Review: Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III

Henry VI Part III (Folger Edition)
William Shakespeare

I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine the Henry the 6th plays are among the least performed in the Shakespeare cannon. Written early in Will’s career, they just aren’t very good. The first is really down right awful. It is confusing, poorly plotted and hard to get through. Joan of Arc is a character in Part I and it still sucks. The second is a little better (the middle of Part II is dominated by an alternately bloody and comedic peasant revolt which is pretty amusing) but still not worth all that much. Part III, while not rising to the typical Will standards, isn’t bad, if you like ‘em bloody. It gets especially good in the second half when the evil caricature of Richard the III really gets going.

There are a couple of things about Henry VI Part III that I want to note. First is the real cruelty on display in portions of the play. I am no Shakespeare scholar, but it seems to me that the early Shakespeare plays* are more graphically violent than the later plays. In Henry VI Part III we have the cold blooded killing of a little child by a knight, the child’s father is then taunted with a handkerchief dipped in the kid’s blood and then if that wasn’t enough, get the mass stabbing of a  Prince by a gang of nobles. It is gruesome stuff.

Critics give a lot of reasons for this brutality in Henry VI Part II. Two of the reasons often argued resonate with me. Perhaps Will wasn’t confident enough yet that his dialogue could hold the crowd’s attention so he resorted to more graphic violence. He was competing with bear baiting after all. I’ll buy this. If you write a scene where a queen puts a paper crown on a man’s head, gives him a handkerchief with his own child’s blood on it, and then has him killed, people are going to remember your name.

The second reason for the violence often given is that the plays reflect a critique of chivalry and a dislike for war that was common in England in the years after the War of the Roses and the various wars in Europe. Maybe.  I will say that there are few heroes in these plays and generally the aristocracy behaves badly. Perhaps that is because Will was attempting a critique of the nobility, or perhaps royals acting badly filled seats. Like much in Shakespeare studies, it doesn’t much matter anymore what Will intended. It matters what resonates with us.

Also of interest is how the plays represent the Tudor ruling classes perception of the War of the Roses and the houses of York and Lancaster.** There is a huge literature out there on the way that Shakespeare’s plays influenced our understanding of the historical persons he used as the basis of his characters. I’ve read some of it, but not much. What I have read says that Richard very likely wasn’t a hunchback, if he was deformed, it probably was minimal. He also probably didn’t kill the princes in the Tower. But that doesn’t stop Shakespeare from portraying him as an evil hunchback murderer. And that is how we imagine him today.

When I think of Richard the Third, I think of Olivier, sneering:

I will go into this more after I read and review Richard III, but Henry VII, the founder of Tudor England, usurped Richard so it isn’t surprising that Richard is portrayed so awfully in Henry VI. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the play isn’t just a hit piece on the house of Lancaster. The Yorks, those of the killing of the little kids, don’t get off easily either.  The Henry the VI cycle isn’t among the best Shakespeare has to offer, but it is worth the time to read both to put the other, better, works in context and to enjoy the spectacle of royalty acting badly.

* People argue ad nausea about the order in which Shakespeare wrote the plays, but there is little doubt that the Henry the VI plays are among the first.

** Before I read these plays I knew jack shit about the War of the Roses. I might write something just synopsizing this skirmish. If you are reading the Henry Plays and Richard III, instead of watching them, I think you need to have some familiarity with the War or you’ll be lost.

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