Shakespeare's Staging
King Henry VI Parts 1, 2, 3
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:12

Henry VI, Part 2: Ann Murray as Queen Margaret with Larry Linville as her Lover, the Duke of Suffolk. Great Lakes Festival, 1964. Gayle Photography, Cleveland, Ohio. Courtesy of Special Collections Cleveland State University Library.


Henry VI is probably Shakespeare's first great stage hit, though its genesis is lost in an entanglement of possible collaborators, hinted at in Robert Greene's accusation, in his Groatsworth of Wit (1592), that its author is "an upstart crowe beautified with our feathers"who fancies himself "the only Shake-scene in a country." For, in Pierce Pennilesse (1592), Thomas Nashe enthusiastically describes Edward Alleyn's powerful performances at Henslowe's Rose Theatre in what is now the first part of Henry VI: "how would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain 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 several times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding." This passage is one of the most vivid evocations of Elizabethan stage performance.

Part of the problem in this play's uneven subsequent stage history is that its complex tapestry of English history matches medieval multilayered narrative technique rather than the tightly sequential plot required by Aristotle. Despite its unifying title the three-play sequence called Henry VI is not unified by the titular figure, who was one of England's weakest (but unfortunately long-lived) kings. The progression is not defined by a single personality, as in Marlowe's most famous plays, but by the complex interaction of various branches of the Plantagenet family reflected in the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War with France, These confrontations are only fully resolved by the sequel to Henry VI in Richard III, at the conclusion of which the Tudors replace the largely self-destroyed Plantagenets. The stage history of this set of four plays only fully recovered its original sustained impact in the twentieth-century stagings of the sequence, either of the first three plays which climax in the triumph of the white rose of the Yorkists over the red rose of the Lancastrians; or more definitively of all four plays ending in the reconciliation of the two factions in the marriage of Elizabeth of York to the nominally Lancastrian Henry Tudor, a marriage which succeeds the latter's usurpation of the throne of the last Yorkist king, Richard III. The heraldry of the white and red roses provides clarification of the affiliation of individual roles via the costuming during the many violent confrontations in these complex plays (Gallery 6.1.14).

Awareness of the continuities resulting from modern sequential performances of the various parts of the full tetralogy have clarified the larger theatrical and political rhythms of the sequence, and heightened the standing of the many roles interlacing these plays, particularly that of Queen Margaret in her confrontations with Richard of Gloucester, beginning in Henry VI, Part 3. As Peggy Ashcroft has said (see first entry below) of the former role and most commentators of the latter, these are two of Shakespeare's greatest creations. Margaret is one of the most powerful of many significant feminine roles in the tetralogy, for she is present in all four plays in which she progresses from romantic beauty, via political manipulator, and battlefield general, to doom-saying prophetess (see Galleries 1.4, 7.4, and Video). Shakespeare throughout his career pursued examples of dominant French-women, from the Countess of Auvergne (see Video) and Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part I (Gallery 2.2.2,3,4) and Queen Margaret there and later, through Queen Isabel and Princess Catherine in Henry V, and including such comic heroines as the Princess in Love's Labours Lost, not to mention Rosalind in As You Like It and Helena in All's Well. This consistency of characterization confirms the determination of the editors of the first Folio edition that Henry VI deserves to stand as representation of the early achievements of their friend and colleague, William Shakespeare. HMR


See also: Richard III and The Wars of the Roses.

Ashcroft, Peggy. "Margaret of Anjou." Shakespeare Jahrbuch (West) 109 (1973): 7-9.

Cook, Hardy M. " Jane Howell's BBC First Tetralogy: Theatrical and Televisual." Literature/Film Quarterly 20, no. 4 (1992): 326-31.

Daniel, David. "Opening Up the text: Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays in Performance." In Drama and Society, edited by James Redmond, 247-77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Dessen, Alan C. "Stagecraft and Imagery in Shakespeare's Henry VI." Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 65-79.

Fuller, David. "The Bogdanov Version: The English Shakespeare Company Wars of the Roses." Literature/Film Quarterly 33, no. 2 (2005): 118-41.

Hampton-Reeves, Stuart. "Alarums and Defeats: Henry VI on Tour." Early Modern Literary Studies 5, no. 2 (1999): 1.1-18. [Based on a production of Henry VI by the English Shakespeare Company]

Hampton-Reeves, Stuart, and Carol Chillington Rutter. The Henry VI Plays. Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Hinchcliffe, Judith. "King Henry VI": an Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984.

Hunter, G. K. "The Royal Shakespeare Company Plays Henry VI ." Renaissance Drama 9 (1978): 91-108.

Knowles, Ric. "The First Tetralogy in Performance." In A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Volume II: The Histories, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Knowles, Ronald, ed. King Henry VI , Part 2. Walton-on-Thames, England: Nelson, 1999.

Manley, Lawrence. "From Strange's Men to Pembroke's Men: 2 Henry VI and The First part of the Contention." Shakespeare Quarterly 54 (2003): 253-87.

Martin, Randall. "'A woman's generall: what should we feare?': Queen Margaret Thatcherized in Recent Productions of 3 Henry VI." In Shakespeare and His Contemporaries in Performance, edited by Edward J. Esche, 321-38. Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2000.

Napoleon, Davi. "Three-Ring History Cycle." Review of Henry VI, Royal Shakespeare Company, Power Center, Ann Arbor, MI. LiveDesign, August 1, 2001.

Richmond, H. M. "Henry VI." In Shakespeare's Political Plays, 9-74. New York: Random House, 1967; [reprinted by Peter Smith, 1977].

Rutter, Carol C. and Stuart Hampton-Reeves. The Henry VI Plays. Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Saunders, Claire. "'Dead in His Bed': Shakespeare's Staging of the Death of the Duke of Gloucester in 2 Henry VI." Review of English Studies 36 (1985): 19-34.

Sommer, Elyse. "Rose Rage." Review of Henry VI, directed by Edward Hall, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Duke Theatre, NY. CurtainUp.

Female Spectators and Henry VI [first draft!]

The discrepancy between modern critical minimizing of the feminine roles in Henry VI and their high stage impact confirms the danger of ignoring performance in evaluating Shakespeare scripts. The desire to show how badly women were treated in earlier times can deflect awareness away from the stage dominance in Henry VI effected by roles such as Joan la Pucelle, the Duchess of Gloucester, and Queen Margaret of Anjou. The latter overshadows her pathetic husband Henry VI, and later, in Richard III, she provides an effective balance to the emotional dominance of Richard of Gloucester. That these women's roles are not presented as narrowly virtuous adds to their authenticity and fascination for modern interpreters, so that we can rely on the testimony about their stage power by an experienced actress such as Peggy Ashcroft, rather than accept programmatic feminist misrepresentations arguing their feebleness, in contrast to audience's vivid theatrical experiences of these roles. The latter have made the women in Henry VI as compelling as the male figures whom they effectively challenge, such as the English general, Talbot, who may outwit the Countess of Auvergne, but falls before the compelling figure of Joan. I can personally confirm the claims of Ashcroft that the Royal Shakespeare Company's fourth centennial performance of the first tetralogy in 1963-4 was a revelation of the tremendous creation of a powerful queen by the youthful Shakespeare, a figure far superior to Lady Macbeth in charisma and capacity, and worthy of comparison to his mature creation of an even more virtuoso female politician in Cleopatra. When the UCB Shakespeare Program created its first video epitome of female roles in the first tetralogy, under the title of Plantagenet Women, students were delighted to find such rewarding female roles, and we received a grant from a feminist group as a result, which allowed us to achieve the same effect for female roles in a version of the second tetralogy, under the title of Politic Women. This video epitome ended with the accession of the French princess in Henry V. In addition to giving birth to Henry VI, later she was to marry Owen Tudor after Henry V's premature death, and thus she gave birth to the family line leading to the Tudor accession: another significant Frenchwoman! © HMR

King Henry VI, Part 1, Ann Stuart as Joan La Pucelle, 1786. Fashion was then important on stage even in an infantry assault.

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