Book Review: Henry VI: Parts I, II, and III

Henry VI:  Parts I, II, and III, by William Shakespeare

It is no surprise that these plays are among the least played and least regarded of all of Shakespeare’s plays, or that they were written towards the beginning of his career, and that at least one of the plays (Part I, apparently an early example of a prequel) is viewed as largely the work of someone else with a few of the better scenes written by Shakespeare himself.  Even with the hindsight of more than 400 years these plays are not the most enjoyable ones, and they make for pretty unhappy reading even if they have flashes of brilliance in their plotting and at least a few very powerful moments, like the poignant death of Richard, Duke of York with a paper crown on, or the lawyerly disputation of the legitimacy of the claims of Lancaster and York based on which son of Edward III they are descended from–made all the more pointed when the House of York inherits the claims from the House of Mortimer.  But aside from these scenes and the bravery of Talbot and the rather dark view that Shakespeare has of Joan of Arc, a lot of this play makes for grim and depressing viewing, just like reading about the Wars of the Roses can often make for grim and depressing reading as well.

This particular book is a very large one, not least by containing three plays in one volume.  Aside from that, though, this book is the same in its general form and structure as the other plays in the Royal Shakespeare Company series.  This almost 450 page book starts with an introduction to three parts of Henry VI with a look at the Hundred Years’ war after Agincourt, the questions of sequence and authorship about the plays, structure and style, the popular voice, and the tragic agon of the plays as a whole.  After that we have some notes about the fact before we have key facts, the dialogue (mostly based on the first folio edition) and some textual notes for all three parts of Henry VI.  After this comes synopses of all three parts, Henry VI in performance, with some comments from directors and designers of the plays, and then the usual notes about Shakespeare’s career in the theater, a chronology of his works, the kings and queens of England during the historical plays to Shakespeare’s own time, a chronology of the history behind the histories, and some suggestions for further reading and viewing, references, acknowledgements and picture credits.

In reading a series of plays like this one, it is important to note the poignant elements it contains.  A great deal of the trouble that this play shows is the way that foreign wars often serve as a valve for internal discontent, and that the health of a realm or institution depends greatly on leadership.  And sadly, Henry VI was by no means a great ruler.  Although the Wars of the Roses are the focus of a great deal of the examination of the turmoil of English rulership, it is worth noting that there have long been periods of deep struggle over the legitimacy of England’s royalty, going well back to before the Norman conquest, continuing all through the rule of William the conqueror and his feuding sons, the anarchy, the crises of the Plantagenets, the turmoil of the Tudors and Stuarts and the various rebellions during the House of Hanover, and so on and so forth.  The crown of England has in many ways always been a hollow crown, one that created a certain amount of expectations but one that never carried with it the sort of power that other crowns carried, even if that absence of power has ended up helping the English crown to last longer than many of its less successful rivals.  Somewhere in the course of all of this historical theater there are a lot of great lessons that can be learned.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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