Wayne L. Billings (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: “Ironic Lapses: Plotting in Henry VI,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 5, No. 1, April, 1972, pp. 27-49.

[In the essay below, Billings links the historical failures of the characters in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 to Shakespeare's theme of a decline in heroic virtues and ideals, and examines the structural role of heroic irony in the plays.]

Henry VI ironically adapts the conventions of heroic drama to the matter of the Lancastrian losses, first of France and secondly of England. So dominant are the irony and the heroic conventions that the Tudor propaganda of Hall's Union and Holinshed's Chronicles1 is obscured by the characters' sense of heroic duties and by the frequent frustration both of heroic intent and fulfilment of duty. Although the Tudor historians and Shakespeare show that civil dissensions weakened England and contributed to the losing of France, Hall, and Holinshed after him less insistently, assigns blame to human folly and weakness. In Shakespeare's trilogy, however, English reverses are most often the result of a failure in the heroic stance. Where the historians sometimes considered misfortune or simple lack of foresight the cause of adversities, Shakespeare presents the failures as the results of unmanly mildness, amorous entanglement, dishonorable choices of the lesser glory, or cowardice. Neither a politics without valor nor a valor without political nobility has a chance of lasting success in the world of Henry VI, in which most of the characters act out flawed versions of the heroic ideal.

In part the differences between the chronicle sources and the historical trilogy come from the narrower range of the three plays—from the death of Henry V in 1422 to the murder of Henry VI in 1473, a half-century in which no single hero or saint or villain dominated. Ironic defeat of expectation rather than triumph was more natural for treating this time. Despite Henry VI's prophecy over the future Henry VII, there was little opportunity for Shakespeare to take the longer view and to show dramatically that disorder and intrigue had some good ultimate end.2 Having no single dominant figure around whom to build the trilogy, Shakespeare yet had the Elizabethan dramatic method of presenting a conflict rather than a single protagonist, with episodic scenes alternating among several groups of characters. In this way he could equal Hall's narrative long view with an ironic distance created by contrasts between the parties to contention. Further, the meanings of most of these actions could be indicated by implicit contrast with a heroic ideal, so that the episodic actions could be seen as consistently relevant to a single broad context of values.

The conventions of heroic drama had already been used in plays dealing with civil as well as foreign war. Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War (1589), Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1589), and The Troublesome raigne of John, King of England (printed 1591) deal mainly with civil war;3 the first two are quite clearly influenced by the language and grand dauntlessness found in Marlowe's drama of heroic conquest, Tamburlaine. Even while the trilogy was in progress, probably in 1591 and 1592, Locrine, a historical-heroical tragedy also influenced by Tamburlaine, was very likely being composed in its first version.4Locrine also featured a civil war and, like The Troublesome raigne, dramatized the repulse of invaders. The heroic drama presented Herculean protagonists with a martial code set in contrast both with conventional morality and with characters motivated by considerations other than the irascible passions and the glories of power.5 From a conventional point of view,...

(This entire section contains 10705 words.)

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such a code and such characters are ambiguous, according to their service of established goods.6 The ambiguity gave the playwrights an opportunity of dramatizing what may happen in war—the defeat of the good and the triumph of the unrighteous. Peele did try to slant The Battle of Alcazar so that the usurper is cowardly and treacherous as well as ambitious, while the true heir of Morocco is godly as well as wise and courageous; but the Christians in the battle, King Sebastian and Stukely, happen to be on the usurper's side and are slain despite their bravery and good intentions. In Lodge's The Wounds of Civil War both Sulla and Marius are heroic but destructive of the state. In the anonymous The Troublesome raigne, the Bastard Falconbridge, though inspired by the glory of his own Plantagenet heritage, is irreverently alert to his Plantagenet king's weaknesses. Locrine sins against the moral as well as the heroic code by serving his lust for his concubine rather than his duty to his wife, her family, and the kingdom; yet he fights to the death against those he has outraged, and never repents his wrongdoing. Even in these dramatic discrepancies between heroic virtù and conventional rules of conduct, there are ironies directed against the simple equations of political success with moral worth and of political failure with moral turpitude. The man of war may not achieve political order, and the man who forsakes the code of war and honor may lose his political power as Locrine does.

Shakespeare in Henry VI likewise rejects this simple correlation of political with moral qualities, so that no political prediction can be made from moral virtues. The well-meaning King Henry quite lacks virtù and love of glory, admits the weakness of his dynastic claim, and finally leaves the defense of England and the Lancastrian cause to his wife. His prime adversary, the Duke of York, is valiant in war but deceptive and intriguing in peace; yet he is defeated in war by his own excess of valor rather than by his dishonorable share in intrigues. Talbot, the only major character of unstained virtue, both military and patriotic, is stripped of all but his honor in a defeat caused by his own countrymen's failure to rescue him. The defeat of the well-meaning, the flawed, and the stainless never alone becomes the unifying purpose of the action. These repeated defeats instead contribute to a unifying political purpose, to show that two categories of value, the heroic and the conventional, are necessary to the ordering of the realm. The purpose is not simply to show a frame of disorder,7 but a disorder that pits two incomplete kinds of ability against each other.

The heroic play contributed to the situations and characterizations of Henry VI as well as to the theme. The plots of heroic plays normally turn upon an emulous rivalry between the central figure and one or more adversaries. Properly the rivalry is to be resolved by one or more battles. Failure to do battle at an early opportunity is, of course, a lapse from the heroic. Heroic figures are mainly moved by irascible passions rather than righteousness, and in some heroic plays like Tamburlaine and Locrine there is tension not only between the heroic rage and unwarlike values but also between irascible and concupiscent passions. Love and mercy would also keep a man from going to war and thus from his manly glory. Tamburlaine resists but Locrine yields to softness of heart for weeping, lovely women. When circumstances prevent conflict, the hero must keep up the struggle with words and dauntless attitudes. In any case the heroic struggle should be open and conducted against armed adversaries without underhanded efforts to lessen the risk. Locrine and the usurping Moor in Alcazar underhandedly betray loyal comrades in arms, unlike Tamburlaine, who openly turned against Cosroe and met him in the field to fight for the crown of Persia. Both Sulla and Marius kill unarmed political enemies (who meet death unflinchingly and with reproofs) until Sulla is so moved by one honorable suicide of an enemy that he gives up his power and his authority. This interpretation of Sulla's act is, by the way, Lodge's own rather than one of the views he found in Appian or Plutarch.8 In The Troublesome raigne, King John's supposed murder of the youthful Prince Arthur provokes the nobles into a rebellion. Not only dishonorable shedding of blood but non-combat, an unheroic failure to fight, had appeared in heroic drama before Henry VI. Marlowe treats Mycetes' cowardice comically in I Tamburlaine, but in II Tamburlaine the effeminacy of the conqueror's son in abstaining from battle gives occasion for a grim and shocking lesson in heroic conduct. Likewise the Bastard Falconbridge's intimidations of his weakly half-brother and blustering Lord of Austria stress the heroic obligation to fight or threaten at every provocation to honor.

Henry VI in every part is complicated by manifold rivalries and by varied forms of the heroic situations already suggested. Talbot tirelessly struggles against Joan of Arc; the Duke of York against King Henry; the Duke of York and afterward his sons Edward and Richard against Queen Margaret and her son Prince Edward. In addition to these central rivalries, which all eventuate in battles, there are unheroic failures to do battle or to face the rival openly; these lapses nonetheless alter the balance of power between the main contestants. The animosity between Somerset and York in Part I never produces an armed struggle in that play, but leaves Talbot fatally weak against Joan and the French power. The long wrangling between the Cardinal-Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Gloucester is ended underhandedly by political maneuvering and murder. King Henry is left without the latter's support in the battle against the Duke of York, and one has the impression that Henry's defeat is promoted by his earlier loss of the Duke of Gloucester. In Part III Shakespeare uses a more schematic method: promise-breaking repeatedly breaks an uneasy peace and alters the military situation; there being no absolute loyalties, there can be no solidarity in any heroic triumph. Until the last promise-breaker and the last man with a private grievance be dead, military victory is likely to be followed by a breach of loyalty and a new cause of warfare. In Part III, then, Shakespeare does not dramatize the corrupting of heroic endeavor by unheroic maneuver; he dramatizes the decline of heroic honor into a self-regarding dream of private satisfactions. Throughout the trilogy, too, there are tensions between concupiscence and irascibility. Concupiscence is, of course, another self-regarding motive. Talbot resists the lures of the (unhistorical) Countess of Auvergne, while his French enemies are seduced by Joan, and his sovereign, Henry, is ensnared by the beauties of Margaret of Anjou. In Part II, Margaret's vanity and ambition to be first lady of the court prompt her to conspire against the Duke of Gloucester; and her desire for a gallant, decisive lover and ally overrides the evident worthlessness of Suffolk (and, after him, Somerset) in command. In Part III, King Edward's lust for the chaste Lady Grey prompts him to take the more convenient course of marrying her rather than the Lady Bona, to whom he had made overtures. Her brother, the King of France, and Edward's emissary, Warwick, are quite naturally angered by such trifling with their honors and turn against the English king. In heroic encounters, in faulty, dishonorable, or lascivious motives, the trilogy seems repeatedly to echo the situations of heroic drama.

The ironies created by Shakespeare's construction, however, set up situations of considerable moral complexity. It is not possible to assign a constant value to one kind of behavior or to one character, for value is affected by dramatic context. For example, in heroic drama circumstances such as bodily weakness or captivity might prevent the required passage of arms, as a mortal wound keeps Stukely in The Battle of Alcazar from continuing in battle, or as enslavement forces the kings drawing Tamburlaine's chariot to content themselves with invective. In I Henry VI it is apparently a point of honor for Talbot to have wrenched up cobblestones to throw at his French captors, and so also it must have seemed a matter of honor for the servants of Winchester and Gloucester to continue their masters' quarrel with stones after being forbidden to bear weapons. Although both Talbot and the servants show a manly firmness of will, the soldier has been engaged in a nobler struggle than the street-brawling servants. In a way the servants parody Talbot as well as their masters. Likewise the future Duke of York, supporting his dying uncle, Mortimer, and resolving to carry on the dynastic claims of the family, acts out both a heroic duty and a parody; for while York may resemble the young Locrine receiving the dying Brutus' benediction and testament, he also resembles the defeated Talbot embracing his dying son, who has with his father secured the family's claim to a deathless glory. It is hard to see how the heir of York and Mortimer could have relinquished the ancestral claim without also relinquishing honor and an absolute fidelity to family; yet it is also clear that he is not prepared to be as magnanimous as the Talbots. Political circumstances prevent his open declaring of a claim to the throne. The need to be secret until he has the power to strike is in fact what compromises his honor until the last act of II Henry VI. He must engage in unworthy intrigues. Yet again, however, his motives and dramatic circumstances distinguish him from other intriguers. Unlike them, for example, he is angered by the loss of French territories because he is ambitious to rule, not simply because he wants more sway at court. His secret intriguing is improved also by the greater complexity of the situation in II Henry VI than in some other heroic plays. No naive single combats like that by which Alphonsus of Aragon regains his patrimony would have served to wrest political and military power from a court composed of several factions. In III Henry VI, too, the moral judgments are not simple. Queen Margaret, who had seemed unheroic as well as unwomanly in taunting the captive York with the blood of his son, comes later to seem, by contrast with King Edward IV and Richard of Gloucester, a genuinely heroic figure still inspired by resolution and loyalty to her own son. Finally, King Henry VI himself has no constant value in the trilogy, even though Shakespeare gives him a consistent character. His amiability and moral purity appear to best advantage when he justly appreciates a temperament different from his own. In Part I he gives the heroic Talbot due praise and friendly audience. In Part III he fearlessly but without rancor anatomizes the villainous Richard of Gloucester, who has Henry at his mercy. But when his moral purity leads him to overrate a Somerset's or a Winchester's good intentions, or when his amiability prompts him to shrink from unavoidable conflicts with his queen's strong will, he appears weak and almost complicit with disorder.

To show that this trilogy is indeed a “frame of disorder” unified by consistent relationship to heroic conventions, we may first consider what, in three specific instances, Shakespeare has done with his sources. The foregoing examples have illustrated general resemblances, and although Hall and Holinshed do suggest the general outlines of Henry's, Talbot's, Margaret's, and Richard of Gloucester's characters, the historians do not suggest the content of scenes involving these and other characters. Comparison of scenes with both historical sources and heroical analogues will more clearly show that the heroical patterns modified the handling of history. Because the order of composing the three parts remains uncertain, we need not assume that considering scenes from Parts I, II, and III respectively shows any trend or development of Shakespeare's imagination. (This incidentally is the moment to say that all of the arguments against Shakespeare's authorship of the trilogy prove only that the author was not very careful of details, that the author did not write consistently in the style of Shakespeare's more mature historical plays, and that Greene was a rival of the actor William Shakespeare.9 This evidence does not overturn the fact that Shakespeare's associates included the trilogy in the Folio, or the fact that from 1593 or 1594 to 1600 Shakespeare—not Greene, Nashe, Peele, Marlowe or any other possible author—was so deeply interested in English history that he wrote six plays on the matter of England; no other dramatist seems to have cared so much for the subject.10 Whatever other play or plays may have been written before 1593 about the life and times of Henry VI, it seems reasonable to suppose that Shakespeare did his own reading in the chronicles and was responsible for the rehandling of history in Henry VI.)

Rather than choosing passages that best support a thesis, we may look at scenes important to the action of the plays. A little past the midpoint of each part, Shakespeare sets a scene of consultation that decisively changes the course of events. As the balance of forces is changed in the scenes, so expectations are defeated. The question to be asked is, Are these scenes to be understood as simply an effort to dramatize history, or also as ironic dramatizing in terms of heroic conventions? In I Henry VI, III.iii, Joan la Pucelle persuades Burgundy to join the French. The pivotal scene in II Henry VI is III.i, in which the accusers of the Duke of Gloucester decide to murder him and also to send York to put down an Irish uprising, so that King Henry loses his strongest loyal ally while his most dangerous enemy gains an army. In Part III, both III.ii and III.iii are decisive, for in the former King Edward persuades himself to marry Lady Elizabeth instead of Lady Bona, and in III.iii, King Lewis is prompted by Edward's default to ally himself with Queen Margaret's party. I shall consider each of these pivotal scenes, except for the scene of self-persuasion (Part III, III.ii).

The Duke of Burgundy's withdrawal from the English cause followed a very gradual disaffection, according to Hall.11 Joan had been condemned and executed some four years before Burgundy's final break, and so she had no historical part in persuading him. The Duke's main grievances were King Henry's claim to full authority in France and the Duke of Bedford's refusal to grant the city of Orleans to Burgundy. He was persuaded finally to make peace with the French at the Council of Arras in 1435, after the English representatives had failed to reach an agreement with the French. Hall ascribes two main motives to the Duke: jealousy vis-à-vis Bedford, and a belief that his interests were French as well as Burgundian:

But when it happened, contrary to his expectacion, that the kyng of Englande, by the right course of inheritaunce, tooke vpon hym the whole rule and gouernaunce, within the realme of Fraunce … & that the duke iudged, that he was not had in great confidence, nor in perfite truste, as he thought, because the Duke of Bedforde, would not suffre the toune of Orleaunce, to be rendered to hym (as you before haue heard): He therfore imagined, & determined with hymself, to returne into the pathe again, from the whiche he had straied and erred, and to take part, and ioyne with his awne bloud and nacion …

provided that the return should seem not to be of his own choosing.12

In I Henry VI Shakespeare makes Burgundy's defection occur on the battlefield at the instigation of la Pucelle. Immediately after an English success at Rouen, while the armies still are marching from the field, Joan detains Burgundy and offers arguments roughly the same as those which Hall had ascribed to the Duke himself:13

Who join'st thou with but with a lordly nation
That will not trust thee but for profit's sake?
When Talbot hath set footing once in France,
And fashion'd thee that instrument of ill,
Who then but English Henry will be lord,
And thou be thrust out like a fugitive?


There follows an anachronistic reference to another grievance, the English release of Burgundy's enemy, the Duke of Orleans, which occurred later, in retaliation for Burgundy's defection. Then Joan echoes Hall's metaphor of straying from the path: “Come, come return; return, thou wandering lord” (76). Until this moment, there have been no hints of ill will between Burgundy and the English, and no mention of a Duke of Orleans. As for Bedford, Shakespeare had already dramatized his death in III.ii to make way for Talbot's pre-eminence. So far Shakespeare's handling of history only accentuates the suddenness of Burgundy's change and further builds up Joan's role in opposition to Talbot's. But her speech has earlier included a topic, the devastation of France, which was the motive not of Burgundy but of Pope Eugenius, who sought to initiate peace conferences. It is this topic that first weakens the Duke, and Shakespeare has expressed it in imagery of his own:

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!
One drop of blood drawn from thy country's bosom
Should grieve thee more than streams of foreign gore.
Return thee therefore with a flood of tears,
And wash away thy country's stained spots.
Burgundy. [Aside.] Either she hath bewitch'd me with her words,
Or nature makes me suddenly relent.


La Pucelle's later contempt for his relenting (“turn and turn again”) shows that we, too, may consider it dishonorable. Further, the very images of Joan's exhortation, mother, babe, flood of tears, have already been treated with the scorn that the heroic resolve feels for melting moods. Bedford's lament for Henry V uses the same imagery:

Posterity, await for wretched years,
When at their mothers' moist eyes babes shall suck,
Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears. …


And in the same scene he rejects such talk:

Away with these disgraceful wailing robes!
Wounds will I lend the French instead of eyes,
To weep their intermissive miseries.


Burgundy has not rejected such persuasion as unmanly. The scene is one in which a heroic resolve clearly seems required and then fails to appear. Shakespeare's adaptations of history not only magnify Joan's role but are shaped ironically to prove Burgundy no true hero, or just possibly a victim of bewitchment.

Persuasion may give a man of war and honor a chance to make a heroic choice only when he may gain a greater glory by changing his course, as Theridamas does when he forsakes the Persian king to follow Tamburlaine's far stronger leadership. Sebastian of Portugal is persuaded to fight at Alcazar by his hope of establishing the Christian faith in Africa. But in such cases weeping nations are not to be convincing topics. Although the historical Duke Philip of Burgundy prospered after breaking with England, Shakespeare shows that he was undone morally, as Talbot was never directly undone, by a woman's persuasions.

A woman has undue influence also in the pivotal scene of II Henry VI, in which the Duke of Gloucester is doomed while the Duke of York gains the army his ambition will require to gain its ends. The woman is Queen Margaret, to whom Hall does ascribe a commanding role in bringing down Gloucester. Although Shakespeare does not widely depart from the chronology and relationships of history, he not only compresses events but emphasizes York's complicity in all of them. The events were these.14 At the instigation of the Queen, Gloucester was removed from the protectorship in the twenty-fifth year of Henry's reign and was made the victim of various accusations in council; in the same year, the Duke was made to answer formal charges before a Parliament at Bury, but was murdered before a verdict could be rendered. Within a year afterward, the Cardinal-Bishop of Winchester died. The Duke of York began to feel out support for his own claim to the throne. During the next two years, the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth, the Duke of York put down a rebellion in Ireland, but the Duke of Somerset was totally unsuccessful in his efforts to keep Normandy out of French control. Margaret was behind the intrigues against Gloucester, and presumably consented to the later appointments of Somerset and York.

Shakespeare's scene, III.i, rearranges some of these events and omits York's solicitation of support, which has already been dramatized in II.ii. The loss of Normandy is announced near the beginning of the scene, the condemnation of Gloucester takes up the middle portion, and the announcement of an Irish rebellion comes near the end. The discovery of the murdered Gloucester opens the following scene, III.ii. The early discrediting of Somerset is less important than the introduction of York as a main participant in the Queen's intrigue against Gloucester. Hall does not give the Duke of York such a role, and indeed his narrative suggests that York did not begin to aspire to the throne until he had seen “the destruccion of the good duke of Gloucester, and exaltacion and advauncement of this glorious man [the vainly-ambitious Suffolk]” (p. 210). Shakespeare has made York a less patriotic figure, whose solicitations of the Nevilles in II.ii anticipate that the fall of Gloucester will clear the way for a Yorkist triumph.

He has also made King Henry a more deplorable, less manly figure by introducing him into this scene, apparently to show that Gloucester's doom is made possible by Henry's ineffectual resistance. Apparently ignorant of the plan to bring charges against his uncle, Henry at first only protests that Gloucester must be innocent as “the sucking lamb or harmless dove” (III.i.71). He scarcely objects while accusations are made in quasi-allegorical, emblematic terms, and then weakly proposes to withdraw. His state of mind is expressed in images like those of Joan's false persuasion and Bedford's ignominious grief:

                              my heart is drown'd with grief,
Whose flood begins to flow within mine eyes,
My body round engirt with misery.
.....And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do nought but wail her darling's loss;
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester's case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimm'd eyes
Look after him, and cannot do him good;
So mighty are his vowed enemies.

(III.i.198-200, 214-20)

Here again is weeping that swamps the active principle, and maternal grief; because the imagery of this scene has been predominantly composed of animal emblems, the mother here is a cow.

Henry's weakness and the conspirators' duplicity are dishonorable; only York's furious ambition emerges in the closing soliloquy as the one heroic possibility of the scene. The opening words of the speech are a call to valorous purpose:

Now, York, or never, steel thy fearful thoughts,
And change misdoubt to resolution:
Be that thou hop'st to be, or what thou art
Resign to death; it is not worth th' enjoying.


But although this resembles Bedford's own resolve in Part I, York speaks of himself here as having a brain busier “than the labouring spider” (339) and as being a “starved snake” (343) foolishly revived by the Queen's party. And when he considers his new army “sharp weapons in a madman's hands” (347), the image suggests Bedlam rather than the maddened Ajax Telemonius, to whom he alludes two acts later (V.i.26 f.). Only with the imagery of storm and sun does York return to metaphors for power and glory worthy of a hero:

I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven, or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.


Because one cannot speak sardonically of oneself as snake and madman without ironic contrast with the vaunting speech about oneself as tempest and golden-crowned king, York's soliloquy must be perceived as an imperfectly-heroic set speech of review and planning.

We must also give some attention to the fall of Gloucester, whom Shakespeare has gone to some trouble to establish, in Part II, as the good governor of himself and of the state.15 Despite his antagonism to Winchester, he has never been a participant in heroic or honorable combat but has instead sought the honor of himself and the state through legitimate political means. He corresponds most closely to those senators in The Wounds of Civil War who like Antonius insist that their service is alone lawful and beneficial to the state, and who morally defy their armed accusers and destroyers:

Can then your eyes with thundering threats of rage,
Cast furious gleames of anger vpon age?
Can then your harts with furies mount so hie,
As they should harme the Romane Anthonie?
I farre more kinde than sensles tree haue lent
A kindly sap to our declining state,
And like a carefull shepheard have foreseene
The heauie dangers of this Citie Rome
And made the citizens the happie flocke
Whom I haue fed with counsailes and aduice.


This portrayal of his own good qualities does not arouse pity alone because it is part of an accusation against his destroyers' tyranny. The effect is a kind of heroical pathos, created by the clash between heroic ambition and political nobility. Gloucester exhibits the same kind of resolution and defiance:

And if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness.
.....Beaufort's red sparkling eyes blab his heart's malice,
And Suffolk's cloudy brow his stormy hate;
Sharp Buckingham unburthens with his tongue
The envious load that lies upon his heart;
And dogged York, that reaches at the moon,
Whose overweening arm I have pluck'd back,
By false accuse doth level at my life.

(III.i.148-50, 154-60)

In The Wounds of Civil War the effect of heroical pathos from the dying or doomed senators is to limit the claims of heroical ambition. In this scene in II Henry VI, Gloucester's defiant self-vindication not only contrasts with Henry's timorous reproaches but also shows that legitimate authority may have more magnanimity than ambition can.

The heroic motive in Part II must work within a political context even more sharply defined than that of Part I. While a Tamburlaine need not concern himself with his title to a crown, the heroic ambition of a York must be supported by a legitimate claim as well as by a glorious vision of royal estate. York has already recited his genealogy in this play, but he has not yet had occasion to demonstrate the kind of political righteousness Gloucester has shown.

Neither does York conclude with this anticipation of the sun-like crown, but goes on instead to describe his plan to use Jack Cade as a catspaw. Certainly the audience must be forewarned that Cade is an imposter, and that York has instigated his uprising. There is no reason, however, that this information must come at the end of a set speech in which York reviews his situation and incites himself to plan and to take future action. This placement of this exposition—the only matter in this soliloquy that is firmly grounded in the historical source—strengthens the effect of a heroic resolve much modified by cunning and malice. Shakespeare's compression of events has presented Henry's default, Gloucester's fall, and Margaret's conspiracy as the ignoble conditions of success for York's long-standing and deep-laid plot, and has presented York as consciously turning these conditions to his own advantage. Intrigue, not martial confrontation, is York's strategy. The release of resentments as well as ambition of glory is his motive.

We may contrast this moment with the occasions on which other heroes turn upon an ally or upon an unoffending kingdom to gain power. In every case—in I Tamburlaine, in Locrine, in The Battle of Alcazar—the hero leads in his own person, not by a substitute. In every hero—Tamburlaine, Humber (the invader of Locrine's kingdom), and Sebastian—the motive of glory is uppermost. Tamburlaine persuades himself and his followers to turn upon Cosroe by dwelling upon the splendor of kingship. Humber, determined to possess a land he finds rich and lovely, anticipates with bloody-minded longings the joys of war in that land:

Me thinkes I see both armies in the field:
The broken launces clime the cristall skies;
Some headless lie, some breathless on the ground,
And euery place is straw'd with carcasses.
Behold! the grasse hath lost his pleasant greene,
The sweetest sight that euer might be seene.

(Locrine, III.ii.16-21)

Sebastian has less bloodthirsty sentiments but more ambitions:

And thrive it so with thee as thou doest meane,
And meane thou so as thou doest wish to thrive,
And if our Christ for whom in chiefe we fight,
Heereby to inlarge the bounds of christendome,
Favor this warre, and as I do not doubt,
Send victorie to light upon my crest,
Brave Moore I will advance thy kingly sonne,
And with a diademe of pearle and golde,
Adorne thy temples and inrich thy head.

(The Battle of Alcazar, 914-22)

It is not amiss for a hero to think of suffering and treachery, but he must not be moved by anything less than a glory for which he personally would lead his armies in battle. York's speech just sufficiently resembles these other models that his lapses from them might well have been felt as unwitting irony.

In III Henry VI one pivotal scene, III.iii, may seem quite without mean-mindedness and irony, for Warwick and King Lewis seem moved by honor to drop their alliance with King Edward in order to support the creditable cause of Queen Margaret and Prince Edward. Shakespeare has created an imaginary encounter between Warwick and Margaret at the French court, and the meeting gives opportunity for the rival Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to be debated before a royal, though French, audience; before the debate is ended, news of Edward's sudden marriage to Lady Grey piques Warwick into forsaking Edward, and provokes the Lady Bona to move her brother Lewis to join Margaret. Historically, Warwick's and Lewis' reactions to Edward's marriage were much less prompt. Warwick left France highly rewarded, says Hall, “& for the great & noble corage that was in him, he obteyned such fauor of the kynge, the quene and the nobles of Fraunce that when [five years later] he fled out of England, he was there honorably receiued …”; the Earl did not reveal his resentment upon his return to England in 1465.16 Moreover, he kept his rebellion native until it had been defeated at Losecoat Field in 1470; at that time he withdrew to France, and formed his alliance with Lewis and Margaret. In Shakespeare's play, Warwick's motive is after all personal pique, as his closing soliloquy makes clear:

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 rais'd 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.


With the absence of praise for Henry and with the lack of private reference here to his earlier public expression of concern for the “strength and safety of our country” (211), Warwick's motives even in the foregoing dialogue come in this soliloquy to seem clearly less than grand. Shakespeare has created a scene in which the likeliest figure to make the required heroic response to Edward's fickle concupiscence does not fully do so.

Certainly the scene is sufficiently formal in execution and weighty enough in manner to call forth ambitious hopes and grand attitudes. Shakespeare sets up a formal balance of characters—three French (Lewis, Bona, and the mute figure, Bourbon); three Lancastrian English (Margaret, Prince Edward, and Oxford); and the pivot, Warwick. Before Warwick enters, there is some discussion whether sitting or standing is more suitable to honor, just as there is some discussion of sitting and standing in I Tamburlaine when the evenly-balanced Scythian and Turkish royal parties meet. After Lewis and Margaret are seated side by side, their respective parties presumably being grouped on either hand, Margaret broaches her weighty mission in heavily end-stopped verses. Warwick's entry breaks the symmetry, for while Margaret rises, Lewis descends to meet his guest and may be thought to draw Bona and Bourbon after him. Warwick's mission, the proposed marriage, is also a matter of importance, which soon requires that he debate still another grave question, Edward's right to rule. And yet through all these formalities and verbal contentions run the retrospective note, sometimes elegaic, sometimes captious, that suggests that heroic endeavor lies in the past, not the future. “I was, I must confess,” remembers Margaret, “Great Albion's Queen in former golden days” (III.iii.7). Oxford recalls

                              great John of Gaunt,
Which did subdue the greatest part of Spain;
And after John of Gaunt, Henry the Fourth,
Whose wisdom was a mirror to the wisest;
And after that wise prince, Henry the Fifth,
Who by his prowess conquered all France:
From these our Henry lineally descends.


About Henry little can be said, and Oxford does not improve upon his own silence. But he does recall his own father's death by order of Edward, “Even in the downfall of his mellow'd years” (104), while Warwick remembers times when a gentler passion overtook Edward:

          this his love was an eternal plant,
Whereof the root was fix'd in Virtue's ground,
The leaves and fruit maintain'd with Beauty's sun,
Exempt from envy, but not from disdain,
Unless the Lady Bona quite his pain.


When we recall that Edward subsequently accepted Lady Grey without a wince, we may conclude that all this imagery of nobility, virtue, and splendor seems to refer to what never was or to what never may be recovered.

The retrospective note is not that of The Mirror for Magistrates, in which the dead with hindsight analyze their errors. There is hardly any moral self-recrimination in this scene, except for Warwick's recital of Edward's offenses against himself, offenses we have never heard of before (186-88). The tone is that of the dying Brutus in Locrine recalling his conquests before handing on the sovereignty to his son; or perhaps Warwick's allegorical talk about Edward's love could resemble not only a sonnet-conceit but also Tamburlaine's allegorical description of the assault of Zenocrate's tears upon his irascible spirit; but here the review of the past is not completed by a prospective view of things to be won. The golden age is chiefly to be remembered, not realized.

In these pivotal scenes of heroic irony, Shakespeare alters the interpretation as well as the facts recorded in his sources. A mere desire to compress material does not wholly account for what was done with the facts. Had Shakespeare merely wanted to follow the historical view of Burgundy, it would have been easy to have a French lord rather than Joan appeal to Burgundy's pride—rather than to his pity. Had Shakespeare wanted only to present Gloucester's fall from power, he could have kept York out of the proceedings and could instead have had Queen Margaret name York in absentia as the commander in Ireland. If Shakespeare had thought merely to dramatize the disaffection and the new purpose of Warwick, he could have composed quite a different scene in which Warwick, returned from France, persuades the Duke of Clarence to Queen Margaret's cause. But what the dramatist seems to have wanted were opportunities to dramatize failure, perfidy, and even anger as imperfect approximations to or fallings-away from a heroic code.

None of these pivotal scenes is a battle scene, and therefore it may be argued that we have been looking in the wrong place for signs of the true heroic spirit. Because Shakespeare seems never to have had misgivings about the value and necessity of foreign war, we may consider how he handles combat in the trilogy. The heroic figure and his code expressed themselves most fully and properly in scenes of flyting and swordplay, and in those scenes of triumph or death that called for set speeches. We shall find, however, that even these do not have their full value in these plays.

Heroic set speeches of the defeated or the dying were a way of reiterating their tireless valor, their grandeur of ambitions, and their singleness of mind. There were two or three common topics for such speeches in Elizabethan drama. One theme was, If I fall, let the world fall with me. In this vein is Humber's speech cursing the universe that gave him birth, and another example is the Moor's very similar itemizing and blasting of all the causes of his being, in The Battle of Alcazar:

Where shall I finde some unfrequented place,
Some uncouth walke where I may curse my fill,
My starres, my dam, my planets and my nurse,
The fire, the aire, the water, and the earth,
All causes that have thus conspirde in one,
To nourish and preserve me to this shame. …


Nothing of the sort happens, of course, in The Battle of Alcazar or in Locrine. This is simply a way of saying that he wishes not to have lived to have been so disgraced by defeat. Another topic might have said the same thing, but not with suggestive cosmic references. This theme is also worked by Theridamas, Techelles, and Usumcasane in their lamentations of Tamburlaine's imminent death. Another, second topic merely varies the first: If I fall, let heaven or earth (or both) drop down upon my enemy. So the captive Bajazeth wishes night and the terrors of the earth and skies to overtake Tamburlaine, and the three captive kings who pull the chariot in II Tamburlaine invoke heavenly and infernal powers upon their conqueror. Again, although neither heaven nor hell is moved, these speeches not only show the unbroken spirits of the defeated but also measure the kind of force needed to overcome the victor. A third theme of speeches on the occasion of death or defeat has a better chance of being borne out by events: If I fall, let my heirs take up my fight. Tamburlaine after reconciling himself to his own death bequeaths his fiery spirit and his search for new dominion to his sons. Brutus bestows his rule and his kingly duties upon his son, Locrine. Abdelmelec, dying at the outset of battle, resigns his soul to God and the struggle for Morocco to his heirs. In such moments as these, handing on the cause not only reiterates the great and unbowed spirit of the fallen leader but also provides a way of emphasizing the primacy of honor over milder passions, such as grief or fear. “Let not thy love exceed thine honour” (Part II, V.iii.199), Tamburlaine warns his grieving son.

In I Henry VI there are certainly speeches in both the heaven-invoking and the heir-inciting manners, but Shakespeare seems to withhold the dramatic endorsement that gives a set speech full emphasis. In scene one, instead of letting the lamentations of Gloucester and Bedford and Exeter move unbrokenly into self-incitement to pursue the French conquests of the dead Henry V, Shakespeare provides first a quarrel and then a series of three messengers with bad news from France. The lamentations therefore seem somehow improper in retrospect. The practice that eventually becomes almost a convention emerges here, so that the audience may well feel from the beginning a distrust of fine language and rhetorical ornament whenever it is not seconded by timely and effectual action. Of course it would in real life be unfair to fault Gloucester and the others for mourning instead of attending to the bad news they could not know was coming; but in drama we look to the stage-effect, which is that of men quite unready at first to deal with challenge and defeat. Moreover, the finest hero of this play, Talbot, never orates when occasion is about to call him to act. He generally speaks a plain idiom of command. The scenes of his last battle, at Bordeaux, and of his death (I Henry VI, IV.v and vi) are times for his son to give effective though finally unavailing support, and for the father to rescue the son. These scenes are composed in couplets with some stichomythia, but are not otherwise greatly ornamented. In place of Marlovian and Spenserian imagery in the opening scene, there is only the single image of Young Talbot as Icarus in a sea of blood to remind us of other aspirations. Talbot seldom suggests that the stars are somehow involved with his fate. Once he blames them, but later he quite sensibly blames York, the English Regent of France, for failing to supply aid. It is Talbot's way to keep to the facts that define his valor, so that in dying with the body of his son in his arms he may claim that their valor is proven and will outlast death.

It is true that Talbot delivers a short eulogy over the mortally wounded Salisbury, and vows revenge on his behalf, and further, that the vow is embellished with one of the grislier stock images of heroic determination: “Your hearts I'll stamp out with my horse' heels / And make a quagmire of your mingled brains” (I Henry VI, I.iv.107-08). It is also true, however, that this warlike revenge is at once frustrated by the loss of Orleans, and that Talbot momentarily wishes to be dead like Salisbury. The regaining of Orleans is businesslike and embellished mainly by the use of scaling-ladders rather than metaphors, amplifications, allusions, or other figures. The victorious Talbot, satisfied that sufficient French dead have paid for Salisbury's death, chooses to mark his revenge concretely with a tomb, “that hereafter ages may behold / What ruin happen'd in revenge of him” (I Henry VI, II.ii.11-12). In this play effective action rather than words is the mark of a hero in the presence of death; and without action, no words will suffice.

In the next two parts of the trilogy the set speeches by the defeated and by their allies have been much more elaborated. As in Part I, these speeches in II and III Henry VI lack full dramatic endorsement: no one seconds them; events immediately following contradict them; and most importantly the speeches do not support fully the heroic image that should be proper to the speaker.

Although Henry's regretful longing in Part III to be a shepherd is the most obvious instance of lapse from the stance proper to a hero during a battle, Warwick's death-speech also relinquishes the power he has fought for:

Lo now my glory smear'd in dust and blood!
.....Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And live we how we can, yet die we must.

(V.ii.23, 27-28)

Among heroic figures in Elizabethan drama, only Sulla before this had abruptly repudiated the earthly glory he had fought for. Heroic plays and heroes—even Talbot—ignore the ironic possibility of an eternity inhospitable to the claims of earthly greatness. York's long and formal invective against those who have slain his youthful son does not precisely condemn the mutable world, but it does dwell on the vileness of those who have won, Queen Margaret and Lord Clifford:

There, take the crown, and with the crown my curse;
And in thy need such comfort come to thee
As now I reap at thy too cruel hand!
Hard-hearted Clifford, take me from the world:
My soul to heaven, my blood upon your heads!


When Clifford's turn comes to die, he makes no complaint against his fate, but even gives over his grief at the waste of all his valor and strength in behalf of Lancaster:

And, Henry, hadst thou sway'd as kings should do,
.....I, and ten thousand in this luckless realm
Had left no mourning widows for our death;
And thou this day hadst kept thy chair in peace.
.....Bootless are plaints, and cureless are my wounds;
No way to fly, nor strength to hold our flight:
The foe is merciless and will not pity;
For at their hands I have deserv'd no pity.

(II.vi.14, 18-20, 23-26)

This admirable analysis of the reasons for Henry's and Clifford's present woes tacitly renounces the cause—Lancastrian supremacy and personal revenge—for which Clifford had fought against and murdered the Duke of York. The dying lord does not leave his curse to his enemies or his cause to his allies: “Come, York [Edward] and Richard, Warwick and the rest; / I stabb'd your fathers' bosoms: split my breast” (III Henry VI, II.vi.29-30). So they do, but they do not discover Clifford until he is dead and must content themselves with ignominious abuse of a corpse. In various ways, York's, Clifford's, and Warwick's speeches—for which neither Hall nor Holinshed gives any hints—show Shakespeare departing from the usual formulas for the valedictories of heroes. While a Talbot may find his valor affirmed by his and his son's deaths, the participants in civil war find nothing in their time of dying to affirm the glories of their causes. For the audience, too, nothing ever seems secured by victory in the Henry VI plays.

Although Talbot secures his fame, he is not vindicated by an English triumph, and York's victory over Joan la Pucelle in Part I soon is followed by an unreliable peace. Although both York and Lancaster win victories, each victory is followed by reversal, and at no time does a success exterminate all those who intend to bring down the victors. Battle-scenes do not receive full endorsement because no heroic triumph or heroic death is a decisive resolution. What each victory requires is political wisdom, supported by power gained in battle, to assure the continuance of rule.

The structures created by heroic irony may now be summarized. The three parts of the trilogy are not identical in patterns of action. Each has a pivotal action near the center, and each ends with a choice or a resolve that proposes some new action that unsettles the resolution achieved in the last few scenes. In I Henry VI, Henry's choice of Margaret and the conclusion of a false peace with France clearly undo the strong alliance Gloucester has worked for and undo the military rule for which Talbot has fought. The pivotal action in Part I, as we have seen, prepares by an unheroic choice for Talbot's defeat. The choice of a woman for beauty alone may be censured as unheroic, like the peace, but both are also impolitic granting of concessions and trust for nothing in return. Neither may the concept of noble generosity be invoked to defend these actions, for they involve ungenerous, unjust, and dishonorable treatment of others. Henry's marriage to Margaret breaks arrangements made through Gloucester with the Duke of Armagnac. The peace with France dishonors all who have fought for nothing less than totally securing the English claims in France. Politics in this trilogy must be squared with the just demands of honor, if the political order is to endure.

The central scene of II Henry VI is likewise decisive in preparing for the last act, and is likewise an instance of ignoble behavior that is not balanced by a heroic triumph at the end of the play. Although a pitched battle occurs in Act V, and although that battle is fought by evenly-matched forces, the Yorkist victory is left inconclusive by the escape of the King and Queen and by York's decision to follow Henry to London and to negotiate with him there. The normal end of heroic encounter is, of course, decisive victory. Further, Clifford has left the battlefield vowing cruel revenge for the death of his father. It may be argued that Shakespeare is only following history: the historical York did not at first seek to kill Henry or to exterminate the Lancastrian party. But there is no need to end a play with a battle and then so carefully to signal its incomplete success, unless the dramatist desires not only fidelity of treatment but heroical irony. We are headed into Part III by the ending of II Henry VI, with a strong suggestion that military success at St. Albans is only temporary.

In Part III, Warwick's shift to the Lancastrian cause at a time when it seems defeated helps prepare for the renewal of civil war, but helps also to prepare for the scene of Warwick's death in defeat. His renunciation, as we have seen, is not a heroic gesture. The scene of Edward's wooing of Lady Grey (III Henry VI, III.ii) also reverses relationships and prepares for the closing scenes. At the end of III.ii, we find that Edward's success in wooing has provoked Richard of Gloucester to begin conspiring, out of sexual envy, against his royal brother. At the end of Part III, while Edward rejoices in having a male heir by Lady Grey, Richard in asides renews his cruel resolve to kill his brothers and their posterity if murder is necessary to win the crown. Here again, lapses from heroic loyalty and firmness lead to an inconclusive resolution at the end, rather than the heroic triumphs that the characters' ambitions would require. It is true, however, that the respective conclusions of the three parts of the trilogy are not similar in situation, just as the pivotal scenes are not closely similar in kind. Shakespeare was accommodating his plots to varied historical material, and so did not follow one structural pattern in every part of the trilogy.

Indeed English chronicle-history plays had no form of their own, and their purposes did not require a distinctive generic structure. F. P. Wilson's recent consideration of this matter showed that, although there are various types of history plays, they do not, as a group distinct from comedy and tragedy, have an identifying generic feature.17 Neither would it be quite satisfactory to say, with Lily B. Campbell, that Elizabethan historical plays, especially those that are too serious to be comedies and yet not clearly tragic, all have the single purpose of accomplishing the moral ends of history;18 for as plays rather than historical narratives they must also have accomplished some purposes peculiar to drama. One type of chronicle-history, the contention-play, represented by The Wounds of Civil War, seems to have grown structurally from the device in moral plays of alternating scenes featuring one group of characters with scenes featuring another group.19 But unlike moral dramas, contention-plays pitted characters and factions that were not necessarily moral opposites; Sulla and Marius are equally irascible, equally able in war and politics, and Lodge's play dramatizes their terrible struggle and the eventual success of Sulla's faction. At least Parts II and III were also perceived as contention-plays with interest focused upon the struggle of antagonists rather than the fortunes of a single hero, for the titles of the bad quartos of these two plays include not only “contention” but also subtitle reference to various persons both primary and secondary in the struggle. If we take moral drama and The Wounds of Civil War as models, we may say that contention plays showed the triumphs of first one party and then those of the other. Yet the three parts of Henry VI do not respectively follow this model in the same way. Not only does Shakespeare provide more rivalries in Parts I and II than the contentions between the principal antagonists; he also distributes the clashes differently in Part II, say, than he does in Part III. In II Henry VI, verbal clashes between Gloucester and Winchester punctuate their political rivalry until Gloucester's fall and death; then begins the open struggle between Lancaster and York—first with a Lancastrian victory over the pseudo-Mortimer, Jack Cade, and then immediately after with York's closing (but not decisive) victory over Henry's forces. In III Henry VI, however, the action is largely a series of battles separated by interludes of political intrigue, and the Yorkist triumphs alternate with Yorkist defeats throughout the play.20I Henry VI, as we have already remarked, has manifold rivalries, and may also be considered a contention-play. Here the primary contention of French against English (or Joan against Talbot), continues throughout the play against a background of secondary struggles—some political and some military—among the English. Unlike Part II, the first play is organized by a heroic contention continuing throughout the action; unlike Part III, it contrasts the main heroic contention with less worthy domestic clashes. But Shakespeare's varied handling of the contention-pattern is not controlled by the facts of history. He has been found here to compress and rearrange historical facts, such as Joan's and Burgundy's careers, York's relationship to Gloucester, and Warwick's reaction to King Edward's marriage, in order to heighten and even to create antagonisms contrary to fact. Likewise he brought Talbot and Joan together at Bordeaux, conflated two battles at St. Albans, and conferred on Richard of Gloucester the double motive of sexual envy and Machiavellism—all for the sake of emphasizing contention despite the facts of the chronicle sources. He may well have thought the contention-pattern most natural for the plot of plays dealing with civil and foreign war, but he did not let the facts control the shaping of the action.

And he may well have found the contention-pattern the readiest framework to support his heroical irony, for the very nature of such plotting allowed the contenders, especially in the field, to be tacitly measured against the stature of Tamburlaine, Sulla, and other heroes of drama. Further, he introduced scenes and situations that were conventional in heroic drama of the time, with the result that lapses from heroic conduct might be more clearly perceived. Far from writing simply a kind of moral-historical drama in which the right line of conduct might have led to the salvation of England,21 Shakespeare has written a trilogy in which the right and effective course, embracing a heroic code as well as political wisdom, occurs to almost no one but Talbot and is not practicable by anyone but he. Finally, Shakespeare introduced into each of his varied contention-plots a pivotal scene or scenes that emphasized his heroical irony by showing the noble or the great undermined by the mean, the ignoble, and unheroic.


  1. The main sources of the trilogy were probably the accounts of the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV in Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548-52) and Raphael Holinshed's The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1587). Shakespeare may have used Grafton's Chronicle at Large in place of or in supplement to Hall. But because Grafton closely follows Hall, it is not necessary for my purposes to include him in comparing sources with Shakespeare's scenes. See: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), III, 25, 90-91, 158.

  2. See Bullough's rejoinder in Narrative and Dramatic Sources (III, 36-37) to Tillyard. Virgil K. Whitaker shows that Shakespeare, though aware of Providence in historical causation, was also conventionally alert to the effects of Fortune and human character; see Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1953), pp. 57-59.

  3. Thomas Lodge, The Wounds of Civil War, ed. John Dover Wilson and W. W. Greg, Malone Society Reprint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1910); George Peele, The Battle of Alcazar, ed. John Yoklavich, The Life and Works, Vol. II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961); The Troublesome raigne of John, King of England, ed. Charles Praetorius (London: C. Praetorius, 1888); Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, ed. Una Ellis-Fermor (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1930).

  4. Tragedy of Locrine, in The Shakespeare Aprocrypha, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1918). Evidence that the author of Selimus revised and borrowed from Locrine has been presented by Baldwin Maxwell, Studies in the Shakespeare Apocrypha (New York: King's Crown Press, Columbia University, 1956), pp. 47-51, 61-62. Maxwell also suggests that this reviser may have added two scenes, IV.ii and iv; I would further suggest that the two scenes replaced scenes in which Corineus discovers Locrine's adultery and Locrine kills Corineus.

  5. Eugene Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962), chs. 1 and 2. On the code of martial honor, see Curtis B. Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), pp. 102-35. Castiglione's disputants were unable to decide whether conquest or peaceable, just rule were more honorable (The Book of the Courtier, trans. Thomas Hoby, 1561, Book IV). For discussion of the Herculean type in drama as exemplar in humanist historiography and in plays of the late 1580's and early 1590's, see David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: “Henry VI” and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), ch. 1, esp. pp. 9-10, and ch. 3, esp. pp. 72-74.

  6. Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor, pp. 91-93.

  7. The phrase, of course, is J. P. Brockbank's; see his “The Frame of Disorder: ‘Henry VI’” in Early Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), pp. 73-99. For explication of various motifs in the trilogy see Ernest W. Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963). For a claim that the trilogy is thematically unified but not constructed on any single conventional pattern of play see Hereward Price, Construction in Shakespeare, University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, No. 17 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1961).

  8. Appian, Civil Wars, trans. Horace White (London: W. Heinemann; New York: The Macmillan Co., 1913), I, xii, 6; Plutarch, Lives, trans. Thomas North (London: D. Nutt, 1895), III, 298. Evidence for Lodge's use of Appian is given by Nathaniel B. Paradise, Thomas Lodge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931), pp. 137-39. Some details, however, such as Scipio's prophecy about Marius (The Wounds of Civil War, 137-40), the names of the Asian heroes vanquished by Sulla (1070-76), and Sulla's rally speech to his men (341-62) are not in Appian but in Plutarch's Lives (III, 165, 287-300, 298).

  9. See John Dover Wilson, ed., “Introduction,” I Henry VI (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1952), pp. xi-xii, xxi-1; “Introduction,” II Henry VI (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1952), pp. xix-lii. Wilson's belief that Shakespeare revised other men's work and brought it to completion amounts to a belief that Shakespeare revised almost as carelessly as the others had written.

  10. One cannot consider Robert Wilson, credited with at least partial authorship of sixteen plays on English history, for none of these has survived.

  11. Hall, Union, pp. 173 f., 176-77. Holinshed, Chronicles, III, 181, 183. Holinshed simply adapts Hall's phrasings here.

  12. Hall, Union, pp. 176-77.

  13. Editions of I, II, and III Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, New Arden Edition (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1957-62). All quotations are from this edition.

  14. Hall, Union, pp. 208-11, 213-16. Holinshed, Chronicles, III, 210-12, 215-17. Neither writer names York among the peers who accused Gloucester.

  15. Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories, pp. 115, 119 f., likewise finds this role imposed upon Gloucester.

  16. Quotation from Hall, Union, p. 264. Hall further says that Queen Carlotta, wife to King Lewis, promoted the match between Edward and Bona, and refused overtures from Margaret; Margaret was not at court at this time. For Holinshed's version, see Chronicles, III, 283-85, 288-94.

  17. Frank P. Wilson, “The English History Play,” in Shakespearian and Other Studies, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 1-53.

  18. Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1947), pp. 15-17. This view was followed by Irving Ribner in The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), esp. ch. 2.

  19. David M. Bevington, From “Mankind” to Marlowe: Growth of Structure in the Popular Drama of Tudor England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962).

  20. Cairncross, “Introduction,” III Henry VI, pp. lix-li.

  21. Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, p. 101; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945), pp. 160-63.

Waldo F. McNeir (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “Comedy in Shakespeare's Yorkist Tetralogy,” in Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 9, April, 1974, pp. 48-55.

[In the essay below, McNeir recounts numerous elements of comedy in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III.]

The pattern of English history from Richard II to Richard III is comic in the sense that it includes usurpation, troubles, a respite, suffering, expiation, deliverance. Because the form of the cycle is all-inclusive, Shakespeare incorporates the condition of the damned into the comic pattern. This produces a variety of parallels and contrasts: double plots and double-dealing, incongruent elements of the pathetic and the risible, mixed modes of character portrayal and development. Comic elements in the Yorkist tetralogy have received little attention.

Henry VI, Part 1 offers opportunities for comic stage spectacle. It calls for almost as much acrobatic leaping about on the walls of Orleans and Rouen, climbing up and jumping down, demanding as many gymnastic stunts as were required by the catwalk, trapezes, and swings used in Peter Brooks's recent production of a A Midsummer Night's Dream. Some of the stage directions could hardly be carried out except comically, as when “The French leap over the walls in their shirts,” appear half-undressed, and then “fly, leaving their clothes behind” (II.i).

The episode in which Talbot outwits the threatening Countess of Auvergne, as Shakespeare handled it, isn't in Hall's Union or Holinshed's Chronicles (II.iii). S. L. Bethell is mistaken when he writes, “All of the incidents given comic treatment [in the Yorkist plays] are to be found in the sources.1 As the Arden editor suggests,2 this incident may be derived from the Robin Hood cycle; if so, it is related to Munday's two-part play on Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1598), and to the earlier lost Comedy of Robin Hood and Little John (1594). Most of the comedy in the Yorkist plays is black, but Talbot's turning the tables on the Countess is light, the comic topos of the trickster tricked. Talbot can't be physically anything like the Countess's description of him: “a child, a silly dwarf! … this weak and writhled shrimp” (22-23); he jokes with the Dragon Lady and forgives her. Richard Burbadge probably played Talbot. If the Countess is a boy on stilts, that could give her a Brobdingnagian perspective, and the humor of the encounter would take on another dimension.3

In the Parliament House scene (III.i) the servants of the bitter enemies, the Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Gloucester, pelt each other with stones that are called “pebbles” by the ineffectual Mayor, hardly missiles to “pelt so fast at one another's pate / That many have their giddy brains knock'd out” (82-83). The servants keep skirmishing despite attempts to stop the uproar (stage direction: “Enter in skirmish with bloody pates”). The first two servants withdraw to a surgeon's, and the third “to see what physic the tavern affords” (146-48). This boisterous scene is thematic like the opening street brawl between the servants of the Montagues and the Capulets. Shakespeare was already attracted by the paradoxes we find in his more mature work.

The treatment of Joan La Pucello was comic to an Elizabethan audience. It appealed to jingoism, terror of traffic with spirits, and male chauvinism. The heroic Amazon of the French is a villainess to Shakespeare's audience. She communes with fiends, and so she is a witch; she humiliates Englishmen with her unnatural masculine power, and so she must be extirpated as a threat to male sovereignty. Spenser's Britomart is an Amazon with a magic spear, seeks aid from Merlin, and humiliates many of her male opponents. But Britomart never loses her femininity; she uses a magic weapon and magic advice for good, and she is always in quest of her beloved Artegall. Hence no comparison can be made between the two. The real parallel is between Joan and Spenser's Radagon, both intolerable women's libbers. Joan's capture, confession, and condemnation are a satisfying retribution brought upon an unsexed monster.

The cowardice of Sir John Falstaff in Henry VI, Part 1 (he is so called throughout in the first Folio) shames him, but not his successor of the same name in the Henry IV plays. When Shakespeare had to think of a substitute for Oldcastle in the Henry IV plays, he thought of Falstaff in Henry VI, Part 1. To the Elizabethans, cowardice was a comic vice, as seen in Udall's Ralph Roister Doister, Lyly's Sir Thopas, Sidney's Dametas, Spenser's Braggadochio, and later in Shakespeare's Parolles.

In Henry VI, Part 2, adulterous Margaret of Anjou succeeds Joan La Pucelle as England's scourge and becomes its Queen. Incongruously, she is the wife of saintly King Henry. Such incompatibility as theirs is a source of marital jokes about recalcitrant wives and patient husbands from the Noahs in the Corpus Christi cycles to Maggie and Jiggs. Margaret chafes at Henry's holiness; her contempt for religion parallels La Pucelle's “false” piety and is in contrast with it. Margaret's and Henry's union mocks matrimony, reducing it to absurdity. Shakespeare has only to follow his historical sources to make us want to throttle Margaret and kick Henry. She is more blatant in her relations with her lover, the Duke of Suffolk, than Edward II's Queen Isabel with the younger Mortimer in Marlowe's play, later than Shakespeare's and influenced by it. Margaret's tantrum of self-pity, when Gloucester is murdered and Suffolk is banished, is an overwrought tapestry of lies (III.ii). Her parting from Suffolk has been compared to the parting of Edward II and Gaveston, Richard II and his Queen, and Romeo and Juliet; but it is more turgidly melodramatic than any of these, and in the context of a debauched society a satiric revelation of their grotesque fantasy of themselves. After stiff-necked Suffolk's execution, done by politically wise pirates (IV.i), when his severed head is delivered to Margaret and she cuddles it and waters it with her tears in her husband Henry's presence, she outdoes Boccaccio's and Keats's Isabella. La Pucelle was a comic witch; Margaret is a comic bitch.

The Duchess of Gloucester's seance is serious because she is doomed to suffer the fall that in her hubris she plans for others, but it has its comic side. I suspect a burlesque intent in the conjuring scene that occurs in the Duke of Gloucester's garden (I.iv), as his termagant Duchess is duped by trashy hirelings and brings about her own and her husband's downfall. Greene may have thought that Shakespeare was encroaching on his patented stage magic, and this may be one reason why he attacked the “upstart crow” in A Groatsworth of Wit (1592). The Duchess's kleptomania in stealing occult information that she can't use adds a peculiar twist to crass political anomalies. Her husband Gloucester's good intentions can't cope with a tough, pragmatic world; the Duchess compounds his difficulties by prying into the cloudier supernatural world.

Gloucester's ruthless exposure of the ludicrous imposter Simpcox (II.i) also exposes the King's credulity. Henry wants to believe in pious miracles; the Duchess of Gloucester wants to believe in impious marvels. “Blind” and “crippled” Simpcox is as palpable a fraud as the Duchess's conjurer, witch, and priests. The bogus “miracle” of St. Alban is a comic anecdote, like a fabliau or a Canterbury tale. Its source in Foxe's Book of Martyrs is as completely humorless as most of Foxe's stories, although, as Curtius shows,4 in the medieval vita sancti jest penetrated earnest in a way that it could not in Reformation propaganda. As Gloucester forces the King to see the unwelcome truth when the blind cripple runs away after the Beadle has hit him once, another irony becomes apparent, that of Gloucester's own inability to see his Duchess's drift. I think Margaret's response to the exposure of Simpcox, “It made me laugh to see the villain run,” would be that of any audience, regardless of their feeling about her.

Act II, scene iii, contains two travesties of justice: the removal of Gloucester as Protector and the sentence of his Duchess, which are not comic; and the ridiculous trial by combat between the cowardly Peter Thump and his drunken boss Thomas Horner, which parodies chivalric ceremony5 and carries the same thematic import as the brawling servants in Henry VI, Part 1. Contrasting effects in these juxtaposed episodes illustrate Shakespeare's technique of putting together disparate developments.

The court-martial of Suffolk under commoners turned pirate is good riddance of anarchistic self-interest among the upper classes. In another significant placing of scenes, the insurrection of Jack Cade and his land pirates follows immediately and fills the remainder of Act IV (ii-x) with chaos. Cade's rebellion is satiric comedy which breaks down customary associations; yet these scenes are preceded by the same thing with the collapse of government in the hands of a predatory aristocracy, similar to the breakdown of order when Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund seize power in King Lear. Cade's revolt is a logical outcome of prevailing conditions founded on illogic. This is not what S. L. Bethell means when he says, “The theme of disorder, confusion, inversion, topsyturvydom, is expressed through a deliberate and witty use of logical and rhetorical fallacy.”6 He forgets the prentices in the pit, his pedantic analysis of “the techniques of logic and rhetoric, so well understood by the Elizabethans” suggesting that expertise in these matters was necessary to understand the monstrosity of Cade's rebellion. More to the point is Willard Farnham's book, The Shakespearean Grotesque, with a chapter on “Diabolic Grotesqueness” in which he remarks: “Behind Caliban as launcher of revolution there is the early clown Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part 2. But in him there is little that points forward to Caliban's kind of grotesqueness … The dramatic treatment of Cade in his pretentious bid for kingship is one of harshly satiric rejection, not one of comic acceptance.”7 One may agree with this but still question the suggestion that satiric rejection cannot be comic.

Jack Cade plans to make England into an alternative university with no entrance requirement other than illiteracy, open class rooms, unstructured courses in such vocational subjects as meat-cutting, basket-weaving, death to the peerage, and book-burning. Clearly a Lord of Misrule with a jaunty air, he is hardly festive. The rebels make headway and shake the shaky Establishment. A grisly sight is the heads of Lord Say and his son-in-law carried atop poles and made to kiss at every corner, more shocking than the sight of Macbeth's head carried on a pole where it belongs. But disorder does not triumph. Mere mention of a French invasion turns Cade's fickle followers against him, and he slinks away to an ignominious end from one Alexander Iden, Esq., a small landowner of Kent and a thoroughgoing prig.

How are we to respond to Jack Cade's homicidal demagoguery? Not with the simple-minded moralizing of his ghost in The Mirror for Magistrates (1559), ruminating on the God-given power of reason to keep lust and will in check so that men will not aspire to rise above their place, and especially never to “presume our princes to resist.” This Tiny Tim philosophy is as much out of character for the cutthroat Cade as for the overweening nobles whom he threw into panic. The comic catharsis of Cade's rebellion is the same as that of Gulliver's discovery that both High-heels and Low-heels, like Shakespeare's Haves and Have-nots, are pernicious rodents. Once the threat of Cade has passed, Yorkists and Lancastrians fall to carving each other up at the Battle of St. Alban's.

The last of the Henry VI plays refines the comedy of gangsterlike deceit and treachery. Bethell says that Henry VI, Part 3 has “no comedy at all.”8 He can't be right, if laughter and tears are psychological cousins; or if comedy and tragedy alike sprang, both in ancient Greece and medieval Europe, from rites developing in different directions; or if we believe, in any sense, that Hamlet's intellectualizing and agonizing make him a potentially ridiculous fellow, saved from being so because Polonius is Hamlet turned comic-side out, or that Antony and Cleopatra is a see-saw affair that celebrates the triumph of Love and the triumph of Folly as inseparable. Shakespeare had no monopoly on the “funny/tragic,” which was present in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama from The Spanish Tragedy to ’Tis Pity She's a Whore. But the Yorkist plays are political history, you say. To put the matter in contemporary terms, they have a serio-comic aspect if the Watergate break-in and the erased tapes are comic, as they are to Art Buchwald, Bill Mauldin, and many others who are neither columnists nor cartoonists. In Henry VI, Part 3, the sinister comedy of the two preceding plays comes to a head before it erupts in Richard III.

King Henry, thirty-four years old when his last play begins, remains a retarded child. He cravenly yields to York's demands and disinherits his son (I.i). How the lamb ever got a son on “the she-wolf of France” is puzzling. Henry's reluctance to give up a crown that he is unfit to wear recalls the witless surrender of Mycetes in 1 Tamburlaine. At the insistence of his own adherents, because he brings nothing but bad luck to his own cause (II.ii), Henry retires before the Battle of Towton to his molehill—he is a mole in the Great Chain of Being—to indulge in pathological yearning for the “soft” primitivism, to use a term of Lovejoy and Boas, that he imagines to be the condition of pastoral life (II.v). His battlefield speech has been called “flat, fatuous.”9 When captured by gamekeepers (III.i), he blames the inconstancy of the humble hinds he envied and wanted to join; he is oblivious of the ironical joke that history has played on him, but Shakespeare isn't. Henry goes down, up, and down for the last time, like a Cartesian diver, when he is murdered in the Tower by Richard Crookback. One critic remarks, “Richard is almost justified in getting rid of such a bore.”10

The ingenuity of some directors fails them with the part of Henry, for the same reason that the Morality hero is less interesting than the unequivocal Vices. This need not be so. The portrayal of Henry gains in realism as his unfitness to rule clashes glaringly with the determination of Clifford, Margaret, and Warwick to keep him on the throne that he doesn't want, and also as it clashes with the determination and success of the Yorkists in elevating the unfit Edward as a foil who is lecherous, self-indulgent, egoistic, and ambitious—all that Henry isn't. To Shakespeare, vacuity is as entertaining as viciousness; and Golding should be as entertaining as Francis Quicksilver in Eastward Ho!

As Henry burrows deeper, like one of Beckett's characters, digging his own grave, Margaret fights against interment with him, flourishing for a while as Lancastrian general, more Amazonian than Joan La Pucelle but without the extenuating shadow of Joan's unifying nationalism. Only the loss of a loved son and an unloved husband can reduce Margaret to a feminine role in Richard III, broken and forlorn. Shakespeare shapes history to this end for her; unlike Thomas Hardy, he needs no Spirits Sinister and Ironic as commentators. In the Yorkist tetralogy Margaret emerges from the chronicles as a throbbing human being in her life story of victory and defeat. In the course of her career she is as timidly deceitful as Bianca, more shrewish than Katherina, as resourceful as Portia, more sentimental than Olivia, as managerial as Rosalind, as shameless as Helena, as viperish as Cleopatra, and finally more possessively ruinous than Volumnia.

At the zenith of Yorkist power, King Edward begins to rut for Lady Grey, a widow with three grown or half-grown sons. Since she declines to become his mistress, but so coyly that she whets his appetite, he foolishly decides to make her his Queen. His blunt declaration, “I aim to lie with thee,” calls for lascivious pawing and feeble defense. This spectacle draws twelve sardonically bawdy asides from Edward's brothers Clarence and Richard. Division between York's sons is foreseen at the turning point of the play (III.ii). Edward's folly is as disastrous as Henry's in marrying Margaret. Henry marries with illusions that he soon loses. Edward is a confirmed wencher and marries without any illusions, which makes him the bigger fool.

The scene in which news of Edward's haste to bed with Lady Grey reaches the French court (III.iii) develops into a parody of the dynastic marriage game, which is as ruthless as that played at Netherfield Park, but much more dangerous. Pride and prejudice are present in the game at the French court, and they are laughable there, too. King Lewis does a double reversal, at first stalling about foreign aid to defeated Queen Margaret and her son, hedging his oath to support Henry, then pleasantly venal in giving his sister Bona to King Edward as a wife, and finally when furiously affronted he promises Margaret any aid to overthrow perfidious Edward. Lewis is almost as disgusting as Octavius Caesar bestowing his chaste sister Octavia on the libertine Antony. Margaret needs more help than Lewis can, or will, give. Bona is spiteful from disappointment. Warwick changes sides because Edward's move without consulting him mocks his conception of his own importance. Most surprising is the temporary rehabilitation of Margaret, who comes off best, and without trying to run the show for a change. Yet the ease with which she embraces the turncoat Warwick shows her unscrupulousness. If this scene were merely domestic in context, its exhibits of venality, pique, deflated ego, and opportunism, along with its brilliant control of reversals and ambivalences would place it with the best scenes in the city comedies of Jonson, Middleton, and Massinger.

As critics have come to realize, Henry VI, Part 3, like its predecessors, sustains interest in a variety of situations and personalities. The counterpoint of character and political issues is complex. Comic incidents are identifiable within a great range, and these, it seems to me, have contributed to the success of these eminently actable plays in both Elizabethan and modern times before a Shakespearean audience attuned to ironic peripeties accompanying political tensions, and incongruous disparities between the pretensions of policy (saying) and the actualities of outrage (doing), along with “the common curse of mankind—folly and ignorance.”

Before going on to the last and greatest play of the Yorkist tetralogy, I should like to mention the compulsive categorizing of Northrop Frye, who doesn't know what to do with the Elizabethan history play. He drags it into his summa, which has sometimes been confused with that of St. Thomas Aquinas, under a sub-subheading called “The Rhythm of Association: Lyric,” where it gets two paragraphs. The gist of it is that history merges easily with tragedy, but “There seems to be a far less direct connection between history and comedy: the comic scenes in [Shakespeare's] histories are, so to speak, subversive.”11 They are, indeed, as I have suggested in describing the main import of the comic scenes in the Henry VI plays. But I suspect that Frye is thinking of the subversiveness of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV.

Richard III, as a whole, is a subversive play. As I have pointed out elsewhere,12 Shakespeare's portrayal of its protagonist begins at the end of Henry VI, Part 2 (V.i), where Richard has no right to be, gradually develops, and becomes clear in his soliloquy in the middle of Henry VI, Part 3 (III.ii), where the histrionic Richard makes his bow, already acting as he ticks off the assets of his dissimulative skills in double-dealing. He does not overestimate himself. It has been observed that, “Throughout Henry VI, Part 3, Richard usurps the pivotal, initiatory role that had been played by the women of the earlier plays—Joan … and Margaret.”13 Hapless Henry, before Richard murders him at the end of Henry VI, Part 3 (V.vi), calls him “Roscius,” a Renaissance byword for versatility in role-playing.

Richard lives up to this accolade in his own play, with his own scenario and casting. He always acts for two audiences: for his dupes and accomplices in the play which he directs on the stage, and for us in the theater. We become his confidants in crime, forced into our roles by Shakespeare's calculated concentration of four of Richard's five self-revealing soliloquies in the first three scenes of the play. As he winks at us, smiles, snorts, chuckles, and hugs himself in gleeful anticipation, we become prepared to enjoy with him his virtuosity in villainy. The stripping of our defenses lays bare our “unofficial” selves—George Orwell's term, quoted by Tillyard14—the same selves to which Falstaff strongly appeals in the Henry IV plays.

Richard's outrageous performance when he wins Lady Ann in the second scene, nothing of which appears in the chronicles, wins us as well as her. We watch in fascination as his other dupes, such as the fatuously overconfident Hastings, fall like duck pins. His triumph as both actor and politician (III.vii) occurs when he is persuaded, against his will, to accept the crown. He and Buckingham stage what I have called “an Im-morality play of the first order.”15 Richard is posed “aloft” between two bishops with a prayer book in his hand, a stylized grouping which Alice Venezky likens to the familiar tableau of a pageant sovereign surrounded by personified virtues.16 It is the kind of show designed to appeal to bourgeois piety. Richard is the prince of players, and the anti-prince of princes. Thomas More in his History of King Richard III, incorporated by Holinshed into his Chronicles, and Shakespeare's main source, draws an extended analogy between this episode and a stage play.17 The stage metaphor, a favorite of More's,18 must have impressed Shakespeare.

We see Richard's mastery of as many character parts as Roscius played to bedazzle everybody, as he switches rapidly from one role to another. He is a witty villain amused at the cleverness of his multiple deceptions. Toward the end, of course, his continuous play-acting fragments him, and he loses cohesion as an individual. He begins to break immediately after he becomes King, a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic destruction of normal values in the police state. The doom-saying Margaret, now a vengeful crone, has witnessed what she calls “A dire induction,” and she hopes “the consequence will prove as bitter, black, and tragical” (IV.iv.1-7). Her hope is more than fulfilled, but she is not around to see it. When the ghosts of all Richard's victims appear to him in his nightmare (V.iii), he is deep in schizophrenia, the occupational neurosis of actors; but his nightmare has a therapeutic effect. Histrionic to the end, he rallies for a final appearance, or farewell performance, at Bosworth Field that is as theatrical as if he and not Shakespeare had staged it.

The Lancastrian plays are not my subject here, but I will venture the opinion that much of their humor is not different in kind, but only in degree, from the comedy in the Yorkist plays. The later histories are equally ironic but less sardonic, as I have recently tried to show in connection with the new tone of the comedy that crops up near the end of Richard II (V.ii-iii), in the handling of the Oxford conspiracy, which genially descends from the serio-comic to the farcical.19 Almost inevitably, when we think of the Lancastrian plays, we think of them as graced by the disgraceful Falstaff, who would score so high on the GRE verbal-aptitude test that he wouldn't be admitted to Jack Cade's kind of alternative university, if he deigned to apply; but of course he would scorn it because he is Dean of the one of his own design already in operation.

If The Comedy of Errors and an early version of Love's Labor's Lost preceded the Yorkist tetralogy (1588-1592), these comedies give few hints of the overreaching greed, incalculable chicanery, and preposterous incongruity in character and event of the plays dealing with the dark period of English history from 1420 to 1485. When Shakespeare, after a lapse of several years, resumed his sequence at the wrong end with the plays covering English history from 1398 to 1420, he had behind him the two earlier comedies, and also The Taming of the Shrew, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Moreover, it is likely that interspersed between Richard II (1595) and Henry V (1599) are A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and Much Ado About Nothing. In any event, such speculation aside, Shakespeare from the beginning was capable of the detachment required for the integration of a comic perspective and history, just as he later injected a comic perspective into most of his tragedies.


  1. “The Comic Element in Shakespeare's Histories,” Anglia 71 (1952), 82.

  2. Andrew S. Cairncross, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI (London, 1962), p. 40, note.

  3. The role of the Countess is assigned by T. W. Baldwin to William Eccleston, who was probably apprenticed to the comedian William Kemp, and who played comic ladies; The Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company (Princeton, 1927), Appendix VII, pp. 416-22.

  4. Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard Trask (New York, 1953), Excursus IV, “Jest and Earnest in Medieval Literature,” pp. 425-28.

  5. See my “Trial by Combat in Elizabethan Literature,” NS 15 (1966), 101-12.

  6. Bethell, pp. 89-92.

  7. (Oxford, 1971), pp. 153-54.

  8. Bethell, p. 82.

  9. H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York, 1967), p. 57.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. 283-84.

  12. “The Masks of Richard the Third,” SEL 11 (1971), 167-86.

  13. Richmond, p. 60.

  14. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944), pp. 289-90.

  15. “The Masks,” p. 181.

  16. Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage (New York, 1951), pp. 131-132, 168.

  17. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1808; repr. New York, 1965), III, 396.

  18. Richard S. Sylvester, ed., The History of King Richard III, in Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven, 1963), II, 258.

  19. “The Comic Scenes in Richard II: V.ii and iii,” NM 73 (1972), 815-22.

Nancy A. Gutierrez (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Gender and Value in 1 Henry VI: The Role of Joan de Pucelle,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 42, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 183-93.

[In the essay below, Gutierrez examines Shakespeare's representation of Joan de Pucelle in Henry VI, Part 1 as a problematic, feminine scapegoat used by men to gain power. Gutierrez notes that such a representation reflects a patriarchal desire to eliminate female threats by transforming them into actions that bolster male power.]

Among the many critical problems resulting from the uncertain text of Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI is the theatrical presentation of Joan de Pucelle, history's Joan of Arc. She is, at various times in the play, a divinely-commissioned peasant girl who dons soldier's garb for the glory of God's mother, a glorified camp follower, a master orator in defense of her country, a conjuring witch, and an abject traitor. Most recently, Gabriele Bernhard Jackson argues that Shakespeare's presentation of Joan, as “partially continuous and partially disjunct,” is deliberate, for the playwright exploits the “varied ideological potential inherent in the topically relevant figure of the virago,” and shows her “first as numinous, then as practically and subversively powerful, and finally as feminized and demonized.”1

While I am persuaded by Jackson's argument about the topicality of Joan's depiction, I also see in Shakespeare's representation of Joan's relationship with her French allies and English enemies a deliberate gendering that demonstrates the patriarchy's need to defuse and neutralize any female threat by transforming it into a reinforcement of the male prerogative. The political tension between the English and the French, and between Joan and both her French allies and English enemies, further demonstrates the cultural use of gender as a value-laden metaphor descriptive of both political and moral issues: biological difference becomes the site for cultural conflict.2 Let me emphasize that I am interested here in representation, not in characterization, in how Joan is depicted by the dramatist through her own words and actions and through what other characters say about her, not in what the dramatist might understand as her so-called psychologically-coherent inner being. Thus, while Jackson argues that “a positive militaristic reading [of Joan]” and “a negative misogynist one [neglect] both the play's topicality and the historical moment's ideological complexity,” the case is rather that these readings are incomplete accounts of the play's binarization of gender, a cultural construct that facilitates the representation of political and ideological antagonisms.3 This metaphoric use of gender is further accommodated by Shakespeare's dramatic technique of presenting Joan's character to the audience through the perspective of other characters, an operation that forces the audience into collusion with the patriarchal point of view.

Shakespeare's first tetralogy dramatizes the struggle of men to assert individual legitimacy and authority, in other words, the struggle of fathers to pass on their paternity, and the struggle of sons to accept and validate it. One might assume that in such a conflict of patriarchal claims there would be no place for women, but as a matter of fact, women play significant roles in the enactment of the plot, both in supporting their male relatives who are centers of the conflict, and in actively fighting those men who are their enemies (Margaret of Anjou is, of course, the most prominent example, but also consider the less successful activities of the Duchess of Gloucester and Queen Elizabeth). These plays support Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's observation that it is through women that men assert their prerogative and assume power: “the institution of phallocentric law is congruent with the need to prove paternity and authority, to secure property by transforming the child into an alienated object named and possessed by the father, and to secure property by transforming the woman into a mediating instrument of the production and passage of property.”4 While Spivak here is addressing the way men co-opt woman's reproductive powers as their own vehicles to power, this dictum applies as well to the French use of Joan the soldier, as a medium through which to lay claim to France. Joan becomes a battleground on which the French and English enact their power struggle, and her ultimate execution at the hands of the English makes explicit the masculine use of woman as scapegoat for sexual (and here, cultural) inadequacies.

Act 1, scene 2, the scene in which Joan first comes on stage, initiates this power struggle between the sexes. During this scene, several related actions occur: the French are first seen boasting about their military gains and denigrating the English counterattempts; they leave the stage for battle and return, beaten back and surprised by the heroism of the English army; Joan is introduced as a holy maid sent to help the French; as she enters, she recognizes Charles, the Dauphin, in spite of a ruse the French had contrived to fool her; she overcomes Charles in a sword fight, he vows love to her (a love Joan puts off because she has taken a vow of chastity because of her calling); and Joan is awarded a place in battle.

This superficial account of the action, an action which seems to conclude with Joan's victory over her male doubters, is called into question, first by the notions of gender underlying the various interrelationships; second, by the inherent ambiguities of meaning in the language of certain characters; and finally by the obvious metadrama in the last part of the scene. These literary strategies of indirection continue in other scenes with Joan, until the final act of the play. At this point, what had heretofore been artifice becomes reality: Joan's construction as whore and witch by her male cohorts and male enemies—a construction ever obvious to the viewing audience—is presented to the audience for the first time without the guiding interpretation of chorus-like male characters.

In 1 Henry VI, as in all of Shakespeare's plays, stage directions are minimal, so that Shakespearean discourse is primarily language. The case of Joan of Arc, however, is a special one: she is presented as a woman who “cross dresses,” who dresses like a man. Such a violation of order may or may not be threatening to the patriarchal status quo, depending on the context, as scholars such as Natalie Zemon Davis, Lisa Jardine, and Linda Woodbridge have pointed out.5 In any case, Joan's situation is different from many other cross-dressing stage heroines, in that she openly admits the disjunction between sex and costume. Consequently, the play's cultural anxiety about gender difference is not dramatized in her language, as it is in the language of Shakespeare's cross-dressing comic heroines, but rather is displayed in the strategies—linguistic and behavioral—by which the other characters in the play (all male, as it turns out) react to Joan.6

When they first enter the stage in this scene, Charles and his French nobles are complacent about their military situation: they have possession of the most significant towns, the English have lost heart and offer battle reluctantly, and most significantly, the English heroes are neutralized: Talbot is prisoner and Salisbury is “mad-brained.”7 Mars, the god of war and male power “is smiling” on the French, while the English are virtually emasculated, being “pale ghosts” and “drowned mice,” and are explicitly said to lack manpower (I. ii. 4, 7, 12, 17). This gendering of sides shifts in the off-stage battle that follows. The French return, complaining that the French army is full of “Dogs, cowards and dastards” (I. ii. 23), who have fled before the English. On the other hand, the English are “lions,” “Olivers and Rolands,” “Samsons and Goliases,” “hare-brain'd slaves,” who will tear down the walls with their teeth (I. ii. 27, 30, 33, 37). Now it is the French who are depicted as effeminate, and the English who have masculine strength and power.

The values accorded to “masculine” and “feminine” behavior are obvious in this half-scene. First of all, these terms do not refer to biology, but to “attitudes.” “Masculine” refers to the physical ability to control and dominate, to take action and to create or change the world, while “feminine” means just the opposite: to lack physical prowess and the ability to change or create, to be unable to dominate or control, to be able only to react. Further, both terms are invested with moral overtones: “masculine” behavior is significant and “feminine” behavior is trivial; “masculine” behavior is admirable and praiseworthy and “feminine” behavior is pathetic and embarrassing.

The assigning of positive values to masculine activity, and of negative values to feminine is, of course, one of the most basic forms of patriarchal domination. Critics as different as David Bevington and Coppélia Kahn have noted that the feminization of the French is one means by which Shakespeare simultaneously denigrates the English enemy and celebrates his own country.8 However, because this assigning of gender is a continuous activity in the play, the meaning of the gender ascription shifts according to its context, thus rendering such a static interpretation invalid. The next half of this scene very quickly demonstrates this point.

Jean, Count Dunois, the Bastard of Orleance, comes on the stage, a man whose birth has both denied him his paternity of the French crown, and placed him outside the social and political order. While he is not a malcontent, but a loyal Frenchman, his very name nevertheless signals his alien nature, and for the English audience he becomes a paradigm of France itself: an illegitimate political upstart. Thus, it is interesting that he is the one who first tells Charles, the legitimate heir of France, about Joan. In this detail, Shakespeare departs from Holinshed and Hall, who state that Joan was introduced to the Dauphin by Peter Baudricort, Captain of Vaucouleurs.9 In Shakespeare's version, a bastard introduces a cross-dressing woman: an outsider by birth introduces a sexually-ambiguous creature, who by such gender indeterminacy is an outsider as well.

What follows is an inverting of the scene's first actions. Just as the French at the beginning of the scene assert their position of masculine mastery over the feminized English only to find these positions and gendering reversed, Joan too asserts her masculine authority over the French, only to have it subverted at the end of the scene, where she is returned to a feminine position in relation to the soldiers she wants to lead. This reversal is accomplished through language: while the French speak to one another in the first part of the scene in a discourse that clearly reflects their shared experience, in this second part of the scene language is not at all monolithic, and has different meaning for different characters, and often several simultaneous meanings for a single character. Consequently, language becomes the site of conflict.10

The Bastard describes Joan as a messenger from heaven: with the help of God's mother, she has the gift of prophecy and the ability to rid France of the English. This idealized description is obviously Joan's own self-fashioning of her identity. Her dress of masculine armor, which strikes the audience immediately as she walks on the stage, dramatically reinforces this reported discourse. Also reinforcing her self-representation is her identification of the real Dauphin, in spite of Charles's attempt to deceive her, in a kind of hearty language and tone that one of the onlookers describes as “dash” (I. ii. 71). This masculine behavior and style of speech is Joan's own redefinition of the concept “holy maid,” a term which in religious and patriarchal convention suggests the feminine virtues of chastity, silence, and obedience, linked with religious virtues of humility and selflessness.

Joan takes Charles aside and in her conversation with him offers yet another self-description. She calls herself “a shepherd's daughter” (I. ii. 72), emphasizing both her class and her pastoral roots. Her very departure from these roots threatens the hierarchical nature of the patriarchal system. She goes on to assert that she is “untrained in any art,” a logical result of her parentage. However, she then claims the power of “Heaven and Our lady,” significantly a power derived from “female,” not male divine powers. Joan comments on “Our Lady's” power by claiming that she used to be “black and swart” but now has beauty, and that she now has both the gift of prophecy and a courage beyond her sex. In short, Joan defines herself as coming from a marginalized group in society with no access to the ruling power structure; however, divine female forces accord her powers valued by the ruling structure—physical prowess equal to a man (symbolized by her armor), external feminine beauty, and superhuman intellectual powers.

Such a creation as Joan describes herself to be has no place in the male-defined world of the play. However, the impulse to categorize, an impulse usually ascribed to the masculine mindset, controls the response of the male characters to Joan in this scene, and in those scenes with the English which follow.

Charles picks up on the ambiguity of meaning in Joan's challenge to him: when she asks him to “try [her courage] by combat” so that she might become his “warlike mate” (I. ii. 89, 92), the words point not only to swordfighting, but to sexual play as well. Whether Joan intends the sexual suggestiveness of her speech is not absolutely clear (see n. 10), but she does, in fact, insist on her physical prowess. In any case, the Dauphin uses Joan's rhetoric, demanding that she “buckle with me”—a phrase meaning to engage in a swordfight, or to make love—to prove her divine mission. When Joan overcomes him, his language immediately loses its ambiguity. He retains the military wording, but now clearly uses it in the service of “love,” as he takes on the role of Petrarchan lover, a man at the mercy of his mistress: he has literally been overpowered by Joan's skill with the sword, and he metaphorically proclaims his “thralldom” to her love. In doing so, the Dauphin, as representative of the French, proclaims his lack of manliness. Earlier he had been defeated by a superior English army and had shown himself a coward by running away; now, he begins to insinuate with words, to use language for the purposes of deceit. Such effeminacy proves his inferior standing—not only morally, but also politically and socially—and, as a corollary, affirms the superiority of the English.

Joan's victory over Charles may also be seen to be a deviation from the conventional depiction of warrior women. As Simon Shepherd reminds us, the battle between a warrior woman and her lover is the climax of the woman's career.11 After this battle, no matter what its outcome, the warrior woman usually submits to her lover in marriage. In Joan's case, this victory over a man who proclaims his intention to be her lover is instead her initiation as a warrior, and marriage or sexual partnership is delayed. Apparently this battle is Shakespeare's invention, for nothing like it is found in the sources.12 Shakespeare seems to be deliberately inverting the convention, signaling both man's culpability for allowing the intrusion of woman into his world, and, at the same time, the comic situation of such an occurrence. Besides being good theater, the battle clearly demonstrates the questionable nature of the French cause.

The Petrarchan discourse consequently appears to be congruent with Joan's discourse of costume: the cross-dressing woman dominates the “effeminate” lover; gender roles are reversed as the woman takes charge. However, this apparent transference of power is undercut by the very Petrarchan discourse used by the Dauphin. This fictionalized construct may place a man at the mercy of his lady, but as maker of his poetry, the male poet gives life and meaning to his mistress: she is defined by his power of language. Further, Petrarchan discourse objectifies the lover's mistress, for she becomes the means by which he reaches a higher state: “Rendered passive and chaste, [the Renaissance lady] merely mediates the courtier's safe transcendence of an otherwise demeaning necessity.”13 Thus, although the Petrarchan lover is literally at his mistress's mercy, he is subtly—and more realistically—in control. The Dauphin effectively takes away Joan's victory over him by placing her within this patriarchal discourse. Indeed, we can probably say that Joan was beaten from the beginning, since her weapon—Petrarchan language and/or the phallic sword—was really her enemy's.14

Joan's apparent assertion of power is further undermined by the interpretation given to her private conversation with Charles by the other French nobles. While Joan denies her place in the Petrarchan discourse, a denial heard by the audience, the onlooking Frenchmen who cannot hear what is being said describe what they see as verbal sexual foreplay. Alanson, for example, jokes that the long conversation suggests that Charles is “[shriving] this woman to her smock” (I. ii. 119), making love to her. Such a comment indicates that the French view Joan simply as a sexual object. She might be a cross-dressing woman whose sex is supposedly confused, but she provides no ambiguity for the Dauphin's followers: her armor is invisible and her female body is obtrusively present. Although the perspectives of Charles and his soldiers seem entirely different—Charles idealizes Joan in his Petrarchan rhetoric while his soldiers essentialize her—these perspectives are actually two versions of a single conception: woman as sexual object used by man for his own purposes. In essentializing Joan, the French have reacquired the masculine identity they had lost in battle with the English.

This part of the scene functions much like a play within a play, in that Joan and Charles play out a scene which other characters interpret, while the actual audience measures the onlookers' comments against their own experience of the scene. While this metadramatic device lacks the complexity of such future inset “plays,” like those in Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, it nevertheless works to “stylize,” to emphasize the artifice of the so-called scene.15 It calls attention to the act of interpretation practiced by the French nobles and their prince: the character of Joan is represented to the English audience through the filter of the French perspective. To the English of Shakespeare's day, Joan was no Catholic saint, no Shavian symbol of individualism, but instead an unnatural woman, definitely a witch, probably a whore.16 Consequently, when the French nobles watch Charles and Joan together and interpret Joan as a woman on the sexual prowl, they are effectively representing the English audience and voicing its probable reaction.

The scene-within-a-scene also functions on another level. As Laura Mulvey points out, “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”17 Just as the Petrarchan lover creates his mistress with his poetry, the spectator creates the picture's meaning by his gaze. While Mulvey discusses the phallocentric nature of the camera in cinema, her theory illuminates the subtextual agon of this scene: if woman functions naturally as erotic object, if her very presence connotes “to-be-looked-at-ness,” then Joan's exhibitionist cross-dressing emphatically invites the same kind of response. Furthermore, if the camera highlights the voyeuristic aspect of the male gaze, then the metadrama operating in this scene plays the same function, for Charles and Joan's interaction is interpreted solely in erotic terms. The “male” gaze of the French nobles reinforces the real audience's place as patriarchal overseer and approver. Such congruence of perspective demonstrates the bonding of men, or in this case of patriarchally-defined cultures: The French soldiers and the contemporary English audience, normally “natural” enemies, become allies when threatened by a woman.

The English in the play show this coherence of view almost immediately. When the English hero Talbot first hears that the French are being aided by “a holy prophetess,” he questions whether she is “pucelle or puzzel,” that is, virgin or whore, transforming Joan's self-definition as the embodiment of chastity into its opposite, sexual promiscuity. He likewise transforms the Dauphin or Dolphin from the highest fish on the chain of being to dogfish, the lowest. In both cases, he places the enemies of the English into positions of moral and hierarchical devaluation.

When Talbot meets Joan in battle, he continues his labeling of her: she is “a woman clad in armor,” a “devil or devil's dam,” “a witch,” “a high-minded strumpet” (I. vi. 3, 5, 6, 12). In so naming her, Talbot essentially “creates” Joan as these very creatures: she has no choice but to be what Talbot says she is because he will acknowledge no other identity.18 He also rationalizes the defeat that the English are suffering: where earlier the French had genderized both themselves and the English into masculine and feminine categories, Talbot now does the same. The English no longer exhibit the “fierceness [of] dogs,” but are “whelps [who] crying run away,” are sheep instead of lions, slaves instead of masters (I. vi. 26, 28-31, 32). The reason for the transformation of the English from a masculine to feminine position is the intrusion of Joan into the world, a creature known to be from hell because of the confusion of gender she embodies. Talbot's language, like that of the Dauphin in I. ii, demonstrates the equivalence of gender and politics in determining value and power within social groups.

In summary, the French, who are stripped in battle by the English of any courage and manliness they might have had, are revitalized by Joan's entrance, but not as Joan would wish—at first they are skeptical, and then they define her as a woman to be sexually encountered. In other words, they ignore her sexual ambiguity entirely and create her as they wish her to be.19 Joan wins her right to lead the French in this scene, physically conquering a man in the process, but in no way can we say that she is empowered, for she is not the one who controls how the characters look at the world. Likewise, she is always the object of looking herself, never the subject, and therefore never in control. Her “discourses” of costume (armor), language (Petrarchan speech), and action (dueling with a sword), because of their very nature as patriarchal weapons, and because of their inherent function as objects of curiosity to be looked at, cannot overcome the preconceived and pre-locked mindsets of the French about woman. In fact, the use of these discourses by a woman results in what Alice Jardine calls paranoia, the reinforcement of sexual differences.20

This scene serves as a paradigm for Joan's relationship with the French in the rest of the play, as she becomes a vehicle by which the French regain their country and, more importantly, their own identity as the masculine and virile sex. In I. vi, after Joan's first victory over the English, the French honor her as “Divinest creature, Astraea's daughter,” “France's saint” (I. v. 4, 29): she has interceded for them and facilitated “the joy that God has given [them]” (I. vi. 14). This language of religious worship is echoed on other occasions when Joan succeeds militarily, particularly in her initial victory at Roan and in her scene with Burgundy (III. ii, III. iii).

More often, however, the French locate Joan not in a numinous position, but very specifically in a “feminine” position. In Act 2, scene 1, for example, a scene in which Joan and Charles come onstage together in the middle of the night, the Bastard immediately interprets their being together as a sexual liaison, and Charles offers a weak excuse for their association, therefore implying that the Bastards's inference is accurate. Although it is highly probable that Joan and Charles indeed were together, Joan presents herself not at all as Charles's mistress. Rather, she vehemently defends herself against the Dauphin's attacks of misloyalty, and challenges the military watchfulness of the French soldiers. The scene ends with her briskly trying to put an end to the bickering when an English soldier enters and scatters the French. In this scene, as in all the later scenes in the play until Act 5, she presents herself as loyal retainer of her prince, courageous in battle and wily in military strategy. But, as in I. ii, Joan's male colleagues see only her sexual nature and define her accordingly.

Even when Joan fights for her country, her strategies for victory, which the French encourage, are invariably “feminine.” First of all, she takes Roan by duplicity, disguising herself and the French soldiers so they can enter the city secretly. Such indirection is “treachery” and “treason” to the English, and Talbot challenges the French soldiers to “take up arms like gentlemen” (III. ii. 36, 37, 70), that is like “men.” Of course, they would be “fools” to do so, as Joan points out (III. ii. 62). Joan's second “victory” is also a result of “feminine” strategy, a power of persuasion that is likened to witchcraft: she determines “by fair persuasions, mix'd with sug'red words, / [to] entice the Duke of Burgundy” to change sides and ally himself with the French (III. iii. 18-20). Charles encourages her to “enchant” the Duke, and the Duke himself feels “she hath bewitch'd me with her words” (III. iii. 40, 59). Finally, Joan's antiheroic response to Lucy's idealized verbal monument to the dead Talbot challenges the carefully-constructed structure of chivalry so valued by the “manly” English.21

That these feminine and deceitful strategies are encouraged by the French is made obvious by their collusion in them. More direct evidence is provided by the Bastard's pointed request to Joan to “Search out thy wit for secret policies,” and by Alanson's echo to “Employ thee then … for our good” (III. iii. 12, 15). Consequently, as much as Joan might assert her masculine prowess by her masculine dress, she is invariably placed by her French allies into “feminine” positions which they then exploit for their own purposes.

When she is finally captured by the English at the end of the play, she has just been abandoned by devils she has conjured, demonstrating emphatically the demonized nature the English have attributed to her throughout the play. This is the only scene in the entire play in which the audience actually sees Joan practice witchcraft. Furthermore, it is the only scene in which Joan is presented to the audience without the filter of the perspective of her French allies. The absence of a choral perspective in this particular scene is both striking and significant.

While the French, throughout the play, have “constructed” Joan as a cross-dressing whore, and the English have “constructed” her as a witch from hell, Joan's words and actions have suggested that she is neither. However, the perspectives of both the French and the English have been presented to the audience as providing the correct interpretations of Joan. From the very beginning, Joan has no power to impose her self-fashioned identity upon the world of the play, for the masculine mindset both of her allies and of her enemies refuses to grant her the freedom of such self-creation. Likewise, she has no power to influence the audience, because she is trapped in the paradigmatic configuration of the female/passive object of the male/active gaze.

Act 5 shows Joan finally and irrevocably as the male characters and the audience have fashioned her. Whatever options she had as a character—and these options are evident in the kind of disjunction noted by so many critics, and explained so well by Jackson in her discussion of Joan's topical meaning as virago—these options are narrowed to the one meaning acceptable to the patriarchal construct of the play: in V. iii, Joan is represented as a witch, unsuccessfully calling upon hell for aid, and cursing her human persecutors; in V. iv, she rewrites her past, renouncing her pastoral roots and claiming power from a fulfilled sexuality (she pretends to be pregnant). In refashioning herself in this way, she becomes a conventional female threat, and she is treated conventionally: she is burned.

While the English may perceive the French as effeminate because of the French exploitation of Joan's female strategies, with her help the French recapture their country from the English. In actuality, the land empowers the French. With her death, Joan removes from the French consciousness a reminder of its earlier ineffectuality and reinvests the French fully with their lost masculinity: she is a sexual scapegoat for their political and military identities. On the other hand, the English “conclude effeminate peace,” emasculated “by treason, falsehood, and by treachery” (V. iv. 107, 109). Her name is not mentioned in the council between the French and the English, but Joan's influence remains; the French agree outwardly to a truce, while privately planning to thwart the English with policy. Thus the French retain “feminine” strategies as the means to “masculine” identity, while the English do the opposite. The clash of moral values in these gender categories mirrors the antagonism in the play between realistic observation and romantic posturing, between practical behavior and quixotic gesture, between pragmatism and honor.

As both battleground and cultural scapegoat, a medium by which men gain power and a touchstone by which gender stereotypes are reinforced, the theatrical representation of Joan demonstrates how the masculine mindset transforms what it perceives as a female challenge into a reinforcement of the patriarchate. Furthermore, it reveals the binarization of gender as cultural expression of value. The sexual tension between Joan and both her French allies and her English enemies parallels the political antagonism between the French and the English, and the power politics practiced by each side in these two clashes rests on gender ascription. Ultimately, however, the moral worth assigned to “masculine” and “feminine” categories in the play is compromised, not because Shakespeare is ahistorically feminist, but because the play depicts a grey, ironic world, in which such black and white categories are obvious and fragile fictions of a human mind attempting to find order and meaning.


  1. Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 44, 64-65. For a topical interpretation of Joan complementary to Jackson's, see Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 51-96.

  2. This intersection of gender and politics provides for 1 Henry VI a practical intratextual method of interpretation by which to reinforce topical readings such as Jackson's. While there might seem to be a radical dislocation between a theoretical feminist discourse and a topical discourse such as Jackson's, the historical pluralist tendency of feminist criticism provides both a justification and a precedent. See, for example, Annette Kolodny, “Dancing Through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” in Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 144-67 (first published in Feminist Studies 6 [1980]: 1-25); Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Ibid., 243-70 (first published in Critical Inquiry 8 [1981]: 179-205); and Carol Thomas Neely, “Feminist Criticism in Motion,” in For Alma Mater: Theory and Practice in Feminist Scholarship, ed. Paula A. Treichler, Cheris Kramarae, and Beth Stafford (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 69-90.

  3. Jackson, “Topical,” 47. Jackson provides a brief overview of this criticism; see 40-47, especially 40-41 and 47.

  4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman,” in Displacement: Derrida and After, ed. Mark Krupnick (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 184.

  5. See, for example, Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women on Top,” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (London: Duckworth, 1975), 124-51; Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983); and Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

  6. On cross-dressing heroines in Shakespearean drama, see for example, Phyllis Rackin, “Androgyny, Mimesis, and the Marriage of the Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA 102 (1987): 29-41; Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 43-92; and Jean Howard, “Crossdressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 418-40.

  7. 1 Henry VI, I. ii. 15, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All subsequent references to this play will be cited in the text.

  8. David Bevington, “The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI,”Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 53-54; Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 55.

  9. Hall's Chronicle, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), 13: 56-57; Holinshed's Chronicles, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 75.

  10. In her discussion of Julia Kristeva, in Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Routledge, 1985), Toril Moi makes a point that opens up this linguistic “encounter” between Joan and Charles: “[Non-essentialist feminist analysis of language] posits that we all use the same language but that we have different interests—and interests must here be taken to mean political and power-related interests which intersect in the sign. The meaning of the sign is thrown open—the sign becomes ‘polysemic’ rather than ‘univocal’—and though it is true to say that the dominant power group at any given time will dominate the intertextual production of meaning, this is not to suggest that the opposition has been reduced to total silence. The power struggle intersects in the sign” (158, Moi's emphasis).

  11. Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), 12.

  12. See Bullough, Narrative, 3:57 (Hall), and 75-76 (Holinshed).

  13. Joan Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1977), 159.

  14. In Wooing, Wedding and Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), Irene G. Dash makes exactly this point in her chapter on the women characters in the first tetralogy (155-207). However, because Dash focuses on the interrelationships among women, she leaves Joan out of her discussion.

  15. In Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, a similar scene is played out between Mortimer and Isabella early in the play. In this scene, Isabella convinces Mortimer to recall her husband's favorite from exile, apparently by suggesting that he could then be assassinated. While the interchange between Mortimer and Isabella is not heard, unlike the dialogue between Charles and Joan, both inset scenes are interpreted by onlooking French nobles. These scenes are also similar in that the female characters in both plays share a history of negative scholarship, in which these scenes in particular are offered as evidence, scenes in which a woman's actions are interpreted by male onlookers. For a more reasoned analysis of Isabella's motivation in the scene, see T. McAlindon, English Renaissance Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1986), 114-17.

  16. However, see Jackson, “Topical,” 58, n. 53, for evidence of Joan's occasional representation as heroic during this period.

  17. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975): 11.

  18. This power of verbal construction supports Rackin's argument, in “Anti-Historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories,” Theatre Journal 37 (1985), that the “masculine voice of history” clashes with feminine subversion in the history plays, and that in 1 Henry VI in particular, “the contest [is] between English words and French things, between the historical record that Talbot wishes to preserve and the physical reality that Joan invokes to discredit it” (329, 331).

  19. Howard, recalling Annette Kuhn's discussion of sexual disguise in film, reminds us that “in certain circumstances crossdressing intensifies, rather than blurs, sexual difference” (“Crossdressing,” 434).

  20. Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 48, 97-102.

  21. This point is made by Rackin, “Anti-Historians,” 332-33.


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Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Classified among Shakespeare's earliest works, the chronicle history plays designated as Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 detail the late medieval conflict between England and France, as well as the Wars of the Roses—the long civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster in fifteenth-century England. Characterized by frequent artistic lapses and an episodic structure, the Henry VI plays were, until the mid-twentieth century, the subject of considerable dispute concerning their authorship, with a number of critics arguing that Shakespeare collaborated with contemporary playwrights in composing these works. By the late-twentieth century, however, doubts concerning Shakespeare's role in writing the three parts of Henry VI had almost entirely been put aside; scholars instead focused on the diverse array of issues raised in the plays. Principal among these continues to be a prevailing interest in Shakespeare's treatment and manipulation of historical fact. Critics acknowledge that the dramatist inverted historical order, transferred events and characters, and compressed and expanded the material he found in his sources—including his principal text, Edward Halle's chronicle of English history entitled The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548). Others have identified numerous scenes and incidents—for example, the love affair between Margaret and Suffolk—which Shakespeare likely invented to suit his artistic goals. These and other dramatic alterations of history continue to intrigue scholars. A number of modern critics have also been drawn to thematic and structural aspects of the plays, such as the overall design and artistic integrity of the dramas, as well as their significant comic aspects. Finally, Shakespeare's representation of women in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, especially his dramatic treatment of Margaret of Anjou and Joan la Pucelle (the historical Joan of Arc), remain popular subjects among contemporary feminist commentators.

Shakespeare's interpretation and reorganization of history in the Henry VI plays has elicited considerable interest among critics, many of whom have sought to understand the dramatist's method of historiography and broad view of English history as it is illustrated in these early works. By seeing Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 as works of history rather than simply imaginative literature, Philip Brockbank (see Further Reading) concentrates on the theme of civil dissension leading to anarchy, and observes the ways in which Shakespeare reshaped history. Wayne L. Billings (1972) regards the subject of history in Henry VI through the lens of heroic irony, discussing the principal figures in these works as disastrously flawed embodiments of the heroic ideal who lead England into turmoil by demonstrating cowardice and disgraceful behavior. Thomas Cartelli (1994) studies social history in Henry VI, Part 2 by probing the doomed peasant revolt headed by Jack Cade as an intriguing look into the class dynamics of early modern England. Gwyn Williams (1974) examines Shakespeare's free interpretation of history in regard to his invented love affair between Margaret and Suffolk. While noting that historical evidence for such a romantic involvement is slight, Williams sees the relationship as a significant early example of tragic Shakespearean lovers, and an apt illustration of historical veracity subordinated by dramatic necessity.

By examining the design and thematic texture of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, contemporary critics have sought to discern in the plays sources of artistic unity and thematic cohesiveness. Acknowledging the flawed and episodic state of the dramas, E. Pearlman (1992) nonetheless observes unifying themes in Shakespeare's depiction of Henry's personal shortcomings and in the dramatization of the decline of the House of Lancaster. Sigurd Burckhardt (1968) views Henry VI, Part 1 as a dramatic whole, connected by the theme of troubled monarchical succession and by the ceremonial mode principally demonstrated in the noble figure of Talbot. Faye L. Kelly (1973) approaches all three of the Henry VI plays via the theme of oaths, seeing the making and breaking of formal pledges as a central structural element. Turning specifically to Henry VI, Part 3, Raymond V. Utterback (1978) remarks on the subject of legitimate kingship, while Maurice Hunt (1999) points to the drama's thematic integrity by tracing the sustained motif of unnatural acts perpetrated against family, country, and God.

Other topics of contemporary critical interest in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 include the works' comic elements and the integral role of women in these narratives. Addressing comedy, Waldo F. McNeir (1974) sees a pattern of comic resolution in the dramas when viewed as a whole, and finds significant sources of laughter and stage spectacle throughout. Donald G. Watson (1978) perceives another dimension of comedy in the Henry VI plays by concentrating on the macabre, grotesque, and elements of black humor, noting that these elements are especially apparent in stage performance. The dark portrayal of the chief female characters in the plays continues to educe commentary as well. Nancy A. Gutierrez (1990) highlights Joan de Pucelle's relegation to an inferior position, based upon her gender, in the male-defined cultural conflict between England and France in Henry VI, Part 1. Kathryn Schwarz (1998) explores male fears concerning the disruptive and enigmatic power of the feminine in the trilogy as they are personified in the figures of Joan and Queen Margaret.

Sigurd Burckhardt (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: “‘I Am But Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI,” in Shakespearean Meanings, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 47-77.

[In the essay below, Burckhardt addresses the problems of integrity and episodic design in Henry VI, Part 1, finding an aesthetic unity in the ceremonial qualities of the narrative as well as in the play's thematic analogy between dramatist and God.]

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say anything about 1 Henry VI without raising the still vexed question of authorship. I too shall have to raise it, but I do not want to attack it frontally. I would rather state my position as a working assumption and hope that what follows will prove sound enough to bear me out. Here, then, is what I shall assume: 1 Henry VI was written or thoroughly reworked—possibly both—by Shakespeare himself. As we have it in the Folio, it represents his effort to shape the chronicle accounts—whether directly from Hall, Holinshed, and Fabyan, or mediately from a play now lost—into a coherent dramatic whole within the still larger whole of the first tetralogy. In short, in the following interpretation I shall treat 1 Henry VI as the Folio editors treated it: as part of the Shakespeare canon.

The scholars who have argued for this assumption have properly made it one of their tasks to show that most of the incidents in the play are by no means simply episodes but have a clear dramatic function.1 In this they have, I think, been generally successful—especially where the incidents are not traceable to any source and so are likely to be Shakespeare's own, considered additions. The rose-plucking scene in the temple garden, the Mortimer-Richard scene right afterward, and the final scenes between Suffolk and Margaret of Anjou are all manifestly intended to knit the play more tightly into the larger design. Similarly, the great theme of dissension as the cause of English misfortunes—and of the disturbed succession as a cause of dissension—is more fully worked out in the play than it is in the sources. The hand of the dramatic strategist disposing events according to a master plan is clearly discernible.

Still it seems to me that the “integralists” have not given due weight to one obvious fact: that their arguments were needed. What Samuel Johnson said about the supposed benefits of poverty is not altogether inapplicable here; no one labors to persuade us that, say, Richard II is of one cast, just as no one labors to convince us that it is possible to live happily upon a plentiful fortune. Can the disintegrationist heresy—if such it is—be accounted for by no more than the obstinate longevity of Malone's error? Doesn't it feed upon some qualities in the play itself? That is the question to which, in a very indirect manner, I mean to address myself.


I shall do so by looking closely at the scene between Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne (II, iii). The scene is brief: right after the conquest of Orleans, Talbot is invited to visit the Countess at her castle. When he presents himself, she first taunts him with his smallness of stature; when he turns to leave, she reveals that she has lured him into a trap and means to hold him prisoner. But Talbot has anticipated her plot; he has placed soldiers in readiness to occupy the castle. The scene ends amicably, with apologies offered and accepted and a joint feast.

For an integralist, the scene presents a difficult problem; it seems irretrievably episodic. It grows out of no prior event, leads to no subsequent one; the Countess appears in no other scene and is never again heard of. No major theme seems to be illustrated, no moral pointed. Moreover, there is no hint of the incident in any of the play's sources. Oddly, Shakespeare appears to have composed, with full deliberation, a scene that is purely episodic. The very oddity demands attention.

Here is the opening exchange between the Countess and Talbot:

Countess: 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.
Talbot: Madam, I have been bold to trouble you;
But since your ladyship is not at leisure,
I'll sort some other time to visit you


What happens here is that a ceremony is startlingly interrupted. The ceremony is that of the taunt, and the Countess' language is properly ceremonial, in the true Marlovian cadence: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Her lines call for a counter-taunt or defiance, a reply in the manner at least of Gloucester defying Winchester:

Presumptuous priest! this place commands my patience,
Or thou shouldst find thou hast dishonored me.

(III, i, 8-9)

Substitute “lady” for “priest” and “thy sex” for “this place,” and the reply should serve quite nicely. Talbot himself knows, elsewhere in the play, what the ceremony calls for:

Foul fiend of France, and hag of all despite,
Encompassed with thy lustful paramours!
Becomes it thee to taunt his [Bedford's] valiant age,
And twit with cowardice a man half dead?

(III, ii, 52-55)

But here he refuses to play his part, to pick up the verbal gauntlet. With ironic urbanity, he implies that he has broken in upon the Countess as she was rehearsing a set-piece; his apology leaves her in the silly posture of someone striking a mighty blow at a vanished target.

It is the Countess, not Talbot, who in this scene speaks the language of the play. About her style there is nothing unusual; it is of a piece with the play's world. That world is one of vaunt and taunt, of “high terms” ceremonially put forward and ceremonially responded to—usually with the explicit or implicit invocation of force as the final arbiter:

Thou hast astonished me with thy high terms.
Only this proof I'll of thy valour make,
In single combat thou shalt buckle with me,
And if thou vanquishest, thy words are true;
Otherwise I renounce all confidence.

(I, ii, 93-97)

“Single combat” or multiple—the sword is always at least half unsheathed to make good the words. Gloucester or Winchester, Red Rose or White, England or France, it is all the same; as the Mayor of London says: “Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!”

My point is not that the language is appropriate to the world, but rather that it allows of no other. Every major actor is compelled—not necessarily by pride and pugnacity but by the language available to him—to step onto the stage, assume the proper posture, and rehearse his piece. The burden of the piece need not always be self-assertion or defiance, though most often it is. The mode lends itself equally well to grief:

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

(I, i, 1)

or to praise:

And 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

(I, vi, 19-22)

or even to submission:

In sign whereof, this arm, that hath reclaimed
To your obedience fifty fortresses,
Twelve cities, and seven walléd towns of strength,
Beside five hundred prisoners of esteem,
Lets fall his sword before your Highness' feet,
And with submissive loyalty of heart
Ascribes the glory of his conquest got
First to my God and next unto your Grace.

(III, iv, 5-12)

Self-assertion and praise (or submission) are difficult to tell apart. The ceremonial mode lends itself to every occasion, but what matters is that it makes an “occasion” of whatever it lends itself to. It is like Concord grapes: no matter what it is made into, the residual taste is always the same.

Prosodically, the mode engenders the end-stopped line. The lines of verse behave like the characters, each striving to stand in self-sufficient and self-assertive orotundity. A speech is like a recital of titles and honors (or dishonors, it makes no real difference):

But where's the great Alcides of the field,
Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,
Created, for his rare success in arms,
Great Earl of Washford, Waterford and Valence;
Lord Talbot of Goodrig and Urchinfield,
Lord Strange of Blackmore, Lord Verdun of Alton …

etc., etc., for six more lines. Joan's response is predictable:

Here's a silly stately style indeed! …
Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles
Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.

(IV, vii, 60-76)

But even in ridiculing the stately style, Joan pays unwilling homage to it by obediently falling into the vaunt-taunt pattern. The speakers may think they master and use the style, but in fact it masters and uses them. Margaret of Anjou becomes a kind of embodiment of it:

Henry: Your wondrous rare description, noble earl,
Of beauteous Margaret hath astonished 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.
Suffolk: Tush, my good lord, this superficial tale
Is but a preface to her worthy praise.
The chief perfections of that lovely dame,
Had I sufficient skill to utter them,
Would make a volume of enticing lines,
Able to ravish any dull conceit;
And, which is more, she is not so divine,
So full-replete with choice of all delights,
But with as humble lowliness of mind
She is content to be at your command.

(V, v, 1-19)

Is she indeed? This “volume of enticing lines” will presently become Queen of England: contentious rather than content, overbearing rather than humble. She will have a major share in the ensuing shipwreck. As she is here talked about, she furnishes as neat an illustration as we can hope for of a style which, seeming to do its master's bidding, drives him toward a disastrous conclusion.

Rhetorically, the mode engenders hyperbole—a relentless reaching for the superlative which, in the effort to outdo what has gone before, is sure to end in collapse. We are warned at the outset:

England ne'er had a king until his [Henry V's] time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command.
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 mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech.

(I, i, 8-15)

Here the mortal contention, closing with a feeble gasp, is between the similes of one speaker; elsewhere it is between those of two. In either case it is a “jarring discord of nobility”:

But howsoe'er, no simple man that sees
This jarring discord of nobility,
This should'ring of each other in the court …
But that [he] doth presage some ill event.

(IV, i, 187-191)

Where every line, every trope, every man strives for preeminence, what can come of it but “intestine broils”?

The mode of 1 Henry VI seeks, in fact compels the seeking of, the fullest self-assertion at every moment; it is impatient of indirection, refuses to sacrifice immediate effects for long-range gains. It permits strategic retreats as little as litotes, genuine negotiation as little as genuine dialogue; it always “goes for broke.” It has no sense of the implicit; whatever is not asserted does not exist. Its “order,” except where it is kept in check by external, higher authority, is that of combat; by inner necessity it escalates toward more and more violent confrontations. The duel, single or multiple, is its most adequate metaphor, until finally it drives even duelling into “mere oppugnancy,” sheer, vengeful slaughter (as it has in 3 Henry VI).

My intention has not been to point up once again the obvious faults of Shakespeare's “immature” style, but rather to suggest that he himself was fully aware of them. Even in this supposedly early play he has mastered the trick of making the style he employs comment upon itself; is a better description of it imaginable than “rigour of tempestuous gusts,” a phrase which catches precisely both its rigid compulsiveness and its destructive, blowhard yet short-winded unrestraint? But more important: Shakespeare has discovered that there is a perfect analogy between the verbal and the social order—an analogy that is almost an identity. Both the modus loquendi and the modus agendi of a society are governed by the same inner law or laws. For the dramatist who grasps this law, the stage is the world.


At this point I should like to construct a speculative little playlet of my own. I do not intend to claim historical validity for it, though I shall try to show that it is plausible, congruent with what we know. The playlet will serve me, I hope, to explain more easily and clearly the nature and implications of Shakespeare's discovery; but it is meant to be no more than a model, an interpretive device.

What little we do know about the textual history of the Henry VI plays indicates that they were involved in, were very possible the object of, a “war of the playwrights.” There is, first of all, Greene's famous attack on Shakespeare in A Groats-worth of Wit, with its allusion to 3 Henry VI. There is Chettle's subsequent apology, apparently at the instance of “diverse of worship,” for having published the attack. There is the fact that the theatre in question was the Rose; Shakespeare would hardly have been Shakespeare if he had not been aware of the strangely significant coincidence that the Rose should furnish the stage for a “War of the Roses” which at the same time figured importantly in a war of playwrights. (Witness his later awareness of the dramatic significance of the Globe.) There is, finally, the fact that plays often were written in collaboration—a practice which must have encouraged each playwright to try to be the best “Shake-scene,” to outdo his colleagues and competitors in the writing of theatrically effective scenes and let the play as a whole shift for itself.

Greene's attack has been variously interpreted and endlessly debated. The disintegrationists have naturally made the most of it, while the integralists have tended to explain it as the spiteful outburst of a bitter and destitute writer who saw himself neglected for a highly successful young rival. The integralist argument has been that where Henry VI sounds more like Greene or Nashe or Marlowe than like Shakespeare, we have evidence of a young poet's inevitable and natural tendency to imitate his elders, and that Greene's charge of plagiarism refers to this kind of imitation. But that can hardly be a correct reading of the passage. For Greene distinguishes explicitly between “past excellence” (“Let those apes imitate your past excellence”) and “inventions” (“and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions”).2He at least believed that the “feathers” with which Shakespeare had “beautified” himself were something a good deal more substantial than the imitation of past excellence; and his belief must have had sufficient basis in fact for his fellow playwrights to understand the allusion.

The question to ask, therefore, is: What did Greene mean by “admired inventions”? Let us imagine that several collaborating playwrights, Shakespeare and Greene among them, have met to block out a play or sequence of plays they have undertaken to do. Ideas are pooled, a division of labor is arranged. It becomes evident that each collaborator means to out-bombast the others as best he can; whereupon one of them, unwilling to see the whole torn apart by this contentious striving for short-range effects and personal glory, withdraws from the partnership and writes his own version of the play.

How are the others likely to react? Greene's attack, not only in general but in its actual wording, would be a very natural reaction. The others are almost certain to believe that their “admired inventions” were stolen by the defector, who, having picked their brains, then arrogantly set himself up as the “only Shake-scene” (i.e., demanding to write all the scenes), as an “absolute Iohannes fac totum.” And they are almost certain to have some plausible grounds for this belief; for, with the basic story given by the chronicles and the natural give-and-take of a planning session, there is bound to be considerable overlap between the ideas proposed and the defector's final product.

Greene's admonition to his fellow playwrights is most naturally read, I think, as a warning against any future collaboration with players, more especially with Shakespeare. Never, he enjoins, let the players see anything but your finished (and paid-for) products. Those they will imitate; let them. But beware of sitting down with them to plan a new play, for they will first steal your ideas and then (with a fine show of artistic integrity yet!) your credit. This reading would also explain the next sentence: “For it is pity men of such rare wits should be subject to the pleasures of such rude grooms.” Is not Greene here alluding to attempts by Shakespeare to curb the self-seeking and self-will of the other writers, or (as naturally Greene saw it) to lord it (a mere player!) over these rare University Wits?

The scene, then, of my model shows Shakespeare sitting with other playwrights, arguing for a coherent and organic scheme for the Henry VI plays and more and more unhappily watching his collaborators tear the whole apart in a compulsive contention for the “finest” scenes and “noblest” speeches—in a “jarring discord of nobility.” And suddenly the thought strikes him: Why shouldn't they? How could it be otherwise? Is not this exactly what the whole story is about? Are we not here enacting what we mean to represent? Would my idea of an integral dramatic whole not falsify the essence of the story we are supposed to tell? Is not the play we are here cutting into segments a perfect analogue of its true subject—England torn by civil war—and am I not in the position of Henry VI, a child, a mere beginner in the art of governing this play-world, surrounded by powerful and headstrong nobles, pleading helplessly for peace and amity, for subordination to the common purpose?

And then a further thought strikes him: Do we not also enact, act in, the very style in which, as dramatists, we speak? Is not this scene the inevitable result of the concept of ceremonial “order” implicit in that style, and is that concept of order not exactly analogous to the larger image of order, the “world picture” we have been taught to accept? Is there not a grim and self-destructive necessity governing a world, a kingdom, a body of playwrights, a play, or a speech which is constructed on this model? And if so, where is the remedy? Exit Shakespeare, pursued by troublesome doubts.


Where was the remedy? The first need would seem to be the discovery of what was wrong with the “picture.” What were its essential qualities? One was that it was static; it existed in space but not in time. It allowed for a limited amount of internal motion (though even that seemed rather an unhappy violation of its spirit, commotion rather than motion); but it did not allow for general progressive change. It valued stability to the point of rigidity; what occurred in it was not so much an ordered sequence of events leading from the past into a different future as a succession of exempla, episodes meant to point the same permanent morals. Enthroned at its apex sat God, the fount of honor, the source of all authority, more unmoved than mover, more substance than energy, a figure encrusted with the symbols of macrocosmic sovereignty. Below Him, step by step, stood the hierarchical “orders”: the angels in their various “degrees,” and then men: kings, nobles, burghers, peasants, and, near the very bottom, even vagrant comedians.

A second essential quality of the picture was that it was rigorously analogical. Differences were of degree; unity was assured by analogical identity. A king was “God in little,” while God was the “King of kings.” A kingdom was to Christendom what a dukedom was to the kingdom. There were also, of course, innumerable “collateral” analogies, whose force was symbolic rather than legal: to the animal kingdom, the vegetable kingdom, the “little kingdom” man, the kingdom of the heavens. For the explaining of actual events, these analogies were heavily drawn upon: “distempers” or “perturbations” at one level were mirrored by disturbances at other levels; a king who did not control his subjects was like a man who did not control his appetites. Everything was like everything else; beneath the diversity in degree there was a remarkable likeness in kind.

Third, harmony at any level depended on both the acknowledgment and the effective exercise of the authority vested in the next higher level. Order was not implicit but always external to what was being “kept in order”—and consequently explicit. Of course, the picture as a whole was supposed, ideally, to rest in beautiful and total harmony; if every inferior acted in unfailing obedience and every superior in unfailing wisdom and justice, there was no reason why authority had to become explicit. But obviously this was a mere ideal, not the observable reality; and since the picture was in fact used as a tool of government, as a means to inculcate obedience and to discourage “rebellion,” what was emphasized was the danger and wickedness of conflict and the duty, whenever conflict did arise, to submit to authority. The picture militated against any distinction between political and religious duty, between unlawful acts and sinful acts. Disobedience was the root and prototype of all evil, private as well as public; to it all sins were reducible. God was the King of kings much more than the Father, while the father was a “king in little,” as the king was “God in little.” At every level—since every level had some authority, i.e., some beings inferior to it over which it was appointed to rule—there was need for constant and explicit assertion of that authority. (I am speaking, of course, not of sociological realities in Elizabethan England, but of its world picture and what it implied.) The very logic which demanded submission in one direction demanded self-assertion, jealous insistence on one's place, titles, and prerogatives, in all others. Answerability was always vertical, never horizontal; always public, never private. When a man spoke on matters of importance, he spoke ceremonially, as belonging to a certain order, occupying a certain degree in the picture.

These, then, were the essential qualities of the picture; how well did it explain the actual events to be accounted for, the Wars of the Roses? At first glance, all seemed easy: England, under the rule of an ineffectual king, had fallen into dissension; her nobles had become rebellious and self-willed; and God had grievously punished her for these sins and failings. First she had lost her French possessions and then she had turned upon herself, falling into chaos and tyranny, until finally God had mercifully sent a redeemer, Henry VII.

But upon a closer look the picture proved to have some very disturbing consequences. Its structure of analogies contained the equation king=God; Tudor doctrine never tired of making that equation emphatically explicit, seemed in fact designed for no other purpose. But if under a king's ineffectual rule England suffered the horrors of the Barons' War, what followed about the King of kings and the horrors of, say, the Hundred Years' War?

A question not to be asked; and scholars and critics are virtually unanimous that Shakespeare, at least the Shakespeare of the histories, did not ask it. He would never have thought of drawing the analogy between the civil wars in England and the English wars against the “arch-enemy” France, however imperatively the God-king/Christendom-kingdom analogy seemed to demand it; his patriotism was logic-proof. But was it? Let us listen:

See, see the pining malady of———!
Behold the wounds, the most unnatural wounds,
Which thou thyself hast given her woeful breast.
O, turn thy edgéd sword another way;
Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those that help.
One drop of blood drawn from thy country's bosom
Should grieve thee more than streams of foreign gore.

(III, iii, 49-55)

This is not Henry or good Duke Humphrey pleading with one of the English barons; it is the witch Joan persuading Burgundy to break off his English alliance and return to his true allegiance. To be sure, as soon as Burgundy yields, she comments cynically: “Done like a Frenchman! Turn and turn again!” But that is precisely the point: this fine patriotic rhetoric is as available to her as to the sincerest Englishman—and more effective. The rhetoric is quite independent of the speaker's motives; it belongs to the nation. Which nation? We are at liberty to fill in the blank. Shakespeare gives it to France; and it strains credulity to believe that he did not know what he was doing. If Elizabethan attitudes argue otherwise, what—apart from the picture's logic, apart from Shakespeare's composing such a speech and then giving it to Joan—about medieval attitudes? The time lay not so far back when Christian kingdoms were considered provinces of Christendom and wars between Christian kings civil wars (so that the only pious war a king could wage was a crusade against the infidel). But if they were, what kind of sovereign was the King of kings?

There is, in 1 Henry VI, at least one clear sign that Shakespeare did ask this forbidden question. At the end of IV.i, Henry, claiming to “be umpire in this doubtful strife” between Lancaster and York, puts on a red rose and explains this gesture, seemingly so contrary to the impartiality he has just professed, by saying:

I see no reason, if I wear this rose,
That anyone should therefore be suspicious
I more incline to Somerset [Lancaster] than York.
Both are my kinsmen, and I love them both.
As well they may upbraid me with my crown,
Because, forsooth, the King of Scots is crowned.

(IV, i, 152-157)

I have not seen the last two lines glossed, though surely they are puzzling. Henry's argument makes sense only on the assumption that he happens to be King of England (and of France; he has just been crowned in Paris) in exactly the same sense as he happens to be of the house of Lancaster. Both are accidents of birth; they have no bearing on his function as umpire, which thus must rest on another quality altogether. That quality can only be his pious and loving Christian spirit, which is independent of his royal degree and both commands and entitles him to “instruct and teach” men to “continue peace and love.” This view of himself is perfectly in keeping with his bearing throughout the trilogy; but of course it is this same view which makes him so disastrously ineffectual as a king. Christian precept and example are not enough to keep the ceremonial world in order; what is required is the full exercise of higher authority. His claim to impartiality even while putting on the symbol of partisanship can mean only that he refuses to exercise that authority.

An impartiality truly divine; how many divisions has God? Suppose there is a war between England and Scotland (there had been so many that Scotland was almost as much an “arch-enemy” as France, was in fact usually in league with France against England); what then? Is not Henry here saying that a king of England warring against a king of Scotland or any other Christian king is, from the divine purview, doing exactly the same thing as Somerset quarreling with York? And in saying this, is he not faithfully obeying the “ana-logic” of the Elizabethan world picture? If, therefore, Christendom is continually ravaged by wars—

Henry: I always thought
It was both impious and unnatural
That such immanity and bloody strife
Should reign among professors of one faith

(V, i, 11-14)—

what blasphemous inference inescapably arises about the governance of the world and the fitness of its supreme head? Given the manifest facts of history, does not the world picture that is devised to give them meaning positively compel an impious conclusion?


At this point—if I may briefly resume my little dramatic fancy—it may well have occurred to Shakespeare that there was a mode of ruling other than the picture provided for, a form of authority other than that of ceremony backed by force. He did not even have to invent it; it was embedded in the story itself but so overlaid with the ceremonial pomp of the picture that it was easily overlooked. As told by Hall and others, the story was, after all, not just one of discord, a succession of more and more savage spectacles; it did have a unifying design: beginning, middle, and end. It began with Richard II and ended with Henry VII; it told how the English monarchy, once having fallen from the happy state of unbroken succession and unquestioned legitimacy, sank into ever deeper confusion (except for one brief and glorious reign) and had to suffer all the horrors of civil war and tyranny before order was restored through the happy “Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke” in the persons of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. That was the overall plot within which the events of the story had meaning; that was the design which created order out of the apparent chaos.

“Plot”? “Design”? What words were these? The effort to grasp the unity of the story seemed to call forth the vocabulary of sedition. In the picture designs and plots were proscribed; they were the work of “designing, crafty knaves,” sinister and ill-meaning men whose “policy” (another word of evil) could not stand the light of the sun. The world, unless it was disordered, was a “goodly frame,” essentially stationary, a palace that was like a statuesque body, or a body that was like a palace:

And all her body, like a palace fair,
Ascending up with many a stately stair.


Men who had grievances expected, and men who had done evil were summoned, to appear before the throne of justice to have their cases adjudicated—openly, explicitly, in due form. Sovereign decrees were solemnly promulgated and proclaimed by heralds or angels; every occasion was an occasion “of state,” provided with the appropriate ceremony. Even war and combat, though temporary breaches of order, were ritualized; “stratagems” were wicked and dishonorable, devil's work. Indeed, all that was indirect and hidden belonged to the ignoble sphere of Satan; God's world had no room for it.

Strange: the God of Tudor history turned out to be a being altogether different from what the picture called for. The range and complexity of His plots—not to mention of the Master Plot from Fall to Resurrection—were the envy and despair of any merely human plotter. History, more particularly English history from Richard II to Henry VII, was anything but an orderly succession of events in the ceremonial mode of Henry VI's pastoral dreaming:

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.

(3 Henry VI, II, v, 31)

“How sweet! how lovely” the world would be in which the Lord could be our shepherd. Evidently He couldn't; at least He wasn't. But neither was He the stern and prepotent judge and lord who in the fulness of His power and glory summoned evildoers directly and openly before His seat to receive their punishment and correction, or in righteous anger led His hosts against the rebellious. If He had heavenly hosts at His command, they must be committed elsewhere; at least they were not deployed in Christendom to check the wicked. The King of kings, it appeared, was altogether unlike His ideal earthly image, altogether unlike what the analogy to Henry V would lead one to expect.

What was He like, then? Surprisingly, He was like a dramatist. He planned, designed, plotted, employed stratagems; He worked by indirection and implication. Unable or unwilling to exert open authority and force, He nevertheless did not retreat into the pastoral mode, writing wistful Third, Fourth, and Fifth Shepherds' Plays and appealing to the still, small voice in men's hearts to do the rest. He wrote histories which, though on the surface they might look like savage spectacles, moved in truth by careful plotting toward an ordered conclusion. His purposes were hidden, wholly implicit in the design; while the action was still in progress, they could at most be guessed at. To the careless spectator as to the vain actor they were invisible: the actor would imagine that the play existed only to give him a chance to strut and rant and upstage his rivals, while the spectator would see it as a string of exciting episodes intended to entertain him, to confirm his nationalist self-esteem, and here and there (no pleasure is unalloyed) to point an obvious moral. But the divine dramatist knew better; in the end, and only then, His design would be manifest. And it might well be that the seemingly most episodic would, in retrospect, prove the most calculated and revealing.

With respect to kings and men of power, God evidently resembled the bad more than the good. Poor Henry VI, bullied by ambitious subjects, spoke his pitiful pieces and was discarded; but Richard III had an almost divine talent for long-range plotting. Generally, the more a king relied on the ceremonial mode and on the “picture” behind it, the surer was he to come to grief; witness Richard II. True, in the end even the plotters were only actors; the prouder they were of their subtle designs, the more harshly were they shown that they themselves had only played parts in a master plot. Their self-seeking vanity betrayed them; they could never resist the temptation to become explicit, to brag at least to the audience of their clever schemes. They fell short of the master dramatist's ultimate achievement: total self-effacement, complete immersion in the design. They wanted the glory as well as the power; even when, like Warwick, they were satisfied with being king-makers rather than kings, they wanted the world and the kings to know them as such. By their soliloquies they reimbursed themselves for the self-denial of plotting; they had not grasped the secret of divine dramaturgy: never to speak in the first person. Still, they had grasped enough of it to be temporarily successful. It was as though God, like men, judged less by virtue than by likeness to Himself and by pleasure received—as though He were bored by the arrangers of ritual and ceremonial tableaus and inclined to reward even wicked plotters for pleasing Him with genuine drama.


I seem to have moved far away from the Talbot-Countess episode, to have plunged headlong into the Intentional Fallacy, and constructed a playlet of my own under the presumptuous title “Shakespeare Thinking about Henry VI.” Let me repeat, therefore, that I claim no factuality for my drama, either in the setting or in the thought. I have tried to construct a model to account for observable facts, and I have chosen the narrative form simply because that seemed the best expository strategy. Like any other model, mine must be judged by the problems it solves—which brings me back to Talbot and the Countess, whom I hope I have kept in mind throughout.

Briefly to recapitulate: I began by pointing out that the scene shows every sign of being deliberately episodic and called attention to the programmatic contrast between the Countess' mode of speech and that of Talbot's reply. I identified the Countess' mode—which is that of the play as a whole—as ceremonial and argued that it is inherently combative and episodic. I then presented my model and tried to show not only that it satisfied the details of Greene's attack but, more importantly that it suggests how Shakespeare may have discovered some disquieting analogies between the problems he encountered in writing the play and problems at the heart of the Elizabethan world picture. The solution to these problems I described in terms of plotting.

Both Talbot and the Countess are plotters; but their plots are as different in quality as they are in final success. The Countess cannot resist telling us about hers:

The plot is laid: if all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus' death. …

(II, iii, 4-6)

Contrast Talbot upon accepting the Countess' invitation:

Come hither, captain. [whispers] You perceive my mind?

(II, ii, 59)

It is a contrast between a design announced, made explicit, and a design barely hinted at. It is at the same time a contrast between a less and a more encompassing plot, as well as between one that aims at personal glory and one that has no such aim. The parallel to, respectively, the Countess' mode of speech and Talbot's is evident.

What does the parallel signify? This question leads to the second part of the scene, in which the reason for the Countess' ill success is explained:

Countess: Long time thy shadow hath been thrall to me,
For in my gallery thy picture hangs;
But now the substance shall endure the like. …
Talbot: Ha, ha, ha! …
I laugh to see your ladyship so fond
To think that you have aught but Talbot's shadow. …
No, no, I am but shadow of myself.
You are deceived, my substance is not here;
For what you see is but the smallest part
And least proportion of humanity. …
Countess: How can these contrarieties agree?
Talbot: That will I show you presently.
[winds his horn: drums strike up: a peal of ordnance: enter soldiers]
How say you, madam? are you now persuaded
That Talbot is but shadow of himself?
These are his substance, sinews, arms and strength.

(II, iii, 36-63)

Talbot is the more successful plotter because he does not naively and vainly assert himself as a “first person,” a substantial being in and of himself. He is not what he is—to cite Shakespeare's favorite paradox for describing effective plotters. His strength lies precisely in his “negative capability,” his having learned the secret of self-effacement, of assertion only through the larger design.

We must be clear that this is the Talbot of the episode, not that of the rest of the play. The “character” Talbot does not essentially differ from the other characters. He is, to be sure, loyal to his king and country; he puts the common cause above personal gain if not always above glory. But his style is ceremonial, and it is style that determines likeness. The first time we see Talbot, he shows himself as concerned about his dignity as the proudest baron. When he was a prisoner of the French:

          With a baser man of arms by far
Once in contempt they would have bartered me;
Which I disdaining scorned and cravéd death
Rather than I would be so vile esteemed.
In fine, redeemed I was as I desired.

(I, iv, 30-34)

The French offer a remarkable bargain: the foremost English general for some nondescript soldier of their own. But ceremony is so much more important than function that Talbot refuses the bargain and, at risk of total loss, insists on a much worse one.

Talbot's notion of warfare is literally medieval, strictly ceremonial. When Joan takes Rouen by stratagem, he shouts “treason” and “hellish mischief” and challenges the French to come out and fight “like soldiers”:

Talbot: Dare ye come forth and meet us in the field?
Joan: Belike your lordship takes us then for fools,
To try if that our own be ours or no.
Talbot: I speak not to that railing Hecate,
But unto thee, Alençon, and the rest.
Will ye, like soldiers, come and fight it out?
Alençon: Signior, no.
Talbot: Signior, hang! base muleteers of France!
Like peasant foot-boys do they keep the walls
And dare not take up arms like gentlemen.

(III, ii, 61-70)

Railing Hecate! There is no need to multiply instances; Talbot never opens his mouth but to pay tribute to ceremony. In the end it is not he who captures Joan, but the wily plotter Richard of York. Talbot, unsuccoured by his contentious countrymen, is “tangled” in French “snares” and dies in glorious rhymed combat with his son over who should flee to fight again and who should die for the honor of the Talbot name. He makes a splendid exit:

Then follow thou thy desperate sire of Crete,
Thou Icarus; thy life to me is sweet.
If thou wilt fight, fight by thy father's side;
And, commendable proved, let's die in pride.

(IV, vi, 54-57)

Just as a reminder of what he sounded like when he did not get tangled in French snares, here is his reply to the Countess once more:

Madam, I have been bold to trouble you;
But since your ladyship is not at leisure,
I'll sort some other time to visit you.

Which of these two men, so strangely yoked by one name, is the “real” Talbot? It is the Countess' question. Relying on “great rumour” and “rare report” as well as on his picture in her gallery, she thinks to trap the man's substance, “writhled shrimp” though he suddenly turns out to be. His laughter makes her ask: “Why, art not thou the man?” It develops that where before she had but the shadow of his shadow, she still has no more than his shadow; substantiality is inversely proportional to illustriousness and “presence.” The substance escapes her; but in that one little scene she and we come as close as we ever shall to actually seeing the real Talbot. For only in that scene is he gifted, for a moment, with the style of speech and action which must be learned if his true purpose, the cause of England, is to be served. Sincerity of intention is not enough; valor and nobility do not ensure success—rather the contrary. His one brief moment, not of glory—of those he has only too many—but of genuinely dramatic effectiveness comes when he realizes that his substance is in the “sinews, arms and strength” of common, anonymous Englishmen and in the plot, the design in which they are made to act.

I believe that we can and must expand the question: “Who is the real Talbot?” into the broader one, “What is the real play, the real 1 Henry VI?” Some critics, usually disintegrationists, have called it a “Talbot-play,” taking their lead from Nashe's Pierce Penniless:

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.3

(There is the Countess' “picture” again!) The integralists, on the other hand, have argued that the real heroine of this as of the other histories is England, and that even Talbot is no more than a servant in her cause. I should say that the integralists are demonstrably in the right—but mostly on the strength of the Auvergne episode. For it is there, and there only, that Talbot clearly eliminates himself as “hero”; everywhere else he plays the part to the hilt.

This suggests that this most episodic of episodes is the “real” play, just as the Talbot in it is the “real” Talbot. How can that be? I am afraid the explanation will sound rather paradoxical, because in answer to the question: “How can these contrarieties agree?” I am unhappily not in the position to “wind my horn” and enact the answer physically. I shall try, however, to find help in my model. I suggested that Shakespeare saw the Wars of the Roses as a function and necessary product of the ceremonial style. This meant that, on the one hand, his immediate subject, if it was to be truly represented, required that style; while on the other hand his larger subject—the divine plot in which all the disorders and episodic contentions were but steps toward a new kind of unity and order—required a style altogether different. His way out of this dilemma was this: he plotted, on the whole, according to the new, functional style: looking ahead, condensing, eliminating episodic matter, adding and elaborating anticipatory scenes, strengthening the themes most important to the general design. But he wrote according to the old, ceremonial style—in part, quite possibly, because it was still the only style he fully controlled. But being Shakespeare, he could hardly be happy with these unresolved “contrarieties”—even though they were implicit in Tudor doctrine. So he plotted a scene which, looked at casually, seems purely episodic. But into the scene he wrote an utterly unexpected speech of three lines, which should startle us into looking closely. If we do, we discover that here the contrarieties, both in speech and in plotting, are made to confront each other, and that the victory goes to the new style—again both in speech and plotting. Drama wins over ceremony, self-effacement over self-assertion, the implicit over the explicit.

The expression “wins over” contains an ambiguity useful for my purpose; it can be read with the stress either on the first word or on the second. This brings me to the last part of the scene, which contains a final surprise. Of the “brave” Talbot, the “terror of the French,” we would surely expect that he would take the Countess' treachery in very ill part. How is a man who is outraged by a ruse of war (employed by a declared enemy) likely to react to the discovery that he was to be trapped by feigned hospitality? Given the general level of rage and vengefulness in the play, a clean killing—after fearful verbal abuse—would seem a mild form of retaliation. But no; apology is sufficient to win grace:

Countess: For I am sorry that with reverence
I did not entertain thee as thou art.
Talbot: Be not dismayed, fair lady; nor misconster
The mind of Talbot, as you did mistake
The outward composition of his body.
What you have done hath not offended me;
No other satisfaction do I crave,
But only, with your patience, that we may
Taste of your wine and see what cates you have;
For soldiers' stomachs always serve them well.
Countess: With all my heart, and think me honouréd
To feast so great a warrior in my house.

(II, iii, 71-82)

End of our scene. Having won over the Countess, Talbot now wins her over. Not with words or postures of ceremonial forgiveness; there is no kneeling and lifting up, no begging for mercy and magnanimous, magniloquent granting of it. The reconciliation is managed with unassertive kindness and wholly implicit generosity: “What you have done hath not offended me.” It has not offended him because this is the real Talbot, whose mind we misconstrue if we interpret it by his “outward composition” in the rest of the play. This is the sovereign plotter, who has learned from his divine counterpart both the style and the responsibilities that go with such plotting and such sovereignty.

Shakespeare's ultimate purpose is not to unite the English by whipping and stirring them with self-assertive nationalist bombast into once again being “the terror of the French,” by directing their vainglory and ceremonial combativeness outward. That style is outdated, undramatic; worse, it is self-defeating. Not only do the French master the same style (in fact, Henry V suggests that originally it was a French style, which the English adopted to their sorrow); the style is too readily importable for domestic use. Having learned to employ it against the French, the Yorks and Lancasters, the Suffolks and Cliffords (as well as the Raleighs and Essexes?) are only too ready to use it upon each other. The disorder in the world of Henry VI is not so much a rupture, a break in the chain of ordered being; it is a disease, an infection endemic in the all-too-pure, all-too-ceremonial lily that makes the noble flower smell far worse than weeds.

Shakespeare's ultimate purpose is greater, more encompassing, dictated by the new analogy (God-dramatist) he has discovered and by the old analogy (Christendom-Kingdom) he has rediscovered beneath the rhetoric of nationalism. His immediate responsibility is to his nation; he does speak English, he is not God. But that responsibility is to teach his nation a new style: of grace, of easy self-confidence, of implicit courtesy and generosity, of function rather than ceremony. United by and in this style, England would deserve to “win over” other nations and to play a leading part in the divine masterplot. After the “Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke” there is promise of a still greater union, no longer “noble and illustre” but for that very reason likely to prove finer and truer, more lasting and closer to men's real needs:

No other satisfaction do I crave,
But only, with your patience, that we may
Taste of your wine and see what cates you have.

But that final feast is still far off—many wars off. The action is still in progress; the design can only be guessed at. Meanwhile—a brief interlude of ease and grace in a spectacle of bloody stridency—the glimpse of it must suffice to keep up the soldier's energy and spirit:

For soldiers' stomachs always serve them well.

A concluding comment on the textual question seems in order. If the foregoing interpretation is valid—by which I mean, necessary to solve the problems posed by 1 Henry VI as a work of literature—it is a plausible guess that the play as we have it was reworked by Shakespeare. The shape of the original version, and hence the degree of Shakespeare's revisions, we can only surmise. It may be that the original play was indeed a “Talbot-play,” a collaborative effort; that might account for Nashe's suspiciously generous praise of it. In that case my “model” would have to be adjusted—for instance, by assuming that it was Greene who bitterly withdrew (because he had been overruled by Shakespeare and his colleagues had failed to support him?), while the others stayed and did the job. Greene's attack would then be a plea for solidarity among playwrights against players—a very possible reading of it. Shakespeare's experiences would still be essentially what I suppose them to have been; in fact, the necessity of taking a hand in the making of an unsatisfactory play may have made them still more pointed. If so, it would be this play which he reworked, rather than a version that he could call fully his own. As for the date of the revision, I would propose one close to King John (1595?), which Shakespeare reworked from The Troublesome Reign of King John in a spirit and manner quite similar to that of 1 Henry VI.4 But these are all surmises; they are secondary, to be accommodated to what I am convinced is the primary evidence: the Folio play as an integral whole and the meanings implicit in its design and style.


  1. For the most complete and thorough statement of the “integralist” case, literary as well as textual, see A. S. Cairncross' introduction to his edition of 1 Henry VI (Arden Shakespeare, London, 1962), which refers abundantly to other recent criticism. For the “disintegrationist” position, see J. D. Wilson's introduction to the play, Cambridge edition (Cambridge, 1952).

  2. A. B. Grossart, Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse of Robert Greene (New York, 1964), vol. xii, p. 144.

  3. R. B. McKerrow, Works of Thomas Nashe (London, 1910), vol. i, p. 212.

  4. Cf. the following essay on King John.

Gwyn Williams (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “Suffolk and Margaret: A Study of Some Sections of Shakespeare's Henry VI,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 310-22.

[In the essay below, Williams probes Shakespeare's presentation of an unhistorical love affair between Queen Margaret of Anjou and the Earl of Suffolk as the dramatist's first attempt at staging romantic relationships with tragic consequences.]

The illicit love affair which Shakespeare gave to Queen Margaret and the Earl (afterward Duke) of Suffolk in 1 and 2 Henry VI is unhistorical. At a time when Shakespeare for his dramatic purposes was ruthlessly simplifying and trimming history, he chose to invent this tragic and, to most people, disagreeable love story, basing his invention only on some hints in Hall's Chronicle. There appears to have been no demanding reason, dramatically, for this invention, even though it does link together Parts 1 and 2 to a degree which makes them seem one play. Some other situation, vouched for by history, could have done this equally well. When Shakespeare omitted or cut material from a source he was using, the dramatic purpose of the omission or cutting down is usually clear to us. But when he enlarged or invented on the basis of a hint and if there is no conspicuous dramatic need for the innovation, then one may be allowed to suspect a particular interest on Shakespeare's part in this addition to the story.

Let us look closely at the relationship between Princess Margaret, later Queen of England, and Suffolk as given by Shakespeare. In 1 Henry VI, V. iii., the French are defeated and Joan la Pucelle is taken prisoner by the Duke of York. Margaret becomes, unhistorically, Suffolk's prisoner. Before he knows who she is, he is impressed by her beauty. He enters, dragging her by the hand, “Be what thou wilt, thou art my prisoner” (l. 45).1 She has clearly been protesting her importance. He pauses to look at her:

O fairest beauty, do not fear, nor fly,
For I will touch thee but with reverent hands:
I kiss these fingers for eternal peace
And lay them gently on thy tender side.
Who art thou? Say, that I may honour thee.

(ll. 46-50)

She gives him her name and rank and he replies with his. Then follows a curious Wooing Scene in which Suffolk fights a delaying action while he works a plan to win her for himself:

Be not offended, nature's miracle,
Thou art allotted to be ta'en by me.

(ll. 54-55)

Then, seeing a disdainful look on her face (we must remember that this is the future “she-wolf of France”), he says, “Go, and be free again, as Suffolk's friend” (l. 59). As she turns to go he stops her:

O stay. … I have no power to let her pass;
My hand would free her but my heart says no.

(ll. 60-61)

He is daunted by her “gorgeous beauty” and dares not speak. He thinks of calling for pen and paper and putting his love in writing, but is ashamed of his weakness. She now offers a ransom but he turns aside, muttering his perplexity and trying to find a way out of his difficulty. The difficulty is, of course, that he is already married.

Fond man, remember that thou hast a wife;
Then how can Margaret be thy paramour?

(ll. 81-82)

He continues these asides for nine consecutive speeches, which are interspersed with her comments which express a growing puzzlement and the thought that he must be mad. Losing patience she shouts at him:

Hear ye, Captain—are you not at leisure?

(l. 97)

He has now conceived the idea of marrying her to his king, and he turns to speak directly to her. But she now speaks aside, giving him what she calls “quid for quo.” He makes the offer and almost a serious and revealing gaffe:

I'll undertake to make thee Henry's queen,
To put a golden sceptre in thy hand
And set a precious crown upon thy head,
If thou wilt condescend to be my—
Mar. What?
Suf. His love.

(ll. 117-21)

He has retrieved the situation superficially, but his speech continues to reveal the confusion in his mind. When she protests her unworthiness to be Henry's wife he replies,

No, gentle madam, I unworthy am
To woo so fair a dame to be his wife
And have no portion in the choice myself.

(ll. 123-25)

She is content with this ambiguous offer. Up to this point everything is unhistorical except the fact that Suffolk is married, that he did suggest the marriage of Henry and Margaret, and that Margaret was impressive in beauty and personality. Hall said, “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.”2 One gets the impression that she understands what Suffolk hopes to gain by the arrangement and there is no sign of confusion in her mind. Her father, Reignier, quickly agrees and makes a hard bargain which Suffolk undertakes will be accepted. As they part, Reignier embraces Suffolk and Margaret says,

Farewell, my lord. Good wishes, praise and prayers
Shall Suffolk ever have of Margaret.

(ll. 173-74)

He does not want to let her go and asks whether she has any message for the King. She answers modestly but he presses her: “No loving token for his majesty?” (l. 181). She answers,

Yes, my good lord, a pure unspotted heart,
Never yet taint of love, I send the king.
Suf. And this withal. [Kisses her]
Mar. That for thyself. I will not so presume
To send such peevish token to a king.

(ll. 182-86)

All this is done and said in the presence of her father. They understand each other already. When Margaret and Reignier have gone out, Suffolk soliloquizes. He wants her for himself but he is horrified at what this may involve:

O wert thou for myself! But Suffolk, stay;
Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth;
There minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.

(ll. 187-89)

Even if he is able to avoid the dangers, she may be Ariadne to his Theseus, a not entirely happy story. He decides to praise her virtues and natural graces to Henry in such a manner as will “bereave him of his wits with wonder.” We do not hear Suffolk praising Margaret to the King, for when Act V, scene v, begins Suffolk has ended his account of Margaret's charms and Henry is suitably impressed. He is easily induced by Suffolk to break off his betrothal to the Earl of Armagnac's daughter, in spite of the protests of Gloucester and Exeter. Henry asks Suffolk to return at once to France to bring back Margaret. Part 1 ends with Suffolk's comment:

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.

(V. v. 103-8)

The comparison with Paris is apt, for he intends to steal a king's wife. He realizes the dangers implied in the comparison but hopes to be luckier in the end than Paris was. We remember the disasters brought upon Troy by Paris's exploit, and we are prepared for similar results in England. The last line of the soliloquy is an echo of Hall: Suffolk “by the meanes of the Quene, was shortely erected to the estate and degree of a Duke, and ruled the Kyng at his pleasure.”3 Again, before dying, Suffolk will compare himself to heroes of antiquity (2 Henry VI, IV.i.), with no sign of irony on Shakespeare's part but rather the hint that we should take him seriously. Similarly, Margaret compares herself to Dido (III.ii.115-18), and Suffolk's farewell speech (end of III.ii.) has echoes of the exiled Ovid's complaint to his wife.4 Shakespeare put this pair of lovers in famous company.

2 Henry VI begins with Suffolk presenting Margaret to the King. It appears that he has actually married her on Henry's behalf, and this is historical. History also records that Suffolk's wife went with him to France, and she would have kept a watchful eye on the proceedings, but in Shakespeare Suffolk goes untrammeled. What is unhistorical and invented by Shakespeare is for Margaret to praise Suffolk as her champion in the lists during these preliminary wedding celebrations (see below). All that Hall had to say is, “There wer triumphaunt Justes, costly feastes, and delicate banquettes.”5 The King is overwhelmed by Margaret's beauty and “her grace in speech.” He creates Suffolk Duke and leaves the stage with him and Margaret, leaving Gloucester to fulminate against the alliance.

In Act I, scene iii, the Queen and Suffolk are walking in the palace grounds—clearly confirmed now in their intimacy—when they meet some petitioners, one of whom takes Suffolk to be Gloucester, the Lord Protector. The petitions anger both the Queen and Suffolk, and Margaret complains about her treatment at Court. She is annoyed that her husband is “a pupil still,” and she compares him unfavorably with Suffolk:

I tell thee, Pole, when in the city Tours
Thou ran'st a tilt in honour of my love,
And stol'st away the ladies' hearts of France,
I thought King Henry had resembled thee
In courage, courtship and proportion;
But all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads …

(ll. 50-56)

Suffolk tries to content her with a promise:

Madam, be patient: as I was the cause
Your Highness came to England, so will I
In England work your Grace's full content.

(ll. 65-67)

Their association is partly one of political ambition, but it is important to remember that he fell in love with her before he knew who she was and certainly before he conceived the plan of marrying her to his king.

Suffolk is already setting traps for Margaret's enemies, notably the Gloucesters. The spirit's answers in the séance contrived by Suffolk are Shakespeare's inventions and the unhistorical prophecy, “By water shall he die and take his end” (I.iv.32), is remembered by Suffolk on the day of his death. In the play Margaret's great rival is Eleanor, duchess of Gloucester, and this again is unhistorical for Eleanor's humiliation took place four years before Margaret came to England. Shakespeare brought it forward so that the struggle for control of the King and of England should fall chiefly between Suffolk and Margaret on the one hand and Gloucester and his wife on the other. A brilliant invention on Shakespeare's part is the dropping of the fan by Margaret and the box she administers to Eleanor's ear in the pretense that she took her for a servant. Eleanor's answer sends shivers down one's back:

                    … proud Frenchwoman,
Could I come near your beauty with my nails,
I'd set my ten commandments in your face.


In Act II, scene i, Suffolk, in close attendance on Henry and Margaret, feels confident enough to taunt Gloucester, and in Act III, scene i, he arrests Gloucester on a trumped-up charge of treason. Beaufort, York, and Suffolk decide on Gloucester's death in the presence of Margaret and by the next scene Gloucester is dead, strangled by Suffolk's murderers. He has been laid in a bed to counterfeit a natural death. The King knows that it is murder, but Margaret defends Suffolk and puts on an act of ill-treated martyrdom. Warwick enters to announce that the commons have heard a report that Gloucester has been murdered by Suffolk and Beaufort and that they demand to know the truth. Warwick indicates the evidence of murder in the dead Gloucester's appearance, and a shouting match between Warwick and Suffolk leads to the drawing of weapons.

At the demand of the commons, Henry banishes Suffolk. Margaret pleads for him in vain, and they are left alone on the stage to curse their enemies and bewail their coming separation. She weeps over his clutched hand and then kisses it:

O, could this kiss be printed in thy hand,
That thou might'st think upon these by the seal
Through whom a thousand sighs are breath'd for thee.


(This is the first occurrence of the seal-mouth image which runs through Shakespeare's work.) They embrace and kiss, “Loather a hundred times to part than die” (l. 354). For Suffolk the banishment is from her, not from England:

'Tis not the land I care for, wert thou thence:
A wilderness is populous enough
So Suffolk had thy heavenly company.

(ll. 358-60)

He asks her to let him stay with her, even at the risk of death:

If I depart from thee I cannot live;
And in thy sight to die, what were it else
But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?
Here could I breathe my soul into the air,
As mild and gentle as the cradle-babe
Dying with mother's dug between its lips;
Where, from thy sight, I should be raging mad,
And cry out for thee to close up mine eyes,
To have thee with thy lips to stop my mouth.
So shouldst thou either turn my flying soul
Or I should breathe it so into thy body
And then it liv'd in sweet Elysium …

(ll. 387-98)

But they must part; she in the hope of meeting again, he full of foreboding of death:

Mar. Though parting be a fretful corrosive,
It is applied to a deathful wound.
To France, sweet Suffolk! Let me hear from thee,
For whereso'er thou art in this world's globe
I'll have an Iris that shall find thee out.
Suf. I go.
Mar. And take my heart with thee. [She kisses him.]
Suf. A jewel lock'd into the woefull'st cask
That ever did contain a thing of worth.
Even as a splitted bark so sunder we:
This way fall I to death.
Mar. This way for me.

(ll. 402-12)

So ends Act III, scene ii. Almost immediately, in Act IV, scene i, comes Suffolk's end. In a sea battle on his way to France, Suffolk has been taken prisoner with two other gentlemen. Hall tells us that his head was struck off on the side of a cock boat; head and body were left on the shore to be picked up by Suffolk's chaplain, who took the body to Wingfield College for burial. Shakespeare's invented version is very different. According to him, the two gentlemen promise to pay for their freedom but Suffolk has been allotted to Walter Whitmore—a character unknown to history but invented by Shakespeare to carry out the similarly invented prophecy that Suffolk will die by water, Walter being pronounced as water. Whitmore has lost an eye in the affray and is determined to kill Suffolk in dogged retribution. Suffolk recognizes the Captain6 as one who has served at Court, and he trusts that this will save him. But the proud and contemptuous way in which he reminds the Captain of his former servile state hardens the latter's heart against him. In return, the Captain bitterly and offensively recounts the memory of what he has observed at Court. He lays the losses in France, the troubles at home, and the death of Gloucester squarely at Suffolk's door. Punning on Suffolk's family name, Pole (pronounced pool), he cries out,

                    Poole! Sir Poole! Lord!
Ay, kennel, puddle, sink, whose filth and dirt(7)
Troubles the silver spring where England drinks.
Now will I dam up this thy yawning mouth,
For swallowing the treasure of the realm.
Thy lips that kiss'd the Queen shall sweep the ground. …


To Shakespeare's mind, the physical degree to which the love of Margaret and Suffolk had gone must have been common knowledge at Court. Whitmore has mockingly referred to Suffolk as the “forlorn swain” (l. 65), the abandoned lover of the Queen, for that is surely the intention of this cruel joke. Suffolk at first pleads the Queen's commission, but then his pride supervenes and he decides to die bravely, without any further attempt to soften his captors:

Come soldiers, show what cruelty you can,
That this my death may never be forgot.
Great men oft die by vile besonians:
A Roman soldier and banditto slave
Murder'd sweet Tully; Brutus' bastard hand
Stabb'd Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.

(ll. 132-38)

He is removed for execution and a moment later Whitmore carries the severed head and body onto the stage, saying,

There let his head and lifeless body lie,
Until the Queen his mistress bury it.

(ll. 142-43)

The horrified Gentleman cries out,

O barbarous and bloody spectacle!
His body will I bear unto the King:
If he revenge it not, yet will his friends;
So will the Queen, that living held him dear.

(ll. 144-47)

But we are not told who took the head to the Queen. A little later, in Act IV, scene iv, we see Margaret in King Henry's presence, holding Suffolk's head to her breast. Grief has made her reckless in shamelessly acknowledging her love.

Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind,
And makes it fearful and degenerate;
Think therefore on revenge, and cease to weep.
But who can cease to weep and look on this?
Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast,
But where's the body that I should embrace?

(ll. 1-6)

It is not long since she held the living head of her departing lover to her breast. While the King discusses the Jack Cade rebellion with his lords, Margaret continues her lament:

Ah! barbarous villains, hath this lovely face
Rul'd like a wandering planet over me,
And could it not enforce them to relent
That were unworthy to behold the same?

(ll. 15-18)

The King turns to her:

How now, madam?
Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk's death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou wouldst not have mourn'd so much for me.

Even in this situation she is quick-witted enough to reply, with ready and triumphant hypocrisy, “My love, I should not mourn but die for thee” (ll. 21-24). The rebels are reported to be drawing near and Margaret says that if Suffolk were alive, “the Kentish rebels would be soon appeased.” The King calls to her, “Come, Margaret; God, our hope, will succour us.” As she goes out, still nursing the head, she replies, “My hope is gone, now Suffolk is deceas'd” (ll. 54-55).

So ends the story of Suffolk and Margaret, but there is yet another, more oblique reference to this love in the suggestion, in 3 Henry VI (II.ii.131ff.), that the Prince of Wales is its fruit. The spirited young prince stands up to Warwick:

If that be right which Warwick says is right,
There is no wrong, but everything is right.

Warwick comments,

Whoever got thee, there thy mother stands.

Ten lines later Edward, soon to be Edward IV, attacks Margaret as a “shameless callet.”

Helen of Greece was fairer far than thou,
Although thy husband may be Menelaus;
And ne'er was Agamemnon's brother wrong'd
By that false woman as this king by thee.

We remember Suffolk's description of himself going to France to bring Margaret to England, “As did the youthful Paris once to Greece” (1 Henry VI, V.v.104). Critics and commentators appear to have ignored the paternity of Edward, Prince of Wales, as implied by these speeches and therefore as it appeared to Shakespeare.

This then is the tragic tale of adulterous love which Shakespeare based upon the merest hints in history. Hall once referred to Suffolk as “the Quenes dearlynge” and stated that the Queen “entierly loved the Duke,”8 but even here darling could mean favorite (there is a reference to the Queen's “minions”) and the entire love is not necessarily sexual. Holinshed, whose Chronicle Shakespeare closely followed, omitted these hints of an affection but stressed the close association of Suffolk and Margaret in the control of the country. In tracing the disruption of England under Henry VI, Holinshed wrote, “Richard, duke of Yorke, … perceiving the king to be no ruler, but the whole burthen of the realme to rest in direction of the queene, & the duke of Suffolke, began secretile to allure his friends of the nobilitie.”9 When the commons began openly to accuse Suffolk of being the cause of the many ills afflicting England, Holinshed said, “The queene hereat, doubting not onelie the dukes destruction, but also hir owne confusion, caused the parlement, before begun at the Blackfriers, to be adjourned to Leicester; thinking there, by force and rigor of law, to suppresse and subdue all the malice and evill will conceived against the duke & hir.”10 Shakespeare is justified by the Chronicles for holding this disastrous association of Suffolk and Margaret, as much as the weakness of the King, responsible for the fearful events which the tetralogy relates. He went yet further. But for this love, to Shakespeare's mind, the French provinces would not have been lost, the good Duke of Gloucester would not have been murdered, the crown would not have passed to the house of York, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, might never have had the opportunities for the slaughter which brought him to the throne as Richard III. When later, in Richard III, we watch the aging Margaret lurking in the background to observe the terrible consequences of her association with Suffolk and of her husband's holy weakness, we should remember this, her only love. It is Shakespeare's first essay in tragic, destructive love, and there is something grand in this shameless affection between two passionate, ruthless, and physically splendid lovers. That it is neither historically nor dramatically called for may be the reason why Shakespeare partly concealed it by dividing it between two plays. Of course, it does tie Parts 1 and 2 together in the most exciting way, since we see Suffolk's statement of his intentions in the last lines of Part 1 being put into operation at the very beginning of Part 2. Put wholly into one play, however, this stated purpose and its carrying out could steal the show and make a mock of history. But spoken in their entirety, as they probably were in the original productions, the Suffolk-Margaret scenes would hold their own against the historical material, and the more intimate and continuous association of the lovers on the stage, even in the presence of other characters, would give flesh to Shakespeare's view of this segment of English history.

Recent productions of Henry VI, concentrating on the Wars of the Roses rather than on the human interest and relationships of Shakespeare's play and making the weakness of the King and the ruthless covetousness of the barons the cause of all, have cut the three great scenes—the courtship, the farewell, and the death of Suffolk—so that the love story almost disappears from the play and the nursing of Suffolk's severed head by Margaret almost becomes a shocking irrelevance. Critics and commentators too have played it down, embarrassed perhaps that a queen of England should have behaved thus and that Shakespeare should have invented such a tasteless story. Other meaningless excisions in recent productions—the omission of the Countess-Talbot and Pucelle-Burgundy scenes in 1 Henry VI at Stratford—have robbed that play of passages of high and complex human interest and made such productions heavy with history, shorn of those parts of these plays which perhaps most interested their author, partly because he invented them.

Suffolk's brave death and the effects his deeds had, in Shakespeare's view, on English history, raise him to tragic level. His comparison of his own death with those of Tully, Julius Caesar, and Pompey is not there to be laughed at; neither is his own likening of himself to Paris and of Margaret to Helen, nor the associations with Dido and Aeneas and Ovid and his wife. And one is inevitably reminded of Lancelot and Guinevere.11 The disastrous consequences of this love were made by Shakespeare to seem similar to those of the other adulterous love upon Troy, which Shakespeare was to set forth in Troilus and Cressida. It is a love as splendidly physical but as morally and politically reprehensible as that of Antony and Cleopatra, while Margaret in her ferocity is an earlier Lady Macbeth. For Margaret, Suffolk is the only love, the rest is bitterness. For Suffolk, the world was well lost in her service and its memory enables him to die nobly and proudly. Margaret's nursing of the hewn-off head is a tribute unique in love stories. His loss and the fuller realization of the unheroic qualities of her husband turn her into the doomed and desperate warrior queen, not to be released by death but to live on into Richard III—a malevolent ghost haunting Richard, commenting on the fateful developments, and cursing her enemies. The attitude of conventional morality to this love is expressed not in Henry's peevish comments but in the Lieutenant's condemnation,12 and here the rough English view triumphs in dooming Suffolk unceremoniously to death. So respectable Romans must have thought of Antony and Cleopatra. But Margaret's exit with the head could be almost as strange and awe-inspiring as the madness of Lady Macbeth if the full text were performed to sustain it.

The historical part of the Suffolk story, as it was presented by the Tudor historians,13 was sufficiently well known to be used as a moral example in A Myrroure for Magistrates (1559), “How Lorde William Delapole Duke of Suffolke was worthily punyshed for abusing his Kyng and causing the destruction of good Duke Humfrey.” But there is no mention of love here either. How effective Shakespeare's distortions of and additions to history were may be judged from Drayton's Englands Heroicall Epistles (1598). Drayton pretended to depend upon “Chronicle Historie” in compiling these imaginary verse letters between famous English lovers, and on the title page he directed his readers to observe his pertinent annotations. But he had only Shakespeare's authority for a famous love between Queen Margaret and Suffolk, and much of what Drayton gave as historical fact is Shakespearean invention. In the Epistle from “Elinor Cobham to Duke Humphrey,” we are told, “Poole needs must have his Darling made a Queene” (l. 80).14 (Does the use of the word darling here suggest that Drayton too had read Hall before writing these Epistles?) “The Argument” of the exchange of letters between Suffolk and Margaret begins:

This Duke of Suffolke, William, to advance
A Lady, long belov'd of him in France,
His Mistris, Margaret, that Duke Rayners Child,
Himselfe who of Jerusalem instyl'd
The King: this Poole, his Darling to preferre,
Betwixt young Henry, nam'd the sixt, and her,
Concludes a Marriage. …

(p. 230)

Margaret's letter is written after Suffolk's banishment, and she expresses her sense of personal and political deprivation. She warns Suffolk of the dangers of the sea:

I pray thee, Poole, have care how thou do'st passe,
Never the Sea yet halfe so dang'rous was;
And one fore-told, by Water thou should'st die. …

(p. 242; ll. 139-41)

Drayton solemnly annotated this as though it came from the Chronicles. “The Witch of Eye received answere from her Spirit, That the Duke of Suffolke should take heed of Water: Which the Queene fore-warnes him of, as remembring the Witches Prophesie; which afterwards came to passe” (p. 246). We know, of course, that Shakespeare was the only source of this prophecy.

But if the Chronicles are silent, apart from the merest hints, in the matter of the love of Margaret and Suffolk, there is another source to suggest an authentic love affair between them. Suffolk has been revealed as a courtly poet, and poems previously attributed to Charles D'Orléans are now generally accepted as by Suffolk.15 One of these at least, “Praise of a Flower,” is taken as having been addressed to Queen Margaret (Marguerite). It begins,

Myn hert ys set, and all myn hole entent,
To serve this flour in my most humble wyse
As faythfully as can be thought or ment,
Wyth-out feynyng or slouthe in my servyse;
For wytt the wele, yt ys a paradyse
To se this floure when yt begyn to sprede,
Wyth colours fressh ennewyd, white and rede.(16)

Another poem is a conventional complaint against fortune, but yet another (p. 189) is entitled “Lettyr” and begins,

Myn hertys Ioy, and all myn hole plesaunce,
Whom that I serve and shall do faythfully.

In spite of the “wyth-out feynyng,” “Praise of a Flower” might be dismissed as a courtly exercise in the manner of medieval gallantry, but this last little poem has a ring of sincerity which might well have come from Suffolk's banishment:

I wryte to yow no more for lak of space,
But I beseche the only trinite
Yow kepe and save be support of hys grace,
And be your sheld from all adversyte.
Go lytill byll, and say thou were wyth me
Of verey trouth, as thou canst wele remembre,
At myn upryst, the fyft day of Decembre.(17)

Had Drayton actually seen any of Suffolk's poems? I almost think he had when I read in Margaret's Epistle,

My Daisie flower, which erst perfum'd the ayre,
Which for my favour Princes dayn'd to weare …

(p. 241; ll. 89-90)

But the play on Daisy-Marguerite-Margaret is perhaps too obvious to require knowledge of Suffolk's poem. Drayton noted, “The Daisie in French is called Margarite, which was Queene Margarets Badge; wherewithall the Nobilitie and Chivalrie of the Land, at her first Arrivall, were so delighted, that they wore it in their Hats, in token of Honour” (pp. 244-45).

It may be equally idle to speculate whether Shakespeare might have read or heard of Suffolk's poems for, even if he had, this would not lessen the range and significance of his inventions in setting forth this story and in linking it with the struggle for power. In Suffolk and Margaret, Shakespeare was already reaching out toward his great tragic relationships, not with full confidence yet but with astonishing boldness for an early play with which he was hoping to establish himself in the world of the theater. And he did this with more poetry, insight, and power than his Henry VI is usually credited with.


  1. The First Part of King Henry VI, Arden edition, ed. A. S. Cairncross (London, 1962). All quotations are from this edition unless otherwise noted.

  2. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (London, 1550), fol. cxlviiiv.

  3. Hall, fol. cxlix-cl. The last line of Suffolk's speech resembles the younger Mortimer's plea to Queen Isabella in Marlowe's Edward II, “Be ruled by me, and we will rule the realme …” (Edward II, V. ii. 5, ed. W. M. Merchant, New Mermaid, Benn, London, 1967, l. 2147). But both these lines are traceable to the Chronicles, and the relationship between Queen Isabella and Mortimer is similar to that between Margaret and Suffolk. Both women become warrior queens; Isabella before, Margaret after her lover's death. Mortimer's severed head is brought onto the stage, but immediately after Isabella's exit at the end of the play. Shakespeare went much further in intensifying the passion between the lovers and in the invention of the prolonged farewell and the pathetic and grotesque hugging of Suffolk's head by Margaret. The adulterous affair is more dramatically justifiable but less interesting in Marlowe's play than in Shakespeare's, but the question of influence awaits agreement on the relative dating of the two plays.

  4. The Second Part of King Henry VI, Arden edition, ed. A. S. Cairncross (London, 1957), p. 96. Further quotations from the play are from this edition unless otherwise noted.

  5. Hall, fol. cxlviii.

  6. Referred to as “Lieutenant” in FF.

  7. There have been several attempts to clear up some confusion in these two lines. This is substantially the First Folio version. For others, see Arden edition, ed. Cairncross, p. 104.

  8. Hall, fol. clviii.

  9. Raphael Holinshed, … The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (London, 1587), III, 627.

  10. Holinshed, III, 631.

  11. Arden edition, ed. Cairncross, p. liv.

  12. IV. i. 69-102.

  13. Modern historians have found him a worthier person.

  14. Michael Drayton, Works, ed. William Hebel (Oxford, 1931-41), II, 217. All quotations are taken from this edition.

  15. See H. N. MacCracken, “An English Friend of Charles of Orléans,” PMLA, XXVI, new ser., XIX (1911), 142-80.

  16. Quotations from R. H. Robbins, Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (Oxford, 1952), p. 186.

  17. Robbins, p. 190.

Donald G. Watson (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “The Dark Comedy of the Henry VI Plays,” in Thalia, Vol. 1, No. 2, Autumn, 1978, pp. 11-21.

[In the essay below, Watson traces the farcical, sardonic, and grotesque patterns of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

Although the three parts of Henry VI have always offered more than their fair share of grist for the mills of historical scholarship, only recently have they attracted much appreciation or critical interest as plays. After several fine productions and interpretive essays, it no longer seems necessary to excuse them as the products of composite authorship, an inchoate genre, or a young playwright's apprenticeship. This essay will explore their theatricality, concentrating upon those scenes which are essentially comic or whose ironic, macabre, or grotesque tone places them very near the comic. As the comedy in the first tetralogy progressively darkens from the laughter of derision in Part 1 to the macabre violence of Richard III, its place in each play expands from pervasive but limited farce and mockery to grotesque villainy and satanic horror. Often grim, sometimes savage, this farcical humor, I believe, is central to an understanding of the plays, not merely because it creates effective theatre but also because it deliberately and aggressively challenges the audience's assumptions about the relationship of politics and morality.1


In Thomas Nashe's words, 1 Henry VI is the tragedy of “brave Talbot (the terror of the French)” whose “bones” are “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.”2 But the play is more than that: Talbot's “tragedy” is but a moment in a play otherwise filled with derisive laughter, knockabout farce, disorder that is more comic than tragic, irony that is more sardonic than sympathetic. Talbot, a monumental and thoroughly admirable epic hero, dies before the end of Act IV, and his pathetic though somewhat stagy death is followed by the undeniably comic humiliation of Joan La Pucelle (V.4) and the ominous ironies of Suffolk's plotting to rule Henry VI and England through Margaret of Anjou (V.5.) Joan's condemnation is but the last scene in a sequence of alternations of victory and defeat in the wars, and the play's final scene extends a related pattern of false reconciliations between the English and the French and especially among factions within the English nobility, a pattern whose ironies are comic in their evocation of knowing superiority in the audience rather than active sympathy for the characters.

In the first scene of 1 Henry VI we are introduced to a fallen world, fallen heroically and historically more than morally and theologically, by the lamentations of Henry V's brothers and uncles over his death. Three messengers announce progressively more disastrous defeats for the English in France; even the brave Talbot has been taken prisoner. The Bastard of Orleans in the next scene introduces a “holy maid” with visionary powers to accelerate this process of driving “the English forth the bounds of France” (I.2.51-54).3 The “overtones of the comic occur when she first appears,” writes Ernest W. Talbot of Joan. “The love rhetoric of Charles is amusing in its absurdity. It also agrees with a comic conception that will place Charles and Joan in situations reminiscent of the braggart and the prostitute, as well as the ugly, rustic, brawling wench.”4 There is never any real tension between Pucelle and Puzzel; from the beginning Joan's claim to heavenly assistance and holy chastity is undermined by the amorous dalliance, bawdy innuendo, and double-entendre. Although the comedy of Joan La Pucelle reaches its culmination in the total unmasking of the play's penultimate scene, it is openly derisive comedy all along.

Even if we set apart twentieth-century admiration for Joan of Arc, we are likely at first to think the laughter at her expense rather cheaply extracted through chauvinistic characterization. The matter, however, is more complex, for if Joan is exposed and led off to execution, Talbot, the last loyal soldier, is dead as well, and the English have sacrificed their national unity while losing their French provinces. Even this incongruity, followed by the ironic gap between Suffolk's loyal rhetoric and ambitious intentions in the last scene, cannot completely contain the comic process involved in the La Pucelle part of the play.

Part of the comedy of the Joan plot comes from simple dramatic recognition of incongruity through the superior knowledge provided by irony. This superiority, augmented by nationalistic bias, produces derisive laughter, the kind of laughter most often defined by Elizabethan rhetoricians and psychologists.5

The comedy of La Pucelle begins and ends with it; what complicates the audience's response in between is the internalization of derision within the play. If we share in the English lords' mockery of Joan, her exultation over her victories and scoffing over Talbot's corpse are, if not painful, at least unpleasant, and unpleasant in proportion to the audience's identification with the English forces. One such scene occurs after Joan's capture of Rouen through the stratagem of disguising herself and her men as peasants selling corn. She and the French lords stand on the walls of Rouen, illustrating theatrically their superiority; on the stage the dying Bedford is “brought in sick to a chair”:

Pucelle. Good morrow, gallants!
What ye corn for bread?
I think the Duke of Burgundy will fast
Before he' ll buy again at such a rate.
'Twas full of darnel; do you like the taste?
Burgundy. Scoff on, vile fiend and shameless courtesan!
I trust ere long to choke thee with thine own
And make thee curse the harvest of that corn.
Dauphin. Your grace may starve perhaps before that time.
Bedford. O, let no words, but deeds, revenge this treason!
Pucelle. What will you do, good graybeard?
Break a lance,
And run atilt at death within a chair?


It is not easy to know how to respond to the cruel humor here or later to that of Pucelle's response to Lucy's request for Talbot's body:

I think this upstart is old Talbot's ghost,
He speaks with such a proud commanding spirit.
For God's sake, let him have him; to keep them here,
They would but stink and putrefy the air.


Lucy's rhetoric of titles is sarcastically mocked as a “silly stately style” (72), and the Dauphin's conclusion—“All will be ours, now blody Talbot's slain” (96)—is unfortunately and correctly prophetic. That York's and Somerset's unchivalric refusals to send Talbot reinforcements are more responsible for his death than Pucelle's prowess or magic further complicates the scene. The English have embarked, as Gareth Lloyd Evans says, upon a sea of “national decadence,”6 and the French derision is justified; even the “barbs” of Joan's “searching indictment of English hypocrisy (V.4.36ff),” as J. P. Brockbank points out, cannot “be removed by the spectacle of her converse with evil spirits.”7 The English finally must share in the derision, and the audience's superiority is taken away. The heroism of the Talbots is at least partially cancelled by the final scenes which promise the ascendancy of Suffolk; there, Brockbank explains, in a “parody” of the “absurdities of political romance” in the “style of a professional philanderer,” the “treacheries exercised in the politics of flirtation are as sinister as they are amusing—the betrayal of trust must have evil consequences in the harsh chronicle setting.”8 The wry mockery of La Pucelle contributes to the sardonic irony of the last scene by telling truths about the faded martial glory and chivalry of the English. With Suffolk and Margaret returns the comic combination of lovemaking, politics, and warfare which characterized the first scene between Charles and Joan; only the irony has darkened. Margaret promises to succeed Joan as the scourge of England, and Henry VI's cuckolding will be an ironic counterpoint to Joan's promiscuity; the force of Talbot has given way to the fraud of France and the descent into effeminacy, cunning, and decadence is accelerating.

The ironic pattern of false reconciliations adds to the savage farce of politics. The war with France is made more difficult by the factionalism within the English nobility, Henry VI's uncles and great-uncles. The third scene of the play introduces the bitter feud between Gloucester and Winchester in a way which can only look like farce on the stage. Gloucester's men in blue coats give Winchester's men in tawny coats a beating which is interrupted by the Mayor of London and his officers and then begins again. Again the tone is derisive, most of the insults coming from Gloucester, who is far from the wise counsellor, judge, and Christian humanist of Part 2. If Winchester comes off the worse in this flyting, it is because of the anti-papal nature of Gloucester's diatribe and the Mayor's comment that “This cardinal's more haughty than the devil” (85). The skirmishes of the men are farcical, and the exchange of insults simple, bad-natured, and coarse. When again in III. 1. the two exchange defiant insults and puns and their serving-men again “skirmish” three separate times in this scene, the farce deepens, for not even Henry VI himself can stop these irreverent and violent factions:

King. We charge you, an allegiance to ourself,
To hold your slaught' ring hands and keep the peace.
Pray, uncle Gloucester, mitigate this strife.
First Servingman. Nay, if we be forbidden stones, we'll fall to it with our teeth.
Second Servingman. Do what ye dare, we are as resolute.
Skirmish again.


Even the King cannot control this anarchy, and their “resolute” animosity and “bloody pates” mock any pretense to order. After peace has finally been restored, and several servingmen head for the surgeon's, and one to “see what physic the tavern affords” (149), the King creates the potential for more havoc by making Plantaganet Duke of York. The reconciliation of Gloucester and Winchester is only a show, and each has a one-line aside to underscore the insincerity of their intentions to remain at peace. The choric Exeter ends the scene with a prophecy of more “base and envious discord” (III.1.190-92).

In IV.1. Vernon and Basset crave combat in the factional dispute over the proper color of roses to wear as badges. Henry attempts to resolve the quarrel by putting on a red rose and making York regent of France; the “solution” provides another false reconciliation and aggravates the division. Warwick sarcastically remarks that Henry “Prettily, methought, did play the orator” (175), York rankles, and Exeter ends the scene with another choric soliloquy prophesying “More rancorous spite, more furious raging broils” (185). Finally, the last two scenes present an obviously phony reconciliation between the English and the French—no one intends to keep the “solemn peace” concluded—and an ominous agreement among the English lords to Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou. The pattern which started with the farcical flyting of Gloucester and Winchester and the fisticuffs, rock-throwing, and bloody pates of the blue coats and tawny coats has darkened into the tragic probability of civil war and the ironic machinations of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, member of neither family yet ambitious to rule all through an adulterous liaison:

Margaret shall now be queen and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king, and realm.

V.5. 107-8

These scenes drain the dignity and significance of diplomacy from the ritual of politics and present a king totally manipulable, almost ludicrously unaware of the insincerity of his counsellors—no one but he believes in the reconciliations—and naively and ironically responsible for aggravating the factionalism which will ruin his kingdom. The audience is kept aware of every motive through the asides and Exeter's soliloquies; for everyone but Henry, all intentions have a remarkable clarity. The irony is what makes these false reconciliations dramatic. C. L. Barber makes a distinction useful to our consideration of this pattern:

The Renaissance. … was a moment when educated men were modifying a ceremonial conception of human life to create a historical conception. The ceremonial view, which assumed that names and meanings are fixed and final, expressed experience as pageant and ritual—pageant where the right names could be changed in the right, the proper way. The historical view expresses life as drama. People in drama are not identical with their names, for they gain and lose their names, their status and meaning—and not by settled ritual: the gaining and losing of names, of meaning, is beyond the control of any set ritual experience.9

1 Henry VI becomes dramatic by emptying ritual of meaning, by clearly revealing the gap between professed intention and true motive; Henry himself naively believes in the capacity of ritual to order the world and abuses its power to confer name and status by making Plantaganet Duke of York and later regent of France.

The audience is left feeling uncomfortably superior to the naive Henry VI, a position in accord with the general reduction of the heroic to rock-throwing servingmen, braggart noblemen, empty ritual, and amatory politics. The sense of Henry's imperceptiveness is cumulative and also leads from comedy to a darker irony at the end. As with Joan La Pucelle, the audience feels superiority, not sympathy; and this feeling belongs essentially to comedy rather than tragedy. The world of 1 Henry VI is an inverted world, and Henry acts as if it were not.

David Bevington examines one aspect of this inversion, the dominance of masculine principles by feminine ones, and finds Henry himself wilfilly submitting “uproariously to the Amazonian disgrace with which the play ends.”10 This dominance forms a clearly comic pattern; indeed, this is one way Sidney defines comedy in his Defense of Poesy:

So in Hercules, painted with his great beard, and furious countenance, in a womans attyre, spinning, at Omphales commaundement, it breeds both delight and laughter: for the representing of so straunge a power in Love, procureth delight, and the scornfulnesse of the action, stirreth laughter.11

Shakespeare's comedy is not so farcical but the principles are the same, as the Venus and Mars and Helen and Paris allusions of the play suggest. Joan La Pucelle, as Bevington says:

is not interested in sex for its own sake; she yields her body for power. This discrepancy between appearance and intention is treated by Shakespeare as a comic discrepancy, and produces an emphasis on salacious double entendres throughout her conversations. The pun is not simply an undignified form of wit intended to provoke coarse laughter, but a thematic device. In virtually every instance, the point is that sexual war is replacing military war.12

Only Talbot is really exempt from feminine dominance; even Winchester is accused of being “froward by nature. … Lascivious, wanton” (III.1.18-19). Margaret captivates Suffolk while confessing her helplessness, “Tush, women have been captivate ere now” (V.3.107); she will make the best out of a situation which she has not chosen. That she clearly recognizes the nature of Suffolk's wooing and his intentions shows her his equal if not better in wit and craft; the mere presence of her beauty confuses Suffolk into betraying his better instincts as a loyal husband, and the proposed marriage results in Henry's taxing “the people. … a tenth” to fetch her and her worthless titles.

The ironies of 1 Henry VI turn sardonic again in the last act, yet the memory of the brave Talbots and the comic relish of Joan's exposure and condemnation provide enough true heroic idealism and sheer comic laughter to mitigate the darkness somewhat. The undeniably traditional comic gambits of unmasking—stripping the cowardly Falstaff's garter, as well as exposing Joan's imitation of the Virgin Mary—and of the trickster tricked—the Countess of Auvergne and Joan—evoke the traditional responses of superiority and varying degrees of derision. Nevertheless, in the end the audience is left feeling superior to the imperceptive (and now wilful) king and sympathetic to no one but the dead Talbots. The sequence of false reconciliations threatens to make Henry VI into a comic butt, yet his unintentional mistakes in setting up his enemy, the Duke of York, and his unconscionable tax on the people actively involve him in the sardonic muddle of errors which will lead to the savagery of the Wars of the Roses and to Cade's rebellion in Part 2. All that, however, is to come, and to point in the direction of the escalation of violence in the remainder of the first tetralogy should not blind us to the lighter atmosphere of Part 1.


The general comic patterns of Part 1 are intensified in Part 2: what begins in physical farce and uncomplicated laughter darkens into some sour and even more savage ironies. Like I Henry VI, the second part has a clearly admirable character, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, who, though still at odds with the Bishop of Winchester, is no longer Part 1's master of insults and leader of rock-throwing, head-thumping serving men. Now the Christian humanist, loyal, wise, and beloved by the people, Gloucester resists the ambitious scheming of the new Machiavels.13 The people optimistically petition him and react furiously to his death (III.2). Like Talbot's, his absence from the play leaves a vacuum which is filled with anarchy and violence. Lord Say, his would-be humanist successor, can do nothing with Cade and his rebels; however eloquently he reasons with them, like Bérenger in Ionesco's Tueur sans gages, he is doomed.14 Shakespeare, it would seem, has deliberately gone back to the Tyler rebellion of 1381 in fashioning Cade's attack on literacy, the very core of humanism in Tudor England.

In Part 2 the scenes in which Peter and Horner, Saunder Simpcox, and Jack Cade appear are clearly comic in some way; of the three, only the Simpcox scene does not turn sardonic and grotesque, and even this scene has several ambivalent resonances. It illustrates Gloucester wisely and goodnaturedly handling the charlatan Simpcox and thereby usefully serving his king. It provides the audience a few good laughs, but it also gains their sympathy for Gloucester who is to be killed in the next act. More important than the unmasking of Simpcox itself are the responses of the little audience of Gloucester's shrewd exposure. The mayor and his brethren cry “A miracle!” The beadle “with whips” beats Simpcox over the head and chases him offstage. Henry VI's response is totally absurd: “O God, see'st thou this, and bearest so long?” (153). Margaret completes this range of purely comic responses: “It made me laugh to see the villain run” (154). But then Simpcox's wife foreshadows the Cade rebellion, which however anarchic has some basis in social discontent, “Alas, sir, we did it for pure need” (156). Gloucester wants them “whipped through every market town / Till they come to Berwick, from whence they came” (157-58), a rather severe punishment. The scene now turns rather sour, as the animosity of Gloucester towards Winchester and Suffolk flares up again:

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 a day, my lord, whole towns to fly.


Buckingham at this point arrives with the Cardinal's revenge for this insult—news of Eleanor's traffic with spirits and “conspiracy” against “King Henry's life and death” (173).

The Peter Thump-Thomas Horner scenes work very much in the same manner. The combat of the prentice and the armorer is set up in I.3, and promises to be a farce. Peter's confusion of “usurer” and “usurper” deliberately combines simple comic wit and thematic relevance; the whole matter is indeed rather clear when reduced to such a verbal mistake:

Queen. What say' st thou? did the Duke of York say he was rightful heir to the crown?
Peter. That my master was? No, for sooth; my master said that he was, and that the king was an usurer.


(Henry has, we might recall from Part 1, taxed the commons a tenth.) The entire ceremony of politics is thus diminished to an armorer's ability to confer name and status.

When the two combatants return to fight it out in Henry's hall of justice, the audience is led to expect great fun. The farce begins with the quite drunk Horner and his neighbors entering at one door and Peter and the quite drunk prentices at the other, both warriors equipped with staffs and sandbags. Peter makes his last testament verbally, giving away his hammer, apron, and money. The fight begins, and the farce is over: Peter kills his master! It is indeed “a grim comedy,” as Clifford Leech says. “Moreover,” he continues, “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.”15 Again, Henry VI's response seems comically incongrous:

Go, take hence that traitor from our sight;
For by his death we do perceive his guilt:
And God in justice hath revealed to us
The truth and innocence of this poor fellow,
Which he had thought to have murdered wrongfully.


In both scenes, the King's “pious credulity” adds to his characterization; we are also reminded that Suffolk's little scheme has worked: “With comic irony,” Talbert says, “Suffolk finds [in I.3] that the petition of a whole township is against himself for enclosing the commons, but he seizes upon Peter's petition as matter that can be used against York.” If the “scene undoubtedly provided an amusing interlude for Elizabethans,”16 as he claims, their amusement must have been mixed with this sardonic irony, for Horner, a simple man unwittingly involved in Suffolk's machinations, is dead, the English king ludicrously serious in his obliviousness to the situation, and the values of politics and chivalry grotesquely diminished.

The Cade scenes similarly begin in a mixture of nonsense, sensible social comment, and laughable farce and end by turning savagely brutal. James Sandoe produced 2 Henry VI for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1954 and wrote about his audience: “Their response to the Cade scenes was distinct: they began by laughing as we all expected but thereafter the ferocity of Cade and the little sprawl of mob caught their fun in the throat and turned it sour, especially as the second scene culminated in the harrowing of the wretched Lord Say and his haling offstage to be brought back (a head on a pike) an instant later, the mob growling and giggling madly. … The Simpcox sequence allows them one or two clear laughs, but Cade only lets them begin so, then bottles them up in horror.”17 The ridiculous genealogy, the mock-nobility, the bombastic heroism are at first amusing, and Dick the Butcher's running commentary adds to the laughs, but Cade's rebellion, whatever its virtues of reform, turns vicious and indiscriminately savage as the Clerk is led off to be hanged for his literacy. The sequence leads to the macabre butchery of Lord Say and his son-in-law, Sir James Cromer, whose heads are brought on stage to the shout of Cade's men, “O Brave!”, and to Cade's mockery:

But is not this braver? Let them kiss one another, for they loved well when they were alive. Now part them again, lest they consult about the giving up of some more towns in France. Soldiers, defer the spoil of the city until night: for with these borne before us, instead of maces, will we ride through the streets; and at every corner have them kiss. Away!


We also should recall that York has encouraged all this anarchy, just as Suffolk had used the Peter-Horner combat to get at York, and before we generalize about Shakespeare's conservatism we should recall also that the Commons at Bury St. Edmunds had forced Henry VI to banish Suffolk for conspiring in Gloucester's death.

The three comic sequences of Peter and Horner, Saunder Simpcox, and Jack Cade each begin in farce and end in grotesqueness of one sort or another. Their place in determining the general tone of the play can hardly be underestimated, yet even so the nastiness of the play's comedy is not confined to these scenes. In I.3. the king and his counsellors dispute the “regentship” of France—Somerset or York—and suddenly turn on Gloucester who wants Henry and not Margaret to decide the issue. Suffolk, Winchester, Somerset, and Buckingham insult both Humphrey and Eleanor, and Margaret gives Eleanor “a box on the ear.” The trivial violence here is grotesque in its gratuitousness and malice and prompts the usual threat of revenge. Though Eleanor loses in her struggle for power, so does Margaret suffer for her liaison with Suffolk. In IV.4. with her husband, Buckingham, and Say pondering the rebellion of Cade, Margaret laments Suffolk's death, carrying his head about the stage. The juxtaposition is macabre, not pathetic, no matter what we think of the parting scene (III.2.). Sandoe was puzzled, “All sorts of special doubts crowd in, notably as to the handling of the scene in which the Queen fondles Suffolk's severed head (wrapped in red taffeta). I don't know, still, how far it's effective and tonight's audience didn't teach me much.”18 Indeed, how are we to react? What effect is wanted? The response is made more problematic by the scenes on either side: Jack Cade's putting on the dead Sir Humphrey Stafford's armor and promising to drag the Staffords' bodies “at my horses' heels till I do come to London” (IV.3) and Cade's ordering the death of a soldier for crying “Jack Cade” instead of “Lord Mortimer” (IV.5).

Finally, in York Shakespeare presents a touch of that gleeful mockery which he later makes so integral a part of Richard Crookback's character. The Cardinal, Somerset, Suffolk, and Margaret get rid of Gloucester for him and make him regent of Ireland; they are almost as naive as Henry VI was in Part 1. York is exultant:

Well, nobles, well: 'tis politicly done,
To send me packing with a host of men
'Twas men I lacked, and you will give them me:
I take it kindly: yet be well assured
You put sharp weapons in a madman's hands.


The next thirty-five lines outline in detail his instigation of the Cade rebellion in an unambivalently joyful, machiavellion tone.

The dominant atmosphere of 2 Henry VI is darker, more savage, more grotesque than that of 1 Henry VI; we have passed far beyond the sardonic. John Russell Brown objected to John Barton's and Peter Hall's production of a shortened version of the first tetralogy at Stratford in 1964 because they had conceived of the plays as forming “a relentless horror comic.”19 But that aspect of the tetralogy seems the ruling conception in 2 Henry VI. In the first part Shakespeare leaves us uncertain about how to respond to the sardonic ironies of a world of fallen glory; in the second he explores that insecurity by asking us to respond to a grotesque combination of the comic and savage.


If the influence of Marlowe is apparent in many of these scenes from both of the first two parts, the grotesque is yet more complicated than in the Marlovian Schadenfreude, the “delight in someone else's misfortune which is central to derisive laughter.”20 In Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Jew of Malta, and Massacre at Paris, there are no characters who approach Talbot, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, or Lord Say in their positive virtues, and the mixture of mockery and savagery occurs in a locale distinct from England and less immediate in its historical basis. The victims of The Guise and the virgins of Damascus are only sketches; Gloucester is killed by English lords not by a Tamburlaine or Barabbas; Lord Say is paralyzed before the English social reformer-anarchist, Jack Cade. The scenes of humorous farce turning perversely cruel are more extensive and carefully elaborated than any of Marlowe's; they seem to be deliberately calculated to force upon the audience something very near what Eliot called Marlowe's “savage comic humour”21 while taking away some of the defense mechanisms against horror and atrocity which lessen the farcical cruelty in Marlowe's plays.

This grotesque comedy is further escalated in 3 Henry VI. Sir Barry Jackson, in attempting to produce the second and third parts of Henry VI at Birmingham in 1952, found that the line “between the risible and the serious is of such infinitesimal breadth that the reaction of the audience can never be foretold.”22 These kinds of difficulty begin with the first scene in Part 3: in the first few lines the York family exults in their victories at St. Alban's, the father boasting, Edward waving his bloody sword, and Richard crying

Speak thou for me, and tell them what I did.
[Throws down the Duke of Somerset's head]


His bouncing this severed head onto the floorboards of any stage is as likely to elicit laughter as it is shock. It would seem equally difficult later not to enjoy the mockery of the captured and soon-to-be-executed York who Queen Margaret places on a molehill, crowns with a paper coronet, and taunts; or not to relish the savage sarcasm of the three York sons' stichomythic mock-shriving of the dead Clifford; or not to smile at the asides of Richard and Clarence when brother Edward is trying to seduce Lady Grey in the most coarse, bawdy, and clumsy manner. It is, to be sure, grisly comedy and goes beyond anything in the first two parts of Henry VI.

Several patterns emerge from the grim scenes in Part 3, the most obvious of which is the ritualization of the grotesque. In Part 1, the repetition of scenes of false reconciliation reveals an ironic discrepany between appearances and intention which makes politics a farce; in Part 2 the ritual trial by combat leads from the farcical drunkenness and sandbags-and-staffs to Horner's death, and Cade the mock-king dons Stafford's armor and leads a procession through London with the severed heads of Say and Cromer kissing at every corner. Ritual and ceremony become dramatic, it would seem, only when broken, challenged, violated, mocked, and misapplied. The first scene opens with a deliberate mockery of ceremony: York installs himself on the throne, and Henry VI and his counsellors enter in what becomes almost the role of suppliants. Sheer power makes this usurpation possible; Richard asserts the authority of force in a comically sarcastic boast: “Sound drums and trumpet, and the king will fly” (I.1.118). Even Henry sees his powerlessness here, and his concern for the sanctity of ceremony thereby appears rather comically delicate:

Far be the thought of this from Henry's heart,
To make a shambles of the parliament house.


The private quarrel between Henry and Margaret, husband and wife more than king and queen, dramatizes by contrast just how thoroughly the foregoing scene of compromise (and false reconciliation) has inverted the ideals of chivalry, loyalty, royalty, and fatherhood.

This usurpation of ceremony prepares the audience's emotional expectations for Margaret's revenge at Wakefield. Brockbank, whose analysis of this scene is very suggestive, says that “the paper crowning (I.iv), mutilates the idols of Knighthood, Kingship, Womanhood and Fatherhood.” By “making a ritual of the atrocity,” Shakespeare “imitates the history” of the chroniclers and intensifies the venomous comedy of their accounts.23 Margaret, who even in Part 1 defended herself with a witty “quid for quo” (V.3.109), exults in her vengeance with a savage sarcasm. The blasphemous analogy of York's paper crown to Christ's crown of thorns suggests the tone of the queen's sardonic taunting. John Russell Brown's description of Dame Peggy Ashcroft's performance in this scene (Stratford, 1964) defines its effectiveness:

The cruel humour of the lines was played close to hysteria: ‘I prithee grieve to make me merry.’ (line 86) was an almost necessary request to excuse Margaret's impulse towards helpless laughter, a physical and emotional relief and a breakdown of control. Margaret was constantly changing her stance and position as if instinctively; her taunts were controlled and insistent so that only her body, moving repeatedly, could show the inward instability. As York replied in pain and passion, Margaret was silent, after one last, and now forced, laugh. When she stabbed him it was with a quick movement, and then she wept. And then the tears stopped with a wild, painful cry. In this scene the violent was emphasized as much as anywhere, but there was also rhetorical and musical control and a daring, emotional performance.24

This interpretation of the scene rings true: Margaret's passion has pushed her beyond suffering into that Ovidian hysteria which also characterizes Titus Andronicus. Only, the ritualization of this excess makes it dramatically grotesque rather than theatrically shocking, as a comparison with the crude and perverse wit of Marlowe demonstrates:

Lord High Admiral. O let me pray before I dye.
Gonzaga. Then pray unto our ladye, kisse this crosse.
          Stab him

(lines 305-6; cf. 345-7, 358-64)25

The Massacre at Paris is a crude, mangled fragment, but one can find much the same sort of theatrical, dance-of-death, comic humor in the other plays.

The ritual of the atrocity makes Shakespeare's scene more effectively grotesque; carefully orchestrated, the excessive cruelty becomes not merely perversely comic but also ceremonious and revolting. The ambivalence of response is conditioned by the odd mixture of stylized rhetoric and colloquial insult, of ceremony and brutality, of humor and horror. The Yorks have their turn again at Towton, and again a ritual is blasphemously parodied; the dead Clifford is offered confession for his sins.

Richard. Clifford, ask mercy and obtain no grace.
Edward. Clifford, repent in bootless penitence.
Warwick. Clifford, devise excuses for thy faults.
Clarence. While we devise fell tortures for thy faults.


To borrow Brockbank's phrase, this is a “sophisticated savagery.”26 The heartless indifference allows the brutality to be treated as matter for the play of ironic wit and elegant sarcasm; murder and blasphemy are stylized. The laughter which should act as a kind of relief or defense mechanism turns into revulsion and horror, yet the iconoclasm and energy exert a fascination if not an attraction which intensifies the ambivalence of response.27

One might object to this sort of analysis by pointing to the comic horror as conventional and cite the Herods of the mysteries, the Vices of the moralities, the titanic monster-heroes of Marlowe, the scurrilous Marcolfs and Scogins of farce and jest book. But to see one or all of these characters or personifications in the Yorks and Lancasters is not to dismiss the disturbing quality of the grotesque scenes. Shakespeare closes the aesthetic distance by drawing upon these conventions for the history play and by making rituals out of the mockery of people and politics. The derision is placed within the play, and the audience finds itself not only laughing at the characters who deserve scorn but laughing with deriders on stage who mock them. Edward's wooing of Lady Grey is another example. Richard and Clarence, apparently out of earshot of the conversation, comment upon their brother's crudeness and bluntness. For them the scene is a parodic mime of the ritualistic gestures of courtship; for us it is that and more—a ritualized bargaining to exchange Lady Grey's sons and lands for her chastity. The irony of Edward's having to seize her property and threaten her sons' lives to have anything to negotiate with deepens the sardonic tone, while Richard and Clarence encourage us to laugh. The brothers use the imagery with which they had mocked the dead Clifford—

Richard. [Aside to Clarence]
The ghostly father now hath done his shrift.
Clarence. [Aside to Richard]
When he was made a shriver, ’twas for shift.


—thus linking the anti-Lancaster sarcasm with their scorn for their own brother.

In the next scene another amatory ritual is underway in the King of France's palace with Warwick wooing Lady bona for Edward and Margaret pleading for Henry's right. Although there are neither grimaces nor guffaws here (unless a smile of knowing superiority at Margaret's “Henry, sole possessor of my love”), the mockery of the whole business of politics as a muddle of errors is clearly intended. The Post's message breaks into this ritual of diplomacy and causes Warwick's complete reversal; Edward has duped him.

From this chaos of the political jungle emerges the grand manipulatory of all appearances, the Protean Richard Crookback. Already characterized by his military brutality, sarcastic wit, and physical deformity, in III.2 of Part 3 he picks up the gleeful mockery of his Marlovian and Machiavellian father and combines it with the wry Satanism of the morality Vice. The audience's participation in the sardonic relish of a Richard Crookback has not always been sufficiently examined; here again, the Marlovian parentage is worth commenting upon. Clifford Leech points out that Tamburlaine's rhetoric of assertion and brutality is often comic in a painful way: “The residual gap, between what even this man is and what he says and does, is enormous, terrifying, absurd.”28 So too with Barabbas and even Faustus. If Richard's aspirations sound Marlovian in their overblown rhetoric, this Shakespearean chameleon is more changeable than Marlowe's overreachers, and the effect, even in 3 Henry VI, of his ruthless viciousness and comic diabolism is more complex than that of Marlowe's heroes because of his multi-faceted self-consciousness.

However, one must not succumb to the temptation to conflate the last two acts of 3 Henry VI, with Richard III. The whirligig of battles and betrayals allows Richard little room to exercise his virtuosity. He runs from Warwick (IV.3), rescues brother Edward (IV.5), stabs young Prince Edward (V.5), and kills Henry VI (V.6). Although he occasionally adds a sardonic remark, an aside about his ambition to reign, and a final declaration of his resolve, none of these actions demonstrates very fully the demonic humor of Richard III. The only real subtlety in 3 Henry VI lies in Richard's ignoring Edward's offer of amnesty to young Prince Edward. The obstacles in his path to the throne have begun to fall—though plenty are left for Richard III—but what happens in the last two acts of 3 Henry VI is not much like what happens in Richard III.29 Of the fifteen scenes of Acts IV and V most are outside of London; three are set in the royal palace in London: the first has Edward king (IV.1), the second Henry (IV.4), and the third is the final scene (V.7) with Edward again king. Except for Richard's murders of young Edward and Henry VI, there is little violence—Warwick is wounded offstage though he dies onstage—yet the sense of the confusion of the battlefield is strong between IV.2 and V.6. Everyone is conferring or scurrying off somewhere, and without a climactic battle like St. Alban's what stands out theatrically is Warwick's uncrowning of Edward and Edward's uncrowning of Henry (IV.3 and 8), Henry's prophecy of Richmond's glory and his self-justification in terms of pity, mildness, and mercy (IV.6 and 8), Montgomery's throwing down his gauntlet to all Lancastrians—a ludicrous chivalric gesture at this point in the anarchy (IV.7), Warwick's dying speech and Margaret's lamentation (V.2 and 4), and Richard's murders (V.5 and 6). Except for Montgomery's absurd heroics, perhaps, none of these scenes is humorous; except for Richard's stabbings, none is horrible. Yet the very busy-ness of the last two acts makes them a dramatic embodiment of the anarchy of the War of the Roses. Nothing is very fully developed; yet the uncrownings, Montgomery's inappropriate gauntlet, Henry's making Clarence and Warwick his “protectors” (IV.6), and the irony of the ceremonious final scene continue the mockery and parody of ritual and contrast with the absence of ceremony in the battlefield scenes.

In the midst of all this chaos Henry VI gains some sort of stature, but his devout piety and resignation to the powerlessness of his own unkingly character—however sincere—are not wholly admirable. Much has been written about the lyrical and pastoral Henry, yet in the theatre he almost disappears until his encounter with Richard in V.6. As the play's only sympathetic character, he does illuminate the issues involved: like Gloucester in Part 2, he is well-intentioned, virtuous, humanistic, religious—and ineffective. In the last half of Part 3, Shakespeare has dropped the comic qualities of his role—his marital difficulties with Margaret, his contributions to his own ruin, his ludicrously naïve responses to events. He has taken on the choric commentary and prophecy of the chronicle narrator which had been assigned to Exeter in Part 2. Through this very detachment and resignation, however, the demonic savagery of Richard is emphasized by contrast; his withdrawal into unworldliness repeats the pattern of the futility and destruction of the good seen in the similarly isolated figures of Talbot and Gloucester, while Richard is the culmination of the patterns of triumphant villainy seen in Suffolk and York and of demonic anarchy seen in Joan La Pucelle and Jack Cade.

The escalation of grotesque violence within the Henry VI plays is dramatized most effectively and clearly by the comic scenes. If there is an undeniable pathos and horror in the murders of the young prince and the weak king at the end of 3 Henry VI, the Machiavellian Richard's invitation to the audience to share in his knowing superiority is uncomfortably appealing. Indeed, what place do “pity, love, and fear” have in the farce of politics? The gap between appearance and intention widens with each play, until in the final scene of 3 Henry VI sharing the irony with Richard the ruthless comedian becomes irresistible. For the reader or audience of the other Henry VI plays, the scene grotesquely repeats the ironies of mocking exultations over defeated enemies, temporary triumphs and hopes of stability, and false reconciliations. Shakespeare has temporarily silenced our moral judgment; we laugh with rather than at the evil and deformed.30


Several patterns we have seen in the first three plays are repeated and given a different twist in Richard III, and most of these variations result from Richard's comic dialectic with the audience. Most prominent is what I have called the internalization of derisive laughter; like Joan and Cade, Suffolk and York, and like Margaret in the Paper Crown scene, Richard exults in the power he has over his enemies. The scorn and superiority which usually belong primarily to the audience alone must, therefore, be shared (or withheld) from the public mocker of human weakness or powerlessness. Nicholas Brooke describes the “special emphasis” of this relationship quite well: Richard “alone has any direct contact with the audience at all. … Everyone else is distanced from the audience, is in a sense taking part in a play within a play of which Richard is the presenter. We are forced to know them as actors acting just as, when Richard joins them, he is (more obviously) an actor acting.” We have a “double view of what is happening,” and the critical detachment limits the possibility of sympathy for his victims.31 From the opening speech of the play, Richard makes us collaborators in his conspiracy against everyone within the play, and since his victims are without conscience or without political savvy, we enjoy his comic exposure of their mental and moral weaknesses and “rejoice in their stultification.”32

The special relationship of Richard to the audience and to the other characters allows him to manipulate freely the comic techniques we have seen in the Henry VI plays. He manages the ironies of the already phony reconciliation of the Woodvilles and the Hastings-Buckingham faction by breaking the ceremony around Edward's sickbed (II.1), only one instance of his constant unmaskings. Lady Anne's ritual lamentations are crudely but effectively silenced and revealed as empty words; the knighting of all these “sly, insinuating Jacks” (I.3.53) is called the ruse it is; his asides puncture the ritual of sorrow in which the Queen, the Duchess of York, and Margaret indulge. On the other hand, he usurps the trappings of ceremony without believing in them and without filling them with any substance: the condemnation of Hastings, the appearance between the reverend fathers, the blasphemous parody of the Election Scene, even the denial of the earldom promised Buckingham—these and other mockeries of ritual illustrate Richard's sure sense that he who controls ceremony controls the state. Again, as in the Henry VI plays, the ceremonial view of the world becomes historical and thus dramatic through parody and mockery. The tour-de-force of Anne's wooing demonstrates that whoever controls the ritual—the ritual of courtship and betrothal here displacing the ritual of funeral procession and lamentation—can assign roles and make people play them. The deflating mockery of Richard's “Was ever any woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever any woman in this humor won?” (I.2.227-8) can be measured against Joan's mockery of Burgundy after she has talked him into joining the French: “Done like a Frenchman: turn and turn again!” (Part 1: III.3.85). The dramatic structure is the same, but Shakespeare has greatly complicated the irony.

To use A. P. Rossiter's phrase, at some point probably even “the Elizabethan spectator began to back out.”33 The separation of aesthetic and intellectual interests from moral instincts becomes uncomfortable—no matter how enjoyable the pleasures of the grotesque—long before the murder of the little princes. The audience “backs out” of the conspiracy, yet to describe its response in this way does not defuse the anxiety (or even guilt) created by its sharing in Richard's diabolism. Several aspects of the play counter Richard's ruthlessness: the pattern of curses and prophecies concerning the retributive justice of God's Providence, the natural nemesis involved in the self-consuming nature of evil, and the appearance of the Godly King to replace the Devil-King on the English throne. Each helps the audience to see the events of the play from a perspective different from and alien to Richard's, but none can totally free the spectator from the tension of incompatible responses prompted by the grotesque comedy centered around Richard's violence. The retribution Margaret and the Duchess of York call for is defined by the unattractive rhetoric of their ritualized curses and is personalized into a rather mechanical desire for vengeance: for Margaret, Providence means that God will wipe all Yorks off the face of England; for the Duchess it means all Lancasters and her own Richard. The pattern of natural nemesis certainly exists within the play, yet even so the self-destructiveness of evil fails to satisfy us aesthetically. We would perhaps have preferred to see the creative good struggling with the destructive evil, but the evil defeats itself almost before the good appears.

This brings us to Henry VII and the Tudor myth. Richmond's appearance in his own terms makes the first tetralogy a kind of Divine Comedy in which everything is set right again, yet some recent critics of the play have refused to be convinced. As the scourge of England, Richard plays into the scheme of Divine Providence; such is the old argument of Tudor propaganda, and it is marvellously ironic: all the evil the Devil can do is turned to good. The final act of Richard III, however, remains the one event of British history which Shakespeare could not alter, reorganize or ignore, the terminus ad quem fixed for all time. That Henry Richmond is treated almost emblematically makes the conviction behind the ending suspect. Michael Manheim says of the first tetralogy that the Henry VI plays “feed an audience state of intense frustration, and relief from the frustration is nowhere to be found, unless it be in the catharsis successful dramatic experience provides.”34 The same is true of Richard III and is true of the darker kind of comedy which Clifford Leech describes as “ruthless” and I have called “grotesque.” Leech writes that in contrast to the “smaller kind of comedy that leaves us feeling fortified and near to society's heart,” there is “a more ambitious kind of comedy which refuses us the purge.” He uses Volpone and The Alchemist, Measure for Measure, Chekhov's plays and Ibsen's Wild Duck as examples: “In such comedies, and surely they are the most ambitious, there is no catharsis: at their endings we look about in uncertainty, we see that there have been no scapegoats to take away our guilt.”35

No catharsis to take away our guilt, our anxiety: the grotesque comedy of the first tetralogy is radically aggressive. The whole fabric of Renaissance humanism is under challenge: concern with the ease in which man's weakness can be exploited and with the moral casualties which result threatens the belief the humanists had in their programs to create the virtuous through education; questioning the providential view of history suggests the need to jettison almost every sixteenth-century chronicle; dramatizing the irrelevance of ethics in politics makes much of the political theory obsolete. If man has power to shape his own laws, a Richard III stands these notions on their head: in his own way he believes in the nobility of merit over birth and in the humanist motto of Giannozo Manetti: agere et intelligere, to know how and to be able to govern the world which was made for man. The proportion of the comic and the horror-ful, of laughter and tears, and, to use Ruskin's terms for the grotesque, of the ludicrous and the fearsome, of the sportive and the terrible, depends upon individual perception and response. For the orthodox Elizabethan, perhaps the return of Henry Richmond, the order reimposed by the Tudors, and the self-destructiveness of evil would have accommodated the guilt of his brotherhood with Richard and the anxiety of the farcical jungle of political history in which the most vicious seem to prosper. For others the unrelenting comic horror of the first tetralogy intensifies the anxiety that they live in an irrational, incomprehensible, absurd, and terrible universe. The first tetralogy is neither the Homilies nor Hall, nor is it Camus or Beckett.

In The Grotesque in Art and Literature Wolfgang Kayser reaches “a final interpretation of the grotesque: an attempt to invoke and subdue the demonic aspects of the world.”36 The demonic once invoked, however, is not so easily subdued; we can laugh at it, accept the invitation to laugh with it, and cringe when it turns and laughs at us. Each of these experiences of the comic and the grotesque is likely to prove unpleasant. By exorcising the demons which the orthodox and complacent suppress, Shakespeare increases the discomfort that is not so easily laughed away. This ambivalence in response to the plays' dark comedy is, I think, a measure of the achievement of the first tetralogy.


  1. The traditional critical view has been that the first tetralogy reflects Shakespeare's adherence to the Tudor myth and his fear of disorder. Shakespeare's political conservatism still explains these plays for many readers, including Alvin Kernan, who writes about them as “rituals of the conservative view of history and the ethic of order, counselling obedience and submission to the old ways and showing the dreadful consequences of rebellion and usurpation.” In The Revels History of Drama in English. Volume III: 1576-1613 (London: Metheun, 1975), p. 264.

  2. Pierce Pennilesse, His Supplication to the Divell (London, 1592), p. 87.

  3. All references are to the Arden editions of the Henry VI plays, edited by Andrew S. Cairncross.

  4. Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), p. 183. Talbert's chapter on the Henry VI plays is the best treatment of their comic elements.

  5. See, for example, Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetoricke (London, 1553), p. 135-36, and Timothy Bright, A Treatise of Melancholie (London, 1586), pp. 82-83.

  6. Shakespeare I: 1564-1592 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1975), pp. 37-39.

  7. “The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI,” in Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 3 (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), p. 80.

  8. Ibid., pp. 80-81.

  9. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 193.

  10. “The Domineering Female in 1Henry VI,Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1967), p. 57.

  11. Prose Works, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1917-24), III, p. 40.

  12. Bevington, p. 53.

  13. See Michael Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespeare History Play (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973), pp. 90-92. Manheim speculates that “to the theatre audience of the 1590s the image of the humanist is that of a loser in politics.”

  14. In James Anderson's 1864 production for the tercentenary, the same actor played both roles—Humphrey and Say—graphically illustrating the paralysis which followed ineffectiveness. This emphasis was not, however, mentioned by the reviewer in The Athenaeum, 30 April 1864. Reprinted in Eyewitnessess to Shakespeare, ed. Gamini Salgado (Susses: Sussex University Press, 1975).

  15. William Shakespeare: The Cronicles (London: The British Council, 1962), p. 17.

  16. Talbert, pp. 190, 194.

  17. King Henry VI, Part 2: Notes During Production,” Theatre Annual, 13 (1955), pp. 45-46.

  18. Ibid.

  19. “Three Kinds of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Survey, 18 (1965), p. 149.

  20. The definition is Erich Segal's, from his essay, “Marlowe's Schadenfreude: Barabbas as Comic Hero,” in Veins of Humor, ed. Harry Levin, Harvard English Studies, 3 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 75.

  21. “Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe,” in his The Sacred Wood (London: Metheun, 1920), p. 92.

  22. “On Producing Henry VI,Shakespeare Survey, 6 (1953), pp. 49-52.

  23. Brockbank, p. 95.

  24. Brown, p. 152.

  25. The Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), pp. 454-55.

  26. Brockbank, p. 98.

  27. Recent interest in the aesthetics of the grotesque is relevant here. For the rhetorical uses of the grotesque to disturb and disorient the reader, see Philip Thomson, The Grotesque, The Critical Idiom, 24 (London: Metheun, 1972), pp. 58ff. For an approach to the psychology of aesthetic response, see Michael Steig, “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 29 (1970), pp. 253-60. Also Frances K. Barasch, The Grotesque: A Study in Meanings (The Hague: Mouton, 1971). Muriel C. Bradbrook sees Marlowe's combination of the comic and the terrible as a variation within the “eldritch” tradition and links Marlowe's grotesque (she doesn't use the term, however) with medieval mystery and morality plays, poems like Jacob's Well, Tudor jest books, and anti-Catholic prose. In “Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and the Eldritch Tradition,” Essays on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, MO.: University of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 83-90.

  28. “When Writing Becomes Absurd,” in his The Dramatist's Experience (London: Routledge Kegan, 1970), p. 65.

  29. On the last act the comments of J. P. Brockbank are brief but suggestive. See his “Shakespeare: His Histories, English and Roman,” in English Drama to 1710, ed. Christopher Ricks, Sphere History of Literature in the English Language, Volume 3 (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1971), p. 173.

  30. Cf Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 90. ff.

  31. Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Metheun, 1968), pp. 57-58. See also A. P. Rossiter's essay on Richard III in Angel with Horns, ed. Graham Storey (London: Longmans, 1961).

  32. Rossiter, pp. 15-16.

  33. Ibid., p. 16.

  34. Manheim, p. 115.

  35. “Catharsis in English Renaissance Drama,” in The Dramatist's Experience, pp. 142-43.

  36. The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. Ulrich Weisstein (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 188. First published in 1957.

Kathryn Schwarz (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Fearful Simile: Stealing the Breech in Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 140-67.

[In the excerpt below, Schwarz studies the complex portrayal of women in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, focusing on the depiction of Joan as an outsider and as a contradictory embodiment of extremes. Schwarz also analyzes the portrayal of Margaret as both a conventional object of desire and a disruptive role-player.]


Henry VI, Part 1 defines Joan with relentless thoroughness as an outsider. Opposed to an English male aristocratic ideal, she is a woman, a peasant, a virgin, a whore, a saint, a witch, an Amazon, and French. Her threatened invasion, while it challenges English idealizations of heroic significance and physical space, could consolidate those ideals; if the English, at the end of 1 Henry VI, return to a smaller England, they bring with them a clarified sense of what Englishness means. Such a process appears to reiterate a convention of subjectivity, a negotiation of the relationship between familiar and strange that produces identity through difference; the multiplication of Joan's alien identities not only reflects that which is not English but comes, through that opposition, to define Englishness itself. Recognition of Joan, and violent disassociation from her, construct the male heroic subject, or, in Rackin's historiographic terms, male heroic abstractions are opposed to the insistence of female bodies: “[T]he whole issue of physical presence vs. historical record, dramatized in 1 Henry VI as a conflict between English men and French women, is central, not only to this particular play, but to the history play genre itself.”1 Joan's “femaleness,” however theatrically contingent, is an ideologically absolute condition against which the play constructs its privileged terms. Henry VI, Part 1 stages the processes of deliberately oppositional self-construction, what Butler, in her theory of “sex” as a function of sociality and power, describes as “a repudiation which produces a domain of abjection, a repudiation without which the subject cannot emerge.” Butler goes on to argue, “This is a repudiation which creates the valence of ‘abjection’ and its status for the subject as a threatening spectre.”2 But if Joan is abject and her threatening otherness useful, I would argue that her utility is complicated by the relationship it sets up between who she is and what she does. The play most effectively equates identity to performance in a figure who is neither English nor male nor conventionally heroic; the essentializing rhetoric that surrounds Joan both mirrors and parodies the play's various representations of essential connections between maleness and masculinity, between kingship or heroism and authority. If the play's resolution, defined in terms of nationalism, gender, or individual subjectivity, depends on a return to naturalized causalities, that return is proleptically disrupted in the characterization of Joan herself. The threat posed by Joan is not simply her evident otherness—which might, after all, only tell the hero what he wants to know—but is also the sense in which that otherness produces a more efficient claim to embodied referentiality than that posed by English male heroic authority itself.

The representation of Joan is thus ideologically useful in that it clarifies categorical and hierarchical structures by defining her against them; at the same time, because her role draws together gendered conventions identifying both the powerful and the abject, it might call into question the discretion and the privileged position of defining structures themselves. Henry VI, Part 1 insists on the verb of equation that links Joan to terms of description: Joan “is” a range of things, contradictory but always extreme, and in the spaces between them domesticity, as a nationalist and ultimately a familial ideology, is constituted. In her first encounter with the Dauphin, Joan offers a challenge and a warning: “My courage try by combat, if thou dar'st, / And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex” (1.2.89-90) [Quotations from the Henry VI plays follow The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).] That trial prompts the Dauphin's own statement of definition, the implications of which will follow Joan throughout the play. “Stay, stay thy hands! Thou art an Amazon, / And fightest with the sword of Deborah” (ll. 104-5). The Dauphin here conflates what Joan is, what she has, and what she does, suggesting an economy within which signification does not float but remains firmly anchored to the conditions of its production. Joan's body may not display the monomastic utility invoked by “Amazon,” but it has been nonetheless modified for her purpose, transformed by her encounter with divine grace. She says, “And, whereas I was black and swart before, / With those clear rays which she infused on me / That beauty am I blessed with which you may see” (ll. 84-86). And her sword, if not actually the sword of Deborah, has been chosen by supernatural intervention, placed in her hands by a force that is not her own. The curious literalism of what should be metaphor gives Joan a singularity of function even as she is doubly read; throughout 1 Henry VI her identity will be defined by equation, by the rhetoric of “I am” and “you are.” “Assigned am I to be the English scourge” (l. 129), she says. For the admirers and the objects of this scourging, its outcome may be differently valued but its processes look much the same.

It is this gap—between the recognized efficiency of Joan's acts and the dispute over their value—that complicates negotiations of relationships among men. True to theatrical form, 1 Henry VI privileges an almost exclusively homosocial universe; Howard and Rackin characterize the history play as “a specifically masculine genre” and argue that “its masculinity was identified with its function as an ideological apparatus for the construction of an emergent national consciousness.”3 Women in such a context are defined most logically as the matter from which homosocial bonds are built, and this function is as important in the consolidation of hostility as it is in the making of friendship. Figured as individual chivalric conflicts or as wars between nations, battles between men (like alliances) display women as prize, as motive, and as cause. More than anything else, such displays require that the task of defining women in terms of sexual value must rest with men; that value may shift—Helen of Troy may look different to the Trojans than she does to the Greeks—but women themselves are always excluded from its determination. Fighting for or through or because of women gives logic to a male homosocial universe only as long as the place of women themselves remains constant, and in 1 Henry VI such constancy is an impossible fiction. Rather than being fought for, Joan la Pucelle is fought against, entering into the play's privileged masculine terms through the condition of masculinity itself. The resulting clash of conventions creates a kind of exemplary chaos, in which Joan is defined in terms that variously respond to evidence of her own agency rather than demonstrating the determinative power of men. When the French argue among themselves or with the English over her value, the terms of disagreement suggest that the relationship between her sexual and martial roles upsets the conditions through which the place of women is defined: is she given to the Dauphin as a gift or brought to him as an ally? Is she like the French in fighting for their cause, or are the French and the English, alike in being men, united against her? Are her grounds of battle those of nationalism, chivalric heroism, or some odd, early version of what we might now term women's rights? Responses to the play have suggested that Joan's presence onstage unites the English against the French, the men against the woman, the audience against the French, the audience and the English and arguably the French against Joan;4 the multiple gestures toward some consolidation of alliances suggest that Joan la Pucelle has anything but a consolidating effect.

The shifting values attached to her produce a constellation of names that trace the failure of consensus: in his introduction to Saint Joan George Bernard Shaw writes, “She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages.”5 The oddity of her iconography inflects Shakespeare's representation as well as those that precede and follow from it. In 1 Henry VI she is “a holy maid” (1.2.51), “an Amazon” (l. 104), “Pucelle or pussel” (1.4.107), “a witch” (1.5.6), a “high-minded strumpet” (l. 12), “Divinest creature, Astraea's daughter” (1.6.4), “France's saint” (l. 29)—and this is only in Act 1. In the multiplicity of epithets and encomia, Shakespeare echoes his sources; for Hall, in particular, Joan requires an agility of description which, even as it condemns her as “monster” and “orgayne of the deuill,” gives rhetorical space to her own claims. Speaking of “[t]his wytch or manly woman, (called the maide of GOD),” Hall ascribes her virginity (if it exists) simultaneously to her “foule face” and to her own agency, making her at once a sign of the depravity that is Frenchness and a deceiver of noble rulers, “wise men,” and “lerned clarkes.” He writes, “O Lorde, what dispraise is this to the nobilitie of Fraunce: What blotte is this to the Frenche nacion?”6 The historical fact of Joan disrupts any rhetoric of analogy between Englishmen and Frenchmen; France may, in Hall's reading as in Shakespeare's, be outside whatever is English, but Joan la Pucelle represents a clear threat not only to Englishness but also to anything redeemably male in that which is French. Joan disrupts the rhetoric that connects men to men; and if the French seem willing to privilege her utility over her threat to their own masculinity, it is nonetheless true that even their praise marks her difference. The sense in which that difference both separates her from men and divides men from one another becomes explicit when she persuades Burgundy to abandon the English cause for that of the French. “Done like a Frenchman—[aside] turn and turn again!” (3.3.85), she says, and suddenly Burgundy's relationship to national identity, whether French or English, is not connection and self-definition but treason.

“Amazon,” perhaps the most imaginatively powerful of Joan's identities, might encompass all of her extremes: a mythological structure that accommodates Penthesilea, chaste hero of Troy, beside the sexually ravenous cannibals of the New World can surely find space for a saint who is also a high-minded strumpet. Indeed, martial chastity and sexual excess are often invoked simultaneously to define the Amazon, providing a logic for Joan's doubleness. Gabriele Bernhard Jackson reads such doubleness as the play's insistence on the shiftiness of iconographic value: “In my reading of 1 Henry VI, the disjunctive presentation of Joan that shows her first as numinous, then as practically and subversively powerful, and finally as feminized and demonized is determined by Shakespeare's progressive exploitation of the varied ideological potential inherent in the topically relevant figure of the virago. … At no stage is the allocation of value clearcut.”7 Virgin and whore, saint and witch, ideal and debased, masculine and feminine, Joan makes inevitable the punning paradox of Talbot's “Pucelle or pussel.” Readings of her iconography point to anxieties concerning women which range from demonic possession to Catholicism to martial violence to sexual excess to the presence of a queen on the throne; behind each of these readings is the recognition that Joan's conflation of sexual and martial agency, like that represented in stories about Amazons, interrupts the privileged system of homosocial masculinity, rather than being defined by its terms. In the constellation of terms attached to female martiality, the strategies of definition locating women in a particular social place are still in play; but their efficacy comes into question when women can also take the place of men.

Definitions of Joan do not converge even in the name of patriotism; if for Hall and for Holinshed her monstrosity is demonstrably un-English, for other contemporary writers the nationalist distinction is less simple. Agrippa, in Female Pre-eminence, writes, “The English Nation were most ungratefull, should they ever forget their Obligations to this Sex,” but oddly follows this with a brief history of Joan, describing what she has done for the French: “taking Arms like an Amazon, [she] arrested their fortune, put a stop to the torrent of their victories, and by degrees restor'd the withering de Luces to their former lustre.”8 Christopher Newstead's Apology for Women follows Agrippa both in praising Joan and in invoking her in a context that fails to privilege nationalist agendas. He offers an exemplary catalogue of warlike women that places her in the company of Artemesia, Semiramis, Boadicea, and the Amazons of classical mythology.9 And Thomas Heywood, again like Agrippa, brings her analogically close to Englishness, offering a chapter in his Gynaikeion titled “Of English Viragoes. And of Ioan de Pucil.10 Each of these accounts accepts the militant virginity that 1 Henry VI places radically in question; each recognizes militance itself as a mode of nationalism not incongruously embodied in women. Still, though, such accounts suggest a certain ambivalence of their own: not everyone would agree with Newstead that Amazons make good exempla; not everyone would wish to return to the female heroic past celebrated by Agrippa, who himself calls Joan a “strange ridling Prodigy”;11 and Heywood mediates his praise of Joan through her claims and those of her chroniclers, giving her history few of his own words and little of his authority. Joan “would report to diuerse” concerning her divine visitation; “The French Chronicles affirme” her acts of heroism; “she was proclaimed a Virago” in a declaration from the pope.12 Such gestures of ambivalence and mediation show that, while Joan's power to signify goes unchallenged, the question of what she signifies remains unclear. Both the accounts that praise her and those that deplore her do so in ways that allow the spectacle of female masculinity to rhetorically displace the importance of national boundaries. In 1 Henry VI, whatever fighting against Joan does or does not prove about being masculine, it at least demonstrates the fact of being English; but her exemplary function in early modern texts suggests that even this process of consolidation may be obscured by the shifting terms in which she is read.

Rather than continuing to focus on the ways in which accounts of Joan differ, I would like to turn to the sense in which they seem always to produce the same effect. Whether we imagine the grammatical condition of and or or—whether Joan exists simultaneously through contradictory identities or moves through a range of registers or “is” one thing but is erroneously read as another—the extremes of characterization preclude what is in between. No matter what we accept or reject about her claims of virginity and pregnancy, Joan cannot function conventionally as chaste daughter, generative mother, or nurturing wife; she is dislocated throughout this play from the domestic universe in which the roles played by women materialize the connections among men.13 Though her virginity is, according to her, absolute, it has no iconographic power to save her; Vives writes, “We haue redde of wome[n], that haue ben taken & let go agayne of the moste vnruly soudyours [soldiers], only for the reuerence of the name of virginitie, bicause they sayde that they were virgins,”14 but such logic does not work for the soldiers who capture Joan. She has no recognized value on which men can agree; the representational force of her virginity is opposed to, without being mediated by, her own claims to sexuality and the English definition of her as a whore. The categories are less confused than insisted upon as separate but equal. The rhetoric that condemns her, recalling Talbot's pun on her name, reiterates the paradox rather than demanding a single “truth”: “Now heaven forfend! The holy maid with child?” (5.4.65); “And yet, forsooth, she is a virgin pure! / Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee” (ll. 83-84). Joan's death, like her martial success and her iconographic effect, is a result of being at once neither and both. The space between virgin and whore, the complicated negotiation that produces the terms of the domestic, is precluded both by what others say about Joan and by what Joan says about herself; her ability to remain so relentlessly outside, however broadly the inside is defined, emerges from this sense in which she is never imaginably at home.

This becomes explicit when Joan tries to find some space within the heimlich; her final claim to be pregnant is an attempt to become recognizable as a commodity, a woman defined in terms of specific social value. Having witnessed the failure of her insistence on virginity and nobility, Joan performs what readers have always found to be a startling reversal, not only claiming pregnancy but revealing a disconcerting flexibility about the question of paternity. This, I would suggest, is a belated and doomed attempt to enter into the system of male bonds in conventionally feminine terms, to literally embody the condition that connects men to one another; and if her captors do not value the Dauphin's child, Joan is willing to change her story through the invention of a series of fathers until her body performs an acceptable role. But as the play makes clear, the attempt to rewrite this particular body as doing socially conventional work cannot succeed. What is perhaps most interesting here is that the men of the play do not care whether Joan's claims are true or false, whether she is indeed the mother of a child and, if so, whose child; in an ideological sense the question is not worth asking, for the literal fact of pregnancy could not, for Joan, be equated with the social value of maternity. Joan is defined by and as the frustration of the bonds that her final narrative attempts to form, and hers is not an identity that can be revised. Like the stories of amazonian maternity narrated by early modern authors, in which Amazons kill, cripple, or enslave their male children or return them to anonymous fathers, Joan's version of maternity cannot be translated into patriarchal terms. Her last desperate claim, and the death that follows, have been read as feminization, putting her body back into a recognizable social place; yet I think that this ending demonstrates more explicitly than any other element of Joan's story that for her such a place does not exist.15

Joan's threat to the male homosocial systems of the play rests on this dislocation; her identity as a woman is not socializable, and her martial performance threatens to make conventions of masculinity inscrutable as well. Battling each other, men affirm what masculinity is; battling Joan, whose doubleness is relentlessly legible, they have difficulty knowing what it means. When Bedford asks, “A maid? And be so martial?” he points to the fact that Joan's martial acts do not constitute a transvestite disguise plot; there is no moment of redeeming revelation and refeminization, for the female body is always visibly the referent of masculine acts.16 “Where is my strength, my valor, and my force?” asks Talbot; “Our English troops retire; I cannot stay them. / A woman clad in armor chaseth them” (1.5.1-3). If Talbot conventionally marks the center of English male chivalric valor, he finds in Joan's female masculinity the potential unwriting of the referential structure that defines him; his statement “I know not where I am nor what I do” (l. 20) suggests that Joan's presence unravels the naturalized connection between masculinity and men. It is not Joan who kills him; indeed, they are not even opposites in the representational logic of 1 Henry VI but are rather two objects that cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Rackin writes that “Talbot, the English champion, and Joan, his French antagonist, speak alternative languages.”17 When the English scourge speaks her deflating words over the English champion, she proves that he has come too far into her field of discourse.

Readers have theorized Joan's difference in many ways, from the mythological to the sexual to the economic to the theological, but her opposition to the play's martial, male, English center seems clear.18 Indeed, in recalling her abortive battle with young Talbot, Joan herself sees it as a convention, a set of oppositions always already in quotation marks.

Once I enountered him, and thus I said:
“Thou maiden youth, be vanquished by a maid.”
But with a proud, majestical high scorn
He answered thus: “Young Talbot was not born
To be the pillage of a giglot wench.”


The maid is opposed to the “giglot wench,” the French to the English, the Amazon to the would-be conqueror, the woman to the man. And yet such lines might be obscured by the image of Joan, and the distinction between outside and in threatens at times to disappear entirely; England itself is not safe from the effects of Joan's iconography. Bedford articulates this vulnerability in one of the play's earliest speeches, while the body of Henry V still lies onstage: “Posterity, await for wretched years, / When at their mothers' moistened eyes babes shall suck, / Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears, / And none but women left to wail the dead” (1.1.48-51). England in this image becomes a place of women, a space defined by the loss of men; the land of Amazons is always, such rhetoric implies, closer than you think.

Or perhaps the heimlich is simply farther away. The moments at which the terms of the center are threatened suggest less an invasion than a dispersal; Joan la Pucelle, with all the strangeness she signifies, never comes close, but the various elements that converge to produce familiarity can always move apart. Leah Marcus takes this possibility to its logical extreme when she finds in Joan an image of Queen Elizabeth I:

In Henry VI, Part 1, Joan La Pucelle functions in many ways as a distorted image of Queen Elizabeth I. She, like Elizabeth, is a woman who “acts like a man.” She collects about her a markedly similar set of idealized symbolic identities. Yet she belongs to the enemy camp. The figure of Joan brings into the open a set of suppressed cultural anxieties about the Virgin Queen, her identity, and her capacity to provide continuing stability for the nation.19

If Joan looks like Elizabeth, if Elizabeth looks like Joan, this is not a domestication of the strange but an estrangement of the domestic; the metonymies that lead from queen to biblical heroine to classical goddess should never be pursued to the borders occupied by devils and witches and whores. Understood in the terms that define Joan la Pucelle, Queen Elizabeth I would figure a revision of royal iconography in which the sovereign, rather than embodying the bond that draws men together, makes monstrous the hierarchical connection of monarch to male subject and thus disrupts the lateral connections that define unified male subjectivity itself. Such disruption, 1 Henry VI suggests, is the danger posed by female martiality; in the set of associations traced by Marcus, that danger is unimaginably escalated in the figure of a martial female queen.

Henry VI, Part 1 ultimately resists the identification of Queen Elizabeth with Joan, or at least distorts the mirror image to the point of unrecognizability; there remains a powerful impulse to keep the figure of Joan la Pucelle outside the terms of the familiar. It is an impulse that has driven readings not only of dramatic structure but of canon: if Joan is definitively not English and in some sense not French, she is also sometimes not Shakespeare's. Tillyard, in Shakespeare's History Plays, describes this argument as he dismisses it:

Apart from the queer reluctance to allow Shakespeare to have written ill or like other dramatists when he was immature, the chief reason why people have been hostile to Shakespeare's authorship [of 1 Henry VI] is the way he treats Joan of Arc. That the gentle Shakespeare could have been so ungentlemanly as to make his Joan other than a saint was intolerable. This is precisely like arguing that Shakespeare could not have written King John because he does not mention Magna Carta.20

Not, perhaps, precisely. The gesture that defines Joan la Pucelle as “not Shakespeare's” is not merely a defense of chivalry or good historicism but a symptomatic reproduction of the play's own logic, logic that identifies the familiar through the power of the contrary example: if idealized Englishness is constructed against France's Joan, then the idealized Shakespeare, in controversies over the authorship of this play, has been constructed against a Joan who belongs to someone else entirely. By this logic, to allow Joan into the canon is to endanger the most important bond of all—that which links Shakespeare to his readers and thus to the “Shakespearean.” In metatextual negotiations, as with those that take place onstage, the terms in which Joan is defined suggest the fragility of privileged systems of connection.


Possession may, as Lacan asserts, always be an illusion; it is also, however, a way of articulating the relationship between agency and desire that structures the representation of women in Henry VI, Part 2. As York speaks his last line to Joan—“Curse, miscreant, when thou com'st to the stake” (1HVI, 5.3.44)—the statement of finality, punctuated by the stage direction “Exeunt,” is immediately undermined by another stage direction: “Enter Suffolk, with Margaret in his hand.” For Joan, being a Frenchwoman in the hands of the English is an experience of violence that demonizes sex; for Margaret, literally in the hand of Suffolk and metonymically in the hands of the king, the position is more conventionally eroticized, her body defined as a commodity well worth the effort expended to acquire it. “She's beautiful, and therefore to be wooed; / She is a woman, therefore to be won,” says Suffolk (ll. 78-79); and where Joan's beauty had been, like her sword, a weapon divinely bestowed, Margaret's is read as a commodity adding to her value and lending agency to the men who look at her. Immediately recognizable as an object of desire, Margaret is given a version of power which, like the power of all Petrarchan objects, returns itself to the man disempowered by her beauty. “Fie, de la Pole, disable not thyself,” Suffolk says,

Hast not a tongue? Is she not here?
Wilt thou be daunted at a woman's sight?
Ay, beauty's princely majesty is such
Confounds the tongue and makes the senses rough.

(ll. 67-71)

The hint that Margaret might possess the power to disable men—a hint to which the play will come back with, quite literally, a vengeance—is here transformed into a conventionally self-authored loss of speech analogous to that suffered by Sidney's Astrophil.21

The tropes that link sexual and political economies define Margaret's place onstage, making her at once a prize of war and a prisoner of love. “To be a queen in bondage is more vile / Than is a slave in base servility, / For princes should be free,” she tells Suffolk, and he replies, “And so shall you, / If happy England's royal king be free” (ll. 112-15). The equation of sovereign privilege and erotic power will return to haunt the men who desire Margaret; for the moment, though, such shifts in agency and literalization are remote, and Suffolk constructs success from the familiar materials of Petrarchan language.

Solicit Henry with her wondrous praise;
Bethink thee on her virtues that surmount,
And natural graces that extinguish art;
Repeat their semblance often on the seas,
That, when thou com'st to kneel at Henry's feet,
Thou mayest bereave him of his wits with wonder.

(ll. 190-95)

Agreeing to function as the connection between men, Margaret enables Suffolk to conquer his king, bringing Henry not only to desire but to dependence: “So am I driven by breath of her renown / Either to suffer shipwreck or arrive / Where I may have fruition of her love” (5.5.7-9). And yet, we should perhaps remember, triangles work in a number of directions; if Suffolk reads Margaret as a mediating term, for Margaret herself Suffolk mediates effectively—and briefly—between a position of disadvantage and one of extraordinary power. Margaret's body does not long remain a passive text, and Shakespeare's own text is governed less by Petrarchan conventions of desire than by the anxieties of a more material fragmentation. Henry VI, Part 2 stages the shift from “Queen Margaret, England's happiness!” to the “blood-bespotted Neapolitan, / Outcast of Naples, England's bloody scourge!” of York's accusation (1.1.37; 5.1.117-18). Margaret, aggressively conventionalized as the matter of male bonds, becomes instead the cause of their most radical dissolution, precipitating the representational violence not of sonnets but of civil war.

Echoes of a familiar rhetoric attach themselves to Margaret long before York's reinvocation of the English scourge. “Such commendations as becomes a maid, / A virgin, and his servant, say to him,” she instructs Suffolk at the end of 1 Henry VI (5.3.177-78), immediately recalling that other maid who has scarcely left the stage.22 But if Margaret's body—female, French, desirable, and of dubious lineage—recalls Joan la Pucelle, her performance is markedly different. She moves inward as decisively as Joan remains outside, her body focusing projections of the future as the body of Henry V had summoned nostalgia for the past. “Her valiant courage and undaunted spirit, / More than in women commonly is seen, / Will answer our hope in issue of a king” (1HVI, 5.5.70-72). Even here, in Suffolk's early words, Margaret is already both in and curiously out of place, her courage and spirit analogous to the conquests of Henry V, while Henry VI stands in a mediated relationship to both: “For Henry, son unto a conqueror, / Is likely to beget more conquerors, / If with a lady of so high resolve / As is fair Margaret he be linked in love” (ll. 73-76). The dynamics of this triangle, from the perspective of the living English male sovereign authority, have already gone wrong, as will those of the triangle formed by Margaret, Suffolk, and Henry VI. “She should have stayed in France and starved in France” (2HVI, 1.1.133), Gloucester says, but such literal marginalization, like the categoric strategy on which it relies, does not work for Margaret as it did for Joan. Identified as mother, queen, and wife, Margaret embodies a range of conventionally feminine obligations and transgressions that locate her in the midst of English nationalist negotiations, not despite but because of their aggressively domestic terms.

It is important to note that the disruptive effect of women in this play stems not from any rebellion against convention but from full participation in it. The Margaret of 2 Henry VI plays out a woman's part: if the first play of this tetralogy presents the materiality of Joan's body iconographically, the second defines Margaret's body in terms of its utility, representing her first as an object and finally as an agent of acquisition. That shift in agency structures Margaret's appearances in the play, as the qualities that make her desirable to Suffolk and to Henry become the means through which she herself claims the agency of desire. Imagined as a royal accessory, she is acquired at a cost, gaining control of the English succession even as England loses control of France. The marriage, which Henry reads as a triumph of desire and Suffolk as a strategic climax, is for Margaret only the beginning. “Margaret shall now be Queen and rule the King; / But I will rule both her, the King, and realm” (5.5.107-8), Suffolk says at the end of 1 Henry VI. It is a prophecy perhaps best answered by a stage direction from 2 Henry VI that uncannily parallels Suffolk's entrance “with Margaret in his hand”: “Enter the King with a supplication, and the Queen with Suffolk's head …” (4.4, s.d.).

And why, we might briefly pause to wonder, is she carrying his head? Margaret does not directly cause Suffolk's death. But as she walks onstage, she has an odd effect on the doubled convention, erotic and political, of fragmentation-as-synthesis: the metaphor that presents the ruler as the head of the body politic, like the Petrarchan tropes that dissect the body of the mistress for the pleasure of other men, is displaced by this economy in which bodies, men's bodies, literally come apart. Margaret's mourning takes a darkly comic form—“Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast, / But where's the body that I should embrace?” (ll. 5-6)—as it materializes Suffolk's earlier conceit:

If I depart from thee, I cannot live,
And in thy sight to die, what were it else
But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?
Here could I breathe my soul into the air,
As mild and gentle as the cradle babe
Dying with mother's dug between its lips. …


“Leaving you would kill me,” the Petrarchan lover routinely tells his mistress, claiming her through her claim on him; but the dynamics of power look rather different if he is right. Objectified in such conventional terms, Margaret figures the ways in which conventions themselves might go wrong, reentering the representational space of 2 Henry VI with the fragmented body of her object of desire.23 And Suffolk's death marks the first explicit displacement of King Henry as well: “His body will I bear unto the King. / If he revenge it not, yet will his friends; / So will the Queen, that living held him dear,” says the courtier who picks up the pieces (4.1.146-48). Imported to connect Suffolk to his king, Margaret transforms that connection into an image of violence and loss; in Margaret, Henry gets rather more than Suffolk had bargained for.

“These are no women's matters” (1.3.117), Gloucester tells the queen as dissent threatens England, but the fragmentation central to 2 Henry VI is precipitated first by male attempts to acquire Margaret and finally by Margaret's own strategies of acquisition, transforming passion into action, an object to an agent within explicitly feminine conditions of performance. Margaret effects disruption through adultery, envy, lust, shrewishness, extravagance, and conceit, her excesses conventionalized even as they are held responsible for the increasingly precarious state of England. Gloucester's wife Eleanor, who, like her husband, will fall victim to Margaret's revenge, recognizes her power of categorical upset, telling Henry: “Look to't in time. / She'll hamper thee and dandle thee like a baby. / Though in this place most master wear no breeches, / She shall not strike Dame Eleanor unrevenged” (ll. 144-47). But again, as in the Petrarchan fantasies of Suffolk and of King Henry himself, reading Margaret proves a dangerous business. The structures of power may be clear, but positions within them shift without warning; and Eleanor finds herself the object rather than the agent of revenge.

Not all these lords do vex me half so much
As that proud dame, the Lord Protector's wife.
She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies,
More like an empress than Duke Humphrey's wife.
Strangers in court do take her for the Queen.

(ll. 75-79)

No one in Queen Margaret's court should look too much like Queen Margaret. But this is not the “Captain Margaret” of 3 Henry VI, who emasculates her husband by taking command of his armies; this is instead a figure of specifically feminine pique, whose physical violence is limited to the stage direction “She gives the Duchess a box on the ear” (2HVI, 1.3.138, s.d.).

Margaret, in short, is dangerous in this play because she is conventional, because desire for her makes her husband an effeminate cuckold and because her own feminine vanity makes her a formidable political conspirator. The synthesis of desirability and agency disrupts the hierarchical relationship between homosocial privilege and the heterosexuality through which it is reproduced; Henry's marriage guarantees not the promised continuity of father and son but the intervention of women in the negotiations among men. Thus Gloucester falls as a consequence of both Margaret's ambition and his own conjugal indulgence, much as Henry falls to his own desire, for in the world of this play, men are victimized by Margaret's performance of femininity as effectively as York will be by her sword. Coppélia Kahn has argued that, in history plays, “liaisons with women are invariably disastrous because they subvert or destroy more valued alliances between men.”24 Such an effect, naturalized through repetition in the Henry VI plays, is in fact distinctly un-natural; it suggests that heterosexuality, rather than playing its proper part in the perpetuation of male homosocial systems of power, violates the hierarchical relationship on which that power is based, invading rather than delineating the space between men. Instead of the logic that draws men together through the processes of evaluation and exchange, these plays offer an alternative logic in which female agency disrupts male control over the significance of conventional roles. The terms of the heimlich, of domestic convention itself, thus become signs of disjunction rather than consolidation; in 2 Henry VI the enemy is at home, and Henry's marriage, which Joyce Green MacDonald calls “a marriage contradicting in every particular the patriarchal mandate for the union of a prince,” systematically strips him of the conditions of agency which, for the space of 3 Henry VI, Margaret will take on.25

Henry's marriage to Margaret does not merely unman him but places him in a distinctly precarious relationship to the crown; echoing the chronicles, Gloucester holds that union responsible for the fragmentation of England itself.

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


Margaret erases the glory of England as Joan la Pucelle had deflated posthumous Talbot's catalogue of glory—“Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles / Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet” (4.7.75-76)—but here what Rackin has described as women's “anti-historical” effect is generated and articulated from within. Both Joan and Margaret threaten to obscure the terms through which men recognize one another and thus identify themselves, but in 2 Henry VI history is obscured not by a battle but by a marriage. “My wife was wise and good had she bene rightly sought, / But our vnlawful getting it, may make a good thing nought,” Henry says in The Mirror for Magistrates.26 In 2 Henry VI, Margaret, the “thing” to be “got,” recoils upon the getter, turning the structures of acquisition and desire into her own narrative tools. Wanting to be queen, she marries Henry; wanting to be first in importance, she ousts Gloucester; simply, apparently, wanting, she acquires Suffolk, in whole and then in part. There is an insistently conventional femininity not only in the nature of these transgressions but in Margaret's mediated participation in them: as a desiring subject, she works indirectly, appropriating to her uses the structures and the desires of men. If Joan la Pucelle might consolidate an English male aristocratic ideal through opposition, Queen Margaret gets under its skin.

Domesticity, in this context, fails to reassure; there is no space, literal or mythological, between Margaret and England as there is between England and Joan, and Margaret's implication in nationalist and familial tropes fragments the political state even as she appropriates the rhetoric of statecraft. Margaret's presence is inescapably quotidian: where Joan's iconographic identities exist in synchronic contradiction, Margaret's have a diachronic utility. Chastity makes her a wife, sexuality makes her a queen, maternity makes her the mother of a prince, and, in 3 Henry VI, martiality will make her an effective king. Because her roles begin in femininity and persist into usurpation, Margaret is difficult to put in her place; even Heywood, who places her among his “English Viragoes,” prefers to say as little as possible, stating only that iconographic rhetoric lacks words to contain her.

Of queene Margaret the wife of Henrie the sixt, her courage, resolution, and magnanimitie, to speake at large, would aske a Volume rather than a compendious discourse, to which I am strictly tyed. And therefore whosoever is desirous to be further instructed in the successe of those many battailes fought against the house of Yorke, in which she was personally present, I referre them to our English Chronicles, that are not sparing in commending her more than womanish spirit, to euerlasting memorie.27

As Heywood's catalogue of exempla directs the reader to the chronicles, diachronic action again displaces synchronic definition; Margaret must be read less according to what she is than to what she does. The privileging of action—or, in the context of Shakespeare's plays, of acting—is implicit in Margaret's adroit deployment of femininity in the second part of Henry VI; it will emerge fully in the aggressive seemings of the third.


As 3 Henry VI begins, Margaret no longer stands in a mediated relationship to sovereign power. The king has become “Base, fearful, and despairing Henry!” (1.1.178), and Margaret claims the space of government. The claim, again, is based on an invasion that has already taken place. When Henry, yielding to York, disinherits his own son, Margaret first desires to disclaim her relationship to national and familial domesticity altogether: “Ah, wretched man! Would I had died a maid / And never seen thee, never borne thee son, / Seeing thou hast proved so unnatural a father!” (ll. 216-18). Margaret here wishes herself back in the position of Joan, the maid opposed to rather than implicated in the political and erotic terms of Englishness. But if for Joan that distance is always potentially an illusion, for Margaret it is not even that. Playing the roles of mother and wife, she chastises Henry for his own more tenuous connection to their son and by extension to kingship itself:

Hadst thou but loved him half so well as I,
Or felt that pain which I did for him once,
Or nourished him as I did with my blood,
Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there,
Rather than have made that savage duke thine heir
And disinherited thine only son.

(ll. 220-25)

Constructing a causal relationship between maternity and good sovereignty, Margaret excludes the king, displacing him simultaneously in marital and martial terms: “I here divorce myself / Both from thy table, Henry, and thy bed. … The northern lords that have forsworn thy colors / Will follow mine, if once they see them spread” (ll. 247-48, 251-52). If generative heterosexuality identifies Margaret as the means through which Henry is connected to and reproduced in his son, here the means becomes an end; Margaret's declaration of agency, rather than her passively maternal body, reasserts the identity of Prince Edward as that identity is threatened by the king's paternal failure. Her martiality does not replace the conventional femininity of maternal obligation but emerges from it; with her claim to Henry's armies, Margaret makes violence itself domestic. Henry articulates the causality: “Poor Queen! How love to me and to her son / Hath made her break out into terms of rage!” (ll. 264-65), he says, revealing the sense in which the conventionalized femininity of 2 Henry VI leads inexorably to the “ruthless queen” of Part 3. Margaret seems always to be between men in these plays, but as she shifts her investment from Suffolk to Henry, from Henry to his son, the dynamics of power implicit in that position become distinctly double-edged.

For the chroniclers Henry is “a ruler not Ruling,” and Margaret, in consequence, becomes “quene Margarete his wyfe, in whom the whole rule of the realme consisted”; “The Quene, which bare the rule”; “the Quene, whiche then ruled the rost and bare the whole rule”; “Quene Margarete, whose breath ruled.”28 In such accounts Margaret's agency, however aggressively defined, results from the king's abdication; Hall writes, “[T]he Quene encouraged her frendes, and promised great rewardes to her helpers: for the kyng studied nothing but of peace, quyet and solitarie life.”29 Because there is no king, there must be Queen Margaret. Howard and Rackin suggest that this causality structures 3 Henry VI: “Margaret's prominence in the action immediately suggests a weakness in the patriarchal structures that should have rendered her less visible and less powerful”; they conclude, “The scandal of Henry VI, Part III is not that a woman is a general, but that a man, and an anointed king to boot, can perform none of the actions expected of a father and a king.”30 But I think that for Shakespeare the construction of Queen Margaret is a more deliberate process: as it conflates claims to maternal and martial agency, her statement “I here divorce myself” takes on the force of a speech act, creating a role that exceeds the space left empty by the king. Accused of playing the Amazon, Queen Margaret figures an agency that is constructed without being contingent. Within the terms of amazonian logic, women may assume power through the absence of men, but in so doing, they alter the conditions of power itself, making it difficult if not impossible for the conventional relationships between agency and maleness to return. As she brings the spectacle of female martiality into England and into the play's national and familial structures, Margaret appropriates a kind of editorial control over what the roles of king and queen, husband and wife, man and woman can be understood to mean, closing down the imaginative possibility of a naturalized reinscription of hierarchy. The terms through which Margaret becomes amazonian are those of recognizing something already in place, not of discovering something new. Conventional domesticity does not provide a space of safety in 3 Henry VI, for both Margaret's rhetoric and that which describes her suggest that martial women are not born but can be made.

“I would Your Highness would depart the field. / The Queen hath best success when you are absent,” Clifford tells Henry, and Margaret adds, “Ay, good my lord, and leave us to our fortune” (2.2.73-75). This differs subtly but significantly from the account given by the chronicles, in which Margaret's success contextualizes Henry's failure: “Happy was the quene in her two battayls, but vnfortunate was the kyng in all his enterprises, for where his person was presente, ther victory fled euer from him to the other parte, & he commonly was subdued & vanqueshed.”31 In 3 Henry VI Margaret's possessive—our fortune—exiles Henry from the condition of England; he does not lose the battle so much as vanish from its terms of representation, as when his son tells him, “When I return with victory from the field, / I'll see Your Grace. Till then I'll follow her” (1.1.261-62). The dyad of mother and son, like that of sovereign and subjects, excludes the king, for the Margaret of 3 Henry VI is no longer constructed through triangles. Her roles draw substance from familial and political connections, but her relationship to agency is not contingent on third terms. Having consolidated the functions of domesticity, Margaret makes maternal and national obligation the same thing: to fight for her son is to fight for the integrity of England itself. “A woman's general. What should we fear?” Richard asks; but in the world of 3 Henry VI, in which Margaret's synthesis of martiality and maternity intervenes in the connections and actions conventionally reserved for men, his question contains a differently self-evident answer than he imagines.

Where Joan la Pucelle embodies contradictory iconographic positions by literalizing a series of tropes, Margaret consolidates contradiction through the explicitness of playing, her masculine performance inseparable from the fictional female body she presents onstage. For Margaret's role-playing, even when referred to what seem the most essential of causes, is relentlessly performative; having appropriated the terms of Englishness, she disrupts them through a theatrical presence that confounds materiality and illusion. Butler writes, “[T]he regulatory norms of ‘sex’ work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialize the body's sex, to materialize sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative. … what constitutes the fixity of the body, its contours, its movements, will be fully material, but materiality will be re-thought as the effect of power.”32 On the early modern stage such apparently counterintuitive causalities of embodiment reflect dramatic necessity, and for history plays the relationship between performative agency and political power poses questions that are particularly acute. For 3 Henry VI those questions are at once focused and redoubled as the concerns of politics and sex converge in Queen Margaret. The connections among power, performance, and heterosexual imperatives produce a female sexual body that is not only a theatrical but a political intervention. And if, as Butler suggests, heterosexual sociality constructs and makes use of certain kinds of bodies, the manifestly constructed body of Margaret makes effective use of heterosexual sociality itself. A boy-actor in a woman's part, a Frenchwoman who becomes England's queen, a queen who acts as a king, a mother who defends the patrilineal rights of her son by standing in a father's place, Shakespeare's Queen Margaret constructs agency through a revision of the relationship of bodies to acts and of women to the systematic conventions of masculine identity.

Because these plays attempt to identify the center against what it is not—or, in the case of Queen Margaret, what it should not be—the space of English male subjectivity is defined by the performances of women. And, with Margaret's various deployments of domesticity, that space becomes ever more claustrophobic. As I have suggested, her domestic sphere is national as well as familial, a conflation that inflects the play more generally. Thus, having captured York, Margaret brings home the frustration of his political ambition through a death in the family: “Look, York, I stained this napkin with the blood / That valiant Clifford, with his rapier's point, / Made issue from the bosom of the boy” (1.4.79-81). Rutland's death, which is for Margaret a logical consequence of this kind of war, represents for his father a monstrous crossing of lines:

O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the lifeblood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.

(ll. 137-42)

York here attempts to re-separate, to oppose “women” to “Margaret” and prove through her acts that she is not one; calling on conventions of femininity, he rhetorically returns women to their place. Yet Margaret's performance disrupts the masculine structures that give such conventions authority, denaturalizing the distinctions on which York insists; and even his own language mirrors Margaret's privileging of playing, of seeming over being seen to be. The verb of equation linking Margaret to the qualities she does or does not possess connects her to adjectives rather than to nouns; where Joan is Amazon, witch, strumpet, scourge, Margaret is stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless. Margaret does not seem as, act as she should, and York's metaphor of the “tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide,” figuring the female body as a costume, implicates sexual essentialism itself in the rhetoric of performance.

According to York, Margaret epitomizes all that women and queens should not be: “But that thy face is, vizardlike, unchanging, / Made impudent with use of evil deeds, / I would assay, proud queen, to make thee blush” (ll. 116-18). According to early modern monitory texts, however, she acts precisely as women and queens always threaten to do; The English Gentlewoman, for example, describes predictable disillusion rather than monstrous wonders but echoes York's rhetoric closely nonetheless. “What prodegy fuller of wonder, then to see a woman thus transformed from nature?” Brathwait writes. “Her face is not her owne, note her complexion; her eye is not her owne, note her straid motion; her habit is not her owne, eye her strange fashion. Whilest loose weares imply light workes; and thin cobwebbe couers promise free admittance to all sensuall louers.”33 In such clichés, as in Shakespeare's first Henriad, female excess, inherently theatrical, is at once a snare for men and an appropriation of apparent maleness. Cosmetics and clothes produce a strangely masculine monster, and exposure of the essential woman holds as many unpleasant surprises as does the armor of feminine convention. Joan Riviere refers to “the conception of womanliness as a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden danger.”34 In 3 Henry VI the danger is doubled: to interrogate one masquerade is to be confronted by another, and any attempt to see either the woman or the warrior results only in the reminder that Margaret, at any given moment, quite efficiently seems to be both. “Tell him my mourning weeds are laid aside / And I am ready to put armor on” (3.3.229-30), she says in response to Edward's challenge; her response, like Joan's encounter with young Talbot, is later mediated by quotation marks. The Post relays the message—“‘Tell him,’ quoth she, ‘my mourning weeds are done, / And I am ready to put armor on’”—to which Edward replies, “Belike she minds to play the Amazon” (4.1.104-6).

The anxiety produced by such playing emerges fully in the only simile of York's great speech: “How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex / To triumph, like an Amazonian trull / Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!” (1.4.113-15). The term that finds a logical referent in Joan la Pucelle is attached only fearfully and contingently—“like an Amazonian trull”—to England's queen. If Margaret is “Amazonian,” the adjective attaches itself uneasily; for if she marks the space “beyond”—beyond Englishness, maleness, a constant and referential understanding of power—she does so from so far inside the structures defining those terms that it is not clear where the English male aristocratic hero can safely go. “[Y]ou are more inhuman, more inexorable, / O, ten times more, than tigers of Hyrcania. / See, ruthless Queen, a hapless father's tears!” says York (ll. 154-56); the “inhumanity” of Margaret's performance lies in its exposure of the transgressive potential of women's roles, its playing out of the anxious possibility of literalization. Margaret gives York the blood of his son, identifying it by defining the paternal connection that he cannot recognize without her help. Metaphorically articulated, such an act precisely enables male bonding, using women to materialize fantasies of parthenogenesis. Literalizing the rhetoric of those fantasies in an act of violence, Margaret dismantles patrilineal systems of connection.

This is the threat posed by the amazonian in 3 Henry VI: the play does not attack the conventions that define women's roles but performs them, demonstrating their vulnerability to revision from within. Margaret's transgressions gain force from their revelation that the logic of transgression is already in place, for in fact the terms of seeming—or, to take up York's term, ill-beseeming—that attend Margaret's performance are not alien but familiar. As John Knox's rhetoric in The First Blast suggests, female dominance might always shift from the political to the personal and back again; Knox's notorious observation that those seeing England under female rule “should judge the whole world to be transformed into Amazons” is followed by a detailed discussion of the Amazon at home.

To the further declaration of the imperfections of women, of their natural weakness and inordinate appetites, I might adduce histories proving some women to have died for sudden joy, some for unpatience to have murdered themselves; some to have burned with such inordinate lust that, for the quenching of the same, they have betrayed to strangers their country and city; and some to have been so desirous of dominion that, for the obtaining of the same, they have murdered the children of their own sons. Yea, and some have killed with cruelty their own husbands and children.35

Women, Knox argues, are always potentially excessive, always potentially amazonian: women make bad enemies; women will betray their countries; women will become dangerous within the family, killing their children and their men. The Margaret of 3 Henry VI emerges from this tradition of anxious polemics, in which the amazonian is linked to the domestic through terms of violence. The most logical victims of that violence are the husbands and children whose identity conventional femininity should work to mediate and define.

As Margaret's first victim, King Henry VI is identified in terms of his vulnerability to revision; in Warwick's words,

                              The proud insulting Queen,
With Clifford and the haught Northumberland,
And of their feather many more proud birds,
Have wrought the easy-melting King like wax.


Describing himself as “the hapless male to one sweet bird” (5.6.15), Henry can be understood only in relation to the desires and intentions of his wife. Conquering her husband erotically and aesthetically, Margaret literalizes the fantasy of female power articulated by Suffolk and by Henry himself in conventionally Petrarchan terms; the revelation of 3 Henry VI is that Petrarchan fictions have real consequences, leading as naturally to “Captain Margaret” as they do to the rhetoric of desire.36 And Warwick, describing Henry as “My sovereign, with the loving citizens, / Like to his island girt in with the ocean, / Or modest Dian circled with her nymphs” (4.8.19-21), suggests that a woman who appropriates the power ascribed to her by the language of courtship does so at the expense of men. Explicitly feminized, aestheticized, and made chaste, a Diana more modest than martial, Henry himself becomes a Petrarchan object, protected from the obligations of maleness and of kingship. As Diodorus writes of the Amazons, “Theire husbondes stonde in like condition as women and wives doo among vs in oure contrey, ordeyned of purpose to kepe the house at home, to be buxom and obedient vnto theire wives, clerely discharged from all maner of warre, beryng no rome nor office of worship in theire contrey.”37

Richard wishes of Margaret “That you might still have worn the petticoat, / And ne'er have stol'n the breech from Lancaster” (5.5.23-24), but King Henry, mediating between memories of his father and hopes for his son, is always contingent—the significance of his death divided between foreshadowing and afterthought, the death itself a virtual aside. Prince Edward, too, represents a presence substantiated only through nostalgia and anticipation. Thus Oxford says of him, “O brave young prince! Thy famous grandfather / Doth live again in thee: long mayst thou live / To bear his image and renew his glories” (5.4.50-54). But for Prince Edward, as for his father, the connection to Henry V is displaced, his past and future defined and circumscribed by a body that is still onstage. Howard and Rackin argue that “the play also demystifies the idea that patriarchal blood lines, even ones unadulterated by bastardy, guarantee the valor or worth of the father's descendants. … Edward claims the throne in his father's name, but he does so in his mother's spirit.”38 Edward—the other Edward—calls Margaret “You, that are King, though he do wear the crown,” and the crown prince is most recognizably his mother's son. In Richard's words, “Whoever got thee, there thy mother stands; / For well I wot thou hast thy mother's tongue” (2.2.90, 133-34).

The multiple representations of Margaret turn against her son even as they are turned to his cause; her role-playing itself precludes the return of kingship to any uncontested state. When Prince Edward appropriates the rhetoric of sovereignty, he does so through an essentialist logic that is newly fragile, his contested position as male heir figuring the play's detachment of referentiality from men. In response to Warwick's “Injurious Margaret!” Prince Edward asks, “And why not Queen?” Warwick's reply reveals that such signifiers are not firmly fixed: “Because thy father Henry did usurp; / And thou no more art Prince than she is Queen” (3.3.78-80). Relying on primogeniture, Prince Edward is vulnerable to the failure of that term; and his connection to Henry V, like his father's, is ultimately a false trail, or at least one obscured by Margaret's intervention. The impossibility in this play of returning to an unproblematic condition of patrilineal logic results directly from her attempt to stage-manage such a return. When women cease to be objects proving a connection among men and become instead agents attempting to impose it, the register of the connection necessarily shifts from the natural to the constructed. This is the lesson that Prince Edward does not learn; where Margaret inverts sovereignty through a consolidation of roles, her son reads it as self-evident. And, in 3 Henry VI, in the newly formed court of the rival King Edward IV, he reads it wrongly. His body recalls not a heroic past but the presence of his mother, and the terms of his death—Edward's “Take that, thou likeness of this railer here”—insist that his mother's body signifies as his father's name does not. This is a mirror game not between two King Edwards but between mother and son, and it is distinctly unhealthy to be the son of an Amazon.39

Margaret's rhetoric of mourning is at once conventionally maternal and a sharp reminder of another, earlier moment of violence. Comparing her son's death to that of Caesar, she says, “He was a man; this (in respect) a child, / And men ne'er spend their fury on a child” (5.5.51-57). Men may not; Margaret already has. And the death of Rutland reappears, not only as a linguistic ghost in a metatheatrical revenge plot but as a reminder that, through Margaret, domestic violence connects the fragmentation of families to that of England itself. Henry VI, Part 3 does not present a dynamic in which essentialized femininity gives way to martial agency only to collapse back into maternal helplessness. Instead, the conditions of martiality are always those of maternity, and the female body is itself staged as performance.40 Grieving mother, like grieving wife, is a role, neither more nor less genuine than the condition of being beautiful or amazonian or tiger-like. “Here sheathe thy sword. I'll pardon thee my death” (l. 70), Margaret tells her tormentors. Even physical vulnerability is a trope, a reminder of the fact that both rape and death here operate at the level of metaphor and that such metaphorical swords always cut both ways.

As it makes visible the constructedness of dramatic conventions and gender roles, Margaret's amazonian performance precipitates the disjoining of men from one another and from any essentialized condition of masculinity. By the play's conclusion, her presence seems necessary for masculinity to be connected to men at all. Before the final battle, it is not Prince Edward's presence or the king's name but Margaret's rhetoric that clothes men in the performativity of heroism, as the prince himself observes: “Methinks a woman of this valiant spirit / Should, if a coward heard her speak these words, / Infuse his breast with magnanimity, / And make him, naked, foil a man at arms” (5.4.39-42). This is only a local example of Margaret's larger implication in the structures of violence; from the beginning the play is explicit about her responsibility not only for individual performances of masculine martiality but for martial conflict itself. According to Edward, duke of York, it is her role-playing that brings England to irrecoverable self-fragmentation: “For what hath broached this tumult but thy pride? / Hadst thou been meek, our title still had slept; / And we, in pity of the gentle King, / Had slipped our claim until another age” (2.2.159-62). Having brought England to civil war, Margaret bears a responsibility that is theatrical as well as political and identifies her as the cause of the play: “Hadst thou been meek, our title still had slept”—or, in Edward's final condemnation, “No, wrangling woman, we'll no longer stay. / These words will cost ten thousand lives this day” (ll. 176-77). Margaret is thus conventionally feminized as a “wrangling woman” even as she plays her most martial role. Her own rhetoric of inspiration participates in the conflation of nationalist impulses with her position as a grieving wife: “Lords, knights, and gentlemen, what I should say / My tears gainsay; for every word I speak, / Ye see, I drink the water of mine eye” (5.4.73-75). Because her domestic chaos coincides with England's own, Margaret anticipates the state of disconnection toward which the tetralogy tends. Relationships defined in nationalist or familial terms are relentlessly denaturalized by her performative play. At the moment of victorious consolidation, Edward IV finds it difficult to banish this ghostly reminder of contingency and loss, as his proliferation of insistences suggests: “Away with her. Go, bear her hence perforce”; “Away, I say! I charge ye bear her hence”; “Away with her, and waft her hence to France.” (5.5.68, 81; 5.7.41). The last question in this play full of questions—“What will Your Grace have done with Margaret?” (5.7.37)—suggests that disposing of an amazonian queen is a difficult speech act indeed.

The answer to this question is, I think, another question: as he contemplates the captive Margaret, Richard asks, “Why should she live, to fill the world with words?” (5.5.44). The image has a particularly historical—or perhaps, in Rackin's term, antihistorical—referent, for Margaret will indeed live on ahistorically into the England of Richard III, continuing to offer political forecasts long after she should have died in ignominious exile. Rather than disappearing in response to Edward's slightly hysterical orders, Margaret brings into the world of Richard III the economy of fragmentation and loss that had so distressed York, an economy in which kings are traded for kings, husbands for husbands, sons for sons:

Though not by war, by surfeit die your king,
As ours by murder, to make him a king!
Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward our son, that was Prince of Wales,
Die in his youth by like untimely violence!
Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen,
Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self!


Through the anomalous presence of Queen Margaret, the language of reciprocity, which defines men as the tokens and the victims of exchange while women survive to count the costs, persists into Richard III.41 Having survived the three parts of Henry VI, Margaret in this final play explicates the conflation of the political and the domestic that she has so disruptively performed, theorizing the narrative of loss that equates civil war and family feud.

To return to Clarence's question, what is to be done with Margaret? Edward's response at the end of 3 Henry VI is a refusal of circles or mirrors, a statement that historical spectacles always move forward:

And now what rests but that we spend the time
With stately triumphs, mirthful comic shows,
Such as befits the pleasure of the court?
Sound drums and trumpets! Farewell sour annoy!
For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy.


Edward is notoriously wrong here, and the failure to evade images and repetitions of the past, figured through the persistent presence of Queen Margaret, haunts not only Richard III but literary history itself. Robert Greene, in his notorious critique of Shakespearean originality, returns to what seems to have become a kind of historical primal scene:

trust them not: for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.42

Greene's misquotation is a near-quotation that replaces “woman” with “player” in a gesture that is no substitution at all. In playing, in seeming, in the ruthless appropriation of text, Shakespeare is equated with the Queen Margaret of his own reinvention.43 If Joan la Pucelle has been taken to identify 1 Henry VI as “not Shakespeare's,” Margaret here becomes the sign that Shakespeare's text was never his to begin with—or perhaps such conventions of ownership, like Margaret's own paradoxical conventionality, produce only an infinite circularity, for what does it mean to attack Shakespeare for having no words of his own if the attack is formulated in Shakespeare's own words? Here again an attack from outside takes the form of that which is already inside; again the terms of alienation reproduce even as they invade the heimlich; and again Margaret, brought to England to articulate a relationship among men, becomes less the matter of that relationship than the sign of its radical failure.


  1. Phyllis Rackin, “Anti-Historian: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories,” Theatre Journal 37 (1985): 334. For an earlier version of this opposition of material to spiritual, see [David] Bevington's claim that “Talbot triumphantly demonstrates the ascendancy of the truest sort of masculinity—not man's body but his mind and soul—over the trammels of the flesh” (“The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI,Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 55).

  2. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3.

  3. Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories, (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 47.

  4. See for example [Nancy] Gutierrez's argument concerning Joan's effect on the audience: “The French soldiers and the contemporary English audience, normally ‘natural’ enemies, become allies when threatened by a woman” (“Gender and Value in 1 Henry VI: The Role of Joan de Pucelle,” Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 190).

  5. George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan (1924; rpt. New York: Random House, 1956), 3.

  6. [Edward] Hall, The Vnion of the two noble and illustrate famelies of Lancastre and York beeyng long in continual discension for the croune of this noble realm (London, 1548), fols. Cviir and Cxiiiv. On the relationship between Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan and the chronicles', see Richard F. Hardin, “Chronicles and Mythmaking in Shakespeare's Joan of Arc,” Shakespeare Survey 42 (1990): 25-35.

  7. Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc,” English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 40-65, esp. 64-65. See also Clayton G. MacKenzie, “Myth and Anti-Myth in the First Tetralogy,” Orbis Litterarum 42 (1987): 1-26, esp. 2-3.

  8. Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Female Pre-eminence: or the Dignity and Excellency of that Sex, above the Male (1509), trans. H[enry] C[ase] (London, 1670), 66-67.

  9. See Christopher Newstead, An Apology for Women: or, Womens Defence (London, 1620), 17-18.

  10. See Thomas Heywood, GYNAIKEION: or, Nine Bookes of Various History Concerninge Women (London, 1624).

  11. Agrippa, 66.

  12. Heywood, 236. Christine de Pizan, whose Le Ditié de Jeanne d'Arc was the first poem praising Joan of Arc and the only one written during Joan's lifetime, celebrates her martial conquests without apparent ambivalence; for Christine de Pizan, of course, neither Joan's nationality nor her sex gave cause for concern. For one reading of this poem in the context of Christine's life and other writings, see Charity Cannon Willard, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works (New York: Persea Books, 1984), 204-7. For a discussion of the poem in the context of other early literary representations of Joan of Arc, see Deborah Fraioli, “The Literary Image of Joan of Arc: Prior Influences,” Speculum 56 (1981): 811-30.

  13. On the confusion of categories, see Jeanne Addison Roberts, “Birth Traumas in Shakespeare,” Renaissance Papers (1990): 55-66, esp. 62.

  14. Johannes Ludovicus Vives, A very Frutefull and pleasant boke called the Instruction of a Christen Woman, trans. Richard Hyrde (London, 1541), G2r.

  15. For a reading of Joan's feminization as a trope of woman-taming, see Jackson, 60.

  16. Shaw calls Joan “the pioneer of rational dressing for women” (3). On the visual doubleness of female body and masculine armor, see Marcus, 100; Gutierrez, 185; and Jackson, 54.

  17. Rackin, “Anti-Historians,” 331. Catherine Belsey reads Joan in the context of such “extrahuman” figures as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth; see The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and difference in Renaissance drama (London: Methuen, 1985), 185.

  18. See, for example, Hardin, 35; [Christopher] Pye, “The Theater, the Market, and the Subject of History,” English Literary History 61 (1994): 511; and John D. Cox, “Devils and Power in Marlowe and Shakespeare,” The Yearbook of English Studies: Early Shakespeare Special Number 23 (1993): 46-64, esp. 61.

  19. Marcus, 53.

  20. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1948), 162. Shaw suggests that even if the play is Shakespeare's, the intention is not, a possibility that displaces guilt while maintaining authority: “The impression left by it is that the playwright, having begun by an attempt to make Joan a beautiful and romantic figure, was told by his scandalized company that English patriotism would never stand a sympathetic representation of a French conquerer of English troops, and that unless he at once introduced all the old charges against Joan of being a sorceress and harlot, and assumed her to be guilty of all of them, his play could not be produced. As likely as not, this is what actually happened” (24).

  21. This conceit, that looking at the beloved object causes a loss of language which nonetheless produces poetry, runs throughout such sonnet sequences as Astrophil and Stella. See, for example, the famous concluding lines of Sonnet 1: “Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes, / Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite, / ‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write’” (Sir Philip Sidney: Selected Poems, ed. Catherine Bates [New York: Penguin Books, 1994], ll. 12-14).

  22. Lee, in her account of the ways in which Margaret is iconographically connected to Joan, quotes Pius II: “They said that the spirit of the Maid, who had raised Charles to the throne, was renewed in the Queen” (199).

  23. For readings of this stage direction, see Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 8; and Rackin, “Historical Difference,” 42.

  24. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981), 55.

  25. Joyce Green MacDonald, “‘Hay for the Daughters!’: Gender and Patriarchy in The Miseries of Civil War and Henry VI,Comparative Drama 24 (1990): 193-216, esp. 209.

  26. “How king Henry the syxt a vertuous prince, was after many other miseries cruelly murdered in the Tower of London” in The Mirror for Magistrates (1559), ed. Lily B. Campbell (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1938), 216.

  27. Heywood, 239-40. It is worth noting that reticence verging on disavowal characterizes the end of Heywood's list of viragoes: Joan la Pucelle, of whom he would prefer to say nothing that others have not already said, is followed by Emma, of whose slaughter of the Danes he says, “though it after prooued ominous, and was the cause of much miserie and mischiefe, yet it shewed in her a noble and notable resolution”; and Emma is followed by Margaret, the last item in his catalogue, of whom he would apparently prefer to say nothing at all. Here, as in the Henry VI plays, even the encomiasts show a certain ambivalence. For Heywood in particular this ambivalence appears to exercise its own fascination; in his 1640 catalogue of female worthies, The Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine the Most Worthy Women of the World, he will return to Queen Margaret, making her his second Christian and his penultimate queen, to be followed only by Queen Elizabeth herself.

  28. Hall, fols. Clijr, Cliiijr, Clixr-v, Clxvijv, and Clxxv. For readings of a possible connection between such descriptions of Margaret and representations of Queen Elizabeth I, see Lee, 214-17; and Marcus, 89-93.

  29. Hall, fol. Clxxvjv.

  30. Howard and Rackin, Engendering a Nation, 84 and 85. See also Kahn's statement, “From this point on, it is Margaret who takes charge of the Lancastrian cause, a woman stepping into the vacuum of authority left by a weak man” (60-61).

  31. Hall, fol. Clxxxiiijr.

  32. Butler, Bodies That Matter, 2.

  33. Brathwait, 123.

  34. Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as a Masquerade” (1929) in The Inner World and Joan Riviere: Collected Papers 1920-1958, ed. Athol Hughes (London: Karnac Books for the Melanie Klein Trust, 1991), 90-101, esp. 101.

  35. John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) in The Political Writings of John Knox, ed. Marvin A. Breslow (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1985), 37-80, esp. 44-45.

  36. On the relationship between male tyranny and female sexual excess, see Rebecca Bushnell, “Tyranny and Effeminacy in Early Modern England” in Reconsidering the Renaissance, Mario A. di Cesare, ed. (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), 335-54, esp. 343.

  37. Diodorus Siculus, The Bibliotheca Historica, trans. John Skelton, 2 vols. (London: Oxford UP, 1956), 1:287-88.

  38. Howard and Rackin, Engendering a Nation, 87.

  39. For accounts of Amazon violence against male children, see Diodorus Siculus, 200; and Strabo, Geography of Strabo, trans. Horace Leonard Jones, 8 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1918), 5:235. Amazonian maternity is, in this sense, always about breaking the bonds among men.

  40. For readings of Margaret's grief as feminization, see Howard and Rackin, Engendering a Nation, 97; and Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia UP, 1981), 191.

  41. For samples of the ongoing debate over Margaret's agency—do curses make history or merely take advantage of hindsight?—see Marcus, 95; and Rackin, “Anti-Historians,” 337. For a historical view of the contingency of Margaret's power, see Lee, 192.

  42. Robert Greene, Greenes Groatsworth of witte, bought with a million of Repentance (London, 1592), F1v.

  43. For readings of the relationship between Margaret and Shakespeare as suggested by Greene, see Howard and Rackin, Engendering a Nation, 96; see also Marcus, 96.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: “The First, Second, and Third Parts of King Henry the Sixth,” in William Shakespeare: The History Plays, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 22-47.

[In the essay below, Pearlman summarizes the action, major themes, and principal characters of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

The three parts of Henry the Sixth appear in consecutive order in the great 1623 folio collection of Shakespeare's works. They are placed between The Life of Henry the Fifth and The Tragedy of Richard the Third. It is generally agreed that the three plays were written during the very first years of the 1590s. There is a small body of opinion that denies exclusive authorship of these plays to Shakespeare and argues that they result from a collaborative effort in which Shakespeare played a leading role. There is even a well-developed theory that 1 Henry VI was written after Parts 2 and 3 and is therefore what has lately come to be called a “prequel.” For present purposes, the three plays will be discussed as if they were composed in the order in which they appear in the folio and as if they are all among Shakespeare's very earliest writings.

The First Part of King Henry the Sixth begins with a procession of noblemen who have assembled to mourn the death of Henry V, hero of Agincourt and conqueror of France. The Duke of Bedford grieves for his late kinsman in words that may be imagined as the first piece of historical writing to which Shakespeare ever bent what he would later call his “rough and all-unable pen.” Shakespeare was not a prodigy and Bedford's address does not mark a turning point in the history of English literature. It is nevertheless a workmanlike piece of dramatic poetry: “Hung be the heavens with black,” Bedford says, expanding his private sorrow into a universal lament:

                    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.


Bedford's rhetorical style leans heavily on abstraction and generalization. When he makes his appeal to such impersonal entities as the heavens, the day, and the comets, he fails to lend distinctiveness to his own character or particularize his grief. None of his injunctive verbs (“yield,” “brandish,” “scourge”) quite hits the mark. The notion that the stars have rebelliously agreed to the death of King Henry succeeds only in paying distant homage to a commonplace. Bedford's conclusion is anticlimactic and weak, especially the final phrase “of so much worth,” in which Shakespeare misses the chance to complete the measure with the concrete detail or vivid metaphor that might have brought both the orator and his abundant sorrow to life.

Although the verse is flat and artificial, the passage is not without resonance to audiences or readers of Shakespeare's history plays. Not even the most prescient and insightful hearer of these lines could guess that the twenty-five- or twenty-six-year-old William Shakespeare who wrote them would devote a great part of his intelligence and working life in the decade of the 1590s to the composition of a series of eight plays that pivot around the heroic life and untimely death of the King Harry who is memorialized by Bedford. Four of these plays (the so-called first tetralogy consisting of the three parts of Henry VI and their sequel Richard III) would deal with the consequences of King Henry's early death. Four others (the second tetralogy of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V) would examine the events that culminated with the reign of the “too famous” king celebrated in Bedford's eulogy. It is pleasing though illusory to imagine that Shakespeare intuitively understood that the death of the hero king could be dramatized as the crucial event of the hundred years of English history—from the deposition of Richard of Bordeaux to the violent death at Bosworth field of Richard of Gloucester—which the poet would claim as his particular province. Nevertheless, it was with Bedford's first speech that Shakespeare initiated the epic circular journey that both begins and ends with Henry's death. In the three parts of Henry VI, Shakespeare dramatized the loss of France, the bleeding of England, and what he would later remember in the last and most eloquent chorus in Henry V as the “blasting” of the “world's best garden … which oft our stage has shown” (Epilogue, 1. 7).

Shakespeare's first history, although to modern eyes the least of his accomplishments, must have had an extraordinary impact in its own time. The popularity of The First Part of Henry the Sixth is seen not only in its amazing succession of sequels but also in contemporary testimony. Shakespeare's sometime rival Thomas Nashe used an example from this play to demonstrate that the threater has moral value and may function as “a reproof to these degenerate effeminate days of ours”: “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” (Salgādo, Eyewitnesses, 16). Nashe captures the immediacy and excitement of a new kind of theatrical experience for an audience that had not yet been sated with innumerable bland historical dramas.

Despite Nashe's enthusiasm 1 Henry VI seems shapeless and unfocused. The play is a hodgepodge of competing actions. The language lacks variety; long swatches consist of formal, sometimes stilted, and occasionally monotonous blank verse that do not display the rich metaphorical and imagistic complexity that becomes Shakespeare's hallmark. The characters are not effectively differentiated. Except for Talbot himself, the earls and dukes all speak in the same florid and excited idiom. Moreover, the plot lacks resolution and comes not so much to a climax as to a halt. It would be idolatrous to deny that these (and other) flaws make it difficult to give one's wholehearted support to 1 Henry VI, but they do not make it either unapproachable or unrewarding.

1 Henry VI consists of a number of separate actions that are not so much integrated as they are intertwined. The most coherent and important of these is the series of English sieges, thrusts, and counter-attacks aimed against the forces of France. Shakespeare draws with some care the contrast between English John Talbot, the commander of one side, and Joan of Arc, the inspiration of the other. A second major action is the dynastic squabble between Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) and the party of the white rose, and their antagonists the Lancastrians, the party of the red rose, led in this play by the Earl of Somerset. Still a third action is the continuing antagonism between the protector Humphrey, the good Duke of Gloucester, and his uncle the ambitious clergyman (later bishop) Winchester. Finally, at the end of the play, the Earl of Suffolk emerges as a major figure when he arranges a marriage between King Henry and Margaret, the powerful queen whose furious intensity dominates so many scenes during the three subsequent plays in the first tetralogy. The play is certainly episodic, but each episode has its own rewards.

The most memorable character, to Nashe as well as to modern audiences, is the heroic Talbot, in whom is embodied the most cherished values of chivalric civilization. Against Talbot are arrayed two very powerful groups of enemies. The first consists of the forces of France, inspired and led by the witch Joan, who are eager to reclaim lands recently taken from them by the great Henry V. The second and ultimately more dangerous enemy is the inability of Talbot's fellow nobles to set aside private grudge, petty antagonism, and dynastic rivalry in order to support the grander national purpose. The combination of external wars and domestic subversion leads both to Talbot's death and to the near anarchy dramatized in the later plays.

Talbot's world, very much idealized in this play, is built on values that remind us that Shakespeare exalts a civilization that we need not sorrow to have lost. Feudal society is erected on sharp distinctions between nobility and commoners. It is marked by loyalty and fidelity to the king or leader; although betrayal is frequent, it is always greeted not only with condemnation but also with shock and surprise. Status is ascribed rather than earned—that is, dependent on birth rather than achievement. Courage and skill in battle are principal virtues. Great value is attached to political and military leadership, especially that which is revealed in oratorical performance. The giving and taking of oaths is extremely important. Those who give their bond are expected to keep it; oath breakers are, like those who show cowardice, roundly contemned and scorned. The aristocrats like Talbot who embody these virtues are accustomed to command and are consequently distinguished by their overbearing manners and extremely short tempers. They are always on the verge of emotional explosion and their swords are never far from their hands. They are sensitive to insults to their birth, status, and courage, and they routinely subordinate private and domestic relationships to public and military performance. In Shakespeare's feudal world, the roles alloted to women are clearly demarcated, and as a result the occasional woman who intrudes into the world of soldiership and government must be regarded as perverse or unnatural. Chivalric notions underlie not just this play but every one of Shakespeare's histories.

A definitive statement of these values occurs during the encounter in act 4 between Falstaff and Talbot. Falstaff has run from battle once again, and Talbot fulfills his threat to humiliate him by stripping the garter (the insignia of his knightly order) from his leg. Talbot blames Falstaff for the loss of the battle and for the deaths of twelve hundred men. He is shocked that “such cowards” are allowed “to wear / This ornament of knighthood” (4.1.28-29), and he proceeds to construct a mythic history of a favorite ideology:

When first this order was ordained, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars;
Not fearing death nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.
But he that is not furnished in this sort
Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight,
Profaning this most honorable order,
And should (if I were worthy to be judge)
Be quite degraded, like a hedge-born swain
That doth presume to boast of gentle blood.


Talbot knows that true knights are both courageous and noble by nature and are most resilient when most in peril. If they betray their heritage and show cowardice, they must be, as Talbot says, “degraded”—that is, reduced in rank—to the level of a presumptuous “hedge-born swain” or homeless peasant. He also knows that the Order of the Garter was not established after a secular manner, but rather “ordained”—a carefully chosen word that is resonant with spiritual and religious significance. The implications of “ordained” are extended in the contrast between the “sacred” name of the order and its “profaning” by cowardice. Throughout Talbot's speech a holy and romanticized past contrasts with a fallen present.

It is around such notions that Shakespeare organizes the conflict between Talbot and Joan and between England and France. Talbot embodies the ideals of chivalry. When he and his six thousand troops are surrounded by twenty-three thousand Frenchmen, Talbot “enacted wonders with the sword and lance” (1.1.122), only to succumb when “a base Walloon … / Thrust [him] with a spear into the back” (137-38). Shakespeare gives credence to the myth that an individual knight armed with traditional weapons can carry the day in a field of thirty thousand soldiers, and that only a “base Walloon” would lower himself to the indignity of an attack from the rear. When captured by the French, Talbot “craved death / Rather than [be] so vile esteemed” (1.4.32-33) as to be exchanged for anyone but his social equal. When the French enemy wisely rest in safety behind their fortifications, Talbot thinks their unchivalric tactics are rude and unsportsmanlike: “Base muleteers of France! / Like peasant foot-boys do they keep the walls / And dare not take up arms like gentlemen” (3.1.68-70).

Orthodox and reverent, Talbot expresses contempt for enemies who are led by a woman and are presumed to consort with devils: “Let them practice and converse with spirits. / God is our fortress” (2.1.25-26). Talbot is most moved by the “chance” (1.4.71) death by cannon fire of Salisbury, that great “mirror of all martial men” (74). His violent longing for revenge takes the form of hyperbolical and sadistic invective perhaps characteristic of feudal aristocracy but difficult to honor today: “Pucelle or pussel [i.e., pizzle, prick], Dolphin or dogfish, / Your hearts I'll stamp out-with my horse's heels / And make a quagmire of your mangled brains” (107-9). Talbot is proud to kill five Frenchmen for every drop of blood lost by Salisbury.

Yet the same Talbot so furious in war is also capable of courtly deference to his sovereign:

          This arm that hath reclaimed
To your obedience fifty fortresses. …
Lets fall his sword before your highness' feet
And with submissive loyalty of heart
Ascribes the glory of his conquest got
First to my God and next unto your grace.

(3.4.5-6, 9-12)

While Talbot does not forget to vaunt his conquests, he can also allow his sword to fall before weak King Henry's feet and proudly acknowledge that his submission and loyalty are not of the surface but from the heart.

Opposite to Talbot in almost all respects is Joan of Arc, who is not male but mannish, demonic rather than Christian, ambitious rather than deferential, unchaste or at least the constant target of sexual innuendo, and, worst of all, unequivocally base-born. Joan embodies the polar opposite of the orderliness and orthodoxy of chivalric tradition. As a consequence, Shakespeare depicts her in extraordinarily unflattering terms. Joan's successes on the battlefield are ascribed not to military prowess but to “hellish mischief” (3.2.39). The appeal to French nationalism that attracts waffling Burgundy to her side is dismissed as mere playacting. In her last appearance, Joan first repudiates her shepherd father, then attempts to forestall her own execution by claiming to be with child by either the Dauphin, or Alencon, or Reignier. She is offered no compassion by the English or by Shakespeare and, condemned as a witch and strumpet, leaves the stage while York abuses her as a “foul accursèd minister of hell!” (5.4.93). It is an ugly scene.

Even though Joan is the antithesis of Talbot and is allowed a few temporary military successes, the play makes it clear that the real cause of the English failure is internal division. Consumed by their own ambitions, the English nobles cannot refrain from petty squabble, from name-calling and duels, or from countermining each other's achievements. The fault is not in chivalry itself, but in the failure of its nobility to live up to the ideals they profess. In the first scene of the play the noble Bedford utters a prayer that his peers will all too often ignore: “Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate: / Prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils” (1.1.53-54). The King himself, exasperated but powerless to intervene between Winchester and Gloucester, recognizes that “Civil dissension is a viperous worm / That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth” (3.1.72-73). Eventually, Talbot finds himself defeated by the forces of the French while his would-be allies Somerset and York debate over who is most at fault for abandoning him. Exeter asserts that

          no simple man that sees
This jarring discord of nobility,
This shouldering of each other in the court,
This factious bandying of their favorites,
But sees it doth presage some ill event.


Sir William Lucy (a character who is little more than a choric voice) expands on this important lesson. “The fraud of England, not the force of France, / Hath now entrapped the noble-minded Talbot (4.4.36-37). “The vulture of sedition” (47), he concludes, has betrayed “The conquest of our scarce-cold conqueror / That ever-living man of memory, / Henry the Fifth.” (4.3.51-53). The heirs of the great Henry, whose revered memory hangs heavy over each event of this long play, have destroyed themselves with sloth and sedition.

1 Henry VI focuses on the decline of chivalric civilization and the disorder in England. Yet audiences are likely to be struck not so much by the ideological coherence of the whole as by a few memorable scenes. The most striking event in the play is the sequence of scenes in act 4 in which both Talbot and his son young John Talbot meet their deaths. The two compete in self-sacrifice and familial loyalty. Their devotion to each other is highly stylized and mannered, exemplary rather than realistic. The Talbots' mutual reverence directly contrasts with the antagonism in other aristocratic English families and with the parody of family loyalty in the nasty encounter between Joan and her peasant father. The embrace of Talbot and his equally noble son may be artificial and too highly patterned, but it is also a daring and pioneering piece of writing, if only because Shakespeare attempts to embody the theme of loyalty in a dramatic action.

For many readers the Temple Garden scene is another instance in which the young Shakespeare can be observed writing with unusual authority. In this scene Shakespeare momentarily liberates himself from too exact fidelity to the chronicles. He imagines an event (for which his sources offer no precedent or clue) in which a set of young and passionate noblemen who are engaged in legal study enlarge a disagreement over some “nice sharp quillets of the law” (2.4.17) into a conflict that threatens the entire kingdom. At first the bystanders try to neutralize the combatants Plantagenet and Somerset by making jest of their disagreements. But the conflict uncontrollably escalates and one by one the bystanders are forced to choose a side. Each party accuses the other of cowardice and fear. Plantagenet raises the stakes when he calls Somerset a “peevish boy” (76); Somerset, equally unrestrained, responds by describing Plantagenet as a “yeoman.” Insults to manhood and ancestry lead directly to “blood-drinking hate” on both sides. Warwick is left to prophesy that “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” (124-27). The scene is richly theatrical. The quarrel is about nothing, and the young men are filled with hot tempers and adolescent energy. Ritual plucking of roses edges the scene toward the arena of allegory, while vigorous flyting frees the language from the steady thump of iambics, and for a welcome moment drums and guns and wounds give way to a promising symbolic psychology.

In another scene that stands out (4.1), Shakespeare makes a first attempt at a practice that he raises to a fine art in later plays. He places in close juxtaposition a series of events that have a common thematic subject—in this case an exploration of feudal values. First the Governor of Paris swears an oath of fidelity to King Henry. Then Talbot strips Falstaff of the garter and comments on the history of chivalry. Just as Falstaff is banished, the news arrives that Burgundy has repudiated the oaths that have bound him to the English king. Gloucester, ever the true believer, is shocked: “Can this be so? / That in alliance, amity, and oaths / There should be found such false dissembling guile?” (4.1.61-63). Following hard upon this revelation, Vernon and Basset, servants respectively of Gloucester and Winchester, come storming onto the stage to ask that they be allowed to tilt or duel because of the insults that each feels he has suffered. The good but ineffectual king is once again shocked: “what madness rules in brainsick men / When for so slight and frivolous a cause / Such factions emulations shall arise!” (111-13). The king attempts to adjudicate the quarrel but in the process commits some grave procedural errors. The whole sequence—the taking of oaths and their repudiation, Talbot's high-minded exaltation of the theory of chivalry and its deficient application in the case of Vernon and Basset—shows Shakespeare for the first time learning to represent ideas in dramatic form. His intelligent experimentation points to better things to come.


1 Henry VI focuses on wars of territorial conquest in France but also depicts a rivalry among the major aristocratic families that is both ferocious and unending. In 2 Henry VI, competition between England's two great aristocratic families has become the dominant concern. The pious and inattentive Lancastrian king, Henry VI, proves to be far too weak to control his aspiring wife, Margaret of Anjou, and her self-serving advisors, while Richard Plantagenet, now the Duke of York, has emerged as an ambitious politician who is unencumbered by moral scruple. The rivalry of King and Duke is continuous. The background against which the dynastic squabble is played out has also changed. The principal tension in 2 Henry VI is no longer between the English and the French but between the governing aristocratic oligarchy on the one hand and the commons on the other. Out of this conflict arises the political design and political meaning of the play.

The most memorable figures in 1 Henry VI were English John Talbot and the French witch Joan; the most memorable figure in 2 Henry VI is the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, who leads a revolt against the feudal establishment. Cade's rebellion succeeds militarily for a tense interval but collapses without leaving a permanent mark. It is a much tougher challenge to depict a domestic revolt than to mount the easy appeal to national pride that distinguishes (or disfigures) 1 Henry VI. In the first play, the English cause is unquestionably just while the French are cowards or demons. In 2 Henry VI the enemy may be impoverished, uneducated, and contemptible, but it is still English. Shakespeare pillories Cade and his followers and unequivocally supports established government, but he allows powerful popular forces a great deal of scope and play before repudiating them. He flirts with very dangerous material. It is only at the end of the play, the revolt suppressed and order restored, that an orthodox monarchist perspective is again asserted.

In 1 Henry VI the common people appear only intermittently: among those who take their turn on the stage are the gunner's boy who is responsible for the death of old Salisbury, the servants of Gloucester and Winchester who stone each other in the streets, and the French sentinels at Orleans, “poor servitors, / When others sleep upon their quiet beds, / Constrained to watch in darkness, rain, and cold” (2.1.5-7). In 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare takes a great step forward when he transforms the commons into an important constituent of the polity. (It is not always clear to whom the word “commons” refers. Sometimes Shakespeare seems to mean commons as in House of Commons—i.e., prosperous landowners, merchants, lawyers; at other times, “commons” seems to refer to butchers, clothiers, beggars, soldiers.) Shakespeare prepares his audience for Jack Cade's rebellion by representing a series of encounters between rich and poor. A few humble villagers attempt to deliver a petition to Gloucester early in the play; Horner, a tradesman, is charged with treason by his apprentice and brought before the court; Simpcox the beggar's boast that he has been miraculously healed is publicly examined; the disgraced Duchess of Gloucester is forced to walk penitentially among the “rabble”; Suffolk, banished from England at the behest of the commons, is murdered by pirates; finally, Jack Cade leads a rebellion of the poor. More than any other of Shakespeare's plays, 2 Henry VI explores the conflicts between the social classes.

Although the play represents the tension between rich and poor, it is noteworthy that neither class is monolithic in its attitude to the other. The aristocracy itself is severely divided. While there is no question but that rebellion, or even the merest trace of uppity behavior, must always be thoroughly reprehended, aristocrats disagree in major ways about the plight of the poor. On the one side is the faction that is led by Gloucester and that sometimes includes Warwick and Salisbury. This group is on the whole alert and responsive to members of the underclass. The other faction, of which Winchester, Suffolk, and Queen Margaret are the most prominent members, is largely contemptuous of the poor and indifferent to their welfare. Winchester and Gloucester are distinguished not by differences of opinion about national policy but by their capacity for human empathy.

Gloucester, the “good Duke Humphrey” of legend, is sympathetic from the very first scene, primarily because he is shocked not only by the fatal marriage between the naive King Henry and the remorseless Margaret but also by the accompanying loss to England of the French provinces of Maine and Anjou. The audience would immediately understand that he is stung not for his private interests but for what he perceives as treachery to the community of England. Gloucester laments “the common grief of all the land” (1.1.75). Cardinal Winchester responds to the loss not as a public but as a personal tragedy. The distinction between the good Duke and the imperious Cardinal is made very clear when Winchester describes Gloucester in these envious terms:

          Let not his smoothing words
Bewitch your hearts; be wise and circumspect.
What though the common people favor 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!”


Winchester bristles with the Tory suspicion that anyone loved by the populace must be either a hypocrite or a demagogue. His sentences succinctly establish the lines of conflict between Duke and Cardinal: Gloucester enjoys the support of the common people of whom Winchester is contemptuous. Gloucester's England comprehends all the classes while Winchester's includes only his social equals. This is no trivial distinction, but it is difficult to be certain exactly how it should be evaluated. Official Elizabethan ideology is deeply distrustful of the people, who are, in this play as in others, inconsistent, disloyal, wavering, thoughtless, emotional. Yet it is difficult to believe that Winchester's condemnation of Gloucester would not have been heard as praise by all but the most haughty ear.

It is certainly no surprise that the common people address Gloucester, not Winchester, in time of trouble. In the third scene of the play, Shakespeare allows members of one class to confront the other. Two petitioners come forward to present their grievances to Duke Humphrey. Their reverence for Gloucester confirms Winchester's worst fears. A petitioner speaks: “Marry, the Lord protect him, for [Gloucester's] a good man, Jesu bless him” (1.3.4-5). The first petitioner protests that he has been mistreated by Winchester; the second makes similar charges against Suffolk. Bad luck causes the petitions to miscarry and come into the hands of Suffolk himself. He reads them aloud: “‘Against the Duke of Suffolk, for enclosing the commons of Long Melford.’ How now, sir knave?” (19-21). The brief episode exhibits Suffolk's hostility to the commons and his indifference to legitimate grievance. It also brands him as an encloser. Enclosure—essentially the conversion of land from common to private use—was the focus of the perennial conflict between those who control and those who work the land. There had been over one hundred enclosure riots of all kinds during the reign of Elizabeth. Shakespeare's use of the word “enclosure” would certainly stimulate an awareness of contemporary grievance. Clearly the petitioners had hoped to gain the support of Gloucester against the repressive effects of Suffolk's stewardship. The distinction between the parties has been suggestively but clearly drawn.

A second instance that serves to discriminate among aristocratic attitudes occurs in the unmasking of the beggar Saunder Simpcox. Simpcox claims that he has been crippled and blind from birth and that his sight has been suddenly and miraculously restored. This scene, which is superfluous to the plot, seems to be designed for two primary purposes. The first is to demonstrate that Gloucester indeed displays the characteristics that Shakespeare found in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (the source for this episode)—“a head, to discern and dissever truth from forged and feigned hypocrisy” (Bullough, Sources, 3:128). It is also one of the many events in this play (and in others in the tetralogy) in which the question of divine meddling in human affairs is raised and pondered. But primarily the scene reflects on the relation between rich and poor, especially in its conclusion when Simpcox, exposed by Gloucester as a charlatan, is whipped until he finds his legs and jumps over a stool. Shakespeare concludes the scene by inventing a spectrum of moral responses to his exemplum:

King. O God! seest thou this, and bearest so long?
Queen. It made me laugh to see the villain run.
Gloucester. Follow the knave, and take this drab away.
Wife. Alas sir, we did it for pure need.
Glou. Let them be whipped through every market town,
Till they come to Berwick, from whence they came.


King Henry is characteristically pious; he appeals to the Lord and projects his own passivity onto the diety. Queen Margaret, speaking as a member of the party of Suffolk, is typically heartless and cruel. Gloucester may seem harsh by modern standards, but he stands for justice uncontaminated by the lenity that Elizabethans so feared. His command that the two perpetrators of the fraud be whipped reminds us that there is a long distance between Elizabethan justice and modern liberal sensibility. The Wife's remark is most troubling. Shakespeare, who has already added the leaping, stool, beadle, and whip to his source, also adds the deeply humanizing cry: “Alas, sir, we did it for pure need.” The line is simple but not without eloquence. “Alas” signals genuine despair; “sir” is informed with sufficient deference to reassure a worried audience that the beggars are free of social assertion; “we” indicates that the wife will not abandon her husband; “pure need” tells any sympathetic hearers that the fraud was a consequence of the absolute necessity of the need to eat. If nothing else, the Wife's line sharpens the distance between Beggar, Duke, and Queen.

The definition of Gloucester's political position in the commonwealth of England is further complicated by the events surrounding the revelation that his wife has been consorting with magicians and spirits. The penalty for the fallen Duchess (who has been entrapped by Winchester) is public humiliation; Gloucester attempts to console her:

Sweet Nell, ill can thy noble mind abrook
The abject people gazing on thy face,
With envious looks laughing at the shame,
That erst did follow thy proud chariot wheels
When thou didst ride in triumph through the streets.


The painful ceremony plays on the nobles' fear of exposure and their hostility to the lower classes. Here, as elsewhere, Shakespeare knows that he can draw tears from his audience by dwelling on the pathos that attends the fall of princes (or, in this case, princesses). He plucks this string shamelessly when he allows the Duchess to lament,

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. …
          … a wonder and a pointing-stock
To every idle rascal follower.

(30-33; 46-47)

On the side of the commons, hostility and vengeance; on the side of the nobility, fear of contamination and contact. It is not a pretty picture. The political meaning is clear: even the wife of the good Duke of Gloucester is not exempt from the antagonism implicit in the hierarchical system. It is remarkable that Shakespeare does not allow Gloucester to share the Duchess's antagonism to the commons, nor does he put expressions in the Duke's mouth that would apologize for the people's passion.

One of the most interesting encounters between the classes occurs when the banished Suffolk is taken by pirates. Suffolk masquerades as a commoner, but he is incapable of disguising his aristocratic personality and immediately betrays himself. He speaks to his captors in language that demonstrates that he would rather preserve his identity than his life: “Obscure and lousy swain, King Henry's blood, / The honorable blood of Lancaster, / Must not be shed by such a jaded groom” (4.1.50-52). Nor can he resist an ostentatious display of privilege; he treats Walter Whitmore, whose prisoner he is, not as an individual but as a representative of a class he despises:

Hast thou not kissed thy hand and held my stirrup? …
How often hast thou waited at my cup,
Fed from my trencher, kneeled down at the board,
When I have feasted with Queen Margaret?

(53, 56-58)

It is left to Whitmore's companion, a nameless yet eloquent (and remarkably well-informed) Lieutenant, to respond to Suffolk. Once again Shakespeare reiterates the idea that the common people are also injured when aristocrats act in their own interests and without regard for the community of England. The Lieutenant attacks Suffolk for the indulgent marriage of Henry to the French temptress, for the loss of Anjou and Maine, for the wars that monopolize the attention of Warwick and his Neville relations, and for the dissension of York and the Kentish rebels. Suffolk gives no sign that he understands the damage for which he is responsible, nor can he broaden or humanize his very narrow interpretation of the aristocratic values which paralyze him:

Suffolk's imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Used to command. …
No, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king; …
True nobility is exempt from fear.
More can I bear than you can execute.

(122-23, 125-27, 130-31)

But Suffolk's unbending manner and imperial tongue fail to impress his captors, and moments later, his imperial head is cut off: “Great men oft die by vile bezonians, … and Suffolk dies by pirates” (135, 139). Shakespeare has made it clear that the pirates speak with the authentic voice of the entire English community and not of the commons alone. It is impossible to imagine that Suffolk's death did not cheer the audience.

When in act 4 Shakespeare at last turns to Cade's rebellion, distinctions of attitude among the nobles no longer matter. Whether or not the commons have been provoked is immaterial; their insurrection is illegitimate and purposeless. Moreover, it is placed under the control of the Duke of York, who is the enemy of the people. York had described his plan in considerable detail:

I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the title of John Mortimer. …
This devil [Cade] here shall be my substitute; …
Say that he thrive, as 'tis great like he will;
Why, then from Ireland come I with my strength
And reap the harvest which that rascal sowed.

(3.1.356-69, 371, 379-81)

By making him a tool of York, Shakespeare eliminates the possibility that Cade can lay claim to the slightest political credibility.

Cade himself is no simple figure. In Hall's history, he is merely “a certayn young man of a goodly stature and pregnant wit” (Bullough, Sources, 3:113). Shakespeare complicates the picture. York describes Cade as both duplicitous and close-mouthed, and adds that in battle he fought so long

          that his thighs with darts
Were almost like a sharp-quilled porpentine;
And in the end being rescued, I have seen
Him caper upright like a wild Morisco,
Shaking the bloody darts as he his bells


These lines portray Cade as someone to be feared but not admired. He is alien after the manner of an ecstatic morris (i.e., Moorish) dancer, while his indifference to pain makes him as exotic as that oddity the porcupine. Cade may be a formidable enemy but he is not an adversary who can be respected by knight or aristocrat. In this respect he is like Joan, who is also treated as the outsider or “the Other.” Joan is a foreign and female soldier and therefore a sorceress; Cade is a weaver warrior and not quite human.

Cade's followers, on the other hand, are allowed to express their own motives. Shakespeare precedes Cade's first appearance with a brief choral introduction:

1. Rebel. I tell thee, Jack Cade the clothier means to dress the commonwealth and turn it and set a new nap upon it.
2. Rebel. So he had need, for 'tis threadbare. Well, I say it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up.
1. Rebel. O miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen.


The two “rebels” stand apart from the insurrection; they observe but do not participate. While they are not allowed to be perfectly logical, neither are they clowns; they are alert to inequity. They know that the commonwealth is “threadbare” and needs to be turned inside out; they know that there was once a “merry world” when Adam delved and Eve span and before the community was separated into gentle and common; they know the Biblical injunction that all work is of value, although they twist it to reflect a revolutionary intent. These are the sentiments of the leveler underground—the tavern intellectuals whose egalitarian and heterodox notions were kept in check by repressive governments until they burst out of control during the revolutionary years of the next century.

It is therefore no surprise that the attitude of the commons toward Cade is complex. Some of Cade's more egregious pretensions are regularly undermined by the statements of his more restrained followers. Much of the dialogue is in a form in which Cade makes an absurd assertion which is counterpointed by the good sense of one of his allies:

Cade. My father was a Mortimer—
Butcher. [Aside.] He was an honest man, and a good bricklayer.


Cade is no philosopher, but his primitive radical vision that “all the realm shall be in common” (62) must have sounded terrible to the ears of the audience. Cade imagines an egalitarian utopia when England comes under his rule:

All the realm shall be in common … 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.

(4.2.62, 66-69)

To which the Dick the Butcher replies with the immensely practical injunction that has become the play's most famous saying: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers” (3.2.73).

The rebellion itself is portrayed as idiotic know-nothingism. The rebels murder a clerk because he knows how to read and write and hang Lord Say (historically, a detested landowner) because he can speak Latin; a soldier is beaten to death for calling Cade “Cade” and not Mortimer. Cade is made to betray his own values. Although he asks more than once that all things be held in common, he demands absolute authority for himself. Yet Cade can transcend his absurdity and rise to the occasion. His greatest moment comes just before his followers turn tail. Facing the multitude, he addresses them not, for once, as a clown, but as a dangerous and fiery leader and demagogue:

I thought ye would never have given out these arms till you had recovered your ancient freedom. But you are all recreants and dastards, and delight to live in slavery to the nobility. Let them break your backs with burdens, take your houses over your heads, ravish your wives and daughters before your faces. For me, I will make shift for one; and so God's curse light upon you all!


It is only by invoking the glorious memory of Henry V and by turning attention from local injustices to the prospect of renewed French wars that the aristocrats can quiet the crowds and persuade them to abandon their popular leader. Cade is forced to flee. In the last scene of act 4, he stumbles into the garden of the squire Alexander Iden. In historical fact, both Cade and Iden were Kentish gentlemen, but Shakespeare has degraded and vilified the one and idealized the other. Iden speaks in tones that have not before been heard in this play:

Lord, who would live turmoiled in the court
And may enjoy such quiet walks as these?
This small inheritance my father left me
Contenteth me, and worth a monarchy.
I seek not to wax great by others' waning,
Or gather wealth, I care not with what envy.
Sufficeth that I have maintains my state
And send the poor well pleasèd from my gate.

(4. 10. 15-22)

His soliloquy creates a world that is antithetical in almost every respect to what Shakespeare had until this moment been at such pains to delineate. The England of 2 Henry VI is packed with restless ambition and intrigue; the world of Alexander Iden is one in which a good man is content with his place. Enclosure, antagonism between the classes, hungry beggars, and popular revolt are superseded by a serene pastoralism in which the poor are “well pleased” with alms from the rich. Iden's unsullied “quiet walks” and “small inheritance” are preferable to kingship itself. The passage celebrates the classical ideal of riches left, not got with care. If simplicity and peace already flourish in Cade's utopian garden, what possible reason can there be for all this noise and commotion? Iden duels with Cade and kills him. In the scene that follows, Iden takes Cade's head to the King and is knighted and granted a bounty of one thousand marks. Shakespeare has no other means to express congratulation than by the cash and courtesies that Iden had so recently disdained. Iden's confrontation with Cade rings hollow. Shakespeare pits a clownish rebel whose every word smacks of self-betrayal against an idealized squire who speaks in the language of official political allegory. Cade and his rebels stand for a real disease and Iden for an inauthentic and inadequate remedy.


The Third Part of Henry VI is so thick with incident and event that it is difficult to follow, remember, or summarize. Declamations, battles, reversals of fortune, betrayals, and atrocities fill a very crowded stage. The play begins at the battle of St. Albans (where 2 Henry VI had concluded). The party of York, led by the forceful Earl of Warwick, is temporarily triumphant. In order to retain the kingship during his lifetime, the captured Lancastrian sovereign Henry VI is compelled to entail the crown to Richard, Duke of York. But the solemn agreement does not outlast the first scene. Henry's Queen Margaret, protesting the disinheritance of her son, spreads her colors; almost simultaneously, York's sons argue that “for a kingdom any oath may be broken” (1.2.16). Shortly thereafter, the two sides meet at Sandal Castle and Margaret's forces are victorious. York's son Rutland, unhistorically represented as a child, is murdered; immediately after, York himself is tormented and eventually stabbed to death by Margaret and her chief confederate Clifford. The Lancastrian ascendancy lasts only until Towton (2.6.3-6), where Clifford is killed, Henry escapes to the north of England (where he is soon captured and returned to London), and Margaret takes refuge in France. Edward (York's oldest son and now the standard bearer of his line) proceeds to London “to be crowned England's royal king” (2.6.88). Warwick, still a partisan of the Yorkists, goes to the French court to arrange a marriage for his new king, only to discover that “lascivious Edward” (5.5.34) has embarrassed and betrayed him by his hasty marriage to the widow Lady Elizabeth Grey. Shamed, Warwick suddenly changes sides; he allies himself to Queen Margaret and returns to England “to seek revenge on Edward's mockery” (3.3.265). When the news comes that Warwick and Margaret are in the field, Edward's brother Clarence switches to the Lancastrian side. But the apparently inevitable encounter between the two families is forestalled when Warwick raids Edward's camp, captures the Yorkist King, and sends him as a prisoner to his brother the Archbishop. Warwick then sets out to free Henry from imprisonment in London. The news that the Edward has escaped sours the celebration of King Henry's restoration to the throne. Edward heads for York once again to “interchange my wanèd state for Henry's regal crown” (4.7.4). Yet one more time Lancastrians under Warwick and Margaret face Edward and his allies. The momentum shifts to the party of York when “perjured George” (5.5.34) changes allegiance again, this time rejoining his brothers. At Barnet, Warwick, “proud setter up and puller down of kings” (3.3.157), is killed. Soon afterwards, “misshapen Dick” (5.5.35) joins his two brothers in stabbing young Edward (the son of Henry VI and Margaret). Finally, Richard rushes off to London to kill the remaining Lancastrian, Henry VI, and the triumph of the house of York is apparently complete.

Shakespeare drew a great deal of his story from Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke. Hall's story is also long and complicated, bristling with facts, but it is not without its reflective moments. Hall offered two different explanations for Henry's inadequacies as a king. The first can be called “providential.” It affirms that the misfortunes of Henry's reign must be ascribed not to weaknesses of human personality or to the flaws of social institutions, but to divine intervention. Hall says that the tribulation of England can be attributed

only to the stroke and punishment of God, affirming [that] the kingdom, which Henry the IV his grandfather wrongfully gat, and unjustly possessed against King Richard II and his heirs, could not by very divine iustice, long continue in that injurious stock; and that therefore God by his divine providence, punished the offence of the grandfather, in the son's son.1

In this version of history, the murder of Richard II and the usurpation of Henry IV constitute a crime against heaven that can be expiated only by a return to legitimate monarchy. Hall's phrase, which consciously echoes biblical language, that God punished “the offence of the grandfather, in the son's son” is constantly reflected in the dramatic and narrative structure of this and other plays in the cycle. Prophesies, predictions, dreams, revelations, and the assertion of God's intervention are regularly trundled forth by the actors of these secular events in order to assert eternal providence. Shakespeare is so generous about supplying such material that it has not proved difficult to interpret this play, as well as the entire sequence of eight plays from Richard II to Richard III, as an acting out of God's darker purposes.

But Hall is not tied to a single interpretation of these complex events. He offers a second explanation, equally persuasive, and given equal weight, for King Henry's “ill chance and misfortune.” Hall succinctly evaluates Henry's personal and moral characteristics:

he was a man of no great wit, such as men commonly call an innocent man, neither a fool, neither very wise, whose study always was more to excel, [rather] in Godly living and virtuous example, than in worldly regiment or temporal dominion, in so much that in comparison to the study and delectation that they had to virtue and godliness, he little regarded, but in manner despised all worldly power and temporal authority. … But his enemies ascribed all this to his coward stomach.

(Cairncross, 3 Henry VI p. 166)

Hall has no difficulty giving equal credence to the one idea—that God's hand is responsible for the punishment of England and the Henry—as the other, that the king's flaws of character (unworldliness, simplicity, cowardice) are also the cause of the trouble. Shakespeare's sources license him to explore these two different systems of interpretation and causation.

Shakespeare continually demonstrates King Henry VI is unsuited to monarchy. He is perpetually youthful and immature, dominated first by his uncles and later by his wife Margaret. He is feeble in war and always more drawn to prayer than politics. In the first two plays that bear his name, “bashful Henry” (1.1.41) had been distinctly subordinate to his obstreperous uncles. To the dangerous rebellion led by Cade, his response was merely to wring his hands. In 3 Henry VI, Shakespeare gives greater dimension to the character of the King. While he does not become more active or stronger, he does become more coherent, more sensitive, more affecting—a precursor, perhaps, of Richard II.

Henry makes his most memorable appearance at the battle of Towton. Shunted to a corner by the fierceness of the combatants, he sits and reflects on war and society while the two sides skirmish. He is withdrawn and passive, indifferent to the partisanship that drives all other characters: “Here on this molehill will I sit me down. / To whom God will, there be the victory” (2.5.14-15). He indulges in an escapist fancy in which he is a “homely swain” or shepherd who has nothing to do but count the hours until his ewes will yean and their fleece can be sheared. The delicious solitude of the rural world is contrasted to the care and corruption of the busy haunts of men:

Ah, what a life were this! how sweet, how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?


But all the while, the audience knows that it is a sign of dereliction when kings enjoy bucolic bliss. Henry's principal vice has been what Elizabethans called “lenity”—“harmful pity” in Clifford's definition—or softness in dealing with antagonists.

To this very long, self-indulgent meditation, Shakespeare opposes a scene designed to dramatize the limitations of Henry's views. As Henry looks on, a “Son” enters with the body of a man he has killed, and as he rifles it searching for “crowns,” he discovers that he has killed his own father. He laments: “O heavy times, begetting such events” (63). But it is soon revealed that the fault is not just in the times but in Henry himself. “From London by the King was I pressed forth” (64). The King, always compassionate to suffering, understands that he must share the blame: “While lions war and battle for their dens, / Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity” (74-75). The Arcadian fantasy of shepherds and their silly sheep has been revealed to be a world where lambs lie down with lions at their peril. Shakespeare proceeds to drive home the point. “Enter a Father that hath kill'd his Son, with a body in his arms.” After the father's lament, which mirrors too exactly the son's speech that preceded it, Henry moralizes what he has just observed. He accepts personal responsibility for the destruction of English families. (He does not notice that Shakespeare replicates in the common people the exact pattern of the murdering of fathers created by dynastic rivalry.) Once again his grieving is poignant but misguided:

The red rose and the white are on his face,
The fatal colors of our striving houses.
The one his purple blood right well resembles;
The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth.
Wither one rose, and let the other flourish.
If you contend, a thousand lives must wither.


Henry's strengths and weaknesses as a leader reveal themselves in this highly metaphorical statement. He acknowledges that the marks of civil dissension are allegorized in the faces of its victims, and he is sensitive to the suffering of his people. But neither the willingness to embrace martyrdom nor indifference to the outcome of the contention signals an effective leader. In the end, he is reduced to hopeless sentimentality: “Sad-hearted men, much overgone with care, / Here sits a king more woeful than you are” (123-24).

Eventually, Henry is stabbed to death by Richard of Gloucester, who emerges as the dominant figure in the final act of the play. Henry knows that he is about to be murdered, but he is still concerned about the people of England, and prophesies to Richard that “Men for their sons, wives for their husbands, / Orphans for their parents' timeless [i.e. untimely] death— / Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born” (5.6.41-43). Henry dies at the moment in which his language is at its most animated.

Despite this moment of passion, the character of Henry remains relatively static through the three plays. On the other hand, Richard of Gloucester is nondescript at the outset of 3 Henry VI, but its dominant figure at last. Shakespeare seems hesitant about what to do with Richard. At first, it appears as though he will be cast as an overreacher in the Marlovian mode. When, in the first act, he urges his father York to seek the kingship, Richard speaks in the tones of Tamburlaine:

          father, do but think
How sweet a thing it is to wear a crown,
Within whose circuit is Elysium
And all that poets feign of bliss and joy.


In the second act, Shakespeare takes another tack. Now he casts Richard as an avenger out of a revenge play like Kyd's immensely influential Spanish Tragedy. At the battle of Towton, in the midst of the excursions, strokes, and blows of combat, young Richard arrives with a message for Warwick, the leader of the party of York, to tell him that his half-brother (actually his bastard half-brother Salisbury) has been killed by Clifford:

Thy brother's blood the thirsty earth hath drunk,
Broached with the steely point of Clifford's lance;
And in the very pangs of death he cried,
Like to a dismal clangor heard from far,
“Warwick, revenge! Brother, revenge my death!”


At this point in his development Richard's language is far removed from the jaunty mockery that eventually becomes his hallmark. He speaks in the popular style of the early 1590s at its windiest. His language is marred by too ample alliteration (“brother's blood,” “broach'd”), mandatory adjectives (“thirsty earth,” “steely point,” “dismal clangor”), and unfortunate vaguenesses when specificity is sorely needed (“heard from afar”). This is the kind of writing that Shakespeare would later mock by putting it in the mouths of Bottom/Pyramus and Pistol.

It is only in act 3, scene 2, that the familiar figure of Richard begins to emerge. The remarkable scene in which this occurs is comprised of two sections. In the first part, Richard's older brother Edward, now Edward IV, woos the widow Lady Elizabeth Grey. Richard and his brother George comment aside on Edward's sexual aggressiveness. After Elizabeth accepts Edward's offer of marriage, Richard remains on stage. In the course of a long soliloquy, his new character—theatrical, comic, wicked, angry, ironic—springs to life.

Edward is attractive to women and something of a philanderer (Hall says that he “loved well both to look and to feel fair damosels” [Cairncross, 3 Henry VI, 159]). Elizabeth, whose husband was slain fighting for Edward at St. Albans, approaches Edward with a suit to repossess her alienated lands. Edward hints that the lady offer her virtue in trade for her property. Richard, overlooking, makes a series of prurient comments: “I see the lady hath a thing to grant”; “Fight closer or, good faith, you'll catch a clap”; “Ay, good leave have you, / Till youth … leave you to the crutch” (3.2.12, 23, 34-35). Elizabeth does not yield easily, and Edward, smitten, asks her to be his wife. This is the worst possible outcome for Richard. He is jealous of Edward's attractiveness to women, and he knows that a fruitful marriage will imperil his chance of succeeding to the throne.

Close observation of his brother catalyzes Richard. He reacts violently to the prospect of his brother's marriage: “Ay, Edward will use women honorably. / Would he were wasted, marrow, bones and all, / That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring” (124-26). Richard reveals his ambition and admits that it is unlikely that he will become king. He only “dream[s] on sovereignty.” But when he dismisses the prospect of kingship, an alternative suddenly arises. “Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard; / What other pleasure can the world afford?” (146-47). Richard scornfully dismisses the possibility that he could succeed with women as his brother does. “I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap, / And deck my body in gay ornaments / And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks. / O miserable thought.” Hall had described Richard in most unflattering terms: “little of stature, evil featured of limbs, crook-backed, the left shoulder much higher than the right, hard favored of visage, such as in estates is called a warlike visage, and among common persons a crabbed face” (Cairncross, 3 Henry V, 174). Shakespeare, interested in the psychology of his character, transforms Richard's deformity first into self-loathing and then into motive:

Why, Love forswore me in my mother's womb; …
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back …
And am I then a man to be beloved?

(3.2.153, 156-57, 163)

Richard resolves not to seek heaven in a lady's lap (in the Petrarchan language he parodies) but instead resolves, “I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown” (168).

Shakespeare then introduces still another novel element when Richard begins to draw on the familiar image of the vice of the morality plays, one of whose roles is to dissemble and pretend. “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, / And cry ‘Content!’ to that that grieves my heart, / And wet my cheeks with artificial tears” (182-84). Shakespeare has now provided Richard with a motive (an acute consciousness of his deformity and uniqueness), an objective (the crown), and a borrowed and transformed morality play inheritance that allows him to toy with his enemies while revealing himself to the audience. As he brings the soliloquy to a conclusion, Richard adds the modern (and anachronistic) horror of Italian intrigue: he will “set the murderous Machiavel to school” (3.2.193). Shakespeare has left the preliminary gestures toward Kyd and Marlowe far behind and created a character infinitely more complex and sinister than his predecessor playwrights could possibly imagine.

The most famous lines in 3 Henry VI occur in Richard of Gloucester's last soliloquy. Richard has stabbed King Henry, who has been “famed for mildness, peace, and prayer” (2.1.156); he turns to the audience in the speech beginning “I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear” (5.6.68) and makes the chilling assertion that

I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word “love,” which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another,
And not in me. I am myself alone.


These phrases define Richard's emerging amorality. Explicit atheism, scandalous to the orthodox among the spectators, comes to the fore in the contemptuous dismissal of “love” as an idea to which only the old-fashioned would cling. The accompanying word “divine” makes it clear that Richard repudiates not only the love of man but the love of God. Over and above his rejection of traditional religion, Richard also claims to be set apart from the larger community of men. He is “alone”—an individual, an isolate, concerned not with the public good or communal morality, but only with personal and private needs and desires. In these few vivid and condensed words of self-revelation, Richard manages to repudiate ancestral standards of both religious and social behavior.

Even more resonant is “I have no brother, I am like no brother.” All of Shakespeare's histories pay homage to dynastic and family loyalty; 3 Henry VI sometimes seems to have no other subject. Taken literally, Richard's announcement that he has no brother is of course simply untrue. Richard has three brothers: Edward, the Earl of March, succeeds his father as Duke of York and achieves the throne as Edward IV; feckless George, Duke of Clarence, wanders from the Yorkist side to the Lancastrian and back again; and Edmund of Rutland, the “innocent child” (1.3.8), is murdered by “bloody Clifford” (2), in one of the drama's more gruesome atrocities. Richard does not pretend that he has no legal or literal brother. The denial that he has a brother means that he is not tied to the community of England by fraternal or familial bonds; that there is no one, not even a brother, with whom he shares a common humanity; and finally, that he has no use for the tenderness that other human beings acknowledge toward their most intimate friends and relations. When Richard says that he has no brother, he certainly suspends his loyalty to Edward, George, and Edmund, but he also means that he no longer participates in the brotherhood of man. His literal lie reflects a deeper truth—and from this truth both the murder of his brother Clarence and the conscienceless villainy that mark his subsequent career inevitably follow.


  1. Cited in The Third Part of 3 Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross (London: Methuen, 1964), 166-67.

Faye L. Kelly (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 357-71.

[In the essay below, Kelly explores the structural, thematic, and unifying significance of oaths—kept and broken—in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

When Pistol said to Bardolph, “A sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course” (Henry V), he was stating not only a common Elizabethan belief, but also a principle of Shakespearean dramatic construction. In drama as in life, an oath calls for action. In drama, whenever a character swears to do something or not to do something, plot takes form as a direct result of his regard for his word. If the swearer honors his oath, the action takes one course; if he breaks his oath, the action veers in a different direction. The oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI plays, set against the background of Elizabethan belief, gain considerable dramatic relevance. In these histories, concerned as they are with rebellion, usurpation, conspiracy, and war, great significance rests on the contractual relationships between king and subject, man and man, and man and woman. The oath, if honored, provides a lawful means of sustaining such contracts and contributes to an ordered society ordained by God, ideally upheld by king and supported by subject. If all persons concerned honored their oaths of allegiance, order would prevail in society, and in drama there would be no conflict and consequently no drama. We are concerned here only with formal oaths such as the oath of allegiance, the legal swearing before a magistrate, and the equally serious calling on God to witness and stand as guarantor that the swearer intends to execute his oath. Swearing by some sacred object serves the same purpose. The vow which often accompanies and strengthens the oath is a special application in which a personal condition or imprecation is contingent upon fulfillment of the vow.1

But whatever Shakespeare meant when he used an oath might differ from what we make of it unless we focus our attention on what the oath meant to Elizabethans. No doubt they were influenced by the Oath of Supremacy of 1558 required of archbishops, bishops, judges, clergymen as well as all persons taking orders or degrees from universities.2 Failure to take the oath resulted in degrees of punishment varying from loss of promotion for first offenders to indictment for high treason for anyone so imprudent as to be guilty of a third offense. A look at some of the Elizabethan writings about oaths will give the modern reader a better understanding of the impact of the dramatic oath, particularly the broken oath, on the Elizabethan audience and lead to a deeper appreciation of the young Shakespeare's art of construction.

In Elizabethan society an oath was a serious matter, considered a “part of God's divine service and commanded by him.”3 Because Christ in the New Testament forbade swearing (Matt. 5:34-37), writers about oaths felt constrained to justify swearing by the Christian man. The dilemma was supposedly solved by the thirty-ninth article of the Church of England which declared an oath legal, “When the Magistrate requireth, in a cause of faith and charitie, so it be done accordyng to the prophetes teaching in justice, judgement, and trueth.”4 But justifications for swearing continued to appear in print. One of the most influential publications, and one which Shakespeare doubtless knew, was the “VII Official Homilie against Swearing and Perjury.” This sermon expounds the nature and importance of a lawful oath, the sin of irreverent abuse, and God's punishment for perjury. An oath was considered lawful when

Judges require othes of the people, for declaracion of the truth, or for execucion of justice; … [or] when men make faithefull promises with attestacion of the name of God, to observe covenauntes, honest promises, statutes, lawes, and good customes, … for due ordre to be had and continued emong men: when subjectes do sweare to bee true and faithefull to their kyng and sovereigne Lorde. … Therefore Christian people muste thynke lawful othes, both godly and necessarye. For by lawfull promises and covenauntes confirmed by othes, princes and their countreis are confirmed in common tranquillitie and peace.5

This statement, read regularly from the pulpits in Tudor England, leaves little doubt that oaths were considered a means of maintaining order and of ferreting out potential disorder.

And by lawful othes, malefactors are searched out, wrong doers are punished, and thei whiche sustein wrong, are restored to their right. … Every Christian mannes worde … should be so true, that it should be regarded as an oth.6

The sanctity of the oath acts as a binder which holds all men together for the good of the land. Made under the watchful eye of God, oaths should promote harmonious relationships among all people.

In society the oath serves another important function in that through an oath God's searching eye can determine the truth of any matter.

Because he oftentimes revealeth and bringeth foorth the verie trueth of a matter (untruely delivered by any man) either by inward inspiration of some other person, or else by bringing it to the open light … which afore was kept close and secret.7

The oath carries with it punishment for perjury, a grievous offense against God, for “whosoever wilfully forsweareth hymself … thei utterly forsake Gods mercy, goodnes, and truth.” By terrible punishments “doth God shewe playnly, how muche he abhoreth breakers of honest promises, confirmed by an othe made in his name.”8 For God “is a lover of trueth and a revenger of perjurie.”9 Even though the perjurer might conceal his guilt in this life, he could not expect to escape punishment, for his guilt will be revealed “at the last daye, when the secretes of all mennes hartes, shalbe manifest to al the worlde. And then the truth shal appere, and accuse them and their owne conscience. … And Christ the righteous judge, shal then justly condempne them to everlastyng shame and death.”10

Another possible influence on Shakespeare was the chronicler Edward Hall, who included the complete text of the oath required of all authorities, spiritual and temporal, in which they promised “upon their faith, dutie, and allegeaunce … truly to assist in kepyng of the kynges peace.”11 All concontemporary statements about oaths stress the ethical significance of personal responsibility. Thus the value of a man's word was at the very foundation of reliability in human affairs.

Aware of the frame of meaning surrounding the oath, Shakespeare utilized this background as he employed the oath in his dramatic construction to throw light on the character who makes an oath, his relationship to the other characters, and to his God. When made, an oath adumbrates plot; when later recalled by the maker of the oath or the character against whom it is made, the oath becomes structural as it links and tightens the elements of the plot. The complete disregard for the sanctity of an oath by many of the characters in the Henry VI plays illuminates the dramatic situation of chaos revealed. Examined against the milieu of Elizabethan thought, the oaths provide an added dimension to some of the usually accepted interpretations of these plays.12


In 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare employs the oath with little subtlety. In mechanical fashion he has Exeter remind the nobles of their oaths to Henry V, and immediately they scurry off stage to fight the French. Talbot utters a vow of vengeance as Salisbury is shot and, “with God as his fortress,” he and his English soldiers rout the French with brilliant stage effects as the French leap over the walls in disarray.

In the Temple Garden Scene, where Shakespeare symbolically sets up the factions which later result in civil war, the oaths by Somerset and York strengthen their determination to pursue their quarrel. The participants choose sides in ritualistic fashion as Somerset asks Warwick to choose between them. Plantagenet, later York, argues that

The truth appears so naked on my side
That any purblind eye may find it out.


Somerset counters with

And on my side it is so well appareled,
So clear, so shining, and so evident
That it will glimmer through a blind man's eye.


Somerset's oath provokes an equally determined one from Plantagenet:

And, by my soul, this pale and angry rose,
As cognizance of my blood-drinking hate,
Will I forever and my faction wear
Until it wither with me to my grave
Or flourish to the height of my degree.


The ritualistic portion of the scene ends on this determined note. Shakespeare has created a tension out of which most of the remaining action of the Henry VI trilogy flows. Here he has demonstrated the technique of flinging speech against speech noted some years ago by Price.14 What Price did not take into account is that a sworn statement carries much more power than ordinary speech, will generate more impact of character on character, and is more likely to elicit immediate response. In this instance the use of the oath becomes more subtle and looks forward to its still more intricate employment in Parts 2 and 3.

Shakespeare's most skillful use of the oath in Part 1 involves the oath of allegiance in all of its ramifications. In Act IV, scene one, Henry is not permitted to take the actual oath at his own coronation, which was ordinarily a stage ceremony of pomp and splendor. The entire ceremony is perfunctorily accomplished in two lines, because as soon as the bishop deposits the crown on Henry's head, York demands an oath of allegiance from the French, only to have the second ceremony interrupted. During the interruption, Shakespeare shifts to a close-up as he demonstrates for the audience the complete lack of allegiance among the English: first, among the high-level military as Talbot rushes on stage accusing Fastolfe of cowardice and makes good his vow to “Tear the garter from his craven leg”; next, among the nobles as Gloucester reads a letter from Burgundy who has switched his loyalty back to the French. Gloucester laments

Oh, monstrous treachery! Can this be so,
That in alliance, amity, and oaths
There should be found such false dissembling guile?


He has struck the keynote that echoes down the play, “false dissembling.” Henry's vain attempt to reconcile the opposing English factions, so as to present a united front to the French, succeeds only in making things worse. The scene winds up with Exeter alone on stage to sum up the action and look forward to later events:

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


Shakespeare now makes visual the confusion which had up to this point been mostly verbal. Talbot drives off the French only to have Joan return and drive off the English, a feat that could not have happened had either York or Somerset shown the allegiance of Talbot and rescued him with their armies. York blames Somerset, but admits to Lucy, who pleads for Talbot's rescue, “He dies, we lose; I break my warlike word.” The ironic juxtaposition of York and Talbot delineates the character of York in complete contrast to the splendid Talbot. York does not keep his word; he admits it. To demonstrate to us the effect of York's broken word, Shakespeare throws the two Talbots into mortal combat and has Talbot remind the audience why he is in desperate circumstances:

The Regent hath with Talbot broke his word
And left us to the rage of France his sword.


The act ends with each side predicting victory, and Shakespeare turns his attention to setting the stage for the broken oath which causes the downfall of the English.

The scene (V.i.) begins in a low key as Henry agrees disinterestedly to his betrothal to the wealthy daughter of the Earl of Armagnac. This seemingly insignificant detail actually furnishes the key to Henry's character. He agrees to marry any woman who “Tends to God's glory and my country's weal.” A complexity of hints alerts us that this action has overtones of wide import. Henry binds the “contract” by sending the young lady a jewel in proof of the “contract” and “pledge” of his affection. The care with which Henry's language is formulated leaves no room for doubt that he considers the betrothal binding, and Shakespeare is signaling the audience to anticipate the outcome of his deed. At this point Shakespeare leaves the betrothal.

But not until Act V, scene four, does Shakespeare return to the interrupted oath of allegiance of Act IV, scene one. The situation is that after losing many nobles, including Talbot, the English have finally won a shaky peace with France; York demands that the French leaders swear an oath of allegiance to Henry. When Charles demands to know the terms of the peace, his nobles advise him not to cavil about the “contract.” Winchester tells him that he must “pay tribute and submit” to Henry. It is York who articulates the oath for Charles:

Then swear allegiance to His Majesty,
As thou art knight, never to disobey
Nor be rebellious to the Crown of England—
Thou, nor thy nobles, to the Crown of England.


An intriguing irony emerges in the play because what we see and hear contradicts what we know about York. His word is false, yet he berates the French for the same fault. A still more subtle irony is that York can be reassured by Warwick that the French can be bound with such strict and severe “covenants” that they will gain little from the truce. Another layer of irony comes from the words of the oath, which specify allegiance to the crown of England and not the man, a point to be explored in some detail in later plays.

Having set up his warring factions among the English and concluded an “effeminate” peace with the French, Shakespeare moves to pick up the theme of Henry's marriage. Henry's previous oath of betrothal now becomes the pivotal point of the dramatic action. If Henry is to marry Margaret, Suffolk must see to it that he breaks his oath. The wily Suffolk speaks glowingly of Margaret's charms and influences Henry to seek Gloucester's consent even though it does mean breaking his oath. Gloucester establishes the seriousness of the situation:

How shall we then dispense with that contract,
And not deface your honour with reproach?


As plot develops, Henry's honor is repeatedly defaced because of this evil match, but at this moment Suffolk with elaborate casuistry offers a solution:

As doth a ruler with unlawful oaths,
Or one that, at a triumph having vowed
To try his strength, forsaketh yet the lists
By reason of his adversary's odds.
A poor Earl's daughter is unequal odds,
And therefore may be broke without offense.


Almost too readily Henry agrees and sends Suffolk to France with these instructions:

Agree to any covenants, and procure
That Lady Margaret do vouchsafe to come
To cross the seas to England, and be crowned
King Henry's faithful and anointed Queen.


Suffolk's reasoning is completely contrary to the Elizabethan concept of the sanctity of an oath and leads us to see him as devious, disloyal, and treacherous. But what about Henry? He has unwittingly revealed to the audience that the sovereign, the highest, most revered person in the land, cannot be trusted and is really no better than his jarring nobles.

By demonstrating to us the gravity associated with an oath and the consequences of broken oaths, Shakespeare has created and explored an atmosphere charged with suspicion, falseness, duplicity, and evil. He is yet to magnify and intensify this impression in Parts 2 and 3.


In 2 Henry VI, the sanctity of a man's word, the truth and reliability of what he says, forms the crux of the dramatic argument and provides a strong force for unity. Without overt reference to oaths or breaking of oaths, the theme of reliability of a man's word undergirds the action of the play and carries out the implications of betrayal begun in 1 Henry VI. Each instance that subjects the word of a character to the cold light of truth prepares a steppingstone to the final act in which the sworn oath of allegiance to the King dominates the action.

In the first scene Shakespeare creates an aura of falseness, suspicion, and distrust as Suffolk presents Henry with his Queen. The audience is informed that as a result of the “contracted peace” with France, Suffolk has signed away to the French the English claim to the duchy of Anjou and the county of Maine. Gloucester, the one truly honest and loyal person, later recalls the shameful marriage and prophesies the ruin of all England as a result. Each subsequent scene relates in some manner to the theme of duplicity and broken oaths and advances the complex intentions of the play.

Even the seemingly irrelevant Peter-Horner Scene (I.iii.) gains dramatic relevance as it introduces the theme of rightful succession to the crown and implicates York. The multiple crosscurrents of animosity between the Queen and the Duchess of Gloucester and the concerted efforts of York, Margaret, and Suffolk to discredit Gloucester all begin to converge. Act II, scene one, which has been called a mirror-scene, intensifies our sensitivity to the falsity which forms the core problem of the play.15 The trumped-up arrest of the Duchess, the false accusation of Gloucester, the bogus miracle—all reflect the duplicity and unreliability of people throughout the Court and society. The pervading deception prepares the climate for York's recital in the next scene of his claim to the throne and the seemingly unmotivated support of Warwick and Salisbury.

As the snare tightens around Gloucester, accused of treason and embezzlement and deprived of the Nevils' support, he can strengthen his claim of innocence only with a solemn oath calling God to witness the truth of his words before the King:

So help me God, as I have watched the night—
Ay, night by night, in studying good for England!—
That doit that e'er I wrested from the King,
Or any groat I hoarded to my use,
Be brought against me at my trial day!
.....I say no more than truth, so help me God!

(III. i. 110-14, 120)

To Gloucester and the characters hearing the oath no stronger emphasis could be placed on his words than the solemn appeal to God to support his statement, the implication always being that perjury automatically brings with it the wrath of God. Shakespeare drives home the impression of mendacity abroad as he has Gloucester, in his next speech, further attempt to prove his innocence. Recurrent phrases suggesting falseness abound: “foul subornation,” “false accuse,” “false witness,” “suborned to swear,” “false allegations,” “play me false.” The truth of Gloucester's innocence becomes a dramatic reality when his dead body is brought on stage and Warwick swears a “dreadful oath with solemn tongue” that Gloucester has suffered foul play:

As surely as my soul intends to live
With that dread King, that took our state upon him
To free us from his Father's wrathful curse,
I do believe that violent hands were laid
Upon the life of this thrice-famed duke.

(III. ii. 153-57)

This oath, sworn by the gift of Christ to mankind, lends a tone of solemnity and foreboding to the entire scene and dramatizes a typically human reaction to a horrible crime. The phrases suggesting treachery, inconstancy, and hollow friends thicken and mingle with images of birds of prey and reptiles symbolic of the evil and chaos abroad in the land.

As a result of Gloucester's murder, the commoners rise up and demand retribution against Suffolk. Henry, finally shocked into decisive action, banishes Suffolk. His manner of doing so further dramatically illuminates his own character. He swears,

For, sure, my thoughts do hourly prophesy
Mischance unto my state by Suffolk's means.
And therefore, by His majesty I swear,
Whose far unworthy deputy I am,
He shall not breathe infection in this air
But three days longer, on the pain of death.

(III. ii. 283-88)

In reply to Margaret's plea for Suffolk, Henry unwittingly reveals his innermost nature:

Had I but said, I would have kept my word,
But when I swear, it is irrevocable.

(III. ii. 293-94)

Though his words follow the conventional pattern, they are in the light of his actions ironical, for had he not broken his oath of betrothal he would not be in his present situation.

Shakespeare now sets about to demonstrate the chaos spawned by a broken oath of allegiance. Although Suffolk gets his just due, the rebel Cade and his gang, goaded by York, try to take power into their hands. Cade vows to crown himself king, to make learning a sin, to put to death all scholars, lawyers, courtiers, and gentlemen. In this portrayal of treachery and revolution all the accepted values are overturned. But this is on the level of parody; next we see real usurpation. The whole of Act V deals with the problem of allegiance to the King.

York, returning from Ireland accompanied by many troops, is interrogated by Buckingham as to whether his intentions are honorable and why he has raised troops without the King's permission, “Against thy oath and true allegiance sworn.” When York is informed that Somerset has been sent to the Tower, he dismisses his soldiers only to regret it when Somerset and Margaret appear. Henry issues orders that Margaret “hide him [Somerset] from the Duke.” Once again Henry's capability for deceit is consummately demonstrated. York, all submission and humility a few moments earlier, now has an excuse to upbraid Henry:

False King! Why hast thou broken faith with me,
Knowing how hardly I can brook abuse?
King did I call thee? No, thou art not King,
Not fit to govern and rule multitudes,
Which darest not, no, nor canst not rule a traitor.
That head of thine doth not become a crown.
.....                    By heaven, thou shalt rule no more
O'er him whom Heaven created for thy ruler.

(V. i. 91-96, 104-5)

Now York's intentions are in the open, and the prominence of the themes of allegiance and rightful possession of the throne firmly establish them as a frame of meaning to circumscribe the subsequent action of the play.

When the business of allegiance needed to be dramatized visually on stage, Shakespeare frequently used the ceremony of kneeling, a commonplace on the Elizabethan stage. But in the Henry VI plays this gesture of respect does more than reinforce the dramatic meaning of a scene. Kneeling assumes a wider symbolic meaning, which reverberates throughout the last two parts of the trilogy. The crosscurrents of loyalties and disloyalties are focused on the willingness of a character to kneel to Henry: Iden enters with Cade's head and as he kneels to Henry is made Knight; Clifford kneels to Henry, but refuses to honor York's claim; York refuses to bow to anyone. His refusal to kneel carries with it an implication wider than the deed itself. His act epitomizes the significance of the oath of allegiance. With the entrance of support for both factions, the stage is set for the showdown. When Henry sees that York has more support than he, he laments, “Where is faith? Where is loyalty?”

Central to the structure projected in this portion of the play is the growing doubt of Henry's rightful possession of the crown. Shakespeare symbolizes the idea as Salisbury refuses to kneel. Unable to control the situation, Henry falls back on the oath of allegiance to him in an attempt to prevent open revolt, to maintain order, and to keep his crown. He asks Salisbury, “Canst thou dispense with heaven for such an oath?” (V. i. 181). Salisbury replies with elaborate casuistry in words which are often a loose paraphrase of the statements of Tudor nondramatic writers about oaths:

It is great sin to swear unto a sin,
But greater sin to keep a sinful oath.
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,
And have no other reason for this wrong
But that he was bound by a solemn oath?

(V. i. 182-90)16

Here the Elizabethan concept of an oath is clearly stated: it is not merely a formal promise to a king, but a promise to which God stands witness for human truthfulness. It is a sin to swear to a sinful act, but also a sin to keep a sinful oath. The Queen replies, “A subtle traitor needs no sophister” (V. i. 191). Salisbury twists traditional thinking to suit his own purposes. His words support the philosophy of the day, but the point he refuses to establish is whether or not his oath of allegiance to Henry was, in fact, unlawful. He is engaging in the political tactic of equivocation. As a result, Henry flees and the frame of disorder becomes real, not because a vindictive God has punished evildoers but because men would not honor their word.

At this point Shakespeare leaves the problem of rightful succession, but the fact that he brings Henry's title into question prepares the groundwork for the alacrity with which Henry eventually yields to York's claim. Henry's realization that his claim is weak lends credence to his readiness to adopt York as heir, but in so doing he repudiates his rightful duty to his son, abrogates his oath as king, and paves the way for violence. For Henry as king, as deputy of God, had taken an oath to uphold the crown. He is subject only to God, but responsible to God to act as pastor to his subjects.


Permeating the entire structure of 3 Henry VI are broken oaths, broken vows, and perjury. They serve as vehicles for dramatizing the themes of degree, allegiance, and lawful succession and the resulting chaos when any one of these is disregarded. Like a musician, Shakespeare states each theme, accompanies it with appropriate imagery, enlarges, embellishes, and enriches it as he interweaves all together. The first two scenes of Part 3 explore one theme after another and build up a complexity of general dissension and vacillating, disloyal characters. In scene one, the Parliament House in London, Warwick goads York into committing dramatically his act of usurpation by actually seating himself on the throne. Warwick gives York his support:

                    Victorious Prince of York,
Before I see thee seated in that throne
Which now the House of Lancaster usurps,
I vow by Heaven these eyes shall never close.
This is the palace of the fearful King,
And this the regal seat. Possess it, York,
For this is thine, and not King Henry's heirs'.


Reminiscent of Lucifer of the mystery drama, York, like the first rebel of English drama, goads his antagonist. Henry retorts: “My Lords, look where the sturdy rebel sits, / Even in the chair of state” (I. i. 50-51). Momentum builds as Henry, intent on defeating York, incites Northumberland and Clifford by reminding them of their fathers' deaths at the hands of York and of their vowed revenge “On him, his sons, his favorites, his friends.” Northumberland answers with a vow and a self-imprecation, “If I be not, Heavens be revenged on me!” Clifford adds his vow and the pattern of revenge emerges.

The ceremony of kneeling, notably extended and enriched throughout Part 3, now assumes the symbolic burden of all the broken oaths in the play. Henry now demands of York:

Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
And kneel for grace and mercy at my feet.
I am thy sovereign.


York refuses, and they bicker back and forth as Shakespeare with tireless iteration has Warwick incite Northumberland and Clifford by reminding them once more that they had sworn revenge for the death of their fathers. Warwick's goad evokes another oath from Northumberland and the tempo increases. A note of irony enriches the texture of the play when Henry extracts from York a “solemn oath” that he cease civil war and allow Henry to reign in peace on the condition that the crown pass to York at Henry's death. York swears, “This oath I take and will perform.” York's attitude toward his oath dispels any hope of lasting reconciliation. The structure of meaning here is closely connected with recurring and interrelated broken oaths by and to Henry.

The entire architecture of Act I, scene two, turns on York's attitude toward his oath. Edward first broaches the subject of perjury as he suggests to his father, “Now you are heir, therefore enjoy it now.” York counters with, “I took an oath that he should quietly reign.” Edward maintains that the end justifies the means and says,

But for a kingdom any oath may be broken,
I would break a thousand oaths to reign one year.


Clever Richard mollifies York with, “No, God forbid your Grace should be forsworn,” and promises to prove that York can have the crown without perjuring himself. Richard argues:

An oath is of no moment, being not took
Before a true and lawful magistrate
That hath authority over him that swears.
Henry had none, but did usurp the place.
Then, seeing 'twas he that made you to depose,
Your oath, my lord, is vain and frivolous.
Therefore to arms!


York readily agrees to a course of action he already desires, but the important point is that even he hesitates, if only momentarily, to break an oath. To understand the probable impact of this scene on an Elizabethan audience, one has only to recall the punishment for perjury. Once convinced that he might escape punishment for perjury, York becomes adamant, and with utmost irony says, “Richard, enough, I will be king or die.” York, who breaks his oath, expects all other people to do the same and says of Henry, “Trust not simple Henry nor his oaths.” The attitudes of Richard and Edward toward their oaths anticipate dramatically their own disloyalty and revolt. York's broken oath provides Clifford and Margaret with the excuse they need to seize him, crown him ingnominiously with a paper crown, and kill him. As Margaret crowns York, she taunts him:

But how is it that great Plantagenet
Is crowned so soon and broke his solemn oath?
.....O, 'tis a fault too too unpardonable!

(I.iv.99-100, 106)

Margaret's taunt elicits from York a vehement curse against her. He ends his curse with a cry of vengeance for Rutland's death. Not deterred by the curse, Clifford and Margaret stab him. Clifford gets revenge with, “here's for my oath, here's for my father's death.”

Shakespeare now shifts the scene back to his weak anti-hero who, led by the Queen, has broken his vow to York. True to his nature, Henry disclaims responsibility and appeals to God to withhold revenge: “Withhold revenge, dear God! 'Tis not my fault, / Nor wittingly have I infringed my vow” (II.ii.7-8). Even though Henry professes innocence, Shakespeare places the responsibility squarely on his shoulders. The passage from Hall dealing with this incident indicates that Shakespeare was following his source.17 Dramatically he is reminding the audience that before the sons of York can, as they suggest they will, “overshine the earth,” they must do something about Henry who still wears the crown, but has vowed to pass it to York or his heirs.

Warwick takes up the thread of broken oaths as he reports that Queen Margaret is marching toward London with the intent to dash the decree of Parliament “touching Henry's oath” and Edward's succession. Warwick recalls for the audience Henry's oath:

He swore consent to your succession,
His oath enrollèd in the Parliament;
And now to London all the crew are gone
To frustrate both his oath and what beside
May make against the House of Lancaster.


From the point of view of his enemies, Henry has broken another oath.

To stage the fluctuations and complexities of allegiance, reversed allegiance, and the sanctity of oaths, Shakespeare repeats with subtle variations the ceremony of kneeling which epitomizes the meaning of the last half of the play. In ordinary circumstances on the Elizabethan stage, one kneels to the duly constituted authority. But that is just the point Shakespeare has been working up to and is now exploring more fully. Who is the duly constituted authority? To underscore this point Shakespeare repeats with almost complete inversion an earlier scene. In Act I, scene two, he explores the oath of allegiance of York to Henry; now in Act II, scene two, he probes Henry's oath to York and his heirs. Edward enters with his brothers and attendants; he immediately demands that Henry kneel to him—that is, acknowledge him as the duly constituted King. He says to Henry:

Now perjur'd Henry! Wilt thou kneel for grace
And set thy diadem upon my head,
Or bide the mortal fortune of the field?


To Margaret's vehement refusal, Edward insists,

I am his King, and he should bow his knee.
I was adopted heir by his consent;
Since when, his oath is broke, for, as I hear,
You, that are King, though he do wear the crown,
Have caused him, by new Act of Parliament,
To blot out me and put his own son in.


Edward's cause gains additional support when Warwick learns of his brother's death and swears an oath of revenge:

Here on my knee I vow to God above,
I'll never pause again, never stand still,
Till either death hath closed these eyes of mine,
Or fortune given my measure of revenge.


Edward drops to his knees beside Warwick and vows to chain his soul to that of the “setter up and plucker down” of kings. The reverse of this scene appears when Edward, as King, demands that Warwick

Speak gentle words, and humbly bend thy knee,
Call Edward king, and at his hands beg mercy?


Warwick refuses, reminds Edward who had made him king, and demands that Edward call him patron or he'll find himself Duke of York again. Yet another variation of this theme in a minor key and highly ironic tone occurs when Henry's son encounters the sons of York. The Prince demands that Edward resign his chair and kneel to him. Thus the oath of allegiance made visual by the ceremony of kneeling thrusts in many ways into the dramatic construction. The oath or vow usually has its course as the utterer endeavors to make it come to pass; the action of the play alters as the course of the oath does: many oaths carry the irony of the play.

In one of the subtlest scenes in early Shakespeare (III.i.), King Henry explores the sanctity of the oath of allegiance which has already been broken repeatedly on stage. Henry has of his own volition and in the face of great peril returned to England “even of pure love” for his homeland. As the keepers appear they tell the disguised Henry that they, the subjects of King Edward, are “sworn in all allegiance,” and will apprehend Henry, the enemy of the King. Henry asks them, “But did you never swear and break an oath?” The second keeper replies, “No never such an oath nor will not now.” Henry timidly suggests that he is the rightful King:

And you were sworn true subjects unto me.
And tell me, then, have you not broke your oaths?


The keeper replies negatively, “For we were subjects but while you were king.” Henry's answer probes the vacillating allegiance of the common man and recalls the same observation made by Cade in Part 2:

Ah, simple men, you know not what you swear!
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 commen men.
But do not break your oaths, for of that sin
My mild entreaty shall not make you guilty.


Succinctly in this speech Shakespeare reveals the common people as a vacillating horde unable to think for themselves and interested only in self-preservation. Henry expresses poetically what Pistol describes more earthily in Henry V: the oaths of common people “are but wafer cakes” easily broken. Henry realizes that had his subjects valued their oaths to him, he would not now be on his way to prison and ultimately to death, but what Henry does not realize is that he is no better than those he criticizes: had he honored his own oath he would not be facing the extreme penalties of loss of freedom and loss of life.

Shakespeare relentlessly drives home the theme of broken oaths, deceit, and treachery. He has already established Edward as a perjurer once when he broke his oath to the Mayor of York (IV.vii.23-24). He makes him a second-time perjurer when he repeats with only slight variation the broken marriage vow as Edward marries Lady Grey after having sent Warwick to seek the hand of the sister of the French King, an alliance that might have brought peace and order. Ironically at the exact moment that Warwick is swearing to the French King that Edward's love for Lady Bona is “the eternal plant” whereof the root was “fixed in Virtue!” a messenger from Edward enters with the news that Edward has broken his word and has married Lady Grey. Again, with the iteration of a schoolmaster, Shakespeare demonstrates that war results from a king's broken oath: Margaret, supported by the King of France, and Warwick, irked by Edward's broken word, prepare for war. Clarence, too, switches to Warwick's side against his brother-king, an abrogation of two loyalties, only to revert later to Edward with the vow to be “no more unconstant.” Warwick tags him “traitor, perjured, and unjust,” a tag which sticks to him. When Warwick by a gesture recalls the oath of allegiance that Clarence had taken to King Henry, Clarence responds that

To keep that oath were more impiety
Than Jephthah's when he sacrific'd his daughter.


When Clarence's perjury is recalled by the three sons of York as they stab Prince Edward, the theme of perjury assumes structural significance.18 The layers of irony coalesce as Edward, committing his third perjury, labels the twice-perjured Clarence “perjured George,” and, as Clarence in his turn stabs the Prince, he does so with his words: “And there's for twitting me with perjury” (V.v.40). Only moments later Clarence's regards for his oath is subjected to ironical scrutiny. The distraught Margaret, forced to witness the murder of her son, begs Clarence to stab her. He swears by heaven that he will do her no such favor. At her insistence, he replies that he cannot because he has sworn. Margaret chides:

Aye, but thou usest to forswear thyself.
'Twas sin before, but now 'tis charity.


The confirmation of Clarence as a perjurer supports the structural value of the theme, which carries over and becomes one of the dominant features of Richard III. Shakespeare has now held up for the audience to judge the word of every major and minor character and has only to complete the pattern of deceit and disloyalty with the murder of Henry, the ultimate act of treachery and disorder, and the development of Richard, the self-styled “Judas,” who will become in his own play the prime example of all the duplicity which has only begun in the Henry VI plays.


  1. A. E. Crawley, “Oath,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (Edinburgh, 1917), IX, 43.

  2. Statutes of the Realm, (London, 1819), I Eliz. Chap. 1.

  3. James Morice, A Briefe Treatise of Oathes (London, n.d.), sig. A2.

  4. Articles Whereupon It Was Agreed by the Archbishoppes and Bishoppes (London, 1571), sig. D1.

  5. Certayne Sermons, or Homilies (London, 1547), sig. L3, M1.

  6. Ibid., sig. M1v.

  7. R. Cosin, An Apologie for Sundrie Proceedings by Jurisdiction Ecclesiasticall Treating of Oaths (London, 1593), Part 3, p. 9.

  8. Certayne Sermons, sig. M3v, M2v.

  9. Morice, sig. A2. John Bale, A Christen Exhortacion Unto Customable Swearers (London, 1547?), painted a vivid picture of what happens to perjurers: “He shal eyther lose a fyngar, an eare, or els his tonge. For perjury was the noble city of Troy lost” (fol. 26). In the Folger Shakespeare Library a unique poem of 1600, written to be sung to the tune of “Airne Not Too High,” describes the tortures of a Maid servant who forswore herself and, “lies rotting in Hospital unable to die, where many resort daily to see her.”

  10. Certayne Sermons, sig. M4.

  11. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre & York (London, 1548), “King Henry the VI” fol. xxviiv.

  12. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1948), sees these plays as the demonstration of the vengeance of God on a sinful people; J. P. Brockbank, “Frame of Disorder,” Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, (London, 1961) concurs. A. S. Cairncross in the Arden edition mentions that the oath breach is vital and that in Part 3 broken oaths and perjury abound. A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, 1967) states that Edward's remark that “for a kingdom any oath may be broken,” guides all men's actions.

  13. Quotations are taken from Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1948).

  14. Hereward T. Price, Construction in Shakespeare (Ann Arbor, 1951), p. 21.

  15. Hereward T. Price, “Mirror-Scenes in Shakespeare,” Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway (Washington, 1948), p. 102.

  16. The delicate question of whether or not it was worse to perjure oneself or to keep a sinful oath posed a problem for writers about oaths. The homilist in the sermon on “Swearing and Perjury” cited examples from the scriptures of universal famine sent upon the whole country of the Israelites during the days of Saul because he broke his oath of friendship with the Gabonites and murdered many of them: “And God would not withdraw hys punishment, until the saied offence was revenged, by the death of seven sonnes, or next kinsmen, of King Saule. … But if a man at any tyme shall, either of ignorance, or of malice, promise and sweare, to do any thyng, whiche is either against the lawe of almightye God, or not in hys power to perfourme: let hym take it, for an unlawfull and ungodly othe” (Certayne Sermons, sigs. M2v, M3r). Thomas Becon, quoting from the holy Beda said, “If it shall chance at any time we sweare or promise anything unadvisedly, which being kept should turn unto an evil end, … we ought rather to forswear ourselves than, for the eschewing of perjury, we should fall into any other more grievous sin” (“The Invective against Swearing,” Early Works, ed. John Ayre for the Parker Society [Cambridge, 1843], p. 374).

  17. Hall, “For as much as Kyng Henry, contrary to his othe, honor and agrement, had violated and infringed, the order taken and enacted in the last Parliament … he was therefore … deprived & dejected of all kyngly honor and regall sovereigntie” (fol. Clxxxv).

  18. The sermon on “Swearing and Perjury” cites this unadvised oath of Jephthah's. Clarence is concerned only with achieving his own ends.

Raymond V. Utterback (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “Public Men, Private Wills, and Kingship in Henry VI, Part III,” in Renaissance Papers, 1978, pp. 47-54.

[In the essay below, Utterback considers the topics of political instability and the legitimate inheritance of the English crown in Henry VI, Part 3.]

In the opening scene of Henry VI, Part III, Shakespeare faced a difficult expository problem. In solving it he devised a beginning powerful enough to epitomize the prior historical situation and to lead credibly to the play's subsequent involved actions. Further, and perhaps more important, he introduced the fundamental inconsistencies exhibited in the characters' motivations and actions throughout the play. These inconsistencies are displayed succinctly in the stances characters take toward the legal arguments over legitimate possession of the crown that the contrary factions put forward. As Robert Ornstein has observed, Shakespeare recognized that neither side in the Wars of the Roses had a consistent ideological position and that both shifted their positions “as circumstances required.”1 The way Shakespeare exploited his knowledge in shaping the themes of this drama of a disintegrating kingdom deserves careful consideration.

Numerous issues about kingship are raised in the play. Who is truly entitled to be King? What is required to be a good King? How shall the King order the realm? What is the worth of kingship to its possessor? The opening scene incorporates a debate over the first question in which each faction naturally supports the principles favorable to its leader. These arguments and principles are, by nature, claims upon public assent; around them the order of society is established and maintained. That the different principles issue in opposite conclusions as to who may properly wear the crown indicates the seriousness of the social crisis. Only one idea seems shared by all, the unstated assumption that there shall be one King over the realm. When self-contradictions in principles or their application appear, both Yorkists and Lancastrians act blind to them or simply refuse to be inhibited by them. The conflict of public principles is matched in the debate by equally significant conflicts between principles and private attitudes, and some characters, such as Clifford, exalt their private attitudes to the level of fundamental principles of state. The opening scene's interaction of characters, arguments, and positions thus produces complications, shifts, and alterations characteristic of the whole drama. In this society the public principles lack logical coherence, the factions cannot agree on what the principles of public order truly are, and the wilfulness of individuals abruptly overrules commitments to principles.

In molding the historical record into drama Shakespeare shaped the conflicts he wanted to develop, for he altered characterization, motivation, and causation, even as he oversimplified the Parliament of 1460, which Act I scene i represents. The Yorkists take over the stage at once, military victors literally securing the possession of Parliament, palace, and throne. Warwick enunciates York's position as “victorious Prince” (I.i.21)2 and his evidently superior hereditary claim to the throne. York's own directness contrasts with Warwick's civility, for he announces bluntly that they have “broken in by force” (l. 29). It is implicitly acknowledged that Parliament must ratify any attempt to alter the possession of the throne, but in the very act of mentioning Parliament Warwick contradicts any such Parliamentary principle with an appeal to force:

The bloody parliament shall this be call'd
Unless Plantagenet, Duke of York, be king,
And bashful Henry depos'd. …

(ll. 39-41)

Clearly the Yorkists have sufficient military power to enforce their will on any Parliament bold enough to be recalcitrant. Warwick supplies a new principle, however, in referring to “bashful Henry,” “whose cowardice / Hath made us by-words to our enemies” (41-42). The necessity of heroic virtù in kingship is indicated; this is the first of many references to Henry's lack of military disposition and to the loss of territory and prestige in France. Nearly everybody in the play agrees on at least one point, that York exhibits this form of kingly merit and King Henry does not. Applied to the Crown in general terms this becomes the principle that a King who fails to maintain the country's military success fails to maintain his right to the throne. While Warwick never presses this idea to its logical conclusion, he enlists it as a good supporting reason justifying what he says should be done about York's hereditary right. Shakespeare pursued the point about kingly virtù in King John and Richard II. The institution of kingship rests not merely on its divinely sanctioned dignity but also on its efficacy in society. As Ernest W. Talbert asserts about Richard II, “The sacred name of ‘king’ was not only inherited but also merited, and the problem of order became intense and perilous when those two attributes were not united in one person.”3

The Yorkists actually argue that Henry has neither an inherited nor a merited right; thus York declares his determination to take possession of his right. Interestingly, Warwick thereupon takes the credit for establishing York (ll. 45-49) in a personal vaunt, an indulgence of his power to gratify his private will. From this point of view, the King is hardly a public figure with publicly verifiable rights and duties. He is a figure Warwick creates by virtue of his armed might and the strength of his will. There is obviously no public principle in this; Warwick makes no claim to be the voice of the nation, the agent of a consensus among the noblemen, or the spokesman of any cause other than his own pleasure. He is simply doing what his power makes possible about the occupancy of the throne, a basis of action potentially threatening to any person placed on the throne.

When he enters, King Henry at once labels York a rebel, then reminds his retainers of their fathers' deaths at Yorkist hands and their vows of revenge. York had declared he would use words or blows as necessary against his enemies, but Henry limits himself to “frowns, words and threats” (l. 72). Henry thus initiates the contention in words that first approaches a Marlovian slanging match before it becomes rational argument. It does then, however, become a comprehensive debate. York introduces the principle of hereditary legitimacy; when Westmoreland offers to maintain Henry's title (presumably in chivalric combat), Warwick reminds him that the Yorkists have just defeated his party in battle (presumably a greater and thus more decisive chivalric combat). York asserts his title, though the audience is not given York's exposition of his ancestry—there had been enough of that, perhaps, in II Henry VI. Instead, King Henry, invoking the principle of hereditary legitimacy for himself, supplies a brief analysis covering three generations:

What title hast thou, traitor, to the crown?
Thy father was, as thou art, Duke of York;
Thy grandfather, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March:
I am the son of Henry the Fifth,
Who made the Dauphin and the French to stoop. …

(ll. 104-8)

The Yorkists, of course, pounce on this open opportunity to denounce Henry's own failure in France, and Henry, thus put on the defensive, moves back a generation to his grandfather's title: “Henry the Fourth by conquest got the crown” (l. 132). This also proves unfortunate, for the assumption that hereditary legitimacy may derive from Henry IV's action is exactly what York disputes. York avoids committing himself on what rights may derive from conquest—indeed it could well be to his advantage, having the upper hand militarily, to declare that right may accrue therefrom. What he does, however, is to deny that Henry IV's action is properly a conquest: “’Twas by rebellion against his king” (l. 133; italics added). The challenge defeats this line of defense for Henry's title, and Henry shifts ground to offer a new argument about the succession: “Tell me, may not a king adopt an heir?” (l. 135). York cautiously wants to know where this argument would lead, and Henry obligingly puts together all the deductive steps of his hypothetical syllogism:

An if he may, then am I lawful king;
For Richard, in the view of many lords,
Resign'd the crown to Henry the Fourth,
Whose heir my father was, and I am his.

(ll. 137-40)

But nothing is so simple to the Yorkists. The allegation of rebellion is repeated, and a new allegation is made that Richard II resigned under compulsion and thus did not freely adopt an heir. A third argument then appears, that even a voluntary renunciation of the crown could not prejudice the rights of the next heir. When Exeter admits the justice of York's argument, Henry fears mass defection. The other Lancastrian loyalists, however, refuse to settle for this, and shift the ground of argument from right back to power. Clifford simply declares his personal loyalty to King Henry and his absolute refusal to acknowledge York whatever the arguments:

King Henry, be thy title right or wrong,
Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defense. …

(ll. 159-69)

Clifford sanctifies this assertion of will by making it a vow, but his bald statement of personal commitment seems an anachronistic, Anglo-Saxon declaration of faithfulness to a war-lord. There is no public principle in it, for it means that personal will and force are the final arbiters of conflicting claims.

Warwick breaks the impasse by asserting York's right and summoning troops. In this crisis Henry suddenly sends the situation in a new direction with a new application of the adopted heir argument. He proposes to entail the crown to York on the conditions of remaining King for life and receiving York's loyalty. York accepts the arrangement with alacrity, but obviously he does not reflect on the positions implicitly admitted. If York can become Henry VI's heir by “adoptive” process (and with Henry under military duress), then Henry IV was Richard II's legal heir, and his descendant Henry VI has the superior right. Further, the mere acceptance of the position of heir presupposes the validity of Henry's title, since no man can bequeath to an heir what he does not possess. The abuse Henry instantly receives from the Lancastrian lords is ironic, for Henry's compromise is what keeps him King when their power to maintain him has become clearly deficient. The alternative to Henry's solution would seem to be assassination of the Lancastrian party. Yet the Lancastrians desert Henry with ill grace, the erstwhile arch-loyalist Clifford uttering these intriguing maledictions:

In dreadful war mayst thou be overcome,
Or live in peace abandon'd and despis'd!

(ll. 187-88)

Henceforth their official cause is with Queen Margaret, fighting for the principle of hereditary legitimacy in Henry's son's right to inherit the kingdom, though it seems an embarrassment that they must logically maintain Henry's legitimacy as well. Ironically, the Lancastrian Prince Edward shortly appears, declaring the previously Yorkist argument that the succession is inalienable and the immediate heir cannot be displaced (ll. 226-7; cf. ll. 143-6).

The historical situation differed considerably from Shakespeare's presentation. When York claimed the throne in October, 1460, Henry VI was his prisoner. “Public opinion was outraged by York's treatment of the gentle king, and the compromise was forced on him by the Lords,” Geoffrey Bullough summarizes.4 Edward Hall's account of the events even suggests a principle of kingship based on “received opinion,” Henry having reigned so long already:

After long argumentes made, & deliberate consultacion had emong the peeres, prelates, and commons of the realme: upon the vigile of all sainctes, it was condescended and agreed by the three estates, for so much as Kyng Henry had been taken as kyng by the space of xxxviii. yeres and more, that he should injoye the name and title of Kyng, and have possession of the realme, duryng his life naturall. … and that the duke [of York] from thensefurth, should be Protector and Regent of the lande.

… These articles with many other, were not onely written, sealed, and sworne by the twoo parties: but also wer enacted, in the high court of Parliament.5

Parliament's role in imposing the compromise is omitted by Shakespeare and it becomes instead a personal arrangement of the two contending leaders.

What is satisfactory to them, however, is not acceptable to their followers. In I.ii. Edward urges York simply to violate his oath, while Richard subtly argues the oath is invalid, not having been sworn before “a true and lawful magistrate” (I.ii.23). Again a public principle, the sacredness of an oath, is denied as the validity of York's oath is made dependent upon the validity of Henry's title. Such a sophisticated route to oath-breaking is followed later by sheer wilful refusals to be found by oath. Warwick angrily renounces his oath of allegiance to King Edward, Edward perjures himself in swearing he comes to York only to claim his dukedom, and Clarence violates an oath sworn on the sacrament, changing sides for the second time to support Edward at Tewkesbury. Even King Henry feels caught up in this oath-breaking when he sees York's impaled head and declares he has not knowingly infringed his vow (II.ii.6-8). In response Clifford lectures the King about such conscientiousness, appealing to self-defense and a father's obligation to his son (II.ii.19-25), treating such motives as justifying oath-breaking.

King Henry considers more deeply than Clifford the heritage he should leave:

                                        didst thou never hear
That things ill-got had ever bad success?
And happy always was it for that son
Whose father for his hoarding went to hell?
I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind;
And would my father had left me no more!
For all the rest is held at such a rate
As brings a thousand-fold more care to keep
Than in possession any jot of pleasure.

(II. ii. 45-53)

By introducing these reflections Shakespeare enhances the drier arguments over lawful inheritance. Another theme has begun to run across that of the King's official right—the King's personal feelings about his office—as one is reminded that the King is a private person as well as a public figure. To those who do not possess the crown, as Richard of Gloucester manifests, it seems a supremely desirable possession. But to King Henry it is a burden and a sorrow, the occasion for lament rather than celebration of power. The sense of the burden of kingship partly explains Henry's mild acceptance of both vicissitude and victory. The Yorkist King Edward, a younger and more vigorous man, also dislikes the responsibility of kingship. He seems to regard his public duties as a nuisance and even before his coronation virtually gives over the government to Warwick (II.vi.99-102). He sees kingship simply as the opportunity for unchecked self-indulgence, for he regards the King as the man whose will shall prevail and whose pleasure constitutes his policy. Thus the very man who lectured Henry about how unsuitable for the kingdom was his choice of Margaret as a bride (II.ii.144-62) ignores governmental and political considerations altogether in marrying Lady Grey. Neither the conscientious King Henry nor the irresponsible King Edward finds personal fulfillment in kingship itself or any satisfaction in the exercise of the King's public responsibilities.

The characters' lack of agreement on public principles, their wilful shifts of principle to indulge private feelings, loyalties, or advantages, and the personal attitudes which lead Henry VI and Edward IV to incapacity or neglect in asserting control of the kingdom and its government all demonstrate the impossibility of resolving the conflicts within a framework of public principles grounded in society's values, even those values not undermined or denied. There is no faithfulness to oath, title, right, or justice, but an aggressive assertion of private wills that accept no discipline from public principle or order. It is this England which the historian J. W. Allen succinctly described:

It is not true that [the Tudor monarchy] superseded an ancient and established constitution. What it superseded was anarchy. The constitution of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century had broken down long before [the battle of] Tewkesbury.6

It is also this England that Shakespeare saw in III Henry VI. The victories go first to one side, then the other, and no stability is achieved in the kingdom. The Yorkist victory at Tewkesbury at the end of the play is accompanied by wilful atrocities answering similar ones at the beginning, and Prince Edward is murdered not as a threat to the Yorkist dynasty nor even in revenge, but in a sudden angry expression of personal resentment and annoyance. In such a fashion Shakespeare dramatized a social world falling into a chaos where no public principle has any meaning.


  1. A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 53.

  2. Citations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, rev. ed., ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1974).

  3. The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), p. 199.

  4. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), III, 159.

  5. Union of the Two Noble Houses of Lancaster and York, as quoted in Bullough, III, 175-6.

  6. English Political Thought, 1603-1644 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books; first pub. 1938), p. 15.

Thomas Cartelli (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Jack Cade in the Garden: Class Consciousness and Class Conflict in 2 Henry VI,” in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, edited by Richard Burt and John Michael Archer, Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 48-67.

[In the essay below, Cartelli views Jack Cade as an embodiment of modern-style class distinctions and social transgression.]


In Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI the notorious career of Jack Cade concludes with the starving rebel's defeat at the hands of Alexander Iden, a self-styled “poor esquire of Kent” whom Cade formally terms “the lord of the soil” that provides the setting for their notably unequal combat. The end of Cade's career ironically becomes the occasion for a sudden turn in Iden's fortunes when Iden is “created knight for his good service,” given a reward of a thousand marks, and effectively transformed into a courtier.1 I say “ironically” because what may be termed the “garden scene” of 2 Henry VI is initially framed in the manner of a pastoral interlude as Iden enters and criticizes the lust for worldly advancement which has made Cade a desperate fugitive and encouraged many of Iden's social superiors to turn the “garden of England” into a site of fraternal bloodletting. The pastoral note is first sounded by Cade himself, whose representation of Iden's garden is, however, decidedly more utilitarian than conventional versions of pastoral:

Fie on ambitions! fie on myself, that have a sword, and yet am ready to famish! These five days have I hid me in these woods and durst not peep out, for all the country is laid for me; but now am I so hungry, that if I might have a lease of my life for a thousand years, I could stay no longer. Wherefore, on a brick wall have I clim'b into this garden, to see if I can eat grass, or pick a sallet another while, which is not amiss to cool a man's stomach in this hot weather.


Cade proceeds in a casually self-deprecating vein to play on the word “sallet” in a manner that suggests a crucial difference between his version of pastoral and Iden's. While he curses the ambitions that have brought him there, Iden's garden offers Cade merely the possibility of refreshment and a temporary respite from his flight from a “country” that is “laid for me,” not an Arden-like retreat from the stresses of life.

Iden's construction of his garden state is notably more idyllic and mines the same conventions as Thomas Wyatt's anticourt pastoral, “Mine Own Join Poins.”2 Like the disaffected speaker in Wyatt's poem, Iden is “in Kent and Christendom” where “in lusty leas at liberty” he may walk. Unlike Wyatt's speaker, Iden enjoys a liberty that is unenforced, apart, that is, from the constraint of “this small inheritance my father left me,” out of which Iden makes a virtue of necessity:

Lord! who would live turmoiled in the court,
And may enjoy such quiet walks as these?
This small inheritance my father left me
Contenteth me, and worth a monarchy.
I seek not to wax great by others' waning,
Or gather wealth I care not with what envy:
Sufficeth, that I have maintains my state,
And sends the poor well pleased from my gate.


As William Empson has taught us, pastoral effusions of this variety are seldom free of contextual qualification. In this instance we may observe that the self-congratulatory note Iden sounds harbors a discernible compensatory component, as if Iden were cheering himself up for his small inheritance by disparaging the profane pleasures the court offers those who can afford them and by overstating the worth of what the court would sneer at. Two additional qualifications are noteworthy. The first concerns Cade's altogether more material appraisal of Iden's “quiet walks” and “small inheritance.” To Cade, Iden is less a poor esquire grazing on the pastoral margins of political life than the walking embodiment of established authority. Whereas Iden conceives of his walk in the garden as one in a series of daily demonstrations of an unturmoiled life neatly balanced between private pleasure and social obligation, Cade believes that “the lord of the soil” has walked forth expressly “to seize me for a stray, for entering his fee-simple without leave” (4.10.24-25).

Cade's legalistic and oppositional estimate of his imminent encounter with Iden demonstrates both his incapacity to appreciate Iden's version of pastoral and his complete exclusion from the privileged position that enables it. Unlike the poor who are sent “well pleased” from Iden's gate, Cade appears to be a complete stranger to the custom of feudal hospitality, of the mutual obligations that obtain, or are supposed to obtain, between prosperous giver and impoverished receiver. As befits the leader of a popular rebellion, Cade approaches his encounter with Iden from a thoroughly class-conscious and class-stratified position. For Cade, all possible relations between himself and Iden are construed in terms of the normative positioning of “stray” and “lord,” hence in terms of mutual suspicion and hostility. From his perspective as a threatened stray, Iden's garden is “enclosed private property, not in any sense … a public or common domain.”3 And anyone in Cade's position would know that “a poacher could be … hanged for invading a park in search of what previously could be had for the taking in open countryside.”4 Cade's estimate of his position thus reveals the extent to which Iden's version of pastoral operates as a deeply privileged ideological construction.

Iden's effusion is further qualified by his own behavior during and after his encounter with Cade. Although Cade's aggressive challenge—“Ah, villain, thou wilt betray me, and get a thousand crowns of the King by carrying my head to him; but I'll make thee eat iron like an ostrich, and swallow my sword like a great pin, ere thou and I part” (4.10.26-29)—understandably discourages Iden from sending this particular poor man well pleased from his gate, the speed with which Iden confirms Cade's legalistic estimate of their relationship profoundly qualifies Iden's more placid conception of relations between rich and poor:

Why, rude companion, whatsoe'er thou be,
I know thee not; why then should I betray thee?
Is't not enough to break into my garden,
And like a thief to come to rob my grounds,
Climbing my walls in spite of me the owner,
But thou wilt brave me with these saucy terms?


Iden's initial effort to allay Cade's anxieties suggests that Iden may be a more complex figure than Cade imagines, as does his subsequent reluctance to engage “a poor famish'd man” in combat. But as the passage moves—without further provocation from Cade—into a more magisterial restatement of Cade's own estimate of his transgression, Cade is summarily cast in the unvarying likeness of a “thief” who has “come to rob my grounds.” Stephen Greenblatt notes, with respect to this encounter, that “status relations … are being transformed before our eyes into property relations, and the concern … for maintaining social and even cosmic boundaries is reconceived as a concern for maintaining freehold boundaries.”5 Although Greenblatt is certainly right to notice the crucial role that property plays in this transaction, Cade's braving of Iden with “saucy terms” seems to arouse Iden more than does his mere transgression of freehold boundaries. I would submit that it is primarily Cade's obstreperousness—his offensive refusal to maintain the habit of servility Iden expects both from “strays” who break into his fee-simple and from the poor who leave his gate well pleased—that motivates the violent turn in this encounter and consequently transforms Iden's pastoralized estimate of his garden state into a spirited defense of property rights.

Cade brings to Iden's garden a fully developed habit of resistance to even the most liberal ministrations of those who tower over him in the social order. His defiance rests partly on an overestimation of his notoriety, but largely on a conviction in his self-worth which has been fueled by his leadership of a rebellion that has already successfully leveled competing claims to distinction: “Brave thee! ay, by the best blood that ever was broach'd, and beard thee too. Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a door-nail, I pray God I may never eat grass more” (4.10.36-40). It is this that finally forces the issue between Cade and Iden, while Iden's response and the brief combat that follows ironically reveal the “true” nature of the relationship between social unequals:

Nay, it shall ne'er be said, while England stands,
That Alexander Iden, esquire of Kent,
Took odds to combat a poor famish'd man.
Oppose thy steadfast-gazing eyes to mine,
See if thou canst outface me with thy looks:
Set limb to limb, and thou art far the lesser;
Thy hand is but a finger to my fist;
Thy leg a stick compared with this truncheon;
My foot shall fight with all the strength thou hast;
And if mine arm be heaved in the air
Thy grave is digg'd already in the earth.
As for words, whose greatness answers words,
Let this my sword report what speech forbears.


Iden's speech fully appreciates and elaborates on the social disparity between the combatants by rendering it physical. Its comparative inventory of body parts casts Iden in the likeness of a giant and reduces Cade to the proportions of a dwarf. Although Iden's defeat of Cade may be accounted for—as Cade asserts—by the latter's current status as a starving fugitive, the text suggests that Cade is undone “naturally” in daring to contend with someone whose social superiority also makes him his superior in strength and skill. Iden's conscientiously degrading treatment of Cade's body—which Iden says he will drag “headlong by the heels / Unto a dunghill,” leaving Cade's “trunk for crows to feed upon” after cutting off his head (4.10.75-83)—offers a last ironic gloss on the futility of Cade's defiance and on the curse that Cade lays on Iden's garden: “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” (4.10.62-64).

This culminating act of enclosure also radically reorients Iden's attitude toward his own, previously celebrated, social position. Iden will “cut off [Cade's] most ungracious head” and “bear [it] in triumph to the King,” thereby exchanging his garden state as a “poor esquire of Kent” for the status of a knight, having clearly “waxed great” by another's “waning,” despite his earlier admonitory remarks. Cade's misadventure in Iden's garden thus becomes the medium through which Iden exercises his own desire for social advancement, one that may be said to be modeled on Cade's status as a very different kind of stray than Iden initially imagines. As Iden leaves his garden behind for what he has earlier appraised as the “turmoiled” life of a courtier, the notion of the garden itself as an unturmoiled place apart, untouched by the social strife that reigns elsewhere, also becomes radically qualified. In bringing to his encounter with Iden a deeply rooted, polarized, and polarizing consciousness of class, Cade elicits from Iden a response premised on the same which effectively demystifies Iden's conception of a private space where rich and poor can meet on common ground. Cade's violation of Iden's pastoral does not summarily transform Iden's garden into a site of social contestation; rather, it reveals the extent to which its unbreached walls had previously functioned as a facade of the imaginary, both for Iden himself and for the poor who came as supplicants to its gates. In contesting the ideological hold that the garden has heretofore maintained over all concerned parties, Cade effectively unlocks its actual status as a space intersected by mutually exclusive and competing class interests.


By assigning to a dramatic character a consciousness of something as problematic as our modern notion of class, I run the risk of being discredited on both interpretive and historical grounds. But I believe that a politically motivated class consciousness was capable of being both experienced and represented in early modern England, and that Jack Cade constitutes the most realized example in Shakespeare's work of a character who is able to transform his political subjection into something amounting to our modern sense of class-based resistance.6 The few historians daring or reckless enough to use the word class in their representations of the period are usually careful to distance themselves from the implication that its use indicates “either the existence of a class society in the period or of class conflict.”7 Most seem content to accept Peter Laslett's argument that in early modern England “there were a large number of status groups but only one body of persons capable of concerted action over the whole area of society, only one class in fact.”8 Where Laslett's argument falls flat is in its determination that a social class must possess power commensurate with that of a ruling party in society. Class conflict, for Laslett, requires the capacity or potential of an oppositional party to contest successfully the ruling party's privileges or prerogatives: a formulation that—given the alleged lack of a duly qualified opposition—appears always and ever to guarantee the presence and predominance of a single class. R. S. Neale, by contrast, subscribes to E. P. Thompson's view “that class struggle precedes class”; in Thompson's words, “Class defines itself as, in fact, it eventuates.”9 Neale concludes that “the absence of a contemporary language which would enable men to express such relationships [as class] should not prevent historians from categorizing the past in ways unknown or only vaguely understood by men in the past.”10

In her own recent essay on 2 Henry VI, Annabel Patterson demonstrates that “there was a cultural tradition of popular protest” in early modern England, “a tradition in the sense of something handed down from the past, cultural in the sense that what was transmitted were symbolic forms and signifying practices, a history from below encoded in names and occasions, a memorial vocabulary and even a formal rhetoric.”11 In so doing, Patterson incisively redresses the traditional neglect of the incipiently class-based ideologies of oppositional movements without, however, specifically nominating class as a discursive focus of her own.12 Nonetheless, 2 Henry VI is sufficiently abundant in examples of a contemporary language expressive of class relationships to satisfy the evidential demands of the majority of critics. Most of this language is spoken by or through Jack Cade and his confederates, who supply a variety of statements expressive of a deep and divisive consciousness of class. Although Shakespeare draws from these statements no explicitly class-interested conclusions of his own, his characters frequently do, as, for example, Jack Cade does in this exchange with Lord Say:

Cade. … Thou dost ride in a foot-cloth, dost thou not?
Say. What of that?
Cade. Marry, thou ought'st not to let thy horse wear a cloak, when honester men than thou go in their hose and doublets.


I choose this early moment in what soon becomes a notoriously violent encounter to demonstrate how commonplace signs of social distinction can be made to appear symptomatic of social inequity in 2 Henry VI. In this instance a seemingly negligible privilege enjoyed by a representative of the ruling class is subjected to the sharp-tongued scrutiny of a representative of the class that both suffers and provides for it. By being placed in direct relation to the impoverishment of workingmen, the previously freestanding and therefore “innocent” social distinction is transformed into a corrupt social practice.

Although it could be argued that Cade's subsequent execution of a character who pleads “so well for his life” retrospectively cancels any incursion Cade may make against the ruling order's mystification of social injustice, such an objection would be hard to sustain in the context of a play that is largely devoted to dramatizing the predatory behavior of England's ruling establishment.13 In 4.2., the first scene in which Cade's rebellion is represented, the ruling order is arraigned in a particularly resonant manner by two of Cade's confederates, one of whom proclaims, “Well, I say it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up” (4.2.7-9). The wording of this statement notably anticipates a presentment made several years after this play's initial production by a participant in the 1596 Oxfordshire rising. According to Buchanan Sharp, “The miller Richard Bradshawe was reported to have declared ‘that he hoped that before yt were long to see some of the ditches throwne downe, and that yt wold never be merye till some of the gentlemen were knocked downe,’” a sentiment, Sharp notes, “which recurred frequently in the examinations of the principal suspects.”14 Rather than claim that Bradshaw and his fellow suspects got their language from Shakespeare, one may more reliably assume that Shakespeare was appropriating an expression that would have been familiar to many well before the Oxfordshire rising and the initial performances of 2 Henry VI.

By having his character rehearse a rallying cry that may well have been a contemporary commonplace, Shakespeare was bringing the successive histories of past risings and rebellions (beginning with accounts of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, which he deploys throughout his dramatization of Jack Cade's rising) into direct contact with latterday representations of class conflict, thereby giving added currency to an apparently old complaint.15 As Sharp observes: “Popular feeling in the Tudor-Stuart period reserved its most intense outbursts for … ‘the rich.’ As expressed in anonymous libels, seditious utterances reported from alehouses, and the few surviving examinations of rioters and insurrectionaries, the opinions of common folk reveal a deep hatred of the people possessed of the power, social standing, and landed wealth denied to them.”16 Shakespeare, of course, balances his representation of the poor's complaints against the rich by emphasizing the rashness and brutality of the rebels in his play. But in also choosing to emphasize the derisive manner in which characters such as Suffolk speak of “the rascal people”—for example, he calls his pirate captors “paltry, servile, abject drudges” (4.1.104)—and the indifference with which they hear and address the common people's seemingly modest petitions (see, e.g., 1.3.), Shakespeare demonstrates that the hatred of poor for rich is but “the mirror image of the contempt and fear with which their superiors regarded the poor.”17

The predictability of the terms that rich and poor employ to speak of each other in 2 Henry VI has a contemporary Elizabethan analogue in the development of a “language of sorts,” which, according to Keith Wrightson, “appears to have been used primarily to express a dichotomous perception of society.” As Wrightson notes:

Such language clearly reveals a world of social meanings untapped by the formal social classifications of the period—and arguably it was so widely used because it was of greater practical significance. Its utility lay above all in the fact that it was a terminology of social simplification, sweeping aside the fine-grained (and highly contested) distinctions of the hierarchy of degrees and regrouping the English into two broad camps which were clearly held to reflect the fundamental realities of the social and economic structure and the basic alignments of social relations. … It was a language of radical differentiation, cleaving society into the haves and have nots, the respected and the contemned. It was a language pregnant with conflict, aligning the “richer” over against the “poorer,” the “better” over against the “meaner,” “vulgar,” “common,” “ruder” or “inferior” sorts. It was also a language of radical dissociation, usually found in the mouths of those who identified themselves with the “better” sort and stigmatised those whom they excluded from that company with a barrage of pejorative adjectives.18

In 2 Henry VI the “better sort” variously refer to the commons as “the abject people” (Duke Humphrey, 2.4.11); “an angry hive of bees / That want their leader, [who] scatter up and down, / And care not who they sting” (Warwick, 3.2.124-26); and as “rude unpolish'd hinds” (Suffolk, 3.2.270). But what is perhaps more notable is the extent to which the rising commons themselves appropriate the stigmatizing function of the language of sorts to “align” themselves in prosecuting their rebellion.

Their initial, generalized animus against gentlemen is, for example, soon extended to include “all scholars, lawyers, [and] courtiers,” other “false caterpillars” such as magistrates, those who “can write and read and / cast accompt” (4.2.81-82), and anyone who speaks Latin (4.7.55). Reacting against the “scorn” the nobility reserve for those who “go in leather aprons” and the lack of regard shown to “virtue in handicraftsmen,” the rebels invert the criteria by which honor is measured by contending that “there's no better sign of a brave / mind than a hard hand (4.2.10-20). For his part, Jack Cade brings this tendency to its logical conclusion when he calls the Staffords “silken-coated slaves” (4.2.122), traces his artisanal nobility back to Adam, who “was a gardener” (4.2.128), and identifies “such as go in clouted shoon” as “thrifty honest men”:

And you that love the commons, follow me.
Now show yourselves men; ’tis for liberty.
We will not leave one lord, one gentleman:
Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon,
For they are thrifty honest men, and such
As would, but that they dare not, take our parts.


What is especially revealing about Cade's call to arms is that its direct challenge to the very people Cade presumes to represent—namely, “the commons”—expresses a tolerance for (and expectation of) their failure to respond to it. Cade attempts to claim here a representative political character for his rebellion by presuming to speak on behalf of those who “dare not” join in it but are joined to it both by their status as workers and by their unvoiced allegiance to its aims. Although Cade's confident assumption that he speaks on behalf of those who dare not speak for themselves may well be mistaken, it bespeaks a consciousness of collective interests and shared goals that is, for all rights and purposes, a consciousness of class. And it also demarcates that pivotal moment when “a class ‘in itself’ become[s] a class for ‘itself.’”19

It is, of course, commonly held that Cade is represented as “a cruel, barbaric lout, whose slogan is ‘kill and knock down,’ and whose story as ‘the archetype of disorder’ is one long orgy of clownish arson and homicide fuelled by an infantile hatred of literacy and law.” Shakespeare's decision to degrade the figure “whom [even the historian Edward] Hall respects as ‘a youngman of godely stature and pregnaunt wit’ … whose advisers were ‘scholemasters’ and ‘teachers’” may well reflect his own negative appraisal of Cade.20 But it does nothing to diminish the delegation to his character of an acute consciousness of class. Indeed, by separating his radically disorderly Cade from Hall's more respectable figure, Shakespeare may be said to have foregrounded class distinctions which a more accurate (or less prejudicial) estimate of the historical Cade would have occluded.21

The class distinctions Shakespeare foregrounds are almost exclusively those that distinguish the “better sort” from the “meaner sort,” those who are socially and culturally privileged from those who privilege their own social and cultural dispossession. The “middling sort” play a much more negligible role in the physical conflict represented onstage, as the following example suggests. After announcing that “Jack Cade hath almost gotten London Bridge,” a messenger to the king reports that “the citizens fly and forsake their houses,” while “the rascal people, thirsting after prey, / Join with the traitor; and … jointly swear / To spoil the city and your royal court” (4.4.48-52). In addition to distinguishing the (victimized) citizens of London from the (victimizing) people, this passage implicitly draws a connection between the interests of “the city” and those of the “royal court.” This connection is elaborated in the brief scene (4.5.) that ensues, in which a textually identified “citizen” (apparently speaking at the behest of the Lord Mayor) exchanges information with Lord Scales, who urges the Londoners to “fight for your king, your country, and your lives” (4.5.11). This they apparently do under the leadership of Matthew Goffe. But apart from the evidence provided by a stage direction that reads “Alarums. Matthew Goffe is slain, and all the rest” (4.7.), Shakespeare appears to have chosen not to stage at any length the bloody battle between citizens and rebels for London Bridge which Hall represents in graphically lurid detail:

The multitude of the rebelles drave the citezens from the stoulpes at the bridge foote, to the drawe bridge, and began to set fyre in divers houses. Alas what sorow it was to beholde that miserable chaunce: for some desyrynge to eschew the fyre, lept on his enemies weapon, and so died: fearfull women with chyldren in their armes, amased and appalled, lept into the river: other doubtinge how to save them self betwene fyre, water, and swourd, were in their houses suffocat and smoldered.22

Shakespeare not only fails to include a single dramatic reference to Hall's account in the text of 2 Henry VI; he also fails to provide the kind of detailed commentary on undramatized action that would have lent a great deal more judgmental fervor to his representation of the episode in question. Conjoined with Cade's subsequent (and wildly anachronistic) order for “some” to go “and pull down the Savoy” (4.7.1) and “others” to do likewise to the Inns of Court—both references to actions undertaken during the rising of 1381—Shakespeare's deviations from Hall appear to repress the role played by citizens of “the middling sort” as opponents and victims of Jack Cade and as allies of the royal party. Rather than emerging as an “enemy of the people,” whose conception of class warfare pits the commons against the citizens of London, Cade is consequently represented in a manner that more closely approximates his own self-estimate as protector or defender of “the people” against the depredations of the high and mighty.

The negligible role played by the citizen class or “middling sort” in Shakespeare's dramatization of Cade's rebellion does not, however, entirely mystify the position Shakespeare adopted in staging a conflict that primarily pits rich against poor. In largely choosing to remove citizens from the scene of Cade's rebellion and, for that matter, from the far more numerous scenes that portray the struggles between royalty and aristocracy which eventuate in civil war, Shakespeare may well be representing, as well as promoting, the point of view of the one component of English society that presumably remained both stable and reliable in the face of wholesale social disorder: namely, the literate, industrious, law-abiding citizen class. In identifying the point of view of 2 Henry VI with the interests of what we today would term the “middle class,” I am attempting to give some ideological basis to this play's author function while at the same time avoiding the facile equation of biography and ideology which makes Shakespeare a reactionary mouthpiece for the historically inevitable triumph of what Richard Wilson calls “the literate bourgeois.”23 Wilson detects nothing but “animus” in those episodes of the play that record “the people's garbled testimony or laboured puns” and that dramatize their “long orgy of clownish arson and homicide fuelled by an infantile hatred of literacy and law.”24 I detect, on the contrary, a politically astute reckoning with a long list of social grievances whose inarticulate and violent expression does not invalidate their demand for resolution. And I attribute the astuteness of that reckoning to a playwright whose manifest literacy and identification with citizen values may actually have made possible his sympathetic appraisal of the people's claims.

Garbled though they may be, the people's grievances are not, in any event, first expressed in the context of Cade's rebellion. They are, in fact, repeatedly addressed in the long series of events that lead up to it in the life of this particular play, beginning with the abortive presentation of the petition against the enclosure of Long Melford (1.3.) and with Simpcox's wife's testimony that she and her husband pursued their fraud “for pure need” (2.1.250). Even within the context of Cade's rebellion, powerful appraisals of social injustice are attached to ostensibly more intemperate diatribes against schooling and literacy, as is the case, for example, in Cade's rambling indictment of Lord Say:

It will be prov'd to thy face that 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. 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; when, indeed, only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.


Whereas Wilson employs such examples to demonstrate Shakespeare's revulsion toward those members of his audience and his society who, like his own father, lacked the capacity to write, we would do better to view such passages as symptomatic of Shakespeare's representation of literacy as a crucial bridge between powerlessness and empowerment. Cade and his cohorts repeatedly revile the practices of reading, writing, and printing, and the collateral institution of grammar schools and printing mills, less out of ignorance than out of an assured belief in the role they play in dividing society into haves and have-nots. They read into such practices and institutions their own marginal status as dispossessed subjects (“because they could not read”) of all-possessing masters (“thou hast hang'd them”).

Illiteracy was surely not a capital offense in Shakespeare's England, but it would be disingenuous to contend that Cade radically misrepresents the legal implications of a social structure in which illiteracy could, indeed, have mortal consequences. As late as 1663 George Swinnock noted that “some for want of reading their neck-verse have lost their lives.”25 And as David Cressy notes with respect to more fortunate participants in the customary reading of the neck-verse, “the opportunity remained in Tudor and Stuart England for the literate felon to claim ‘benefit of clergy’ and escape the full severity of the law.”26 Cressy also reminds us of the social consequences of membership in that class of subjects Jack Cade claims to represent—a grouping that closely resembles what Thomas Smith identified as that “fourth sort or class” that had “no voice nor authoritie in our common wealth,” which comprised “day labourers, poore husbandmen, yea, marchantes or retailers which have no free land, copiholders, and all artificers, as Taylers, Shoomakers, Carpenters, Brickemakers, Bricklayers, Masons, & c.”27 The evidence assembled by Cressy suggests a close correlation between illiteracy and the lack of “voice or authoritie” of the majority of subjects in this class. In a ranking of trades by illiteracy, Cressy's samples indicate that approximately half the tailors, blacksmiths, joiners, wrights, and butchers in rural England in the period 1580-1700 were functionally illiterate. Between 60 and 75 percent of the carpenters, glovers, shoemakers, masons, and bricklayers fall into this category as well (pp. 132-33). In virtually all the samples assembled “labourers” and “husbandmen” vie with women of every class for the claim to complete illiteracy.

Cressy also supplies evidence that helps explain the connection between Jack Cade's animosity toward literacy and its enabling institutions and his specific singling out of “all scholars, lawyers, courtiers, [and] gentlemen” as enemies of the people. A division of early modern English society into discrete classes on the basis of literacy would, for example, directly link members of the clergy, the professions, and the gentry in ways that other measurements—say, on the basis of property, wealth, or political power—would not (pp. 119-21). According to Cressy: “The gentry, clergy and members of the professions were so similar in their literacy that they can be regarded as inhabiting a single cluster at the accomplished end of the literacy scale. Thirty percentage points or more usually separated them from the next most literate cluster, the yeoman and tradesman” (p. 124). Cressy's findings offer a possible rationale for what is often construed to be Jack Cade's irrational and indiscriminate attack on citizens who would initially appear to operate at some remove from the most obvious structures of power. If, as Cressy's evidence suggests, Cade and his followers are correct in perceiving a connection between those who appear to be only culturally privileged and those who are socially and economically privileged as well, then conventional estimates of Cade's demagoguery and his followers' barbarity may themselves be in need of correction. Indeed, Shakespeare may be attributing to Cade and his rebels what is at once a critically acute and an ideologically predictable piece of social analysis, grounded in a consciousness of class differences and opposing class interests similar to that which appears to have characterized the attitude of the Elizabethan poor toward the rich.

In commenting on the nature of the connections between the educationally and socially privileged, Cressy would appear to confirm this possibility: “The social standing of priests and professionals depended on their training and function as well as on their connections and wealth. They were essentially skilled literate specialists, agents and associates of the ruling class. By virtue of their profession alone they were accorded a kind of honorary gentle status and were grouped with the gentry in most contemporary social classifications” (p. 122). Instead of engaging in a complicated bout of self-hatred in representing Cade's attack on literacy and the literate, Shakespeare instead provides Cade with an argument consistent with convictions that not only may have been shared by contemporary working men, but continue to characterize the struggle for control of the “means of communication” in societies similarly divided between literate haves and illiterate have-nots.28 In its effort to root out such “false caterpillars” as “scholars and lawyers,” Cade's “ragged multitude” of illiterate “hinds and peasants” effectively identifies these “skilled literate specialists” as “agents and associates of the ruling class.” Although the attendant scorn directed at literacy itself may constitute a displaced (and arguably self-defeating) symptom of political dispossession, the indictment of its beneficiaries could not be more apt.

Like other positions taken by Cade and his followers, the animus toward literacy is rooted in a collective valorization of prevailing differences, a nostalgia for a simpler time of undistinction, and a correspondingly defensive anxiety regarding change which has at least some basis in contemporary events. At the beginning of his encounter with Lord Say, for example, Cade identifies Say's educational philanthropy as one of the chief sins he has committed against the commonwealth: “Thou hast most traitourously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar-school; and whereas, before our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caus'd printing to be us'd” (4.7.30-34).

The terms of Cade's indictment initially seem to subordinate willful ignorance to a conscious cultivation of comic effect, as Cade appears to relish his exaggeration of the threat posed to civil society by Say. But if we choose to take Cade at his word, his indictment may instead express the same nostalgia for a “bookless” existence presided over by satisfied forefathers, which Nicholas Breton describes in his representation of the semiliterate countryman's pastimes: “We can learne to plough and harrow, sow and reape, plant and prune, thrash and fanne, winnow and grinde, brue and bake, and all without booke. These are our chiefe businesse in the Country, except we be Jury-men to hang a theefe, or speake truth in a mans right, which conscience and experience wil teach us with a little learning.”29 Cade's claim that the heritage of this simpler state of affairs is jeopardized by the unsettling changes wrought by grammar schools may also be more broadly placed in the context of the “educational revolution” that took place in the first half of the Elizabethan period and that reached its peak in 1580. According to Cressy, “The reign of Elizabeth saw a solid improvement in literacy among tradesmen and craftsmen in all parts of England,” with tailors and weavers in particular making considerable gains (p. 153). This “revolution” witnessed the dissemination of schoolmasters throughout the countryside and may have been directly responsible for making Shakespeare's own generation more literate than that of either his ancestors or his descendants. Of course, such a revolution may also have worked to create divisions between generations, to arouse anxiety among those incapable of benefiting from it, or to exacerbate already prevailing tensions and differences between the latter and those who could employ their newly acquired literacy in the interests of social mobility.

Rather than speculate further in this vein, I would prefer to explore the connection between Cade’s scorn for literacy and valorization of illiteracy with the positions he and his followers take toward property, power, and status relations. In the course of the play we get from them an inventory of claims, principles, and resolves that identifies the “fall” of the “merry world” that was England with the institution of a system of distinctions whose beneficiaries are gentlemen, magistrates, lawyers, and scholars, among others. England’s redemption is premised on a series of utopian proposals that variously call for the termination of distinction (“All the realm shall be in common” [4.2.65]); the extermination of those privileged by distinction (“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” [4.2.65]); and the absorption of those privileged by distinction into the great mass of the undistinguished (“Let the magistrates be laboring men” [4.2.16-17]. Having leveled distinction, Cade would apparel all “in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord” (4.2.70-72). Cade’s determination to reserve this pivotal distinction for himself is expressed with a good deal more consistency than are his other positions. Calling for the burning of “all the records of the realm,” Cade claims that “my mouth shall be the parliament of England” (4.7.12-14). And in the same scene he asserts, “The proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute” (4.7.114-15).

It is commonplace for commentators on the play to emphasize the many contradictions in Cade’s positions, the most notable one involving Cade’s demagogic claim to absolute power in a society in which all things are to be held “in common.” But it is Cade’s impulse to change radically the system by which goods and offices are distributed that might better occupy our attention. We learn from the examples the play gives us that what motivates Cade and his confederates most insistently is the wholesale destruction of a system of privileges which renders them visibly and permanently powerless. Gentlemen, magistrates, lawyers, and scholars are portrayed as accomplices in a ruling class conspiracy to cheat working men out of their “ancient rights.” This conspiracy has been institutionalized in a rule of law, permanently housed in “the records of the realm,” and handed down in incomprehensible Latin tags by magistrates who will excuse only those who are as literate as they are. Enclosures, price-fixing, coining, and the control of surpluses, and the delegation of easily distinguished vocational liveries, are all represented as activities that advance the interests of the ruling order at the expense of those who suffer them. Cade’s communistic alternative is an oppositional dream of simplification and uniformity—of undistinction—of an equity born out of an intolerance with inequity, though, given its genocidal and demagogic components, hardly identifiable with what we today would call social justice. The root of the dream, in an apparent but fully explicable reversion to mystification, is Adam in the Garden, the common father of common men, who, as in the passage from Breton, can do “all without book.”


As others have noted, one may trace the communistic dream in 2 Henry VI to a common ideological source which helped define a succession of other popular uprisings and rebellions, succinctly summarized in John Ball’s catchphrase, “When Adam delv’d and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?”30 Shakespeare’s familiarity with Grafton’s and Holinshed’s representations of John Ball and the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 has long been recognized and acknowledged. It is especially obvious in his anachronistic decision to have Cade and his followers destroy the Savoy and attack the Inns of Court, and in Cade’s response to Stafford’s attempt to belittle him:

Staf. Villian! thy father was a plasterer;
And thou thyself a shearman, art thou not?
Cade. And Adam was a gardener.
Bro.                               What of that?


But the question asked by Stafford’s brother, to which Cade gives a characteristically arch and contradictory reply, is one that John Ball answered more incisively in the sermons reproduced by Grafton and Holinshed.

Richard Grafton offers a reconstruction of the commonplace address Ball would give his parishioners after Sunday services:

Ah good people, matters go not wel to passe in England in these days, nor shall not do untill every thing be common, and that there be no Villeynes for gentlemen but that we be all as one, and that the Lordes be no greater than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be thus kept in servitude and bondage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve. Wherefore can they saye or shewe that they are greater Lordes then we be? savying in that which we get and labour for, that doe they spend.31

Tracing the human family back to its presumptive source in Adam and Eve, Ball effectively declares that the oppressive divisions of the contemporary social order constitute an unauthorized deviation from a divinely ordained equality. He further identifies the distinctions that currently obtain between lords and commons in terms that would be familiar to any latter-day cultural materialist. According to Ball, social dominance is now delegated to those who consume but do not produce, while those who produce but do not consume are “kept in servitude and bondage.” Given this state of affairs, the return he envisions to an originary condition in which “there be no Villeynes nor gentlemen but that we be all as one” would appear to require either the dissolution of differences among men or the elimination of one of the contending social classes.

In his famous speech to the rebels at Blackheath, Ball offered his auditors a solution to this dilemma based, like Cade's, on an inverted valorization of workers. Ball addressed his audience as “good husbands” who must set about to transform the decaying garden of England in a thoroughly class-conscious manner, and not merely restore it to an Edenic state that has its human counterpart in an all-inclusive equality. According to Holinshed:

He counselled them … that after the manner of a good husband that tilleth his ground, and riddeth out thereof such evill weeds as choke and destroie the good corne, they might destroie first the great lords of the realme, and after the judges and lawiers, questmoongers, and all other whom they undertooke to be against the commons, for so might they produce peace and suertie to themselves in time to come, if dispatching out of the waie the great men, there should be an equalitie in libertie, no difference in degrees of nobilitie, but a like dignitie and equall authoritie in all things brought in among them.32

Ball's emphasis on the destruction of judges and lawyers provides another basis for understanding Shakespeare's delegation to Cade of an emphasis on the same and on the destruction of the “records of the realm.” It may be traced to the same rationale that motivated “the common uplandish people” during the Peasants' Revolt “to burne and destroie all records, evidences, court-rolles, and other minuments,” the rationale being “that the remembrance of ancient matters being remooved out of mind, their landlords might not have whereby to chalenge anie right at their hands.”33 What Ball, Cade, and the “uplandish people” want, in the end, is less the return to a garden state that antedates the history of their disenfranchisement than the recovery of an “ancient freedom” that will supersede the memory of their servitude and dispossession. That Cade ultimately meets his end at the hands of a powerfully endowed “lord of the soil” while hunting up a salad in that man's garden graphically demonstrates the nostalgic basis of this shared dream of undistinction at the same time as it validates its construction of prevailing class differences.


  1. 2 Henry VI 5.1.64-82. All quotations from 2 Henry VI are from the Arden edition, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross (London: Methuen, 1969); subsequent citations appear in the text.

  2. In his own commentary on this scene, William Carroll calls Iden “an Horatian figure” and offers an illuminating comparison of the language delegated to him in the Folio version—from which my quotations are drawn—and in The First Part of the Contention. Although I agree with Carroll that the evidence for viewing the Contention's Iden as “a potential encloser” becomes flimsier in the Folio, I find other reasons to question his alleged standing as “an emblematic version of the happy rural man,” as I suggest later in this chapter.

  3. Stephen Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” Representations 1 (1983), 24.

  4. Simon Pugh, Garden—Nature—Language (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), p. 11.

  5. Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants,” p. 25.

  6. As Michael Hattaway writes in “Rebellion, Class Consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI,Cahiers Elisabethans 33 (1988), 13-22: “What Cade proclaims constitutes a cause, … a cause that emerges from class oppression” (p. 13). Hattaway also claims that the nobility in the Henry VI plays “constitute a class—or if we prefer, an elite—defined by the conflict between individual aspirations of its members and everything that constitutes the culture or cultures of the plebeians” (p. 16).

  7. Susan Amussen, “Gender, Family, and the Social Order, 1560-1725,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 206, n. 33. Michael Hattaway offers this commentary on the similar conclusion reached by the editors of the volume in which Amussen's essay appears: “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’ [ibid., p. 4]. 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” (“Rebellion, Class Consciousness,” p. 16). On this subject, see note 12.

  8. Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost (New York: Scribner's, 1965), p. 23. A possible exception is David Underdown, who notes that “a heightened polarization of society … makes this period [1540-1640] an important stage in the long process of class formation. England was still very far from being a class society, but the lines were beginning to sharpen, the horizontal ties linking the ‘respectable’ and dividing them from the poor to cut across the vertical ones of local identity.” David Underdown, Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 20.

  9. R. S. Neale, Class in English History: 1680-1850 (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1981), pp. 97-98.

  10. Ibid., p. 99.

  11. Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 38.

  12. In her editor's note to Shakespeare Quarterly 42, 2 (1991), Gail Kern Paster calls attention to the lack of reciprocity of social historians to the work of literary scholars, who have been greatly influenced by their findings and methodologies. Paster notes that not even avowedly revisionist historians “seem as prepared as most literary practitioners to investigate the ideological or material consequences of dramatic representation, either on lived practices or on the social formation of consciousness” (p. vi). Although I do not claim that “literary evidence, the evidence of imaginative texts,” should “be allowed a referential function, a power to give material and concrete evidence about the past” (p.iii)—a possibility that Paster poses without actually endorsing—I do think historians should attend more closely to the representational claims of what is imagined in such eminently social texts as 2 Henry VI.

  13. As Michael Hattaway writes, “The Henry VI plays offer a searing indictment of aristocratic factionalism and the haughtiness of prelates” (“Rebellion, Class Consciousness,” p. 16).

  14. Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1640 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 38-39. See also Keith Wrightson, English Society: 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1982), p. 150.

  15. In Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, Annabel Patterson notes that in appropriating “the chronicle accounts of the Peasants' Revolt to thicken his description of Jack Cade's rebellion,” Shakespeare “was clearly participating in an Elizabethan cultural practice, that of collating the popular protests of the past, both with each other and with the issues of the day” (pp. 38-39).

  16. Sharp, In Contempt, p. 36.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Keith Wrightson, “Estates, Degrees & Sorts in Tudor and Stuart England,” History Today 37 (1987), 21.

  19. Anthony Giddens, The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1973), p. 30.

  20. Richard Wilson, “‘A Mingled Yarn’: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers,” Literature & History 12, 2 (1986), 167.

  21. In her discussion of Kett's rebellion, Annabel Patterson remarks the “self-conscious acceptance, by the rebels themselves, of a ‘peasant’ ideology of the primitive,” and concludes that “it is no accident that Shakespeare's Cade makes [the ‘clouted shoon’] his distinguishing mark of class” (Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, p. 40).

  22. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (London, 1548), f. 160v.

  23. Wilson, “A Mingled Yarn,” p. 168. As Wilson writes: “Son of a provincial glover whose only testimony is the mark he left beside his name in borough records, Shakespeare used his professional debut to signal scorn of popular culture and identification with an establishment in whose eyes authority would henceforth belong exclusively to writers” (ibid., p. 169).

  24. Ibid., pp. 168, 167-68.

  25. George Swinnock, The Christian mans calling … the second part (London, 1663), pp. 22-23. Quoted in David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 3. According to Cressy, “In medieval England, when literacy was virtually a clerical monopoly and criminous clerks were judged more leniently than lay felons, the ability to read a set text of the Bible was regarded as a competent proof of clerkship. The criminal had only to ask for the book and read the standard verse, the ‘neck-verse,’ to escape the gallows” (p. 16).

  26. Cressy, Literacy, pp. 16-17; subsequent citations appear in the text.

  27. Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorum (London, 1583; rpt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1906), p. 46.

  28. See Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 78-85.

  29. Nicholas Breton, The Court and Country (1618), rpt. in The Works of Nicholas Breton, ed. Ursula Kentish-Wright (London: Cressett Press, 1929), 1:203.

  30. See, e.g., Hattaway, “Rebellion, Class Consciousness, pp. 18-20, and Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, pp. 38-40.

  31. Richard Grafton, A Chronicle at Large and meere History of the affayres of Englande and Kings of the same (London, 1569), p. 330.

  32. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles (London, 1589, rpt. 1807), 2:749.

  33. Ibid., p. 737. See also Hattaway's treatment of the same passage in “Rebellion, Class Consciousness,” pp. 19-20.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “Unnaturalness in Shakespeare's 3 Henry VI,” in English Studies, Vol. 80, No. 2, April, 1999, pp. 146-67.

[In the essay below, Hunt locates in Henry VI, Part 3 a unity of design based upon the motif of unnaturalness, particularly in the unnatural disinheritance of Henry's son, which becomes a driving force in subsequent incidents in the drama.]

While popular during Shakespeare's lifetime, 3 Henry VI became relatively unpopular with audiences and readers alike in later centuries, partly because this chronicle history play has appeared loosely episodic rather than unified and rendered coherent by a principle informing history.1 That is not to say that claims have not been made for its structural integrity. A. L. French, following the suggestion of R. G. Moulton, has argued that ‘it is perfectly possible to read Henry VI and Richard III as being organized on the principle of Crime and Punishment or Hubris and Nemesis: the relevant sins being, not ones committed before the plays begin, but ones committed after they start. Men (it may be argued) sin grievously within the plays, and they are punished for their misdeeds, if not swiftly, at least surely.’2 Having made this claim, French nevertheless proceeds to demonstrate that many deaths in the Henry VI plays are the result of often fortuitous events unconnected with a pattern such as Hubris and Nemesis.3 Generally, when drama critics write of structure with regard to 3 Henry VI (or for that matter either of the other two Henry VI plays), they concentrate upon schematic relationships between the plays of the First Tetralogy (or between them and the plays of the Second Tetralogy).4 Rarely does one come across an analysis of a potential design internal within 3 Henry VI.5

Commentators' difficulty in defining a complex dramatic structure in this pronouncedly episodic chronicle play has perhaps resulted in the large number of articles that argue that the design of 3 Henry VI consists either of character revolutions on Fortune's Wheel or of simple repeated oppositions. M. M. Reese has remained the principal advocate for the Fortune's-Wheel schematic in 3 Henry VI.6 After remarking the play's especially episodic nature, Wayne L. Billings finds a pattern of oppositions in a series of contentions between changing antagonists, a strategy derived from the schemes of narrative chronicles. This organizational principle supposedly created a new dramatic subgenre: the contention play.7 On the other hand, Faye L. Kelly locates the oppositional pattern in a sequence of oaths made and then broken, while Carol McGinnis Kay and Joseph Candido find it in the relationships of trapper and entrapped and of symbolic tempestuous winds and floods.8 Despite these often useful and illuminating analyses, many of the play's episodes remain outside the pale of each critic's construction of dramatic design. My contribution to the critical debate surrounding 3 Henry VI consists of the claim that the motif of unnaturalness unifies 3 Henry VI to a degree greater than any scheme previously proposed for the play. A radical unnatural act by Henry VI—his disinheritance (and essential divorce) of his son Prince Edward—provides the dramatic rationale for consequent successive unnatural behavior between fathers and sons and among the members of English society of the Wars of the Roses. In fact, Shakespeare stresses that spreading unnaturalness, especially within families such as that of the Duke of York, both intensifies and prolongs this notorious fifteenth-century series of armed conflicts. Sackville and Norton in their influential historic tragedy Gorboduc (c. 1562, publ. 1565) set the English precedent for this dramaturgy, a fact that makes this mid-Tudor play more relevant for understanding 3 Henry VI than critics have suggested.9 The dramaturgy of unnaturalness in 3 Henry VI resembles not only that of Gorboduc but also that of the later King Lear. Placing 3 Henry VI in relation to two of the most important plays of early modern English drama helps us grasp at least one reason for this chronicle history's sixteenth- and seventeenth-century popularity.

Confronting a hostile Duke of York demanding the throne for himself, threatened by Warwick's armed soldiers, timid, pious King Henry VI at the beginning of the last play in the dramatic trilogy bearing his name strikes a deal with York that sets a fatally unnatural precedent for fifteenth-century English history. He agrees to give the crown to York and his heirs if they will let him reign quietly during his life-time (I.i.170-75).10 He thus unnaturally denies the pull of a basic law—a father's love and care for his son. By his rash decision,11 Henry VI essentially divorces his son Prince Edward, depriving him of legal rights and making him mortally vulnerable for the remainder of the boy's (short) life. Bystanders onstage immediately recognize the dreadful consequences of Henry's act. ‘What wrong is this unto the Prince your son!’ (I.i.176), Clifford exclaims. Henry's allies, disgusted by his ‘unmanly deed’ (I.i.186), straightaway abandon him for his wife Queen Margaret, who promises to fight for the Lancastrian right to rule. Surprisingly, King Henry realizes that his dispossession of his son Edward is unnatural: when Warwick asks him why he sighs, Henry replies,

Not for myself, Lord Warwick, but my son,
Whom I unnaturally shall disinherit.
But be it as it may.


With this knowledge, Henry nevertheless proceeds by oath to relinquish the throne to York upon his own death. Angry Queen Margaret's first concern when she enters to berate her husband is not the entailed loss of Lancastrian rule but Henry's unnatural divorce of his child. ‘Would I had died a maid / And never seen thee’, she tells the startled monarch,

                                        never borne thee son,
Seeing thou hast proved so unnatural a father!
Hath he deserved to lose his birthright thus?
Hadst thou but loved him half so well as I,
Or felt that pain which I did for him once,
Or nourished him as I did with my blood,
Thou wouldst have left thy dearest heart-blood there,
Rather than have made that savage duke thine heir
And disinherited thine only son.


Through Margaret's speech, Shakespeare focuses Henry's unnaturalness as a failure to feel a blood bond with kin forged by pain endured for that kin. Basically she tells him that he does not understand how or why he and Edward are one flesh, sharing the same blood.12

The preferential argument of maternal love echoes later in 3 Henry VI, serving in retrospect to underscore the unnaturalness of the king's deed.13 In act IV, newly crowned Queen Elizabeth implicitly amplifies Queen Margaret's earlier sentiments. Threatened with the defeat of the York cause, the pregnant queen resolves to behave so as to protect the child in her womb. ‘And I the rather wean me from despair,’ she announces,

For love of Edward's offspring in my womb.
This is it that makes me bridle passion
And bear with mildness my misfortune's cross.
Ay, ay, for this I draw in many a tear
And stop the rising of bloodsucking sighs,
Lest with my sighs or tears I blast or drown
King Edward's fruit, true heir to th' English crown.


Thus she determines to proceed ‘hence forthwith unto the sanctuary, / To save at least the heir of Edward's right’ (IV.iv.31-32). One might object that, because Henry is not a mother, he could be excused for not feeling a natural bond experienced most intensely in the play by women. But it was a man, Warwick, who first told Henry that he wronged his son, and Henry himself called his deed unnatural. Furthermore, the intensity and poignant depth of a father's expression of grief over having unknowingly killed his own son during the Battle of Towton (II.v.82-93, 105-6, 110, 114-22) confirm in the play's world the assumption that men feel a natural bond for their child as strongly as women like Margaret and Elizabeth do. This father's heartrending plaint indirectly operates to, once again, make auditors upon reflection question Henry's disorder-causing disinheritance.

Henry's deed begins a cataclysmic chain-reaction of similarly unnatural acts in 3 Henry VI. Enraged, Queen Margaret divorces herself from Henry's table and bed ‘until that act of Parliament be repealed / Whereby [her] son is disinherited’ (I.i.249-50).14 This action, while perhaps not unnatural in itself, leads to another which certainly could be judged so by sixteenth-century playgoers: her ‘mannish’ assumption of the generalship of the Lancastrian troops (I.i.251-56). While Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth apparently donned body armor in order to inspire the English army awaiting a 1588 Spanish invasion at Tilbury, she seemed to have provoked as much bewilderment as valor among her men.15 In the eyes of some of her troops, Elizabeth almost certainly resembled an Amazon, an early modern masculinist archetype who had appropriated to herself the supposedly exclusive male traits of martial valor and ferocity. Leah Marcus has persuasively demonstrated that, as Amazon, Shakespeare's Joan la Pucelle in 1 Henry VI represents an implicit criticism of Queen Elizabeth's ‘Amazonian’ characteristics.16 When Richard of York, hearing that Margaret approaches leading five thousand men, asserts that five thousand will amount to five hundred because ‘a woman's general’ (I.ii.68), he voices the early modern male stereotype of natural order disordered by a woman usurping man's prerogative. But by becoming in male minds an Amazon,17 Margaret develops into a fearful prodigy rather than a Venus-figure (wearing Mars's armor) whose prowess might be lightly dismissed.

Once her army has captured the Duke of York, Margaret's ‘mannish’ cruelty, regarded as unnatural in a woman, materializes. She taunts York with a napkin stained with the blood of his slaughtered child Rutland, telling him to weep and wipe his eyes with it. Sadistically she delays killing York so that she might see him pitiably cry over his loss. Her baiting draws this rebuke from grieving York:

How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph, like an Amazonian trull
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!


‘How couldst thou drain the lifeblood of the child’, York asks,

To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.


Margaret herself has said that her experience of mothering a son has made her naturally responsive to the loving bond between parent and child. York's words imply that she has had to override this predisposition in order to dip her handkerchief in the blood of a slaughtered child so as terribly to taunt the father; in his despairing mind, she is no longer a woman or even an Amazon but an animal. ‘O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!’ (I.iv.137), he judges in the play's most notorious line of blank verse.

One may grant that York's notion of women's naturalness could be labeled a self-serving masculinist cliché of early modern patriarchy and that women can be just as aggressively hostile as men and still argue that the depth of Margaret's cruelty appears unnatural. Shakespeare invokes a Christian context that acts as a foil accentuating Margaret's bizarre sadism when playgoers realize that her bloody napkin is a blasphemous veronica and the paper crown she places on her victim's head a reminiscence of the callous crowning of the King of the Jews pinioned not on a molehill (as in the play) but on Calvary.18 The alternative values latent in this implied Christian context coalesce in Northumberland's tears shed over Margaret's horrific treatment of York (I.iv.150-51). ‘Had he been slaughterman to all my kin’, remorseful Northumberland judges, ‘I should not for my life but weep with him, / To see how inly sorrow gripes his soul’ (I.iv.169-71).

If a rough man of war weeps over Margaret's sadism and if York, concerning the countenance of the slain child says, ‘that face of his the hungry cannibals / Would not have touched, would not have stained with blood’ (I.iv.152-53), one wonders what thing Margaret has become. Shakespeare gives Northumberland and York speeches designed to emphasize Margaret's unnatural metamorphosis from woman through Amazon to tiger.19 King Henry indirectly bears some blame for this transformation. By divorcing his son and refusing to play traditional masculine roles within the royal family, Henry has created therein a male vacuum (or defect of masculinity).20 This vacuum draws Margaret and later Prince Edward to overdevelop unnaturally compensatory mannish temperaments. In Margaret's case this phenomenon accelerates to push her past the persona of an army's general into the realm of beastly behavior. This will not be the only time that compensatory dynamics within the family manqué appear unnatural in 3 Henry VI.

By analogy, Clifford's murder of the child Rutland additionally develops early in the play the dire meaning of Henry VI's divorce of his son. One day Prince Edward will be killed just as brutally as Rutland is in act I, scene iii. In one sense, Rutland's death grotesquely accentuates and literalizes the figurative destruction involved in Henry's oath of dispossession. Through certain speeches of Rutland, Shakespeare stresses the unnaturalness of Clifford's killing of a boy, even as he has the king's legalistic ‘murder’ of his heir. Clifford seeks blood revenge on York for the duke's killing Old Clifford. Rutland thus desperately argues that the adult Clifford ought to seek out York himself, not his defenseless and innocent small son. ‘I am too mean a subject for thy wrath,’ Rutland pleads; ‘be thou revenged on men, and let me live’ (I.iii.19-20). When Clifford snarls, ‘My father's blood / Hath stopped the passage where thy words should enter’ (I.iii.21-22), Rutland repeats, ‘Then let my father's blood open it again. He is a man, and, Clifford, cope with him’ (I.iii.23-24). The next utterance of Clifford's characterizes the unnaturalness of his implacable desire for revenge, which concentrates on a harmless child rather than its adult catalyst. Clifford perversely proclaims,

… if I digged up thy forefathers' graves
And hung their rotten coffins up in chains,
It could not slake mine ire nor ease my heart.


A question of Paris's in the later tragedy Romeo and Juliet serves to focus the unnaturalness of Clifford's sentiment. Believing that he sees Romeo opening the Capulet tomb in order to physically desecrate Tybalt's and Juliet's corpses, shocked Paris asks his adversary, ‘Can vengeance be pursued further than death?’ (V.iii.55). The spontaneous rational negative reply to this rhetorical question suggests the unnaturalness of Clifford's vengeful desire.

At this point, I must address an obvious counter-argument to my claims. Frightened Rutland represents the sight of grim Clifford thusly: ‘So looks the pent-up lion o'er the wretch / That trembles under his devouring paws’ (I.iii.12-13). Shakespeare has filled 3 Henry VI with the imagery of strong beasts pursuing or killing their naturally weaker prey. During the initial battle of the play, the Duke of York likens his fleeing troops to ‘lambs pursued by hunger-starvèd wolves’ (I.iv.5). Furthermore, when Clifford hears the vaguely threatening words of cornered York, he asserts, ‘So doves do [futilely] peck the falcon's piercing talons’ (I.iv.41). These passages can stand for the many depictions in the play of the timeless ballet of natural predator and victim. Such imagery emphasizes the savage beasts into which hatred can transfigure its agents. In the iron age portrayed in 3 Henry VI, vicious Margaret becomes a tiger at one moment and a ‘She-wolf’ at another (I.iv.111); and Clifford, we have seen, becomes a lion slaughtering a lamb. King Henry memorably characterizes these bloody relationships during the Battle of Towton:

O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!
Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,
Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity.


Clearly what I have been calling unnatural behavior can, when viewed from another perspective within the play, be called natural. If Clifford is lionish, his killing lamb-like Rutland illustrates a law of nature. Also running throughout 3 Henry VI is imagery of irresistible natural forces. York compares his routed troops to swans ‘with bootless labor’ swimming against the tide and spending their strength against ‘overmatching waves’ (I.iv.18-21). ‘Look, as I blow this feather from my face’, captured King Henry tells his Keepers,

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.


‘What fates impose, that men must needs abide’, King Edward concludes later in the play; ‘It boots not to resist both wind and tide’ (IV.iii.58-59). The effect of these and other poetic renderings of irresistible natural forces carries over to the many associated representations of beasts naturally preying upon other animals. The result is the suggestion that bestial predator and victim can no more deviate from a powerful natural law coursing through them than the tide can from the moon's pull. And since this animal imagery always figures the conduct of the play's men and women, Shakespeare pushes playgoers' response to this symbolic logic toward the conclusion that certain nasty behavior of characters may not only be natural rather than unnatural but essentially blameless in specific circumstances as well. Watching the Battle of Towton from a distance, King Henry ruminates:

Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind.
Sometimes the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquerèd.
So is the equal poise of this fell war.


The passion of blood revenge and the desperate physical violence of self preservation in battle amount to the human forces signified by this natural imagery of contending flood and wind. The fathers and sons who become mutual victims during the Battle of Towton could not resist feeling the above-described natural forces and acting upon their compulsion. Judged by this poetic logic, they—who excruciatingly blame themselves—are blameless. As blameless as the tide and wind. What seems so terribly unnatural to them and to King Henry is simply natural, when considered from a more removed viewpoint.

It is exclusively within the context of civilized values that characters onstage and members of the theater audience judge behavior in 3 Henry VI as unnatural. Long before the writing of King Lear, Shakespeare in this early history play demonstrates that humankind's life, considered solely within the realm of nature, is as cheap as beasts' and that this realization urges people to want to civilize themselves and others, partly through the articulation of codes like Christian doctrine. The natural laws governing the creatures mainly involve birth, copulation, preying, and death. Frequently abandoning the ideal values of Christianity and European civilization, the combatants of 3 Henry VI graphically illustrate the latter sadistic and thanatotic two of these four natural instincts. Shakespeare in this play forces into playgoers' consciousness the great paradox of Christianity and of the civilizing process generally—that to escape (perhaps the word should be transcend) the short, brutal life of the natural world and the spiritual despair attending its bloody laws, humankind must in one sense become unnatural. Men and women must learn to forbear their natural instinct to prey upon the weak (lest a stronger prey upon oneself), to savagely return hatred for hatred when injured. Shakespeare reveals in the character of Henry VI the familiar effort to break out of the self-destructive, depressing cycle of natural retribution and victimization by practicing the values of forgiveness, peace-making, and turning the other cheek.21 Judged by the laws of nature, turning the other cheek, however, amounts to a highly unnatural act. In this early history play, Shakespeare boldly interrogates Christianity's solution to the deadly laws of nature by stressing how unnatural and equally self-destructive it can be for certain individuals in certain circumstances. Represented or inferred Christian values in 3 Henry VI often appear attractive but only when they are considered as ideals abstracted from their local dramatic contexts of presentation. (Northumberland's previously noted tears, for example, acquire value once one ignores the fact that they neither soften Margaret's sadistic heart nor mitigate York's terrible suffering, once one forgets, in short, that they are part of a context of foil). Evaluated within the political contexts of their expression, Henry VI's Christian sentiments seem suicidally unnatural, for himself, for members of the royal family, and for English citizens deserving a society made relatively stable and peaceful by a monarch capable of practicing a necessary benign Machiavellianism.

Thus the sense of tragedy in 3 Henry VI partly consists of playgoers' impression of a dilemma posed by these alternatives: unnatural human instincts (e.g., concerning paternal bonds, concerning retribution) versus an unnatural Christian piety (as locally expressed and practiced). Throughout 3 Henry VI Shakespeare takes pains to stress the unnaturalness of Henry VI's practice of Christian principles. When bloodthirsty Margaret asks Henry whether York's head impaled upon the gates of the town of York cheers his heart, he replies horrified: ‘Withhold revenge, dear God! 'Tis not my fault, / Nor wittingly have I infringed my vow’ (II.ii.7-8). Clifford then provides the most developed account of the unnaturalness of Henry's piety and forgiveness:

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 sometimes they have used with fearful flight,
Make war with him that climbed unto their nest,
Offering their own lives in their young's defense?
For shame, my liege, make them your precedent!
Were it not pity that this goodly boy
Should lose his birthright by his father's fault,
And long hereafter say unto his child,
‘What my great-grandfather and grandsire got,
My careless father fondly gave away’?
Ah, what a shame were this! Look on the boy,
And let his manly face, which promiseth
Successful fortune, steel thy melting heart
To hold thine own and leave thine own with him.


Clifford's appeal to the boy Edward's ‘manly’ face reminds playgoers that Henry VI's defects as a husband and father somehow have driven other members of the royal family to make unnatural personal compensations. Clifford in the above-quoted speech reveals another—a more positive—side to the operation of natural law. York partly seeks the throne because he loves his sons. Clifford appears right in suggesting that there is something unnatural in Henry's not loving his own son enough to even defend his boy's right (and life) against a hostile father promoting his beloved offsprings' cause. Strangely, Henry does not seem to feel the promptings of the laws of nature common to humankind. Here Clifford convincingly presents that likelihood as a defect rather than as a Christian advantage.

Responding to Clifford's plea, Henry finally offers an explanation for his stripping of his son Prince Edward's rights:

Full well hath Clifford played the orator,
Inferring arguments of mighty force.
But, Clifford, tell me, didst thou never hear
That things ill got had ever bad success?
And happy always was it for that son
Whose father for his hoarding went to hell?
I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind;
And would my father had left me no more!
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.


This logic is specious. If—in Henry's words—‘things ill got had ever bad success,’ then successful rule indicates rightful succession (a thing well got). Chronicle accounts of Henry V's glorious consolidation of the English nation reveal his crown as well rather than ill got. At least they do so according to Henry VI's pragmatic terms. And if his crown was well got, his legitimate heirs Henry VI and Prince Edward might solidly claim and defend their monarchy.22 Edward Berry concludes that ‘Henry VI is a de facto king, in the direct line of succession of a house that has ruled for roughly fifty years; although weak, he is neither tyrant nor usurper’.23 In fact, Henry's judgment about things ill-got always having bad success may not refer to his inheritance of his royal father's and grandfather's possessions. Henry A. Kelly has argued that Henry is not ‘suggesting that the kingdoms he inherited from his father were ill-gotten. For the context clearly shows that he is simply speaking in generic terms concerning all the troubles his possessions have cost him, without specifying any cause for the troubles beyond his proprietorship. It could hardly be maintained that Shakespeare is giving an ironic expression to the Yorkist theme of hereditary punishment on the house of Lancaster.’24

And whose father for hoarding is bound for hell? Certainly not Henry V or Henry VI. Thus why should Prince Edward IV be divorced from the line of succession of a virtuous father and successful grandfather?25 Cutting through Henry's ‘reasoning’, auditors detect in his utterances a contemptus mundi message consonant with the speaker's otherworldliness, with his conviction that earthly life inevitably consists of a ‘thousandfold’ pain and that only by the performance (if possible) of virtuous deeds does humankind leave a real legacy in this world or gain salvation in the next. This ethereal attitude, while praiseworthy from one point of view, essentially leaves Henry's little son naked before his enemies; the king's political naivete graphically reveals itself in his assumption that an inheritance of only his father's virtuous deeds would give Edward the resources to live either a long or full life in late medieval England.26

Mistakenly the unnatural father King Henry believes that he can be happiest living the natural life of a shepherd. Pastoral nature, in his opinion, offers escape from England's iron age with all its crimes. Physically removed from the carnage of the Battle of Towton, watching its bloody ebb and flow while sitting upon a molehill, Henry meditates:

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,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this, how sweet, how lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
O, yes, it doth, a thousandfold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates—
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couchèd in a curious bed—
When care, mistrust, and treason waits on him.


Upon initial consideration, Henry's word-picture of the wholesome simplicity of the natural life amounts to a standard sixteenth-century pastoral conceit praising the country life at the expense of the corrupt court. But Henry's poetic style of expression, reconsidered, implicitly (and ironically) devalues his tribute to the natural life. Shakespeare makes Henry's catalogue of the shepherd's minutes, hours, days, and years and the pastoral activities that fill them monotonously regular, mechanical in compilation, and thus seemingly tedious and empty of sophisticated value. The essentially lifeless, tick-tock rhythm of Henry's language suggests ironically that in fact the simply natural life that Henry covets would be void of meaning, especially for anyone nurtured by the arts and learning of civilization.27 Even the iron age of the Wars of the Roses civilizes (or educates) humankind to the degree that the unadulterated natural life, spent away from cities and courts, would find daily existence reduced to biological processes and a few endlessly repeated tasks—until the shepherd's unremarkable death. Felt this way, the natural life would be unnatural, as Henry—oblivious to the satiric implications of his style of speech—never realizes.28

The son who unwittingly slays his father and the father who mistakenly kills his son reinforce the notion that pastoral nature offers no secure home for humankind; for the Battle of Towton takes place in a natural setting, and the Son's and Father's heartrending plaints shatter Henry's quiet, suggesting that pastoral includes neither walls to exclude human cruelty and misery nor remedies for them. The natural idyll is not exempt from humankind's destruction of its own kin. This unnatural destruction proceeds not from any natural law but from social injustice. Henry, hearing the Son's horrific complaint, explains the tragedy by saying ‘whiles lions war and battle for their dens, / Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity’ (II.v.74-75). As this son makes very clear, he has killed his father because he was involuntarily impressed by the king's agents while his father was by those of the Earl of Warwick (II.v.64-66).29 Less directly than he would later do through the character of Falstaff (2 Henry IV III.ii.82-300), Shakespeare depicts the evil sometimes resulting from the Elizabethan practice of martial impressment.

Having witnessed unintended filial and paternal killings at the Battle of Towton, Henry, feeling excruciating guilt for being a primary catalyst of the Wars of the Roses, yearns to atone for bloody deeds by his own sacrificial death.30 ‘O, that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!’ (II.v.95), he exclaims. Unable to live a benign natural life in either court or country, apparently the two inclusive realms of mortal existence, Henry seeks relief in a self-obliterating act of martyrdom. For the great mass of men and women, martyrdom amounts to an unnatural act—the deliberate extinction of the natural instinct to preserve one's life at any cost. One might say that Christ's martyrdom authorized this unnatural act for the ages by becoming its archetype. But Henry's many flaws, including his cowardly equivocations, demonstrate that he is not Christ. His sudden death at Richard of Gloucester's hands possesses no personally redemptive purpose, and his corpse serves only as a rallying point for future strife. In 3 Henry VI, Shakespeare ironically underscores the absence of salvific martyrdom among the many deaths reported and portrayed onstage. When Clifford enters wounded with a fatal arrow sticking in his neck, the grisly tableau invites comparison with the widespread late medieval and early modern pictorial tradition of rendering the Christian martyr St. Sebastian dying from such an arrow wound.31 But bloodthirsty Clifford is no martyr, a fact thrust deeper into the playgoer's mind by the irony of the iconic allusion. Thus without the possibility of redemptive martyrdom, the unnaturalness of the iron world of 3 Henry VI continues to spread.

In fact, the harsh God of this history play appears to propel this dissemination of unnaturalness. ‘Thou hast one son’, Rutland, pleading for his life, tells homicidal Clifford:

                              For his sake pity me,
Lest in revenge thereof, sith God is just,
He be as miserably slain as I.


But pitiless Clifford slays Rutland, thus by the logic of the above-quoted passage marking out young Clifford for death. But young Clifford never dies in 3 Henry VI (in fact, he never appears in the play), thereby calling into question the reading of those critics who posit a God in the drama punishing, as Isaiah foretold, guilty fathers through the deaths of relatively blameless sons.32 God's presence in this play cannot be said to form a coherent, sustained pattern; His manifestation is fitful, unorthodox. York, for example, never receives punishment through the deaths of three relatively blameless sons. In his case, the grown children match—indeed may be said to exceed—their father in unnaturalness and deceit. In the York instance, an unnatural sign from God precipitates an unusual dynamic of retribution.

Shakespeare partly devotes act II, scene i of the play to a representation of the unnatural working of the heavens. There, the three York brothers have a vision of three suns blazing in the same sky, three suns that ‘join, embrace, and seem to kiss’ (II.i.29) by soon merging into one familiar sun again. ‘In this the heaven figures some event’ (II.i.32), Richard concludes. It is Edward who applies the vision of the three sons to himself and his two brothers, judging that they should cooperatively merge to ‘overshine the earth’ (II.i.38), that is to say, rule it through their leagued political and military power. But this prophecy and the vision prompting it mislead the York brothers; in fact, they lead to the relationships that will destroy two of the three brothers. While the brothers temporarily succeed by bonding together, Edward, once king, prefers his wife's relatives in lucrative marriages before he does his bachelor brothers (alienating Richard and Clarence), Clarence deserts Edward to marry Warwick's daughter and join with him against the Yorkist troops, and Richard plots to gain the crown by fatally setting Edward against Clarence, exacerbating their enmity. The ultimate falseness of the prophecy based on the vision of the three suns reflects the unnaturalness of the heavenly phenomenon. Apparently the God of this dark play providentially mirrors characters' unnaturalness back at them, in certain cases actualizing their latent paternal, motherly, or (as in the case of the York brothers) filial unnaturalness through unnatural mystical signs. The God of 3 Henry VI never retards or attempts to redeem the unnatural behavior of the characters of this play but instead seems to accelerate that spiritless unnaturalness, sometimes to work eventually poetically just punishments.

Apparently incapable of real martyrhood, King Henry continues to act unnaturally during the remainder of the play. He persists in disregarding his son, resigning the government of England after being freed from imprisonment to Warwick and Clarence rather than to his own flesh and blood (IV.vi.16-52). Late-play imagery emphasizes Henry's unnaturalness. Cataloguing the troops that he can muster to protect Henry from Edward of York's invasion, Warwick compares his shielded subject

… to his island girt in with the ocean,
Or modest Dian circled with her nymphs …


The comparison of Henry to the goddess Diana foregrounds his unnatural effeminacy, a trait compelling the development of a premature and thus unnatural masculinity in both Queen Margaret and the boy-prince Edward (V.iv.39-49, V.v.17-24). Baffled and frightened by Edward of York's likely seduction of his countrymen to Edward's cause, Henry finally resolves that his own pious virtues will keep English men and woman true to him:

No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace;
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.


The confused imagery of the last two verses of this speech reflects Henry's misunderstanding of natural law and indirectly his own unnaturalness. Henry by his metaphor seemingly implies that he (the royal lion) will have the citizenry (lambs) following himself rather than Edward of York because he has fawned on them (treated them well rather than oppressed them with taxes). Pusillanimous Henry however has never been capable of being the royal lion. If the metaphor has any meaning, it is ironic: Edward of York, capable of becoming the lion, will fawn upon the citizenry so that they will follow him rather than Henry. But in the natural world lions never fawn upon lambs; they quickly kill and eat them. And lambs never follow lions; they futilely flee from them instinctively. The biblical precedent Henry invokes of the lamb and lion peacefully lying down together is a utopian dream, one that underscores the unnaturalness of Christian ideals contextualized within the overpowering predatory natural instincts (or laws) motivating warriors in the last two acts of 3 Henry VI.

The unnaturalness of Henry's son's death poetically reflects Henry's unnatural divorce of Prince Edward at the beginning of the play. Captured along with his mother by the Yorkist troops, Prince Edward taunts Edward, Clarence, and Richard of York:

Lascivious Edward, and thou perjured George,
And thou misshapen Dick, I tell ye all
I am your better, traitors as ye are,
And thou usurp'st my father's right and mine.


Enraged by the boy's audacious naming of their individual flaws, the brothers successively stab him (V.v.38-40). Edward tragically taunts his captors chiefly because he believes the crown belongs to his father and himself—not them. But their knowledge of Henry's earlier divorce of his son, the King's oath to give the throne to their father and them after his own death, and—most important—their awareness that Henry resigned the crown to Clarence (and Warwick) makes Edward's claim seem especially outrageous and insulting. These feelings largely prompt their spontaneous murder. The unnaturalness of Henry's divorce of Prince Edward haunts the boy to its fatal end.

A horrified witness to the death of her child, Margaret articulates the unnaturalness of the York brothers' deed:

                                        O traitors, murderers!
They that stabbed Caesar shed no blood at all,
Did not offend, nor were not worthy blame,
If this foul deed were by to equal it.
He was a man; this, in respect, a child,
And men ne'er spend their fury on a child.


Even though Henry's unmanliness has caused his son unnaturally to play the role of a man, Edward remains a boy. By emphasizing the fact that Edward, Clarence, and Richard have killed a child, Margaret questions their manhood, implicitly redefining her own earlier idea of bloody masculinity. The York brothers join Clifford by performing an unnatural act—child murder. In one sense, of course, Margaret is getting her own due. She cruelly baited York before his death by gloating over Clifford's killing of York's child Rutland, and now she must endure the spectacle of her own flesh and blood's murder. The unexpected feelings of motherly love within this hard, masculinist woman amount to nature's long-delayed retribution for her unnatural savagery. ‘You have no children’, she tearfully tells her tormentors:

                                                            if you had,
The thought of them would have stirred up remorse.
But if you ever chance to have a child,
Look in his youth to have him so cut off
As, deathsmen, you have rid this sweet young prince!


Robert Y. Turner has argued that ‘the major figures of the Henry VI plays undergo no moral change of character.’33 While such a claim remains debatable, a realization like Margaret's approximates an anagnorisis in auditors' minds.34

Richard of Gloucester has killed young Edward because the boy called him ‘misshapen Dick’ (V.v.35). In other words, the stinging reminder of his unnaturally grotesque body prompts his participation in an unnatural killing. Regarded from one perspective, Richard's unnatural shape inscribes the unnatural behavior of many of the play's characters. It is as though their unnaturalness condenses graphically in Richard, who then on a few memorable occasions becomes the terrifying counter-agent of it. By killing their son, Richard especially proves so not only for Margaret and Henry but eventually in the final play of the First Tetralogy for his brother Clarence as well. Margaret first taunted Richard with being ‘a foul misshapen stigmatic, / Marked by the destinies to be avoided, / As venom toads or lizards' dreadful stings’ (II.ii.136-38). In his first soliloquy in the play, Richard characterizes himself as a ‘chaos’ that bears no resemblance to his mother (III.ii.161). Robert G. Hunter has persuasively argued that Richard's utterance in this soliloquy—‘Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb’ (III.ii.153)—should be taken in conjunction with his word ‘chaos’ to signify that Shakespeare's dramaturgy in 3 Henry VI and King Richard III is Empedoclean.35

Assuming that love creatively shapes chaos and gives form and purpose to the world, Shakespeare shows in these plays that ‘characters’ failure or inability to love others reduces their world through intrigue and warfare to something resembling original chaos. This dramatic method implies that the absence of love is a primary source of unnaturalness in 3 Henry VI. The conflation of two speeches from different parts of the play makes this point. Richard, in his final soliloquy, pronounces, ‘I have no brother, I am like no brother’;

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


Earlier, Clarence asks his father-in-law Warwick if he believes

That Clarence is so harsh, so blunt, unnatural,
To bend the fatal instruments of war
Against his brother and his lawful king?


When loveless Richard plots his brother Clarence's death, he ironically does not know that Clarence once declared such an act unnatural. Henry's strange indifference to his own, his family's, and his country's welfare may reflect not so much his focus on a heavenly crown as it does his lack of natural feeling, especially natural love. Perhaps not feeling the natural pull of fatherly love for a son to any significant degree, Henry thus appears unnatural in his seeming indifference to Prince Edward's welfare. And one could say that inner feelings of love attempt too late to order Margaret's world.

In the play's penultimate scene, Henry, restricted in the Tower of London, finally confronts Richard, a man not so much the bloody opposite of a Christian king as Henry's familiar—the grossly distorted but nevertheless punitive image of his own relatively loveless, unnatural self. Feeling a premonition of death, Henry prophesizes that ‘Men for their sons’, wives for their husbands', / Orphans for their parents' timeless death' shall lament the hour during which lumpen Richard was born (V.vi.41-42). Unnatural in his birth, Richard will go on through the widespread social ruin he forments later to in truth blight the wholesomely natural births and filial, paternal, and maternal loves of many citizens. Because Henry seems to taunt him with his unnatural birth and body (V.vi.35-56), Richard kills him in a sudden fit of rage. The circumstances of Henry's death exactly resemble those of his son. If he had acted naturally as husband, father, king, Henry might have won the hearts necessary to checkmate the York clan. But his unnatural behavior gave the clan's members the opportunity to defeat the Lancastrians and their allies. Like his son before him, Henry pays the ultimate price for mirroring the unnaturalness of his slayer, the unnaturalness that in a fainter image has been his all along.

The play ends with King Edward IV showing the protective love for a son that Henry VI ought to have demonstrated for Prince Edward. ‘Come, hither, Bess, and let me kiss my boy’, he affectionately states concerning his son:

Young Ned, for thee, thine uncles and myself
Have in our armors watched the winter's night,
Went all afoot in summer's scalding heat,
That thou mightst repossess the crown in peace;
And of our labors thou shalt reap the gain.


Shakespeare appears to have placed these sentiments in the play's final lines to remind playgoers of the paternal love that might have preserved the Lancastrian monarchy, if only the king could have felt and acted upon it. Yet Richard is there at play's end, also, promising in an aside to kill the boy (as he in fact will do) once the disease-prone epicure King Edward dies, and kissing the child with a Judas kiss (V.vii.21-34). The redemption of the English monarchy lies decades in the future in the epiphany at Bosworth Field of Christ's champion Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Thus Richard's unnaturally loveless plots darken the ascension of the sun of York at the close of 3 Henry VI.

In conclusion, my reading of 3 Henry VI suggests the importance of a major motif and dramatic method of Sackville and Norton's Gorboduc for an appreciation of Shakespeare's last Henry VI play. Like Shakespeare's Henry VI with regard to his son Prince Edward, Gorboduc foolishly but effectively divorces his elder son Ferrex of his ‘birthright and heritage’ (I.i.26),36 guaranteed by the law of primogeniture, by giving before the king's death half of the kingdom to Porrex, the younger son. Immediately Videna and Philander term this deed unnatural. Gorboduc's wife complains that her husband's decision runs ‘against all course of kind’ (I.i.11) and that he is ‘in kind a father, not in kindliness’ (I.i.18). Gorboduc's counselor Philander then at length describes the unnaturalness of Gorboduc's act:

… an unkindly wrong it seems to be
To throw the brother subject under feet
Of him whose peer he is by course of kind.
And nature, that did make this egalness,
Oft so repineth at so great a wrong
That oft she raiseth up a grudging grief
In younger brethren at the elder's state,
Whereby both towns and kingdoms have been razed.


In his brave advice to the rash king, Philander enlarges upon the potential disaster entailed in a ruler's unnatural disinheritance of a son:

And oft it hath been seen where nature's course
Hath been perverted in disordered wise,
When fathers cease to know that they should rule,
And children cease to know they should obey.
.....Only I mean to show, by certain rules
Which kind hath graft within the mind of man,
That nature hath her order and her course,
Which, being broken, doth corrupt the state
Of minds and things, even in the best of all.

(I.i.205-8, 218-22)

Philander's grim predictions of course come true. Sackville and Norton anticipate Shakespeare's dramatic method in 3 Henry VI of showing how the effects of a king's unnatural disinheritance of a son radiate into society, either precipitating or giving the occasion for related unnatural deeds that proliferate into civil war and chaos. Gorboduc's unnatural treatment of Ferrex breaks the bond of natural affection between elder and younger brother and leads to Porrex's killing of Ferrex, a crime that prompts the mother Videna's unnatural murder of her son Porrex. Sackville and Norton stress that the people then kill Gorboduc and Videna out of outrage over the unnaturalness of the queen's deed (V.i.1-17).37 The playwrights (in the text of the play at least) project this linkage in the written commentary on the dumb show of act IV when Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone drive across the stage ‘a king and a queen, which, moved by Furies, unnaturally had slain their children … Hereby was signified the unnatural murders to follow; that is to say, Porrex slain by his own mother, and of King Gorboduc and Queen Videna, killed by their own subjects’ (92, my italics).

At one point before his death, Videna calls Porrex ‘[r]uthless, unkind, monster of nature's work’ (IV.i.71). Yet the authors of this early Elizabethan historical tragedy emphasize that these appellations could equally apply to the speaker, to the mob that takes her life, and—by symbolic logic—in a milder but nevertheless profoundly grave sense to the royal father who indirectly catalyzed this carnage by unnaturally disinheriting his son. Like Shakespeare in 3 Henry VI, Sackville and Norton suggest that the destruction of a society mirrors, in fact replicates, the self destruction of the primary royal family considered as a single organism. The people, according to Eubulus, Gorboduc's Secretary, may not kill their monarch ‘No more than may the hand cut off the head’ (V.i.45). But they do so, even as Gorboduc separates Ferrex from himself and Ferrex and Porrex from each other. Eubulus laments that from Britain's ‘womb should spring / … those that will needs destroy / And ruin thee and eke themselves in fine’ (V.ii.20-22). But this happens because Ferrex and Porrex once sprang from the womb of Videna and one unnaturally killed the other and the mother slew the survivor. As in Shakespeare's play, auditors have the sense of the family nuclear and then writ large cannibalistically feeding upon itself.

Even in some finer details Gorboduc becomes a worthy analogue of 3 Henry VI. Philander prefaces the first long speech of his previously quoted advice to Gorboduc by saying that ‘such an egalness hath nature made / Between the brethren of one father's seed / As an unkindly wrong it seems to be / To throw the brother subject under feet …’ (I.ii.181-84). Throughout Gorboduc Sackville and Norton usually regard primogeniture as a natural rather than social law. But in the first two verses of Philander's utterance, they complicate this judgment by implying that primogeniture is unnatural, that nature strives for equality among siblings. This complication resembles the Shakespearean ambiguity of 3 Henry VI regarding the possible unnaturalness of a social code (doctrinal Christianity) felt against the strain of instinctual natural urgings. This repeated ambiguity in each play makes more credible characters' mistaken or wavering opinion about what is natural and unnatural in their own and others' behavior.

Concerning the civil war that commences near the end of Gorboduc and that, like the Wars of the Roses, would last for fifty years, Eubulus sadly prophesizes that

One kinsman shall bereave another's life;
The father shall unwitting slay the son;
The son shall slay the sire and know it not.


These lines not only exactly describe the family tragedy that Shakespeare depicts during the Battle of Towton, but they also may have constituted an influential scenario for act II, scene v of 3 Henry VI. Whatever the case, this relatively neglected play of Shakespeare's occupies an important place in the development of early modern English drama between Gorboduc and King Lear, a tragedy whose many affinities with Gorboduc commentators have noted, one which consummately finds and traces the relationships between naturalness and unnaturalness, demonstrating in a terrifying way the chaos following a royal father's unnatural disinheritance of a child.38 Placing 3 Henry VI in this line of development may help modern playgoers appreciate the popularity that this chronicle history play once enjoyed.


  1. According to Andrew S. Cairncross, editor of The Second Part of King Henry VI (London, 1957), the episodic nature of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays can be attributed to these facts: ‘[t]he critical and imaginative interpretation of historical trends was not yet, and the chronicles had in general little more unity than was imposed by a king, a hero, or a conflict. The reign of Henry VI, in any case was too long, its events too rambling and fortuitous, to be easily digested into drama’ (i). E. M. W. Tillyard, in Shakespeare's History Plays (New York, 1946), judges that in 3 Henry VI ‘formlessness of a sort was as necessary to his purposes … as the wide scattered geography of Antony and Cleopatra was to the imperial setting of that play. … Shakespeare had a great mass of chronicle matter to deal with and he failed to control it; or rather in paring it to manageable length he fails to make it significant’ (190). ‘The plot of Part III [of Henry VI] seems even more episodic and long-winded than that of Part II’, Robert Ornstein concludes, ‘although the plays are approximately the same length, because Part III does not have the central core of action provided in Part II by the unfolding of York's conspiracy’ (A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays [Cambridge, MA, 1972] 52). Edward I. Berry, in Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville, 1975), asserts that ‘[t]he structure of [3 Henry VI] is … indistinct. Unlike Part II, Part III does not move toward a central emotional climax, nor does it embody a unified action’ (53). Finally, John W. Blanpied, in Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark, 1983) 64-76, esp. 66, finds 3 Henry VI to be essentially formless.

  2. A. L. French, ‘The Mills of God and Shakespeare's Early History Plays’, English Studies 55 (1974): 313-24, esp. 313.

  3. French effectively questions ‘whether the text of the First Tetralogy does, in fact, support any … notions of order, justice, and moral equity’ (314).

  4. See, for example, Tillyard and especially Sherman Hawkins, ‘Structural Pattern in Shakespeare's Histories’, Studies in Philology 88 (1991): 16-45. Tillyard was instrumental in establishing the notion that the working out of a divine curse on the House of Lancaster, prosecuted mainly on the sons and grandsons of sinning fathers and grandfathers, creates a pattern both within individual plays of the First Tetralogy and among them. Henry A. Kelly, however, in Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, MA, 1970), is skeptical of Tillyard's thesis, maintaining instead that 3 Henry VI does not reveal a clear scheme of divine retribution operating through curses and broken oaths (262-76). Kelly concludes that, as for this play, ‘it seems best … to regard opinions concerning the providential outcome of solitary events as characterizing only the sentiments of the speakers at the time they speak them, and not Shakespeare's own view’ (272). Moody E. Prior, in The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays (Evanston, Illinois, 1973), also argues that Hall's pattern of God's vengeance does not organize 1, 2, and/or 3 Henry VI (39-41).

  5. The best account of a dramatic design in 3 Henry VI appears in Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977), 179-92. Jones asserts that, like Tamburlaine, Part One, 3 Henry VI divides into two sections, breaking after act II. The first section is a brief two-act tragedy stressing the barbarousness of civil war, with revenge for a father the prime motif of this mini-play. Jones posits many structural and thematic symmetries within this section. The second section consisting of the play's final three acts is governed by Fortune, a goddess who demonstrates that the result of English rule by two essentially concurrent kings is giddy instability (181-89). Larry S. Champion admits that in 3 Henry VI Shakespeare develops ‘multiple plot strands’ in which ‘no single figure is predominant in lines spoken or time spent on the stage, and [that] the devices of internalization are spread among a wide range of characters’ (‘Developmental Structure in Shakespeare's Early Histories: The Perspective of 3 Henry VI’, Studies in Philology 76 (1979): 218-38, esp. 236). Granted this lack of focus, Champion asserts that the detection of structure depends upon associating ‘elements of detachment and breadth with those of emotional engagement through depth of characterization’ (236), chiefly as playgoers' affective engagement and detachment apply to their reactions to Shakespeare's complementary depictions of a pious but progressively tragic Henry VI and an evil but progressively fascinating Richard of Gloucester. Such a technique, however, hardly amounts to dramatic structure.

  6. M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1961), 196-98. Reese concedes that in 3 Henry VI the Fortune's-Wheel ‘pattern was largely artificial; in his insistence upon it Shakespeare was deliberately organising a crude, episodic story to an artistic purpose’ (197).

  7. Wayne L. Billings, ‘Ironic Lapses: Plotting in Henry VI’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 5 (1972): 27-49, esp. 48-49. Billings notes that in 3 Henry VI Shakespeare ‘uses a more schematic method’ than he does in 1 and 2 Henry VI: ‘promise-breaking repeatedly breaks an uneasy peace and alters the military situation; there being no absolute loyalties, there can be no solidarity in any heroic triumph’ (31). By arguing that 3 Henry VI is designed along the lines of Senecan blood-revenge tragedy, David Riggs, in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: ‘Henry VI’ and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1971), 127-39, unintentionally conflates the idea of the drama as a contention play with the notion that it enacts a pattern of retribution for crimes. Riggs concludes that within the ‘broad framework [of Senecan tragedy of blood revenge] Clifford and Margaret [in 3 Henry VI] 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’ (134).

  8. Faye L. Kelly, ‘Oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays’, Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 357-71, esp. 366-71. Kelly's notion of the relationship between her motif and dramatic structure takes this form: ‘In drama, whenever a character swears to do something or not to do something, plot takes form as a direct result of his regard for his word. If the swearer honors the oath, the action takes one course; if he breaks his oath, the action veers in a different direction’ (357). ‘When made, an oath adumbrates plot; when later recalled by the maker of the oath or the character against whom it is made, the oath becomes structural as it links and tightens the elements of the plot’ (359). Carol McGinnis Kay, ‘Traps, Slaughter, and Chaos: A Study of Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 5 (1972): 1-26, esp. 17-23; Joseph Candido, ‘Getting Loose in the Henry VI Plays’, Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 392-406, esp. 402.

  9. Though his assertion may be a bit overstated, Eric Sams, in The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594 (New Haven, 1995), has maintained that Gorboduc ‘is the manifest source of Shakespeare's lifelong style and idiom’ (20).

  10. All references to 3 Henry VI and other Shakespeare plays are to the texts in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (New York, 1997).

  11. A. L. French comments that Henry VI's swearing ‘that, if he is allowed to remain king for his life-time, the Duke of York will inherit the throne after his death’ is ‘a silly thing to swear … because it turns Henry into a permanent public temptation’ (318).

  12. The censurable element in King Henry VI's divorce of his son early in 3 Henry VI qualifies playgoers' later inclination to pity the idealistic ruler or whole-heartedly admire him along the lines suggested by commentators such as Mattie Swayne, ‘Shakespeare's King Henry VI as a Pacifist’, College English 3 (1941-42): 143-49; and Larry S. Champion 220, 227-31. For criticism of King Henry's flaws of character, see H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York, 1967) 57, 65-66.

  13. Ronald S. Berman, in ‘Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI Plays’, Shakespeare Quarterly 13 (1962): 487-97, also notes the importance of King Henry's disenfranchisement of his son (494), regarding it as the first of several explorations in 3 Henry VI of the tragic relationship of fathers and sons (494-97). The most complete explorations of father-son relationships and their severing in the playwright's historical drama appear in Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus, 1971) 76-84; and Berry 53-74. Berry notes that, ‘at the core of [I.i. of 3 Henry VI] is a question concerning the nature of parental and filial obligation—a question put to all parties, here and throughout the play, with corrosive irony’ (56).

  14. Of Queen Margaret, the chronicle historian Edward Hall wrote that she ‘“was a woman … of haute stomacke, desirous of glory, and covetous of honor, and of reason, pollicye, counsaill, and other giftes and talentes of nature belonging to a man …’” (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough [London, 1960] 3:105-6). Nevertheless, Robert Y. Turner, in ‘Characterization in Shakespeare's Early History Plays’, ELH 31 (1964): 241-58, claims that women as well as men in the noncomic drama of the later 1580s, women like Zenocrate, Zabina, Locrine's Queen Estrild, and Constance and Queen Elinor of The Troublesome Reign of King John, all ‘share [a] masculine vigor of speech’ (251).

  15. See Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley, 1988) 54-56. Marcus documents the impression that ‘the queen's martial self-presentation at Tilbury was a glorious moment of patriotic triumph, but also … a spectacle that aroused distinct uneasiness among Englishmen’ (54). See pages 62-66 of her study.

  16. Marcus 51-96.

  17. Margaret's Amazonian nature has been fully described by David M. Bevington, ‘The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI’, Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 51-58, esp. 56-57; and by Marilyn L. Williamson, ‘“When Men Are Rul'd by Women”: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy’, Shakespeare Studies 19 (1991): 41-59, esp. 44, 51-52. Barbara Hodgdon, in The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History (Princeton, NJ, 1991), calls the Margaret of 3 Henry VI the ‘Amazonian apotheosis’ of the Joan of Arc of 1 Henry VI (69). The historical evolution of Margaret's ‘mannish’ character has been recounted by Patricia-Ann Lee, ‘Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship’, Renaissance Quarterly 39 (1986): 183-217, esp. 193 ff.

  18. David M. Bergeron, in ‘The Play-Within-the-Play in 3 Henry VI’, Tennessee Studies in Literature 22 (1977): 37-45, esp. 39, fully describes parallels to the Crucifixion. He notes that Margaret gives York a bloody napkin ‘“to dry [his] cheeks withal” (83), just as the dying Jesus was offered a sop of vinegar’ (39). Richmond concludes that this ‘blood-soaked cloth is grotesquely analogous to the one offered by St. Veronica to Christ’ (61). Berman, however, states that ‘the napkin stained with Rutland's blood’, rather than provoking recollection of the veronica, is ‘an ingredient in the symbolic counterpart of the feast of Thyestes …’ (495).

  19. In this respect, see Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993) 115, 181.

  20. See Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, 1981) 51-52, 60-61.

  21. David L. Frey, in The First Tetralogy: Shakespeare's Scrutiny of the Tudor Myth (The Hague, 1976), has also noted that ‘growing constantly more evident as the play unfolds is the development of two opposing value systems: one based on a peace-oriented religious-moral law, the other based on a war-oriented natural law’ (55).

  22. Pierce remarks that Henry's above-quoted speech (II.ii.43-53) ‘might seem to express the highest piety and wisdom. … Yet his father has left him not just the English crown but a tradition of glorious rule and conquest. He is losing the moral heritage of Agincourt just as surely as his reign has lost the territorial gains’ (78).

  23. Berry, Patterns of Decay 44.

  24. Henry A. Kelly, Divine Providence 267.

  25. Contrary to my reading of King Henry's act II justification for his son's material disinheritance, Berman interprets it as an ‘intensely noble expression’, which ‘is dismissed [by onstage auditors] with typical obtuseness as “soft courage”’. In this critic's opinion, ‘the piety of Henry has not been perverted enough to command respect in the [degenerate] world of the play’ (495-96).

  26. Sharply critical of Henry in his II.ii.43-53 speech is Robert C. Jones, These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare's Histories (Iowa City, 1991) 25.

  27. Extended analyses of King Henry's pastoral soliloquy appear in Pierce 69-71 and in Ornstein 56-57.

  28. For the possible literary sources of this episode, see D. J. Womersley, ‘3 Henry VI: Shakespeare, Tacitus, and Parricide’, Notes and Queries 32 (1985): 468-73.

  29. Berman asserts that kindred killing in this episode ‘signif[ies] a national rather than a personal degeneracy, for it is the conflicting parties who are ultimately responsible for inflicting this particular form of parricide on the nation. As Henry states of the grieving father, “the red rose and the white are on his face” (496). In this vein, Elihu Pearlman, in William Shakespeare: The History Plays (New York, 1992), stresses that Henry VI himself must share some of the blame for the Father's and Son's deaths, a fact that the king understands as evidenced by his judgment that ‘whiles lions war and battle for their dens, / Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity’ (43).

  30. Michael Manheim, in ‘Duke Humphrey and the Machiavels’, American Benedictine Review 23 (1972): 249-57, judges that, ‘[b]y the Machiavellian standards which govern just about everyone else [in the Henry VI plays], Henry is surely the wretchedest king in “Christendom”’ (252).

  31. See, for example, the Martyrium des hl. Sebastian (1516) by Hans Holbein the Elder, in which the shaft and feathers of an arrow protrude from the hollow of St. Sebastian's neck (Alte Pinakothek München [München: Hirmer Verlag München, 1957] pl. 58).

  32. See also Exodus 20:5; cf. Numbers 14:18.

  33. Turner 241.

  34. Wayne L. Billings concludes that ‘Queen Margaret, who had seemed unheroic as well as unwomanly in taunting the captive York with the blood of his son, comes later to seem, by contrast with King Edward IV and Richard of Gloucester, a genuinely heroic figure inspired by resolution and loyalty to her own son’ (32).

  35. Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens, 1976) 67-100, esp. 93 ff.

  36. All references to Gorboduc are to the text appearing in Drama of the English Renaissance: I The Tudor Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York, 1976) 81-100.

  37. Marcella, Videna's lady in waiting, makes this association when she exclaims, ‘Should nature yet consent to slay her son? / O mother, thou to murder thus thy child!’ (IV.ii.244-45).

  38. The classic analysis of nature and unnaturalness in King Lear remains John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of ‘King Lear’ (1948; rpt. London, 1961) esp. 15-53.

Further Reading

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Bernthal, Craig A. “Treason in the Family: The Trial of Thumpe v. Horner.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 44-54.

Considers Peter Thumpe's act of informing on his master for treason in Henry VI, Part 2 within the cultural contexts of Tudor England.

Berryman, John. “2 Henry VI” and “3 Henry VI.” In Berryman's Shakespeare, edited by John Haffenden, pp. 308-13. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Two essays, originally published in 1958, that contribute to the debate concerning the authorship controversy of the Henry VI plays and examine Shakespeare’s stylistic touches in the second and third parts of the plays.

Blanpied, John W. “‘Art and Baleful Sorcery’: The Counterconsciousness of Henry VI, Part 1.Studies in English Literature 1500 to 1900 15, No. 2 (Spring 1975): 213-27.

Discusses Shakespeare's dramatic subversion of history in Henry VI, Part 1.

Brockbank, Philip. “The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI.” In On Shakespeare: Jesus, Shakespeare and Karl Marx, and Other Essays, pp. 79-103. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Presents an overview of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, discussing themes of dissension leading to degradation and anarchy, and analyzing Shakespeare's historical method in these plays.

Caldwell, Ellen C. “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.Studies in Philology 92, No. 1 (1995): 18-52.

Evaluates Shakespeare's portrayal of the Cade rebellion in light of historical sources and previous critical analyses, concluding that the representation of Cade in Henry VI, Part 2 may be viewed as evidence of Shakespeare's reaction against populism.

Carr, Virginia M. “Animal Imagery in 2 Henry VI.English Studies 53, No. 5 (October 1972): 408-12.

Argues that the frequent allusions to animals in Henry VI, Part 2 serve an organic function in the play by reinforcing its thematic texture.

Champion, Larry S. “The Search for Dramatic Form: 1, 2, 3 Henry VI.” In Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories, pp. 12-53. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Presents an overview and structural analysis of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 that focuses on developments in theme, character, and style in the plays.

Cox, John D. “Local References in 3 Henry VI.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, No. 3 (Fall 2000): 340-52.

Enumerates topical allusions to Warwickshire and the figure of Somerville in Henry VI, Part 3.

Hattaway, Michael. Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry VI, by William Shakespeare, edited by Michael Hattaway, pp. 1-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Extensive introductory commentary on Henry VI, including discussion of historical and political contexts, dramatic structure, stage history, composition, and sources.

Heberle, Mark. “Shakespeare's Boy King.” Durham University Journal 51, No. 2 (July 1990): 177-79.

Comments on the thematic implications of Shakespeare's use of a child actor to portray Henry in Henry VI, Part 1.

Howard, Jean E. and Phyllis Rackin. Engendering A Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories. London: Routledge, 1997, 248 p.

Feminist analysis of gender representation in early modern England that includes sizeable chapters on the three parts of Henry VI.

Lee, Patricia-Ann. “Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship.” Renaissance Quarterly 39, No. 2 (Summer 1986): 183-217.

Remarks on Shakespeare's depiction of Margaret as a villainous female ruler in Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3 and comments on prevailing assumptions about feminine nature during the Tudor period.

Levine, Nina. “Lawful Symmetry: The Politics of Treason in 2 Henry VI.Renaissance Drama 25 (1994): 197-218.

Highlights the subversive potential of Shakespeare's staging of treason cases in Henry VI, Part 2.

Martin, Randall. “Rehabilitating John Somerville in 3 Henry VI.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, No. 3 (Fall 2000): 332-40.

Centers on autobiographical references to Catholicism associated with the character Somerville in Henry VI, Part 3.

Pearlman, E. “Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots.” Philological Quarterly 75, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 1-22.

Offers evidence that Act 4, scene 5 of Henry VI, Part 1 is a revised version of the play's subsequent scene and indicates substantial developments in Shakespeare's technique of characterization.

———. “The Duke and the Beggar in Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI.Criticism 41, No. 3 (Summer 1999): 309-21.

Examines the sources, as well as thematic and theological significance, of the scene between the Duke of Gloucester and Saunder Simpcox in Henry VI, Part 2.

Rackin, Phyllis. “Anti-Historians: Women's Roles in Shakespeare's Histories.” Theatre Journal 37, No. 3 (October 1985): 329-44.

Studies female characters as “the opponents and subverters of the historical and historiographic enterprise” in Henry VI, Part 1 and King John.

Williams, George Walton. “Fastolf or Falstaff.” English Literary Renaissance 5, No. 2 (Spring 1975): 308-12.

Claims that the Sir John Falstaff of Henry VI, Part 1 should correctly be ‘Fastolf’—the name of a historical personage found in Shakespeare's principal sources for the play.


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


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 74)