The Henry VI Plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

Putting on Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays is always a tough challenge, but it has to be done – especially if you’re the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it’s your remit to focus on the Shakespeare canon. In the first place, very obviously, the entire work is in three parts. For most people, a night out at the theatre is a special occasion, and a pretty expensive one at that; putting on a work that requires not one, but two nights at the theatre is a bit of a tough sell; and putting on a work that requires three is virtually suicidal. Can you convince  enough people to attend all three performances to recoup the considerable costs of putting it on? Even the titles – Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three – are such as to indicate that one must see all three to experience the drama properly. At least Wagner had the good sense to give different titles to the operas comprising the Ring Cycle, rather than call them The Ring Part One, The Ring Part Two, etc.

Of course, the titles of these plays, as we have them now, originate from the First Folio, and, according to the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, Parts 2 and 3 were most probably written first, and had appeared before the Folio with the somewhat cumbersome titles The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good King Humphrey, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry VI. What we now know as Henry VI Part One, the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare believe, was written afterwards as a sort of prequel. As with just about everything connected with these matters, I imagine this is contentious. But what this means for any company putting on these plays is that there is uncertainty over whether to perform two plays or three; and even over what to call them.

It gets worse. For the whole thing, as presented in the Folio at least, is not even a trilogy: it’s a tetralogy. Henry VI Part Three (to give it its less cumbersome title) clearly ends with unresolved issues, and these issues are taken up in Richard III, which may well be Shakespeare’s first great masterpiece. Since Richard III is too great a play to be performed only when all the other plays are also performed, it is usually presented as a standalone, but it benefits enormously when seen in context of the whole series. What we see in this play is a man utterly evil and remorseless, a man utterly unsuited to any kind of office, emerging from national turmoil and trauma to assume what is effectively absolute power; and the impact of such a drama is necessarily diminished when we do not actually see that national turmoil and trauma that gives rise to this evil. But if it is a difficult task to get sufficient numbers of people to attend three shows at the theatre, getting them to attend four becomes virtually impossible.

And then, there is the nature of the plays. The three Henry VI plays were early works of Shakespeare, and were almost certainly written in collaboration – although I do get the impression (and it is an impression only: I have no empirical evidence for this) that Shakespeare assumed greater editorial control as the series progressed. Richard III, to judge from its artistic unity, seems to me to be the work of a single dramatist, and, very clearly, whoever wrote Henry VI Part Three had the next play, Richard III, very much in mind. The collaborative nature of the three Henry VI plays makes, it seems to me, for an inconsistency of quality, a certain lack of dramatic focus, and an episodic and sometimes repetitive structure. Part One, whether or not it was written first or is, as the Oxford editors think, a prequel, is particularly weak. The scenes depicting the enmity between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester are fine; also good is the Temple Garden scene where the seeds of the future Wars of the Roses are effectively planted. But the scenes depicting the war in France – which take up most of the play – seem to me an embarrassment. The English armies, led by the heroic Lord Talbot, are consistently noble, honourable, courageous; and the French counterparts are a treacherous, miserable, snivelling lot. Joan la Pucelle (Jeanne d’Arc) is presented as a wicked sorceress: when she is finally captured, her father is allowed to make an appearance, but she, clinging to her wicked ways, denies knowing him, and he ends up saying: “O burn her, burn her! Hanging is too good!” Even leaving aside the jingoism, Unalloyed Good vs Unalloyed Bad really isn’t the stuff of drama, and it is hard to see how any of this can hold any interest at all for a modern audience.

The latest productions of these plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company reduces the three Henry VI plays to two. It does this by jettisoning Part One altogether: gone, thankfully, are all the scenes of the war in France. Sadly, the Temple Garden scene had to be sacrificed as well: there, we had been presented various earls and dukes and the like aligning themselves to the Lancastrian or to the Yorkist cause by selecting a red rose or a white, and it is fascinating to see how much more convinced they become of their chosen cause once they have attached themselves to one or other of the symbols.

Also sacrificed is the long scene in II,v, where Mortimer, before his death, gives a long and detailed exposition of the complex genealogies of the Plantagenets, justifying the claims to the crown of Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York): this excision I found a bit unfortunate, as it detracts from the later scene in Part Two which the rebel Jack Cade explains his own claim to the crown. The grotesque absurdity of Cade’s speech sheds on Mortimer’s speech in the earlier play a powerful satiric light, but with the earlier speech missing, this satiric aspect is obviously lost.

Also regrettable perhaps is the omission of the earlier scenes in Part One depicting the enmity between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop (later Cardinal) of Winchester – an enmity that culminates in a superb climactic few scenes in Act 3 of Part Two.  

But much though a Shakespeare nerd like myself may regret these losses, most people – myself included, if I am to be honest – would probably think these sacrifices worthwhile if they mean not having to sit through the war scenes in France.

The latest RSC productions start with Part Two, with the arrival of Queen Margaret to England, and, to make Parts Two and Three more or less self-contained, ends Part Two with the quelling of Jack Cade’s rebellion in Act 4. The last act of Part Two (which depicts the Battle of St Albans, which is, effectively, the start of the Wars of the Roses) is then incorporated into Part Three. And, instead of calling the two plays Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three, they retitle them Henry VI: Rebellion and The Wars of the Roses. All of which makes perfect sense to me.

There are a few cuts along the way, but given the episodic and repetitive nature of these plays, these cuts are nothing to complain about: the big scenes are all there, and are played with a marvellous theatrical gusto. This is an ensemble piece, of course (it’s reasonable to refer to these plays as a single unit, and, hence, in the singular); and the ensemble here is very strong. There is a wonderful fluidity about it all, as scenes follow each other without break, sometimes even overlapping; and it all moved, as it should, at an invigorating tempo. Shakespeare certainly achieved greater profundity in his later plays, but I don’t think he ever surpassed the quite exhilarating theatrical vigour that he and his collaborators (Marlowe most likely among them) achieved here.

One downside to all this is, perhaps, that one never gets to know any individual character too well. There are a number of characters who appear to take centre stage for a while – the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Bishop of Winchester, Duke of York, Earl of Warwick, etc – but, given the nature of the drama, none of them command centre stage long enough for us to get to see much beyond the surface. Sometimes, of course, the surface is all there is: one doubts that Jack Cade, for instance, has an inner life worth investigating. But he is important not because of what he is, but rather, of what he represents: he is an ignorant buffoon filled with self-importance, and a buffoon who has enough charisma to attract a mass of followers: a comic figure, certainly, but the funnier he is, the more dangerous and the more sinister he appears. (Aaron Sidwell played him here with a strutting cockiness, as absurd as it is frightening.)

Two characters whom Shakespeare could probably have made more of here are Queen Margaret, and King Henry himself. Margaret is both predator and victim: she is, as the Duke of York describes her, a “tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide” (although it may be added that the Duke of York’s heart is no less tigerish); and, by the end, she is victim of the very evil that she herself had helped unleash, and in which she herself has taken part. It is not unreasonable, I think, to see in her an early prototype of Lady Macbeth.

Henry is mild and gentle, and while these qualities are admirable in a private man, they are less so in a king. Unable to stand up for himself, he can but look on helplessly as the country of which he is supposedly the ruler tears itself apart. He can see what is happening, and his heart grieves over it, but his very personality renders him powerless. By the end, he appears otherworldly and almost saintly, but perhaps we shouldn’t sentimentalise: a stronger man, perhaps, would not have allowed this to happen.

There is much to explore in both king and queen, but the nature of this drama does not allow Shakespeare enough space or time to expand upon them, as, I think, he may well have wanted to do. Minnie Gale and Mark Quartley give fine accounts of these two characters who, in a different drama, may have emerged as central.

But there is one character in particular who emerges quite ominously into the forefront – especially in Part Three (or The Wars of the Roses) – in whom Shakespeare seems particularly interested: he’s one of the sons of the Duke of York – Richard (later to become Richard III). In the final play of this series (Richard III), he does, of course, dominate, and there are strong intimations here of that dominance. Here, Shakespeare (and I am pretty sure it is Shakespeare here, and not one of his collaborators) seems fascinated by the amoral and undiluted evil of the man. He seems to have little inner life, if any; but there is something fascinating in the force of his will, and in his determination to impose his will. Such people do exist, and periods of turmoil and of uncertainty bring them to the fore. In the Henry VI plays, we see a country tear itself apart in a traumatic civil war, but although the wars seem to be at an end by the end, we know there is more trauma yet to come: Richard is still very much in the wings, waiting to take central stage. That’ll have to wait for the next play, of course (and I have a ticket for it in a few weeks’ time); and Arthur Hughes’ magnificent delivery of Richard’s monologue in Part Three certainly bodes well.

These are plays that, whatever their flaws, need to be performed – and not just because they have Shakespeare’s name attached to them. The Royal Shakespeare Company have done a marvellous job with them. These productions, directed by Owen Horsley, will no doubt be appearing on DVD shortly – and they can be strongly recommended to anyone who couldn’t get to see this on stage. And for those who would like to see the full plays, the BBC versions from the early 1980s of the entire tetralogy, directed by Jane Howell, really seem to me among the very best productions I have seen of Shakespeare on the screen, and as fine as anything the BBC has done. In the meantime, I still have Richard III to look forward to.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michaelm on June 2, 2022 at 12:23 pm

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts. Wish I could see them..

    Reply

  2. Posted by Michaelm on June 2, 2022 at 12:24 pm

    Very much enjoyed reading your comments

    Reply

  3. Posted by Michael N on June 2, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    Wish I lived on the same side of the Atlantic so I could see these! One thing particularly distasteful in Henry VI, part 1 is the glut of ribald jokes that accompany Joan of Arc’s execution, particularly as she’s begging for her life and claiming to be carrying a baby. I realize Elizabethan England was a very cruel place, and that grotesque, painful public executions were part of the daily entertainment, but even so — yuck.

    Reply

    • Yes – I do hope Shakespeare wasn’t responsible for that particular scene. But he may well have been – who knows?
      Apart from one or two scenes, Part 1 really isn’t any great loss. But Parts 2 and 3 do seem to me very undervalued: they certainly deserve to be known better, and perhaps would be if, as here, these two plays could be unshackled from Part 1.

      Reply

  4. A few years ago, the Seattle Shakespeare Company did a two-night production of the Henry VI plays, leaving in the cut scenes you mention above (the genealogies in this version were illustrated with family trees that had been painted across the floor of the stage, very effective) but removing everything to do with Joan of Arc and some other subplots. Richard III was produced as a stand-alone play the following season.

    I agree that Richard III is a masterpiece. In so many ways.

    It must be nice to see live theater again. Seattle Shakespeare is restarting their live productions with a season of easy favorites, and we’re not that interested in seeing, for example, Much Ado or Hamlet for the fifth or sixth time. We bought season tickets because surely the company needs the income, but we might not go to any of the plays (aside from Volpone by Ben Jonson, if the season is actually still underway in the fall/winter).

    Reply

    • Would you believe that “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the major plays in the canon that I haven’t yet seen on stage? The other major plays I haven’t yet seen on stage are “As You Like It”, “Richard II” and “Henry V”. By my count, there are 12 plays of the canonical 37 that I have yet to see on stage, but apart from these big three, the others are – in my estimation, at least – quite minor works.

      Then again, I think I am losing count of the number of times I’ve seen “King Lear” or “Antony and Cleopatra”.

      “Volpone2 should be a good one to see. I remember seeing a very good production in Edinburgh … some 30or so years ago now!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: