Henry VI, Part 1

Content Group

Henry VI, Part 2, Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, 1964

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 (see, for instance, this Globe production of Henry V).

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 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 Medieval Costumes and Settings: Henry VI (1979) and this video clip from 2 Henry VI). Shakespeare throughout his career pursued examples of dominant French-women, from the Countess of Auvergne (see this video clip) and Joan of Arc in Henry VI, Part 1 (see Janet Suzman in the role) 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 Labour's 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.

Henry VI, Part 1, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1977
Henry VI, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963
Henry VI, Part 1, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1963
Henry VI, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1988
Henry VI, Part 1, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989
King Henry VI, Part 1, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1964
King Henry VI, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1977
Henry VI, Part 1, Berkeley Shakespeare Program, 1979
15th Century Tapestry of Joan of Arc with the Dauphin at Chinon (cp. Henry VI, Part 1, Act 1, Scene vi).
Henry VI, Part 1, Berkeley Shakespeare Program, 1979
Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482), Wife of Henry VI
Laurence Olivier as Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1, Janet Suzman as Joan la Pucelle
Henry VI and Queen Margaret in Henry VI (BSP, 1979)
Queen Margaret in Plantagenet Women (BSP, 1979)
Essay Title Author
Female Spectators and "Henry VI" Hugh Richmond

See also: bibliography for 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.

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.

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

Please offer comments and suggestions on any aspects the site to: Director Hugh Richmond at richmondh77@gmail.com. See samples at the site Blog.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond.