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.