Henry the Sixth, Parts One, Two and Three
In the introduction in the RSC edition to all three of these plays bearing his name, King Henry VI himself is scarcely mentioned. This is symptomatic and accurate.
This Henry is even less visible than his grandfather Bullingbrook is in his two plays. While Joan of Arc makes fools of the French and English alike and Talbot blusters his way to defeat in Part One, while the Duke of York decides that he should be king and Margaret uses her formidable force to betray Henry and at the same time protect him and the throne in Part Two, and while vicious civil war rages in Part Three, Henry wafts around in the periphery, uttering holy platitudes that only earn the contempt of the Yorks and frustrated impatience from his own Lancastrians.
The man who would not be king. A king not whatsoever hereafter.
Shakespeare does not glorify his kings. Even those who have historic reputations as heroes or villains are given a human complexity by Shakespeare. The hovering Harry in these three plays is as far from heroic or villainous as can be imagined, but is he complex in his holiness?
Let’s take a look.
In Part One we first see him when he is pleading with Gloucester and Winchester to stop feuding. He uses such words as ‘prayer’, ‘love and amity’, ‘my soul’ and laments that ‘holy churchmen take delight in broils’ (Act 3.1). In Act 3.4 he makes Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury in an unremarkable little speech. Later he expresses dismay at the budding conflict of the roses:
Good Lord, what madness rules in brain rich men,
When for so slight and frivolous a cause
Such factious emulations shall arise? (Act 4.1)
I quite like him for these lines. They could be said in regard to many conflicts. Alas, the Yorks and Lancastrians don’t listen, even after Henry, in Warwick’s words, ‘Prettily, methought, did play the orator.’ Prettily, yes but without dealing with the conflict.
In the last act he laments, regarding the wars with France, that it is
…both impious and unnatural
That such immanity and bloody strife
Should reign among professors of one faith (Act5.1).
His glorious dad should have thought of that. Henry agrees however to marriage with a French princess after protesting that he’s too young and prefers his books. Poor Henry. If he only knew what he was agreeing to. In the final scene, however, he claims his devotion to the ‘beauteous Margaret’ and waxes lyrical over how her virtues awaken ‘passions in my heart.’ But then in his final lines in Part One he reveals that it’s not so much love for the young princess but that he expects her to ease his unrest:
I feel such sharp dissension in my breast.
Such fierce alarums both of hope and fear.
As I am sick with working my thoughts…
…Be gone, I say, for, till you do return [with Margaret],
I rest perplexèd with a thousand cares…
…so conduct me where from company
I may revolve and ruminate my grief (Act 5.5).
Piety does not protect young Henry either from the strife of court intrigues or his own neuroses.
Part Two, then.
Margaret arrives, eager to wed the king and play her part. He welcomes her graciously enough but we soon learn that he is not what she had expected. She says:
…all his mind is bent to holiness,
To number Ave-Maries on his beads:
His champions are the prophets and apostles,
His weapons holy saws of sacred writ.
His study is his tilt-yard, and his loves
Are brazen images of canonized saints (Act 1.3).
This she says to macho Suffolk and she’s clearly not pleased with her holy husband.
In Act 2.1 we see that Margaret is causing trouble and Henry frets about the dissension. He is then piously amazed by the miracle of the blind man seeing, only to have his piety mocked by the hoax.
Next problem: the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Henry is firm in dealing with Eleanor’s accomplices: ‘the witch in Smithfield shall be burned to ashes’ and the others ‘shall be strangled in the gallows’ (Act 2.3) but when Gloucester is to be dealt with, though Henry goes on about his grief, he tells the queen and cardinal to do what they’re planning, and exits. Overwrought, yes. Cowardly, no doubt. Pious? Not especially. Kingly, not at all. He later swoons at the news of Gloucester’s death and appeals to God for forgiveness in suspecting foul play.
When Suffolk is accused of treason Henry is resolute enough and banishes him. He says to Margaret:
Ungentle queen, to call him gentle Suffolk.
No more, I say: if thou dost plead for him,
Then wilt but add increase unto my wrath.
Had I but said, I would have kept my word:
But when I swear, it is irrevocable… (Act 3.2).
Ah, so there is some oomph to Henry and maybe he’s not foolishly blind to Margaret and Suffolk’s shenanigans after all. When Margaret later grieves, cuddling Suffolk’s severed head (yuck) Henry says – indifferently? sarcastically? callously? –
How now, madam?
Still lamenting and mourning for Suffolk’s death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou would not have mourned so much for me (Act 4.4).
Maybe a bit clever, our Henry.
Sadly, no rest for Henry. Cade on one side, York on the other. And maybe not so clever, after all. Henry puts his staunchest supporter, Somerset, in the Tower and utters his classic understatement:
Come, wife, let’s in, and learn to govern better,
For yet may England curse my wretched reign (Act 4.10).
And that’s about it for Part Two. Despite his feeble attempt to stand his ground – ‘Can we outrun the heavens? Good, Margaret, stay’ (Act 5.2) – Henry runs.
Part Three opens with Henry protesting feebly over Richard’s claim to the throne and offering the compromise of declaring Richard and his sons heirs to the throne when Henry dies. This does not please Margaret, their son Edward or the Lancastrians. In any case the agreement doesn’t last long because everyone immediately goes back on their oaths as Shakespeare’s characters tend to do. Full war ensues.
Henry is upset to see Richard’s head on the gates of York and tries to instil some valour into his son when knighting him, ‘…draw thy sword in right’ (Act 2.2) – easy enough to say. His allies and enemies wrangle about this and that and when Henry says ahem can I say something? – or to quote:
Have done with words, my lords, and hear me speak.
…I am a king and privileged to speak (Act 2.2).
- it is simply embarrassing because they all ignore him. He utters not another word until three scenes later when he alone as the battle rages around him contemplates the simple life of a swain and the passing of time. At this point he witnesses the son grieving over having killed his own father and the father grieving over having killed his own son. Henry says:
Was ever king so grieved for subjects’ woe?
Much is your sorrow: mine ten times so much (Act 2.5).
Hardly. Here I lose patience with the good king Henry. He is not as unhappy as the son or the father, he’s just self-aggrandising. Not admirable.
In the next scene he uses kingly logic with the hunters but is arrested anyway and taken off to the Tower. He is rescued by the side-switching Warwick but cedes the power to Warwick and Clarence, ‘While I myself will lead a private life’ (Act 4.6).
Finally, we think. Still he’s upset at the thought that people might love King Edward (oh yes, Edward of York has seized the throne, forgot to mention that) more than him because he, Henry, has been kind, mild, loving. Oh well, to the Tower he goes.
And soon ends up dead, at the hand of Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Before dying Henry in detail describes to Richard’s face his, Richard’s, villainy.
So it goes. Henry is dead. Richard is plotting.
We have seen Henry as a young unsure king who prefers his books to love, serenity to conflict. We have seen him filled with care and grief, sometimes with obvious cause, sometimes not. We have seen him swoon, evade his responsibilities and resolute in punishing traitors. We have seen him unhappier for his own problems than that of his subjects’ and we have seen him recede in silence when ignored.
Does this all make Henry complex? Or just piously wishy-washy? He is no doubt pious. Does Shakespeare admire Henry? Maybe. He’s quite gentle with him. But these plays, we should realise, are not about Henry. They are about what Jan Kott calls ‘the Great Mechanism…a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall…From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them – good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile or noble, naïve and cynical – tread on the steps that are always the same’ (Kott, pages10-11).
In this cynical but accurate description of the historical process Henry scarcely emerges as just an unfortunate individual born into the wrong role. Actually the historical Henry founded Eton, Cambridge, Oxford and other colleges for which we are grateful and this proves that he wasn’t so wishy-washy. But in these plays he stumbles on the steps of kings, piteously pious Holy Henry. We can but hope his holiness gives him comfort.
- William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary.
Films seen (the following is what I wrote the last time these films were seen but after this viewing I have no reason to change my assessment):
- BBC, 1983. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Joan - Brenda Blethyn; Talbot – Trevor Peacock; York – Bernard Hill; Warwick – Mark Wing-Davey.
- Brenda Blethyn is great as the arrogant saucy Joan but less convincing as a tragic defiant figure. Trevor Peacock is appropriately macho and frustrated in a fittingly somewhat stupid bull-headed way.
- 1983, BBC. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Henry – Peter Benson; Margaret – Julia Foster; Gloucester – David Burke; Suffolk – Peter Chapman; Duchess of Gloucester – Anne Carroll.
- The intro in the Norton edition calls the production ‘tepid’. I tend to agree but in spite of my complaints [about the interpretation of Margaret in my text ‘Margaret’s Marriage to Henry’], it's always very gripping to see. Shakespeare shines through no matter what. David Burke as Gloucester is best but Peter Benson is a convincing wimp.
- 1983, BBC. Director: Jane Howell. Cast: Henry – Peter Benson; Margaret – Julia Foster; York - Bernard Hill; Warwick – Mark Wing-Davey; Edward – Brian Protheroe: Clarence – Paul Jesson; Richard of Gloucester – Ron Cook.
- Confusing at times but generally well done. The York family is well acted.
- I’m so looking forward to seeing the Hollow Crown production, to be shown this year, with Tom Sturridge and Sofie Okonedo as Henry and Margaret.
Seen on stage: No