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.