David Barbour (review date February 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Barbour, David. Review of Henry VI.TCI: The Business of Entertainment Technology and Design 31 (February 1997): 6-7.

[In the following review, Barbour observes that the scenery and direction of Karin Coonrod's production of the Henry VI series reflects the bloodshed that has occurred in modern warfare in such places as Yugoslavia and Rwanda.]

Each age gets the Shakespeare it deserves. For centuries, the most prized of the Bard's works have been the straightforward comedies, tragedies, and histories. More recently, modern audiences have embraced the so-called “problem plays,” works like Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, and The Winter's Tale, which blend dark comedy with elements of drama and fantasy, and such violent works as Titus Andronicus.

Then there's the Henry VI trilogy. These three works span the gap between the national epic Henry V and the melodramatic Richard III. But the three Henry VI plays, a long, complex chronicle of war and intrigue, have been rarely staged, until recently. Their action is complex, the characters often cruel and grasping. Revenge follows revenge as groups of nobles nakedly pursue the power of the crown. The one saintly character, Henry VI, is also infuriatingly feckless: his goodness is no defense against the seemingly endless cycle of violence and betrayal. It's not a pretty picture, but nowadays it's an uncanny mirror of many of the world's dark places, from the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda.

Director Karin Coonrod emphasized the modernity of Henry VI in her revival of the plays, presented in December at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York—one moment featured King Edward IV and his newly installed royal family dancing a soft shoe to “Tea for Two” while blood ran from Henry VI's body down the rake of the stage. Her production was defined by an exposed theatricality—all roles were played by ten actors, who switched roles, genders, and classes as required. If a character was killed, he or she simply got up at the end of a scene and assumed a new identity.

Scenic designer P. K. Wish created a setting that intimately matched Coonrod's vision of the play. The Public's Martinson Hall is usually employed as a proscenium space, with the audience sitting on chairs placed on risers. For this production, Wish bisected the auditorium with the stage, with audience members sitting on both sides. At one end, the stage rose and formed a wall, which parted to reveal a second level for certain scenes. The other end of the stage was closed off by hangings, which later disappeared to reveal a giant upside-down crown painted, in the manner of Jean-Paul Basquiat, on the room's wall.

Wish made extensive use of rigging for her effects—numerous key set pieces were lowered from above. The plays began with a coffin dropping on the stage, bearing the body of the late Henry V. Later, when the play's nobles began to split up and choose sides, signifying the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, the actors chose red or white roses from a grass drop which flew in. In the latter quarter of the production, Henry VI, not directly involved in the action, sat in a swing several feet above the stage, watching the intrigue whirl below him. For scenes in which the nobles struggle for power at court, Wish flew in a number of chairs hanging on red suspenders. She says that Coonrod felt the red suspenders resembled blood lines; the chairs became entangled as the nobles quarreled, creating a visual metaphor for the internecine warfare of the plays. At another key moment, two of the classical pillars...

(This entire section contains 974 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

which adorn Martinson Hall broke loose and were lowered to the stage, a bold image of a kingdom coming apart.

One of the most shocking moments in the production came at the end of the first half (as in most modern productions, the three plays have been edited down to two full-length plays), with the burning of Joan of Arc. Shakespeare's version of Joan is radically at odds with the modern view of her as a saint and martyr; here she is portrayed as a shrill, warlike schemer who eggs on the French against the English. At the moment of her death, the focus shifted from the stage, where she was being held, to an offstage area; a drop fell and revealed a dress on fire inside a mesh drum—an effect that Wish worked out with Dominic McGill of Jauchem and Meeh, Inc.

One of the most striking aspects of Wish's design was her use of unconventional materials for the stage. The aforementioned paper drops were made of Tyvek, the same material used for Federal Express envelopes. The stage floor was covered in layers of leather, which gave the set an appropriately worn look while allowing it to take a considerable beating over the plays' six hours.

This was an important project for Wish, who was still a student at NYU's design school when she began the two-year workshop process with Coonrod on Henry VI. A native of England, she worked as an interior designer and as an assistant in the BBC's design department, before moving to the U.S. Interestingly, she's no stranger to large-scale Shakespeare, having designed an epic Cymbeline at NYU, which was directed by Barry Edelstein. She notes that the overall process of working on Henry VI was one of stripping away—during rehearsals, a number of props and other effects were eliminated. The result was a highly distilled design, which blended a sweeping sense of history with a strong sense of modern disillusionment. For a designer recently out of grad school, it was a significant calling card.

Scenery for Henry VI was built by Red Dot Scenic and the New York Shakespeare Festival, with additional scenery and special effects by Jauchem & Meeh, Inc. Henry VI ran through January 5.

Robert Y. Turner (essay date September 1964)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Turner, Robert Y. “Characterization in Shakespeare's Early History Plays.” ELH 31, no. 3 (September 1964): 241-58.

[In the following essay, Turner argues that because of his relative inexperience as a playwright, Shakespeare created characters in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 that are “flat” depictions of morality figures who show no remorse for their actions.]

The major figures in the Henry VI plays undergo no moral change of character. Even at the moment of death when they face an eternity of punishment, they feel no regrets and make no judgment on a life of misdeeds as, for example, Richard II does before he is murdered. In carrying out their actions, they experience no hesitations or fear, struggle with no conflicting paths of action as Macbeth was to face, and sense no discrepancy between motive and duty as Hamlet was to feel. When their plans fail, they utter no second thoughts about them. York and Somerset never speak of their failure to aid Talbot, nor the Duchess of Glouchester about her conjuring, nor Margaret and Suffolk about the murder of Duke Humphrey, nor Jack Cade about his rebellion, nor York about his disloyalty, nor Warwick and Clarence about their contradictory loyalties. If they speak at all of their failures, they are bitter not against themselves but against enemies or circumstances. The fact that these characters remain unregenerate in the face of death gains significance when we notice how many there are: Joan La Pucelle, Cardinal Beaufort, Suffolk, Somerset, Jack Cade, Richard of York, Clifford, Young Clifford, and Warwick. In Richard III, presumably written to follow the Henry VI plays and form a tetralogy, all the characters who face death undergo a moment of self-awareness, and all except Richard regret their behavior: Clarence, Edward IV, Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Anne, and Buckingham. No doubt Shakespeare rejected any change of heart in the earlier plays to show the disasters consequent upon political misdeeds, but to include a final moment of remorse is not to modify seriously this political lesson. Some additional explanation seems called for to clarify the change in characterization. It could be that early in his career Shakespeare saw from a Calvinist point of view mankind hardened in sin and suddenly abandoned this view before writing Richard III.1 No doubt some refined statement of didactic purpose can justify his change, but I prefer to examine it in relation to the techniques of characterization a young playwright found available in the early 1590's.

Characters in these early histories seem flat, types lying somewhere between the moral abstractions of the Tudor interludes and the “rounded” figures of Shakespeare's mature plays. Having neither the definiteness of the one nor the immediate appeal of the other, they are easily attributable to a very young playwright and have stimulated little attention even among those who write most sensitively about the Henry VI plays.2 If we concentrate upon these characters as “static” rather than as “flat,” they become easier to relate to the dramatic practices of the period and appear to result from a particular moment in the rapid rise of professional drama. In the 1580's the habits of writing morality plays were still influential, and the commitment to literal drama was somewhat less than total. As I see it, these characters were shaped both by conventions of the morality tradition and by demands of the literal historical events. To suggest that Shakespeare was influenced in part by outside pressures is not to deny his creativity, for in this period of fast change, playwrights must have watched one another closely, especially those beginning their careers. To see how Shakespeare faced problems of characterization common to fellow playwrights, how he used his native tradition in the Henry VI plays and modified it in Richard III, is to be specific about his creativity.


Causation presents the major problem for dramatizing change of character. The playwright must show, to make the dramatic experience credible, why a character changes. In the Henry VI plays characters remain morally static because motive, or internal cause, is character itself. In order for character to undergo change, the motive must somehow be differentiated from character. Shakespeare at the outset of his career identified motive with character because he shared with his contemporaries a distrust of the particular event in all its idiosyncratic untidy individuality. Sir Philip Sidney in his speculation upon the nature of poetry compared it with history and philosophy and favored poetry more than either because it “coupleth the generall notion with the particuler example.”

… the Historian wanting the precept, is so tyed, not to what shoulde bee, but to what is, to the particuler truth of things, and not to the general reason for things, that hys example draweth no necessary consequence and therefore a lesse fruitfull doctrine.3

In Sidney's view the particular event must possess general significance. But in choosing to dramatize history, Shakespeare committed himself to presenting specific events with at least some degree of verisimilitude. A. P. Rossiter noticed how Shakespeare rearranged the chronology of events to bring out their moral pattern.4 It might also be mentioned that characterization reenforces his didactic purpose. Nathaniel Woodes, faced with this problem some twenty years earlier, tells how he characterized Francis Spira in putting on stage the story of his lapse from Protestantism back to Catholicism:

And here our Author thought it meet the true name to omit,
And at this time imagine him Philologus to be
First, for because a Comedy will hardly him permit
The vices of one private man to touch particularly:
Again, how shall it stir them more, who shall it hear or see;
For if this worldling had been nam'd, we would straight deem in mind,
That all by him then spoken were, ourselves we would not find.(5)

By changing the specific to the generic name, Woodes assumed that the audience's response to drama was deductive, that they saw their lives subsumed under the general pattern of events on stage. Therefore, he removed the specific attributes and smoothed away the irregularities from his literal historical story. Edward Hall's history shared something of Woodes' uneasiness with literal events, but he preserved the accidental and untidy happenings and provided general explanations to show their significance. Aside from bolstering events by moral lessons, he would often preface a career by a character sketch. Before narrating Queen Margaret's actions, he said of her:

… The Quene his wife, was a woman of greate witte, and yet of no greater witte, then of haute stomacke, desirous of glory, and covetous of honor, and of reason, pollicye, counsaill, and other giftes and talentes of nature belongyng to a man, full and flowying: of witte and wilinesse she lacked nothyng, nor of diligence, studie, and businesse, she was no unexperte: but yet she had one poynt of a very woman: for often tyme, when she was vehement and fully bente in a matter, she was sodainly like a wethercocke, mutable, and turnyng.6

Her consequent behavior comes as no surprise to the reader because it illustrates this amusing sketch of her character. Whereas Woodes typified the specific event to embody moral patterns, Hall preserved the specific event and made it the illustration of a general category. Behavior illustrates character, or to put it another way, the cause of behavior is character itself. To say that Margaret's mannishness causes her to dominate her husband is to say her action illustrates her character. Therefore, the historical characters are fixed, encased in Hall's interpretation of them.

Shakespeare followed Hall by thinking of character as a general category to be illustrated by behavior. In 1 Henry VI he translated this relationship directly onto the stage, first by a description of character and then by a presentation of the character in action. Before Talbot appears, a messenger describes his valor in battle with the French. When he enters in scene four, he first describes to Salisbury his imprisonment and ferocity toward the French, a speech which reexpresses the bravery described by the messenger. Suddenly Salisbury is shot, and Talbot begins to act, thereby illustrating his warriorship. Likewise, La Pucelle is described by the Bastard of Orleans before she enters. When she appears, her first speeches describe herself to the Dauphin, and then she demonstrates her rhetorical and physical powers. As the Dauphin becomes acquainted with her, so does the audience. To introduce Richard of York, the third major character, Shakespeare disrupted the pattern slightly. When we first meet Richard, he is engaged in an argument in the Temple Garden, and we are unsure of his importance until the following scene in which an interview with Mortimer plants firmly in his mind his claim to the throne and gives him the motive—or characteristic—of ambition. Two other characters who appear frequently in Part One, Gloucester and Winchester, are less central to the major events. Their behavior is confined to quarreling with each other, behavior which appears in the opening scene and recurs intermittently throughout the drama. In Act Five Shakespeare tried to integrate the introductory description with action by choosing the moment when Suffolk first meets Margaret to present them first to the audience. As Suffolk presents himself to Margaret, he describes himself to the audience; as he describes Margaret's impact upon himself and learns her identity, he, again, describes her to the audience. Although Margaret's behavior is of no consequence for the remainder of the play, Suffolk's subsequent actions illustrate this initial moment of enchantment. At the same time Suffolk spies Margaret, Joan La Pucelle is captured and led off the stage; the juxtaposition suggests that La Pucelle's super-natural powers to scourge the English passes to the other French woman.7 Suffolk's behavior in forwarding Margaret's marriage with Henry VI to the detriment of England seems to proceed from something stronger than love; dazzled by her, he enraptures Henry VI with his description, and when he adds the motive of ambition in the final lines of the play to account for his behavior, we can see this too as part of the spell Margaret's beauty has cast over him.

The presence of anecdotal episodes in 1 and 2 Henry VI betrays Shakespeare's thinking on the relation of character to action. Talbot's visit with the Countess of Auvergne and Duke Humphrey's exposure of Simpcox's pretenses are episodes which stand outside the main line of action, neither arising from what precedes them nor leading to further events. As independent units, they vivify the characters of Talbot and Humphrey, showing the prudent soldiership of the one and the wisdom of the other. So far as we know, Shakespeare invented the episode of the Countess of Auvergne, and he went outside his main source to find the exposure of Simpcox.8 These efforts suggest that he saw character as a concept distinct from action and in need of illustration by action; he therefore searched for proper anecdotes to vivify it.

By the time he composed 2 Henry VI, Shakespeare must have sensed that the static presentation of character by statement was redundant and abandoned the awkward pause in action. The opening scene presents nearly all the important characters except Jack Cade, and they are fixed by epithets which recur throughout the drama to define them. Salisbury points to Buckingham and Somerset as they leave the stage and says, “Pride went before, ambition follows him” (I.i.179).9 He repeats and adds to these attributions when he says, “The pride of Suffolk and the Cardinal, / With Somerset's and Buckingham's ambition” (I.i.202-203). Beaufort is called elsewhere in this scene, “haughty Cardinal” (I.i.173), and later in the play is described as “imperious churchman” (I.iii.69), “ambitious churchman” (II.i.174), “impious Beaufort” (II.ii.53). York speaks of “Beaufort's pride, [and] Somerset's ambition” (II.ii.70). And earlier Warwick refers to Suffolk as “Image of Pride” (I.iii.176). When Dame Eleanor is banished, Suffolk pronounces upon her, “Thus Eleanor's pride dies in her youngest days” (II.ii.46). Humphrey, by contrast is known as the “good Duke” (II.ii.73; III.i.204; III.ii.247) except by his enemies. Cardinal Beaufort says scornfully in the opening scene that the commoners have given this epithet to him. These adjectives suggest that moral qualities form the core of the characters' behavior and keep the audience's attention directed to the general meaning behind the literal surface.

In 3 Henry VI Shakespeare reused the extended passages of description to establish character, but he integrated them more successfully with the movement of events than he did in Part One. In the later play self-presentation occurs when the action itself demands revelation of character and does not usually precede the character's first appearance. Without introductory description Richard of Gloucester opposes his enemies with exceptional ferocity throughout the first two acts. Once Edward IV becomes king, he gives the occasion for Richard to present himself in soliloquy and reveal his ambition for the crown. Henry VI, who mentions Richard's unnatural birth before he is murdered, stimulates Richard to characterize himself in a second soliloquy. He describes his difference from other men and submits to the guidance of hell. Thus the supernatural power of scourging the English, which passed from La Pucelle to Margaret, now passes to Richard, Margaret having been immobilized by defeat. Shakespeare deepened in the course of events Richard's ferocity first by ambition and then by hellishness, additions which keep within the outlines of Richard's initial behavior. Similarly he deepened Edward IV's character by the lust which Lady Grey's charm brings out, but this addition does not contradict his earlier character; Edward IV's imprudent marriage brings out Warwick's pride and power as he changes allegiance but not his character; likewise, the incipient battle between Warwick and Edward generates Clarence's feeling of kinship and consequent change of allegiance but not of character. These artful additions to character contrast strongly with the single consistency of character in 1 Henry VI; Talbot enacts in every episode his bravery and patriotism. This contrast does not indicate that Shakespeare's thinking about the relation of character and behavior was changing; it shows his increasing skill in adjusting the fixed moral qualities to the demands of the literal story.

The static historical characters have an obvious but limited kinship with the figures of the morality plays. Nicholas Newfangle, for example, at the outset of Like Will to Like (1562-68) presents himself to the audience by a monologue, engages in a brief discussion with Lucifer to establish his character, and then begins to illustrate it by dialogue with the Collier and Tom Tosspot. But before the action can get underway, Tom Tosspot interrupts to present himself too by a monologue. Besides the similarity with 1 Henry VI in the way they are presented, the characters resemble each other in their motivations. The quality which names the morality character also causes his behavior. If we ask why Tom Tosspot drinks, we must answer, “Because he is a carouser.” Why does Nicholas Newfangle behave so jauntily? Because he takes pride in newfangled fashions. Why does he tempt others to join Lucifer? Because he is Vice. Likewise, to ask why Fastolfe runs from battle, we must say, “Because he is a coward.” Why does Duke Humphrey resist the temptations of the Duchess of Gloucester? Because he is a good man, less concerned with his own welfare than with the well-being of the commonwealth. The historical characters, of course, have specific rather than general names, and this difference is less trivial than it seems, for the specifically named character's behavior need not embody as lucidly his moral quality as the morality character's behavior must show forth his name. Talbot, always brave and patriotic, nevertheless in the final episode shows a father's feeling for his son's life, a sentiment which does not negate his basic quality but cannot be totally encompassed by it. Margaret is proud and mannish; yet her love for Suffolk cannot be subsumed readily under these two qualities. Duke Humphrey is good and wise; nevertheless, Shakespeare added a touch of choler to individualize him. Although moral characteristics form the core of the historical figures, they need not encompass behavior as the characteristic must do which names a morality figure. By refusing to generalize the name as Woodes did in writing The Conflict of Conscience, Shakespeare enjoyed a larger range of behavior for dramatizing his characters and showed a greater respect for the irregularities of literal history.


If we think that Shakespeare's assumptions about the relation of character and behavior are inadequately revealed in the ways he introduced characters and inserted anecdotes, we can discover them also in the way his characters talk. The dominant pattern of dialogue, the movement of dialogue, and the style of individual speeches are appropriate to characters who are moral categories. The dialogues in the Henry VI plays at the moments of high dramatic intensity usually take one pattern, that of attack and counterattack. In 2 Henry VI, for example, at the opening characters quarrel over Suffolk's giving away Anjou and Maine for the hand of Margaret; at the turning point mid-way in the play Duke Humphrey quarrels with his accusers about his rulership as Protector; at the conclusion York reveals his claim to the throne and generates a quarrel between those who support him and those who support Henry VI. And minor quarrels occur between these high points. In Act One Somerset and York attack each other over the regency of France; in Act Three they split over the leadership of forces against the Irish rebels; in Act Four Sir Humphrey Stafford denounces and is denounced by Jack Cade. Some arguments are created merely to generate steam and lead to nothing. In the hawking scene, Act Two, the Cardinal and Duke Humphrey quarrel to the point of a duel, but this unhistorical challenge can never be brought to action because both of them face death in other ways; Shakespeare stopped it by introducing Simpcox. He repeated this abortive quarrelling in Act Three when Suffolk and Warwick become so heated that they leave the stage to duel, only to be interrupted by Salisbury's sudden appearance with commoners to demand banishment or death for Suffolk. These dialogues follow naturally from static characters who bring their attitudes ready-formed to any gathering. They are limited to asserting their positions. They defend themselves and accuse their opponents without undergoing self-discovery or persuading anyone to their side. The only relationship seems to be attack or defense. Even Henry VI and Duke Humphrey, who are selfless in their exercise of power, are forced to defend themselves and accuse their enemies. In the quarrels these characters talk at one another and do not listen or respond with sympathy or embarrassment.

Since two opposing sides to an issue can be quickly stated and easily exhausted, topic follows topic in rapid succession. The quarrel lacks the force of dialectic growth but moves in a see-saw manner that leads nowhere and must be pushed along by outside stimuli. Shakespeare solved this problem by abrupt entrances and exits. Usually a messenger with news terminates a spate of quarreling and sets the characters on another issue. In 2 Henry VI, Act Five, York enters with his army and makes a speech; Buckingham enters to confront him with a message from the King; their discussion ends when the King interrupts with attendants; Alexander Iden interrupts their discussion; the Queen enters with Somerset, and their appearance generates York's outburst against Henry VI. York's sons enter to support him; Clifford and Young Clifford enter to support the King; Warwick and Salisbury enter to support York; and the scene climaxes with vows of war. Shakespeare could have brought both sides onto stage at the outset and developed the opposition gradually by revelations and responses. Rather than concentrate upon the sustained interchange among several dominant characters as they generate their own ideas and respond emotionally to each other, he built the scene by a progression of entrances. The characters are too thin, too restricted by their moral qualities to sustain a discussion. Other scenes reveal a similar development by outside stimulation. The opening of the play, for example, is moved along by exits rather than entrances. The gradual departure of characters spurs on the dialogue by removing restraints from the possible topics for discussion. Once the King and Queen depart, Duke Humphrey can complain about the arrangement for her dowry; once Gloucester departs, the Cardinal can describe him as dangerous; once the Cardinal departs, Buckingham and Somerset can declare their suspicions of the Cardinal's ambitions, and so on until only York holds the stage to deliver a soliloquy on his ambition for the crown.

Dialectical dialogue, on the other hand, needs no outside stimulus because the characters have sufficient complexity to respond variously to their interlocutors. Brutus and Cassius in Act Four of Julius Caesar range over the topic of friendship and loyalty for a hundred and fifty lines because Shakespeare established through preceding episodes their pride, interdependence, illusions, and self-awareness. They bring to their discussion complex points of view which generate a variety of relevant reactions to each other's comments. However, York and Somerset, who think strictly according to their moral characteristics, ambition on the one hand and pride on the other, react either in anger or sorrow when they are thwarted or in pleasure or complacency when they triumph. Their dialogue must be thin because they have no reserve of interests to draw on. When their speeches are lengthy, they embody the rhetorical principle of copia, that is, copious from the reexpression of the same idea in several ways, not from inner and unexpected responses. Thin dialogue, then, arises from characters who are moral categories, or to put the point another way, the thin dialogue preserves the general moral significance of character.

In spite of this limitation Thomas Nashe gave contemporary testimony that Talbot was an impressive character for Elizabethan playgoers. Probably they responded to him not merely because he was heroic but because Shakespeare added to his dialogue a special vigor to intensify his behavior. In fact, most of the major characters in the early history plays, including the progeny of Taburlaine, impress us with a similar vigor. Even the women, Zenocrate, Zabina, Locrine's Queen Estrild, Constance and Queen Elinor (from The Troublesome Reign of King John), and Queen Margaret share this masculine vigor of speech. Talbot's style is marked both by energeia and enargeia. Energeia imparts movement to descriptive or narrative passages. When describing his shame at being the prisoner of the French, Talbot makes no introspective statement of his emotion but says:

Then broke I from the officers that led me,
And with my nails digg'd stones out of the ground
To hurl at the beholders of my shame.

(I. iv. 44-46)

And in his grief over Salisbury's death he utters this vow:

Frenchmen, I'll be a Salisbury to you.
Pucelle or puzzel, dolphin or dogfish,
Your hearts I'll stamp out with my horse's heels,
And make a quagmire of your mingled brains.

(I. iv. 106-109)

These passages show not only energeia but enargeia, which Madeleine Doran says were not often distinguished by Renaissance poets.10Enargeia imparts to language a quality that goes beyond mere clarity to force itself on the attention, a quality more positive than clearness. Usually accompanying these qualities of diction is the syntax of command, wish, or rhetorical question which keeps the voice at a high pitch of excitement and prevents it from falling to a rest at the end of statements. Margaret's complaints to Suffolk about the disappointments of the English court (2 H. VI, I. iii) or her anger at Henry VI for suspecting Suffolk as Duke Humphrey's murderer (2 H. VI, III. ii) are speeches composed almost entirely of these syntactic forms. It is easy to pass off this heightened style as rant, but it should be understood as Shakespeare's means of adapting static moral figures to a world of literal events. Energeia and enargeia are essential coloring laid onto the surface of these simple, flat characters to “humanize” and help them move about in an historical atmosphere. For the same reason, whenever characters make speeches of special dramatic significance, their style embodies the principle of copia. Duke Humphrey's answer to his accusers (2 H. VI, III. ii), or Gloucester's soliloquy stating his ambition (3 H. VI, III. ii) reexpress in a variety of ways the same ideas so that the speeches are ornamented purposely out of proportion to what they mean. Shakespeare fashioned his characters with an extravagance that disappeared from his later plays. Undoubtedly he was putting to practice the principles of rhetoric he learned in his schooling, a practice he never abandoned but trimmed with economy in his mature years. Their lavish display in the early plays may be attributed to youthful exuberance, but they may be as well a solution to the problem of harmonizing static moral characters with literal history.


To consider plausible the proposition that characters in the Henry VI plays are static because their behavior illustrates moral qualities, we should see what aesthetic pressures hindered Shakespeare from dramatizing moral change of character. Morality plays, written between 1500 and 1560, show that illustrative behavior does not necessarily exclude moral change, for the central character changes from innocence to sin to penitence while interacting with characters whose behavior illustrate their moral qualities. The aesthetic pressures, then, operated in no systematic way to discourage change or encourage static characters. One such pressure was dramatic credibility which resides in the expectations of the audience. Certainly no dramatist can afford to neglect verisimilitude if he wishes to be at all persuasive, and I think it goes without saying that Shakespeare had a didactic purpose in choosing to dramatize the events of civil war. Some playwrights are powerful enough to reshape the standards of plausibility, but Shakespeare adopted those of fellow playwrights in composing his early plays. The specific problem of credibility in dramatizing change of character arises from causation, and given the evidence of extant drama in the 1580's, we can surmise that playwrights felt uneasy about motives, that is internal causes, in dramatizing change. They limited themselves to causes external to character and dramatized changes by rhetorical persuasion or changes by love. The rhetorician and the loved one give plausibility to change because they are visible, existing outside the changing character. But moral change of character demands something more, a self-awareness or introspection—or motive—which evidently playwrights felt hesitant to dramatize.

Their hesitation resulted probably from the sharpening differences between Tudor interludes and literal dramas. The literal story usually observes distinctions between particular and general, and, more relevant to characterization, insists upon a firm distinction between the external and internal, which are differences neglected in the morality plays. In this world abstractions such as Truth, Conscience, Folly, Faith, and Charity share the same status outside the central figure representing mankind even though Conscience and, say, Truth have a different locus in “actual” existence. Without this restricting distinction between the external and internal, the playwright could present internal change as a vivid external event. When Wantonness, for example, tempts Youth, the audience witnesses their dialogue and sees Youth choose Wantonness for companionship; Youth responds to an outside force and enacts his change objectively by companionship. Playwrights, when they turned to literal stories, were reluctant to abandon this clarity of presenting the psychological event and combined the two, from about 1550 to about 1580, in plays which can be classified as “hybrids.”11 In these hybrids abstractions take their place beside literal characters to dramatize their emotions as well as to motivate them. John Phillip in his version of the Griselda story, The Play of Patient and Meek Grissel (c. 1558-1561), conceived of vice as a character, Politik Persuasion, to tempt Gautier into testing Grissel, and to dramatize her suffering, he characterized Reason and Sobriety to sympathize with her as well as Patience and Constancie to accompany her.

In the 1580's the distinction between internal and external events grew sharper, but personified causes lingered in other forms. Often they were disguised as gods. Love in the form of Cupid or Venus or both controls behavior in Gismond of Salerne (1566), Sapho and Phao (1582-1584), Gallathea (1584-1588) Love's Metamorphosis (1588-1590), Dido Queen of Carthage (1587-1593). In some plays the personifications interact with the literal characters; in others they are exiled to framing episodes which precede events in the literal stories. Revenge watches the happenings of The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1584-1589) and assures the audience that he controls Hieronimo's behavior. Love and Fortune assert their control over events in The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582); Death, Love, and Fortune occupy the framing story of Soliman and Perseda (c. 1589-1592). The planets exercise similar control over the changing character of Pandora in The Woman in the Moon (1590-1595), and the plot to The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins (c. 1585) suggests a similar control by moral abstractions over subsequent events. Other framing stories, those prefacing The Old Wives Tale (c. 1588-1594), The Taming of a Shrew (and The Shrew) (c. 1588-1593), and James IV (c. 1590-1591) do not show causes for behavior in the encompassed stories, but they suggest the fiction of what follows and therefore reduce the claims of verisimilitude. Both Kate, the shrew, and James IV undergo conversions; the changes of character in Peele's comedy, designed to parody old-fashioned romantic adventure plays, were caused by magic. This impulse to show forth the causes of behavior died out in the 1590's presumably as audiences grew to accept literal stories as literal and motives as internal. These frameworks, then, frequent only in the 1580's, represent the last claims of a fading standard of credibility made customary by morality plays. Three plays on the professional stage in the 1590's used the framing story: the didactic framework of Yarington's Two Lamentable Tragedies (1595-1598) makes respectable the bloody events of the play itself; Histriomastix (1599) was probably written in the 1580's and doctored by Marston for performance by a revived company of child actors; and Dekker's Old Fortunatus (1599) intended the framework to be, so it seems, a quaint appendage to the wondrous events.

The ease with which the central figures in the moralities change is due to their lack of specific characteristics. They respond to external figures, who are vivid because of their single characteristics, but have themselves no distinguishing quality, apart from the attributes of youth or age, except the power to choose companions. Through their company they acquire temporary characteristics which can be terminated by withdrawal. When playwrights turned to more specific and secular subjects in the 1550's and 1560's, the easily changing figure of humanity was replaced by figures with limited characteristics similar to the abstract personifications. Tom Tosspot, Cuthbert Cultpurse, Moros, or Poor Renter take on specific attributes and lose their moral flexibility. Lyly's Alexander, Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Shakespeare's Talbot, Joan, Richard of York, Duke Humphrey are descendants of these characters.12 Several characters in the Henry VI plays fall in love or change allegiance, but these changes cannot be described as moral changes. In 1 Henry VI Burgundy joins Joan's forces, and Suffolk falls in love with Margaret, but in both cases supernatural powers help seduce them. The Dauphin urges Joan, “Speak, Pucelle, and enchant him with thy words.” Before Burgundy succumbs, he says:

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

(III. iii. 58-59)

Shakespeare did not resort to external causes in the guise of supernatural promptings to account for Clarence's changes in 3 Henry VI, but changing sides did not involve, so far as we know, a change within. Shakespeare kept him a shadowy figure without distinctive characteristics other than, perhaps, inconstancy itself to help make his changes acceptable. He departs from Edward IV in disgust over his imprudent marriage to Lady Grey, and joins Warwick at least in part for the marriage of his daughter. His abandonment of Warwick and return to Edward IV is presented abruptly. As he states it, kinship wins over other allegiances, but Shakespeare gave him no soliloquy to reveal the force of this natural bond. His actions remain historical occurrences without becoming dramatically plausible events. More successful is Warwick's change of allegiance, not so much a moral change as an emotional reaction to Edward IV's marriage. The sudden and embarrassing disclosure of this news brings about his abrupt turn.

To introduce moral change into the literal stories, playwrights needed to break the circuit between character and action as category and illustration. A character, then, cannot exercise total control over his behavior; his motives must in some way be distinguished from himself so that his character can be divided against itself. Iago speaks of “blood and baseness of our natures” which can lead man to “most preposterous conclusions.” “Reason,” he says, can balance his “raging motions” to control himself. In this picture of the inner man, self-control becomes a virtue to be desired. Brutus, Hamlet, and Lear find stoicism relevant to their predicaments, but this doctrine could have no bearing on the characters in the Henry VI plays, whether Shakespeare was aware of it at this time or not. Given the condition of the self divided against itself, man can reflect upon himself and judge his own behavior. And it is toward this condition that Shakespeare began to move in Richard III.

The characters in this play show the first stages in the change of Shakespeare's thought by regretting their past behavior when they face death. Clarence, Edward IV, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, Anne, and Buckingham, as has been noticed, form a list too long to suggest that Shakespeare unthinkingly made the characters in one play unrepentant and in another repentant. The new conception of character appears most clearly in Richard III's soliloquy before Bosworth Field; here the old and the new method stand side by side. The ghosts of Richard's murdered victims visit both him and Richmond in their dreams, externalizing in the manner of the morality play internal experience. They act as conscience, pronouncing guilt upon Richard III and assuring Richmond of his righteous rebellion. Shakespeare wrote as a supplement to this dream his first introspective soliloquy. To create a sense of self-reflection, he gave Richard two voices so that he literally debates with himself, questioning and answering whether he loves himself or condemns himself:

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why,
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore?

(V.iii. 184-187)

There is nothing to approximate this soliloquy in the Henry VI plays. York, for example, in 2 Henry VI, simply asserts his motive of ambition and then describes his plan of action. Henry VI's soliloquy during the Battle of Towton-Saxton, 3 Henry VI, comes closest to Richard's because he wishes to be a shepherd rather than a king, but his speech is a ritualized statement, not an inward struggle or a judgment upon himself, and it illustrates Henry VI's character as a helpless, meditative man inadequate to the demands of leadership the commonwealth makes upon him.

Throughout Richard III before the introspective soliloquy Shakespeare characterized Richard along conventional lines, even reviving the device of self-presentation to introduce him: “I am determined to prove a villain.” His subsequent behavior bears out this statement with the regularity of illustration. But the soliloquy before Bosworth Field gives notice that Richard's character must be composed of more than villainy, although nothing comes of this divided character in the remainder of the play. We may infer that Richard's doubt about himself is reflected in his poor, negative oration to his soldiers and his failure in battle, but Shakespeare avoided giving him a final death speech. No doubt he was torn between his initial conception of Richard's villainy, which could not permit any but an unregenerate death speech, and his portrayal of Richard divided against himself, too complex a character to permit an unreflective death speech without regrets, such as Young Clifford's or Warwick's in 3 Henry VI.

With the other characters, however, Shakespeare dramatized again and again the moment of repentance before death. If a character becomes aware that his behavior has been sinful, somehow he differentiates himself from his past actions so that it cannot totally illustrate his character. Shakespeare, as fascinated as he was with this moment of reflection, was unable to dramatize it with much more than the character's flat statement of recognition, and he took care to provide an external embodiment of conscience to stimulate this recognition. In some cases the cause is Margaret, inserted without any basis in historical fact, who suggests the force of Destiny. She does not stand outside the play as Revenge does in the framing episodes of The Spanish Tragedy, but her curses take effect with the same power as Revenge's predictions to the Ghost of Andrea. When Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Hastings face death, they recall Margaret's curses. But when Clarence regrets his deeds, his introspection is stimulated by a dream similar to Richard's. And when Buckingham and Anne die, they recall their own curses and oaths and see them as the force which condemns themselves. It would be a simplification to suggest that Shakespeare abruptly abandoned his early conception of character as the embodiment of vices or virtues. In his tentative movement to break through the close relation of character and action, he provided in the fashion of his time external causes for introspection in the form of curses, oaths, dreams, or ghosts. But eventually these embodiments become as unnecessary as the causes operating from framing episodes because both supplement motives in the literal stories and do not replace them. It was only a matter of time before a character's revelation of inner causes was sufficient to motivate him with dramatic credibility. The speeches of regret are Shakespeare's first steps in changing his personae from moral categories to flexible characters with internal motives capable of acting in a literal world of historical events.


  1. Mr. David Bevington suggests this influence to account for the increasingly frequent static characters in the morality plays after 1560. From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), pp. 152, 162.

  2. Mr. E. M. W. Tillyard says, speaking of the characters in 1 Henry VI, “The characters are well thought out and consistent but they are correct pieces in a game moved by an external hand rather than self-moving. Yet they come to life now and then and, in promise, are quite up to what we have any right to expect from Shakespeare in his youth.” Shakespeare's History Plays (Collier Books, New York, 1962), p. 188. Most of his other remarks about the characters in all three of the Henry VI plays concern their political significance. See pp. 200, 212, 214, 240-241. Mr. H. T. Price concentrates upon structure, Construction in Shakespeare, Univ. of Mich. Contributions in Modern Philology, No. 17 (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1951). Mr. Andrew S. Cairncross, more attentive to literary matters in the introduction to his edition of 1 Henry VI than in the introduction to 2 Henry VI, discusses such topics as order, unity, time, design, originality, pageantry, style, and imagery but not characterization. The First Part of King Henry VI, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962), and The Second Part of King Henry VI, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1957). See also J. P. Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI,Early Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 3 (London, 1961), 73-100, and M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London, 1961), pp. 166, 181, 192, 198, 199.

  3. This quotation is taken from The Great Critics, eds. J. H. Smith and E. W. Parks (New York, 1939), p. 201.

  4. Woodstock A Moral History (London, 1946), pp. 69-70.

  5. This quotation is taken from Dodsley's Select Collection of Old English Plays, 4th Rev. Ed., ed. W. C. Hazlitt (London, 1874), VI, 33.

  6. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, III (London, 1960), 105-106.

  7. Tillyard, p. 194.

  8. See J. Dover Wilson's discussion of the Countess's episode, The First Part of King Henry VI (Cambridge, 1952), pp. xix-xx, 142; also Bullough, p. 27. Wilson asserts that Grafton is the source of the Simpcox episode. The Second Part of King Henry VI (Cambridge, 1952), p. 137; Andrew S. Cairncross sees Foxe as the source, The Second Part of King Henry VI, p. 37. Bullough reprints Foxe's account, pp. 126-128.

  9. Shakespeare's texts quoted in this paper come from the edition by William Allan Neilson and C. J. Hill (Cambridge, Mass., 1942). I assume that 1 Henry VI was written in the same order as it appears in the trilogy. Among those who have recently offered this opinion are: E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, Leo Kirschbaum, “The Authorship of 1 Henry VI,PMLA, LXVII (1952), Peter Alexander, Shakespeare's Life and Art, The Gotham Library (New York, 1961), Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, Andrew S. Cairncross in his edition of The First Part of Henry VI, and J. P. Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder: Henry VI,” in Early Shakespeare, p. 72.

  10. Endeavors of Art (Madison, Wisc., 1954), p. 242.

  11. This is Bernard Spivack's term. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1958), pp. 253-254.

  12. G. K. Hunter explains Alexander's character as the static embodiment of magnanimity, John Lyly The Humanist as Courtier (Cambridge, Mass., 1962), pp. 161-166. Irving Ribner has observed the static nature of characters in Tamburlaine in “The Idea of History in Marlowe's Tamburlaine,ELH XX (1953), 251-266. In this suggestive paper he notes the classical idea of substance and accident shaping Marlowe's characters. See also The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957), pp. 24-25.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, which make up the first three plays of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, are a series of history plays that chronicle the medieval battle for primacy between England and France. The plays also trace England's domestic struggle between the noble houses of York and Lancaster, a bloody civil war that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. Most scholars agree that Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 are among Shakespeare's earliest works. Because of their frequent artistic lapses and episodic structure, early critics disputed Shakespeare's authorship of the plays; however, there is little doubt among modern critics that Shakespeare wrote all three parts. Critics are interested in the diverse array of issues raised in the plays, particularly the changing attitudes toward the series' central characters as well as the plays' mythical elements. In recent productions of the plays, the three parts are frequently staged together with a view toward demonstrating their relevance to current events.

Several scholars have reviewed the changing attitudes toward the series' central characters. John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (2001) note that there is an ongoing debate among critics regarding whether King Henry is a symbol of saintliness or ineptitude; however, they find that most critics agree that Richard's character is evil. Cox and Rasmussen concur that Henry's positive qualities are ultimately undercut by his weakness in the face of evil, but they are divided on the origin of Richard's character. They contend that either Richard was born wicked, his wickedness is a manifestation of the viciousness of civil unrest, or his treachery stems from an inferiority complex. Randall Martin (2001) investigates the changing critical attitudes toward Margaret, observing that while early productions of the Henry VI plays virtually ignored her, or reduced her to a clichéd example of female shrewishness, recent productions have depicted Margaret as a more complex character, often presenting her as both loyal and tragic. Critics are also interested in the less significant characters of the Henry VI plays. Randall Martin (2000) proposes that the brief entrance of John Somerville in Part 3 reveals familial connections between Shakespeare and the Somerville family. Martin suggests that this connection may also indicate that Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies in spite of his Protestant Queen. Finally, Samuel M. Pratt (1965) asserts that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, achieves the status of myth through Shakespeare's careful depiction of Humphrey's loyalty to his king in Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2.

George F. Butler (2000), also concerned with the mythical elements of the plays, compares a passage of Henry VI, Part 2 with a passage from Virgil's poem, The Aeneid. Butler concludes that Shakespeare consciously patterned his play after Virgil's work, adapting the Roman poet's use of myth and epic to his own account of English history. Lisa Dickson (2000) suggests that the mythic qualities of Henry V elude his son Henry VI completely, and are instead transferred to the shining image of Joan of Arc. David Linton (1996) and Craig A. Bernthal (2002) examine the Cade Rebellion as it is presented in Henry VI, Part 2. Linton contends that underlying Cade's suspicion of people who are literate is Shakespeare's belief that literacy can be abused by the powerful to suppress the poor. Bernthal looks at the legal aspects of Cade's complaint and argues that through Cade's chaotic interpretation of the law, Shakespeare satirized both the Elizabethan legal system and people, like Cade, who misunderstood it. Gregory M. Colon Semenza examines a different theme found in the Henry VI series: the frequent use of sports imagery. Semenza argues that in the Henry VI plays, Shakespeare used sports metaphors to describe the wars conducted by the greedy and selfish nobles—wars waged in order to achieve their corrupt ambitions.

David Barbour (1997) and Barbara Hodgdon (1999) see this emphasis on the corruption and brutality of war echoed in recent productions of the Henry VI series. In his review of director Karin Coonrod's rendition of the series, Barbour sees a close resemblance between what occurred onstage and the bloodshed that has occurred in modern warfare in such places as the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In her review of Katie Mitchell's 1994 feminist staging of Henry VI, Part 3, Hodgdon takes note of how Mitchell shifted the play's focus from its male to its female characters, thus emphasizing the theme of survival rather than nationalism. Finally, both Hodgdon and Barbour interpret the recent resurgence of performances of the Henry VI plays as an acknowledgment of their relevancy to our troubled times.

Paul Dean (essay date spring 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Dean, Paul. “Shakespeare's Henry VI Trilogy and Elizabethan ‘Romance’ Histories: The Origins of a Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33, no. 1 (spring 1982): 34-48.

[In the following essay, Dean suggests that Shakespeare used “romance” or partly fictional history as a source for Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

An earlier age was of the opinion that Shakespeare's inspiration needed no prompting from sources. Our own is, it sometimes seems, intent on denying him any originality in its quest for his literary debts—and this from the very beginning of his career. The earliest comedy, The Comedy of Errors, and the earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, are seen to be related respectively to Plautus (via Lyly) and to Seneca (via Kyd)—classical and native models coexisting to produce a new kind of drama. As regards the first historical trilogy, however, a remarkable unanimity of opinion denies the existence of any dramatic precedents. Since 1953, when F. P. Wilson proposed, “though I am frightened at my own temerity in saying so, that for all we know there were no popular plays on English history before the Armada and that Shakespeare may have been the first to write one,”1 scholarship has had little more to say on the point. Neither Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare2 nor Kenneth Muir's The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays3 considers comment necessary.

The explanation for this lies, perhaps, in an unconscious equation of “history” with “chronicle history.” In 1590-91, when the Henry VI plays were written,4 the only extant play which we should now describe as a “chronicle history” was The Famous Victories of Henry V (1583-88), which is hardly a respectable pedigree. There were, however, a number of plays of the type now usually called “pseudo” or “romance” histories, which incorporate historical personages within a wholly imaginary, usually comic, framework. Plays of this type which could have been available to Shakespeare in 1590-91 are Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay5 and James IV,6 the anonymous George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (sometimes ascribed to Greene),7 and the anonymous Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter of Manchester.8 There are in addition plays such as Lyly's Campaspe (1580-84), borderline not because of its date but because it dramatizes classical material (yet still in ways highly relevant to the “romance” history tradition), John a Kent and John a Cumber (of uncertain date9 and containing no historical characters, but only by our definition of “historical,”10) Jack Straw (entered in the Stationers' Register in 1593 but probably written earlier and printed by Bullough as an analogue to 2 Henry VI), and Peele's Edward I (probably exactly contemporary with the trilogy).


Criticism has not treated “romance” histories kindly. Typical pronouncements are that, in contrast to the “dramatizations of serious history”11 by “chronicle” histories, “romance” histories “must not be confused with the true history play” since they treat “romantic themes which have no relation to the serious purposes of history.”12 Again, it is said that they contain “hardly any thought about history at all.”13 The italicized words should be pondered. What would constitute non-serious history, or a false history-play? Does “thought about history” necessarily entail the explicit formulation of principles? I suggest that the comments I have quoted make two unwarrantable assumptions: one, that the only criteria for assessing plays including historical characters are those derivable from the works of historiographers like Hall, Holinshed, or the compilers of The Mirror for Magistrates; and, two, that consequently only “chronicle” history-plays need be taken seriously, either intrinsically or as possible influences upon Shakespeare.

Against these beliefs I oppose the opinion that many of the most puzzling features of the Henry VI plays are most easily explained by supposing Shakespeare's acquaintance with, and indebtedness to, “romance” history. Among these features are precisely those which he did not find in the chronicles: in Part I, II.ii (the “Countess” scene, whose affinities with a similar scene in the part-Shakespearean Edward III are significant),14 II.iv (the Temple Garden scene), V.iii (Joan's scene with the devils, and the wooing of Suffolk and Margaret); in Part II, the necromancy practiced by Eleanor, Margery Jourdain, and Roger Bolingbroke (I.ii, iv), the Simpcox episode (II.i), and the Cade scenes (IV.ii, vi-viii, x). These are episodes which, if the Henry VI plays were built around a double plot like the Henry IV plays, might well form a subplot (the Cade sequence comes closest to doing so). They do anticipate the Henry IV plays in being no mere divertissements but in amplifying, in other modes, themes crucial to the political concerns of the main plot—thus constituting a critique (ironical, grotesque, farcical by turns) of that plot. This kind of sophistication is not present in The Comedy of Errors, where the theme of mistaken identity is treated farcically throughout (except for the distress of Egeon at V.i.306-17) and we find no polyphonic elaboration of mode or mood; in Titus Andronicus there is no double-plot, and the savage grotesquerie of Aaron is among the milder of the emotional states portrayed.

We seem justified, therefore, in claiming that the Henry VI trilogy, far from being hackwork as was once thought, contains the most powerful and richly-textured writing in Shakespeare's earliest work. Again one must ask what gave Shakespeare the impulse to treat his material in this way if, as the orthodox view insists, there were no dramatic sources.


I have, I hope, cleared the ground for a dispassionate comparison of certain aspects of Shakespeare's technique in the Henry VI plays with his technique in the “romance” histories. Now, perhaps, some general remarks about the structure of the trilogy will be helpful.

So long as critics concerned themselves with the bibliographical problems of the Henry VI plays, they were bound to find them shapeless, since they were working on the assumption of composite authorship and so were predisposed toward disintegration of the text. Then, too, the plays contain such diverse material that it might seem merely misguided to look for unity. And, finally, if the plays were seen as creations ex nihilo of a new mode, the existence of a recognizable structure might be discounted as a remote possibility. We should nowadays reject these views:15 the plots of the plays do not radiate from a central hub, but neither are they just self-contained episodes. Early attempts to ally their construction to that of epic16 may be dismissed as a confusion of kinds. More satisfactory is Geoffrey Bullough's term “wavelike,” which he applies to the process whereby “the major figures come to the fore, become temporarily important in the struggle, and then are rivalled or succeeded by others who share the same motives and in their turn rise and are overthrown by fortune or intrigue.”17 The episodes, that is, are not related causally but spatially. They are amplifications of an underlying theme: the rise and fall of ambitious men on Fortune's wheel.

The precursors of the trilogy, from this point of view, are the pageants of the medieval mystery plays, each pageant exploring one stage in the cyclical history of Man's fall from grace and his eternal search for reunion with God.18 We should beware, however, of inferring that the trilogy uncritically endorses a Providential reading of history.19 The strongest believers in such a view in the plays themselves are overthrown, often by the very forces—Providence, Revenge, the Devil—which they claimed to represent. Moreover, the episodes which I have likened, in function if not in form, to subplots further interrupt the undulations of now-conquering, now-conquered characters; against the “chronicle” concerns of the main plot they oppose a “romance” view whose idealized stylizations of plot, character, and language balance the moral demonstrations found elsewhere in the plays. Shakespeare's career as an historical dramatist may be seen as a series of progressively complex interfusions of “chronicle” and “romance” materials and techniques. The culmination of this is the perfect articulation of double plot in 1 and 2 Henry IV,20 but his interest in such materials is there from the beginning.

In the next four sections I shall discuss four main aspects of treatment which seem to link the Henry VI plays with “romance” histories: supernaturalism, love-triangles, disguise, and the concept of kingship.


When Joan first appears in 1 Henry VI she is tested by Reignier's pretending to be the Dauphin, a pretense she quickly exposes (I.ii.65). While she claims divine inspiration (I.ii.73-90, 113-16, 129) and is imaged as Deborah (I.ii.105), as “Astraea's daughter” (I.vi.4), and as “France's saint” (I.vi.29), she is also seen as Helen (I.ii.142), as Venus (I.ii.144), and as the focus of a number of sexual quibbles (e.g. I.ii.92-95, 111: see the notes on this passage in the New Arden). This double-sidedness culminates in her attempt to evade martyrdom by claiming to be pregnant, an explanation derided by the English as a parody of the Virgin Birth (V.iv.65).21 We are clearly meant to agree with the English that Joan is evil and to see in her sexual relationship with the Dauphin a symbolic joining of France to the powers of darkness. In V.iii we see her conjuring onstage “substitutes / Under the lordly monarch of the north” (l. 5 ff.), devils to whom she vainly offers successively her blood, a limb, her body, and her soul (ll. 14, 15, 18 ff., 22) in return for a French victory. She then sees that her power is at an end, and the supernatural disappears until Part II.

Although Joan's methods are reprehensible, her motives are laudable and, as far as we can tell, genuinely patriotic; but in Part II Eleanor's fight is not national (against England) but personal (against the Queen);22 her motives are selfish and petty, and even Hume, her confederate, is privately in the pay of Suffolk and the Cardinal (I.ii.91-101). The whole atmosphere is much more sordid than in Part I. The raising of the spirit Asmoth (I.iv) to answer questions about the fates of the King, Suffolk, and Somerset is followed by the arrest of the necromancers by York and Buckingham, so the spirit works against Eleanor rather than for her; moreover his predictions, although correct, are useless not only to her but to those whose deaths they forecast, since York dismisses them as nonsense (I.iv.60 ff.). In Part II the devils tell the truth: it is human beings who ignore or corrupt it.

This sketch of the supernaturalism in Parts I and II may well remind us of Dr. Faustus, whose search for knowledge through diabolic means also destroys him and gives him correct information upon which he cannot act. But unless we accept 1588 and not 1592 as the date of Dr. Faustus, we must look elsewhere for a source. Since the problem of the date is so vexed, I think we shall do better with a play whose date is fixed: Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.23

There is one striking parallel: an early proof of Bacon's powers is his seeing through the disguise of Prince Edward, the heir to the throne (scene v), just as Joan saw through the Dauphin's. Like Joan's, Friar Bacon's black magic24 is initially deployed for patriotic purposes, winning the King's approval by defeating the German court magician, Vandermast, in a contest treated by all present as an entertainment; his intervention to prevent the marriage of Margaret and Lacy by striking Friar Bungay mute is also more diverting than culpable. With the failure of the Brazen Head project the tone becomes more somber: Bacon admits that “I have dived into hell / And sought the darkest palaces of fiends” (xi.9 ff.), that he has boasted “more than a man might boast” (xi.127). And when two students, looking into his crystal, see their fathers kill each other, whereupon they do likewise, he reproaches himself: “Bacon, thy magic doth effect this massacre” (xiii.75). But unlike Faustus,25 he recognizes the availability of grace for repentance and is accepted into the final festive banquet.

Shakespeare may be said to have split Bacon's attitude toward his magic into two parts: Joan dies unrepentant and cursing, Eleanor repents and is forgiven. Like Greene, Shakespeare also relates the supernatural theme to other themes in his play.26 For example, the Dauphin/Joan relationship is, as I noted earlier, reflective of the corruption of France; again, Joan's ambiguous nature (now saint, now witch) reflects the ambiguity of Fate in the play, the “bad, revolting stars” and “planets of mishap” (I.i.2, 4) whose government of human affairs seems arbitrary. In his emphasis on the sinister aspects of magic Shakespeare seems more akin to Friar Bacon, for all its prevalent festivity, than to Dr. Faustus.


The device of the triangular love-relationship goes back at least as far as the rivalry between good and bad angels for the soul of Everyman. But as far as history plays are concerned, the starting-point—seen as such despite its apparently irrelevant subject-matter because of its close connection with Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay27—is Lyly's Campaspe, in which the emperor Alexander and the painter Apelles contend for the love of the eponymous heroine, a slave-girl. Alexander's love makes him neglect his duties as a prince/warlord. And when, at the end of the play, he renounces Campaspe and resumes his kingly dignity, he comments, “It were a shame Alexander should desire to commaund the world, if he could not commaund himselfe” (V.iv.150 ff.). The link here established between the ruler's government of the state and of himself (deriving perhaps from such moralities as Magnificence) and the thematic connection, often worked into image-patterns, between making love and making war, run through “romance” histories and appear in the Henry VI plays. Similarly, in Friar Bacon the triangle Edward/Lacy/Margaret corresponds to that of Alexander/Apelles/Campaspe. Again we see that the suitors are one royal, one noble, with the object of bringing home to Edward the definition of true kingship and power. He soliloquizes:

Edward, art thou that famous Prince of Wales
Who at Damasco beat the Saracens
And brought'st home triumph on thy lance's point,
And shall thy plumes be pulled by Venus down?
Is it princely to dissever lover's leagues,
To part such friends as glory in their loves?
Leave, Ned, and make a virtue of this fault,
And further Peg and Lacy in their loves.
So in subduing fancy's passion,
Conquering thyself, thou get'st the richest spoil.


Lacy has been sent to woo on Edward's behalf, but has fallen in love with Margaret himself, thus encountering the danger (not faced by Apelles) not merely of betraying his Prince but of wronging his friend. Yet by forcing Edward to rise to his own best self he does perform a subject's service.

In James IV there are three triangles: James/Dorothea/Ida, James/Ida/Eustace, and Dorothea (as a man)/Anderson/Lady Anderson. The conflicts are correspondingly less straightforward. James wrestles with a temptation one stage on from Edward's: his love is for a married woman, so the dilemma involves a sin rather than a social gaffe. He is flattered by the parasite Ateukin into believing that as a king he may murder his wife Dorothea. But he is afraid of Eustace, and his oscillations between superhuman pride and subhuman terror are finally resolved by repentance (V.vi.25-39). Thereafter our main interest is in Dorothea, who, in male disguise, is “wooed” (adulterously!) by Lady Anderson—an episode which reflects back on James because, since this “love” cannot be developed,28 we can detachedly evaluate an attraction as unnatural as James's. Ironically Dorothea flees the Court to save her marriage only to imperil someone else's. Yet when Lady Anderson discovers her mistake she finds her experience of love enlarged (“Although not as I desired, I love you well,” V.v.57), and Dorothea extends to her the same compassion which she later (V.v.67-71, V.vi.160-72) extends to James. Greene in this play is using his character-relationships not merely the better to define kingship but also, in a fashion looking back to Lyly and forward to the Shakespeare of As You Like It and Twelfth Night, to present an anatomy of love: sexual, Platonic, egocentric, admiring. Through the characters' experiences he suggests the balance of self-knowledge and self-forgetfulness which makes for emotional stability.

In Fair Em we again have a monarch (William) rivaling a courtier (Lubeck) for the love of a girl (Mariana). But there are three important new elements: William does his courting in disguise;29 Mariana is of his own rank; and the author constructs a parallel situation in Manchester, where Em is courted by Mountney, Valingford, and Manvile, the last-named (whom she loves) deserting her for Elner when she feigns blindness to deter the other two. The constancy of Mariana and Em contrasts with the deceit of William and Manvile, so the exploration of “kingliness” cuts across social divisions. William's reflections initially follow the usual lines: “Must a Conqueror at armes / Disclose himself thrald to vnarmed thoughts / And threatned of a shaddowe, yeeld to lust?” (ll. 37-39). But he is too swayed by appearances: he goes to Denmark to woo Blanch, the King's daughter, but comes to prefer Mariana, who thwarts his plan to smuggle her to England by substituting Blanch for herself. When William discovers this he becomes churlish and misogynistic (“vtterly I doe abhore their sex,” l. 1404), but on hearing of Em's ruse he recognizes the parallel, admits that he has acted as shabbily as Manvile, and marries Blanch, bestowing Em on Valingford. This resolution is, however, purely conventional tidying-up: William is not shown to undergo any genuine enlightenment; his final act of bounty is capricious; and, unlike Alexander, Edward, or James, he has learned nothing from his experience. By implication, the play criticizes power that makes demands upon others that are not made to apply equally to the wielder of power himself.

In George a Greene King James of Scotland is attracted to Jane a Barley, whose husband is away at the wars; George a Greene and Sir Gilbert Armstrong (honest yeoman and nobleman) are rivals for Bettris, daughter of old Grime. In Sherwood Forest, Maid Marian is jealous of Bettris' reputed beauty and browbeats Robin Hood to “beate the Pinner for the loue of me” (l. 941). The debilitating effects of love on one's military strength are again clearly shown in James, whose siege of Jane's castle is interrupted by his old enemy Musgrove (scene v), who beats him. By contrast, George and Robin, both true lovers and hardy fighters, accept each other as equals. To extend the anatomy of love, George's boy Wily, dressed as a girl, frees Bettris from the imprisonment to which Grime has confined her, whereupon Grime falls in love with Wily (scene vii: a reverse of the James IV situation). In this play, however, there is no serious dilemma for a monarch, and the treatment of love is distanced by comic business and offers no thoughtful exploration or fruitful ambiguity.

We must not neglect the “Countess” scenes in Edward III, since Acts I and II, which contain them, are probably (partly?) by Shakespeare. Acts III, IV, and V, once thought to be unrelated additions, have since been recognized as thematically connected to Acts I and II: having successfully withstood the temptation posed by the Countess, the King can be victorious in the subsequent war against France and can pass on his wisdom to his son, the Black Prince. The play is in the line of descent from Campaspe, as two previous critics have noted,30 and in its treatment of princely education it anticipates the similar examination, made via the Hal/Hotspur contrasts, in 1 Henry IV. The two “sections” of the play are also integrated in terms of imagery, love being seen as a war (e.g. II.i.101 ff.) and vice-versa (e.g. III.iii.27-30).31 The central oppositions (King as lover/warlord, psychological/internecine conflict) are carefully treated. The Countess brings Edward to his senses by demanding that he kill his Queen and her husband, and, when he agrees, by declaring that she will kill herself. She has a moderation not to be found in him: “That power of love, that I have power to give, / Thou hast with all devout obedience …” (II.i). The search for equilibrium in self and state is enacted dynamically by the formal complementarity of the plot-structure and by integrated imagery, in what is the most mature realization of the love-triangle we have yet discussed.

When we ask to what use Shakespeare put this convention in the Henry VI plays we look first at the role of Joan and Margaret in Part I. As has often been noted, the exit of the cursing and captured Joan is, surely deliberately, followed at once by the entry of Margaret and the no less “enchanted” Suffolk, who recognizes the magical effect of her beauty:32

Be what thou wilt, thou art my prisoner. [Gazes on her.]
O fairest beauty, do not fear nor fly!
For I will touch thee but with reverent hands,
And lay them gently on thy tender side.
I kiss these fingers for eternal peace.


The language is that of hushed reverence, ornate in a manner quite unlike anything we have had before in the play. It becomes more so in an aside of Suffolk's:

                    I have no power to let her pass;
My hand would free her, but my heart says no.
As plays the sun upon the glassy streams,
Twinkling another counterfeited beam,
So seems this gorgeous beauty to mine eyes.


The lyrical note stops abruptly as Suffolk rebukes himself, just as Alexander, Edward, and William have done before him:

Fie, de la Pole! disable not thyself;
Hast not a tongue? Is she not prisoner 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.


Suffolk admits that his sense of military conquest is itself conquered by Margaret's “princely majesty,” which is her form of sovereignty. In the succeeding lines he responds to her questions only with asides, until she doubts his sanity:

How canst thou tell she will deny thy suit,
Before thou make a trial of her love? …
She's beautiful, and therefore to be woo'd;
She is a woman, therefore to be won. …(33)
Fond man, remember that thou hast a wife;
Then how can Margaret be thy paramour? …
I'll win this Lady Margaret. For whom?
Why, for my king! Tush, that's a wooden thing!

(V.iii.75-76, 78-79, 81-82, 88-89)

Nonetheless he woos her ostensibly on Henry's behalf—even though Henry has contracted to marry Armagnac's daughter (V.i.17). We notice the ethical choices here—monogamy vs. adultery, loyalty to Henry vs. treachery—exactly as before. Suffolk temporarily subdues his passion (V.iii.186-88), but his speech concluding the play, after Henry has been talked into the match, reveals his true intentions: “Margaret shall now be Queen, and rule the King; / But I will rule both her, the King, and realm” (V.v.107-8).

The link with Friar Bacon and its congeners is clear. It has been remarked by Professor Brockbank, but I think he misinterprets it: “In Greene's play the courtship is an engaging frolic merely, while here 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.”34 The assumption of what is proper to “chronicle” history limits Brockbank here. In Greene's play the courtship has a perfectly serious, even sinister, aspect, which is cushioned by the mode but not obliterated; Shakespeare develops from Greene rather than against him. In Part II the liaison is fully developed along lines similar to the Isabella/Mortimer affair in Edward II (1591-93),35 and when Henry unexpectedly banishes Suffolk the latter takes leave of Margaret in terms which indicate the change in his character:

'Tis not the land I care for, wert thou thence;
A wilderness is populous enough,
So Suffolk had thy heavenly company:
For where thou art, there is the world itself,
With every several pleasure in the world,
And where thou art not, desolation.


Suffolk's political ambition has been rendered insignificant by his personal involvement with Margaret, although this is a political fact also and is the first appearance in Shakespeare's work of his favorite theme of the ruler's private and public selves. In “romance” history the love-triangle is presented less for purposes of psychological verisimilitude than as a pattern of attitudes: Shakespeare invites us to consider the pressures working from both within and without upon individuals. The next time we see Margaret she is holding Suffolk's head (he has been killed by Royalists in IV.i) and mourning, while all around her news pours in of the rising rebellion. Like Vindice's address to the skull at the opening of The Revenger's Tragedy, this spectacle functions both as a memento mori and as a gloss upon the political ambitions of courtiers and commoners alike. What began as a “romance” episode, with elegant compliment and wordplay, ends as a “chronicle” one, with an implied warning against lust and greed. Yet the “romance” background enables us to see the development in proper perspective, and the critic who dismisses all the Suffolk/Margaret episodes as “made up of sentimental claptrap out of metrical romance, carrying on at the moment in fashionable love-pamphlets and romantic comedies,”36 displays sad limitations.


I wish now to consider the use of disguise.

In a brilliant article relating the disguise of Shakespeare's Henry V to “romance” histories, including George a Greene, Edward I, and Fair Em, Anne Barton has argued that Henry V recalls yet dismisses the fantasy of equality expressed by the fiction of the King moving and speaking as a man among men: “a nostalgic but false romanticism.”37 But it is not only at the end of his career as a dramatist of English history that Shakespeare shows interest in this idea. An earlier instance of disguise occurs in the trilogy, in Part III, and the person disguised is the King.

Behind this episode lie the disguises of William, Edward in Friar Bacon, Dorothea in James IV, and Edward and James in George a Greene. Disguise occurs, of course, in The Comedy of Errors (with debts to Gascoigne's Supposes [1566] and to Plautus) and in Titus Andronicus (V.ii, apparently influenced by the Morality), but 3 Henry VI presents us with far subtler uses of the device than do the other two plays. The loss of personality consequent upon disguise is, in comedy, the signal for chaos and amusement; but it is also a signal for the release of inhibitions. Hence, paradoxically, a character can discover, through disguise, his or her “real” nature. In tragedy, on the other hand, loss of the self usually leads to disturbance, madness or even death. Shakespeare approaches such a moment in Egeon's perplexity (Comedy of Errors, V.i.307-18), only to retreat from it again; while in Titus Andronicus the device is merely the medium through which a moral emblem can be staged.38

Against this background we can review disguise in the “romance” histories. In Friar Bacon its function is initially to secure Margaret for Edward, who has been courting her in green (note the Robin Hood associations). Lacy woos her on Edward's behalf in disguise; Ralph, the fool, dresses as the Prince, only to be exposed by Bacon. Thereafter the motif is abandoned. The moral, if we are to seek one, is that true nobility will out (as in the scene between Joan and the Dauphin discussed earlier). But latent here is a distinction between physical and mental disguise: men may hide from themselves as much as from other men. In James IV this becomes explicit, and disguise is, as I argued earlier, both a comment on the deceptions in the characters' lives and a means of dispelling those deceptions. Similarly when William in Fair Em goes to Denmark under the name of Sir Robert Windsor, his disguise suggests the superficiality of his character. When judged against the moral victories obtained by Alexander or Edward III, he is seen to have very little stable identity. Thus, although disguise (or in Em's case deception, which tells her the truth about her suitors) as a medium for the exploration of love is central, it is the other characters who learn, William profiting little because his character is so vaguely defined. By contrast the kings in George a Greene test the worth of George, who ironically takes them for “some pesants / Trickt in yoemans weeds” (ll. 1142-43) and scorns their seemingly cowardly refusal to obey the Wakefield custom of fighting the shoemaker. After he has fought the shoemaker himself, the stage directions read: “Enter the Earle of Warwicke with other noble men, bringing out the Kings garments: then George a Greene and the rest kneele down to the King” (ll. 1190-94 s.d.). Previously in the play there have been three “kings,” each the chief of his own society—Edward (Court), George (Provinces), Robin (Forest)—but in this final unifying emblem they converge upon the single figure who is representatively inclusive of them all, and who then restores Bettris to George. Yet the King is no mere benevolent manipulator as William is. Grime agrees to the marriage thanks to a stratagem of George's (the disguising of Wily), not that of the King's, and George limits the King's bounty by politely refusing a knighthood because “'tis more credite to men of base degree, / To do great deeds, than men of dignitie” (ll. 1316-17). His innate nobility makes such token honors pointless. Of all the chief men in the play he alone has never assumed a disguise, never pretended to be what he is not: a knighthood would, after a fashion, be such a pretense.39

In dramatizing Henry's disguise, then, Shakespeare had available a wide range of significances, from the use of disguise solely to promote confusion, to its use as a means of self-discovery. Henry enters a deer-park where keepers are hiding for their quarry (with an obvious symbolic meaning). They recognize him immediately; he has never been adept at dissimulation and, indeed, much of his trouble springs from his inability to tell the political lie. He soliloquizes about how Margaret and Warwick will play on the French King's emotions to win his support either for or against the newly-installed King Edward IV. We then have this exchange:

Say, what art thou that talk'st of kings and queens?
K. Hen.
More than I seem, and less than I was born to:
A man at least, for less I should not be;
And men may talk of Kings, and why not I?
Ay, but thou talk'st as if thou wert a king.
K. Hen.
Why, so I am, in mind: and that's enough.


Henry may be speaking “in character,” but the whole point of his story is that it is not enough. In “romance” history the basis of the pretended equality between monarch and subject is their unspoken agreement that this is only a temporary convention; the monarch's condescension is in itself an aspect of his superiority. But Henry is too equable to want any outward pomp with which to express his position—we have consistently seen him refusing to behave like a king—and when the Keepers ask where his crown is, he answers “in my heart, not on my head … Nor to be seen: my crown is call'd content; / A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy” (III.i.62, 64-65). The Keepers declare their intention to arrest him, dismissing his objection that they are oath-breakers with “we were subjects but while you were King” (III.i.81). Henry tries to snub them—“Such is the lightness of you common men” (III.i.89)—but his fatal decency reasserts itself:

But do not break your oaths; for of that sin
My mild entreaty shall not make you guilty.
Go where you will, the King shall be commanded;
And be you kings; command, and I'll obey. …
.....… your king's name [Edward] be obey'd:
And what God will, that let your king perform;
And what he will, I humbly yield unto.

(III.i.90-93, 98-100)

In disguise, Henry shows that he is a greater anarchist than the most fervent of his opponents. To have the position of King without a commanding nature, or to be regal in nature although deprived of the position, are equally dangerous in a world of crafty politicians. The democratic fiction of the “romance” history here becomes a literal fact: the keepers are kings, but indeed they are more, since they command the King. Instead of a rigid hierarchical system we see Henry taking the pragmatic view that might gives right; the discovery of the disguise is ours as well as his. The point recurs when Edward, in his turn, is captured by Warwick, formerly one of his chief supporters:

Yet, Warwick, in despite of all mischance,
Of thee thyself and all thy complices,
Edward will always bear himself as king.
Though Fortune's malice overthrow my state,
My mind exceeds the compass of her wheel.
War. Then, for his mind, be Edward England's King. …


Shakespeare has seen to the heart of the disguise convention. He is becoming interested in mental disguise, and it is only fitting that at the end of the trilogy there should erupt upon the stage, with wicked attractiveness and manic energy of speech, the arch shape-shifter, master of a thousand disguises, Richard of Gloucester.

It is through disguise that Shakespeare makes his reflections upon the nature of kingship, a central topic in the history-play but one about which “romance” and “chronicle” plays stress different elements. The former tend to take a comic view of it (“comic” in the medieval sense), concentrating on the representative inclusiveness of the monarch, on the sense of national unity born of common ideals, on the preservation of the succession through peaceful continuity. The latter tend toward a tragic view, pointing to the various forces—enmity, jealousy, greed—which divide men and nations and set them at each other's throats. In the plays discussed in this article we have seen representative kings (Henry in Friar Bacon, Edward in George a Greene, and we might add the King in Jack Straw), kings involved in personal conflict (Alexander, James in George a Greene, Edward III, William), kings combining both roles (William). Other royal figures (Edward in Friar Bacon, the Black Prince in Edward III) may suffer analogous trials before they learn the meaning of kingship. The governing mode of all these plays is, however, romance, and suffering is rarely closely engaged. A complementary picture emerges from Peele's Edward I (where the King rises above the corruption of his court but comes near to being tainted by it), Edward II, Woodstock, and the Henry VI trilogy, which begins with prolonged lamentations for the dead paragon, Henry V, and examines in turn Henry VI, Edward IV, and the future Richard III, only to find them all radically flawed, weak, or wicked. Yet at the back of this “chronicle” view lies a “romance” world whose echoes remind us of the gap between the ideal of monarchy and the inadequacy of those called upon to embody it.


A recent critic has written a book interpreting Shakespeare's histories as studies in a postlapsarian world of lost innocence populated by outcasts from the Garden of Eden.40 The spatial structure, not only of Shakespearean plays but of their predecessors, frequently uses conventional antitheses of pastoral (court vs. country, formal garden vs. wilderness, civilization vs. barbarism) as a shorthand for the conflict of values in which the playwrights are interested. Such a scheme is clearly basic to Friar Bacon with its triple locatons—Court/Oxford/Suffolk—the last-named giving the cue for the lyrical expression of patriotism and the assertion of a spontaneous joy in life to which the sumptuousness of the Court and the sophistication of Oxford form marked contrasts. Again, when Dorothea in James IV goes wandering into the Forest in man's clothing, her indeterminate environment reflects both her ostensible purpose, a knightly quest, and her real one, a search for new understanding of herself. Again there is an implied criticism of the Court with its network of deceit and intrigue, although in Lady Anderson Dorothea meets a problem as testing as any at Court, showing that the real stability is in herself. In Fair Em Manchester, the Court, and Denmark are analogous rather than opposed, Em and Mariana continuing Dorothea's role as women whose integrity triumphs over their environment. George a Greene shows us the Court, Wakefield, and the Forest, each ruled by a king literal or metaphorical, where the only menace comes from outside (the rebellion by James and the Earl of Kendal). This is appropriate, since one of the purposes of the play, as I argued, is to show nobility operating throughout society. The “green world” of gardens, descending from the prototype, Eden, exists in comedy as a world of licensed release, where characters can act in ways prohibited at Court and so discover things about themselves which they could not otherwise have known.41

In the light of this it is interesting to note how many scenes in the Henry VI trilogy are located, on evidence from the text, in gardens. In Part I there is the Temple Garden scene (II.iv). In Part II we have the conjuring in Gloucester's garden (I.iv), York's exposition of his claim to the throne (II.ii, set in a “closed walk,” i.e. a private path), and Iden's execution of Cade (IV.x). In Part III, although there are no gardens proper, we may include the “laund” of III.i in which the Keepers capture Henry, “laund” being “an open space of grass among trees,”42 and the “park” (IV.v.3) in which Edward is released. These are all events which, in various ways, threaten the Court, so their location is entirely appropriate.43 Moreover, the choice of this setting is Shakespeare's, and some of the scenes are his own invention. I suggest that he may have been prompted by the “romance” histories.

I shall confine detailed discussion to the execution of Cade, which is the most interesting of the episodes. The resemblance (not to be overstressed or inflated into an allegory) between the names “Iden” and “Cade” and “Eden” and “Cain” should alert us to ambiguities in Iden's predictable reflections on his suburban paradise: “Lord! who would live turmoiled in the Court, / And may enjoy such quiet walks as these?” (IV.x.16 ff.). Such a life is to him “worth a monarchy” (IV.x.19): the tone anticipates Henry's famous soliloquy in Part III (II.v), in which he hankers after the pastoral life. Yet the slaughterhouse and animal instinct invade Iden's Eden and he has no choice but to draw the sword, bringing down Cade's dying curse, not on himself but on the 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” (IV.x.62-64). This scene has been dismissed as “a perfunctory expression of the ideal,”44 but it is surely not so simple. What we see is Iden's recognition that his little kingdom affords no protection from postlapsarian human nature, with its susceptibility to destructiveness and death. He cannot shut himself away from the political tug-of-war, but must bear Cade's body to the King and (unlike George a Greene) accept a knighthood and be taken into the King's service (V.i.64-82). This prompts the reflection that Iden's situation in the garden and Henry's in the park are parallel: both are men who thought to escape the exigencies of political responsibility but discover that monarchy of the mind is insufficient.

Compare with this incident the “Countess” scene in Part I, which as late as 1965 could be written off by a critic as “a pointless excrescence.”45 As A. S. Cairncross notes, the Countess' summons to Talbot is “fictitious, but probably suggested by the Robin Hood cycle”;46 the scene is the most direct evidence of “romance” material in the trilogy, but it uses such material only to undermine it. Talbot's response to the invitation, “Nay, then I see our wars / Will turn unto a peaceful comic sport” (II.ii.44-45), with its evocations of the love/war link in other plays we have considered, and the Countess' typically “romance” invitation to him and his men to eat with her—these mark off a world where courtoisie is more important than international warfare, a private world like Iden's but, also like Iden's, a precarious dream. The Countess and the courtly atmosphere she brings with her disappear from the play, and Talbot dies, scorned by Joan as “stinking and flyblown” (IV.vii.76).47


I wish, in concluding, to make very clear exactly what I do and do not claim to have proven. I do not claim to have proven—since the matter is incapable of proof—that Shakespeare had read the “romance” histories discussed here. But I hope to have demonstrated parallels which, cumulatively rather than individually, make it more difficult to deny that he had. Even if this claim is denied, I suggest that consideration of the “romance” plays throws light upon Shakespeare's interests and techniques in the first trilogy—light which is not shed by a consideration of the non-dramatic chronicles, which oblige us to ask ourselves whether it is more likely that Shakespeare invented all these strategies ex nihilo, or that he adapted material he found to hand. No other works I can think of tell us so much about the background against which Shakespeare ventured into historical drama as do these much-neglected, much-derided plays. Given what we know of Shakespeare's habits later in his career, I am compelled to believe that he is to the history-play as he is to comedy and tragedy—not a man working in isolation but a transmuter and transformer, to an unparalleled degree and with an unmatched genius, of existing forms and conventions.


  1. F. P. Wilson, Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 108. Fresh support has recently come from Antony Hammond, who in his New Arden edition of Richard III (London: Methuen, 1981) declares he sees “no reason to dissent” from Wilson's view (p. 115).

  2. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960), III.

  3. Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977).

  4. Cairncross, 1 Henry VI, pp. xxxi-xxxvii.

  5. See Lavin, p. xii.

  6. See Sanders, pp. xxv-xxix.

  7. The allusion at line 47 to Tamburlaine (S. R., 14 August 1590) looks like a topicality. For the authorship see H. D. Sykes, “Robert Greene and George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield,Review of English Studies, 7 (1931), 129-36; 9 (1933), 189-90; and C. A. Pennel, “Robert Greene and ‘King or Kaisar,’” English Language Notes, 3 (1965-66), 24-26.

  8. Satirized by Greene in Farewell to Folly (1591).

  9. See I. A. Shapiro, “The Significance of a Date,” Shakespeare Survey, 8 (1955), 100-105, and H. F. Brooks's New Arden ed. of A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Methuen, 1979), p. lxvi and nn. 1 and 2.

  10. Cf. “We must remember that to most Elizabethans Randolph, Earl of Chester and other characters in Mundy's John a Kent … were figures just as historical as those in Sir Thomas More” (I. A. Shapiro, “Shakespeare and Mundy,” Shakespeare Survey, 14 [1961], 29).

  11. Hardin Craig, “Shakespeare and the History Play” in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, eds. Brander Matthews and Ashley H. Thorndike (Folger Shakespeare Library: Washington, D.C., 1948), p. 56 (on 2 Henry VI, my italics).

  12. Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957; rev. ed., London: Methuen, 1965), p. 25, my italics.

  13. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944), p. 111, on The Famous Victories, Edward I, and Jack Straw among others; my italics.

  14. See Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare as Collaborator (London: Methuen, 1960), pp. 31-55, and I. Koskenniemi, “Themes and Imagery in Edward III,Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 65 (1964), pp. 446-80.

  15. The pioneering rehabilitation work was done by Hereward T. Price, Construction in Shakespeare (Univ. of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, 17: Ann Arbor, Mich., 1951). Among recent books on the trilogy see especially David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: “Henry VI” and its Literary Tradition (Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971) and E. I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1975).

  16. Schlegel apparently first applied this term to the histories (see Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship [London: Chapman and Hall, 1841: 1894 ed.], p. 267), and it was taken up by John Addington Symonds, Shakspeare's Predecessors in the English Drama (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1884), pp. 364-65; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 166; A. S. Cairncross, ed. Part 1, p. xli; C. R. Forker, “Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays as Historical-Pastoral,” Shakespeare Studies, 1 (1965), 86; and F. P. Wilson, Shakespearian and other Studies, ed. H. Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 18.

  17. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, III (London: Routledge, 1960), 168.

  18. Cf. Eleanor's “I will not be slack / To play my part in Fortune's pageant” (Part 1, I.ii. 66-67): Cairncross glosses “pageant” with reference to the Mysteries. Affinities between the trilogy and the Mystery cycles have also been discussed by A. P. Rossiter, “Prognosis on a Shakespeare Problem,” Durham University Journal, 33 (1941), 136; E. W. Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1963), p. 175; and Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 31-84 (an outstandingly good treatment).

  19. As assumed by, e.g., D. L. Frey, The First Tetralogy: Shakespeare's Scrutiny of the Tudor Myth: A Dramatic Exploration of Divine Providence (The Hague: Mouton, 1976). The Providentialist view is penetratingly criticized by A. L. French in three articles: “Joan of Arc and Henry VI,English Studies, 49 (1968), 452-59; “Henry VI and the Ghost of Richard II,” English Studies, 50 (1969), Supplement, xxxviii-xliii; and “The Mills of God and Shakespeare's Early History Plays,” English Studies, 55 (1974), 313-24.

  20. See G. K. Hunter, “Henry IV and the Elizabethan Two-Part Play,” Review of English Studies, NS, 5 (1954), 236-48, and, more generally, J. M. R. Margeson, “Dramatic Form: The Huntingdon Plays,” Studies in English Literature, 14 (1974), 223-38. I am preparing a fresh discussion of two-part structure in a separate article.

  21. Noted by D. M. Bevington, “The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI,” Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1966), 52-53.

  22. Compare the rivalry between the Queen and Mary Bearmber, Mayoress of London, in Peele's Edward I. Shakespeare's treatment of Eleanor's downfall may have influenced that of Mistress Shore in Heywood's 1 and 2 Edward IV (1599).

  23. Shakespeare certainly used this play in Richard II: see P. Mortensen and J. A. Davis, “A Source for Richard II, II.i.40-68,” Notes and Queries, 220 (1975), 167-68.

  24. See F. Towne, “‘White Magic’ in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay?Modern Language Notes. 67 (1952), 9-13.

  25. There is evidently a relationship between the plays, but the uncertainty about the date of Faustus makes its direction impossible to determine.

  26. Margaret's beauty is dangerous in its power, and the contest between the magicians parallels the rivalry of Edward and Lacy for Margaret (See William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral [London: Chatto and Windus, 1935; Penguin ed., 1966], pp. 32-33).

  27. Since this article was written, a full account of the dependence of Friar Bacon upon Campaspe has been published by Charles Hieatt, “A New Source for Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,Review of English Studies, NS, 32 (1981), 180-87.

  28. Interestingly, Lyly in Gallathea (1583-85) had explored just such a relationship and had resolved it by a supernaturally-effected sex-change.

  29. The first monarch to disguise himself onstage, according to V. O. Freeburg, Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1915), p. 161.

  30. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 151; I. Koskenniemi, op. cit. above, n. 14, p. 448.

  31. Noted by Koskenniemi, p. 459.

  32. Is it mere coincidence that the rural setting of Friar Bacon is Suffolk? That both enchantresses should be called Margaret is also interesting.

  33. Cf. Richard III, I.iii.227 ff.

  34. “The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI” in J. R. Brown and B. Harris, eds., Early Shakespeare (Stratford-on-Avon Studies: London: Arnold, 1961), III, 81.

  35. Cairncross, note on III.ii.299 ff., compares the parting of the lovers (quoted in the text) to that of Edward and Gaveston. H. F. Brooks, “Marlowe and Early Shakespeare,” in B. Morris, ed., Christopher Marlowe (London: Benn, 1968), pp. 72-73, presents a strong case for dating Edward II late 1591, after the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III.

  36. T. H. McNeal, “Margaret of Anjou: Romantic Princess and Troubled Queen,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 3.

  37. “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,” in J. G. Price, ed., The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 92-117 (quoted phrase from p. 99). For an extension of her argument, relating Henry V to other romance conventions, see my article “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 32 (1981), 18-27. Subsequently a complementary, although independent, discussion has been published by J. Altieri, “Romance in Henry V,SEL, [Studies in English Literature] 21 (1981), 223-40.

  38. See New Arden ed. of Titus Andronicus by J. C. Maxwell (London: Methuen, 1953; 3rd ed., 1961), Appendix by H. F. Brooks, pp. 131-32.

  39. Similarly Walworth in Jack Straw, and Shore in Heywood's Edward IV, refuse knighthoods for helping to quash rebellion.

  40. John Wilders, The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1978).

  41. See Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965).

  42. Cairncross' note on III.i.2.

  43. Other effects in Shakespeare's later work which should be seen against this background are the Garden scene in Richard II and Prince John's act of treachery in Gaultree Forest (2 Henry IV, IV.i).

  44. R. B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1971), p. 57.

  45. Marco Mincoff, “The Composition of Henry IV, Part I,Shakespeare Quarterly, 16 (1965), 279. For a more sensible account see D. M. Bevington's article cited above, n. 21.

  46. Note on II.ii.

  47. For an excellent analysis of the theatrical images in the “Countess” scene see Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare, pp. 144-47. Jones concludes that “Shakespeare is alluding to the nature of the imaginative work he is engaged in as the author of a new kind of history-play” (my italics).

Editions followed in quotations from, and references to, the main plays discussed in this paper are: 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI, ed. A. S. Cairncross (New Arden edition) (London: Methuen; Part 1, 1962; Part 2, 1957; Part 3, 1964); Campaspe, ed. R. W. Bond, in The Works of John Lyly (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1902), II; Edward III, ed. W. A. Armstrong, in Elizabethan History Plays (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965); Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter of Manchester, ed. W. W. Greg (Malone Society Reprints) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1927); Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, ed. J. A. Lavin (New Mermaids) (London: Benn, 1969); George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield, ed. F. W. Clarke and W. W. Greg (Malone Society Reprints) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1911); James IV, ed. N. Sanders (Revels Plays) (London: Methuen, 1970). Editions of other plays incidentally referred to will be cited in footnotes.

Barbara Hodgdon (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hodgdon, Barbara. “Making it New: Katie Mitchell Refashions Shakespeare-History.” In Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women's Re-Visions in Literature and Performance, edited by Marianne Novy, pp. 13-33. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Hodgdon demonstrates how Katie Mitchell's 1994 production of Henry VI, Part 3 shifted the play's focus from its male to its female characters, thus emphasizing the theme of survival rather than nationalism.]

I begin with a familiar text, Thomas Heywood's rave review of “our domesticke hystories”:

What English blood, seeing the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his fame, and hunnye at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best wishes, and as being wrapt in contemplation, offers to him in his hart all prosperous performance, as if the Personator were the man Personated, so bewitching a thing is lively and well spirited action, that it hath power to new mold the harts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.1

Heywood accords theatrical representation a doubled power: it not only makes the dead live again but also refashions spectators into subjects who identify with a specifically English heritage, one premised on and inspired by their forefathers' “noble and notable” deeds. Addressed primarily to male spectators, Heywood's comments serve as a touchstone for recent narratives about the power and popularity of Shakespeare's histories on the early modern stage. More specifically, his words ground conjectures about how those plays functioned within the social imaginary, both to remasculinize late Elizabethan culture and to participate in the patriotic project of nation-building that characterized the late 1590s and early 1600s.2

Although it risks collapsing one history into another, it is not entirely irresponsible to argue that “Shakespeare-history” serves a similar function in the twentieth-century social imaginary, especially in Britain since World War II, where stagings of the plays repeatedly have been aligned with celebrations of national identity. What immediately comes to mind, of course, is Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Henry V. As though explicitly evoking Heywood's ghost, Olivier dedicated his film to “the Commandoes and Airborne Troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture”; in representing an especially timely vision of an England “peopled with heroes” and led by a hero-king, the film invites its spectators to identify with, even to emulate, the patriotic ideals it puts on offer.3 Several years later, Stratford's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre staged 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V in conjunction with the 1951 Festival of Britain, inaugurating a tradition that has consistently linked stagings of the histories with nationally subsidized theatrical companies, especially but not exclusively the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose (male) artistic directors have repeatedly mobilized the plays to mark moments in their own professional and institutional histories. Peter Hall and John Barton's The Wars of the Roses (1964), for instance, restructured the long-neglected early histories into three well-made plays; in the mid- to late 1970s, Terry Hands marked the histories with a structuralist stamp; and Trevor Nunn chose 1 and 2 Henry IV to celebrate the 1982 opening of the RSC's new London home at the Barbican Theatre.4 The most recent attempt to fit the early histories into dominant tetralogy thinking generated several monumental theatrical marathons, among them Adrian Noble's The Plantagenets (1988), a compilation in the Barton-Hall tradition of slimmed-down, reconstituted narratives subscribing to the myth of linear historical movement and representing early modern English history as a pictorial discourse. Evoking the aura of nineteenth-century theatrical representation, Noble's productions reified the past as a fancy-dress pageant filled with neo-chivalric tableaux, drum-and-trumpet marches, splendid costumes, and RSC signature stage smoke, and shot through with notable performances showcasing exemplary figures.5 Widely praised, his achievement is perhaps best summed up by Richard Edmonds, who saw it as an exercise in historical reconstruction that generated “a sense of England itself singing the clear tunes of its history.”6

I rehearse these histories in order to situate the subject of this essay: Katie Mitchell's 1994 staging of 3 Henry VI in Stratford's smallest theater, The Other Place, a performance that breaks with the traditions of theatrical representation I have just mapped out. To invoke Heywood once again, it “new molds” both narrative and spectator-subjects to refashion a different history and a different spectatorial economy. Such refashioning, I will argue, aligns with a newly historicized viewing pleasure. In exploring what that means, I want to map its traces in several ways. One strand of my argument points to those features that distinguish Mitchell's staging from previous productions of the histories; another marks how women's bodies and voices intervene in, even disrupt, a narrative centered on constructing masculine kings and re-engendering a dynastic heritage. How, I want to ask, do women's performative bodies function as levers to decenter those narratives? How do such performances serve to open up spaces in which alternative histories can be discerned and to offer sites from which spectators can re-perform those histories? In addressing these questions, I contextualize my own responses as a historically situated spectator in relation to the review discourse surrounding the performance—a move that, at least in part, will demonstrate how individual spectators' accounts are empowered and restricted in unique ways.

Given the present climate of cultural critique, many automatically assume that stagings mounted by women directors, especially those who, like Mitchell, have publicly espoused ideals of social and economic equality and have attracted notice within a primarily masculinist theatrical meritocracy, will be “feminist” productions. Speaking to this point, Gale Edwards, director of the RSC's recent The Taming of the Shrew (1995), remarked in an interview with Kate Alderson: “People don't think, gee, a man is going to direct King Lear, this'll be really good because a man is directing. … It's part of what [Shrew] is about, isn't it?”7 Although 3 Henry VI offers fewer opportunities than Shrew for a potentially deconstructive staging, news of Mitchell's project spawned assumptions that she might tease feminist scenarios from the plays, might retell Shakespeare's history as the story of her feminism.8 Yet this was not precisely the case. Speaking several years after the production of her anxieties about engaging with the sexism of early modern drama, Mitchell explains: “I think ultimately the best way of approaching it is to put the woman in the historical context, be as true to that as is possible, even if it is offensive, because sometimes in portraying the women as the victims they are textually, it can actually awaken people to more sense of the need for equality.”9 Situating the play in its prefeminist world, then, opens up a space for the director and her actors, as well as for spectators, to perform a cultural materialist, or materialist feminist critique. Indeed, by “attending to women” historically (to invoke the title of a notable University of Maryland conference), Mitchell's Henry VI uses Shakespeare's text to interrogate structures of hierarchy, especially those concerning gender and class relations, in a prevailingly masculinist culture. To borrow Lisa Jardine's evocative metaphor, Mitchell reweaves the historical tapestry inherited from her theatrical predecessors.10 Marking a radical shift from past as well as present stagings of Shakespeare's histories—notably Matthew Warchus's Henry V, which occupied Stratford's main stage the same year—Mitchell's production is less interested in memorializing national history than in releasing different ways of responding to traumatic national, and global, memories.


Mitchell's choice of 3 Henry VI for her first Shakespeare project seemed an odd one for a rising directorial star whose RSC career as an assistant director had included work on Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and Deborah Warner's groundbreaking Titus Andronicus; and, as a director, acclaimed productions of Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness and Ibsen's Ghosts.11 Admitting to not being “smitted” by most of Shakespeare, Mitchell was drawn to 3 Henry VI for several reasons. Part of its appeal was that it had never been performed on its own in Stratford. “That's very liberating for a director,” remarked Mitchell, “a great Shakespearean play without any ‘production luggage’ along with it. Audiences—and actors—don't come weighted down by the way it's been performed before. … [Y]ou start with a clean slate, which is very exciting.”12 Although by staging the play that made the youthful Shakespeare's reputation (in Robert Greene's famous accusation, a “tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide”) she affiliates herself with the RSC's house dramatist, Mitchell sidestepped that potential connection: “I am interested in art for change's sake, not art for art's sake, and certainly not art for my ego's sake.” When questioned further, however, she admitted a hidden agenda:

I very much wanted to respond to the situation[s] in Bosnia and Rwanda. … I wanted to present a civil war … which occurred on our own turf. Maybe this will help us view similar conflicts abroad with a cooler perspective. We need to re-observe the world through a new pair of glasses. That is why I did not want to update the play, or stuff it with graphic images from the television or newspapers. We are completely immune to modern reports of human horror anyway.13

Certainly this was not the first time that a state-subsidized production of one of Shakespeare's histories had sought to make connections with contemporary events, either by staging their traces or through accidents of historical reception. Both the London press and academic critics quickly labeled Adrian Noble's Henry V (1984) an anti-war, post-Falklands staging; when the production reached London, the scrim backing the final tableau was inscribed with the names of the Agincourt dead, paying specific homage to Maya Lin's Vietnam War memorial, which had been recently unveiled in Washington.14 More recently, Ian McKellen reports that the Royal National Theatre's Richard III (1992), set in an imaginary 1930s black-shirt regime, prompted audiences in Bucharest to cheer at Richard's death in memory of their recent freedom from Ceauşescu's tyranny.15 In Mitchell's case, however, even more directly personal as well as topical connections influenced her decision. Noting that “forty percent of the play takes the form of direct audience address, as the characters manipulate opinion in a dramatic debate about civil war,” she discerned, in the play's formal structures, an opportunity to address nontheatrical events she had observed during her research on Eastern European theater as the holder of a 1989 Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, experiences that had also energized her staging of A Woman Killed With Kindness. Speaking of herself as a “closet anthropologist,” Mitchell emphasized her ability to think and feel her way into “alien cultures, value systems, and social atmosphere” and, especially, her interest in the ways in which cultural minorities, Catholic as well as Russian Orthodox, cling to religion as a way of giving form and structure to their lives.16

Significantly, however, Mitchell does not mobilize Shakespeare's play to tell the history of another culture, nor does her staging make any attempt to turn the struggle it dramatizes into a universal phenomenon. Retitled as Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne to mark its reappearance in isolation as a “new” story, one engendered and energized by present-day contexts that demand such a retelling, Mitchell's staging offers an ethnography of England's own genocidal struggle, premised on Brechtian notions of historicized theatrical representation. As Brecht writes:

We must leave [social structures] their distinguishing marks and keep their impermanence always before our eyes, so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too. … “Historical conditions” must of course not be imagined (nor … constructed) as mysterious Powers (in the background); on the contrary, they are created and maintained by men (and will in due course be altered by them): it is the actions taking place before us that allow us to see what they are.17

In several ways, the production announced its debt to Brechtian methods. Rather than subscribing to the usual practice of privileging characters' names and ordering them in relation to each other, the production's program lists the actors' names first, in alphabetical order, followed by those of the character or characters each plays. In print, then, the actors stand apart from their roles—a move that not only erases myths of royal (and gender) hierarchies but also serves to demystify the illusion that the player is identical with the character and the performance with the actual event.18 Moreover, in advocating a type of theater that “not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself,”19 Brecht suggests the need for practitioners to understand historical differences in order to respond to them, a practice that aligns with Mitchell's own research methods, which resemble those of the alternative theater company Joint Stock, a collective ensemble committed to creating political theater, more than the traditionally director-oriented practices of the RSC.20 Her passion for giving drama direct access to non-theatrical life surfaces in several interviews with Henry VI's actors. Jonathan Firth, who played Henry VI, mentions a preparation period of historical readings on the period, and Liz Kettle, who played Lady Grey, recalls how, before going into rehearsal, the actors also went to York and Tewkesbury to visit the locales of the play's bloodiest battles. “Until then,” she observes, “I hadn't really realized that England had killing fields of its own … these fields that looked like any other were in fact places where 30,000 men had died.” Connecting that to her own experience as a production assistant on a BBC documentary in Ethiopia, where she saw firsthand the brutal aftermath of war, with rusting tanks by the side of the road, Kettle speaks of keeping these images in mind as she worked.21

This insistence on exploring material history links Mitchell's practice, within theatrical culture, to that of Deborah Warner, whose Titus Andronicus and King John (as well as her 1995 Richard II for the Royal National Theatre) model a similar attention to physical, tactile detail in order to evoke an “authentic” and “true-to-life” sense of cultural differences. Almost unanimously, reviewers praised Mitchell's production's precisely articulated recreation of a historical past. Although critics' thorough documentation of the set, props, costumes, lighting, and sound design can be attributed in part to the “close up and personal” circumstances of any staging in The Other Place, many remarked on what Nick Curtis called a “brooding, intense vision … [that] concentrates on the complexities of text and on acting” to evoke a late medieval world of ordered ceremony and gesture that, at the time of the events dramatized, was in crisis.22 Even those who, like the Sunday Times's critic, mourned the loss of “blood-soaked pageantry … huge events rocking and wrecking the country” and missed the “grand theatrical lyricism of the writing, the sense of big public passions [and] Tudor spectacle,” mentioned how, in this “symphony played by a small ensemble,” the actors' clear articulation of speeches and their ability to speak Shakespeare's early verse “as though it were modern prose” turned dynastic politics into personal arguments, conveyed with clarity and precision.23

Especially striking, however, was how critics spoke about the significant features of Mitchell's staging in terms of a sensory, even sensual, experience. Mentioning in particular the music of shawms and bagpipes, the offstage drumming and clamor that signified battle engagements, and the repetitive tolling of the bell that hung above the massive upstage doors, they were also alert to other sounds: the rushing winds and the cries of wolves and dogs baying that echoed the animalistic behavior of the mortals. Repeatedly, reviewers recalled the sound of birdsong heard in the pause before the climactic battle, evoking a natural world that counterpointed the butcheries that would cut off Lancastrian succession. Moreover, Mitchell's staging prompted critics to write their own ethnographies of mise-en-scène: the wood-bark shavings covering a rough-boarded floor, the upstage barn doors closed with a huge iron bar and dominated by a fading Bayeux tapestry-like image of St. George, and the equally faded banners, hanging right and left stage, emblazoned with the cross of St. George—signs of the realm as slaughterhouse, a farmyard milieu in which the characters themselves have become the dragons of a lost English Eden, where falling leaves, swirling snow, and a single pine tree mark seasonal cycles and the passage of time.24 Once again, Brecht offers a useful gloss: “Our enjoyment of old plays becomes greater, the more we can give ourselves up to the new kind of pleasures better suited to our time. To that end we need to develop the historical sense … into a real sensual delight. When our theatres perform plays of other periods they like to annihilate distance, fill in the gap, gloss over the differences. But what comes then of our delight in comparisons, in distance, in dissimilarity—which is at the same time a delight in what is close and proper to ourselves?”25

Clearly missing the familiar spectacle of royal packaging, Benedict Nightingale cites the irony of the play's subtitle (“The Battle for the Throne”) in relation to the item of furniture to which it refers: “what the characters battle to obtain is a squat, chunky lump, more desirable than the wooden chairs beside it only because it has arms and some rudimentary carving at the top. It goes very well with the crown, which is a flimsy band of metal with a tiny cross pathetically protruding from its front.”26 But whereas Nightingale silently evoked Peter Brook to read the production's “down-at-heel” approach as “rough theater,” others aligned Mitchell's simplified, near-diagrammatic stage space with the stark, emblematic staging of medieval morality plays.27 That connection was especially obvious in the play's allegorical signature, the molehill scene, in which Henry VI wears a symbolic crown of thorns and in which the corpses of the father killed by his son and the son killed by his father are represented by the roses of the opposing faction. As Paul Taylor writes, “when murdering kin stare with horror at what they are holding in their hands, the fragile beauty of the flower brings home … its incongruity as the logo for war and butchery.”28

Further signs of that incongruity appeared in the production's strong religious overtones, enhanced by anthems and chants sung in Latin, and in a series of powerful stage images juxtaposing Catholic ritual, ceremony, and gesture with rituals of killing. All wear armor over a kind of monastic smock that becomes increasingly broken down, stained with mud and blood, as if to symbolize the nobles' desecration of the religious ideals they pretend to espouse. Yet these warriors retain some residual memory of the Christian idealism that they constantly violate: Lancastrians and Yorkists alike swear oaths on a Bible placed on a small table, each calling for God to sanction the cyclical blood revenges that pattern the action. And, in an extraordinary moment, both sides become their own clergy as they kneel before the weathered, broken-down icon of St. George, joining together briefly to sing a Latin anthem at the walls of Coventry before drums interrupt the chant and they hack each other to pieces. If there is a presiding deity here, he exists only in the memory that links Henry V to St. George, a memory far in the past that emphasizes how, in a war that has degenerated into personal vendettas, national interests are increasingly overlooked.29 To drive the point home, the clergy themselves enact their own rituals at the edges of the action. After York's assassination on the molehill, a priest kneels and prays silently at a tiny double-doored shrine containing a pietà icon, in which the Virgin's head, wreathed with holly leaves and red berries, affords a single spot of bright color in the production's otherwise monochromatic palette; the priest carries a bowl, which catches the blood dripping from York's (unseen) head on the battlements, perhaps collecting relics of his martyrdom, either for posterity or out of his own self-interest. Similarly, a half-naked man kneels to pray before the shrine in the French scene, chanting in Latin throughout the action, as though to mark the difference between one nation and another, between faith and its absence.

Another sense in which the production engages with history or, perhaps more appropriately, enables spectators to fix its theatrical signs in relation to what Janet Staiger calls an “historical real” is by situating its aura of authenticity in relation to other texts and discourses.30 One of these is the discourse of art history. The figure of Bruegel's Dulle Griet, her eyes flashing fire and carrying a long sword, graces the program cover as the production's apocalyptic “muse,” and several other details depicting monstrous creatures from the same painting appear on its inner pages, signs of a world gripped by terror. Not only do the painting's browns and rusts echo in the rough-timbered set and the armor, but Mad Meg's costume—armor worn over a loose undergarment—appears to have inspired the costume worn by Yorkists and Lancastrians alike. Even Queen Margaret, whose white smock and cropped hair enhances her resemblance to Henry VI, wears laced-up boots, marking her aggressive, even transgressive, behavior. A kind of sixteenth-century Guernica, Bruegel's painting, which represents the horrors of foreign occupation during the religious wars between Flemish patriots and Spanish soldiers, seems an especially appropriate emblem for this performance, not only because it documents a history that negotiates between that of Shakespeare's play and contemporary genocidal struggles but also because its representational style echoes that of a medieval mystery play.31

Two other intertexts are equally crucial to mapping the production's intersections with early modern history. Although this is only a conjecture, it seems probable that some of the readings Jonathan Firth mentions were The Paston Letters, four excerpts of which appear in the program.32 In one, John Paston, the head of the family and a major figure in Norfolk, writes to his brother about the September 1471 outbreak of plague (“the most universal death that ever I knew in England”) and warns him “to be careful of your behaviour and especially of your language, so that henceforth no man may perceive by your language that you favour any person contrary to the King's pleasure.” In another Margaret Paston writes to her husband, soliciting his help in obtaining “cross-bows and grappling irons to bind them with, and quarrels [metal arrows] … pole-axes … and as many jacks as you may” so as to fortify her house. And in a second letter to John, dated October 27, 1465, Margaret writes of the destruction of Hellesdon Manor by the Duke of Suffolk's men:

[They] ransacked the church and bore away all the goods that were left there, both of ours and of our tenants, and even stood upon the high altar and ransacked the images and took away those that they could find. … As for lead, brass, pewter, iron, doors, gates and other stuff of the house, men from Costessey and Cawston have it, and what they might not carry away they have hewn asunder in the most spiteful manner.

The final excerpt, from John Paston II to his mother, lists the nobles and esquires who lost their lives at the Battle of Barnet and, after reporting that “the Queen Margaret is verily landed with her son in the West Country, and I believe that tomorrow or else the next day the King Edward will depart from here towards her to drive her out again,” expresses a somewhat uneasy providentialism: “God has shown Himself marvellously like Him that made all things and can undo again when He pleases, and I can think that in all likelihood He will show Himself as marvellous again, and that in short time.” Appropriately, given Mitchell's emphasis on the relations between secular and sacred histories and on how religious sanctions are brought forward to justify familial revenge, these voices are juxtaposed, however ironically, to selections from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens … A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace”; and “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. … The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”


If Mitchell's staging gave the events related in the Paston Letters a precisely sustained theatrical life, the balanced phrases of the Ecclesiastes poet—“A time to be born, and a time to die … A time to weep … a time to mourn”—offer a kind of mantra for the production, made intensely visible in the ritual ceremonies that accompanied each death, beginning with that of York's youngest son, Rutland. Dressed in black, her head covered by a pall reminiscent of those worn by Muslim women, a woman enters and begins to chant, a cappella, a miserere; the lament is taken up by the noble warriors and a priest, and together they raise Rutland up and lead him off the stage, through the audience. Following York's death, the procession recurs: as the smell of incense again fills the theater, this time the chant is a kyrie, and the woman holds in her hand the bloodied napkin with which Margaret has taunted York. Similarly, after Henry VI's murder, she carries a feather and a rosary, signs of his failed pacifist regime. After each death, a small cross of ragged sticks bound together and bearing a red or white rose is placed in the rim of earth framing the playing space; at play's end, thirteen frail crosses are all that remain.

Setting Mitchell's strategies beside those of Matthew Warchus's mainstage Henry V highlights how each director incorporated tropes of memorialization and images of traumatic memory. Using Henry V's previous theatrical and cinematic histories as touchstones, Warchus's staging explored how Henry's life and his history has become a national—and theatrical—myth. From time to time, an onstage audience, primarily of women and boys dressed in 1940s costumes, gathered behind red-velvet-roped stanchions familiar from museum displays to listen to Henry's famously rousing speeches. Agincourt's battle, played out on a steeply raked platform inscribed with the dates of Henry's birth and death (1387-1422), appeared to be taking place across his gravestone. Scribes seated at each side of the platform wrote the battle into chronicle, while rows of poppies surrounding the platform conflated two very different histories—those of Agincourt and World War I—into one. In this Henry V, women and children have a liminal status: consigned to the margins of the stage, they bear witness to the wartime losses of husbands and fathers; simultaneously, however, their silence in the face of Henry's rhetoric appears to acknowledge, even sustain, the impression that his words have become synonymous with patriotic and national agendas and with educational protocols.33 Warchus's representation of Agincourt recounts a history of great deeds enacted and recorded by men, one in which the echo of Flanders Field appears as an entirely gratuitous overlay, an attempt to collapse war into a universal phenomenon.

By contrast, Mitchell's ceremonial processions of mourners and emblematic crosses not only make the universal particular—both in historical and theatrical terms—but also offer a more precisely articulated critique. Continuing its debt to Brechtian techniques of distantiation, the performance stages a tension between the actors' dignity and the characters' lack of it: whereas the characters repeatedly mock and insult the dying, the actors, stepping out of their characters and allegiances with kinship, join together as mourners to eulogize the dead.34 Curiously, only one critic, Peter Holland, noted that it is a woman who leads these processions.35 Yet to me, as to Holland, including women's voices as well as presences seemed one of the production's most crucial, and resonant, choices. On the one hand, such inclusion clearly marks their exclusion from a history that centers on retelling and memorializing masculine deeds. On the other, in that these moments open up a potential spectatorial position for women on an otherwise homosocial stage, they work not only to give weight and value to women's experience of war but to evoke connections between the dramatic situations crafted by Shakespeare and those recorded and pictured in contemporary news stories about Yugoslavia.36

Perhaps the best way of marking the difference between each production's gender politics would be to say that whereas Henry V stages a phallic war, one enhanced by spectacular tableaux that, as Holland notes, might have come from a Boys' Own history book,37Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne stages an erotic one. In part, the latter's perspective derives from a scripted emphasis on the dangers of femininity, especially insofar as it mars the warlike man. Although, as Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin observe, that potential threat is not as fully developed in 3 Henry VI as it will be in Shakespeare's later plays (notably 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and Troilus and Cressida), it undergirds the play's central domestic relationship, that between Henry VI and Margaret, and is crucial to understanding Margaret's contradictory ideological position. “The scandal,” Howard and Rackin write, “… 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 father and king. He is less fit to rule than his French-born wife.”38 Set beside Henry's quiet, rational, near-androgynous presence, Margaret has often appeared, in the theater as well as in critical discourse, as the “she-wolf” warrior queen or “monstrous” mother, an early study for the transgressive Lady Macbeth. A small, slight figure, Mitchell's Margaret (Ruth Mitchell) plays against this Amazonian stereotype: although perceived by the other characters as undermining the Lancastrian dynasty, she becomes its most aggressive and eloquent defender, upholding her son's claim to the throne. Driven by her knowledge of what she will lose if she does not look out for herself, all her energies appear directed toward preserving her son and toward her own sense of national interests: when, just before his death on the molehill, York turns on Margaret, she crosses quickly to stand in front of Ned, protecting him from York's curses; later, shackled to a tree, she listens helplessly to a son who borrows her language to taunt the Yorkist brothers and swoons as they turn on him with their swords.

Elsewhere, however, Mitchell's staging represents war as a homosocial, even homoerotic, affair. Here, Klaus Theweleit provides a useful gloss on Shakespeare's play and on this performance. Observing that the need to conquer femininity and the feminine undergirds the culture of war, Theweleit observes how the “idea of ‘woman’” merges with representations of violence, a violence that stems, in his view, from a fear of dissolution through union with a woman and thus propels man—or, to evoke Julia Kristeva, abjects him—into a homosocial relation with other men.39 Time after time in Mitchell's Henry VI, the nobles cling to each other as they die in one another's arms: Clifford cuts the white-robed young Rutland's throat during a smiling, sotto voce embrace; later, as Edward and his brothers drag Clifford's body center stage to mock his corpse, Richard caps their elaborate cruelties with a kiss before slinging him over his shoulder. Finally, at Henry VI's murder, Richard draws his dagger, runs at Henry and sits astride his struggling figure, killing him in an orgy of sexual violence. Costumed, like Rutland, in a pure white monastic garment that enhances his passive, pacifist stance, Henry represents a feminized presence, and his death at the hands of a Richard who resembles a neo-Nazi skinhead thug offers perhaps the most blatant instance of how Mitchell's staging weaves together masculinist wartime aggression and sexual domination. For me, the moment recalled the climactic sequence of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) in which the marines, thinking that they are besieged by an entire enemy force, discover that they are up against a single sniper who turns out to be a young Vietnamese woman. If, as Tania Modleski writes, “the moral of [that] encounter might be summarized, ‘We have met the enemy and she is us,’”40 that “moral” offers an equally pertinent gloss for Mitchell's scenario, in which Henry VI's murder is driven by a need to kill the woman in the king.

An equally apt subtitle for Mitchell's staging of Henry VI, in that it evokes the feminine as that which threatens the integrity of the masculine subject, might be “A War of Wives and Roses.”41 Aside from Margaret, the play's most visible wife, the woman who achieves particular prominence is Lady Elizabeth Grey, played by Liz Kettle, who also leads the ritual processions of mourning. Howard and Rackin offer a pertinent reading of the scene in which Edward IV “woos” Lady Grey, mapping how its staging signifies “the new power dynamics that are evolving at Edward's court.” Here, rather than surrounding the king at center stage as wise counselors or warlike brothers, Clarence and Richard are consigned to the margins, from which they mock their brother-king as he seduces a woman “who has neither high rank nor great wealth to recommend her as a king's bride.”42 In Mitchell's staging, Edward sits on the crude throne, one leg thrown over its arm, exposing both legs and one thigh, a sign both of his sensualism and his disregard for the crown's meaning. As though showing off his power, Edward snaps his fingers at the black-gowned Grey, who lies prostrate before him as she asks for the return of her lands lost in the war. Reminiscent of a similar encounter between Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure, the scene unfolds as a clash between two competing discourses in which the tension between masculinity and femininity is played out for Edward's brothers' enjoyment. Crossing casually to the now-kneeling Grey, Edward lifts up his smock as though inviting her to perform fellatio. When she turns away, he forces her onto her back and gets on top of her, holding her arms outstretched at either side to pin her to the floor. But he stops just short of rape: deciding, on the spur of the moment, to make her his queen, Edward yanks her to a standing position, seats her on the throne and jams the crown on her head. Interrupted by the business of war, he then shoos her out the upstage door and follows her, smirking over his shoulder at Clarence and Richard.

At one performance, Grey still wore the crown at her exit; at another, Edward angrily snatched it back. Either choice reveals how, in appropriating the sacred crown to secular, and sexual, use, Edward initiates a break in the circle of male alliances that has supported the Yorkist claims.43 Later, his marriage to Lady Grey becomes the sticking point that separates him from his brothers: Clarence refuses Edward's hearty offer to find him a wife; and Richard seeks the crown for himself. As the scene ends, with Edward vowing to keep the realm safe and all kneeling together to swear fealty, Queen Elizabeth glances at her wedding ring and moves aside uneasily, as though knowingly aware, in the face of this brotherly dissension, of the fragile bond it represents.

Significantly, Elizabeth's awareness recurs at the play's close, where once again her presence, voice, and her double role as mourner, energizes Henry VI's final image. In Mitchell's staging, the last scene presents an unsettled, and unsettling, Yorkist victory celebration, powerfully reworked as a kind of epilogue. As the bell tolls once again, this time heralding both the crowning of a new king and the birth of his heir, strong light coming from behind the upstage doors illuminates the stage, where white and red roses are joined together on the Bible, as though anticipating a future Tudor narrative, beyond this play and beyond this stage with its thirteen rude crosses of the war dead. Carrying the young prince in her arms, Queen Elizabeth steps onto the stage from the aisle and stands to one side as Edward turns his back on war, banishes Margaret to France and proclaims domestic peace by calling for “drums, trumpets and shows.” Little is made of Richard's Judas kiss, often the centerpiece gesture of this scene, especially in productions that purposefully drive forward to Richard's own play and to history's next chapter. Taking his newborn child in his arms, Edward exits, followed by Clarence and Richard. Alone, her son appropriated by her husband and his brothers, Bess stands, her empty arms extended, looking after the three. Then, kneeling at center stage, she takes off her crown in a gesture reminiscent of Cleopatra who, at Antony's death, proclaims herself “no more but e'en a woman” and who, at her own, figures herself as wife and mother. As Elizabeth begins a final kyrie, the others return, as before, to kneel behind her; but it is her solo voice, once again evoking an absent God and backed by the others' humming, that echoes in the darkening space as the lights fade and go out. In these moments, the player Queen, already mourning for the death of a son that is presaged here but will occur (at Richard's hands) in the future, merges with the figure whose voice remains unheard except through prayer—in a language other than English, occurring at the margins of the text. Fused into one, she speaks for the losses of this war and to spectators' own traumatic memories of this, and other, global genocides. Offering a brutal glimpse of a world that consumes women, one in which sado-masochistic behaviors are perpetuated by a male comradeship that allies the father against the mother, Mitchell's staging relegates the signs of that world to an offstage position. What remains at the center is a figure capable of voicing another, equally authoritative history, one that offers to claim, or reclaim, a right to speak, not as an “enemy” but as a survivor.

In conclusion, I would like to add an epilogue of my own, one that brings full circle Mitchell's desire to make her staging of 3 Henry VI intersect with and address contemporary events. The Commission of Experts appointed in October 1992 by Boutros Boutros-Ghali “to examine and analyze information gathered with a view to providing the Secretary-General with its conclusions on the evidence of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia” describes the cultural forces motivating the “ethnic cleansing” occurring in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia:

[T]he Commission confirms its earlier view that “ethnic cleansing” is a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas. To a large extent, it is carried out in the name of misguided nationalism, historic grievances, and a powerful driving sense of revenge. This purpose appears to be the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups.44

As Eric Hobsbawm writes, “no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist” because “nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so.” Hobsbaum goes on to quote Renan, the father of European critical discourse on nationalism, who remarked, “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.”45 In refusing to stage Shakespeare's history as complicit with such agendas, Mitchell's Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne offers a critical rewriting of nationalism's project. At least from where I sat, she seems to have gotten (her) history right.


  1. Thomas Heywood, Apology for Actors (N. Okes, 1612), I: Sig B4r.

  2. See, for instance, Jean E. Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (London: Routledge, 1997); and Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

  3. See Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 195.

  4. See Barbara Hodgdon, Henry IV, Part 2 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 90-91.

  5. See Hodgdon, End Crowns All, 87-88. Notably, The Wars of the Roses (1986-89), directed by Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington for the English Shakespeare Company, represents a staging that goes against the grain of RSC practice.

  6. Richard Edmonds, “A Haunting, Horrifying Marathon,” Birmingham Evening Mail, October 24, 1988. All reviews cited from clippings books in the Shakespeare Centre Library.

  7. Kate Alderson, “Interview with Gale Edwards,” Times [London], April 21, 1995.

  8. See Ellen Rooney, “What's the Story? Feminist Theory, Narrative, Address,” Differences 8.1 (1996): esp. 10-11.

  9. Katie Mitchell, quoted in Katie Normington, “Little Acts of Faith: Katie Mitchell's ‘The Mysteries,’” New Theatre Quarterly 54 (May 1998): 105.

  10. See Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically (London: Routledge, 1996), 132-33.

  11. In addition to her stagings for the RSC, Mitchell has also worked with Paines Plough, The Writers' Company, The Tron Theatre Glasgow, The Abbey Theatre, and The Gate.

  12. Marion McMullen, “Hooray Henry,” Manchester Evening News, September 30, 1994.

  13. Alfred Hickling, “Choice Part for Katie,” Yorkshire Post October 12, 1994.

  14. See Hodgdon, End Crowns All, 209.

  15. See Ian McKellen, William Shakespeare's Richard III (London: Doubleday, 1996), 13.

  16. See Paul Taylor, “An Eye for the Small Print,” Independent, October 10, 1994.

  17. Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), 190.

  18. Ibid., 195. See also Rod Dungate, “Henry VI, Part III,Plays and Players (September-October 1994): 31.

  19. Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, 190.

  20. On Joint Stock, especially in relation to Caryl Churchill's plays, see Helene Keyssar, Feminist Theatre: An Introduction to Plays of Contemporary British and American Women (London: Macmillan, 1984), 86-90; and Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis: Essays on Feminism and Theater (London: Routledge, 1997), 88.

  21. Liz Kettle, quoted in “Killing Fields of England,” Hartlepool Mail, September 26, 1994. See also Alan Hamilton, “Tewkesbury 1471: Slaughter in the Abbey,” Times [London], August 4, 1994. Hamilton's article was part of “The Times Guide to Battlefields of Britain,” which appeared as Mitchell's production opened.

  22. Nick Curtis, “Strife Assurance,” Evening Standard, October 11, 1994.

  23. Sunday Times, October 14, 1994.

  24. See, for instance, Michael Billington, “The Power, the Pain and the Pity,” Guardian October 11, 1994; Paul Taylor, “The Horror, the Horror,” Independent, October 12, 1994; Ann Fitzgerald, “Henry VI,” Stage, October 1, 1994; and Margaret Ingram, “Young Company in a Restrained Henry VI Entitled to Travel Hopefully,” Stratford Herald, September 18, 1994.

  25. Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, 276.

  26. Benedict Nightingale, “Rough Theatre, Rough Times,” Times [London] August 12, 1994.

  27. Taylor, “The Horror, the Horror.”

  28. Ibid.

  29. See Billington, “The Power, the Pain and the Pity”; and Taylor, “The Horror, the Horror.”

  30. See Janet Staiger, “Securing the Fictional Narrative as a Tale of the Historical Real,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (Spring 1989): esp. 395-96, 400-402.

  31. See Robert L. Delevoy, Bruegel, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1959), 70-75.

  32. See Norman Davis, ed., The Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

  33. Such agendas and protocols are not exclusively English. William J. Bennett, the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and ex-drug czar, includes Henry V's St. Crispin's Day Speech as an example of perseverance in The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 514-16. Bennett notes that the speech is the model for football coaches' locker-room addresses to their players, a suggestion appropriated, whether consciously or unconsciously, during the pregame show of the 1997 Super Bowl, in which the speech, as it appears in Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film, appeared on the screen while Branagh's voiceover glossed the pseudo-heraldic insignia of both teams.

  34. See Dungate, “Henry VI, Part III,” 31.

  35. Peter Holland, “In a World with No Use for Goodness,” Times Literary Supplement, August 26, 1994.

  36. For example, the New York Times International reported on March 28, 1998, that in Kosovo Province, 5,000 ethnic Albanians buried two men, cousins aged 19 and 21, who were killed during an eleven-hour gun battle between Serbian police officers and ethnic Albanians. The picture accompanying the report shows the two men's bodies in open coffins, draped with Albanian flags and surrounded by some 20 women mourners, some of whom held up photographs of the dead.

  37. See Peter Holland's review of Henry V in English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 194-99. See also Nicola Barker, “Not a Trouser in Sight,” Observer, August 14, 1996.

  38. See Howard and Rackin, Engendering a Nation, 85-86.

  39. Klaus Theweleit is discussed in Tania Modleski, Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age (New York: Routledge, 1991), 62-63.

  40. Ibid., 62.

  41. I adapted the title of Carole Woddis's review, “Wars of Wives and Roses,” Glasgow Herald, September 7, 1994.

  42. Howard and Rackin, Engendering a Nation, 91-92.

  43. Ibid., 93.

  44. This document, called the Bassiouni Report, is cited in Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996), 44 (emphasis added).

  45. See Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 12.

Samuel M. Pratt (essay date spring 1965)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Pratt, Samuel M. “Shakespeare and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: A Study in Myth.” Shakespeare Quarterly 16, no. 2 (spring 1965): 201-16.

[In the following essay, Pratt asserts that Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, achieves the status of myth through Shakespeare's careful depiction of Humphrey's loyalty to his king in Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2.]

Running through much of Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2, is the story of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, the uncle of Henry VI and the Protector of the realm during the King's minority. To the ordinary reader (or playgoer) Humphrey's story will probably not appear more dramatic or more incredible than other stories incorporated in Shakespeare's trilogy. And indeed it may not be. But Humphrey's story as Shakespeare presents it has elements of myth and symbol that differentiate it from the other stories. Research indicates that the noble and good Duke Humphrey of Shakespeare's Henry VI evolved over a period of a century and a half, not simply in Shakespeare's—or Holinshed's—imagination. That is to say, Humphrey is not merely an historical figure caught in the dramatist's words; he is also a mythic1 figure whose story symbolizes the perilous path the good public servant has to travel in this evil world. Shakespeare's version of the story, while not the last to appear in the Renaissance, is the most complex. It is the result of the apotheosis of the Duke through the numerous tellings of the story, chiefly by chroniclers, before Shakespeare.

In this study I propose to examine Shakespeare's version of the story, with special reference to mythic elements, and then to trace the development of the story before Shakespeare. To complete my examination I propose to consider two works published after Henry VI. These, I trust, will serve a twofold purpose: they will reinforce conclusions reached on the basis of earlier works, and they will attest the impact that Duke Humphrey had on the Elizabethan consciousness.

Humphrey, who was born in 1391, became an appealing figure to the chroniclers almost immediately after his mysterious death in 1447 and subsequently to imaginative writers. Without attempting to give exhaustive citations of treatments of the story, I should note its appearance in several works, to indicate the extent of its appeal. Beginning with Richard Fox, a monk of St. Albans, who wrote a circumstantial account of Humphrey's last days soon after they passed, the English historians present the story in similar and sometimes identical terms. These include the unknown author of the continuation of the Polychronicon,2 Fabyan, Polydore Vergil, Hall, Grafton, Holinshed, and John Foxe.3 Among the imaginative writers, the range of treatment goes from popular ballads4 by unknown writers to Shakespeare's extensive treatment in Henry VI. Between these extremes are, among other versions, the tragedies of both Humphrey and his second wife, Eleanor Cobham, in The Mirror for Magistrates, two works by Michael Drayton, Englands Heroicall Epistles and The Miseries of Queene Margarite, and the lengthy narrative poem by Christopher Middleton, The Legend of Humphrey Duke of Glocester.

Only parts of the long and complex story of Duke Humphrey are relevant to my purpose because only parts of it fell subject to the refining measures of the myth-makers. Humphrey was the youngest of the four sons of the usurping Lancastrian king, Henry IV. Born in 1391, he bore great responsibilities during the reign of his brother, Henry V, and even greater during the reign of his nephew, Henry VI. The latter was not quite nine months old when he succeeded his father in 1422, and the two surviving sons of Henry IV were bound to play important roles in the new regime, since long years would pass before the King could assume his powers. Though the verdict of recent scholars at times differs from that of Renaissance writers, particularly on the score of the Duke's abilities and accomplishments as Protector, in the Renaissance he was universally acclaimed as Protector, and from his own time he was known as the “good Duke”. Still, the Duke would not have impressed the Renaissance as he did impress it had it not been for two complex centers of interest that his life afforded: (1) his character, including his important role as a scholar and patron, and (2) his death (Was it murder? If so, by whom and how?).

Upon the untimely death of Henry V in 1422, Humphrey, who became Protector, found that during the minority of Henry VI he would have to share power with his older brother—John, Duke of Bedford—and with his uncle, the Bishop of Winchester, who subsequently became Cardinal Beaufort. With the former, Humphrey had relatively few problems, since Bedford, as Regent of France, was on the continent most of the time and was concerned with England's foreign affairs, so to speak. But with Beaufort, Humphrey had almost constant difficulties for the last twenty-five years of his life. The two men struggled for the dominant voice in the affairs of England, with Humphrey winning the popular support and Beaufort, more often than not, the political power.

Another rivalry also developed, that between Humphrey and William de la Pole, who was first the Earl and then the Duke of Suffolk. This second rivalry became in the end more serious to Humphrey than the first because Suffolk gained a powerful ally in Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou. The alliance was inevitable once Margaret had married Henry, since Suffolk had been chiefly responsible for the marriage. The rivalry was also inevitable since Humphrey had been foremost in the sizable party opposing the marriage. He thought he had a better prospect for Henry's queen—and probably he was right—but at any rate, he thought, the price England had to pay for Margaret was too high. Upon her marriage England ceded to her father, the titular king of Sicily and Jerusalem, the province of Maine. This loss of English continental territory eventually hurt the man responsible for it, Suffolk, though not until Gloucester had been removed from the scene.

Concerning Humphrey's character, we need to cite two points before examining the works about him. First, shortly after his death the view of his nobility of mind and deed was such as to invite the use of the term “apotheosis” to describe what was happening. Secondly, Humphrey was far from being merely another power-hungry feudal baron. He was, in fact, a highly literate humanist. Mr. Vickers makes of him a genuine pioneer in the history of English culture, as the following passage indicates:

One or two finer minds had grasped the intellectual possibilities of the modern world. That unsuccessful politician, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cult of letters, and was the first Englishman to look to Italy for the message of a new intellectual gospel. He corresponded with Italian Humanists, employing them to translate the works of Greek authors and to collect books for him. Some scholars he brought to England to enrich his growing library, and throughout he showed himself a keen patron of learning. … Gloucester sowed the seed of the English literary revival of the next century.5

Concerning Humphrey's death, we need to cite only a few facts for the present. In February 1447, he, whose power had steadily declined since the king's marriage, was proceeding with friends to the “parliament of Bury” (present-day Bury St. Edmunds), to which he had been summoned, ostensibly by the King but actually by his enemy Suffolk. Upon reaching their destination, he and his party were arrested by forces of the King. Isolated from friends, Humphrey was dead within five days. Though his body was exposed to public view, as if to prove that no foul play had been done, the suspicion gradually developed that somehow he had been murdered.

Not only is there adequate stuff for the development of myth in this story; there is also reason to feel that Duke Humphrey's death decisively affected English history. Scholars have asserted that the removal of Humphrey from the political scene opened the door to the Yorkist pretender and thereby played a key part in precipitating the Wars of the Roses. With both sensationalism and historical importance working for it, it is no wonder that Humphrey's story captured the imagination of writers for years and years after his death.

The treatment Shakespeare gives the story in 1 and 2 Henry VI testifies to the steady growth of the myth in the century and a half after Humphrey's death. Before fifty lines of Part 1 have been spoken, Humphrey and Cardinal Beaufort are quarreling, and Bedford feels compelled to intervene: “Cease, cease these jars and rest your minds in peace!” (I.i.54). Scene i ends with Beaufort making a sinister speech about his ambitions. Scene iii is exclusively concerned with the fighting before the Tower engaged in by Humphrey's and Beaufort's men. It is clear that Shakespeare felt that the rivalry between the Duke and the Cardinal was a matter to emphasize. But Shakespeare, let us not forget, was writing drama, not history, and, if he stretched the truth, he was exercising his prerogative as a dramatist. The Duke and the Cardinal provided the conflict on which drama thrives. Historically it appears that Beaufort could not have had anything to do, at least directly, with the death of Humphrey. He had been retired from active participation in politics for more than three years.6

At this point I should like to make some distinctions. Not only are we concerned with history and literary creation; we are also concerned with the images made, with the effects on those exposed to the history or the literary creation. In their treatment of Duke Humphrey's story, the first two parts of Henry VI do much to sharpen the popular image of the Duke and of those around him. Shakespeare uses a clear-cut hero-villain pattern. To be sure, he did not invent the pattern that has the virtuous Duke besieged by villains, notably by Cardinal Beaufort, but a drama effectively staged and acted probably could do more to fix in the popular mind the artist's view of character than could nondramatic works. It is not that Humphrey acts like a spotless hero, though he acts virtuously enough; it is rather the view of him that is reported from time to time, making him the “good duke”, that elevates his status. Numerous brief characterizations in the same vein are bound to have an effect. As Eleanor Cobham in her lament in The Mirror for Magistrates refers to her husband as the “Duke, for vertu cald (the good)”7 and “such a noble man” (p. 441), so Shakespeare has characters acknowledge Humphrey's public image. When Cardinal Beaufort himself testifies to this image, we feel that there must be something to it; the mythopoeic process is operating. These are the Cardinal's words in Part 2:

What though the common people favour him,
Calling him, ‘Humphrey, the good Duke of Gloucester’;
Clapping their hands, and crying with loud voice,
‘Jesu maintain your royal excellence!’
With ‘God preserve the good Duke Humphrey!’


Shortly thereafter the Earl of Salisbury supplies perhaps an even better instance of myth-making by contrasting the Duke and the Cardinal:

I never saw but Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester,
Did bear him like a noble gentleman.
Oft have I seen the haughty cardinal
More like a soldier than a man o' the church,
As stout and proud as he were lord of all,
Swear like a ruffian and demean himself
Unlike the ruler of a commonweal.


These two passages are not unusual but representative. Shakespeare sprinkles his text with enough such passages to make his contribution to the myth substantial on their strength alone. At the same time he employs two other means to achieve what to him was dramatic effectiveness but what becomes additionally the myth of the good Duke. The first of these is the development of Humphrey the unselfish pillar of the law, and the second is the development of the murder of the Duke. Both of these means depend on departures from historical fact, sometimes great departures.

Here it would be useful to note some historical facts of relevance to the action of the play. With the coronation of Henry VI in 1429, Duke Humphrey's Protectorate came formally to an end. In 1441 the Duke's wife, Eleanor, was convicted of witchcraft and did penance in the streets of London. In 1447 Humphrey died, and in 1450 the Duke of Suffolk was executed at sea off Dover. These events spanning twenty-one years Shakespeare telescopes into a new and tight cause-and-effect sequence requiring but a few days. In Part 2, Act III, scene i, because of the conviction of the Duchess, Humphrey feels compelled to resign the Protectorate. In the next scene, during which the Duchess performs her public penance, he is summoned to the parliament at Bury, where subsequently he is murdered. Soon after his death is reported to the King, the commons begin their clamor for the punishment of Suffolk, whom they consider the prime mover in Humphrey's murder, and in a few days he is banished and dead.

In this tight sequence, Shakespeare finds numerous opportunities to heighten the character of Duke Humphrey. Probably most important in the development of the image that Shakespeare's audience had was the representation of Humphrey as at once the pillar of the law and the selfless man who could give up anything, including wife, high office, and even life itself, if England would benefit thereby. Thus, after hearing the charges of his enemies, he says,

As for your spiteful false objections,
Prove them, and I lie open to the law.

(Part 2, I. iii. 153-154)

When he learns of the apprehension of his wife, he says:

Noble she is, but if she have forgot
Honour and virtue, and convers'd with such
As, like to pitch, defile nobility,
I banish her my bed and company,
And give her, as a prey, to law and shame,
That hath dishonour'd Gloucester's honest name.

(Part 2, II. i. 188-193)

Soon afterwards, King Henry sentences her, citing the law as his guide. Then Humphrey addresses her, citing the law too but also expressing his desire to withdraw from public life.

Eleanor, the law, thou seest, hath judged thee:
I cannot justify whom the law condemns.

(Part 2, II. iii. 15-16)

I beseech your Majesty, give me leave to go.

(Part 2, II. iii. 20)

In his next speech Humphrey resigns his staff of office to the King:

As willingly do I the same resign
As e'er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.

(Part 2, II. iii. 33-36)

When Eleanor walks a London street in penance, a servingman of Humphrey's offers his own and others' efforts to take her from the sheriff, but Gloucester says, “No, stir not, for your lives; let her pass by” (Part 2, II. iv. 18). He means that since the law has spoken he must not interfere. Later he clarifies his position when speaking directly to his wife:

Wouldst have me rescue thee from this reproach?
Why, yet thy scandal were not wip'd away,
But I in danger for the breach of law.

(Part 2, II. iv. 64-66)

Finally, when accused before the King at Bury, the Duke says:

I know their complot is to have my life;
And if my death might make this island happy,
And prove the period of their tyranny,
I would expend it with all willingness.

(Part 2, III. i. 147-150)

And so he goes to his death, a political martyr in the eyes of many in his own time and of others for generations to come. To such people Humphrey symbolized all that was good in a ruler. In Shakespeare's hands Humphrey became the kind of rational man, in both thought and behavior, that sixteenth-century humanism was so much concerned with.

Turning now to my second general point about Shakespeare's contribution to the myth of Humphrey in dramatically effective passages, we must consider the death—or, as Shakespeare would have it, the murder—of Humphrey. The known facts in the case offer two significant contrasts with Shakespeare's presentation: (1) historically the King, whose mind had been influenced by the Duke's enemies, probably most effectively by the Queen, lost confidence in the Duke, and (2) the death has never finally been established as murder. Clearly one way to create a martyr is to align the candidate with the undoubted center of virtue in the environment. Such a center was King Henry, a virtuous man, however weak, naive, and incompetent he may have been. Conversely, if a prospect for murder finds himself alone among his associates, he stands a fair chance of dying unlamented. Historically, Humphrey was isolated at Bury. Peers capable of helping him were not present, and the commons were powerless to prevent Humphrey's enemies from doing with him as they would. An outstanding difference between the fact at Bury and Shakespeare's treatment is the latter's development of a strongly sympathetic but helpless King Henry, thereby producing the idea that a virtuous man, Humphrey, had been wronged. To express the matter in another way, without the favor of Henry or a comparable figure, it might appear that Humphrey deserved his fate—hence, no martyrdom.

In presenting the actual situation, Mr. Vickers makes much of Henry's alienation from Humphrey in the latter's last days. Thus, “Gloucester, he came to believe, was plotting against his life from fear that an heir to the throne would be born. … The one menace to the peace of the kingdom was Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. … Any lingering regard for his uncle in the mind of the King had passed. … The King was entirely alienated from his uncle, and he delighted to show his contempt for his former adviser's counsel. …”8

Contrasting with such views of the historian are those of Shakespeare the myth-maker. Thus (we must remember how Shakespeare has telescoped time) after sentencing the Duchess and accepting the Duke's resignation of the Protectorate, Henry says:

And go in peace, Humphrey; no less belov'd
Than when thou wert protector to thy king.

(Part 2, II. iii. 26-27)

After Suffolk arrests Humphrey at Bury, Henry says:

My Lord of Gloucester, 'tis my special hope
That you will clear yourself from all suspect:
My conscience tells me you are innocent.

(Part 2, III. i. 139-141)

When Gloucester is led away to confinement, the King says:

Ah, uncle Humphrey, in thy face I see
The map of honour, truth, and loyalty. …
His fortunes I will weep; and, 'twixt each groan,
Say ‘Who's a traitor, Gloucester he is none.’

(Part 2, III. i. 202-203; 221-222)

We have, then, in Shakespeare's eyes, the sacrifice of a leading, loyal, and accomplished subject of the King and one, furthermore, loved by the King. Not only does Shakespeare advance the myth of the good Duke in this way; he also furthers it by his unequivocal stand on the question of murder. In his view Humphrey was murdered by two agents of the Duke of Suffolk, who was supported by the Queen, the Cardinal, and the Duke of York. The final touch in Shakespeare's apotheosis of Humphrey is the destruction of Suffolk in a prompt and simple, unhistorical, cause-and-effect relationship: because he murdered Humphrey, Suffolk is murdered.

Shakespeare, then, told Humphrey's story with imagination and force. He shaped his version out of the materials, historical and interpretative, that the chroniclers had developed. Turning now to these materials, I shall not present every chronicler's version of Humphrey's story, because of the chronicler's habit of borrowing conceptions and often the very words of their predecessors. Rather, I shall cite representative and significant versions, starting with the English continuation of Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon.9 This fifteenth-century account makes, I should say, three noteworthy points in the following passages:

Here may men marke what this world is. This duk was a noble man and a grete clerke, and hadde worshipfully ruled this Royamme to the kynges behoef, and never coude be founde fawte with hym: but envye of them that were governours and hadde promysed to delyver the Duchye of Angeo & the Erldome of Mayn, caused the destruction of this noble man. … Thus beganne the trouble in Englond for the deth of this noble duke. Alle the comons of the royamme beganne for to murmure, and were not content.10

(1) The writer approves highly of the duke, attesting his nobility and his scholarly interests (“grete clerke”), as well as attributing to him flawless rule.

(2) The writer clearly holds Humphrey's enemies responsible for his death. The reference to the promised deliverance of the Duchy of Anjou and the Earldom of Maine has to do with the agreement, as the writer understands it, by which Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou, Humphrey having earned the lasting enmity of Margaret and her supporters by his opposition to that marriage.

(3) The writer found that the death of Humphrey had serious consequences. In a passage laden with overtones of the dynastic struggles to come, the chronicler concludes, “Thus beganne the trouble in Englond for the deth of this noble duke.”11

Clearly, I think, the process of apotheosis is under way. Without wasting words, the chronicler finds that his ideal man was destroyed by evil opponents. He had seemed more than human: “never coude be founde fawte with hym”. From such ingredients are heroes made.

Another fifteenth-century chronicler, Robert Fabyan,12 writes circumstantially of the death of Humphrey, but it is his comment following the account that I would stress:

… within vi dayes after the duke was arrestid, he was founde deed in his bedde, beynge the xxiiii daye of February; of whose murdre dyuerse reports ar made, which I passe ouer. Than his corps, whiche was layde opyn that all men myght se hym, but no wounde was founde on hym. Of that honourable fame of this man, a longe style I myght make, of the good rule that he kept this lande in, duringe the none age of the kynge, and of his honourable housholde & lybertie, which passyd all other before his tyme, and trewe of his allegeaunce, that no man cowde with ryght accuse, but malycious persones, whiche envyed his glorious honour & fame. … This for his honourable & lyberall demeanure was surnamed the good duke of Glouceter.13

Granting some change in details, we see that Fabyan's views of the death and of the character of Humphrey are substantially the same as the preceding writer's. Noteworthy is the unquestioned assumption that Humphrey was murdered. To Fabyan, apparently, the only uncertainties are who murdered the duke and how; at least he refers to “dyuerse reports”. Also noteworthy is the eulogy of Humphrey's character in such terms as to sustain the apotheosis found in the Polychronicon. Or, to put the matter in another way, the mythopoeic process is operating. The scholarly investigations of recent times, notably those by Kenneth H. Vickers, have revealed in Duke Humphrey a man who was thoroughly human, a man whose faults vied constantly with his virtues. But, in the two chronicles examined so far, Humphrey is presented as faultless. The gap between history and myth is apparent, and it is the latter that our writers are developing.14

As we come to sixteenth-century accounts, we see that the views already established of Humphrey's character, death, and the consequences thereof continue to prevail. First is the account by Polydore Vergil in his English History, first published in 1534. Polydore's version is not long. He seems interested only in outlining the story. Thus Duke Humphrey was the victim of conspirators, who “were affeared least it [the murder] should cause some uprore amongst the people, if that a man so well beloved of the comminaltie should be put to death openlye, and therefore determined to execute him unawares.”15 Thus “surely the common wealth sustained thereby most losse, the stay whereof depended upon no man so much at that very time as upon him alone, which was apparent by the event of matters following: for surely after the shameful slaughter of this duke good men forsooke the court, in whose places succeeded such for the most part as, seeking themselves for the soveraintie, opened the gate easily to newe factions and division” (p. 73).

It is apparent that to Polydore there was no question about whether Humphrey was murdered or how. Arriving at Bury, writes Polydore, Humphrey “was taken sodenly the night folowing and stranguled, the woorst example that ever was hearde of” (pp. 72-73). Like other Renaissance writers Polydore stresses both the goodness of Humphrey and his importance. The last part of the second quotation preceding refers to the rise in influence of the Yorkist party when the restraining hand of Humphrey was removed from it. Like other writers Polydore sees nothing less than the fall of the House of Lancaster in the fall of its heir-presumptive, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester.

Following Polydore came the group of writers, Hall, Grafton, Stow, and Holinshed, whose histories first appeared in 1548, 1562, 1565, and 1577 respectively. Being earliest in this group, Hall became the source of most of the passages about Humphrey that the other three incorporated into their histories. Their indebtedness includes even the wording in most instances. To Hall there was no question about the general nature of Humphrey's death. To him Humphrey was murdered (“all indifferent persons well knewe, that he died of no natural death but of some violent force”16), and he reports the rumors about the means: “some iudged him to be strangled: some affirme, that a hote spitte was put in at his foundement: other write, that he was stiffeled or smoldered betwene two fetherbeddes” (p. 209). Such grim details did nothing to lessen the martyrdom of Humphrey.

Echoing Polydore Vergil, Hall finds the gravest consequences in the murder of Humphrey:

But the publique wealth of the realme of Englande, by the vnworthy death of this pollitique prince, susteined greate losse, & ran into ruyne, for surely the whole waight and burden of the realme, rested and depended vpon him, as the experience afterward did declare. For after his death, good & sage men fearing them selfes, fled out of the flatteryng court, into whose places entered suche, as desiryng their awne promocion, set open the gates to new faccions, whiche could neuer be extinct till all the seignories beyond the sea (except Caleice & the marches) were lost, & kyng Henry in conclusion spoyled of hys Realme & lyfe.

(P. 210)

Not all of Grafton's account derives from Hall. In viewing Humphrey's character, Grafton does not borrow from Hall, and he does place himself squarely in the front rank of those apotheosizing the Duke:

This Humffrey Duke of Gloucester, descending of the blood royal, was not onely noble and valyant in all his actes and doings, but sage, pollitique, and notably well learned in the Civile lawe. … [There follows a long anecdote illustrative of the Duke's perspicacity.] And thus much for the noble prowesse and vertue, ioyned with lyke Ornamentes of knowledge and learning shyning in this Duke: For the which as before hath appered, he was both loued of the commons, and well spoken of of all men, and no lesse deseruing the same, being called the good Duke of Gloucester.17

This is high praise indeed. In part it stems from the sense of loss which blinds one to the faults of the lost, clearing the way for that exaltation of character which is a manifestation of myth. In developing their views of Humphrey, the chroniclers were fully aware of the forty years of chaos in England following his death. Feeling that his death was nothing less than a major turning-point in English history, they quite naturally looked back at him with that combined sense of anguish over his murder and awe at his importance that made him their symbol of true nobility grievously wronged.

In the famous work by John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments, some space is devoted to Humphrey's story, perhaps surprisingly in view of the religious martyrdoms that Foxe normally recounts. Like other sixteenth-century historians, he plagiarizes freely, a good example being his theft of the passage I have quoted from Grafton, beginning “And thus much for the noble prowesse and vertue”.18 Still, Foxe does contribute to the story in two ways: (1) he points to “haughty prelates” as the cause of Humphrey's undoing, and (2) he stresses the role of Humphrey as a learned man and as a patron of learning. Foxe does nothing to diminish the stature of the Duke; in fact, he writes in a reverential tone appropriate to his subject, the Duke who has come to seem more than mortal:

Of manners he seemed meek and gentle, loving the commonwealth, a supporter of the poor commons, of wit and wisdom, discreet and studious, well affected to religion and a friend to verity; and no less enemy to pride and ambition, especially in haughty prelates, which was his undoing in this present evil world. And, which is seldom and rare in such princes of that calling, he was both learned himself, and no less given to study, and also a singular favourer and patron to those who were studious and learned.19

And the encomium goes on and on. If I were more of a symbol-hunter than I am, I might say that Foxe develops a Christ-figure in his first sentence above. What should be noted, I think, is that, without wrenching the facts of the case, Humphrey could be made to serve the English Protestant Renaissance at its high tide. Humphrey could be considered the victim of a haughty prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, or the virtuous prince (so much in evidence in Renaissance thought) antagonized unto death by a powerful, foreign church through its appropriate representative—in this case, Cardinal Beaufort. And undoubtedly Humphrey was both a scholar himself and a patron of other scholars. Thus the myth becomes more than that of personal tragedy and of the loss of good government. It becomes, in the hands of a leader of the English sixteenth century, John Foxe, the archetype of what the English Renaissance in its political, religious, and humanistic concerns was all about.

Turning now to the literary treatments of the story, or, rather, resuming the study of them after considering the historical treatments, we may begin with the complaints of both Humphrey and his wife in The Mirror for Magistrates.20 Because of the conception governing the Mirror, these complaints, particularly Humphrey's, advance the myth only moderately. After all, Humphrey should be made to show restraint in speaking of himself. The Duchess, on the other hand, though she has the opportunity to discuss her husband, chooses, for the most part, to review her own troubles. In an introduction to these two complaints, George Ferrers, who is credited with their authorship, says that the actual tragedies of the Duke and Duchess were “two of the most memorable matters fortuning in that time” (p. 431).

Emerging clearly from the Duke's lament are (1) the assurance that he was murdered and (2) the identity of the conspirators responsible for the murder. Unfortunately for us who would like to know, Humphrey chooses not to reveal the method of murder used. To Baldwin, the editor of the Mirror, who has presided over the assembly of ghosts who speak the laments, the Duke says:

Thou lookest now, that of my secret murther,
I should at large the maner how declare,
I pray thee Baldwin, aske of me no further,
For speaking playne, it came so at vnware,
As I myselfe, which caught was in the snare,
Scarcely am able the circumstance to shew,
Which was kept close, and knowen but vnto few.

(Pp. 458-459)

The names of the conspirators include one surprise, the Duke of York, a surprise because, as Mr. Vickers points out, York was on Gloucester's side and not against him.21 But it is helpful to have the conspirators' reasons presented as clearly as generally they are, however inaccurate they may be historically. Thus Cardinal Beaufort, several times called a “proud prelate”, “could not abyde a Peere, / Within the land to rule the state by lawes” (p. 452), and the Duke of York felt that Humphrey was the chief “stay” of the House of Lancaster, which York wished to replace. The Queen viewed Humphrey as the obstacle in her path to complete domination of her weak husband, the King, and thereby to domination of the state. Finally, though Suffolk is twice designated the leader of the conspiracy, his reasons do not appear in the lament.22 Lesser figures in the conspiracy are also named.

On the whole, the impression Humphrey gives is that of a pathetic figure. He presents himself as the well-meaning man who, after years of good service, is unequal to the machinations of his foes. Still, it should be noted, I think, that this impression is sympathetic. So often in the Mirror the downfall of the speaker is cause for rejoicing; not so in the case of Duke Humphrey. It should also be noted that Humphrey attributes the malice of his enemies to his being the heir presumptive; historically his public stature and policies were probably of more concern to his enemies than his place in the succession. Altogether, if the myth of the good Duke is not greatly advanced, surely it is not lessened.

In the companion lament, Humphrey's wife, the former Eleanor Cobham, has a great story of her own to tell, which I intend to deal with in another study, but, since she does cast some illumination on the fate of Humphrey, I cannot ignore her completely here. From the position of first lady of the realm (King Henry did not marry until 1445) she plunged (in 1441) into disgrace “for practising of witchcraft and Sorcery” (p. 432), as the Mirror says. Convicted, she was made to do public penance in the London streets, was banished to the Isle of Man for a time and imprisoned for life.

This story of Eleanor's seems incredible only if one forgets her husband and his difficulties. In the Mirror Eleanor accounts for her fate in these words:

That vnto God, with al my hart I pray,
Vengeance may light on him that caused all,
Beaufort I meane, that cursed Cardinall.

(P. 438)

And she goes on to castigate Beaufort at length, developing the idea that the Cardinal had struck at her innocent husband through her. The career of Humphrey in the little more than five years of life remaining to him indicates that the blow had been effective. Both his power and prestige declined measurably.

Certain elements in Humphrey's story appear in two other complaints published in the Mirror, Suffolk's and Somerset's. That Humphrey was the strongest prop of the Lancastrian house is acknowledged by Somerset:

So long as he [Humphrey] was Englandes dyrectour,
Kyng Henries tytle to the crowne was good.
This prynce as a pyller most stedfastly stood:
Or like to a proppe set vnder a vyne,
In state to vpholde al Lancasters line.

(P. 390)

And subsequently:

So long as the Duke bare the stroke and swaye,
So long no Rebelles quarelles durst begin,
But when that the post was once pulled awaye,
Which stoode to vpholde the king and his kyn,
Yorke and his banders proudly preased in.

(P. 391)

That Humphrey's enemies murdered him is acknowledged by both Suffolk and Somerset. The former stresses the Duke's opposition to the marriage of Henry and Margaret as the basic reason, and the latter stresses Humphrey's alleged ambition for the throne as his fatal flaw. But the specific points Suffolk and Somerset make are not as important as the fact that in the mid-sixteenth century they were attributed to Suffolk and Somerset. That is to say, the relations of these noblemen with the good Duke were essentials in their stories, so it was thought. Duke Humphrey loomed large in the Tudor consciousness of the English past, and the reason was the effectiveness of his apotheosis.23

In Englands Heroicall Epistles,24 the underlying conception of Michael Drayton is that at some interesting point in the relationship of famous lovers a pair of letters are written. For Duke Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham, whose epistles first appeared in the edition of 1598, Drayton chooses a time during Eleanor's banishment to the Isle of Man. Though like Shakespeare Drayton has his own chronology of events, he confines his alterations to advancing the timetable for Margaret of Anjou. Thus, as in Henry VI, Margaret can share responsibility for Eleanor's downfall and can be the object, together with Suffolk, of Eleanor's hatred. Cardinal Beaufort she castigates as a villainous foe. Finally, that, like most other writers, Eleanor (or Drayton) should emphasize the characterization of Humphrey as the “good Duke” is not surprising, but it is useful further evidence of the image of Humphrey. On the whole, Eleanor's letter is more notable in the illumination of her own story than of Humphrey's. Obviously an exchange of letters rules out any discussion of Humphrey's death, thereby eliminating a primary center of the myth.

When Humphrey has his turn as a letter-writer, he labors under the same difficulties that beset him in The Mirror for Magistrates, plus the handicap of being alive rather than dead as he was in the Mirror. As the virtuous nobleman he must show restraint in writing of his own affairs. Actually he shows more than restraint; he shows his awareness of the plight of his beloved wife, a plight worse than his own for the time being at least. Hence his letter reveals a man who can get outside himself to become genuinely concerned about another. Therein, I should say, lies Drayton's major contribution to the myth.

Drayton also wrote a pair of letters for Queen Margaret and the Duke of Suffolk, the exchange presumably taking place upon the Duke's being banished from England in 1450. Though Suffolk acknowledges the suspicion with which he has been regarded for the murder of Duke Humphrey, he does not admit his responsibility. However, that the good Duke did not die a natural death Suffolk attests when he says, “If they would know who rob'd him of his Life” (II, 231), and he needs to say no more. Furthermore, Drayton wrote the following note concerning Humphrey's death:

Humphrey, Duke of Glocester, and Lord Protector, in the five and twentieth yeere of Henry the sixt, by the meanes of the Queene, and the Duke of Suffolke, was arrested by the Lord Beaumont, at the Parliament holden at Berry, and the same Night after murthered in his Bed.

(II, 236)

In the year 1600 there was published in London a lengthy poem, The Legend of Humphrey Duke of Glocester, by Christopher Middleton, of small merit from the literary standpoint but of some value to the cultural historian. In pedestrian poetry Middleton pursues the course long charted in the career of the Duke. He develops the hero-villain pattern with the usual characters, the centers of opposition to Humphrey being first Cardinal Beaufort and then the Queen Margaret-Duke of Suffolk combination. He undertakes a tremendous buildup of Humphrey's character, citing his “holy life” and “vertuous deedes”,25 and, all in all, he is not to be outdone in apotheosizing the Duke. Middleton is unsure about the cause of Humphrey's death. Perhaps it was murder. If so, his enemies succeeded in dispossessing “the world of her chiefe good”.26

Now to be considered are the interrelated matters of the epithet, “the good Duke”, and the status of Humphrey as both learned man and patron of learning. Two strong statements on these subjects may prove helpful as starting points. In the Dictionary of National Biography Mr. Thomas Frederick Tout writes: “His title of the ‘good duke’ is due, not to his moral virtues, but to the applause of the men of letters whom he patronised and the popular notion that he was a patriot.” In his biography of Humphrey, Mr. Vickers writes: “Whence was it that he drew the inspiration which enabled him to begin a new era in the development of the human intellect in England? … stage by stage he outgrew the teaching of the ancient schoolmen, and reached out to pick the fairest flowers of Greek learning. … With no promptings from the scholars of the new methods, he devoted himself to their patronage. … As an apostle of progress Humphrey stands alone among his fellow-countrymen.”27

Mr. Tout does not supply evidence for his assertion about the reason for the title, the “good duke”. His view runs counter to that of every writer on the subject whom I have checked for the two centuries following Humphrey's death. In their eyes, it is clear, Humphrey's title was due to his virtuous character and not to something else, as Mr. Tout would have it. At the same time, if we may make this distinction, it is clear that some of the early writers included among Humphrey's virtues his learning and his patronage of learning. The image of the duke so revered by the Renaissance was, therefore, broad and deep. One of the finest characterizations of Humphrey in his role of humanist was written as part of the prose link between the two tragedies in The Mirror for Magistrates. The passage calls Humphrey “a Prince so excellently learned, as the like of his degree was no where to be founde, And not onely so, but was also a Patron to Poetes & orators muche lyke as Mecenas was in the tyme of Augustus Cesar This Duke was foundor of the Diuinite Schole in Oxforde, whereas he caused Aristotles workes to be translated out of Greeke into Latin, and caused many other things to be done for aduauncement of lerning, hauing alwaies lerned men near about him” (444).

As one would expect, this portrait derives from the accounts of the historians. The Polychronicon referred to the duke as “a grete clerke”, and Grafton cited the “Ornaments of knowledge and learning shyning in this Duke”, which passages I quoted previously. These early estimates are confirmed by Mr. Vickers, Mr. Tout, and the authors of two recent studies.28

It should be clear, I think, that the bases for the twofold image of Humphrey differ. On the one hand, his standing as moral being, political leader, and finally martyr has resulted, to a considerable extent, from myth-making. On the other hand, his standing as a humanist, particularly in his role of patron, rests on a firm foundation of historical fact. In the two centuries following his death writers were unaware of this difference, presenting the first image as unquestioningly as the second.

To Shakespeare must go the credit of developing the image of Humphrey in the greatest detail. Some of this credit is due to his use of dramatic form, which gave him a distinct advantage in characterization over Ferrers, using the complaint, and Drayton, using the epistle. In Henry VI the clash of character, together with the compression of time, develops Humphrey as the unselfish pillar of the law to a degree not approached by either Ferrers or Drayton, though these last two writers did much, surely, to keep the myth alive.

The Duke of Gloucester, then, became to the English nation at the high tide of the Renaissance a mythic figure of heroic proportions. Writers having a great impact on the English consciousness—Ferrers in The Mirror for Magistrates, Shakespeare in Henry VI, and Drayton in Englands Heroicall Epistles and The Miseries of Queene Margarite—presented him in such ways as to elevate him, morally and intellectually, above the normal level of the English nobility. Lesser writers did the same, and all of them found their models in the histories which, from the second half of the fifteenth century, had tended to apotheosize the Duke. That he symbolized the virtuous governor, at last mortally trapped in a power struggle, is clear enough; that to many he also symbolized the ultimate in a cultivated man is less obvious but fully as noteworthy since the symbol became most sharply etched in an age of high culture, the late English Renaissance.


  1. In this study I use the term “myth” in the sense of a story rich in meaning whose characters and actions, though possible and even based in history, seem improbable. See M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (New York, 1957), p. 54, and William Flint Thrall, Addison Hibbard, and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature (New York, 1960), pp. 298-300.

  2. For some light on the question of authorship see K. H. Vickers, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester (London, 1907), p. 463.

  3. Early but in no way striking material on Humphrey is found in James Gairdner, ed., Three Fifteenth-Century Chronicles, Camden Society, N.S., 28 (1880).

  4. Actually the ballads focus on the Duchess rather than the Duke of Gloucester, but the material is such as to invite attention to the Duke. See Thomas Evans, ed., Old Ballads, 2d ed. (London, 1784), I, 317-323, and Thomas Wright, ed., Political Poems and Songs (London, 1861), II, 205-208.

  5. Kenneth H. Vickers, England in the Later Middle Ages (London, 1950), p. 498.

  6. Vickers, Humphrey, p. 307.

  7. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (New York, 1960), p. 432. All quotations of the Mirror are from this edition. Hereafter I shall give page references in my text instead of in footnotes.

  8. Vickers, Humphrey, pp. 289-290.

  9. The account by Richard Fox seems to be an objective rendering of the events at Bury and is particularly useful in establishing the chronology. Fox's failure to evaluate the character and death of Humphrey limits his value to me in this study. For Fox see the Rev. John Silvester Davies, ed., An English Chronicle, Camden Society, No. 64 (1856), pp. 111-118.

  10. Ranulph Higden, Polychronicon, ed. Joseph Rawson Lumby (London, 1882), p. 570. The same passage, almost word for word, appears in a continuation of the chronicle, The Brut. Both continuations were written in the later fifteenth century, and I suppose that it is impossible to determine who copied whom. See The Brut, ed. Friedrich W. D. Brie, EETS, Original Series, 131 (London, 1906), p. 513.

  11. This is a theme picked up by most writers on the Duke for the next two centuries. Consider, for example, Michael Drayton writing in 1627—“The Miseries of Queene Margarite”, Works, ed. J. William Hebel (Oxford), Vol. III (1932). Humphrey, he writes, “Lost his deare life, within a little space, / Which overthrewe the whole Lancastrian race” (p. 79). And for marginal glosses he writes, “The death of the Duke was the utter overthrow of the house of Lancaster”, and “The affairs of England fall to ruine upon the death of the Duke” (p. 80).

  12. Though he lived till approximately 1511, he had probably “finished his chronicle in 1493”. See Vickers, Humphrey, p. 298.

  13. Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France (London, 1811), p. 619.

  14. In England in the Later Middle Ages, Kenneth H. Vickers, writing about the fall of one of Humphrey's enemies, the Duke of Suffolk, after Humphrey's death, says: “Public opinion was already beginning to attribute imaginary virtues to the ‘Good Duke,’ and making his name a watchword with those who complained of Lancastrian rule” (p. 433). Again the development of myth is evident. To its believers the myth symbolized the good government of a great and noble man.

  15. Polydore Vergil, English History, ed. Sir Henry Ellis, Camden Society (London, 1844), p. 72. Subsequent references to this volume will be by page in the text.

  16. Edward Hall, Chronicle (London 1809), p. 209. Subsequent references to this volume will be by page in the text.

  17. Richard Grafton, Chronicle (London, 1809), I, 630. Raphaell Holinshed also writes glowingly of Humphrey. Sample passage: “But to conclude of this noble duke: he was an vpright and politike gouernour, bending all his indeuours to the aduancement of the common-wealth, verie louing to the poore commons, and so beloued of them againe; learned, wise, full of courtesie, void of pride and ambition (a vertue rare in personages of such high estate) but where it is most commendable.” Chronicles (London, 1807), III, 211-212.

  18. John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments (London, 1844), III, 713.

  19. Foxe, III, 712.

  20. These two complaints first appeared in the edition of 1578.

  21. Vickers, Humphrey, pp. 309-310.

  22. In the prose passage linking the two tragedies (p. 444) he is credited with desiring honor and promotion, which he felt he could gain by working with and flattering the Queen.

  23. Lily B. Campbell has written at some length about the tragedies of Duke Humphrey and Eleanor Cobham in the Mirror, but her interest has been different from mine. She has been specially concerned with the tragedies as disguised representations of sixteenth-century events. See her edition of The Mirror for Magistrates, cited above, and her article, “Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and Elianor Cobham His Wife in the Mirror for Magistrates”, The Huntington Library Bulletin, V (April, 1934), 119-155.

  24. Michael Drayton, Works, ed. J. William Hebel (Oxford), II (1932). Hereafter I shall give volume and page references in the text instead of in footnotes.

  25. The Legend of Humphrey Duke of Glocester (London, 1600), stanza 11.

  26. The Legend, stanza 182.

  27. Vickers, Humphrey, p. 348.

  28. Vern L. Bullough, “Duke Humphrey and His Medical Collections”, Renaissance News, XIV, 87, and R. Weiss, Humanism in England, Second Edition (Oxford, 1957), pp. 69-70.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Rowse, A. L. Introduction to The Contemporary Shakespeare Series. Vol. 7, edited by A. L. Rowse, pp. 13-18. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1987.

[In the following essay, Rowse briefly reviews the social conditions under which Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 were written and discusses how Shakespeare's newness as a playwright is revealed in the series.]

The first thing to be noticed about the trilogy of Henry VI is its sheer spaciousness. Its vast scope and planning—covering that long reign, the wars in France and its loss, the career of Joan of Arc, the Wars of the Roses in England with the malign career of Richard of Gloucester to link up with Richard III—bear out what Robert Greene foresaw and envied in the euphoric confidence of the actor with the provincial accent, who could turn his hand to anything, and was now turning dramatist to compete with the university wits and eventually write them off the page (if not the stage).

The Elizabethans had a great appetite for Chronicles, the heightened self-consciousness of the nation sharpening their interest in its past. Holinshed's and Hall's were the most noteworthy, providing a rich quarry for stories which could be turned to account for the stage, while Hall's provided the unity and direction of theme: the unity achieved by the Tudors in bringing together Lancaster and York, after the disastrous split within the royal family and the conflict for power between parties which it released.

This is foreshadowed in the First Part, though it is mainly concerned with the ups and downs of the war in France. Thus this rather sprawling first play is given a certain centricity by the kind of duel waged between the English hero, Talbot, and Joan of Arc, the French heroine as to whose unique personality both English and French were unjust. To the medieval English she was a witch; nor could the French understand her. The Elizabethans could not be expected to get her right; Shakespeare is ambivalent about her, scathing at one moment (as with Shylock) and then his essential humanity breaks through (as it did with the Jew). In the end he concedes her sainthood:

No, misconceived! Joan of Arc has been
A virgin from her tender infancy,
Chaste and immaculate in very thought,
Whose maiden blood, thus rigorously effused,
Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.

St Joan has indeed had her revenge.

Talbot had his apotheosis with the patriotic Elizabethans. The relation with his son, the contest between the two as to which should escape from overwhelming forces when neither would fly and both were killed, provided a couple of the best scenes in the play and appealed greatly at the time. Thomas Nash testifies, ‘how it would have joyed brave Talbot—the terror of the French—to think that 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 imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.’ It was precisely this success that inspired Robert Greene's envy to an attack on the actor newly turned dramatist, with a parody of a line from him. Some years later, in the very personal Epilogue to Henry V, he himself testified to the popularity this early trilogy won him: of Henry VI,

Whose state so many had the managing—

polite and prudent as ever, for actually it was that king's imbecility and incapacity that lost him the throne—

That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage has shown.

It is easy to criticise the tyro's first experiment in historical drama. Dr Johnson does so fairly, while showing how silly critics' suppositions were that it was not Shakespeare's work. He pointed out that ‘the diction, the versification, and the figures, are Shakespeare's … From mere inferiority nothing can be inferred; in the productions of wit there will be inequality. Of every author's works one will be the best, and one will be the worst.’ And of course a writer's immature work is not to be condemned by the standard of his mature achievement—an obvious reason too for establishing its chronological order.

Then Johnson proceeds to a just criticism: ‘the truth is that they have not sufficient variety of action, for the incidents are too often of the same kind.’ Shakespeare remedied this later with his creative admixture of history with fiction, the tragic with the comic. And these plays are too long—for modern production they need considerable cutting; a recent recension of all three in one was presented on the English stage with success.

We must remember too that these are early Elizabethan theatre, and recall the circumstances of the time. Hence the naif patriotic boasting of a young people who felt themselves (rightly) to be up-and-coming in those years soon after the Armada, and the abuse of the French—who gave as good as they got in return. To the Elizabethans the French were ‘a fickle, wavering nation’, with their decades of civil and religious war, and the quick chops and changes in the course of it. An Elizabethan audience was no less mercurial, and would have no difficulty in accepting the improbably speedy turn-abouts of the Countess of Auvergne or the Duke of Burgundy in the play: they did not go to the theatre for what was probable after all, but for what was exciting. Plenty of that, with all the fighting, executions, murders, with some witchcraft thrown in.

We may find the classic stichomythia, the line-by-line retorts or exchanges of insults tedious—Elizabethans evidently did not, for the dramatist was well aware of what was ‘over-tedious’, and at one point laughs at a long recital of titles as being so. Some of the lines strike us as bathetic; then we know Shakespeare could often be casual, at another moment write up something exceptionally fine. We must not ignore the possibility of revision either, of his writing in bits and pieces later.

Nor are we far from his association with Marlowe, from whom we have a line:

Like captives bound to a triumphant car;

and an image:

A statelier pyramid to her I'll rear
Than Rhodope's of Memphis ever was.

Above all, we are close to his winning the patronage of Southampton which resulted in the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis. In Suffolk's wooing of Margaret of Anjou for Henry's Queen, while falling for her himself, we have a couplet which is virtually repeated in both:

She's beautiful, and therefore to be wooed;
She's a woman, therefore to be won.

In 1591 Southampton, still under-age, ran away across Channel to join Essex's campaign in Normandy in aid of Henry of Navarre. Normandy was all the news, the player turning playwright cashed in on it—so like him; this annoyed Greene but is likely to have had a part in recommending Shakespeare to Southampton and winning his patronage. No doubt about the dates: we are in the years 1591 and 1592, when both the early Sonnets and Venus and Adonis were written.

Personal touches? The first line of the play—‘Hung be the heavens with black’—has become familiar, because it describes the contemporary practice of draping the stage with black when a tragedy was to the fore, the heavens being the penthouse roof decorated with stars (thus all the more often pointed at in the drama of the time). We see the countryman devoted to sports—such a contrast with Marlowe:

Between two hawks, which flies the higher pitch;
Between two dogs [i.e. hounds] which has the deeper mouth …
Between two horses, which does bear him best;
Between two girls, which has the merriest eye …

And we have a passage again to attest his particular devotion to deer-hunting and special knowledge of deer. Are we to see anything personal in his reflection—

                                        what is wedlock forcèd but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?

He always speaks well of marriage based on affection; his own family life at Stratford jogged on well enough, for all his double life in London and his being away most of the time. He was a family man, as ambitious to rehabilitate his family's standing at Stratford as he was to make his mark in literature.

We notice his regular turning to the classics for apt illustrations and comparisons in the unlikely ambiance of English and French history. Talbot's son, bent on death, is somewhat improbably an Icarus; Suffolk's journey to procure Margaret for Queen (without any dowry) is compared to Paris's raid on Greece,

With hope to find the like event in love
But prosper better than the Trojan did.

In these early plays we find several times over the words ‘conster’ for construe, or ‘misconster’—evidently the contemporary pronunciation. No less evidently school background. Naturally, teaching was pragmatic rather than precise; Nero is spoken of, in contemporary terms, as playing on the lute, when it should have been a lyre.

The actor-commencing-author's inveterate addiction to punning takes elementary forms here, shortly to receive an extraordinary sophistication and intellectualisation, with his experience of the Southampton circle, in comedies like Love's Labour's Lost. One may give an example of the way an archaic use of a simple preposition may confuse meaning:

Choked with ambition of the meaner sort—

he clearly means by the meaner sort, and I have modernised it accordingly. A few archaic forms, ‘thee’ and ‘thine’, have been retained where necessary for rhyme—no point in ruthless pedantic consistency where Shakespeare cared nothing for it at all.

David Linton (essay date June 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Linton, David. “Shakespeare as Media Critic: Communication Theory and Historiography.” Mosaic 29, no. 2 (June 1996): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Linton examines the Jack Cade Rebellion in Henry VI, Part 2, and contends that underlying Cade's suspicion of people who are literate is Shakespeare's belief that literacy can be abused by the powerful to suppress the poor.]

The current tendency to explain everything from election results to the breakdown of the family in terms of media influence attests to the belief that the communicating practices of a culture play decisive roles in the outcomes of human endeavors. In analyzing the nature of these influences and the characteristics of the outcomes, some communications theorists and historians focus on the effects of a medium's form while others attend to its content. Content-analyses most often deal with controversial subjects such as violence, erotica, propaganda or political messages, while effects-analyses focus on the social, psychological or cognitive alterations that result from the use or exposure to a given medium.

Examinations of the impact of the printing press, for instance, have led to a wide range of conclusions: from Claude Lévi-Strauss's contention that literacy favors despotism, through Jack Goody and Ian Watt's more moderate view that literacy contributes to social stratification, to Eric Havelock's conclusion that literacy has been a democratizing influence in human history. Similarly, examinations of the impact of television have led critics like Neil Postman and Joshua Meyrowitz to claim that this medium has contributed to the deterioration of social institutions, while Jib Fowles and Henry Perkinson hold that television has been a positive force in the growth of human understanding.

Yet the thought that communications media deserve scrutiny is hardly a new idea. Four centuries ago a prominent social critic in Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare, embedded in his plays a critique of the effects and uses of print media and literacy, both of which were rapidly reshaping social practices in 16th-century England.

My purpose in this essay is to argue that Shakespeare's understanding of communications and the media of his times entitles him to recognition as a formidable media commentator. First, I will illustrate the scope of Shakespeare's presentation of media and literacy issues by presenting a wide range of examples from all the dramatic forms in which Shakespeare wrote and by showing that his concern is sustained for the full span of his career. Second, I will focus specifically on one play (Henry VI, Part II) which functions as a kind of case study of Shakespeare's interest in particular media practices. In this way, I hope to make an updated and concrete contribution to what previous researchers have already identified as Shakespeare's concern with media issues, and thus by way of providing a context for my discussion I will first provide an overview of this scholarship.

Some of the most influential contemporary communications theorists have noted Shakespeare's use of media themes. Harold Innis commented on the relationship between the printing press and Shakespeare's plays (Bias 55, Empire 148) and Marshall McLuhan, in his usual sweeping fashion, noted that, “A fairly complete handbook for studying extensions of man could be made up from selections from Shakespeare” (Understanding 3). In fact, McLuhan opens The Gutenberg Galaxy with a description of King Lear as Shakespeare's alarmed response to the impact of print. He says that the play is an “almost scholastic demonstration of the need for a ratio and interplay among the senses as the very constitution of rationality” (13), a delicate balance which had been disrupted by printing. In a similar vein, Walter Ong has discussed at length the impact of print and literacy upon mental functions, observations with particular pertinence to Shakespeare's most literate characters such as Hamlet, Angelo and Romeo.

Literary scholars and practitioners of the rehistoricizing enterprise have also directed attention to Shakespeare's treatment of communications issues. Donna Hamilton, for example, situates the plays in the political context of the court patronage system during a time in which, she claims, “writing was understood to be a chief means for reifying authority” (103). Similarly, Annabel Patterson takes the position that Shakespeare should be viewed as a powerful cultural critic whose span of interest included the reading, writing and educational practices of his time and place.

The commercial aspects of 16th-century media practices have also been examined by critics like Arthur Marotti and Edwin Miller who have noted that the press introduced a new patron into the media mix: the reading public. From the beginning of the Gutenberg age the presence of a public readership whose interests sometimes differed from those of court and church patrons created conflicts which have continued to bedevil publishing decisions to this day.

Representing yet another perspective, both Lawrence Stone and David Cressy have examined changes in educational practices and their relationship to literacy, with Cressy drawing our attention to the 16th-century debate in England over the question of whether literacy improved one's chances of attaining salvation. In a more extended vein, one conclusion reached by David Olson in his studies of literacy and its historical origins is that although it is an illusion to think that literacy generates objectivity, literacy nonetheless, “provides us with the concepts for interpretation and reflection” (Mind 33).

Writing from the perspective of feminist theory and with an eye on material culture, Linda Woodbridge has insightfully drawn together material from pre-Gutenberg oral traditions and details from the history of the sewing crafts and cloth-manufacturing industries to identify relationships among print's emergence, quilting and dramatic structure. Although she does not cite McLuhan, she seems to echo him when she claims that print, “embodying the principle of breaking down into small units … seems an obvious impetus to these new structural habits in literature and music” (20).

Drawing upon a rich variety of disciplines, the thriving practice of “Shakesperotics,” to use Gary Taylor's catchy phrase (6), has produced valuable insights into the ways that cultural circumstances in Elizabethan England such as commercial practices, education and politics influenced theater productions and the contents of the plays produced. Equally, students of literacy and the effects of changes in media ecologies have improved our ability to reinterpret historical phenomena, enabling us to have a greater understanding of the workings of both oral and literate cultures. Just as contemporary media theorists and policy makers are struggling to understand the effects of the current shift from word-based to image-based media, others are continuing to ask what it meant in the 16th century to be moving from image and oral communications practices to a greater emphasis on printed materials.

In this way, our own concerns mirror those of the historical periods we study, and thus I would like to introduce my own analysis by observing that just as nearly every 20th-century North American seems to have opinions about television, so given the dramatic events of the 16th century one might well expect that Elizabethan citizens would have thought about literacy, printing and images. Of these 16th-century observations about media, perhaps the most well known is Francis Bacon's Aphorism 129 concerning the nature and impact of the discoveries of his time:

We should note the force, effect, and consequences of inventions which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients; namely printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world so that no empire, sect, or star appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.


Consider too, the widely published, vituperative exchanges between Thomas More and William Tyndale about words and images (recently reexamined by David Daniell in his extensive biography of Tyndale), Luther's well-known arguments, the stripping of the altars and destruction of icons, the bonfires of books, the execution of printers and translators and, most important of all, the distribution, first clandestine and eventually state sponsored, of vernacular Bibles. All these factors contributed to an atmosphere in which one could hardly be unaware that there was something about books that warranted attention.

Although use of the word “media” itself was not yet in circulation, Chapman, Bacon and Raleigh all used “medium” in ways quite similar to contemporary usage, i.e., referring to vehicles or channels for information transfer (OED 299). In addition, Bacon's mention of “the Medium of Wordes” suggests that he was also conscious of the uses of other media. Therefore, instead of constituting a form of anachronistic historicizing, it is especially apt to look back at this time through our particular media concerns. Moreover, as I hope to illustrate, this was a technique that Shakespeare himself also employed.

In every one of the 37 plays attributed to Shakespeare, within the first act of each there are references to some aspect of literacy or media (reading, writing, letters, documents, books, etc.); furthermore, 28 of the plays contain such references in the first scene. Sometimes these allusions take the form of plot devices such as the letters which call Othello off to war, or the party list which Romeo and Mercutio intercept from Lord Capulet's non-literate servant. Letters are so common that they are exchanged in all but six of the plays.

The presence of such a large number of media-related references takes on additional meaning if one accepts Cressy's persuasive argument that Shakespeare was in all probability a first-generation literate (57-58). Under the circumstances, it would not be surprising if Shakespeare were sensitive to the differences literacy could make in people's lives. Anyone who has mastered a communications skill which his/her parents lack has probably experienced the complex mixture of pride and alienation which often attends upon such an accomplishment.

Shakespeare's father, though he held a respected position in his community, was at best only able to read, not write. This fact casts an interesting light on the range of parent/child writing relationships depicted in the plays: the love and apologies from Romeo to Lord Montague; the deception of Gloucester by Edmund and of Lear by Regan and Goneril; the education of Helena by her father in All's Well That Ends Well; Claudius's letter to arrange the murder of his step-son, Hamlet; Coriolanus's boastful letters to his mother; Lavinia's pitiful message to Titus pleading for revenge, scrawled in the dust with the stumps of her severed arms. Even if Shakespeare's father had rudimentary reading skills but could not write, the father and son would still have been denied the opportunity to correspond with each other in the ways that the plays take for granted.

In addition to plot devices, there is also a rich variety of media imagery. All but one of the plays make use of media metaphors such as Juliet's teasing Romeo, “You kiss by the book” (1.5.109), or Othello's, “Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write ‘whore’ upon?” (4.2.73-74), or Cymbeline's, “O most delicate fiend! Who is't can read a woman?” (5.5.47-48). The single exception to this use of literacy metaphors is King Lear, which is surprising in light of the fact that Lear and Gloucester are repeatedly undone by the deluge of letters which their children use to deceive and defeat them.

Beyond the isolated plot element or metaphor are the matters of theme and social commentary. Generally speaking, literacy can be cast as a positive or negative force in society, and a variety of values can be associated with it. Since Shakespeare's work is widely viewed as the ultimate in literary achievement, the intuitive response might be that he advocates literacy for the pleasures and advantages which official wisdom, both then and now, contends that literacy brings. The evidence of the plays, however, suggests the opposite.

Literacy and the dominant media are presented as phenomena which advance the power of the corrupt and which disadvantage and deceive the innocent. Literacy and its trappings tend to be associated with weak and ineffective individuals or evil, manipulative ones, whereas the idyllic characters and those identified with pastoral utopian visions are almost invariably non-literate or semi-literate at best. The comic characters who often carry the barb of a play's wit and insight are usually the non-literate who skewer their educated betters in the guise of the wise fool. This is not to say that the non-literate characters prevail over the more powerful who can read and write, but that the latter are either morally inferior or in some way incapacitated by their education. While there are advantages to be had from the media associated with literacy, the preponderance of evidence leads to Pericles's opinion that books have a Pandora's box quality to them:

Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He's more secure to keep it shut than shown,
For vice repeated, like the wand'ring wind,
Blows dust in others' eyes to spread itself.


Early in his career Shakespeare introduced media conflict into his plays, most notably in the three parts of Henry VI and in Richard III. Each part of Henry VI includes non-literate characters interacting with the literate in ways that comment on the difference. Part I contrasts the shepherd's daughter, Joan la Pucelle, a girl with “wit untrained in any kind of art” (1.3.52), with the literate members of the French and English courts. Not only is she better than most in strength and intelligence, but her oral skills are also superior, for she conquers the Duke of Burgundy with her rhetoric which Burgundy equates with “roaring canon-shot” (3.7.79). Joan herself comments upon the inferiority of the literate style when Sir William Lucy asks permission to retrieve the body of Lord Talbot whom he identifies with a string of thirteen titles. Joan replies:

Here is a silly stately style indeed!
The Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this.
Him that thou magnifiest with all these titles
Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.


Of course, history requires that Joan be defeated and burned, but the issue of the relationship between the literate elite and the non-literate commons has been introduced. We should note too what happens in Part III of Henry VI which presents the literate at their weakest and worst. Throughout the series Henry's failures have been associated with his “bookishness.” Surrounded as he is by a school of aristocratic barracudas, he repeatedly retreats to his books and study, preferring them even to his wife who joins in deriding him for his reading habits. Finally, he wanders the hills of Scotland with his prayer book in hand until he is caught by two gamekeepers who are probably non-literate and with whom he engages in a dispute about the nature of sovereignty. Their literal-mindedness confounds his efforts to save himself, and he is taken away to be killed in prison.

To the same effect, but conversely, Richard III, one of Shakespeare's most malevolent characters, is shown as one who accomplishes his ends in part through the artful use of documents. At the point when he has killed and connived his way onto the throne, he finds that the people do not support his claim and that he must trick them into accepting him. He does this by having an indictment prepared which accuses Lord Hastings of treason and of plotting to murder Richard. It is made clear to the audience that the indictment was prepared after Hastings was actually arrested, and that he was beheaded with disregard for the correct procedures of the law. This is conveyed by a brief scene in which the Scrivener who prepared the document appears on stage alone and explains how the formal appearance is being rigged.

The scene does nothing to advance the plot or to shed light on Richard's already well-established character traits. Instead, it offers the playwright the opportunity to point out the power that documents have to determine the way reality will be perceived. It amounts to little more than an editorial interlude which, again, invites the audience to consider an idea and challenges their thinking. Lest they miss the point, the language is especially blunt:

                                                                                          Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to naught,
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.


The technique used in these early plays is thus to associate various media and literacy with certain characters or deeds, sometimes by contrasting the literate elite with the non-literate commons and sometimes by exposing to scrutiny the ways that media can be used for evil purposes.

Shakespeare's negative attitude can also be seen in the way that he adapted history. If ever Shakespeare had wanted to present a positive image of a character's relation to books, he might well have chosen Julius Caesar. North's Plutarch treats Caesar's communications skills and concerns with as much respect as his military conquests, telling with wonder how Caesar could ride on horseback and dictate to two scribes simultaneously and of how at the burning of the library of Alexandria Caesar acted as a true bibliophile, risking his life to swim the Nile and save a few books: “holding divers books in his hands he did never let them go, but kept them always upon his head above water, and swam with the other hand, notwithstanding that they shot marvellously at him, and was driven sometime to duck into the water” (92).

Shakespeare's Caesar is a very different man, one who finds readers untrustworthy. Thus he says of Cassius: “He reads much, / He is a great observer, and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men” (1.2.202-04). Although Caesar is probably speaking metaphorically here about Cassius's shrewd insights rather than suggesting that Cassius is dangerous because he is a reader, yet the choice of this metaphor to describe the most devious of the conspirators who later uses forged letters to induce Brutus to join the plot leaves literacy itself tainted by association.

If we turn now to the comedies, we find that Falstaff, Shakespeare's most successful rogue, has his portrait completed as an untrustworthy media manipulator. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff sends two women identical love letters. When the women realize it, they jokingly attribute his deceitfulness to the powers of the printing press which, by a strict chronology—if this Falstaff is the same fellow who was Henry V's companion—had not even been invented yet. Even so, Shakespeare did not let an anachronism get in the way of pointing out the potential that the press had for creating junk mail, and of portraying Falstaff as its first practitioner. As Mrs. Page, one of the recipients of Falstaff's love letter, says:

I warrant, he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names—sure, more—and these are of the second edition. He will print them, out of doubt; for he cares not what he puts into the press. …


As Margreta deGrazia, Wendy Wall and others have pointed out, the physical form of the press itself was, to Elizabethans, a common sexual metaphor and to “‘undergo a pressing’ is to act the lady's part and be pressed by a man …” (Wall 1). Even the pun on the character's name, Mrs. Page, becomes “a sexualized printing metaphor that intensifies culturally widespread ideas about female impressionability” (Wall 346).

Turning to yet another dramatic technique, we find in the use of the wise fool some of the most explicit comments about how a non-literate might view the wonders of literacy. Consider this exchange between Dogberry and a Watchman in Much Ado About Nothing:

First, who think you the most desertless man to be constable?
Hugh Oatcake, sir, or George Seacoal; for they can write and read.


DOGBERRY [to Seacoal, who is literate]:
… and for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity. You are thought here to be the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch.


The scene proceeds with more reversed meanings, all of which lampoon the inflated values attributed to literacy. Lest we miss the point, Dogberry insists that he be written down an ass for purposes of getting the record straight. The written communication has come to take precedence over meaningful content even to the extent of having individuals demand the inclusion of self-deprecating statements. In this case Shakespeare has comically staged precisely the idea which found serious expression in the Scrivener scene in Richard III.

Media concerns continued to appear in Shakespeare's plays right up to the end of his work. In The Tempest once again we see the counterpoising of the literate elite in the person of Prospero and the non-literate commons in the person of Caliban, who expresses his attitude in his famous line: “You taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse” (1.2.365-66). Caliban tells Stefano and Trinculo that if they hope to overcome Prospero they must “seize his books,” then “possess his books,” and finally “burn his books” (3.2.90-96). Nevertheless, they miss his point. They have already mockingly expressed their subservience to the book in their drunken enactment of the religious ritual of kissing the book, which they do twice by placing their lips on a bottle of sack and swilling it down while pretending it is a Bible.

The Tempest is unique when it comes to media issues, however, because here, for the first and only time in all of the plays, members of the literate elite actually question the good of the book. Both Gonzalo and Prospero, the two representatives of the values of literacy, doubt its claims to special respect. Gonzalo does so directly when he says that if he were setting up the ideal state, “Letters should not be known,” and Prospero endorses that view with his final act of drowning his book of magic.

Perhaps the most striking example of Shakespeare's interest in print's impact and its political and economic ramifications is found in the second part of the Henry VI trilogy, wherein Shakespeare rewrites history with an eye on his own place and time in his retelling of the episode known as the Cade rebellion.

In 1450, overburdened by the extortionate taxation practices of some of Henry VI's officers, members of the commons in Kent found a leader in Jack Cade who marshalled a force of the discontented to march on London and petition the King. In the course of their campaign they burned a portion of London Bridge, broke open two prisons and recruited the prisoners to join the ranks of the rebellion, beheaded several members of the court, slew an uncounted number of citizens, and spread panic throughout the besieged city. Eventually the rebels were routed, and Cade's head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge as a lesson to malcontents.

Many interpretive lenses have recently been focused on the material: Alexander Leggatt's discussion of the political implications of the rebellion for Elizabeth's court; Stephen Greenblatt's examination of the class issues embedded in the rebellion; Phyllis Rackin's reading of how cultural change shaped the representation of history; Annabel Patterson's analysis of how the representation of the Cade story reflects the “popular voice” in Elizabethan England. No communications scholar or historian, however, has examined the Cade material for its relevance to the communications practices of Elizabethan England.

In order to understand Shakespeare's appropriation of this material we need to recall that at this time he was a young man of 26 having his first plays produced on Bankside, and that across the Thames in London was one Thomas Churchyard, a prolific tract writer, career soldier and court hanger-on who, at the age of 70, was, it seems, a well-known operator in government and court circles. Today he would be called a lobbyist, and among his clients would be those with an interest in media legislation: laws affecting the content, ownership, patents, distribution and manufacture of the materials used in the production of books, pamphlets and other print media. Although there is no evidence that Shakespeare was directly familiar with Churchyard, a consideration of the political climate of the time and an analysis of Shakespeare's handling of the Cade affair encourages one to speculate, if not to argue, that in Henry VI, Part II, known to contemporaries as The Contention, he was questioning Churchyard's lobbying tactics while laying the groundwork for subsequent commentary on the media environment of Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare accomplished his challenge to Churchyard through the ingenious use of a particular rhetorical device known as “prolepsis.” Prolepsis is a kind of anachronism whereby the speaker or writer places a detail or event in a time too early for it to have occurred, thereby heightening the impact of an argument by the artful juxtaposition of two details which cannot mutually occupy the same time. The effect is to throw into relief both elements, forcing them to illuminate each other.

As Phyllis Rackin notes, “During the last fifty years, criticism has had almost nothing to say about Shakespeare's use of anachronism” (89), a shortcoming that she sets out to correct in a long chapter titled, “Anachronism and Nostalgia.” Although she does not explore the proleptic purposes in the Cade material, her generalized conclusion is especially apt: “anachronisms … often debase the objects of historical representation by associating them with the forces of present social change and disruption” (98). Ronald Knowles, writing specifically about the Cade treatment, also notes that in “reshaping this historical material,” Shakespeare created “an ironic inversion of the main lines of action in the play” (199).

Thomas Churchyard was, in Edwin Miller's harsh yet probably justified terms, a “third-rate hack” who “produced much unreadable verse” (93, 118). This opinion was apparently shared by some of Churchyard's contemporaries, one of whom, Sir John Davies, described Churchyard's Chips as “Offals of wit” (Miller 67). Churchyard would turn his pen to any cause which might net him some recognition and remuneration from the well-placed or wealthy, and thus became known as an epitapher and composer of political panegyrics who churned out platitudinous, saccharine verse on the occasion of any noble's death, The Epitaph to Sir Philip Sidney (1587) probably being one of his earliest. Thorough in his enterprise, Churchyard sometimes made use of multiple dedications. In one case, Churchyard's Challenge, twenty individuals are identified as dedicatees, the hope being that at least a few would be flattered into rewarding the writer monetarily. Churchyard was also known to engage in literary spats. As early as 1552 his satirical broadside titled Davy Dyears Dreams provoked a response from one T. Camel. Within the year at least thirteen broadside poems were published by the two sides to the spat (Black Letter Ballads ix). The plodding doggerel which Churchyard wrote made him easy to mock.

In 1588 Churchyard had apparently taken on as a client one John Spillman (sometimes spelled Spielman or Spilman), a German immigrant who had become one of Queen Elizabeth's goldsmiths and received a Crown lease on two mills on the River Darenth near Dartford in Kent (Jenkins 580; Hunter 119). Spillman converted the mills to paper-making but, like any entrepreneur, he wanted to achieve the best possible protection for his investment. The way one did that in Tudor England was to get a legal monopoly, and in his attempt to acquire a Crown patent for his paper-making, Spillman had enlisted the services of Thomas Churchyard.

Churchyard's assistance took the form of a short, poetic treatise titled, A Sparke of Frendship and warm Good-Will, that shows the Effect of true Affection, and unfolds the Fineness of this World. Whereunto is joined, the Commodity of sundry Sciences, and the Benefit that Paper bringeth, with many rare Matters rehearsed in the same. With a Description and Commendation of a Paper-Mill, now of late set up (near the Town of Dartford, by an High German, called M. Spillman, Jeweller to the Queen's most excellent Majesty. In the dedication to Sir Water Raleigh, Churchyard describes himself as an unabashed sycophant, explaining that to “fawne for favor” is “a point of wisdom, which my betters have taught me.” Most of the work consists of an encomium to John Spillman and his paper mill. After a florid description of the wonders of the mill, the blessings of paper and its benefits to human kind, Churchyard gets to his purpose: a pitch on behalf of Spillman's patent application. Several stanzas of Churchyard's work are direct appeals to Raleigh to put in a good word for Spillman at court because of Spillman's financial risks in setting up the plant:

This somewhat more, may move a marvell heere, no profite may, be reapt in many a yeear,
The author than, of this newe Paper Mill, bestowes great charge, and gaynes but worldes goodwill.
Death may prevent, his hope and purpose too, death cuts off all, from him if it so hap,
If losse so fall, what then shall Spilman doe, but so receive the losses in his lap.
This daunger great, deserveth some regard, or of the worlde, doth merit some reward,
Give him good speech, as reason doth require, yeeld duety, so the labror hath his hire.


Churchyard could not have chosen a better patron for his lobbying efforts, for in 1588 Raleigh was at the peak of his influence with Elizabeth and, moreover, had thrown some favor Churchyard's way in the past. According to the dedication, six years earlier Raleigh had helped him procure from the Queen “some comfortable recreation, to quicken my spirits & keep me in breath.” Reminders of Raleigh's connections to the Queen are found in the illustrations on the first page of the booklet. At the top a floral frieze includes the head of Elizabeth in the center looking down on an attractively set page containing a decorative initial letter “E” consisting of the crowned Queen seated in a throne holding the globe and scepter.

As Arthur Marotti points out, one is well advised to view with some skepticism writers' claims of having special relationships with the patrons whose favors they sought. This is especially so in the case of Churchyard who, in a touching moment of candor, revealed to Raleigh that of the sixteen books he had by then published, he was seldom even acknowledged by those to whom they were dedicated. Unfortunately, it is not known precisely what part Churchyard's lobbying played in the Court's decision or if Raleigh carried the plea to the Queen and others with whom he had influence. Nevertheless, Spillman's application was granted within a year, and in 1589 he obtained a patent giving him the monopoly on paper-making and the collecting, buying or dealing in linen rags, old fishing nets, leather shreds and other materials used in the making of white paper (Berry 109).

Churchyard's praise of paper-making was completely unrestrained. His efforts are worthy of a modern-day publicist's, claiming that his client's product “helps poor and harms no rich” (a politically desirable end, to be sure) as well as having the following virtues:

It witnesse beares of frendship, time and troth, and is the tromp of vice and vertue both,
Without whose helpe no hap nor wealth is won, and by whose ayde, great workes and deedes are done.
.....It tells of warre, and peace as things fall out, and brings by time, ten thousand things about.
For schollars fit, and merchants all alike, for plowe men good, that digs and delves the dike.
.....If paper be, so precious and so pure, so fitte for man, and serves so many wayes,
So good for use, and will so well endure, so rare a thing, and is so much in prayes:
Than he that made, for us a paper mill, is worthy well, of love and worldes good will.
And though his name be Spillman by degree, yet Help-man nowe, he shall be calde by me.


To understand what this had to do with Shakespeare and his plays, one more detail has to be added about the political climate of Elizabethan England as it concerned the artists and intellectuals of the day.

Raleigh's chief rival, both at court and in the literary scene, was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Shakespeare, through his own patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, was part of the group surrounding Essex and, therefore, by association, a likely foe of Raleigh and whatever causes he might champion. Shakespeare, however, was a dramatist and was not about to engage in a simple polemic against Churchyard or his client. His technique in Henry VI, Part II was much more subtle.

Almost the entire fourth act of the play deals with the Cade rebellion. The story is told in the context of York's plotting against King Henry VI, and by some scholars it is believed that it is meant to reflect on the Essex rebellion against Elizabeth. The parallels are striking, but equally fascinating is the fact that the central metaphors used to express the rebels' cause are based on media references and specifically the media products that Thomas Churchyard was busy advocating. Cade, moreover, was just the kind of figure Churchyard had railed against in several of his tracts: A Discourse of Rebellion, drawne forth to warne the wanton wittes how to keepe their heads on their shoulders (1570) and Scourge for Rebels (1584). Furthermore, the details are rhetorically structured in such a way as to reconfigure proleptically the historical facts so that they comment on Churchyard's claims for the benefits of paper and printing.

The first Cade scenes consist of the rebels debating and joking about what they will do when they take over the government. Dick the Butcher says, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers” (4.2.78). Cade agrees but directs his ire at the medium of the law, not its practitioners:

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings; but I say 'tis the bee's wax. For I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.


It is the parchment that undoes a man and the sealing wax that stings, rather than those who use them. Although Cade comes across as crude, his media-determinist analysis is provocatively subtle.

The next strategy in the play is to have the Clerk of Chatham charged with the crime of literacy:

The clerk of Chatham: he can read, and cast accompt.
O, monstrous!
We took his setting of boys' copies.
Here's a villain! … Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee. … Dost thou use to write thy name, or hath thou a mark to thyself, like an honest plain-dealing man?
Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up, that I can write my name.
He hath confessed—away with him! He's a villain and a traitor.
Away with him, I say; hang him with his pen and ink horn about his neck.


Of course, hanging a man for being able to write his name is a ridiculous notion, and though Cade here appears both ruthless and deranged, Shakespeare is simply setting the audience up for an idea that he will present just a few scenes later.

This idea is dramatized when Cade is shown confronting Sir Humphrey Stafford, the King's emissary, and wherein Shakespeare explores a media hypothesis which the pioneers of anthropological linguistics, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, would refine centuries later—the idea that the language one speaks, its grammar and vocabulary, structures the way one sees the world. Stafford tries to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and promises that the King will pardon them. Cade responds by using a rhetorical device that was sure to work with his audience: France bashing. The political disgrace of Cade's day was the loss of the French provinces which the English had won not many years before under the popular Henry V. To be accused of being soft on France was a harsh charge. Cade refers to one of the Lords attending the King:

… and more than that, he can speak French, and therefore is a traitor.
O gross and miserable ignorance!
Nay, answer, if you can: the Frenchmen are our enemies; go to then, I ask but this: can he that speaks with the tongue of an enemy be a good counsellor, or no?


Opposition to the kind of education associated with bilingualism has apparently become another focus of the rebellion.

In the next Cade scene, two nobles, Lord Say and his son-in-law, are escorted in and Cade charges them with a string of media crimes and misdemeanors:

… Thou hast most traitorously 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 caused printing to be used and, contrary to the King his crown and dignity thou hast built a papermill. It will be proved 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 hanged them when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.


This speech is the only one in the play to identify the rebels' complaints, and all seven of the accusations have to do with literacy, education and communications technology! Moreover, most are proleptic inventions, which are remarkable on at least five accounts.

First, the charges have nothing in common with the demands that were made by the original Jack Cade. In fact, nowhere in either Hall's or Holinshed's histories of the Cade affair is there any mention of Cade attacking reading, writing, paper making, or printing as Shakespeare has him do. Hall describes Cade as “sober in communication, wyse in disputyng” (221). The bill of particulars which was submitted to King Henry VI took the form of a proclamation and contained 21 “items” which spelled out in detail what the rebels wanted. It repeatedly accused the King's counselors of not acting in his or the nation's best interests, sometimes referring to particular officials by name and eight times using the word “traitor” to describe them. The gist of the proclamation is that evil members of court have been using their influence to gain special patents and privileges in exchange for “bribes” and “extortion.”

Rather than being opposed to written documents, the proclamation demands that the King see to it that all “lettars patentes” be made accessible to the commons “opynly to be rede and cryed.” In effect, they were demanding a “sunshine law” so that the affairs of state would be open to the public. This item concludes by setting the example which they wish the King to follow. They recognize the sanctity and status of the written word and invite the King to judge them by it: “by this owr wrytnge ye may conceive and se whethar we be the frynedes ethar enimys” (Gairdner 94-98).

The second proleptic aspect of Shakespeare's treatment of the Cade affair is that the original Jack Cade could not possibly have made the charges that Shakespeare wrote for him. The printing press was being invented in Germany the same year that Cade was leading his rebellion and would not show up in England until 24 years after Cade was killed. Paper-making arrived even later, 45 years after the date of this scene (Hunter 477).

A third anachronism pertains to the fact that there was not during Cade's time any special effort to build grammar schools for the purpose of general education. This too came much later during the early years of Elizabeth's reign, a point which Goldberg, Cressy and others have examined at length.

Fourth, we should recall that the study of language with “talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear” was not as characteristic of Cade's mid-15th century as it was of Shakespeare's late-16th century, when books on rhetoric, letter writing, grammar, style and literary technique were widely distributed and many of these books were popular enough to go into frequent, revised editions.

Finally, the last charge, that people were hanged because they could not read, is the only one that was true in both Cade's and Shakespeare's times due to the practice known as “benefit of clergy.”

To appreciate the significance of the latter point one should recall that toward the close of the 13th century literacy replaced “first tonsure” as the means of proving that one deserved the benefit of clergy, that is, exemption from the jurisdiction of civil courts for most criminal charges. “First tonsure” was the practice of shaving the top of the head of male members of religious orders so that God could see more clearly into the goings on in their minds, or at least to remind the individual that God knew what he was thinking. It came to be used as the way officials sorted out priests and monks from other prisoners in jails so they could be tried by ecclesiastical courts. Clever lay criminals quickly adapted their hair styles in order to get transferred out of civil jurisdiction which was often more harsh in its punishments. Literacy, which many religious had achieved, was harder to acquire on short notice, though some career criminals memorized the “neck verse” biblical passages usually employed in court, should the need arise. The scripture most often used was the first verse of Psalm 51, its appeal to God for mercy and acknowledgment of transgression being deemed appropriate didactic content (Cressy 16).

Although literacy had spread more rapidly with the arrival of printing, the practice of granting the literate special treatment in the courts remained, as Leona Gabel has discussed at length. By Shakespeare's time there were many more non-religious literates than in Cade's day, and the out-datedness of the law was obvious. As a result, in 1576, only fourteen years before the assumed date of this play's production, there was some legislative tinkering with the practice which resulted in the removal of the connection between the privilege and the Church (Gabel 125).

While the implementation of the benefit of clergy had been changed, the results had not. People continued to be executed because they could not read, and pardoned or able to escape charges if they could. As Lawrence Stone reports, “of the 204 men sentenced to death for a first offence by the Middlesex Justices in 1612-14, no fewer than ninety-five successfully pleaded benefit of clergy” (43). This means that even twenty years after the production of this play the practice was still prevalent and surely familiar to Shakespeare's audience.

Though much of Cade's speech would have made little sense to his own contemporaries, the audience in Shakespeare's London would have been given much to think about through these proleptic elements. The absurd idea of the Clerk of Chatham being hanged because he could write thus becomes a means of reminding the audience that their own society still hangs people for not being able to read. Similarly, the paper-mill reference, since it could have no relevance to the original Cade's time, can be understood as a topical reference to paper-making in an Elizabethan context. Various estimates place the performance of this play a short time after the publication of Thomas Churchyard's appeal to Raleigh and the ensuing granting of Spillman's application for a paper-making patent.

Given the fact that Elizabeth and the Privy Council had probably already approved the Spillman request, the remarks of Shakespeare's Cade seem to be a critique of the decision and those who advocated and granted it: Churchyard, Raleigh, Elizabeth. Cade is the ideal ventriloquist's dummy for expressing these sentiments, particularly because he was from Kent and Spillman's mill was in Kent. Shakespeare hides the critical opinions by coupling them with other statements that are obviously foolish. Furthermore, everyone knew that Cade was a rebel and that any manner of rebellious idea might issue from him. In the end, both on stage and in history, he is captured and killed. His rebellion is smashed; his program fails.

Nevertheless, the political understandings and intellectual processes of Shakespeare's audience would have been stimulated by new ideas even if expressed through a social reprobate. The defeat of the character is remembered, but perhaps the ideas are too. As ventriloquist, Shakespeare has slyly made the dummy express the dangerous truth and then reprimanded the dummy on the point of Iden's sword. Those who knew of Churchyard's finagling on behalf of Spillman and of the value of his paper-making monopoly must have been intrigued or even tickled to hear Cade's attack on that enterprise, especially if they shared a critical attitude toward it.

At this distance, it is of course hard to know whether the audience attributed the anachronisms in Henry VI, Part II to an ignorance of the correct chronology of the technological or social developments of the past, or if it responded to the proleptic juxtaposition with a heightened consciousness of the social practices the author had brought into focus. In any event, as modern readers we are able to see that in his handling of the Cade affair, Shakespeare was conducting an examination of the workings of the system in which both he and Thomas Churchyard functioned.

As I have also attempted to suggest, throughout his work Shakespeare maintained the view that literacy and print media were not unalloyed blessings. Of the many instances in which Shakespeare's characters express opinions about these matters, perhaps the one that best reflects the view of caution that seems to characterize the playwright's perspective, at least as it pertains to the commons, is that of Imogen in Cymbeline who cries, “To write and read / Be henceforth treacherous!” (5.2.318-19).

The title of David Olson's most recent contribution to the study of literacy is The World on Paper which aptly captures what Shakespeare's Cade (but not his historical forebear) was objecting to: a world confined to the page, a world which limited participation to those who had the educational, cognitive and economic wherewithal to become what might be called one of the “paper people.” The links Shakespeare makes between Cade's rebellion and Churchyard's efforts in Spillman's behalf, as well as the many other barbed comments on literacy, imply that Shakespeare himself harbored a skeptical view. Even though he had to write down the words of his own plays, they were, after all, being composed for presentation in an oral medium.

There are, in short, striking similarities between the observations embedded in Shakespeare's plays and those spelled out by contemporary scholars. The theories established by McLuhan and Erving Goffman—the view of media as cultural environments in which social roles and political relationships are altered by changes in the communications practices and technologies which dominate human interaction—resonate with the plays and with what we know of 16th-century conditions. In turn, Shakespeare's view is echoed by those such as McLuhan, Goody, Graff, Havelock and Ong who claim that literacy not only changes the amount and kinds of information to which one has access but that it also has far-reaching social and psychological significance.

This debate over just what those changes are, what their social and/or psychological significance might be, and what, if anything, should be done about them promises to continue. While Elizabeth Eisenstein contends that the press was instrumental in ushering in science and rationality, her position is disputed, at least to a degree, by Jonathan Goldberg who instead stresses the role of education and pedagogical practices as shapers of social order. Goldberg contends that the focus on literacy as a determinant of social practices is too “logocentric,” or media determinist. Mark Edwards, in his examination of the spread of Martin Luther's fame and message, synthesizes the competing views by contending that the Luther Reformation was a product of both print and the oral dissemination of Luther's radical ideas.

Communications theory and historicized literary studies are two of the many disciplines presently undergoing reconceptualization, growth and diversification. There are, however, few instances of cross-pollination between them. Yet if one looks at the literary product as an archive of records containing valuable reports about communications practices and at media theory as having the ability to enhance understanding of the content, dissemination and reception of literature, both enterprises should be enriched by the contact.1


  1. A portion of the research for this essay was conducted during a summer seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the direction of Annabel Patterson. Thanks are also due to members of Shakespeare Associations of America seminars.

Works Cited

Anon. A Collection of Seventy-nine Black Letter Ballads and Broadsides. London: Lilly, 1867.

Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum. 1620. Ed. Robert Hutchins. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.

Berry, W. Turner, and H. Edmund Poole. Annals of Printing. London: Blandford, 1966.

Churchyard, Thomas. A Sparke of Friendship. London: 1588. Univ. Microfilm Case 32, Carton 192.

Cressy, David. Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

deGrazia, Margreta. Shakespeare “Verbatim”: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Edwards, Mark U., Jr. Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge UP, 1979.

Fowles, Jib. Why Viewers Watch: A Reappraisal of Television's Effects. London: Sage, 1992.

Gabel, Leona C. “Benefit of Clergy in England in the Later Middle Ages.” Smith College Studies in History 14.1-4 (1928-29): 1-127.

Gairdner, J., ed. Three Fifteenth-century Chronicles. Camden Society, 3rd series, XXVIII, 1880.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor, 1959.

———. Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free P, 1963.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990.

Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. “The Consequences of Literacy.” Literacy in Traditional Societies. Ed. Jack Goody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968. 304-45.

Graff, Harvey. The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Society and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Hall, Edward. Chronicle. 1548. New York: AMS, 1965.

Hamilton, Donna. Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1992.

Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1963.

———. Origins of Western Literacy. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1976.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587. London: Johnson, 1808.

Hunter, Dard. Papermaking. New York: Dover, 1943.

Innis, Harold A. The Bias of Communications. 1951. Rpt. with Intro. by Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1964.

———. Empire and Communications. 1950. Rev. ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1972.

Jenkins, Rhys. “Early Attempts at Paper-making in England, 1495-1586.” Library Association Record 2 (1990): 479-88.

Knowles, Ronald. “The Farce of History: Miracle, Combat, and Rebellion in 2 Henry VI.Patronage, Politics, and Literary Traditions in England, 1558-1658. Ed. Cedric C. Brown. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. London: Routledge, 1988.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Trans. John Russell. New York: Criterion, 1961.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1962.

———. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Marotti, Arthur F. “Patronage, Poetry, and Print.” Patronage, Politics, and Literary Traditions in England, 1558-1658. Ed. Cedric C. Brown. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. The Professional Writer in Elizabethan England. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959.

Olson, David. “Mind and Media: The Epistemic Functions of Literacy.” Journal of Communication 38.3 (1988): 27-36.

———. The World on Paper. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Ong, Walter J. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

———. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Patterson, Annabel. Shakespeare and the Popular Voice. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1989.

Perkinson, Henry. How Things Got Better: Speech, Writing, Printing and Cultural Change. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1995.

Plutarch. Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius. Trans. Thomas North. Ed. R. H. Carr. Oxford: Clarendon, 1906.

Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte, 1982.

———. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Viking, 1985.

Rackin, Phyllis, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Stone, Lawrence. “The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640.” Past and Present 28 (1964): 41-80.

Taylor, Gary. Reinventing Shakespeare. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

Wall, Wendy. The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993.

Whorf, Benjamin. Language, Thought, and Reality. New York: Wiley, 1956.

Woodbridge, Linda. “Patchwork: Piecing the Early Modern Mind in England's First Century of Print Culture.” English Literary Renaissance 23 (1993): 5-45.

Randall Martin (essay date autumn 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Martin, Randall. “Rehabilitating John Somerville in 3 Henry VI.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 332-40.

[In the following essay, Martin proposes that the brief entrance of John Somerville in Henry VI, Part 3, reveals familial connections between Shakespeare and the Somerville family. Martin suggests that this connection may also indicate that Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies in spite of his Protestant Queen.]

Speculation about Shakespeare's Catholicism has always been bound up with questions of his plays' references to traditional doctrine, their portrayal of clergy and religious offices, and topical allusions to polemical works. While the plays certainly dramatize Catholic customs and beliefs, their presence sheds only circumstantial light on Shakespeare's personal views and must be weighed against a great deal of evidence of anti-Catholic sentiment. The use of confessional sources might reveal more, but few have been identified, the main one being Samuel Harsnet's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), echoed in King Lear. Since the Declaration satirizes Catholic exorcisms, it, too, occludes Shakespeare's beliefs. And the absence of topical references to contemporary English Catholics or implied sympathy for their hardships has seemed overall, even to pro-Catholic commentators, to represent a distancing or erasure of his purported religious upbringing.1

An unnoticed allusion in 3 Henry VI with strong Catholic and personal associations, however, provides new evidence of Shakespeare's representation of sectarian interests. It occurs in the invented passage that opens 5.1, on the walls of Coventry, as Warwick awaits reinforcements prior to the battle of Barnet. Two messengers inform him that Oxford is marching from Dunsmore, southeast of Coventry, and that Montague is at Daintry (that is, Daventry), further to the southeast. A figure identified in the Folio text only as “Someruile” (TLN 2680) then enters to report that Clarence is two hours away at Southam, also south and a little east of Coventry but closer to Stratford-upon-Avon. Warwick hears an offstage drum and leaps to the conclusion that Clarence has already arrived:

Then Clarence is at hand, I heare his Drumme.
It is not his, my Lord, here Southam lyes:
The Drum your Honor heares, marcheth from Warwicke.
Who should that be? belike vnlook'd for friends.
They are at hand, and you shall quickly know.

(TLN 2685-89)2

It is not Clarence who enters, however, but King Edward and his supporters. Warwick's muddled sense of local geography and his dependence on others for accurate information foreshadow his overconfidence and tactical misjudgment. Somerville's pointed correction, in particular, anticipates Warwick's complete surprise at Clarence's deception later in the scene, when he switches loyalties back to the Yorkists. The whole moment's little excursion into Warwickshire place-names around Coventry and Stratford-upon-Avon stands out in a play in which local references and particularized spaces are relatively sparse. It delineates a zone of activity whose significance lies outside the historical narrative and, at the same time, invites readers or spectators to identify an absent figure with the underdetermined Somerville (whom Shakespeare, for dramatic purposes, had no need to name). Because this area was the playwright's home, the flurry of topographic markers functions as a personal memory-site, intertwining his own story with the enigmatic Somerville's.

Somerville's name was expanded to “Sir John” by Edward Capell, and virtually all editors have followed his lead. But this identification cannot be right because the historical Sir John lived too early to be connected with the events of 1471,3 and in any case no Somerville is mentioned by either Hall or Holinshed. W. H. Thomson identifies him as Sir Thomas Somerville (d. 1500) of Aston-Somerville, Gloucestershire.4 But this is also an unconvincing guess. If there is any historical figure intended to be represented by this character (although he too is unconnected with participation in the Wars of the Roses), it is Thomas Somerville of Warwickshire, a different branch of the same family. He settled at Edston near Bearley, northeast of Stratford, during the reign of Henry VII and died there in 1516. His direct descendant was John Somerville,5 who became notorious not long after Edmond Campion's trial and execution in 1581. The Somervilles were fervent Catholics. John had married Margaret, daughter of Edward Arden of Park Hall, whose family was also Catholic. They may have been Shakespeare's distant relations if Mary Arden's father, Robert of Wilmcote, was descended from one of the younger sons of the Park Hall Ardens.6 In 1583 John Somerville became mentally unstable, and on 25 October he was arrested on his way to London after publicly declaring his intention to assassinate Elizabeth.7 Under torture Somerville implicated his wife; his parents-in-law, Edward and Mary Arden; and a local priest named Hugh Hall, who went in disguise as the Ardens' gardener. John had evidently discussed his plans with these and other neighbors prior to setting out for London. The Privy Council employed Thomas Wilkes, Sir Thomas Lucy, and their agents to search for incriminating books and writings that would uncover the whole “‘plot’.”8 The Somervilles, Ardens, and Hall were indicted on 2 December, with many people serving at the trial who were well known to Shakespeare's family. But only John Somerville and Edward Arden were condemned. Their execution was set for the twentieth, and on the nineteenth they were transferred to Newgate. But within two hours of arriving, John Somerville was found strangled in his prison cell. He may have been mercifully killed by Catholic friends to escape the much more grisly horrors that awaited condemned traitors and which Edward Arden suffered the next day. Both Arden's and Somerville's heads were cut off and placed on London Bridge.9

The vicious methods used to extract information from the suspects and the flimsy legal grounds for trying Somerville and Arden caused an outcry, and not just among Catholics. Somerville had very clearly been insane and not responsible for his actions, while all the government's extensive searches and interrogations had failed to produce any evidence of Edward Arden's culpability. The government felt pressured into defending its actions, the main upshot of which was publication of Lord Burghley's The Execution of Iustice in England … against certeine stirrers of sedition. Burghley had actually begun writing this pamphlet to defend the government's position in the trial of Campion, two years earlier, which, like Somerville's, was based on dubious legal process and had elicited a stream of attacks. But when the book was published, Burghley dated its title page very precisely: 17 December 1583—the day after Somerville and Edward Arden's indictment. He thus apparently intended the pamphlet to do double duty, restating the case against Campion and the Jesuits but also rationalizing the trials of Somerville and Arden.10 In a passage denouncing the “forged catalogue” of martyred Catholics, Burghley explicitly refers to

a furious yong man of Warwickeshire, by name Someruile, to increase their Kalender of yepopes martyrs, who of late was discouered and taken in his way, comming wt a ful intent to haue killed her Maiestie. … The attempt not denied by ye traitor himselfe, but confessed, and that he was moued thereto … by often reading of sundry seditious vile books lately published against her Maiestie. …11

The Execution of Iustice was widely circulated and had an official profile.12 It is reasonable to assume that one of the books Burghley refers to which allegedly inspired Somerville was A Treatise of Treasons Against Q. Elizabeth, and the Croune of England. Published in Louvain in January 1572/3, this pamphlet was issued anonymously but is now thought to have been written by John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, distinguished Scottish jurist and historian, Catholic polemicist, and ambassador of Mary, Queen of Scots. In the Burghley papers a list of “Traytorous and popish bookes intercepted [in 1584]” is headed by Leslie's Treatise of Treasons, twenty copies being itemized.13 This list was preceded by a royal proclamation issued on 28 September 1583 calling for all copies of the work to be destroyed. While the proclamation speaks only of seditious books in general, there is no question that Leslie's Treatise of Treasons was uppermost in the government's mind.14 A contemporary manuscript annotation in the Huntington Library copy of this proclamation identifies A Treatise of Treasons as the book particularly intended to be suppressed. It was clearly regarded as exceptionally dangerous, especially in the context of the Jesuit missions and new government measures against recusants in the early 1580s.

Somerville's connections with Burghley and Leslie take on added significance in the light of 3 Henry VI's several allusions to A Treatise of Treasons. A key passage occurs in variant lines of Richard of Gloucester's first soliloquy in 3.2. In the Folio text toward the end of his speech, Richard boasts:

Ile play the Orator as well as Nestor,
Deceiue more slyly then Vlisses could,
And like a Synon, take another Troy.
I can adde Colours to the Camelion,
Change shapes with Proteus, for aduantages,
And set the murtherous Macheuill to Schoole.

(TLN 1712-17)

In the 1595 octavo text The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke the mention of Nestor, Ulysses, and Sinon is absent, and the final line reads: “And set the aspiring Catalin to schoole” (sig. C8v). The source of this reference has eluded modern editors, but in 1947 Lily B. Campbell identified it as deriving from Leslie's Treatise of Treasons, in which the terms Catiline and Machiauel occur interchangeably as terms of abuse for two of Elizabeth's most powerful ministers, Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper, and Burghley.15 Leslie portrays Bacon and Burghley as ambitious upstarts who have manipulated Elizabeth in order to destroy the old religion and to set up an atheistical ‘“Machiauellian State.”16 He elaborates his charges through the use of two historical analogies. One compares the present political “Tragedie” to the fall of Troy, in which Elizabeth's modern “Catilines” correspond to the Greeks Ulysses and Sinon.17 Like Shakespeare's Richard in 3 Henry VI, the latter has “a smooth tongue, an aspiring mind, a shamelesse face, no honour, litle honestie, and lesse conscience, and was a slie and suttle shifter.”18 Leslie's second and more interesting analogy parallels Bacon and Burghley's involvement in the handling of Mary, Queen of Scots, with the tyrannical persecutions of Richard III.19 In a sixteen-point sequence, which continues to use the terms Catiline and Machiauel freely, Leslie compares Richard's ruthless duplicity with the machinations of Bacon and Burghley. The latter skillfully deploy a bureaucratic smokescreen of letters, rumors, and official pronouncements, spinning them all to advantage in a series of public shows, like “actors … comme to the Stage to play bloody partes,” “[dazzling] the dimme sighted eies, [clawing] the itching eares, and [filling] the hungry mouthes of the babling multitude.”20 Just as Richard's ultimate goal was to eradicate all Yorkist successors other than himself, Bacon and Burghley have allegedly “wrought and seduced” Elizabeth to keep her unmarried and have schemed to destroy every possible heir to “King Henry the eightes body and line.”21

Shakespeare's use of A Treatise of Treasons is important in several respects. That both versions of 3 Henry VI allude to it, yet in different ways, makes it highly likely that Shakespeare himself wrote both passages in Richard's soliloquy. In that case he must be at least partly responsible for the text underlying The true Tragedie, a play that for much of this century has been regarded as not written by Shakespeare because it is thought to be memorially reconstructed. The otherwise unusual comparison to “Catalin” in The true Tragedie also suggests that this more obscure but topically resonant label came first (that is, if the earlier report accurately reflects earlier writing) and that Shakespeare later distanced himself from its more distinct polemical resonances by substituting the dramatically stereotyped and popularly abusive term Machiauel in the Folio text. The latter's additional references to Sinon and Ulysses might continue to remind some spectators of Leslie's historical analogies, but they could also be understood simply as conventional classical comparisons.

To return to Somerville, Burghley's Execution of Iustice was answered by Cardinal Allen's A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics in 1584. Allen points out that Somerville was mentally unstable at the time of his actions, as Burghley himself implicitly admits. He also alleges that Somerville was murdered in his cell to prevent discovery of the deliberate entrapment of “the worshipful, valiant, and innocent gentleman Mr Arden.”22 In the same year responsibility for the specious trials of Somerville and Arden was also laid at the feet of the reviled earl of Leicester in The Copie of a Leter, Wryten by a Master of Arte of Cambrige, better known as Leycesters Commonwealth, which characterizes him as a Machiavel.23 This work is traditionally ascribed to Campion's fellow Jesuit Robert Parsons.24

In the context of the energetic circulation of these charges and countercharges surrounding the deaths of Somerville, Arden, and Campion, it seems certain that Elizabethan audiences watching 3 Henry VI could have connected the unhistorical and somewhat gratuitous appearance of the locally well-informed Somerville with his notorious later descendant, John, as well as his fellow victim, Edward Arden, both of whom were likely connected to the playwright's family. Shakespeare portrays Somerville in a surprisingly positive light, boldly correcting the mildly confused Warwick yet clearly loyal to the Lancastrian cause.25 His superior perception also proves he is manifestly not a “furious” man. It is Warwick who in fact appears distracted. Given that Somerville plays no further role in this scene and is never referred to again, his underlying purpose seems to be to present a coded portrait that challenges the official verdict on his contemporary namesake. And if that is the case, Somerville represents a riposte to the government's unjust treatment of Shakespeare's recently disgraced Catholic relations (assuming a family connection) and perhaps to Burghley himself, with Shakespeare taking the same ideological position as Campion, Allen, and Parsons.26 Somerville's links with Campion, alleged by Burghley and other government apologists, and his probable links with Leslie's Treatise likewise resonate with Richard's “Catalin” and “Macheuill” references earlier in 3.2. Together both allusions draw our attention to Shakespeare's “encryption” of a range of contemporary Catholic writers and viewpoints.27 These allusions heighten the discursive immediacy of his political characters while preserving confessional resonances for certain Elizabethan spectators. If, as Richard Wilson observes, “Catholic resistance … [offers] a key to mysterious omissions from [Shakespeare's] curriculum vitae,28 the allusions to John Somerville and Bishop Leslie in 3 Henry VI may help to fill in some of these gaps.


  1. See Peter Milward, SJ, Shakespeare's Religious Background (Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1973), 68-78; and Milward, The Catholicism of Shakespeare's Plays (Tokyo: The Renaissance Institute, Sophia U, 1997), 116 and 137.

  2. All quotations of 3 Henry VI follow The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968) and are cited by Hinman's Through-Line Numbers. In The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke (London, 1595) the character is called “Summerfield” and his correction of Warwick is omitted (sig. E1r); quotations from The true Tragedie are taken from Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto, ed. Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981).

  3. See C. C. Stopes, Shakespeare's Warwickshire Contemporaries (Stratford-upon-Avon: Stratford-upon-Avon Press, 1897), 83.

  4. See W. H. Thomson, Shakespeare's Characters: A Historical Dictionary (New York: British Book Centre, 1951), 275.

  5. See Stopes, 39ff.

  6. See S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 15-16; and Mark Eccles, Shakespeare in Warwickshire (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1961), 12 and 79.

  7. Somerville is alleged to have become impassioned after reading a book given to him by his sister Elizabeth, Of Prayer, and Meditation by Luis de Granada, translated into English by Richard Hopkins, published in 1582, and reissued many times. The dying Warwick's monologue in 3 Henry VI (5.2.23-28) seems to echo passages in de Granada's chapter “How filthie, and lothsome the bodie is after it is dead: And of the buryinge of it in the graue” (sigs. Cc1v-Cc5r). Shakespeare later recalled this chapter in the gravediggers' scene of Hamlet (5.1); see Harold Jenkins's Arden edition (London and New York: Methuen, 1982), 550-55.

  8. Stopes, 46. The Council issued a warrant to Henry Rogers dated 20 November 1583 to search “‘sondrie houses and places for bookes and writinges dangerous to her Majestie and the State’” (quoted here from Stopes, 52). See also Eccles, 75.

  9. See Stopes, 45-46 and 55; The Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds. (New York: Macmillan; London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1901), s.v. “Somerville, John”; and E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 2:300.

  10. See Stopes, 58. Arden is not actually named, probably because there was no evidence or legal grounds against him; but he is clearly connoted by Burghley's remarks about Somerville (see below).

  11. William Cecil, Baron Burghley, The Execution of Iustice in England … against certeine stirrers of sedition (London, 1583), sig. Diiiv; a printed marginal note reading “Iohn Someruile” appears in the margin.

  12. See Robert M. Kingdon, ed., The Execution of Justice in England by William Cecil and A True, Sincere, and Modest Defense of English Catholics by William Allen (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP for The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1965), xvii-xviii. Copies of The Execution both in English and in translation were sent to English diplomats for presentation to foreign courts. Kingdon's edition is based on the second edition of Burghley's work, published in January 1584—the one consulted by Cardinal Allen. Earlier in The Execution a printed marginal note states “A conclusion that all the infamous bookes against the Queene & the Realme are false” (sig. Ciiv).

  13. BL Lansdowne vol. 42, ch. 78, fol. 174. The entire list (without numbers of copies and somewhat altered) is reproduced in Stopes, 109.

  14. It is worth getting a fuller sense of the rhetorical force of the government's position:

    … they haue lately caused … to be compiled, and printed in diuers languages, [seditious books] wherein theyr final intention appeareth to be to blaspheme, and as it were to accurse theyr natiue countrey, … condemnyng generally the whole pollicie of the present estate, as hauing no religion, nor pietie, nor iustice, nor order, no good ministers at al, either for diuine or humane causes: & yet to abuse such as are strangers to the state, they haue glosed some of theyr late libelled bookes with argumentes of discoueries of treasons, intended, as they do craftily alleage, by some special persons beyng counsaylers, agaynst her Maiestie, and the state of this crowne and Realme, with reprocheful tearmes of most notorious false assertions and allegations: bendyng theyr mallice moste specially agaynst two, who be certaynely knowen to haue alwayes ben moste studiously and faythfully careful of her Maiesties prosperous estate, and vertuous gouernment. … These cheefly, besyde theyr general reproouing of al other, hauyng charge in this gouernment, they studie by theyr venemous and lying bookes, to haue specially myslyked of her Maiestie, contrary to theyr manyfolde desertes, so approoued by long and manifest experience, whiche both her Maiestie, and al the rest of her good counsaylours and nobilitie, with other the states of the Realme, haue had, and dayly haue of the very same counsaylours, who also are the more to be allowed of her Maiestie, in that she seeth, and of her owne meere knowledge truely vnderstandeth, that al the perticuler matters wherewith the sayde libellers labour to charge the sayd counsaylours, as offences, be vtterly improbable & false, as in like maner generally, al others her Maiesties counsellours, ministers, and subiectes of vnderstandying, in euery degree, do repute, accept, & know the same to be. …

    (fol. 151)

    The proclamation concludes by charging “al manner of persons, to despise, reiect, and destroy suche bookes and libelles, whensoeuer they shal come to theyr handes, for the malitious slaunders and vntruethes conteyned in them, and that no man wyllyngly do bryng into this Realme, dispearse, dispose, or delyuer to any other, or keepe any of the sayde bookes or libelles without destroying [them] …” (A Booke Containing all svch Proclamations, As were Pvblished Dvring the Raigne of the late Queene Elizabeth, Collected together by … Humfrey Dyson, of the City of London Publique Notary [London, 1618], fol. 152).

  15. See Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1947), 322. Milward discusses Leslie's Treatise of Treasons but tries unconvincingly to relate it to Richard II and Troilus and Cressida; see Shakespeare's Religious Background, 186-90.

  16. [John Leslie,] A Treatise of Treasons Against Q. Elizabeth, and the Croune of England … ([Paris,] 1572/3), sig. ã5r.

  17. Leslie, sigs. ẽ3r-ẽ5v; see also sig. L5r.

  18. Leslie, sig. ẽ4v.

  19. Leslie concludes his comparison: “hauing shewed the one [Richard of Gloucester] already to haue extirped the Issue and Line of king Edward the fourth, and the other now to tende to the rooting out of all Heires of your [Queen Elizabeth's] blood Roiall …” (sig. Q6r). Compare this with the following exchange in The true Tragedie:

    Clarence, excuse me to the king my brother,
    I must to London on a serious matter. …
    About what, prethe tell me?
    The Tower man, the Tower, Ile root them out

    (sig. E5r)

  20. Leslie, sigs. R2v-R3v.

  21. Leslie, sig. R3v.

  22. William Cardinal Allen, quoted here from Kingdon, ed., 108-9. In 1585 Nicholas Sander similarly charged that Arden had been executed “shamefully” (Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism (1585), trans. David Lewis [London: Burns and Oates, 1877], 322).

  23. See Robert Parsons, The Copie of a Leter, Wryten by a Master of Arte of Cambrige (1584), ed. D. M. Rogers (Ilkley, Yorkshire, and London: The Scolar Press, 1974), 103 and passim. This letter also describes three previous reigns in which excessive favoritism of wicked counselors led to the king's downfall: those of Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI (102-3).

  24. Leycesters Commonwealth was partly modeled on Leslie's A Copie of a Letter Writen out of Scotland (ca. 1572).

  25. On Shakespeare's sympathies with this house and county, see Richard Dutton, “Shakespeare and Lancaster,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 49 (1998): 1-21.

  26. Burghley has been thought to be satirized elsewhere in Shakespeare's works. Jonathan Bate has recently suggested that Sonnets 1, 2, and 3 may also poke fun at Burghley's failure to persuade the earl of Southampton to marry his granddaughter Bridget Vere in 1597—if Southampton is identified with “Mr W. H.”; see The Genius of Shakespeare (London: Picador, 1997), 49.

  27. Gary Taylor argues that “it is a short step from Persons, Allen, Southwell, and Farin to Shakespeare” (“Forms of Opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton,” English Literary Renaissance 24 [1994]: 283-314, esp. 306).

  28. Richard Wilson, “Shakespeare and the Jesuits,” Times Literary Supplement, 19 December 1997, p. 12.

Lisa Dickson (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Dickson, Lisa. “No Rainbow without the Sun: Visibility and Embodiment in 1 Henry VI.Modern Language Studies 30, no. 1 (spring 2000): 137-56.

[In the following essay, Dickson contends that the world of Henry VI, Part 1 is one of chaos and upturned hierarchies, where the dead Henry V's role as prophet and sun king is ceded not to his own son, Henry VI, but to the French maiden Joan of Arc.]

O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turned,
That I in rage might shoot them at your faces!

(1 Henry VI, 4.7.79-80)

The opening scene of 1 Henry VI rehearses for us a variation on the familiar ceremony of succession. Ernst Kantorowicz locates the first significant use of the formula, “Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi,” to the accession of Henry VI. Henry V and Charles of France died within months of each other, and the Duke of Bedford raced to proclaim Henry's infant heir king of England and of France before the adult Dauphin could claim the Crown of France for himself. In this moment of crisis, the cry, “The king is dead! Long live the King!” is designed to permit no interregnum, no gap in the continuity of royal claims to territory and power (411-12). In its careful orchestration of presence and absence, the ceremony purports to remove any space for doubt, permitting the new Body Natural seamlessly to take up the space vacated by the old; death gives way to life, funeral to coronation in a process carefully managed to assert their difference (the king is dead; the living takes his place), while making the transition as smooth as breathing (long live the King, a power and presence which never dies).

This first scene opens, however, not with an image of rebirth and continuity, but with one of death and rupture, as England's peers pay their respects at the funeral of Henry V. Between the lamentations over the hearse of the dead monarch and Gloucester's declared intention to “proclaim young Henry king” (1.1.169) there intervene 169 lines concerned with praise for the king that was, news of foreign massacre, and the outbreak of civil broils. With his opening speech lamenting the loss of “King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!” (1.1.6), Bedford launches nearly 60 lines of praise for the dead king (with a short intermission for an exchange of spleen between Winchester and Gloucester). Occupying over 25٪ of a scene which covers as much ground as this one—from establishing the animosity between the Bishop and the Protector, to the loss of seven French cities and the chief English hero, to preparations for war and a coronation—such a eulogy for the old king leaves precious little space for the new. The absence of Henry V, signalled by his body inhearsed on stage, represents the physical, political and conceptual absence of his son, who makes no appearance until Act three, who, with only 157 lines out of a possible 2670, speaks a mere 6٪ of the play that bears his name, and whose speech, when we finally hear it, is invariably characterized by wheedling, deference, and disastrous misunderstanding. When he is mentioned at all in this scene, young Henry is an “effeminate prince” (1.1.35) offered up as an object of the peers' ambitious jarring. That the king is dead is loudly proclaimed. That a new king has taken his place is barely whispered.

The gap in the ceremony of succession that is revealed here, Shakespeare expands into the four plays dealing with the dynastic contention of the houses of Lancaster and York, turning the conventional pause for breath between the prayer for the dead king and the acclamation of the new into a vast chronicle of blood and social dismemberment. In the first of these plays, I Henry VI, Henry V's absence precipitates a destabilization of both hierarchical structures and systems of power and knowledge. Associated in the play with the sun, Henry V's panoptic vision grounds a discourse of power and epistemology in the mastery of the gaze. In the play, his absence is attendant upon a fall from panoptic vision and into perspective, a fall that challenges this visual mastery and precipitates a violent dismemberment of the body politic. Joan of Arc, an upstart crow who claims privileged vision, embodies this crisis, for, in going disguised as herself, she defies the power of the gaze to define, and thus, to contain her disruptive potential. Rather than stabilizing the visible economy of the play, her violent reintegration into the dominant order in the final scenes further challenges the primacy of the visible in discourses of truth and justice.

Between “the king is dead” and “long live the King,” the first scene of the play establishes the terms of the crisis of visibility that characterizes a fracturing of English identity and power. Dominating the conceptual space of the scene, Henry V's body, memory, fame and loss emphasize the impossible standards set for the young king whose physical absence is indicative of a political vacuum that enables factionism to flourish where monologic power should reign. Unlike the young king, Henry V is presented as the ideal embodiment of the penetrative spectacle of power:

England ne'er had a king until his 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 midday sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech.
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquerèd.


Positioned as the model of kingship, Henry V, according to Gloucester's speech, both sets and controls the terms and conditions of the visible and of his spectacular presentation. His eyes are both the receptors and the source of penetrating light that “dazzles” his enemies, depriving them of sight and monopolizing for himself the privileged perspective, a dragon's wing vantage that encompasses all. Vision conjoined to the sword, the image of Henry's “sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,” yokes together knowledge and violence in a powerful act of seeing that “[drives] back his enemies” like “midday sun fierce bent against their faces.”

With these accolades, Shakespeare is mobilizing familiar Elizabethan imagery of sovereign power. The most famous representation of Queen Elizabeth, Isaac Oliver's Rainbow Portrait, encapsulates a whole mythology from which Shakespeare draws in this speech. In her hand the Queen holds the rainbow, the symbol of peace; on her sleeve is a snake, symbolic of knowledge; on her dress are multiple eyes, ears and mouths, referring to her prodigious network of spies. Typical in its lack of reference to the real, actual person of the Queen, with its flattened features and its fascination with the iconography of costume, this portrait declares that what we see is not Elizabeth, but her power and Office, not her openness to our gaze, but her ability to see us, completely. The eyes in this, as in other depictions of the Virgin Queen, are dark and piercing, and are the most arresting aspect of this unearthly representation. In its iconography, the painting reverses the relationship of the observer (us) to object (the painting and, through it, the Queen), a reversal that is integral to the penetrative spectacle of power.1 In reading the iconographic language of the portrait, we as gazers are redefined as objects before a gaze; the very act of reading the portrait challenges our sense of visual mastery over the image of monarchical self-display, for we are captured by the iconography of vision even as we “grasp” its meaning. The portrait exemplifies what is for Christopher Pye “the exquisitely dissecting gaze” of Elizabeth I, “as it ‘pearse[s]’ and lays bare every artery and vein [and] mimes the force that dismembers, eviscerates, and exposes all in the ceremony of punishment” (Regal Phantasm 139). Like Elizabeth's “dissecting gaze,” Henry's eyes “replete with wrathful fire” have the power to enact violence upon the bodies of these who stand, and fall, before them. To be the object of this martial gaze is to be opened, known and finally, overthrown.

In its use of a well-known vocabulary of spectacular power, the eulogy for Henry fulfils the Rainbow Portrait's caption, “Non sine sole iris: No rainbow without the sun,” where the latin, iris, refers simultaneously to the rainbow of peace and to the all-seeing eye of the sovereign who is herself the sun. Appropriating the Elizabethan image of the sun, Henry's spectacular presence is a violent, penetrating light that conquers where it shines: aloft, seeing to all horizons, transforming where it touches, and most importantly, too bright to be gazed upon directly. As in the portrait, the sovereignty made visible in Gloucester's speech precludes the mastery of the returning gaze even as kingship declares its presence before it: Henry, as the sun, can see without himself becoming the object of the gaze. Based on the structure of the anatomy, a rhetorical mode of “dissection” most associated with visual mastery and knowledge, Gloucester's description of Henry's royal person is here couched in terms of blinding light that defies the return of the gaze. Gloucester's speech culminates in the admission that the king and his power cannot be contained within the anatomy's epistemological desire: Henry's “deeds exceed all speech,” even this one, which itself must capitulate at the moment of its highest praise to the overwhelming force of a vision that blinds. It is this position of mastery of the visible that the scene marks as an irretrievable loss, and the scenes that follow on the battlefields of France are driven by the struggle to regain this privileged position. The rapid entrance of messengers immediately following the speech, the news of losses in France, and the rising rancour between the peers at home seem a playing out of prophesy: No rainbow without the sun.

If Henry “ne'er lift up his hand but conquerèd,” the victories are those of England and the body politic of which he is the head. In his absence, the customary identification with this power is transformed into the humiliating exposure of the triumph, a state Exeter laments:

Henry is dead and never shall revive.
Upon a wooden coffin we attend,
And death's dishonorable victory
We with our stately presence glorify,
Like captives bound to a triumphant car.


Exeter begins with a reassertion of absence and loss and then moves immediately from the ritual of mourning to that of the triumph, where the vanquished are paraded before the victors as objects of spectacle humiliation. With the king's death, the peers are themselves transformed into the objects of a powerful and defining gaze, a taunting, common gaze that mocks nobility's “stately presence” with its sudden debasement. While this ceremonial debasement is part of death's pageantry in this speech, just a few lines mark a shift from death's “dishonorable victory” to that of the “subtile-witted French” whom Exeter suspects of contriving Henry's end “[b]y magic verses” (1.1.25-27). This shift from death to the French indicates a related shift in the nobleman's understanding of his identity. When Henry was alive and victorious, his gaze encompassed the nobles, not as objects, but as part of a national politic body, and the violence of the penetrating gaze was reserved for those “enemies” driven back by his sunlike brilliance. The invocation of the French in the context of the triumphal parade and spectacle humiliation marks a shift from this early identification with the gaze to an awareness of the self as its opened and overthrown object. The triumphal gaze appropriates its object, consuming in a kind of scopic cannibalistic ritual the nobility of the vanquished. To be the victor means being able to rewrite the meanings of nobility's visible symbolism, for the victor's glory is proportionate to the distance the vanquished have fallen, and the triumphal parade is the externalized index of that fall. The loss of this sense of identification is, for the peers, a challenge to national identity, reflected in the fracturing of territory that continues throughout the scene. In this context, the fracturing of identity is a kind of disenfranchisement, exile, or, in keeping with the body politic metaphor, a form of dismemberment.

Overcome with the sense of England's loss, Bedford declares, “Instead of gold we'll offer up our arms, / Since arms avail not, now that Henry's dead” (1.1.46-7). The arms of war he proposes to lay upon the altar are no less than the limbs of the body politic which are now paralysed and ineffectual without the royal head. With the loss of the privileged perspective of royal presence, the humiliation of the triumphal parade before the enemy's gaze leads to political and marshal impotence. Not soon to be cured, this malaise, Bedford prophesies, will visit future generations' “wretched years” until “Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears, / And none but women left to wail the dead” (1.1.48-51). Although Bedford invokes the dead king's ghost (significantly not the new king's presence) to “Prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils!” (1.1.53), his conjuration is cut off mid-sentence by the messenger's news “Of loss, of slaughter, and discomfiture” (1.1.59) in France. Enacting this progress from visual mastery to humiliation to mutilation of the body politic, this scene establishes the pattern of the ensuing conflict of the play as the English encounter, not just the soldiers and the peers of France, but the prophetic, common gaze of the upstart, cross-dressing Joan la Pucelle.

Directly following this eulogy for the lost light of England—“Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!” (1.1.1)—the setting shifts to France where the Dauphin and his peers, amazed at the ability of the lean and hungry English to strike on like clockworks even after they have been starved and beaten, prepare to withdraw and “let them alone” (1.2.41-44). At this point Joan makes her first appearance in the play, introduced by the Bastard of Orleans as a maid “Which by a vision sent to her from heaven / Ordainèd is to raise this tedious siege // The spirit of deep prophesy she hath / Exceeding the nine sibyls of old Rome” (1.2.52-56). Presented as a savior of the French cause, Joan is recommended, not for her skills in battle (although these will become apparent), but for her ability to see. Her first exchanges with Charles emphasize both her extraordinary vision and her ability to control her spectacular presentation: “I know thee well, though never seen before. / Be not amazed, there's nothing hid from me. / In private will I talk with thee apart. / Stand back, you lords, and give us leave awhile” (1.2.67-71). She is not fooled by Reignier's attempt to stand in for the Dauphin, and easily demotes him from Prince-pretender to peer, demonstrating that she knows a sovereign gaze when she sees it, and it does not sit in Reignier's eye.2 Having demonstrated in this first overture her ability to know sovereignty and to use her mystic sight to name and un-name it, Joan establishes for herself the position of visual mastery, claiming a panoptic and uniquely privileged gaze from which nothing, even the future, is hidden. Furthermore, in drawing Charles apart with a commanding “Stand back, you lords,” she attempts to manipulate the conditions of her presentation, the terms by which she is seen, and, in doing so, disrupts the protocols of position by presuming to command.

Joan's description of the genesis of her power resonates with the spectacular identification with an ideal gaze and, through it, with a sense of national identity that the English in the opening scene of the play have lost:

God's Mother deignèd to appear to me,
And in a vision full of majesty
Willed me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity.


Chosen to return the gaze in a vision of “complete glory” (1.2. 83) Joan becomes identified with that heavenly perspective; having seen the vision, she now claims to partake of an absolute vision from which “nothing is hid.” The transformative power of this gaze, which will turn French defeat into “assured success,” (1.2. 82) is written upon her body, once “black and swart” but now “infused” (1.2.84-5) with a beauty which she offers as an outward guarantor of her honest “wit untrained in any kind of art” (1.1.73).

In this sequence, the two opening scenes of the play suggest a disruption of the ceremony of succession. As Henry V's hearse is carried on and off the stage to an extended elaboration of “The King is dead,” the heir to his place of privileged vision is shown to be, not Henry VI, but Joan of Arc. With her assertion, “Expect Saint Martin's summer, halcyon days, / Since I have enterèd into these wars” (1.2.131-32), Joan appropriates the most powerful image of Henry's spectacular kingship, the sun. In usurping the role of privileged gazer, Joan transgresses a gamut of regulative categories. In Le Ménagier de Paris (1393), to give just one illustrative example, woman is admonished to “[k]eep your head straight, your eyelids lowered and unflinching and your glance directed straight in front of you, eight yards ahead and toward the ground, without moving it about” (qtd. in O'Faolain 167). The passage demonstrates the regulation, not just of women as objects of the gaze, but of female gazes. Directed to look straight ahead and at the ground, the woman is the acknowledged object of the gaze, the regulation of her own gaze working to mitigate against the breakdown of the subject/object relationship by which patriarchal power is consolidated. A wandering, or worse, direct gaze from a woman entails a sudden reversal of terms: as the one-time object assumes the role of subject she potentially binds the masculine subject to the triumphal car. Charles's supplication, “Meantime, look gracious on thy prostrate thrall,” (1.2.117), for all its Petrarchan triteness, signals, for the hierarchy-conscious, English audience of Shakespeare's theatre, an outrageous overthrow, all the more dangerous because Charles is no simple lover, but a king. So, too, Joan is not simply a woman, but a Frenchwoman, a peasant, the enemy, and, to go further, a boy playing a crossdressing woman in a theatre often condemned for its mockery of royalty by base-born actors and its violation of gendered codes of dress and behaviour. By appropriating the imagery proper to Henry V, Joan becomes, in an English context at least, a usurper, a monster, a conceptual nightmare. Much of the innuendo directed at Joan, like the accusations of witchcraft and whoredom she receives from her English enemies, is intended to alienate her from the identification she claims with the Holy Mother's glory and the king's privileged vision.

Joan's story is not true, of course, or, more precisely, how true it is depends on who is telling the story, but the disruptions precipitated by her transgressive nature are manifest. Unlike the eulogy for Henry, which, by placing him beyond our sight seeks to enable a heroic narrative to stand for him in our minds, Joan's introduction to the stage, although it is couched in similar rhetoric, is challenged by the dramatization of her openness to the gaze. The scene is contained within a doubled frame of observation, that of the sexual innuendo and commentary of Alençon and Reignier and that of ourselves as audience. Offering the beauty of her body as sign of her honest wit, claiming to be “untrained in any kind of art,” Joan presents herself to the gaze as one who has no secret interior beyond the visible surface. The significance of Joan's apparent openness, especially to the gaze of the audience, and the nature of this surface of presentation I will address below. At this juncture, however, Joan's arrival and attempted appropriation of the discourse of sunlike, prophetic sight nevertheless serve to locate the terms of the conflict within an economy of visual mastery and to body forth the crisis of hierarchy and social identity inaugurated by a defining and radical absence.

Having established in this economical way both the ideal of spectacular power and the consequences of its loss, the play moves on to elaborate and unfold the political, historical and epistemological implications of a visible economy without a defining centre. To the panoptic gaze of the ideal monarch, the play juxtaposes a problem of perspective. The rapidly developing artistic science of Shakespeare's day offered a paradoxical mix of true, full and realistic mastery of representational space and an awareness of the limitations of this mastery, for, as Ernest Gilman observes, “the very fullness and definition of perspective space implies the radical incompleteness of our vision, and the point of view becomes a drastic limitation, a set of blinders, as well as an epistemological privilege” (31). Assuming a particular point of view, the perspective picture structurally encodes its own blindspot, that is, the observer who necessarily does not appear within the frame, but whose presence and gaze are the governing principles of the painting's structural composition. Even as the painting presents itself as an image, therefore, its encoding of the observer as governing principle, that is, the presence and location that make the illusion of realistic representation intelligible, necessarily makes the observer the object of the painting. It is this relationship that the Rainbow Portrait exploits when it encodes as object the observer whose interpretive gaze activates the iconographical representation of a sovereignty defined by the power to turn all into objects. The observer, locating herself in the position of visual mastery, however, sees herself only as viewing subject, and is blind to the blindspot she inhabits. In her discussion of this dynamic in her book, Staging the Gaze, Barbara Freedman has identified this epistemological conceit as “spectator consciousness,” a model based on an observer who “stands outside of what she sees in a definite position of mastery over it” (9). This model of the gaze acknowledges the doubled nature of the dynamic, as Jean Gebser argues: “Perspectival vision and thought confine us within spatial limitations … The positive result is the con[c]retion of man [sic] and space; the negative result is the restriction of man to a limited segment where he perceives only one sector of reality” (18). This implication proves to be important to I Henry VI, where audiences, both onstage and off, play a witness's role that is woven even into the metaphorical and philosophical fabric of the drama.

The world in which 1 Henry VI takes place is a world evacuated of its panoptic vantage, a world that has fallen, as it were, into perspective where unitary vision is fractured into overlapping, fragmentary, and contestatory loci of sight.3 As such the play is plagued by the blindnesses peculiar to spectator consciousness. Repeatedly, characters on both sides of the conflict take up positions of visual mastery only to find themselves subject to a fatal blindness: certain of their mastery, they do not put themselves into the picture, they do not recognize themselves as objects, and they do not account for the dangers of either the return of the gaze or the limited scope and contrived reality of perspectival vision.

Act one, scenes four and five, which form in many ways a reprise of the first two scenes of the play, immediately establish the precariousness of visual mastery upon which the English rely before the besieged city of Orleans. The French master gunner, acting on information provided by the “Prince's espials,” directs his aim at the English generals who “Wont through a grate of iron bars / In yonder tower to overpeer the city, / And thence discover how with most advantage / They may vex us with shot or with assault” (1.4.8-13). In an almost cinematic cut, the scene shifts to the English in the tower, where Talbot recounts his story of his time spent as captive of the French. In a narrative actualization of the metaphorical triumph in Act one, scene one, Talbot describes his humiliation: “With scoffs and scorns and contumelious taunts / In open marketplace produced they me / To be a public spectacle to all” (1.4.38-41). Talbot's phrasing, that in the marketplace “produced they me,” reveals a similar evacuation of identity that characterizes the earlier scene, since “produced” carries a double connotation of “made to appear” and “fashioned.” For Talbot, as for the peers at Henry's funeral, spectacle humiliation and exposure to the French gaze have the capacity to remake him as an object. It is just this kind of humiliation that incites Cleopatra to kill herself rather than to see an actor “boy [her] greatness / I' th' posture of a whore” (Antony and Cleopatra 4.2.220-21). Exposed before the taunting crowd, Talbot and his heroic narrative are open to a reinterpretation that hollows out his greatness, turning him into a substanceless mock-hero and literal straw man: “‘Here,’ said they, ‘is the terror of the French, / The scarecrow that affrights our children so’” (1.4.42-43). “Produced” as in a play, Talbot is forced to “boy” his own greatness; to appear in the flesh in this context is to be coerced into a parody of himself that threatens to empty out his identity and make him, like an actor, a shadow of his fame. Forced to play a role in a spectacular ritual, Talbot, specifically as a physical presence, is textualized as a grammar through which the French articulate their own narrative of glory. Talbot responds to this sarcastic debasement with a counter-narrative of resistance—“And with my nails digged stones out of the ground / To hurl at the beholders of my shame” (1.4.45-6)—through which he struggles to regain control of the site of seeing. For all its marshal ferocity, the counter-narrative is undermined by the stage direction that follows it: “Enter the Boy with a linstock.” The framing narrative of the scene, that of French ordinance and espials, interrupts Talbot's resistant gesture, revealing that, in spite of his apparent delivery from the triumphal car, Talbot and the English generals are still very much captives of the French gaze.

This continuity and the presence now on stage of the Boy, presumably on the mainstage below, contributes an added irony to Salisbury's invitation to Talbot and the others to look through the grate “And view the French how they fortify. / Let us look in; the sight will much delight thee” (1.4.61-2). The delight Salisbury takes is not so much in the view, but in his belief of his visual mastery of the scene, further emphasized by Gargrave and Glansdale's suggestions of targets on the panorama below, and by the anticipated revenge to be exacted on the French for their humiliation of Talbot. What the generals do not see is that their exposure to French artillery is precisely a consequence of their elevated position of mastery; they stand in their own blindspot and, because of this, believe that they can see without being seen. Salisbury's invitation, “Let us look in” (my emphasis), as implicit stage direction, indicates that the men look out over the stage and into the daylight O of the theatre in a metadramatic acknowledgement of their condition as objects of the gaze, an acknowledgement of which they, contained for the moment in the dramatic fiction of the tower, are unaware.4 Similarly, for all their discussion of the layout of the city and deployment of the Dauphin's troops in the distance, the generals and captains fail to observe the Boy in the foreground (they literally over-look him), the unseen watcher whose linstock will ignite the fatal shot.

Losing both his eye, the organ of sight, and part of his face, that surface that most represents an individual to the world, Salisbury wears on his body the signs of the dangerous circuit of the gaze and its violent return. Talbot's attempt to recover from the unexpected turn of events takes the form of an invocation of the familiar image of the sun: “One eye thou hast to look to heaven for grace. / The sun with one eye vieweth all the world” (1.4.83-4). But Talbot's appeal to this image of the all-seeing eye cannot recuperate lost mastery, for the king is dead, and in this world revolving around a vital absence, a French boy can topple the nobility from below; less than 20 lines later, peals of lightning and thunder herald the arrival of Joan la Pucelle, “A holy prophetess new risen up” (1.4.102), played by another boy, or perhaps even doubled by the Boy with the linstock. These two boys represent a radical challenge to the principles of hierarchy and the stability grounded on those principles. The sudden reversal at Orleans exemplifies this breakdown in the broader society: boys will kill men from a distance using guns, disdaining honourable hand-to-hand combat, a prentice will do his master's work, peasants will cozen noblemen, women will entrap them, petty jealousies will cause them to feed on one another. By the end of the next scene, Talbot's subjection to the gaze is complete. He laments: “Pucelle is ent'red into Orleans / In spite of us or aught that we could do. / O, would I were to die with Salisbury! / The shame hereof will make me hide my head” (1.5.36-39). The story of humiliation that began our relationship with Talbot in the previous scene culminates here in shame. Surveillance has become internalized as self-surveillance, and Talbot has become his own spectacle as he looks upon his dismal failure. As in the opening scene of the play, exposure is attendant upon debasement and a marshal impotence that is closely allied to the breakdown of established hierarchies.

The vanguard of a storm that ravages the social as much as the cosmic sphere, Joan's presence is coincident with roaring ordinance and rumbling thunder. Arriving at this moment of crisis, Joan is identified as its embodiment: she appropriates the language proper to the ideal of English monarchy, presumes to raise herself, though a peasant, the enemy, and a woman, to the height of visual mastery. Appearing before Rouen disguised as “la pouvre gens de France” (3.2.14), Joan confounds the desire for truth by appearing disguised as herself. Conflating truth and falsehood, strategy and verity in this way, Joan is the target of epistemological anxiety in the play, for she resists the anatomizing gaze by seemingly standing, like the “full” and “true” space of perspective painting, openly before it. Holy prophetess, maid, marshal hero, whore, witch and finally, mother, prisoner and condemned, Joan is the specular surface par excellence, a play of light that is always tantalizingly beyond the touch. The combat of the play, rhetorical as much as physical, is a struggle to control the signification of that reflecting surface. While Phyllis Rackin argues that Joan's “promiscuity” in this play, and Queen Margaret's adultery in the next, “are dramatically unnecessary,” serving only to “underscore the women's characterization as threats to masculine honour” (Stages 158), the play is not at all clear on the fact of Joan's promiscuity, a circumstance that points to an important dramatic necessity enfolded in Joan's multiple presentations of self. From the contesting images that pass for Joan's presence, there emerges, not a single self, a witch, who lies about her nature from the beginning of the play, but an overdetermined site of contestation where difference is installed as the prime mover of the dispute over territory. Without this moment of differentiation, played out in terms of sorcery and promiscuity, the English conquest of the French would be revealed to be a kind of self-mutilation: if France belongs to England, then this war is no less than a dismemberment of the politic body.

Because of the instability of Joan's specular surface, the structures of difference and authority staked upon her identity show an equal tendency toward an anxious indeterminacy, as the distinctions between the (righteous) English self and the (degraded) French Other are repeatedly shown to be illusory and strategic rather than natural. For instance, Talbot overturns his defeat at Orleans under cover of darkness, proving the English to be as “subtile-witted” as their enemy. Rouen, too, is seized by the French and retaken by the English in the space of a scene. The easy loss and recovery of positions of mastery in these scenes of attack and counter-attack testify to the instability of the visible economy in which these battles are waged. The holy prophetess “new risen” on the upward turn of Fortune's wheel will herself occupy an elevated position of visual mastery and will suffer the fall that inevitably comes with such a rise. But this dynamic is not one of simple reversal of terms, as the metaphor of Fortune's Wheel might suggest, for the rapid oscillation of subjects to objects of the gaze and back again is symptomatic of a more fundamental disturbance. The loss of the spectacular ideal of Henry V precipitates a collapse of categories of difference upon which national identity and epistemology are grounded. Phyllis Rackin astutely observes the challenge posed to English idealizing historiography and discourses of fame presented by French nominalism and association with sexuality and the body:

[A]t the rhetorical level, [the French] attack both the English version of history and the values it expresses with an earthy iconoclasm that subverts the inherited notions of chivalric glory invoked by the English heroes. Talbot, the English champion, and Joan, his French antagonist, speak alternative languages. His language reifies glory, while hers is the language of physical objects.

(Stages 150-51)

I would argue, however, that this binary model, like the oppositional rhetoric Rackin identifies, participates in the epistemological desire for dichotomous relations, a desire that is consistently thwarted in the play. In an epistemological model where the masculine, martial, English self is defined and consolidated by its opposition to a feminine, French Other, the crisis is to be found not merely in a conflict between opposed sets of terms (English words and French things), but rather in this opposition's collapse, in the possibility that the differences mobilized to justify territorial, national, religious, sexual, or historical dispute prove to be unstable and incapable of consolidating the identities staked upon them. It is for this reason that the appropriation of visual mastery by a French peasant woman must be figured as a usurpation of English right; to suggest that such mastery does not naturally adhere to only one side of mutually exclusive binarisms is to suggest a radical alternative to existing models of knowledge and identity. This deconstructive energy provokes in the play finally a strident (although incomplete) reassertion of English difference in what Gabriele Bernhard Jackson describes as Joan la Pucelle's violent and provocatively anxious recuperation by the dominant order (60).

The companion sorcery and trial scenes (5.3, 5.4) neatly illustrate the implications of this threatened collapse of difference and its violent and anxious reassertion through the identification and “exorcism” of Joan as witch. Joan's traffic with demons and her offered sacrifice of flesh seemingly solidify the dichotomous relations between English and French by demonstrating right before our very eyes her alignment with the forces of darkness, just as Talbot has insisted all along. Joan's promise that she will “lop a member off” (5.3.15) to give to the fiends in exchange for their prognostications, and her assertion that her “body shall / Pay recompense” if they will grant her suit (5.3.15, 18-19), are at first glance blatant instances of Joan's sexual openness and willingness to sell her flesh for her own purposes. Joan's offer to dismember her own body apparently provides proof of Talbot's indictments of both whoredom and witchery that ground the definition of French degradation against which English virtue is defined.

Even here, however, at what should be the moment of the most clarity in the play regarding Joan's slippery evasions of the defining gaze, we find in the language of self-mutilation a most graphic instance of the collapsing difference between the two factions. Talbot's presence is not felt in the scene merely because his early intuitions are here proved, but also because we hear in Joan's language of demonic sacrifice a troubling rhetorical echo. In his first encounter with Joan, Talbot declares: “My breast I'll burst with straining of my courage / And from my shoulders crack my arms asunder / But I will chastise this high-minded strumpet” (1.5.10-12). The similarity between the Talbot's patriotic martial declaration and Joan's demonic rhetoric is striking. Although Joan does not defeat Talbot at their initial encounter, he rhetorically dismembers himself in a way that foreshadows his own literal death later in the play. More importantly, both the hero and the witch in their rhetorical fervour sacrifice and mutilate their bodies in the theatre of war; Talbot offers up his limbs to king and country, as does Joan, who fears that France's glory, without the aid of her familiars, “droopeth to the dust” (5.3.29). It will be argued that Joan's sacrifices are manifestly to demons, while Talbot's are, presumably, to God, and it is not my purpose here to argue that Joan is not in this scene in league with devils. What I am arguing for, however, is a structural conjunction between the two scenes which, taken together, reveal that the appeal to dismembered bodies in these instances complicates the pat gratification of English desire for a resolution of the conflict into binary oppositions. The difference between Talbot's discourse of self-mutilation and Joan's is one of moral rectitude, but the contamination of English discourse by the very corporeal terms of the flesh they identify as French reveals the uncanny return of the Other within the boundaries of the self.5

If the borders between the self and the Other are dangerously permeable, the larger epistemological project of the play is the finding, knowing and policing of those borders. This project, fraught with the contradictions of visibility, is played out across the physical bodies of the characters: epistemological uncertainty is forcibly stabilized through violence. The sorcery scene, then, proves to be a particularly important juncture where we as audience—within whose experience this dramatic echo of self-mutilating language resonates—become implicated in the rhetorical, political and epistemological struggle to reestablish and police these threatened boundaries. As Derek Cohen observes, in this case, of the deposition scene of Richard II: “[I]n the political scheme of this world of power, murder becomes the logical means of reconciling the irreconcilable; it is a procrustean attempt to resolve through violence what cannot be resolved through logic” (23). Cohen continues: “Bolingbroke, in a sense, wants to be Richard, but can only succeed by seeming to be his opposite. The violence of the language of the play, straining as it does to break the bounds of rigid verse structures, derives from the attempt of each antagonist to propose himself as the opposite of the other” (26). In a visible economy in which opposition is justified as difference, violence, Cohen argues, becomes the site at which difference itself is fashioned and becomes meaningful as a term in the ideological conflict of the play. The violence of the play, instead of guaranteeing epistemological mastery, becomes instead what can be seen as an ineffectual reaction to the terrifying apparition of the Other who always threatens to return as the same. Thus, the trial scene which follows the sorcery scene presents to us a double image: on the one hand we see what appears to be a pat demonstration of a ceremony of exorcism, a clear demarcation between the pure and the corrupt; on the other hand this scene, like the funeral scene that opens the play, serves rather to reveal the failure of ceremonial protocol, that the violence to which Joan is subjected cannot ratify the dichotomy upon which English judicial superiority rests.

The end of the sorcery scene along with the trial scene together mark the point at which Joan's character is ostensibly finally stabilized as a witch, and Talbot's insistence to that effect proves to be correct. The scene is a prime example of exorcism based on the revelation of the transgressor to the judicial gaze: the moment that Joan's demonic affiliations are made apparent to us onstage is also the moment of her loss of privileged vision and power. After Joan is rejected by the fiends and captured by the English, Richard says of her, “See how the ugly witch doth bend her brows / As if, with Circe, she would change my shape” (5.3.34-5), referring both to the potential power of Joan's sorcerer's gaze and its loss. In this, the sorcery scene enacts the pattern of demonic exorcism in which, as Stephen Greenblatt observes, the spirit is “compelled by a spectacular spiritual counterforce to speak out and depart” (Negotiations 98-9). Like Greenblatt, Deborah Willis argues that the presence of spectators is essential to overcoming the witch in spectacular presentation: “The trial [of a witch] functions as a kind of countermagic, with judges and jury taking over some aspects of the role of the cunning folk, as the witch's exposure and forced confession also dissolve her magical powers” (107). Joan as witch is made visible precisely to be erased; she is subjected to “visible exclusion,”6 a gesture which seems to stabilize the difference between French corporeal debasement and English moral rectitude that is mobilized as justification for their opposition.

The definitive sorcery scene slips, however, into evasions that complicate its status in the judicial discourse of the trial scene that follows. That this is so can be demonstrated by the fact that we see Joan's traffic with demons, but the English do not. Since Joan is onstage alone as she reveals herself to be a conjurer, it is we in the audience who are enlisted as the judges, jury and “cunning folk” to bear witness to the act and to fulfil the ceremonial protocols of exorcism. We are in this way implicated in the condemnation that Joan receives, insofar as witchcraft is the cause, for none of the English “judges” has witnessed what we have seen. The tendency, however—and the dramatic structure of events specifically elicits this effect—is to attribute our knowledge to the English: we know that Joan is guilty of sorcery, ergo her condemnation as a whore can be justified as a slightly displaced comeuppance. Our own desire for epistemological mastery, implied by our positioning in the exorcism of the earlier scene, finds its fulfilment in what the play encourages us to read as the final stabilization of Joan's representation. It no longer matters whether we have seen Joan deny the Dauphin's advances or that we have heard even her French allies, Alençon and Reignier, drop acerbic asides about her possible sexual dalliance with the king. We have occupied a position of privileged vision, have observed Joan in a private moment and have seen, therefore, the “truth” of her enigmatic and contradictory character. This knowledge and position of privileged vision should, if we have been paying attention, make us very nervous. This nervousness arises when we realize that Joan's condemnation in the trial scene is constructed by the order of the presentation of the drama to appear to be a culmination of a condemnation begun in the sorcery episode. But as such a culmination, the later judgement is made based on evidence that only we have seen; in fact, the English ignorance of this scene has no effect on the final outcome of her trial, which is based, not on “proof” of Joan's sorcery, but on the English need to expose, humiliate and destroy the enemy. Joan is not a witch, in other words, because she has been shown to be one, but because the consolidation of English identity in opposition to the French who form their constitutive outside demands that she be so. The demonstration of Joan's transgression, therefore, has no role in the unravelling of the events of the play, but has everything to do with the dramatic manipulation of the audience in the context of a radical destabilization of certainties based on visibility. The sorcery scene does not, then, culminate in the trial scene, nor does it influence the represented action of that scene, but actually permits from the point of view of the audience the displacement from witchcraft to whoredom that enables the English to burn Joan at the stake.

The verity of our vision in the first scene, then, implicates us in the wilful distortion of the trial scene and the ruthlessness of the English judges, epitomized by their refusal to grant Joan “benefit of belly” when she discloses her pregnancy in a final attempt to escape execution. Joan's claim, first that the Dauphin, then Alençon, then Reignier, is the father of the child is rejected because the men are respectively the enemy, a “notorious Machiavel” (5.4.74) and “A married man” (5.4.79), and the child subsequently becomes a “sign that [Joan] hath been liberal and free” (5.4.82). As a whoreson, the child has no social being, and on this ground the judges deny Joan's claim to benefit of belly. In rejecting Joan's claim to judicial protocol, the English once again compromise their claims to moral superiority. As Jackson observes, “Joan is the butt of the brutal joke here, but it is unlikely that York and Warwick come off unscathed by the negative association of their total violation of English custom” (62). Simply by placing an Englishman on the stage during the sorcery scene—as in the next play for the entrapment of Duchess Eleanor—Shakespeare could have avoided this complication and recuperated the trial scene in a discourse of justice. That he does not do so suggests that this manipulation of the protocols of “evidence” is implicated in deeper questions about identity and epistemological desire.

The trial scene represents a distortion of the protocols of evidence in two ways: first, because the judges' condemnation of Joan on the grounds of promiscuity is given dramatic support by the sorcery scene of which we, and not they, were witness, and; second, because the pregnancy which should elicit a standard reprieve is reread as justification for the circumvention of the law. Our privileged viewpoint on the one hand and the judges' wilful blindness on the other are subject to a rebounding of the juridical gaze upon those who claim its rights, as Jackson concludes: “[I]n a final twist of meaning, as we have seen, the terms of Joan's reintegration into conservative ideology recognizably damage her captors' own ideological sanction” (64). In this final instance of the deployment of a stabilizing gaze, Joan proves to be a reflecting surface yet again.

Even while noting this tendency for the captors to be contaminated by the rebounding infamy of the condemned, Jackson makes a common critical assumption. She writes: “Although Joan is only pretending, her captors are at best playing cat and mouse with her as they condemn her supposed child to death anew each time she assigns it a different father” (62, my emphasis). This assumption that Joan is “only pretending” about her pregnancy, a position general among critics, reveals a critical belief that Joan really is a maid as she earlier claims, and as the historical record tends to support. However, if, on the one hand, Joan is a promiscuous sorceress, if the French innuendo is taken to supplement and validate English invective, then it is possible that Shakespeare's Joan (as opposed to the historical Joan) could be pregnant at this point. If this is the case, then the English are murderers of an innocent and become villains at the moment when the condemnation of the criminal should ideally crystallize their identities in opposition to feminine, French, peasant, enemy illegitimacy. If, on the other hand, we assert that Joan is “only pretending” when there is no more evidence to that effect than there is of its opposite, then we must acknowledge an unarticulated critical desire that has already solidified a significant aspect of her identity, sorcery scene, conflicting reports and innuendo notwithstanding. The critical desire for Joan not to be pregnant is as much an imposition as the judges' desire for her pregnancy to “prove” her villainy. As critics, we participate in, or more precisely, we perform the slippage and evasions that characterize the English as judges.

Recognizing ourselves in this judicial tableau, we also confront our own confidence in historical knowledge. Do we see Joan, even in the privacy of the sorcery scene, as a unified subject, or does this dramatis persona,7 poised between history and fiction, reflect back to us our own desire for unity? The scene of privacy, like the sorcery scene or a standard soliloquy of the Hamlet type, is conventionally assumed to present truth to the audience—the character alone on stage is not considered to be performing for an outside world in a potential state of duplicity, but is felt, rather, to be “being herself.” No-one “acts” unless she feels she is being observed. The image of the “witch” onstage alone establishes conventional expectations of unmediated, “true,” representation; however, our knowledge of the historical record, as Jackson's assertion suggests, does in fact mediate, does trouble the visible fact of Joan's onstage “promiscuity,” placing us in a liminal space between drama and history, visible evidence and desire. In manipulating the boundary between historical knowledge and dramatic construct, the two scenes of sorcery and condemnation manoeuvre us into a position where our sense of mastery is challenged by the dramatization of the notion that even the most likely images of truth give us access only to further duplicities in a treacherous labyrinth of contradiction. Shakespeare's mobilization of history (in this case our extratextual belief that Joan is a maiden as historical record tells us), serves not as a guarantor of validity, legitimacy or truth, but rather as a challenge to both history's status as knowledge and our confidence that privileged vision is equivalent to truth. In the interaction of these two scenes, we become aware of our spectator consciousness and the limitations that conceit of mastery implies. Pregnant or not, sorceress or not, historical figure or Shakespearean construct, Joan's uncertain and shifting position between history and fiction, between what we see and what we are told, challenges our belief that seeing is believing. Shakespeare gets us coming and going.

Throughout the trial scene Joan displays all of her masks and the transgressions of boundaries attendant upon them: disclaiming her peasant father, she claims noble birth, then heavenly descent; professing purity, she then “discovers” her pregnancy. Each persona—upstart peasant, holy maid, mother, whore—is rehearsed and stripped away in the course of the action, leaving behind, not an inner core revealed to the gaze hungry to know her and thus to contain her, but a strange emptiness. She is pregnant and not pregnant, a maid and a whore, a pretender and a savior, an enemy and a victim of ruthless injustice. As such, she takes upon her the anxieties attendant upon the collapsing discourses of hierarchy that make this world intelligible to those who act within it. The destruction enacted by Boys and women in the play, the abandonment of heros by their armies, the language of demonization and degradation, with its reiteration of “Dogs! Cowards! Dastards!” (1.2.35) and “strumpet,” “pussel,” and “whore,” all signal the collapse of hierarchy and the identities staked upon it. In the wake of the definitive scenes of the play, therefore, Joan exits as much an enigma as she ever was. Rising in an image of sun-like mastery, Joan's specular surface in fact reflects a strange emptiness where the real sun, the idealized figure of Henry V, should have been.


  1. I have noted elsewhere this dynamic of the penetrative spectacle of power in which royal self-presentation is coded as a demonstration that, in its assertion of self-sufficiency, elides the reading power of its intended audience. See my article, “‘Industrious Scenes and Acts of Death’: Visible Economies and the (Dis)Appearing ‘I’” English Studies in Canada 24.1 (1998). 1-24., for a more detailed account of this unstable structure. Stephen Greenblatt notes a similar construction in which the monarch's spectacular presence functions like a theatre which depends upon the participation of the observing subject, but insists upon an unbreachable barrier between audience and spectacle (Negotiations, 64-5).

  2. Shakespeare will exploit Reignier's status as the pauper-King of Naples and Jerusalem later in this play and in the next, when Suffolk will trade on behalf of Henry VI a significant portion of France for Reignier's daughter, Margaret. Dismissed and figuratively demoted by a mere peasant woman in this scene, Reignier will later inherit a kingdom in an overturning of hierarchy that is the preoccupation of this play and the two that follow.

  3. Phyllis Rackin observes a similar structure in terms of historiography in Shakespeare's second tetralogy, which she identifies as a “fall into time” in a “postlapsarian world”: “The linear, causal structure of Richard II is replaced in the Henry IV plays by a proliferation of subplots that cannot be subsumed under the temporal principle of teleology; instead, they are tenuously connected by the spatial principles of analogy, parody, contrast, and juxtaposition” (Stages 136-37).

  4. Christopher Pye further extends this “calculus of theatrical relations” of the gaze to include the theatre audience, “[f]or the moment Talbot ‘overpeers the city,’ overlooking the canon [sic] below and gazing out beyond the stage, is also the moment that the audience finds its own masterful and subjecting gaze returning upon it.” At this instant of transgression, “the moment spectacle returns the gaze … the boundary between viewer and spectacle is rent” (“Market” 509). This returning gaze rebounds yet again in the form of a shot that strikes off Salisbury's cheek and eye.

  5. Note too, that at the funeral of Henry V Bedford performs his own rhetorical conjuration, saying: “Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate: / Prosper this realm, and keep it from civil broils!” (1.1.52-3). Granted that Henry is not here a fiend, the first invocation of otherworldly spirits in the play is nevertheless an English one. Furthermore, at the siege of Orleans, the sexual division upon which national distinctions are made are also challenged. As they plan their strategy, Talbot and Burgundy's speech is contaminated with the sexual images attendant upon their proposed penetration of the feminized city. Hoping, in making their “entrance several ways,” that if one party fails “The other yet may rise against their force” (2.1.30-2), Talbot chooses his literal and metaphorical place of attack: “And here will Talbot mount, or make his grave” (2.1.34). The language of marshal strategy, with its “mounting” and “rising,” betrays the grounding terms of the conflict in the scene as the exclusive options of phallic conquest and nothingness: a penetration of the feminized French city or “his grave.” In their recourse to the corporeal language of sexual penetration, the English undermine their own claims to purity, for they are involved in the very penetration of Joan that is the defining characteristic of the enemy.

  6. See “‘Industrious Scenes and Acts of Death’: King John's Visible Economy and the (Dis)Appearing ‘I’” (2-3).

  7. Jackson challenges those readings that see Joan as a unified subject with a reading that sees her as genuinely multiplicitous, as a dramatis persona whose multiple identities proliferate through time as the character fulfils a variety of context-bound dramatic functions. In this sense, Joan is not a witch masquerading as a maid, but is rather a maid and a witch, depending upon when we encounter her in the play: “The changing presentation allows Joan to perform in one play inconsistent ideological functions that go much beyond discrediting the French cause or setting off by contrast the glories of English chivalry in its dying moments” (44). Joan's identity, she concludes, has less to do with unity and more to do “with the way in which a character is perceived by the audience at a particular moment of dramatic time” (42). Contradictory, but not duplicitous therefore, Joan is not available to the regulative gestures of exorcism. Exorcism as a mode of definition operates in a vertical paradigm in which the occult is brought to light, the deeper meaning is brought to the surface and the doubleness of artifice is collapsed into the “real,” which is, in this model, coextensive with the visible. Proliferating horizontally through dramatic time, Joan's “character,” as dramatis persona, has no inner substance to bring to the regulative light of the patriarchal, English, nationalist, judicial gaze.

Works Cited

Cohen, Derek. Shakespeare's Culture of Violence. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Dickson, Lisa. “‘Industrious Scenes and Acts of Death’: King John's Visible Economy and the (Dis)Appearing ‘I.’” English Studies in Canada 24, 1 (1998). 1-24.

Freedman, Barbara. Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis and Shakespearean Comedy. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 1991.

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. (1953). Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas trans. Athens, OH: Ohio U. P., 1985.

Gilman, Ernest B. The Curious Perspective: Literary and Pictorial Wit in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven: Yale U. P., 1978.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Jackson, Gabrielle Bernhard. “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc.” English Literary Renaissance 18, 1 (1988): 40-65.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediæval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1957.

O'Faolain, Julia, and Lauro Martines, Eds. Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians. Toronto: Harper and Row, 1973.

Oliver, Isaak. The Rainbow Portrait. Collections of the Duke of Salisbury, Hattfield House. England.

Pye, Christopher. “The Theater, the Market, and the Subject of History.” ELH 6, 13 (1994): 501-22.

———. The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Rackin, Phyllis. Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed Alfred Harbage. Pelican Text Revised. New York: Penguin Books, 1969.

Willis, Deborah. “Shakespeare and the Witch Hunts: Enclosing the Maternal Body.” Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England. Ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 1994. 97-120.

Russell Jackson (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “‘This England’: Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, Winter 2000-2001.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (2001): 383-92.

[In the following essay, Jackson reviews Michael Boyd's December 2000-January 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III. The critic contends that the production's greatest achievement “lay in its evocation of a world turned to chaos.”]

The three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, staged in the Swan Theatre during December 2000 and January 2001, were directed by Michael Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, with lighting by Heather Carson and music by James Jones. These artists should be credited in full, in honor of their achievement in providing a framework—physical, aural, emotional, and intellectual—for the cycle. The staging of these plays has proved, even more than the first part of “This England,” that the Royal Shakespeare Company can make a return to the principles of ensemble nowhere better than in its dealings with the English history plays. In particular, we see once again how effective and coherent these playhouse scripts can be, even without major revisions or additions, in guiding audiences through an exciting saga of ambition, passion, and treachery. In terms of the RSC's history, however, the event is not as reassuring as one might expect or hope—of that, more later.

For the winter season the warm woodwork of the Swan was swathed in matte black cloth, and the acting space was radically rearranged. What is usually the rear of the platform stage was occupied by a bank of seats with a musicians' gallery and a walkway over it. The audience on ground level sat around a cruciform platform, which occupied the center of the space, with its base at the old stage end. Entrances were made from runways on either side of the base of the cross, at each of its arms, and from either side of a bronze-colored metal structure at its head. This provided an area “above” at the level of the first gallery and double entrance doors at stage level. At the opposite end of the platform was a large trap with two hinged flaps. In addition to lights in the normal positions above and to the sides of the central acting area, the gangways behind the seating and the pillars and railings in front of the galleries themselves could be lit. Clusters of diffused lights were complemented by a group of sharply focused lamps suspended about ten feet above the platform, which allowed the lower half of the space to be illuminated like a boxing ring while the upper reaches remained in darkness. The importance of the director's being able to divide the entire theater space vertically and horizontally was revealed when the “rope work” began—sequences in which actors swung or hung from ropes, ladders, and trapezes.

The costumes for the male characters were variations on doublets and breeches, often worn under long-skirted coats or robes. The coloring ranged from black and gray through different shades of red and brown to the blue and gold of the French courts and the glittering brocades affected by Edward IV and his queen. King Henry wore a simpler golden robe of state, varied with a white, high-buttoned coat and a loose, some what monastic garment for his disguise in 3 Henry VI, 3.1 (the keepers' scene.)1 At the beginning of Richard III the costume coloring was much darker, although Richard, hitherto in black throughout the series, did appear in silver for his coronation. The costume materials were rich and subtly colored. The women's gowns were high-collared and cut close to the body, with skirts flaring down from the mid-thigh (for example, Queen Elizabeth and Lady Bona in 3 Henry VI). Margaret of Anjou and her three ladies appeared at the beginning of 2 Henry VI in costumes replicating in blue the red ones worn previously by La Pucelle and her three “fiends” (played by the same actresses). The Talbot father and son wore doublets and breeches of gray, with a hint of the World War I army uniform in the puttees wound round their lower legs and their poilu-style helmets. They retained these for their various appearances throughout the three parts of Henry VI until the younger actor appeared (in a buff doublet and breeches) as the young Richmond and, in Richard III, the elder appeared first as a pallbearer and then as Lord Stanley. The actors first seen as the gunner and his boy in 1 Henry VI wore red as the various characters they played throughout the cycle.

The costumes (rich, not gaudy), the almost infinitely variable lighting, and the open stage with the various acting levels above it provided splendidly adaptable resources for what was in the strictest sense a visionary production. They enabled the audience to navigate a course through the plays by way of a series of visual parallels that reinforced the sense of repeated actions and situations. In Richard III (which, a colleague observed, was now effectively “4 Henry VI”) the coronation scene and the apparitions in Richard's tent were the culmination of a pattern in which the casualties of history returned after their demise to supervise the fulfillment of the plays' many prophecies and omens, all of which were signaled by subtle, eerie musical phrases. The effect was not so much of doubling as of persistence. As characters died, they were either ceremonially buried in the trap or ushered through the bronze doors into the other world by a red-clad figure, listed in the cast as “the Keeper.” The same actor, Edward Clayton, also played various messengers, the father of Margaret of Anjou, Dick the Butcher (acquiring a cleaver that he retained thereafter on his belt), and the lieutenant of the Tower. Given the curriculum vitae of its guardian and the hell-mouth associations of its bronze doors, it was hardly surprising that in 3.1 of Richard III the young prince should remark “I do not like the Tower of any place” when he was invited to lodge there. Edward Mortimer, already wraithlike when he appeared in prison, watched from above as his nephew was invested as duke of York. After his death and the displaying of his head on the gates of York in 3 Henry VI, 2.2, York stood in his turn above the bronze doors to preside over the battle of Towton: he looked steadily at Henry when the latter entered amid gently falling feathers at the beginning of 2.5. He appeared above again to face down Clarence (standing on the gallery opposite) in 5.1: when Clarence changed sides, crushing his red rose in his hand and letting it fall to the stage below, he seemed to have been shamed into the action by York's gaze. York joined his sons onstage for the battle of Tewkesbury in 5.4 and 5.5. York subsequently appeared at the coronation of Richard III, and in the final battle it was he and his duchess who removed the crown from the defeated usurper's head.

The production's skillful use of repeated and echoed actions was exemplified in the treatment of its most persistent living figure—and the only true survivor of all four plays—Margaret of Anjou. The doubling of this character with Joan of Arc was effected with a little shuffling of the scenes at the end of 1 Henry VI, so that a direct transformation was effected from one French sorceress to another. Joan was tied to a ladder, tortured savagely and “burned,” and descended into the trap (5.3 and 5.4, followed by 5.6, with the appearance of Joan's father omitted); Suffolk then addressed the first of his lines in 5.3 to Margaret as though she were hiding in another room. Margaret made her entrance—in a blue replica of the red dress worn by Joan and the three “fiends”—through the double doors where Joan had entered in her first scene. Regnier (i.e., the red-clad “Keeper” but with a coronet) appeared above before descending to stage level to negotiate for the terms of his daughter's marriage. At the end of Richard III, Margaret lingered even longer than the text indicates to participate in Richard's dreams and witness the triumphs of his nemesis on the battlefield. Joan's mocking laughter at the dying Bedford in 1 Henry VI, when she stood atop the walls of Orleans waving his severed arm in the air (3.5), and at the dead Talbot (4.7) were echoed in Margaret's taunting of York in 3 Henry VI, 1.3, and of the assembled court in Richard III, 1.3. Joan's magic commanded not only the three female fiends who attended her onto the battlefield in 1.5, swords wheeling in the air above their heads, but also the figure of Burgundy, whom she seemed to conjure up so that he might be made to “turn, and turn again” as he crossed the stage at 3.7. When Margaret, York, Somerset, Suffolk, and the cardinal plotted against the duke of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI, 3.1, the conspiracy took on the character of a conjuration, and the oath was emphasized by its musical accompaniment. Finally, in Richard III, Margaret, having at first observed the court from the galleries, came down to the center of the stage and threw down a sack. She emptied its contents of human bones onto the floor and arranged them as if to compose the skeleton of her dead son. Her curses and prophecies thus had the effect of magic spells as well as of a literal representation of the burden of grief—and it was this burden that, “hungry for revenge,” she thrust on the hapless Queen Elizabeth in 4.4.

The elder and younger Talbot returned again and again after their deaths. They were visible alongside the English army just as Charles the Dauphin comforted himself with the reflection “I trust the ghost of Talbot is not there” (1 Henry VI, 5.2.16). Emerging from the trap as the spirits summoned for the duchess of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI, 1.4, they reenacted the scene of the son's death (slung Icarus-like above the stage) as the agonized father uttered the prophecies. They then became the pirates who captured and killed Suffolk in 4.1, with the elder Talbot (as lieutenant) pouring contempt on his prisoner, blaming him for the parlous state of the realm, and promising him death—“Thy lips that kissed the Queen shall sweep the ground.” In their gray costumes they also represented both the son who has killed his father and the father who has killed his son, and finally they achieved a kind of apotheosis as Richmond and Stanley. Whereas Margaret/Joan, the duke of York, and the earl of Mortimer reappeared to witness the playing-out of their dynastic ambitions, the Talbots in their various reincarnations figured as representatives of martial virtue and patriotic feeling, betrayed by the frenzy of self-interest unleashed in the first play but ultimately triumphant at the conclusion of the cycle.

Other ghostly returns on the part of virtuous characters included the duke of Gloucester's return to hold down the dying cardinal's arms (preventing him from making a sign of repentance) and then hauling up the corpse to hang over the stage as a witness of the ensuing scene. Gloucester also appeared leading his dead enemies, a decapitated Suffolk and the cardinal, around the stage during the scene of Jack Cade's rebellion. In 1 Henry VI, 3.1, Bedford delivered his dying speech and then—now effectively a ghost—opened the trap to unleash the forces that finally take Orleans.

These reappearing figures helped to endow many of the events of the first three plays with a visionary quality, which was reinforced by patterns of staging and symbolic stage properties. The throne, a simple wooden box, was first seen occupied by Mortimer in 2.5 and then by Henry in the court scene that immediately follows (3.1)—in which the king remained silent and was ignored for 64 lines while the nobles argued. The wounded Bedford, another representative of English virtue, was carried to it in the next scene. In 2 Henry VI, Jack Cade struck it (as London Stone) and then stood on it—although his preferred seat was a trapeze. It was of course occupied by York in the first scene of 3 Henry VI and featured once again as the king's seat in the Tower (echoing Mortimer's prison scene) in 5.6. For his own coronation Richard III had evidently commissioned something more elaborate—a three-stepped throne, placed in front of the bronze doors—and he perched on it with a sense of gleefully achieved elevation. The throne was not the only means by which kingly status was conferred. There was a repeated pattern of ceremonial entrances, such as those in the first scene of 2 Henry VI and the entry of Edward with his new queen in 4.1 of 3 Henry VI. The final scene of the three Henry VI plays was effectively an interrupted version of this pattern: Edward and Elizabeth, splendidly robed, entered from the bronze doors to a stage dominated by a large pool of blood that had welled from the dying Henry's corpse in the preceding scene. In some scenes the court entered on the gallery above the seating at the “foot” of the cross-shaped platform; on occasion descent from this position was significant. Thus during the arraignment of the duchess of Gloucester (2 Henry VI, 2.3), Henry came down to speak mildly to the duke and receive his staff of office, while Margaret remained haughtily above. (At the end of the scene, for the trial by combat of the master and his apprentice, the court moved to a “royal box” over the bronze doors.) A similar pattern was adopted for the Parliament scene at the beginning of Act 3.

Battles, sieges, and assaults were handled with impressive energy and variety, sometimes using scaling ladders and ropes, often with phalanxes of opposing forces lined up at either end of the stage and advancing to pounding percussion amid swathes of mist. The production did not employ a council table as a recurring symbol and property—a notable feature of the 1964 Wars of the Roses cycle—but simply marked the council scenes by the position of the participants. The only other large stage property was the bed on which the cardinal died in Act 3 of 2 Henry VI. The ghost of Gloucester pushed this out onto the stage from the bronze doors. Positioned over the trap, it became the ship's hold from which the pirates emerged in the next scene. Finally it was pulled off again, attached to a billowing drape that became a tunnel through which Suffolk was led to his death—and, implicitly, to the fate awaiting him in the afterlife.

Smaller hand-properties carried a similar symbolic charge. A lone feather fell from the sky in 1 Henry VI during Joan's first combat with Talbot, and then a flurry of red feathers descended when Salisbury and Gargrave were mortally wounded in 2.4. Subsequent showers of feathers occurred in other battles, but a single feather was also carried through the plays by Henry—together with a pebble—as a sign of kingly authority. The pebbles had first been seen when Mortimer bequeathed his struggle—and a handful of stones—to York, who subsequently emptied a bag of them onto the stage and arranged them to illustrate his family tree and his claim to the crown in 2 Henry VI, 2.2. Henry walked through the shower of feathers (of both colors) during the battle of Towton in 3 Henry VI and was holding a single feather and a pebble when he was accosted by the keepers in 3.1. When he encountered the young Richmond in 4.6, he gave him a feather in token of his prophecy. In Richard III, 3.1, the young duke of York arrived in London with a bag containing one white feather and seven stones, which he arranged on the ground to form a cross. The final image of this series was provided by the ghosts of the two princes during Richard III's nightmare: they shook large pillows in front of their faces, showering feathers onto the king below. The white and red roses, first seen descending from above in the Temple Garden scene (1 Henry VI, 2.4) began as real-looking properties but soon became enamel badges. Although the crown featured of course in each successive king's ambitions and on his head, it was not charged with the same significance as it had been in the Summer Festival's productions of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. The most interesting moment of stage business involving it came in the first scene of 3 Henry VI. After some two hundred lines of the peers' wrangling yet again over his sovereignty, the king departed, leaving the crown behind on the throne. Exeter retrieved it, making his exit line a wry expression of forlorn hope—“And I, I hope, shall reconcile them all.”2

The arrangement of the space, the technical resources, and the vocabulary of symbolism were impressively systematic and consistent, but they also provided the necessary framework for a production rich in human passions and spectacle. It is important not to lose sight of the emotional power of the productions, or the sensuous—at times visceral—effect of the staging. The first play focused on the struggle for France, the second on dynastic ambition and a sense of grievance fueling conspiracy, and the third on another, more desperate version of the struggle for possession and inheritance. (In the program the parts were subtitled The War against France, England's Fall, and The Chaos.) As usual when it is played in this sequence, Richard III, despite its stronger sense of tragic organization and the centrality of the title character, seemed less a bravura melodrama and more a continuation by other means of the three parts of Henry VI.

In this context there is no danger of the audience's being unaware of the sins of those who become Richard's victims, or the impact of the murders of Rutland and the Prince of Wales. Aidan McArdle, as Richard of Gloucester, emerged in the Yorkist saga as a sardonic, bustling participant in the feud. His avowals of personal ambition in 3 Henry VI echoed the earlier speeches of his father, with egoism replacing dynastic grievance as a conscious motivation. Margaret of Anjou had foreshadowed his sexual dynamism and charisma, and his wooing of Lady Anne had the character of a spell—combined with outright sexual assault as he pushed her up against the bronze doors. The action was echoed in his unsuccessful but equally physical wooing of Elizabeth for her daughter's hand. The conclusion of 3 Henry VI, seeming to promise the end of “sour annoy,” had Richard holding the infant prince, chucking the child under the chin and making babyish burbling sounds, then suddenly looking up and saying “Now” as the lights snapped out. The final play began with Richard alone at centerstage under fierce white lighting, with no reprise of the jauntiness of the preceding play's final moment and no sense of any remaining optimism. This Richard enjoyed his villainy but not grossly. While the impertinent young York, in 2.4, limped grotesquely round the stage to imitate his uncle, Richard remained stock still; and there was no melodramatic revelation of his displeasure. Individual triumphs were relished, including his condemnation of Hastings and the fooling of the mayor and aldermen (Richard appeared above the bronze doors in a white coat like Henry VI's, with a red-clad priest on either side). The high point, however, seemed to be the coronation. This was a vision of obeisance, with all Richard's earlier victims, together with his father and Warwick, doing homage to him. The culminating triumph was Henry VI's prostrating himself, arms spread wide, before Richard's throne. The ghosts departed, and the mortals were left to an edgy cocktail party, wandering round the stage and the auditorium with wine cups in their hands while Richard solicited Buckingham's help in disposing of the princes in the Tower. The flattering vision of his coronation was in fact a dress rehearsal for the nightmare on the eve of battle, when Richard would be made to suffer the tortures he had inflicted on others (including being drowned in malmsey) while Richmond knelt at the other end of the stage to be comforted by Richard's assailants and accusers. Like the conclusion of the play, in which Richard's father and mother uncrowned him and Henry VI led him off to the next world, this was an episode richly prepared for by the preceding twelve hours of drama.

The production's greatest interpretive achievement, however, lay in its evocation of a world turned to chaos. The program cover reproduced a detail from Hieronymus Bosch's “Garden of Earthly Delights,” invoking a grotesque vision of eternal punishment. The solemn ritual of the funeral of Henry V gave way to such macabre spectacles as the torture of Joan of Arc, the death of Cardinal Beaufort, and the topsy-turvydom of Cade's rebellion, which combined carnival absurdity with savagery. The use of ropes, swings, and ladders, particularly in the battle of Towton, filled the theater with writhing, agonized bodies in a way that earthbound conflict could not have achieved. Physical cruelty was represented both by stylized imagery—as in the cradling of Suffolk's head by Margaret—and by bloody literalism in the slaughter of Rutland and Prince Edward, the mutilation of Clifford's body (3 Henry VI, 2.6), and the pool of blood spreading across the stage from Henry's corpse. The production not only accommodated but enhanced the plays' stylized passages. A notable instance were the fathers and sons of 3 Henry VI, 2.5: it seemed entirely appropriate for Keith Bartlett and Sam Troughton, having played the elder and younger Talbots, to reappear here as both pairs.

Throughout the sequence, powerfully rendered human situations had been embedded in this way in a context of symbolism and significance. In 3 Henry VI, 1.3, the death of Rutland was made more affecting by his presence in the preceding scene, where he sang a Latin hymn while York played the lute: the emotional and rhetorical power of the death scene was enhanced simply and tellingly. Margaret and Suffolk said their farewells across the whole length of the stage: when she appeared with his head in 2 Henry VI, 4.4, she was singing softly and cradling the head of the actor himself, his body enveloped in her black gown. (Apart from a few bagged specimens, most of the severed heads were “played” in a similar manner, giving the dead characters an immediate touch of the afterlife.) In Richard III, 4.4, the laments of Margaret, the queen, and the duchess of York seemed to sum up the accumulated bitterness and anguish of victims in the whole cycle. Clive Wood was a forceful York: passionate and earnest in his exposition of his right to the throne, even after death his imposing appearance made him more formidable than his sons. …

The staging of the production allowed—in fact, obliged—the actors to address all the soliloquies and most of the passages of argument directly to the audience. As King Henry, David Oyewolo had a commanding stillness and softly spoken insistence on righteousness, without hackneyed outward signs of being “holy Harry.” He moved with dignified simplicity into prophetic mode to give his blessing to the young Richmond in 4.7 of 3 Henry VI, and in his death scene he confronted Richard of Gloucester calmly. His meditation on the relative values of the king's life and the shepherd's (3 Henry VI, 2.5) was delivered as an earnest persuasion to the audience. “Oh yes it doth,” he urged us, adding “a thousandfold it doth” (l. 46) just in case anyone doubted that the hawthorn bush might not afford a sweeter shade than a rich embroidered canopy. On a more mundane and ethically much lower level, King Edward was a smug, lazily lascivious monarch. He and Lady Elizabeth Grey (the elegant Elaine Pyke) took evident pleasure in their wooing scene, a glimmer of seemingly amiable (if amoral) humor soon chilled by Richard of Gloucester's “Would he were wasted, marrow, bones and all” (3.2.125). After the clamorous, rawly ambitious, and passionate Joan and Margaret of Fiona Bell …, this Elizabeth seemed an altogether less threatening figure. Compared with the duchess of Auvergne and the ambitious duchess of Gloucester, she was a less strident enchanter or would-be imprisoner of men. While Warwick was wooing on the king's behalf by showing King Lewis and Lady Bona an image of her suitor in a golden picture frame (lowered from above with the actor himself in it), the newly chosen queen walked in from the doors behind him and stood alongside Edward with smiling complacency. She was led by her ambitions for herself and her family (whom she was soon installing in positions of favor) and an evident relish for the trappings of majesty—and then suddenly the events of Richard III shipwrecked and tipped her into tragedy. Margaret, seasoned by a career of inflicting and receiving grief, seemed in her element there.

The deployment of the ensemble across the various roles of the four plays was often effective even when no symbolic correspondence or continuity was intended. Duke Humphrey (Richard Corderey), at first a confidently commanding presence in voice and stature, was revealed as vulnerable and humane in the hour of his wife's disgrace: their parting was especially moving. In Richard III the same actor appeared as Buckingham, an urbanely overconfident ally and victim—not so much doubling as the pointing up of a similarity between two authoritative and powerful magnates. As Suffolk in the first two parts of Henry VI, Richard Dillane was suave, plausible, and self-consciously dashing, the credible object of Margaret's passion. When he appeared as Rivers in the third part and Richard III, there was no direct connection but an echo of the earlier character's persona in the figure of the queen's newly promoted kinsman. Like the simple but immensely valuable fact of the company's having worked together so much—that seemingly instinctive sense of each other's physical presence—this was an advantage only ensemble work can give.

The sequence allowed actors to rehearse and play along with the same production team, sharing and understanding clearly identified aims and able to develop working relationships over a period of months. It was the kind of work the RSC was launched to accomplish—and, ironically, we were told that it was only possible on this occasion through substantial funding from American sources. While being thankful to the University of Michigan for doing us this service, it is hard not to be disturbed by the company's failure to achieve it without such offshore funding. This second part of “This England,” while exemplifying ensemble virtues the company too often seems to have lost, was effectively a road show passing through Stratford, pausing in Ann Arbor, and completing its run at London's Young Vic. Plans announced by the RSC in June 2001 which indicate that productions will no longer be identified with a specific location or calendar date—this suggests the company will not schedule coherent and regular Stratford or London seasons—are all the more dismaying in this light. At the same time, after years of exciting productivity in its two incarnations The Other Place will effectively cease to function as a theater. (The “academy” planned for 2002 hardly makes up for this loss.) Moreover, the company's production departments at Stratford will be scaled down; in other words, there will be many losses of experienced staff and reduced capacity for originating productions here. Company announcements and public relations exercises represent these radical steps as a sign of progress and renewed artistic vision, but it seems like a further retreat from the ideals that once made the RSC (in company-speak) a reliable brand name. On a bread-and-butter level, a degree of predictability in the product and its scheduling is vital to the encouragement of a base of recurrent playgoers, especially where (as in Stratford) the passing trade is, well, mostly passing. Such enthusiasts, especially those who travel long distances, need to know when productions will happen and what they might be. Of course there will continue to be plenty of good Shakespeare in the town, and some of it will no doubt be exciting; but what of the company's identity? The artistic director Adrian Noble has let it be known that it is people, not buildings, that count. “Despite continual change,” says a mission statement in the current Swan Theatre program, “the RSC today is still at heart an ensemble company, and the continuation of this great tradition informs the work of all its members. Directors, actors, dramatists and theatre practitioners all collaborate in the creation of the RSC's distinctive and unmistakable approach to theatre.” But then the same program note tells us that The Other Place “explores Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre alongside experimental and new work.” Perhaps the writer hadn't noticed that the studio theater's current season—an excellent one—consists in its entirety of three new plays by living authors? She or he certainly didn't know what the artistic management had up its sleeve for next season, let alone the even more sweeping changes in the theaters themselves to be announced this autumn. Ironically, the Swan program in question is that for Jubilee, a new work by Peter Barnes dealing with David Garrick and the beginnings of the Shakespeare industry. Early in the play Adrian Noble's predecessors as artistic director of the RSC—Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, and Terry Hands—visit the actor in a dream to plead with him to take on the celebrations that will put Stratford on the map and secure their future.


  1. Act and scene references in this review follow those in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford UP, 1986). The three Henry VI plays are referred to by the conventional part numbers adopted in the production, rather than by the Oxford editors' preferred titles.

  2. Unscholarly, uncritical footnote for posterity: the Prince of Wales (a habitual private visitor to the theater) and Camilla Parker-Bowles attended the performance of Richard III on Saint Valentine's Day 2001, sitting diagonally opposite me on the ground floor (D17 and D18, I think). The party arrived once we were all seated and effected a quick retreat to the “Reading Room” as soon as the lights went up again. As the one member of the audience likely to get to wear the English crown, he seemed to take particular interest in the proceedings. She appeared to nod off occasionally during the talkier bits. Being predominantly a British audience, we all pretended they weren't there. Posterity may also like to know that audiences in Warwickshire in 2000-2001 were still amused by rude remarks about the French: “'Tis better losing France than trusting France” (3 Henry VI, 4.1.42) never failed to elicit a subdued but appreciative chuckle. Plus ça change.

Randall Martin (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Martin, Randall. Introduction to Henry VI, Part Three, by William Shakespeare, edited by Randall Martin, pp. 1-132. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Martin investigates the changing critical attitudes toward Margaret, observing that while early productions of the Henry VI plays virtually ignored her, or reduced her to a clichéd example of female shrewishness, recent productions have depicted Margaret as a more complex character.]


In a discussion of The Plantagenets, director Adrian Noble described the role of Queen Margaret as ‘A King Lear for women’.1 Although his claim was not new, it was still sufficiently unconventional to be surprising, perhaps even eccentric. We recall that among the original and adapted titles of 3 Henry VI, none mentions Margaret, even though she is Shakespeare's most enduring royal figure, appearing prominently over the course of all four plays of the first tetralogy. From a late twentieth-century perspective, such invisibility seems readily explained by historical gender distinctions: late medieval England is a man's world in which queen consorts are ultimately marginal to exercising power and fighting battles, even ones who actively defend patrilineal principles in default of husbands who refuse to do so.

But Noble's comparison to Lear is based on dramatic character, and as such points to both figures' shared central experience—culpable suffering—and its imaginative and emotional impact on theatre audiences. Where Margaret distinguishes herself is in the breadth of her social roles. From her more narrowly defined position in Part Two as aspiring and adulterous royal consort, she grows into an epic figure. Her custody of Prince Edward's personal safety gains her new legitimacy as an embattled mother. Her defence of the royal succession authorizes her political activism. Her success in battle validates her martial leadership. And her grotesque cruelty throws these daring gender challenges into sharp relief. Margaret's remarkable hybridity of motive and action may in fact be unsurpassed among any of Shakespeare's female characters. Her ability to stir spectators' feelings and imaginations may have been what Kenneth Tynan had in mind when, after watching Rosalind Boxall perform in Douglas Seale's 1952 Birmingham Rep production, he declared 3 Henry VI to be ‘better than King Lear’.2

It is certainly the theatre that has revealed Part Three's unwritten dimension as ‘Margaret's tragedy’. But as with other perceptions about the play, this change has come about recently. Barbara Jefford's performance in Seale's 1957 Old Vic production was only the second occasion, after Boxall in 1952, on which her role was credibly staged. In both cases Margaret stood out partly because Seale compressed Act 4, where she does not appear. This meant she ‘returned’ relatively quickly before Tewkesbury following her new alliances with Lewis and Warwick in 3.3, so that Part Three became ‘less a play about the reign of King Henry than about the struggles of his wife … on behalf of the house of Lancaster’.3

Evidence from Shakespeare's time suggests that Henry VI's depiction of Margaret managed temporarily to alter views about her historical reputation and significance. While Robert Greene invoked the stereotype of a monstrous virago in order to defame Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood borrowed neutrally from Margaret's speeches in 1 and 2 Edward IV.4 He later endorsed Shakespeare's portrayal in his widely read Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World (published 1640). Heywood praised Margaret's ‘brave and heroic spirit’, regarding her assumption of political rule as a necessity in the face of Henry's virtual abdication. He approved of her robust maternal defence of Prince Edward's inheritance rights, and he celebrated Margaret's warrior magnanimity and courageous defiance of Edward IV as public virtues undifferentiated by gender. In doing so, Heywood recalled a classical concept of heroic action that transcends everyday moral and gender categories, thereby challenging prevailing early modern references to her as a cautionary example of female leadership.5

But this view soon receded. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stage adaptations, when women began to act the role rather than boys, Margaret appeared only in mangled parts. Crowne's Misery of Civil-War essentially reduced her to two scenes: the baiting of York and the death of Prince Edward. Cibber fashioned her as a revenging Amazon, assigning her Clifford's folkloric examples of ‘instinctive’ retaliation at the beginning of 2.2, and substituting Henry V's St Crispin's Day speech for her oration at Tewkesbury. In Merivale's tragedy, she functioned simply as York's nemesis, borrowing lines from 2 Henry VI 4.1.1-4:

The gaudy, blabbing, and remorseful day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea,
And now loud howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night …
My blood is chill'd—yet never from her birth
Hath Anjou's Margaret known the taste of fear.

(4.1; italics are Merivale's)

Valpy, adapting Part Three from Act 2 onwards, gave her only revised bits of the fifth act, while Cibber's version of Richard III—which, as we have seen, incorporated long passages from 3 Henry VI—cut her altogether.6

In F. R. Benson's 1906 production her part was also heavily cut, but for the first time it was taken seriously and ‘strikingly portrayed’ with ‘unflagging force and spirit’ by Constance Benson.7 Despite this theatrical breakthrough, the truncated role ensured that nothing should challenge the dominance of Benson himself in his role as Gloucester anticipating Richard III. Mrs Benson also could do little to dislodge literary and cultural prejudices: ‘Margaret is one of the worst of the poet's creations. She revels in butchery and is mad for blood. Such a dark story can scarcely stimulate interest.’8 Between 1906 and 1952, she appeared only once more, at the Old Vic in 1923, in a shortened version of all three Henry VI plays directed by Robert Atkins.

During this period, dramatic and literary critics defined Margaret almost exclusively in terms of personal ambition and cruelty.9 Informed by nineteenth-century concepts of character, they based her motives on predetermined textual and morally constructed narratives. Her experiences of adultery and bereavement in Part Two were assumed by Part Three to have deformed into sadistic vengeance and lunacy. She was inevitably compared with Shakespeare's most ‘intrinsically evil’ and politically ambitious woman, Lady Macbeth, as was to a lesser degree the play's other queen, Elizabeth, Lady Grey.

Rosalind Boxall finally challenged this dehumanized reading in her revelatory 1952-3 performances in Birmingham and London. Audiences experienced these productions of 3 Henry VI as startlingly ‘new’, in large part because Boxall portrayed Margaret credibly. As an aggrieved mother, for example, she towered in righteous indignation at Henry's disregard for her son's birthright at the end of 1.1.10 And because her part was played in full—only two lines were cut—so too for the first time was Prince Edward's, since they appear together in all their scenes. Their continual presence reminded spectators that Margaret's ‘ambitions’ were not merely selfish. Rather, she had been radicalized by Henry's threat to her maternal identity, which she recalls in powerful physical imagery:

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.


Because Part Three was preceded in Seale's theatrical cycle by 2 Henry VI, audiences could also relate the significance of Henry's provocation to the public humiliation that first catalysed Margaret's political consciousness: Duke Humphrey's attempt to exclude her from participating in court affairs as a woman.11 As Boxall demonstrated convincingly, and critics recognized afterwards, Margaret is not born a she-wolf, she becomes one.12

Although Jack May's performance as Henry was enormously powerful, particularly in the molehill lament of 2.5, Boxall nonetheless also discovered Margaret's capacity to express spectators' feelings of frustration with Henry's passivity. She was literally more active, often moving about restlessly while he remained sitting.13 Reviewers were also impressed by her military courage, describing her in terms normally reserved for Shakespeare's heroic men. Seale's decision to have Margaret participate as a combatant in both 1952-3 and 1957 decisively ended traditional doubts about the propriety of a female warrior: as Mary Clarke observed of the later production, ‘in her scenes of battle, [Barbara] Jefford was superb. Red hair falling loose to her shoulders, a breastplate over her scarlet gown and a sword in her hand’.14 And although Jefford's torment of York in 1.4 was ‘spine-chilling’, her interpretation brought out new dimensions of vulnerability and humour. This underlined her increasing power and brutality in a way that paralleled her political and dramatic rival, Richard of Gloucester.15 In the end, commentators were divided on whether the production was more triumphantly his or hers. But regardless, the play's total emotional effect and meaning were fundamentally changed by allowing Margaret's full story to be told.16

Boxall's and Jefford's revisionist performances laid the groundwork for Dame Peggy Ashcroft's legendary Queen Margaret in the 1963-4 Wars of the Roses. Because Hall and Barton's cycle was a watershed in the establishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and because it was eventually seen across the English-speaking world in a 1965 BBC television version, Seale's bold experiments with the Henry VI plays were somewhat overshadowed.17 For all this, Ashcroft's performance genuinely marked a further opening-up of the role, and helped to stimulate a critical reappraisal of the play which has continued to the present day.18

Ashcroft's full-spectrum performance added to Boxall's and Jefford's interpretations by extending the dramatic boundaries of Margaret's public agency and personal emotions. This came about despite Hall and Barton's extensive condensing and rewriting of Shakespeare's original plays, but in part because of their emphasis on psychological detail and motivational complexity. Ashcroft convinced audiences of Margaret's human growth from passionate youth to self-possessed maturity. By the time she reached Edward IV, and until the moment of Prince Edward's death, she dominated the production's two main sites of power and conflict: the councilboard, and the battlefield.19 She also went further than Boxall and Jefford in asserting her independence from Henry, aggressively repudiating their domestic relationship, and in bringing out the full potential of her first speeches:

But thou preferr'st thy life before thine honour,
And seeing thou dost, I here divorce myself
Both from thy table, Henry, and thy bed,
Until that act of Parliament be repealed
Whereby my son is disinherited.


The non-Shakespearian passages Barton wrote for Margaret also had the effect of giving greater ‘humanity and background to [her] scolding’, by clarifying her sublimation of a failed marriage to a weak and sexually unsatisfying husband in her energetic leadership of the Lancastrian cause.20 At the same time, Ashcroft strongly conveyed Part Three's new dimension of maternal solicitude, problematizing the Amazon stereotype to which her male opponents always seek to reduce her.21

Yet internally these conflicting roles gradually took their toll, as Ashcroft's Margaret deteriorated morally, mentally, and physically. It was this aspect of her performance, perhaps more than any other, which led reviewers to praise Ashcroft's rediscovery not just of a great Shakespearian character, but of a new tragic heroine. Her validation of Margaret's cruel suffering sprang from a realistic awareness that she is both free and constrained in her choices of action, rather than simply doomed by circumstances or social discourses beyond her control, or by a ‘naturally’ wicked personality.22 As Peter Hall remarked in the context of the wider production: ‘it's not power that corrupts, but that you have to corrupt yourself to be politically powerful’.23

Like Margaret before her, the play's other queen consort, Lady Grey, is initially coerced, but she makes different choices, refusing to sacrifice her personal integrity in order to salvage her children's birthright when she is crudely propositioned by Edward in 3.2. While in some productions such as Hall and Barton's The Wars of the Roses, actors have played her flirtatiously to suggest that she ‘knows the game’ as well as Edward, this variation on the sexually manipulative gold-digger has become less common in recent years.24 Most performers, such as the BBC's Rowena Cooper, play her with defiant dignity until she is compelled into marriage by Edward. By surrendering to passion, he manifests the same weakness and lack of control that Henry did by marrying Margaret in Part Two. He thereby undermines his relationships with his brothers, Warwick, and foreign allies,25 and they in turn project their wrath and frustration on to Lady Grey, just as they have continually done with Margaret.26

Beyond her first scene, however, Lady Grey, now Queen Elizabeth, reinstates the traditional female role of domestic handmaid, which Margaret rejects in 1.1 (and in 2 Henry VI before that). Though Elizabeth is well informed and politically astute in 4.4,27 her main goal is to save Edward's child. Her displacement of Margaret's changing combination of maternal, politically militant, and violent roles with a unified image of ‘devoted female domesticity’ seems complete in the state-family portrait of the final scene.28 But the celebration of dynastic rebirth and reconciliation is marred by Gloucester's private agenda, while Edward's self-satisfied sentimentality parodies the restoration of strong patriarchal authority the nation has supposedly lacked for so long under Henry. The fact that Edward ‘wafts’ Margaret to France, just a bit too casually, confirms the underlying impression of Yorkist make-believe.

Since Boxall's and Ashcroft's performances, scholarly discussion of Margaret, as well as of other women who play unconventional roles in Shakespeare's early histories, has grown steadily. Feminist scholars have explored new perspectives on Shakespeare's depiction of women, the masculine codes of behaviour which define patriarchal culture, and female representation in traditional accounts of history.29 But Margaret's prominence as a major Shakespearian character has been ambivalently confirmed. Recent productions have often tended to roll back the textual and performative gains made by Boxall, Jefford, and Ashcroft. For example Terry Hands's 1977 RSC production claimed to position itself against Barton's adaptations by promising to stage all three Henry VI plays in full scripts. Yet Hands cut 164 lines of Part Three, nearly half of which were originally assigned to, or about, Margaret. Their absence seemed to affect Helen Mirren's performance by diminishing Margaret's maternal bond with Prince Edward. It weakened the legitimacy of her political interest in her son's succession, grounded ideologically in legal precedent and tradition.30 Moreover, in the eyes of many reviewers, Mirren simply failed to develop personally in new directions beyond the femme fatale of Part Two.31 Her military career was clearly therapy for sexual frustration.

Reductions of Margaret's role in other recent productions, however, have not simply marked a regression to earlier social models and theatrical practices, but also indicated its altered cultural value and reception in the light of modern political attitudes. The two major English stage productions of the 1980s both reverted to the abridged format of The Wars of the Roses, yet without Barton's compensating additions, and even in relative terms Margaret's role was textually reduced (e.g. large cuts to the oration before Tewkesbury,32 as well as shorter passages attesting to Margaret's political acumen). Whether the meaning of her role was also imaginatively undercut by the imposition of contemporized readings depends on wider assumptions about the function and purpose of theatre. Performances by June Watson in the ESC's self-styled radical production of 1987 and to a lesser extent by Penny Downie in The Plantagenets in 1988 alluded to the manner, and in Watson's case the appearance, of England's modern ‘Amazonian’, Margaret Thatcher. Faced with the latter's open contempt for the performing arts and her government's funding cuts, these companies could not resist satirizing the she-warrior of the Falklands through Margaret of Anjou, and for some critics and spectators, this political analogy was justifiably timely and appropriate. On the other hand the textual interventions made by these productions, compounded by both actors' tendencies to vocal stridency, left little scope for nuances that humanize Shakespeare's Iron Lady of Naples. Though both Watson and Downie were confident and ferocious—sufficiently so to make Noble's comparison to Lear seem plausible on the level of searing emotion33—their Margarets ultimately lacked complexity, and seemed to act only out of hard domination and sadistic vengeance, throwbacks to a Lady Macbeth caricature.

An important exception to this trend was Jane Howell's 1983 BBC television production of 3 Henry VI. It made minimal cuts and allowed Julia Foster's Margaret full textual scope, even if her grim tone sometimes tended to sound like scolding. Katie Mitchell's 1994 stand-alone RSC production likewise cut very little from Margaret's part, but it tamed her in other ways in pursuit of a broader humanitarian theme. Mitchell's decision to eliminate stage violence to suit her anti-war reading of the play deprived Ruth Mitchell's Margaret of opportunities to display her martial leadership and heroic courage in battle (the largest verbal cuts were to her Tewkesbury oration).34 Visually she appeared nearly identical to the other drably costumed male soldiers, with whose gestures and movements she became dramatically assimilated.35 On the other hand, an ill-advised and unconvincing French accent kept her isolated as a foreigner and disadvantaged rhetorically as a serious protagonist.36 It also seemed to reinforce her status as a victimized woman, despite occasional counterblasts of ‘embattled ferocity’.37 Her foreign accent also diminished her credibility in defending national interests under a unified Lancastrian rule.38

A similar narrowing of perspective characterized major productions at Ashland, Oregon, during this period, all in varying degrees haunted by the legacy of Vietnam, though in many other ways they were theatrically innovative. Mimi Carr struggled in 1977 to raise Margaret's credibility as a leader in the face of substantial verbal cuts, especially those bearing on her political knowledge.39 Michelle Morain was more enthusiastically received in 1992 because of her energetic participation in combat (a first, apparently, at Ashland). During the Battle of Towton in 2.4, for instance, she conspicuously drove off Richard and then Warwick, and later, at the merged battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, she fought with Edward and two other lords before losing her sword. But Morain's ‘mannish’ determination as ‘a fighter’, combined with interpretive choices that downplayed her maternal and political roles, tended to make her sound merely irascible when she was off the battlefield.40 Moreover, a prologue inserted at the beginning of the play consisting of lines from Parts Two and Three dwelt solely on her grief for Suffolk, thereby framing her motives mainly in terms of personal revenge.41 Margaret's triumphant ‘Off with his head!’ after York's death was Morain's dramatic high point.

Contemporizing relevance notwithstanding, the overall effect of these recent productions was to blunt Margaret's jagged bravery and (inadvertently?) to rehabilitate patriarchal biases against an outspoken non-domestic woman. Given late twentieth-century changes in attitude towards women in positions of public authority, this comes as a bit of a surprise. Yet in revealing anxieties about a fully scripted performance which might reflect favourably on contentious modern politicians such as Mrs Thatcher, these productions also recall early modern debates about the legitimacy of female rulers. In England the most notorious and spectacularly ill-timed intervention was John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox wrote with Queen Mary and Mary Queen of Scots in mind, but published his treatise just months before Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558. In 3 Henry VI, York echoes The First Blast when responding to Margaret's brutality in 1.4. … Knox's traditional assertions about female inferiority and sinfulness were refuted by various Elizabethan apologists, beginning with John Aylmer's An Harbour for Faithful and True Subjects (1559). Aylmer argued that preserving the royal succession and defending national interests as defined by Parliament validated the Queen's authority. Shakespeare represents these alternative views—excepting Parliament's role—in his portrayal of Margaret and in comments about her.42 She adopts rhetorical strategies publicly demonstrated by Elizabeth on several occasions, such as deliberately drawing attention to her ‘natural’ female weakness or subservience in order to contrast her own exceptional courage and abilities (e.g. 1.1.244-6, 5.4).43 Like Joan la Pucelle in 1 Henry VI, Margaret's participation in armed combat roles may have reminded playgoers of what soon became Elizabeth's legendary pre-Armada address to her troops at Tilbury, where she astonished contemporaries by appearing dressed in armour.44 The political reality of a reigning female monarch was probably responsible for Holinshed's revision of Hall's misogyny towards Queen Margaret, and his praise for her rational policy and courage. These were changes that Shakespeare, in the course of revising True Tragedy as 3 Henry VI, successfully incorporated to create his tragically conflicted heroine,45 and the last of his five main personal histories. Whether Margaret's story is indeed the most central of these remains an open question, tied to shifting cultural and political perspectives, and interpretive choices by individual directors. Its prominence has been positively affirmed by several outstanding modern performances, but at the same time continues to be productively challenged, as this introduction has tried to show, by theatrical and historical validations of the play's other main roles and narratives.


  1. Robert Shaughnessy, Representing Shakespeare: England, History and the RSC. (New York, 1994), p. 82, quoting Robert Gore Langdon, ‘The Plantagenets’, Plays and Players (October, 1988).

  2. Evening Standard, 17 July 1953, cited in [Susan Margaret] Kay, ‘A Stage History [of William Shakespeare's “Henry VI” Trilogy]’, [(unpublished MA dissertation, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, 1980),] p. 84.

  3. Mary Clarke, Shakespeare at the Old Vic, [(London, 1954)] n.p.

  4. See above [in Martin, Randall. Introduction to Henry VI, Part Three, by William Shakespeare, edited by Randall Martin], pp. 73-4.

  5. Eugene M. Waith, ‘Heywood's Women Worthies’, Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ed. Norman T. Burns and Christopher J. Reagan (Albany, 1975), pp. 222-38. Celeste Turner Wright, ‘The Elizabethan Female Worthies’, Studies in Philology, 43 (1946), 628-43.

  6. In terms of critical visibility, between 1623 and 1801 Brian Vickers finds only three references to Margaret (Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 6 vols. (London and Boston, 1974-81). [E. M. W.] Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays, [(1944)] which had a wide impact in raising the critical profile of the histories as thematically coherent cycles, nonetheless reduced Margaret to a personally aggrandizing agent of disorder, mistakenly accepting Edward's assessment (‘For what hath broached this tumult but thy pride? ❙ Hadst thou been meek our title still had slept’ (2.2.159-60)) as a disinterested judgement (pp. 154-5).

  7. Birmingham Express, 5 May 1906, The Times, 5 May 1906, cited in Robert Potter, ‘The Rediscovery of Queen Margaret: “The Wars of the Roses”, 1963’, New Theatre Quarterly, 14 (1988), 105-19, p. 110. Other reviews, however, were less enthusiastic. Lady Benson (as she became) herself regretted that the entire performance of Part Three had been little more than a run-through because of limited rehearsal time (Mainly Players: Bensonian Memories (1926), p. 202). Nonetheless, her stage energy can be glimpsed in the first scene of Benson's 1911 silent film of Richard III, in which Margaret gestures defiantly at King Edward before being led out, vowing revenge (Silent Shakespeare).

  8. Stratford Herald, 11 May 1906.

  9. For instance, reviewers of the 1955 Ashland production described Irene Baird's Margaret as an intense and sustained avenger.

  10. Daily Telegraph, 22 August 1952.

  11. ‘These are no women's matters’ (1.3. 120).

  12. For example, Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1981), ch. 7, pp. 155-207.

  13. Kay, ‘A Stage History’, p. 65.

  14. Shakespeare at the Old Vic (1958), n.p.

  15. Shakespeare at the Old Vic, n.p.

  16. J. C. Trewin, John o'London's Weekly, 18 April 1952. John Dover Wilson had been preparing his Cambridge edition in the year of Seale's production; having seen it, he declared Margaret to be the ‘most conspicuous person in the play’ (Wilson, [The Third Part of King Henry VI (Cambridge, 1952)] p. xxxi). Wilson also thought much of the play was by Robert Greene, and during the performance he became ‘so excited when a [rare] scene that he believed to be Shakespeare's proved itself on the stage that he would scandalise our neighbours by crying out, in a voice whose loudness he was unable, being slightly deaf, to gauge, “There now! That's the Master! Isn't it? Isn't it?”’ (Richard David, Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge, 1978), p. 50).

  17. The outstanding success of Part Three was recalled in an obituary for Douglas Seale which appeared in The Independent, 22 June 1999. Also, J. C. Trewin, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre 1913-1963 (1963), p. 150.

  18. Potter, ‘The Rediscovery of Queen Margaret’, pp. 105-9. Many critics described it as another ‘revelation’.

  19. Reviewers' comparisons were no longer to Lady Macbeth but to Mother Courage, owing to the perceived Brechtian epic effects of Hall and Barton's production.

  20. John Barton and Peter Hall, The Wars of the Roses, [(London, 1970,)] pp. xviii-xix. This was also psychic damage from her loss of Suffolk, which Part Two specifically emphasizes (3.2.357-60, 4.4.1-3) but Part Three does not.

  21. In 1966 at Ashland, Claudia Wilkins persuaded reviewers that she was fighting on behalf of Prince Edward, not for personal gain.

  22. Patricia-Ann Lee, ‘Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship’, Renaissance Quarterly, 39 (1986), 183-217; p. 215.

  23. Quoted in Richard Pearson, A Band of Arrogant and United Heroes (1990), p. 8.

  24. Though historical criticism has shown that such a reading is partly authorized by More's History of King Richard III, in which ‘Elizabeth shrewdly manipulates the king's lust to empower herself legitimately by making their sexual relations contingent upon wedlock’ (Alan Clarke Sheperd, ‘“Female Perversity,” Male Entitlement: The Agency of Gender in More's The History of Richard III’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 26 (1995), 311-28; p. 316).

  25. Marilyn L. Williamson, ‘“When Men Are Rul'd by Women”: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy’, Shakespeare Studies, 19 (1987), 41-59; p. 53.

  26. Sarah Lyons, ‘Shakespeare's Margaret of Anjou: “Oure Queene Margarete to signifie”’ (unpublished MA dissertation, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, 1990), p. 21.

  27. In the Folio text. In True Tragedy she is significantly weaker and less independent.

  28. Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and its Discontents (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1988), p. 94. Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History (Princeton, 1991), pp. 70 ff. Nina S. Levine, Women's Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays (Newark, NJ, and London, 1998), pp. 95-6.

  29. Madonne M. Miner, ‘“Neither mother, wife, nor England's queen”: The Roles of Women in Richard III’, in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. C. R. S. Lenz et al. (Urbana, 1980), pp. 35-55; Dash, Wooing; Williamson, ‘“When Men Are Rul'd by Women”’; Joyce Green MacDonald, ‘“Hay for the Daughters!” [Comparative Drama, 24:3 (1990 Fall), 193-216]; Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, 1990), and ‘Foreign Country: The Place of Women and Sexuality in Shakespeare's Historical World’, in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca, 1994), pp. 68-95; Howard and Rackin, passim; Kathryn Schwarz, ‘Fearful Simile: Stealing the Breech in Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays’, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 49 (1998), 140-67.

  30. Levine, Women's Matters, p. 95.

  31. Roger Warren, ‘Comedies and Histories at Two Stratfords, 1977’, Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978), 141-53. David Daniell, ‘Opening up the text: Shakespeare's Henry VI plays in performance’, Drama and Society (Cambridge, 1979), 247-77; pp. 259-68.

  32. Rhetorically, the oration is traditionally an elite male genre, associated with the gravest questions of public policy, as well as battlefield addresses. Margaret's ability to use the form adeptly substantiates her request to be ‘For once allowed the skilful pilot's charge’ (i.e. Henry's authority).

  33. Shaughnessy, Representing Shakespeare, p. 83. See also R. Martin, ‘“A Woman's generall: what should we feare?”: Queen Margaret Thatcherized in Recent Productions of 3 Henry VI’, in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in Performance, ed. Edward J. Esche (Aldershot and Burlington, Vt., 2000), pp. 321-38.

  34. Mitchell's renaming of the play, Henry VI: the Battle for the Throne, was deliberately ironic, since the production virtually refused to present any fighting.

  35. Annika I. Johansson, ‘Review of Henry VI: the Battle for the Throne’, Mason Croft Review: A Publication of the Shakespeare Institute, 2 (1994), 25-6; p. 26.

  36. Peter Holland, ‘In a world with no use for goodness’, review of Henry VI: the Battle for the Throne, Times Literary Supplement, 26 August 1994; reproduced and revised in English Shakespeares, [(Cambridge, 1997),] pp. 199-202. By contrast, Peggy Ashcroft had lost the light French accent she started with in Henry VI by the time she reached Edward IV.

  37. Particularly when she crawled and prostrated herself with outstretched arms before (her cousin) Lewis at the beginning of 3.3. Lady Grey adopted the same posture before Edward in the opening of the previous scene. See Michael Billington, The Guardian, 12 August 1994.

  38. Schwarz, ‘Fearful Simile’, p. 160. Levine, Women's Matters, pp. 82-6. Audiences were visibly reminded of the question of who represents England, symbolically as well as politically, by the large spotlit image of St George at the back of the stage. It also functioned as an icon for the verbal invocations of the saint by Yorkists and Lancastrians (e.g. 2.1.204, 2.2.80).

  39. Including her entire appearance with Prince Edward at the end of 2.5, and sizeable passages in 3.3.

  40. Dan Isaac, ‘Henry VI’, Lithiagraph (August, 1992), p. 15.

  41. Alan Armstrong, ‘Oregon Shakespeare Festival’, Shakespeare Bulletin (Fall, 1992), 25-6.

  42. They also characterize Baldwin's Mirror for Magistrates: in Henry's complaint she is innocent of ambition, whereas in Duke Humphrey's she yearns to rule absolutely. See Lyons, ‘Shakespeare's Margaret of Anjou’, pp. 2-3, 25.

  43. ‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England too’ (from a speech reportedly delivered to troops at Tilbury: John Nichols, [The] Progresses [and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. (1823)] ii. 536); ‘… though I be a woman, yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had: I am your anointed Queen’ (from a response to Parliament's petition urging Elizabeth to marry, cited by Allison Heisch in ‘Queen Elizabeth I: Parliamentary Rhetoric and the Exercise of Power’, Signs, 1 (1975), 31-55, p. 35).

  44. John Aske, Elizabetha Triumphans, 1588, in Nichols, Progresses, ii. 545-82. Susan Frye's ‘The Myth of Elizabeth at Tilbury’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 23 (1992), 95-114, is challenged by Janet M. Green, ‘“I My Self”: Queen Elizabeth I's Oration at Tilbury Camp’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 28 (1997), 421-45. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare, p. 94.

  45. Levine, Women's Matters, pp. 26-46, 75-96.

George F. Butler (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Butler, George F. “Frozen with Fear: Virgil's Aeneid and Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI.Philological Quarterly 79, no. 2 (spring 2000): 145-52.

[In the following essay, Butler asserts that Shakespeare relied on Virgil's Aeneid and its depiction of the dying Turnus in his portrayal of Suffolk's death in Henry VI, Part 2.]

In Act 4 of Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry VI, the Duke of Suffolk is captured after a battle at sea. The Captain of the ship plans to execute him. As Suffolk prepares to die, he says to Walter Whitmore, “Pene gelidus timor occupat artus: / 'Tis thee I fear” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.116-17); or, “Frozen fear seizes my joints almost entirely.”1 In a study of the classical background of Shakespeare's plays, J. A. K. Thomson has commented on Suffolk's exclamation:

Apparently suggested by Lucan, 1.246: “gelidus pavor occupat artus.” But it is possible that our poet, like Lucan himself, had in mind certain phrases in Virgil, e.g. Aeneid, 6.54: “gelidus Teucris per dura cucurrit / ossa tremor,” “a cold shuddering ran through the hard bones of the Trojans.” Cf., Aeneid, 2.120. In Aeneid, 7.446, we find “subitus tremor occupat artus.” It needs a certain amount of scholarship to misquote in this way, for “timor” is as good (or nearly) as “pavor.”2

Shakespeare's editors have similarly noted the presence of Virgil, Lucan, or both in Suffolk's remark. In a gloss on the passage in the Arden edition, Andrew S. Cairncross says that Suffolk's words are “Possibly a confused and inaccurate recollection of Æneid, 7.446 (cf. 11.424): ‘subitus tremor occupat artus’ and Lucan, Pharsalia, 1.246: ‘gelidos pavor occupat artus.’ Cf. J. A. K. Thomson, Shakespeare and the Classics, 89-90.” And in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt remarks: “Cold fear seizes my limbs almost entirely (perhaps alluding to Virgil, Aeneid 7.446; Lucan, Pharsalia 1.246; or both).”3 As Cairncross's reference and the paucity of commentary by other editors suggests, Thomson's brief discussion may be the most thorough exposition of the classical background of Suffolk's speech. While Thomson and Shakespeare's editors have pointed to the presence of Lucan and Virgil in 4.1.116 of The Second Part of King Henry VI, they have not fully explored the intertextual relationship between the passage from the play and the relevant lines from Virgil's Aeneid. A close examination shows that Shakespeare probably did not have Lucan's poem in mind, and that he deliberately echoes Virgil to compare Suffolk with Turnus.

In Book 7 of the Aeneid, the Fury Allecto assumes the form of Calybe, the elderly priestess of Juno. She then appears to Turnus in his sleep. She tells him to burn the Trojan ships that are anchored in the Tiber, so as to persuade King Latinus to give him Lavinia as a bride. But Turnus responds by rebuking her:

sed te victa situ verique effeta senectus,
o mater, curis nequiquam exercet, et arma
regum inter falsa vatem formidine ludit.
cura tibi divum effigies et templa tueri;
bella viri pacemque gerent, quis bella gerenda.

(Aen. 7.440-44)4

[But thee, O mother, old age, enfeebled by decay and barren of truth, frets with vain distress, and amid the feuds of kings mocks thy prophetic soul with false alarms. Thy charge it is to keep the gods' images and temples; war and peace men shall wield, whose work war is.]

Allecto then reveals her true identity:

Talibus Allecto dictis exarsit in iras.
at iuveni oranti subitus tremor occupat artus,
deriguere oculi: tot Erinys sibilat hydris
tantaque se facies aperit.

(Aen. 7.445-48)

[At such words Allecto blazed forth in fury. But even as the youth spoke, a sudden tremor seized his limbs, and his eyes were set in fear; so many are the Fury's hissing snakes, so monstrous the features that unfold themselves.]

She then triumphantly chastizes the fearful Turnus:

en ego victa situ, quam veri effeta senectus
arma inter regum falsa formidine ludit.
respice ad haec: adsum dirarum ab sede sororum,
bella manu letumque gero.

(Aen. 7.452-55)

[Behold me, enfeebled by decay, whom old age, barren of truth, amid the feuds of kings, mocks with vain alarm! Look on this! I am come from the home of the Dread Sisters, and in my hand I bear war and death.]

Allecto's speech is strikingly prophetic, for there will be war, and Turnus will taste death.

The exchange between Turnus and Allecto is part of the larger context of Suffolk's words to his captors. When he is taken hostage, he is every bit as insolent as Turnus. He says to the Lieutenant:

It is impossible that I should die
By such a lowly vassal as thyself.
Thy words move rage and not remorse in me.

(2 Hen. VI 4.1.109-11)

And like Allecto, the Lieutenant reminds him that he is powerless: “Ay, but my deeds shall stay thy fury soon” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.112). The Lieutenant is like a “Fury” who will conquer the “fury” of Suffolk, as the Fury Allecto subdues the wrath of Turnus. But Suffolk is especially afraid of Walter Whitmore, for Whitmore is the fulfillment of a prophecy. When Whitmore tells him his name, and thus exposes his identity, Suffolk becomes terrified:

Thy name affrights me, in whose sound is death.
A cunning man did calculate my birth,
And told me that by water I should die.

(2 Hen. VI 4.1.33-35)

Suffolk alludes to a prophecy given to Bolingbroke by a Spirit. When Bolingbroke asks the Spirit about Suffolk's fate, the Spirit replies: “By water shall he die and take his end” (2 Hen. VI 1.4.32). Bolingbroke then commands the Spirit to return to Hell, the home of the Furies: “Descend to darkness and the burning lake: / False fiend, avoid!” (2 Hen. VI 1.4.38-39). Thus the infernal Spirit who foretells Suffolk's death is like Allecto, who appears to Turnus in the guise of a seer. Whitmore, who reveals his name (“Walter,” pronounced “Water”) to the Duke, also plays a prophetic role. Moreover, he is linked to Hell, the home of Allecto, by his status as infernal ferryman: “Come, Suffolk, I must waft thee to thy death” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.115). Whitmore is Shakespeare's transformation of Charon. In being frozen with fear, the Duke of Suffolk is thus like Turnus, who is terrified of Allecto and who will ironically face death at the end of Virgil's epic.

Turnus is Virgil's epic antagonist. He is the mortal chiefly responsible for the troubles faced by Aeneas and the Trojans and for the warfare that takes place in the Aeneid. Within the world of The Second Part of King Henry VI, Suffolk plays a similar role. Before Suffolk is executed, the Lieutenant summarizes his evil deeds. Suffolk swallowed “the treasure of the realm” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.73); smiled “at good Duke Humphrey's death” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.75); has grown great “By devilish policy” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.82); and sold “Anjou and Maine … to France” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.85). And just as Turnus sought Lavinia, whom King Latinus offers as a bride to pius Aeneas (Aen. 7. 249-85), Suffolk romanced Queen Margaret, though she was married to saintly King Henry (2 Hen. VI 3.2.299-411). Thus the Lieutenant tells Suffolk, “Thy lips, that kiss'd the Queen, shall sweep the ground” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.74).5

The relationship between Suffolk and Turnus is further supported by Aeneid 11, where Turnus bombastically urges his troops to continue the war against Aeneas and the Trojans. When Drances suggests that the bloodshed is too high a price to pay for Turnus' personal gain, Turnus responds as follows:

sin et opes nobis et adhuc intacta iuventus
auxilioque urbes Italae populique supersunt,
sin et Troianis cum multo gloria venit
sanguine (sunt illis sua funera, parque per omnis
tempestas)—cur indecores in limine primo
deficimus? cur ante tubam tremor occupat artus?

(Aen. 11.419-24)

[But if we still have means, a manhood still unharmed, cities and nations of Italy still supporting us; but if even the Trojans have won glory at much bloodshed's cost (they too have their deaths, and the storm swept over all alike)—why faint we ignobly upon the threshold's edge? Why, ere the trumpet sounds, does trembling seize our limbs?]

As Cairncross has remarked, Turnus' words in Aeneid 11.424 resemble Suffolk's “Pene gelidus timor occupat artus” (2 Hen. VI 4.1.116). In the Aeneid, Turnus' speech to Drances recalls his earlier encounter with Allecto, where his limbs were frozen with fear for good reason. In Aeneid 11, when his limbs should again be frozen with fear, since his death at Aeneas' hands is imminent, he rashly rebukes Drances' caution. In doing so, his foolishness and pride match the attitude of Suffolk.

The similarity between other passages in the Aeneid and Suffolk's words before his death are more coincidental. In Aeneid 6, Aeneas and the Trojans meet the Sibyl of Cumae, who will reveal the depths of the lower world. Virgil notes that after the Sibyl speaks, “gelidus Teucris per dura cucurrit / ossa tremor, funditque preces rex pectore ab imo” (“A chill shudder ran through the Teucrians' sturdy frames, and their king pours forth prayers from inmost heart” [Aen. 6.54-55]). While Thomson points to this passage as possibly being related to Suffolk's words, Virgil is more likely suggesting that Aeneas will soon look upon the home of Allecto, and that he is filled with fear, much as Turnus will be when the Fury visits him in the form of the seer Calybe. In Aeneid 2, which Thomson also suggests may be related to Suffolk's words, Aeneas tells how Eurypylus consulted the oracle of Phoebus before the fall of Troy, and how the Trojans responded to his message:

… volgi quae vox ut venit ad auris,
obstipuere animi, gelidusque per ima cucurrit
osssa tremor. …

(Aen. 2.119-21)

[When this utterance came to the ears of the crowd, their hearts were dazed, and a cold shudder ran through their inmost marrow.]

Here the relation to Suffolk's speech is even more tenuous. The similarities in language between Virgil's words and Shakespeare's are minimal, though the Trojans respond to a prophecy proclaimed much as Suffolk responds to a prophecy soon to be fulfilled.

While Thomson and Cairncross mention Lucan as a possible source for Suffolk's words, and Thomson seems especially in favor of Lucan's influence, Shakespeare's use of Lucan in Suffolk's exclamation is unlikely. In the Pharsalia, Caesar crosses the Rubicon and marches from Gaul into Italy. His soldiers first reach the town of Ariminum, and their arrival startles the inhabitants:

Ut notae fulsere aquilae Romanaque signa
Et celsus medio conspectus in agmine Caesar,
Deriguere metu, gelidos pavor occupat artus,
Et tacito mutos volvunt in pectore questus.

(Phars. 1.244-47)6

[But when they recognised the glitter of the Roman eagles and standards and saw Caesar mounted in the midst of his army, they stood motionless with fear, terror seized their chilly limbs, and these unuttered complaints they turn over in their silent breasts.]

There is little reason for Shakespeare to equate Suffolk's fear with the terror of the people of Ariminum at the sight of Caesar, who is the villain of Lucan's epic. Unlike Caesar and Suffolk, the people of Ariminum do not seem particularly proud, nor is there any indication that they are about to suffer a tragic reversal of fate. And while the fear of the townspeople may be an internal allusion to Caesar's fright upon seeing a vision of Rome just before he crosses the Rubicon (Phars. 1.185-94), Lucan's language does not resemble Shakespeare's. The Latin poet writes:

Tum perculit horror
Membra ducis, riguere comae, gressumque coercens
Languor in extrema tenuit vestigia ripa.

(Phars. 1.192-94)

[Then trembling smote the leader's limbs, his hair stood on end, a faintness stopped his motion and fettered his feet on the edge of the river-bank.]

Any similarity in phrasing between the passages from The Second Part of King Henry VI and the fear of the Ariminum citizens in the Pharsalia is due to Lucan's imitation of Virgil. Prior to invading Ariminum, Caesar invokes the “Phrygiique penates / Gentis Iuleae” (“Trojan gods of the house of Iulus,” [Phars. 1.196-97]), and his invocation invites a comparison between the coming Roman civil war and both the fall of Troy and the battle between Aeneas and Turnus.7

The Aeneid was widely read during the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare's familiarity with Virgil has been discussed at length, often in comparison to his greater use of Ovid and with special reference to The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra.8 But his knowledge of Lucan has been less readily granted, with some scholars pointing to several allusions and conjecturing that he may have read Christopher Marlowe's translation of the first book of the Pharsalia, which was posthumously published in 1600.9 Given the greater prominence of the Aeneid and the close intertextual relationship between Virgil's poem and Shakespeare's play, it seems far more likely that Suffolk's speech before his death is meant to evoke the Aeneid rather than the Pharsalia, so that the figure of Turnus comments on Shakespeare's villainous Duke. The Duke of Suffolk emerges, then, as a threat to the political order of the monarchy, much as Turnus is the enemy of Rome. The similarities between Suffolk's speech and the fear and pride of Turnus reinforce the larger intertextual relationship between the Aeneid and The Second Part of King Henry VI, so that the political lessons of Virgil's epic inform Shakespeare's view of English history. Thus Suffolk's reminiscence of Virgil adds to the mythic quality of Shakespeare's play and places it within the larger context of the classical tradition.


  1. Shakespeare's text is cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line number from The Second Part of King Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1962).

  2. J. A. K. Thomson, Shakespeare and the Classics (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952), p. 90.

  3. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York and London: Norton, 1997). The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), merely provides a translation of Suffolk's Latin, as does David Bevington in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, updated 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1997).

  4. Virgil's poetry is cited parenthetically by book and line number from Virgil, with an English trans. by H. Rushton Fairclough, rev. ed., 2 vols. (Harvard U. Press, 1934-1935).

  5. For a brief comparison of the historical Duke of Suffolk with Shakespeare's character, see Peter Saccio, Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama (Oxford U. Press, 1977), pp. 120-24.

  6. Lucan's poetry is cited parenthetically by book and line number from Lucan, with an English trans. by J. D. Duff (Harvard U. Press, 1928).

  7. For discussions of similarities between Virgil's Aeneas and Lucan's Caesar in Pharsalia 1, see Jamie Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's “Bellum Civile” (Cambridge U. Press, 1992), pp. 4-5; F. M. Ahl, Lucan: An Introduction (Cornell U. Press, 1976), pp. 202, 209; Charles A. Martindale, “The Politician Lucan,” Greece and Rome 31 (1984): 64-79.

  8. Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (Oxford U. Press, 1949), pp. 203, 216-17; Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (1932; rpt. New York: Pageant, 1957), pp. 150-51; Stanley Wells, Shakespeare: A Life in Drama (New York and London: Norton, 1995), pp. 12, 33, 360; Heather James, Shakespeare's Troy: Drama, Politics, and Translation of Empire (Cambridge U. Press, 1997); Barbara J. Bono, Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy (U. of California Press, 1984); Charles and Michelle Martindale, Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 76, 88, 144; Robert S. Miola, “Vergil in Shakespeare: From Allusion to Imitation,” in Vergil at 2000: Commemorative Essays on the Poet and his Influence, ed. John D. Bernard (New York: AMS, 1986), pp. 241-58; Robert Wiltenburg, “The Aeneid and The Tempest,Shakespeare Survey 39 (1987): 159-68; Donna B. Hamilton, Virgil and “The Tempest”: The Politics of Imitation (Ohio State U. Press, 1990); Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford U. Press, 1993).

  9. O. A. W. Dilke, “Lucan and English Literature,” in Neronians and Flavians: Silver Latin I, ed. D. R. Dudley (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 94-95; Highet, The Classical Tradition, p. 217; Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (Columbia U. Press, 1957-1975), 5:12; Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford U. Press, 1977), pp. 273-77.

John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Cox, John D., and Eric Rasmussen. Introduction to King Henry VI Part 3, by William Shakespeare, edited by John D. Cox and Eric Rasmussen, pp. 1-176. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Cox and Rasmussen review the characters of Henry and Richard. They note that there is an ongoing debate among critics regarding whether King Henry is a symbol of saintliness or ineptitude; however, they find that most critics agree that Richard's character is evil.]


Of the two characters who have been most discussed in 3 Henry VI, Henry has been regarded least consistently. To some interpreters, he has appeared to be a good man in a bad situation, capable of doing no wrong himself but destroyed by the wrongs of others. ‘This gentle, bewildered soul makes the only human remarks in [2 Henry VI]’, John Masefield observed. ‘In Shakespeare's vision it is from such souls, planted, to their own misery, among spikes and thorns, that the flower of human goodness blossoms’ (Masefield, 60). A fuller defence, though no less impressionistic, was mounted by Arthur Cadoux, who blamed Henry's problems on his early inheritance—‘authority is not easily recovered after a long minority among powerful and ambitious nobles’ (Cadoux, 12)—and pointed out his public virtues: he ‘never shows fear’, and he ‘loves England’ (12, 13). The bias toward ‘great souls’ in character criticism is evident in Cadoux's commendation of Henry as an anticipation of Hamlet, the greatest of all great souls for character critics (14).

In similar vein, Harold Goddard thought Henry was ‘a prophecy, in a sense a progenitor, of the most saintly character Shakespeare ever created—the divine Desdemona’ (Goddard, 32). Deeply impressed by ‘this childlike and saintly king’, Goddard offered what is, in effect, a magical reading of the Henry VI plays: ‘Had it not been for that Amazon, Margaret of Lancaster, and that fiend in human shape, the younger Richard of York’, Henry would have achieved ‘an understanding between the warlike factions of Lancaster and York’ (Goddard, 31).1 Among other things, this ignores the difficulties of Henry's minority kingship, his wilful and politically disastrous marriage, and his unwillingness to defend Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 2 Henry VI. A similar argument, though with a different emphasis, was made two decades after Goddard by Michael Manheim, who saw Henry as a virtuous but hapless victim of the Machiavellian schemers and politicians who surround him (Manheim, Weak King, 76-115). For Manheim, it was not Henry who lacked anything; the problem lay with his rivals, who lacked Henry's moral uprightness, and critics who find fault with Henry's political ability ‘unwittingly accept the barons’ methods' (85). Manheim's identification of Henry's conversation with the keepers (3.1.72-95) as ‘a paraphrase of Christ on the cross’ (109) is hardly surprising, for Henry in this view is analogous to Socrates or Jesus—a good man destroyed by evil ones.

Most interpreters of Henry's character have recognized that he has problems in himself, as well as in his situation. Hazlitt contrasted Henry with Richard II, noting the ‘effeminacy’ of both but distinguishing them. Thus the effeminacy of Henry ‘is that of an indolent, good-natured mind, naturally averse to the turmoils of ambition and the cares of greatness, and who wishes to pass his time in monkish indolence and contemplation’ (Hazlitt, 219). Edward Dowden followed Hazlitt in seeing Henry as a ‘saint of a feeble type’. In fact, Dowden was so confident in judgements of character that he invoked them as criteria in determining authorship. Thus Henry's characterization exhibited ‘Shakesperian impartiality and irony’ in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI but not in 1 Henry VI, which Dowden judged to belong ‘to the pre-Shakespearian school’ (Dowden, 173).

Not surprisingly, events leading up to World War II coloured contemporary views of Shakespeare's first English royal portrait. Dowden unwittingly anticipated this development in his comment about the compromise Henry makes in the first scene of 3 Henry VI: ‘Yet in Henry's conduct there has been no active selfishness; he has only accepted peace at the price required’ (Dowden, 178). ‘Appeasement’ is the word that occurred first to Mattie Swayne, writing in 1941, who agonized with Henry's idealistic ‘pacifism’ in a world of self-seeking power-madness (Swayne, 146). Affirming the romantic belief that Shakespeare's genius ‘seems to have left no part of our individual or collective humanity unexplored’, Swayne read a sixteenth-century dramatic character as if the character were Swayne himself (Swayne, 143). Writing at the same time, Hereward Price refused to assert, as Swayne did, that Henry was a ‘pacifist’ (Price, ‘Shakespeare’, 395), but he nonetheless saw the mild King as Shakespeare's rejection of the Elizabethan ‘delight in revenge’ (394). Theodore Spencer may also have been influenced by recent events in Germany, Italy and Japan, when he identified the theme of 2 and 3 Henry VI as ‘the disaster that comes to a kingdom when order is violated through the weakness of its king’ (T. Spencer, 70). The theme of violated order was identified again in 3 Henry VI toward the end of World War II by Tillyard, but his analysis was providential, not explicitly political like Spencer's. … Una Ellis-Fermor, on the other hand, argued that Shakespeare's portrait of Henry had less to do with providentialism than with contemporary Italian political science: she thought Shakespeare had ‘marked and inwardly digested the admonitions of the 7th chapter of Machiavelli's Prince’, including the lesson that ‘a “dangerous lenity” has no place among the “king-becoming graces”’ (Ellis-Fermor, 38).

In the 1960s two critics approached characterization in 3 Henry VI for the first time as a product not of Shakespeare's universal insight but of his particular situation as a beginning playwright in the early 1590s. Both Robert Y. Turner and Norman Rabkin saw the characters of the Henry VI plays as static ‘types’ (Turner, ‘Characterization’, 242; Rabkin, 250), and Turner traced this attribute of the early histories to the influence of the morality play and its personified moral abstractions (Turner, 243). Both critics, moreover, saw Richard III as the turning point for Shakespeare from static moral characterization to the introspective characters of the later histories, who are capable of change because they are capable of self-examination. Given this analysis of Shakespeare's growth in ability to construct dramatic characters, both critics saw Henry as static, and both cited his soliloquy at the battle of Towton (2.5) to make their point (Turner, ‘Characterization’, 257; Rabkin, 250).

Larry Champion argued in contrast not only that Henry's character develops in 3 Henry VI but also that it gives him ‘near-tragic stature’ (Champion, 45). In the first scene, Henry is naive and temporizing, in Champion's view, but he grows to become ‘the realist who can appraise his own political weakness in act 4 and somewhat like Richard II, confront his death with dignity and courage in act 5’ (47). Henry is thus proof, along with Richard, that in 3 Henry VI Shakespeare ‘clearly seems to realize that genuine dramatic involvement is founded on compelling characterization’ (53).

The political realists would seem to have the edge in this debate over Henry's character, and Turner and Rabkin have shown why. Edward Berry decisively answered idealizations of the king as a Christian humanist surrounded by Machiavellian power-seekers by pointing to Erasmus's observation that ‘It is quite possible to find a good man who would not make a good prince’ (E. Berry, 50n.).2 From the beginning of the tetralogy, though Henry is not vicious, he is consistently weak, in both his moral and political judgements. The weaknesses he reveals in each stage of his life are analogous to the developmental weaknesses revealed by the protagonist in the Tudor morality play Mundus et Infans (c. 1500-22), and Henry's youthfully callow response to the blandishments of Suffolk in 1 Henry VI and 2 Henry VI recalls the callow youthfulness exhibited in another morality play, The Disobedient Child (c. 1559-70), where the Rich Man's Son chooses an inappropriate mate, as Henry does, and deeply regrets it. These are distinctly youthful moral failings, and they emphasize Henry as a type, just as they emphasize the typical Vice-like temptation of Suffolk, to which he weakly succumbs.3 Henry's abandonment of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 2 Henry VI is a more serious weakness, since it permits the destruction of Henry's last public-spirited supporter, fatally endangering his minister, himself and his kingdom.

In 3 Henry VI Henry's weakness remains specifically political—the characteristic weakness of an adult king considered as a type. He manifests it in the disastrous first scene, where, as Raymond Utterback points out, Henry can offer no merit to set beside what he has inherited (Utterback, 49-50), so he falls back on his father's merit (1.1.107-9), which he has not maintained. He lamely fails to assert his right—‘I know not what to say. My title's weak’ (1.1.134); blindly subscribes to Clifford's amoral declaration of allegiance (motivated by vengeance) whether Henry's title is good or not (1.1.159-60)—‘O Clifford, how thy words revive my heart!’ (1.1.163); and finally agrees to a compromise that is politically and personally suicidal, as Margaret immediately points out, when she learns of it:

                                                                                Ah, timorous wretch,
Thou hast undone thyself, thy son and me,
And given unto the house of York such head
As thou shalt reign but by their sufferance.
To entail him and his heirs unto the crown,
What is it, but to make thy sepulchre
And creep into it far before thy time?


Henry is undeniably pious and conscientious, but these very qualities, which make him morally admirable as an individual, are often the source of his political failures, and those failures assist the steady decline of England's fortunes that the Henry VI plays enact.4 Seeing York's head on the battlements of York, for example, Henry laments the violation of the oath he took in the play's first scene: ‘'Tis not my fault, / Nor wittingly have I infringed my vow’ (2.2.7-8). The tenderness of his conscience regarding oath-breaking is morally admirable, in the play's own oppositional terms, but Henry fails to reckon that the oath was politically inept to begin with, and his only response to his having broken it, however unwittingly, is lament. Indeed, lament is his characteristic mode in 3 Henry VI, and it emphasizes his inability to act in such a way that he would not be compelled to lament in the first place. As M. M. Reese remarks about Henry's pastoral lament after the battle of Towton: if Henry ‘had had his wish to be a shepherd, he would certainly have lost his sheep’ (Reese, 200). Johnson's comment on Henry's line, ‘Let's levy men and beat him back again’ (4.8.6), presumed that it implied only boldness and determination …, but it could as easily be understood (and performed) as an instance of Henry's ineptitude when he attempts to lead, as in the first scene. Nothing seems to qualify Clifford's dying assessment of Henry's kingship:

And Henry, hadst thou swayed as kings should do,
Or as thy father and his father did,
Giving no ground unto the house of York,
They never then had sprung like summer flies;
I and ten thousand in this luckless realm
Had left no mourning widows for our death,
And thou this day hadst kept thy chair in peace.


Henry's weakness does not excuse Clifford's vengeful savagery, but Henry's failure to keep York in check amounts to a failure to keep Clifford in check as well, and as Edna Zwick Boris points out, ‘The lesson that a king must rule is not necessarily discredited through its being spoken by a doubtful moralist’ (Boris, 82). Henry in fact fails to live up to the humanist maxim that Thomas More seems to have taken for himself as a minister to Henry VIII: ‘What you cannot turn to good you must make as little bad as you can’ (More, 101).

To be sure, Henry faces death bravely in the end, as Richard II does, but Henry's recognition of his approaching murderer as demonic is an example of the play's characterization by type. The character of mature Good Man is revealed in his belated ability to recognize Vicious Man, whereas he had failed to recognize him earlier in the person of Suffolk, and Henry's recognition is characteristically moral and external to himself rather than political and introspective. Richard II realizes what a political muddle he has made of his reign and comes to a moment of intense self-realization in light of his political failure:

                                                                      But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

(R2 5.5.38-41)

This is very close to the insight Lear gains in his destitution, even to the wordplay on ‘nothing’ throughout King Lear, but Henry VI never comes to such a realization, and his ending, while certainly pitiable, is far from fearful, because Henry is so consistently weak.


Critical responses to Richard as a character have also been divided from the beginning. While no one has questioned his wickedness, different views have been taken as to what causes it. We have seen Johnson's incisive attention to Richard's soliloquy in 3.2 …, with its suggestion that Richard behaves anti-socially because society rejects him for his physical deformities. Another eighteenth-century critic, Thomas Whateley, asserted, on the other hand, that Richard's physical shape should be understood as a manifestation of his inherently evil nature:

The deformity of his body was supposed to indicate a similar depravity of mind; and Shakespeare makes great use both of that, and of the current stories of the times concerning the circumstances of his birth, to intimate that his actions proceeded not from the occasion, but from a savageness of nature.

(Whateley, 35-6)5

To support his argument, Whateley pointed to ‘an extraordinary gaiety of heart’ in Richard when he is most treacherous and destructive (38), as well as to a ‘total insensibility to every tender feeling’ (44), including family loyalty, remorse, shame, and shock at the suffering of others (46-67). Far from seeing Richard as a social victim, as Johnson did, Whateley saw him as a personification of depravity.

Johnson and Whateley thus established two lines of interpretation for Richard that prevailed for the next two centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought that ‘pride of intellect, without moral feeling’ is Richard's ‘ruling impulse’, and he followed Johnson in explaining it by reference to the mechanics of Richard's psyche: ‘The inferiority of his person made the hero seek consolation and compensation in the superiority of his intellect; he thus endeavoured to counterbalance his deficiency. This striking feature is portrayed most admirably by Shakespeare, who represents Richard bringing forward his very defects and deformities as matters of boast’ (Coleridge, 2.181). Arthur Cadoux saw something else that explained Richard's behaviour. Noting Bacon on deformity, as Johnson had, Cadoux also pointed to Richard's admiration for his father, the Duke of York (2.1.9-20), and psychologized it:

His father's love and admiration had sheltered him from the scorn of his deformity, so that his grief added energy to the prowess which, while the war lasted, evinced his superiority as a fighter and allowed him even to be generous to the brave.

(Cadoux, 15)

The fullest exposition of this kind was offered by John Palmer, who elaborated on the same points Cadoux had made and added that Richard's soliloquy in 3.2 was the result of his transferring dependence and admiration from York to Edward, only to have Edward let him down (Palmer, 66-74). Robert Ornstein referred to ‘This pre-Freudian intuition of the compensatory drive for power’, again tracing Richard's behaviour to the death of York, which ‘is Richard's spiritual turning-point because it leaves him without a single emotional attachment’ (Ornstein, 58, 57). Janet Adelman was so impressed by Richard's soliloquy in 3.2 that she identified it as the first ‘voice of a fully developed subjectivity’ in Shakespeare (Adelman, 1).

Most critics, however, have followed Whateley in seeing Richard as a personification of evil rather than a character with a credible inner life. To be sure, Dowden noted Richard's attachment to York (Dowden, 188), but he made little of it, emphasizing instead the ‘daemonic intensity’ rather than ‘mystery’ in Richard's characterization (181). Cynicism, insolence, audacity, dissimulation and ‘wantonness of diablerie’ are the qualities Dowden emphasized (184-6). Theodore Spencer explained Richard's ‘malformed body’ as ‘the outward sign of a malformed soul’ (T. Spencer, 72), and Ernest Howse asserted flatly that ‘Richard had no inward conflict. He has no struggle against his better impulses, for all his impulses are bad. He displays no change in character, no deterioration and no sign of redemption’ (Howse, 80).6

Bernard Spivack was the first to suggest that the split in critical perceptions of Richard might have something to do with the particular circumstances of Shakespeare as a playwright in the early 1590s. Those who take Richard as a personification of evil are closest to Spivack's insight that the dominant influence on characterization in the early London theatres was the traditional morality play, and that the inspiration for Richard was the abstract personification of evil called ‘the Vice’. Those who psychologize Richard, for example, have not addressed the question of why he alone has so many soliloquies and asides of the variety that invite the audience to watch his bravura performance as he deceives and exploits other characters, but this is a standard procedure for what Richard himself, in one such aside, calls ‘the formal Vice, Iniquity’ (R3 3.1.82). Whateley's ‘extraordinary gaiety of heart’ and Dowden's ‘wantonness of diablerie’ are both qualities of the Vice, but so are Richard's dissimulation, hypocrisy, cynicism, manipulativeness, connivance with other evildoers, treachery, and eventual comeuppance in the end. Spivack points to a precedent in Appius and Virginia (1559-67) for the agony of conscience Richard suffers on the eve of his defeat (R3 5.3; Spivack, 479, n. 6), suggesting that even this semblance of an inner life for Richard is in reality but one of the many qualities that ‘project him homiletically as another exponent of the art and achievement of villainy’ (Spivack, 387).

Two more points might be added to Spivack's. One is a morality play precedent for Richard's assertion ‘I am myself alone’, in his self-congratulatory soliloquy after murdering King Henry (5.6.83). The precedent comes from Ulpian Fulwell's Like Will to Like (1562-8), whose Vice, Nichol Newfangle, similarly addresses the audience while alone on stage, after dealing with other vicious characters:

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
Now three knaves are gone, and I am left alone,
Myself here to solace.

(Fulwell, 566-8; our emphasis)

To be sure, Nichol evinces none of Richard's deep social alienation, yet both survive when other knaves fall, partly done in by the treachery of the speaker in each case, and their boasts of ‘alone-ness’ in soliloquy are striking points of continuity. Moreover, Fulwell's play was not an archaic memory; it was still in the repertory of Pembroke's Men, playing at the Rose Theatre, in October 1600 (Henslowe, 164).7

The other point concerns the historical source of Shakespeare's characterization for Richard of Gloucester. Spivack observes that Shakespeare ‘not only follows history, he dramatizes it for the theatre; and he does so by the techniques native to his stage and unerring in their popular effect’ (Spivack, 393). But ‘history’ for Shakespeare was primarily the English chronicles, and where Richard in particular was concerned, ‘history’ was Thomas More's History of King Richard the Third, as Edward Hall adapted it for his chronicle. … Spivack does not point out that in the early sixteenth century, More's model for a personification of evil (i.e. the model for his Richard) was almost certainly the personified vices in morality plays by More's contemporaries, Henry Medwall and John Skelton. To be sure, the Vice per se had not yet appeared in Tudor drama, but all the features associated with him were already present in the multiple personified vices that inhabit plays like Medwall's Nature (c. 1496) and Skelton's Magnificence (1515-26) (Cox, Devil, 53-9). More's interest in the drama of his day is well documented and was treated dramatically in Shakespeare's generation in the play called Sir Thomas More, in which Shakespeare may have had a hand. In this play, More is imagined to step impromptu into the part of a missing player in a morality play called The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom. In short, when Shakespeare turned to the Vice as the model for Richard of Gloucester, he was not combining ‘history’ and drama; he was perpetuating the mode on which ‘history’ had been based in the first place, or in other words, he was following More in offering a reading of history that was borrowed from the morality play.

The value of Spivack's insight is that it complements perceptions of characterization by ‘type’ in the Henry VI plays (Rabkin; Turner, ‘Characterization’), and it helps to clarify the oppositional thinking that underlies the emergence of monstrous evil out of civil conflict in the course of the first tetralogy. … These are elements of traditional dramaturgy that remained vital in London commercial plays much longer than is often recognized, animating many of Middleton's city comedies, for example, as well as domestic tragedies such as The Witch of Edmonton (1621), and a saint's play such as The Virgin Martyr (1620) (Cox, Devil, 166-87). At the same time, however, the long-standing debate over characterization in 3 Henry VI emphasizes the transitional quality of Shakespeare's way of imagining character. The Henry VI plays are primarily political plays, not morality plays: they elucidate how powerful men and women acquire and maintain power or fail in the attempt to acquire and maintain it. No morality-play precedent exists for this kind of elucidation, because the task does not lend itself easily to oppositional moral categories. Moreover, Richard's soliloquy in 3.2 does indeed manifest something remarkably like what we have come to think of as an inferiority complex, and no one has pointed to a morality-play precedent for it. Whether it supports the full-blown psychological portrait drawn by John Palmer, based on what Edward Berry calls ‘shadowy outlines of psychological development’ in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI (E. Berry, 69), is a matter readers will decide for themselves. Arthur Kirsch has shown that readings based on depth psychology can complement traditional dramaturgy, even for a play as late as The Changeling (1622) (Kirsch, Jacobean, 80-5), so the acknowledgement of traditional dramaturgical influence need not foreclose the issue of characterization. Indeed, anything that opens up our sense of Shakespeare's characterization should be welcome. …


  1. Cf. John Danby's remark that ‘The axis of the [first] tetralogy is defined by Henry VI on the one hand and Richard III on the other. Henry VI is as nearly blameless as a king can be’ (Danby, 59).

  2. J. P. Brockbank pointed to a similar sentiment in Thomas Elyot's The Governour: ‘The King, says Elyot, must be merciful, but too much Clementia is a sickness of mind; as soon as any offend him the King should “immediately strike him with his most terrible dart of vengeance”’ (Brockbank, ‘Frame’, 97).

  3. On Suffolk's echo of the Vice-like Aaron and Richard of Gloucester, see Spivack, 386-7.

  4. For a thorough analysis of Henry's political weakness, see Richmond, 56-74.

  5. The Renaissance tradition that Whateley seems to refer to has been explored in detail by Torrey, 126-39.

  6. See also Manheim, Weak King, 86-7; Champion, 42-4; Bloom, 64-74.

  7. For identification of Henslowe's reference, see Greg, Henslowe, 2.228-9.


Adelman: Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays: Hamlet and The Tempest (New York and London, 1992)

Berry, E.: Edward Berry, Patterns of Decay (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1975)

Bloom: Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York, 1998)

Boris: Edna Zwick Boris, Shakespeare's English Kings, the People, and the Law (Rutherford, New Jersey and London, 1978)

Brockbank, ‘Frame’: J. P. Brockbank, ‘The frame of disorder—Henry VI’, in Early Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (1961), 72-99

Cadoux: Arthur Temple Cadoux, Shakespearean Selves: An Essay in Ethics (1938)

CE: College English

Champion: Larry S. Champion, Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories (Athens, Georgia, 1980)

Coleridge: S. T. Coleridge, Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 2 vols (1930)

Danby: John F. Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (1949)

Dowden: Edward Dowden, Shakespere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 12th edn (1901)

Ellis-Fermor: Una Ellis-Fermor, The Frontiers of Drama (1945)

Fulwell: Ulpian Fulwell, Like Will to Like, ed. J. A. B. Somerset, in Four Tudor Interludes (1974)

Goddard: Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951)

Greg, Henslowe: W. W. Greg, Henslowe's Diary, 2 vols (1904)

Hall: Edward Hall, Hall's Chronicle (1809; New York, 1965)

Hazlitt: William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817)

Howse: Ernest Marshall Howse, Spiritual Values in Shakespeare (New York, 1955)

Johnson, S.: Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (1968), vols 7 and 8 of The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 16 vols (New Haven, Connecticut, 1958-90)

Kirsch, Jacobean: Arthur C. Kirsch, Jacobean Dramatic Perspectives (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1972)

Manheim, Weak King: Michael Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse, New York, 1973)

Masefield: John Masefield, William Shakespeare (New York and London, 1911)

More: Thomas More, Utopia, ed. Edward Surtz and J. H. Hexter, Complete Works of St. Thomas More, 12 vols (New Haven, Connecticut, 1961—), vol. 4.

Ornstein: Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972)

Palmer: John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1945)

PQ: Philological Quarterly

Price, ‘Shakespeare’: Hereward T. Price, ‘Shakespeare as a critic’, PQ, 20 (1941), 390-9

Rabkin: Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York and London, 1967)

Richmond: H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York, 1967)

Spencer, T.: Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, 2nd edn (New York, 1961)

Spivack: Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1958)

Swayne: Mattie Swayne, ‘Shakespeare's King Henry VI as a pacifist’, CE, 3 (1941), 143-9

Tillyard, Elizabethan: E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (1943)

Torrey: Michael Torrey, ‘“The plain devil and dissembling looks”: ambivalent physiognomy and Shakespeare's Richard III’, ELR, 30 (2000), 123-53

Turner, ‘Characterization,’: Robert Y. Turner, ‘Characterization in Shakespeare's early history plays’, ELH, 31 (1964), 241-58

Utterback: Raymond V. Utterback, ‘Public men, private wills, and kingship in Henry VI, Part III’, Renaissance Papers 1978, 47-54

Whateley: Thomas Whateley, Remarks on Some of the Characters of Shakespere, 3rd edn (1839)

David Thatcher (essay date winter 2000-2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Thatcher, David. “Cover-up: The Murder of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI.The Shakespeare Newsletter 50, no. 4 (winter 2000-2001): 105, 114, 116, 118.

[In the following essay, Thatcher lists the five different ways in which murders and the cover-ups that follow them are committed in Shakespeare's plays, and shows how Humphrey of Gloucester's murder in Henry VI, Part 2 is an example of a murder made to look as though it were a death by natural causes.]

In Holinshed's version of the Macbeth story, the deceitful Macbeth figure, Donwald, instructs four servants to cut the king's throat while he is sleeping. To prevent the body from betraying him by bleeding in his presence, Donwald orders the four murderers to deflect the course of a small river, dig a hole in the riverbed, bury the body, and, by allowing the river to resume its course, conceal, probably for ever, all traces of the crime.1

Shakespeare wisely dispenses with this macabre narrative: representing it on stage would have been cumbersome, and reporting it might have risked unwanted laughter. I quote it here because it is an example, appallingly literal, of a theme which Shakespeare deals with frequently in his murder cases, the theme of cover-up.

The simulations and dissimulations Shakespeare's murderers resort to can be divided into five distinct main groups, though they sometimes overlap. Let me distinguish them briefly, with examples of, and comments on, each group.

The first, and very common, method is murder by proxy, that is, delegating the deed to a third party, sometimes a trusted friend or adviser, sometimes a subordinate or professional hitman or a poverty-stricken opportunist. Wishing Clarence out of the way, Richard III gives two hired assassins the king's warrant for Clarence's execution, and intercepts the king's countermand order claiming, falsely, that it arrived too late. Buckingham's reluctance to arrange the murder of the two princes in the tower (a reluctance which seals his fate) forces Richard to hire Tyrrel, who himself subcontracts to Dighton and Forrest. These two inform Tyrrel that they have smothered the princes. (Tyrrel tells Richard that he has seen the bodies, and that the Tower chaplain “hath buried them” (4. 3. 17-19, 27-30) though he doesn't know where. It is odd, then, that the Duchess of York should know they were smothered to death (4. 4. 132-4). Coincidence? Intuition? The playwright's oversight?). Claudius confidently relies on the assistance of the King of England to eliminate his troublesome nephew, while Macbeth hires two desperadoes to rid him of Banquo and Fleance: in the first case what's done is undone, in the second only half done.

The second method is framing. In Titus Andronicus: Aaron, with the aid of a forged letter, frames Martius and Quintus for the murder of Bassianus (2. 3. 42-50, 268-75). Tamora, in on the ruse, exclaims tongue-in-cheek: “O wondrous thing! How easily murder is discoverèd!” (2. 3. 286-7). Macbeth's moral scruples and emotional jitters are overcome only when his wife assures him that they can expedite the murder of Duncan by incapacitating, by means of drink, the two chamberlains charged with guarding him but also laying upon them “the guilt of our great quell” (1. 7. 70-1). A relieved but callous Macbeth enthusiastically elaborates a scheme (Shakespeare's addition to Holinshed) to frame two innocent men: “Will it not be received, / When we have marked with blood those sleepy two / Of his own chamber, and used their very daggers, / That they have done it?” “Who,” Lady Macbeth assures him, “dares receive it other” (1. 7. 74-8). “I am settled,” says Macbeth, confident he can now proceed with minimal risk of detection.

The third cover-up strategy is to spread a rumor or false report. Finding his wife Anne an inconvenient obstacle to his marriage to Elizabeth, Richard III gives orders for her execution. “Rumor it abroad,” he commands Catesby, “that Anne my wife is very grievous sick … and like to die” (4. 2. 49-50, 56), her death being confirmed at 4. 3. 39. The strong implication, as Queen Elizabeth suspects at 4. 4. 282-3, is that he had her murdered to clear the way for re-marriage. “Now, Hamlet, hear,” says the Ghost, “'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, / A serpent stung me” (1. 5. 35-6). In view of the dangling modifier, it is uncertain whether the King or the snake was doing the sleeping. (Kenneth Branagh's movie incongruously shows King Hamlet taking his siesta outdoors in the depths of winter, a time when snakes were presumably hibernating).

The fourth approach is to try and make death appear accidental. In As You Like It, Adam informs Orlando of Oliver's intention to make his murder seem an accident by burning down his lodging (2. 3. 22-4). In Hamlet, the implication is that Claudius himself devised and disseminated the serpent story, which was obviously designed to make the murder look like an accident or “death by misadventure,”2 even though death by a “violent apoplexy” (as in Fratricide Punished) or by natural causes would have been entirely plausible. Claudius resorts to a similar cover-up on Hamlet's unexpected return to Denmark, hatching another plot “Under the which he shall not choose but fall; / And for his death no wind of blame shall breathe, / But even his mother shall uncharge the practice / And call it accident” (4. 7. 65-8). Under cover of placing a wager he will arrange a rigged duel between Hamlet and Laertes: his plan calls for an unbated sword which Laertes “with ease, / Or with a little shuffling” can choose since Hamlet “will not peruse the foils” (4. 6. 136-7), a grave miscalculation since Hamlet does, it turns out, inspect the foils (see 5. 2. 267). Laertes proposes what he thinks is a cunning elaboration: putting a deadly, and implicitly fast-acting, poison on the tip of Hamlet's sword. This tactic reduces even further the chances that death will be construed as accidental, for Hamlet might die within an hour (“In thee there is not half an hour's life,” 5. 2. 317) with no visible cause but a minor scratch on his skin. Although Claudius is aware that botched execution imperils the underlying purpose of his scheme, i.e., to make it look accidental, he fails to notice that Laertes' elaboration jeopardizes it even more.

The fifth, and least common (because most difficult), form of cover-up is to make death look a natural, i.e. non-violent, one.3 This form of camouflage is employed, or at least envisaged, in two plays generally thought to have been influenced by 2 Henry VI: Marlowe's Edward II (1591-2) and the anonymous Woodstock (1591-4). In Holinshed's Chronicles, Marlowe's source for Edward II, murderers hold the king down “and withall put into his fundament an horne, and through the same they thrust up into his bodie a hote spitte … so as no appearance of any wounds or hurt outwardlie might be once perceyved.”4 A hired assassin suggests to Lapoole, who is masterminding Woodstock's death, that, should an attempt to strangle him with a towel fail, he will “mall his old mazzard with this hammer …, and after cut's throat.” Lapoole strenuously objects: “No, wound him not, / It must be done so fair and cunningly / As if he died a common natural death, / For so we must give out to all that ask.” To which the murderer's accomplice replies: “There is no way then, but to smother him.”5 In the event Woodstock is strangled with a towel and then “smothered and stifled” with a featherbed: afterwards his hair and beard are smoothed down, his neck set straight. “Who can say that this man was murdered now?” gloats the first murderer. Lapoole orders the men to lay Woodstock's body in his bed, and to “shut the door, as if he there had died” (157). The natural death simulation, as far as I know, occurs in only one Shakespeare episode, the murder of the Duke of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI6, and even when combined with “murder by proxy,” as in Edward II and Woodstock, it turns out to be no more successful than other devices to deflect suspicion and blame. I now wish to investigate, in some detail, how this murder is instigated, carried out, and ultimately discovered.

Once they have doubted whether the charge of treason against Gloucester will succeed, the conspirators, prompted by Queen Margaret, cautiously sound each other out about the desirability of having him liquidated. Secretly coveting the crown for himself, the Duke of York asserts that the conspirators can confidently dispense with concealment, since, as nobles of the realm, they are powerful enough to withstand or divert adverse criticism and suspicion: “Now we three have spoken it, / It skills not greatly who impugns our doom.”7 Turning a deaf ear to York's arrogance, and with no further on-stage consultation with him, the Duke of Suffolk, in league with Cardinal Beaufort, opts for a cover-up: he proceeds to hire assassins (who, as usual in Shakespeare, remain anonymous) to commit the murder.

Neither of Shakespeare's major sources for the play, the chronicles of Hall nor Holinshed, mentions murderers. But murderers appear in both Q and F versions8 of the play, with one major difference. In Q, a stage direction calls for “two men” to be seen “smothering” the Duke “in his bed,” whereas in F “two or three” simply confirm, to Suffolk, that they have “dispatched this thing,” the actual method (or methods) remaining unspecified. In Q, Suffolk commands them: “Then see the cloathes laid smooth about him still, / That when the King comes, he may perceive / No other, but that he dide of his owne accord.” Supporting her argument with a parallel passage in Woodstock, Saunders (24) argues that Q's reference to bedclothes being “laid smooth” and the phrase “dide of his own accord” indicate “emphasis on a plausible suicide,” though she neglects to suggest of what kind. To cite a comparable case: in King Lear, Edmund employs a captain to kill both Cordelia and Lear, and later confesses his plan to avoid responsibility: the captain's “commission,” he explains, was “to hang Cordelia in the prison, and / To lay the blame upon her own despair, / That she fordid herself” (5. 3. 254-7). Cordelia, then, was supposed to have hanged herself. This is plausible enough, but surely not even a limited King like Henry would deduce, on the evidence before him, that Gloucester had taken his own life. Suffolk's corresponding words in F (“Have you laid fair the bed? Is all things well, / According as I gave instructions?”), words which again resemble similar passages in Woodstock, clearly indicate his intention: to make it appear, not that Gloucester had committed suicide, but that he had died a natural death.

Commanded by the King to summon Gloucester to his trial, Suffolk, pretending to tremble, answers the King's question “Where is our uncle?” by saying “dead in his bed” (4. 2. 28-9), a phrase traditionally associated with dying peacefully in one's sleep. The King faints: when he recovers he mounts a vicious attack on Suffolk, not accusing him directly of murder, but perhaps insinuating (with phrases like “thy poison,” “serpent's sting,” “murderous tyranny,” “basilisk”) his deep-seated suspicions.

The Earl of Warwick then announces a report claiming that Gloucester “traitorously is murdered” at the instigation of Suffolk and Beaufort, and that the angry commons demand confirmation and redress. Shakespeare must have read in Hall's Chronicles, and probably also in Holinshed (who copies Hall almost verbatim), that Gloucester's body was shown (neither says by whom) “to the lordes and commons, as though he had died of a palsey [paralysis, possibly the effect of a stroke] or emposthume [internal ulcer or abscess].” Because they leave no obvious external signs, the claim that these were the causes would have been conveniently difficult to deny. Hall continues (neither he nor Holinshed bother to indicate whether, in each case, “indifferent persons” refers to actual witnesses or later historians):

But all indifferent [impartial] persons well knewe, that he died of no natural death but of some violent force: some judged hym to be strangled: some affirme that a hote spitte was put in at his foundement: other [sic] write, that he was stiffeled or smoldered [smothered] between twoo fetherbeds.9

In Shakespeare's play, however, the report of the Duke's death is circulated and the commons' suspicions aroused before the King calls for Gloucester's corpse to be “viewed,”10 and whether or not the commons are present at the inspection (textual stage directions differ) the narratological difficulty is manifest. Shakespeare has not allowed enough time for anyone, even the murderers themselves, to spread or manipulate the fact of Gloucester's death.11

The anguished King accepts the fact of Gloucester's death, conceding “how he died God knows, not Henry,” but, while Warwick is carrying out his order to “view his breathless corpse” and comment on “his sudden death,” he is again overcome with suspicion that “violent hands were laid on Humphrey's life” (3. 2. 130-2, 139); he is, however, “paralyzed by the anxiety of rendering false judgment.”12 Looking for “true evidence of good esteem” (3. 2. 21) which the King had invoked before Gloucester's aborted trial, Warwick echoes the King as he sets out to conduct a kind of coroner's inquest; he, too, declares his belief (based on his initial inspection of the body) that “violent hands” (4. 2. 156) were laid on the Duke. Hattaway assumes that Warwick is “the only one on stage able to see the corpse,” and suggests that Warwick “is speaking only for effect, arousing horror in order to point the finger of suspicion at Suffolk” (152). Apart from the absurdity of an inspection at which only one person inspects, and the risk Warwick is taking if he is caught trying to prevent others from inspecting, the text makes it reasonably clear that the King, expressly invited by Warwick, has seen the corpse (3. 2. 149-52), and that Beaufort has too (cf. 3. 2. 171 and 3. 3. 15). In the BBC version, the audience is also treated to a close-up.

In what has been called “an early and rare example of forensic reasoning,”13 Warwick, having drawn the curtains from around Gloucester's bed, describes how “the blood is settled in his face” in a way inconsistent with the appearance of what he calls a “timely parted ghost,” a case of natural death he claims often to have seen: in such a case, he maintains, the face is “of ashy semblance, meager, pale and bloodless.” He then proceeds, for the sake of enhanced contrast, to expatiate on the grisly appearance of Gloucester's body:

But see, his face is black and full of blood,
His eyeballs further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly like a strangled man;
His hair upreared, his nostrils stretched with struggling;
His hands abroad displayed, as one that grasped
And tugged for life, and was by strength subdued.
Look, on the sheets his hair, you see, is sticking;
His well-proportioned beard made rough and ragged. …
It cannot be but he was murdered here:
The least of all these signs were probable.

(3. 2. 168-78)

In terms of modern forensic pathology, all the signs triumphantly listed by Warwick happen to be non-specific, that is, they do not point unequivocally to a violent death. Strangulation would have produced bruise-marks to the neck (whether on or under the skin), but Warwick doesn't mention or examine the neck at all: the red or blackened face, as well as the protruding eyes, are consistent with physical changes which occur, because of such factors as lapse of time and temperature and position of the body, whatever the actual cause of death (including hanging) may have been. He intimates signs of struggle: disheveled hair and rumpled beard, nostrils stretched, hands clutching the bedclothes—these, too, could have occurred after natural death (hands often tend to turn into claws because of muscular contraction).14

However, it's the dramatic impression which is important, and the impression to be conveyed is that Gloucester met a violent end. The reference to the face being “full of blood” (see also line 160) may reflect the belief that the body of a murdered man bleeds afresh when touched by, or even in the presence of, his murderer.15 We note Shakespeare has conspicuously avoided the two trumped-up but “official” interpretations of Gloucester's death (“palsey” or “emposthume”), as well as speculation about “a hote spitte” in the rectum, the very method Marlowe put to spectacular, as well as aptly symbolic, use in Edward II. In the opinion of some commentators, Shakespeare seems to have been confused as to whether Gloucester was smothered or strangled. According to Saunders, “hands grasping for life and roughened beard” point to smothering, but lines like “staring full ghastly like a strangled man” and other details “make strangulation, rather than smothering, the obvious verdict.”16 The stage direction in Q, we remember, shows the murderers smothering their victim, but even so Warwick's abbreviated account in Q implies strangulation. It's an inconsistency in Q which the ambiguous stage direction in F, which indicates an unspecified murder whether off stage or on, neatly obviates, but which the Oxford edition, and its Norton Shakespeare spin-off, unnecessarily reintroduces by substituting the stage direction in Q.17

From a coroner's point of view, crucial evidence is either missing or incomplete: we never learn how much time elapses between the murder and the murderers giving notification of it to Suffolk, though the stage direction in F that they are “running over the stage, from the murder of Gloucester,” seems to suggest haste (though we know Gloucester's death has only just occurred, we don't see Warwick touching the body to test whether it is still warm). The second murderer's rueful comment, “Didst ever hear a man so penitent?” suggests that Gloucester died calmly, more concerned with the state of his soul than with fending off his attackers. Though non-specific, some signs Warwick evinces are indeed, as Saunders says, more consistent with strangulation than with suffocation. Saunders, on the evidence of F, suggests that Shakespeare “opted for simple strangulation, off stage.”18 But Suffolk, with the need for concealment uppermost in his mind, would surely have instructed his henchmen to employ (as in Woodstock) the method of suffocation, which leaves no or few discernible traces.

Then why, we must ask, would the murderers have strangled their assigned victim, which is Warwick's interpretation (and one the audience is, I think, bound to accept), if their assigned task had been to feign a natural death by means of suffocation? It's quite possible they may have strangled Gloucester and smothered him, in keeping with the tendency of their fraternity towards overkill but clearly out of kilter with Suffolk's intentions and instructions (unless, of course, an ignorant Suffolk had been unaware strangulation leaves tell-tale signs). It is crucial to try and reconstruct those brief moments, seemingly insignificant at the time, which Suffolk spent off stage ostensibly summoning Gloucester to his trial. Did he actually see the dead Gloucester's face? Apparently not: he must have taken for granted that the murderers had done exactly as he had commanded, and remained off stage only long enough to give the impression he had seen the body. And so as he listens, with growing horror, to Warwick's revealing account of the visible state of Gloucester's corpse, he realizes, without knowing the reasons, that his cover-up scheme has misfired catastrophically.

Beaufort, his partner-in crime, has come to the same realization. When we meet him in the next scene (3.3) he is discovered in his bed, not dead like Gloucester, but raving and staring as if he were mad. In words echoing Suffolk's initial announcement, he makes a desperate attempt to conceal his complicity by insisting Gloucester's death was natural (“Died he not in his bed? Where should he die?”), but, in the delusion he is being tortured on the rack to extract a confession, abruptly promises to confess (though in fact he never does). He again imagines seeing Gloucester's eyeless ghost, and dies before the poison he has requested can be administered. To the assembled nobles, who include the King, his guilt is manifest: the Cardinal is the first of Shakespeare's characters who underestimate the power of guilt as a factor in the disclosure of a crime.

In Woodstock, the murderer thinks he has been successful in staging a “natural” death, boasting: “Never was murder done with such rare skill” (157), but the crime is soon detected. In fact, many English texts, from Chaucer onwards, proclaim the inevitability of murder, however well hidden, being discovered. In The Canterbury Tales we read “Mordre wol out, certeyn, it wol nat faille,” and “mordre wol out, that se we day by day.”19 The idea, a recurrent motif in Hall as well as in Holinshed, is a pervasive one in Shakespeare too.20 Shakespeare's moral pattern is clear: for perpetrators of such a heinous crime as murder, detection is sure, and punishment, in this world or the next, rigorous. Admittedly, hired assassins, usually anonymous, can get away with murder: Shakespeare cannot bestir himself to bring such marginal characters to justice for fear of impeding dramatic momentum. But such is not the case with Suffolk, Beaufort and other murderers like Richard III, Macbeth and Claudius. Their attempted cover-ups are revealed, ultimately, as unavailing. Yet we should bear in mind that it is abiding suspicion of guilt, rather than absolute proof, which plays the most significant role in their eventual unmasking.


  1. Shakespeare's Holinshed, ed. Richard Hosley (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968), 11. Unless otherwise stated, all Shakespeare references are to Sylvan Barnet (ed.), The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

  2. In Shakespeare's major source for Othello, Cinthio's Hecatommithi, the Iago figure suggests to Othello the following staged “accident”: “I propose we take a stocking, filled with sand, and beat Desdemona with it till she dies; thus will her body bear no sign of violence. When she is dead we can pull down a portion of the ceiling, and thus make it seem as if a rafter … had killed the lady. Suspicion cannot rest on you, since all men will impute her death to accident.” Staging problems (if he wanted to represent rather than report the murder), and the desire to preserve his hero's “nobility,” probably explain why Shakespeare chose a different death for Desdemona.

  3. In consoling Hamlet both Gertrude (“all that lives must die / Passing through nature to eternity”), and, hypocritically, Claudius (“your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his,” 1. 2. 72-3, 89-90), appear to refer to King Hamlet's death as if it had been a natural occurrence, not the bizarre and unfortunate accident as fabricated for public consumption. Natural death is so rare an event in drama (what others in Shakespeare, besides Mortimer and John of Gaunt, die of sheer old age?) that it almost becomes suspect in itself.

  4. Cited in Edward II, ed. W. Moelwyn Merchant (London: Ernest Benn, 1967), 101.

  5. Woodstock: A Moral History, ed. A. P. Rossiter (London: Chatto & Windus, 1946), 151.

  6. The most useful and detailed study to date remains Claire Saunders, “‘Dead in His Bed’: Shakespeare's Staging of the Death of the Duke of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI,Review of English Studies n. s. 25 (1984), 19-34. Despite her main title, she appears oblivious to the “natural death” subterfuge: issues of staging are her focus. She also compares this scene with its counterparts in Edward II and Woodstock.

  7. 4. 1. 280-1. Cf. Lady Macbeth's “What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our pow'r to acompt” (5. 1. 39-41, an echo of 1. 7. 78). Cf. Richard III 3. 6. 10-4, King Lear 3. 7. 25-8, Pericles 4. 3. 12-9, and The Tempest 2. 1. 290-4.

  8. By “Q” I mean W. A. Wright (ed.), The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster [1594] (London and Cambridge: Macmillan, 1883), and by “F” the Folio text of 1623 in the Signet edition cited in note #1.

  9. Edward Hall, cited in Saunders 23. Cf. Holinshed 174. In citing these sources, one editor comments that “no cause of death could be perceived.” Michael Hattaway (ed.), The Second Part of King Henry VI (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1991), 146. Surely he means “could not be unanimously agreed upon.”

  10. “Enter his chamber, view his breathless corpse” (4. 2. 132). “View” (cf. Warwick's “view this body” at line 149) was “the usual term in the direction to a coroner's jury.” Andrew S. Cairncross (ed.), The Second Part of King Henry VI (London: Methuen, 1957), 85.

  11. We do not hear what becomes of these murderers (though in the BBC Wars of the Roses of 1964 they were shown being broken on the wheel). Sometimes assassins were themselves killed to avoid potential betrayal (as in Woodstock, Edward II and The Spanish Tragedy), or packed off to a foreign country “for safe sanctuary.” Martin Wiggins, Journeymen in Murder: The Assassin in English Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 25, 74 et seq. It was unimaginably imprudent of Suffolk to invite the murderers to go to his house to collect their “reward” for their “venturous deed” (3. 2. 8-9).

  12. I owe this compact phrase to my colleague Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia), 41 (he cites 3. 2. 139-40).

  13. Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson, The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1995), 36. The only other case which occurs to me is Caesar's attempt to determine how Cleopatra and her lady companions died: North's Plutarch insists there was “no mark seen of her body, or any sign discerned that she was poisoned.” Cited by David Bevington (ed.), Antony and Cleopatra (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1990), 257.

  14. I am grateful to Dr. Kerry Pringall, pathologist at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, for sharing his professional expertise with me. See also John Charles Bucknill, Shakespeare's Medical Knowledge (London: Longman, 1860), 175.

  15. 3. 2. 168-78. Cf. my opening paragraph, and Richard III 1. 2. 55-9. For further references see A Dictionary of Superstitions, ed. Iona Opie and Moira Tatem (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1992), 270.

  16. Saunders 23. See Horace Howard Furness (ed.), Othello, New Variorum Edition (New York, 1965), 302-7, for some reflections, including expert medical testimony, as to whether Desdemona was smothered, strangled, stabbed, or some ingenious combination of all three. Stage directions, as with Gloucester's death, differ.

  17. The “Textual Note” in Norton trumpets this substitution as “a striking change,” claiming that the Oxford edition of 2 Henry IV, “like many others, uses many of Q's stage directions to clarify playhouse practice.” The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), 211. But in this particular instance most editions, by retaining the F stage direction, avoid perpetuating a problem which can puzzle readers and spectators alike.

  18. Saunders 23.

  19. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford U P, 1957), 62 (“The Prioress's Tale,” line 576), and 201 (“The Nun's Priest's Tale,” line 3052).

  20. In Richard III, a murderer of Clarence says he will make good his escape once he has been remunerated, “for this will out” (3. 4. 286). Murder, says Gobbo, resembles bastard progeny in that it “cannot be hid long” (The Merchant of Venice 2. 2. 79). Hamlet reflects that “murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ” (4. 2. 600-1, cf. 1. 3. 257-8). Cf. Twelfth Night 3. 1. 149-50, and Macbeth 3. 4. 122-6. Under “Murder will out” in A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1950), 585, Morris Palmer Tilley also cites examples from Kyd, Marlowe, Dekker, Webster, and Tourneur.

Gregory M. Colon Semenza (essay date winter 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Semenza, Gregory M. Colon. “Sport, War, and Contest in Shakespeare's Henry VI.Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 4 (winter 2001): 1251-72.

[In the following essay, Semenza explores the ways in which Shakespeare used sports metaphors to describe the selfish wars conducted by the greedy nobles in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.]

When, in 1 Henry VI, a Messenger of the Countess of Auvergne requests that Talbot visit his lady's castle, Burgundy derisively remarks:

I see our wars
Will turn unto a peaceful comic sport,
When ladies crave to be encountered with.


Burgundy's scoff seizes upon one contemporary signification of sport as amorous dalliance,2 and suggests how Talbot's warlike heroism might be compromised or even undermined by his encounter with a woman. The adjective “peaceful comic” indicates a sort of sport that actually differs from war, as though the two phenomena are otherwise linked by some inextricable bond. Burgundy's warning that war will become indistinguishable from sport—through a process of emasculation—is merely the most explicit statement of a general concern that runs throughout the entire trilogy.

In early modern England it was assumed that sport would turn, or be turned, into war. In fact, the state's primary justification for declaring any sports to be “lawful,” even in the face of hostile opposition from conservative polemicists and religious zealots, was based upon the ancient argument that sports provided men with the physical training and conditioning necessary to their successful military engagement with foreign enemies. In Henry VI not only are war and sport collapsed, but their normal relation is reversed: war is constantly in danger of turning into sport.

In the famous Miracle of St. Albans scene in 2 Henry VI, for instance, the King and his counselors have just returned from the field where they have been hawking. The King admires Gloucester's hawk, which has captured its prey despite the high wind, and he compares its fearless magnificence to the spirit of man: “To see how God in all his creatures works! / Yea, man and bird are fain of climbing high” (2.1.7-8). Suffolk and Beauford respond by using the King's simple metaphor to indict what they perceive to be Gloucester's limitless ambition:

No marvel, and it like your Majesty,
My Lord Protector's hawks do tow'r so well;
They know their master loves to be aloft,
And bears his thoughts above his falcon's pitch.
My lord, 'tis but a base ignoble mind
That mounts no higher than a bird can soar.
I thought as much, he would be above the clouds.


The ensuing verbal battle between Gloucester and Beauford, which includes their mutual promise to settle the issue through one-on-one combat, takes place under the guise of “sports talk.” When Henry finally senses and questions the actual meaning of their exchange, Gloucester denies that anything is wrong: “Talking of hawking; nothing else, my lord” (49).

In a sense, the suggestion that two of the most powerful men in the realm really were discussing hawking, and nothing else, would have been as troubling to Elizabethans as the actual feud between Gloucester and Beauford itself. For decades, English writers had warned gentlemen about the dangers of excessive recreation and exercise. In sixteenth-century treatises on sport, the warnings became something of a literary convention. Most authors had recommended hawking with some reservation. Unlike hunting, the sport with which hawking is most often associated, hawking's military function is not immediately apparent. Sir Thomas Elyot approved of the pastime as a “right delectable solace,” while admitting that “thereof cometh nat so moche utilitie, (concerning exercise), as there dothe of huntinge” (1:199-200). Likewise, some time later, James I explains to his son in Basilikon Doron: “As for hawking I condemn it not but I must praise it more sparingly; because it neither resembleth the warres so neere as hunting doth in making a man hardy, and skilfully ridden in all groundes” (122) The general ambivalence of contemporaries toward hawking seemed to depend upon how the sport was being used—properly or improperly.

A sport's propriety was usually determined by the degree to which it prepared men for warfare, though maintenance of health was sometimes considered as well. Because the military function of hawking was less than clear, however, contemporaries often characterized the sport as useless, idle, or superfluous. In the anonymous Institution of a Gentleman, for instance, the author recommends honest pastimes, for they bring “muche proffyt bothe to the healthe of man and recreacion of hys wytte,” but warns against excess in the “gentlemanly” sports, which include hawking:

I take occasion to speake of hawking and huntyng, pastymes used (yea rather abused) of Gentlemen, whych pastimes in their right kinds are good & allowable, yet by superfluous use and overmuch hauntyng of them, they be rather chaunged into faults & transgressions, then honest exercises ordeyned for man's recreacion.

(sig. b3)

The author proceeds to explain that unlike field sports—wrestling, running, leaping—which prepare men for war, excessive hawking “is cause of neglectyng the thyngs … [to which] al gentlemen are instituted,” and he specifically includes war within these neglected gentlemanly affairs:

That is to saye, a measure ought to be kept in pastyme. Which worde measure bryngeth in good occasion to speake here of hawkinge and huntynge, for in these dayes manye Gentlemen will do almoste nothinge els. … This is the cause why there bee founde so many raw Soldyers when tyme of warres requyreth their helpe.

In the St. Albans passage, the conflation of hawking and political conflict—the general inability of the King, and perhaps the reader, to distinguish between them—serves to indict the irresponsibility of the ruling nobility. On the one hand, the time spent hawking is time spent away from serious matters of state. While the nobles pursue their sport, the much lamented, lost French territories remain lost, and a number of insurrectionary plots threaten to destroy the kingdom. Shakespeare's very placement of the leisurely aristocratic activity in the opening of the second act—immediately after the Duchess' ambiguous oracles suggest the potential, impending deposition of the King—strikes the reader as oddly out of place. Yet the scene illustrates quite vividly, on a microcosmic level, why Henry is unable to maintain political stability: hawking is cause of neglecting the things whereunto the monarch is instituted.

On the other hand, the sport is not merely presented as a frivolous pastime, for Gloucester and Beauford actually are engaged in serious political conflict. Yet the conflict is represented through the terminology of sport. In this case, the collapse of discursive difference renders the conflict a type of sport: it calls attention to the fact that we are witnessing not a disagreement over political difference per se but, rather, a sort of competition between two men. Regardless of Shakespeare's own political agenda in writing his English history plays—and critical opinion is famously divided over this issue3—the agendas of the characters within the plays are motivated only rarely by any explicit adherence to, advocacy of, or protest against specific political policies or principles. Personal ambition replaces such principles and becomes the chief signifier of the historical shift from an idealistic political system based on the chivalric code to a more cynical one governed by the demands of realpolitik. The St. Albans passage demonstrates not only the centrality of personal ambition as the source of eventual military conflict in 2 Henry VI, but also the usefulness (and complexity) of sport as a metaphor for the contestatory struggles that result from such ambition. Furthermore, the relative uselessness of hawking in the lives of the English statesmen indicates the equal uselessness and even dangerousness of personal ambition to the stability of the state.

Shakespeare's attention in the trilogy to the degeneration of chivalry into realpolitik—apparent in the shift of focus from the Anglo-French wars in 1 Henry VI to the petty civil squabbles of the subsequent plays—should be examined within the context of contemporary anxieties about war having become less noble and, to a certain degree, less justifiable. The St. Albans passage demonstrates not only Shakespeare's conflation of war and sport as a sign of this degeneration, but his complete reversal of their normal relation as traditionally figured by humanists, military scientists, and statesmen, among others. Examination of the contemporary evidence suggests that this relation was itself undergoing important alterations throughout the sixteenth century.

Sport often had been linked with war in classical theory, and the parallels between the two phenomena were reaffirmed and elaborated by early modern educators and military scientists. The tendency to view certain sports as microcosms of military conflict doubtless has much to do with the violent aspect of sport. Considering the probable origins of athletics, Donald G. Kyle highlights man's violent impulses as the lowest common denominator between sport and war: “Seeking the original stimulus for athletics … [m]ilitary considerations may be relevant since many early sports appear related to primitive warfare. One can appreciate the cathartic effect of athletics in providing an outlet for hostility other than war and death” (10). Norbert Elias goes further to suggest that the cathartic function of sport is essential to the maintenance of any civilized society:

For example, belligerence and aggression find socially permitted expression in sporting contests. And they are expressed especially in “spectating” (e.g., at boxing matches), in the imaginary identification with a small number of combatants to whom moderate and precisely regulated scope is granted for the release of such affects. … [T]his … is a particularly characteristic feature of civilized society.


Emeric Crucé seems intuitively to have recognized this point; when, in 1623, he proposed that a European peacekeeping court be established in Venice, he specifically recommended that sport and hunting be used to satisfy men's thirst for violence.4

Such arguments—that sport could serve as an alternative to war—were extremely rare. More often, sport was advocated and justified because of its preparatory military function. Like battle, success in sports demanded courage, toughness, and activity-specific skills like those of the archer. Though Plato first advocated a systematic “physical training that [was] simple and flexible, especially in its training for war” (108), it was Aristotle who influentially stressed the courage that physical training could instill in youth when balanced by a proper focus on the exercises of the mind. Courage is said to result from what is noble, and what is truly noble must originate in the mind. In Book VIII of Politics, the author warns that without a noble education, men trained merely in athletics will become violent and beast-like, but not courageous: “For among the barbarians and among animals courage is found associated, not with the greatest ferocity, but with a gentle and lion-like temper. … And parents who devote their children to gymnastics while they neglect their necessary education, in reality make them mechanics” (Aristotle, 198-99). Athleticism unfiltered by education results in a violent, warlike disposition.

Such a disposition could be useful, of course, within certain contexts. Early modern educational theorists and military scientists stressed the benefits of athletic training for would-be warriors. In the Governour, Elyot prefaces his recommendation of individual sports by remarking,

I wyll nowe only speake of those exercises, apt to the furniture of a gentilmannes personage, adapting his body to hardness, strength, and agilitie, and to helpe therwith hym selfe in perile, whiche may happen in warres or other necessitie.


He praises wrestling, “in case that a capitayne shall be constrayned to cope with his adversary hande to hande, hauyng his weapon broken or loste” (173). Running is useful in overtaking or escaping one's enemy, riding in presenting a majestic and dreadful image to the enemy, and even swimming is said to be an “excellent commoditie,”

Sens no kyng … may assure hym selfe from the necessities which fortune sowethe amonge men that be mortall. And sens on the helth and saulfe garde of a noble capitayne … nothing shulde be kepte from his knowledge, wherby his persone may be in every jeoperdie preserved.


In support, he cites the military exploits and swimming skills of Alexander, Caesar, and Sertorius.

Lawrence Humphrey, author of The Nobles (1563), declares to be lawful only those ancient sports—casting the dart, running, wrestling, etc.—which are “stouter and manlier,” and have in them “somewhat stately and warlike” (sigs. B4 r-v). In this case, the very fact that such sports can be turned into war renders them tolerable. Activities such as dancing, dice, and chess, on the other hand, are often pursued merely for “filthye gayne.” In The Scholemaster (1570), Roger Ascham is more specific: “[A]ll pastimes generally, which be joyned with labor, used in open place, and on the day light, conteining either some fitte exercise for warre, or some pleasant pastime for peace, be not onelie cumlie and decent, but also verie necessarie, for a Courtlie Gentleman to use” (1904; 217).

As usual, though, it is Richard Mulcaster who, among the Castiglione-inspired educational theorists, most systematically outlines sport's martial function:

For the use of warre, and defence, it is more then evident, that exercise beares the bell: Can one have a bodie to abide cold, not to melte with heat, not to starve for hunger, not to dye for thirst, not to shrinke at any hardness, almost beyond nature, and above common reache, if he never have it trained? Will nimbleness of limmes awaie with all labour, surpasse all difficulties, of never so divers, and dangerous groundes, pursue enemies to vanquish, reskue freinds to save, retire from danger without harme … ?


Mulcaster goes beyond making a simple comparison between vigorous sports and the vigorous nature of war: he focuses on the ability of exercise to prepare men for the physiological strains of military hardship. He recovers the argument, systematized by Galen and passed on though Mercurialis, that three things come from the use of exercise: “hardness of the organs from mutual attrition, increase of the intrinsic warmth, and accelerated movement of respiration” (Galen, 54). By hardening the organs, one gains both “insensitivity and strength for function.” By increasing intrinsic warmth, one can shape a body that abides cold, and by improving respiration, one can surpass all difficulties through nimbleness of limbs.

By the time Mulcaster wrote Positions (first ed. 1581), a small section offering a tempered advocacy of sport—especially its martial function—was a predictable component of the English educational treatise. He may have been the last of the great Renaissance educators to deal so extensively with the benefits of sport, the last to be seriously invested in the enterprise. The convention continued well into the next century but with less originality and, as we will see in a moment, less to back it up. Both James Cleland's The Institution of a Young Noble Man (1607) and Henry Peacham's Compleat Gentleman (1634) advocated sport for military purposes. In Of Education (1644), Milton recommended as “equally good for peace and war” the arts of weaponry and cavalry, and exercises like wrestling (234).

Early modern military scientists were no less enthusiastic about the significance of sport for the training up of soldiers. Writers like Barnabe Rich, who argued that only those men showing quickness, nimbleness, and readiness should be soldiers, based their programs on Vegetius' Epitome (c. 383-450) and Machiavelli's Art of War (1521).5 In both works, the authors recommend idealistic military training programs but only for young men who show strength and athletic prowess. It is Vegetius who influences Rich's argument: “jumping and running should be attempted before the body stiffens with age. For it is speed which, with training, makes a brave warrior” (5). Vegetius actually details the proper physique for a potential soldier: “So let the adolescent who is to be selected for martial activity have alert eyes, straight neck, broad chest, muscular shoulders, strong arms, long fingers, let him be small in the stomach, slender in the buttocks, and have calves and feet that are not swollen by surplus fat but firm with hard muscle” (6). He goes on to praise running, leaping, and swimming in particular. Only a true sportsman may be turned into a true soldier.

Machiavelli, like Vegetius before him, stressed the difference between enlisting a true athlete and an idle sportsman. Though one's occupation might help to signify his potential military prowess, appearances are deceiving. Moral uprightness matters:

Some authors who have written about this subject will not take fowlers, fishermen, cooks, bawdyhouse keepers, or any other sort of people who make an occupation of pleasure or sport; they prefer plowmen, smiths, farriers, carpenters, butchers, hunters, and such occupations. For my own part, I should not so much consider the nature of their profession as the moral virtue of the men.

(Machiavelli, 33)

Nonetheless, Machiavelli stresses that once the men are chosen, they must be trained in “running, wrestling, leaping,” etc. (59). The Elizabethan military scientists also upheld moral virtue as paramount in determining the ideal soldier, and they differentiated between useful and dangerous sports to be used in his training. Rich describes men who are utterly incapable of becoming good soldiers as those who spend all of their time dicing, drinking, and swearing. He is particularly critical of the nobility which, he says, has begun to neglect its military responsibilities and has become a slave to pleasure and idleness: “And generally it is seene, where pleasure is preferred so excessively, and the people followe it so inordinately, that they lye and wallowe in it so carelessly, they commonlie end with it most miserably” (Rich, sig. F3). The sanctity of war and the stability of the state are threatened by the tempting pleasures of unlawful recreations.

Up until about the time that Barnabe Rich wrote Allarme to England (1578), sport had usually been figured as conducive to war. The educational humanist writers influenced by Baldassarre Castiglione and the Italian school of Vittorino da Feltre relied on classical examples of sport's usefulness and stressed the numerous ways that athletic skills could be employed in battle. Military scientists influenced by Vegetius and Machiavelli, and indirectly by Frontinus, argued that athletes, among all men, could be most easily transformed into soldiers. By the second half of the sixteenth century, however, writers and polemicists became more ambivalent about the traditional progression from sport to war. The new skepticism had much to do with the new challenges to sport by godly preachers and, perhaps, as much to do with the increasingly widespread tendency to scrutinize war itself—its horrific nature and effects on society. As Rich's critique of the nobility suggests, there is an emerging sense that sport has become an end in itself and that the military has been seriously weakened as a result.

Contemporary records indicate that the greatest blow to the military was dealt by the failure of the secular cult of the gentleman to serve as an adequate substitute for chivalrous knighthood: “By the early sixteenth century the practice whereby aristocratic youths were packed off to a noble household to learn the crafts of combat while serving as page-servants was dwindling. Fewer nobles maintained both a scholarly and arms-and-athletics tutor to prepare their sons for war.”6 Though Sir Philip Sidney could sing of the glory of martial athleticism—“In martial sports I had my cunning tried, / And yet to break more staves did me address, / While, with the people's shouts, I must confess, / Youth, luck and praise even filled my veins with pride” (53: 1-4)—evidence shows that most English gentlemen were less enthusiastic about military glory. While it would be shortsighted to blame waning enthusiasm on the development of guns alone, the unchivalric new weapons served as a useful scapegoat for explaining the mounting aristocratic aversion to war. J. R. Hale attributes this aversion to a number of other factors:

Death in wars and the succession of minors; the shrinkage of land-based fortunes as the real value of money declined; the gaining of titles of by men without a militant heredity; the virtual absence—given the smallness of permanent military establishments and the way they were run—of a military career structure that could allow an aristocrat to be “in the army” while still agreeably responding to changes in the peacetime manners of his class: all played some part in the process of civilianization.

(1985, 96-97)

Nonetheless—and perhaps because gentlemanly complaints about the lack of a military career structure would have sounded jejune—the most cited reason for the abandonment of the battlefield by aristocrats was the decline of chivalry, and this decline was directly linked to the development of guns. Shakespeare notes the effects of guns on the aristocracy in 1 Henry IV when Hotspur ridicules one “popingay's” remark that, “but for these vile guns / He would himself have been a soldier” (1.3.63-64).

The increasing prominence of gunpowder in the early modern period, and the subsequent tactical transition from cavalry to infantry, seriously altered traditional methods of warfare. As John Hale remarks, “New weapons involved fresh tactics, and here too there was much discussion: of the changing roles of horse and foot, and how best to combine shock and missile troops” (1962, 21). Such tactical matters the ancients never had to contemplate, and the old manuals were silent on issues of modern artillery. Usually Elizabethan military writers insisted on close adherence to the ancient principles of warfare, allowing only slight modifications to account for the new weaponry. Paul Ive's translation in 1589 of Fourquevaux's Instructions for the Warres conveys the seriousness of such modifications: “[A]lthough I follow the ancient manner in most things, … it is without rejecting our own fashions in any thing that I think them to be surer than theirs” (Fourquevaux, sigs. b1 r-v.). As Henry J. Webb remarks, the Elizabethan military scientists “fervently believed that to be indoctrinated by the classical principles of war was to be moulded in the form of a perfect soldier” (16). Somewhat ironically, then, the rise of a neo-classical military science in England was contemporaneous with the development of the modern weapons. Military writers like Barnabe Rich, Thomas Digges, and Thomas Styward revived the ancient science in reaction to the threat posed by gunpowder to the stability of that science.

One effect of the new developments was that sport and war became more easily separable phenomena. The problem with guns was that they required no athleticism: no strength, no speed, and no endurance. J. R. Hale notes that “Guns, because of the force of their bullets owed nothing to the muscle power that tensed a bow-stave or wound the string of a crossbow into its notch” (1985, 95.) In fact, guns were often described as unnatural or even Satanic because they required so little human physical interaction.7

The development of artillery greatly reduced the amount of hand-to-hand combat that had been typical in early modern warfare prior to the sixteenth century. For this reason, training in sports such as wrestling became less necessary and, therefore, less acceptable for nobles. Wrestling, as one of the oldest sports, had been advocated for its usefulness in war from the very earliest times, through the medieval period, and in the early modern period by men like Elyot, Ascham, and Mulcaster. By 1622, however, Henry Peacham could condemn wrestling with a few strokes of his pen, wiping away an entire literary history of praise for the sport:

For throwing and wrestling, I hold them exercises not so well beseeming nobility, but rather soldiers in a camp or a prince's guard.


The description of wrestling as an improper sport for nobles, but as suitable for mere soldiers, demonstrates the degree to which the nobility had abandoned war.

The gradual transition from cavalry to infantry—facilitated by the growing importance of artillery—also threatened to undermine the military benefits of riding, the great aristocratic sport. Although “Cavalry had been the core of all medieval armies,” Webb explains, “sometime in the fifteenth century the English army ceased to employ it to any great extent.”8 New tactics are cited as the cause of this decline. As in the case of wrestling, once riding's military function is undermined, the sport wanes as an aristocratic pastime. And, as in the case of archery, once the sport begins to wane, numerous tracts are written to revive it. Works like Federico Grisone's Art of Riding (1560) only signal the crisis through which the art is going. Again it is Peacham who announces the sport's relative extinction: “at this day, it is only the exercise of the Italian nobility, … and great pity that it is no more practiced among our English gentry.”9 He also attributes the death of the joust to the irrelevance of the lance in contemporary warfare.

The sport dealt the biggest blow by gunpowder was archery, of course. Described by Ascham in Toxophilus as having always had “the cheife stroke in warre,” archery is routinely advocated for its military benefits (19042, 55).10 The controversy surrounding the sport in the sixteenth century had to do with archery's reputation as the most thoroughly English sport. Ascham attributes all great military triumphs to shooting, remarking that “The feare onely of Englysh Archers hathe done more wonderfull thinges than ever I redde in anye historye greke or latin” (54). Archery was already dying by 1545, the year Ascham published his famous work. Written about five years after the issuance of a monarchical statute promoting archery and banning bowling, which had become more popular,11Toxophilus is patriotic propaganda designed to revive the waning military sport. Despite numerous defenses of archery written well into the seventeenth century, Webb tells us that “after 1588 bows were generally replaced by firearms” (85).

Wrestling, riding, and archery were not, of course, the only sports affected by the rise of firearms, but the rapid demise of such thoroughly established sports demonstrates the degree to which perceptions of war and sport, and especially their previously inextricable relation, were altered by the new technology. Sports that had been deemed lawful and advocated for centuries could no longer be justified for the old reasons. Arguments stressing the importance of turning them into useful military tools were no longer persuasive. In addition, men accurately understood that the hardening of the body through athletic training could do very little to stop a bullet from inflicting a fatal wound. In numerous ways, sport was becoming less necessary.

Partly because sport was now detached from its major utilitarian function, sixteenth-century writers and polemicists increasingly represented it as superfluous, idle, and licentious. Old distinctions between useful and lawful sports like wrestling and hunting and idle, profitless sports like dicing and bowls broke down by the turn of the century. Godly writers like Philip Stubbes could interweave descriptions and condemnations of various athletic exercises including football, tennis, hunting, and May games, among non-athletic activities such as stage plays and interludes, church ales, wakes, baitings, and readings of wicked books. Stubbes is merely the most famous representative of a powerful movement that strove to render all sports unlawful. As a result of this movement, athleticism was systematically stripped of its hitherto positive associations and reduced to violence, disorder, and sinfulness.

At the same time, contemporary warfare—no longer reliant on the physical or athletic prowess of its participants—was frequently represented as an effeminate, cowardly, or at best unheroic enterprise. The gentleman became less and less likely to pursue a military career as war became—or was, at least, represented as having become—less heroic: “The growing anonymity of the individual warrior, the indiscriminate death dealt by shot and ball; these factors, it was claimed, had ruined war as a finishing school for the knightly character” (1962, 23). Not only did gunpowder eliminate opportunities for the demonstration of physical prowess, but it also eliminated the significance of social or class difference between soldiers. When the Boy of the Master Gunner of Orleance shoots and kills Salisbury with a musket in 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare highlights the ironic fact that Salisbury's “sword did ne'er leave striking in the field” (1.4.81). In a moment, gunpowder erases whatever value chivalric warfare once held. But it also erases the theoretically advantageous position that the noble Salisbury once held over the common Boy. Ariosto's apostrophe to gunpowder in Orlando Furioso best describes the sense of loss felt by contemporaries:

Through thee is martial glory lost, through thee
The trade of arms become a worthless art:
And at such ebb are worth and chivalry
That the base often plays the better part.

(Canto 11, stanza 25)

Gunpowder is a great equalizer of men.

The gradual decline of chivalry, the erasure of social difference in battle, and the undermining of traditional military tactics all enhanced the contemporary sense that war was becoming increasingly unpredictable and even chaotic. As Paul A. Jorgensen argues, early modern “[w]ar was one of the most precariously ordered and civilized of human enterprises; far more seriously than peace-inspired institutions like civil government and marriage, it threatened to revert to chaos” (35). Links between war and unruliness extended far beyond the battlefield, however, and into the civilian realm of early modern life. During wartime, armies could be as terrible to their own citizens as to their enemies in the field. In ways, the soldier's life away from the battlefield was akin to a permanent holiday festival, or to Carnival—that temporary state of misrule Mikhail Bakhtin describes as a “suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (10). J. R. Hale suggests that, for many men, this suspension was the only truly appealing aspect of the military life in early modern Europe:

For those uneasy amidst the constraints of civilian life, an army provided, however shoddily, a Land of Cockayne. And even though it was as heartless in throwing out as it had been in wooing while enticing in, for some of its glamour remained [sic]. So the military vagrants padded on from tavern to tavern, brawl to brawl, in danger of arrest but at least still on holiday from the routine of families, porters' baskets, mattocks, and ploughs.

(1985, 89)

Sport was still very much a part of war and military life. But the relationship between war and sport had changed as the cultural cachet of both had declined.

Shakespeare uses the term “sport,” or one of its variants, several hundred times in his career. He uses the term to signify everything from diversion (Venus' “A summer's day will seem an hour but short, / Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport” [24]) to amorous dallying (Iago's “she is sport for Jove” [1.3.17]) to outdoor games like the hawking episode in 2 Henry VI. Occasionally sport, in the sense of an athletic contest, figures prominently in the plays (the wrestling match in As You Like It), but more often as part of a passing jest (e.g. Kent's insult of Oswald in King Lear—“you base football player” [1.4.86]). “Sport” is often used to signify war or battle itself—for instance, when Hotspur in 1 Henry IV shouts “O, let the hours be short, / Till fields, and blows, and groans applaud our sport” (1.3.301-2). On the surface, those lines recall the proverbial phrase “Sport of Kings,” which applied historically to war making. Interestingly, the phrase acquired new meaning in the early modern period when it began to describe the athletic practices of hunting and horseracing.12

Sport, in the athletic sense, is as central to the meaning of Henry VI as any of Shakespeare's other plays. Burgundy's fear, in 1 Henry VI, that war will turn into sport is gradually realized over the course of the three plays. As in the case of the Miracle of St. Albans scene, the collapse of war and sport works to indict the competitiveness of the ruling nobility—its lapse into selfish personal rivalries and conflicts. Not only does this collapse reflect contemporary concerns about the gentlemanly neglect of war and politics for frivolous pastimes, but it also highlights contestatory ambition as the major cause of both war and political conflict in Henry VI. It is startling to discover how little of the action in the trilogy is prompted by actual political disagreement. Whereas H. M. Richmond includes Henry VI among a group of plays that “deliberately engage in a substantial and steadily evolving study of man as a political animal” (ix), many critics have highlighted how seldom characters in the trilogy are identified with particular political positions or policies. David Riggs, for instance, has discussed the replacement of political honor and policy with a “ruthless logic of outrage and revenge” (91). This is not to deny that certain characters are representative of political ideals—Gloucester as champion of the commonwealth, for example—but rather to suggest that such ideals are rarely the cause of conflict in the plays. One may consider the garden scene in 1 Henry VI as emblematic of this point. When Vernon plucks a white rose in the name of the “truth and plainness of the case” (2.4.46), Somerset mocks the seeming arbitrariness of his decision:

Prick not your finger as you pluck it off,
Lest, bleeding, you do paint the white rose red,
And fall on my side so against your will.


Alexander Leggatt describes the accidental quality of choosing sides in the garden scene: “The fundamental, chilling irony of the scene is that we never know what the quarrel is about—it is the tendency to quarrel and choose sides that matters” (8). This tendency to quarrel defines the civil struggle beyond the garden scene and throughout the entire trilogy; again, the motivational factor seems simply to be a competitive tendency in the nobility, as Jonas Barish suggests: “[T]he opposing clans of York and Lancaster … turn into warring tribes whose purpose is to dominate and humiliate if not exterminate each other” (13). These purposes become embarrassingly apparent at such moments as when Clifford swears eternal allegiance to Henry by declaring, “King Henry, be thy title right or wrong, / Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defense” (3 Henry VI 1.1.159-60; emphasis added).

The fact that war and sport often become indistinguishable is, at once, the result and the cause of this competitive tendency in the nobility. The politics of individual expediency and ambition, which come to replace the old chivalric code of the common good, serve to highlight the simultaneous shift from a culture of honor to a culture of competition. Contrast the chivalric nature of Talbot—the hero of the first part of Henry VI—with the Machiavellian individualism of Richard, the central figure of the last part. After Talbot accepts the Countess' invitation, he arrives at her castle only to be insulted by her mockery of his rather unheroic stature:

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.


The Countess believes that she is witnessing the substance of Talbot and that it falls far short of the shadow she has feared for so long. Leggatt is correct to point out that she is completely wrong. She has, in fact, been viewing Talbot's shadow, for his “substance lies in his army, which he summons by winding his horn” (4). Leggatt's shrewd reading of the scene accurately conveys the degree to which chivalric notions of heroism depended on communal effort and solidarity: “Success in battle is the achievement of the group, not the individual” (3). Perhaps no other subject has occupied more critical attention regarding Henry VI than the decline of chivalry over the three plays. The plays trace a rapid movement from the communal notion of heroism and order dominant in the Talbot episodes to the earth shattering solipsism and misanthropic individualism embodied in Richard's famous words, “I am myself alone” (3 Henry VI, 5.6.83). Riggs describes the manner in which this decline serves to expose the dangerous contingency of abstract concepts like “honor”: “In effect these plays keep saying that the received ideals of heroic greatness may be admirable in themselves, but they invariably decay, engender destructive violence and deadly rivalries, and, in the process, make chaos out of history” (99).

Shakespeare's use of sport, as a synonym or metaphor for war, demonstrates the degree to which traditional notions of chivalric honor disintegrate into merely personal rivalries and struggles. This mixing of public with private conflicts always threatens to undermine the stability of the commonwealth. In the opening act of Henry V, for example, the young king rightly interprets the Dolphin's gift of tennis balls as a personal insult, and he promises to meet the challenge on a highly personal level:

But tell the Dolphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.
          I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them.


The Dolphin's “gift” alludes to Henry's “wilder days,” and represents a personal challenge both to his masculinity and his ability to rule. It triggers a response that, though voiced in the language of fearless heroism and bravery, reveals the danger of cultural concepts such as honor. Henry's promise to “be like a king”—that is, his promise to fulfill the sacred, public duties he has sworn to uphold—quickly disintegrates into a personal competition with the Dolphin. The “wasteful vengeance” Henry will reap on the husbands and sons of a thousand widows, as well as the deaths of numerous Englishmen and boys, largely result from his distorted sense of personal honor. Shakespeare cleverly appoints a box of tennis balls a major source of Henry's wrath in Henry V.13

In the earlier histories, Shakespeare employs the same technique, but the collapse of war and sport is much more thorough than in the latter play. After Burgundy's scoff in 1 Henry VI, war quickly becomes indistinguishable from sport. Hunting imagery is most common, perhaps because hunting is the primary sport of the nobility. Imagery of the hunter and hunted is used to signify the simultaneous helplessness and ferocity the soldier experiences in battle. Talbot uses the hunting/warfare metaphor to represent the battle between the warring enemies:

How we are park'd and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England's timorous deer,
Maz'd with a yelping kennel of French curs!
If we be English deer, be then in blood,
Not rascal-like, but fall down with a pinch,
But rather, moody-mad; and, desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel,
And make cowards stand aloof at bay.
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.


When York meets a Messenger in the very next scene, he inquires: “Are not the speedy scouts return'd again / That dogg'd the mighty army of the Dolphin?” (4.3.1-2; emphasis added).

In the case of the French-English war, hunting is a useful metaphor for describing the ceaseless oscillations of battle. When Shakespeare uses hunting imagery later in the trilogy—now to describe the changing fortunes of rival English factions—he literalizes the metaphorical relation between sport and battle. In 3 Henry VI, the Lancastrian king is taken prisoner by Yorkist sympathizers who also happen to be gamekeepers. The first Keeper announces their intention:

Under this thick-grown brake we'll shroud ourselves,
For through this laund anon the deer will come,
And in this covert will we make our stand,
Culling the principal of all the deer.


When Henry enters shortly after, the first Keeper remarks: “Ay, here's a deer whose skin's a keeper's fee / This is the quondam king” (22-3). Henry becomes the hunted prey in the scene, taken prisoner by two actual hunters.

In the next act, it is the captive Edward who is represented as a deer. When he enters the stage with a Huntsman, he is met by his rescuers who have hidden themselves in the park. Gloucester explains that

[O]ften but attended with a weak guard,
[Edward] Comes hunting this way to disport himself.
I have advertis'd him by secret means
That if about this hour he make this way,
Under the color of his usual game,
He shall here find his friends with horse and men
To set him free from his captivity.


When Edward sees his men, he jokingly asks, “Stand you thus close to steal the Bishop's deer?” (17). In both scenes, the warring monarchs have become hunted prey—specifically, they have become deer. In employing the hunting imagery as a surrogate for actual military confrontation, Shakespeare exploits one of the more fruitful metaphors of the late sixteenth century. Not only had hunting become a target of contempt for precise authors concerned about gentlemen wasting their time, but it also served as a symbolic substitute for land warfare during peacetime. As Roger B. Manning notes,

Hunting was many things in Tudor and early Stuart England. Certainly, it afforded sport and recreation for kings and aristocrats as it had always done and provided an opportunity to develop and display the skills and the courage necessary for war. It was also a ritualized simulation of war involving calculated and controlled levels of violence carried on between rival factions of gentry and peerage. Symbolically, the various rites of hunters derive from the elements of traditional land warfare. …


Deer parks were frequent battlegrounds for rival factions during the Wars of the Roses and in Shakespeare's own day. The playwright's parallel hunting scenes demonstrate the negligence of the idle nobility and indict the court factionalism of the 1590s. Competitive ambition—not differences of political policy—is the cause of England's woes. Furthermore, the scenes demonstrate the degree to which the fears of Burgundy have been realized; war, once only capable of becoming sport, is now superseded by sport. The political struggles that previously took place on various battlefields now occur in a hunting park. Moreover, hunting itself has degenerated from a vigorous contest between “moody-mad and desperate stags” and “bloody hounds” to the less heroic activity of trapping vulnerable prey.

James L. Calderwood has called attention to the prevalence of trapping imagery in 2 Henry VI. The dominance of such imagery in the transitional play, I should like to argue, emphasizes the degeneration of war from 1 Henry, in which the battle with France is merely comparable to sport, to 3 Henry where civil war has literally become sport. Calderwood focuses on several key passages where trapping imagery is used to describe the nobles' conspiracy against Humphrey, concluding that “the division of characters into the trappers and the trapped … is at best a rudimentary means of distinguishing Humphrey from the nobles,” since he is the one character who “lacks self-interest and political ambition, and hence cannot be lured.”14 Calderwood correctly acknowledges the degree to which representations of the conspirators as trappers signal their “sheer craft and self interest.”15

That ambition and contest are the sources of conflict in Henry VI becomes yet clearer during the actual battles between the York and Lancaster factions. In the second act of 3 Henry, the battlefield is figured as an athletic space wherein athletes compete for victory. When Warwick stumbles on stage in the third scene, he remarks, “Forespent with toil, as runners with a race, / I lay me down a little while to breathe” (2.3.1-2). A moment later, Enter Edward running. And shortly after, Enter Richard running. The “forespent” runners wail their losses and lament their current, bleak situation. But the scene ends with Clarence's attempt to stir up their courage and spirits:

Yet let us all together to our troops,
And give them leave to fly that will not stay;
And call them pillars that will stand to us;
And if we thrive, promise them such rewards
As victors wear at the Olympian games.
This may plant courage in their quailing breasts,
For yet is hope of life and victory.


The scene begins with thoroughly exhausted athletes and ends with psyched-up would-be champions.

Clarence's words grant as much glory to victory as to life itself. But there is no politically inspired argument underlying them. Unlike Henry V's rallying speech at Agincourt or Richard's speech at Bosworth—both of which focus on national duty and the contingent stability of the nation—Clarence's speech focuses on the agony and the defeat of contest. Victory becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. In Henry's pastoral lament—which Edward Berry calls “the most important scene in the series” (163)—a scene that begins twelve lines after Clarence's speech, the ineffective monarch ponders the nature of victory. Henry compares the fluctuating fortunes of war to the furious takedowns and reversals of two Olympians engaged in a wrestling match:

Sometime 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 conquered;
So is the equal poise of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!


Henry's relinquishment of military victory to the will of God stands in stark contrast to the Yorkist will to power. When juxtaposed with Clarence's rallying speech or Richard's great soliloquy in Act 3, the monarch's paralyzing, self-pitying lament exposes a general lack of will as the cause of his inability to rule. Not a true competitor, Henry grants to God what Richard seeks for himself.

When Richard finally murders Henry in the final act of the trilogy, Shakespeare returns to the hunting/trapping metaphor. Henry describes his son's murder by Richard as the trapping of an innocent bird by a snare, and sees his own similar, impending fate:

The bird that hath been lim'd in a bush,
With trembling wings misdoubteth every bush;
And I, the hapless male to one sweet bird,
Have now the fatal object in my eye
Where my poor young was lim'd, was caught, and kill'd.


Richard stabs Henry savagely. The final image of the monarch is that of a helpless animal seized and destroyed by a fierce hunter. Indeed, the very absence of any connotation of athleticism in the final sporting metaphor—signified again by the shift from hunting to trapping imagery—suggests the further degeneration of war over the course of the three plays.

War and political conflict are a sort of royal sport in the world of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays. Though authors had emphasized the similarities between sport and war for centuries, Shakespeare struck out in a notably original direction by appropriating sport in order to condemn the evils of modern warfare. “Writing in the post-chivalric era,” remarks Theodor Meron, Shakespeare “shows that wars are not only tragic and bloody, but also futile” (8). The numerous instances in which Shakespeare employs athletic metaphors and imagery serve to expose the military and political conflicts as little more than empty contests between noblemen. These men wish desperately to be kings, but their ambition stems less from political principle than from an infectious will to power. Whereas sport had traditionally figured as a vital component of military training and a cultivator of prowess, its purposiveness and functionality were undermined by the development of early modern weaponry and changing attitudes toward war. In the minds of many Renaissance intellectuals, including the author of Henry VI, sport by the 1590s had become as base and superfluous a phenomenon as warfare itself.


  1. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  2. Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “Sport.”

  3. The conversation begins with Tillyard where the author argues that the two tetralogies “show … the justice of God punishing and working out the effects of a crime [the deposition of Richard II], till prosperity is re-established in the Tudor monarchy” (36). For works that support this Tillyardian notion of justice, see: Campbell; Ribner; Traversi; Reese; Sprague; Richmond; and Riggs. Though they depart from this viewpoint in significant ways, Helgerson and Greenblatt both uphold the notion of Shakespeare as conservative historiographer. The literature prompted by both authors is too great to record here. Over the past thirty years, however, critics have questioned Tillyardian conceptions of the histories as mere propaganda for the Tudor establishment: see Talbert; Keeton; Bevington; Kelly; Prior; and Boris. For a useful overview of the debate, see Wells. Leggatt may state something like a consensus viewpoint when he remarks: “It is now customary for a critic dealing with the English histories … to begin with a ritual attack on E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays. I think we have had enough of this. We have established that to see Shakespeare as a propagandist for the Tudor Myth, the Great Chain of Being, and the Elizabethan World Picture will not do” (x).

  4. See Hale, 1985, 41-42.

  5. Milner argues that Machiavelli's Art is a “thoroughgoing attempt to augment, modernize, illustrate and supplement Vegetius” (Vegetius, xiv).

  6. Hale, 1985, 91.

  7. Milton's comments in Paradise Lost are the most famous: after Satan has revealed his war engines to his legions, the narrator remarks: “In future days, if malice should abound, / Someone intent on mischief, or inspired / With devilish machination might devise / Like instrument to plague the sons of men / For sin, on war and mutual slaughter bent” (6:502-506).

  8. Webb, 108. See also Hale, 1962, 21.

  9. Peacham, 136.

  10. Ascham, 19042, 55.

  11. See Hughes and Larkin, 1:266-68.

  12. Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “Sport.”

  13. That it is not the only source is clear both from Henry IV's advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV 4.5.213-14) and the bishops' extended discussion of motives for invading France at the opening of Henry V.

  14. Calderwood, 484. The author notes trapping imagery in the following passages from 2 Henry: 1.2.91-4; 2.2.73-74; 2.2.54-7; 2.2.261-64; 2.4.59-63; and 2.4.15-16.

  15. Ibid., 484.


Aristotle. 1996. Politics. Ed. Stephen Everson. Cambridge.

Ariosto, Lodovico. 1974. Orlando Furioso. Trans. Guido Waldman. London and New York.

Ascham, Roger. 1904. English Works: Toxophilus, Report of the Affaires and State of Germany, The Scolemaster. Ed. William Aldis Wright. Cambridge.

———. 1904. Toxophilus. Ed. William Aldis Wright. Cambridge.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN.

Barish, Jonas. 1991. “War, Civil War, and Bruderkrieg in Shakespeare.” In Literature and Nationalism, ed. Vincent Newey and Ann Thompson, 11-21. Liverpool.

Berry, Edward. 1975. Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories. Charlottesville, VA.

Bevington, David. 1968. Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning. Cambridge, MA.

Boris, Edna Zwick. 1978. Shakespeare's English Kings: The People and the Law. Rutherford, NJ.

Calderwood, James L. 1967. “Shakespeare's Evolving Imagery: 2Henry VI.English Studies 48: 481-93.

Campbell, Lily B. 1963. Shakespeare's ‘Histories’: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino, CA.

Elias, Norbert. 1994, reprint. The Civilizing Process. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Oxford.

Elyot, Sir Thomas. 1967. The Boke Named the Governour. Ed. Henry Herbert Stephen Croft. New York.

Fourquevaux. 1589. Instructions for the Warres. Trans. Paul Ive. London.

Galen. 1951. De Sanitate Tuenda [Hygiene]. Ed. Robert Montraville Green. Springfield, IL.

Greenblatt, Stephen. 1988. “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion.” In Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, 21-65. Berkeley.

Hale, J. R. 1962. “War and Public Opinion in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” Past and Present 22: 18-35.

———. 1985. War and Society in Renaissance Europe: 1450-1620. New York.

Helgerson, Richard. 1992. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago.

Hughes, Paul L. and James F. Larkin, eds. 1964. Tudor Royal Proclamations. New Haven.

Humphrey, Lawrence. [1563] 1973. The Nobles. Reprint, Amsterdam.

Institution of a Gentleman. [1555] 1839. Reprint, London.

James I. 1603. Basilikon Doron or His Majesties Instructions to his Dearest Sonne, Henry the Prince. London.

Jorgensen, Paul A. 1956. Shakespeare's Military World. Berkeley.

Keeton, George W. 1967. Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background. London.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. 1970. Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories. Cambridge, MA.

Kyle, Donald G. 1987. Athletics in Ancient Athens. Leiden.

Leggatt, Alexander. 1988. Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. London and New York.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1965. L'arte della Guerra. Trans. Ellis Farneworth. Indianapolis and New York.

Manning, Roger B. 1993. Hunters and Poachers: A Social and Cultural History of Unlawful Hunting in England, 1485-1640. Oxford.

Meron, Theodor. 1998. Bloody Constraint: War and Chivalry in Shakespeare. Oxford.

Milton, John. 1991. John Milton. ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. Oxford.

Mulcaster, Richard. 1994. Positions Concerning the Training Up of Children. Ed. William Barker. Toronto.

Peacham, Henry. 1962. The Complete Gentleman. Ed. Virgil B. Heltzel. Ithaca, NY.

Plato. 1987. Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York.

Prior, Moody E. 1973. The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays. Evanston, IL.

Reese, M. M. 1961. The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays. London.

Ribner, Irving. 1957. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. Princeton, NJ.

Rich, Barnabe. 1578. Allarme to England. London.

Richmond, H. M. 1967. Shakespeare's Political Plays. New York.

Riggs, David. 1971. Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and its Literary Tradition. Cambridge, MA.

Shakespeare, William. 1997. The Riverside Shakespeare, (2nd ed.). Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston.

Sidney, Sir Philip. 1989. Astrophil and Stella. In The Oxford Authors: Sir Philip Sidney. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford.

Sprague, Arthur Colby. 1964. Shakespeare's Histories: Plays for the Stage. London.

Talbert, Ernest William. 1962. The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art. Chapel Hill, NC.

Tillyard, E. M. W. 1944. Shakespeare's History Plays. New York.

Traversi, Derek Antona. 1957. Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V. Stanford, CA.

Vegetius. 1993. Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. Intro. N. P. Milner. Liverpool.

Webb, Henry J. 1965. Elizabethan Military Science: The Books and Practice. Madison, WI.

Wells, Robin Headlam. 1985. “The Fortunes of Tillyard: Twentieth-Century Critical Debate on Shakespeare's History Plays.” English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 66: 391-403.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Caldwell, Ellen C. “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.Studies in Philology 92, no. 1 (winter 1995): 18-79.

Examines the historical documents concerning the Jack Cade rebellion, and argues that in Henry VI, Part 2, Shakespeare indicated his ambivalence toward the uprising.

Dutton, Richard. “Shakespeare and Lancaster.” Shakespeare Quarterly 49, no. 1 (spring 1998): 1-21.

Explores the idea that the history plays, including Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, demonstrate that Shakespeare was a “Catholic recusant,” or someone unwilling to attend Church of England services.

Nunns, Stephen. “Regarding ‘Henry’: Two Directors Talk Shop.” American Theatre 14, no. 3 (March 1997): 44-7.

Presents a discussion with theater directors Michael Kahn and Karin Coonrad regarding their productions of the Henry VI plays.

Pearlman, E. “The Invention of Richard of Gloucester.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 4 (winter 1992): 410-29.

Demonstrates how the development of Richard as an increasingly complex character in the history plays reflects Shakespeare's own developing genius as a playwright.

———. “Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots.” Philological Quarterly 75 (winter 1996): 1-22.

Examines why Talbot of Henry VI, Part 1 elicited a stronger emotional response from Shakespeare's contemporaries than he does from modern audiences.

Pound, Louise. Introduction to The First Part of Henry the Sixth, by William Shakespeare, edited by Louise Pound, pp. vii-xvii. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1911.

Analyzes the date of composition, question of authorship, sources, stylistics, and characters of Henry VI, Part 1.

Craig A. Bernthal (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bernthal, Craig A. “Jack Cade's Legal Carnival.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (2002): 259-74.

[In the following essay, Bernthal analyzes the ways in which Shakespeare used carnival imagery in Henry VI, Part 2, both to defend and condemn Jack Cade's rebellion.]

C. L. Barber was one of the first critics to recognize that Shakespeare portrays the Cade Rebellion of Henry VI Part II as carnival: “an astonishingly consistent expression of anarchy by clowning: the popular rising is presented throughout as a saturnalia, ignorantly undertaken in earnest; Cade's motto is ‘then are we in order when we are most out of order.’”1 Scholars who have recently examined the Cade Rebellion of Henry VI Part II, among them Michael D. Bristol, Ellen C. Caldwell, Alexander Leggatt, and Phyllis Rackin,2 tend to agree that Cade is not only a carnivalesque inverter of rank and privilege, but also, as Leggatt puts it, “one of the most articulate social critics in Shakespeare.”3 Though Cade and his rebels display faulty reasoning and prejudice, they articulate legitimate abuses, many of which concern the English legal system.4

Despite the seriousness of Cade's complaints, or perhaps because of their continuing force in Elizabethan England, Cade's message is continually subverted throughout act IV of the play. Cade's Rebellion is, as Robert Weimann notes, “a case of the mocker mocked, the inversion of the inverter.”5 For a while, Cade and his crew turn the prevailing concepts of law and rank upside down. They set forth genuine grievances, but the contradictions in Cade's program of reformation are comically obvious. The rebellion is shown to disintegrate from within. It becomes, on the one hand, a comic “antimasque” of the irresponsible and selfish behavior of the nobles who are vying for power,6 and on the other, a send up of the crude political comprehension of the English mob; yet even this second judgment is undercut, since several of the rebels (Dicke the Butcher, John, and Smith) are very sophisticated about Cade's pretensions and mock him through heavy-handed asides.7 They see through Cade, but support him anyway, undermining both Cade's authority with the audience and the idea that Cade's followers are merely stupid. At the same time, they put into question why they are following Cade at all. Are they just out for a good time and a little bloodshed? How are readers and audiences to know when to laugh with Cade and the rebels and when to laugh at them? The Cade Rebellion gives audience members no simple picture of the motivations or justifications for rebellion, but a chaotic and contradictory one, appropriate to the empirical messiness of revolution.

In the Cade Rebellion we see Shakespeare at the beginning of his career developing a modus operandi for the future: the dramatic generation of interpretative conundrums that modern audiences and critics can revel in, or meditate upon, but not resolve. This, of course, is an aesthetic which professors of English, especially those of a modernist bent, have come to love; but, from Shakespeare's point of view, safety and profitability may have had as much to do with the open-endedness of his plays as aesthetics.8 Part of the melange that is the Cade Rebellion certainly results from trying to keep on the good side of the censor, but for Shakespeare, exercising “negative capability” also may have been the best way to attract and retain a mixed audience. Douglas Bruster persuasively argues in Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare:

London's playhouses can best be understood in terms of commerce, as centers for the production and consumption of an aesthetic product. During the Renaissance, the cornucopian plays which even today appear to offer almost everything to almost everyone delivered many myths in different voices to audiences which seem to have been themselves extremely heterogeneous. What Norman Rabkin calls the “common understanding”—the tendency or ability of Shakespeare's plays to offer (even affirm) simultaneously, without contradiction, contradictory themes, messages, and ideological stances—was, I would argue, ultimately a product of early modern market forces which shaped dramatic commodities to answer the various manifestations of social desire.9

Shakespeare's portrayal of the Cade Rebellion provides a fine example in support of Bruster's argument. Carnival offers some thing for everyone because it expands to address every repressed desire, including the need for bodily pleasure, social transgression, and protest; at the same time, because carnival does come to an end, it can reinforce social and political order. Whether carnival is inherently revolutionary or conservative is trumped in Shakespeare's theater by its use as a commercial device to give everyone in the audience some of what they want, even when those desires are contradictory. The genius of Shakespeare's drama may be that it allows us to enjoy, within a few hours, pleasures that normally exclude each other. Cade's trial scenes, with their carnivalesque inversions of the legal system, display Shakespeare's method in particularly sharp focus, giving the audience a chance both to laugh at that popular figure of derision, the lawyer, while at the same time affirming the rule of law—and the scenes do this while building to a crescendo, starting with the lowliest legal operative, a clerk, and ending with a judge and counselor, Lord Say.

Shakespeare sets up Cade's trial scenes by introducing the corruption of justice as a continuing subject in act I, where “three or foure Petitioners” are intercepted by the duke of Suffolke and the queen. Suffolke reads the petitions, finding that the first is against the servant of his ally, Cardinal Beauford, as the petitioner says, “for keeping my House, and Lands, and Wife and all, from me” (Folio H, p. 123). The second petition is against Suffolke himself by another petitioner on behalf of his entire township “for enclosing the Commons of Melforde” (Folio H, p. 123). The charge of enclosure would particularly raise audience hackles, enclosure being condemned by the clergy and legislated against by Parliament throughout the sixteenth century.10

By showing the presentation of these petitions, Shakespeare provides background about the political condition of the realm and the people's perceptions of who can be trusted. The petitioners are seeking Duke Humfrey of Gloster, the Lord Protector; in other words, they are seeking to present their petitions to the king's council, the strongest member of which is Humfrey, rather than to several other courts which could also claim jurisdiction, such as local manorial courts, courts of assize, or common pleas courts. The implication is that Suffolke controls the administration of justice in his own dukedom and that the petitioner for Melforde has been forced to bring his suit to Westminster, where, as a last resort, he hopes to get an impartial hearing from Gloster. The petition against the cardinal's man stresses that England is in the grip of a few men who exercise power with no regard to law, in this case, the court faction led by Suffolke and the queen. Their pursuit of power at court mirrors how nobles govern throughout the countryside. In The End of the House of Lancaster, R. L. Storey describes the situation in the years just preceding the Wars of the Roses:

The Yorkist manifesto of 1461 was not exaggerating when it said that riot, murder, robbery and the like had flourished in the time of Henry VI … The feuds of the nobility in the more outlying parts of the kingdom attained the proportions of private wars … Known offenders were sooner or later subjected to the formal procedures of the judicial system, but there was apparently little danger of conviction and punishment. Juries of country gentry would not convict their own kind. Instead of keeping order and protecting the weak, the law was more commonly misapplied to the advantage of those able to control it. The corruption and oppression of local government was the main burden of the Kentish rebels of 1450.11

The historic Cade rebels presented a complaint to the crown that included a long catalog of judicial misconduct: the selling of the goods and property of those accused of treason before they are convicted (thus ensuring that they would be); the leasing of judicial offices to people who used them to gain money through extortion and false accusations; the taking of default judgments against defendants who had been neither summoned nor notified of suits pending against them; and the illegal evicting of people from their property, which is precisely the complaint of the first petitioner in act I.12 The complaint of the commons of Kent does not reflect a rebellion aimed at anarchy; rather, it shows a desire to see fair enforcement of the laws in place. Stowe comments that there was nothing in the articles “but seemed reasonable.”13 Cade's Rebellion was a step forward in sophistication from the John Ball Rebellion of 1381, in which killing all the lawyers, burning all the law books and legal records, and starting from scratch were the principal goals of the rebels. Dicke the Butcher's cry, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the Lawyers” (Folio H, p. 138), owes more to Holinshed's portrayal of the Ball Rebellion than it does to that of Jack Cade.14

The grievances of Kent would have resonated with Shakespeare's audience in a way that seemed very contemporary. Although humor at the expense of lawyers has its origins far back in western culture, there is evidence that during the half-century leading to the English Revolution, the public's animus against lawyers reached an all-time high. As Wilfrid R. Prest explains in The Rise of the Barristers, the number of lawsuits filed during this period grew steadily, and the legal profession grew in proportion. Lawyers were commonly regarded as avaricious, covetous, dishonest, ambitious, and proud.15 The perceived rarity of the “good” lawyer is evidenced by an epitaph which survives in three versions, one attributed to Ben Jonson: “See how God works his wonders now and then, / Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.”16 Prest notes that “hostility towards common lawyers seems to have burgeoned precisely as the profession grew in size and social prominence during the sixteenth century.”17

The lawyers saw themselves in a better light. In a “device” performed before Queen Elizabeth in 1588, the gentlemen of Gray's Inn presented a speech in which the followers of Astraea, the goddess of justice, with whom Elizabeth was often identified, described themselves and their calling as follows:

They with attentiue mindes and serious wits,
Reuolue records of deepe Judiciall Acts,
They waigh with steaddy and indifferent hand
Each word of lawe, each circumstance of right,
.....One doubt in mootes by argument encreasc'd
Cleares many doubts …
The language she first chose, and still retaines,
Exhibites naked truth in aptest termes.
Our Industrie maintaineth vnimpeach't
Prerogatiue of Prince, respect to Peeres,
The Commons libertie, and each mans right.(18)

In this passage, lawyers are the heroes of justice and the purveyors of a special language most suited for the communication of truth. Thus, two extremely different views of law, lawyers, and legal language existed during Shakespeare's day and almost certainly within Shakespeare's variegated audience. In Henry VI Part II, Shakespeare brings these two views into collision through the Cade Rebellion.

The grievances of the commons as displayed in act I set the stage for a kind of revenge tragedy in act IV. Katharine Eisaman Maus gives a succinct description of the hero of revenge tragedy as “someone who prosecutes a crime in a private capacity, taking matters into his own hands because the institutions by which criminals are made to pay for their offences are either systematically defective or unable to cope with some particularly difficult situation.”19

In Henry VI Part II, both of these criteria apply. The commons as a group are in the position of Hieronimo from The Spanish Tragedy. They have grievances for which they cannot find redress because Henry's court and his court system have been corrupted.

Shakespeare presents the rebels' preoccupation with judicial corruption through the mouth of Holland, a rebel who, just prior to Cade's entrance as the leader of the rebellion, says, “Let the Magistrates be labouring men,” virtually introducing Cade as magistrate (Folio H, p. 138).20 Cade himself does not advocate the end of the legal system as part of his platform, but promises, as the Lord of Misrule, that “seuen halfe peny Loaues sold for a peny: the three hoop'd pot, shall haue ten hoopes, and I wil make it Fellony to drink small Beere” (Folio H, p. 138). The first cry against the legal system comes from Dicke the Butcher, who speaks the most famous line of the play: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the Lawyers.”

In this context, Cade gets his first case, sitting in judgment of the clerk Emanuell. Emanuell's trial becomes a carnivalesque inversion of benefit of clergy and a wholesale condemnation of literacy, which Emanuell does not realize until sentence is passed, and he is hung with his pen and inkhorn about his neck.

How now? Who's there?
The Clearke of Chartam: hee can write and reade, and cast accompt.
O monstrous!
We tooke him setting of boyes Copies.
Here's a Villaine.
He's a Booke in his pocket with red Letters in't
Nay then he is a Conjurer.
Nay, he can make Obligations, and write Court hand.
I am sorry for't: The man is a proper man of mine Honour: vnlesse I finde him guilty, he shall not die.

(Folio H, pp. 138-9)

With Cade's “vnlesse I finde him guilty, he shall not die,” Shakespeare gives us a parody of judicial crocodile tears. The arbitrary is rhetorically inflated to sound as if it were due process. Cade continues his parody of judicial arrogance by using the condescending second person familiar toward Emanuell and calling him “Sirrah.”

Emanuell, who quickly proclaims that he can read and write, simply does not realize that he has entered a jurisdiction in which being able to recite Psalm 51:1—the “neck verse” which saved first-time capital offenders from execution—is itself a capital offense, for it is a metonymic representation of literacy.

Come hither Sirrah, I must examine thee: What is thy name?
They vse to writ it on the top of Letters: Twill go hard with you.
Let me alone: Dost thou vse to write thy name? Or hast thou a marke to thy selfe, like a honest plain dealing man?
Sir I thanke God, I haue bin so well brought vp, that I can write my name.
He hath confest: away with him: he's a Villaine and a Traitor.

(Folio H, p. 139)

The rebels' anger at benefit of clergy is well founded. The practice allowed guilty first offenders to escape, while putting the innocent illiterate to execution. It was invoked with a regularity that continually displayed the system's unfairness. David Cressy observes: “[Lawrence] Stone has suggested that ‘47٪ of the criminal classes of Jacobean London could read,’ since they successfully pleaded benefit of clergy. The Middlesex records in fact show 32٪ of the capital felons in the reign of Elizabeth and 39٪ in the reign of James successfully claiming clergy, a somewhat lower percentage than cited by Stone.”21

That Emanuell should have to pay for the sins of the system is, of course, unfair. He, like Cinna the poet in Julius Caesar, is a victim of the mob, and his fate represents humanism's worst nightmare: that something like the fall of Rome could happen again, that literacy and learning could be directly attacked and civilization and religion plunged into another dark age. Emanuell's name, meaning “God be with us,” is especially pregnant in a time when the printed English Bible was becoming the presence and authority of God in the homes of England.

Though the hanging of Emanuell could have been seen as an emblematic execution of literacy and religion, from a more populist viewpoint, the scene demonstrates something else: “[a]n attack on the records and recorders whose presence permitted and promoted the oppressive collection of revenues … the recording of arrears, and the registration of property so that it could be controlled and alienated by the state and its (in this case often corrupt) agents.”22

Emanuell's trial is potentially very funny. He is so obtuse about his situation, such a respectful little victim, that comedy vies with the scene's more serious aspects. Here, Shakespeare not only mixes genres but also blends them, producing revenge comedy.

The next trial scene, which occurs only in the Quarto, is even more savage. The trial of the Sargiant-at-law is a comic reversal of Suffolke's and Margaret's treatment of the suitor in act I, in which Cardinal Beauford's servant had taken the suitor's house and wife and all. Here, the situation is inverted when a Sargiant-at-law complains to Cade that he has been dispossessed of his wife:

Justice, justice, I pray you sir, let me haue justice of this fellow here.
Why what has he done?
Alasse sir he has rauisht my wife.
Why my Lord he would haue rested me,
And I went and entred my Action in his wiues paper house.
Dicke follow thy sute in her common place,
You horson villaine, you are a Sargiant youle,
Take any man by the throate for twelue pence,
And rest a man when hees at dinner,
And haue him to prison ere the meate be out of his mouth.
Go Dicke take him hence, cut out his toong for cogging,
Hough him for running, and to conclude,
Braue him with his owne mace.

(Quarto G2v)

This brief scene emblematizes law as rape. The courts under the control of Suffolke have failed to provide a remedy for the “taking” of the first suitor's wife. Under these circumstances, it is metaphorically appropriate that Cade's man, “Dicke,” likens rape to the serving of legal papers, entering his “Action” in the Sargiant's wife's “paper house.” The law has become what it has been used to legitimate, and this being widely recognized, there is no longer any need to cloak rape with a veneer of legality—one simply proceeds directly to the rape, rape having become law. The Sargiant is sentenced to be emasculated in two ways. First, he is to be deprived of that piece of anatomical equipment which he most relies upon to commit legal rapes—his tongue. He is to be “houghed” to keep from running, which has a double sense. “Houghing” is the clearing of one's throat, as a lawyer might be expected to do before making a long speech or “running on.” It is also the cutting of the hough sinew, the tendons behind the knee, an operation performed on cattle to keep them from running off. Here, the tongue fills in for the hough sinew: the Sargaint will never run off in court again. Cade's final order, that the Sargiant be “braved” with “his own mace,” implies that the Sargiant is to be emasculated. The joys of metaphoricity are connected to the joys of mutilation in a manner that may have been quite hilarious to the audience and quite gratifying for any unfortunate litigants in attendance. The Sargiant is hardly a sympathetic victim, not simply because he is a lawyer, but because he is stupid enough to seek relief from Cade and sycophantic enough to call him “sir” and treat him as a legitimate judge, a comment on lawyers' willingness to grovel to anyone to get what they want.

The final trial in the Cade Rebellion is Lord Say's, who is accused of losing Maine and Normandy to France, speaking French (and therefore speaking with the tongue of an enemy), of promulgating literacy, hanging those who cannot read, enforcing the criminal and tax laws, and putting an elegant footcloth on his horse. Again, the rebels' charges mix anger at legitimate grievances with large doses of comic—but dangerous—ignorance. The rebels are particularly concerned with the losses to France, and they have legitimate reason to be angry since many of them appear to be veterans of French campaigns. Dicke the Butcher says, “[W]eel haue the Lord Sayes head, for selling the Dukedome of Maine” (Folio H, p. 139), and when the messenger arrives shouting that Lord Say has been captured, he says, “heeres the Lord Say, which sold the Townes in France” (Folio H, p. 140).

In Cade's extemporaneous indictment of Say, the first charge involves France: “What canst thou answer to my Maiesty, for giuing vp of Normandie vnto Mounsieur Basimecu, the Dolphine of France?” (Folio H, p. 141). Yet it is evident from the very beginning of the play that if anyone is to be credited with the loss of Maine, it is Suffolke, who has traded Maine and Anjou to bring Margaret to England. Somerset's ineffective government has cost the English Normandy. There is no indication in the play of any involvement by Say. The rebels simply assume, with no proof at all, that Say is responsible, and their ignorance of the true political situation subverts their claims to rule.

The displacement of learning by ignorance is augmented by rebel errors in logic. The accusation against Say for speaking French forms the major premise of an erroneous syllogism that is set forth in this exchange between Cade and Stafford:

He [Say] can speake Frenche, and therefore hee is a Traitor.
O grosse and miserable ignorance.
Nay answer if you can: The Frenchmen are our enemies: go too then, I ask but this: Can he that speaks with the tongue of an enemy, be a good Councellour, or no?

(Folio H, p. 139)

Of course, Cade uses speaking “with the tongue of an enemy” in a double sense, providing an example of the four-terms fallacy. Syllogistically, Cade's speech also exemplifies the formal error of the “excluded middle”: Say speaks French; our enemies speak French; therefore, Say is our enemy. In much Shakespearean word play this would just be good fun, but in this instance, Cade's speech also prefaces a grave political and judicial error. Either way, Stafford's comment, “O grosse and miserable ignorance,” accurately describes the quality of Cade's argument. Cade's ignorance and illogic seem to be a straightforward demonstration of the Elizabethan line that the great herd of people are incapable of political thought—that democracy is indeed the worst form of government.

But there is a complicating factor; Cade seems to know exactly what he is doing. His use of fallacies may be a rhetorical strategy that Cade uses to manipulate his followers, and yet, the effect of fallacious argument on his men is questionable. As I have indicated, the play clearly shows that many of Cade's followers know that he is a fraud, but they do not seem to care. They are willing to go along with Cade as if the rebellion were a carnival, and perhaps this is because Shakespeare also wants his audience to enjoy the rebellion as if it were carnival, for if carnival and rebellion oscillate with each other from beginning to end, the audience need never feel seditious in enjoying them. Rather, under the blessing of carnival, the audience may join John, Smith, and Dicke the Butcher for an afternoon of innocent bloodthirstiness, treason without guilt.

Whatever the reasons for the deflationary comments of Cade's own men, their continual cracks about Cade contradict the idea that commoners are too stupid to understand politics. If the asides were included to appease censors who were afraid the audience would take Cade seriously, then Shakespeare was put in the ironic position of having to demonstrate the perspicacity of Cade's people in order to demonstrate their stupidity. From the perspective of the audience, there must have been those who felt the play once again revealed the evil of that many-headed monster, the multitude. There must have also been those who noticed the civil war within the form of the play itself and who received an ambivalent message about the people's capacity to govern, and that ambivalence—that measure of doubt in relation to the Elizabethan line—would itself have been radical. But the commercial element must also be considered. Many in Shakespeare's audience, such as the apprentices, enjoyed a good riot, and others, such as the “gentlemen” of the Inns of Court, enjoyed riotous behavior. A play that offered a vicarious riot, in which all participants were forgiven, must have been alluring to red-blooded young Englishmen and profitable to those who offered it.

Cade's second charge against Say, for promulgating literacy, recapitulates the main charge against Emanuell, and thus doubly emphasizes the rebels' attack on literacy:

Thou hast most traiterously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole: and whereas before, our Fore-fathers had no other Bookes but the Score and the Tally, thou hast caused printing to be vs'd, and contrary to the King, his Crowne, and Dignity, thou hast built a Paper-Mill. It will be prooued to thy Face, that thou hast men about thee, that vsually talke of a Nowne and a Verbe, and such abhominable wordes, as no Christian eare can endure to heare.

(Folio H, p. 141)

Cade goes on to set forth benefit of clergy as a grievance: “[T]hou hast put them [poor men] in prison, and because they could not reade, thou hast hang'd them, when (indeede) onely for that cause they haue beene most worthy to liue” (Folio H, p. 141). Say defends himself ably, citing his record as a counselor and judge:

Justice with favour haue I alwayes done,
Prayres and Teares have mou'd me, Gifts could neuer.
.....Large gifts haue I bestow'd on learned Clearkes,
Because my Booke preferr'd me to the King.
.....Long sitting to determine poore mens causes,
Hath made me full of sicknesse and diseases.

(Folio H, p. 141)

Here, Say becomes the pattern of the good judge, an example of which has already been provided in the play by Duke Humfrey. Say's defense is so effective that even Cade says in an aside: “I feele remorse in my selfe with his words: but Ile bridle it: he shall dye, and it bee but for pleading so well for his life” (Folio H, p. 141). Death can be the subject of comedy so long as the playwright is presenting a biter-gets-bit situation, as in some revenge tragedies (e.g., Vindice's exploits in The Revenger's Tragedy), or when the stage victim is so unreal in dramatic presentation that he evokes little or no pity. Say, a palsy stricken old man, beaten up by a mob, has dramatic reality, as opposed to Emanuell or the Sargiant-at-law, who go to their deaths like cartoon cats.

Having given the audience a chance to rebel vicariously at the abuses of justice, and to have quite a good time doing so, Shakespeare then gives his playgoers a chance to redeem themselves in the Say episode by sympathizing with justice abused. At the point when Say is executed, and the heads of Say and his son-in-law are brought onto the stage, the genre of the rebellion changes from carnivalesque satire to tragedy, but the tragic element does not last long. Shakespeare quickly goes to his next task, which is reincorporating the rebels into English society. He does this by providing rituals of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption.23 First the rebellion is disbursed by bringing Buckingham and Clifford onstage and having them invoke the name of Henry V, which suggests that the common Englishman is loyal so long as he has good leadership. The rank and file of Kentishmen become patriots again and appear before Henry VI with halters around their necks, asking forgiveness, and Henry VI, the generous king, does forgive them. Finally, Cade the snake is killed by a loyal Kentishman, Alexander Iden, when Cade is found, as many critics note, in the garden of Iden. Iden, in effect, becomes the representative of Kent, a redeemer, who smites the traitor on the head. If the audience feels guilt about its imaginary participation in Cade's venture, it is forgiven when the Kentishmen are pardoned and erased when Cade the scapegoat is killed and beheaded, as if the fall of man, or at least the men of Kent, has been reversed.

One might interpret Shakespeare's portrayal of the Cade Rebellion in accordance with critical legal theory as an unmasking of the Tudor (and all other) judicial systems: a demonstration that judicial decision making is really just the exercise of raw power cloaked in the rhetoric of equitable language. Cade is not that much different from any other judge. He merely shows the judicial emperor to have no clothes by mimicking judicial language whenever he renders an obviously unjust decision. However, the Cade Rebellion furnishes only three trial scenes in a play which is virtually constructed from scenes of judicial decision making, and the play as a whole provides a much more complicated look at the rendering of good judgments.

Earlier in the play, when Duke Humfrey decrees a trial by combat between Thumpe, the apprentice armorer, and his master Horner, Shakespeare portrays the limit of judicial reasoning. Humfrey is faced with a charge of treason by one man against another, and there is no way to determine whether the accuser or denier is telling the truth. Since the task is impossible to reason, Humfrey, in medieval fashion, decrees trial by battle, leaving God as the ultimate arbiter of justice. In this case, judicial reasoning abdicates in the face of utter uncertainty.24 But there is another trial in which Gloster plays the part of a good epistemologist who works his way to the truth through evidence and reason. Saunder Simpcox is a beggar who claims to have just received his eyesight as the result of a miracle at St. Albans. When Gloster questions him, Simpcox is able to identify colors by name, a feat which, Gloster points out, the “blind man” could not manage, having had no opportunity to form links between the words for color and their referents. Gloster's discovery of Simpcox's fraud is sound. Shakespeare does not show in Henry VI Part II that forensic proof is impossible. He shows that it is difficult to come by, that the system is subject to serious corruption, and that corruption can dress itself in language suffused with legitimacy. Cade, for all of the legitimate complaints he represents, is the Lord of Misjudgment as well as the Lord of Misrule, as Shakespeare makes abundantly clear, titillating his audience with a satire of clerks and lawyers, but preserving the honor of the judicial system by inverting the inverter, Cade.

In Henry VI Part II, Shakespeare explores both the functioning of the legal system and people's attitudes toward it. Though Shakespeare's mind may have acquired the humanistic habit of viewing an issue from many sides, perhaps it was the heterogeneity of his audience that made his “negative capability” marketable and that encouraged him to mix genres.25 By carnivalizing the Cade Rebellion, Shakespeare hit on a dramaturgic device that allowed him to mix satirical comedy and tragedy in the form of history, criticizing the legal system and criticizing its critics, all at the same time. Above all, he provided his audience with a feast of contradictory pleasures and satisfactions: rebelling and putting a rebellion down, sinning and being redeemed. Act IV of the play stands as a savvy example of knowing how to please, by the man who would become the most successful commercial playwright of all time.


  1. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1959), p. 14.

  2. Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 89-90.

    For a thorough discussion of the historical Cade Rebellion, the documents pertaining to it, and how the rebellion illuminates Henry VI Part II, see Ellen C. Caldwell, “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2,SP [Studies in Philology] 92, 1 (Winter 1995): 18-79; Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 16-22; and Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 210-22.

  3. Leggatt, p. 18.

  4. For historical studies of the Cade Rebellion and the grievances of the commons of Kent, see I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade's Rebellion of 1450 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); and Helen M. Lyle, The Rebellion of Jack Cade, 1450 (London: Historical Association, 1950).

  5. Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), p. 240.

  6. Leggatt, p. 16.

  7. Although Cade's program is egalitarian, he proclaims his right to rule on the basis of birth. Dicke the Butcher draws the audience's attention to this contradiction by questioning Cade's birth:

    My Father was a Mortimer.
    He was an honest man, and a good Bricklayer.


    My wife descended of the Lacies.
    She was indeed a Pedlers daughter, & sold many Laces.


    Therefore am I of an honorable house.
    I by my faith, the field is honourable, and there was he borne, vnder a hedge: for his Father had neuer a house but the Cage.

    (Folio H, p. 138)

    When Dicke proposes that the laws of England only come out of Cade's mouth, John and Smith, two other rebels, completely undermine the notion that the crowd is following Cade blindly:

    Masse 'twill be sore Law then, for he was thrust in the mouth with a Speare, and 'tis not whole yet.
    Nay John, it will be stinking Law, for his breath stinkes with eating toasted cheese.

    (Folio H, p. 140)

    Rather than using modern, conflated editions of the plays, I will refer in all instances to Folio and Quarto versions. For Folio, which I refer to here, I am using The Second Part of Henry the Sixt in Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (London, 1623; rpt. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1954), pp. 120-46. References are indicated by genre (H, for History) and by page number within that genre section of the Folio.

    For Quarto I am using William Shakespeare, The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster (London, 1594; rprt. Oxford: Malone Society Reprints, 1985). References to Quarto are indicated by quire letter, leaf number, and recto (r) or verso (v) of that particular leaf.

  8. See Hugh Grady, The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

  9. Douglas Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), p. 3. Bruster makes reference to Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967). For an extensive argument that Shakespeare's audience was not particularly heterogeneous, but rather wealthy and “privileged,” see Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576-1642 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981). Rebuttals to Cook, which I believe are more convincing, favor the heterogeneous audience. See Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987).

  10. See William C. Carroll, “‘The Nursery of Beggary’: Enclosure, Vagrancy, and Sedition in the Tudor-Stuart Period,” in Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England, ed. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 34-47.

  11. R. L. Storey, The End of the House of Lancaster (London: Barrie and Rockcliff, 1966), p. 8

  12. The Jack Cade Rebellion was the first popular uprising in England in which the participants issued a written complaint to justify their actions, and it is strangely ahistorical that Shakespeare portrays the Cade rebels as if they were the antiliterate members of the 1381 Ball Rebellion. The entire complaint is contained in Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1577; rprt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), 3:222-3; and in John Stowe, The Chronicles of England (London: Richard Tottle and Henry Binneman, 1580), pp. 641-2.

  13. Stowe, p. 640.

  14. The systematic extermination of lawyers, judges, law books, and all legal records was the object of the Ball Rebellion, not the Cade Rebellion. See Holinshed, 2:737. Caldwell notes this, p. 58. See also Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381 (London: Temple Smith, 1973).

  15. Wilfrid R. Prest, The Rise of the Barristers: A Social History of the English Bar, 1590-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). See esp. chap. 9.

  16. Prest, p. 285.

  17. Prest, p. 287.

  18. Thomas Hughes and others, The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587; rprt. New York: AMS Press, 1970). See the third unnumbered page in the introduction by Nicholas Trotte.

  19. Katharine Eisaman Maus, introduction, in Four Revenge Tragedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. ix-xxxi, ix.

  20. The two minor comic actors George Beuis and John Holland are designated in the Folio script by their real names.

  21. David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), p. 17.

  22. Caldwell, p. 59.

  23. See Stephen Greenblatt, “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Greenblatt (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), pp. 1-29, 23-5. Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare's task at the end of the Cade Rebellion is to resolve the problem of how killing peasants can be made to seem heroic. I would argue, however, that Shakespeare has so shifted the problem, in the context of commercial theater, that he does not really confront it at all. For Shakespeare, the task is how to make a rebellion more funny than it is offensive, and how to forgive the rebels in the end, taking them back into the fold as loyal Englishmen.

  24. See Craig A. Bernthal, “Treason in the Family: The Trial of Thumpe v. Horner,” SQ 42, 1 (Spring 1991): 44-59.

  25. See Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), esp. chap. 2.


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 63)


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 85)