Gabriele Bernhard Jackson (essay date winter 1988)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Gabriele Bernhard. “Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc.” English Literary Renaissance 18, no. 1 (winter 1988): 40-65.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson concentrates on the symbolic power of Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1 and maintains that this character would have elicited Elizabethan associations with Amazons, warrior-women, and witches.]

Glory is like a circle in the water,(1)
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
With Henry's death the English circle ends;
Dispersed are the glories it included.

1 Henry VI, 1.2.133-372

This wonderfully evocative description of the everything that is nothing, an exact emblem of the rise and disintegration, in Shakespeare's first tetralogy, of one new center of power after another, is assigned to Joan of Arc, the character whom most critics agree in calling a coarse caricature, an exemplar of authorial chauvinism both national and sexual, or at best a foil to set off the chivalric English heroes of 1 Henry VI. Her portrait, says Geoffrey Bullough in his compilation of Shakespeare's sources, “goes far beyond anything found in Hall or Holinshed or in the Burgundian chronicler Monstrelet.”3 Bullough ruefully lauds Shakespeare's mastery in discrediting the entire French cause through Joan; many subsequent critics have shared Bullough's admiration, although not his compunction, over the skill with which Shakespeare delineated an “epitome of disorder and rebellion” to pit against the “epitome of order and loyalty,” the English hero Talbot: “She is absolutely corrupt from beginning to end,” rejoices the author of one book on Shakespeare's history plays.4 When the play was presented in 1591 or 1592, English troops were once again in France, once again supporting a claim to the French crown, a claim by another Henry—their religious ally Henry of Navarre. “A play recalling the gallant deeds of the English in France at an earlier period … would be topical,” Bullough rightly says.5

The portrait of Joan, by this calculus of relation between drama and social context, takes its place among “English attempts to blacken the reputation of Joan of Arc”6—an easy task in the Elizabethan period, when women “who refuse[d] the place of silent subjection” could, like Shakespeare's Joan in Act 5, be carted to execution as witches.7 By this reckoning, the character of Joan of Arc becomes a regrettable sign of the times.

Neither the content nor the form of Joan's words about glory easily supports such a reading. Joan's image of the circle in the water is not only the most poetically resonant statement in the play, it is also specifically borne out by the action. The eloquence of her recognition that all human achievement is writ in water, one of the play's thematic pressure points, sorts ill with a lampooned character “coarse and crude in language and sensibility.”8 Yet 1 Henry VI does contrast English chivalry, especially in the figure of heroic Talbot, with the pragmatism of the French, especially Joan, and Act 5 does dispel both Joan's power and her pretensions to divine aid in a series of progressively less dignified scenes.9

First she vainly offers diabolical spirits her blood and sexual favors in exchange for continued French success; subsequently captured, she rejects her old father to claim exalted birth; finally, faced with the prospect of death by burning, she claims to be pregnant, shifting her allegation of paternity from one French leader to another in response to her captors' insistence that each of these is a man whose child should not be allowed to live.

Perhaps it is...

(This entire section contains 6470 words.)

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a reflection as much on accepted critical standards of aesthetic unity as on the gullibility of individual critics that several have read this last scene as Joan's admission of sexual activity with the whole French camp. Ridiculous as such a reading is, it does at least integrate Act 5 with what precedes, undercutting Joan's claims to virginity just as her conjuring undercuts her claims to divinity. Such an interpretation of Act 5 makes it synchronic with previous acts in meaning; only the revelation of that meaning is postponed. Similarly, Joan's claims to divine mission, which she never mentions again after her introductory speeches in Act 1, become in such an interpretation synchronic with the action which follows them. In the long central section of the drama, according to such a unified interpretation, Joan's prior assertion of godliness struggles against Talbot's repeated assertions of diabolism until Act 5 vindicates Talbot. The unstated premise of this kind of reading is that temporally multiple suggestions of meaning collapse finally into an integrated pattern that transcends the temporal process of dramatic presentation. In this final pattern, all suggested assignments of value are reconciled and each plot line or character allotted its proper plus or minus signsub specie unitatis. The individual incident or dramatic effect has no more final autonomy than a number in a column for addition has in the sum below the line. These assumptions are very clear in Riggs' influential 1971 summation of Joan's character: “Beneath these postures, Joan is generically an imposter. … Hence the scenes in which she is exposed and burnt as a witch, like the stripping of Duessa in The Faerie Queene, serve a formal expository purpose that supersedes any need for a controlled, sequacious plot.”10

Now of course the typical Shakespearean play does have a very powerful sense of ending, partly brought about by a “formal expository” resolution of difficult issues. I want to emphasize, however, that it is equally typical of Shakespeare to present unexplained and suggestive discontinuities. One might remember the complete reversal of Theseus' attitude to the lovers in Midsummer Night's Dream: having backed up Hermia's coercive father in Act 1 by citing the unalterable law of Athens, Theseus reappears in Act 4 (after a two-act absence) to overrule the same father and the same law with no explanation whatever. A more subtle version of this kind of turnabout occurs when Othello, calmly superior in Act 1 to the accusation that he has used sorcery in his relationship with Desdemona, informs her in Act 3 that the handkerchief which was his first gift to her is a magical talisman. In these instances, the critic's expectation of unity forces interpretive strategy back on unspoken motivations and implicit character development, raising such questions as whether Othello deliberately lied to the senate in Act 1, or when exactly he gave Desdemona the handkerchief. I want to propose that these are unsuitable strategies and questions for a phenomenon that has little to do with unity of character and much to do with the way in which a character is perceived by the audience at a particular moment of dramatic time. I would argue that in Act 1 Othello had not given Desdemona a magic handkerchief as his first gift, but in Act 3 he had. It is a matter of the character's consonance with the key into which the movement of the play has modulated.

This is not the place to make a detailed case for such an interpretive approach or to try to identify for these examples the reasons—external to a concept of character as coherent selfhood—that direct a change in Shakespeare's presentation. Applying such an approach to the problem of Joan's significance, however, permits us to recognize and give individual value to the phases of her portrayal, which, not untypically for Shakespeare, is partially continuous and partially disjunct. 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.11 As Bullough long ago suggested, the play's ideology is topical, but in what way and to what end cannot be answered as simply as he or some of the play's subsequent critics have believed.12 To characterize its main military hero, Talbot, the play alludes specifically to the contemporaneous French expedition led by Essex, as John Munro first suggested, but it incorporates far more ideologically ambiguous detail than has been recognized. Similarly, for its presentation of Talbot's national and sexual opposites, the three Frenchwomen who are the play's only female characters, it draws heavily on the current controversy about the nature of women and on the interrelated types of the Amazon, the warrior woman, the cross-dressing woman, and the witch, all figures that—for a variety of reasons—were at the end of the sixteenth century objects of fascination both in England and on the continent.

It is now generally accepted that the play dates from 1591/92, when English troops under Essex had been sent to France for the particular purpose of besieging Rouen; the play unhistorically dramatizes that city's recapture from the French. Actually, Rouen had never been retaken, nor was it after this hopeful piece of stagecraft. But the parallel does not remain general and wishful. The play explicitly links Talbot to the current effort through a neatly turned compliment to Queen Elizabeth which has, oddly, been deflected by critics to Essex alone. Bearing away the fallen Talbot and his son, the English messenger declares: “from their ashes shall be rear'd / A phoenix that shall make all France afeard” (4.7.92-93). The phoenix was one of Elizabeth's emblems; Shakespeare uses it again in Henry VIII. She had not up to this time fulfilled the messenger's prediction: early military success against French forces in Scotland had been completely cancelled by a disastrous occupation of Le Havre in 1563. The vaunting compliment can only refer to the most recent French expedition. Its leader—the dashing young popular favorite, Essex—would be an eminently suitable candidate for the role of Talbot redivivus.13 In 1591 the becalmed campaign was serving as backdrop for his exploits, one of them mimicked by another of the play's departures from its sources. Encamped before Rouen, “Essex sent a challenge to the Governor of the town daring him to fight either a duel or a tournament,” which was, not surprisingly, declined.14 In 1 Henry VI, Talbot similarly challenges Joan and her supporters as they stand victorious on the walls of Rouen (2.2.56ff.).15 He is contemptuously rebuffed by Joan in one of those moments when English chivalry confronts French pragmatism: “Belike your lordship takes us then for fools, / To try if that our own be ours or no” (3.2.62-63). A critic guided by the play's obvious national sympathies could plausibly feel that Joan's reply, however momentarily amusing, lacks magnanimity.

A closer look at the topical link between Talbot and Essex, however, suggests a more complicated ideological situation. Both the expedition and its leadership were controversial. Henry IV had broken his promise of reinforcements for a first set of troops, sent in 1589, and Elizabeth sent the second army with misgivings, putting the hot-headed Essex in command with a reluctance well justified by the results. “Where he is or what he doth or what he is to do,” she wrote angrily to her other officers, “we are ignorant.”16 Halfway through the expedition she ordered her uncontrollable deputy home, although he talked her into sending him back. A likely rescripting of this sequence of events appears in Act 3, where Talbot interrupts his conquests to go and visit his sovereign “with submissive loyalty of heart” (3.4.10) and receives acclaim, reward, and a commission to return to battle (3.4.16-27, 4.1.68-73). In the second of these scenes, Talbot strips a coward of his underserved Order of the Garter and makes a long speech about the value of “the sacred name of knight” (4.1.33ff.)—another touchy subject after Essex's temporary recall, for he had just knighted twenty-four of his do-nothing soldiers. Lord Treasurer Burghley kept this news from Her Majesty as long as he could; Elizabeth was notoriously stingy with new titles—holding, in fact, rather the attitude expressed by Shakespeare's Talbot. She had wanted to deny Essex the privilege of dubbing knights, and remarked caustically on hearing of the twenty-four newcomers to fame unsupplemented by fortune, “his lordship had done well to have built his almshouses before he had made his knights.”17

Are these portions of Talbot's behavior and speech, then, aligned with the latest news from France in order to celebrate Essex?18 Or do they obliquely defend him by rewriting his indiscretions in more acceptable terms, sympathetically dramatizing the “real” meaning of his grand gestures? Or do Talbot's loyal actions, on the contrary, undercut the play's apparent endorsement of Essex by showing how a truly great champion acts? The answers are not at all clear.19 What is evident is that the play situates itself in an area of controversy easily identifiable by its audience, an area of growing ideological conflict in which a “war party” contested, if it did not openly confront, the Queen's favored policy of negotiation, delay, and minimal expenditure. Far from playing down the controversial aspects of Essex's command, the drama singles them out for reenactment, but presents them in such a manner that either side could claim the play for its own. In light of the play's tendency to go both ways, Joan's sardonic reply to Talbot's challenge acquires an integrity of its own, sounding surprisingly like the voice of Her caustic Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Is the play, then, lauding chivalry or correcting it? Is it pro-war or not? This irritable reaching after fact and reason that Keats found so uncharacteristic of Shakespeare is not soothed by the parallels between Talbot and Essex or by the tone of Joan's voice. The coexistence of ideologically opposed elements is typical of the play's dramatic nature and foreshadows the mature Shakespeare.

Critical examination of the play's three women has not proceeded on this assumption. The perceived dominance of patrilineal and patriarchal ideology in Shakespeare's era and in the play's action has been the basis of most interpretations, whether feminist or masculinist.20 The three women have been seen as a trio of temptresses,21 of threats to male and particularly English hegemony and to the chivalric ideal,22 as incarnations of what Marilyn French calls the “outlaw feminine principle.”23 This kind of negative reading, like the purely positive reading of the play's military expedition, has support in the action. All three women are in different ways unconventionally strong and all three threaten the English with losses. Coppélia Kahn's claim that Shakespeare is here exposing, but not sharing in, male anxieties about women is surely counsel of desperation.24 Fortunately, it is not the only alternative to pathological or paternalistic Shakespeare. Like the positive militaristic reading, with which it is closely connected, the negative misogynist one neglects both the play's topicality and the historical moment's ideological complexity.

The nature of women had long been under discussion in western Europe in a semi-playful controversy that became especially active in sixteenth-century England. Contributors to this controversy buttressed or undercut female claims to virtue by citing exempla, worthy or unworthy women chosen from history, the Bible, and legend. As Linda Woodbridge's recent account of this literary sub-genre in England points out, “The formal controversy did not always appear full-blown, in carefully developed treatises; it was sometimes sketched in cameo, with the names of a few exemplary women stamped on it like a generic signature.”25 The 1560s had seen a spate of plays about individual exempla in the controversy. By the time 1 Henry VI appeared, the controversy had already been naturalized into narrative fiction by George Pettie's A petite pallace of … pleasure (1576) and Lyly's best-selling Euphues (1578). In these fictional contexts, the old techniques “could be used to characterize, to comment on the action, even to advance the plot.”261 Henry VI incorporates just such a cameo controversy. The play's three women are surrounded by allusions to legendary females which problematize their evaluation. The Countess of Auvergne compares herself to Tomyris, a bloody warrior queen, and is connected by verbal echo with the Queen of Sheba—two entirely opposite figures.27 Margaret of Anjou is cast in her lover's description of his situation as Helen of Troy (5.5.103ff.), a woman claimed by both attackers and defenders in the controversy. Joan appears amidst a tangle of contradictory allusions: she is among other identifications a Sibyl, an Amazon, Deborah, Helen the mother of Constantine, and Astraea's daughter to the French, but Hecate and Circe to the English. Of the women alluded to in 1 Henry VI, eleven appear as exempla in the formal controversy. The genre itself was tolerant of, not to say dependent upon, divergent evaluations of the same phenomenon: a number of its exempla, like Helen of Troy, appeared regularly on both sides, and some writers handily produced treatises both pro and con. It would come as no surprise to readers of the controversy that one man's Sibyl is another man's Hecate.

1 Henry VI should be classed with what Woodbridge calls the “second flurry of plays centering on prominent exempla of the formal controversy,” which “appeared in the late 1580s and 1590s.”28 Its deployment of these stock figures is as germane to its ideology as its structural alignment of the female characters, but whereas the play's structure points in the direction of synthesis, of the synchronic or temporally transcendent reading, the exempla point towards differentiation, the temporally disjunctive reading.

Joan is evaluated by the French choice of exempla at the beginning and by the English choice at the end. At all times before Act 5, however, because of the armor she is described as wearing and the military leadership she exercises, she is an example of what the Elizabethans called a virago, a woman strong beyond the conventional expectations for her sex and thus said to be of a masculine spirit.29 The increasing fascination of such women is evident in the proliferation of Amazons, female warriors, and cross-dressing ladies in the English fiction and drama of the late sixteenth century.

The Amazon and the warrior woman were already established as two of the most valued positive exempla of the controversy over women. Joan is identified with both immediately on her entry into the play's action: “thou art an Amazon,” exclaims the Dauphin, “And fightest with the sword of Deborah” (1.2.104-05). The power of this combination reaches beyond the arena of the formal debate. Spenser had just used it in The Faerie Queene, published 1590, in praise of “the brave atchievements” of women ( those “warlike feates … Of bold Penthesilee,” the Amazon who aided the Trojans, or the blow with which “stout Debora strake / Proud Sisera” (, 7-8).30 For him these two fighters define Britomart, his female knight in armor, who in turn defines Queen Elizabeth, “whose lignage from this lady I derive along” ( Both Amazons and women warriors already had some degree of British resonance because the Trojans who received Penthesilea's help were the supposed ancestors of the British, while a proud chapter in legendary English history recounted Queen Boadicea's defense of her country against Roman invasion. The evocation of heroines related to England is continued by Joan's association with Saint Helen, the mother of Constantine; though not a warrior, this finder of the remains of the true cross was by popular tradition British.31 The Dauphin's welcome to Joan is thus calculated to arouse the most unsuitably positive and even possessive associations in an Elizabethan audience.

Elizabethan literature of course contained many other Amazons besides Penthesilea; the race had a long and honorable history, derived from such respected authorities as Plutarch, Ovid, and Apollonius of Rhodes.32 In the sixteenth century Amazons became a topic of current relevance when exploration of the Americas and Africa began bringing reports of Amazonian tribes sighted or credibly heard of.33 Within a brief period after 1 Henry VI, both Ralegh (1596) and Hakluyt (1599) would specify the Amazons' exact location. Perhaps because of their increased timeliness, Amazons were also about to become a vogue on stage; they would appear in at least fourteen dramatic productions from 1592 to 1640.34

Elizabethan stage Amazons are all either neutral or positive, an evaluative convention generally in line with their ever more frequent mention in Elizabethan non-dramatic literature. On the other hand, The Faerie Queene contains an evil Amazon alongside its positive allusions. For the Amazon figure was inherently double: although “models of female magnanimity and courage” who appeared regularly in lists of the nine female worthies and were venerated both individually and as a race, Amazons were also acknowledged to be at times cruel tormentors of men.35 From the very beginning, then, Joan's ideological function is complicated to the point of self-contradiction: she seems both French and English, both a type of Penthesilea who helps her countrymen in battle and an unspecified Amazon who may embody threats to men—in fact, a representative of the full complexity of late Elizabethan perception of the strong woman.

These contradictions continue for as long as Joan appears in the role of woman warrior. Although she triumphs over the English and so must be negative, she carries with her a long positive tradition reaching back to Plato's assertions that women could and should be trained for martial exercise and to the figure of the armed goddess Minerva. These classical references as well as invocations of the Old Testament Deborah and Judith figured repeatedly in the formal defenses of women. Female military heroism under special circumstances carried the prestigious sanction of Elyot, More, and Hoby, and Joan's actions conform to the pattern they approved as well as to the current literary conventions defining a praiseworthy female warrior. She fights in defense of her country, “particularly under siege,” and converts the Duke of Burgundy to her cause with a simile that likens France to a dying child (3.3.47-49)—defense of her children being a recognized motivation of the virtuous woman fighter.36 Like Spenser's Britomart and countless others, she deflates male boasts and engages in a validating duel with a would-be lover.

As Spenser's connection of Britomart with Queen Elizabeth suggests, the tradition of the woman warrior acquired particular contemporaneous relevance from her existence. The maiden warrior-goddess Minerva provided an irresistible parallel with the virginal defender of Protestantism, who even before the year of the Armada was called “for power in armes, / And vertues of the minde Minervaes mate” by Peele in The Arraignment of Paris (1584).37 Deborah, a magistrate as well as her country's savior in war, was also adopted immediately into the growing iconology of Elizabeth: the coronation pageant contained a Deborah, and the name was frequently used thereafter for the queen.38 Not unexpectedly, Spenser identifies the Trojan-oriented Penthesilea as an analogue of his Belphoebe, the avowed representation of Queen Elizabeth.39

In light of these accumulated associations, a Minerva-like French leader who is a Deborah and Amazon, and is also called “Astraea's daughter” (1.6.4) at a time when Astraea, goddess of justice, was another alter ego of Elizabeth, must be reckoned one of the more peculiar phenomena of the Elizabethan stage.40


  1. This essay was first presented at the 1986 World Shakespeare Conference in Berlin and, in another form, at the Northeast Modern Language Association on 3 April 1987. It shares a common concern about Joan's ideological ambiguity with an independent study by Leah Marcus in her forthcoming book Shakespeare and the Unease of Topicality, but we arrive at different conclusions. Professor Marcus emphasizes Queen Elizabeth's complex projected image and its reception by her subjects, while the present essay examines late Elizabethan literary embodiments of the strong woman; Professor Marcus' discussion of topical references in 1 Henry VI is much more extensive than mine and will surely be the definitive treatment of that matter.

  2. Citations are from The First Part of King Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, The Arden Shakespeare (London, 1962).

  3. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York, 1960), III, 41.

  4. Robert B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State (Columbus, Oh., 1971), pp. 46-47. In the same spirit, Don M. Ricks identifies the tone she sets as “treachery, depravity, and insolence” in Shakespeare's Emergent Form: A Study of the Structures of the Henry VI Plays (Logan, Utah, 1968), p. 45. So common is the critical view of Joan as a moral write-off that she is sometimes assigned reprehensible behavior that does not even occur in the text, as when Catherine Belsey remarks that she “puts heart into the enemy by her rhetoric,” in The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (New York, 1985), p. 183. At the very least she is presumed to be the butt of continuous irony (e.g., by David Bevington in “The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI,Shakespeare Studies 2 [1966], 51-58 and John Wilders in The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays [Totowa, N.J., 1978], p. 36). A signal exception is H. M. Richmond in Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York, 1967), who allows her “heroic power” and even some “magnetism”; he also goes quite against the current of critical commentary by alluding to “her subtlety and finesse” (p. 23), but he agrees on “the harshness of the portrait” (p. 22).

  5. Bullough, pp. 24-25.

  6. Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex, 1983), p. 124.

  7. Belsey, p. 184.

  8. Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York, 1981), p. 47.

  9. See David Riggs, who admirably elucidates the play's structure in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 100ff. On the play's ideology we disagree.

  10. Riggs, p. 107. Riggs' view has been more recently affirmed by Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago, 1981), pp. 88-89 and n. 39. Ricks and David Sundelson also make explicit, in slightly different ways, a criterion of integration to explain the last act: “her final degeneration in Act V is but a spectacular demonstration of the unsaintliness which has been implicit in her words and behavior all along. There is nothing contradictory, therefore, about the two views of Joan as Pucelle and as ‘Puzzel’ [whore]” (Ricks, p. 46); “Shakespeare himself seems unable to tolerate any uncertainty about the source of Joan's potency. He resolves the matter with a scene in which she conjures …, thus confirming Talbot's explanation” (David Sundelson, Shakespeare's Restorations of the Father [New Brunswick, N.J., 1983], p. 20).

  11. See, e.g., Rabkin, pp. 86-87.

  12. Detailed proposals of the play's topicality have been made by T. W. Baldwin, On the Literary Genetics of Shakespeare's Plays 1592-1594 (Urbana, Ill., 1959), pp. 324-40. Less extended suggestions of parallels have come from J. Dover Wilson in the introduction to his edition of The First Part of King Henry VI (Cambridge, 1952), pp. xviii-xix; Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977), pp. 119-26; John Munro in TLS [Times Literary Supplement] October 11, 1947; Hereward T. Price, Construction in Shakespeare, University of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology No. 17 (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1951), pp. 25-26; and Ernest William Talbert, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963). Leah Marcus offers a most thorough treatment of many of the play's topical allusions that takes full account of their complexity in “Elizabeth,” a section of her forthcoming Shakespeare and the Unease of Topicality. See note 1 above.

  13. John Munro first interpreted the lines about the phoenix as a reference to Essex. J. Dover Wilson follows suit in his introduction to the play, where he also suggests that “Talbot was intended to stand as in some sort the forerunner of Essex” (p. xix). T. W. Baldwin, in his study of the play's “literary genetics,” is dubious about Munro's identification but agrees that the allusion is to “the English armies in France 1589 and following” (p. 334). E. W. Talbert similarly cites Munro and also accepts the play's connection with the Essex expedition (pp. 163-64 and p. 163 n. 6).

  14. J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), p. 337.

  15. Dover Wilson sees the parallel between Talbot's and Essex's challenges, but interprets it simply as a reminiscence of Essex's gallantry (p. xix). He considers the play “an outlet for the growing sense of exasperation, anger, and even despair which was felt in London at the impending failure of an invasion of France” (p. xvi).

  16. Neale, p. 335.

  17. Neale, p. 336. Elizabeth called the campaign “rather a jest than a victory” and ordered Essex home for good in January 1592 (Neale, p. 337).

  18. That a steady stream of ephemera carried bulletins from France to English readers is evident from the entries in the Stationers' Register. The diversity of possible attitudes to the expedition is perhaps suggested by the contrasting titles of two such pieces: an obviously enthusiastic “ballad of the noble departinge of the right honorable the Erle of ESSEX lieutenant generall of her maiesties forces in Ffraunce and all his gallant companie” (23 July 1591) and a possibly more ominous-sounding “letter sent from a gentleman of accoumpte concerninge the true estate of the Englishe forces now in Ffraunce under the conduct of the right honorable the Erle of ESSEX” (6 September 1591).

  19. The well-known compliment to Essex in Henry V, 5, Cho. 30-34, is also ambiguous in light of the sentence that follows it (ll. 34-35). That this passage refers to Essex has been generally accepted, but the identification has been challenged by W. D. Smith. See G. Blakemore Evans, “Chronology and Sources,” The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), p. 53.

  20. E.g. Marilyn French (n. 8 above), following L. C. Knights and Northrop Frye, calls the play a search for legitimacy (p. 43). She believes that legitimacy is presented as a strictly masculine principle—“Shakespeare's women can never attain legitimacy”—although, somewhat confusingly, she also claims that it can contain “the inlaw feminine principle” (p. 49).

  21. Bevington (n. 4 above), pp. 51-58.

  22. Riggs (n. 9 above).

  23. French (n. 8 above), p. 51.

  24. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, Cal., 1981), p. 55 and p. 55 n. 11.

  25. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind 1540-1620 (Urbana, Ill., 1984), p. 61. Shakespeare's interest in this controversy is evident not only in his frequent allusions to its exempla (Woodbridge cites references, pp. 126-28, and there are many more) but in his use of at least ten of them as characters in his works, four as protagonists. His is an impressive roster even in a period when plays about the controversy's exempla were a growth industry (Woodbridge, pp. 126ff.). The four protagonists are Venus, Lucrece, Cressida, and Cleopatra; the other characters, Volumnia in Coriolanus, Portia in Julius Caesar and Portia in The Merchant of Venice (carefully identified, as Woodbridge notes on p. 127, with “Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia”), Octavia, Helen of Troy, and Hippolyta (Thisbe should also be mentioned). The maligned and repudiated Mariana in Measure for Measure, too, may be a relative of Mariamne, Herod's defamed second wife, another favorite of the controversialists.

  26. Woodbridge, pp. 61-62, 66.

  27. Cairncross, 2.3.7-10n., and Bevington.

  28. Woodbridge, p. 126. Woodbridge's account of the controversy is invaluable. I cannot agree with her, however, that the plays written in and after the later 1580s were probably not influenced by it; her own evidence (and there is more she does not cite) seems to point overwhelmingly the other way. She observes that “the drama had many other potential sources,” which is true but does not account for the upsurge in plays devoted specifically to exempla from the controversy, and she points out that dramatists often treated these exempla differently from controversialists—but this objection assumes that to influence is to produce a copy.

  29. The term was almost entirely positive and denoted either physical or spiritual prowess. For the virago's “manly soul,” see Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (Sussex, 1981), pp. 34-35. Various contemporary allusions to the Queen invoked the pun virgo/virago, and her “masculine” spirit was frequently remarked upon with admiration. See Winfried Schleiner, “Divina virago: Queen Elizabeth as an Amazon,” Studies in Philology 75, 2 (1978), 163-80. I am grateful to Louis Montrose for calling this extremely useful article to my attention.

  30. All citations from The Faerie Queene will be identified by book, canto, stanza, and line numbers in my text; these refer to Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. R. E. Neil Dodge (Cambridge, Mass., 1936).

  31. I am indebted to F. J. Levy for calling my attention to this fact.

  32. Ironically—or as a calculated symbolic counterstatement to the Maid?—Henry VI's Paris coronation pageant included “la sage Hippolyte” and her sister Menalippe, as well as Penthesilea and Lampeto, as female worthies. See Robert Withington, English Pageantry: An Historical Outline, Vol. I (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), pp. 138-39 n. 4. Celeste Turner Wright calls attention to Henry's coronation pageant in “The Amazons in Elizabethan Literature,” Studies in Philology 37 (July 1940), 437 n. 41 (n.b.: because of a numbering error in this volume, Wright's article begins on the second occurrence of p. 437).

  33. See Abby Wettan Kleinbaum, “The Confrontation,” in The War Against the Amazons (New York, 1983). I appreciate being directed to this book by Daniel Traister, Curator of Rare Books at the University of Pennsylvania.

  34. Schleiner (see n. 29 above) also identifies as “Amazons” the female characters in a mock tournament of 1579, presented for the Queen and the Duke of Alençon's representative (p. 179), although her quotation from her source refers only to “ladies” (pp. 163-64 n. 3). Tamburlaine mentions Amazon armies, but they do not appear. Greene's Alphonsus, an obvious offspring of Tamburlaine, may have preceded 1 Henry VI in presenting visible Amazons as well as a warrior maiden, but this play has never been satisfactorily dated. Rabkin believes it was “probably written 1587,” but does not given his reasons (introduction to Robert Greene, “Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,” Drama of the English Renaissance. I: The Tudor Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin [New York, 1976] p. 357). The play's general derivative quality suggests, however, that Iphigina is more likely to be a daughter of Joan than the reverse. The other productions I know of containing Amazons are “A Masque of the Amazons … played March 3, 1592” (Henslowe's diary, quoted in William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, ed. Joseph Jacobs, 3 vols. [London, 1890], I, 1xxxi); “field pastimes with martiall and heroicall exploits” staged for Prince Henry's christening in 1594 (John Nichols, Progresses, Public Processions, &c. of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols. [London, 1823], III, 355); Midsummer Night's Dream, 1595; Marston's Antonio and Mellida, 1602; Timon of Athens,?1605-1609; Jonson's Masque of Queens, 1609; Beaumont and Fletcher's Two Noble Kinsmen,?1613, The Sea Voyage, 1622, and Double Marriage, 1647; the anonymous Swetnam, the Woman-Hater, 1620; Heywood's Iron Age, 1632; Shirley's dramatization of the Arcadia, 1640; and Davenant's Salmacida Spolia, 1640. There is a discussion of Fletcher's Sea Voyage and some Amazon dramas 1635-1685 in chapter 11 of Jean Elisabeth Gagen, The New Woman: Her Emergence in English Drama, 1600-1730 (New York, 1954).

    For many of these titles and the beginnings of all my information about Amazons, I have relied on the encyclopedic Wright (n. 32 above). Her non-chronological organization assumes, however, that the degree of interest in Amazons and writers' attitudes towards them remained stable throughout the period from which she takes her examples (some undated). Her evidence suggests otherwise.

  35. Wright, pp. 442-43, 449-54. Wright's data are difficult to get around in chronologically, but it looks as though doubts about the Amazons—including skepticism about their existence—may have increased in England after 1600, although the Amazonian vogue lasted right up to the Civil War.

    Although there are Elizabethan accounts of the Amazons' ruthless origins and habits, I do not agree with Shepherd (n. 29 above) that the period's overriding feeling was “Elizabethan distress about Amazons” (p. 14), in support of which view he instances Radigund and the egregious misogynist Knox. Shepherd wants to extrapolate Spenser's opposition between Radigund and Britomart into a pervasive Elizabethan distinction between Amazons and warrior women: “Against the warrior ideal there is the Amazon” (p. 13). This schema will not hold up in the face of a mass of evidence for Elizabethan Amazon-enthusiasm. Shepherd's own evidence for the Elizbethan period is slender and largely extrapolated from Stuart texts. Although he does say that the negative meaning of Amazon “coexists with the virtuous usage” (p. 14), this concession, in itself inadequate, is forgotten in his subsequent loosely supported account.

    Nor can I agree with Louis Adrian Montrose's implication in his otherwise insightful and imaginative “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1, 2 (Spring 1983), 61-94, that English Renaissance texts about Amazons generally express “a mixture of fascination and horror” (p. 66). The passages he quotes detail the Amazons' origins and/or customs; others of this type are often flat in tone and delivered without comment, like Mandeville's (1499, rpt. 1568), while some mention no horrors at all. Even the Amazon-shy Spenser compliments the supposed South American tribe: “Joy on those warlike women, which so long / Can from all men so rich a kingdome hold!” (F.Q. Although Montrose calls attention to the association sometimes made between Amazons and the destruction of male children, and in some travel books between Amazons and cannibalism, in an equal number of accounts they produce male children for neighboring tribes and are thought of as desirable breeding stock. By far the greatest number of Amazon allusions, moreover, refer to specific Amazons and appear in a positive context. Penthesilea, the hands-down favorite, is always treated with admiration and respect, as is Hippolyta.

    My observations are based on the following Tudor texts: Agrippa, tr. Clapham, The Nobilitie of Woman Kynde, 1542 (STC 203), p. 360v; Anghiera (Peter Martyr), tr. Eden, Decades of the Newe World, 1555, ed. Arber, The First Three English Books on America, 1885, pp. 69, 177, 189; Richard Barckley, The Felicite of Man, 1598 (STC 1381), III, 266-68; Boccaccio, De Claris Mulieribus, 1534-47, ed. Wright, EETS (London, 1943), pp. 39-42, 66-67, 103-05 and Tragedies, tr. Lydgate, 1554 (STC 3178), I, 12; Quintus Curtius, tr. Brende, History of … Alexander, 1553 (STC 6142), pp. Pii-Piii; Anthony Gibson, tr., A Womans Woorth, 1599 (STC 11831), pp. 5, 37v; Richard Madox, An Elizabethan in 1582: The Diary of Richard Madox …, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno, Hakluyt Society second series No. 47 (London, 1977), p. 183; Sir John Mandeville, The Voyage and Travel …, 1568 (STC 17250), pp. Gviii verso; Ortuñez de Calahorra, tr. T[yler], The Mirrour of … Knighthood, 1578 (STC 18859), 26.91v, 55.219; Hieronimus Osorius, tr. Blandie, The Five Books of Civill and Christian Nobilitie, 1576 (STC 18886), II, 25v; Ovid, tr. Turberville, Heroycall Epistles, 1567 (STC 18940.5), p. 23; William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, 1575, ed. Joseph Jacobs, 3 vols. (London, 1890), II, 159-61; Sir Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of … Guiana, 1596 (STC 20636), pp. 23-24 and History of the World, 1614 (STC 20637), I.4.195-96; William Shakespeare, King John, 1594-96, ed. Herschel Baker, in Evans; Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia, 1590, ed. Robertson (Oxford, 1973), pp. 21, 36; Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, I-III, 1590, IV-VI, 1596 (see n. 30); Andre Thevet, The New Found World, tr. 1568 (STC 23950), pp. 101-74 (recte 103); William Warner, Albion's England, 1586 (STC 15759), pp. 25-26; and two accounts of Spanish voyages known in England, those of Francesco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro, Expeditions into the Valley of the Amazons, tr. and ed. Clements R. Markham, Hakluyt Society (New York, n.d.), pp. 13, 26, 34, 36. I have also found useful Kleinbaum's chapters “The Net of Fantasy” and “The Confrontation.”

  36. Woodbridge, p. 21.

  37. Cited by both Wright and Shepherd.

  38. Wright, p. 455.

  39. He makes this identification in 1590, just a year and a half after the Armada crisis (see discussion below, in text). Penthesilea was frequently used as a comparison for Elizabeth, especially around this time (see Schleiner [n. 29 above], pp. 170-73). The Amazon analogy was still current in 1633, when Phineas Fletcher likened his “warlike Maid, / Parthenia,” a recognizable variant of Elizabeth, to Hippolyta in The Purple Island 10.27-40 (STC 11082), pp. 141-44.

  40. In “Elizabeth,” Leah Marcus also connects Joan with the queen and comments on the contradiction between Joan's “idealized symbolic identities” and her status as an enemy (p. 51).

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Hattaway, Michael, ed. Introduction to The Second Part of King Henry VI, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Hattaway 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.]


1 Henry VI may well have been written to show how the history of a nation is never to be understood in isolation. The Wars of the Roses, which form the subject of the second two parts of the sequence, can be fully understood only in the context of the Hundred Years War, dramatised incidents from which formed the substance of the first play. 1 Henry VI portrayed the decline of England's empire over France and the accompanying decay of the ideals of feudalism that had sustained the order of the realm. That play also established themes—the deaths of the old Titans from the reign of Henry V, the attacks on Duke Humphrey the Protector, the origins of the York-Lancaster quarrel, and Suffolk's bid for power through his intimate relationship with Queen Margaret—but all the events of the play were presented as much for their potential as for their actual significance, so that the end was no conclusion. Just as 1 Henry VI began with a funeral, the traditional end of tragedy, so 2 Henry VI begins with a marriage, the traditional end of comedy. These inverted dramatic patterns help create a new and ‘open’ form, the political play—perhaps in fact all Shakespeare's history plays ought to be redesignated ‘political plays’.

In Part 2 the political focus is on the way the loss of empire breeds further insurrection: by the colonised, by the nobles, and by the people. In this play France is, to all intents and purposes, finally lost (3.1.83-5), Ireland erupts in revolt (3.1.282-4), and York is laying claim to the throne and not just jostling for authority. To further their cause, the Yorkist party have fomented a popular revolt led by York's creature, Jack Cade. No republican freedom, however, will emerge from the decay of empire, but merely the loosing upon the kingdom of the wars of the barons. These events conspire to undermine the power of the king and even the monarchy: Shakespeare, after writing the long prelude of Part 1 in which he sketched out the swelling acts of his imperial themes, now turns to a closer examination of how, as the Lieutenant interrogating Suffolk puts it, ‘reproach and beggary / Is crept into the palace of our king’ (4.1.101-2).


Shakespeare, in fact, while seeming in this text to be both anti-aristocratic and, on occasion, anti-plebeian, can still be radical. His radicalism comes not just from allegiance to one estate in the realm, but is to be understood in its literal sense: it derives from an ability to root out the causes of political dilemmas, to demonstrate the partiality of contesting explanations of particular events—while showing that there is no easy way of discriminating between one set of values and another—and from a tendency to demolish myth through demystification. Shakespeare's history serves as an art of demonstration, rather than, as it had been in the hands of medieval chroniclers, an art of interpretation. Interpretation, wrote Walter Benjamin, ‘is not concerned with an accurate concatenation of definite events, but with the way these are embedded in the great inscrutable course of the world’.1

Such enquiry could appear ‘oppositional’: on 12 November 1589 the Privy Council had written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Mayor of London, and the Master of the Revels asking them each to appoint someone to scrutinise all plays performed in and about the City of London because the players had taken ‘upon themselves to handle in their plays certain matters of divinity and state unfit to be suffered’.2 There is no sign in the Folio version of the play of certain passages found in the Quarto, and this may well be the result of censorship consequent upon this instruction.3 The sequence which shows Cade at the height of his power (4.5.0 sd-4.6.5) may equally have been censored.4 This suggests that not only were playhouses seen as centres of disorder and riot but that the plays performed in them could appear subversive.

The writing of history … entails the making of political statements. At the end of Henry V, Shakespeare, looking back to his earlier work, has the Chorus say of the hero of that play:

                                                                                Fortune made his sword,
By which the world's best garden he achieved,
                    And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King
                    Of France and England, did this king succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
          That they lost France and made his England bleed.

(Epilogue, 6-12, emphasis added)

With its stress on the way man ‘manages his own state’, makes his own history, 2 and 3 Henry VI share with Marlowe's Edward II the quality of documentary.5 Moreover, Shakespeare refuses to glamorise any of the events which precipitated change. After dramatising emblematically in Part 1 the origin in the Temple Garden of the Wars of the Roses, he now shows us, with a gesture towards the Genesis myth perhaps, a world ‘after the garden’ in which political deals are struck as individuals compete for power. Shakespeare's reading of the troublesome reign of Henry VI, accordingly, takes its nature not from the visitation of divine vengeance for an original sin (the deposition and murder of Richard II) committed two generations before but from the aspirations of particular estates.6 Even Edward Hall, one of Shakespeare's principal sources for the sequence, sardonically offers in the course of his chronicle a secular alternative to the model of providentially ordered history he had earlier set out in the ‘Introduction into the History of King Henry the Fourth’, with which his chronicle began:7

For many of the nobility, and more of the mean estate, wisely pondering the estate and condition of the realm, perceiving more loss than increase, more ruin than advancement, daily to ensue; remembering also that France was conquered, and Normandy was gained by the French people in short space, thought with themselves and imagined that the fault of all these miserable chances happened either because the king was not the true inheritor to the crown, or that he or his council were not able of wit, policy, and circumspection to rule and govern so noble a realm, or so famous a region.8

King Henry might invoke the idea of divine judgement, as for example when he hears of Gloucester's death (3.2.136-40), but Shakespeare's laying out of motive, event, and consequence offers spectators no real demonstration that the troubles of the kingdom are the consequence of divine displeasure or retribution. God's purposes are in no way to be deduced from the play.

In this fallen world no political value is left untested—and in performance the text may have been coloured even more with populism. Early in the play Gloucester invokes the old military values that informed Part 1. When he realises that Suffolk has given away many of the remaining French provinces his outburst reads thus in the Folio text:

What, did my brother Henry spend his youth,
His valour, coin, and people in the wars?
Did he so often lodge in open field,
In winter's cold and summer's parching heat,
To conquer France, his true inheritance?
And did my brother Bedford toil his wits
To keep by policy what Henry got?


q1's version of the text, which may contain material the gist of which was censored, or which may record what a player, himself sceptical of the court's version of honour, thought of Suffolk's betrayal, reads like this:

What, did my brother Henry toil himself
And waste his subjects for to conquer France?
And did my brother Bedford spend his time
To keep in awe that stout unruly realm?

(tln 101-4)

The emphasis changes from a focus on the heroism and honour of the English champions to the cost of their wasteful struggle to conquer and control. Later Lord Say will pay with his life because Cade's rebels hold him responsible not only for the actual loss of Normandy but for high subsidies they had to pay to prosecute these wars (see 4.7.17-18).

Without the monarch's imperial control, all of these conflicting political and economic forces serve to lay bare the nature of the rest of the institutional fabric of the kingdom. One of the central events of the play, the murder of good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, symbolises the extinction of equity, the final term of Saturnian rule incarnate in Henry V, just as the death of Talbot in 1 Henry VI stood for the end of feudal valour. Hall describes Gloucester thus: ‘the duke, being very well learned in the law civil, detesting malefactors and punishing their offences, got great malice and hatred of such as feared to have condign reward for their ungracious acts and mischievous doings’.9 The murder of such a figure marks a change in the nature of the state: the play seems to embody Machiavelli's model of political degradation, as illustrated in the Discorsi:

I must … observe that some of the writers on politics distinguished three kinds of government, viz. the monarchical, the aristocratic, and the democratic; and maintain that the legislators of a people must choose from these three the one that seems to them most suitable. Other authors, wiser according to the opinion of many, count six kinds of governments, three of which are very bad, and three good in themselves, but so liable to be corrupted that they become absolutely bad. The three good ones are those which we have just named; the three bad ones result from the degradation of the other three, and each of them resembles its corresponding original, so that the transition from the one to the other is very easy. Thus monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; and the popular government lapses readily into licentiousness.10

In 2 Henry VI, in the absence of a strong monarchy, we see what is, in effect, an oligarchy. Popular rule under Cade collapses into anarchy. The decline into tyranny will be complete when Richard III mounts the throne. In such a world men revert to their atavistic states:11 Clifford's evocation of Medea's archaic savagery at the end of the play is a measure of how family bonds—the pietas of the ancients emblematized in his second figure of Aeneas—are swept aside by the will to power and revenge:

Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtis did;
In cruelty will I seek out my fame.
                              [He takes his father's body up on his back.]
Come, thou new ruin of old Clifford's house:
As did Aeneas old Anchises bear,
So bear I thee upon my manly shoulders;
But then Aeneas bare a living load,
Nothing so heavy as these woes of mine.


Henry VI too was haunted by his father, and in Part 3, at the battle of Towton, he will see a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. Thus are brought home to him the evils he has created by failing to control the peers of England.

The radical nature of Shakespeare's historical analysis can be seen from another perspective by comparing the trilogy with ‘history’ plays on similar themes written about a decade later, in 1599: Sir John Oldcastle, for example, a collaboration by Drayton, Hathway, Munday, and Wilson, or Thomas Heywood's Edward IV. These were produced when Queen Elizabeth was confronting the crisis posed by the insubordinate but popular Earl of Essex.12 The former deals in part with the rebellion of the Earl of Cambridge, York's father, and treats it as a simple case of treachery,13 and the latter takes the absolute power of the monarchy for granted: the institution is revered by the populace and the sensual failings of the hero happily condoned. Neither play attempts the great confrontations of authority with power which are the true subjects of Shakespeare's histories.


Monarchical rule does not depend merely upon the power of office but upon the personal authority of the ruler.14 After the titanic rule of Henry V, England under his pious young son contained a partial power vacuum into which all the malcontent factions seen forming in 1 Henry VI were drawn. Throughout Part 1 the king and the kingdom had been protected by the valour of Talbot and the testy magistracy of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, who had foiled the plans of his uncle the Cardinal of Winchester to take over the government of England. Talbot is now dead, and in this play Henry attains his majority and dismisses Gloucester, throwing ‘away his crutch / Before his legs be firm to bear his body’ (3.1.189-90). Henry has an overweening confidence that his virtue can stand alone, and an inability to understand that, as Machiavelli had demonstrated, monarchical authority derives as much from the way he is perceived as from anything else. To his courtiers he seems merely a holy fool, a man who, according to his wife, is more interested in observing antiquated papal rituals than in wielding his imperial sceptre. This may, however, be too simple a view of his character. Rather, within the welter of the political action he stands—in the main—for goodness, and in this play the hard question is put: is greatness in a monarchy to be built upon goodness, or is it only to be won through ‘policy’, the skills Machiavelli deemed necessary for the acquisition and maintenance of princely power? Like Machiavelli, Shakespeare emerges as a realist and does not align himself with those Christian humanists who tended to assert that only a good man could be a great man.15

Henry, however, obviously considered himself as one who should play the two roles of emperor and shepherd, the great man and the good man, roles that were supposed to be combined in the person of the Holy Roman Emperor.16 His marriage had done something to restore empire by joining the houses of England and France,17 although the league was not to last long. Sometimes Shakespeare gives us an imperious Henry who realises that moral virtue is not enough and who can be politic and ruthless:

Tell him I'll send Duke Edmund to the Tower—
And, Somerset, we will commit thee thither,
Until his army be dismissed from him.


However, all too often, especially after the death of Duke Humphrey, Henry's religious inclinations blind him to political realities: his tendency to perceive men as instruments of God's will18 makes him peculiarly ineffectual, destined for goodness but not for greatness. He looks constantly to heaven for miracles: those around him (and the audience) are far more pragmatic concerning these matters. ‘They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless:’19 these lines from All's Well that Ends Well point to a long-running debate over whether, by Shakespeare's time, the age of miracles was in fact well past.20 Before the demonstration early in the play that the restoration of Saunder Simpcox's sight was a fraud, Henry had been all too ready to take it as a miracle; he likewise treats the news of the putting down of the Cade rebellion in 4.9 as a miracle, although the previous scene has demonstrated to the audience that it was put down by the lion-and-fox tactics of Clifford. Henry's goodness is thereby rendered impotent by the sheer strength of the forces ranged against him and the machinations of ‘the great’—including his wife Margaret.

But personality is not to be isolated from event. 2 Henry VI, like all of Shakespeare's political plays, not only offers us chronicles and portraits of great men but analyses the meshing of personality and situation and anatomizes institutions and not just events. Central to its concerns is an analysis of the function of the monarchy itself and an examination of the relationship between the personality of Henry VI and the role he has to play. The king had to serve two functions: the symbolic, mystical, quasi-divine role as incarnation of the body politic of the kingdom, ‘a corporation in himself that liveth ever’,21 and the role of a ‘natural’ man subject to the vicissitudes of change, the whips and scorns of office. The conflict between these two ‘bodies’, the politic and the natural, the discrepancy between ideals and realities, was all too noticeable in Shakespeare's time—it is manifest in the interrupted ceremonies which are such a notable feature of the history plays,22 and in the way, within the estate of nobility, allegiance falls prey to alliance. The nature of the institution itself, in other words, was perceived to be subject to strain.

In Part 1 we saw that Henry was not introduced merely as a martyr king,23 and in Part 2 his predicament does not come just from his personality but rather from the conditions of the body politic. Like Hamlet and like characters in King John, he has to confront an intractable political problem: the conflicting and irreconcilable claims of those who held the crown by possession and those who wanted it held by right. Shakespeare compounds the ethical dilemma by making York obviously cravenly ambitious—most of the time—and making Henry party to the cause and not just judge of it. Henry, in other words, faced a political as well as an ethical dilemma, compounded by the fact that his own rule was part of the problem.


The play is particularly concerned with the nature and workings of law in such a society. It used to be argued that Shakespeare measured men against an ideal moral order, indicating that actions could be measured against laws that had their origins in the natural and ultimately the divine. Critics were inclined to look to theologians such as Richard Hooker, who was committed to looking for correspondence between the heavenly order and terrestrial practice,24 rather than to historians such as William Harrison, who interrupted his survey of the laws of England with a sceptical observation that might have astounded a previous generation:

For what hath the meditation of the law of God to do with any precise knowledge of the law of man, sith they are several trades and incident to divers persons.25

In England under Henry, law bears little relation to divinity and stands divorced from equity. The regnal and judiciary roles of the king's court are hopelessly confused, so that the status of the institution itself is compromised. The Duchess of Gloucester, having been enticed into treason by agents provocateurs planted by her political adversaries, is banished, and the prosecution of her case makes it easier for the court—in a scene where it has been actually constituted as a parliament—to find a pretext to have her husband murdered before his case can come to trial. The age's conversion of self-interest into policy, of law into expediency, is proclaimed by the Bishop of Winchester, Cardinal Beaufort, himself:

That he should die is worthy policy;
But yet we want a colour for his death:
'Tis meet he be condemned by course of law.


The feudal ritual of trial by combat (archaic by Shakespeare's day although, significantly, the form preferred by King Henry26) is reduced to the grotesque fight between the drunken armourer and his apprentice—Shakespeare developed this scene from a couple of sentences in the chroniclers, who do not specify what the treasonable remarks were.27 It serves to mirror the realities of the play: instead of seeing justice determined by God with regard to the rights of the adversaries, here we see simply a trial of might. The tone of the encounter is caught by the terse marginal gloss on the event that we find in Holinshed: ‘Drunkenness the overthrow of right and manhood’.28 The fight, moreover, was occasioned by the accident of one of the petitions reaching Suffolk. This lord prevents the right of the other petitioners to have their complaints heard by the Protector29 and takes only one forward: it is in Suffolk's interest to broadcast the supposed treachery of York. Justice, already subservient to power, becomes propaganda, and the process of the trial is reduced to sickening show as a sober man beats a drunken man to death.30 Looked at from a converse point of view, the scene suggests that the Duke of York's claim to the throne might be right in law, but that his prosecution of his case will destroy the commonwealth.

In this trial scene the outcome is dictated by main force—and the apprentice is, significantly, rewarded by the king. Moreover, after Horner has been struck down and has confessed his treason, York attributes the victory of the apprentice to divine intervention—but equally to more secular cause: ‘Fellow, thank God, and the good wine in thy master's way’ (2.3.89-90). Henry, on the other hand, characteristically exposes his inability to perceive any of the realities of the moment:

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


The Horner duel is one mirror sequence that reflects on the themes of justice and equity in the political world. Another, for which Shakespeare went to a complementary source, Foxe's Acts and Monuments of Martyrs, is the false miracle in which Saunder Simpcox claims to have recovered his sight and demonstrates that he can immediately distinguish colours (2.1). Simpcox's fraud is peremptorily exposed by Duke Humphrey in a manner that seems essentially populist. His demonstration is theatrical and convincing, his motives are just, and yet his methods—which include the torture of whipping—may be of dubious propriety.31 For Humphrey, like Angelo when he is examining Pompey in Measure for Measure (2.1), converts an examination into a summary trial, a procedure introduced shortly before the time of the play as a way of getting malefactors to confess and of avoiding the corruption of jurors.32 Humphrey's disregard for the forms of justice serves to make him more vulnerable to York's charge at the Parliament of Bury that he devised ‘strange tortures for offenders’ (3.1.122).

It may be possible to read this scene allegorically:33 it is only by custom and not by virtue that men's true colours are to be perceived, and ‘colour’ is a significant pun—it means pretext. Simpcox, in other words, perceives men's pretensions to rank. What is also notable about the sequence is the way his wife's plea to Humphrey, ‘Alas, sir, we did it for pure need’ (2.1.154), falls completely on deaf ears. Monarch, episcopacy, and aristocracy are oblivious to the economic plight of their inferiors. Even before the death of Humphrey, Astræa seems to have been totally banished from this declining world.

After the death of Humphrey the people want to take the law into their own hands and wreak their revenge on Suffolk and the court (3.2.235ff.). Later we hear: ‘The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers’ (4.2.63). But although there is something invigorating in the carnivalesque radicalism of the Cade scenes, the rebels are easily converted from their cause, and their mob cruelty makes it apparent that their kind of summary justice is no better than that exercised by the political élite. Justice is compromised by revenge—as it is when York slays Old Clifford. Although York claims that his deed expresses ‘justice and true right’ (5.2.25), we feel that he, against the judgement of his better self perhaps, is simply avenging his family's honour. Later, Young Clifford will exact a bloody payment from York's son Rutland and then from York himself.34

Equity and justice are explored in another mode in 2.2, where York expounds his claim to the throne. Technically, according to the law of primogeniture, his claim is correct, but the catalogue of his ancestry is impossible for a playhouse audience to follow. (Significantly it was mangled in the reported texts from which q derives.)35 It is the liturgy of a man obsessed, and Warwick, in a comic moment, speaks with terse irony when he asks, ‘What plain proceedings is more plain than this?’ (2.2.53). Later, in 4.2, Cade will parody the claim. Shakespeare is a realist: the restoration of the de jure line will cause more harm than the occupation of the throne by a man who de facto wears the crown.

… [T]herefore, there is no easy relationship between equity and justice, between Law and the laws of a kingdom. Or, as Marilynne Robinson put it: ‘The point Shakespeare is making is very subtle and finely honed. The implication of all these scenes is that poetic justice—and retribution precise enough to seem divine—cannot substitute for the regular and scrupulous functioning of the law.’36


In 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare explored archetypes as he wrote his prologue to his account of the Wars of the Roses. In Part 2, he traces the alliances and factions of the reign, evokes in imagery those predatory animals that roam the garden of the state.37 The stage fights of Part 1 took on the qualities of ritual combats between the great powers of England and France, male and female, right versus right, as Joan la Pucelle led her country to victory and herself to degradation and death: the play depicted the deaths of the titanic survivors of an ancien régime. The particular conspiracies and allegiances we see forged and forging in Part 2 demonstrate the end of political consensus. Now it is a question of right versus might: motives are concealed behind pretexts; concern for the commonweal conceals desire for private wealth. Power remains in the hands of the patriciate but, as in Part 1, although the people have only a small role to play, the actions of the nobles are scrutinized from what may well be a populist point of view.

The play might at first sight seem to be a mirror for magistrates, a demonstration, in the mould of medieval tragedy, of the remorseless turning of Fortune's wheel and the consecutive falls of great men. (In fact, ‘fortune’ appears only four times in the play as opposed to sixteen occurrences in 3 Henry VI.) After good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester has gone, Winchester, Suffolk, Stafford, Say, Cade, Somerset, and Clifford die according to a strong dramatic rhythm. The pattern of this, one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, would thereby seem to anticipate some accounts of his latest, Henry VIII, which is structured about the falls of Buckingham, Cromwell, and Wolsey. But in 2 Henry VI Shakespeare is less interested in this simple dramatic pattern, an ‘anthology of falls’:38 rather he is concerned with the particular political allegiances that may make the details of the plot difficult to follow but which bring out the significance of the action in high relief.39 In The Prince Machiavelli had shown how different men might prepare and act out different parts: in his Discorsi he showed the multiplicity of causes that might obtain in the interaction of Nature and Fortune. Shakespeare's analysis is as complex.

The political centre of the play is the bond between Henry and Gloucester. The king's supporters include Somerset, the Cliffords, as well as Buckingham and the Staffords. This Lancastrian alliance is threatened from three quarters: by the dynastic claim of York, by the long-standing rivalry between Gloucester and his uncle Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, and by the adulterous relationship between Queen Margaret and Suffolk. The loyalty of the Nevilles, the Earl of Salisbury and his son the Earl of Warwick, is shattered by Henry's inability to maintain dominion over France (1.1.106ff.), and they are the first to commit themselves whole-heartedly to the Yorkist cause (2.2.53ff.). The court is threatened further by the enmity between Gloucester's wife Eleanor and Queen Margaret (1.3.133ff.) as well as that between Warwick and Suffolk (3.2.158ff.). Around them all York lays his conspiratorial mines so that these political engineers will be hoist with their own petards:

                                                                                          I am not your king
Till I be crowned and that my sword be stained
With heart-blood of the house of Lancaster;
And that's not suddenly to be performed
But with advice and silent secrecy.
Do you as I do in these dangerous days:
Wink at the Duke of Suffolk's insolence,
At Beaufort's pride, at Somerset's ambition,
At Buckingham, and all the crew of them,
Till they have snared the shepherd of the flock,
That virtuous prince, the good Duke Humphrey:
'Tis that they seek; and they, in seeking that,
Shall find their deaths, if York can prophesy.


The narrative action, then, concentrates on the eclipse of Lancastrian power. This is marked by the death of Gloucester, which comes as the climax to Act 3, and the subsequent end of his old adversary Winchester. Act 4 begins with a fustian speech from the Lieutenant who will execute Suffolk, which may seem to turn all that follows to a vision of hell—its function is not unlike the Porter's scene in Macbeth.

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,
Who, with their drowsy, slow, and flagging wings
Clip dead men's graves, and from their misty jaws
Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air.


But although a lot of what follows is mindless and barbaric, it is difficult to argue that Act 4 with its chronicle of various populist uprisings is simply a grim vision of rule under the iron age of the people. For in this play, unlike Part 1, the commons do come to stand for values that are worth taking seriously, even if the action of the play suggests a frightening and inevitable disparity between the embodiment of a political idea and a political idea as idea. (There is, equally, a demonstration of the way that the idea of hierarchy which the aristocrats express is distorted by their embodiment of it.)

The sequence begins with the summary execution of Suffolk, who pays with his life for what is seen to be his part in all the ills of the kingdom. The Pirate Lieutenant's indictment (4.1.70ff.) reveals a complete understanding of the political situation, and a determination, typical of nearly all popular revolt in the early modern period, to protect the monarchy from ‘reproach and beggary’ (4.1.101). There follows the dramatisation of the Cade rebellion, which, like the Falstaff scenes in the Henry IV plays, stands not as ‘comic relief’ but as a vision both of the limits of government and of the consequences of aristocratic factionalism. Immediately the Cade rebellion is over, York's claim to the throne moves to the centre of the action.40

Like 1 Henry VI, the play had begun with a public ceremony, the first meeting, after their proxy marriage, between Henry and Margaret; it ends raggedly, again like the earlier play, with the couple in flight, vanquished at St Albans by ‘dogged York, that reaches at the moon’ (3.1.158). Like 1 and 2 Henry IV, moreover, the play is only partly about the personality of the king whose name furnishes it with a title.41 It is about a segment of the reign—the full title of q1 summarises the political activity we have analysed: The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, with the death of the good Duke Humphrey: And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolke, and the Tragicall end of the proud Cardinall of Winchester, with the notable Rebellion of Iacke Cade: And the Duke of Yorkes first claime vnto the Crowne. All of these events create a theme: the relationship between the power and the authority of the monarchy. The political climax of the play comes in 5.1, where York has triumphed over the king. There Shakespeare exposes the limits of monarchical authority when the obedience upon which the king's own power rests is in dispute. The ‘body politic’ is empowered by the ‘body natural’, and not vice versa. The clinching moment comes when Salisbury opposes his conscience to the Lancastrian claims for automatic loyalty:

KING Henry
For shame! In duty bend thy knee to me,
That bows unto the grave with mickle age.
My lord, I have considered with myself
The title of this most renownèd duke;
And in my conscience do repute his grace
The rightful heir to England's royal seat.
KING Henry
Hast thou not sworn allegiance unto me?
I have.
KING Henry
Canst thou dispense with heaven for such an oath?
It is great sin to swear unto a sin,
But greater sin to keep a sinful oath.


It is a key moment, a demonstration of Shakespeare's radicalism in that he is asking the kind of question that princes did not want to be asked: as a Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner (1483-1555) wrote in 1553, ‘Obedience is due, but how far the limits requiring obedience extend, that is the whole question to be demanded.’42 The gloss in the Geneva Bible (1560) to Romans 13.5—‘Wherefore ye must be subject, not because of wrath only, but also for conscience’—appropriates the biblical text into anti-papist polemic, but implicitly admits that rebellion might be a matter of conscience: ‘For no private man can contemn that government which God hath appointed without the breach of his conscience; and here [St Paul] speaketh of civil magistrates: so that Antichrist and his cannot wrest this place to establish their tyranny over the conscience.’ Marlowe made a jest in earnest that was recorded in his table talk on the matter: ‘all the apostles were fishermen and base fellows neither of wit nor worth … Paul only had wit, but he was a timorous fellow in bidding men to be subject to magistrates against his conscience.’43

Not that Salisbury can be taken as a simple moral positive. We may be aware here of a distinction between legalism and lawfulness, or we might conjecture that although Salisbury's cause is just, his motives may be more pragmatic: is York likely to be a better (because stronger) king than Henry?

The rest of the act demonstrates York's consolidation of his authority by main strength with the killing of Old Clifford and Somerset. Shakespeare demonstrates that it is the ‘rebel’ York who is a man of conscience while, with brilliant irony, Clifford, the king's champion at this point, is a monster, a Tamburlaine-like killing machine.44


Affairs at court and on the battlefield occupy most of the play, but Act 4 contains an important inset, Jack Cade's rebellion, which adds a dimension at once comic and horrific to the portrayal of insurrection and mutiny.45 Since the appearance in 1959 of C. L. Barber's Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, scholars have been accustomed to relate drama to occasion, in particular to patterns of holiday and recreation, and the Cade episodes have been explained according to this model. Barber himself describes the sequence as ‘an astonishingly consistent expression of anarchy by clowning’.46 Barber's book now seems to be apolitical, in fact to be written according to a Freudian paradigm, in that his key formulation is that the comic experience may be defined as a process of release leading to clarification and social harmony. This play does not end harmoniously, and issues, if they are clarified, are not resolved.

More recently critics have been offered a similar but political model, that constructed by Mikhail Bakhtin, who would argue that in comedy we encounter the elements of carnival—demotic, satirical, deflationary, extra-institutional, devoted to the celebration of community and local solidarity at the expense of national interest or hierarchical order47 or ‘the specialized appreciation of durable literary values’.48 What, though, is the function of carnival? Is it a riot that turns to insurrection as took place in Shakespeare's day at Romans,49 or is it merely a safety valve?50 Is it a moment when, in this case through a theatrical re-presentation, society ritually purges itself of what are commonly taken to be its undesirable elements, in a mode similar to the way in which, on Shrove Tuesday, the apprentices in ritual disorder sacked brothels and theatres?51 This was a period of turmoil, as the success of the rebellion demonstrates. Does carnival reveal how the ranks of governors were able to draw upon internalized ideological constraints in the people, given that they had limited powers of coercion at their disposal? Did the conjuring of disorder demonstrate the seeming necessity of order? As Machiavelli52 and Weber53 demonstrated, authority is predicated upon disorder.

In the theatre, are endings necessarily conclusions? We shall be looking at a populist uprising that is defeated—should we resist the temptation that besets all adherents of historicism to empathise with the victors?54 Are the questions posed in the course of the play more important than the historical and dramatic answers it offers?

In his long soliloquy at the end of the Parliament scene (3.1), York reveals that he has stirred up the rebellion of Jack Cade, whose wild martial strength and politic skills he had observed in Ireland.55 The imagery of the lines taps into the vein of witchcraft and conjuring that runs through the play, but again we are aware of the realities of power at York's disposal. York in fact hopes to convert a typical medieval revolt against aristocratic tyranny56 into a full-scale popular rebellion which would enable him to seize the throne.

The wind that York blew through the kingdom, as Hall aptly puts it,57 provides one cause for popular insurrection, and this was the cause that was most widely propounded when the rebellion was discussed in Shakespeare's time. Cade's rebellion had been described by Stephen Gardiner as simply an extension of the Yorkist revolt, a general manifestation of the way ‘the license of the people comes from the factions of the nobles’,58 and Holinshed begins his account of the rebellion by stating that ‘those that favoured the Duke of York … procured a commotion in Kent’.59 We must, however, like Shakespeare, consider a second cause, the efficient cause, which is the ‘furious rage of the outrageous [i.e. outraged] people’ against those responsible for the loss of Anjou—notably the ‘flagitious’ Suffolk, ‘the abhorred toad and common nuisance of the realm of England’.60 Shakespeare points to the importance of this by showing the execution of Suffolk in the scene that comes just before the beginning of the rebellion. By indicating these two instances of popular outrage against England's loss of self-esteem, he indicates that in part Cade's rebellion was a spontaneous uprising: aristocratic rebellion is the catalyst rather than the cause of popular revolt over specific social issues61—a distinction that is blurred by Hall, who refers to Cade and his followers simply as ‘proud rebels’.62 It may also be notable that the rebels do not mention the death of Duke Humphrey—they are reacting against conditions rather than events. Their own poverty and England's loss of empire are linked in their minds because the taxes for the French wars had weighed heavily upon them. This is why they are so proud to have captured Lord Say, who was held to be responsible for these. In order to amplify these grievances Shakespeare went beyond the chroniclers' treatment of the uprising in the context of the Yorkist rebellion63 and incorporated into the sequence details taken from the account of another rebellion, that of Wat Tyler in the reign of Richard II.64 This was, moreover, no local riot as were most of the Plantagenet and Tudor uprisings: Cade and his followers captured London.

Shakespeare indeed may be underlining divisions in society that are deep enough to be called class divisions. I acknowledge that from drama and theatre history alone we cannot recreate a model that would enable us to measure the radical thrust offered by the political drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. But it is possible to offer a coherent reading of some of the drama that would question the conclusion the editors of a recent and most distinguished collection of essays in social history would offer to us. Working from an analysis of cultural models, patterns of behaviour, and local community, Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson conclude that ‘a class society had not in our period yet arrived’.65

I cannot dispute their conclusion if I work from the same material and the same premises. But it seems that yet again literary critics have something to offer the cultural historians. Jonson may have been working from a background in medieval social theory, but Volpone and The Alchemist offer a thorough indictment of contemporary entrepreneurial rapacity. In this play it is not simply a cultural difference marked by manners of speech or behaviour: the economic chasm between those with silk coats and those with leather aprons gapes wide in this sequence and might be seen as a reactive protest to the sumptuary laws of the Elizabethan period,66 themselves surely a manifestation of a hierarchical society's obsession with rank at a time of political crisis.67 Seen from this perspective, the Henry VI plays offer a searing indictment of aristocratic factionalism and the haughtiness of prelates.68 The nobility in this set of plays does constitute a class—or, if we prefer, an élite—defined by the conflict between individual aspirations of its members and everything that constitutes the interest of the plebeians.69

The social composition of the rebels needs some preliminary analysis. The rebellion is certainly not just an occasion for ‘mechanicals’ to be forced into their customary stage role of clowns,70 for the disorder includes not only the marginal and dispossessed. As in many of the uprisings of the early modern period (including Kett's rebellion of 1549), we find here no ‘peasants' revolt’, but a group dominated by the middling sort of rural artisans or ‘handicraftsmen’ (4.2.8),71 including a tanner, a butcher, and a weaver. The two kinds of division—horizontal between social groups and vertical between political factions—described by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in his account of an analogous insurrection which occurred in France in 1580,72 intersect, therefore, at this historical moment.

Not that the Cade rebellion is just a social documentary: it has its part to play in the construction of the drama. Duke Humphrey foresaw the mischief that York was brewing and deployed theatrical metaphors that might seem to turn political action into theatrical game.

But [my death] is made the prologue to their play:
For thousands more, that yet suspect no peril,
Will not conclude their plotted tragedy.


Indeed, the uprising of the commons becomes a shadow play of the substantial quarrel between the aristocrats: the first lines of the first plebeians we meet suggest that they are wielding weapons that are obviously theatrical properties, the traditional mock weapons borne by fools and soldier clowns in Tudor interludes.73 York's description of Cade as a ‘Morisco’ (3.1.365), a morris dancer, also places him in this tradition of revelry or ritual misrule. This does not mean, however, that the episode is thereby depoliticized:74 on the contrary, carnival served to legitimise protest by imposing ritual forms upon it.75 Subversion is equated with celebration. Moreover, Cade's genealogy is a parody (4.2.31ff.) of the genealogy of York: like his master, he uses de jure arguments to mask his tyrannical ambitions. (Compare the parody in the Horner episode of the aristocratic form of justice, the trial by combat.) As Ronald Knowles writes, ‘ultimately Cade is an inverted image of authority, both its distorted representative and its grotesque critic’.76

It is impossible, therefore, to argue, as Tillyard did, that the Cade scenes simply offer the ‘impious spectacle of the proper order reversed’,77 producing a homiletic demonstration of the evils of rebellion—the play would scarcely have been a success in the popular playhouses if they had. If, in order to explain a political play, we invoke a metaphysical ‘order’, we have to be careful, as we translate it to the social sphere, to ask ourselves, ‘Whose order?’ Riot and ‘disorder’ are not synonymous.78 Although Dick the Butcher in 4.2 witheringly exposes in his asides the contradictions of Cade's claims (27ff.), and Holland in 4.7 mocks Cade's justice, the audience is simultaneously made aware that matters of real moment for the people are being raised. Shakespeare seems to have wanted to set his spectators laughing and then demonstrate that this combination of noble provocation and popular combustion is no laughing matter.

The disorder of the revolt in fact generates glimpses of an alternative order, of political radicalism: ‘we are in order when we are most out of order’ (4.2.164).79 Bullough ignores the paradox and, following the chroniclers, unwarrantably uses this line to claim that Shakespeare thus brands the rebels as a ‘rabble’.80 No, Cade's rebellion in Shakespeare's text is a political act and not a moral aberration or manifestation of base passion, as riots are portrayed in Ariosto, Spenser, and Drayton,81 or of duncical folly, as John of Leiden's anabaptist rebellion at Münster in 153482 was portrayed in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594).83 There is in 2 Henry VI no speech proclaiming that obedience to authority was enjoined upon men by St Paul, as there is in Sir Thomas More (c.1595).84 Sir Thomas More says to the rebels in that play:

                                                                                                    What do you, then,
Rising against him that God himself installs,
But rise 'gainst God?


Cade's rebels seek reformation (4.2.53) and liberty (4.2.158), not anarchy, and a production could bring out, without denying or suppressing Cade's extremism and, at least in the opening of the sequence, a ‘profound sense of legitimacy’85 that we might weigh against the consuming appetites of the rulers. The demands of the rebels are a mixture of those categorised by E. P. Thompson as belonging to ‘the moral economy of the crowd’86 and more millenarian demands: they are not simply reacting to violations of a time-hallowed order of landed society such as the loss of common land by enclosure (4.2.56-7)87 and the loss of their ‘ancient freedom’ (4.8.24), but are proposing a new egalitarian and libertarian order (see 4.2.1ff.).

Their utopia is a utopia of reconstruction as much as one of escape.88 A tract of 1589 by Bishop Cooper, a contribution to the Marprelate debate, indicates how the rebels' ideas were part of the currency of debate at the time of the play's composition: ‘At the beginning (say they), when God had first made the world, all men were alike, there was no principality; then was no bondage or villeinage: that grew afterwards by violence and cruelty. Therefore why should we live in this miserable slavery under those proud lords and crafty lawyers, etc.’89

In most critical accounts of the play, however, the rebels have been branded as a rabble—indeed, it is still a commonplace to claim that Shakespeare, like Horace, hated the profane mob.90 The followers of Cade are described as a ‘rabblement’ in the opening stage direction to 4.8, but it is important to note that, in the period, the word could be used without contempt (OED Rabble 2). If critics do generate some sympathy in themselves for the plebeian cause, they tend to water it down by pointing out that Cade's economic reforms seem to derive from the land of Cockaigne.91 Cade may well, on the contrary, through the insistent and demagogic rhythms of his prose, be offering an oblique comment on the massive price rises of Shakespeare's period:92

There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to drink small beer; all the realm shall be in common and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass.


This deprivation caused by inflation, moreover, coupled with the violence of the gentry, was a likely cause of the breakdown of the traditional corporate orders of the common people.93

We can demonstrate the emergent ideological claims of the rebels by examining Shakespeare's deployment of source materials. Hall wrote little about the emerging ‘manifesto’ of the rebels, noting only that the ‘Kentishmen be impatient in wrongs, disdaining of too much oppression, and ever desirous of new change and new-fangleness’.94 Accordingly, as we have seen, Shakespeare turned from Hall to ‘Holinshed's or Grafton's account of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, regarded as representative of popular revolts, and led by a[nother] Kentishman’, John Ball.95

Act 4, Scene 2 opens with a conversation (1-25) between two artisans of unspecified vocations, Bevis and Holland, which reveals a thoroughgoing radicalism, a desire to put down gentlemen and magistrates and install a new order of workers. Their rich prose, informed by both chop-logic and messianic discourse, is both comic and serious, and their aspirations derive from the kind of egalitarianism that inspired John Ball, whose catch-phrase question ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then a gentleman?’96 was well known:97

Come and get thee a sword, though made of a lath: they have been up these two days.
They have the more need to sleep now then.
I tell thee, Jack Cade the clothier means to dress the commonwealth, and turn it, and set a new nap upon it.
So he had need, for 'tis threadbare. Well, I say, it was never merry world in England since gentlemen came up.
O miserable age! Virtue is not regarded in handicraftsmen.
The nobility think scorn to go in leather aprons.
Nay more, the king's council are no good workmen.
True: and yet it is said, ‘Labour in thy vocation’: which is as much to say, as let the magistrates be labouring men; and therefore should we be magistrates.
Thou hast hit it: for there's no better sign of a brave mind than a hard hand.


Even though, as we have seen, the first line of the sequence signals that the rebels are playing well-known parts, both as rebels and as clowns, the scene draws the audience towards an alternative and populist vantage-point from which they might continue to view the main action. The scene gains an added resonance with the entrance of Dick the Butcher, a member of a trade prominent in the Kett rebellion of 1549,98 who shares their apocalyptic vision. Unlike the cabals of the nobles, the gathering represents a group and not a faction.99

Unfortunately for these radical artisans, however, as we have seen, York's creature Cade hijacks the leadership of the revolt. (We might compare the way in which the Münster rebellion turned into a dictatorship ruled by Jan Bockelson as John of Leiden.)100 Now Cade's brand of radicalism, as opposed to that of his fellows, is, like most of the aspirations that emerged during the course of the rebellions of the Tudor period,101 informed by conservatism and megalomania—there will be no egalitarianism in Cade's commonwealth or true communism. For although ‘all the realm shall be in common’ (4.2.56-7), Cade will be king, and riches will be distributed as an act of largesse to enhance Cade's rule. (Hall does note that the Kentish men were partly roused by ‘fair promises of liberty’.)102

In Ball's revolt, the grievances of the insurgents resulted in a ritual act of supplication to the king against the nobles. Here, Cade's ambition prevents this traditional solution, and the rebels are disbanded by Clifford's invocation of the fear of French invasion (4.8.31ff.). Given that the rebellion was in part an extension of the revolt of York, the treatment of the rebels by his arch-enemy Clifford is notable. Clifford does not point out that they have been misled by the treachery of York but appeals to their national sense of honour. This manifests an extraordinary esprit de corps, perhaps reflecting part of a change in the ideology of honour that occurred between the time of the action and the time of play's composition. Before Kett's rebellion of 1549, it has been argued, espousal of honour by the nobility had a subversive potential—as we see in the action of the play. After this watershed, new concepts of order and obedience ‘branded dissidence as the activity only of the brutal and ignorant “commons”’.103 The commons are branded for actions for which the peers were responsible.

In the theatre, on the other hand, the rebels might well take on the characteristics of a mob.104 Dick the Butcher, so sceptical of Cade's claims to rule, is caught up in the excitement of the massacres, and if Shakespeare arouses our sympathy, he is careful to prevent our being carried away on a tide of hysterical empathy by showing the slaughter of the Clerk of Chartham, executed because he could read and write.105 Although this may appear as a horrendous example of mindless violence, it may equally reflect on the abuse of benefit of clergy, the privilege claimed by the literate that enabled them to escape execution by virtue of being able to read and write. We might remember how later in the sequence Cade furthers his cause by a species of populist justice in his campaign against the lawyers (part of the case of the rebels in The Life and Death of Jack Straw)106 and the lettered. His indictment of the Lord Say (4.7.19ff.), although muddled, does demonstrate how learning and literacy could function as tools of oppression.

But it is the mode of the representation that is of interest. I want to point out how this surge of dispensation of justice by the people may well have been seen from a double perspective, with a degree of horror but also with a degree of glee as the privileged get their comeuppance. My evidence comes from the source. Shakespeare again turned from his principal source, Hall, but this time to Holinshed. The unruly commons, he wrote, put precept into practice:

beheading all such men of law, justices, and jurors as they might catch and lay hands upon, without respect of pity, or remorse of conscience, alleging that the land could never enjoy her native and true liberty till all those sorts of people were dispatched out of the way.

This talk liked well the ears of the common uplandish people, and by the less conveying the more, they purposed to burn and destroy all records, evidences, court-rolls, and other muniments, that the remembrance of ancient matters being removed out of mind, their landlords might not have whereby to challenge any right at their hands.107

This is written from the point of view of orthodox morality, but it would seem that Shakespeare may have caught the tone of these sequences not from the text but from the marginal glosses. For against the first of those two paragraphs we read ‘Lawyers, justices, and jurors brought to “blockam feast” by the rebels’.108 This reconstitutes the slaughter into a carnival of violence, enacted in the grisly display whereby the heads of the executed Lord Say and Sir James Cromer are made to kiss at the end of their pikes (4.7.112-3). Against the second we read, ‘The next way to extinguish right’. This deftly inverts argument of the text, for whereas Holinshed intended his reader to understand the way in which the nobles were deprived of their rights, this second gloss offers the example as a means for so doing.109 Moreover the fate of Say and Cromer stands as an awful revenge of the people upon the justices: like Duke Humphrey, Lord Say thought of himself as an upright judge and, like Duke Humphrey, he meets his end after a perfunctory ‘trial upon examination’.

The same dialogic technique is used in the account of Cade in A Mirror for Magistrates, 1559. The verse ‘tragedy’ is headed ‘How Jack Cade Traitorously Rebelling against his King was for his Treasons and Cruel Doings Worthily Punished’, but the prose gloss which follows the poem notes that God always uses rebels to his glory: ‘For when kings and chief rulers suffer their under-officers to misuse their subjects and will not hear nor remedy their peoples' wrongs when they complain, then suffereth God the rebel to rage and to execute that part of his justice which the partial prince would not.’110

After the rebels have been deflected from their aims, Cade is killed in a garden by a man called Iden: does this scene mark some kind of moral positive, and is this poetic justice? Cade is a rebel and even may stand indicted in the eyes of some of the audience for diverting the energies of the commons' insurrection. But the spectacle of his death is no more enlightening than that of Horner. Although Shakespeare, with true magnanimity, demonstrates how Cade provokes Iden into attacking him, we see a strong man slaughtering a starving one as a sober man had earlier in the play beaten to death a drunken one (2.3). When Iden learns who Cade is, he shows as he kills him no stoic calm, certainly no Christian forgiveness, just hatred—wishing he ‘might thrust his soul to hell’.111 (Is this class hatred?) Perhaps Cade's emaciated state is an emblematic comment on his spent force as a political figure and his moral bankruptcy as an individual. Iden, moreover, having entered to proclaim his abhorrence of the court and courtly ambitions at the opening of the scene, at its close goes off in triumph to court to claim the honour that he knows will be his reward. The Kentish garden turns out to be another failed paradise in which ideals are vitiated by ambition.

These sequences stand, therefore, not only as echoes but as retorts to the crescendos of violence sounded by the nobles, in particular the murder of Duke Humphrey.112 The ills of the nation, moreover, derive not just from the rampant will to power displayed by the aristocrats, but from their conspicuous consumption. Margaret's lines about Dame Eleanor serve not only to mark her disdain for an upstart but also to offer a clue to a modern director:

She sweeps it through the court with troops of ladies
More like an empress than Duke Humphrey's wife.
Strangers in court do take her for the queen:
She bears a duke's revenues on her back
And in her heart she scorns our poverty.


Winchester's death scene (3.3)—he does not ‘die well’—is a demonstration that the wealth massed by the cardinal is not sufficient to save him from death. Cupidity is the root of all suffering.


  1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The storyteller’, in his Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn, 1970, p. 96.

  2. Chambers, IV, 306; several cancelled pages in the 1587 edition of Holinshed dealing with the Babington plot and recent events in Scotland and Ireland indicate that his Chronicles were in fact censored; see Janet Clare, ‘“Greater themes for insurrection's arguing”: political censorship of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage’, RES 38 (1987), 169-183.

  3. See Appendix 2, pp. 230-3; Cairncross, pp. xxv-xxix; Clare, ‘Greater themes’.

  4. See Textual Analysis, pp. 219-20.

  5. See Hattaway, chap. 6.

  6. Holinshed (p. 208) does ascribe to God displeasure at the marriage of Henry with Margaret of Anjou and relates the events of reign to this (see Appendix 1, p. 221); Hall (p. 205) calls the marriage ‘infortunate and unprofitable’.

  7. Hall, pp. 1-2; E. M. W. Tillyard took this part of Hall's text as the key to the whole ‘cycle’ of history plays and let it inform his reading of 2H6 [The Second Part of Henry the Sixth]—see Shakespeare's History Plays, 1944, pp. 147ff.; compare J. P. Brockbank, who argues that Shakespeare reproduces a scheme of retributive justice he finds in the chronicles, but recoils from it by investing scenes of retribution with an atmosphere of horror. See ‘The frame of disorder—Henry VI’, in J. R. Brown and B. Harris (eds.), Early Shakespeare, 1961, p. 90.

  8. Hall, p. 219.

  9. Hall, p. 209; Humphrey became proverbial as an exemplary statesman: in a work by Thomas Dekker, a character is described as being so depraved that ‘he would revolt from Duke Humphrey’ (The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinarie, 1604, sig. b2r).

  10. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses, I.ii., trans. L. Ricci, 1950 edn, pp. 111-12.

  11. See Robinson, pp. 16-19.

  12. See J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I, 1952 edn., chap. 21.

  13. Drayton, Works, I, 420-6; compare his ‘Duke Humphrey to Eleanor Cobham’, 90-110, in England's Heroical Epistles, 1619 (Works, II, 226).

  14. These notions can be explored in Richard Tuck, ‘Power and authority in seventeenth-century England’, The Historical Journal 17 (1974), 43-61.

  15. The relationship between these concepts was explored, for example, in Virgilian epigrams translated by Chapman and included in his Petrarch's Seven Penitential Psalms, 1612 (Poems, ed. P. B. Bartlett, 1941, pp. 227-30).

  16. Compare 3H6 [The Third Part of Henry the Sixth] 2.5, and see Frances Yates, Astraea, 1975, pp. 25-6.

  17. In this connection compare the praise of Charles V, sprung from the union of Austria and Aragon and celebrated by Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans. Sir John Harington, 1591, XV, xxi, ff.

  18. Compare 3H6 [The Third Part of Henry the Sixth] 4.6.18.

  19. AWW [All's Well That Ends Well] 2.3.1-2.

  20. Thomas, pp. 92-3 etc.

  21. Dr John Cowell, The Interpreter or Book Containing the Signification of Words, 1607, s.v. ‘King’, quoted in E. H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 1957.

  22. See Michael Hattaway (ed.), 1H6 [The First Part of Henry the Sixth], pp. 14-21.

  23. ‘In 1494, Pope Alexander VI ordered the appointment of a commission to investigate the reports of the numerous miracles of Henry VI said to have occurred in many parts of England, and a magnificent chapel in Westminster Abbey—now known as the Chapel of Henry VII—was prepared to receive the mortal remains of Henry VI’ (H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism, 1952, p. 354). The unsuccessful attempt by Henry VII to have Henry VI canonised by Pope Julius is described by Bacon: ‘The general opinion was, that Pope Julius was too dear, and that the king would not come to his rates. But it is more probable that the pope … knowing that King Henry the Sixth was reputed in the world abroad but for a simple man, was afraid it would but diminish the estimation of that kind of honour, if there were not a distance kept between innocents and saints’ (Bacon's History of the Reign of King Henry VII, ed. J. R. Lumby, 1881, p. 207; compare Holinshed, p. 325, Hall, p. 304).

  24. See Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 1593, Book 1.

  25. F. J. Furnivall (ed.), Elizabethan England (London, n.d.), p. 51.

  26. See 3.2.232-5; for trial by battle see Thomas, pp. 260-1 and G. Holderness, L. Potter, and J. Turner, Shakespeare: The Play of History, 1988, pp. 26-32.

  27. Hall, pp. 207-8; Holinshed, p. 210, has the servant hanged—Shakespeare has him rewarded (see Appendix 1, p. 222).

  28. Holinshed, p. 210; see p. 30 n. 2.

  29. Williams, p. 22.

  30. For the willingness of Tudor monarchs to prosecute people as obscure as Horner for treason, see Kevin Sharpe, Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1750, 1987, p. 108.

  31. For a warning to Tudor princes to confine their punishments to what was decreed by law, see John Aylmer, An Harborowe for Faithfull and Trewe Subjectes, 1559, sigs. hiiv-hiv.

  32. See William Lambarde's handbook for justices of the peace, Eirenarcha, 1581, p. 431, and Williams, p. 228. Later Gloucester will be accused of devising punishments contrary to ‘form of law’ (3.1.38).

  33. I am indebted for some aspects of my reading of this scene to a private communication from Ronald Knowles.

  34. See 3H6 [The Third Part of Henry the Sixth] 1.3-4.

  35. See Appendix 2, pp. 234-5.

  36. Robinson, p. 146.

  37. James L. Calderwood, ‘Shakespeare's evolving imagery: 2 Henry VI’, ES 48 (1967), 482-93; Virginia M. Carr, ‘Animal imagery in 2 Henry VI’, ES 53 (1972), 408-12.

  38. Frank Kermode, ‘What is Shakespeare's Henry VIII about?’, in W. A. Armstrong (ed.), Shakespeare's Histories, 1972, pp. 256-69.

  39. Emrys Jones notes that a ‘characteristic of the early Shakespeare is the unflagging invention, the profusion of thematically pointed episode and incident’ (The Origins of Shakespeare, 1977, p. 166).

  40. Interesting structural comparisons can be drawn with Julius Caesar concerning the relationships between the deaths of Caesar and Duke Humphrey and the rise of Brutus and York.

  41. See Larry S. Champion, Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories, 1980, p. 5.

  42. Concerning True Obedience, cited in J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought, 1928, p. 128; see R. E. Burckhardt, ‘Obedience and rebellion in Shakespeare's early histories’, ES 55 (1974), 108-17; Frances A. Shirley, Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare's Plays, 1979, pp. 80-1.

  43. Recorded by the informer Richard Baines, MS Harleian 6848, fol. 185-6; see Peter Milward, Shakespeare's Religious Background, 1973, p. 219.

  44. See 5.1-2.

  45. Some of what follows appears in my article ‘Rebellion, class consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI’, Cahiers élisabéthains 33 (1988), 13-22.

  46. Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 1959, p. 13.

  47. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Helene Iswolksky, 1984.

  48. Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theater, 1985, p. 4.

  49. See Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Le Carnaval de Romans, 1979.

  50. For a critique of this model, see Bristol, p. 27.

  51. Hattaway, p. 49.

  52. G. H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 1959, p. 294.

  53. David Little, Religion, Order, and Law, 1970, pp. 20-1.

  54. Walter Benjamin, quoted by Bristol, p. 7.

  55. ‘York calls Cade his “substitute”, but he is also his alter ego, his carefully-hidden demon. These two are never on stage at the same time, and could well and profitably be played by the same actor’ (Robinson, p. 120).

  56. Williams, p. 322.

  57. Hall, p. 219.

  58. Stephen Gardiner, A Machiavellian Treatise, ed. and trans. Peter Samuel Donaldson, 1975, p. 121.

  59. Holinshed, p. 220.

  60. Hall, p. 219.

  61. Williams, p. 313.

  62. Hall, p. 220.

  63. Holinshed has flattering things to say about Cade—see Appendix 1, pp. 227-8. For an account of the Cade scenes which argues that Cade represented the antithesis of everything Shakespeare stood for, see Richard Wilson, ‘“A mingled yarn”: Shakespeare and the cloth workers’, Literature and History 12 (1986), 164-81.

  64. See Appendix 1, pp. 228-9.

  65. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson, Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, 1985, p. 4; some evidence of class antagonism is cited by Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680, 1982, p. 150.

  66. See N. B. Harte, ‘State control of dress and social change in pre-industrial England’, in D. C. Coleman and A. H. John (eds.), Trade, Government and Economy in Pre-Industrial England, 1976, pp. 132-65.

  67. See Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641, 1965.

  68. See John Foxe, quoted by Bullough, p. 127.

  69. See E. P. Thompson, ‘Patrician society, plebeian culture’, Journal of Social History 7 (1974), pp. 382-405.

  70. See Anat Feinberg, ‘The representation of the poor in Elizabethan and Stuart drama’, Literature and History 12 (1986), 152-63.

  71. See Diarmaid MacCullough, ‘Kett's rebellion in context’, in Paul Slack (ed.), Rebellion, Popular Protest and the Social Order in Early Modern England, 1984, pp. 39-62.

  72. Ladurie, Le Carnaval de Romans.

  73. See 4.2.1ff.; compare TN [Twelfth Night] 4.2.126 and 1H4 [The First Part of Henry the Sixth] 2.4.137; and see David Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown, 1987, pp. 121-2.

  74. François Laroque, “Shakespeare et la fête populaire: le carnaval sanglant de Jack Cade”, Réforme, Humanisme, et Renaissance 11 (1979), 126-30. Laroque argues that Cade's ‘jacquerie’ turns to carnival, an inversion of the normal order. For carnival see also Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1978, pp. 182ff.; for a critique of Burke and an attempt to use the anthropological categories of Victor Turner to explain Elizabethan carnival, see Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown, pp. 172ff.

  75. See Thomas Pettitt (‘“Here comes I, Jack Straw”: English folk drama and social revolt’, Folklore 95 (1984), 3-20) who points out that the historical Jack Cade may have used the Whitsun festivities of 1450 to forward or cover his enterprise, and that the Great Revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler (who may have used the carnival name of ‘Jack Straw’—see Holinshed, II, 736) reached its climax, as Holinshed pointed out (ibid.), on Corpus Christi day (13 June); for the ritual roles of butchers (consider Dick the Butcher) in carnivals see Michael D. Bristol, ‘Lenten Butchery: legitimation crisis in Coriolanus’ in Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (eds), Shakespeare Reproduced, 1987, pp. 207-24.

  76. In a private communication.

  77. Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 183.

  78. Slack, Rebellion, pp. 1-2.

  79. See M. E. James, ‘The concept of order and the northern uprising of 1569’, Past and Present 60 (1973), 59-83; K. Wrightson, ‘Two concepts of order’, in J. Brewer and J. Styles (eds.), An Ungovernable People, 1980, pp. 21-46.

  80. Bullough, p. 96. See also C. A. Patrides, ‘“The beast with many heads”: Renaissance views on the multitude’, SQ 16 (1965), 241-6; Christopher Hill, ‘The many-headed monster’ in Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England, 1974, pp. 181-204.

  81. Orlando Furioso, VI, 60-70; FQ, II, ix, 13-17, v.ii.30-54; Drayton refers to ‘that rake-hell Cade’, Poly-Olbion, XXII, 531 (Works, IV, 438).

  82. For this and anabaptism generally see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1970 edn, pp. 261ff.

  83. Nashe, Works, II, 232-41.

  84. See the text in C. F. Tucker Brooke (ed.), The Shakespeare Apocrypha, 1908, 2.4.112ff.; on the history of the play, see Carol A. Chillington, ‘Playwrights at work: Henslowe's, not Shakespeare's, Book of Sir Thomas More’, ELR 10 (1980), 439-79; for St Paul, see pp. 18-20 above.

  85. Slack, Rebellion, p. 1.

  86. E. P. Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the crowd’, Past and Present 51 (1971), 76-136; Sharpe, p. 110.

  87. Suffolk is accused of enclosing by one of the Petitioners early in the play (1.3.19-20).

  88. See Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopia, 1922, p. 15.

  89. T. Cooper, An Admonition to the People of England, 1589, ed. E. Arber, 1895, p. 118 (cf. pp. 144-5, 148, 159, 168-9); quoted by Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 1975 edn, p. 115. The Bishop used the sentiments as an argument for suppressing Presbyterians.

  90. See D. Goy-Blanquet, ‘Pauvres Jacques: chroniques et spectacles en Angleterre au xvie siècle’, in Elie Konigson (ed.), Figures théâtrales du peuple, 1985, pp. 49-74.

  91. See Gormon Beauchamp, ‘The dream of Cockaigne: some motives for the utopias of escape’, The Centennial Review 25 (1981), 345-62.

  92. See D. M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth, 1983, chap. 5; John Walter and Keith Wrightson argue that dearth could, in fact, often ‘serve as an active element in the maintenance of social stability’, ‘Dearth and the social order in early modern England’, in Slack, Rebellion, p. 108; inflation is attributed to high consumption by aliens and strangers (foreigners) in Sir Thomas More 2.4.

  93. Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, 1935.

  94. Hall, p. 219.

  95. Bullough, pp. 96, 128-33.

  96. Holinshed, cited Bullough, p. 133. Ball speaks the lines in the anonymous Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593-4; Bullough, p. 139, lines 82-3); see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit, pp. 198-204; for a contemporary argument against equality, see Sir John Cheke, The Hurt of Sedition, written in 1549 and included in the 1587 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles (III, 1042-55).

  97. See Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 114-5; Charles Hobday, ‘Clouted shoon and leather aprons: Shakespeare and the egalitarian tradition’, Renaissance and Modern Studies 23 (1979), 69-78.

  98. Slack, Rebellion, p. 52. The Kett rebellion was the last (until 1607) large-scale protest movement, although various plots and conspiracies punctuated the reign of Elizabeth; about the time that the play was written there were localized protests by the oppressed against enclosures and the cost and effects of the wars in the Netherlands (see Williams, pp. 326, 342-3 and B. Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 1980).

  99. See Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 26.

  100. See Cohn, The Pursuit, pp. 271ff.; a contemporary account of the anabaptist revolt was provided by Joannes Philippson (Sleidanus), A Famous Chronicle of Our Time Called Sleideane's Commentaries, trans. J. Daus, 1560, Book 10, folios 129ff., although there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew this work.

  101. See Slack, Rebellion, p. 6.

  102. Hall, p. 220.

  103. Slack, Rebellion, p. 13, drawing upon Mervyn James, English Politics and the Concept of Honour 1485-1642, Past and Present, Supplement No. 3, 1978; for the gentry's withdrawal from armed political demonstrations in the sixteenth century, see Fletcher and Stevenson, Order and Disorder, p. 10.

  104. On crowd scenes in this and other plays see Margot Heinemann, ‘How Brecht read Shakespeare’, in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds.), Political Shakespeare, 1985, p. 226.

  105. On the tenuousness of a firm division between literate and non-literate social classes, see Fletcher and Stevenson, Order and Disorder, pp. 11-12. It may be that the Clerk is executed as a scapegoat for those who escaped hanging by claiming ‘benefit of clergy’, i.e. having the rudiments of literacy, displayed by knowing their ‘neck-verse’ (the beginning of Psalm 51); see 4.7.35-6 n.

  106. Bullough, pp. 144, 519; for later Leveller hostility to lawyers see Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 103, 133-6, 194.

  107. Holinshed, II, 737.

  108. The phrase ‘blockam feast’, which is not recorded in OED, is found in Mirror, ‘John, Earl of Worcester’, 118. This sardonic populist tone is to be heard elsewhere in the margins, as, for example, when the death of the Duke of York is explained as ‘a purchase of God's curse with the pope's blessing’ (Holinshed, p. 269 and see p. 14 above).

  109. Compare the attack on book learning by the Münster anabaptists (see Cohn, p. 267).

  110. Mirror, pp. 171, 178.

  111. 4.10.72.

  112. The exhibition of Gloucester's corpse could well have quoted the stage image of the exhibition of Henry V's corpse in Part 1. Stage directions indicate that it was ‘discovered’, but it may well have been then thrust out on the stage, the contorted features a travesty of the order supposed to be figured forth in his trial.

Unless otherwise specified, biblical quotations are given in the Geneva version (1560).

Abbreviations and Conventions

Other Works Cited and General References

Abbott: E. A. Abbott, A Shakespearian Grammar, 1878 edn (references are to numbered paragraphs)

Alexander: William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander, 1951

Arber: E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554-1650, 5 vols., 1875-94

Baldwin: T. W. Baldwin, Shakspere's ‘Small Latine & Lesse Greeke’, 2 vols., 1944

Bell: J. Bell ed., Shakespeare's Plays, 9 vols., 1774

Bentley: G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, 7 vols., 1941-68

Boswell-Stone: W. G. Boswell-Stone, Shakespeare's Holinshed: The Chronicle and the Historical Plays Compared, 1896

Brewer: E. C. Brewer, The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, n.d.

Brockbank: J. P. Brockbank, ‘Shakespeare' historical myth: a study of Shakespeare's adaptations of his sources in making the plays of Henry VI and Richard III’, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1953

Bullough: Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols., 1957-75

Cairncross: 2 Henry VI, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross, 1957 (New Arden)

Cam.: Works, ed. William Aldis Wright, 9 vols., 1891-3 (Cambridge Shakespeare)

Capell: Mr William Shakespeare his Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, ed. Edward Capell, 10 vols., 1767-8

Cartwright: Robert Cartwright, New Readings in Shakespeare, 1866

Cercignani: F. Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, 1981

Chambers: E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols., 1923

Collier: Works, ed. John P. Collier, 8 vols., 1842-4

Collier2: Works, ed. John P. Collier, 1853

Collier MS: Perkins' Second Folio, 1632 (Huntington Library)

Colman: E. A. M. Colman, The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, 1974

conj.: conjecture

Dekker, ND: Thomas Dekker, Non Dramatic Works, 5 vols., 1884-6

Delius2: Werke, ed. Nicolaus Delius, 7 vols, 1854-[61]

Dent: R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index, 1981 (references are to numbered proverbs)

DNB: Dictionary of National Biography

Drayton: Michael Drayton, Works, ed. J. W. Hebel, 5 vols, 1951

Dyce: The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Alexander Dyce, 6 vols, 1857

Dyce2: The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Alexander Dyce, 9 vols., 1864-7

Eds: Various editors

ELR: English Literary Renaissance

ES: English Studies

f: Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 1623 (First Folio)

f2: Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 1632 (Second Folio)

f3: Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 1664 (Third Folio)

f4: Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, 1685 (Fourth Folio)

Fabyan: Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, 1516, reprinted 1811

Farmer: Richard Farmer, in Johnson Var. (see below)

FQ: Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton, 1977

Freeman: Henry VI, Part Two, ed. Arthur Freeman, 1967, (Signet)

Grafton: Richard Grafton, A Chronicle at Large of the History of The Affayres of England, 1569, reprinted in 2 vols, 1809

Griffiths: Ralph A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI, 1981

Hall: Edward Hall, The Union of the … Families of Lancastre and Yorke, 1548, reprinted 1809 (page references are to the 1809 edn)

Halliwell: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. James O. Halliwell, 16 vols, 1853-65

Hanmer: The Works of Shakespear, ed. Thomas Hanmer, 6 vols, 1743-4

Hart: 2 Henry VI, ed. H. C. Hart, 1909 (Arden)

Hattaway: Michael Hattaway, Elizabethan Popular Theatre, 1982

Henslowe: Henslowe's Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert, 1961

Holinshed: Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, second edition, 1587, reprinted in 6 vols, 1808 (unless otherwise specified, page references are to vol. III of the 1808 edn)

Hudson: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Henry N. Hudson, 11 vols., 1851-6

Hulme: Hilda M. Hulme, Explorations in Shakespeare's Language, 1962

Irving: The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Henry Irving and Frank A. Marshall, 8 vols., 1888-90

Johnson: The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson, 8 vols., 1765

Johnson Var.: The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, 10 vols., 1773

Jonson: C. H. Herford and P. and E. Simpson eds, The Works of Ben Jonson, 11 vols., 1925-52

Keightley: The Plays of Shakespeare, ed. Thomas Keightley, 6 vols., 1864

Kittredge: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge, 1936

Kökeritz: Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation, 1953

Long: John H. Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Histories and Tragedies, 1971

Mahood: M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay, 1957

Malone: The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. Edmond Malone, 10 vols., 1790

Mason: John Monck Mason, Comments on … Shakespeare's Plays, 1785

McKerrow: Unpublished edition of 2 Henry VI, cited in Wells and Taylor (see below)

Metamorphoses: Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding (1567), ed. J. F. Nims, 1965

Mirror: The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell, 1938

Montgomery: ‘The Contention of York and Lancaster: a critical editon’, ed. William Montgomery, unpublished D Phil dissertation, University of Oxford, 1985

Munro: The London Shakespeare, ed. John Munro, 6 vols., 1958

Nashe: Thomas Nashe, Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow, 5 vols., 1904-10, revised by F. P. Wilson, 1958

Neilson: The Complete Dramatic and Poetic Works of William Shakespeare, ed. William Alan Neilson, 1906

Noble: Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge, 1935

NQ: Notes and Queries

obs.: obsolete

OED: Oxford English Dictionary

Onions: C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary, revised by Robert D. Eagleson, 1986

Partridge: Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy, 1968 edn

PBSA: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America

Pelican: The Second and Third Parts of King Henry the Sixth, ed. Robert K. Turner Jr. and George Walton Williams, 1967

Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, trans. Thomas North, 8 vols., 1928 ed.

PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America

Pope: The Works of Shakespear, ed. Alexander Pope, 6 vols., 1723-5

PQ: Philological Quarterly

q1: The First part of the Contention betwixt the two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, 1594; prepared in facsimile by William Montgomery, 1985

q2: The First part of the Contention betwixt the two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, 1600

q3: The Whole Contention between the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and York, 1619; prepared in facsimile by Charles Praetorius, 1886

Reed: The Plays of William Shakespeare, [ed. Isaac Reed], 10 vols., 1785

Ren. Drama: Renaissance Drama

RES: Review of English Studies

Riverside: The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 1974

Robinson: Marilynne S. Robinson, ‘A new look at Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part II: sources, structure, and meaning’, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Washington, 1977

RORD: Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama

Rowe: The Works of Mr William Shakespear, ed. Nicholas Rowe, 6 vols., 1709

Rowe2: The Works of Mr William Shakespear, ed. Nicholas Rowe, 2nd edn, 6 vols., 1709

Rowe3: The Works of Mr William Shakespear, ed. Nicholas Rowe, 3rd edn, 8 vols., 1714

Sanders: 2 Henry VI, ed. Norman Sanders, 1981 (New Penguin)

SB: Studies in Bibliography

Schmidt: Alexander Schmidt, Shakespeare-Lexicon, 1866 edn

Scott-Giles: C. W. Scott-Giles, Shakespeare's Heraldry, 1950

sd: stage direction

SEL: Studies in English Literature

Seymour: E. H. Seymour, Remarks … upon the Plays of Shakespeare, 2 vols., 1805

sh: speech heading

Shakespeare's England: Shakespeare's England: An Account of the Life and Manner of his Age, ed. Sidney Lee and C. T. Onions, 2 vols., 1916

Singer: The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Weller Singer, 10 vols., 1826

Singer2: The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Weller Singer, 10 vols., 1856

Sisson: Charles Sisson ed., Works, 1954

Sisson, New Readings: C. J. Sisson, New Readings in Shakespeare, 2 vols., 1956

SQ: Shakespeare Quarterly

S.St.: Shakespeare Studies

S.Sur.: Shakespeare Survey

Staunton: The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. Howard Staunton, 3 vols., 1858-60

Steevens: The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. George Steevens and Isaac Reed, 4th edn, 15 vols., 1793

Stow: John Stow, The Survey of London, 1603 edn, reprinted in Everyman Library, n. d.

subst.: substantively

Sugden: E. H. Sugden, A Topographical Dictionary to the Works of Shakespeare and his Fellow Dramatists, 1925

Theobald: The Works of Shakespeare, ed. Lewis Theobald, 7 vols., 1733

Theobald2: The Works of Shakespeare, ed. Lewis Theobald, 8 vols., 1740

Thomas: K. V. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971

Thomson: W. H. Thomson, Shakespeare's Characters: A Historical Dictionary, 1951

Tilley: M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1950 (references are to numbered proverbs)

tln: Through line numbering

Vaughan: Henry H. Vaughan, New Readings and Renderings of Shakespeare's Tragedies, 3 vols., 1886

Walker: William S. Walker, Critical Examinations of the Text of Shakespeare, 3 vols., 1860

Warburton: The Works of Shakespeare, ed. William Warburton, 8 vols., 1747

Wells and Taylor, Textual Companion: Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, 1987

White: Works, ed. Richard Grand White, 12 vols., 1857-66

Williams: Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime, 1979

Wilson: 2 Henry VI, ed. J. Dover Wilson, 1952 (New Shakespeare)

Reading List

Alexander, Peter. Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III, 1929

Baldwin, T. W. Shakspere's ‘Small Latine & Lesse Greeke’, 2 vols., 1944

Berman, Ronald S. ‘Fathers and sons in the Henry VI plays’, SQ 13 (1962), 487-97

Berry, Edward. ‘Twentieth-century Shakespeare criticism: the histories’, in Stanley Wells, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, 1986, pp. 249-56

———. Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories, 1975

Boswell-Stone, W. G. Shakespeare's Holinshed, The Chronicle and the Historical Plays Compared, 1896

Bristol, Michael D. Carnival and Theater, 1985

Brockbank, J. P. ‘The frame of disorder—Henry VI’, in J. R. Brown and B. Harris (eds.), Early Shakespeare, 1961

Brooke, Nicholas. ‘Marlowe as provocative agent in Shakespeare's early plays’, S. Sur. 14 (1961), 34-44

Brownlow, F. W. Two Shakespearean Sequences, 1977

Bullough, G. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, III, 1960

Bulman, James C. The Heroic Idiom of Shakespearean Tragedy, 1985

———. ‘Shakespeare's Georgic histories’, S. Sur. 38 (1985), 37-47

Burckhardt, S. Shakespearean Meanings, 1968

Burke, Peter. The Renaissance Sense of the Past, 1969

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, 1947

Carroll, D. Allen. ‘Greene's “vpstart crow” passage: a survey of commentary’, RORD 28 (1985), 111-27

Champion, L. Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories, 1980

Clare, Janet. ‘“Greater themes for insurrection's arguing”: political censorship of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage’, RES 38 (1987), 169-83

Clemen, Wolfgang. ‘Some aspects of style in the Henry VI plays’, in P. Edwards, I.-S. Ewbank, G. K. Hunter (eds.), Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, 1980, pp. 9-24

Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1970 edn

Colman, E. A. M. The Dramatic Use of Bawdy in Shakespeare, 1974

Cox, John D. Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power, 1989

Dean, P. ‘Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy and Elizabethan “romance” histories: the origins of a genre’, SQ 33 (1982), 34-48

Dessen, Alan C. Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters, 1984

Eccleshall, Robert. Order and Reason in Politics: Theories of Absolute and Limited Monarchy in Early Modern England, 1978

Edmond, Mary. ‘Pembroke's Men’, RES 25 (1974), 129-36

Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors, 1974

Fleischer, Martha Hester. The Iconography of the English History Play, 1974

George, D. ‘Shakespeare and Pembroke's Men’, SQ 32 (1981), 305-23

Goy-Blanquet, D. ‘Images de la monarchie dans le théâtre historique de Shakespeare’, in E. Konigson (ed.), Les Voies de la création théâtrale, VIII: théâtre, histoire, modèles, 1980

———. Le Roi mis à nu: l'histoire d'Henri VI de Hall à Shakespeare, 1986

Griffiths, Ralph. The Reign of King Henry VI, 1981

Hammond, A. C. The Early Shakespeare, 1967

Hattaway, Michael. Elizabethan Popular Theatre, 1982

Hinchcliffe, Judith. King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, Garland Shakespeare Bibliographies, 1986

Hinman, Charlton. The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare, 2 vols., 1963

Hobday, Charles. ‘Clouted shoon and leather aprons: Shakespeare and the egalitarian tradition’, Renaissance and Modern Studies 23 (1979), 63-78

Hodgdon, B. ‘Shakespeare's directorial eye: a look at the early history plays’, in S. Homan (ed.), Shakespeare's ‘More than Words can Witness’, 1980, pp. 115-29

Honigmann, E. A. J. Shakespeare: The ‘Lost Years’, 1985

———. Shakespeare's Impact on his Contemporaries, 1982

Howard-Hill, T. H., ed., 2 Henry VI: A Concordance to the Text of the First Folio, 1970

Hunter, G. K. ‘Truth and art in history plays’, S. Sur. 42 (1990), 15-42

Jackson, Sir Barry. ‘On producing Henry VI’, S. Sur. 6 (1953), 49-52

Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare, 1977

———. Scenic Form in Shakespeare, 1971

Kastan, David Scott. ‘Proud majesty made a subject: Shakespeare and the spectacle of rule’, SQ 37 (1986), 459-75

Kay, C. McG. ‘Traps, slaughter, and chaos: a study of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 5 (1972), 1-26

Kelly, F. L. ‘Oaths in Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays’, SQ 24 (1973), 357-71

Kelly, H. A. Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories, 1970

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Political Drama, 1988

Long, J. H. Shakespeare's Use of Music: The Histories and the Tragedies, 1972

McCanles, Michael. Dialectical Criticism and Renaissance Literature, 1975

McFarlane, K. B. England in the Fifteenth Century, 1982

McMillin, Scott. ‘Casting for Pembroke's Men: the Henry VI quartos and The Taming of A Shrew’, SQ 23 (1972), 141-59

Manheim, M. The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play, 1973

Montgomery, William. ‘The original staging of The First Part of the Contention (1594)’, S. Sur. 41 (1988), 13-22

Patrides, L. A. ‘“The beast with many heads”: Renaissance views on the multitude’, SQ 16 (1965), 241-6

Pettitt, Thomas, ‘“Here comes I, Jack Straw”: English folk drama and social revolt’, Folklore 95 (1984), 3-20

Rackin, Phyllis. ‘Anti-historians: Women's roles in Shakespeare's histories’, Theatre Journal 37 (1985), 329-44

Reese, M. M. The Cease of Majesty, 1961

Rhodes, E. L. Henslowe's Rose: The Stage and Staging, 1976

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, revised edn, 1965

Riggs, D. Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and its Literary Tradition, 1971

Robinson, Marilynne S. ‘A new look at Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part II: sources, structure, and meaning’, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Washington, 1977

Saccio, Peter. Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama, 1977

Shepherd, Simon. Marlowe and the Politics of Elizabethan Theatre, 1986

Siegel, Paul N. Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, 1986

Slack, Paul. Rebellion, Popular Protest and the Social Order in Early Modern England, 1984

Smidt, K. Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, 1982

Sprague, A. C. Shakespeare's Histories: Plays for the Stage, 1964

Talbert, E. W. Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare's Early Plays: An Essay in Historical Criticism, 1963

Tennenhouse, Leonard. Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres, 1986

Thomas, K. V. Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays, 1944

Warren, Roger. ‘“Contrarieties agree”: an aspect of dramatic technique in Henry VI’, S. Sur. 37 (1984), 75-83

Watkins, Ronald. ‘The only Shake-Scene’, PQ 54 (1975), 47-67

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John W. Blanpied (essay date spring 1975)

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SOURCE: Blanpied, John W. “‘Art and Baleful Sorcery’: The Counterconsciousness of Henry VI, Part 1.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 15, no. 2 (spring 1975): 213-27.

[In the following essay, Blanpied views Henry VI, Part 1 as a subversive work that critiques historical reality.]

Over the last two decades or so 1 Henry VI has attracted growing esteem. This comes both from E. M. W. Tillyard and his followers, who respect the play chiefly for its part in the presumed Grand Design of Shakespeare's English histories, and more recently from those who find the play not only structurally strong, but thematically autonomous.1 Still, for both Tillyardite and autonomist the primary critical question about 1 Henry VI is the same: namely, what is the relationship of “history” to “play”?2 The question, though it could be put generally about the relationship of any play to its sources, historical or otherwise, applies in an essential and peculiar way to 1 Henry VI. For the past is peculiarly the subject of this play, and is bodied forth so palpably as to seem almost the chief character. It is a past, however, that consists not essentially of events or of persons, but of monuments: as real, but also as stiff, remote, and unaltered as old stone. Moreover, this monumentalized past is not just political, but includes the very conventions of drama and speech the play makes use of. What I hope to show here is that in “making use” of this concept of the past—in a sense, testing its powers against it—the play finally abandons and surpasses it.

The apparent answer to the question, then, is that the “play” takes “history” not as a record of events with a sequential and causal integrity of its own but as some mute transfigured structure to which an audience could respond as to a tapestry or, since it moves in time, a dumbshow. The assumption seems to be that the dramatist could subdue the chronicle matter into a blatantly alien form, and not only sacrifice nothing essential in the meaning of “history,” but even perhaps redeem it from its meanness. Without a doubt the strength of 1 Henry VI is the skilled aggressiveness of its structure—even Tillyard admired the “vehement energy” by which it bullied its Hall into theater. It is a theater full of familiar features, yet with a curiously assertive life of its own; boldly presentational, making heavy use of pageant, spectacle, and blocklike ceremony, and showing its Morality heritage in poster-flat figures like Winchester and Talbot; a theater which, like heraldic tapestry, is silent, opaque, and depthless. Of course in later plays Shakespeare continues to employ pageant and Morality-like figures, but there they have clearly become part of complex verbal actions. In Richard III, for example, the ceremonies of grief and rage are conspicuously qualified by the supple personal accents of Richard.3 But the monumental features of 1 Henry VI seem peculiarly naked. As J. P. Brockbank puts it, “Shakespeare's accomplishment is … the shedding of all literary artifice except that which serves to express the temper and structure of the history” (p. 77).

That description of the play, however, makes it sound so much unlike anything else Shakespeare ever did that perhaps we ought to pause. Indeed, the necessity we would feel to “compose” ourselves in order to view that kind of a play without condescension provides a hare worth pursuing.4 H. T. Price, who made the first serious defense of 1 Henry VI's structure in 1951, reminded us in that essay of Shakespeare's “never-sleeping irony.” “It appears in every possible form, the various ironies of speech, of character, and of event. The important thing is that Shakespeare sometimes so builds irony into his construction that he appears to make the play turn on that alone. In general it may be said that an ironic interpretation of Shakespeare is most likely to be nearest his intention” (p. 22). Nevertheless, I do not think Price sufficiently heeded his own insight, for in rightly reacting to those critics who adore Shakespeare's “poetry” but condescend to his craftsmanship, he perhaps took too literally his own metaphor of play-building—of Shakespeare's turning out a hardy artifact. But a literary artifact, at any rate, is a museum-piece; what life it might truly have had has perished with the necessarily narrow set of emotional and cultural conditions to which it answered; to pretend that those conditions are available when the piece is reintroduced later is to make it its own parody. Now in 1 Henry VI everything is only too obviously “artifact” in this sense—not just its admirable design, but its portrayal of history as monuments, its personages, its dramatic conventions, and its language. Everything is, as it were, deliberately turned to stone. Yet, do we not recognize as somehow essentially “Shakespearean” the dramatic consciousness that seems always aware of what it ostensibly excludes; that provides for its own vulnerability by containing its own criticism?

Such a drama embodies its own potential negation, and is truly willing to abandon its hold on the old in order to create the truly new. Thus Shakespeare's work characteristically cooperates in its own continuous exhaustion and demise. And so it is, though inchoately, with his earliest play. My argument is that 1 Henry VI does not in fact rest contentedly with its stiff spectacular dramatic accomplishment, its too-easy manipulation of history, its Senecan postures and Heroick Song. The curious sense of original life beneath all the brassy opacity is the play's dis-ease by which it pre-empts and embodies our live discomfort. Thus the imperatives of drama, history, and speech, that proclaim themselves in stone only to melt at once into chimera, are not only exhaustible, but surpassable. And thus the play's counter-consciousness not only affords an ironic perspective upon the language and the characters who mouth it, but commences a potent exploration into the true relationship of “history” and “play.” But that is possible only when the theater has become metatheater5—self-aware and self-fulfilling.


“History” in the opening scene is embodied by three messengers who invade the funeral ceremonies of Henry V with news of disasters in France. This “collapse of order and ceremony”6 is indeed dramatized with the clarity of pantomime, but Mr. Cairncross leaves the suggestion that the interrupted pageant represents some kind of desideratum of wholeness and harmony, whereas of course the real falling-off had occurred already, in the off-stage and pre-play order of existence implied in the name “Henry V.” The old lords are not, in their ceremonial lament, enacting ritual solidarity, but all too futilely trying to induce it. As A. C. Hamilton says (p. 14), “patterned rhetorical display” is interrupted by “historical event”—the report of thirty-four chronicle years of disaster—but the change is not a fall from order into chaos, from timelessness into time, or from a sacramental “reality” into a profane world of “play,” but manifestly a shift from one kind of play to another. Thus the formalized rhetoric is neither innocent nor oracular, but a desperate attempt to make language mean in a way that it plainly does not. The lords would command potency by verbal force alone, an enterprise that, as it grows more desperate, grows more plainly futile:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of time and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky. …


His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings:
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.


Compare Lucy's speech (IV.vii.60-71) in which in twelve lines he inquires after the dead Talbot by intoning sixteen names and titles:

Great Earl of Washford, Waterford, and Valence,
Lord Talbot of Goodrig and Urchinfield,
Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton … (etc.)

“A silly-stately style indeed!” Joan naturally jeers. The “fly-blown” corpse of Talbot will not be “magnified” by a speech that so perfectly conveys his moribundity. For cunningly enough, Shakespeare either at first or second hand has almost verbatim lifted it from the actual inscription of Talbot's tomb in Rouen; and, as J. P. Brockbank modestly puts it (p. 76), “it retains its lapidary formality.” Lucy's encomium is, then, the extreme parody of a speech become pure detachable “style,” fully conventional and fully dissociated from its object and from its puppet-like speaker.

Similarly in the opening scene, what so-called history interrupts is precisely a “style” which conveys and embodies the moribundity it is attempting futilely to reinvigorate. But the dissociated perfection of such speeches—exactly that which makes them “models,” detachable and quotable—is the falsest thing about them. Such “style” always borders on self-parody. In the second scene Charles no sooner voices the most obvious commonplace—“Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens / So in the earth, to this day is not known” (II.ii.1-2)—than he becomes its victim; and thereafter it is chiefly by his deafness to his own language—both its obvious excesses and its unwitting puns—that he is ridiculed. So, less broadly, are the venerable survivors of Henry V made the victims of their language, the heroic style collapsing under its own weight: “What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech” (15). Three reasons are advanced for Henry's death (the comets, French sorcery, malicious churchmen's prayers) but the contradiction goes deafly unnoticed; moreover, the litany of lament of its own accord degenerates into the very unheroic quarrel of Winchester and Gloucester, whereafter Bedford's attempt to re-elevate the proceedings—“A far more glorious star thy soul will make / Than Julius Caesar or bright—” (55-56)—is mercifully, and all too inevitably, the occasion and cue for the messenger's interruption. Indeed, the thrice-staggered old lords, capable only of reacting to the waves of bad news, thrice-rededicating themselves to action in Henry's name, are only a smile away from appearing as comic butts. Price sees the action as Aeschylian, one blow falling heavily after another (p. 26), but in fact it comes closer to the comical than the heroic just because we are allowed to see, and to hear, the three old men so locked into their roles, so futile, so passé: “captives bound to a triumphal car” (I.i.22).


The first scene of the play, then, shows how Shakespeare rather subtly undermines the authority of the monumental past by asserting those theatrical techniques that seem designed to dignify it. Embedded in the second act are three successive scenes that considerably ramify this process and hence complicate our response to this seemingly unambiguous play. These three scenes, having little or no basis in the chronicles and thus of markedly free invention, work an almost formal set of permutations on the relationship of “history” to “play.” Each is notably self-contained in setting, plot, and style: that is, a playlet. The first (II.iii)—Countess of Auvergne's “trapping” Talbot—is the most stubbornly gratuitous and episodic, for reasons I think ingeniously and convincingly explained by Sigurd Burckhardt in terms of a duel of styles;7 the point here is that it is “pure play,” an interlude not only in the war (“Nay, then I see our wars / Will turn unto a peaceful comic sport,” II.ii.44-45) but also in the play itself. If we take “history” to refer to events with both source and consequence, then this scene is clearly ahistorical.

In the Temple-Garden scene (II.iv) we watch play hardening into history. In highly formalized allegorical style, for an audience steeped in the heritage of the War of the Roses, the playlet affects to imagine How It Might Have Started in those sub-historical hollows nonexistent for the chronicles. The scene is carefully suspended: none of Hall's motivation for the Somerset-Plantagenet animosity is allowed, the characters appear for the first time, the “case of truth” which occasions the brawl is left unspecified yet clearly made the cause rather than the effect of the dynastic rivalry. In other words, this playlet has no “source” but all too certain consequence:

And here I prophesy: this brawl today,
Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden,
Shall send between the Red Rose and the White
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.


Typically, it is the very perfection of conventionality that both masks and reveals the dissociation. The “heraldic language” (Brockbank), the “tidy allegorical opposition” (J. L. Styan),8 the depthless dumb quality of tapestry, allow us to hear words as mouthed objects, dissociated from the intended meanings: “Dare no man answer in a case of truth,” “Then say at once if I maintain'd the truth,” “The truth appears so naked on my side,” “If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,” “But dare maintain the party of the truth.” A crucial shift in the assumed nature of this “truth” goes unacknowledged by the speakers, and sharply widens the gap between their consciousness and ours. When the onlookers, unwilling to choose sides verbally, nevertheless rush to “proclaim [their] thoughts” in “dumb significants” (the roses) they seem to abandon the pretense that the “truth” has any independent basis of existence. It becomes an occasion merely for choosing sides in a fight, and the role of language is thus reduced to honorific flourishes of “style.” Even the polite agreement that the “right” shall be determined by a count of roses (40-42) is quickly reduced to its logical premise, that “right” is what inhabits one's scabbard (60). Nevertheless, despite this seemingly plain allegiance to a “truth” that would automatically disable any other kind, the antagonists helplessly continue to speak as if it were anchored elsewhere than in a brute and reflexive self-interest—as if the brawl could be supplied with authentic content by a conventional style of language.

The only other kind of language they know is legal language—the “nice sharp quillets of the law” (17)—which they mistrust for the very reason they are so glibly good at it: it is slippery, agreeably arbitrary, and requires no commitment:

Faith, I have been a truant in the law,
And never yet could frame my will to it,
And therefore frame the law until my will.


From the perilous vagaries of legal language, then, they retreat to an honorific ritual style that seduces unwary egos by promising to bypass the ambiguities of language altogether: “Then for the truth and plainness of the case / I pluck this pale and maiden blossom here” (46-47). Of course they are deaf to the joke of “dumb significants.” Mistrusting language as arbitrary, hence taking refuge in dumbness, they yet fail to see that the “significance” of the roses is not intrinsic, but verbal after all—not rooted offstage in some absolute correlative but assigned (and implicitly agreed-upon) from within the world of play. Thus the seemingly unequivocal visual signs at once helplessly dissolve through a series of puns, conceits, and other verbal figurations, language using its users:

I love no colours; and without all colour
Of base insinuating flattery
I pluck this white rose with Plantagenet.

(34-36, etc.)

Of course the roses do have “meanings” rooted off-stage. “The Wars of the Roses had an immediate significance for the Elizabethans, and this symbolism was as straightforward as a national anthem played today” (Styan, p. 211). But that oversimplifies both a past at least as dreadful and divisive as heroic, and the theatrical experience involved. Those Elizabethans, and behind them we, are watching seemingly uncreated and undetermined characters called “Plantagenet” and “Somerset,” in their first appearance in a highly abstracted scene and occasion (and indeed in a theater called The Rose) seeming to grow into their selves and their destinies by way of verbalisms they are deaf to, similes they think are signs made in heaven (off-stage). In other words, the audience watches strutting puppets, like vain actors, condemned to act out a script in a play called “history,” precisely because they are victims of the language they think they are masters of.

The dynastic quarrel grows out of the garden brawl; the characters and their causes grow into their historical selves in a blatantly theatrical scene. That in turn is followed by a staged metaphor of history itself, the incarnate past, materialized into the living play. The playlet of the imprisoned Mortimer (II.v) is also brashly theatrical, from the heightened and, according to Price, “especially impressive language” by which Mortimer stages himself—

Even, like a man new haled from the rack,
So fare my limbs with long imprisonment;
And these grey locks, the pursuivants of Death,
Nestor-like aged in an age of care. …


—on through the long solemn tolling of the historical record (63-92). Ostensibly the point of the scene, coming directly after Somerset's taunting Plantagenet as “yeoman,” is to validate Richard's claim to the throne while at the same time to complicate the seemingly simple question of “right inheritance.”9 Yet once again the formal extremities of situation and language call attention to themselves, hence to internal discrepancies of tone, in a way to undermine the conscious, rhetorical force of the scene. Precisely by virtue of its impressive theatricality we are made aware of “history” as staged, gratuitous—playful. For instance, Mortimer's own concept of history as plain, recitable chronology is a good deal simpler than that which, as a self-dramatizing survivor—a monument—he himself embodies. He becomes more fascinating for his sheer theatricality than for authentically Nestor-like qualities—

These eyes, like lamps whose wasting oil is spent,
Wax dim, as drawing to their exigent;
Weak shoulders, overborne with burdening grief,
And pithless arms, like to a wither'd vine
That droops his sapless branches to the ground. …


—which is to say, we are likely to find the speaker ironically more vivid than the historical content of his speech. The effect of all this is to deflate, not the Yorkist party line he so straightforwardly recites, but its dramatic authority. Since we attend to the speech more as a performance than as content, “history” appears less as the life of a past continuous with the present than as the petrified, finished past: that which has been used up and is accessible now—in the play—only as an artifact on exhibition. Though this may seem quite moving to us at one level of response, it still thwarts the full emotional assent it bids for. Similarly, simply to recite a chronicled record of past events is not necessarily to bring that past living into the present. That Richard seizes Mortimer's performance as a rationale for his ambition does not necessarily solemnize the transaction, and indeed may widen our ironic detachment from it. The gap between the assumption and the achievement is what allows us to view characters deeply buried in an illusion of substance as in fact inhabiting a play.

The record of course may knowingly be taken for the real thing. Plantagenet's consciousness, here and henceforth, remains rather precisely equivocal. Like the validation of “truth” by a count of roses (II.iv.40-42) Plantagenet's historically-sanctioned “right” is chiefly of functional significance even to him, yet unlike his son Richard in the next two plays he is still capable of rationalizing his lust for power. In some sense he believes in his birthright, yet obviously is not locked into that dimension like the vaguely grotesque puppet Mortimer; and indeed he will be capable of using the historical argument (in Part II, II.ii) as so much “nice sharp quillets of the law” while ready to retreat to the real truth in his scabbard. As plotter, as actor, he will have the power of one who uses language consciously. Yet it is not hard to imagine that were he successful in his bid for the crown, like Edward but unlike Richard (till the end of Richard III) he would surely fall prey to the role. But this is to anticipate 2 Henry VI, where his speeches keep him hovering nicely between the roles of politician-playwright and historical actor-puppet. Here, by the end of his session with Mortimer, the superiority of his consciousness and the relative privacy of his language qualify what we will henceforth hear. Now while Winchester, Gloucester, and Talbot mouth their speech like Morality poster-figures indeed, we realize that Plantagenet has an inside. He must “hold his tongue,” speak to himself in the third person (III.i.60) even as in becoming York and thus all the nearer his goal his self-consciousness pinches the more sharply. So, in the outermost zone of awareness, we respond the more complexly to the notion of “play.”


The fraud of England, not the force of France,
Hath now entrapp'd the noble-minded Talbot.


Lucy speaks better than he knows in locating the corruption as internal. The betrayal of Talbot by the feuding Dukes' “worthless emulation” (IV.iv.21) means the failure of a myth of order in which certain absolutes have presumably been secured—among them the “rights” of class, rank, lineage, and the sanctity and efficacy of oaths. “Now I break my warlike word,” says York (IV.iii.31), father of oathbreakers and avante-garde of artist-politicians. By the logic of metatheater, Talbot is “entrapp'd” because he is trappable—that is, because he embodies the static and exhausted order. He is of course a patriotic hero, but his heroics are one with his heavy vulnerability (he is left, for instance, “whirl'd like a potter's wheel” [I.v.19], and hurling execrations while the “witch” repeatedly confuses and eludes him), which is to say his warrior's stolidity is one with his deadly conventional style. If earlier “thy hour is not yet come” (I.v.13) it certainly has by Act IV, when he is joyously absorbed into the glorious ringing excess of his two long rhymed departures from the stage (IV.v,vi). Not surprisingly, the very petrifaction of his language brings it unwittingly close to comic style—as here, for instance, with young John playing clown to his father's heavy:

Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?
Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.
Upon my blessing, I command thee go.
To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.
Part of thy father may be sav'd in thee.
No part of him but will be sham'd in me.
Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose it.
Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?


Clearly, Talbot is already but one stage away from becoming the monumental gravestone of Lucy's “silly-stately” list of titles, which is but a way of passing him out of the living play. Like dead language, his hour come he must be expelled to be survived.

Such is the law of life, language, and dramatic art that henceforth seeks increasingly dense and articulate form in Shakespeare's characters.10 To Joan it applies somewhat more suggestively. The “art and baleful sorcery” (II.i.15) by which she seduces the French and outwits the English—and which is anticipated by Exeter's suggestion about Henry V, that the French “By magic verses have contriv'd his end” (I.i.27)—is pre-eminently a superior use of language. To be sure, she is a plotter, strategist, and “whore,” who works by stealth, disguise, and a vaguely wanton ability to excite and confuse both friend and enemy. But if it was true of manly Henry V that “His deeds exceed all speech,” the opposite is true of Joan. It means, however, not only that her reputation is self-inflated, but that, in a play, the telling power is verbal, if only because it can be so seductively indirect. The “high terms” by which Joan unmans Charles (I.ii) are “high” not in style but in effrontery, a claim of being backed by power which she at once, and for a term thereafter, makes good.

Her most conspicuous success is in Act III, scene iii, where “By fair persuasions, mix'd with sugar'd words” (18) she contrives to “entice” Burgundy from his allies. Again the scene is carefully suspended: Holinshed's tedious explanation of Burgundy's turning is wholly excluded, nor is there the least preparation for it in the play. Again, the formal dumbshow quality of the scene (here, the passing of troops across the stage) subtly contains its own sly counterpoint by setting off Joan's speech as seductive performance. “Speak, Pucelle, and enchant him with thy words,” Charles rather salaciously urges (40), and Burgundy himself underscores the point: “Either she hath bewitch'd me with her words, / Or nature makes me suddenly relent” (58-59). And finally:

I am vanquished; these haughty words of hers
Have better'd me like roaring cannon-shot
And made me almost yield upon my knees.


Her speech (“Look on thy country, look on fertile France, / And see the cities and the towns defac'd”) is often cited as proof of the impartiality of style in the play, since a native hero might substitute English names and use it verbatim without embarrassment. But surely this is to miss the joke. The speech is “good” only insofar as it approximates a model of patriotic rhetoric. By Joan's audacious use of such a speech—and by insuring that the emphasis falls not upon Burgundy's predictably puppet-like response, nor even upon the persuasiveness of Joan's “poetry,” but simply upon the fact of it as performance—Shakespeare is making perhaps his wryest and most nearly direct comment upon his own manipulation of material in 1 Henry VI. Her easy control over a style makes her perhaps the first in a long line of Shakespeare's artist-surrogates. Here through Joan he parodies the artist's encounter with his matter, the seemingly intractable “history,” which he finds, curiously, dissolving and forming under the very pressure of his pen. Of course, the speech itself, so solid-seeming in its portability, dissolves into a chimerical deceit the moment it is acknowledged as performance: “Done like a Frenchman!” Joan congratulates Burgundy on his response; and then aside: “turn and turn again” (85). But Shakespeare has just suggested in his little caricature that drama is such a performance, exposable as “deceit” (or at best poetic “fancy”) the moment we are permitted to take a securely superior and independent view of it.

Soon enough, of course, we are able to take such a view of Joan, who is doomed by the larger play she unknowingly inhabits. Indeed, her role in it has been equivocal, shifting between the poles of comic victim and witch-like manipulator; but it closes on her at last as inevitably as she upon Talbot. Her powers, “the force of France,” were essentially of one kind only, reacting upon “the fraud of England”; with Talbot's demise her term is up, and her exhaustion is staged with comic literalness in the sagging of her conjured “fiends” (V.iii). Now when York, still uncompleted, encompasses her as she encompassed Talbot, her language signally fails her: in her attempts to escape York's net her “art” is reduced to the instinctive self-defeating dodges of a caught animal, with each lying “turn and turn again” only drawing the net the tighter (V.iv.60-85), until “Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee.”11

Directly out of Joan's capture Margaret of Anjou seems to materialize, and to be sure, in the next play she is heiress to new uses of language. Here, however, it is Suffolk who steps forward light-tongued in a bid for the future, and who refines upon the role of the artist-surrogate. His polished treachery is of course the most advanced in the play, and marks the distance travelled from the opening's relative innocence; and it has far greater consequence than the deaths of Talbot and Joan—who are not even mentioned in Parts II and III—since it foists the dreadful Margaret upon Henry and England. But perhaps the best index to the kind of future Suffolk midwives through Margaret is in the kind of dissociations his language deliberately exploits. So far in the play, feeling has been counterfeited wishfully (at Henry's funeral) by public convention (the peace with France) or, at worst, in blatant hypocrisy (Winchester, and of course York). Now it is given a sharp and insidious refinement. Suffolk prepares himself like a Method actor—

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


—and conjures up for Henry such a magically convincing image as not only to supersede his promised political alliance with Armagnac's daughter (itself of course only an inferior form of pretense) but actually to impassion the innocent king. The insidious comedy of Suffolk's performance (V.v) reaches its climax when he chastizes the politicians for advancing their impersonal alliance over what he has convinced Henry is his true desire, though of course the king knows Margaret solely through Suffolk's “wondrous rare description”:

Marriage is a matter of more worth
Than to be dealt in by attorneyship;
Not whom we will, but whom his Grace affects,
Must be companion of his nuptial bed.


The artist is immersed in his art, invisible within the work bodied forth; the politicians are outmaneuvered because they are too heavy, their maneuvers too noticeable. Thus, in a sophistication of Joan's role, Suffolk appears, for his term, as a new kind of artist-politician—a conjurer who reshapes the given facts of the political world, but for the usual political ends (V.v.107-108). Well may Henry, in succumbing to the “force of your report,” detect ominous sensations—“such sharp dissension in my breast, / Such fierce alarums both of hope and fear, / As I am sick with working of my thoughts” (V.v.84-86). Not impossibly, Suffolk here not only anticipates the play fit for his own rise and fall, but foreshadows, however palely, Iago.

A pattern has emerged. Over and over we have found Shakespeare using highly formalized and familiar conventions of theater and language, and more or less subtly subverting them: more subtly, perhaps, and certainly with far greater creative possibilities, as the consciousness of the surrogate artist begins to form. Sometimes, to be sure, the subversion is equivocal: the manifest content seems more soberly absorptive of the dramatic energies in, say, the funeral and Mortimer scenes, than in Lucy's encomium or Joan's seduction of Burgundy, which are outright parodies. But the counter-consciousness is surely a great deal less partisan than those who insist that the play's sturdy Morality face is its one and only: “1 Henry VI, as Harbage notes, ‘is a play about the courage, prowess, and assumed righteousness of the English as represented by such loyal and able leaders as Salisbury, Bedford, Warwick, and, above all, Lord Talbot; and about the opportunism, treachery, and fox-like successes of the French as represented by the fraud and moral depravity of La Pucelle’” (Cairncross, Arden 1HVI, p. xl). Indeed, the Morality convention, consciously used, seems to be a fairly obvious way of rendering a defunct organism as “stoned” into fragments—Suffolk and Winchester, for instance, coming on as Ambition and Pride (V.i and V.v)—and hence a relatively crude and early form of dissociation.

As a “fantasia”121 Henry VI plays upon the very notion of historical reality, the ontology of the past. In testing out ways in which the past claims to signify in the present, Shakespeare must have marvelled to discover how easily that supposedly intractable material dissolved, how easily he could manipulate it and produce solid “effects” such as, for instance, Nashe wondered at in beholding “brave Talbot … after he had lyne two hundred yeares in his Tombe … fresh bleeding” on the stage. For thus does “art and baleful sorcery” win over Charles, Talbot, Burgundy, Henry, Nashe, and us. Too easily, in fact, and in our case at least, not lastingly. Something was wrong with a concept of the past, solemnly chronicled in the texts or monumentalized in conventions of dramatic speech and form, that so readily turned to self-parody under the scornful dramatist's pen. That readiness, indeed, saved the play itself from petrifaction, but it also meant that, in the ease of its contempt for the petrified past which it affected to present “fresh bleeding,” 1 Henry VI had missed the real issue between the artist and his matter. That issue would be newly and more impressively joined in the next two parts of Henry VI.


  1. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944). “Followers” (in the broadest sense) would include M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London, 1961) and Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (London, 1957). “Autonomists” include H. T. Price, Construction in Shakespeare (Ann Arbor, 1951), J. P. Brockbank, “The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI,” Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3: Early Shakespeare, eds. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London, 1961), and A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino, California, 1967). Others, like Cairncross, accept Tillyard's view of Shakespeare's dependence on Hall, but also give greater emphasis to the dramatic accomplishment. I have used the revised Arden Edition of Henry VI, Part I, ed. Andrew W. Cairncross (London, 1962).

    Only since writing this essay have I read Robert Ornstein's A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass., 1972) which persuasively dismantles much of the historicists' apparatus that had long obscured the vitality of, especially, the early histories. Ornstein substitutes readings of the plays as tough, humanistic, self-creating forms, but (as this essay may imply) I think he undervalues the self-parodying impulses at work in the Henry VI plays.

  2. Specifically, see Hamilton's chapter on 1 Henry VI.

  3. The present article forms part of a full-scale treatment of all Shakespeare's English histories, and there I deal with these matters in some detail.

  4. Tillyard, p. 159, thinks that “when we encounter an unnatural or stylized balance of incident or an artificial pattern of speech we must … be good Aristotelians, for the moment, and believe that the soul of the play is in plot rather than in character.”

  5. I borrow the term, and the general perspectives it affords, from Lionel Abel, who gave it currency in Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (New York, 1963).

  6. Cairncross, Arden 1HVI, p. 3.

  7. In “‘I Am But the Shadow of Myself’: Ceremony and Design in 1 Henry VI,Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968) Burckhardt finds the scene bringing into articulate form an implicit tension in the play between its overtly prevailing “ceremonial” style, and the immersed, designing, indirect workings of the true playwright.

  8. J. L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge, 1967), p. 211.

  9. Mortimer's historical account is “typical of Yorkist summaries of the Lancastrian regimes, and … for purposes of the play, it is the truth.” H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the Time of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), p. 250. On complications of “right inheritance” see Ronald Berman, “Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI Plays,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 13 (1962), 487-497.

  10. Consider, for instance, York's highly conventionalized battlefield speech just before his capture (3HVI, I.iv).

  11. In the first chapter of The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York, 1972) Leslie Fiedler deals ingeniously with Joan as Shakespeare's first evocation, in horror and fascination, of the archetypal alien. Fiedler assumes, however, an orthodoxly sober Shakespeare, quite without ironic detachment, except once—as if self-surprisingly—in Joan's jeering of Lucy's “silly stately style.”

  12. 1 Henry VI is “not so much a Chronicle play as a fantasia on historical themes.” Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, III (London, 1960), 25.

Patrick Carnegy (review date 30 December 2000)

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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. Review of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.Spectator 285, no. 8995 (30 December 2000): 32-3.

[In the following review, Carnegy praises director Michael Boyd's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 as a compelling and faithful staging of plays.]

These three plays are the least known and indeed often dismissed parts of Shakespeare's series of eight histories running from Richard II through to Richard III. In his magisterial survey, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999), Harold Bloom offers them no more than seven pages in a book of doorstop proportion. For him all that is memorable is, grudgingly, Joan of Arc in part one, Cade the Kentish hoodlum in part two and in part three Richard Gloucester's apprenticeship in butchery. Bloom saw that all three were ‘vivid comedians’, but as the drift of the plays in which they appear could be described as ‘The Invention of the Inhuman’, he had reason enough to give them short shrift. They are indeed profoundly subversive texts.

Others have valued them more highly. Wagner, who read the plays at least three times, usually aloud to Cosima after dinner, admiringly noted that they provided ‘a complete picture of the dreadfulness of life’, remarking also ‘the wonderful characterisation beneath the loose jumble’. But their modern revival does not catch fire until Peter Hall and John Barton's ‘Wars of the Roses’ adaptation (1963). It was sustained by Terry Hands's 1977 productions, by Jane Howell's television version for the BBC in the late 1970s (those were the days), by Michael Bogdanov's anti-Thatcher interpretation of 1978-9 and by Adrian Noble's ‘Plantagenets’ condensation of 1988. It is the men and women of the theatre who have rescued the texts from the gradgrinds and amazed the unprejudiced with what they have found there.

This does include the interminable clash of arms between scarcely distinguishable factions and inordinate rivers of blood issuing therefrom. The director's first task is to find a way of tackling this without reducing the audience to boredom or helpless mirth. Manageable, maybe, for the span of a single play but not so easy when the Henry VIs are given virtually uncut and in the course of a single day, as they were at Stratford just before Christmas. In itself this 12-hour marathon is a first for the RSC, and doubtless for most of us who were fortunate enough to be there. The director is Michael Boyd, who by February will have taken the story through into Richard III, his tetralogy rounding off the RSC's magnificent millennial venture, ‘This England: The Histories’.

Boyd's strategy can perhaps best be described as trusting the text and going for it. Cuts are minimal and painless (as with the excision of a bizarre tiny part about the un-Gartering of a cowardly knight named Falstaff), while a few transpositions commit no sin against the bard. The result is a totally compelling enactment of Shakespeare's chronicling of England's fate after the death of Henry V.

Through the story runs the timeless theme of the fell consequences of broken oaths, of pursuit of policies of the ‘murderous Machiavel’, and of ineffectual leadership—in short, when order is undone. Shakespeare's audience could enjoy his depiction of chaos, congratulating themselves on the relative stability of the Tudor dynasty which had rescued them from Plantagenet anarchy. Today we gaze into our own abyss without any such comfort.

Where past productions have honed in on the plays as ritualistic drama (Hall/Barton), on the psychology of their dysfunctional characters (Hands's Queen Margaret, Helen Mirren, explained her relationship with Henry as ‘flagellation in the chapel’), or imposed specific interpretations (as in Bogdanov's updating), Michael Boyd goes for it straight and with unashamed theatricality. No matter how Marlovian the rhetoric of the youthful Shakespeare, how lame or creaky it may be in places, the commitment to his language is total. The strength of this strategy is that even improbable and convoluted scenes knock you out with the actors' conviction of who they are and what they are about. And you have the bonus of being free to choose your own interpretation.

Boyd's designer, Tom Piper, has cleverly remodelled the Swan stage so that it's effectively surrounded by the audience—you can easily find yourself uncomfortably close to the clangour of metallic doors, the clash of weapons, the squirt and squelch of blood and worse. But most remarkable is the circus-like use of vertical space for dizzying action on the ropes and scaling ladders of siege-warfare. Yet sickening realism in this mode is set against emblematic artifice, as when prospective marriage partners are flown in from above, frozen in huge gilded frames—not people but exhibits to be evaluated for their dowries and political worth.

Boyd keeps the long chains of revenge and retribution alive by bringing back the slain as participatory ghosts. The unquiet shades of the doughty warrior Talbot and his son join forces in Cade's rebellion with those of the Cardinal, Gloucester and Suffolk, and apotheosise their own deaths in the Morality episode of the Father and Son who've unwittingly murdered each other.

Boyd fields an exceptionally strong ensemble in which the character doublings are unfailingly suggestive. Fiona Bell's gamin and cockily Irish Joan resurrects into a superb Queen Margaret, every inch the ‘tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide’. She's also the big cat who's got the double cream—a lover in the manipulative Suffolk (Richard Dillane) and a royal husband in Henry. What is particularly striking is that, as the conciliatory King loses what hold he has had on his courtiers, he doesn't crumple but rather gains in assertive stature, standing up to the Queen to whom he had been wont to look despairingly for guidance. Thus the conflict between moral principle and unscrupulous ambition has not only pathos but also palpable dramatic force. David Oyelowo's Henry stands radiant in white like an improbable angel in the very jaws of hell. This young black actor makes credible and deeply sympathetic a role that has to be the moral centre without which the catalogue of the daemonic and inhuman would be meaningless. Like Richard Plantagenet, he too could say, ‘I am myself alone.’

Much of the pleasure in the production is watching how Shakespeare nurtures the growth of distinctive, rounded character from the morass of feudal squabbling. This is especially memorable in Richard Cordery's powerful Lord Protector and in Clive Wood's masterful performance as York. You had to applaud the way in which this York lightened his wordy claim to the throne by laying out his genealogical tree on the floor with a sackful of pebblestones. In him, the seed of royal ambition, once sown, catches terrible fire that consumes him in a horrendously brilliant death sequence before passing to inferno in ‘misshapen Dick’. This latter role is entrusted to Aidan McArdle, recently seen as Puck in Boyd's Midsummer Night's Dream, and whose career in the Henrys begins with a mischievously amusing Dauphin. McArdle's compelling gifts as a comedian and now as a villain suggest that, graduated from Shakespeare's proving ground, he will metamorphose into a Richard III that one awaits with impatience. Wagner thought that Richard III should never be performed apart from the Henry VIs. He had a serious point.


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Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3

Classified among Shakespeare's earliest works, the chronicle history plays designated as Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (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.

Catherine S. Cox (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Cox, Catherine S. “Sons of Eve: Ambiguity and Gender in the First Tetralogy.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Cox analyzes the representation of female characters in the Henry VI plays, particularly Joan and Margaret.]

In the Henry VI tetralogy, Shakespeare complicates conventional representations of gender identity by means of ambiguously constructed female characters.1 Joan of Arc and Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, for example, are shown to exhibit many characteristics of the conventional virago types, while Elizabeth provides contrast in her rather bland and perhaps inadvertent acquiescence, as does Anne, so easily is she seduced. And, evolving over the course of the tetralogy, Queen Margaret especially complicates conventional gender identities throughout her various social, political, and economic confrontations. The female characters, Joan and Margaret in particular, supply the tetralogy with culturally and theoretically profound treatments of gender issues that may be explored in relation to literary and theological conventions. In particular, these two female figures exhibit characteristics germane to Renaissance appropriations of early Christian and medieval antifeminist commonplaces of valorization and denigration, the distinction between them rendered ambiguous by the subtle incorporation of competing motifs. In my analysis to follow, I shall explicate the polysemous gender constructions in the Henry VI tetralogy in connection with literary-theological traditions. Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate that Shakespeare's radical departure from the limitations of gender and gender stereotypes leads him to favor more ambiguous—and, perhaps, ultimately ambivalent—constructions.


A brief overview of relevant literary-theological gender labels, categories, and identities will be helpful in situating Shakespeare's work. Despite the institutional religious turmoil affecting England throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many of the basic symbols and metaphors of Christian tradition remain unchanged in themselves, though necessarily recontextualized because of historical transition. These include a wide range of attributes and characteristics owing far more to popular perception and cultural myths than to the tenets set forth by the early Christian and medieval writings as they were received, and indeed the status of woman in Shakespeare's England owes much to popular interpretations of both Christian and secular intellectual traditions.

One avenue of exploration that can illuminate gender conflation in Shakespeare's work is the influence of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the Tractatus ad laudem gloriosae Virginis, St. Bernard refers to those women who have chosen a life of virginity as exiles: “in exsilio filios Evae” [sons of Eve in exile].2 The description is curious owing to its confusion of gender labels—for, as current representatives of Eve's legacy and lineage, women would presumably be given the label “filiae,” daughters, rather than “filii,” sons—but this discrepancy may be partly explained by the relative availability of labels in connection with gender identity. By the twelfth century, when Bernard is writing his famous treatise, women are still associated with, and thus bearing the misogynistic brunt of, Eve's perceived legacy of sin. Indeed, even in the fifth century an association set forth in St. Jerome's oft-cited Epistola ad Eustochium—“Mors per Evam: vita per Mariam” (Death through Eve, life through Mary)—effectively conflates women and carnal sin, fueling the negative perceptions of Woman throughout the early Christian and medieval eras.3 The embodiment of carnal concupiscence and subversive disobedience, or at least the potential thereof, women are therefore regarded with mistrust and apprehension: filiae Evae, the daughters of Eve.

Identifying “good” women—who acquiesce to patristic standards of virginity and gender appropriate behavior—in laudatory terms, while still acknowledging their essential relationship to Eve's legacy, then, is accomplished by way of Bernard's filii Evae label. But while the women remain Evae, of Eve, suggests that they have somehow transcended her shameful legacy of sin, albeit cryptically, through their identification as sons, filii. In this regard Bernard's formulation echoes Jerome's (if not his wording per se, then certainly his ideology), itself drawn off the writings of St. Paul. In Book III of his Commentariorum in epistolam ad Ephesios, Jerome makes clear that in his ideal world, the only good woman is not even a woman at all, but an honorary man:

Quandiu mulier partui servit et liberis, hanc habet ad virum differentiam, quam corpus ad animam. Sin autem Christo magis voluerit servire quam saeculo, mulier esse cessabit, et dicetur vir.4

[As long as woman is for birth and children, she has difference from man, as body from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be woman and will be called man.]

Jerome's remark here echoes Paul's description in his own epistle to the Galations, that, in an ideal Christian environment, “non est masculus neque femina” (there is no masculine nor feminine).5 The challenge for Paul, Jerome, and Bernard, then, is to exclude women—the objects of flesh and corresponding revulsion owing to Eve's legacy—from patriarchal hegemony while simultaneously purporting to include all of God's creation in paradigms of God's master plan.6 Hence the accomplishment of the filii Evae label: it encompasses both virgo and virago overtly in their most positive patriarchal senses while never fully distancing itself from the legacy of corruption and taint derived from the Genesis narrative. The depiction of women in early Christian treatises and in the narratives of those women who exemplify desired patriarchal virtues, then, is thus never too far removed from the underlying anxiety, inconsistency, and sense of paradoxical ambivalence of their authors.

Given that the language of patristic theology is also the language of literary criticism from its early Christian origins into the early modern era (at which time “literary criticism” arguably evolves into a separate and distinct discipline unto itself),7 we might pause to consider the utility of the filii Evae figure in relation to the implications of gender construction and gender(ed) representations in literary works, both religious and secular. Hagiographical narratives, describing in vivid details both the chastity and martyrdom of their heroines, were widespread and popular forms of literature dating from about the fifth century a.d., when Jerome's directives for virginity as an ascetic calling achieved both currency as valorized practice and, inevitably, resistance and violence, the stuff of martyrdom and legend.8 Widely circulated examples include the lives of Juliana, Catherine, and Cecilia. Indeed, Chaucer provides English literature with its best known example, in the Invocatio ad Mariam of the anonymous Second Nun narrator of the Canterbury Tales, who prefaces her own hagiographical narrative of St. Cecilia with an address that is as much about her own status as her subject's, referring to herself overtly as the “unworthy sone of Eve.”9 (To what extent these narratives are based on actual lives is, of course, the problem of any literary work that purports to historical basis—the paradoxical genre of “historical fiction” invites us to consider that relationship, well aware that ultimately it is as a work of literature that we regard the text.)

Although the same five or six names recur frequently throughout the known hagiographic canon, the literature and popular culture of the late medieval and early modern eras did not always have to look back into the historical past, to the early Christian ascetics, for their heroines. The fifteenth-century French peasant Joan of Arc, for instance, lived a life interpreted by many as fulfilling the patristic directives of virgin martyrdom, and she therefore became a subject of popular legend.10 In conjunction with her military and political alliances, Joan's spiritual commitment—her calling on other martyred saints during her execution by fire, for instance—helped to create a contemporary legend for fifteenth century devotees, which continued to enjoy widespread appeal during the late sixteenth century, when Shakespeare is writing the first play of his Henry VI tetralogy.

We are introduced to Shakespeare's Joan in the first act of 1 Henry VI by way of the Bastard of Orleans' description, which emphasizes her “holy maid” status:

A holy maid hither with me I bring,
Which by a vision sent to her from heaven
Ordained is to raise this tedious siege,
And drive the English forth the bounds of France.

(I. ii. 51-54)

Of course, since this is an English play, written and performed for an English audience, and the character of Joan an enemy of England,11 the portrait is here extended to include hints of the occult, prophecy and magic; the Bastard's references here are largely benign—i.e., “spirit of deep prophecy” (55)—but they introduce a misogynistic literary convention that had achieved particular currency during the sixteenth century, the association of supposedly “unnatural” women with witchcraft and Satan.12 The shifting emphasis of the Bastard's speech here is typical of the character Joan's representation throughout: there is a profound and marked ambivalence regarding a woman who, while exhibiting inordinate strength and leadership—the virago/virgo topos—is simultaneously impugned with the suggestion that her works are for Satan, not God. The competing images are present throughout the play, and shift along political (i.e., English/French) lines; to Alanson, for instance, she is a “blessed saint” and “sweet virgin” (III. iii. 15, 16), to Talbot, a “damned sorceress,” the “Foul fiend of France” (III. ii. 38, 52). In this regard, Joan is the virago who transcends gender constraints to fulfill a valiant purpose—for Joan, the military leadership of her people is a cause they believe to be just—and who, as is typical of the hagiographic heroine, will be the subject of rumor, innuendo, and scheming.

Joan describes herself in language that evokes, albeit indirectly, Christian asceticism and the virago/virgo “son of Eve” topos: “Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleas'd / To shine on my contemptible estate” (I. ii. 74, 75); “My courage try by combat, if thou dar'st, / And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex. / Resolve on this: thou shalt be fortunate / If thou receive me for thy warlike mate” (I. ii. 89-92). And when Charles remarks, “Thou art an Amazon” (I. ii. 104), Joan quickly balances the portrait, not by denying the label (which she presumably knows is fitting), but by complementing it; “Christ's Mother helps me, else I were too weak” (I. ii. 106). Her self-described association with the Virgin confirms her virgo identity, and her calling upon the Virgin's assistance in military engagement affirms her position as virago. In addition, Joan's being stigmatized and ostracized by those around her—in particular the male adversaries who apparently fear not only defeat in battle but, more terrifyingly, defeat by a woman warrior—underscores her status as “other,” a marginalized outsider or, in the language of Bernard, an “exile.” Joan's self-imposed exile from cultural norms marks her as “other,” and this overt identification will ultimately lead to her demise.

The name associated with Joan, and in fact used by Joan herself, aptly corresponds to the ambivalence inhering in this virgo/virago portrait: “pucelle.” In boldly proclaiming victory and assigning herself credit for her deed, Joan announces to the Dauphin, Reignier, and Alanson, “Advance our waving colors on the walls, / Rescu'd is Orleance from the English! / Thus Joan de Pucelle hath perform'd her word” (I. vi. 1-3). Meaning “the maid,” both in the sense of “the virgin” and “the slut,”13 the “pucelle” label at once embodies the two extremes of woman's sexual identity, virgin and harlot.14 Paradoxically, Joan is at once both: virgin in her manifestations of piety and devotion to her cause (hence her “humble handmaid” self-reference [III. iii. 42]),15 and promiscuous (symbolically, at least) in her divided commitments to France, God, and the men with whom she must interact in order to fulfill her mission. Indeed, Joan's famous “circle” metaphor may be understood as an illustration of the text's own ambivalence regarding her promiscuity:

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.

(I. ii. 133-35)

Whether Joan actually is sexually promiscuous is a matter of debate, since innuendo and rumor abound throughout the play while no concrete evidence is offered.

Joan's claim of pregnancy at the moment of her execution is similarly unresolved, complicating the character in its twofold, paradoxical insistence upon both virginity and promiscuity:

Will nothing turn your unrelenting hearts?
Then, Joan, discover thine infirmity,
That warranteth by law to be thy privilege.
I am with child, ye bloody homicides!
Murther not then the fruit within my womb,
Although ye hale me to a violent death.

(V. iv. 59-64)

The claim is further complicated in that Joan is unable or unwilling to identify the father, other than supplying a few cryptic and obviously conflicting remarks: “It was Alanson that enjoy'd my love” (73); “'Twas neither Charles nor yet the duke I nam'd, / But Reignier, King of Naples, that prevail'd” (77-78). Does Joan de Pucelle here provide, as many critics argue, confirmation of her harlotry, a fitting manifestation of her promiscuity in that she herself cannot identify the father from among the many candidates? Or, is it that Joan uses this fib as an attempt to forestall the execution, perhaps to torment and tease the executioners by forcing them to admit that the burning of an unborn child is a morally acceptable wartime practice for them? The text allows no simple answer,16 but the ambiguity of the episode aptly corresponds to the representation of Joan in the play. Joan is shown, in her own words and actions, to exhibit the positive qualities of the “son of Eve” type. Even if that portrait is compromised by the stereotypical accusations of wantonness that are necessary to construct a villain because of issues of politics and national identity for Shakespeare's audience, Joan manifests the virago/virgo topos in both its spiritual and literary senses.


It therefore is no mere coincidence that Margaret of Anjou enters the play just as Joan de Pucelle is exiting it. Juxtaposed with the burning of Joan is Suffolk's wooing of Margaret, ostensibly on Henry's behalf; just before the “sorceress condemn'd to burn” (V. iv. 1) is brought forth, Margaret declares her own comportment as that which “becomes a maid, / A virgin” (V. iii. 177-78). As the play prepares for Joan's departure, then, it simulataneously prepares for Margaret's entrance, making an overt substitution, as it were, of one woman for another. Indeed, it would not be reading too much into the play to suggest, perhaps, that each woman represents one manifestation of a single dramatic presence; the two complement each other and coincide in important thematic and symbolic ways. But the trajectories are reversed—while Joan's virtuous characterization rapidly deteriorates near the end of her presence in the play, Margaret's character is a monstrous conflation of misogynistic stereotypes before the character is arguably given a moral reprieve in her last scene of the final play of the tetralogy. Thus as an image of a feminine ideal in virtue, attractiveness, and decorum, Margaret initially seems to provide a nice balance to Joan's virago qualities, though this image is quickly challenged by a more duplicitous and far more complex characterization. Henry is immediately captivated by Suffolk's description of her beauty and character at the end of 1 Henry—“Her peerless feature, joined with her birth / Approves her fit for none but for a king”—which is, tellingly, elaborated upon successively to sound, ironically enough, much like the French descriptions of Joan: “Her valiant courage and undaunted spirit, / (More than in women commonly is seen)” (V. v. 68-71). Margaret's character will evolve over the course of the three remaining plays, and, like Joan, Margaret will assume the role of agitator and nemesis in the lives of those associated with the English court; her intentions are not always obvious, though her villainy is at times appalling. Still, she is neither wholly reducible to the role of “villain” nor excusable in her actions (by most moral standards)—ultimately her ambiguity prevails.

It is fitting, therefore, that Margaret's first appearance in 2 Henry VI illustrates the utmost in charm and decorum as she addresses her new husband, the King, in the presence of her ally and paramour, Suffolk—

Great King of England, and my gracious lord,
The mutual conference that my mind hath had,
By day, by night, waking and in my dreams,
In courtly company, or at my beads,
With you, mine alder-liefest sovereign,
Makes me the bolder to salute my king
With ruder terms, such as my wit affords
And overjoy of heart doth minister.

(I. i. 24-31)

—which Henry approves as “grace in speech,” language “yclad with wisdom's majesty” (32-33). Her scheming with Suffolk, their desire for power and control, their betrayal of Gloucester—all these activities characterize Margaret as relentlessly self-serving and driven. In 2 Henry VI, then, Margaret is on the surface a lady, quite feminine and decorous; but beneath this affected visage lurks the soul of a corrupted virago, characterized by a masculine drive for power that not only provides the motivation for betrayal and civil war throughout the tetralogy, but also forms the tetralogy's thematic core. Indeed, in 3 Henry VI Margaret's cruelty will show itself as appalling viciousness, most notably in the famous “molehill” scene of York's mocking and death.17 Here Margaret taunts the hapless York first with a reminder of his son's death—“Look, York, I stained this napkin with the blood / That valiant Clifford with his rapier's point / Made issue from the bosom of the boy” (I. iv. 79-81)—and then with a mockery of his own loss of power: “O, 'tis a fault too too unpardonable! / Off with the crown; and, with the crown, his head, / And whilst we breathe, take time to do him dead” (106-08).

Margaret, the “She-wolf of France,” as York describes her, is indeed “ill-beseeming” with regard to her sex, “like an Amazon trull” (111-14), a “tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide” (137). Margaret, then, embodies a relentless, determined cruelty devoid of any hint of compassion or remorse; any manifestation of pathos, conventionally gendered feminine, is conspicuous only by its obvious absence. There is little evidence of piety or commitment to an ascetic spiritual virgo ideal throughout parts 2 and 3, and indeed Margaret seems far removed from Joan's filii Evae topos. The “She-wolf of France” label18 evokes Joan as well; and the image of Margaret here arguably reflects upon the first play's attempt to denigrate its filius Evae, La Pucelle.

But the final play of the tetralogy, Richard III, tempers the negative image of Margaret, beginning with Gloucester's exoneration of Margaret's villainy: “I cannot blame her; by God's holy Mother, / She hath had too much wrong, and I repent / My part thereof that I have done to her” (I. iii. 305-07). Richard's swearing by “God's holy Mother” provides a thematic link to the Virgin/virgo presence, which assumes additional importance when taken in conjunction with the image of the grieving mother, the mater dolorosa, introduced with the Duchess in II. ii and expanded with Margaret's own participation in IV. iv.19 Here, in IV. iv, we find a triumvirate of grieving mothers, the most definite of which is Elizabeth, lamenting their losses; in addition, we find Margaret, fiesty and sharp-tongued, not only articulating angry criticisms in the form of prophetic curses20 but also, at Elizabeth's request, instructing her protege to do so as well:

If ancient sorrow be most reverent,
Give mine the benefit of seniory,
And let my griefs frown on the upper hand.
If sorrow can admit society,
Tell over your woes again by viewing mine.

(IV. iv. 35-39)

The emphasis on child-bearing and loss in Margaret's speeches to the Duchess and Elizabeth is important here in her final scene, for it provides a connection between the various topoi associated with Margaret throughout the tetralogy; Margaret's usurpations of power and her manipulating others have been unnatural, just as it is unnatural for the mother to outlive her son. Coming as it does in a scene of spiritual reconciliation, it perhaps provides a means of exonerating Margaret for her sins. While many readers find that the Margeret offered in Richard III is hardly the same character as that inhabiting the texts of the three Henry VI plays,21 the apparent transformation of the character is significant in light of the tetralogy's attention to literary and theological traditions.

The final image of Margaret offers balance; there is no clear-cut, single, definitive portrait of Margaret, nor need there be. She is both masculine and feminine in her behavior and speech, or, we could argue, neither—the competing manifestations of gender exhibited in Margaret's representation effectively cancel each other out, or at least force us to acknowledge her ambiguity.22 Initally a monstrous illustration of a virago in its most unnatural and undesirable sense, she is restored to a more conventional maternal topos in her final appearance. This surprising, perhaps forced, restoration of the more palatable, conventional image likewise invites us to reflect further upon her connections to Joan, La Pucelle, whose feigned pregnancy just prior to her death also renders her final image maternal. The twofold dimension of the filius Evae presence, then, is effectively recuperated by way of an ambiguous recasting of Margaret that both reifies and betrays the originary topos.

Shakespeare's use of the filii Evae figure is, of course, complicated by the shifting relationship of religion and politics in England during the late sixteenth century. From a cultural perspective, Shakespeare's women additionally reflect a marked change in the masculine power structures that for so long had dominated English rule. The “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth obviously exhibits qualities associated with the filii Evae type, and her influence can be felt upon much of England's early modern literature,23 in which representations of historical figures inevitably betray factual liberties for the sake of pragmatism and drama.24 Contextualized by literary and theological traditions, the women inhabiting the Henry VI tetralogy offer provocative insights into a volatile and ambivalent world of ambiguity and gender: “this it is,” observes Richard, “when men are rul'd by women” (Richard III, I. i. 62).25


  1. Whether the three Henry VI plays and Richard III actually constitute a “tetralogy” remains a matter of critical difference; the present essay accepts the position that the four are unified and united despite their respective differences and problems. Herschel Baker, in his introduction to the plays (The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974], pp. 587-93), indicates that the Henry VI plays served as a kind of warm-up for the writing of Richard III, “that great event” (p. 593); others see the earlier plays as more integral, despite their relative inferiority. For an overview of the issue, see Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 33-82, esp. pp. 33-35; Phyllis Rackin, “History into Tragedy: The Case of Richard III,” in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1996), 31-53, considers matters of genre distinction; see also Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), 73-85. All citations of Shakespeare's works will cite the Riverside edition, with locations provided in text.

  2. Saint Bernard, Tractatus ad laudem gloriosae Virginis, in the Patrologia cursus completus, series latina (hereafter PL), ed. J. P. Migne (Paris: Migne, 1844-83, with reprints), vol. 182. The image occurs in other texts, most notably the Salve Regina's “exsules filii Hevae” [exiled sons of heaven] and the Prymer's “exiled sones of Eue”; texts are Salve Regina, cited by Marina Warner, Alone of All her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Knopf, 1976), p. 115, and The Prymer or Lay Folk's Prayer Book, ed. Henry Littlehales, Early English Text Society no. 105 (Oxford: EETS, 1895); Latin translations my own here and throughout. The phrase has received critical attention particularly in relation to its presence in the Prologue of Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale, to be discussed below. On Bernard's attitudes toward gender, see Caroline Walker Bynum's chapter “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother,” in her Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1982), 110-69; for a psychoanalyticial perspective, see Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1987), 151-69; and, in relation to hermeneutics, David Damrosch, “Non Alia Sed Aliter: The Hermeneutics of Gender in Bernard of Clairvaus,” in Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), 181-95.

  3. Saint Jerome, Epistolae, no. 22, PL, vol. 22. Jerome's association evolves into one of the better known typological associations, exemplifying the ambivalence of the theologians in their attitude towards women. Commentary on patristic attitudes toward gender is vast; see, for instance, Margaret Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), pp. 53-77; Elizabeth A. Clark, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends (New York: Mellen, 1979); Glenda McLeod, Virtue and Venom: Catalogs of Women from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1991), pp. 42-50; Eleanor Commo McLaughlin, “Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1974), pp. 213-66; Jo Ann McNamara, “Sexual Equality and the Cult of Virginity in Early Christian Thought,” Feminist Studies, 3 (1976), 145-58; Monique Alexandre, “Early Christian Women,” in A History of Women in the West, Vol. 1: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, ed. Pauline Schmidtt Pantel, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Belknap and Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 409-44.

  4. Saint Jerome, Commentariorum in epistolam ad Ephesios, 3.28, in PL, vol. 26.

  5. Saint Paul, Galatians 3.28, in Biblia sacra iuxta vulgatam Clementinam, 4th ed., ed. Alberto Colunga and Laurentio Turrado (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1965).

  6. Saint Ambrose makes a similar comment in his Expositio in evangelii secundum Lucam, ed. M. Adriaen, Corpus Christianorum series latina, ed. 14 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1957), 10.161. On early Christian, medieval, and early modern misogyny and its theological underpinnings, particularly with regard to virginity as the ascetic ideal, see Susanna Elm, “Virgins of God”: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994); John Bugge, Virginitas: An Essay in the History of a Medieval Ideal (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975), 5-29; R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991); Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 1-45.

  7. Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1986), p. xi. A broad, but useful, overview of Elizabethan theology and its literary influences on Shakespeare and his contemporaries is supplied by Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963), 63-110.

  8. On hagiography and its conventions, see the overview provided by Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988); see also Barbara Abou-el-Haj, The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), 1-60.

  9. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), VIII. 62.

  10. See Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (New York: Knopf, 1981), for a detailed history and profile of the historical figure and her many literary and popular representations. Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women: Varieties of Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), notes, with regard to the term virago in the Renaissance, “Heywood explains its semantic origin: ‘All these Heroyicke Ladies are generally called Viragoes, which is derived of Masculine Spirits,’” and that Joan of Arc is listed as “ye French Virago” in Gabriel Harvey's Commonplace Book (p. 35).

  11. On the historical relevance of Joan to England's sense of nationalism, see Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester, 1983), pp. 105-06 and 156-59. Issues of sexual identity in relation to the theatrical tradition of male actors' performing female roles have received productive attention in recent years; although it is beyond the scope of my discussion to address the subject, of particular relevance are Leah S. Marcus, “Shakespeare's Comic Heroines, Elizabeth I, and the Political Uses of Androgyny,” in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1986), 135-53; Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1994); and Jardine, 9-36.

  12. On the association of women and witchcraft and its presence in 1 Henry VI, see Marilyn L. Williamson, “‘When Men Are Rul'd by Women’: Shakespeare's First Tetralogy,” Shakespeare Studies, 19 (1987), 41-59, esp. pp. 41-46.

  13. Warner, Joan of Arc, notes, with regard to the disputed etymology and polysemy of “pucelle,” that the word “means ‘virgin,’ but in a special way, with distinct shades connoting youth, innocence and, paradoxically, nubility. It is the equivalent of the Hebrew almah, used of both the Virgin Mary and the dancing girls in Solomon's harem in the Bible” (p. 22). Hence Talbot's pun in 1 Henry VI: “Pucelle or pussel, Dauphin or dogfish” (I. iv. 107).

  14. Sexual denigration as a means of tempering or neutralizing the effects of a dominant or at least non-passive woman is nothing new, of course, either in literature or culture; see Catherine S. Cox, “Froward Language and Wanton Play: The ‘Commoun’ Text of Henryson's Testament of Cresseid,Studies in Scottish Literature, 29 (1996), 58-72, for an overview of fifteenth century culture and context. The implications of sexuality and gender in Shakespeare's world are given insightful treatment by Phyllis Rackin, “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: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994), 68-95, esp. pp. 71-72.

  15. The “handmaid” reference evokes the Virgin Mary's self-identification as ancilla in St. Luke's account of the Annunciation (1. 1-56): in response to Gabriel's “Ave gratia plena: Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus,” Mary responds, “Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” (“Hail [one] full of grace: the Lord with you: you are blessed among women.” “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”). The role of ancilla as child-bearer has its origins in the Hagar-Ismael episode of Genesis, and the term retains its connotations of surrogacy in its New Testament manifestation as phrased by the Virgin herself.

  16. On the vexing nature of the episode, see, for instance, David M. Bevington, “The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI,Shakespeare Studies, 2 (1966), 51-58, who argues that “Joan is herself a strumpet. Her claim of pregnancy to avoid execution (V. ii) is an outrageous travesty of the Virgin birth” (p. 52); Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), critiques Bevington's argument, noting that while Bevington “appears to accept the traditional categories of male and female roles at face value,” Kahn herself sees them “as projections of male anxieties, consciously presented as such by Shakespeare” (p. 55, n. ll). Joan's claim may be understood also as a parody of the hagiographic “virgin mother” figure, in that Joan appears to insist simultaneously upon both the miraculous presence of an asexually created child and a series of quite human paternal candidates; for historical and cultural background, see Heffernan, who describes the “virgin mother” topos in relation to hagiography (231-99).

  17. Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), argues that although York is unable to save himself, he does manage to expose Margaret's key weakness, through his “bludgeoning of Margaret for her unwomanliness” (p. 185).

  18. The “She-wolf” label perhaps evokes as well the famous lupa of Dante's Inferno: “Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame / sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza, / e molte genti fe gia viver grame” (And a she-wolf, who all crawings carried in her leanness, to many people had already brought torment) (49-51), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Vol. 1: Inferno (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980, trans. my own). The image combines the perceived negativeness and threatening nature of the feminine with the overt attribution of bestiality or depravity to women who exhibit such aspects.

  19. 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. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), 35-55, describes this scene as “the most moving example of women-aiding-women” in the plays (p. 47). On the mater dolorosa image in general and its implications for feminist critical theory, see Kristeva, pp. 234-63. On mothers in Shakespeare, see Jeanne Addison Roberts, “Shakespeare's Maimed Birth Rites,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and AntiRitual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), 123-44: “For all practical purposes, mature, potentially sexually active women on Shakespeare's stage are perceived as either virgins or whores; and it is the ‘whores’ who shape the future. This dilemma obviously works to create the crisis for men of the birth trauma and helps to explain the scarcity of mothers in the plays” (p. 131).

  20. Howard Dobin demonstrates in Merlin's Disciples that riddles and curses articulated by witches and other conjuring figures were believed to signify political sedition; see citation and discussion in Howard, pp. 135-36.

  21. Bryan Crockett, The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), notes of this scene, “Margaret functions as a sort of Senecan Fury, howling out invectives and prophesying events that inevitably come to pass” (p. 152). Jardine observes, “the intelligent and articulate Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI and model of female valour, becomes in the final play just such a privileged, carping voice, somewhere between witch and female prophet” (p. 117).

  22. Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), comments, “If Shakespeare is not consistently a feminist, however, he is consistently an author whose response to the feminine is central to the general significance of his work” (p. 4); see also Shari Benstock, Textualizing the Feminine: On the Limits of Genre (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1991), who critiques Derrida's and Lacan's correlations of gender and genre (3-22).

  23. A brief but useful bibliographic overview is provided by Lenz, Greene, and Neely (see n. 19, above).

  24. As J. P. Brockbank notes in “The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI,” rpt. in Shakespeare: The Histories: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Eugene M. Waith (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1965), 55-65, “Where narrative and play are incompatible, it may be the record and it may be the art that is defective as an image of human life, and in the plays framed from English and Roman history it is possible to trace subtle modulations of spectacle, structure and dialogue as they seek to express and elucidate the full potential of the source material” (p. 56).

  25. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the annual NEMLA meeting on 20 April 1996, in Montreal, at the “Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare” session.

Roger Warren (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Warren, Roger, ed. Introduction to Henry VI, Part Two, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-74. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Warren surveys Shakespeare's sources for Henry VI, Part 2 and examines the dramatic function of its principal figures. Warren also addresses the subject of social unrest in late medieval England through his examination of Jack Cade's rebellion in Act III of the drama.]


A tetralogy, or rather two tetralogies, including the subsequently written Richard II-Henry V series, was certainly how the [Henry VI] plays [and Richard III] were seen by their most influential critic in the first half of the twentieth century, E. M. W. Tillyard.1 He interpreted them as presenting a providential view of history in which the Wars of the Roses were England's bloody expiation of Henry IV's crime in deposing an anointed king, Richard II, an expiation that was not completed until Richard III was destroyed by the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond (King Henry VII) whose marriage to the Yorkist princess Elizabeth finally united the houses of York and Lancaster in the Tudor dynasty, and so brought about peace and stability. For Tillyard, Shakespeare adopts and dramatizes this ‘Tudor myth’ that he found in the chronicles which he used as sources, especially that of Edward Hall. Hall's title The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) makes his position clear; but was Shakespeare's so simple? It is true that his histories reflect aspects of Tudor political orthodoxy because, as John Jowett puts it, ‘it was virtually impossible to do otherwise’. Shakespeare ‘would have been aware that he was negotiating troublesome ground that was critical to the Tudor claim to the right to govern. His freedom to vary the received accounts was limited’.2 In addition, he was writing about issues that aroused both interest and anxiety in his audiences. Although Queen Elizabeth I had another decade to live, by the early 1590s she had been on the throne for over thirty years yet was unmarried and childless: the succession was not determined, and there were natural fears that on her death civil war between rival claimants might break out—the Wars of the Roses all over again.

The Henry VI plays, therefore, presented their audiences with matters of real relevance to them, just as they have in different ways to audiences of today. But that is not at all the same thing as saying that Shakespeare uncritically accepted what A. P. Rossiter calls the ‘rigid Tudor schema of retributive justice’ that he found particularly in the chronicle of Edward Hall.3 As Rossiter implies, this ‘Tudor myth’ is too reductive for the varied theatrical experience that the plays offer.

But Shakespeare found in Hall something much more dramatically useful than a providential or mythical pattern, and that was the striking contrast between the personalities of King Henry and Queen Margaret, which it is worth quoting at length:

During the time of this truce [in 1444-5, mentioned at 1.1.40-2], … while there was nothing to vex or trouble the minds of men, within the realm a sudden mischief … sprang out suddenly, by the means of a woman: for King Henry … was a man of a meek spirit, and of a simple wit, preferring peace before war, rest before business, honesty before profit, and quietness before labour. And to the intent that all men might perceive that there could be none more chaste, more meek, more holy, nor a better creature, in him reigned shamefastness, modesty, integrity, and patience to be marvelled at, taking and suffering all losses, chances, displeasures, and such worldly torments, in good part, and with a patient manner, as though they had chanced by his own fault or negligent oversight; yet he was governed of them whom he should have ruled, and bridled of such whom he sharply should have spurred. He gaped not for honour, nor thirsted for riches, but studied only for the health of his soul, the saving whereof he esteemed to be the greatest wisdom, and the loss thereof the extremest folly, that could be.

But on the other part, the Queen his wife was a woman of a great wit, and yet of no greater wit than of haut stomach [pride], desirous of glory and covetous of honour, and of reason, policy, counsel, and other gifts and talents of nature belonging to a man, full and flowing; of wit and wiliness she lacked nothing, nor of diligence, study, and business she was not unexpert.4

Hall's vivid juxtaposition of the opposed—indeed, irreconcilable—natures of the King and Queen was surely the immediate inspiration for the writing of Part Two itself, since Shakespeare pins down the essence of Hall's contrast in one incisive line at the start of the play: welcoming Margaret, Henry thanks God for the blessings she brings him, ‘If sympathy of love unite our thoughts’ (1.1.23); it is from the absence of such ‘sympathy’ that all the subsequent disasters derive.

Hall's chronicle was one of the sources for Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland; but while he carries over Hall's contrast between the King and Queen into his own account, Holinshed modifies it in the first edition of his chronicle (1577), and still further in the second (1587), which Shakespeare certainly used for other plays: the positive, saint-like qualities in Hall's description of Henry, which so clearly influenced Shakespeare's conception of the character, are wholly omitted; and whereas Hall places the main responsibility for the civil strife on the Queen, Holinshed blames

overmuch mildness in the King, who by his authority might have ruled both parts and ordered all differences betwixt them, but that indeed he was thought too soft for governor of a kingdom. The Queen contrariwise, a lady of great wit and no less courage, desirous of honour, and furnished with the gifts of reason, policy, and wisdom.5

Holinshed's abbreviated version of Hall's contrast might have been enough to spark Shakespeare's imagination, but Hall's seems positively to invite dramatic treatment. And Hall may also have provided a hint for the Margaret/Suffolk relationship. There is no evidence that the historical Margaret and Suffolk were lovers, but their affair in the play may have been suggested by two phrases of Hall: ‘the Queen, which entirely loved the Duke’ and ‘the Queen's darling, William Duke of Suffolk’. The first phrase is in both Hall and Holinshed, but the second, arguably more intimate, occurs only in Hall. Even there, of course, ‘darling’ need not imply a sexual relationship, but the warmth of the phrase may have suggested the dramatic potential to Shakespeare.

Even so, there is evidence that Shakespeare consulted Holinshed as well as Hall, notably in a passage about the animosity between York and Somerset. Hall merely says that, in the dispute over the regentship of France which the play dramatizes in 1.3, Somerset was appointed Regent and York was discharged. Holinshed, however, offers background and motivation for Hall's bald statement of fact:

The Duke of York was established Regent of France … to continue in that office for the term of five years, which being expired, [York], as a man most meet to supply that room, [was] appointed … again as Regent of France. … But the Duke of Somerset, still maligning the Duke of York's advancement, … now wrought so, that the King revoked his grant made to the Duke of York.

(pp. 208-9)

This passage underlies the dispute at 1.3.102-207, and Holinshed's phrase about York ‘as a man most meet’ for the office is specifically used by Duke Humphrey in the play: ‘York is meetest man / To be your regent’ (161-2). Again, at the end of the play, when the King and York negotiate before the battle of St Albans, the King sends Buckingham to York as his ambassador (4.9.37-8), as in Holinshed (p. 240); Hall has no reference to Buckingham here.

Shakespeare probably went to Holinshed for the details of the Peasants' Revolt against Richard II in 1381 which he introduces into the Jack Cade scenes, but which Hall does not describe because he begins his chronicle in 1399, at the end of Richard II's reign. But this information was also available in Richard Grafton's A Chronicle at Large (1569), which also reproduces entire stretches of Hall's narrative with only minor verbal variants. Geoffrey Bullough calls this ‘plagiarism’,6 but in fact all the sixteenth-century chroniclers borrowed extensively from one another, often word for word, as Holinshed does from Hall; and despite some differences of emphasis here and there, they interpret the major events and crises in the same way, interpretations often carried over into the play, for example that the murder of Duke Humphrey had catastrophic consequences for those who contrived it, and that the removal of his strong government created a vacuum in which York could claim the throne. This is Hall's version:

the public wealth of the realm of England, by the unworthy death of this politic prince, sustained great loss and ran into ruin, for surely the whole weight and burden of the realm rested and depended upon him. … If this Duke had lived, the Duke of York durst not have made title to the crown; if this Duke had lived, the nobles had not conspired against the King, nor yet the commons had not rebelled; if this Duke had lived, the house of Lancaster had not been defaced and destroyed, which things happened all contrary by the destruction of this good man.

(p. 210)

This passage lies behind Shakespeare's general conception of Duke Humphrey, and particularly behind his speeches at 3.1.142-94. After giving a condensed version of it, the 1587 Holinshed refers the reader to John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1583) for a further example of Duke Humphrey's wisdom. If Shakespeare followed that reference up, he would have found the story of Duke Humphrey's exposure of the false miracle at St Albans, which he dramatizes in 2.1. But he could equally well have found it in Grafton (see Appendix B, 2.1.57-155); and since Grafton includes almost everything that Hall does, together with the false miracle episode and the information about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, neither of which occurs in Hall, it could be argued that Grafton rather than Hall should be regarded as Shakespeare's principal source. Against that is the evidence of York's genealogy.

Since, as we have seen, Hall's aim is to show how the divisions of civil war were resolved in the ‘union’ of the two rival houses of York and Lancaster, he begins by setting out a genealogy of each house, tracing the origins of each back to the sons of King Edward III. He lists Edward's seven sons; he explains that Henry VI's claim to the crown derived from the fourth son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; and that York could claim the throne because, although his father was only descended from the fifth son, Edmund Langley, Duke of York, his mother was descended from Edward III's third son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, giving him, arguably, a prior claim. This is essentially what York argues at 2.2.10-52; and that the play's account derives from Hall is established by some near-identical phrasing: in lines 35-8, York says that Edward III's third son

                                        had issue Philippa, a daughter,
Who married Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March;
Edmund had issue Roger, Earl of March;
Roger had issue Edmund, Anne, and Eleanor.

Hall says that Edward III's third son ‘had issue Phillipe his only daughter, which was married to Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, and had issue Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, which Roger had issue Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, Anne, and Eleanor’ (p. 2).7 Grafton sets out the children of Edward III in tabular form, which is even clearer than Hall's version, but he doesn't include the crucial information that York's mother was descended from the third son of Edward III as Hall does.

The two principal modifications to the chronicle accounts in Part Two concern the Duchess of Gloucester's witchcraft and the battle sequence in Act 5. The disgrace and exile of the Duchess took place in 1441, four years before Margaret arrived in England; so the rivalry between them, and the fact that in the play the Duchess's disgrace is engineered by Suffolk as part of a larger plan to destroy Duke Humphrey, are invented for obvious dramatic reasons. The Duchess's fall is only briefly described by the chroniclers, and the dramatist may have supplemented it with her lament in the expanded version (1578) of The Mirror for Magistrates (1559), a series of verse-histories in which historical characters who came to unfortunate ends instruct rulers to profit from their example.8 Apart from some smaller adjustments—as when Suffolk's banishment and death are made an immediate consequence of his arranging the murder of Duke Humphrey, rather than happening three years later—the other principal departure from Hall and Holinshed is the compression of a series of events taking place between 1451 (York's return from Ireland) and 1455 (the first battle of St Albans) into a continuous sequence as the climax of Act 5; but the idea for this treatment may have come from the earliest of the chronicles in English, Robert Fabyan's brief New Chronicles of England and France (published in 1516), which similarly condenses the events of these years.

The evidence is far from clear-cut, but I think it likely that Shakespeare read Hall and/or Grafton early in his career, perhaps while he was still ‘a schoolmaster in the country’. When he came to write 2 Henry VI, he probably consulted the most recent chronicle, the 1587 Holinshed. This simple procedure would account for the debts to the various chroniclers in the play; and in accordance with it, Hall is cited as the principal chronicle source, with Holinshed, Grafton, and to a much lesser extent Fabyan and The Mirror for Magistrates, as subsidiary sources.


How far do the Tudor chronicle accounts upon which Shakespeare drew present what modern historians might recognize as historical fact? In the second edition of his book Shakespeare's English Kings, Peter Saccio says: ‘One fascinating result of recent [historical] research and reinterpretation is that Shakespeare's account of the kings now seems closer than before to history as we now understand it.’9 The main departures from historical ‘fact’ seem to lie in the chroniclers' and Shakespeare's treatment of Henry VI himself and of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. The deeply religious, almost saint-like, image of Henry was, if not created, then actively encouraged by Henry VII, the victorious Richmond of Richard III. ‘Once Henry VII ascended the throne in 1485, what he wanted for propaganda purposes was an ancestor worthy to have carried the precious blood of Lancaster: so, if Henry VI could not be portrayed as a successful ruler (as clearly he could not), then he must at least be a saintly one’;10 and Henry VII pressed the Pope unsuccessfully for his predecessor to be canonized. The image of Henry VI's sanctity as presented in the passage from Edward Hall quoted above ultimately derived from the Latin life of Henry by John Blacman, a Carthusian monk who had been Henry's chaplain. Most of the Tudor chroniclers, with the partial exception of the 1587 edition of Holinshed, followed Blacman in emphasizing Henry's saintliness and playing down his political incompetence and his periodic attacks of madness.

As noted above, Holinshed significantly modifies Hall's view of Henry, placing the blame for the Wars of the Roses much more squarely on the fact that Henry was ‘too soft for governor of a kingdom’, a view shared by most modern historians to a greater or lesser degree. But the contributors to the 1587 Holinshed go further.11 Hall says that after Jack Cade's rebellion had been suppressed, the King ‘mitigated his justice with mercy and compassion’, and Shakespeare follows him. At first Holinshed appears to echo Hall: the King punished only the ‘disordered ringleaders’ and ‘pardoned the ignorant and simple persons, to the great rejoicing of all his subjects’; but then the 1587 edition adds: ‘But saith another, the King sent his commissioners into Kent, and caused enquiry to be made of this riot in Canterbury, wherefore the same eight men were judged and executed, and in other towns of Kent and Sussex was done the like execution’ (p. 227). This hints at the historical fact that in 1451 the King personally presided over a retributive commission which sentenced so many to execution that it was known as the ‘harvest of heads’.12 This dents the image of the compassionate King.

Again, Holinshed, but not Hall, mentions the King's illness in 1453, ‘which was so grievous, as it was said, that he lay senseless, and was not able for a time either to go or stand’ (p. 238). As a marginal note acknowledges, the source here is a graphic account by Abbot Whethamsted of St Albans, a contemporary of Henry VI:

A disease and disorder of such a sort overcame the king that he lost his wits and memory for a time, and nearly all his body was so uncoordinated and out of control that he could neither walk, nor hold his head upright, nor easily move from where he sat. … [Henry VI was] his mother's stupid offspring, not his father's, a son greatly degenerated from the father, who did not cultivate the art of war … a mild-spoken, pious king, but half-witted in affairs of state.13

It is likely that Henry inherited his bouts of mental illness from his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI of France; they caused a serious constitutional crisis in 1453, and they modify the impression of Henry's saintly remoteness from political affairs, which may be attributable to another kind of ‘innocence’. But if Shakespeare grasped the full implication of the account of the King's illness in the 1587 Holinshed, he seems to have made little or no use of it. Rather, he followed Hall's view of Henry as a man of deep religious conviction but no political acumen, fatally married to his polar opposite.

If one of the Tudor chroniclers, at least, shows awareness of the less saintly side of Henry, they present a unanimously positive image of ‘the good Duke Humphrey’, as in the passage from Hall quoted above. It is true that the historical Humphrey had genuine virtues. He was a man of learning; but he was not the altruistic upholder of the well-being of the kingdom as in the play and in the chronicles. Though he was named Protector of the realm by the dying Henry V, his authority was less than that shown in the play, and it declined further after 1439, because he vigorously opposed Henry's policy of making peace with France; as the two of them increasingly grew apart, Cardinal Beaufort's influence over the King increased. After 1439, Humphrey was ‘never again to return to the king's innermost counsels, even though until his death he remained heir presumptive to Henry's throne’.14 The breach between Henry and Humphrey grew so great that the King almost certainly connived in his arrest at the Parliament of Bury St Edmunds in 1457, dramatized in 3.1, though not necessarily in his murder there. The suspicious circumstances of his death, however, seem to have been the chief reason why the myth of ‘the good Duke Humphrey’ grew up shortly afterwards. The Elizabethan chroniclers appear to have derived it, as they did much else, from the Brut, a history of England named after Brutus, the legendary first king of Britain, from those legendary times to 1475 and first printed by Caxton in 1480. This provides an uncompromising summary of Humphrey: ‘This duke was a noble man and a great scholar, and had honourably ruled this realm to the king's advantage. No fault could ever be found in him.’15 This is essentially Shakespeare's view, though he also emphasizes the destructive, or self-destructive, aspect of Humphrey, his turbulent temper and his feud with the Cardinal; but it is not the view of ‘history’.

Shakespeare, however, is not primarily concerned with historical fact, but with a dramatic interpretation of it. But why, Robert Smallwood pertinently asks, choose to write plays about history at all? The 1623 Folio of Shakespeare's works divides the plays into comedies, tragedies, and histories; but by 1623 the ‘history play’ had become established largely because Shakespeare himself had written ten of them: in the early 1590s, as he was starting his writing career, there was no such genre. As F. P. Wilson points out, ‘there is no certain evidence that any dramatist before the [defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588] dared to put upon the public stage a play based upon English history. … So far as we know Shakespeare was the first popular dramatist to give dignity and coherence to the play on English history’.16 Why did he do it? The answer, writes Smallwood, lies

in the man's fascination with politics … History is above all an exploration of human political behaviour, of the desire for power, of men's response to gaining it and to being deprived of it. … Shakespeare's ‘use of history’ consists, then, in selecting, shaping, amplifying, … chronicle material in order to intensify concentration on political issues and on their human consequences.17

That is why it is more accurate to speak of ‘political plays’ than ‘history plays’, and why Shakespeare's Henry and Humphrey are only partly the Henry and Humphrey of ‘history’; Shakespeare takes what he needs from the chronicles of his time in order to create a bond of love and loyalty between the two characters which does not seem to have existed historically, so as to establish a strong positive force in 2 Henry VI, to contrast with the more destructive elements, the incompatible marriage of Henry and Margaret, and the manoeuvres of the corrupt politicians against Humphrey. In doing so, he creates a complex theatrical experience which this introduction will try to focus a little further.


Even the titles of 2 Henry VI in both the 1623 Folio and the 1594 Quarto point us in the right direction. The first page of text in each edition may have a different main title (The Second Part of Henry the Sixth in the Folio, The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster in the Quarto) but both agree about the sub-title: ‘with the death of the good Duke Humphrey’. Both texts recognize the centrality of this cataclysmic event to the first half of the play. But the Quarto's title-page goes further: ‘And the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk, and the tragical end of the proud Cardinal of Winchester, with the notable rebellion of Jack Cade; and the Duke of York's first claim unto the crown.’ This is not simply a synopsis of the plot, though it is that; it emphasizes the structure of the play, which is that of a fall and a rise: the destruction of ‘the good Duke Humphrey’ leads inexorably to the destruction of those who contrived it, Suffolk and the Cardinal; and the removal of Humphrey's strong central government leads to the rise of York, prepared for by the rebellion of Cade, and ultimately to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in Act 5.18

As John Barton put it when he was preparing the performing text of The Wars of the Roses in 1963, ‘The central action concerns Henry's relationship with [Duke Humphrey of] Gloucester and their ultimate failure to help one another. Gloucester himself is the principal character … ; he is conciliatory, unselfish, clear-sighted and able [but] he has a turbulent temper which is self-destructive and ultimately undoes him.’19 Emrys Jones develops two implications of these points. The fall of Duke Humphrey comprises ‘a tragedy in little, which, given its narrower dimensions in keeping with its place within the Henry VI trilogy, can be compared with the fully extended actions of such formal tragedies as Titus Andronicus, Lear, and Coriolanus’.20 Part of his tragic stature derives, Jones continues, from the way he is dramatized as ‘a passionate man, one subject to strong, even violent, feeling’, from the opening moments of the play. When he realizes the cost of the marriage between Henry and Margaret agreed by Suffolk, he breaks off from reading the marriage articles in mid-word: ‘the duchy of Anjou and the county of Maine shall be released and delivered to the King her fa—’ (1.1.50-2). That interrupted ‘fa—’ is the Quarto's reading; the Folio text expands it to ‘father’, probably because the compositor took a manuscript ‘fa.’ for an abbreviation, thus muffing a powerful dramatic point which performance reveals. At the Old Vic in 1957, for example, Humphrey's ‘spluttering fury’ drew an instant reaction from Barbara Jefford's Margaret, who made it clear, ‘from the mere flash of her eye, the tightening of her mouth, that he was doomed’.21 When the King asks him what is wrong, he replies ‘Some sudden qualm [illness] hath struck me at the heart’ (1.1.54); later, after his wife is accused of witchcraft, he tells the Cardinal to stop ‘afflict[ing] my heart’ (2.1.177). The words ‘qualm’ and ‘afflict’ suggest a man taken ill, struck to the heart as if ‘suffering from palpitations of painful grief’.22 ‘Qualm’ can suggest mental as well as physical stress; OED gives another gloss, ‘fit of sickening fear, misgiving … ; a sudden sinking or faintness of heart’ (sb. 2 trans. a). In this respect Humphrey seems to anticipate, not only the intensity of the tragic heroes, but more specifically that of Leontes in The Winter's Tale when he is first struck down by a fit of jealousy: ‘I have tremor cordis on me. My heart dances’ (1.2.112). Tremor cordis (‘palpitation of the heart’) is a seventeenth-century medical term, representing ‘some involuntary palpitation within the heart, a sign that something is wrong and, so it was thought, could be a sign of mental stress’.23 Duke Humphrey seems to be suffering from something of the kind here, and like Leontes he is unable to control his passion even in public.

One way in which he attempts to control his temper is to leave without a word at it is as if he simply does not trust himself to say anything at all. What has provoked this reaction is Margaret's suggestion that, for accepting bribes during the war with France, he runs the risk of execution, the climax of a series of charges hurled at him by Suffolk, the Cardinal, and Buckingham. As soon as he has left the stage, ‘the explosive violence latent in the stage situation is at once converted into physical terms’ as Margaret ‘accidentally’ strikes his wife.24 The sense of the Queen and the nobles turning like a pack of dogs or wolves on Humphrey crops up again in the scene of his arrest (3.1), first before he appears, as the Queen and the court try to persuade Henry that he is a dangerous traitor, and then to his face when he appears and is arrested. The charges are the same in all three cases—misappropriation of public funds, accepting bribes leading to the loss of France, exceeding the laws of the land in executing offenders. The charges are so blatantly trumped-up and lacking in evidence that even a political innocent like the King is not taken in by them, and Duke Humphrey himself is easily able to dispose of them (3.1.104-35). Is the fact that such preposterous charges come three times a sign of dramatic weakness, the repetition a mark of an inexperienced dramatist? Peter Hall appears to have thought so when preparing The Wars of the Roses in 1963: ‘I am a little foxed by Gloucester's impeachment. It seems so very arbitrary.’ But Hall then realized that this is the point of the accusations, and that he had resolved his own doubts: ‘Perhaps this is good. Perhaps it will be like the praesidium suddenly accusing somebody of activities against the people without much need of backing. All the wolves join the pack.’25 The threefold statement of the charges is not, therefore, a sign of dramatic incompetence, but is there to underline the very arbitrariness of which Hall speaks, as the politicians destroy their opponent under the guise of legality ‘without much need of backing’—except, of course, the backing of force.

Because the charges are so obviously contrived, as even the conspirators themselves admit (3.1.241-2), they realize that they will have to use the force that is in their power to kill Duke Humphrey, and in a particularly pointed dramatic episode (3.1.223-81), they plot to do so. As at the start of the scene, Queen Margaret takes the initiative, insinuating that for the general good ‘This Gloucester should be quickly rid the world’ (3.1.233). The Cardinal thinks that he should ‘be condemned by course of law’ (l. 237), but Suffolk, who at 1 Henry VI 2.4.7-9 had declared

Faith, I have been a truant in the law,
And never yet could frame my will to it,
And therefore frame the law unto my will,

thrusts that argument aside, and, after an extended circumlocution comparing Humphrey to a fox killing lambs, comes to the point in dialogue that ‘reaches an extreme point of callousness and blatancy’:26

                              do not stand on quillets how to slay him:
Be it by gins, by snares, by subtlety,
Sleeping or waking, 'tis no matter how,
So he be dead.


Those last four monosyllables pack a terrific punch.

The conspiracy is interrupted by a messenger with news of rebellion in Ireland. York is invited to lead an army to suppress it; and one of the most brilliantly ironic aspects of the scene is that the other conspirators are so obsessed with arranging Humphrey's murder that they fail to see the danger of providing York with soldiers, a danger he himself points out in the soliloquy that ends the scene: ‘'Twas men I lacked, and you will give them me’ (3.1.345). So the mid-point of the play prepares for the climax, York's return to claim the crown. And because of the context, it is inseparably linked with the proposed death of Duke Humphrey: its consequences are beginning to be felt even before his death has happened.

As soon as it has happened, the consequences for those who engineered it are powerfully dramatized in the scenes that follow. By the end of 4.1, Suffolk and Margaret have been forced to part, the Cardinal has died in ‘phantasmagoric guilt and terror’, and Suffolk ‘by malignant popular justice’.27 What is more, in the scene of Suffolk's murder, we are made aware of wider consequences: the Lieutenant points out that ‘the commons here in Kent are up in arms’ (4.1.100); in the next scene they swarm on to the stage and the second half of the play, the rise of Cade, and through him York, has begun. This bold, simple structure of a fall and a rise gives 2 Henry VI its strong shape, and focuses the dramatic significance of the events.


That dramatic significance is also brought out by the language, which has considerable range. Whereas the other two Henry VI plays are entirely in verse, here the extended verse speeches in the court scenes are set against the equally elaborate prose of Jack Cade's rebellion. This range helps to provide variety in a very long play (roughly three and a half hours in an uncut version). It is also, of course, an early play, and Shakespeare is still learning his craft as he goes along: the momentum is not sustained at every moment, and if the scenes vary in style, they also vary in accomplishment, from the sustained power of 3.1 throughout to the very elementary dialogue between York and Buckingham at 5.1.12-34. Both the achievements and problems of that style can be demonstrated by considering two extended speeches: Henry's reaction to the arrest of Humphrey (3.1.202-22) and Margaret's to the discovery of the body (3.2.73-121).

To express his sense that his uncle is the ‘map of honour, truth, and loyalty’ (3.1.203), the ‘harmless’ victim of the Queen and the powerful lords who surround him, Henry uses one of the extended similes that occur often in this play. Humphrey is likened to a calf being slaughtered by a butcher (which vividly communicates Henry's instinct that his uncle's life is in danger even before the plot to kill him has been hatched):

And as the butcher takes away the calf,
And binds the wretch, and beats it when it strains,
Bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse,
Even so remorseless have they borne him hence.


He then develops the simile further to apply to himself:

And as the dam runs lowing up and down,
Looking the way her harmless young one went,
And can do naught but wail her darling's loss,
Even so myself bewails good Gloucester's case
With sad unhelpful tears, and with dimmed eyes
Look after him, and cannot do him good,
So mighty are his vowèd enemies.


In one way, this is a formal, ‘artificial’ speech, in that it is constructed upon an epic simile that runs through eleven lines; but a great deal of work is done in it. First, the choice of the simile of the calf and its mother beautifully catches the tenderness of Henry's relationship with his uncle, similar to the comparison used by Orlando in As You Like It to express his love for his old servant Adam: ‘like a doe, I go to find my fawn / And give it food’ (2.7.128-9). And when Henry develops it in the later part of the speech, he vividly conveys his feeling of helplessness: but that helplessness also contains an awareness that he is failing in his responsibilities as a king as well as a nephew. He ought to assert himself and protect his uncle whom he knows to be innocent (3.1.141), but he fails to do so; and this greatly increases his sense of guilt when Humphrey's murder is discovered. He is, in an important way, responsible for it.

That is why his reaction in 3.2 is so emotional, in the near-hysteria of his attack on Suffolk (3.2.39-55). When Margaret tries to defend Suffolk by implying that it is as absurd to accuse him as it would be to accuse herself of causing Humphrey's death, Henry ignores her and keeps his attention fixed on his uncle: ‘Ah, woe is me for Gloucester, wretched man!’ (3.2.72). This is the cue for the fifty-line speech in which Margaret argues that she is more wretched than Humphrey because Henry effectively rejects her in lamenting so much for his uncle. This speech is by far the longest in the play; it is central in its positioning (roughly half-way through) and its length suggests that it should also be central in significance and impact. But it constitutes perhaps the greatest puzzle in the play, since its dramatic purpose is far from clear. Perhaps it is simply a miscalculation by an inexperienced dramatist, and it is often drastically shortened in performance on that assumption, a process that may have begun in the Elizabethan performances, since only seven lines of it occur in the Quarto text.28

If Henry's speech is built upon an extended simile, Margaret's is more formal still, constructed out of traditional rhetorical devices. Lines 74-8 use three rhetorical questions, each one emphasizing Henry's neglect of her, or worse, that he wants her dead. Lines 82-113 conjure up an elaborate picture of her arrival in England during adverse weather: three more rhetorical questions follow (ll. 82-91) as the weather itself appears to be warning her against coming to England; but the tempest did not drown her, ‘Knowing that thou wouldst have me drowned on shore’ (l. 95). In lines 101-13 she stands on the storm-swept deck, trying to glimpse the ‘chalky cliffs’ of the south coast; then she throws a characteristically Elizabethan jewel—a heart ‘bound in with diamonds’—into the sea, as an elaborate and artificial image of how she wished Henry's body might receive her own heart. Finally, in ll. 114-19, she uses a classical comparison typical of the play: before she came to England, she had often asked Suffolk to talk about Henry, as Ascanius talked about his heroic father Aeneas' exploits at the sack of Troy and after; the point is that Ascanius was at that stage in the story impersonated by the love-god Cupid, who tricked Queen Dido of Carthage into falling in love with Aeneas, as, Margaret implies, Suffolk tricked her into falling in love with Henry. And she ends as she began by emphasizing Henry's unkindness in preferring Humphrey to her: ‘Die Margaret, / For Henry weeps that thou dost live so long’ (120-1).

It is a rhetorical tour de force, but what is it for? Does it have a dramatic function? L. C. Knights proposes that its rhetoric is an indication of Margaret's insincerity: the rhetoric ‘virtually tells us how to take the speech’.29 One of her motives would then presumably be to try to deflect Henry from his instinctive awareness of Suffolk's complicity in the murder of Humphrey, an early, uneconomical version of Lady Macbeth's behaviour as she tries to distract attention from the risk of Macbeth's indiscretions revealing their complicity in the murder of Duncan (Macbeth 2.3.86-7, 118-19).

Another possibility is that the rhetoric is not ‘insincere’, but is an attempt to express Margaret's turbulent state of mind: the plot against Humphrey is not turning out at all in the simple way she and Suffolk had hoped; the King has reacted against Suffolk in a quite unexpected fashion, and it may be that her fear of losing both her lover and her control over the King is expressed in this speech. It is frustrating that most of it was cut in the playing text for The Wars of the Roses in 1963, since it would have been especially interesting to see Peggy Ashcroft handle it. In the absence of such evidence, I asked Peter Hall if he had tried out the whole speech with her in rehearsal, and if so what had emerged. He had, and felt that ‘the speech is there to establish the emotional, hysterical side of Margaret's nature. I think that is why the language gets so extremely elaborate—it is an attempt by Margaret to contain her turbulent emotions by expressing them in such a strange way.’

On the other hand, in the BBC television production, where the speech is given uncut, Julia Foster uses it to intensify, rather than to contain, her emotion. She unleashes tremendous power at the start: ‘Be woe for me’ is blatantly selfish; ‘I am no loathsome leper, look on me!’ is furious with Henry. As she proceeds into the tempest passage, she colours the language (‘nigh wrecked upon the sea’, ‘this unkind shore’, ‘cursed the gentle gusts’) to make the most of her resentful accusation: the god of the winds would not kill her, ‘But left that hateful office unto thee’. It is a performance of great courage and conviction, watched in amazement by the court: by the end it seems clear that her marriage to Henry is, to borrow the language of the speech, on the rocks. For all its intensity, though, we remain aware of the effort involved, and of the length and difficulty of the speech.

Perhaps the most intriguing treatment came in Terry Hands's 1977 production. The speech was not given complete even there; some twenty lines were cut. But what remained was ingeniously handled. This production used the historical fact that Henry was subject to bouts of mental illness to interpret some difficult passages, beginning with his collapse at the news of Duke Humphrey's death. When he recovered consciousness, the extreme phrasing of the speech in which he rejects Suffolk (3.2.40-55) was interpreted as the utterance of a man in the grip of an attack of raging madness, perhaps following the belief that the insane have insights denied to the sane. In the face of that, Margaret's long speech became a desperate attempt to bring him round by talking him out of his fit. Henry sat staring in front of him, Alan Howard using his mannerism of a drooping lower lip to help suggest Henry's temporary loss of control, as Helen Mirren moved round him, delivering the speech. She paused several times, to give him the opportunity to react to her;30 and his failure to respond made her ever more desperate, so that she added point after point in a frantic attempt to rouse him from his stupor. This was an ingenious interpretation of both the length and the style of the speech; but it depended upon a view of Henry for which director and actor had to look beyond the text. As always with this speech, the ultimate impression was one of strain.


It is unfortunate that such an important dramatic consequence of Duke Humphrey's death as Margaret's long speech should involve uncertainty about how it should be interpreted; but there is nothing uncertain about the other consequences, least of all ‘the banishment and death of the Duke of Suffolk’, to cite the Quarto's title-page. Too late to save Humphrey, Henry at last asserts his authority and banishes Suffolk. The power of the language in which he does so gives a glimpse of the king he might have been:

                                        by his majesty I swear,
Whose far unworthy deputy I am,
He shall not breathe infection in this air
But three days longer, on the pain of death. …
Had I but said, I would have kept my word;
But when I swear, it is irrevocable.


From a man of such deep religious conviction, the allusions to the divine right of kings and the sacred, binding quality of an oath are solemn statements. When he leaves, there follows the great scene of the parting between Margaret and Suffolk, a high point in any performance. The King's banishment of Suffolk sets the seal on the incompatibility of his relationship with Margaret, as her furious reaction (ll. 304-8) attests. From this point, they are emotionally irreconcilable, both driven by their strong feelings for others: Henry's for his uncle, Margaret's for Suffolk.

At the start of their parting scene, Margaret turns her fury with the King on to Suffolk himself, upbraiding him for lacking the spirit to curse his enemies; but when he does so, it is with such venom that she has to restrain him, as the scene modulates from one extreme to another, from extended cursing to the quietness of Margaret's

                                                            Give me thy hand,
That I may dew it with my mournful tears;
Nor let the rain of heaven wet this place
To wash away my woeful monuments.


In the lines that follow, she contradicts herself, urging him to be gone, yet immediately telling him not to, expressing the desperation she feels (3.2.356-9); and she concludes with one poignantly simple, summarizing line: ‘Yet now farewell, and farewell life with thee.’ Suffolk catches her tone:

                    where thou art, there is the world itself, …
And where thou art not, desolation.


That final word seems to summarize the bleakness of their situation, caught in the trammels of what they have done in conspiring Humphrey's death.

That point is reinforced when their parting is interrupted by the news that Cardinal Beaufort is dying in agony, imagining that he sees Duke Humphrey's ghost (3.2.372-82), a situation that is graphically dramatized in the following scene. As the messenger leaves, Margaret speaks a line which refers to the news she has just heard, yet also seems to look beyond that situation: ‘Ay me! What is this world? What news are these?’ (3.2.384). As Julia Foster finely communicates in the BBC television version, Margaret momentarily glimpses the wider consequences of their plot to destroy Humphrey, both for the Cardinal and for themselves. But Margaret characteristically returns to her own situation in the following lines, urging Suffolk to be gone in order to save his life. He answers with special intimacy:

If I depart from thee, I cannot live.
And in thy sight to die, what were it else
But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?


The primary meaning of ‘die’ here is the usual one: Suffolk would rather be killed in the Queen's presence than part from her. But ‘die’ and ‘lap’ could also have sexual connotations in Elizabethan English, so this is the most overt allusion in the play to their affair, intensifying it at the very moment when it is coming to an end. The scene concludes with speeches which juxtapose elaborate language and great simplicity in a way characteristic of Shakespeare's later work. Margaret alludes to the classical messenger of the queen of the gods:

                    wheresoe'er thou art in this world's globe
I'll have an Iris that shall find thee out.

Then they share an utterly simple line: ‘I go.’—‘And take my heart with thee.’ Suffolk's following description of her heart as

A jewel, locked into the woefull'st cask
That ever did contain a thing of worth

and of their parting as a ‘splitted barque’, a ship split in half in a storm, may recall the elaborate artifice of Margaret's long speech earlier in the scene, but in this condensed form it is surely a much more effective expression of feeling; and in any case its impact is enhanced by being set against the moving finality of their final, shared line: ‘This way fall I to death.’—‘This way for me.’ (3.2.410-16)

It was at this point in the Stratford-upon-Avon production of 1963 that I felt the full force of Harold Hobson's comment in his review of it: ‘one's mood is neither of judgement nor condemnation of these ambitious, unscrupulous, unhappy characters, but rather of sympathy … for people we have come to know’ (Sunday Times, 21 July 1963). Hobson's reaction is supported by Mary Clarke, writing about the Old Vic's 1957 production: ‘the scenes of human anguish … often roused in the audience an almost unwilling compassion’.31 Whether the compassion was willing or not, the significant fact is that it was aroused. There is nothing sentimental in the portrayal of Suffolk and Margaret: they have behaved as badly as anyone. But that is no reason for writing them off as characters, and Shakespeare doesn't do so. Even in this early play he shows the breadth of his compassion for his creations: while presenting them with analytic clarity, he also shows them from their own point of view, and does not pass external ‘moral’ judgements upon them.

It is worth pausing to look back on the achievement of these two scenes. Act 3 Scene 1 is a masterly scene, perhaps the most effective in the play. It moves with great sense of purpose from stage to stage: after the Queen and the lords have attempted to poison Henry's mind against Humphrey, Somerset reports the loss of France, so that a disaster in foreign policy is linked to the imminence of another disaster at home as the court turn on and arrest Humphrey; after his exit, the King laments his loss; Margaret and the lords plot his death; then York is left alone to plan his seizure of the crown. The scene is very skilfully laid out: some of the speeches (e.g. the King's discussed above) are long, but are sustained. The structure of 3.2 is even more ambitiously planned to bring out the consequences of Humphrey's murder: the King's hysteria; Margaret's huge speech reacting to it; Warwick's description of Humphrey's dead body and his dispute with Suffolk, during which the Cardinal is (probably) taken ill and has to be helped off stage; the intervention of the commons to demand Suffolk's banishment; and finally the parting of Margaret and Suffolk. It is not quite so sustained as the previous scene, and perhaps some of it is over-extended: not just Margaret's speech analysed above, but even her parting from Suffolk, moving though that is. But the scene contains a tremendous amount of incident and activity, and in both scenes the shaping of the smaller dramatic units is on the whole as securely planned and carried out as the larger fall-and-rise structure of the play.


Up to the end of Act 3, the play is almost exclusively concerned with intrigue within the court; thereafter, the action broadens to involve the population at large, first with the murder of Suffolk in 4.1, and then in Jack Cade's rebellion. These scenes are both a contrast and a mirror to those at court since, as Philip Brockbank says, ‘the virulent ambition and hostility to law that characterized the barons … equally characterize the workmen’.32

The scene of Suffolk's murder is in some respects a transition from the court world to that of the rebels, both in material and in style. Its transitional nature may help to explain the curious language of some of the Lieutenant's speeches, beginning with his opening lines:

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;
Who with their drowsy, slow, and flagging wings
Clip dead men's graves, and from their misty jaws
Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air.


This is a curiously ‘written-up’ description of sunset and the coming on of night: the ‘gaudy, blabbing’ day, and the wolves howling at the dragons that are drawing the chariot of night so slowly that their huge, beating wings seem almost to catch on the gravestones, border on the grotesque.33 That style recurs in the Lieutenant's attack on Suffolk later:

By devilish policy art thou grown great,
And like ambitious Sulla, overgorged
With gobbets of thy mother's bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France.


This sounds almost like a parody of the court's indignation in the opening scene at the surrender of Anjou and Maine as part of Margaret's marriage settlement. Both the element of grotesquerie and the apparent concern about the abuses of government which lead to the brutality of Suffolk's decapitation and the displaying of his severed head and headless corpse, anticipate the way in which Jack Cade and his followers use a grotesquely comic style to express their grievances over misgovernment which then become the reason, or the excuse, for acts of extreme violence.

The central dramatic issue of the Cade scenes concerns the relative importance of the comic and violent elements. What exactly is the ‘tone’ of these scenes, which has sometimes seemed elusive in performance? Jonathan Bate says that the ‘groundling’ or member of an Elizabethan audience standing in the yard nearest the stage ‘would have seen himself mirrored on the stage. He would have seen a plain man speaking of new-dressing the commonwealth of England from below. The Cade sub-plot is about a potential revolution’.34 But what kind of mirror image did the scenes offer that ‘groundling’? There are certainly echoes of the popular disturbances in Shakespeare's day. Cade himself, who is not given a trade in the chronicles, is said to be a ‘clothier’ (4.2.4) or ‘shearman’ (4.2.124), one who works in the Kent cloth-making trade; and cloth-workers were associated with social unrest in Elizabethan England. But, as Jean Howard says, ‘interpreting Cade and his actions is a complicated business’.35

Much of the Cade episode is broadly comic. Before he first appears, two of his supporters use the proverb ‘Labour in thy vocation’ to argue that this ‘is as much to say as “Let the magistrates be labouring men”; and therefore should we be magistrates’ (4.2.17-18). The chop-logic here presents an inversion of the usual structure of society, such as was associated with periods of holiday or celebration like the twelve days of Christmas, when accepted norms were inverted, servants became masters, and ‘Lords of Misrule’ were allowed to preside over a kind of licensed Saturnalia. This association has led to a currently influential interpretation of the Cade scenes in terms of the ‘carnivalesque’. Stephen Longstaffe, for example, cites the description of carnivalesque laughter given by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin: it ‘is festive; it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants; it is ambivalent, it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives.’36 Longstaffe relates this to Cade's first appearance where, in response to his claim to be a Mortimer, his followers mock him—in most editions, as asides (4.2.31-58). But interpreting the episode in the light of Bakhtin's definition, the rebels' comments do not need to be asides, as the Watermill production in 2001 made clear: the comments were overt, mocking statements, heard and relished by all. Neither Cade nor his followers really believed in his claim to be Mortimer; it was just a convenient excuse for riot and rebellion. In view of this very effective treatment, I felt that to print the rebels' comments as asides would be unduly prescriptive, and so departed from the editorial tradition.37

The ‘carnivalesque’ interpretation can certainly accommodate a passage like Cade's self-contradiction ‘All the realm shall be in common … and when I am king, as king I will be’ (4.2.63-5). The best comment on Cade's view of himself here as the king of a realm where everything is in common is made by Shakespeare at the other end of his career, when Antonio in The Tempest says of Gonzalo's wish to be king of his ideal commonwealth: ‘The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning’ (2.1.163-4). But if, as the quotation from Bakhtin seems to imply, the essence of carnival is all-inclusive laughter, then I don't think it takes us far enough into the scenes, especially in the way they develop. For if these scenes are comic, they are surely black comedy, and very disturbing, as soon becomes clear in the attack on literacy in the Clerk of Chatham and Lord Saye episodes (4.2.78-101, 4.7.29-43).

Like so much else in this play, the attack on literacy has its grim resonances in our experience of modern ‘revolutions’. When, for example, the fanatical nihilistic regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia reduced the country to ‘killing fields’ in 1975, the national library of the capital, Phnom Penh, was turned into a pig-sty, a symbolic condemnation of literacy. Such associations arise continuously during the Cade scenes. Perhaps the remark that a tanner ‘shall have the skins of our enemies to make dog's leather of’ (4.2.23-4) is intended as a cruel joke, but it is hard to ignore its echo in the barbarism of our own times, when in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald the skins of prisoners were used to make gloves and lampshades. When the rebels plan to ‘break open the jails and let out the prisoners’ (4.3.14-15), the source may be Elizabethan—Cade ‘broke up the jails … and set at liberty a swarm of gallants … meet for his service’—but that is a depressingly familiar habit of revolutions and civil wars: on 27 March 1999, for example, The Independent reported that the Serbians released violent criminals from jails and sent them to commit atrocities in Kosovo. And there are plenty of examples of Cade-like violence nearer home. The BBC television production of 2 Henry VI was influenced by ‘the riots in this country now’, when during hot summer evenings in 1981 unrest and setting buildings on fire in several cities led to a spate of ‘imitative violence’ elsewhere in the country. Twenty years later, similar rioting occurred in Bradford and Oldham. Often there are genuine grievances, some arising out of local tensions; but these easily become exploited and developed into mindless violence, as happens in the Cade scenes. Trevor Peacock, who played Cade in the television version, concluded: ‘Though the plays are historical, they are about continual processes in human beings.’38

I draw these uncomfortable modern parallels because I think it important not to allow the savage cruelty of the Cade scenes to get lost in laughter, carnivalesque or otherwise. What is needed is to strike a balance between humour and violence. A relevant point here is that the characterization of Cade himself develops, or at least changes. When York first mentions him as his agent at 3.1.357-70, the personality that he describes—valiant, a nimble morris-dancer,39 and subtle double-agent—is rather different from the Cade we actually meet: crude, brutal, illiterate. In this respect, the play is probably taking its cue from Hall's chronicle, where there is an even greater contrast, from the first description of Cade as a ‘young man of a goodly stature and pregnant wit’ to the ‘bloody butcher’ that he later becomes. In the play, Cade maintains his grim humour to the end, but as the rebellion becomes more and more successful, even capturing London and forcing the King to flee to the security of Kenilworth Castle, so Cade himself becomes more and more carried away by his own ambitions and sense of power—a clear parallel to, and parody of, the behaviour of Suffolk, York, and the other nobles earlier on.

The development in Cade emerges most powerfully in the scene of the interrogation and decapitation of Lord Saye, and especially in his long speech of accusation (4.7.23-44), which is as much a challenge to the verbal dexterity of the actor as the long verse speeches in the court scenes are. It starts with more grotesque humour, punning on Saye's name, and accusing him of treacherously negotiating with the French ‘Dolphin’, a mocking anglicization of ‘Dauphin’, whom Cade also derisively calls ‘Mounsieur Buss-my-cue’ (‘Kiss-my-arse’). Gradually the speech builds in intensity, or mock-intensity, into a far more extended attack on literacy than that directed against the Clerk of Chatham earlier. The climactic accusation is that Saye has wrongly executed people because they could not read, whereas, Cade concludes, in his inverted value-system ‘only for that cause they have been most worthy to live’. We have heard such charges before: they are a parody of those brought against Duke Humphrey earlier. Like Duke Humphrey, Saye is (against historical fact) a true public servant who defends himself but is murdered for his pains. Unlike Humphrey's enemies, however, Cade admits that Saye has made a good case, though he cynically overrides it: ‘I feel remorse in myself with his words, but I'll bridle it. He shall die an it be but for pleading so well for his life’ (4.7.99-100); and from this point Cade becomes more and more extreme, commanding his followers to decapitate Saye and his son-in-law ‘and bring them both upon two poles hither’, and insisting on the prerogatives of a king, including the droit de seigneur, a lord's right to sleep with the bride of any of his vassals on the wedding night (4.7.113-17). The climax comes when the heads of Saye and Cromer are carried on, displayed on poles: Cade insists that they be made to kiss, and then adds the grotesque joke: ‘Now part them again, lest they consult about the giving up of some more towns in France’ (4.7.124-5). Cade is here at the height of his power, and at his most monstrous. In his chronicle account, Hall says that ‘with these two heads this bloody butcher entered into the city again, and in despite caused them in every street kiss together, to the great detestation of all the beholders’. The play does not dramatize this ‘detestation’, but if it can be suggested in performance, it has the double advantage of emphasizing Cade's power-mania and of helping to explain how Buckingham and Clifford in the next scene manage to win the rebels away from Cade so easily (i.e. not entirely through Clifford's jingoistic appeal to their patriotism by recalling the memory of Henry V at 4.8.10-17, 34-52).

This development in Cade very much depends upon the playing, and in particular upon the delivery of Cade's extended speeches, as two contrasting performances may illustrate. Trevor Peacock in the BBC television production is a powerful actor, but he tends to fragment his speeches by pausing after each sentence and sometimes within sentences, so that rhythm and continuity are lost; as a result the scene with Lord Saye especially seems to last too long. Tony Bell in the Watermill version, far from breaking up the speeches, delivered them at an extraordinary speed, building accusation upon accusation in his interrogation of Lord Saye in a sustained crescendo; but he didn't stop there: the speed, and the taut rhythm, were sustained through his speech insisting on having the maidenheads of all new brides, to the amazement of his followers. This performance gave shape to Cade's role and illuminated the technique of his speeches: they emerged at once as virtuoso opportunities for the actor and as a demonstration of the intensifying megalomania of the character. And it made a wider point about these scenes. They depend upon a combination of laughter and hideous violence, but finding a point of balance between these extremes is not to be achieved by compromise. The answer seems to be to push the humour as far as it will go, and then to choke the audience's laughter on the hideousness of, say, the episode where the severed heads are made to kiss.

Before leaving Cade, a word about his destroyer, the Kentish squire Alexander Iden. This character, whose pleasure in his rural retreat may have been suggested by his name even without Holinshed's spelling ‘Eden’, has provoked the most divergent reactions. For E. M. W. Tillyard, he is a symbol of order, ‘entirely content with his own station in the social hierarchy’;40 for Peter Roberts, reviewing the RSC's 1963 production, his ‘smug self-esteem’ might represent ‘bourgeois complacency’ (Plays and Players, September 1963, p. 42); for Philip Hope-Wallace, reviewing the same production on its transfer to London, ‘Squire Iden's almost accidental destruction of Jack Cade’ was ‘utterly irrelevant and delightful’ (Guardian, 13 January 1964); and for Michael Hattaway in his Cambridge edition, ‘the sincerity of Iden's commitment to the happy life away from court may be judged by the alacrity with which he grasps at preferment at 5.1.81’ (p. 196). That last judgement seems a bit hard, since the King specifically commands him to ‘attend on us’ (5.1.80), and even then it is not certain if he stays: the Quarto gives him an exit, the Folio doesn't. Jane Howell, in her BBC television production, characteristically turns this textual uncertainty to dramatic advantage. Having characterized Iden in 4.10 as a matter-of-fact country gentleman out for an evening stroll, smoking his pipe which he unhurriedly taps out before disposing of the troublesome intruder who turns out to be Cade, she has him remain to witness the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses in 5.1. This finely-handled sequence, with each of the rival combatants caught in close-up as they assemble, ends with a fade to the troubled face of Iden, one of the many who will become embroiled in those wars.


  1. Shakespeare's History Plays (1944). For a survey of Tillyard's supporters, and of the reaction against him which has become ‘a new orthodoxy’, see Robin Headlam Wells, ‘The Fortunes of Tillyard: Twentieth-Century Critical Debate on Shakespeare's History Plays’, English Studies 5 (1985), 391-403, and Judith Hinchcliffe, King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, Garland Shakespeare Bibliographies (1984).

  2. Introduction to Richard III (Oxford, 2000), p. 11.

  3. Angel with Horns, ed. Graham Storey (1961), p. 2.

  4. [Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York] 1809 reprint, p. 208.

  5. [Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland] 1808 reprint, p. 210.

  6. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols., vol. iii (1960), p. 12.

  7. Holinshed inserts an extra ‘Roger Mortimer’ into the last line (p. 266), so it is clear that Shakespeare is following Hall here, not Holinshed.

  8. See Appendix B, 1.2.35-44. Many of the other characters in The Mirror also appear in 2 Henry VI, but this material was taken from the chronicles, and so was already available to the dramatist.

  9. Oxford, 2000; p. vii. For historical information I have relied upon R. A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI, second edn. (Stroud, 1998). Bertram Wolffe offers a more disenchanted view of the King in his Henry VI (1981). Keith Dockray's Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses: A Source Book (Stroud, 2000) usefully reprints original documents in accessible form.

  10. Dockray (see previous note), p. xxiv.

  11. Holinshed died before the 1587 edition was completed, and other writers contributed to it; Abraham Fleming, for example, provided the passage quoted casting doubt on the King's compassion to the rebels, as the marginal annotations attest.

  12. [R. A.] Griffiths, [The Reign of King Henry VI, 2nd edn. (Stroud, 1998)] p. 649; Dockray, pp. 53, 58.

  13. Cited in Dockray, p. 6.

  14. Griffiths, p. 238.

  15. Cited in Dockray, p. 43.

  16. Shakespearian and Other Studies, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1969), pp. 9, 23.

  17. ‘Shakespeare's use of history’, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, ed. Stanley Wells (Cambridge, 1986), 143-62; pp. 146-7.

  18. This structure is so strong that even when the three plays are reduced to a two-part version, with the Folio's Second Part split across the two evenings, its impact survives: the destruction of Duke Humphrey then becomes the climax of the first of the two plays thus created, while the rise of Cade and York makes a powerful start to the second.

  19. The Wars of the Roses (1970), p. xviii.

  20. [Emrys] Jones, [The] Origins [of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977)], p. 35.

  21. Mary Clarke, Shakespeare at the Old Vic 1957-8 (1958), no page numbers.

  22. Jones, Origins, p. 39.

  23. Private communication from Vivian Nutton of the Wellcombe Institute for the History of Science, cited in my Shakespeare's Late Plays (Oxford, 1990), p. 105.

  24. Jones, Origins, p. 41.

  25. The Wars of the Roses (1970), p. xix.

  26. Jones, Origins, p. 45.

  27. Philip Brockbank, ‘Shakespeare: His Histories, English and Roman’, in English Drama to 1710, Sphere History, 3, ed. C. Ricks (1971), 166-99; p. 172.

  28. But see the Textual Introduction, p. 97.

  29. ‘Rhetoric and insincerity’, in Shakespeare's Styles, Essays in honour of Kenneth Muir, ed. P. Edwards, I.-S. Ewbank, and G. K. Hunter (Cambridge, 1980), 1-8; p. 4.

  30. Pauses are marked in the prompt-book, held at the Shakespeare Centre Library, Stratford-upon-Avon, after lines 73, 75, 81, 96, 100, and 109.

  31. Shakespeare at the Old Vic 1957-8 (1958).

  32. ‘Shakespeare: His Histories, English and Roman’ (see p. 40 n. 1), p. 172. See also Brockbank, ‘The Frame of Disorder—Henry VI’, in Early Shakespeare, ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris (1961), 72-99.

  33. See the Commentary to l. 6 for an alternative reading which, if anything, increases the grotesque effect.

  34. The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), p. 109.

  35. The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition (New York, 1997), p. 206. Her bibliography lists several articles relating the Cade scenes to contemporary popular unrest.

  36. ‘“A short report and not otherwise”: Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI’, in Shakespeare and Carnival, ed. R. Knowles (1998), 13-35; p. 27.

  37. They are not designated as asides in the Folio, but since many necessary asides are not indicated in that volume, no conclusion can be drawn from the absence of such directions.

  38. BBC TV Shakespeare edn. (1983), p. 27.

  39. This aspect has led to speculation that Cade was originally played by the morris-dancing comic actor Will Kemp; for an alternative candidate see p. 66 below.

  40. Shakespeare's History Plays (1944), Penguin reprint (1991), p. 159.

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: MacKenzie, Clayton G. “Myth and Anti-Myth in the First Tetralogy.” Orbis Litterarum 42 (1987): 1-26.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie examines how the classical and biblical mythic references in the Henry VI plays reflect and subvert the heroic ideals of English mythology.]

To the Elizabethan translator Philemon Holland, mythology is “a fabulous Narration: or the delivery of matters by way of fables and tales”1 and mythologers are those who expound such “Morall Tales.”2 Neither the First Tetralogy nor its author wholly correspond to either definition. The plays, as mythology, fall short of a “fabulous Narration,” and the rôle of Shakespeare, as mythologer, is not focused exclusively on ethical matters:

When first this order was ordain'd, my lords,
Knights of the Garter were of noble birth,
Valiant and virtuous, full of haughty courage,
Such as were grown to credit by the wars;
Not fearing death nor shrinking for distress,
But always resolute in most extremes.

(1 Henry VI IV.i.33-8)

O, I could hew up rocks and fight with flint,
I am so angry at these abject terms;
And now, like Ajax Telamonius,
On sheep or oxen could I spend my fury.

(2 Henry VI V.i.24-7)

Now my soul's palace is become a prison.
Ah, would she break from hence, that this my body
Might in the ground be closed up in rest!
For never henceforth shall I joy again;
Never, O never, shall I see more joy.

(3 Henry VI II.i.74-8)

None of these allusions can be precisely traced to the known sources of the Yorkist Tetralogy, though each represents themes common enough in Elizabethan literature. The first is native English, the second Classical, and the third religious and emblematic. Shakespeare's distinguishing achievement is that he goes some way towards weaving these three separate mythic strands into a single fabric of myth and counter myth, of English greatness and English depravity. This paper sets as its task the examination of what may be termed the “English mythology” and its “anti-mythology.”

An immediate objection may be raised against the critical usefulness of such an investigation. Of what interpretative value is a gamut of Biblical and Classical material, profuse and often superfluous, whose own inconsistencies deter a search for significance? The Tetralogy lays claim to more than a hundred references of this sort, many of them “local” in effect and lying within that vein of promiscuous allusion characteristic of some of Shakespeare's contemporaries. In fact, Malone cites the presence of numerous Classical figures that “do not naturally arise out of the subject, but seem to be inserted merely to show the writer's learning”3 as evidence in the case against Shakespeare's authorship of the Henry VI trilogy. This paper adopts the position of those who argue that the Henry VI plays, whether revised or plagiarised, are, in some considerable sense, the work of Shakespeare.4 There can be no denying, though, that the delineation of coherent and unified motifs is hampered by an obvious confusion of mythic identities in these early plays. In 1 Henry VI, for example, Joan la Pucelle is described variously, by friend and foe, as an Amazon (I.ii.104), Deborah (I.ii.105), a bright star of Venus (I.ii.144), Astraea's daughter ( and the new patron saint of France (; and as a devil (I.v.5), a witch (I.v.6), a railing Hecate (III.ii.64), and Circe's collaborator (V.iii.35). The balance of French praise and English condemnation is to be expected and the general tenor of the references suggests this. But such diversity of allusion means that the respective adulation and condemnation of la Pucelle are both framed in terms that clearly signal a broad intent but lack sustained cohesion. “Amazon,” “bright star of Venus,” and “Astraea's daughter” each imply some kind of superlative but their disparity can present no solid and unified development towards a common end. In view of this, a methodical and consecutive examination of Classical and of Biblical names mentioned in the plays seems less satisfactory than an analysis of coherent image patterns to which selective and, perhaps, more significant Hebraic and Graeco-Roman figures may contribute. Our purpose here will be to analyse the development of the English mythology and its antithesis in terms of the central motifs that serve to articulate both.

Barnaby Rich writes of the “decaie of Marciall discipline”5 in Allarme to Englande (1578)—an observation that appears to understand, of the English soldier, a traditional military excellence. The complaint is a sensitive one and its origins are many and varied. We shall focus, though, on the issue of reputation. Let us conjecture that Shakespeare was well schooled in the theme of the English as a warlike race. The idea is a familiar topic of discussion in the writings of Tudor commentators, who often measure the extent of English martial achievement with reference to French conquests. Raphael Hythlodaeus notes, in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (in which Hythlodaeus is a fictitious foreigner), that “not even the French soldiers, assiduously trained in arms from infancy, can boast that they have very often got the better of it face to face with your [English] draftees.”6 And Sir Walter Raleigh notices that “among all their warres, I find not any, wherein their valour hath appeared, comparable to the English. If my judgement seeme over-partiall; our warres in France may helpe to make it good.”7 A few English writers seek to explain the origins of such greatness in arms. Richard Verstegan, in his discourse on “The most noble and renowned English nation,” insists on the hereditary nature of the English warring spirit: “Our ancesters delighted in warre and hunting.”8 England falls under the patronage of the god of war, Mars, Richard Argol confirms in a work first published in 1562, and this accounts for the Englishman's natural “fire of honour mounting by martiall prowes.”9 Possibly, Argol has the legend of the Trojan Brutus in mind—a legend of Britain's Aenean and, ultimately, Martian ancestry still widely accepted, Aaron Thompson10 tells us, as late as the seventeenth century.

This sense of English martial prowess as an hereditary quality, as an ancient and ancestral right, is one to which Shakespeare refers on several occasions in the plays of the First Tetralogy:

Froissart, a countryman of ours, records
England all Olivers and Rowlands bred
During the time Edward the Third did reign.
More truly now may this be verified;
For none but Samsons and Goliases
It sendeth forth to skirmish. One to ten!
Lean raw-bon'd rascals! Who would e'er suppose
They had such courage and audacity?

(1 Henry VI I.ii.29-36)

Coming from the Frenchman Alençon, such praise is of particular interest. Andrew Cairncross defines Samson and Goliath as “typical O.T. strong men”11 in the Arden edition of the play but does not comment on the allusion to Oliver and Roland on whom the significance of this passage pivots. Celebrated as military paradigms during the illustrious reign of Charlemagne, Roland and Oliver were allegedly killed in the pass of Roncesvalles in the year 778 during a surprise military encounter with an overwhelming Gascon force.12 Further, Roland was the nephew of Charlemagne himself. G. H. Gerould,13 in his paper “King Arthur and Politics,” argues that the whole story of the Trojan Brutus building a New Troy in England was invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth as a direct native British counter to the mythology of heroism and conquest the Normans had constructed around Charlemagne. In the “Corona Dedicatoria” to Joshua Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas, the name of King James is linked with the idea of the English monarch as “un Charle-magne encore.”14 And Daniel Price, in 1613, addresses Prince Charles as “The Hope of Svcession, Englands Charlemaine.”15 Clearly, there is evidence to suggest that the English were, to some degree, concerned with compiling a myth equivalent to that of the French conqueror. Alençon's comparison of the progeny of Edward III's reign with that of Charlemagne's (to “Olivers and Rowlands”) is all the more significant in view of this. The idea was not Shakespeare's own, and the obligation to Froissart is acknowledged in the text. Even so, the dramatist's interest in this snippet of information from the Frenchman's chronicles, when he already had a veritable mountain of material in Hall to collate and condense, may in itself be indicative of his intentions.

In understanding present English military daring in terms of a revivification of an ancestral heritage deriving from the time of Edward III, Alençon articulates a mythology of English martial supremacy strengthened by association with his own native French mythology. The choice of Edward III as the source and fountain-head of this reviving militarist tradition is not all that surprising. The name of Edward III is almost synonymous in Tudor literature with foreign conquest. His achievements are extolled at length in works as diverse as John Rastell's The Pastyme of the People (1530)16 and Caxton's Chronycles of Englande (1475?),17 and at least mentioned in standard works on martial skills and strategy—as in Matthew Sutcliffe's The Practice, Proceedings, And Lawes of armes (1593).18 William Wyrley,19 in The Trve Vse of Armorie (1592), writes that Edward III created the Order of the Garter, a statement confirmed by Rastell.20 Talbot elucidates the heroic qualities demanded by the Order of the Garter.21 He declares:

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

(1 Henry VI IV.i.33-44)

Gerard Leigh records that “in the time of king Edward the thirde, at one voyage, his souldiers were so laden with pray of arme, as they esteemed nothing but golde, siluer and Estrichfethers.”22 To Leigh, materialistic superlatives represent an equivalent expression of military worth. Talbot's martial ideal is conceptual rather than tangible. We are presented not with gold or ostrich feathers, but with valour (line 35), virtue (line 35), haughty courage (line 35), credit (line 36), and resolution (line 38). It is intriguing that Talbot places “noble birth” (line 34) as the first requirement of a Knight of the Garter. Through his cowardice, Sir John Fastolfe has betrayed his birth and, fittingly, Talbot demands that he be degraded “like a hedge-born swain / That doth presume to boast of gentle blood” (lines 43-4). This vocabulary of condemnation styles Fastolfe as a “counterfeit,” as a man whose rank and station do not match his actions. As such, Sir John can be no true inheritor of the ancient and warlike spirit, and Talbot pointedly slanders his lineage, claiming he “Doth but usurp the sacred name of knight” (line 40). The sense of piety that Talbot would here attach to the English military ideal suits well the symbol of the George (a jewel, named after the saint, which forms part of the insignia of the Order of the Garter), and the battle cry of “Saint George!” which, as Wyrley23 tells us, was also instituted by Edward III. In tearing off Sir John's Garter at IV.i.15, Talbot exposes him not only as a military sham but also as one who is guilty of “Profaning,” to use the hero's own words, “this most honourable order” (line 41). If we look forward to Richard III, we may decipher in the vilification of Fastolfe the promise of more sinister things to come. This is how Queen Elizabeth condemns Richard:

Thy George, profan'd, hath lost his lordly honour;
Thy garter, blemish'd, pawn'd his knightly virtue;
Thy crown, usurp'd, disgrac'd his kingly glory.

(IV.iv.369-71. Emphasis added.)

By the time the heroic ideal of the English mythology is deployed in Richard III, its terminology and accoutrements have undergone perversions and assumed ironies that Talbot himself unwittingly predicts, but surely could not have imagined, in his censure of Fastolfe. For the time being, at least, Talbot clings with steadfastness to the notion, first formulated in the play by Alençon's reference to the English “Samsons and Goliases,” that the English knight can and must remain faithful to a code of military conduct bequeathed to him by his illustrious and valiant ancestry.

But Alençon's idea of “rebirth” is not only an expression of a reviving military spirit. It is a familial process as well. The present Samsons and Goliaths are the physical progeny of those Olivers and Rolands who were themselves “bred” in Edward's reign. These two aspects of rebirth are skilfully harmonised in the relation of Talbot to his son John in the first play of the Tetralogy:

O young John Talbot! I did send for thee
To tutor thee in stratagems of war,
That Talbot's name might be in thee reviv'd
When sapless age and weak unable limbs
Should bring thy father to his drooping chair.

(Talbot to son. IV.v.1-5)

When Talbot wishes that his “name might be in thee reviv'd,” his concept of inheritance encompasses connotations that are both physical and spiritual (in the military sense). The great reputation of Talbot's “name” is documented by Geoffrey Whitney in his 1586 edition of A Choice of Emblemes:

Hvniades, the terrour of the Turke,
Though layed in graue, yet at his name they fled:
          And cryinge babes, they ceased with the same,
The like in France, sometime did Talbots name.(24)

And the most immediate source of 1 Henry VI, Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancaster and Yorke (1548), records that Talbot “obteined so many glorious victories of his enemies, that his only name was, and yet is dredful to the French.”25 In the next sentence, Hall also describes Talbot as a son of Mars, but Shakespeare does not take up that tantalising association (in fact, Mars is mentioned only once in the whole Tetralogy, at I.ii.1 in 1 Henry VI, and there insignificantly) opting, instead, for an emphasis on Talbot's very “name.” This emphasis goes well beyond the warrant of Hall's chronicle: at I.i.128 we are told that the English soldiers shouted “A Talbot! a Talbot!”; at I.iv.50 Talbot himself claims that the French so feared his name that they guarded him excessively; at II.i.79 an anonymous English soldier informs us that the cry of Talbot's name serves him as a sword; and John Talbot insists that he has a renowned name that must not be dishonoured (IV.v.41). The importance that the dramatist places on Talbot's name as the by-word of a military mythology is paralleled by an insistence that Talbot's son, John, is not only the physical progeny of his father but his military heir as well. The hope that “Talbot's name might be in thee [John] reviv'd” underscores Shakespeare's mythologisation of a process of physical and military regeneration of excellences. Another example of some significance in this direction is to be found in 3 Henry VI. The Earl of Oxford here addresses the Prince of Wales:

O brave young Prince! thy famous grandfather
Doth live again in thee. Long mayst thou live
To bear his image and renew his glories!

(V.iv.52-4. Emphasis added.)

Henry V (“thy famous grandfather”) is not only of the same family line as Edward III, but he can also claim a similar military descent. In fact, Sutcliffe's treatise on the art of warfare celebrates these two kings together for their glorious success in France.26 Throughout the Yorkist Tetralogy, Henry V is presented to us as a moral and military paradigm against whose feats the present is repeatedly compared and measured, a fine illustration of the quality of military achievement that is demanded by the English mythology.

Oxford thinks of Prince Edward as one in whom Henry V could “live again.” This proposed renewal retains the two-fold significances of which we have spoken already. As Henry V's potential inheritor, the Prince of Wales must both “bear his image” and “renew his glories”—his inheritance is physically familial and spiritually heroic. Regrettably, Oxford's hope of renewal through young Prince Edward is a forlorn hope that is wisely qualified by the boy himself: “An[d] if I live until I be a man, / I'll win our ancient right in France again / Or die a soldier as I liv'd a king” (Richard III III.i.91-3, emphasis added). The curse of civil war is the very stuff of the anti-mythology, and civil dissent is condemned on many occasions in the First Tetralogy, notably at III.i.72 and at IV.i.147 in 1 Henry VI and at II.v.77 in 3 Henry VI. The young Prince of Wales falls prey to terrors that characterise the dramatist's vision of civil intrigues. Oxford's faith in the rebirth of famous conquering achievements in France, in the revival of glorious ancestral qualities, must stand always in the shadow of that grim and most unfamilial incident in II.v of 3 Henry VI where Father kills Son and laments, with an appropriate reproductive nuance, the perversions spawned of civil war:

O, pity, God, this miserable age!
What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly,
Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural,
This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!

(II.v.88-91. Emphasis added.)

As early as I.i in the first play of the Yorkist quartet, the sheer desolation of the heroic ideal is encapsulated in Exeter's terse annunciation: “Henry [V] is dead and never shall revive” (line 18), and in Gloucester's bleak cry: “Is Paris lost? Is Rouen yielded up? / If Henry were recall'd to life again, / These news would cause him once more yield the ghost” (lines 65-7). There will be no renewal of great conquering deeds on foreign soil—only the swift ruin of the foreign empire and the inexorable descent into civil war. Shakespeare's anti-myth perceives this failure and disintegration of the noble English mythology not through an entirely independent imagistic scheme but through the inversion and perversion of existing motifs. The use of “Saint George” as a battle cry is a point in question. Initially an archetypal cry of the Englishman Talbot (at IV.ii.55 and as he prepares to do battle with the French in 1 Henry VI, it is quickly commissioned into the service of civil war to perform the unnatural duty of inspiring English soldiers in battle against each other. The final perversion is executed by Richard III when, before encountering Richmond, he cries:

Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George,
Inspire us with the spleen of fiery dragons!
Upon them! Victory sits on our helms.

(Richard III V.iii.349-51)

The spleen was supposedly the seat of anger, but Richard's strange appeal to both the dragon and the dragon slayer in these lines marks, more importantly, a confusion of moral and military intention. The chaos of England has reached its nadir. The plays of the First Tetralogy deploy the battle cry of “Saint George” (used on nine occasions) more frequently than any other play, or group of plays, in Shakespeare's canon.27 It is surprising that the dramatist does not choose to align and develop this theme more closely with the other elements of Edwardian military myth. Its ambivalent usage, though, does correspond to the polarities of the English mythology and the anti-mythology. Further examples of the transition from myth to anti-myth may be found in the images of the “soul” and the “womb”, and both merit close examination.

The Tetralogy's religious imagery is, for the most part, profuse and unremarkable. Several critics28 have made the point, implicitly or otherwise, that Shakespeare writes under the immediate influence of the Morality play tradition. Perhaps this stifles any innovative aspiration. “Devil” is an expression of damnation, “angel” of goodness—and, if statistics can be any measure of a fallen world, there are three times as many “devils” as there are “angels.” The image of the “soul” offers a notable exception, contributing to the English mythology and its reverse. Here, in 1 Henry VI, the young Plantagenet addresses the body of Mortimer who has just died in the Tower of London:

And peace, no war, befall thy parting soul!
In prison hast thou spent a pilgrimage,
And like a hermit overpass'd thy days.
Well, I will lock his counsel in my breast;
And what I do imagine, let that rest.
Keepers, convey him hence; and I myself
Will see his burial better than his life.
[Exeunt Gaolers, bearing out the body of Mortimer.


Many commentators29 have indicated that the idea of life as a pilgrimage is of Biblical origin. None has suggested that Plantagenet's “thou” in line 116 refers not to the physical body of Mortimer but to his “soul”, mentioned a line earlier. Once we recognise this possibility, a possibility enhanced by the change to the third person in line 118 (“his”), the notions of soul, pilgrimage and prison merge together in what we may call a verbal emblem, and the Gaolers' action of carrying the body of Mortimer out of his prison confines becomes a visual metaphor for the escape of the soul from the prison of physical life. The antithetical nature of the flesh and the spirit is a Biblical commonplace. In the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians (v.17) we read that “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary one to another”30—the enmity is made quite explicit. And the image of the soul imprisoned occurs quite frequently in Elizabethan drama. H. C. Hart, writing in a different context, brings attention to Lyly's Campaspe: “the bodie is the prison of the soule.”31 Hart also quotes examples from Peele's Edward I, The Battle of Alcazar, and the second part of Marlowe's Tamburlaine.32 However, there does not appear to be an extant emblem book source available to Shakespeare harbouring a print of comparable visual detail to the dramatist's stage metaphor for the escape of Mortimer's soul. Only Francis Quarles,33 writing forty years after the composition of 1 Henry VI, produces an emblem of any similarity—a bird (the soul) languishes in a cage (the flesh) while an angelic figure stands near, awaiting the release of the prisoner.

Shakespeare's intentions in styling Mortimer's captivity in the way he does may well be related to the nature and history of the old warrior himself:

Since Henry Monmouth first began to reign,
Before whose glory I was great in arms,
This loathsome sequestration have I had;
And even since then hath Richard been obscur'd,
Depriv'd of honour and inheritance.
But now the arbitrator of despairs,
Just Death, kind umpire of men's miseries,
With sweet enlargement doth dismiss me hence.

(1 Henry VI II.v.23-30)

Aside from his personal regret that his own military greatness should have been eclipsed by his confinement, Mortimer's deeper concern is that Richard Plantagenet, who now comes to visit him, has been deprived of his rightful honour and inheritance—accession to the English throne. The betrayal of the natural reviving processes of the English mythology—the denial through imprisonment of Mortimer's right to exercise his prowess in arms, and the refusal, through obscurity, of Richard Plantagenet's ancestral claim to the throne (Henry VI himself confesses that his title is weak in 3 Henry VI at I.i.134)—is, to no small degree, symptomed by Mortimer's desire for death. In thinking on the “sweet enlargement” (line 30) that Death will grant him, he angles at a double sense of escape. His body will be carried forth from the prison confine by the gaolers, and his soul will, at last, break free from the prison of the flesh. This is, indeed, a “sweet” enlargement. In a tetralogy where many characters express similar inclinations, there is some justification in assuming that Shakespeare connects the idea of death as an escape from the pangs of life with the fall of the English mythology. Interestingly, Ronald S. Berman,34 in his paper “Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI Plays,” has brought attention to Mortimer's Biblical characterisation of Richard II as “the first-begotten and the lawful heir” (II.v.65). And Berman is not alone in feeling the need to articulate the evils of Henry VI's era in terms of an “original sin,” which he defines as the deposition and murder of Richard II.35 Unfortunately, the Tetralogy does not provide sufficient evidence to merit some kind of association of the anti-mythology with the Biblical understanding of man's Fall, though the link is of very great import in the second tetralogy. For our further purposes here it will be useful to look at two other allusions to the “soul” which consolidate the link between death and the English mythology reversed.

In 3 Henry VI, as the Queen's party enact a ritualistic execution of York, the dying man, after hearing of Rutland's brutal murder, longs for death at the hands of his captors:

Open Thy gate of mercy, gracious God!
My soul flies through these wounds to seek out Thee


Clifford, the boy's killer, had vowed at V.ii.60 in 2 Henry VI to seek out fame, not in the heroic militarism of the English mythology, but in pure cruelty: “In cruelty will I seek out my fame.” Despairing at this single act of inhumanity, even one as hardened to the ways of the world as York can no longer endure the savagery of life. The stab wounds inflicted upon York's body mix the literal and the metaphorical in granting the body leave from physical life and freeing the soul from the prison of the flesh. And in the next scene, when Edward hears of his father's murder, he exclaims:

Now my soul's palace is become a prison.
Ah, would she break from hence, that this my body
Might in the ground be closed up in rest!

(3 Henry VI II.i.74-6)

Full accreditation of Edward's sentiments must be tempered by the knowledge that, as son of York, he is of the new generation, a generation spawned of the anti-mythology. This perhaps will explain why his words savour more of rhetoric than of spontaneity and it is revealing that, for all his world weariness, he has, by the end of the play, enthroned himself as King of England. There is even a hint, brought finally to full fruition by King Richard III, that the generation of the anti-mythology actually enjoys the barbarity of its world. Young Clifford, as a prime example, inherits a military quality from his renowned father that he perverts to the most inhumane ends. “In cruelty will I seek out my fame,” he says, with his father's body slung symbolically over his shoulder. English youth is no longer inspired to conquests abroad but to savageries at home. For those who would aspire to the glories of the English mythology, death is, to use Talbot's words, “the end of human misery” (1 Henry VI III.ii.137) in this fallen English world.

As a symbol of regeneration, the image of the “womb” is of natural interest in plays so concerned with issues of rebirth. What is surprising, though, is Shakespeare's use of it more as a figure of malignancy than of hope or well-being. If the dramatist's aim is to portray a native English myth reversed, then the image of the womb, deployed in inversion, may well work toward a planned end. This is not to deny the presence of more optimistic usage. At the outset, the word is a symbol of such healthy and regenerating honour that John Talbot frames his military duty in terms of it:

Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?
Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.

(1 Henry VI IV.v.34-5)

This is the heroic spirit of the English mythology. Yet, even here, we experience the disquiet of a tomb-womb rime, an association no more than aural at this point but one that is developed textually in the later stages of the quartet. By IV.i of Richard III, Shakespeare is ready to enact the most startling imagistic inversion. The Duchess of Gloucester speaks with thoughts of her evil son Richard in mind:

O my accursed womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatch'd to the world,
Whose unavoided eye is murderous.


The juxtaposition of what ought to be the archetypal life-force image of the “womb” and the bed of death, the tomb, represents a compelling departure from the notion of an ideal English mythology that is sustained by the rebirth of great acts and famous monarchs. From the pedigree of the noble Duchess has sprung a beast of chilling malignancy. It is indicative of Shakespeare's developing dramatic art that Richard III, unlike its predecessors in the First Tetralogy, should sacrifice the dubious mechanism of indiscriminate Classical and Biblical reference to a more tutored, less effusive, approach to his task of articulating the anti-mythology. The image of the womb, as a metaphor for Richard's depravity in familial and national obligations, is both sustained and coherent:

The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb

(Marg. to Rich. I.iii.230-1)

O my accursed womb, the bed of death!

(Duchess IV.i.54)

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death.

(Marg. to Duch. IV.iv.47-8)

That dog [Richard] …
Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.

(Marg. to Duch. IV.iv.49 & 54)

Who intercepts me in my expedition?
O, she that might have intercepted thee,
By strangling thee in her accursed womb,
From all the slaughters, wretch, that thou hast done!


It is possible, even likely, that Shakespeare derives the idea of the womb as a tomb from The Mirror for Magistrates where, in the section devoted to King Henry VI, the king himself wishes: “Would God the grave had gript me in her gredy woumbe, / Whan crowne in cradle made me king, with oyle of holy thoumbe.”36 The image has much in common with both the Duchess' bed of death and her regret that Richard did not die in her womb, but Shakespeare must be credited with developing the theme. Be this as it may, usage for which there seems to be no obvious precedent in the sources may be located in the final two womb images of Richard III, both uttered by the king. In the first, Richard vows to Elizabeth

If I have kill'd the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.


And in the second:

Yet thou didst kill my children.
But in your daughter's womb I bury them;
Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.

(IV.iv.422-5. Emphasis added.)

Once heroic processes of revival are here strangely perverted. The womb becomes the expression of both life and death. But while Richard promises in each case that life will follow death, the progressions are decidedly unnatural. In the first instance, there is not the sense of a healthy and familial inheritance, of one generation bestowing its life upon the next. There is, rather, the feel of an all-seeing and an all-powerful Richard, presiding omnipotently over reproductive processes—wilfully destroying one generation, promising life to another. It is more a mechanism of substitution than of regeneration, and it becomes a thinly veiled idiom of the English mythology reversed, of the anti-mythology. In the second quotation, we are taken a step further. Burying the children of Elizabeth in her daughter's womb, Richard proposes a phoenix-like resurrection: “in that nest of spicery [the womb], they will breed / Selves of themselves.” The king does not entirely dispense with the normal means of reproduction. When he says “in your daughter's womb I bury them,” he makes it clear that he will be doing the “burying.” This intriguing form of ejaculation again corrupts the concept of rebirth, and styles Richard as one who sows the seeds of death rather than of life. The English mythology's theme of heroic and splendid regeneration is now subsumed into the grotesque service of the anti-mythology. For the idea of the womb as a kind of hermaphroditic breeding ground (“they will breed / Selves of themselves”), the figure of the phoenix is not an unusual choice, though its usage here may be considered untypical of the Tetralogy as a whole but no less indicative of the manner in which the typical processes of rebirth in the English myth are drawn into the degenerative cycle of the anti-mythology. Referred to by name rather than inference, and very powerfully linked with Shakespeare's Classical endeavours in the opening trilogy, the “phoenix” of the Henry VI plays is a quite different species to that of Richard III but no less instructive for an analysis of the continuing conflict between the mythological opposites.

In baptising Elizabeth in Henry VIII, Cranmer compares her to the maiden phoenix (V.v.39-47) who, though doomed to perish, yet promises the hope of monarchs to come. The use of the phoenix in the First Tetralogy is directed more towards the ends of heroic militarism than royal succession, but the connotations of “rebirth” are just as pertinent. This is how Lucy, addressing the French, speaks of the dead Talbot and his men:

                                                  from their ashes shall be rear'd
A phoenix that shall make all France afeard.

(1 Henry VI IV.vii.92-3)

And York, facing death at the hands of his foes, utters a curse of unnerving certainty:

My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth
A bird that will revenge upon you all;
And in that hope I throw mine eyes to heaven,
Scorning whate'er you can afflict me with.

(3 Henry VI I.iv.35-8)

The respective ideas of “fear” and “revenge” in these two quotations may seem to lie in roughly the same emotive direction but the dramatist's intentions in each are very different. Lucy's allusion savours of the English mythology. The hope that an English military paradigm will rise to renew the feats of Talbot against the French and on foreign soil is well in keeping with the precept of English heroic greatness renewing itself from generation to generation. What is disconcerting, though, is the apparent absence of any person capable of fulfilling that rôle. Lucy's idealism returns, in spirit, to the archetypal conquests of Edward III and Henry V in France but the spectre of civil war and mythological degeneration is so threatening, even in this the first play of the Tetralogy, that such idealism can find its only viable domain in the imagination. York's phoenix, by contrast, is a creature of terrifying reality. When we recall that his son, Richard III, will be his inheritor, the promise of revenge through his own succeeding generation assumes dimensions of cruelty and evil that outreach even his predictions. The metaphorical bird that will rise from the Duke's ashes will be the bird of bloody and unnatural civil dissent, passed on from one generation to the next—a bizarre distortion of the English mythology's natural reviving cycle. The notion of phoenix-type rebirth is thus doubly significant. On the other hand, it is Lucy's expression of the glorious English mythology and, on the other, it is a figure of the anti-mythology, a metaphor for the fast gathering evil of civil war.

Shakespeare may have gleaned a knowledge of the phoenix and its attributes from almost anywhere. Even so, on the evidence of the most obvious sources, his usage is unusual. Pliny37 affirms that the bird exists, and links it with Arabia and spice trees. Despite the plays' obvious interest in horticultural imagery, it would be a fruitless endeavour to suggest any derivative significance in that direction! Nicolas Reusner has an emblem of a burning phoenix in his 1581 edition of Emblemata, and his print is accompanied by lines that relate the miraculous reviving bird to the religious theme of saintly martyrdom:

If men report true, death over again forms the Phoenix,
To this bird both life and death the same funeral pile may prove.
Onward, executioners! of the saints burn ye the sainted bodies;
For whom ye desire perdition, to them brings the flame new birth.(38)

Had York been endowed with altruistic qualities, and had Talbot suffered the same fate as Joan la Pucelle, Reusner's print and verse might well have merited consideration as the possible source of Shakespeare's usage. Finally, Geoffrey Whitney's verse addendum to his plate of the phoenix (copied from Les Devises Heroiques39) purports to nothing more than a topical comparison of the phoenix to the town of Nampwiche which had burnt down and been rebuilt.40 Whitney writes “bothe of the oulde, and newe” (p. 177). His theme can hardly be related to the details of the two phoenix citations in Shakespeare's Henry VI plays but it may provide us with a clue to a further interest the dramatist may have in the mythical bird. Certainly, it is useful as a metaphor for the ideas of heroic revival and unnatural resurrection already discussed. Perhaps less readily recognisable is the strange figurative affinity the phoenix has to the saga of Brutus and the New Troy. As the phoenix rises from the ashes of its predecessor, so, as legend had it, the New Troy of England rose from the ashes of the Old Troy of antiquity. The story, repeated by almost every Tudor chronicler, is a familiar theme in Elizabethan literature.41 Shakespeare never alludes to the Trojan Brutus in his plays, but in the Henry VI series (in 2 Henry VI at I.iii.43 and at III.ii.113; and in 3 Henry VI at III.iii.7 and 49) he uses the word “Albion” as a synonym for England. The name has a special link with the story of New Troy, and is used only twice elsewhere in the dramatist's works.42

While the possibility of an association in Shakespeare's mind of the phoenix and New Troy can be no more than conjecture, the pre-eminence of the Classical story of Troy in the Henry VI plays is beyond question. The story of Troy appears to be the only sustained attempt at a Graeco-Roman parallel in the quartet. But, while almost every leading Greek or Trojan personage is mentioned somewhere in the Henry VI plays, not one is to be found in Richard III. Evidently, the reign of King Henry VI conjured up a particular vision of Trojan disaster in the mind of the dramatist. It is not difficult to see why this should be so, for many superficial details of Henry's disastrous rule echo elements of the Troy saga. For example, Suffolk's mission to woo Margaret and bring her back to England to be Henry's queen is something similar to the rape of Helen, particularly when the love affair between Suffolk and his one-time captive blossoms later in the trilogy:

Thus Suffolk hath prevail'd; and thus he goes,
As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,
With hope to find the like vent in love
But prosper better than the Troyan did.

(1 Henry VI V.v.103-6)

It is worth noting, as Gwyn Williams43 has done in his paper “Suffolk and Margaret: A Study of Some Sections of Shakespeare's Henry VI,” that the illicit relation between the two lovers is unhistorical. The whole account is apparently Shakespeare's invention, and, similarly, the use of Classical material here must also be original. Margaret, herself, evokes the notion of a queen brought from her native land and “imprisoned,” as it were, within a city wall when, in describing the journey across the Channel to England, she remembers that she cast a jewel into the sea which received it, “And so I wish'd thy body [Henry's] might my heart” (2 Henry VI III.ii.109). In 3 Henry VI, Hastings makes explicit the protective rôle of the sea in the defence of the island from foreign invasion: “Let us be back'd with God, and with the seas / Which He hath giv'n for fence impregnable” (IV.i.43-4). The sense of the sea as a Trojan wall defending England is an idea that will be developed coherently and cohesively in the course of Richard II. This does not happen in the first tetralogy. We must view the Trojan nuance as simply an element strengthening the Margaret-Helen association. Further such elements can be detected in the division of opinion amongst the nobles as to the desirability or otherwise of Margaret's presence in England (2 Henry VI i.i) which may be understood as something approaching the embittered wrangles amongst the Dardanian nobles over the presence of Helen in Troy, and in the manner in which the burning of Troy, the direct result of Helen's presence there, is three times mentioned in 2 Henry VI, the play in which Margaret appears first and in which the most vociferous objections to her presence are raised. Bolingbroke recalls “The time of night when Troy was set on fire” (I.iv.17); Margaret talks of “burning Troy” (III.ii.118); and while Young Clifford's simile that he bears his father's body “As did Aeneas old Anchises bear” (V.ii.62) does not specifically refer to the burning of Troy, portrayals of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises in the emblem books or in books of illustrations are almost invariably backdropped by the burning ruins of the ancient city—as in Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias' Emblemas Morales (1591)44 and in Antonio Tempesta's illustrations of Ovid's Metamorphoses.45

In all fairness, though, Margaret's relation to Helen of Troy cannot be pressed to any great extreme. Though Michael Quinn46 sees her advent as the “original sin” of the Tetralogy, her presence is surely less to blame for England's demise than is religious Henry's inability to command a disintegrating kingdom. Edward bluntly disavows the Helen link, but for very different reasons:

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

(3 Henry VI II.ii.146-9)

Menelaus indeed! George Puttenham, in The Art of English Poesie (1589), holds, as axiomatic, the “prudence of Menelaus.”47 Edward's comparison is no less cryptic than Margaret's odd inference, in 2 Henry VI, that Henry dissembles like Aeneas (III.ii.115). Nonetheless, Edward's “de-mythologisation” of the Margaret-Helen association exemplifies a technique of some significance deployed by several other characters in the First Tetralogy as a strategy of degradation. In 1 Henry VI, the Countess of Auvergne denies her mortal foe, Talbot, his right to equation with Hercules and Hector (II.iii.19-20), describing him, instead, as “a weak and writhled shrimp” (II.iii.23); Joan la Pucelle is taunted by her English captors with the accusation that, far from being divinely conceived, she is the daughter of a humble peasant (1 Henry VI V.iv); in the second of the Henry VI plays, to Suffolk's claim that Jove sometimes disguised himself as he does now, the Lieutenant threatens that “Jove was never slain, as thou shalt be” (IV.i.49); Clifford, in 2 Henry VI, assails the myth-like stature that the bogus mythist Jack Cade would claim for himself by asking, derisively, “Is Cade the son of Henry the Fifth, / That thus you do exclaim you'll go with him” (Iv.viii.33-4); York's insistence, again in 2 Henry VI, that the golden crown “must round engirt these brows of mine” (V.i.99) is very well remembered by Queen Margaret in the next play when she forces her captive to wear a paper crown (I.iv); and, in Richard III, Richard urges Buckingham to sully the honour of Edward's heirs by inferring their bastardy (III.v.75). The devaluation of mythic worth is a motif to which the dramatist attaches very considerable importance in these plays.

Hector is the Trojan hero most frequently alluded to in the Henry VI plays. In the first, as we have seen, the Countess of Auvergne notices, of Talbot,

I thought I should have seen some Hercules,
A second Hector for his grim aspect


A messenger in 3 Henry VI here describes the death of York:

Environed he was with many foes,
And stood against them as the hope of Troy
Against the Greeks that would have ent'red Troy.
But Hercules himself must yield to odds


And, in the same play, King Henry bids farewell to Clifford with the words:

Farewell, my Hector and my Troy's true hope.


The Elizabethan acquaintance with the story of Troy, as the critic Kenneth Muir48 has indicated in a Stratford-upon-Avon lecture given in 1980, was more likely to have been indebted to Virgil than to Homer. This, we might suppose, explains why Shakespeare refers to Hector in the second quotation as “the hope of Troy” (the phrase derives from The Aeneid: “O lux Dardaniae! spes O fidissima Teucrum!”49) without feeling the need to mention the hero by name. The character of Hector in Troilus and Cressida is in keeping with the Virgilian vision of a consummate warrior, as are the two secondary Tudor sources with which Shakespeare may well have been familiar. William Caxton's translation of Raoul LeFevre's The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye claims that “This hector was moche coragyous. stronge. and victoryous in batayll / and a right wyse conduytour of men in Armes,”50 and John Lydgate's Troy Book51 also styles Hector as a warrior archetype. As regards the emblem genre, at least one writer sees the Trojan paradigm in a similar light:

Le preux Hector, le beau Paris de Troie
Iouent tous deux de harpe armonieuse
Hector semond à guerre furieuse,
Et Paris quiert esbat, soulas, et ioye.(52)

And it is certainly the way in which the Countess, the Messenger and the King conceive of Hector.

However, it does not seem implausible to suggest that the dramatist could also have been familiar with the Hector of The Iliad, having available to him the English translation of A. Hall published in ten books by R. Newberrie in 1581 (London).53 And The Iliad portrays Hector as not only a fabulous knight capable of feats of exceptional military prowess but also as an archetypal father figure—a man, as Paul Harvey puts it, “of human affections, devoted to wife and child”54 and not just a soldier. R. K. Root may be oversimplifying in arguing that, in the Henry VI plays, Hector is “a mere name, a type of martial prowess.”55 It is intriguing that each of the three “Hectors” Shakespeare presents us with can boast a degree of familial affection that must be considered unusual given the peculiar family dislocations of the Tetralogy as a whole. Fathers kill their sons, and sons kill their fathers (3 Henry VI II.v.); the weak King Henry surrenders his son's right to the throne in an action that even he admits is unnatural (3 Henry VI, I.i.192-3); in Richard III, Edward has his own brother executed, and Richard coldly conspires to the same end (II.i) and goes on to order the execution of his own nephews at IV.ii.18-19. By contrast, the bonds between Talbot, York, and Clifford and their respective progeny, each tested and steeled by grim Death itself, stamp themselves powerfully on the fabric of the drama. Talbot would willingly give his own life that his son might live (1 Henry VI IV.v). In 3 Henry VI, York's grief at the death of Rutland (I.iv.147) is as profound as is his pride in the way his sons demeaned themselves in battle (I.iv.8). And when Young Clifford carries away his father's body “As did Aeneas old Anchises bear” (2 Henry VI V.ii.62), he draws on a Classical anecdote popular in the emblem books as a good representation of family loyalty and devotion.

In his use of the figure of Hector as an illustration of military superlative and, as has been argued, of kinship, the dramatist may be moving with more subtlety in these plays than some critics believe.56 It is intriguing, and a little worrying, that in two of the Hector allusions (those pertaining to Talbot and York) Shakespeare chooses to refer to Hercules as well. This is not as incongruous as it may seem at first. LeFevre's French edition of The Recuyell57 has a woodcut of Deianira giving a kneeling Lichas the shirt poisoned with the blood of Nessus. And Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne,58 in Emblemata, list an emblem in which Hercules is related to Trojan heroes. Certainly, some attempt is made to work out an Herculean identity for Talbot (he is linked a second time with Hercules when Lucy calls him “the great Alcides of the field” at IV.vii.60) and we might argue that Shakespeare intends some kind of parallel Hectorian and Herculean identification—a man, on the one hand, as bonded to his son as Hector was to his family, and, on the other, as betrayed and conquered by the treachery of his allies and the guile of a woman as was Hercules by the unfortunate Lichas and the shirt he bore from Deianira. Similarly, when the Messenger describes York's death at the hands of Margaret (significantly, though Clifford, Northumberland and the Prince of Wales were present at the execution, it is Margaret's rôle he emphasises), he compares York to the hope of Troy and then concedes tellingly

But Hercules himself must yield to odds;
And many strokes, though with a little axe,
Hews down and fells the hardest-timber'd oak

(3 Henry VI II.i.53-5)

This allusion to Hercules relates to a proverb “Ne Hercules quidem contra duos,” explained by Erasmus in Proverbs or Adages (1569 translation): “Not Hercules against two, that is to saye: Though a man neuer so muche excelleth other in strengthe, yet it wil be hard for him to matche two and mo at ones. And one man may lawfully giue place to a multitude.”59 The vision of York forced to stand upon a mole hill (I.iv.67), made to wear a paper crown (line 95) and derided by Margaret, might almost seem an oblique reference to Hercules' subjugation at the mannish hands of Omphale, herself a queen. There is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare's intentions stretch beyond a merely proverbial level towards this Omphalean connotation. Margaret's femininity is questioned on many occasions in 3 Henry VI: Richard calls her a “woman's general” at I.ii.68, York says she is “ill-beseeming” of her sex at I.iv.113, George refers to her as “Captain Margaret” at, Margaret herself declares that “I am ready to put armour on” (III.iii.230), and, at V.v.23-4, Richard sneers at her in wishing “That you might still have worn the petticoat / And ne'er have stol'n the breech from Lancaster.” The Hercules-Omphale entanglement appears to be a promising equation, applicable not only to York but also to King Henry who is never referred to as Hercules. Such ideas, though, may claim only inferential value since, so often, Shakespeare undermines his own Classical credibility by allowing himself to be lured into tempting “local” parallels whose variety does nothing to enhance the cohesion and the sustained significance of his mythology. Talbot's flirtation with Hector and Hercules seems defensible, even attractive, but how do we accommodate his further association with Daedalus in and vii, or with Nero at I.iv.95? So, too, York looks like a promising hybrid of Hector and Hercules, but, if so, why does Shakespeare go on to confuse him with Ajax (2 Henry VI V.i.26) and with Achilles (2 Henry VI V.i.100)?

When we talk of the use of Trojan myth in the Henry VI plays, the inconsistencies of detail enable us to speak, with assurance, of only a feel of the saga of Troy. That, of itself, is useful. It gives the Tetralogy, as a whole, an overriding sense of predestined tragedy. There is humour in Henry's cry to Clifford, “Farewell, my Hector and my Troy's true hope,” but a humour that moves always against the dark backdrop of imminent disaster. Henry is no Priam, and his regime no splendid Troy. But he shares with his illustrious predecessor a common human pathos, and his order faces a destruction as certain, if not as memorable or as absolute, as that faced by the ancient city itself. And when Gloucester (later King Richard III) seeks a suitable metaphor for his own secretive ambitions, he imagines himself as some scheming Grecian plotting the demise of Troy:

I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.

(3 Henry VI III.ii.188-90)

All this to gain the crown of England and build a new and a sinister world from the ashes of the old. The specific identity is not fixed, absolute, or even important. A Nestor, a Ulysses, a Sinon—Richard will be whoever or whatever he has to be in order to achieve his objective. Often outrageous and frequently inconsistent, the Tetralogy's Troy references endeavour to point us in general directions. It would be wrong to suggest that their implications are entirely unwholesome. While the sense of imminent doom is relevant to the immediate circumstances of Henry VI's predicament and Richard's impending rise to power, the Elizabethans would also have seen the fall of Troy as the unfortunate, but necessary, event that brought about the birth of their own great New Troy. In this way, the elements of the Dardanian myth contribute to the now familiar “two-way” mechanism of the English mythology and the anti-mythology. In one sense, they signal death, decay and destruction, and, in another, they offer the hope of a second Troy, of an English paradise on earth, in which the glories of former times will be born again.


  1. Plutarch, The philosophie, commonlie called, the morals, trans. Philemon Holland (A. Hatfield, 1603), explanation of words.

  2. William Camden, Britain, or A Chorographicall Description Of The Most Flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, trans. Philemon Holland (1610, first publ.; F. Kingston, R. Young and J. Legatt for A. Heb, 1637), I, 207 (marginal note).

  3. Quoted by Andrew S. Cairncross, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI, 3rd ed. (1962; rpt. Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1977), p. xxix.

  4. For a discussion of the authorship question see Cairncross, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI, pp. xxviii-xxxvii.

  5. Rich makes this retrospective remark in Riche his Farewell to Militarie profession (J. Kingston for R. Walley, 1581), sig. B1v.

  6. Edward Surtz, ed., Utopia (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1964), p. 23. The first edition of Utopia (a Latin version) was printed on the continent in 1516. An English translation appeared in 1551.

  7. Sir Walter Raleigh: Selections from his Writings, edited with an introduction and notes, by G. E. Hadow (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917), p. 90. The extract is from The Historie of the World (1614, first publ.).

  8. A Restitvtion of Decayed Intelligence In antiquities. Concerning the most noble and renowned English nation (Antwerp: Robert Bruney, 1605), p. 56 (gloss).

  9. Argol is here writing in a prefatory address to the reader in Gerard Leigh's (sometimes Legh) The Accedence of Armorie (1562, first publ.; R. Tottel, 1591), sig. A5v.

  10. The British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth, 2nd ed. rev. and cor. by J. A. Giles (James Bohn, 1842), p. xix. Thompson makes the remark in his original 1718 translation.

  11. Cairncross, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI, note to I.ii.33.

  12. For a concise history of Orlando/Roland, see Ivor H. Evans' revised edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, centenary ed. (1970; rpt. Cassell, 1977), p. 927.

  13. “King Arthur and Politics,” Speculum, 2 (1927), 33-51.

  14. Susan Snyder, ed., The Divine Weekes And Works of Guillaume de Saluste Sieur Du Bartas (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979), II, 886, cites the poem (1605 ed., sig. A2v) in which it occurs.

  15. Lamentations for the death of the late Illustrious Prince Henry: and the dissolution of his religious Familie (Tho. Snodham for R. Jackson, 1613), dedication leaf.

  16. The Pastyme of the People. The Chronycles of dyuers realmys and most specyally of the realme of England (J. Rastell, 1530), signs. C5r-D3r.

  17. Chronycles of Englande (St. Albans: 1483), pp. 186r-227v. The pagination has been pencilled in, perhaps after a more recent rebinding of the volume.

  18. The Practice, Proceedings, And Lawes of armes, described out of the doings of most valiant and expert Captaines, and confirmed both by ancient, and moderne examples, and praecedents (deputies of Christopher Barker, 1593), sig. B3r.

  19. The Trve Vse of Armorie, Shewed by Historie, and plainly proued by example (J. Jackson for Gabriell Cawood, 1592), p. 29.

  20. Rastell, The Pastyme of the People, sig. C6v.

  21. Oddly enough, while Sutcliffe's military treatise praises Edward's reign, there is no mention of the Order of the Garter.

  22. Leigh, The Accedence of Armorie, fol. 132v.

  23. Wyrley, The Trve Vse of Armorie, p. 33.

  24. A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden: Francis Raphelengius, 1586), p. 195.

  25. In a passage from Hall's work cited by Cairncross, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI, p. 138.

  26. Sutcliffe, The Practice, Proceedings, And Lawes of armes, sig. B3r.

  27. In 1 Henry VI, the allusions appear at IV.ii.55 (“God and Saint George, Talbot and England's right”) and (“Saint George and victory!”). 3 Henry VI has references at II.i.204 (“God and Saint George for us!”), at II.ii.80 (“Unsheathe your sword, good father; cry ‘Saint George!’”), at IV.ii.29 (“For Warwick and his friends, God and Saint George!”), and at V.i.113 (“Lords, to the field; Saint George and victory!”). And we may cite three such examples from Richard III: at V.iii.270 (“God and Saint George! Richmond and victory!”), at V.iii.301 (“This, and Saint George to boot!”), and at V.iii.349 (“Our ancient word of courage, fair Saint George”).

  28. See Hardin Craig, “Morality Plays and Elizabethan Drama,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 1 (1950), 64-72; and Michael Quinn, “Providence in Shakespeare's Yorkist Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), 45-52.

  29. As does Cairncross, ed., The First Part of King Henry VI, note to II.v.116.

  30. The Bible: That Is, The Holy Scriptures conteined in the Old and New Testament (Robert Barker, 1603). This is the Geneva version.

  31. H. C. Hart, ed., The Third Part of Henry VI, 1st ed. (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1909), note to II.i.74.

  32. H. C. Hart, ed., The Third Part of Henry VI, note to II.i.74.

  33. Emblemes (printed for J. Williams, and sold by William Grantham, 1634), pp. 284-6.

  34. “Fathers and Sons in the Henry VI plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962), p. 489.

  35. Michael Quinn also uses the words “original sin” in his paper “Providence in Shakespeare's Yorkist Plays”, p. 48.

  36. The modern edition used is that of Lily B. Campbell (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1960), p. 213. The earliest edition of the Mirror (written by William Baldwin, et al.) is believed to have appeared in 1555.

  37. The Secrets and Wonders of the Worlde. A Booke Ryght rare and straunge, contayning many excellent properties, giuen to Man, Beastes, Foules, Fishes, and Serpents, Trees and Plants, translated out of P. de Changy's French abridgement by I. A. (1566, trans. first publ.; T. Hacket, 1587), sig. E4v.

  38. Quoted and translated by Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (Trübner & Co., 1870), p. 385.

  39. Les Devises Heroiques, De M. Claude Paradin, Chanoine de Beaujeu, Du Signeur Gabriel Symeon (Anvers: C. Plantin, 1561).

  40. Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes, p. 177.

  41. It was a common practice amongst dramatists of the day to refer to London as New Troy or Troynovant—in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Greene gives Bacon these lines:

    I find by deep prescience of mine art,
    Which once I tempered in my secret cell,
    That here where Brute did build his Troynovant,
    From forth the royal garden of a king
    Shall flourish out so rich and fair a bud,
    Whose brigthness shall deface proud Phoebus' flower,
    And over-shadow Albion with her leaves.

    The text used is that in John Gassner's Bantam collection Elizabethan Drama (New York: Bantam World Drama edition, 1967), scene xvi (p. 229). Similarly, The Mirror for Magistrates (ed. Lily B. Campbell) mentions Brute twice (p. 122 and p. 123) without feeling compelled to explain his significance to the reader. Though originally published before Elizabeth's reign began, the Mirror was both influential and popular in Shakespeare's era.

  42. For the use of “Albion” in relation to the Trojan Brutus story, see Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Britonum, ed. J. A. Giles (D. Nutt, 1844). G. H. Gerould, in his article “King Arthur and Politics” (p. 34), believes that Geoffrey issued his history between 1136 and 1138.

  43. “Suffolk and Margaret: A Study of Some Sections of Shakespeare's Henry VI,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 310-22.

  44. Emblemas Morales (1589, first publ.; En Segouia: Impresso por Juan de la Cuesta, 1591), p. 232r.

  45. Metamorphoseon Sive Transformationvm Ovidianarvm Libri Qvindecim (1606, facsimile rpt. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976), plate 126.

  46. “Providence in Shakespeare's Yorkist Plays,” pp. 47-8.

  47. G. D. Willcock and A. Walker, eds., The Arte of English Poesie (1598, first publ.; Cambridge: The University Press, 1936), p. 4.

  48. The point was made during a lecture at The Hill, in Stratford-upon-Avon, July 1980.

  49. T. H. D. May, ed. and trans., The Aeneid of Virgil (George Routledge and Sons Ltd., 1930), p. 65.

  50. H. O. Sommer, ed., The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (D. Nutt, 1894), II. 578.

  51. Mark Sacharoff, in his paper “The Traditions of the Troy-Story Heroes and the Problem of Satire in Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Studies, 6 (1970), remarks that “Hector is without doubt the peerless heroic figure in the Troy Book” (p. 127).

  52. Cited by Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, eds., Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst Des XVI, und XVII. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1967), col. 1682.

  53. Ten books of Homers Iliades, translated out of the French by A. Hall (R. Newberie, 1581). Hall's translation is in verse.

  54. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1937; rpt. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 196.

  55. Classical Mythology in Shakespeare (1903; rpt. New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1965), p. 69.

  56. This is not to deny that Shakespeare's usage of mythic figures is at times inconsistent and confusing. M. C. Bradbrook's cautious generalization in The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books in association with Chatto and Windus, 1963) seems right: “His early plays, Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, and Richard III, The Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona, are heavily rhetorical, and make some parade of both fashion and learning” (p. 60).

  57. The Warburg Institute, University of London, catalogues this print under “Hercules” and indicates the print is on fol. 203r in a 1495 ed. in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

  58. Henkel and Schöne, eds., Emblemata, column 1644.

  59. Proverbs or Adages, ed DeWitt T. Starnes (1569; facsimile rpt. Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977), pp. 16v-17r.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 5 January 2001)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Swinging It by Golden Twilight.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5101 (5 January 2001): 16.

[In the following review of Michael Boyd's 2001 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, Duncan-Jones admires the overall production, but finds fault with the lagging pace and confusing complications of Part 2.]

In a programme note to the RSC's Henry VI trilogy, Lisa Jardine connects the plays with Elizabeth I's “twilight years … the late 1590s”. The evidence is, however, that they belong to the first eighteen months of the 1590s. These were not twilight but golden years, both for Queen Elizabeth and for a high-flying “upstart crow” from the West Midlands. In a blaze of post-Armada triumphalism, the Queen's own players were touring up and down the country with such swashbuckling and xenophobic history plays as The Troublesome Reign of King John and The Famous Victories of Henry V. Meanwhile in London, or rather in Southwark, players who enjoyed Ferdinando Stanley's patronage attracted huge success with “harey the vi” at the Rose Theatre—a success which excited the envious wrath of established graduate playwrights such as Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe. On March 7, 1592, for instance, “harey the vi” brought £3 profit to the Rose's owner, Philip Henslowe, while a play by Greene performed the following day brought him only seven shillings. The popular success of the Henry VI cycle was chronicled by Nashe in a printed work dedicated to Ferdinando Stanley after severe plague had closed the public theatres in the summer of 1592.

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lien two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times)?

Later still in that same year, the cycle's poet was to be caricatured in a line adapted from the third play in the sequence, his “Tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide”, and vilified as the pushy “shake-scene” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”.

It is entirely appropriate that it was Henry VI that drew Shakespeare into a jealous quarrel between writers competing for the sustaining crumbs of aristocratic patronage, for the plays themselves offer an epic chronicle of men competing, often, for crumbs of power that seem barely to exist outside their imaginations. In Michael Boyd's ambitious and marvellously coherent production, this is made immediately apparent. Within seconds of the stately descent of Henry V's stiff corpse into the bowels of the understage, we witness a stand-up row between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (a physically commanding, often witty performance by Richard Cordery) and the fascinatingly malevolent and faintly camp prelate, Henry Beaufort (Christopher Ettridge). This is no more than a gentle warm-up for Gloucester's violent assault on the Tower of London in Scene Three. Here, the stage is indeed “shaken” by Gloucester's men's noisy battery on the bronze metal gates that represent a succession of cities and fortresses, while “ambitious Humphrey” and the “peeled priest” Beaufort indulge in childish name-calling, with some beard-tweaking that struck me as appropriately reminiscent of the Nashe-Harvey quarrel. The Swan has been successfully converted into an in-the-round playing space in which the anger of warring characters, whether verbal or physical, is concentrated to almost palpable savagery, and where their daredevil stunts with ropes, pulleys and ladders representing assault, battery and, increasingly, dangling death, are more compelling than any circus.

Even characters who are trying to calm things down often do so furiously. The exception is the touchingly naive and well-meaning King (David Oyelowo), whom we see making all the wrong decisions out of pure innocence. He looks every inch the young boy that he should be in Part One—a boy actor may have played the part at the Rose. He is no performer of power roles, and the tears that we so often see him shed can never be suspected of being the “artificial” ones with which the histrionic Machiavel Richard, in Part Three, promises to wet his cheeks. Henry's emotional and physical collapse on learning of the death of his uncle and Protector in Part Two is entirely convincing. For the boy who never knew his father, “Good” Duke Humphrey had been at once father, tutor and deputy, and Henry never outgrows the sustaining pleasure in studious piety that he learned at Humphrey's knee. Only by Part Three, much too late, does he learn to stand alone, gaining sharper awareness both of the wicked ways of the world and of his own limitations. As an introspective pacifist, he knows he can play no part in the Battle of Towton:

Margaret my queen and Clifford too
Have chid me from the battle, swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.

Oyelowo is consistent in his depiction of the unalterably contained “inner” bent of Henry's personality, which also makes sense of one of the text's puzzles, the question of whether the King ever notices that Suffolk is his Queen's lover. Perhaps he knows; perhaps he doesn't; either way, there is no danger that we shall ridicule him as a cuckold, for his preoccupations are evidently above and beyond sexuality.

Part One, the play celebrated by Nashe in 1592 for its reanimation of the tragedy of “brave Talbot”, is once again the most powerful of the three. It is here that Tom Piper's designs can be most fully enjoyed, with their incorporation of such ingenious small conceits as a white feather falling on the shoulder of the foppish Dauphin (Aidan McArdle) during his sexually charged sword-fight with Joan la Pucelle (Fiona Bell) as well as a splendid array of colour-coded costume designs. Lavish blue streamers transform the stage into the French court, where pampered courtiers parade their embroidered blue and gold costumes with swishing inserts of Fortuny pleats while being offered wine from golden goblets. Just as swiftly, the stage can become the Temple Garden, with sprays of red and white roses appearing at shoulder height. The perpetual variety of both visual style and of rhetorical tone makes this play a delight.

There is a surprising amount of humour, and not all of it is found in scenes in which we are invited to laugh at the fickle and cowardly French. Near the end, the complex asides of Suffolk (Richard Dillane) and Margaret of Anjou (Fiona Bell, again) during their first meeting charge the stage with a surprisingly electric mixture of erotic excitement and ambition. And as “brave Talbot” himself, Keith Bartlett is a tough and pugnacious fighting machine. The tragedy of his reunion with the son and namesake (Sam Troughton) whom he has not seen for seven years is devastating. It leads us, paradoxically, to one of the most “normal” images of familial love in the whole cycle. Desperate to persuade his son not to risk his life, Talbot prophesies that “In thee thy mother dies”. In the next scene, the mortally wounded father has the dead son presented to him in a swinging cradle with the words “lo where your son is borne”, and clasps him in death as if he were his newborn child. But young John Talbot has been “born” only into military heroism, which, with authentic Shakespearian ambivalence, is both celebrated and questioned.

Things fall apart somewhat in Part Two, and not just because of complex shifts of power between the parties of Lancaster and York. While Fiona Bell makes an effective transition from a coolly sinister Joan to a sexily ruthless Margaret in the preceding play, she lacks the range, either in voice or imagination, to develop much further. She neither ages nor matures, and modern audiences will not like her approximation to a shrewish stereotype. Her shrewishness also throws the later plays off kilter, making it too easy for Richard Duke of York (a mesmerizing performance by Clive Wood) to win our sympathy as the wronged and embittered claimant to the throne. Act Two, Scene Two, in which York maps out his complicated family tree with the assistance of a bag of large pebbles, is wonderful, and must work particularly well when seen from the upper balcony. Physical movement, timing and delivery of verse are excellent—this trilogy must be one of the best pieces of ensemble playing in the RSC's history. But the middle play is made needlessly confusing and far too long, at three and a half hours, by some gratuitous additions. As in Boyd's RSC Romeo and Juliet, major characters don't stay dead once killed, but roam across the stage as menacing figures of retribution. The percentage of every audience which has not read the play—which in the case of Henry VI must be high—will often be confused and misled. Rather than understanding that Suffolk, who has been foretold death by water, is killed on shipboard by ransom-hungry sailors, they may form the impression that he is killed by the (long dead) Talbot in a sort of box. Nor does the already crowded bustle of the scenes of Jack Cade's rebellion (a grinning Jake Nightingale who is smugly sure that he can “swing” it) require the presence of the figures of the dead Gloucester, Beaufort and a headless Suffolk egging on the mob. There are also pointless verbal additions throughout, such as bits of religious chanting and, in Part Two, the beginning of Shakespeare's Sonnet 74 chanted by Margaret and the severed head of her lover.

We may feel by Part Three that we have supped full of horrors. Fortunately, both pace and clarity pick up to whet our appetites for one more feast of death. The long rhetorical showdown between Margaret and York in Act One, Scene Four is as powerful as I have ever seen it, although, because of the strength of Clive Wood's presence and physique, Margaret's crowning of the dying man with a paper crown increases his dignity rather than undercutting it, as does Margaret's punning black joke:

Off with his head and set it on York gates
So York may overlook the town of York

The wooing of Lady Grey (Elaine Pyke) by the lustful King Edward (Tom Beard) reintroduces some humour, as, in a nastier vein, does the new Duke of Gloucester (Aidan McArdle again), who is speedily characterized by others as a true Demon King. Clarence's remark that he has gone “To make a bloody supper in the Tower”, capped by Edward's that “He's sudden if a thing comes in his head”, raises laughter, yet leaves us free to blench at the closing horror of his knifing of the saintly Henry. Having him cradle the Queen's baby during the closing seconds works beautifully as a lead-in to Richard III, which opens in London in April.

Naomi C. Liebler and Lisa Scancella Shea (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Liebler, Naomi C., and Lisa Scancella Shea. “Shakespeare's Queen Margaret: Unruly or Unruled?” In Henry VI: Critical Essays, edited by Thomas A. Pendleton, pp. 79-96. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Liebler and Shea trace the role of Margaret in the Henry VI plays and Richard III as it develops in accordance with four successive Jungian archetypes—Virgin, Wife, Mother, and Crone.]

As one of only two Shakespearean characters who survive through four plays,1 Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's queen, is much underrated by critics who have written about the figures of the First Tetralogy. They variously describe her as “an archvillainess … epitomiz[ing] the worst qualities of her own sex” (Lee 216), “monstrous” (Howard and Rackin 96), and “conniving” (Bevington 57). Indeed, as Nina Levine has recently pointed out, York's characterization of her as “a tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide” has “come to dominate discussions of Margaret in the years since” (Women's Matters 68). Generally missing from discussions of Margaret is a recognition of her amazing endurance despite the pervasive corruption, duplicity, and political intrigue of which she is sometimes the agent and at other times the intended victim. In this regard she evolves into a most worthy opponent to the chameleon king, Richard III. She warms up for this, her apotheosis, by first taking on Suffolk in 1 Henry VI, Eleanor and Gloucester in 2 Henry VI, and York in 3 Henry VI, at each turn honing her confrontational skills, working toward her ultimate challenge to the king in Richard III. What is at stake in each of these contests is, above all other considerations, her personal and political autonomy—as a woman and a queen.2 At each successive stage of her career she takes on one of the archetypal roles Jung was later to describe for the life cycle of a woman—Virgin, Wife, Mother, and the “Wise Old Woman” or Crone (Jung 5-21; 41-53). Margaret sustains a feminine autonomy by resisting patriarchal definitions of femininity; she will not be subjugated or silenced, or defined by those around her, despite their persistent attempts to do so.

In each play, Margaret shares a specific archetypal role with a parallel female representation: Joan la Pucelle, the maiden warrior in 1 Henry VI; Gloucester's ambitious wife, Eleanor Cobham, in 2 Henry VI; Lady Grey, later Queen Elizabeth and the mother of the heir to the throne, in 3 Henry VI; and the Duchess of York, the cursing crone in Richard III. Shakespeare draws each of these women as a complementary foil to Margaret, consistent with her successive archetypal stages. Three of these—the maid Joan, the wife Eleanor, and the mother Elizabeth—either lose or fail to gain the power they seek. Only the crone figures, Margaret and her counterpart, the Duchess of York, maintain their strength even when their political power has dissolved.


In 1 Henry VI, Joan la Pucelle rises from the peasant ranks to fight by the Dauphin's side. Joan represents herself as divinely ordained, sent by heaven to save the French (1.2.51-54).3 Joan promises the Dauphin that she will “exceed her sex” (90) if she can become his “warlike mate” (92), but before she is allowed to join the ranks of his men, the Dauphin requires that Joan prove herself. He challenges Joan to single combat and finds himself sexually attracted to her when she defeats him:

Whoe'er helps thee, 'tis thou that must help me:
Impatiently I burn with thy desire;
My heart and hands thou hast at once subdued.
Excellent Pucelle, if thy name be so,
Let me thy servant and not sovereign be;
'Tis the French Dolphin sueth to thee thus.


Immediately, Joan exerts a form of sexual power. She reminds her suitor that she cannot give in to physical temptations until she has defeated France's enemy, but suggests that she will consider his offer at a later date:

I must not yield to any rites of love,
For my profession's sacred from above;
When I have chased all thy foes from hence,
Then will I think upon a recompense.


Joan uses the Dauphin's interest in her as a means of securing her position within his army; by making herself unavailable sexually, she hopes to ensure his continued interest.

Gabriele Jackson has argued that Joan's display of freedom as a warrior woman dictates that she must be “more completely feminized at the end of the play” (60). Moreover, since Joan was “subversively powerful,” she must be both “feminized and demonized” (64). Jackson's comments imply that Joan's prowess in battle is unfeminine, but in fact Joan draws her strength from her feminine roles, of which she has several. She is preeminently the archetypal Virgin, and the impression of a woman as a desirable maid has immense power as something irresistible and divine (Jung 10). But she is more than that. Lorraine Helms underscores Joan's sequence of roles as a series of theatrical masks, aptly suited to her treatment at various masculine hands in the play:

She is first a numinous presence whose powers of divination are revealed on stage. She is then a shrewdly pragmatic military leader, and those skills too are represented. Finally, she is a witch, resorting ignominously [sic] to feminine evasions and deceptions, enduring sexual humiliations. These discontinuous images suit a script in which all the dramatis personae are emphatically personae rather than persons. They insist that the player work through mask and gesture rather than motive and emotion.


In this regard, Joan appears to be a “shape-shifter” at need, prefiguring the several incarnations later required of Margaret.

In Act 5, Joan is defrocked, stripped of her aura of “divinity,” literally demonized when, just before she is captured by the English, she is seen conjuring devils in an attempt to turn the course of the battle in favor of the French (5.3.1-29). At this point Shakespeare introduces Margaret to take up the role of Maid of France, the role Joan vacates in the next scene by claiming, to save herself from execution, that she is pregnant, thereby negating her virginal representation.

Margaret first appears on stage as Joan is led off as captive to the Duke of York. Like Joan, Margaret is held prisoner by an Englishman, here the Earl of Suffolk (5.3.45). Like the Dauphin before Joan, Suffolk is smitten with his prisoner, wanting her for himself even though he is married, and plans to bring Margaret to England as Henry's bride so that he can make her his mistress. The only potential impediment to Suffolk's plan is Margaret's lack of dowry: the king, her father, is penniless (5.3.93-99), but Suffolk is determined to marry Margaret to Henry, despite Margaret's own diffidence in claiming that she is “not worthy to be Henry's wife” (122). Finally Margaret yields: “And if my father please, I am content” (127). Suffolk negotiates what might be called Margaret's “purchase” by returning to her father Maine and Anjou, won during the preceding generation by Henry V. Once Suffolk and Reignier agree upon the exchange that will make Margaret England's queen, she sends her future husband “Such commendations as becomes a maid, / A virgin, and his servant” (177-178), but favors Suffolk with a kiss, a gesture which she claims is a “peevish token” (186).

Although Margaret may be read as the object of commerce between men, she uses that commerce to her advantage in her first scenes and throughout the tetralogy. Margaret understands her own economic worth, or lack thereof, but she also understands the strength of her position in the negotiation with Suffolk. Margaret catches Suffolk's slip when he makes his suit on Henry's behalf:

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

(5.3.117-121; emphasis added)

Although Suffolk never directly proposes that Margaret become his mistress, she subtly acknowledges his attraction to her when he kisses her: “That for thyself” (5.3.185). Suffolk's infatuation recalls that of the Dauphin for Joan: as Joan used her sexual appeal to ensure her place in the French army, Margaret uses hers to ensure her marriage to the king. She is first led on stage as England's prisoner, but by the end of the scene she is its next queen.

Suffolk is able to convince Henry that Margaret is a worthy match by extolling her noneconomic values and thus persuades him to breach his promise of marriage to the daughter of the wealthy Earl of Armagnac:

Whom should we match with Henry, being a king,
But Margaret, that is daughter to a king?
Her peerless feature, joined with her birth,
Approves her fit for none but for a king.
Her valiant courage and undaunted spirit,
More in woman than commonly is seen,
Will answer our hope in issue of a king;
For Henry, son unto a conqueror,
Is likely to beget more conquerors,
If with a lady of so high resolve
As is fair Margaret he be linked in love.


Suffolk's description of Margaret is telling: lacking the conventional dowry, she has instead other important qualifications: beauty, royal birth, and the potential to breed warriors who will inherit both Henry V's “conquering” capabilities and Margaret's own “high resolve.” Here Margaret's role as the high-spirited maid is critical. The unspoiled virgin holds the promise of motherhood, and Margaret, the maiden princess, has the potential to be the mother of the next great king. Ironically, the same “high resolve” that recommends her to Henry is the stubborn spirit he will come to regret.


Gloucester and Exeter display their concern over the proposed marriage even before they meet Margaret in Part 1, and try to dissuade the King from marrying this dowryless bride, but Suffolk prevails, and Henry agrees to return Anjou and Maine to King Reignier. With this proclamation, Margaret is transformed from a bride who brings neither money nor land to England to one who costs the country dearly. The declaration so upsets Gloucester that he drops the document: “Pardon me, gracious lord; / But some sudden qualm hath struck me at the heart, / And dimmed mine eyes that I can read no further” (1.1.53-55). Gloucester expresses his outrage to the court:

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


Margaret has cost them their honor. Henry's failure to maintain the position his father won in France is blamed on his bride, and Margaret is immediately positioned as a potential scapegoat for all of Henry's subsequent difficulties.

The savvy Margaret, however, aims to establish herself firmly in her new position. She expresses her displeasure at Henry's reliance on Gloucester: “Am I a queen in title and in style, / And must be made subject to a duke?” (1.3.50-51). She is most disturbed by “proud” (78) Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester's wife, whose elaborate dress (in direct violation of the Elizabethan sumptuary laws) and haughty bearing cause strangers to think she is the queen (77-81). Eleanor's appearance and conduct threaten Margaret's authority: Eleanor “displays her lack of respect for the queen, and signals the power of her own husband, by boasting about the lavishness of her own dress, and wearing it ostentatiously” (Jardine 141). Margaret's complaint reveals the underlying source of her anger with Eleanor: “And in her heart she scorns our poverty” (83). Margaret is keenly aware of the opposition facing her in Henry's court; those who disapproved of her marriage to Henry may challenge both her and her husband.

Margaret recognizes that she must remove those who pose a threat to her or her husband, but she cannot do it alone. She must develop a network of supporters, the “net-like organization” Foucault would later describe as the means by which power is “employed and exercised. … And not only do individuals circulate between its threads. … [T]hey are always also the elements of its articulation. In other words, individuals are the vehicles of power” (98).

Margaret recruits Suffolk as the first in her cadre of loyal supporters. Complaining about Gloucester's influence over her husband, Margaret shares with Suffolk her disappointment in Henry:

I tell thee, Pole, when in the city Tours
Thou ran'st a tilt in honor of my love
And stol'st away the ladies' hearts of France,
I thought King Henry had resembled thee
In courage, courtship, and proportion. …


As she did during the wooing scene in 1 Henry VI, Margaret here flatters her admirer in order to secure his support, and Suffolk commits himself to making the queen happy: “Madam, be patient: as I was cause / Your Highness came to England, so will I / In England work your Grace's full content” (67-69). He assures Margaret that he has already taken steps towards removing both Gloucester and his troublesome wife (90-102).

While Gloucester's care is for his country and his king, Eleanor's thoughts are more subversive. She attempts to goad her husband into vying for the throne, but Gloucester bids his wife to “Banish the canker of ambitious thoughts” (1.2.18). Disregarding his pleas, Eleanor goes on to share her dreams of glory:

Methought I sat in seat of majesty
In the cathedral church of Westminster,
And in that chair where kings and queens were crowned;
Where Henry and Dame Margaret kneeled to me,
And on my head did set the diadem.


The horrified Gloucester reminds her that she should be satisfied with and proud of her place as the Lord Protector's wife. Once she is alone, however, Eleanor expresses her desire to the audience, prefiguring, as Nina Levine has noted (“The Case of Eleanor Cobham” 111), the later gender-challenging manipulations of Lady Macbeth:

Follow I must; I cannot go before,
While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune's pageant.


Eleanor is thus established as both a threat to the present monarchy and a woman whose ambition will ruin both herself and her husband. Unlike Margaret, she cannot find, even in her husband, the network of support her “part in Fortune's pageant” requires, and instead seeks guidance from the spirits. Like Joan in 1 Henry VI, Eleanor turns to sorcery and witchcraft and is brought down by her involvement in the black arts.

Suffolk and the Cardinal suborn Hum, a priest, to “undermine the Duchess” (1.2.98) so that she can be caught at her conjuring and convicted of treason. By discrediting Eleanor, they can inculpate Gloucester and remove him from his office. Eleanor wants to see her husband become king, and in this unstable court Gloucester's adversaries use his wife's desires against him. The duchess is “the victim of what we might call political entrapment: her ambitions are exploited and even manipulated by her husband's enemies to further their own power over the Lancastrian state” (Levine, “The Case of Eleanor Cobham” 105). When Eleanor is captured, Margaret remarks pointedly: “Gloucester, see here the tainture of thy nest. / And look thyself be faultless, thou wert best” (2.1.187-188). After banishing Eleanor, Henry requests that Gloucester relinquish his position as Lord Protector, and Margaret proclaims her approval: “Why, now is Henry King, and Margaret Queen” (2.2.39-40).

Although Shakespeare draws Eleanor and Margaret as contemporaries, the historical Duchess of Gloucester was actually tried and convicted of treason in 1441, four years before Margaret came to England as Henry's bride (Hosley 169, 171; see also Levine, “Eleanor Cobham” 106, Lee 184). By extending Eleanor's “life” Shakespeare underscores Margaret's and Eleanor's comparable roles as wives. Instead of presenting conventionally subordinate women, Shakespeare adduces in both cases a paradigm of marital relationships that Jung would later describe as one in which one party is the container, the other the contained. Whereas the one who is contained lives entirely within the confines of the marriage and clings to it, the container seeks its own complexity in another and may break down into unfaithfulness (47-48).4 In 2 Henry VI, both Eleanor and Margaret are the more complex partners in their respective marriages. Never merely ornamental or dutiful wives, these women are the driving forces behind their husbands for better or for worse. Jung writes that in choosing a husband, “a woman can often pick on a man of real significance who is not recognized by the mass, and can actually help him to achieve his true destiny with her moral support. … But more often it turns out to be an illusion with destructive consequences, a failure because his faith was not sufficiently strong” (51). Both wives illustrate this archetypal pattern. Each woman wants more for her husband than he wants for himself; Eleanor dreams of the crown, while Margaret urges Henry to reclaim his monarchy, to assert the authority that is his birthright as well as his obligation. Eleanor's “unfaithfulness” leads her to seek her own complexity in the demonic arts; Margaret's drives her into an intimate alliance with Suffolk and leads her to conspire against Gloucester, her husband's uncle.

Margaret confers with her potential networkers: Suffolk, the Cardinal, and York; together they resolve that Gloucester must be killed. Margaret intends to solidify her husband's authority, and Suffolk intends to please Margaret. He enlists the Cardinal's support even though he does not completely trust him (1.3.95-100). York, who has his own plans to pursue the crown, happily signs on to assist the queen in dispatching Gloucester. York is under suspicion of treason due to the allegations of a servant; his participation in the plot against Gloucester serves as a mask of loyalty to his king even as he plans his rebellion against Henry. While the group succeeds in destroying Gloucester, his murder leads to the dissolution of Margaret's power network. Suffolk is accused of involvement in the murder, and despite Margaret's pleas, Henry banishes her most trusted ally (3.2.287-299). The Cardinal, overcome by madness, dies in his bed (3.3.1-33), while York gathers his army in Ireland to march against Henry and declare himself the rightful ruler of England (3.1.349-354).

The queen, still determined to protect her husband's claim to the crown but left without her male allies, assumes control of her situation; no longer subtly attempting to sway her husband, she directs Henry specifically as York's army threatens to overpower their own:

Away, my lord! You are slow; for shame, away!
Can we outrun the heavens? Good Margaret, stay.
What are you made of? You'll nor fight nor fly:
Now is it manhood, wisdom, and defense,
To give the enemy way, and to secure us
By what we can, which can no more but fly.
If you be ta'en, we then should see the bottom
Of all our fortunes: but if we should haply scape—
As well we may, if not through your neglect—
We shall to London get, where you are loved
And where this breach now in our fortunes made
May readily be stopped.


With this directive, Margaret begins to shift from her position as the strong woman behind Henry into a new role as the warrior standing in front of the Lancastrian throne, guarding it against challengers. The historical Henry was thought to be mentally ill (Hall, in Bullough 123), but Shakespeare eliminates this detail, making Henry's passivity a simple mark of character weakness and drawing the queen, by contrast, as an aggressive defender of the Lancastrian right, a woman who fulfills the political role that her husband abdicates not out of necessity (as Hall suggests) but by choice. With this move, Shakespeare ends Part 2 with a clear signal of what we may expect to see in Margaret's effective “reign” in Part 3.


Margaret is not present in Parliament when York and his followers challenge Henry's title in the opening act of 3 Henry VI. In an aside to the audience, the king expresses his lack of confidence in his own right to rule:

KING Henry.
Henry the Fourth by conquest got the crown.
'Twas by rebellion against his king.
KING Henry.
[Aside] I know not what to say; my title's weak—


In an effort to protect himself, Henry strikes a bargain with York that will destroy not only his reign but also his relationship with his wife:

KING Henry.
My Lord of Warwick, hear but one word:
Let me for this my lifetime reign as king.
Confirm the crown to me and to mine heirs,
And thou shalt reign in quiet while thou liv'st.
KING Henry.
I am content. Richard Plantagenet,
Enjoy the kingdom after my decease.


With these lines, Henry disinherits his son, Prince Edward, and irreparably damages his own rule. When Margaret is notified of her husband's promise to York, she descends angrily upon him:

Thou hast undone thyself, thy son, and me. …
Had I been there, which am a silly woman,
The soldiers should have tossed me on their pikes
Before I would have granted to that act.
But thou preferr'st thy life before thine honor:
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 Northern lords, that have forsworn thy colors,
Will follow mine, if once they see them spread;
And spread they shall be, to thy foul disgrace
And utter ruin of the house of York.
Thus do I leave thee. Come, son, let's away.
Our army is ready; come, we'll after them.

(1.1.232, 243-256)

With this, Margaret is no longer a wife protecting her husband but a mother vehemently defending her son's right to succeed to the English throne. Henry has given away everything that she sought to preserve for him, and Margaret's declaration of divorce reinforces the idea that she now perceives herself as queen, not as the king's wife. Margaret does not wait for York to exercise his claim; she plans a siege against him. Underestimating the queen as an opponent, the Yorkists head into battle, and the man who will later become Richard III mocks, “A woman's general. What should we fear?” (1.3.68).

Indeed, Margaret gives York and his supporters much to fear. In battle Margaret takes on the characteristics of the “loving and terrible mother” archetype, capable of maternal sympathy, wisdom, and authority but also harboring a dark side that devours and terrifies (Jung 110). The mother who gives life can also destroy life: Mother Margaret's destructive energy is directed against those who threaten her son's right to succeed to the throne.

In 1.4, the queen's forces bring York to his knees in battle. Margaret revels in telling York that his youngest son, Rutland, has been slain. She offers him a napkin soaked in the boy's blood to dry his tears. In a perversion of the coronation ceremony, Margaret sets a paper crown on York's head, creating a profane antiritual (Liebler 41). She taunts him, “Ay, marry, sir, now looks he like a king! / Ay, this is he that took King Henry's chair / And this is he was his adopted heir” (1.4.96-98); York retaliates by attacking Margaret's femininity (Dash 183). Now that he has been subdued by the same power that he supported in 2 Henry VI, York here tries to injure Margaret with insults:

How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph like an Amazonian trull. …
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.

(113-114, 141-142)

Jung noted that all people comprise both masculine and feminine yet do not understand the unconscious element that is opposite to their exterior genders. Man is “compensated” within by a feminine element that he cannot comprehend: the unknown is feared; therefore woman is man's “greatest danger” (170). This “renders men incapable of perceiving the humanness of women” (Wehr 110). York cannot reconcile Margaret's actions with his definitions of appropriate feminine behavior. He attempts to paint Margaret as an animal, a “she-wolf of France” (1.4.111), “inhuman” (134), having a “tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide” (137).5 Northumberland feels sympathy for the weeping York, but the queen is relentless: “Think but upon the wrong he did us all, / And that will quickly dry thy melting tears” (173-174). The resolve of the “terrible mother” is firm; the wrong done to her child outweighs any possible element of remorse in her punishment of her enemies.

This mock coronation of York and his subsequent reaction evoke images of the shaming rituals designed to punish unruly women, such as the cucking stools on which convicted scolds were placed to be dunked repeatedly under water. “Because scolds were seen as threats to male authority, their carnivalesque punishments of mocking enthronement partake of the inverted structure of ‘world-upside-down’ rites” (Boose 190). Margaret is a woman “out of her place” who is allowed only what Natalie Zemon Davis calls a “temporary period of dominion” (135).6

Whereas York accuses Margaret of unruly and unseemly behavior for a woman, it is he who is humiliated. Margaret uses the image of “unruly woman” to her advantage: rather than allowing York to undermine her control of the situation, Margaret projects the qualities of a weak woman onto York, who is reduced to tears and cries for vengeance (1.4.147-179). York's attempts to attack Margaret by challenging her femininity are futile; he is silenced, killed by Clifford, and stabbed by the queen, who orders that his head be set upon the gates of York (179-180).

Henry is shaken by the incident, crying “Withhold revenge, dear God! 'Tis not my fault, / Nor wittingly have I infringed my vow” (2.2.7-8). Henry's emotional reaction to York's death shows a second inversion of male and female stereotypes: he is wailing and lamenting, and Margaret has assumed complete control of the army. This is reinforced later in the same scene when Clifford says to his king; “I would your Highness would depart the field. / The Queen hath best success when you are absent” (73-74). Henry is feminized to the point where he is dismissed from the field, and Margaret is the “manly woman” who appears in the historical sources (Bullough 176), the mother who assumes the traditionally masculine roles of soldier and ruler.

Margaret is an effective leader for the Lancastrian forces because she shares their conviction that York is a usurper. Foucault's comments on the “theory of right” help us to better understand Margaret's forceful defense of her son: “The essential role of the theory of right, from medieval times onward, was to fix the legitimacy of power; that is the major problem around which the whole theory of right and sovereignty is organised” (95). The queen draws her power from her conceptions of the truth, and her strength serves to reinforce that truth. Foucault sees this as a triangle of “power, truth, [and] right. … We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth” (93). The issue of rightful succession dominates the First Tetralogy, and the ambiguity of “right” allows for the continual shifting of power and the subsequent waves of repression and rebellion. “Right” is determined situationally: alliances are made and broken, and loyalties are fragile. In this unstable environment, Margaret's intentions are to uphold the order which she believes is the true monarchy, not specifically to subvert the patriarchal authority except insofar as that authority is perceived to be “wrong,” that is, illegitimate.

Despite her best efforts, however, Margaret loses the battle for the throne. After York is killed, his claim is taken up by his eldest son, Edward. In his quest for power Edward targets Margaret, again raising the issues of her poverty and the loss of France:

A wisp of straw were worth a thousand crowns,
To make this shameless callet know herself.
Helen of Greece was fairer far than thou,
Although thy husband may be Menelaus;
And ne'er was Agamemnon's brother wronged
By that false woman as this King by thee.
His father reveled in the heart of France,
And tamed the King, and made the Dolphin stoop;
And had he matched according to his state,
He might have kept that glory to this day;
But when he took a beggar to his bed,
And graced thy poor sire with his bridal-day,
Even then that sunshine brewed a show'r for him,
That washed his father's fortunes forth of France.
For what hath broached this tumult but thy pride?
Hadst thou been meek, our title still had slept;
And we, in pity of the gentle King,
Had slipped our claim until another age.


Edward attacks Margaret not only because she represents the Lancastrian faction but because she is outspoken. Edward blames Margaret for the wars, citing her pride: had she only been “meek,” that is to say, submissive as befits a king's wife, there would not have been any conflict.

When his forces overcome the queen's, Edward's first priority is to marry so that he can father an heir for his newly won throne. Like Henry's, Edward's marriage is controversial: his marriage to the widowed Lady Grey, who becomes the Queen Elizabeth of Richard III, brings no wealth to England. It also costs Edward the loyalty of Warwick, who has traveled to France to propose to the French king's sister-in-law on Edward's behalf, and the support of the French king, who takes up Margaret's cause after hearing of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth.

By Act 4 of 3 Henry VI Elizabeth is pregnant with Edward's heir, providing a parallel for Margaret as queen and mother of the successor in the play. Unlike Margaret, Elizabeth is not a woman of action. She protects her offspring not by fight but by flight. When Margaret's army, supported by French troops, captures Edward, Elizabeth is driven by fear rather than anger:

And I the rather wean me from despair
For love of Edward's offspring in my womb.
This is it that makes me bridle passion
And bear with mildness my misfortune's cross.
Ay, ay, for this I draw in many a tear
And stop the rising of blood-sucking sighs,
Lest with my sighs or tears I blast or drown
King Edward's fruit, true heir to England's crown. …
Come, therefore, let us fly while we may fly.
If Warwick take us we are sure to die.

(4.4.17-24, 34-35)

She will protect her unborn child, but Elizabeth is passive where Margaret is aggressive: this mild woman presents the audience with a second and radically contrasting image of motherhood in the play.

Margaret and her son continue their fight until they are captured. Margaret is forced to witness the murder of her son, without whom she loses her role as mother. Distraught, she cries out, “O, kill me too!” (5.5.41), and Richard offers to oblige her; only Edward's directions prevent him. She is denied her death, and her father pays ransom to England for her return to France (5.7.37-40). Margaret is a prisoner of England, as she was when she was introduced in 1 Henry VI, and only now are her captors compensated: the costly queen finally brings a ransom payment to England. Edward believes that Margaret's expulsion from England will heal society:

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


Edward and his followers assume that they will hear no more of the “defeated” and “disempowered” (Howard and Rackin 98-99) former queen, but in her final line of the play Margaret, anticipating her role in Richard III, curses her captors: “So come to you and yours, as to this prince!” (5.5.82). In Nicole Loraux's articulate formulation, “whether triumphant or heartbroken queens, they are always wounded in their motherhood. From that moment when mothers obtain only the horrified sight of the child's corpse to compensate for their loss, mourning that has already been transformed into wrath becomes vengeance in deeds. And mothers kill” (49). Margaret does not go quietly from the stage; the queen is not silenced. “Defeated” she may be, but not “disempowered”; her damning prophecy comes true in the next play.


Margaret makes an ahistorical return in Richard III, appearing in Edward IV's court as the king lies ill: in fact, she died in France in 1482, the year before Edward IV's death (Bullough 241). Indeed, as Alexander Leggatt notes, “She is there, in defiance of both history and probability, to do a job for the playwright” (43). Shakespeare draws the former queen as a crone: done now with her earlier roles as virgin, wife, and mother, Margaret lives to embody the wisdom of the old woman; as Richard puts it near the end of 3 Henry VI, she “live[s] to fill the world with words” (5.5.44). Having outlived her childbearing years, the crone is beyond her familial responsibilities and therefore cannot be made subject to male domination. The crone is not desexualized; rather, she remains female but surpasses—is no longer limited to or by—her domestic and reproductive roles. Like Macbeth's Weird Sisters, she is ambiguously gendered; neither masculine nor entirely feminine, she is freed from the constraints of behaviors designated for either sex and thus, as Jung contended, allows a focus on the social task (12), or in this case, the dramatic task. Margaret's curses are now her only weapon, but her words are what Richard fears and loathes most. Calling for the destruction and death of those who killed her husband and son, she foretells the bloodshed that Richard will inflict upon England. Margaret's position as the crone allows her to instigate the sacrifice which her expulsion from England could not satisfy.

The English community is fractured by civil war. To heal the break, England must sacrifice a member of the community who is different and dispensable enough to be eliminated without threatening the integrity of the society; Margaret the French-English-queen-crone becomes the “monstrous double” (Girard 164, 254), a sacrificial surrogate whose elimination will restore England's peace. Margaret was driven out of England by the Yorkists in a futile attempt to “purify” their society, but in fact the “sacrifice” proves ineffective; as a French woman, she was never truly a part of English society. Richard III must be offered instead as the pharmakos, both cause and cure for societal ills. Richard is wholly English, but his physical deformities (1.1.14-27) qualify him as the “other,” the true “monstrous double.”7 In ancient sacrificial rituals, “[t]he purpose of the Crone's curse was to doom the sacrificial victim inevitably, so no guilt would accrue to those who actually shed his lifeblood. He was already ‘dead’ once the Mother pronounced his fate, so killing him was not real killing” (Walker 26). With her curses Margaret absolves the English of the guilt that would lie upon their heads for killing their king. The crone nominates the scapegoat, both identifying and cursing the victim, Richard III. Richard is ultimately defeated by Henry of Richmond, who becomes Henry VII, the redeemer of the English crown and founder of the Tudor dynasty. Margaret's curse on Richard is instrumental in removing the taint of national guilt from the deposition and killing of the king.

Words are useful to Margaret not only as weapons against others but as armor, a means of protecting herself once her political power has dissolved. Margaret relies on self-definition to maintain her strength: significantly, in Richard III Margaret continues to refer to herself as queen even though her husband is dead and Edward is king: “A little joy enjoys the queen thereof; / For I am she, and altogether joyless” (1.3.154-155). When Margaret makes her presence known, she reiterates this position, understanding the shock her presence causes: “Which of you trembles not that looks on me? / If not, that I am queen, you bow like subjects, / Yet that, by you deposed, you quake like rebels” (159-161). Margaret's insistence on retaining the title of queen after her husband and son have been killed is telling. Her power is in her autonomy, her persuasive insistence on self-definition: whereas Margaret dissociates herself distinctly from the deceased Henry, Elizabeth relies wholly on Edward to validate her position. Where Margaret is strong, Elizabeth is weak. Elizabeth understands her precarious situation when Edward is on his deathbed; upon his demise, she fears that only the succession of her children will make her valuable:

QUEEN Elizabeth.
If he were dead, what would betide on me?
No other harm but loss of such a lord.
QUEEN Elizabeth.
The loss of such a lord includes all harms.
The heavens have blessed you with a goodly son
To be your comforter when he is gone.
QUEEN Elizabeth.
Ah, he is young, and his minority
Is put unto the trust of Richard Gloucester,
A man that loves not me, nor none of you.


Elizabeth knows that if her son does not succeed to the throne, she will be cast out, if not executed. Aware of Margaret's power and her own misery, Elizabeth fears the fate with which the older woman curses her: “Die neither mother, wife, nor England's Queen!” (1.3.208).

Indeed, Richard does destroy Elizabeth's family, leaving her one of three women in the tetralogy who have suffered the loss of husband and child or children at his hand: Margaret, Elizabeth, and the old Duchess of York, Richard's own mother. The trio recount their losses in a scene which has been called a moment of female bonding (Miner 47-48), or, as Loraux puts it, the “scene of mothers” (2). This moment, however, passes quickly. As she had done in regard to her dead husband, the always singular Margaret dissociates herself from these women too; rather, this is her final triumph. When, in her sorrow, Elizabeth begs Margaret to teach her how to curse, the crone replies:

Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were
And he that slew them fouler than he is.
Bett'ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse;
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.


“Mourning leads to cursing; this is the lesson given to the gentle Elizabeth” (Loraux 5), but the lesson is lost on her. She is powerless because she cannot speak; she calls her own words “dull” (124); she cannot “fill the world” with them. The elderly duchess, however, can, and curses Richard after her meeting with the former queen: “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end; / Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend” (195-96). Loraux notes that the duchess, among the three women, bears the greatest sorrow “because she hates her son. She hates him because he killed her other two sons [sic], and for her, as for Margaret, there is hate in mourning. … The mother's last word is to curse her son for all time” (5-6).8 Learning from Margaret, moving beyond her function as Richard's mother, she becomes a crone-in-training; she takes on Margaret's position.

Margaret revels in the unhappiness of those who hurt her as she has done throughout the action of the plays, gaining some degree of satisfaction in seeing her displacers displaced. Margaret reminds the duchess that it is her son who has destroyed them: “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept / A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death” (4.4.47-48). Her words for Elizabeth are even less sympathetic:

Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not
Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?
Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke,
From which even here I slip my wearied head
And leave the burden of it all on thee.
Farewell, York's wife, and queen of sad mischance!
These English woes shall make me smile in France.


For Margaret, the misfortunes of Elizabeth and the duchess are justice. Elizabeth is now the displaced queen, the Duchess of York is the cursing crone, and Margaret is satisfied. Her job is done. Although her death is never depicted or announced, the old queen does not appear on stage again after this scene. Her dramatic function has been performed; the words have been spoken, Richard is doomed, and the portraits of the weak and the strong have been drawn.

In each of the four plays Margaret fulfills a Jungian archetypal image, and as she moves through her roles she becomes an incrementally more complex character. Each play highlights one of these feminine roles for Margaret, and the specific archetype is sustained throughout the play: in 1 Henry VI, Joan leaves the role of French maiden as Margaret appears. In 2 Henry VI, Margaret must eliminate the wife who precedes her in power, Eleanor Cobham. As Margaret watches her son die in 3 Henry VI, Edward reminds the audience that his wife Elizabeth is giving birth. Finally, once Margaret has performed the function of the crone in Richard III, she instructs the old Duchess of York in cursing and strides out of the play. The other female figures in the tetralogy reinforce Margaret's difference and her strength, showing how she overcomes adversity and asserts her unique power by refusing to submit to grief, transforming it instead to an active and effective wrath. Loraux's powerfully provocative conclusion to her brief chapter on Richard III is worth quoting here, for both its astonishing insight and its graceful articulation: the play, she says, “is about power and its monstrosity. … But it is also about mothers, mourning, and hatred, which awakens a Greek echo. With, nonetheless, its characteristically Shakespearean dimension: that the relationship of the wives and mothers to their husbands and sons is a relationship to power itself” (6). By performing archetypal feminine roles, the dramatic figure of Margaret—neither submissive nor necessarily subversive—directs our attention to the power inherent in those roles. Instead of exemplifying the gender-violating accommodations in which a queen may rule only by adopting—in the words of his Tudor monarch before her troops at Tilbury in 1588—“the heart and stomach of a king,” Shakespeare's Queen Margaret demonstrates a specifically feminine capacity for effective leadership and formidable political force by performing the full range of incarnations available to a woman.


  1. The other, equally long-lived, is Mistress Quickly from the Second Tetralogy. Shakespeare stretches the historical record in order to include Margaret in Richard III, whose opening scene is set in 1483; Margaret actually died in 1482 (Bullough 241).

  2. Levine notes that “The plays may criticize Margaret's misrule, but in doing so on the basis of policy rather than biology, they effect a subtle but provocative shift that allows for an alternative discourse of power, one based not on expectations about gender but on an appeal to the nation's welfare” (Women's Matters 70); in fact she continues that critical practice when she argues that Shakespeare “freely extends the play's critique of the queen to censure aggressive women in general” (79-80). Levine's project is grounded primarily in identifying the ways in which “Elizabethans, including the queen herself, would not automatically have dismissed an association between Elizabeth and Margaret, nor would they have seen the Lancastrian queen simply as a darker inversion of their own” (75), and sees Margaret's representation throughout the tetralogy as predominantly misogynistic. We are arguing here that an “alternative discourse of power” is central and critical to understanding Margaret's multifaceted representation, and further, that Shakespeare, though not necessarily his masculine characters in these plays, valorizes rather than demonizes her “aggressive” qualities as regal manifestations of autonomy.

  3. Citations from the plays in this essay follow the Signet editions, New York: New American Library: 1 Henry VI ed. Lawrence V. Ryan, 1967; 2 Henry VI ed. Arthur Freeman, 1967; 3 Henry VI ed. Milton Crane, 1968; Richard III ed. Mark Eccles, 1964.

  4. Howard and Rackin place great emphasis on Margaret's infidelity to Henry: “In Shakespeare's play, Margaret's adulterous association with Suffolk is not just a rumor or a surmise, as it was when mentioned in his historical sources; rather, the two lovers appear frequently on stage together, and when Suffolk is banished, their farewell is an impassioned aria punctuated with kisses and tears” (72). Although the text of the play suggests an adulterous liaison, for the purpose of this paper we concentrate on Margaret's relationship with Suffolk as a political alliance and not a love affair.

  5. Shakespearean critics have also called Margaret inhuman: Riggs refers to Margaret's “grotesque display of ‘courage’” as “an inexplicable deviation from nature, a relinquishment of human identity” (133).

  6. Davis here notes that this image of the unruly woman is a comic treatment; however, here we see that the concept is effective as a noncomic, dramatic image of feminine power.

  7. Shakespeare emphasizes Richard's physical deformities in 2 Henry VI, when Clifford calls him a “heap of wrath, foul indigested lump, / As crooked in thy manners as thy shape!” (5.1.157-158), and twice again in 3 Henry VI: Margaret refers to Richard as York's “valiant crookback prodigy” (1.4.75) and Richard speaks of himself as “crook'd” in both body and mind (5.6.79). Richard's “difference” is reinforced by his account of his own birth and disfigurement (5.6.70-83), and of his uniqueness: “I am myself alone” (5.6.83). Shakespeare's words recall Hall, who describes Richard as “litle of stature, eivill featured of limnes, croke backed … hard favoured of visage … malicious, wrothfull and envious” (Bullough 253).

  8. To be precise, Loraux mistakes Richard as the killer of Rutland, who was actually killed by Clifford, or of Edward IV, who dies of natural causes. But her point is no less valid for this elision of Richard's culpability, focusing as it does on the Duchess's maternal rage provoked by Richard's horrific violation of fraternal bonds.

Works Cited

Bevington, David M. “The Domineering Female in 1 Henry VI.Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 51-58;

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare: Volume 3: The Early English History Plays. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

Dash, Irene. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “The Raw and the Cooked in The Taming of the Shrew.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 88 (1989): 168-189.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. 1977. Tr. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Helms, Lorraine. “Acts of Resistance: The Feminist Player.” The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics. Ed. Dympna Callaghan, Jyotsna Singh, and Lorraine Helms. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Hosley, Richard. Shakespeare's Holinshed: An Edition of Holinshed's Chronicles (1587). New York: Putnam's, 1968.

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

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

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Jung, C. G. Aspects of the Feminine. Tr. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeteon University Press, 1982.

Lee, Patricia-Ann. “Reflections of Power: Margaret of Anjou and the Dark Side of Queenship.” Renaissance Quarterly 39 (1986): 183-217.

Levine, Nina S. “The Case of Eleanor Cobham: Authorizing History in 2 Henry VI.Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 104-121.

———. Women's Matters. Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare's Early History Plays. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Liebler, Naomi Conn. “King of the Hill: Ritual and Play in the Shaping of 3 Henry VI.” In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre. Ed. John W. Velz. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies at SUNY Binghamton, 1996.

Loraux, Nicole. Mothers in Mourning. Tr. Corinne Pache. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Miner, Madonne. “‘Neither Mother, Wife, nor England's Queen’: The Roles of Women in Richard III.” In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Riggs, David. Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: “Henry VI” and Its Literary Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Walker, Barbara G. The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1988.

Nina da Vinci Nichols (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Nichols, Nina da Vinci. “The Paper Trail to the Throne.” In Henry VI: Critical Essays, edited by Thomas A. Pendleton, pp. 97-112. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Nichols links the symbolic and theatrical functions of paper to themes of legality, revenge, and the legitimacy of kings in the Henry VI plays.]

Right, says the fledgling playwright as he carries the script of his national epic into the theater. Players know that speech is action, but the audience had better see speech referring to something substantive—a man, an army, a crown, something visible on stage. Of course, some of this speechifying is operative language: oaths, pledges, and ceremonies authorizing allegiance. Those passages ought to work well with an audience accustomed to ritualized occasions. But what to do about all these letters, bills, proclamations, edicts, writs, and verses from the beyond? Written words are false signifiers, attributable to no one and addressing only an educated elite; hence they are secret, “the devil's writ.” Worse still, they are fixed and so pretend to be absolute. Writing, ergo, provides only the “shadow of a substance,” or an army, or a crown. Words in that form are not worth the paper they're written on. Aha! About my brain! Paper!

So the new man-of-theater tackles the problem for his history plays not only of how language fares in a fallen world, but how the legacy of Babel may translate into stage business.1 Precisely as it's utterly insignificant, destructible, and the physical medium for words, paper in all three plays performs as a theatrical device. Or perhaps metatheatrical device would be more apt since, in several instances discussed below, papers operate as props and visual images nearly independent from writing. In all cases, bills, books, and supplications passed back and forth as characters jockey for position literally show written language asserting itself as substantive instead of referential. Whereas every character must assert or be checked by the final authority of combat, papers pretend to derive from a world as signified. No one in the trilogy scrutinizes words like a Richard II, or divides them from substance like a Lear wanting to keep his title, though Shakespeare introduces that idea when both Charles of France in Part 1 and King Henry in Part 3 of Henry VI symbolically divide their crowns. Nor are the Henry VI plays anchored like the Second Tetralogy to a poetic structure independent of chronology.2 Shakespeare instead pits signifier against signified more playfully—if I may—through papers that initiate action, serve a symbolic coherency, and reflect the individualized conception of the self which will wreck so many of his tragic heroes. Even though actual power shifts either with battles won or plots laid and discovered, as these are represented on and by paper, so paper ironically expresses a semblance of orderly procedure in the face of encroaching chaos.

Shakespeare, in other words, dramatizes the perfect analogy, indeed the near equivalence, of verbal, social, and moral orders, that becomes typical of his and other Renaissance theaters: the stage is the world. Still more specifically, the insignificance of written papers expresses the medieval world as fallen: a golden age of heroes exemplified by Talbot passing into an era of self-interest and Realpolitik. As sedition and betrayal become everyday evils, so writing comes to be mistrusted not only by an ignorant rabble. Papers then signify the stability of person, family, and state destroyed by ambition, factionalism, and superstition, separately and together. Henry's crown is hollow yet mysterious, desired yet mocked, claimed by him as a divine right and “shadowed” by York until paper and crown become inseparable at the latter's death. Indeed, most of the many papers passed back and forth in the three plays function either as premonitions or consequences of York's paper trail to the throne. To lay out all the references would amount to annotating the plays line by line. Let me instead summarize some relevant actions and examine in more detail four emblematic episodes in which, as I suggested above, paper acquires a theatrical function almost separable from the writing it bears: in Part 1, the response to Gloucester's bill; in Part 2, the “exorcisms” orchestrated by the priest, Hume, for Eleanor of Gloucester; also in Part 2, Queen Margaret with the severed head of her lover Suffolk; in Part 3, York's paper crown.

Part 1 suggests that papers, like “shadows” and “pictures,” are equally insubstantial signifiers—that is, figures and images—during the quarrels between followers of Lancaster and York after the death of Henry V. The testing of England, the plays' overall subject, begins obliquely with the arrival of “letters full of bad mischance” reporting that the Dauphin has been crowned king (1.1.88) Immediately the scene shifts to the French court and a bit of action that serves as an ironic leitmotif throughout the trilogy: only heaven authorizes a true king. Laying a trap for Joan la Pucelle and her claim of divine guidance, the Dauphin assigns a “shadow” king, Reignier, to receive her. She, however, sees through the counterfeit, proving that she may indeed commune with heaven, whence the mystery of kingship once found its source. To recognize Joan's triumph, the Dauphin will “divide his crown with her” (1.6.18), a scandalous idea to the English audience and proof that La Pucelle is a witch. The Devil rules the French. A divided crown cannot be substantive, although Charles implies that his crown is God-given.

The scene between Talbot and the Countess (2.3), when she compares the hero to her picture of him, makes a similar point in reverse: he calls on his army to show his substance. And then the Temple Garden scene (2.4) elaborates the theme again as it pivots on a show of allegiance either to Henry Lancaster or Richard Plantagenet in the “dumb significants” of red and white roses, respectively; these, too, refer to an abstract idea of power while effectively dividing the country's substance. Henry, later taking up a red rose (4.1.145-154), says it signifies only the accident of his birth as Lancaster, not his identity as king; a rose is “a trifle,” a “toy” referring to nothing but itself. Linguistically he is right; politically he is wrong. During the quarrel between factions in the Temple Garden scene, the unnamed lawyer, the one character in the play whose person substantiates legal writ, plucks a white rose, saying that his “study and his books” show the Red Rose faction to be in the wrong (2.4.56-58). The latter argue that Plantagenet should remain a “yeoman” because his blood is “attained” and “corrupted” by his father's execution for treason under Henry V (90-95). Plantagenet counters that his father was arrested and summarily executed without a legal bill of attainder; therefore he may not be deprived of his heritage as York. Deeper sources of division notwithstanding, expert interpretation of the law, in other words, rests as fully on the “dumb significants” of paper (“books”) as roses themselves in the political realm or inscrutable messages from elsewhere in the spiritual one. Earlier in the scene Suffolk, in his arrogance, had dismissed law as incomprehensible, saying he instead intended to “frame the law unto his will” (9). Plainly, both factions prepare to wage a shadow war which, Warwick prophesies, will either advance Plantagenet as heir to the house of Mortimer during the next Parliament or send “a thousand souls to death” in battle (116-127).

Shakespeare then makes theatrical capital out of paper in 3.1, during the Parliament nominally called to effect a truce between Gloucester, the Lord Protector, and Bishop Winchester, the dissident. According to stage directions at the beginning of the scene before any dialogue, “Gloucester offers to put up a bill, Winchester snatches it [and] tears it,” instantly demonstrating the fragility of the king's power. Presumably Gloucester's paper spells out the charge he delivers moments later, that the dissidents are plotting to bring him down (3.1.21-24), but an infuriated Winchester seizes the advantage by preventing Gloucester from reading his bill aloud:

Com'st thou with deep premeditated lines,
With written pamphlets studiously devised?
Humphrey of Gloucester, if thou canst accuse
Or aught intend'st to lay unto my charge,
Do it without invention, suddenly
As I with sudden and extemporal speech
Purpose to answer what thou canst object.


On the offensive, Winchester articulates the very antithesis between spoken and written words that will characterize the machinations of the White Rose faction hereafter. Gloucester's answer, by comparison, sounds defensive as he takes up the theme. Don't think I've “forged” this list of your crimes, he says, I can recite my bill “verbatim” while your treachery is “manifest” in the traps you have laid for my life (8-24). The argument between Church and State at the least makes “manifest” the split between words substantiated by a man and worthless papers, the point immediately underscored by civil strife made equally manifest on stage. A distressed mayor breaks in on the Parliament for help with maintaining order in the city; he is followed by both Gloucester's and Winchester's “servingmen” with “bloody pates” who have been pelting each other with stones—carrying weapons has been forbidden. As the “skirmish” spills over in the hall, one servingman vows he will fight rather than be “disgraced” by the likes of an “inkhorn mate” for a neighbor (101-103).

Instead of ending here, however, the scene then reaches a brilliant climax, for no sooner has the mob departed and Henry made peace between his warring uncles than Warwick “proffers a scroll” in the right of Richard Plantagenet “to his blood” as York (159-162). In theatrical effect, this indeed is the deeply “premediated” paper anticipated dramatically by Winchester's tearing up of the Protector's “bill.” Warwick the king-maker has been waiting in the wings for his cue to present the scroll, thereby balancing the scene structurally: Gloucester, next in blood to the throne, has been silenced. Alone then with the threat to him implicit in Warwick's scroll, Henry the conciliator unwittingly begins to divide his substance; he creates a “princely Duke of York” (173) who, from this moment on, wears a shadow crown. Exeter in soliloquy after the Parliament says as much.

This late dissension grown betwixt the peers
Burns under feigned ashes of forged love
And will at last break out into a flame.


Yet York, at this point in the saga, seems not to be angling for the throne but biding his time until his faction gains strength (Ornstein 40). Nevertheless, by the close of the play written papers and “dumb significants” have become equivalent symptoms of discord. More letters are carried to and from France in 4.1; from the Pope in 5.1; from Henry to France by Winchester in 5.4., the latter offering to turn King Charles into a “shadow of himself” by having him swear fealty to England (5.4.133). Although these papers advance plot, dramatically they simply punctuate the action.

In Part 2, to the contrary, papers serve a more intricate structure combining their functions as medium for writing and as separable theatrical devices. Again the play opens with papers pertaining to France, this time “articles of contracted peace” (1.1.40) relating to Henry's marriage to Margaret. Gloucester reads them aloud first, and stage directions say he “lets the paper fall” as he is overcome by tears (53-54). Then his enemy Winchester takes up the paper and reads aloud, much as if this brief fall and rise of paper foreshadowed in little the imminent decline of Henry and rise of York. The papers' import? Anjou and Maine “are given to the French, / Paris is lost,” the peers disaffected, Humphrey's fall forecast, and, by the close of the scene, York in soliloquy expresses his intention: “when I spy advantage, claim the crown” from Henry, “Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down” (240, 257). In sum, papers now line the path for York, who hereafter remains vigilant for “advantage.”

Papers establish York's presence even when he is offstage. For instance, though he takes no part in the Peter-Horner argument, it hinges on the dissidents' claim. A man called Peter comes to court with a “petition” against his master Horner for declaring York the rightful king (1.3). As several other petitioners also appear in the scene, it is not clear which papers Queen Margaret destroys in the stage direction instructing her to “tear the supplication” (SD, 39). The very mode of appeal through papers provokes her raging to Suffolk about “the fashion in the court of England” where commoners can overthrow a king “by petition,” while Henry's “weapons” for retaliating are “holy saws of sacred writ” (42-58). By the end of the scene, in the presence of the king and York, Gloucester delivers the law: Peter and Horner shall meet in single combat because the master has witnessed “his servant's malice” (209-210). Do the implications apply to Henry's servant York? The episode feels prophetic partly because while the nobility wait for Horner to answer the charge in person, a quarrel breaks out among them about York's appointment as regent of France; that is, about his suitability as official shadow of the throne.

Then in 1.4, two priests, Margery Jordan, and Bolingbroke conjure up the spirit world for the vain, superstitious Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester. Either the priest Southwell or Bolingbroke reads out black magic spells from papers and presides over “ceremonies” eliciting thunder, lightning, and a Spirit that “riseth” (23). In other words, the mysterious papers and incantations bring about a coup de théâtre. Earlier, Eleanor, wanting her ambitions endorsed by the beyond, had instructed Hume to seek out the “cunning witch” Margery Jordan as an interpreter of dreams (1.2.74-75), a variation on pictures as dumb significants. In this scene, the haughty duchess watches “from aloft”—ironically perched as high as she will reach—as the priest Southwell writes out the message delivered by Jordan's familiar (SD 32). It all seems more marvelous than dangerous until York and Buckingham break into the “exorcism,” seize the papers, and York reads out “the devil's writ.” These “oracles,” York declares, “are hardly attained and hardly understood” (71), that is, irrational gabble. Yet as they seem to demand the death of the king along with others of his party, York arrests Eleanor as a traitor in a show of respect for law. Who framed the “oracles” and how probably matters less than the fact that York unifies them dramatically (Cutts 117). Eleanor provides him with “A pretty plot, well chosen to build upon!” (57), as he does.

After her judgment (2.3), a barefoot Eleanor, carrying a taper, parades in a white sheet with written “verses” (papers of accusation?) pinned to her back (2.4, SD 17). Punishment fits the crime in a public show of England's suffering under the curse of witchcraft, a popular interpretation of the country's plight at the hands of the French and a source of resentment that York counts on. Eleanor's white sheet, the costume of a penitent, serves in turn as a visual reminder of her former luxurious dress and of earlier complaints about her expensive tastes. Still, none of Shakespeare's sources, either for her adventures in necromancy or her sentence, mentions writings to and from a spirit world, whether located above or below. Hall instead says that Eleanor asked the witch Jordan to fashion a wax effigy of the king, which through sorcery would consume and bring him to death (Bullough 102). Shakespeare, however, ignores this potential dumb significant. Much ado throughout the next act about the exorcism and paper rather seems to unify the latter's implications thus far. For one, Eleanor is as mad in her way as Joan la Pucelle in hers: both women believe in primitive signatories, each is motivated by an extreme self-conception referring to an elsewhere at the expense of their responsibility to communal order. For another, Eleanor's language describing the scene of her shame anticipates York's shame with the paper crown:

Methinks I should not thus be led along,
Mailed up in shame, with papers on my back,
And followed with a rabble that rejoice
To see my tears and hear my deep-fet groans.

(2.4.30-34, emphasis mine)

As she departs for exile to the Isle of Man, Gloucester charges the herald escorting her to see that her penance does not “exceed the King's commission” (75-76). The phrase may foreshadow the style of York's death, which ironically does exceed a king's commission. More immediately, the entire episode motivates the murder of Gloucester, who blocks York's ascent to the throne.

In Part 2, this strong anti-intellectual strain reaches a crescendo with the Cade rebellion, fomented by York in Act 3 and darkening his shadow with malevolence:

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

(3.1.356-369, 371, 379-381)

The “commotion” pivots on rejection by the illiterate of everything written, from letters to laws and everyone who writes: “scholars, lawyers,” and their ilk. An “honest, plain dealing man,” says Cade, only “has his mark” (4.2.98). So the man named “Emmanuel” (meaning lord, but also a heading for documents meaning “God with us”) in effect signs his own death warrant with Cade's mob when he thanks God that he has been “so well brought up he can write his name” (101). He then is taken off to be hanged, an ironic exemplar “with his pen and inkhorn about his neck” (106). Cade in full glory even justifies his own absurd bid for the crown with a garbled genealogy that mimics the recitals of noble claimants (130-140). Not that Cade commands the slightest political credibility (Pearlman 36). The insurrection, rather, expresses a deep hostility between classes that York at once deplores and exploits like a true Machiavel.

Paper then becomes a brilliant emblem in 4.4 when a mad Queen Margaret addresses the severed head of Suffolk, cradled in her arms, while the king reads “a supplication” from Cade's rebel forces. Mad she must be, else the scene loses half of its theatrical point as a macabre spectacle of deranged queen on one side of the stage and pious king on the other, each engaged in acts symbolizing their difference. Her emotional disorder is analogous to the social disorder reported by the very paper Henry studies, another shadow of York. She speaks first “to herself,” communing with, fondling, kissing the grisly remains of her lover: “Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind / … Think therefore on revenge” (1-3). Then glimmerings of reason seem to return, and a sense of occasion prompts her to hide the head inside her gown: “Here may his head lie on my throbbing breast” (5). Both line and gesture echo Suffolk's romantic farewell to her, in which he anticipated death. In her presence, he said, death would be “as mild and gentle as the cradle-babe's / Dying with mother's dug between its lips,” whereas “out of her sight” he would “cry out” to have her “lips to stop [his] mouth” (3.2.388-396). Once dead he is indeed out of her sight, and both her lips and her dug do stop his mouth. The physical immediacy of Margaret's action, her elemental attachment to the severed head as more alive to her than her husband, expresses not only the lovers' former physical union but her scorn for the merely legal bond of marriage and her affinity to the realm of the dead. She is French. Suffolk married her in France for Henry in absentia, and her stance between her actual lover and ineffectual husband expresses their three-way relationship thereafter. Henry is a negligible tool of her ambition, a stepping-stone for the woman who cost him France and caused dissension among his noblemen.

While Margaret attends to the hideous trophy, the king remains so absorbed in reading the supplication from Cade that Buckingham must rouse and urge him to answer the rebels immediately. Their exchange is heavily ironic. Henry says he will “send some holy bishop to entreat” with the rebels lest many “perish by the sword” (10-12), in theatrical effect commenting on Suffolk's having just perished by the sword. Further, to avoid “bloody war,” he himself will “parley” with Cade—for all the good talk will do with the man who burns books. Henry then turns to Lord Saye with: “Jack Cade hath sworn to have thy head” (19), again reminding the audience of Suffolk's severed head at Margaret's breast. Eventually, twenty lines into the scene, Henry turns to the mad Queen with the bloody head and refers to her vacancy; that is to say, first he was abstracted while she muttered to her lover's head, then they switch postures so that she is abstracted while he converses with his court. “How now, madam? / Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk's death” (21-22). That “still” is provocative. It suggests that Henry only at that moment recognizes in her a continuing demeanor of lament, for even this weak and remote young man would have reacted more strongly to the sight of her clinging to the bloody remnant.

Be that as it may, the brief scene presents an astonishing tableau of paper or shadow versus substance. The scholarly Henry here becomes a shadow of himself, a believer in a lost unitary world of words and things: to him the supplication, like all papers, at once represents, symbolizes, and signifies. Put still differently, the supplication persuades Henry, an educated gentleman, to a meeting with his opposite, an outlaw incapable of entering a symbolic reality. Cade lives in his body and in fact fears the symbolic, as becomes still more apparent in the following scenes. In this sense, Margaret, the hated Frenchwoman gone mad, is as anarchic emotionally as Cade is politically. Or again, in Act I of Part 3, when Margaret berates Henry for disenfranchising her son by appointing York as successor, warning him that Lancastrians will be alienated, Henry amazingly enough says he will “write unto them and entreat them fair” (1.1.271). She, like Cade, pins her faith to material substance. The scene functions as a commentary not only on Henry's trust in dumb significants like paper but on woman's irrational resort either to the supernatural, like Eleanor and La Pucelle, or to the preternatural, like Margaret. And York's shadow hovers throughout.

Immediately a messenger comes from the rebels and tells the king to flee: “All scholars, lawyers, courtiers, gentlemen, / They call false caterpillars and intend their death” (2 Henry VI, 4.4.36-37) The king replies as a Christ: “O graceless men! They know not what they do.” Only when a second messenger and Buckingham urge Henry again does he say: “Come Margaret. God, our hope, will succor us.” Margaret knows better than to trust in metaphysical aid: “My hope is gone, now Suffolk is deceased” (56). The threat of total anarchy then follows with Cade's edict to “pull down the Savoy … the Inns of Court … all records of the realm” (4.7.1-17). Law will originate only from Cade's mouth, “extempore.” He condemns books, schools, and paper mills (!), and orders the death of Lord Saye, who has men around him talking of “a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear” (37-38). “Kill all the lawyers,” those middlemen interpreting abstract codes and other written arcana.

These and more implications of paper culminate in the scene of York's death in Part 3, perhaps the most overtly theatrical of the four episodes outlined here and one dense with allusions to events in the Christian tradition. To sketch out the relevant prior actions, York claims his right to the crown (2 Henry VI, 5.1.1-2), and then resists arrest by Somerset for “capital treason against the King” (106-108). Openly defiant, York several times during the scene says, “We are thy sovereign,” and “I am thy king” (127, 143), while Clifford calls him mad to think so, tries to enforce the order of arrest, and threatens York with beheading (134-135). Several phrasings, too, seem particularly to anticipate his end. When York protests that his sons' “words” will be his “surety” or bail (120-121), Margaret complains to the king that York “will not obey” the law (136). In the critical scene later, Margaret and Young Clifford not only enforce obedience but luxuriate in their lawless revenge on York for disinheriting Margaret's son and killing Clifford's father.

The opening scene in Part 3, however, foreshadows York's ignominious end more specifically. York and Warwick at court urge York's claim with the threat of arms: “Will you we show our title to the crown?” (1.1.102, emphasis added). Henry, reminded of Bolingbroke's usurpation, admits in an aside that his title is weak and decides to “adopt” an heir (136); so again, as in Part 1 when he created York, Henry advances his enemy, now as official successor. The two embrace to show themselves reconciled, and their pact, we learn later “is enrolled in the parliament” (2.1.173), that is, written into law. York's sons scorn the “vain and frivolous” pact as not sworn before a lawful magistrate (1.2.22-34), and so combat resumes. Retaliating for York's slaying of Old Clifford (2 Henry VI, 5.2), his son Young Clifford slays York's boy Rutland. He brings the body to Margaret, who dips a cloth in the blood on Clifford's sword to substantiate report of the boy's murder with visible evidence. Plainly this line of action in Parts 2 and 3 modulates the themes of law, vengeance, and the sins of the fathers visited on their sons down generations since the reign of Richard II. The densely interwoven themes come to the forefront especially as the atmosphere of York's death recalls that of the Divine Son Christ; for Margaret and Clifford murder the man who would be king in a mock coronation resembling the Passion.3

The extraordinary play-within-a-play in 1.4 hints not only at analogues to the Corpus Christi plays but at both the anti-intellectualism earlier in the trilogy and the dynamic between sign and substance at the heart of Shakespeare's history. While no such borrowing can be proven by historical or textual study—indeed there is no absolute proof that Shakespeare ever saw the mystery cycles performed, much less which ones and where—Shakespeare at the least seems to be authenticating his own fifteenth-century chronicle by evoking the moods and actions typical of several climactic episodes.4 Scholarly opinion about similarities among cycles and guesswork about their provenance goes so far as to suggest that the plays of the Wakefield Master provided a source for those seen at York and Coventry, or alternatively, that all playwrights involved at these and other locales drew on a common vernacular source now lost.5 Nothing said here means to resolve these issues by simplifying them. I instead refer mainly to the Wakefield and York texts as their depictions of the trials, judgment, and death of Christ at the hands of officials and commoners alike recur with varying fullness in other cycles as well as in liturgical recitations, biblical passages, and prayers.

When Northumberland asks what should be done with the captive York, Margaret at exuberant length outlines the “game” or “sport” they will play to degrade the false king (1.4.66-86). To this end she proves a consummate stage manager. I take the sense of her instruction to “stand” him “on a molehill,” followed immediately by her echoing of York's grandiose lines at the end of Part 2 about his right to the crown, to be cues to the scene's staging as a crucifixion. He that “raught at mountains with outstretched arms” [i.e., reached for Henry's throne] / Yet parted but the shadow with his hand” (68-69); that is, parted King Henry, a shadow, from his substance, her army. If York's arms are not outstretched, her line is purely metaphoric and its precise placement here more arbitrary than seems plausible. Either way, she alludes to York's regal claim in the earlier scene: “this hand was meant to handle naught but gold. / I cannot give due action to my words / Except a sword or scepter balance it” (2 Henry VI, 5.1.7-9). He repeats the same magisterial image a few lines later in that scene, comparing Henry's hand, “made to grasp a palmer's staff,” to his own, “to hold a scepter up” (97-103). Repeating images from play to play seems to exemplify Shakespeare's technique in building to this climax, for Margaret intends York to recognize himself in her taunting summary: “Was it you that would be England's king?” (70). At the same time, the wider context echoes Christ's indictment:

Sir Pilate, prince peerless, hear what is said,
That he escape not harmless but ye doom him dead:
He calls himself king in every place, thus has he misled
Our people for a space, and might our laws down tread.

(Wakefield Scourging, 380, emphasis mine)

Margaret berates York for his imposture, insults his “mess of sons” (70-79), then gives him the “napkin” stained with Rutland's blood. Through it all York makes no reply. Typically, the Christ refuses to reply either to Herod and Pilate during his trials or to his tormentors during the Buffeting, Scourging, and Crucifixion sequences of the plays. One or another figure in these episodes decides Jesus is “mad” not to defend himself against coming “doom,” and initiates his mockery. So Margaret ridicules York: “I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York. …”

Why art thou patient, man? Thou should'st be mad;
And I, to make thee mad, do mock thee thus.
Stamp, rave, and fret, that I may sing and dance.
Thou woulds't be fee'd, I see, to make me sport.
York cannot speak, unless he wear a crown.—
A crown for York! And, lords, bow low to him.
Hold you his hands, whilst I do set it on.

(1.4.86, 89-95)

In the York play by the “Shermen,” soldiers decide Jesus must be “a foyl” to remain silent (l.28). In Wakefield's Buffeting, the torturers make good “cheer” of their task and “teche him … a new play of Yoyll” (yule?) at which they “dawnse” (l.497). One Torturer in the Wakefield Scourging promises the others great cheer by proposing to “lead [Christ] a dance unto Sir Pilate's hall” (l.376). The salient point is that game, violence, dance, and jest, sometimes by “soldiers” or “knights,” or “a consultus,” are elaborated only in these episodes of the mystery pageants and might be cited here at length to parallel Margaret's wish that York give her “sport” (Kolve 196-198). The vengeful queen extends her abuse of York almost as if reminding the audience that torturers in the plays traditionally “behave like raving madmen,” in Kolve's phrase, to incite the Christ to react. Most tellingly, to further humiliate the man, Margaret addresses him as one of the actors hired especially to perform various “japes” around the cross, an action extended largely for its own sake (Kolve 181): “Thou woulds't be fee'd, I see, to make me sport,” that is, to entertain me as would a player king.

Cutts believes the crown Margaret then bestows on York might have been fashioned on the spot out of the legal “pact” she somehow has been carrying (122). If so, York's paper trail may have been still more visible on Shakespeare's stage than I imagine. Margaret congratulates herself on her creation and pretends to recognize him suddenly as Henry's usurper:

… Now looks he like a king! …
But how is it that great Plantagenet
Is crowned so soon, and broke his solemn oath
As I bethink me, you should not be king
Till our King Henry had shook hands with death. …
O, 'tis a fault too, too unpardonable!
Off with the crown, and, with the crown, his head!


She conferred kingship with a bit of paper and may depose him as easily. Hall's Chronicle dispatches York in a phrase or two. Clifford discovers York's dead body, cuts off the head, crowns it with paper, then presents it to Margaret on a pole “in great despite.” It is greeted with “much derision … much joy … and rejoysing” (Bullough 178). Holinshed additionally provides the version paralleling the crucifixion: “Some write that the duke was taken alive, …” mocked, crowned with a garland of “sedges or bulrushes,” and was treated “as the Jewes did unto Christ” (Bullough 210). Neither source, however, suggests why Shakespeare extends the action here so that it deepens the theme of trial by law and intensifies the implications of sign and substance. As Young Clifford starts to remove York's crown, Margaret stops him, saying, “Nay, stay. Let's hear the orisons he makes,” rather like Caiaphas urging a slower pace on the torturers so as to increase the fun (Wakefield Buffeting, 467-470).

While Christ's words before he dies vary from play to play, the pattern of his breaking his long silence at this juncture remains constant. And in general, as liturgical drama becomes Shakespearean parody, so Christ's prayer—“Eli, eli, eli.”—becomes York's lengthy curse, beginning “She-wolf of France” (111-149). Yet remarkably enough, part of his speech momentarily restores the play's fallen language to something like its ideal power to signify, for York calls on the “napkin” with Rutland's blood as a testament:

See, ruthless Queen, a hapless father's tears?
This cloth thou dippedst in blood of my sweet boy,
And I with tears do wash the blood away.
Keep thou the napkin, and go boast of this;
And if thou tell'st the heavy story right
Upon my soul, the hearers will shed tears.
Yea even my foes will shed fast falling tears
And say, “Alas, it was a piteous deed.”


In rhetorical effect, he recalls the instant repeated in the York, Wakefield, and other cycles when Jesus calls to those present to “behold” if “ever ye sagh body / Bufet and bett thus blody (York Crucifixion, 233-285).6 With that gesture, his sacred body substantiates the epiphanic word “behold” and encapsulates the essence of liturgical drama's unity of signifier and signified. The context for so sacramental an event, however, has long since become theater of the world and its imitation in Shakespeare's play. So York, a parodic Christ, can only evoke the idea of “behold” as he envisions some future audience who will see the bloody napkin that authenticates Margaret's cruelty (156-169). In such a recital, joining word to material thing, language will regain its authority as sign, and the highest justice will exonerate York. In fact speech does retrieve some efficacy right then, for Northumberland is moved to tears (150-151; 169-171), while York plays out the significance of Christ's “gyltles thus am I put to pyne” (York Crucifixion, 176). He may indeed be a player king as he likens himself to the Divine Father who suffered his innocent son to be martyred. York himself then hands over the paper crown, deposing himself in a gesture Shakespeare was to repeat with historical consequence in Richard II. Structurally, York's surrendering the paper crown not only reverses Henry's inept pact elevating York; it anticipates Henry's later ceding the protectorship to Warwick and Clarence, another division of his crown. York's mood on returning the paper crown, however, is bitterly triumphant rather than abject; he has effected an ironic reversal of victim and victor while reinvesting language with an aura of its original, mythic power. Clifford and Margaret then stab York, who commends himself to heaven in a final echo of the Christ.

Shakespeare thus layers his evocation of the Corpus Christi Passion both dramatically and rhetorically. The report of York's death later to his sons, for instance, might be echoing the torturers' reports to Pilate in most of the cycle plays, or in the liturgical poem quoted below.7 Shakespeare's messenger says

Who crowned the gracious Duke in high despite
Laughed in his face; and when with grief he wept,
The ruthless Queen gave him to dry his cheeks
A napkin steeped in the harmless blood
Of sweet young Rutland, by rough Clifford slain.
And after many scorns, many foul taunts,
They took his head. …


The narrative poem “Evangelie,” reporting to Pilate, reads

While ihesu crist thus hanged on the rode
the wikke men that about stode /
Scorning him did & shame—
& of him made al her game /
And shoke her hedes & lough & pleied.

(quoted by Kolve 198)

The sheer abundance in the 1590s of both popular and religious references to the Passion tell that Shakespeare needed only to hint at this most theatrical event in the entire Christian tradition if he intended, say, to elaborate “Margaret's Revenge” for the wrongs done her, or to balance the scene's dramatic weight between the two adversaries (Keyishian 130). The scene's substrata in the mystery pageants, however, also implicate the trilogy's interweavings of emblematic paper, writing, law, and lawlessness, as I suggested earlier, while casting an eerie light on Margaret's characterization. The illiterate mob in the pageants always threatens legality, and Pilate, chief judge, always insists on a written tablet at the head of the cross. Torturers or soldiers, traditionally puzzled by the message, know the “scrawl” is Pilate's, for “there is no man alive / But for Pilate … that dare write in our view” (Wakefield Crucifixion, 409-423). When one of them finally translates: “Yonder is written Jesus of Nazareth / He is King of Jews,” the others claim it is “written wrong”; as the Jew is not a king, the writing can be “nought but fable” originating with “the devil.” Still, Pilate the “man of law must have his will.” In the Chester cycle, Pilate insists on the written tablet as the “King of the Jews … must have recognition”; and in the York Passion II, lengthy stage directions for Pilate's writing are followed by protest at his results.8 Pilate in most texts dismisses complaints imperiously: “That I have written, written it is, / And so it shall be for me, iwis!” Judgment, in other words, is at once unilateral and according to the letter of the law.

As for the mad queen, crowning York with paper, whether or not made of the parliamentary pact, again proves her scorn for written petitions, supplications, and their roles in lawful procedure. Her chaotic scene with Suffolk's severed head dramatizes this same primitive aspect of her personality, opposed to the symbolic and perhaps anticipating her brutal sport with York. In her drum head court she, like Pilate, is on the right side of the law; yet Margaret's true court is rule by the body. York in fact expends his greatest rhetorical energy on excoriating her inhumanity: “O tiger's heart …”(111-142). The fierce warrior who, York says, bears no resemblance to woman (“Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible,” 141), exults in her power over material life. In the theatrical terms proposed here, she creates a spectacle that juxtaposes the physical reality of the here-and-now to spirit in the hereafter, thereby exploding an otherwise conventional division of male and female orientations. York, in contrast, genuinely believes by Part 3 in both the temporal and divine justice of his claims. He even envisions heaven's response to the depredations wrought on his person (168). In short, beyond the idea of player-king in the paper-crown scene is Margaret's ironically doubled role: her fortuitous prosecution of the letter of the law and her unruly subversion of trial by law, the lynchpin of all the passion plays. She literally enacts Suffolk's arrogant promise to “frame the law unto his will” (1 Henry VI, 2.4.9).

A wide circle of reference to liturgical and popular Christian traditions touches on more hints about what constitutes legality than are feasible to pursue here. Is York a sacrifice to an ultimate order in the future, in the sense that parody by definition retrieves the idea it mocks? The least that may be said about the paper-crown scene is that Shakespeare intensifies the contrast he will dramatize so often in later plays between a medieval world where shadow and substance are unified by a divinely anointed king (the model to which York and Henry subscribe), and the new world of political rapacity and willfulness that Margaret personifies. As only belief distinguishes between religion and superstition, so there can be no one true, uncontested monarch in these deeply skeptical plays. Henry too will sit on a molehill in a battlefield (3 Henry VI, 3.2.5) and contemplate the wreckage of his rule before he surrenders. By then he is a “quondam king” (3.1.23), in effect a shadow of York, as the Second Keeper implies with his question: “If thou be a king, where is thy crown?” (60)

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content;
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy


All subsequent references to the crown—the one Richard of Gloucester sees “far off” (3.2.140); that Warwick turns his back on (4.1.200) and then removes from Edward's head, making him “the shadow” (4.3.50); the metaphoric “laurel crown” (4.6.34) of the Lord Protector that Warwick accepts with Clarence as “double shadows” (49); the continuing barrage of letters and proclamations about rule—these never regain their substance until Richmond ascends the throne at the end of Richard III.


  1. I am endebted to Jonathan Hart's premise in Theater & World that the Christian idea of the world as “fallen” is germane to the problem of linguistic meaning in the history plays. He limits his examination to the Second Tetralogy.

  2. I suspect that the “paper trail” I am proposing indicates that Shakespeare revised Part 1 to anticipate the theatrical capital he made of papers in Part 2 and Part 3. My remarks, however, make no pretense of addressing the vexed issues of the trilogy's authorship and order of composition. I simply adopt Ornstein's position that the three plays are Shakespeare's and were written in chronological order (35). All quotations refer to David Bevington's fourth edition of the plays.

  3. John Cutts says, “there is something of the atmosphere of Christ being scourged, ridiculously crowned and mocked, and this is sustained by York's commending his soul to heaven” (122). Holinshed additionally provides a version of York's death paralleling the crucifixion (Bullough 210), discussed in the text.

  4. I am relying on both the text and copious notes for the Wakefield Master's (Towneley) cycle of Corpus Christi plays, edited by A. C. Cawley and Martin Stevens. Cawley also produced a facsimile of the sole copy of the cycle housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. For comparison's sake, I refer also to the York cycle, edited by Canon J. S. Purvis (London, 1957) and to the Chester cycle, edited by R. T. Davies (London, 1972).

  5. The evidence for this argument is thoroughly reviewed by Cawley and Stevens, xii-xxii. Also see Cairncross's notes on the scene, 2 Henry IV liii; and Cutts 119-122.

  6. The Corpus Christi cycles celebrate a showing forth, Craig, 34. In the York Crucifixio Christi, Jesus says “All men that walkis by waye or strete … Byholdes myn heede, myn handis, and my feete. And fully feele nowe … yf any mourning may be meete / Or myscheve mesured unto myne” (252-259). In the N-Town Crucifixion, the call to “behold” is spoken to Mary: “Woman, woman, beheld there thy sone” (145-147). Or again in the York play XXXVI by the “Bocheres,” Jesus addresses the thieves hung with him: “Man, see what bitter sorrow I suffer for thee; on me for to look” (183-189).

  7. In the Wakefield Talents, for instance, the Torturers report to Pilate that their good time on Calvary was very like their fun at a new play in town, which the Second Torturer taught to the King of the Jews. We taught him, they say, “… a new play … the play we lately had in town, / … That game me thought was good / When we had played with him our fill / Then led we him unto a hill, / And there we wrought with him our will” (54-59, emphasis mine).

  8. “Here shall Pilate ask pen and ink, and a table shall be take him, written before, ‘Hic est Jesus Nazarenus rex judeorum.’ And he shall make him to write, and then go upon a ladder and set the table above Christ's head. And then Caiphas shall make him to read. ‘Sir Pilate, we marveleth of this, / That you write him to be King of Jewes. / Therefore we would that you should write thus, That he named himself King of Jewes’” (quoted in Davies 311).

Works Cited

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare: Volume 3: The Early English History Plays. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

Cawley, A. C., and Martin Stevens, eds. Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle. 1958; Rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, EETS, 1994.

Craig, Hardin, ed. Two Coventry Corpus Christi Plays. 2nd. ed. EETS e.s. 87 London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Cutts, John. The Shattered Glass: A Dramatic Pattern in Shakespeare's Early Plays. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968.

Davies, R. T. The Corpus Christi Plays of the English Middle Ages. London: Faber & Faber, 1972.

Keyishian, Harry. The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1995.

Kolve, V. A. The Play Called Corpus Christi. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Pearlman, Elihu. William Shakespeare: The History Plays. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Purvis, J. S., ed. The York Cycle of Mystery Plays. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Robert Shore (review date 5 July 2002)

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SOURCE: Shore, Robert. Review of Rose Rage.Times Literary Supplement, no. 5179 (5 July 2002): 20.

[In the following review of 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.”]

Orchestral music from the wings evokes the undulating English countryside, but what emerges on stage as the mist rises is not a vision of green pastures but the iron-mesh cages of a slaughterhouse. Jack-booted abattoir workers loiter threateningly, the lower halves of their faces moulded into feral snouts by protective masks. They stare out into the audience in search of potential troublemakers and busy themselves sharpening knives, the clash of metal gathering in volume until it drowns out the tranquil strains. Then, at a given signal, the meat-packers don top hats and coat tails and transform themselves into the nobility of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, gathering around the bier of the dead Henry V to pledge allegiance to his young son. Despite the new outward appearances, their deeds remain essentially those of the abattoir.

The crisis caused by the exhaustion in performance of the main Shakespearean canon has at least had the positive effect of refocusing attention on some of the “minor” works, in particular the early histories, traditionally dismissed as little more than exercises in Tudor propaganda. In fact, as the RSC's recent “This England” cycle demonstrated, the Henry VI plays are by no means unworthy of a place in the corpus, whether or not scholars agree they are wholly the work of Shakespeare himself. Now, in Rose Rage, Edward Hall and Roger Warren have cut and reshaped the trilogy to make a pair of two-hour plays that tell the story of the Wars of the Roses. In the process they have largely succeeded in giving us what earlier adaptors, such as William Davenant and Nahum Tate, are routinely derided for having thought possible—Shakespeare improved.

There are some regrettable losses—Joan La Pucelle is cut in her entirety. But from the opening toast to a beloved dead monarch “too famous to live long”—a curiously modern formulation that makes Henry V sound like James Dean—to the final scene in which the loutish Edward IV staggers drunkenly back to his throne, Hall's and Warren's vision of a state unravelling is never less than thrilling. It may not exactly be Shakespeare—the essentially tripartite structure is more reminiscent of the Oresteia—but Rose Rage is a magnificently dashing piece of theatre.

Hall's production offers a succession of dramatic coups: Gloucester garotted on stage immediately before Henry VI enters to affirm that, as monarch, he will ensure his uncle gets a fair trial; Lord Scales discovered beneath Cade's soapbox before his condemnation to death for speaking Latin; York's infant son strewing his bedroom with garlands of paper crowns as the claims to the throne multiply. The bloodletting is no less inventive: the abattoir workers slash at offal and spatter the stage with red cabbage as the body count rises. Despite this stylized displacement of the actual killings, the violence feels disturbingly authentic, perhaps because, although the victims are for the most part vegetables, the assassins' weapons are obviously real—and wielded with a ferocity which is usually thought inadvisable in ordinary stage simulations.

This is also a highly musical production. Bursts of close-harmony singing accompany the discordant action. Soldiers intone “Da pacem, domine, in diebus nostris” as they march into battle. And as tribal affinities triumph over ideals of political order, the warring parties find themselves chanting “Lancaster” and “York” in mutual defiance, squaring up like boxers at a weigh-in. Throughout the evening, knives, hooks and cleavers lying scattered about the abattoir are used to beat out changes in the tempo of the action.

Although this is essentially a single-concept production—the kingdom as slaughterhouse—it never palls. Michael Pavelka and Ben Ormerod provide atmospheric stage and lighting designs, while the small all-male cast attack their multiple roles with winning vigour. Jonathan McGuinness's Henry VI never quite attains the tragic pathos that might be expected of a dispossessed monarch and Robert Hands's Queen Margaret is more screeching termagant than Machiavellian vulture, but Guy Williams makes a lusty York and Richard Clothier is outstanding as “misshapen Dick”. Best of all is Tony Bell's donkey-jacketed Jack Cade, rapping about the government's failings to the accompaniment of a snare drum and sounding much like Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. What better recommendation could there be for a leader of the counter-culture?

Richard Hornby (review date winter 2003)

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SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. Review of Rose Rage.Hudson Review 55, no. 4 (winter 2003): 633-40.

[In the following review, Hornby praises Edward Hall's 2003 production of Rose Rage, a two-part adaptation of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, for its stirring “visual poetry,” stylized violence, and musical virtuosity.]

Rose Rage, [is] the best staging I have ever seen of the Henry VI plays. These have been done a lot in recent decades, after centuries of neglect, because, to everyone's surprise, they turn out to be highly theatrical. They were directed in this instance by Edward Hall, son of the famous director Sir Peter Hall, who could learn a thing or two about directing from the young man. Hall manages to combine a respect for text with a flamboyant imagination and a focus, always, on the actors.

Like Twelfth Night at the Globe, Rose Rage had an all-male cast and figurative staging, but there the resemblance ended. Unlike the vapid Globe productions, Hall's work was vigorous, intense, and terrifying. It was set, quite bluntly, in an abattoir. Michael Pavelka's design used a raked stage with a constructivist metal setting, with wire mesh, ladders, and meat hooks. At the opening, men in white coats and facemasks were scrubbing the place down, while another man sharpened a cleaver. (Pavelka also designed the costumes.) Singing “Abide with Me,” they removed the coats to put on uniforms, which were adaptations of World War I and World War II British military garb. Henry VI appeared, a small, wide-eyed young man, dressed in a costume that made him look like a messenger boy. In contrast to the dark, drab military uniforms, the Bishop of Winchester, standing over the catafalque of Henry V at stage center, wore an intense, blood-red robe.

I was going to add “of course” to the mention of the red robe, but then I shudder to think how they would have costumed the Bishop at the Globe—maybe as a cricket player. The problem at the Globe is not lack of realism—the Rose Rage costumes were anything but realistic—but lack of iconographic meaning. The Rose Rage set and costumes were a visual poetry that addressed us powerfully, while the Globe equivalents stammered and whimpered.

The visual iconography continued throughout the two-part production. All the violence (and these are very violent plays) was stylized, mimed to drumbeats or depicted purely symbolically. Beheadings were done by chopping red cabbages! Battles were presented by having the men in white coats chopping up real animal entrails. This may sound a bit obvious, but what else is war about, if not slaughter? I had been reading Stephen E. Ambrose's recent book on D-day, which draws on many oral histories; again and again, men speak of body parts floating in the sea, or a human head rolling down a street. The offal in Rose Rage was not just some bright directorial notion, but a potent reminder of the horrid reality of warfare.

Despite the strong visual elements in Rose Rage, Hall, like Trevor Nunn, showed himself to be an actors' as well as a designers' director. Shakespeare's early history plays were written before his association with Richard Burbage, which may be the reason they are more ensemble pieces than star vehicles like the great tragedies to come. Hall has been working with a regular male ensemble of actors—known as Propeller—for five years, based at the Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse, but touring all over the UK and occasionally venturing abroad. The ensemble work shows. The cast worked beautifully together, with the looks between actors often telling more than their words. Not that they spoke poorly; their verse work was excellent, as good as at the Globe, where speech is the one good thing going for it. This reflects Hall's announced goal, to perform Shakespeare with a contemporary aesthetic while maintaining emphasis on the spoken word. Edward Hall is a young director to watch out for; I can only wish that the Globe is looking and listening.

Owen E. Brady (review date 2003)

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SOURCE: Brady, Owen E. Review of Henry VI: Revenge in France, Henry VI: Revolt in England.Theatre Journal 55, no. 1 (2003): 148-49.

[In the following review, Brady commends Leon Rubin's 2003 adaptation of the Henry VI plays—Revenge in France and Revolt in England—particularly Rubin's ability to shape this episodic historical sequence into a clear and coherent production of contemporary relevance.]

Director Leon Rubin's deft editing of Shakespeare's bloody Henry VI trilogy into two productions commissioned by the Stratford Festival gives the bard's episodic history plays a terrible relevance and coherence. Along with clarifying the political broils in fifteenth-century England for an audience not necessarily familiar with them, Rubin's two-part version creates a Machiavellian world peopled by ambitious characters embodying the human will to power. Their pride unleashes civil butchery in terms so savage that the contemporary audience feels uncomfortably at home. Using the betrayals, burnings, stabbings, and beheadings that proliferate in Shakespeare's dissection of human ambition exercising direst cruelty, Rubin's direction focuses on the visual and verbal ambiguity of blood that unites and separates characters. Blood signifies family pride and kinship bonds as well as the inhuman violence that humiliates and undoes those bonds through cruel, self-serving actions as Yorkists and Lancastrians grope for the crown in the oxymoronically named War of the Roses.

Stratford's adaptation streamlines Shakespeare but retains his epic scope, sweeping geographically between England and France and chronologically from the heroic Henry V's funeral to the rise of the House of York and the ascendancy of Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Part One, Revenge in France, depicts the squabbling English nobility, unreined by a strong king during Henry VI's minority, losing Henry V's claims in France. Part Two, Revolt in England, opens with the barbarous Jack Cade's peasant revolt and chronicles the rise of York's white rose; it concludes with the lustful Edward IV's ascension and the ruthless plotting of his younger brother, the crookbacked Richard of Gloucester, who stands as the culminating emblem of the will to power shorn of any moral constraint but masked in the robe of family fealty.

Using a broad historical canvas and large cast of characters, these productions bore into the core of human power, presenting a parade of well-defined characters, each rising, then falling as Fortune's wheel turns them topsy-turvy. At the center of this wolfish parade of power-obsessed individuals are the royal couple, the politically inept Henry VI, played by the sweet-faced, diminutive Michael Therriault, and his audacious, cruel queen, Margaret of Anjou, played with vigor and venom by Seana McKenna. Wearing a simple monk-like gray habit, Therriault's Henry smiles with boyish charm and dangerous naiveté. As the action unfolds, his faith in God's benevolent will makes Henry's unwillingness to use power with force and purpose politically sinful, a great evil masked in religious fervor. McKenna's Margaret, though small in stature, looms large, both politically and emotionally. Scheming ambition spurs her charming manipulation of the sexually innocent Henry; later, in the absence of the too pious king, she takes the field in breastplate and skirt, an oxymoronic image of femininity. Both end pathetically: the feckless Henry stabbed and literally thrown headlong down by Richard of Gloucester; the grief-stricken Margaret humbled by York's triumphant sons, shuffling off, bereft of love and power, her illicit lover beheaded, her husband, and her young son stabbed.

Set designer John Pennoyer's metal trestle running above two-thirds the length of the Tom Patterson's long thrust stage creates a highly flexible playing area and links the contemporary audience with the historic action. Like a world dominated by power and bloody ambition, the set is stark, shorn of human touches, a cold network of steel that supports characters or imprisons them. The set functions literally to highlight the play's gory spectacle as gibbet, rack, and rampart in various battles, but it also works metaphorically as an emblem of power's inhumanity. It supports the powerful aloft; below, it imprisons in its steel web those about to fall. It serves also to set off the many tableaux the production uses like glorious but ghastly illustrations in history books.

The upper level emphasizes the relative power position of characters in the cycle of bloodletting. In Revenge in France, when the French finally slay the heroic but brutal Talbot, their nemesis dies under the trestle, cradling his dead son John in a sort of macho pieta. The Duke of York's successful assault on the French and his burning of Joan la Pucelle occur on high. At the end of the trestle deepest into the audience, Thom Marriott's huge, bear-like York faces Michelle Giroux's slender Joan at the other end, elevated on a pyre, frozen in prayer like a saint on a holy card. At the conclusion of part one, the upper level functions ironically to emphasize the grief, anxiety, and moral turmoil of the powerful. Both the ambitious, ruthless Margaret and the ineffectual Henry VI appear on the upper level; she faces out into the audience pathetically cradling a red bag containing the severed head of her lover Suffolk while Henry struts away, pacing the trestle in high dudgeon. In Revolt in England's climax, Haysam Kadri's bustling hunchbacked Richard of Gloucester, played with an acerbity sweetened by youth, stabs Henry at the end of the trestle and hurls his body to the stage below where falling snow and blood-red rose petals slowly cover it.

The area below the trestle frames characters trapped by power. Just before his brutal, treacherous murder, the good Lord Gloucester, protector of the young king, appears center stage below the trestle, caged and baited like a bear at the stake by his ignoble cousins. Ironically, surrounded by his sons, York accepts Henry's power, seated like a patriarch in a touching family portrait framed below the steel frame. Shortly, fortune runs against him. Margaret, the vicious warrior queen, has him racked under the trestle as she mocks his ambition and gloats at the death of his youngest son. Crowning him with a paper crown and daubing his wounds with a napkin stained in Rutland's blood drive home Shakespeare's recognition of our capacity for inhumanity. The moment seems more pathetic and cruelly ironic because the helpless York is played by the enormous Thom Marriott and Margaret by the diminutive Seana McKenna who smirks and prances around him. In Revolt in England, the production drives home its Machiavellian point about power's iron rule. As the climactic battle rages at floor-level, on the upper stage, a gigantic, metallic, skeletal creature emerges. As the family slaughter each other, the symbolic monster spreads its long arms in an infernal benediction, revealing the operator inside, a small, saintly, white-clad figure, suggesting the pious king's role in Armageddon. Finally, the productions close pessimistically. Edward IV, the new Yorkist king, crowned and sumptuously clad in gold, stands below the trestle doting on his wife and children, while Richard of Gloucester stands outside the frame plotting fratricide and his own rise as he coolly reveals his own alienation, denying the human bonds of love and brotherhood. The play closes with Richard beginning Richard III's ironic, opening soliloquy.

In a world awry, ungoverned by a strong king, power bruises and kills; and women strong in will and ambition rise to contend equally with men. These productions represent women with all Shakespeare's ambiguity. Michelle Giroux's Joan is coolly distant but attractive: seemingly saintly in motive, heroic in action, but ultimately as inhuman as any man, consorting with demonic powers to win power. Giroux's Joan is ethereal, a lean, boyish scourge of the English, capable of beating Brad Ruby's burly Talbot in hand-to-hand combat or pleading with cool eloquence to swing the Duke of Burgundy over to the French cause. She seems otherworldly, appearing at first on the upper trestle, still and saintly in a white robe to inspire the French and frustrate the English. Later, before her capture and burning, she appears below the trestle, clothed like a man in leather breeches and bearing a sword as she unsuccessfully attempts to conjure the spirits that have animated her. McKenna's Margaret is a marvel of passion: ambitious in the quest for power, romantic in her illicit love for Suffolk, tart and peevish in exchanges with her uxorious husband, vicious in her torture of York, swaggering in her proud triumphs, yet touchingly pathetic in suffering the loss of her lover, her butchered young son, and ultimately her hope for power. Early on she weds Henry against his advisors' will, charming Therriault's Henry into a wide-eyed adolescent infatuation and swinging him about as they exit. Once crowned queen, she proves passionate in love and war, a woman of unmatched mettle. McKenna wrings all the emotional changes in Margaret's character, giving a bravura performance.

Stratford's adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy make forceful, pointed theatre. Revenge in France and Revolt in England are full of powerful characters and big emotions admirably played. Staged dynamically with swirling action punctuated by memorable tableaux, supported musically by driving contemporary and primitive Celtic folk rhythms, and using a spare but highly effective set, these two productions make history palpable and instructive. While Rubin exploits every opportunity to titillate and assault the audience with spectacularly violent battles, stabbings, hangings, and beheadings, all the gore compels the audience to contemplate the political point: a headless state allows faction and ambition to mutilate humanity.

Further Reading

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Carr, Virginia M. “Animal Imagery in 2 Henry VI.English Studies 53, no. 5 (October 1972): 408-12.

Contends that the frequent allusions to animals in Henry VI, Part 2 reinforce the play's underlying thematic structure.

Cox, John D. “Local References in 3 Henry VI.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 3 (fall 2000): 340-52.

Examines topical allusions to Warwickshire and the figure of Somerville in Henry VI, Part 3.

———. “Shakespeare and Political Philosophy.” Philosophy and Literature 26, no. 1 (2002): 107-24.

Compares Shakespeare's views of history and political philosophy, as principally illustrated in the Henry VI plays, with those of Machiavelli.

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

Introduction to Henry VI, Part 3 that examines the play's stage history and briefly summarizes various critical approaches to the drama.

Hattaway, Michael, ed. Introduction to The Third Part of King Henry VI, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Extensive introductory commentary on Henry VI, Part 3 that includes discussion of the play's historical and political contexts, dramatic structure, stage history, composition, and sources.

Kay, Carol McGinnis. “Traps, Slaughter, and Chaos: A Study of Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays.” Studies in Literary Imagination 5, no. 1 (April 1972): 1-26.

Surveys the dramatic imagery of the Henry VI plays, including varied motifs of enclosure, slaughter, and degeneration.

Keyishian, Henry. “The Progress of Revenge in the First Henriad.” In Henry VI: Critical Essays, edited by Thomas A. Pendleton, pp. 67-77. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Studies the psychology of personal, political, and domestic vengeance and victimization rendered in Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3.

Kreps, Barbara. “Bad Memories of Margaret? Memorial Reconstruction versus Revision in The First Part of the Contention and 2 Henry VI.Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 154-80.

Examines the textual links between The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster (1594) and the 1623 Folio version of The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with a comparative focus on the figure of Margaret in these two plays.

Martin, Randall. “The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and 3 Henry VI: Report and Revision.” Review of English Studies 53, no. 209 (2002): 8-30.

Discusses The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (1595) as a principal source for Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3.

McNeir, Waldo F. “Comedy in Shakespeare's Yorkist Tetralogy.” Pacific Coast Philology 9 (April 1974): 48-55.

Explores the comedic aspects of the Henry VI plays and Richard III.

Pearlman, E. “The Invention of Richard of Gloucester.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 4 (winter 1992): 410-29.

Examines the character of Richard of Gloucester presented in Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3.


Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 74)


Shakespeare at Work: The Two Talbots