Shakespeare's Globe are currently offering audiences the relatively rare opportunity to see all of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays over one day, either at the Globe itself or on tour (including some Wars of the Roses battlefields). The plays add up to an extraordinary theatrical experience, being a kind of primer to History through Shakespeare's eyes. Shakespeare later returned to History in his Henry IV and Roman plays which are more sophisticated in terms of structure, language and character. Yet there is something raw and elemental about the Henry VI plays which makes me wish that they were better known and performed more often. A full day contemplating an Elizabethan contemplation of English History is a day well spent.
It is probable that what is now known as Henry VI Part 1 is the latest of the plays, first performed after the success of Parts 2 and 3. The play isn't really about the Wars of the Roses, being what we'd now term a prequel. The play's main focus is on the loss of France by the English nobility, as Henry V's victory at Agincourt is undone by an insurgency led by the French Dauphin and other nobles, assisted mightily by a woman whom we now know as Saint Joan of Arc but in Shakespeare's time was considered by the English as a witch and called Joan La Pucelle. The French are given a run for their money by the occupying English Army led by Lord Talbot. This French story is interspersed with scenes showing the beginning rumbles of York's rebellion, what was to become the Wars of the Roses back in England.
Talbot is the most striking character in Part 1. He is a kind of archetype of the loyal soldier, completely brilliant on the battlefield, absolutely sure-footed tactically but ultimately betrayed by his superiors in the English Army, whose squabbles lead to him being denied reinforcements in a key battle (Castillon) and the ensuing loss of his life (alongside his son, John). Shakespeare (and his collaborators) take some liberties with the actual history in this portrait but this allows them to create a rich and resonant character; Talbot is not very different from the contemporary British soldier in Iraq who loses his life because he was denied the proper equipment by slippery politicians who have their own concerns back home. Of course, Talbot does not question the war itself. In Talbot's brave, forlorn death we see (when the plays are performed in historical sequence) Shakespeare's History claiming its first victim. A man who lives by the sword dies by the sword, whatever the morality of the battle or sense of patriotic duty he is performing under, Talbot's reward is death. It is a death which involves the extinguishing of the life of another member of his family, whose demise makes Talbot's all the more personally painful. Howard Barker says ""...the experience of history is an experience of pain; the words are interchangeable" and the Henry VI plays are very much a pageant of pain.
The England-set scenes in Henry VI Part 1 snake around the French scenes, sowing seeds for the later civil war. The important thing here is that those seeds have been planted before the action happens, with the deposition of Richard II and the usurpation of the throne by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV); Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York discovers that he has a legitimate claim to the throne, albeit by such a tortuous lineage that the explanation of it brought floods of laughter from the Globe audience. More than one critic has linked these plays with Aeschylus' Oresteia and there is a strong sense in which they, like much of Greek tragedy, show the workings of fate and the payment for past sins, which might lay dormant but fester until they erupt. There is a warning here – don't let anybody think they've got away with anything, as Time working through History continually brings the past to knock on the present's doors. And, Shakespeare being as Biblical an author as he was Greek, we see the sins of the fathers visited on future generations.
There were some unfortunate cuts in the Globe's productions, understandable in practical terms but still losing some of the point of the play. An early scene (Part 1 Act 2, Scene 3) featuring the Countess of Auvergne attempting to trap Lord Talbot through means of sorcery and enchantment. In itself, it adds little to the onward motion of the narrative – but taken together with Joan's use of sorcery to battle the English and Margaret of Anjou (albeit unwittingly) enchanting the Earl of Suffolk towards the end, there is a strong sense that underneath the use of force is an attempt to use dark and irrational forces (be they devilish or simply of the body and beauty) to influence the game. It is as if Shakespeare is acknowledging that men, power and weapons are not all that there is. This theme continues throughout the trilogy, with the downfall of the Duchess of Gloucester in Part 2, the evolution of Margaret of Anjou into a veritable Deborah of the Lancastrian side throughout to the prolongation of the War of the Roses caused by Edward IV's marriage to Lady Grey in Part 3. Desire and seduction have their role to play in History but in the Henry VI plays, desire is always dragged tomb-wards by events.
The Globe programme makes much of the fact that the plays were not written as a sequence and their titles were not, initially, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. Only Part 1 originally had that King's name in it's title (Harry the Sixth), ironically I presume given the play is largely about the loss of the lands the more popular Harry the fifth won. Henry VI barely appears in Part 1, and when he does he is a callow youth - yet his character is nicely set up: he prefers books and study to public life, even shrinking initially at the idea he has to marry someone. Some read the plays as a dire warning against the centre of power being weak and vacillating but Henry seems to me to be more an emblem of a sensitive human being caught in History's web; History is unsparing even of those who don't take up the sword, and sometimes a man's birth drags him onto History's field of horror.
Part 1 is very much a play with a central story (the battles in France) with a sub-plot (the enmity between the Houses of Lancaster and York) snaking through it. Part 2 (originally The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster) is much more a play of two halves. In the first three Acts (The Globe wisely has Part 2's interval at the close of Act Three), we see mostly men of influence interacting in interiors. These are very much scenes set in the corridors of power and much of the action is through talk; yet violence is an ever-present subtext of the talk and the first half of the play ends with the bringing down of the King's Protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Alongside Talbot, Gloucester is about the only character in the plays who offers anything like a positive image of a statesman. Early in Part 2, Gloucester is tempted by his Lady Macbeth-lite wife to usurp the throne, he being the next in line for the Lancastrian claim after Henry VI. He refuses to countenance this and we see that he, like Talbot, is a man for whom duty is more important than personal ambition. It is telling that, in the three plays as a historical sequence, the first major characters on the English side to be brought down to death are Talbot and Gloucester, the only two political animals who have duty as a spur. Shakespeare's monster History devours those most likely to offer loyalty and stability first, in order to open up its chaotic mouth. Yet is Gloucester good? In a scene cut from the Globe production, he has a couple of con-artist paupers flogged soundly – the kind of Shakespearean scene which is likely to give a left-liberal audience qualms. Shakespeare doesn't here question have anyone question the rightness of such rough justice (as Lear does in his mad scenes) and so the scene stands as an emblem of good social justice which potentially undermines itself to some audiences. The political Shakespeare of the Henry VI plays is, as far as I can see, a social conservative who extols patriotic duty, the strong arm of the law, strong and non-vacillating government.
Once Gloucester is out of the way, the contest for the throne begins in earnest and things fall apart. The consequences of the alliances and disagreements and decisions in the corridors of power are seen in the blood spilled in the open air of public spaces. The second half of Part 2 is, in contrast to the first's interiors, almost all exterior scenes of riot and battle. First, York prompts Jack Cade's rebellion (an Elizabethan conspiracy theory, if there ever was one) and, that being put down, the first battle of the Wars of the Roses takes place. It is worth pausing over Cade's rebellion a moment. Shakespeare is clearly not in sympathy with the revolt. Cade the puppet of people more powerful and educated than himself; once he gets power over other human beings, he immediately begins arbitrary executions, show-trials and a cultural year zero policy. Although some of Cade's commands are greeted by an audience with glee ("let's kill all the lawyers"), this is a pretty dispiriting portrait of revolutionary energy; I doubt Shakespeare would have been surprised by the 20th Century's Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, nor stored up much hope in the recent "Arab Spring". Revolt and revolution is, through Shakespeare's eyes, the mania of the mob; Cade is a thuggish, murderous, vainglorious vanguard. Anyone with hopes of human progress brought about by violent means might bristle at this portrait of revolutionary energy but History offers more evidence for Shakespeare's vision than against it.
Part 2 ends with England in the grip of civil war. Part 3 (originally The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York) shows civil war as a horror show and conveyor belt of pain, each major stage figure passing towards their death. Atrocity pretty soon becomes the norm, as Margaret and Clifford for the Lancastrians summarily execute York's young son, the Earl of Rutland, during the Battle of Wakefield. The historical Rutland was 17 and older than Richard of Gloucester and George of Clarence when he died; Shakespeare makes him much younger. The killing is portrayed as a despicable act, on a par with Macbeth's murder of Macduff's children; what we would now consider a war crime. The slaughter of child Rutland sets a tone of darkness which pervades the first part of the play. In the midst of the darkness, the central scene of the first part has King Henry come centre stage and wish himself out of History, a mere "gentle swain" counting the days, months and years as he tends his sheep. Being in History is unforgiving and straight after his speech Henry is made to witness the mourning of a Son who has killed his father and a Father who has killed his son, a schematic pairing with little historical basis but which beautifully emblematizes the hellishness of the world being staged.
Just as Part 3 becomes almost unbearably painful in its impact, Shakespeare does what might be counted as the first genius coup de theatre in his career. We've already met the Duke of York's son, Richard of Gloucester, as a minor character in Part 2; intriguingly, the audience yelped with joy as soon as they saw his limping, twisted form come on stage. During Act 3 of Henry VI Part 3, Richard gives a long, Machiavellian speech outlining his future ambitions and determination to let nothing stand in the way of his own progress to the throne. There are a number of curious things about this speech. One is that it is absolutely not "set-up" in anything we previously see or hear of from Richard. He has been a loyal son of York, understandably sickened by his brother Rutland and father's killings. He is suddenly revealed as a psychopath and sociopath par excellence, a far more terrifying figure than anyone we have hitherto seen on the stage. The effect is almost as if we had seen a number of larvae wriggling in the murk of the Wars and now one suddenly bursts forth from its chrysalis as a Death's Head Hawk-Moth. Richard appears like a great eruption from History, just as the Beast bursts forth from the sea in the Book of Revelations. Richard is certainly a consequence of the chaos the civil war has caused – which is not to say that there is merely a cheap psychological point being made about a deformed and abused man who experienced the butchering of his father and brother and so becomes a monster (although that's certainly in there) but that the plays vision has it that such monsters in unstable times get the opportunity to burst forth, as night follows day.
The second intriguing thing is that the audience love Richard and his speech. Not only does Richard fulfil the needs of History, he embodies the need of the audience to have the horrors of history mediated in a way which can still be seen as entertainment. A play which continued as the first 3 Acts of Henry VI Part 3 does without Richard coming in and entertaining us would be unbearable for a popular audience. Shakespeare has to continue to the worst but, to do so, needs Richard's theatricality and showmanship to carry his audience with him (we should always remember that Shakespeare was a populist writer and he writes his plays with the crowd in mind, not a cognoscenti or school of aesthetes). Richard's speech is a perfect example of theatre doing its thing as a means of inducting an audience into areas it might not otherwise wish to go. It's no wonder that Shakespeare went on to write a play with Richard at its centre; management, audiences and his own canniness must have been begging him..
The Globe put Part 3's interval after Richard's speech and follow it with the scene where Margaret and Warwick both approach the French King Louis for support. This scene is played as farce, with Louis a camp and broad parody Frenchman. This feels right, as not only are the shifting tones of the play necessary for the attention of the audience but also History, although painful, is farcical from a certain point of view. Louis takes himself very seriously indeed and therefore we can laugh at him; Richard brings us in on the joke, and so we laugh with him.
The play runs apace to its end at the Globe after this, with Henry and Edward IV on and off the throne for each other as if on a jigsaw. The Globe cut a lot of this fluctuation in fortunes, which is again a shame, as the text has intriguing, Jarry-like elements of absurdity not emphasised when these cuts are made. Finally, the Yorkists win at Tewkesbury, killing Prince Edward of Wales in front of his Mother, Margaret of Anjou. Margaret is one of Shakespeare's greatest female characters, every bit as developed as Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra and with a longer emotional journey through the trilogy than any of them. The shy princess brought into the net of history by the Earl of Sussex has seen her husband deposed, her lover beheaded (she carries around his severed head for some of Henry VI Part 2), finally becoming the Lancastrian warrior that her husband could never be. It was she that rubbed York's nose in the blood of his child, Rutland and now she weeps to see her own child die, realising too late what humanity is and how much pain is involved in such atrocities. It is a tribute to Shakespeare's writing that, although we know Margaret's complaints are rich considering her previous antics, we still nevertheless empathise with her pain. Even better, Shakespeare lets us realise how ironic Margaret's complaints are without having another character point out this irony in on-the-nose dialogue (dramatists, learn from this).
Richard of Gloucester scoots from the Tewkesbury battlefield to murder Henry VI; the apotheosis of History meets out its revenge against the man who would escape it. Henry's killing is purely about ambition and ideology – Henry stands in the way of the Yorkist claim to the throne (and therefore Richard's aim at it) but his friends and supporters are all dead and he has zero capital with the English people. Richard's killing of Henry is the symbolic sacrifice of an innocent. In his dying breath, Henry cries "God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!" It is no coincidence that in the final scene (in lines I can't remember being in The Globe version), Richard explicitly draws comparison between himself and Judas. Shakespeare, working in a deeply Christian culture and tradition, shows History as culminating in the sacrifice of Christ.
There is of course a large dollop of Tudor ideology in the Henry VI plays. I won't say propaganda, as I don't think the Elizabethan playwrights were being consciously propagandistic, rather simply repeating the commonplace beliefs – ideologies – of their time. Henry, near the end of Part 3, lauds the young Henry Tudor (future Earl of Richmond, nemesis of Richard III and so Henry VII) and Henry VI's death as Christ suggests Henry VII's victory was a kind of Second Coming, which is problematic to say the least. Tudor England was nobody's idea of paradise and in later plays Shakespeare dramatises the problems. Despite this, there is a strong sense in which the Henry VI plays transcend the particular history they are writing about or indeed writing from and offer a vision of History itself, a terrifying vision which, if you factor in the problems of seeing the Tudors as bringing long-lasting stability, is akin to Joyce's "…nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
In the programme notes, The Globe go out of their way to emphasise that the plays were not written as and never meant to be performed as a cycle. Yet by happy serendipity and beyond all reasonable expectation, they work as perfectly well in cycle as the Oresteia or Der Ring des Nibelungen. They ought to be much more frequently performed – I'd like to see the National do the three plays as uncut as possible in the Olivier with a large cast and major actors in the major roles; one of the problems with the Globe's touring version is that, whilst it is very good indeed on its own terms, the battle and mob scenes are very sparse and the cast have to double so much that many major characters (Warwick suffers particularly) don't come across as individually as they might. The plays are, as I said at the outset, Shakespeare's primer in the problem that is History. Though one might disagree with the pessimism of the vision, World History since their writing has tended to reinforce it, as the likes of Henry VI, Talbot, Humphrey, the Richards (of York and Gloucester), Margaret, Joan La Pucelle and Jack Cade et al try to either make good in, escape from or manipulate History to their own ends and all end up drawn down into its flood, dragging whole peoples down with them.