibling. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Eleanor is prompted by her jealousy for Margaret as well as by personal ambition; she is ignorant and superstitious, given to sorcery, dreams, and prophecies; like her, although with less determination, she contrives to put up a “manly” attitude in order to make up for what she considers her husband's “womanly” nature:

Follow I must; I cannot go before,
While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune's pageant.


Shakespeare also uses Eleanor's treason to show the corruption of the clergy and of the nobility. One of Eleanor's associates, the priest Hume, is given a chance in a monologue (1.2.87-97) to reveal that he is being paid both by the duchess and by Suffolk and the cardinal, who by undoing her, hope to destroy Gloucester.28


The masterly organization of the play's first scene makes clear that personal ambition is the engine that sets in motion the whole political action and that treason is its only weapon. In the opening segment of the scene, all the relevant characters of the play except Dame Eleanor are present: the king, Duke Humphrey, Salisbury, Warwick, Beaufort, York, Somerset, and Buckingham have gathered to welcome Queen Margaret, whom Suffolk has wedded by proxy and escorted to England from France.

The first parties to exit are the king, the queen, and Suffolk (on l. 73). Gloucester then speaks his mind to the nobles and reveals his grief for the loss of Maine and Anjou decreed in the articles that have been signed to make the marriage possible. When Gloucester exits, having left behind him his prophecy that “France will be lost ere long” (l. 145), the cardinal of Winchester reveals his fears at the favor that Gloucester has acquired with the common people. Buckingham then suggests that the duke be divested of the protectorship, a suggestion that the cardinal promptly makes his own: “This weighty business will not brook delay; / I’ll to the Duke of Suffolk presently” (ll. 169-70).

Immediately after Winchester's exit, it is left to Buckingham and Somerset to express briefly their hatred for the “haughty” prelate and their fear that he might become protector on Gloucester's displacement. When these two leave the stage (l. 178), Salisbury displays his fears at “the pride of Suffolk and the Cardinal, / With Somerset's and Buckingham's ambition” (ll. 202-3) and suggests that he, his son, and York join Duke Humphrey while his actions “do tend the profit of the land” (l. 205). York openly agrees, but half-reveals his secret mind in a brief aside (l. 208). Finally, after Salisbury and Warwick leave the stage, he is left alone, the last link in the disquieting chain of treasons, to utter his first monologue. He then reveals that his agreement with Salisbury and Warwick and his appreciation of Gloucester are feigned and that he will profit from the situation only to further his ambition to take the throne:

A day will come when York shall claim his own;
And therefore I will take the Nevils' parts
And make a show of love to proud Duke Humphrey,
And when I spy advantage, claim the crown,
For that’s the golden mark I seek to hit.

(ll. 240-44)

What is left to be revealed, as far as the courtly plots are concerned, is shown in the two scenes that follow. Scene 2 presents Eleanor Cobham's ambition and her plans against Henry and Margaret, while scene 3 reveals the treacherous confederacy between Margaret and Suffolk. Shakespeare makes their plot known to the audience by deftly displacing and manipulating an episode that he found in Hall but that in the chronicle is not connected with any political issue. When Peter, the armorer's man, presents to the queen and Suffolk a petition against his master “for saying / that the Duke of York was rightful heir to the crown” (1.3.25-26), Margaret is encouraged to speak her mind to Suffolk:

Beside the haught Protector, have we Beaufort
The imperious churchman; Somerset, Buckingham,
And grumbling York; and not the least of these
But can do more in England than the King


and adds her hatred for “that proud dame, the Lord Protector's wife” (l. 76).29 The kind of league that Suffolk suggests to her excludes all the others, even the king:

Although we fancy not the Cardinal,
Yet must we join with him and with the lords
Till we have brought Duke Humphrey in disgrace.
As for the Duke of York, this late complaint
Will make but little for his benefit:
So, one by one, we’ll weed them all at last,
And you yourself shall steer the happy helm.


Here we may sense that Suffolk is making even Margaret his tool, especially if we remember his lines at the end of Henry VI, 1:

Thus Suffolk hath prevail’d; 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.


By this time, the audience is conscious of the fact that no one is safe at court, that loyalty has been banished, that ambition holds sway, that the last thought of the people in power is the common weal, that the king is excluded from all important actions and decisions, and that a civil war grounded on the meanest of personal motivations is bound to follow.


However, there is still a healthy part of the nation, very evidently presented as such and toward whom the sympathies of the audience are clearly oriented. This is unequivocally embodied by Duke Humphrey and by the common people who love him (the Nevils are presented as acting in good faith, although they support York's claim). Henry is more on the side of this party than on that of the ambitious nobility, but he is too weak and too easily deceived ever to allow the sane and wise to prevail.

The love of the common people for Gloucester and the epithet of “good Duke Humphrey” are reported by Hall.30 Indeed, the chronicle is explicit, although not diffuse, in describing the duke as noble and disinterested as well as an experienced politician, and in attributing his ruin to the envy of his enemies. In the play, Gloucester's righteousness is made clear in his opposition to his wife's ambitious plans, and is recognized even by his enemies (see York's tribute in 2.2.72-73). But most of all we are made to recognize from his own speeches the honest man whose only care is for the good of his country. (After all, one of the ways in which we perceive truth in drama is that in it noble speeches may only come from noble characters.) Shakespeare gathers these hints and turns them into a relevant and conspicuous political issue, establishing a sharp contrast between a healthy party and the diseased side of those wielding power. In similar fashion, the play also shows on the one hand the honest and virtuous among the common people (those that follow Gloucester) and, on the other, the “idle rascals” (those that follow Cade).31

Moreover, in political terms, the play seems to affirm that there are popular claims that are considered acceptable and well grounded, although there are of course others that are not. In particular, while the use of popular revolt to further the people's claims is condemned, the practice of petition is considered legitimate.32

However, the play seems to go further than that, suggesting that even certain acts of rebellion are justified. The possibility of an uprising by Gloucester's followers after his death, in fact, produces fear only in those that plot his murder, while their actual rebellion is seen as an acceptable form of protest by Salisbury and Warwick and by the king, since it is prompted by anger at the perpetration of a hideous crime.

The commoners are mentioned very early in the play, and it is clear from the start that they are treated in two different and opposed ways: with fear and scorn in the words of the ambitious nobles, and with sympathy in the words of Gloucester. The first to mention the common people in connection with the love they bear to Gloucester, and therefore as a menace to the nobles' privileges and power, is the cardinal:

What though the common people favour him,
Calling him “Humphrey, the good Duke of Gloucester,”
Clapping their hands, and crying with loud voice
“Jesu maintain your royal Excellence!”
With “God preserve the good Duke Humphrey!”
I fear me, lords, for all this flattering gloss,
He will be found a dangerous Protector.


The cardinal cynically suggests that popular favor is to be manipulated for one's own ends: it is one of the ingredients of power and a powerful tool for its maintenance and furtherance, and therefore potentially dangerous when it is held by the enemy.33

The commoners are mentioned with scorn and hatred by the Duchess of Gloucester when, after she is found guilty of high treason, she is inflicted the humiliation of being led through the streets of London, and of being made an object of ridicule and contempt by the crowd. The epithets that she uses here show her haughty mind: to be followed by “the giddy multitude,” looked at with “their hateful looks,” scorned by “a rabble,” laughed at by “the envious people” and by “every idle rascal,” constitutes the most cruel punishment that could be devised for her (2.4.21, 23, 32, 35, 47).

Margaret's perspective is by no means less cynical than the cardinal's. Her cue is, again, the favor that Gloucester has won with the commoners. The power conferred by popular favor and the nightmare of popular rebellion are here clearly evoked by the queen:

By flattery hath he won the commons' hearts,
And when he please to make commotion,
’Tis to be feared they all will follow him.


Suffolk's mind is not different; his fear of popular rebellion equals that of the others. This is how he speaks of the commoners in connection with Gloucester, suggesting that he be murdered rather than risk a regular trial that might provoke the popular protest:

The King will labour still to save his life;
The commons haply rise to save his life;
And yet we have but trivial argument,
More than mistrust, that shows him worthy death.


York not only shares the manipulative view about the populace, he also practices their manipulation, provoking popular commotion in the hope that this will help him to get the crown. In the long monologue that he pronounces in 3.1.331-83, he reveals his having “seduced” Jack Cade “to make commotion as full well he can” (l. 358) and shows his political deftness when he plans to observe the humor of the common people and study their possible reactions before proclaiming his purpose: “By this I shall perceive the commons' mind, / How they affect the house and claim of York” (ll. 374-75).

Gloucester's attitude is obviously different, and it is toward his honest perspective that the audience's appreciation is directed. The word commonweal, unknown to the others, is pronounced by the duke in connection with the discredit that is cast on him by Eleanor's treason. To Margaret, who hurls at him his wife's shame, Gloucester replies with the assurance of a clean conscience:

Madam, for myself, to heaven I do appeal,
How I have lov’d the king and commonweal.


The word contrasts the common good of the nation that is Gloucester's pursuit with the private ambition that had prompted his wife's demeanor. Gloucester again reveals sympathy for the poor (“the needy commons”) when he pleads his honesty and good faith in answer to York's accusation of having “stay’d the soldiers' pay”:

No; many a pound of mine own proper store,
Because I would not tax the needy commons,
Have I dispursed to the garrisons,
And never ask’d for restitution.


However, the “needy commons” are not only evoked in the nightmares and pleadings of the people in power, although their frequent mention by itself makes them a relevant social background to political demeanor and misdemeanor. They also appear on the stage, in a number of capacities and roles, and are presented in a variety of perspectives.

In 1.3, they first appear in the role of petitioners (one of them is the Armourer's man, Peter, whose petition is against his master “for saying / that the Duke of York was rightful heir to the crown”; ll. 25-26). Their petitions are meant to be delivered to Gloucester, and it is understood that they expect that the lord protector will answer their supplications in the affirmative. But the men mistake Suffolk for Gloucester and are compelled to deliver their petitions to him. Here is the first petition, in which most clearly the righting of an evident wrong is requested:

Mine is, and ’t please your Grace, against John Goodman, my Lord Cardinal's man, for keeping my house, and lands, and wife, and all, from me.


Suffolk reacts scornfully, and becomes furious when he reads the second petition, one that accuses him:

Thy wife too! that’s some wrong indeed. What’s yours? What’s here? [Reads] “Against the Duke of Suffolk, for enclosing the commons of Long Melford.” How now, sir knave!


The only petition to receive Suffolk's and Margaret's attention is Peter's, because it furthers their aim to get rid of York by proving him guilty of high treason. The others are dismissed by the queen, who tears them in the face of the petitioners:

And as for you, that love to be protected
Under the wings of our Protector's grace,
Begin your suits anew, and sue to him.


Peter and Horner, his master, are brought before the king in 1.3.177-220. The dynamics of the scene seem to speak in favor of the weaker, although the dispute is formally even. Peter is given one turn to make his accusation, to which Horner replies with a turn, double in length, defending himself. The verdict is pronounced by Gloucester: on a day appointed, they will prove the truth of their assertions in single combat. After this, each of the contenders is given one more speech. Horner accepts the verdict, while Peter asks to be spared the trial for, he says, “I cannot fight” (l. 213) and “I shall never be able to fight a blow” (ll. 215-16), thus admitting to being the weaker both physically and morally.

When the combat takes place, Peter and Horner are accompanied by their neighbors, who encourage them by drinking to their victory—other commoners, this time enacting a coarse but genuine demonstration of friendship. Horner, who is drunk, boasts an easy victory, while Peter is certain that he will be overcome. But Horner, in his presumption, has drunk too many cups of sack, so that Peter wins the combat, slaying his master, who, before dying, confesses: “Hold, Peter, hold! I confess, I confess treason (2.3.91).34

Indeed, among the commoners there are also liars and impostors. Saunder Simpcox, in the words of Gloucester “the lying’st knave / In Christendom” (2.1.124-25), takes advantage of the king's good faith by telling him that St. Alban has restored his sight after a lifelong blindness. He and his wife are whipped for their fraud. However, to the account in his source Shakespeare adds one line that informs us as to the motive of the fraud and therefore mitigates the blame; Simpcox's wife states plainly the reason of their deception: “Alas! sir, we did it for pure need” (l. 150).

Others among the commoners are treated less favorably: the practices of witches, sorcerers, and necromancers are of course considered as socially dangerous. (Incidentally, their dangerousness is indicated, somewhat indirectly, by the fact that everyone fears their predictions and that these in the end prove to be true.) In fact, the text shows no sympathy for Margery Jourdain, Southwell, Bolingbroke, and Hume, who end up executed (the witch will, of course, be burned, the others strangled).

It is, again, two commoners who perpetrate the crime of Gloucester's murder. They are shown after they have done the deed, and one of them, unlike those who had commissioned the murder, shows pity and remorse: “O, that it were to do! What have we done? / Didst ever hear a man so penitent?” (3.2.3-4; italics mine). Not unlike the sorcerers, these have been bribed and corrupted by those in power. We may presume, therefore, that, like Simpcox and his wife, they acted “for pure need.”

The episode that shows that popular risings are acceptable when they are prompted by a just cause is that of the commoners' revolt following Gloucester's murder (3.2). A rebellion, whatever its cause, is invariably considered a troublesome event to be kept in check and eventually suffocated. In this case, however, it is made clear that no one is thinking of taking up arms against the rebellious citizens; instead, it is held that satisfactory explanations for Gloucester's death must be provided so that the crowd may be appeased.

Undoubtedly, the revolt is rendered justifiable only because its popular character is blurred: what has urged the commons, in fact, is rage against the traitorous murder of a nobleman and the defense of a “pious” king who is unable to protect himself and the country against the plots of a corrupt nobility. All the same, however, the rebellious citizens are presented as infinitely healthier and morally superior to the nobles whom they accuse. Moreover, their action is lent dignity by the attitude of Warwick and Salisbury, who try to appease them by inquiring about the murder, and by what is presented as their “sensible” request that the traitor Suffolk be either executed or exiled. Finally, their rebellion is given weight and formal sanction by the king's decision to banish Suffolk.

Thus, when it comes to Suffolk's elimination (4.1), the shipmen who carry it out are presented as executioners and avengers rather than as murderers. The fact that before sentencing Suffolk to death the ship's captain throws at him the long catalogue of his acts of “devilish policy” (ll. 70-102) makes us perceive Suffolk's suppression as an act of popular justice.

It is only at this stage of the play, when good and evil have been clearly distributed, that Jack Cade makes his appearance.


The elaborate compositional process that the Cade episode underwent shows the exceptional importance that Shakespeare attributed to its representation. The various stages may be reconstructed with some confidence.

It is clear that Shakespeare was not satisfied with Hall's account of the episode. He may have consulted other accounts and found that they offered a similar treatment. He must then have abandoned his main source and the historical event proper and turned to more than one different book and to other events, searching for elements that might help his representational purpose. There he met with a different, though similar, story in a different time: that of the peasants' revolt under Jack Straw in 1381. The most abject acts that Cade and his followers perform in Shakespeare's play come from the accounts that Grafton, Holinshed, and perhaps the anonymous play The Life and Death of Jack Straw give of that event. In these reports, which he took pains to examine, Shakespeare read of the rebels' hatred for learning and books and of their sending clerks and lawyers to death; he came across accounts of the destruction of the Savoy and of the Inner Temple and of the burning of all written records; and finally he found the motivations of the uprising and the wording of the rebels' communist dream.

We may imagine the dramatist taking notes of these elements or marking the margins of his books to underline those references which seemed to suit his purpose, and establishing, while reading, parallels not only between the 1381 revolt and the uprising of 1450 but perhaps also between these two and other, more recent, disorders: the 1517 uprising on the part of xenophobic apprentices that he had just represented or that he was soon to represent in the three folios of The Book of Sir Thomas More attributed to his hand; and perhaps other disorders, nearer in time, such as the Hackett rebellion in July 1591 or the June 1592 feltmakers' revolt before the Marshalsea prison in Southwark.35

While he read these accounts, we may speculate, a rich network of intertextual associations and a dialogue of diverse voices started to take form in his mind. One text reacted on the other so that one event explained, and was explained by, the other. The 1381 revolt was therefore assumed as a critical comment on other similar situations. Finally, the conflation of two different but similar episodes made it possible to transcend the contingent: thus, Cade's rebellion acquired the status of an exemplum, establishing a model where before there was a bare, isolated event. What a modern theorist of historiography would call a “restricted generalization” was instinctively adopted so that rebellion was awarded the status of a general political issue. The issue was, in turn, perfectly understandable to Shakespeare's audience, since the evaluation of the problem of popular risings had not significantly changed since 1381.36

Once these associations were mentally established, the next problem was how to render the episode. Shakespeare decided on the comic convention. However, the kind of laughter that came to his mind was not the liberating and festive laughter of the carnival tradition; it was the grim, bitter, moralistic laughter that comes from the grotesque, a laughter that reveals some kind of conflict and that proclaims some kind of disease.

However, it would be incorrect to say that what is reproduced in Henry VI, 2 is the 1381 Kentish rebellion under Jack Straw and Wat Tyler. While, in fact, the basic events of the Cade rebellion are kept, there is much that is new to both traditions. In particular, Shakespeare both embittered and rendered ludicrous the source material as far as both revolts are concerned, representing the rebels as a bunch of laughable, although violent, individuals.

The motives for the 1381 uprising, which seem to be taken seriously both by Grafton and by Holinshed and which in the chronicles are narrated not without sympathy, are devalued and rendered irrational and inconsequential in the play. Cade's communist dream and the kind of reforms that he promises are debased to little more than wild revelling:

cade: There shall be in
England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny; the three-hoop’d 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. And
when I am king, as king I will be,—
all: God save your Majesty!
cade: I thank you, good people—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, and worship me
their lord.


That the enterprise and its leader are not taken seriously even by the rebels is made clear on Cade's first appearance, in Dick the Butcher and Smith the Weaver's side-play, which cuts down to size Cade's boasting of nobility and his claims to the throne (4.2.31-60).

The burning of the men of law's houses, the destruction of the Savoy and of the Inner Temple and of all the official records that the sources relate as perpetrated by the Kentish rebels in 1381, are attributed in the play to Cade and his followers. Cade's incongruous utopia involves the project of making a tabula rasa of all cultural records, to which Shakespeare adds the intent to “kill all the lawyers” (4.2.73), showing the arraignment and killing of the clerk of Chartham. Historical (1381) and nonhistorical materials are here mingled, with the addition of ludicrous motivations and with a stress on the rebels' loathing of writing and of books and the consequent indiscriminate killing of those who “can write and read and cast accompt” (4.2.81-82), to say nothing of those who can speak foreign tongues. The clerk of Chartham confesses that he can write his name and is therefore found guilty. Cade's verdict is, “Away with him, I say: hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck” (4.2.103-4). However, there is no pathos about the poor man's death, for the scene verges on sheer farce. Similarly, the killing of Sir Humphrey Stafford and of his brother are denied the dignity of tragedy (Sir Humphrey “can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor”; ll. 159-60); no ideality is lent to the burning down of the Savoy and of the Inner Temple and the destruction of all written records; this last action is made the object of derision even by John Holland and Smith the Weaver, who produce a few aside comments to the suggestion that, after the destruction, all the laws of England come out of Cade's mouth:

holland: [Aside.] Mass, ’twill be sore law then; for he was thrust
in the mouth with a spear, and ’tis not whole yet.
weaver: [Aside.] Nay, John, it will be stinking law; for his breath stinks
with eating toasted cheese.

cade: I have thought upon it; it
shall be so. Away! burn all the records of the realm; my mouth shall be the
parliament of England.
holland: [Aside.] Then we are like to have biting statutes, unless his teeth
be pull’d out.


The general effect of these distorting and debasing strategies is a complete devaluation of the seriousness of the rebels' enterprise, perhaps also a drastic reduction of their dangerousness. However, it is for these rebels and for their mock-rebellion that the king has run away and that the whole commonwealth is in danger of collapsing. Admittedly, the nobility could neither be laughed at nor despised explicitly: the laughter at and contempt of it are in fact less direct and open than the derision aimed at the party of the rebels.

However, even allowing for the uncertainties that come from the text's corrupted transmission, there are still a few more subterranean stylistic devices that contribute to the construction of a levelling strategy: there are moments when Cade is allowed to speak verse, thereby acting on the same level as the nobility (4.2), and moments when the emissaries of the runaway king are in some way lowered to the level of the rebels—moments, for instance, when to speak verse is by no means more dignified or more sensible than to speak prose, and is certainly more incongruous. One of these is when Lord Say is brought to the presence of Cade, who accuses him of a series of cultural crimes: “Thou hast most traiterously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school” (4.7.30-32); “Thou hast caused printing to be us’d” (ll. 33-34); “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” (ll. 36-39).38

Say's answer to these absurd accusations is no less absurd, and is obviously such that it condemns him: unaware of the kind of crimes of which he is being accused, he starts his defense with a Latin sentence referring to Kent as “bona terra, mala gens” (4.7.54), which causes Cade's obvious reaction: “Away with him! away with him! He speaks Latin” (l. 55); to which, in a last desperate effort to save his life, Say answers by quoting Caesar's Commentaries and is thereupon beheaded.


I began my argument by affirming that the Cade scenes may be viewed in a double perspective. It is time, therefore, to answer one last question: As it stands, what did the Cade episode communicate to the various sectors of the playhouse? Could the author expect that the same piece of theater be taken as supporting the interests of all the components of the variegated audience that he was addressing? It is possible to give an affirmative answer, since the critical reception of the episode still suits the purposes of differently thinking critical readers. It remains, however, to see how.

Generally speaking, the satirical and the grotesque modes require full agreement between sender and receiver as to the object in which the deformity resides. Therefore, the strategy that allows a discrepancy to arise, a double perspective to be perceived, and different messages to be sent to different targets can only consist in the blurring to a certain extent of the object in which the disease is denounced, or at least in the suggestion that one monstrosity generates the other and is responsible for it. As I have tried to show, this is precisely what the first three acts of the play suggest.

True, Cade and his followers are grotesque and almost subhuman, but the power that produced them and whose instrument they are is by no means the comparatively dignified power of the chronicles; it is the debased, degraded, and sickly power that the play depicts. True, Cade's followers are a fickle and ignorant mass; but has not the audience been acquainted throughout the first three acts of the play (as it will be in the fifth) with the false alliances of turncoat nobles, their acts of treason, and their crimes? True, the rebellion is a mock rebellion; but is not the power that takes it seriously and deploys an army to combat it so much more a mock power for that? True, the rebels' expectations are depicted as basely materialistic and incongruous; but what noble ideals has the audience reaped from the speeches and acts of the nobility? The deformity of the rebels, then, holds up a mirror to the corruption of the party in power. The political lesson is there for those who want to see it.39

My point about the possibility of a divided or double reception could be better defended if records of a theatrical success of Henry VI, 2 had survived as they have of Part 1. In the absence of witnesses, to make assumptions about the kind of reception that the play may have had by its first audience is mere conjecture. However, the very textual history of the play (one of the thorniest in the canon), the three bad quarto editions through which it went, the probable memorial reconstruction, the names of the actors Bevis and Holland which are still attached to two of its characters, its careless and hasty transmission, and the many Folio variants, probably due to the censor's action, may in the last analysis testify to the frequent use of the text in the theater.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then we have one more element to argue that the play may have reached the various sectors of the playhouse with diverse messages. One part of the audience must indeed have felt that the representation of the Cade rebellion supported the interests of those who repressed the frequent brawls that broke out outside theaters and prisons; another part, more intensely aware of social contradictions, may have registered with satisfaction the many perversions of authority, and perceived the Cade episode and the events that lead up to it as a dramatic presentation of those contradictions. Henry VI, 2 might then be one more case to support what Jonathan Dollimore has shown, namely, that “despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it was quite possible for people to see that disorder was often generated from the top down rather than from the bottom up.”40


  1. Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants,” in idem, ed., Representing the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 24, 25.

  2. Rackin, Stages of History (London: Routledge, 1990), 75.

  3. Ibid., 221.

  4. Ibid., 219.

  5. Hattaway, Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 20.

  6. Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 1.

  7. Ibid., 49. Patterson traces the tradition of an aristocratic, conservative Shakespeare that she sees as a critical commonplace back to Coleridge. See her discussion of this issue in the Foreword of the same book.

  8. In the same session of the Fifth World Shakespeare Congress in Tokyo (August 1991) where a shorter version of this paper was read, Philippe Laroque read a paper entitled “The Jack Cade Scenes Reconsidered: Popular Rebellion, Utopia or Carnival?”

  9. The other Shakespearean locus in which an equally explicit stance of political conservatism seems to be expressed is Ulysses's speech on “degree” in Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.75-137. However, the situation is different in the two passages, especially from the point of view of the authority from which the opinion comes. While, in fact, the Troilus speech, however authoritative in tone and persuasive in its rhetorical organization, can be viewed as one of the possible axiological positions in a virtual debate, a position which is attributed to one of the characters, the Cade scenes impose themselves by the truth-value of sheer representation. As such, they more strongly imply the arranger's (if not the author's) standpoint, and therefore a less mediated attempt at shaping the audience's reactions. Paradoxically, the evaluations imposed by representation, although more indirectly expressed, may work more strongly than those suggested by explicit declaration.

  10. The distinction between use and interpretation of texts is developed by Umberto Eco in “Intentio lectoris,” Differentia 2 (1988): 147-68.

  11. For Hattaway, “the variety of styles found throughout the sequence contributes to the analysis and need not be taken as evidence of multiple authorship or revision, but rather of perspectivism, a dramatic cross-examination from differing points of view, embodied in different dramatic styles of the issues raised and events enacted on the stage” (Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry VI, 1).

  12. Taylor, Introduction to Henry V (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 31.

  13. The expression in my title is taken from The Winter's Tale:

    hermoine. You, my lord,
    best know
    (Who least would seem to do so) my past life
    Hath been as continent, as chaste, as true,
    As I am now unhappy; which is more
    Than history can pattern, though devis’d
    And play’d to take spectators.


    All Shakespearean quotations are taken from the Arden edition of his plays.

  14. It seems to me that the background characters and marginal events that appear in Shakespeare's history plays may be considered as sparse elements in that “social history” whose absence in Renaissance England Arthur Ferguson regrets in his Clio Unbound (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1979). If not from research, these elements came to the dramatist from observation and might therefore be considered as witnessing forms of contemporary social reality.

  15. By “historical” I mean elements and events that had been recorded as true in written statements recognized as history books.

  16. The main source of Henry VI, 2 is Hall's chronicle. Probable sources are Holinshed, Grafton, Foxe, and the anonymous play The Life and Death of Jack Straw.

  17. However, as we shall see, not all the commoners share the “base” qualities of Cade and his followers. The issue of the degradation of the high sphere in the histories is developed, although in a different perspective, by Rackin, Stages of History.

  18. See, for instance, the following passage from Hall, where the seed of all discord is seen in God's displeasure with Henry's marriage: “But moste of all it should seme, that God with this matrimony was not content. For after this spousage the kynges frendes fell from hym, bothe in Englande and in Fraunce, the Lordes of his realme, fell in division emongest themselfes, the commons rebelled against their sovereigne Lorde, and naturall Prince, feldes were foughten, many thousandes slain, and finally, the kyng deposed, and his sonne slaine, and this Quene sent home again, with as muche misery and sorowe, as she was received with pompe and triumphe.” Here and elsewhere in this article source quotations are as recorded in Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 3 (London: Routledge, 1960). The passage quoted above is on p. 103.

    As regards the issue of first and second causes, Hattaway remarks that “this play and the group of plays to which it belongs do not propose simply that God had led England through the troubled times of dissension between Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties to fulfil her destiny with the enthronement of Henry Tudor as Henry VII. If there is a grand design it is only dimly glimpsed, for the emphasis of Shakespeare, if not always of his characters, rests firmly upon efficient and not final causes” (Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry VI, 1).

  19. Quoted in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 104.

  20. Ibid., 104, 105.

  21. Ibid., 105, 111. That Gloucester's death was procured by his enemies is recorded by Hall as popular conviction. Hall says that “all indifferent persons well knewe, that he died of no natural death but of some violent force: some judged him to be strangled: some affirme, that a hotte spitte was put in at his foundement: other write, that he was stiffeled or smoldered betwene twoo fetherbeddes” (ibid., 107). Moreover, Gloucester is said by Hall to have been granted a trial where he could defend himself and plead his innocence, while in Shakespeare he is suppressed before the day appointed for his trial.

  22. Ibid., 102.

  23. Ibid., 105, 106.

  24. Ibid., 106-7.

  25. Ibid., 104, 112.

  26. Ibid., 109.

  27. Ibid., 108, 113.

  28. Hall does not immediately connect the discovery of Eleanor's plot to Gloucester's loss of the protectorship. Equally absent in Hall is the part of the cardinal and York in the plot; Shakespeare ranks these two among the inspirers of Gloucester's murder (see 3.1.223-81 and 323-25). Hall only says that Suffolk was suspected of having some responsibility in the duke's murder.

  29. Margaret's hatred for Eleanor Cobham is unhistorical. The discovery of Eleanor's treason and her condemnation, in fact, are reported by Hall as having taken place before Margaret's arrival in England in 1445.

  30. See also Foxe: “Of manners he seemed meeke and gentle, loving the commonwealth, a supporter of the poore commons, of wit and wisdome discreet and studious, well affected to religion, and a frend to veritie, and no les enemy to pride and ambition, especially in hauty prelates, which was his undoing in this present evil world: And, which is seldome and rare in such princes of the calling, he was both learned himselfe: and no lesse given to study, as also a singular favourer and patron to them which were studious and learned” (John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of Martyrs, 1583; Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 127).

  31. However, Cade's followers are in the end redeemed, even though their rehabilitation implies giving up the claims for which they had revolted. In any case, what is relevant to our study is that they abandon Cade not only because they are a fickle mass or because they are promised safety or even because the name of Henry V has been pronounced, but also because they are made to believe, through the words of Old Clifford, that they have been manipulated and “misled” by Cade and because they are made the object of a different kind of manipulation, namely the lure of a safer conquest, at the king's side, in France. Immediately after they have forsaken Cade, they are seen in an entirely different light. They are no longer the cruel, though grotesque, slaughterers formerly portrayed, but only common, sensible men, whose dangerousness has been removed once the corrupting influence of Cade is eradicated. However impaired by aristocratic interests their redemption and capitulation may essentially be, its dramatic effect is that even a conformist audience now perceives them with sympathy.

  32. See 1.3.1-36, where the blame falls clearly on the use that Suffolk and Margaret make of the petitions.

  33. Cade seems to be no less cynical in exploiting his followers when, assuming an attitude of aristocratic scorn, he calls them “base peasants” (4.8.21).

  34. The episode is puzzling. Gloucester had ordered the combat between Peter and Horner because Peter's accusation “breeds suspicion” in York (1.3.206). However, York's treason does not follow from Horner's confession. All that is proven by Peter's victory is, in Henry's words, “the truth and innocence of this poor fellow” (2.3.100).

  35. See Patterson's discussion of the possible connection of the Cade episode with contemporary popular risings and the evidence that she produces for it in Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, chap. 2.

  36. Restricted generalizations in historical narratives are assertions similar to general laws in that they are more general than simple descriptions; however, they are limited or restricted because, as explanations, they are not valid for all times and places, but depend on certain conditions (temporal, social, geographical, cultural, etc.). These generalizations are, therefore, corrections to the concept of uniqueness in history in that they serve to connect certain classes of events to certain contexts and circumstances. See C. B. Joynt and Nicholas Rescher, “The Problem of Uniqueness in History,” History and Theory 1 (1961): 150-62.

  37. In the account of both of Shakespeare's probable sources, the rebels' claim to equality is justified in Christian terms: “At this time there were a certaine of such kinde of people as is aforesayde, that beganne to stirre in England and namely in Kent, and sayde they were in great servitude and bondage: But sayd they, in the beginning of the worlde, there were no bond men: neyther ought there to be any nowe, except it were such a one as had committed treason agaynst his Lorde, as Lucifer did to God. But sayde they we can have no suche battayle, for we are neyther Angelles nor spirites, but men framed and formed to the similitude of our Lordes, and therefore sayde they, why should we then be so kept under lyke beastes and slaves?” (R. Grafton, A Chronicle at Large, 1569; Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 128-29).

    We encounter the same attitude in Holinshed when he relates the arguments with which John Bull inflamed the spirits of the poor people: “‘When Adam delv’d and Eve span, / Who was then a gentleman?’ and so continuing his sermon, went about to proove by the words of that proverbe, that from the beginning, all men by nature were created alike, and that bondage or servitude came in by injust oppression of naughtie men. For if God would have had anie bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond & who free” (R. Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles, 1587 ed.; Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 133).

    Much less favorable to the rebels is the account that, by the middle of the eighteenth century, David Hume would give of the same rising, thereby showing that the obsession with sedition is by no means exclusively Elizabethan and Jacobean: “One John Ball, also, a seditious preacher, who affected low popularity, went about the country and inculcated on his audience the principles of the first origin of mankind from one common stock, their equal right to liberty and to all the goods of nature, the tyranny of artificial distinctions, and the abuses which had arisen from the degradation of the more considerable part of the species, and the aggrandizement of a few insolent rulers. These doctrines, so agreeable to the populace, and so conformable to the ideas of primitive equality which are engraven in the hearts of all men, were greedily received by the multitude, and scattered the sparks of the sedition which the present tax raised into a conflagration” (The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Abdication of James the Second, 1688 [1754-1761; reprint Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1858], 2:283).

  38. Shortly after reporting the outcome of the battle of St. Albans, Hall launches on the praise of the newly discovered technique of printing: “In which season, the craft of Prynting was first invented in the citie of Mens in Germanie, to the great furtheraunce of all persons, desiryng knowledge or thyrsting for litterature” (quoted in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 125).

  39. A substantial objection to my reading may come from Greenblatt's theoretically impeccable and widely influential argument about “self-undermining authority” and his claim that the logic that governs subversiveness in certain texts is inspired by the power whose ends it furthers. Seen in this perspective, the abasement of the party in power in Henry VI, 2 should be read as institutionally functional to its maintenance because it is “contained by the power that it would appear to threaten” (Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets,” in Shakespearean Negotiations [Oxford: Clarendon, 1988], 30). My defense of a different perspective is theoretically naive, for I may only evoke the aftertaste that a particular text leaves behind it. When this, as I believe is the case with Henry VI, 2, is unequivocally the defacement of authority, should we think that the author has missed the point, that he has, so to speak, gone beyond the “right measure” of subversion? And, more generally, how much can be risked, as concerns authority and power, without at the same time risking the possibility of containment?

  40. J. Dollimore, Radical Tragedy (New York and London: Harvester, 1989; first published 1984), xxiv.

Further Reading

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Caldwell, Ellen C. “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.” Studies in Philology 92, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 18-79.

Compares Shakespeare's representation of the Jack Cade rebellion of 1450 to an array of historical evidence regarding the uprising. Caldwell concludes that the rebellion scenes in Henry VIshould not simply be interpreted as indicative of Shakespeare's anti-populist beliefs.

Fiennes, Ralph. “Henry VI.” In Players of Shakespeare 3: Further Essays in Shakespearian Performance by Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 99-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

A response to the characterization of Henry VI by the well-known British actor Fiennes.

Gutierrez, Nancy A. “Gender and Value in 1 Henry VI: The Role of Joan de Pucelle.” Theatre Journal 42, No. 2 (May 1990): 183-93.

Views Shakespeare's Joan de Pucelle as a feminine threat constructed and subsequently neutralized by patriarchy.

Hattaway, Michael. Introduction to The First Part of King Henry VI, by William Shakespeare, edited by Michael Hattaway, pp. 1-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Provides backgrounds and analysis of the history, structure, style, thematic content, and stage record of 1 Henry VI.

———. Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry VI, by William Shakespeare, edited by Michael Hattaway, pp. 1-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Continuation of the above regarding the second part of the Henry VI trilogy.

———. Introduction to The Third Part of King Henry VI, by William Shakespeare, edited by Michael Hattaway, pp. 1-61. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Further continuation focusing on the third play in the series.

Henke, James T. “The Archetypes and Henry VI.” In The Ego-King: An Archetype Approach to Elizabethan Political Thought and Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays, pp. 34-84. Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache, 1977.

Jungian interpretation of Henry VIprincipally concerned with the work's theme of degeneration and representation of psychoanalytic archetypes.

Hunt, Maurice. “Unnaturalness in Shakespeare's 3 Henry VI.English Studies 80, No. 2 (April 1999): 146-67.

Claims that the motif of unnatural behavior “unifies 3 Henry VI to a degree greater than any scheme previously proposed for the play.”

Linton, David. “Shakespeare as Media Critic: Communication Theory and Historiography.” Mosaic 29, No. 2 (June 1996): 1-21.

Uses 2 Henry VI as a case study regarding Shakespeare's understanding of the media's influence on human behavior.

Longstaffe, Stephen. “Jack Cade and the Lacies.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, No. 2 (Summer 1998): 187-90.

Examines Cade's unwitting compromise of his own legitimacy to the throne by mentioning his descent from the Lacies in 2 Henry VI.

Smith, Alan R. and Karen T. Morris. “Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part III.Explicator 41, No. 4 (Summer 1983): 3-5.

Discusses nautical imagery and allusions to the devil and damnation in the penultimate scene of 3 Henry VI.

Stapleton, M. L. “‘Shine It Like a Comet of Revenge’: Seneca, John Studley, and Shakespeare's Joan la Pucelle.” Comparative Literature Studies 31, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 229-50.

Considers Joan la Pucelle of 1 Henry VI as an Elizabethan “cultural artifact” culled from the tragedies of Seneca via his sixteenth-century English translators.

Turner, Robert Y. “Characterization in Shakespeare's Early History Plays.” ELH 31, No. 3 (September 1964): 241-58.

Perceives the characters of Henry VIas static in comparison to the figures in Shakespeare's later works and as “shaped both by conventions of the morality tradition and by demands of the literal historical events.”

Christopher Pye (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Theater, the Market, and the Subject of History,” in ELH, Vol. 61, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 501-22.

[In the essay below, Pye focuses on Act I, scene 4 of 1 Henry VI in order to study the economic and historical dimensions of subjectivity presented in the play.]

Nothing has so consistently underwritten recent efforts to historicize the study of Renaissance drama as a perceived correspondence between economic commodification and representation. In Worlds Apart, Jean-Christophe Agnew suggests how implicated the worlds of the theater and the market were during the early modern period. With the advent of exchange-value as a property independent of use-value, the market-place evolved from a localized institution to a supervening process capable of reconstituting the very society that set it in motion. “To those caught up in this expanded circulation of commodities of the early modern epoch,” Agnew writes, “the very liquidity of the money form—its apparent capacity to commute specific obligations, utilities, and meanings into general, fungible equivalents—bespoke the same boundless autonomy that Aristotle had once condemned as an unnatural, ‘chrematistic’ form of exchange.”1 According to Agnew's account, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England the newly liquid market conspired with the protean character of theater to prompt a “crisis of representation” bearing on identity as such. “The new drama showed, as no other genre could, how precarious social identity was … By deliberately effacing the line between the self's iconic representation in art and ritual and its instrumental presentation in ordinary life, Renaissance theater formally reproduced the same symbolic confusion that a boundless market had already introduced into the visual codes and exchange relations of a waning feudal order.”2

Literary critics preoccupied with the economic determinations of cultural productions have figured this crisis in terms of an increasingly unbounded process of social commodification. Thus Don Wayne's reassessment of “Drama and Society in the Age of Johnson” turns on the dramatist's inability to conceive himself fully independent of an “emerging commodity system of economic and social exchange,” and Karen Newman reconceives the woman's role within drama of the era in terms of a generalized structure of consumption: “She is represented in the discourses of Jacobean London as at once consumer and consumed.”3 The centrality of the economic perspective in these accounts has considerable—even shrill—empirical support. Consider the not-so-obscurely intertwined proliferation of anti-theatrical and anti-usury tracts during the era, each declaring the limitless shame of a cultural transformation that threatened to reduce all to a groundless play of terms.

Yet it is precisely the sweeping and fundamental nature of such a transformation that raises methodological qualms. It is the constitutive force of economy—the prospect that one might be reduced to a commodity or mere factor in a system of exchange—that prompts fear and shame. But isn’t apprehension precisely what guarantees one's externality to the threatened transformation? From what position could one perceive one's own commodification with anxiety? The problem of registering the empirical ground of a structural transformation can similarly be posed at the level of the social totality. How is it possible to speak of the origins of an economic shift that reconstitutes the society that institutes it, thus eliding its own causes?

Paradoxically, far from disabling historical enquiry, economy's peculiarly equivocal status as an empirical phenomenon—its tendency toward a certain groundlessness—has if anything empowered historicism's most recent avatar, New Historicism. The writings arrayed under that heading are bound together in good part by their reliance on the ease with which economic description seems to lend itself to a generalized metaphorics of speculation and exchange, to a thrilling measure of discursive liquidity.4 Here is Stephen Greenblatt's account of the relationship between a historical document—the report of the wreck of a merchant ship written by a company man—and a literary work—The Tempest:

The changes I have sketched are signs of the process whereby the Bermuda narrative is made negotiable, turned into a currency that may be transferred from one institutional context to another. The changes do not constitute a coherent critique of the colonial discourse, but they function as an unmooring of its elements so as to confer upon them the currency's liquidity.5

Freed from the particularities of the market, the discourse of “negotiation,” “liquidity” and “exchange” comes to articulate an account of the entire social field, all under the inclusive rubric of “the circulation of social energies.”

In this case, one is prompted to ask, not so much what grounds economy, as what gives it its apparently limitless alchemical powers as a descriptive term. The effectiveness of New Historicism's cultural—or economic—poetics, its capacity to seem at once historically particular and boundlessly expansive, depends both on the residual empirical aura that clings to such economic language, and, as importantly, on economy's distinctive ability to dissimulate its status as a system. In Greenblatt's account, one is struck by the combination of fungibility at the level of discrete phenomena and totalizing force at the level of the social field itself, a globalization most evident when the cultural exegete is most at pains to banish it:

The circulation of social energy by and through the stage was not part of a single, coherent, totalizing system. Rather it was partial, fragmented, conflicted. … What then is the social energy that is being circulated? Power, religious awe, free-floating intensities of experience: in a sense, the question is absurd, for everything produced by the society can circulate. … Under such circumstances, there can be no single method, no over-all picture, no exhaustive and definitive cultural poetics.6

No single method or over-all picture except the most embracing—the economic concept of “circulation” itself. Whether at the level of the discrete subject or at the level of the social field, whether applied literally as final cause or figuratively as global function, the economic metaphor seems to enable the impossible fantasy of a comprehensive account of the loss of totality, the fantasy of cultural science itself, perhaps.

In the analysis that follows, I want to explore the relations among economy, theater, and subjectivity in the Renaissance by dwelling on an early, and formative, moment in Shakespeare's theatrical career: act 1, scene 4 of the dramatist's earliest and most dazzlingly unformed play, 1 Henry VI. The scene suggests that both in and beyond the stage a Renaissance subjectivity is indeed constituted in economic terms. It also shows how intimately theater is involved in such a process of subject-formation. But theater and market assume their constitutive power—the subject emerges—I will argue, only at the point where the economic function exceeds itself altogether. Not simply inscribed within an already fully constituted economic domain, not simply “commodified,” the early-modern subject emerges at the volatile limits of the economic function itself, the point where economy as a coherent mechanism falters. The politics of subject-formation, its relation to nationalism and to sexuality, should be understood, the scene suggests, in relation to that more radical horizon.

My aim in tracing the formation of an early modern subject to the limits of the economic—the most global as well as modern of functions—will be to suggest, not just the “liquidity” of social phenomena within a given culture, but the contingency of the social field itself. As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have argued, rather than assuming the form of a prior totality, the social field is constituted at a charged and unstable limit, the point of its own impossibility:

The incomplete character of every totality necessarily leads us to abandon, as a terrain of analysis, the premise of ‘society’ as a sutured and self-defined totality. … There is no single underlying principle fixing—and hence constituting—the whole field of differences. The irresoluble interiority/exteriority tension is the condition of any social practice. … It is in this terrain, where neither a total interiority nor a total exteriority is possible, that the social is constituted.7

To advance a fully anti-essentialist account of any social formation it is necessary to include economy itself among the array of these differentially defined social practices, however paradoxical that may seem, for it has been economy more than anything else that has preserved the idea of society as a totalized field even among those analysts apparently most willing to embrace the discursive, open-ended nature of social forms. But our analysis will ultimately engage a dimension of contingency that Laclau and Mouffe do not entertain, one that makes anything like a history of the subject a vexed preoccupation. In so far as it represents the limits of the subject, the horizon of economy is also, the scene suggests, the boundary of the historiographic dimension itself. Rather than being the transparent medium within which phenomena such as market and subject emerge, history should be included among the forms constituted at the vanishing point of the social, a necessary and insupportable horizon where “the impossibility of the real … has attained a form of presence,” and which the early modern era termed the demonic.8

Act 1, scene 4 of 1 Henry VI is notable for the appearance of the French herione, Joan of Arc—“Pucelle,” as she is called—and for the way the emergence of that figure serves to galvanize the otherwise peculiarly drifting beginnings of the play and of the Histories. Shakespeare's Histories begin with an ending—with their own ending, in a sense. The curtain opens on the funeral of Henry V, the absolute sovereign whose glorious conquests the last play of the cycle will celebrate. Even before the body is buried, word arrives from France of the dissolution of the Empire, culminating with an account of the betrayal and capture of England's warrior hero, Lord Talbot. The play then shuttles back and forth between the French troops, temporarily emboldened by the appearance of the warrior-maid, and scenes of political disarray in England.

At the start of act 1, scene 4 England's fortunes seem momentarily to have reversed themselves again. Talbot has been ransomed from captivity, and, as the scene opens, stands with his companions on a turret overlooking Orleans, whose siege they are confidently planning. But a canon on the lower stage ignites, felling Salisbury and Gargrave, two of Talbot's comrades on the tower. Almost simultaneously, a messenger arrives to announce the approach of the “holy prophetess,” Pucelle. The mere word of her arrival suffices to raise the dead. Nevertheless, and despite temporary set-backs, Talbot, and the play itself, assume a minimally coherent trajectory for the first time in relation to this threat. Talbot's heroic exploits against Joan and the French go on to become the formal core of an otherwise stunningly fragmentary chronicle.

The structure of the scene is a familiar one: a threat from without is used to coalesce forces within, in this instance a sense of national and literary identity. For our purposes, the scene is equally noteworthy for the way it draws together the theater and the market. The scene that concludes with Pucelle's charged appearance begins with Shakespeare's most explicit articulation of the intimate relationship between market and spectacle. Appearing for the first time in the play, Lord Talbot discourses on his recent captivity by the French: “With scoffs and scorns and contumelious taunts / In open marketplace produc’d they me / To be a public spectacle to all.”9 The uneasy correspondence between the shaming effects of display and commodification that energized the anti-theatrical polemics of the age comes into plain view here, presumably because it has been displaced onto the French.

Indeed, Talbot's escape from the French amounts to a victory over the depredations of exchange and theatricalization alike. “By what means got thou to be releas’d?” Salisbury asks. Talbot answers:

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 have been so pill’d esteem’d;
In fine, redeem’d I was as I desir’d. 


Talbot holds out for an exchange worthy of his class and honor. But he does more. Wagering the absolute term of his own death to accomplish the substitution he desires, Talbot controls and thus situates himself outside the blind denominations of exchange, and so gives exchange a faintly theological surplus, as the language of redemption suggests. Theater here is staked on class difference, for by maintaining at the risk of his life the all-important distinction between aristocratic ransom and the leveling and depletionary exchanges of a newer dispensation, Talbot preserves a redeeming, if minimal, difference between the English stage—the display the audience sees before it—and the site of the market.

Talbot's narrative of the spectacle in the market gives local form to a more submerged and troublingly expansive version of surrogacy associated with the English hero in the scene and the play, an unbounded representational economy which the scene will engage in detail before returning once again with Talbot's first victory to a concrete and familiar thematization of the market. “Talbot, my life, my joy, again return’d?” Salisbury exclaims from the upper stage as the hero enters for the first time (1.4.23). This is the language of redemption, perhaps. But the timing of the proclamation—from the moment he first appears, Talbot is “again return[ing]”—and the heightened reflexivity of the moment—“Discourse, I prithee, on this turret's top”—produces the impression that the hero's appearance coincides with the more insistent and quotidian reiterations of theater itself, where the most momentous arrival amounts to a return. The impression is only heightened by Talbot's oddly recurrent destiny in the play. We first hear of him when a messenger interrupts the opening funeral to announce that at the siege of Orleans Lord Talbot has been encircled by the enemy, betrayed by one Sir John Falstaff, and, we are momentarily given to believe, slain. And yet, Talbot's fate will indeed conclude when he is encircled by the enemy, betrayed once again by Sir John Falstaff, and slain.

We can make sense of Talbot's reiterative and reflexively theatrical status in the play by recognizing how bound up his fate is with the problem of origins in this originary drama—the first of the Histories, the first of Shakespeare's career. The play begins with the funeral of Henry V; in principle, the entire history cycle shores and initiates itself against the absolute measure of the sovereign's death. In fact, nothing could be less stable than the king's demise. “What say’st thou, man, before dead Henry's corse?” Bedford exclaims to the messenger announcing the fragmentation of the sovereign's empire. “Speak softly, or the loss of those great towns / Will make him burst his lead and rise from death.” Gloucester continues: “Is Paris lost? Is Roan yielded up? / If Henry were recall’d to life again, / These news would cause him once more yield the ghost” (1.1.62-67). Rising to cease again, reviving and ceasing in the same instant, Henry's return would only riddle death's limit and guarantee. The entire trajectory of the Histories, in which the sovereign does indeed return but through a double, lineal and cyclic form, can be seen to answer to this radical equivocation at the source.10 Talbot's “again return[ing],” and his surrogacy, should be understood in relation to the king's ghostly wavering. To initiate themselves at all, the Histories must check the prospect of limitless reiteration and of a boundless form of exchange that marks and derides their advent. Rather than simply enacting a narrative of nationalist exploits, Talbot is burdened with the task of generating in its sparest form the very possibility of a vectored and narratable history out of representation's empty returns.

From the moment he appears, “Talbot” is to a remarkable extent a theatrical construct. “Again return’d,” he tells his tale, a tale of specular aggression and counter-aggression:

With scoffs and scorns and contumelious taunts
In open market-place produc’d they me
To be a spectacle to all:
Here, said they, is the terror of the French,
The scarecrow that affrights our children so.
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.
By grisly countenance made others fly,
None durst come near me for fear of sudden death. 


It is specifically as a terrible spectacle, and in retaliation against those who would reduce him so, that Talbot displays the martial ferocity that historically defines him.

As Talbot continues his discourse, the theatrical aggressivity he recounts is gradually concatenated with his immediate position on stage before us. The scene is framed by an exchange between the French Master Gunner and his son in the besieged city down below. The Dauphin's “espials” have informed the Gunner “How the English, in the suburbs close intrench’d, / Wont through a secret grate of iron bars / In yonder tower to overpeer the city” (1.4.9-13). To “intercept this inconvenience,” the Master Gunner has placed “a piece of ord’nance” below on the stage proper aimed toward the grate in the tower where Talbot now stands (1.4.14, 15). The boy reappears below as Talbot completes the discourse on his captivity:

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;
Whereof 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 in the heart.
Enter the Boy with a Linstock 


At this point, the boy appears as if the materialization of Talbot's victimizers. But in the interval between the lighting of the ordinance and its detonation the relations of power figured in Talbot's account are reversed. Vowing revenge on the English hero's captors, the men turn their gaze on the city spread before them, in fact, out over the stage toward the audience.

Salisbury: I grieve to hear what torments you endur’d
But we will be reveng’d sufficiently.
Here, through this grate, I count each one,
And view the Frenchmen how they fortify.
Let us look in, the sight will much delight thee.
Talbot: For aught I see, this city must be famish’d
Or with light skirmishes enfeebled.
Here they shoot, and Salisbury falls down
[together with Gargrave]
Salisbury: O Lord, have mercy on us, wretched sinners!
Gargrave: O Lord, have mercy on me, woeful man!
Talbot: What chance is this that suddenly hath cross’d us?
Speak, Salisbury; at least, if thou canst, speak.
How far’st thou, mirror of all martial men?
One of thy eyes and thy cheek's side struck off!
Accursed tower! accursed fatal hand
That hath contriv’d this woeful tragedy! 


Whose contriving hand, exactly? Talbot's, perhaps. For the shot that rends the “secret grate of iron bars” erupts precisely at the moment when the figure who threatened to “rend bars of steel” in revenge against those who reduced him to spectacle turns outward and reduces all beneath his masterful gaze. But the metatheatrical element of the scene—“accursed fatal hand / That hath contrived this woeful tragedy”—signals a more radical uncertainty about the grounds of this stagey violence. For the moment Talbot “overpeers the city,” overlooking the canon below and gazing out beyond the stage, is also the moment the audience finds its own masterful and subjecting gaze returning upon it. The elaborate calculus of theatrical relations that constitutes Talbot's history works toward, or perhaps devolves from, this single instance of transgression, the moment spectacle returns the gaze, and the boundary between viewer and spectacle is rent.

Hardly an accident or a device, that reversal of object and gaze follows from and is inherent within the very economy of theatrical spectacle. To the extent that the viewing subject defines itself in reducing all to spectacle—insofar as the subject is itself a function of the initiatory division between a seer and a seen—spectacular power will invariably amount to a reversionary transgression, a violent and renewed revenging home. The oddly exact wound resulting from this disruption—“one of thy eyes and thy cheek's side struck off”—amounts to the disquieting specular image of the audience's divided and specular formation.

By all rights, the movement of mirroring exchanges should close itself off with that disastrous redounding. But for a detail. In fact, the violence does not exactly return home. The shot intended to “intercept” the overmastering onlookers is, in turn, intercepted, for it is not Talbot, the speaker who discoursed of rending barriers and revenging beholders, but his auditor, Salisbury, who suffers the violent returns. The effects of that misfire can be felt in the subterranean workings of Talbot's impromptu eulogy:

In thirteen battles Salisbury o’ercame;
Henry the Fift the first train’d to the wars;
Yet liv’st thou, Salisbury? Though thy speech doth fail,
One eye thou hast to look to heaven for grace;
The sun with one eye vieweth all the world.
Bear hence his body, I will help to bury it.
Sir Thomas Gargrave, hast thou any life?
Speak unto Talbot, nay, look up to him.
Salisbury, cheer thy spirit with this comfort,
Thou shalt not die whiles—
He beckons with his hand and smiles on me
As who should say, “When I am dead and gone,
Remember to avenge me on the French.”
Plantagenet, I will … 
Wretched shall France be only in my name. 


Through the dying Salisbury, Talbot receives—or ventriloquizes—the injunction that constitutes his martial identity—“avenge me on the French”—and, through the irreversibility of that loss, is able to stabilize the movement of exchange for the first time: “Frenchmen, I’ll be a Salisbury to you” (1.4.106). But that call to martial and national destiny is fragilely posed against signs of disquiet. Before the final beckoning, Talbot invokes his companion, buries him then reinvokes him again. He enjoins Salisbury to exchange gazes with the mirroring sun, with the dead or dying Gargrave, with every specular gaze except that of the true “mirror of all martial men,” himself.

Such wavering may be psychologized as Talbot's guilty response to the death of the man who stood in his place and intercepted his fate. In fact, what Talbot turns from exceeds the economy of guilt and shame altogether: “He beckons with his hand and smiles on me / As who should say, ‘When I am dead and gone, / Remember to avenge me on the French.’” The martial hero's history is grounded at its source on a critical misreading. At once more benign and more alarming than an agonistic call to revenge, Salisbury's smiling and beckoning represents the logical completion of the circuit of exchange in the workings of the death-drive. To close off the movement of substitutions and assume his proper place—to come into his own for the first time—requires the simple and impossible expedient of taking up the position of the dead man who had stood in his place. Not, or not merely, a reflection of guilt, the spectral solicitation confirms the more fundamental truth of Talbot's inscription within a representational economy that exceeds and defines him. Earlier, Talbot had “craved death” rather than submit to exchange. Here, he is shown to crave death precisely to the extent that he is a function of exchange, of an economic circuit that carries beyond any conceivable limit.11

It is in relation to this solicitation of the death drive—the phantasmatic sign of a splitting within—that we should understand the abrupt appearance of a demonic force from without. No sooner has Talbot received, and refused, the fatal sign than news arrives of Joan's approach. Salisbury's flickering returns are now transformed into a more lurid automatism:

Wretched shall France be only in my name.
                    Here an alarum, and it thunders
and lightens
What stir is this? What tumult's in the heavens?
Whence cometh this alarum, and the noise?
                    Enter a messenger
Messenger: My lord, my lord, the French have gather'd head.
The Dolphin, with one Joan de Pucelle join’d,
A holy prophetess new risen up,
Is come with a great power to raise the siege.
                    Here Salisbury lifeth himself
up and groans
Talbot: Hear, hear how dying Salisbury doth groan!
It irks his heart he cannot be reveng’d.
Frenchmen, I’ll be a Salisbury to you. 


Displaced outwardly to the French and to the demonized woman, the power to revive the dead reappears in a overcharged and exclamatory form—as conjury. The splitting within, manifest as an alarming call to quiescence, is now recast as a more familiar, and more manageable, national and sexual antagonism. Joan takes on all the coded and recognizable ambiguities of the castrating woman. “I know not where I am, nor what I do,” Talbot exclaims, “A witch by fear, not force … conquers as she lists” (1.5.20-22).

With this displacement outward, the field of power also shifts from the specular to the linguistic or symbolic register. Joan's potency is first visible, less in her literal power to raise the dead, than in the uncanny workings of the signifier that calls up that event as if of its own accord: “A holy prophetess new risen up, / Is come with a great power to raise the siege.’ / Here Salisbury lifteth himself up and groans” (emphases added). Although affiliated with the woman and the unanchored potencies of the demonic, such effects transpire entirely within the terms of the paternal order. While Talbot announces “wretched shall France be only in my name,” it is the phallic maid whose words initially assume that performative power associated with the name of the father: “Rescu’d is Orleance from the English! / Thus Joan de Pucelle hath perform’d her word, ” Pucelle declaims (1.6.2-3). Talbot's victory is sealed, not when he overcomes, but when his name does. Soldier: “The cry of Talbot serves me for a sword, / For I have loaden me with many spoils, / Using no other weapon but his name” (2.1.79-81).

The victory takes no time—a few scenes and a few skirmishes. For, despite the hyperbolic powers of the witch, the threat is already allayed from the moment it entered the field of castration and gendered sexuality. Neither, we might conjecture, does the direst risk coincide with the specular dimensions of the scene, whatever the genealogical progression from spare and violently unstable theatricality to safely thematized martial victory might suggest. Specular subversion, like symbolic castration, implies its own mechanism for articulating a subject, however volatile and contradictory. Instead, the danger around which the scene is structured should be seen to arise at the point where genealogy yields to exorbitant return and where all the articulatory resources of theater—specular and linguistic, imaginary and symbolic—encounter their vanishing point in the mute workings of the death drive. With Talbot's refusal of that solicitation, and with the displacements that follow from that disavowal, representation is checked at its limit, and a national, as well as personal and sexual, identity coalesce for the first time.12

The significance of Talbot's apostrophe on the turret top may be measured in the extent to which the entire, strangely reiterative movement of his career gravitates back to and rewrites the scene. In Talbot's final appearance, Salisbury's role is taken up by Talbot's son, and the splittings of the death-drive are recast in the form of a filial doubling: “No more can I be severed from your side,” young John Talbot says, “Than can yourself yourself in twain divide” (4.5.48-49). The father dies addressing-apostrophizing-the son who lies “inhearsed in [his]arms” (4.7.45). Hallucinatory misreading is replaced now by a knowing imputation, and the violent torsion of the death drive toward political bellicoseness is converted to a plangently sublimating redirection of revenge back against death itself:

Talbot: Brave 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.


The radical equivocations of the opening scene are revised now as familiar oedipal ambiguities: “I have what I would have, / Now my old arms are young John Talbot's grave” (4.7.31-32).

More than a mimetic representation, then, the scene of Talbot's first appearance actively constitutes identity and narrative trajectory out of theater's unbounded returns. In that sense, the scene could be seen to play out within starkly political contours the stammering advent of a Shakespearean, and distinctly modern, character-based dramaturgy. But it is not just the figure on stage who is constituted in the refusal of the fatal solicitation on the turret top. To the extent that the entire scene is volatilized by the threat of the viewer's subversion, it also reenacts the founding of a political and sexual subjectivity beyond the stage, structured from its beginning under the aegis of a nationalist destiny and staked against the excluded and flamboyantly demonized woman.13

The subjectivity thus formed remains an explicitly economic one. Talbot's formative drama first emerged from the market in his opening narrative of captivity, and it is to the market that it returns. Talbot's “revenge” is completed when, a few scenes later, having recovered Orleans, he places Salisbury's body on display at precisely the point of his original, theatrical shame: “Bring forth the body of old Salisbury, / And here advance it in the market-place, / The middle centure of this cursed town. / Now have I paid my vow unto his soul” (2.2.4-7). Accomplished revenge serves the more critical function of revision, as the surrogate is inscribed—literally in the epitaph Talbot composes—at the source. The aim, and the instability, of that revisionary gesture is apparent in the way eulogy ambiguously mixes with confession, and the dead assumes the characteristics of the memorialist in the inscription Talbot proposes:

And that hereafter ages may behold
What ruin happened in revenge of him,
                                                                                … I’ll erect
A tomb, wherein his corpse shall be interr’d;
Upon the which, that every one may read,
Shall be engrav’d the sack of Orleance,
The treacherous manner of his mournful death,
And what a terror he had been to France. 


Whose “treachery” is being marked and allayed in this epitaph? Indeed, who is buried here, Salisbury, or Talbot, the true “terror of the French”? Burial here is equally a process of psychic encrypting—the founding of a permanent partition within.

The burial ceremony marks a final settling of accounts—a ritualized management of the fatal appeal and impossible exchange that conditioned Talbot's emergence. The sealing off of that psychic risk coincides with the explicit drawing together of the market place and the place of the stage—the theater the audience sees before it. Theater acknowledges itself. Indeed, the audience may acknowledge itself as well. Unsure as yet where the ebb of battle has left them, it would be difficult for theater-goers not to hear in Talbot's call to process “here, in the market place, the middle centure of this cursed town” a reference to the present site of their viewing, and to their own conditions as economic, and shamefully theatrical, beings.14

The hero's conquest of the martial witch fulfills the conditions for the emergence of an explicitly theatrical and economic—a “commodified”—subjectivity in all its blazoned and perhaps energizing shame. But it also suggests the disavowal and the remainder that underwrites that construction: the market-place intersects with the stage in the process of subject formation, but as the site of an ambiguous burial. In his introduction to the work of the French psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, Jacques Derrida writes of a tomb or “cryptic enclave” erected in the midst of the city forum or market-place, a fragile and irreducible enclosure that defines the open space of discursive and economic circulation. “Within this forum, a place where the free circulation and exchange of objects and speeches can occur, the crypt constructs another, more inward forum like a closed rostrum or speaker's box, a safe: sealed, and thus internal to itself, a secret interior within the public square, but by the same token outside it, external to the interior.”15 Talbot's indeterminate ceremony, at once commemoration and disavowal, repeats in the psychic register the contradictions of this parietal, self-divided space, and might be seen to allegorize the distinctive condition—the internal fault-line—of a subjectivity forged from the traces of the theater and the market.

It is not commodification that inspires dread then, however much that fate is trumpeted as the sign of a fallen age, for instance in the moralized spectacle of a king who reduces his kingdom to “rotten parchment bonds”—“live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee”—or in the spectacle of a prince who exchanges honors and accounts with a “factor” as easily as an actor changes roles (Richard II, 2.1.64, 135; 1 Henry IV, 3.2.143-50). The more unsettling prospect is that the logic of exchange might by its very nature exceed any recognizable economy of self-interest, of investment and return. The scene raises the possibility that revenge—that motif through which a mercantilist age figured to itself in a mode of savored reprobation its reciprocal and economistic notion of identity—might be impelled by a far more disquieting lure than aggression.16 The repeatedly condemned and reinforced association between theater and market quells that threatened exorbitance at the core of Renaissance subjectivity. On the one hand, theatrical representation is bound to a localized, and thus restricted and comprehensible, version of the economic—to the place of the market. On the other hand, economic exchange is bound to theater's more manageable specular threat, not the death drive, but a familiar, even bracing, economy of exposure and shame. To feel the depleting shame of spectacle and to know one's place in the market's speculative returns is already to have entered the space of a newly valorized and contained subjectivity.17

It is not coincidence, then, that the era of the market was also the era of spectacle. But to speak of this as a simple historical moment overlooks how problematic history's own role is in this conjuncture, a fact evident in the way the eulogy that draws together theater, market, and heroic destiny solicits us across the interval of time. As if assuming from within the tragedy the role of the “fatal hand that hath contrived this woeful tragedy,” Talbot fulfills his task by inscribing an epitaph “that hereafter ages may behold” the events we are now seeing. The hero's discourse takes on peculiar immediacy here precisely in its empty reflexivity, to the extent it is felt to have been from the outset the groundless, epitaphic voice of the stage. The hard-won funeral clearly answers to the broken ceremony that fails to stabilize the opening of the play and the Histories—it is only now that that originating act is managed. Thus the spectral nature of the burial—it is a phantasm that is being laid to rest—is mimed in the contradictory status of the eulogy, which amounts to a founding revision, and of the discourse of the play itself, which assumes its potency at this moment by reflexively echoing and conjuring its own emptiness, like a theatrical beckoning from beyond the grave.

Whatever its disruptive effects, that contradictory discursive form—an inaugural doubling back and the conjuring of vacancy—may amount to the condition of historiographic writing as such. Since its beginnings in the sixteenth century historiography has entailed just such a double gesture, Michel de Certeau has suggested. Constituting itself against an excluded other, sustained by death's caesura, historiography simultaneously defined itself in its capacity to recover what it foreclosed. “It is an odd procedure that posits death, a breakage everywhere reiterated in discourse, and that yet denies loss by appropriating to the present the privilege of recapitulating the past as a form of knowledge.”18 Talbot's phantasmatic mourning, a suturing of emptiness, may exemplify, not just the settled form of the “woeful tragedy” he inhabits, but of the modern discourse of history in all its headlong, self-overcoming expansiveness.19

Any effort to historicize Talbot's drama is at least complicated, then, by the possibility that the scene structures the terms for such a historical accounting. In other words, before we speak of the historical convergence of theater and market during the era, we should consider the way market and theater participate in the formation of history. To the extent that it implied a structural and synchronic form of analysis, the economic perspective would seem to oppose, perhaps even emerge as the concurrent inverse of, heroic history.

The separation of the state and civil society, the autonomization of the ‘economy’—all these factors associated with the evolution of English capitalism conduced to the atomization of the social world into discrete and separate theoretical spheres. And with it came a detachment of the social sciences from history, as social relations and processes came to be conceived as natural, answering to the universal laws of the economy.20

And yet, the scene we have been considering suggests at another level a profound complicity between economism and historicism, even a common ground. In the scene, the encrypting that opens the possibility of a coherent space of exchange, and thus conditions the emergence of a commodified subject, coincides with the phantasmatic reserve that underwrites the historiographic function. That convergence may suggest the economic underpinnings of the sense of “historical solitude” that Thomas Greene sees attending the beginnings of early modern humanism.21 It might also explain the compelling mixture of economism and apostrophic mourning in Greenblatt's cultural poetics. “I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” begins the book that articulates the infinitely negotiable, circulatory character of human desire.22 So began Talbot and so begins history, perhaps.23

To suggest, however, that the scene reveals in any unequivocal sense the origins of modern historiography entails an obvious methodological and ideological fantasy: the fantasy that one could occupy a position outside one's own history. It also overlooks just what the scene shows us: the insistence of the demonic in that emergence. As we have seen, Talbot is conjured up precisely by virtue of the belatedness of the epitaph he speaks; he emerges to the extent that he is felt to have been what we have known him to be from the outset—a theatrical revenant. Luridly evoked and excluded to stabilize a narrative trajectory, the demonic returns within, as history's animating condition. In so far as he takes on a form of theatrical belatedness—the status of one who will have been—as the condition of his historical being, Talbot undoes as much as he sustains history's comforting ratio and vector: it is from the future that the hero returns.24 If the scene enacts the founding of the Histories—of the historiographic dimension as such—it is, then, in the form of that ellipsis at the core of symbolization that Jacques Lacan calls the “encounter forever missed” and that more recent psychoanalytic accounts have termed the empty, intractable stuff of mourning.25

Does acknowledging this labile, metaleptic element within the historical dimension vitiate what claims one would want to make for the cultural and political specificity of Shakespeare's drama? The contextual and political character of social phenomena may become fully apparent only at the point where history's lapses and disjunctures come into view. Spectacle and market, subjectivity and history converge in the scene we have been considering, not as explanatory givens, but as fundamentally contingent phenomena actively constituted around their own volatile and mutually implicated limits. It would be misleading to claim that subjectivity is simply a function of the theatrical or economic domains, or even that the subject is constituted within history. The scene suggests instead that subjectivity is formed at the knotted vanishing point of an entire, specific array of social forms—theater, economy, history—a point of radically failed closure evoked in this instance under the sign of “demonism.” To acknowledge that subjectivity does not in any simple sense arise within history, as if history were nothing more than a prior and unproblematic envelope, is simply to recognize what makes subjectivity and history political phenomena—irreducibly contingent, and thus from the outset the consequence of an arbitrary, exclusionary and unstable gesture of force.26

To realize its political dimensions fully, then, we should perhaps look beyond the scene of Talbot's emergence as a site of origins and consider instead its rather striking and unstable returns. I’m not the first to make claims for the scene. The earliest account we have of a Shakespeare production—a passage in Thomas Nash's defense of theater—involves the reappearance of a long-dead phantom:

Nay, what if I prove playes to be no extreame, but a rare exercise of vertue? First, for the subject of them … it is borrowed out of our English chronicles, wherein our forefathers' valiant actes (that have lyne long buried in rustie brass and worme-eaten bookes) are revived, and they themselves raysed from the grave of oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged honours in open presence; than which, what can bee a sharper reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes of ours? How would it have joy’d brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeare in his tomb, he should triumph againe on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least, (at several times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding?27

“Talbot, my life, my joy, again return’d”? Nash invokes heroic history specifically as a conservative stay against an “effeminate,” which is to say a usurious, economistic, age. “I will defend [plays],” he continues,

against anie collian, or club-fisted usurer of them all, there is not immortalitie can be given a man on earth like playes. What talke I to them of immortalitie, that are the onely underminers of honour, and doo envie any man that is not sprung up by base brokerye like themselves?28

While Nash thus stakes the revivifying power of staged history explicitly against brokery's debased, indiscriminate method of making a man “spr[i]ng up,” one is nevertheless struck by just how equivocal Talbot's return remains in the theatrical apologist's account. The hero, who returns from the “rustie brass” of the grave as if of his own accord only to bleed freshly, recalls the opening of the Histories, where the sovereign threatens to “burst his lead and rise from death” in order to “yield the ghost.” Shoring chronicle history against the market merely brings into view that form of return that exceeds, and underwrites, both.

There is undoubtedly an element of subversive fantasy in the account of ten thousand spectators come to see England's national hero “fresh bleeding.” Pity mingles uneasily with animus in the impulse to “new embalm” the returning dead with tears. But that Nash is drawn to this ambiguous scene as the exemplum of the “vertues” of the stage suggests a more essential relationship between theater's power and these signs of exorbitance. In a later era, literature's hold will derive from the richly complicitous prospects of narcissistic aggrandizement and apprehension in the sinuous workings of a novelistic form in which the correspondence between narrative and private historicity went without saying.29 Here, in the era of spectacle and of a subjectivity bound less by established resources of narrativity and inwardness than by an as yet fragile circuitry of exchange, the emergence of the subject is conditioned from the outset by history's proximity to demonic return, and by all the possibilities of reversal and captivation implicit in the workings of the death drive.30


  1. Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), 42.

  2. Agnew (note 1), 112-13.

  3. Don Wayne, “Drama and Society in the Age of Johnson: An Alternative View,” Renaissance Drama 13 (1982): 128, and Karen Newman, “City Talk: Women and Commodification in Jonson's Epicoene,ELH 56 (1989): 506.

  4. On economic discourse as an organizing feature of New Historicism, see H. Aram Veeser's introduction to The New Historicism, ed. Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), xiv-xv.

  5. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989), 155.

  6. Greenblatt (note 5), 19.

  7. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (New York: Verso, 1985), 111.

  8. Laclau and Mouffe (note 7), 129.

  9. William Shakespeare, 1 Henry VI, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), act 1, scene 4, lines 39-41. All subsequent references to Shakespeare's plays will be to this edition, and will be cited parenthetically within the text.

  10. See Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London: Routledge, 1990), 18-23.

  11. From the vantage point of the subject, the emergence of the death drive coincides with the point of expenditure without return, that uncanny space “beyond the personal and social” which William Flesch beautifully explores under the term “extremity” (Generosity and the Limits of Authority: Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992], 12-21). The relationship between the autonomous workings of exchange and the return of the dead is echoed in Philip Stubbe's invective against usury: “It is as impossible for any to borrowe money there [in the market] without … some good hostage, gauge, or pledge, as it is for a dead man to speak with audible voice” (The Anatomie of Abuses, ed. Arthur Freeman [1583; rpt., London: Garland Press, Kvr). Just invert the analogy to recognize the unspoken fear: raising the dead may be as easy as borrowing money. Death itself is not “gauge or pledge” enough against the exorbitancies of exchange.

  12. The ventriloquistic apostrophe that allows the hero to assume his destiny by assuming the place of the dead in symbolic form only, even as it founds the symbolic order in all its autonomous potency—“wretched shall France be only in my name”—on a phantasmatic form of specular identification, represents theater's ideological function in its most irreducible form: a violently repercussive misreading, but a misreading that constitutes the possibility of meaning; a repression, but a repression that conjures what it excludes. For an analysis of the reliance of the symbolic on an arbitrary imaginary identification whose rhetorical form is apostrophe, see Cynthia Chase, “The Witty Butcher's Wife: Freud, Lacan, and the Conversion of Resistance to Theory,” Modern Language Notes 102 (1987): 1009-12. My account of Joan's function in the scene is not incompatible with Leah Marcus's suggestive argument that she represents a “distorted image” of England's own martial maid, Queen Elizabeth I, and thus taps the gender anxieties associated with female rule. See Puzzling Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 51-83.

  13. The scene thus bears out Homi Bhabha's argument that the homogeneous, “continuist” temporality of nationalist narrative is forged on the active forgetting of the “ghostly time of repetition,” a “zone of occult instability” prior to the founding of a determinate “national will” (“DissemiNation,” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha [New York: Routledge, 1990], 295-310).

  14. According to the O. E. D., “centure” means “girdle,” thus bringing to mind the site of the theater just beyond London's walls. That this is a “middle centure” might suggest what is disquieting about this liminal site—that it should have constitutive powers.

  15. Jacques Derrida, “Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok,” trans. Barbara Johnson, Foreward to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Wolfman's Magic Word, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1986), xiv. For a reading of Abraham and Torok's theory of “cryptation” in relation to the gender-specific foundations of Renaissance autobiography, see Timothy Murray, “Translating Montaigne's Crypts: Melancholic Relations and the Sites of Altarbiography,” in Reconfiguring the Renaissance: Essays in Critical Materialism, ed. Jonathan Crewe, Bucknell Review 35 (1992): 121-49.

  16. The relationship between economy and revenge is evident in the fear, and the reassurance, each occasioned. The fear is that a human institution can assume a life of its own—the limitless circuits of exchange, the limitless cycles of revenge. The reassurance: precisely that the mechanism is self-sufficient, thus localizable and capable of being known.

  17. That the specular metaphor functioned within economic thought as much as economy functioned within theater is evident enough in this climactic passage from Edward Misselden's The Circle of Commerce, the first English treatise to theorize economy as a fully autonomous function:

    It is said of Sapor King of Persia, that he carried a great globe to be made of Glasse, of such curiosity and excellency, that himself might sit in his throne, and he and it, in the Center thereof, and behold the motions and revolutions of the Starres, rising and falling under his feet: as if he that was a mortall man, would seem immortall. And surely if a King would desire to behold from his throne, the various revolutions of Commerce, within and without his Kingdome; he may behold them all at once in this Globe of glasse, The Ballance of Trade. For indeed if there bee any vertue in the Theorick part of Commerce, that might attract a Princes Eie to be cast upon it; surely it is in this kind of Exchange, that one Country maketh with another in the Ballance of Trade. … All the waight of Trade falle's to this Center, and comes within the circuit of this Circle. … This is the very Eie of the Eie; or it is the pupil or apple of the Eie, or as the Rabbins calle it, the daughter or image in the Eie. (The Circle of Commerce [1623; rpt., New York: Augustus Kelley, 1971], 141-42)

    Rather than undoing it, the notion of economy as a global function reinscribes sovereignty, not as the fixed term or ground of exchange, but as a specular reflection of the totality of the system itself. Although he speaks exclusively of the balance of trade, Misselden's elaborate optical and monarchic fantasy should be seen as the antecedent to any effort to elevate exchange “as such” to a sovereign term. Whether it is the subject who discovers his weakness in the shaming effects of commodification, or the sovereign who discovers his omnipotence reflected back in “the Eie of the Eie” of exchange, the economic register is bound up, then, with the empty, sustaining returns of the specular relation.

  18. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), 5.

  19. On this self-overcoming, heroic history's relation to “the ascendant mode of modernity” and to conquest, see Wlad Godzich, “Foreward” to Michael Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness, 1100-1750 (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987), x-xi.

  20. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: An Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States (New York: Verso, 1991), 91-92.

  21. Thomas Greene, The Light in Troy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982), 8.

  22. Greenblatt (note 5), 1.

  23. A number of scholars have argued more generally that, to the extent that they exposed the contingencies of social formations, the phenomena of mercantilism and nationalism played a part in the advent of the modern, secular conception of history. See F. M. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution: English Historical Writing and Thought 1580-1640 (London: Routledge, 1962), 3-7, and Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), 4, 16. Pocock associates the beginning of political consciousness in the sixteenth century—the dawning awareness of politics as “the art of the possible and therefore contingent”—with the advent of a secular theory of time, and of a historicist understanding of subjectivity: the idea that “we become what we do and so make our selves” (J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975], 8, 17). A number of critics have associated Shakespeare's Histories with the beginnings of a modern, secular conception of history. “In England, the sixteenth century saw the invention, not only of the English history play, but of history itself” (Rackin, “Temporality, Anachronism, and Presence in Shakespeare's English History Plays,” Renaissance Drama n. s. 17 [1986]: 103). Particularly because of its association with the market, theater was open to a more materialist and polyvalent conception of history than were traditional modes of historiography, Rackin argues (Stages, 22, 109), while David Riggs sees in the Henry VI plays reflections of the new “more localized and … systematic approach to the past” within the traditional humanistic mode of epideictic history (Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971], 35-36). Against a tradition of providentialist readings, David Scott Kastan sees in Shakespeare's Histories a recognition of the open-ended “continuum of human time” (Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time [Hanover, N. H.: Univ. Press of New England, 1982], 46-47). My argument here is that the “continuum of human time” is as much an ideological construct as any providential schema, a construct that Shakespeare's theater actively functions to constitute, not just reveal.

  24. Lacan describes the subject's inscription within the differential chain of signifiers in terms of “a retroversion effect by which the subject becomes at each stage what he was before and announces himself—he will have been—only in the future perfect tense” (Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan [New York: Norton, 1977], 306). See also Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 141-42.

  25. On the Real as missed occurrence, see Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 53-64. On its relation to symbolization and history, see Žižek (note 25): “The process of historicization implies an empty place, a non-historical kernel around which the symbolic network is articulated” (135). On mourning and the limits of symbolization, see Julia Kristeva, “On the Melancholy Imaginary,” in Discourse in Psychoanalysis and Literature, ed. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (New York: Methuen, 1987), 104-10, and Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), 3-68.

  26. I am not proposing an argument against periodization; for there to be disruption, there must be a structure in place to be disrupted. Instead, I am suggesting that to ignore history's dislocations—the fact that in quite determinant ways history fails—is to ignore the specific locus of subject-formation. For the argument that the subject is inevitably a function, not of social structures, but of their failure to constitute themselves as totalities, see Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London: Verso, 1990) 40-41.

  27. Thomas Nash, Pierce Penniless's Supplication to the Devil (1592: rpt., London: Shakespeare Society, 1842), 59-60.

  28. Nash (note 27), 60.

  29. David Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 26-32.

  30. I would like to thank members of the English Department and the Tudor and Stuart Club at Johns Hopkins University for sponsoring a version of this article as a lecture in Spring, 1991.


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


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 63)