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.