The Bardathon: 3 – The Henry VI plays, and Richard III

In the Folio, the Henry VI plays are titled, rather unimaginatively, as Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three. However, the second and third parts had appeared in admittedly rather poor Quarto editions as, respectively, The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, and the Death of Good King Henry VI. Unwieldy titles, certainly, but one might have thought that The Contention and Richard Duke of York would have been better titles than Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three

Andrew Cairncross, editor of the Arden editions of these plays, speaks of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III as being a “carefully planned tetralogy”. But the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare (Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor) argue that Parts 2 & 3 (which appeared in Quarto editions) were intended as a unity, with the play that is now known as Henry VI Part One written afterwards as a sort of prequel, and Richard III written as a sequel. If one were to judge purely from internal evidence – always a risky thing to do – I’d have said that Part One was written before Parts Two and Three, as the later plays seem to have a far greater artistic maturity. But this is little more than gut feel. 

Henry VI Part One, unlike the later Henry VI plays which focus on civil conflicts, is quite jingoistic in tone. Now, jingoism is quite in place when one is depicting one’s own country beating the hell out of Johnny Foreigner, but it’s a bit more difficult here when the English forces actually get beaten. (There’s no way you can get round the fact that England did lose France…) There seems little point rubbing in all the time that the French are “dastardly” when, at the same time, they keep winning! But Shakespeare’s perspective seems to be that of modern football commentators when England get knocked out of a World Cup or a European Championship: it’s never that they weren’t good enough … it’s because they were badly managed! Sven must go!

And to be fair, the English management does seem pretty naff. There’s no unity, they are constantly at one another’s throats – indeed, we see here the seeds of the Civil War (the Wars of the Roses) that Shakespeare depicts in the other plays of the sequence. And these scenes of political strife between the various factions are superbly done. The famous Temple Garden scene – where the various factions pick red and white roses to declare their respective allegiences – is among the finest scenes in any of the early plays: Shakespeare’s grasp of group psychology, of the power conferred by a tribal badge, is unerring, and superbly dramatised.

Joan of Arc (Joan la Pucelle) is, for the greater part of the play, depicted as a remarkable character, but at the very end appears as a sort of sluttish witch-like figure. Many generations of Shakespeareans have been embarrassed by this, but if you’re writing a jingoistic pageant (as this play is, at least in part) one can’t really afford to be too generous to one’s enemies!

With Henry VI, Part Two, we have a play of far greater sophistication. True, the depth of characterisation doesn’t come close to matching what Shakespeare later went on to achieve, but I hadn’t expected such a sweeping theatricality. Technically, it is a tremendously assured performance: right at the very start, a large cast of characters is introduced, and the audience is made aware various complex and intricate plots and factions. And at all points, there is perfect clarity. Indeed, there’s more: the exposition, despite its tremendous complexity, is more than merely the imparting of information – there is about it a theatrical verve and swagger.

The scope is epic, with battle scenes, court scenes, scenes of street rioting and grotesque violence, and so on. There are occasional passages of very impressive blank verse, although it can be argued that these passages aren’t always too well integrated into the dramatic action. Take for instance the lines introducing the scene in which the Duke of Suffolk is murdered:

The gaudy, blabbing and remorseful day
Is crept into the bosom of the sea;
And now loud-howling wolves arouse the jades
That drag the tragic melancholy night;
Who, with their drowsy, slow and flagging wings,
Clip dead men’s graves and from their misty jaws
Breathe foul contagious darkness in the air.

Such lines would hardly have seemed out of place even in Macbeth!

The characterisation may lack something in depth, but there’s no lack of vigour, or of dramatic energy. Particularly impressive is the Duchess of Gloucester, who sadly disappears from the action after being banished early on in the play. Henry VI himself stays more or less in the background, and he is a very difficult character to bring off: he has, I think, an understanding of what is happening, but seems unable to act. As a consequence, his role is merely that of passive suffering. But the best character of all is Queen Margaret (who also has major roles both in Henry VI Part Three, and in Richard III, and is the only character to appear in all four of these plays).  It’s a shame that Shakespeare could not place her in the centre of any of these plays, but in the scenes in which she does appear, she is a terrifying figure.

She comes to the English court to marry King Henry towards the end of Henry VI Part One, but is already having an affair with the ambitious Duke of Suffolk. Her marriage settlement entails giving away various English possessions in France, and so, right from the start, she is greeted in the English court with hostility. But this lady is no passive sufferer: the sheer ferocity with which she asserts herself is terrifying. It is hard to forget the long and passionate speech she is given in III,ii, where she turns upon her husband; and even harder to forget is the scene later where we find her walking around the court nursing the severed head of her murdered lover, Suffolk:

Here may this head lie on my throbbing breast;
But where’s the body that I should embrace?

In its context, this is no mere piece of sensationalism of the type Shakespeare gave us in Titus Andronicus (which was possibly written while Shakespeare was writing these particular plays): it’s a terrifying picture of a mind collapsing.

After her lover Suffolk is killed, she appears to become demented, and, in Henry VI Part Three, descends into extraordinary cruelty. It is as terrifying as anything in Macbeth. In the final play, Richard III, she is an old woman, bitterly cursing those who now wield the power which she had once aspired towards.

And, of course, there are those terrifying scenes in Act IV of Henry VI Part Two depicting Jack Cade’s rebellion. The mode of these scenes is comic, but the comedy intensifies the horror of it all. Cade himself is a would-be totalitarian, whose aim – simultaneously comic and chilling – is to murder all who can read and write (eerie echoes here of the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero). But these scenes are not merely episodic: they relate to the entire trilogy by being a grotesque parody of York’s aristocratic rebellion. The Duke of York may be more polished in his manners, but essentially, it all comes to the same thing, and Shakespeare spares us nothing: the severed heads on stage, once again, are more than merely a piece of sensationalism: this is indeed, what happens with Civil War, and not all the fine rhetoric of York’s speeches can nullify that. Cade’s garbled and grotesque speech claiming his right to the Crown is but a mirror image of the Duke of York making similar claims.

Henry VI Part Three is marked by a same vigour and dramatic energy that distinguishes its predecessor, although Shakespeare seems somewhat constrained by the inescapable facts of history: the action, depicting the ebb and flow of power between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians, is bound to be somewhat repetitive, and not even Shakespeare could get away from that. But he very skilfully condenses the masses of historical material through judicious selection and telescoping, has somehow reduced them to manageable proportions; and, further, he has given them a dramatic shape. The theme of this play is disorder: we are shown the country sinking into civil war. At this stage in his artistic development, Shakespeare had little interest in presenting earthly chaos as an image of a greater, cosmic chaos: we have to wait till King Lear for that sort of thing. But the earthly chaos is depicted powerfully enough – not least in the famous semi-allegorical scene featuring the son who has killed his father, and the father who has killed his son.

The action is enveloped at either end by the appalling murder – the murder of a Yorkist child near the start, and of the son the of the Lancastrian king near the end. The whole thing is left open-ended: Shakespeare clearly had the next instalment in mind – Richard III. By the end of this play, Richard is a figure growing in dramatic presence.

What this play lacks is a powerful central character. Henry VI is far too weak to hold centre stage, and Shakespeare keeps him more or less in the background. Queen Margaret would have been a splendid central figure: indeed, she has the potential to be a great tragic figure. But skilful though Shakespeare’s stagecraft was, one doubts that he had the ability yet to create a great tragic protagonist. (And in any case, Shakespeare was constrained by the events he was depicting: it wasn’t possible to bring Queen Margaret to the forefront of the action.)

But clearly, the figure of Richard IIII (Duke of Gloucester in this play) captured Shakespeare’s imagination: his increasing prominence towards the end of the third part is very noticeable. One can’t help feeling that Shakespeare must have been looking forward to writing a play where such a figure could take centre stage. 


Before starting on Richard III, I became quite absorbed in the long introduction (some 120 pages) in the Arden edition, written by the editor Antony Hammond.

This play exists in a number of different texts. Before the First Folio was published in 1623, there had appeared no less that 6 Quarto verions; and two further Quarto versions followed. This creates immense textual problems for the editor, and, being the type who is interested in these matters, I found Antony Hammond’s detailed discussion of these issues quite fascinating. Hammond generally follows the Folio text in his Arden edition, while judiciously inserting certain passages that occur in the First Quarto but not in the Folio. The editors of the Oxford edition, on the other hand, follow the slightly shorter text of the First Quarto as the one they think comes closest to the version that was first performed: the passages that appear in the Folio only they relegate to the Appendices. As with the other plays in my Bardathon, I read the Arden edition.

Hammond’s introduction then continues with a fascinating account of the play’s performance history, and then a discussion of the play itself. In the plays I had read so far, there had been some remarkable things: the three Henry VI plays, for instance, I found far more compelling than I had remembered from my previous reading; and the play now known as Henry VI Part 2 seemed to me particularly impressive. But with Richard III . Shakespeare went one step further. Indeed, he went quite a few steps further: this is his first indisputably great masterpiece. We need not see this as a stepping stone to later masterpieces: it is capable of standing on its own merits. And, although it is the culminating play in what can now be seen as a tetralogy, it can easily be – and, indeed, often is – detached from the others and viewed as an entity complete in itself.

As for its performance history, it is interesting to note that Colley Cibber’s version of it, written in the early 18th century, held the stage till well into the late 19th century, and was being performed even as late as 1930. Indeed, Olivier’s famous film version retains some of Cibber’s lines. This is not because audiences found themselves uneasy with Shakespeare’s original text, but because Cibber shortened significantly a very long play (making it easier to stage); and also because Cibber gave greater prominence to the central role, making it a favourite star turn for egomaniac actors (this is the version of the play that the likes of Garrick or Kean performed). And where Shakespeare places most of the violence off-stage, Cibber brought much of it to the forefront, so that the murder of the Princes in the Tower, for instance, takes place in full view of the audience. Shakespeare’s Richard III, interestingly, is a much more restrained play than it is often imagined to be.


Although Richard III is still frequently performed (its central role is, after all, a gift for a star actor), the three Henry VI plays aren’t. They aren’t frequently read either. I count myself as a Shakespeare nut, but I don’t think I’ve read these plays since my teenage years, when I had dutifully trawled through the canon for the first time. My impression at the time was that these were early, minor works, and possibly written in collaboration. Well, they may be early but they are certainly not minor: and, if Andrew Cairncross, the editor of the Arden series, is correct, there is no evidence to suggest that these plays were written in collaboration. Judging purely by internal evidence, there is a unity of artistic purpose that suggests a single writer – and a writer of genius at that.

One reason why the Henry VI plays aren’t performed is that it is a difficult proposition to sell to the audience to come three times to the theatre. Theatre-going is a rare event for most people: usually, it’s a special treat. Even putting on a work over two nights (as with Henry IV, Parts One & Two) is stretching it a bit. Three nights are way too much – and four nights (if the entire tetralogy is to be performed) is really out of the question. And audiences are, understandably, unwilling to spend a night at the theatre to watch merely an instalment of a larger drama. To make it worse, each of the Henry VI plays is open-ended: each of them leaves various issues unresolved as the curtain falls. This means that none of these plays makes for a satisfying drama in itself. But when they are read (or seen) in sequence, then the cumulative effect is overwhelming. Even Richard III – the one play of the series that is capable of being detached from the rest – gains immeasurably when seen as the culminating point of the tetralogy.

The four plays, taken together, give a broad picture of a nation tearing itself apart. The dramatic focus is generally on the kings and nobles who instigate the civil conflict, but we are made aware of the toll this takes on ordinary people – especially in that remarkable symbolic tableau in Henry VI Part Three depicting the father who had killed his son, and the son who had killed his father. There are so many scenes here of unforgettable intensity: the heroic scene of Talbot and his young son going into battle together facing certain death; that terrifying scene of Cardinal Winchester dying in moral and spiritual agony; the deeply unsettling scene of Queen Margaret walking demented around the court with the severed head of her murdered lover; the appalling onstage murder of a child, the young Earl of Rutland; his father, the Duke of York surrounded by his enemies (including Queen Margaret), who taunt him with the murder of his child before killing him (at one point, they throw him a napkin stained with his murdered child’s blood); Queen Margaret herself howling like a wild beast as her own son is killed before her eyes; and so on. These are among the most powerful scenes in all drama. And they are superbly integrated coherent dramatic unity. These may be early plays, but they are clearly the work of someone who, by the time he started on Richard III,  was in perfect control of his medium.

Henry VI himself is virtually relegated to the background of the plays which now bear his name, but his presence is nonetheless telling. In an environment where personal ambition and lust for power unleash the most fearful atrocities, King Henry is actually the man who, despite being king, would prefer, if he could, to relinquish his power. At first, he seems merely weak and feeble: and it is certainly true that his weakness is one of the main causes of the cataclysmic civil war. But as the series progresses, Henry appears almost a saintly figure – a man who can see what is happening, and can only look on with grief and horror. By the time of his death, he has acquired a moral stature that the other characters do not have. It is a very touching portrait. But the dominating character in the drama of the three Henry VI plays is, of course, is Queen Margaret – one of Shakespeare’s most striking and monstrous creations.

Richard III is another monstrous creation. It is in the latter half of Henry VI Part Three that he comes to the forefront of the drama, and the final play he dominates. In murdering his way to the crown, there are some resemblances to Macbeth, but the differences are equally prominent. Macbeth is a mass-murderer with the mind of a poet: he knows exactly what he has done to his soul, and therein lies his tragedy. Richard is cheerfully scoffing: he cares not a whit about his soul, or about anything else. Indeed, he is utterly lacking in anything resembling a conscience. And we feel compelled to ask ourselves: where does so much evil come from? As Shakespeare himself put it in the later play King Lear: “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Richard himself tells us that since he is physically deformed and not fit for amorous games, he must prove himself a villain. This is, obviously, a gross non-sequitur. As with the later Iago, the true source of such evil remains an eternal mystery.

Throughout this remarkable play, we get a vision of evil, pure and unadulterated, sweeping through everything mercilessly. And what makes it, in some ways, even more disturbing than Macbeth is that virtually no-one is innocent here: Richard’s victims are themselves often part of a greater evil. And it is here that knowledge of the earlier plays becomes important. Clarence, we know, had broken solemn oaths, and had taken part in the murder of Prince Edward (his extraordinary speech before he is murdered relates his dream, and depicts the sufferings of a guilty soul in torment); King Edward also has Prince Edward’s blood on his conscience; Queen Margaret has been as evil as Richard himself is; Anne involves herself in evil when she allows herself to be wooed by Richard; and so on. Hastings is condemned while he was cheering himself at the thought that his own personal enemies are being executed; even with the Princes in the Tower, there is no sentimentality: the younger of the two princes is something of a brat, and shares something of his Uncle Richard’s ability to twist and to manipulate words.

But despite all the evil and the blood-letting, the dramatic presentation is surprisingly restrained. Apart from the killing of Clarence in the first act and the death of Richard in battle at the very end, all the killings take place off-stage. Even the killing of the Princes in the Tower – which Shakespeare could easily have placed onstage to evoke horror and outrage – is merely related. Such classical restraint is surprising, given the subject.

Towards the end of Richard III, Richard is given a startling soliloquy. Until now, characters had spoken to the audience in their soliloquies, but here, we have a character is speaking to himself, and we are eavesdropping. He is a man pondering on the nature of his own identity. He tries to objectify himself, and finds that the one basic love all of us have – the love of our own selves – he does not: Richard cannot even love himself.


If Shakespeare had died after Richard III, I think we would be rating these four plays (or, at least, the last of them) as the greatest drama in the English language. They have been, for me, a revelation. Henry VI Part Two, especially, is a quite extraordinary work.

And equally impressive are the BBC Shakespeare productions of these works, superbly directed by Jane Howell. This series has generally had a bad press: it started off on the wrong foot, with a very stodgy and dull Romeo and Juliet. It did improve after that, but first impressions tended to be lasting ones. Looking back, there are far more hits than misses, although it is rather let down by the fact that productions of many of the major plays (e.g. Hamlet, King Lear) were mediocre at best. But it’s the lesser-known plays that came off best: I was surprised by how well they made something like The Two Gentlemen of Verona work, and their productions of works such as All’s Well That Ends Well or Cymbeline were outstanding. It now seems to me that Jane Howell’s production of the Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy was not merely the high water mark of the series, but of BBC drama in general. It is magnificent.

Jane Howell makes no attempt to cover up or to apologise for its artificiality. Indeed, she revels in it – especially in scenes such as the one near the start of Henry VI Part One where Winchester and Gloucester face each other wearing pantomime costumes suggesting horses. Neither does she shy away from the knockabout comedy in the early stages. And yet, out of all this, there emerge real characters and real passions. To begin with, Talbot may appear no more than a comic-book superhero, but by the time he and his son go into battle heroically facing death, there is a genuine sense of pathos.

All four plays are shot on the same set, which is differently lit to suggest different locations. As the series progresses, these sets, which were brightly coloured to begin with, become increasingly shabby and dilapidated. The cast is an excellent ensemble cast, and, given their responsiveness to each other (even when they are not speaking) it appears that there had been no shortage of rehearsal time. There is much doubling of roles, as one would expect in a theatrical production, and some of these doublings are very telling: for instance, Trevor Peacock, who had first appeared as the heroic Talbot, appears later as the brutal bloodthirsty rebel Jack Cade; or David Burke, who appears first as the honourable Gloucester, appears later as the rebel Dick the butcher, and later still as Catesby, a sidekick of another Dick the Butcher – Richard III; or Bernard Hill, who appears first as the Duke of York, and later as one of the men sent to murder Clarence in the Tower. Most telling of all is when Peter Benson, who had been Henry VI, and who later appears in a cameo role as a priest in Richard III: it is almost as if the ghost of Henry VI has returned to look on the fulfilment of the dire prophecies he had made before being murdered.

It was a brave decision as well not to cast a well-known star actor for Richard III – a role that is all too often defined by star actors. But Ron Cook is superb in the role. His soft-spoken approach really is deeply menacing and sinister, and he avoids throughout the temptation to turn Richard into a comic-book pantomime villain. I have seen quite a few actors tackle Richard III, and this is easily my favourite.

But perhaps the most striking performance of all comes from the magnificent Julia Foster in the role of Margaret. This is as fine a Shakespearean performance as I’ve seen.

The text is given virtually complete, and the whole thing lasts for over 14 hours. There were one or two little divergences from the text: the only one that worried me a bit was the killing of Somerset at the end of Henry VI Part Two. In the text, Richard (later Richard III) kills Somerset, but for reasons I couldn’t entirely fathom, it is the Duke of York who kills Somerset in the production. This means that at the start of Henry VI Part Three, they had to cut that remarkable moment where Richard produces Somerset’s head from under his cloak. But other than this, the productions were very respectful of the text, without ever smothering the whole thing in reverence.

Of course, it should be obvious that the dramatic conventions applied here are very different from what we are normally used to on television, and so, especially for the Shakespeare novice, some patience is required. But I really have seen no better drama on television. Watching this series confirmed what I thought – that they are Shakespeare’s first great masterpieces, and possibly the least-known masterpieces in all English literature.


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