Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3
Classified among Shakespeare's earliest works, the chronicle history plays designated as Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (c. 1591-1592) detail the late medieval conflict between England and France, as well as the long civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485). 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 scholars that Shakespeare wrote all three parts. Critics are interested in the diverse array of issues raised in the plays, particularly Shakespeare's treatment of history. Scholars acknowledge that the dramatist inverted historical order, transferred events and characters, and compressed and expanded the material he found in his sources, including his principal text, Edward Hall's chronicle of English history entitled The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548). Such dramatic alterations of history continue to intrigue scholars, and critics have identified numerous scenes and incidents that Shakespeare likely invented to suit his artistic goals, including the love affair between Margaret and Suffolk. A number of modern critics have also been drawn to various thematic aspects of the plays, such as their treatment and depiction of justice, revenge, and social corruption. Additionally, Shakespeare's representation of women in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, especially his dramatic portrayal of Margaret of Anjou and Joan la Pucelle (the historical Joan of Arc), remains a popular subject among contemporary commentators.
Critical interest in the characters of Henry VI has frequently focused on Shakespeare's female personas, notably Margaret of Anjou, whose development spans Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, including all three Henry VI dramas and Richard III. Naomi C. Liebler and Lisa Scancella Shea (2001) offer an interpretation of Margaret based upon the Jungian theory of a woman's paradigmatic life-cycle, noting that the young Margaret demonstrates the qualities of Jung's archetypal Virgin in Henry VI, Part 1, then develops into the symbolic Wife and Mother in the remaining portions of Henry VI, and finally becomes the Old Wise Woman or Crone in Richard III. Catherine S. Cox (1997) studies both Margaret and Joan la Pucelle in the Henry VI plays, claiming that Shakespeare's characterizations depart from the traditionally reductive Elizabethan stereotypes of woman as either virgin or virago. Cox argues that Shakespeare offered complex, balanced, and ambivalent dramatic characters in the forms of Joan and Margaret, personages who question the dominant, masculine power structures reflected in the Henry VI cycle. Gabriele Bernhard Jackson (1988) concentrates on the symbolic power of Joan la Pucelle in Henry VI, Part 1. Jackson maintains that this character would have reminded Elizabethan audiences of the formidable and ruthless Amazon Penthesilea, and considers Joan's allusive resemblance to the mythological maiden warriors Minerva and Britomart, the latter of whom Jackson describes as a “virginal defender of Protestantism.”
Although frequently dismissed as ill-suited to modern stage interpretation, Shakespeare's Henry VI sequence has enjoyed a modest theatrical revival in the opening years of the twenty-first century. Modern directors have endeavored to bring focus to these lengthy, somewhat episodic, and potentially confusing pieces. The end result has been the production of several critically acclaimed performances of Henry VI adapted for contemporary theatergoers. Robert Shore (2002) reviews Rose Rage, a two-part adaptation of the Henry VI plays by Edward Hall and Roger Warren. Shore contends that Hall and Warren “largely succeeded in giving us what earlier adaptors, such as William Davenant and Nahum Tate, are routinely derided for having thought possible—Shakespeare improved.” Richard Hornby (2003) was likewise impressed with Rose Rage. In his assessment of the two-part adaptation, Hornby comments on its stirring “visual poetry,” stylized violence, and musical virtuosity. Leon Rubin's 2003 adaptation of the Henry VI plays—Revenge in France and Revolt in England—offered a Machiavellian atmosphere and focused on the power politics of Shakespeare's original dramas. In his review of the production, Owen E. Brady (2003) praises Rubin's ability to shape this episodic historical sequence into a clear and coherent production of contemporary relevance. Patrick Carnegy (2000) reviews Michael Boyd's uncut staging of the Henry VI plays with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which totalled twelve hours on stage. Carnegy highlights the commitment of Boyd and the cast to straightforward theatricality without interpretive gimmicks. Katherine Duncan-Jones (2001) returns a slightly less enthusiastic appraisal of the sequence directed by Boyd. While the critic admires the impressive scope of the project, she nevertheless finds the trilogy flawed by the lagging pace of Part 2.
As a series of chronicle history plays focused on the English crown, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 have generally drawn critical attention to Shakespeare's treatment of history. In addition, scholars have focused on the plays' themes of revenge, justice, and social corruption. Michael Hattaway (1991) views Henry VI, Part 2 as a radical political work that features Shakespeare's sweeping reconstruction of English history concentrated on the power of the mighty. The critic also surveys the interrelationship of law, justice, and social rebellion in the dramas. Roger Warren (2003) surveys Shakespeare's sources for Henry VI, Part 2 and remarks on the dramatic function of its principal aristocratic figures. Warren also examines Jack Cade's rebellion in Act III of the drama, addressing the subject of social unrest in late medieval England. The critic questions whether or not the scenes involving Cade should be staged as serious historical displays of mob violence or “carnivalesque” inversions of the social order designed primarily for comic effect. Clayton G. MacKenzie (1987) examines classical and biblical mythic references in the Henry VI plays. The critic claims that in these dramas, Shakespeare reflected and subverted the heroic ideals of English mythology by combining heroic and utopian impulses with a gritty description of internecine war and civil strife. Henry Keyishian (see Further Reading) explores the destructive power of revenge in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 by analyzing the dual dynamics of public vengeance and domestic cruelty through a series of binary character studies—Joan and Talbot, Humphrey and Beauford, Clifford and York, Margaret and Richard—each featuring a victim and victimizer. Nina da Vinci Nichols (2001) explores the symbolic and theatrical functions of paper in the Henry VI plays, illustrating its associations with the themes of corrupted legality, revenge, and the legitimacy of kings.