Shakespeare: Henry VI, Parts 1,2 & 3

February 4, 2015

After seeing the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth at Stratford last year, I promised myself I’d go back to the second tetralogy, which I’m not very familiar with, and I’ve finally got round to it. It seems curious that the later cycle time-wise was written first, but it certainly shows: these are plays of the bard’s formative years.

Although he presented Henry V as a successful king, everything falls to pieces after his death: his son & heir is very young, and has a regent and protector; the barons fall to squabbling with each other and we are on the downhill slope to civil war: the Wars of the Roses, as the houses of York and Lancaster slog it out.

Henry VI Part One is basically about things falling to pieces in the French part of the kingdom, helped by Joan of Arc, who gets a very unsympathetic portrayal here. The early nature of the play comes across in much posturing and overblown language (which does suit some of the characters), set-piece speeches and a heavy reliance on puns and wordplay in general.

The second play – originally The First Part of the Contention – gets us back to England and the factional baronial infighting: the French territories are pretty much lost. The stand-off between York and Lancaster becomes much more evident: everyone is plotting. Who has the best title to the crown, the descendants of Henry IV and V, whose claim is based on usurpation or not depending on who you believe, or the descendants whose claim was closer to the deposed Richard II? Shakespeare explores an incredibly complex issue, which lurked in the background in his own time as Elizabeth grew older without an available Tudor heir. It all makes me glad to be a republican.

The weakness of Henry VI, and the scheming of his treacherous queen Margaret are developed; the one decent man, the Duke of Gloucester, is done away with, and no holds are barred. The conspirators are constantly falling out, fearful of someone gaining a tiny advantage; soliloquies reveal truths, hidden plots and motives; the action becomes quite hectic. The play ends with the open challenge to Henry VI by Edward IV – once again the country has two kings at the same time, and we see the emergence of the dastardly Richard III-to be.

Chaos continues in the third part: as Shakespeare emphasises this chaos and the attendant slaughter on the battlefields we can almost hear his audience’s sighs of relief that the Tudors brought an end to all this. As usual he plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of a good play. Henry’s queen becomes ever more fiendish, and there is the battle of Towton (1462) which, apparently, given the population of the land at the time, was proportionally far more bloody than the battle of the Somme (1916)…

Interesting parallels begin to emerge between some of Shakespeare’s plays and characters: the weak and feeble Henry’s speeches increasingly resemble those of Richard II – chronologically long dead but still awaiting Shakespeare’s treatment – and the development of the cunning and plotting Richard reminds me strongly of Iago. The horrors of civil war – always the worst kind of war – are represented by two vignettes, of a son killing his father who fought on the opposite side and of a father killing his son, who fought for the enemy. No character emerges with any positive attribute; they are all turncoats, game players, time-servers and manipulators…

At the end, we are ready for Richard to begin murdering his way to the throne. To be continued…

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