Fairly early in his playwriting career (ie the early 1590s), Shakespeare produced three dramas about the long reign of King Henry VI (and his rival and successor, Edward IV), and one about Richard Duke of Gloucester (later, Richard III). These are regarded as the first English history ‘tetralogy’. (It was followed later by the second tetralogy, covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, earlier in time. The popular character of Falstaff contributes to the fame of the Henry IV plays.)
The Henry VI plays are generally not well known and they are seldom performed. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, however, has put on performances of them all, in recent years (2000 and 2006). The RSC is followed in this by BBC Television, in the Hollow Crown version of the tetralogy, shown in 2016. (The three Parts of Henry VI have been compressed into two.)
Richard III is much better known and is often performed, in isolation from the rest of the tetralogy. This presents a challenge, as it is a sequel to the plays that precede it: in other words, it presumes knowledge, on the part of the spectator or the reader, of what has gone before.
Below, I make brief comments on each Part of Henry VI, and follow them with some remarks on the BBC production.
Henry VI, Part 1 (1H6)
This play is set in the context of the ‘Hundred Years War’. Henry V has died, while fighting in France, leaving a power gap at the centre of government. The English are still trying to maintain their dominion over great parts of France; but both rivalries among the prominent English nobles, and the weakness of Henry VI (attributed to his naivety and piety), undermine their campaign. Richard Duke of York commences his personal quest to become king himself. Helped by these divisions, Joan of Arc leads the French to victories.
The English lose the war but win certain battles: Joan of Arc is captured by the English and executed; the Earl (later, Duke) of Suffolk captures Margaret of Anjou (daughter of an ally of the French). Suffolk proposes her as a bride for King Henry, hoping to increase his influence at court.
Different styles appear in this play. Certain scenes (only) are attributed, by some commentators, to Shakespeare: Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 4, Scenes 2-6 and Scene 7, lines 1-32.
In Act 2 Scene 4, the supporters of rival claimants to the English throne meet up in a garden: those who favour Henry VI (of the House of Lancaster) pick a red rose, those adhering to the House of York, a white one. The first hint is given of the forthcoming ‘Wars of the Roses’, which will occupy Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3.
Henry VI Part 2 (2H6)
This play is so full of noteworthy incidents that I choose to mention only a few, below. It begins with the arrival of Margaret of Anjou as the Queen of England. It ends with the outbreak of civil war.
Rival nobles put aside their disputes to unite against Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and ‘Protector of England’. Several scenes project him as a statesman, concerned for the common weal. But several of his peers plot against both him and his wife: found guilty of witchcraft, the Duchess is publicly humiliated and then sent into exile, while the Duke is assassinated, before he can be brought to trial on trumped up charges.
Secretly encouraged by Richard Duke of York, the commoner Jack Cade leads an underclass rebellion: he invades London with his followers and orders the execution of higher class men who stand in his way. Levity is combined with brutality; the turmoil that is taking over England is laid bare. A semblance of order is restored, but with difficulty.
Finally, Richard Duke of York makes an open bid for the crown, supported by his sons and Warwick the “kingmaker”; and the nobles divide, according to their previously declared loyalties. The first Battle of St Albans takes place (1455); it is won by the Yorkists.
This play has been praised by scholars who have studied it. On page 1 of his Introduction to the Cambridge edition (1991), Michael Hattaway writes: “Henry VI Part 2 is a fine, important, and undervalued play.” And on page 2 of the Arden 3 edition (1999), Ronald Knowles goes so far as to say:
This Introduction contributes to an edition which has been prepared in the conviction that, had a barely known young Warwickshire playwright been carried off by the plague of 1592, 2 Henry VI would remain as the greatest history play in early modern drama and one of the most exciting and dynamic plays of the English Renaissance theatre.
I agree with these judgements. Read it and enjoy!
Henry VI Part 3 (3H6)
As Dr Samuel Johnson pointed out, 3H6 is a direct continuation of 2H6.
This play paints a bleak picture of a country at war. The powerful wreak vengeance on their enemies, in cycles of violence. Major characters, including both Richard Duke of York and Henry VI – and Edward, his son and heir – are put to death, in cold blood. Thousands of ordinary soldiers are slaughtered, notably, at Towton in Yorkshire (1461), and at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire (1471).
Confined to the role of spectator, King Henry witnesses the Battle of Towton. (Act 2 Scene 5). He sees (as we see) fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides. There appear: first, a son who has killed his father, not recognising him until it is too late, and then, a father who, unknowingly, has killed his own son. The divisions of the kingdom are reflected in these men’s fates. Henry is powerless to help; he shares their grief.
After much bloodshed, the Yorkists are victorious. York’s eldest son is crowned as King Edward IV. But his younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, awaits his opportunity to seize the crown for himself!
The partisan debates at the beginning of the play are effective; but the continual debates, battles and killings are (arguably) rather tiring for the reader (or the viewer).
On pages 21-2 of his Introduction to the Penguin edition (1981), Norman Sanders comments on the civil war and its consequences, as follows:
Like every human value in the play, majesty is debased, stripped of its sacramental dignity or ritual splendour. Here it is merely a prize to be fought over by warring animals.
The BBC’s Hollow Crown, 2016, Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2
The first episode covers major events from 1H6 and 2H6, and allocates a little under an hour to each. The number of major roles is reduced; many lines and indeed whole scenes are cut; several interesting parts of 2H6, notably the Jack Cade rebellion (Act 4), are left out. Cinematic action often takes the place of long speeches.
In the allocation of parts, Somerset largely displaces Suffolk. The longstanding personal enmity between York and Somerset is vividly depicted, by the actors, Ben Miles and Adrian Dunbar. Duke Humphrey, acted by Hugh Bonneville, comes across as a tragic figure – perhaps the true hero of the story.
In a dramatic touch, at the end of the first episode, York goes from the Tower of London to his own castle, and summons his four sons to join him: the last one to appear on the screen, albeit in shadow, is the half-lame Richard (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The second episode allots about two hours to 3H6, so its reproduction on screen is pretty full. Again, some scenes, lines and roles are transposed or cut. For example, the tv account of Somerset’s death recalls, in its wording, the one that Shakespeare allocates to Suffolk (in 2H6, 4.1).
The acting is very good. Tom Sturridge (King Henry) has a Lear-like experience, alone and nearly naked, out in the countryside, but accepting of his fate.
Sophie Okonedo (Queen Margaret) is effective as a warrior, a leader and a mother, more effectual than her husband, Henry. Her thirst for vengeance on her foes is frightening, as it is meant to be. Benedict Cumberbatch’s role, as Duke of Gloucester, mirrors hers: he conveys the part’s ruthlessness and cunning.
It is good to see these plays reaching a wide audience.