Opening up the text
Shakespeare's Henry VI plays in performance


The three parts of King Henry VI, though fully present in good texts in the First Folio, have been neglected for nearly four hundred years. Until quite recently , they were generally thought, wrongly, to be written in the order 2, 3, 1, by several hands. They have usually been properly dated in the early 1590s, and thus seen to stand at the beginning of Shakespeare's career - a vulnerable position which allowed Darwinian scholarship to dismiss them too easily as primitive rather than different.

Under Trevor Nunn, the Royal Shakespeare Company took a certain risk in presenting all the plays, in full Shakespearian texts. They were warned that it was economic folly, with a hint of artistic lunacy. The plays, directed by Terry Hands, opened in June 1977, and took their places in the repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, having a hundred and two performances by the end of the season. They transferred to the RSC's main London theatre, the Aldwych, in April 1978.

The RSC's policy has been an open one, allowing a team of actors on an uncluttered stage to work from inside the lines of text. The casting includes famous names like Alan Howard as King Henry, Helen Mirren as Margaret, Charlotte Cornwell as Joan, James Laurenson as the Dauphin and Cade: but the result is in fact fine ensemble playing from the huge cast. In contrast to the approach of Peter Hall and John Barton in 1963, Terry Hands has imposed no directoral thesis at all: the plays are not arranged to demonstrate anything, except the full text. The result is a quite new set of understandings of central areas of the three plays. That the RSC has done something of importance, I want to show here.

Critical and scholarly interest in the nine history plays of Shakespeare was late in starting. In particular, serious study of the Henry VI plays was considered eccentric until well after the Second World War. Two major studies began to turn attention towards the Tudor context of ideas of religion, history and government in which the plays were written: E.M.W. Tillyard's influential Shakespeare's History Plays (1944) and Lily B. Campbell's Shakespeare's 'Histories': Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (1947). What might be called the Providential School of criticism followed Tillyard, seeing Shakespeare reflecting his major source, Hall's Chronicle, and Tudor doctrine exemplified in the official Homilies to be read in churches, to show that a divine plan could be seen in English history. So much is Providence overseeing affairs, the doctrine was said to run, that, though men have free will, divine order will be restored to a world made chaotic by sin; in particular, the English political world of the fifteenth century, driven into barbaric chaos as a punishment for the deposition and murder of Richard II, is now blessed by the providential reign of the Tudors. These ideas, though interesting, and pervasive in criticism of the History plays for thirty years, are now strongly challenged as having any special relevance to Shakespeare's dramas, or indeed even to Hall's Chronicle.(1)

The 1950s and 1960s saw a flurry of new editions and critical interest. The most significant event in the study of the Henry VI plays has been the publication of the three Arden editions by Andrew S. Cairncross, Part Two in 1957, Part One in 1962, and Part Three in 1964. Though W. J. Courthope had suggested, as far back as 1903,(2) that only Shakespeare had had a mind big enough to conceive these three dramas together, many wrong notions had to be cleared before Shakespeare could be firmly grasped as the sole author. Peter Alexander in 1929 gave strong grounds for Shakespearian authorship and a logical order of writing and there were three fine pieces, all in 1961,(3) which assumed Shakespearian integrity. But Cairncross had no doubts, and gave good evidence, and was far more widely read than any monograph. Now all students of Shakespeare could see that if Shakespeare was allowed to have written all fifteen acts of the three plays, twenty with Richard III, a host of new effects became visible. Moreover, these effects were properly Shakespearian, though they did not all quite fit with other expectations.

One of the qualities newly visible at the end of the 1960s was the complexity of the construction; the patterns of parallels, repetitions, inversions, echoes, restatements, anticipations, unwitting insights - a dialectic of all kinds of competing forces, which reverberates forwards and backwards by means of oaths, prophecies and forebodings as well as encounters, styles, settings and pacings. These presented a challenge to the interpretative imagination. Now that we no longer spoke of an irregular patchwork, but could see a grand design, much of the criticism that followed was able to re-animate the issues of Tudor context, looking now for subtler matters altogether. Excellent recent work on Shakespeare's source-material too, particularly by Bullough in 1960, (4) has given a greater confidence to those who write about Shakespeare's intentions. Furthermore, it is now understood that there was no Chronicle Play tradition: Shakespeare apparently invented the English history play. Pattern-seeking continues busily today, finding a set of conscious models for Shakespeare in the Tudor morality plays. This, conveniently to some minds, helps to form a view of King Henry as a saint, even Christ, and allows fresh discussion of older topics like epic structure or the nature of kingship or, in a post-Watergate world, the morality of the State. As I write, the air of academic comment on the three plays crackles with abstract nouns: ambivalence, moral history, self-reflexion, ontology, epistemology, hermeneutics, didacticism and many more. It is something, I suppose, to find so much interest. Eight major books giving great attention to the plays, seven from the USA, have appeared since 1970, and learned articles, almost all American, multiply, some more comprehensible than others. There is much esoteric discussion, though little real advance. There is an air of puzzlement. It is significant that none of these readings can have been checked against a performance.

Though the most recent academic critics have simply substituted a new restrictive orthodoxy for the old, the opportunities for a fresh look at the Henry VI plays have never been so open. It is greatly to the credit of Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands and their colleagues at the RSC that they have taken them, just as they are, and been bound by no conventions, on an open stage. (5)

For a hundred years after his death, all Shakespeare's history plays were generally ignored by actors: being neither comedy nor tragedy, they were felt to be unworkable. Nahum Tate's rewriting of Richard II under the title The Sicilian Usurper (1680) and Colley Cibber's famous version of Richard III (1700) hardley count as Shakespeare. (6) From the earliest years of the eighteenth century the Henry IV plays had regular performances. For Garrick and for many others, most of the histories were found to yield some star parts, but always with the rider - except the Henry VI plays.

We have evidence of a total of about thirty nights when performances were given of bits of the three plays in various versions, usually extraordinarily barbarised, between 1600 and 1906. On 2nd, 3rd and 4th of May in that year, Frank Benson mounted all three parts at Stratford in succession with severe cuts. In 1923, Robert Atkins staged a telescoped version of all three parts on two nights at the Old Vic to mark the tercentenary of the First Folio. Performances of all three parts are noticed at the Pasadena Community Playhouse in California in 1935: I have no details of alterations. (7) Since then there have been performances of single Parts for a few nights, by the Hovenden players in London, and in America notably at the Ashland (Oregon) and San Diego Festivals.

I myself went specially down from Oxford to Birmingham in 1952 to watch the complete trilogy, which I did in acute discomfort on three over-warm evenings, my long legs jammed tightly against those most uncomfortable seats in the 'gods' at the old Birmingham Rep. The occasions were exhilarating, a combination of triumphs - of staging, by a director 'who knew what a clear, straight thrust could mean to the production of any crowded chronicle', (8) of local initiative, 'the trilogy .... turned by the faith of Barry Jackson, the art of Douglas Seale, and the loyalty of forty actors and actresses, into one of the high feats of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre', (9) and of course, of Shakespeare. There was much colour, life, youth and enthusiasm, to which a young, predominantly undergraduate, audience responded with delight, as if at some partisan victory. The action, however, felt constricted, by the big triple-arched set on the small stages of the Birmingham Rep and, later, the Old Vic in 1953. The armies of the English and French, or of York and Lancaster, though they established themselves with clear colours and banners, crowded each other. And though this produced some stunning effects of close fighting, it did give to all the scenes a sense of colourful uniformity. They were at first mounted in the odd, but at that time orthodox, sequence, with Part Two first and for a long time on its own, as the only good play, and Part Three later as being worth a risk. Part One was an after-thought, later still: it was thought to be 'the most dangerous', containing 'a certain amount of nonsense, much fustian and some good mixed cursing'. From Part One, three entire scenes, including the Countess of Auvergne and Mortimer, were 'lopped' as 'the feeblest passages'. (10) There were other major cuts and 'amplifications'. (11) Eleven scenes in all, including half of act IV of Part Three, and a total of one thousand six hundred lines were cut. The trilogy was cheekily topped and tailed by having as additions the last Chorus of Henry V to open Part One, and, most celebrated at the time, the first lines of Richard III to close Part Three.

Douglas Seale was invited to return to the Old Vic in the autumn of 1958, to stage the three plays again, for fifteen performances each, as part of the marathon presentation over five years of all the plays in the First Folio which the Vic had undertaken. The heavy set was taken over from the previous season's Richard III, with, as additions, a portcullis, a giant gnarled oak, and 'some distant spikes'. In the words of Mary Clarke:

The Old Vic company went at the play with almost ferocious vigour. Snarling, spitting, choking, gasping, lumbering around in heavy armour, leaping off walls, over-turning tables, wielding double-edged swords, or spiked mace with equal ferocity, they made the battle-scenes a paradise for schoolboys. There were times when one felt that the entrance of one more six-foot stalwart in clanking, plated steel, would crash the whole thing into absurdity. Yet this never quite happened, and in the scenes of human anguish, which separate the bluster and the banging, sympathetic direction and fine playing often aroused in the audience an almost unwilling compassion for these medieval gangsters. (12)

The same recording angel mentions, a little casually, that 'Seale compressed the text [of the three Henry VI plays] into two evenings instead of three..... The funeral of Henry V, the scene in the Temple Garden .... and some lines about beauteous Margaret, were all that survived' of Part One. Even the previous favourite, Part Two, was reduced, and Part Three lost an entire act (IV). So much for the First Folio! In the early 1960s the Cambridge Marlowe Society produced for a few nights a heavily condensed version of Parts Two and Three, making a play called Alarums and Excursions.

In 1963 and 1964, The Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall and John Barton mounted the enormously successful The Wars of the Roses, at Stratford, then at the RSC Aldwych Theatre in London, and then at Stratford again, with all-day performances of the trilogy at the Aldwych and Stratford later, and BBC TV presentation, and world acclaim. The Henry VI plays had, apparently, arrived. Yet this was a cruel illusion. 'All three plays' meant, working backwards, Richard III as the last of the trilogy, and two new plays to lead up to it: the first called Henry VI, being extracts from Part One and some of the first half of Part Two; and the second called Edward IV, being a conflation of the rest of Part Two and much of Part Three. To make this happen, the twelve thousand three hundred and fifty lines of the four plays were reduced to half. Worse still, the plays were by William Shakespeare and John Barton, over one thousand four hundred lines being added, with some self-congratulation, (13) by Barton. Finally, to add insult to injury, the production values were most influenced not by English acting traditions, English history, or English scholarship, but by imposition of the bitter Iron Curtain experiences of the Polish writer, Jan Kott, who did not in fact discuss the Henry VI plays.

In the present RSC productions, no scenes are cut. They have been modest about one of their most striking achievements, which is that they have successfully mounted the most complete versions of these plays to be seen since Shakespeare's day. (14)

Only a big organisation can present them, it may be felt. The RSC plays to over a million people a year, and is the largest theatre company in the world. As the Henry VI plays got into their stride, in the summer of 1977, the company had nineteen productions playing in six theatres - though the actual size of the company has hardly increased in fifteen years, and thirty fewer actors were used than in The Wars of the Roses.

The young people who made a cult of David Warner's Henry VI in those plays, and his Hamlet of the same period, were responding to theatrical, and political, excitement. Now the emphases are different. From the first, Terry Hands was against cutting, and for letting the actors be what they speak, with the minimum of directorial imposition. The result is fluidity of effect, and of meaning. The empty stage allows the actors simply to come on and make their statements, and what happens is both complex in a new way and very simple to understand. This fluidity is helped by the developments in the lighting, making the Stratford theatre miles ahead of its European rivals: there is one splendid innovation of a forward-facing high row which makes a screen of light, isolating the thrust. (The 'above', a cumbersome bridge which ponderously rises and falls may be thought to be less successful, though it does leave a clear stage.) The whole effect has a curious lightness of tone, almost a flying quality, which makes nonsense of all the assumptions held until fifteen years ago, and held with enough force to set Hall and Barton re-writing, that the patchwork scenes were impossible to follow. As The Times noted of these new RSC productions 'the performance continuously grips attention through its mobile control of narrative' (13 July 1977). The Financial Times said 'scene melts into scene, each one contrived with a masterly simplicity that announces its content at once, so that there is as much continuous action as in a football match' (14 July 1977).

Casting is from RSC resources. The sheer presence of Julian Glover's Warwick, with the York boys gambolling around him, makes massive point. Emrys James's York ties the performances with the earlier productions of the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. Helen Mirren plays Margaret with quicksilver variety, while allowing a tenacious quality in her to keep her steady. These three move further and further from the 'standard' readings, and they have a little distressed the old-fashioned, who see Margaret, for example, only as steely arrogance and cruelty.

The plays, however, are firmly called King Henry VI. There is an odd sense in which nobody seems to have appreciated that before. David Warner played Henry with passive, pathetic saintliness, likening him to Richard II, as has been done before - Hazlitt wrote a few pages on Henry VI, almost all of which are about Richard II. Alan Howard comes to the part at the peak of his great powers, with a stunning Henry V and an overwhelming Coriolanus in the same repertory. He brings to the trilogy the experience of playing this Henry's father, as King and as Prince before that. He brings, too, high intelligence and great personal power - not qualities usually associated with Henry VI. His speaking is superb, his playing uniformly interesting and unexpected. This is a Henry who has the capacity to be as revolutionary as Joan or Cade. Far from being a pale weakling, he can see too much, feel too much, and call on powers far beyond the rest. What he says rings with the possibility of meaning. He speaks, and then is silent, while the fierce lords clamour around him.

Theatre of this kind changes nightly, subtly but importantly. The sensation, watching, is of steady movement outward across a boundary, letting something free that has been imprisoned far too long.

1. Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1972) especially chapter 1.

2. W.J. Courthorpe, A History of English Poetry, 6 vols (London: Macmillan, 1895-1910), IV, appendix, especially p.463. It is to be noted that earlier critics in Germany, and Charles Knight in his edition of Shakespeare in 1842, ascribed the three plays to Shakespeare.

3. J.P. Brockbank, 'The Frame of Disorder - Henry VI', Early Shakespeare (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 3, ed. J.R. Brown and B. Harris; London: Edward Arnold, 1961); M.M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, (London: Edward Arnold, 1961); A.P. Rossiter, 'Ambivalence: the Dialectic of the Histories', Angel with Horns (London: Longmans, 1961).

4. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964-75), III, 1-217.

5. British theatre critics record many different, often opposing, explanations of what the plays in these performances are 'about', which is a good sign.

6. Tate creates a good king with a loving wife: his wholesale rewriting is aimed to place Richard 'in the Love and Compassion of the Audience', his 'Conduct...... sufficiently excus'd by the Malignancy of his Fortune.' Shakespeare: the Critical Heritage, ed. Brian Vickers, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), I, 324. Cibber's mangled version was acted until far into the twentieth century, 'some of its melodramatic lines being retained in Laurence Olivier's film of 1956'. Michael Jamieson, 'Shakespeare in the Theatre', Shakespeare: Select Bibliographical Guides, (Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 36.

7. A.C. Sprague, Shakespeare's Histories: Plays for the Stage, (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1964), gives a convenient brief summary; somewhat amplified in the Stage History sections of Dover Wilson's New Cambridge editions of Part One and Part Three, (Cambridge University Press, 1952).

8. Sprague, Shakespeare's Histories, 112.

9. J.C. Trewin, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 1913-1963, (Barrie & Rockliff, 1963), 149.

10. Ibid., p. 143.

11. Sally Beauman, 'Past Productions' in Royal Shakespeare Theatre: Henry VI (Souvenir programme, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1977). Incidentally, this booklet is one of the most stimulating and intelligent companions to the plays that I have come across.

12. Mary Clarke, Shakespeare at the Old Vic (London: The Old Vic Trust & Hamish Hamilton, 1958; pages not numbered).

13. John Barton, in collaboration with Peter Hall, The Wars of the Roses, (London: BBC Publications, 1970), pp. xvi, xxv.

14. There is an ironic footnote in Barton's book. 'Evidence of the risks a large popular theatre takes if it tries to present the Henry VI's is provided by the experience of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre at Stratford, Ontario. It planned to present the cycle of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III in its 1966/67 season, condensing the plays in the same way as the Royal Shakespeare Company, and using the RSC's version. In 1966 it played our Henry VI, but had to abandon the project of giving Edward IV in 1967, as public response was disappointing.' (Barton, The Wars of the Roses, p. xiv). Stratford Ontario might possibly have scored a notable 'first', and made money too, had they gone for Shakespeare's three plays.

Taken from 'Themes in Drama, 1. Drama and Society' , ed. James Redmond (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Part One

Part Two

Part Three



Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI Part I