Henry VI, Part 1 Essay - Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 85)

William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (Vol. 85)

Introduction

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Michael Hattaway (essay date 1991)

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.]

FROM 1 HENRY VI TO 2 HENRY VI

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 entire section is 14304 words.)

Roger Warren (essay date 2003)

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.]

ORIGINS

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...

(The entire section is 11079 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Gabriele Bernhard Jackson (essay date winter 1988)

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

...

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Catherine S. Cox (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 5795 words.)

Naomi C. Liebler and Lisa Scancella Shea (essay date 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 7959 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Patrick Carnegy (review date 30 December 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 1200 words.)

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 5 January 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)

Robert Shore (review date 5 July 2002)

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...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Richard Hornby (review date winter 2003)

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...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Owen E. Brady (review date 2003)

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 entire section is 1555 words.)

Criticism: Themes

John W. Blanpied (essay date spring 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 5878 words.)

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 1987)

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,”...

(The entire section is 10384 words.)

Nina da Vinci Nichols (essay date 2001)

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:...

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Further Reading

CRITICISM

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...

(The entire section is 417 words.)